Dangerous Game

The posturing between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea would be mildly amusing it weren’t for the fact that both of these men seem to lack any sense of balance and both are marginally insane — and they sit on top of powder kegs playing with matches.

Their posturing ceased to be even slightly amusing when the North Korean foreign Minister recently cried “foul” and, not knowing that things don’t work this way, insisted that Trump has “declared war” on North Korea; they now have license to shoot down any American plane that ventures close enough to set off sparks. Meantime, the United States has chosen the moment to fly bombers with fighter escorts near the Korean border in a show of strength — at a time when the posturing needs to stop and clear heads need to take command — if there are any clear heads on either side of this preposterous battle of nit-wits. A recent story in Yahoo put in mildly when it was noted that:

The increasingly heated rhetoric between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is raising fears of a risk of a miscalculation by one side or the other that could have massive repercussions.

Someone really needs to break Trump’s thumbs or hide his phone so he cannot tweet the absurdities he seems determined to tweet at every possible opportunity. He really doesn’t get it. He operates inside his own head and has no sense that the things he says have consequences and the consequences in this case are of monumental proportion. Add to this the fact that a number of Congressmen on the Republican side of the aisle, led by the likes of Duncan Hunter, have decided to throw their weight, such as it is, behind the cry to bring North Korea to its knees at any cost and we have the makings of a truly serious international catastrophe. This is hubris, pure and simple. Or it is simple madness. Perhaps both. At some point someone needs to put a stop to all of this. It has already gone too far.

Before the nuclear age this sort of display of macho insolence would have been expected and even applauded by a great many of those among us who are convinced that “our side” (whichever side that happens to be) is always right in its perception of reality and morality and the only country fit to determine how everyone else in the world should live their lives. Chest thumping is not new. But this is the nuclear age and the fact that rhetoric can escalate out of control and bring about catastrophic consequences is a fact and a fact that needs to be taken to heart. “Massive repercussions,” indeed.

These two men remind me of two kids rattling their sabres to frighten one another. It is time they grew up, lay their sabres down and listened to the still, calm voice of reason. The problem, of course, is that neither of them would hear that voice even if it were shouting in his ear., They are both caught up in some sort of egomaniacal game of “chicken” and each wants to bring the other to his knees. It is incumbent on someone, anyone, to knock one or the other about the head and ears and make them realize that this game they are playing has incredibly high stakes: the lives of millions of people are at stake, as is the very planet itself.

Where are the clear heads when we need them? Or are there none either in Washington or in the whole of North Korea? I understand that most of the clear heads in that country have been silenced by a man who has total control of the political and military machines. In this country we are supposed to have checks and balances to maintain control of unfettered power gone mad. But those checks and balances seem to be tongue-tied and silent at a time when they need to speak up loudly and decisively.

I suspect that there are forces at work behind the scene, forces that are working to tone-down the rhetoric and make clear to both parties involved that they need to shut up and look for peaceful options to a resolution of the tensions between the two countries. But neither of these men seems inclined to listen to those who oppose him. We are not in a position to “take on” North Korea in a nuclear war since it has been made clear by the Chinese that if we start the war they will enter on the side of North Korea. And while North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons may be small and unreliable, that of China nearly equals our own. These weapons are  numerous enough to end the war in a few month’s time — with the casualties piled high in countless numbers and irreparable damage to the planet. Those at work behind the scene presumably are aware of this and will win the day. We can only hope.

So far this is a war of words. I used the term “game” in the title of this piece, but it is not a game at all — or if it is, it is one that no one can possibly win. As the Yahoo News Story suggests, miscalculations are likely — especially with each of the two men in charge of things determined to make the other back down. It is time for the clear heads to speak up and the nutters to tone down the rhetoric and go sit in the corner and cool off.

 

 

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Widespread Ignorance

One of the major reasons the Trumpet has been so successful in convincing people to follow him wherever he leads is that there are a great many ignorant people in this country. I’m not talking about ignorance of rocket science or nuclear physics. I am talking about ignorance of the most basic truths about this country and its history and political machinery.

The problem is of special concern to me as an educator because I feel like I am a part of the problem and even though I sense how to solve the problem I don’t see any serious attempts being made. The solution is not to attack the public school system by increasing the number of charter schools or allowing for “vouchers.” The solution is to eliminate schools of education with their ridiculous “methods courses”; require a solid academic major of our teachers; pay the teachers more; eliminate the bureaucracy that controls public education; keep politicians out of the mix; and truly commit ourselves as a nation to an education system that will be worthy of imitation.

But let me turn to the evidence that steps such as these are absolutely necessary: let us probe the depth of ignorance in this country for a bit. It is not new, of course, since there has always been a strong anti-intellectual strain in this country that leads many to suspect well educated people of being cynical and judgmental — and, worse yet, liberal. This may or may not be the case, but it is irrelevant. The fact is, we are failing our young people and they are easily led.

As far back as the Korean war it was known that the young men who were captured during the “police action” were easily “brain-washed,” that is, led to change their allegiance and believe what they were told. It was discovered that the North Koreans were very good at convincing these young men because they were ignorant of their own history. The captors were able to tell them things about their own country’s history that were either altogether false or only half-true, and the captives were generally helpless to ward off the disinformation and were easily led to believe what their captors wanted them to believe.

