Trump And American Education

Whatever other conclusions we might draw about the depressing number of Americans who have decided that Donald Trump can save America, one things stands out as a surety: it is an indictment of American education. I say that as one who spent 42 years of his life seeking to help young people gain control of their own minds and become independent, thoughtful citizens of the world.

We have known for some time that America lags behind the other so-called civilized nations on earth — anywhere from 17th in the world to 35th — and far behind such tiny nations as Finland. Indeed, a commission formed under Ronald Reagan in 1983 published a document titled “A Nation At Risk” that concluded that America was in serious trouble in contrast with other nations in such basic subjects as mathematics, science, and language comprehension. Skeptics at the time insisted that this was a “conservative” group put together by a reactionary president and it was dismissed as so much hooey. In a word, we shoot the messenger rather than to take the message to heart. All sorts of excuses were made — and are still being made — for the world rankings that placed this country in a bad light. But the fact remains that subsequent studies from agencies around the globe support what that commission determined was the case back in the early eighties.

There are reasons, of course, why America falls behind such countries as Finland — and I have touched on them in previous posts. It is obvious, for example, that teaching is not a prestige occupation in this country  and does not attract the best and brightest of our college students, as it does in Finland. In a country such as ours where success is marked in dollars and cents, the students have disdain for anyone who would work for slave wages — such as their teachers. We pay our teachers barely enough to live on and then expect them to teach difficult subjects to our children who as parents we have not taken the time to raise properly. Thus, much of their time is taken up with attempting to discipline spoiled children while at the same time they are told that they must not touch the students or even raise their voices.

Whatever the reasons, and I expect there are many more, the fact remains that our kids are simply not being taught how to read, write, and think. I know this  from my own personal experience during which I saw the level of learning drop from year to year and realized that much of my time was taken up explaining what the assigned text was saying — rather than expecting students to take the text to task and raise troublesome questions about what the authors were saying. My readings became shorter and easier to comprehend and my tests became easier to take. And my own readings about the experience of other teachers around the country — at the primary and secondary levels as well as in “higher” education, where much of the work has become remedial — confirmed my own experience.

In any event, what this all translates to is that large numbers of people are easily taken in by a glib speaker who seems self-assured and says the kinds of things people want desperately to hear. And this is especially the case if that speaker pledges to start anew, with a clean slate, and make America great again. They don’t know what the man is talking about except that they have been told all their lives that certain things are taboo and this man tells them this is not so; and they don’t even realize that as an American president there is very little he can do, in fact, because of the limitations of the Constitution he would be sworn to uphold — but which none of those people have read and about which the man himself has shown astonishing ignorance. No one with a modicum of critical thinking skills would be taken in by such a charlatan. He has bragged that he holds the educated in low esteem, but he need not do that because there are very few educated people any more — at least in the sense of this word that has any meaning whatever: those who can read, write, speak, and figure the tip in a restaurant.

The fact that folks have fallen in behind a self-absorbed demagogue should not surprise anyone. It was inevitable, given the failure of our education system. That’s where the problem starts.

Advertisements

Super Delegates

For all his popular support, Bernie Sanders has refused to play ball with the D.N.C. and that may cost him the election. The key to the Democratic nomination is the superdelegates, some 712 hand-picked delegates who are “encouraged” to vote the party line and that line points to Hillary Clinton, not Sanders. As was recently asked by the New Republic,

How is this possible? The answer is superdelegates, the 712 votes doled out to Democratic National Committee officers, elected officials, and other party luminaries. The superdelegates are free to vote for their preferred nominee, unbound by the will of the voters—and if a nominee they think is terrible for the party is close to securing the nomination, they can conceivably throw their weight behind an alternative.