More recently an interviewer asked one of Donald Trump’s followers why he was convinced that Barack Obama was a terrible president — one of the cardinal tenets of the Trump dogma. He responded that Obama was responsible for 9/11 because he wasn’t in his office, he was not attending to business. Asked where Obama was at that time the man responded that he didn’t know but would love to know that. Apparently the fact that Obama wasn’t president when the Twin Towers were destroyed had escaped this man. And, I dare say, if it were pointed out to him he would dismiss the fact as a liberal fiction. Again, ignorance creates a blank slate on which demagogues are able to write their own program and have it believed without question.

There are other examples, of course, and anecdotes don’t prove much of anything. But national and international tests reflect the same wide-spread ignorance on the part of those who graduate from America’s schools, which is frequently dismissed (by educators themselves) as simply a reflection of the fact that this country must educate so many of the poor.  This excuse will not stand up to criticism, as evidenced by the recent Program for International Student Assessment results:

According to this line of reasoning, the US doesn’t make it on the list of the top 25 countries in math (or top 15 in reading) because America has higher poverty and racial diversity than other countries do, which drags down the national average. . . .Wrong!

. . . PISA test results, released Dec. 3, 2013, show that the U.S. lags among 65 countries (or sub country entities) even after adjusting for poverty. Top U.S. students are falling behind even average students in Asia. . . . Asian countries (or sub entities) now dominate the top 10 in all subjects: math, reading and science.

And that ignorance makes it relatively easy for a demagogue to present half-truths and blatant falsehoods as the truth and have them believed. Without reservation. If something is repeated often enough and there is no factual frame of reference for questioning what has been said, it will be believed; it will be held to be the TRUTH. And this problem is exploding with the recent revelations that bogus news on the internet is being taken as legitimate by a great many ignorant people who previously relied on such publications as The National Enquirer for their news.

It is fair to say, I do believe, that the root cause of this ignorance is the failure of our schools and that radical steps need to be taken in order to remedy the situation. If this does not happen (and I am not optimistic) then the number of followers of demagogues such as our president-elect will continue to grow.

A Disquieting Parallel

I read with some dismay the story about the athletes from North Korea who have had success and will therefore be welcomed home — and about those who fail and are punished by their government when they return back home. In part, the story reads as follows:

International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

The gold medalists are hoping their feats will cover the country in glory and please its people and one man in particular – new leader Kim Jong-un, who only recently took over as head of the family dynasty on the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

For good reason: a life of luxury awaits the Olympians as reward for glorifying the Stalinist state. Elite athletes receive cash, cars, houses and the coveted membership of the Workers Party of Korea.. . .

The consequences of sporting failure are far less palatable.

The coach of the national soccer team, who lost all three of their 2010 World Cup games, was reportedly expelled from the Worker’s Party and forced to become a builder for his “betrayal”.

Now we certainly do not punish losers in this country — unless vanishing from the public eye can be regarded as punishment. They are quickly forgotten. But there are some alarming parallels between a country that chooses to ignore its poor and disadvantaged and our country.  Bear in mind that North Korea is in serious trouble because of the failure of its food production and distribution plus the sanctions it has brought down on itself because of its intransigence regarding the continued development of nuclear weapons. The country has thousands of hungry and out-of-work citizens who barely manage to stay alive because the country has put a premium — that is, spending the major portion of their income — on the development of weapons of war.

Therein lies the parallel. No, we are not a Communist (that is, Stalinist) country. But we glory in the gold our champions win (we also pay the winners, big time), relegate our losers to oblivion, and our government has also chosen to put its focus on the development of weapons of war at a time when a two-year drought in the Midwest threatens to further damage farm production, thereby making food more costly at a time when thousands are out of work, and the numbers of hungry and homeless people in this country grows perceptibly.

I do not wish to push the parallel farther than it will go. But the fact that there is any sort of parallel between a supposedly “free” country and one that holds its citizens in chains of intimidation and repression is deeply disturbing. The fact that there are thousands of wealthy people in this country who endorse their government’s decision to continue to spend money on “defense” while it ignores the plight of their neighbors —  neighbors who have no place to live and very little food to put on the table, or who have to work two jobs at minimum wage (if they can find work) to support a hungry family — is also deeply disturbing.

We talk about the 1% who control the wealth in this country but we tend to ignore the plight of  the 1% who are homeless, who sleep in their family van or in a cardboard box, and worry where their next meal is coming from — an average of 842,000 in a given week. And there are thousands more who are not categorized as “homeless” but who live in temporary shelters and suffer from lack of adequate food; 46 million Americans are on food stamps. We call them “bums” but they are people like you and me who have been caught in the “trickle down” [sic] of wealth from the rich to the very rich. It is not something we can be proud of. And given the fact that these people and the government they support continue to build weapons of war while their fellow citizens suffer and they look for another social program to cut is a somewhat alarming parallel between our country and a country that we rightly criticize for being cruel and inhumane.

No, we don’t punish those who lose athletics contests. Not really. But we punish those who cannot keep their heads above water in life and we call them “losers” when it is we who are the losers.