The reason this can and almost certainly will happen is due to the fact that in the early 1980s a handful of powerful Democrats met to decide how to make sure mavericks like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter (who were soundly trounced by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, respectively) would never again be the party’s nominee. They paved the way for the 712 delegates to be kept in the wings until the nomination is taking place, at which time they will vote for the person they think is the best candidate — presumably the one who will toe the party line — though, as mentioned above, the superdelegates are (theoretically) free to vote their conscience.

How did this come about? For seven months, between August 1981 and February 1982, 70 of the most powerful people in the Democratic party formed what was called the “Hunt Commission” which met in posh hotels in Washington D.C. and came up with the notion of the superdelegates. As has been noted:

The [initial] gathering got off on a light note when Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser joked that the party could simply announce it wouldn’t nominate anyone selected through the primaries. This, the transcript [of the meetings] notes, elicited “general laughter.”

The very democracy of the primary process [up to that point] appears to have made the commission members nervous. They felt they had to give party elites — elected officials and high-ranking party members — a greater hand in choosing candidates, or as Xandra Kayden, a member of the Center for Democratic Policy (now Center for National Policy), put it, the power to “to regain control of the nomination.”

This was partly couched in a belief in elites’ superior judgment. “They bring to the convention a certain political acumen, a certain political antenna,” explained Connecticut state Sen. Dick Schneier, a liberal member of the party.

‘Thus, no matter how popular Bernie Sanders is with the voters, and even though the polls might say (as they assuredly do) that he has a better chance to beat Donald Trump than does Hillary Clinton, it is all but assured that the superdelegates (all but 39 at present count) will vote for Clinton, the party’s choice to be next president. She currently has 2,293 delegates while Sanders has only 1,533. The shift of the superdelegates at the Democratic Convention will put her well over the 2,383 necessary to win the nomination, regardless of what occurs in the interim — unless there should be a sudden rush to throw the weight of several hundred of these special people  behind Sanders.

In the 1970s the Democratic party decided that the people should be the ones to determine their nominee, and they promoted the primaries  and encouraged more of the rank and file  to participate in the selection process. But the selection by the people of McGovern and Carter (and Sanders??) is not consistent with what the party leaders want. Thus, they changed the game. The result is the absurd concept of the superdelegates who will, in large part, determine who the next Democratic Nominee for president of this country is to be — if not the president himself or herself.

Is it fair? Certainly not. Is it Democracy? It is not. But it is realpolitik in today’s world where the powerful and the wealthy (usually the same people) determine who plays the political game. The rest is simply window dressing: for some reason it is important to keep up the impression that the process is a democratic one, that the people are the ones who choose their president. But that is simply not the case any more — if, indeed, it ever was.

 

Media Matters

I begin with a most interesting comment posted by “Media Matters” in which we are told about some large matters of unfairness with respect to the coverage the various political candidates get from the media:

The New York Times reported on March 15 that part of the reason Trump “wins primary after primary with one of the smallest campaign budgets” is that he “dominates” earned media — which includes “news and commentary about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media” — giving him a “mammoth advantage” over other candidates. According to The Times’ report, Trump far outpaces other presidential candidates in free media coverage, noting that in February “he earned as much media as [Ted] Cruz and [Hillary] Clinton combined” . . .
Mr. Trump earned $400 million worth of free media last month, about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign. Paul Senatori, mediaQuant’s chief analytics officer, says that Mr. Trump “has no weakness in any of the media segments” — in other words, he is strong in every type of earned media, from television to Twitter.

Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.

I now turn to a comment I made earlier this year with respect to the “Fairness Doctrine” which has become a matter of mere historical interest, though one might wish it were still infect.  I noted at that time that the free exchange of ideas was guaranteed by the F.C.C. in 1949 as a result of what was then referred to as the “Fairness Doctrine” which guaranteed that both sides of controversial issues must be made public. This doctrine was rejected in 1987 by the F.C.C. under the leadership of Mark Fowler who had been a member of then President Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff and who argued that the doctrine violated the first amendment. As a result, the door was opened to the media to indoctrinate rather than inform — present a single point of view repeatedly and ignore opposing views; this gave rise to such abortions as Murdoch’s Fox News.

Clearly, Donald Trump is being covered in the media to a far greater extent than any of his opponents.  As suggested, this does go a long way toward explaining the hold he seems to have on American voters. Even those who hate the man find themselves drawn to stories about his latest outrageous behavior — not unlike the way we are all drawn to a train wreck. It’s morbid curiosity, I suppose. In any event, the Trumpet is getting free media coverage while others (such as Sanders) are lucky to get a brief mention. As a result, it would appear, he is kicking butt on the Republican stage. This claim of a causal relation here is strengthened by the consideration that those in the media hesitate to hold Trump’s feet to the fire on any of  the main issues. Nor do his opponents. Thus he sails along unchallenged, filling the air with empty platitudes and bromides that will not cure any of our ills whatever. This may change in the general election. We shall see. But even then the media will determine what we see and hear

And this is the heart of the matter. I have mentioned in previous posts (as have others) that the “news” has become mere entertainment. What this means is that the media are going to broadcast those matters that matter to people: they want to sell air time or please their sponsors. The formula is not “fairness” it’s “give them what they want,” and a citizenry brought up on violent entertainment and video games wants something that gets their attention and holds it for a moment or two — one can scarcely hope for more than that these days.

So when the chickens at last come home to roost, we can blame the citizenry for the success of no-minds like Trump. But we had better reserve some of our criticism for the media which are determined to give us what we want while, at the same time, they manufacture our desires according to the dictates of their sponsors.

Making America Great Again

The Trumpet blows loud and almost always off-key. But what he tells us is that his business acumen will once again make America great. In saying this I am put in mind of a recent article in Yahoo Finance  titled “Why Donald Trump is a Lousy Executive” that points out the probable lack of success of a presidential Donald The Trumpet — based on his obvious personality disorders:

Awful executives also tend to think that they have all the answers — to all the questions. CEO Wolfgang Schmitt drove Rubbermaid into a ditch during the 1990s. A former colleague remembered that under Schmitt, “the joke went, ‘Wolf knows everything about everything.’” Not surprisingly, know-it-all executives suffer because they fail to consider other points of view that might have merit. In fact, no one is always right, yet lousy executives act as if they are. In this regard, Trump’s impression of his own judgment and intelligence is telling. As he tweeted in May 2013: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” In September 2015, he made a similar statement on “The Tonight Show,” telling host Jimmy Fallon, “I think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.” [Italics added]

In any event, his claim to restore America to its former greatness rests on the assumption that America is not great any more and that given his presidency he will have the power to effect radical change. He will do this apparently by turning over rocks that reveal bigotry, misogyny, racism, hatred, and intolerance; this will restore those years of greatness. But, we might ask, when were those years?

Perhaps he means the nation just after the adoption of the Constitution. But we had no army or navy and were terribly vulnerable to attacks by France, Spain, or Britain — which we discovered when we went up against the British in the war of 1812 , a time when president Thomas Jefferson reluctantly realized that we did need a navy and an army if we were to become a world power. But there wasn’t much of a nation at that time and there certainly wasn’t wide-spread prosperity (which, I suspect, is what the Trumpet means by “great”).

Could he be talking about the 1920’s when the Hoover campaign promised a “chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard”? But this was a time when, despite the general prosperity of the country at large, there was also wide-spread suffering and unemployment among farmers, laborers, and minorities. Indeed, there were those who saw a depression alongside the highest standard of living the world had ever known.

Or, will the Trumpet make America great again by returning it to the days of Eisenhower, a post-war economy that gave us widespread materialism and the promise of never having to put off until tomorrow what we can own today — thanks to the charge card? This was an era of moderate wealth within the middle class. Recently the gap has grown between the wealthy and the very poor and the middle class has all but disappeared, so it is hard to see how prosperity in the country at large can be restored when it is the middle class that must have the buying power necessary to turn the tide. I don’t recall the Trumpet pledging to restore the middle classes to their former strength by such things as, say, raising the minimum wage. But, then, I don’t listen to him any more; he might have made such a pledge. He would if he thought it would advance his personal agenda.

Perhaps the Trumpet means to return to the high level of prosperity during the Bill Clinton years when  unemployment dropped by 3.9%, the labor force grew by 2.8 million folks who had previously been unemployed under the Reagan Administration during which the 1% began to dodge the tax man and the rest of us waited for the money to “trickle down.” Or, when, under Clinton, the G.D.P. growth was at 3.8%, inflation was stable, and median wages grew from $661.00 a week to $700.00 a week. But, the Trumpet can’t be referring to those years, because they were years under a Democratic president and the Republican camp refuses to admit that Clinton restored an economy that had been crippled by his predecessor.

So, in the end, it is not clear what era the Trumpet is referring to. Which was the age we shall return to in achieving our greatness once again? He is certainly correct in saying that the tarnish has worn off the eagle, given the present state of the nation in the eyes of the rest of the world. But it is not clear how this man proposes to restore a greatness that is hard to define, much less quantify — especially since his preeminence in the political race has already driven much of the world community even farther away from America. He is long on generalities and half-truths — not to mention blatant falsehoods. So it is hard to see what he has in mind and how he thinks he can pull it off, given that he will not be a dictator, but simply the executor of the will of a corrupt and, I dare say uncooperative, Congress.

But none of the Trumpet faithful seems to be interested in these considerations. It’s not clear what they ARE interested in. Or what they hear when he speaks. Or what is going on between their ears, if anything.

 

 

Bernie’s Battles

Bernie Sanders says all the right things — well, almost all the right things. He has been soft on gun control which is troubling. But, then, he is a politician and must say things to get himself elected to the Senate in Vermont that he may not really believe. That’s the name of the game. In any event, he truly wants to do the right thing by his country and he is certainly operating outside the mainstream of politics for the most part. As I noted in a previous post, he knows that the real battle in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s between the very wealthy together with their corporations and the rest of us.

Sanders' Official Senate Portrait

Sanders’ Official Senate Portrait

The problem, of course, is that so many of Bernie’s dreams are just that: dreams. They are pie-in-the-sky. Radical change that flies in the face of present politics-as-usual. He is labelled a “socialist,” which is inaccurate. A socialist wants the state to own the means of production. Karl Marx thought Socialism was a step toward Communism where there would be no private ownership, all would share things in common — not unlike the hopes expressed in the New Testament. So far as I know Bernie Sanders does not want that to happen. He just wants those who own the means of production and who just happen to make 300 times as much money as their average employee to share some of their wealth. He would raise taxes on the rich which, as history has shown, might just help this economy get back on track. We were never as fiscally healthy as we were when the wealthy helped bear their share of the burden of government. You know, before Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” nonsense. As things now stand there are so many tax loops for the wealthy they hardly help at all. Bernie wants to right the ship.

But, as I say, his are dreams that seem will-o’-the-wisp, hardly the sorts of things the Congress will help him achieve. And, as I have also said in a previous post, without the help of the Congress the president cannot do much of anything. I dare say Bernie knows this and it would appear that he has in his sights a much larger prize: complete political reform. He wants to sweep into office with a majority of the Congress behind him. That would certainly make it more likely that he could actually initiate much-needed reform. And if he can light a fire in the electorate and get enough of the idealistic young on his side he may just do that. It’s a long shot, but it does inspire hope at a time when hope is a slender thread connecting dreams and reality.

The only thing that bothers me about this scenario is whether a Congress, be it Democratic or Republican, would actually put their collective careers on the line for radical change. It is likely that the majority of the Congress any new president would have to work with would still be beholden to the corporations. The wealthy support politicians on both sides of the aisle, just in case. Bernie may succeed in his attempt to free himself of all corporate ties, and might even gain a majority in the Congress, but it is unlikely that those in Congress could get elected — or if elected remain in office — without corporate support. That’s Bernie’s largest battle. It’s not about getting elected. It’s about beating the corporations in order to be an effective president.

Nevertheless, it is a hopeful sign that there is someone in the political arena who has the courage to say the right things, even though they are not the things the wealthy want to hear (because they are not those things?). As I read recently, Hillary Clinton is the person running for president who could work most effectively in the present political arena. Bernie is the one who wants to change the game entirely and play it more or less the way the founders wanted it played at the outset, reversing the current trend toward oligarchy. You have to admire his vision and his courage. Whether he will win the battles ahead remains to be seen.

The Militia

I have mentioned a number of times in earlier posts that the Second Amendment is all about the militia — not about our right to carry guns. It’s clear from the way the amendment is stated that maintaining a militia is of central importance. It’s because the Founders insisted that each state have a militia and that there never be a standing army that they saw fit to mention the “right” to bear arms. Consider, for example, the following Article in the Constitution itself.

In the very first Article (Section 8) we are told that the Congress shall have the power, among other things, to

“. . .provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for the organizing, arming and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

The concern here, clearly is to guarantee that the states will severally maintain an armed Militia, that there might never be a standing army. When it came time to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania during George Washington’s first term as President, for example, he himself led a group of state militia Westwards. There was no standing army, though Alexander Hamilton worried that the new country might eventually need one. Moreover, the Second Article in the Constitution  that outlines the very limited powers of the President tells us that:

“The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States [which were non-existent!], and of the Militia of the several states when called into actual Service of the United States. . .”

Indeed, what is clear from reading the Constitution is that those who wrote and passed on it were primarily concerned that the states would retain power over their own affairs and the Union would intercede only when absolutely necessary. At the same time, given Washington’s difficulties maintaining his army during the Revolution, there is concern that the Militia when called upon  be trained “according to the discipline prescribed by Congress” — i.e., by someone who knew what he was doing. It was assumed that the Congress would appoint someone with experience to initiate the actual training. There is, throughout the document, a concern for what is referred to in the Preamble as “the general Welfare,” or what those men regard as the Common Good, balanced by the determination not to allow the Union to lord it over the several states.

The President, as mentioned above, was to be more or less a figurehead. He is not Dictator as some who are currently running for that office apparently believe: his hands are tied tightly. The Congress, for better or worse (and we are seeing examples of the latter every day) holds the ultimate power. The President, as chief executive officer, has the power to execute the laws, not to make them. But, more to the point, the “right” to carry weapons mentioned in the Second Amendment was predicated on the need for a Militia to protect both the individual states and, if necessary, the Union. And, as the very conservative President Reagan said years ago, it does not rule out hunting weapons, but it also most assuredly does not guarantee every citizen the right to carry “AK-47s,  machine guns.”

Free Press?

Along with a number of my blogging buddies I have wondered aloud why there is so little genuine press coverage of such things as political debates. Why aren’t the politicians pressed harder by the reporters? Why aren’t we allowed to hear both sides of the issues? I have often thought that many of our problems stem from the fact that news has become entertainment, that, in general, what we are allowed to hear is determined by a few corporations that really want to amuse us and to think alike. When my mind wanders in this direction I hear a small voice in my ear whisper that this sounds like “conspiracy theory.” But the fact is that five major corporations in this country own 90% of the public media. These corporations determine what we hear and see and in large measure the way we think. For those of us who treasure our freedom, this is a serious problem. Some have said that in our day our freedom has increased, whereas the truth of the matter is that it has diminished.  The data in the following article suggest why:

The trend of media conglomeration has been steady. In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media, including magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, radio and television. By 1992 that number had dropped by half. By 2000, six corporations had ownership of most media, and today five dominate the industry: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom. With markets branching rapidly into international territories, these few companies are increasingly responsible for deciding what information is shared around the world.

What this means for all of us is that the free press which Thomas Jefferson once said was the cornerstone of our democracy has become the voice of a handful of giant corporations that clearly do not want the citizens of this country to exercise free choice. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that our freedom is largely an illusion, since the corporations are in control of the commercial messages that persuade us in hidden ways to make the choices that will increase profits for those companies that support the media through advertising. And this goes for our political choices as well — with rare exceptions. We are convinced that we have a great many choices, whereas in fact those choices are limited in ways we are largely unaware of. It matters not how many books we have to choose from in the library or the bookstore, it matters which ones we choose or if we choose any at all

But there is more. The free exchange of ideas was guaranteed by the F.C.C. in 1949 as a result of what was then referred to as the “Fairness Doctrine” which guaranteed that both sides of controversial issues must be made public. This doctrine was rejected in 1987 by the F.C.C. under the leadership of Mark Fowler who had been a member of then President Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff and who argued that the doctrine violated the first amendment. As a result, the door was opened to the media to indoctrinate rather than inform — present a single point of view repeatedly and ignore opposing views; this gave rise to such abortions as Murdoch’s Fox News.

Thus, it is not surprising that we now have entertainment in place of news, that the dogged and determined press of, say, the Roosevelt era that helped Teddy bring down the Trusts, is a thing of the past. What we now have is “news” presented by glib, beautiful people whose strings are pulled by a handful of giant corporations which prefer that we know only what they regard as important. That is to say, our democracy has been replaced (as Aldous Huxley predicted) by an oligarchy that calls the shots while the rest of us go through the motions and do what we are told and elect those politicians who are found to be malleable. Radical change is in order, but does not appear to be in the offing.

 

History Spirals

There are several theories about history. One is that history repeats itself in cycles so if we want to plan for the future we must learn from the past. Another view is that history is a straight line on which present and future events are totally unlike the past, in which case there is not much to learn from reading history. A third view is that history is a spiral in which present and future events resemble, to a degree, past events but are always full of novel and unpredictable situations. In this case, we can learn from history, but are not able to say that the future will be just like the past. I tend toward the third view. I think there is much to learn from reading history, but we must acknowledge that the future will be full of surprises. Humans don’t really change that much, but circumstances do change enough to make prediction difficult.

With that in mind, I reflect on the situation that confronts us today in which the middle class is disappearing in the widening gulf between the very wealthy and the very poor. It resembles, in many respects, the situation that we read about at the turn of the last century, the age of the infamous “robber barons.” The period is described for us by Doris Goodwin in her excellent book The Bully Pulpit in which she says:

“At the start of [Teddy] Roosevelt’s presidency in 1901, big business had been in the driver’s seat. While the country prospered as never before, squalid conditions were rampant in immigrant slums, workers in factories and mines labored without safety regulations, and farmers fought with railroads over freight rates. Voices had been raised to protest the concentration of corporate wealth and the gap between the rich and the poor, yet the doctrine of laissez-faire precluded collective action to ameliorate social conditions.”

These conditions brought about the age of the “progressive” Republican party and the “Trust Busters” with Teddy in the lead.  Roosevelt became famous and beloved because he was viewed, despite his patrician background, as “one of us,” complete with his cowboy and rough-rider images. He was a brash extrovert, an astute politician, and was smart enough to befriend members of the “third estate” to take on the machines and giant trust companies that controlled politics. He was also a man of wide interests and remarkable intellectual acumen who connected with the common folks around him because he really did believe that everyone deserves a “square deal.”

I have often wondered during Barack Obama’s presidency why he hasn’t used the media to arouse the public more than he does. Reagan knew how to use it, and Obama has considerable rhetorical skills and could go before the public and make his case for some of the programs he has been unable to work through a small-minded and obtuse Congress. Immediately after the shootings in Sandy Hook, for example, he could have gone before the public with an appeal to encourage them to put pressure on an intransigent Congress, urging some sort of  gun control. But he maintained his usual low profile, despite the fact that the vast majority of the citizens in this country, and even a majority of those who hold NRA memberships, wanted some sort of gun control measures. Obama simply rattled his verbal sabre a bit and the time passed for action without anything being done, despite his promises to the distraught parents of the slain children.

So, as one looks around to see if there is any politician determined and brave enough to take on the likes of the NRA and the other corporate giants who have taken over the reins of government, any possible “Trust Busters,” one sees only a couple of faces that stand out — such as Bernie Sanders, whom many reject as a bit “out there,” and Elizabeth Warren, who is relatively new at the job, but does seem to be bright enough and determined enough to take on the powers that be. Can she establish the rapport with the press that Teddy Roosevelt had in order to arouse the giant that is the citizenry in this country, asleep on its couch watching the latest sporting event? Or will she be bought out or silenced somehow, as we in Minnesota suspect Paul Wellstone might have been when he became a thorn in the side of the powers that be? In that regard, while we do live in an age that resembles in many respects the world in which Roosevelt lived, it is also an age in which the wealthy have refined their slight-of-hand tactics to very effectively manipulate the strings of power, clandestine maneuvers have become the order of the day, and the corporations have become owners of most, if not all, of the public media. One must wonder if Warren’s voice, as an example, would be allowed to be heard if that voice was saying the kinds of things the media don’t want the people of this country to hear? Gone is the “Golden Age of Journalism.” McClure’s Magazine is no more.  Now we have Fox News and the corporate-owned media simply entertain; they provide precious little information. Where are the voices that need to he heard?

These are interesting questions, and it remains to be seen if there is anyone in the political arena who, with or without the help of the third estate, is willing and courageous enough to take on the powerful lobbies and corporations that support them and go toe-to-toe with the unscrupulous powers that pull the strings in Washington. And if there is anyone courageous enough, will they be able to swim against such a powerful current? If the answer to these questions is “no,” then we are not likely to see another Teddy Roosevelt emerge, take the country in hand, and lead it out of our present morass. What then?

The Civilization of the Dialogue

This post is about conversation (or the lack of it): the gentle art of conversation in which folks actually listen to one another and, attempting to keep an open mind, seek to rethink issues no matter how deeply they feel about them. In a word, it is about the “civilization of the dialogue,” a phrase that arose from a discussion at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California in 1968 focusing on the place of civil discourse in a democracy, a place that everyone involved agreed is central. Of chief interest in that discussion was the publication of several papers — one of which was written by a Senior Fellow, John Wilkinson, a man of considerable sagacity, a wordsmith, and master of the art of dialogue himself. The Center was known for its discussions of public issues, many of them heated, but all deserving of serious attention and almost always productive of insights into the condition of the nation at that time.

It is no secret that the art of conversation has been lost. It has been replaced by the loud voices of two or more advocates of differing points of view whose minds are closed like steel traps and who are simply concerned to have the listener shut up and agree. I use the term “listener” loosely, since the art of listening has been lost as well. Assuredly, television is one of the main causes of this condition, since it features, day in and day out, the shouting and interrupting voices of “talking heads” who hold forth on issues they may or may not know anything about, from sports to politics to feminine hygiene. I would also fault the lecture system in our colleges and universities which fail to instill what Walter Lippmann referred to as “vital intellectual habits” — such as “the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternatives that might be pursued” — all essential elements of the civilization of the dialogue. College classes must be small enough to encourage all to participate, not just the lecturer.

And one must also consider the eradication of the Fairness Doctrine during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a policy passed in 1949 that was designed to guarantee equal time to both sides of complex (usually political) issues in the public media.  With the elimination of this Doctrine the public path was clear for louder and less civil voices in the expression of conflicting points of view. Indeed, there no longer needed to be opposing points of view at all: television producers and newspaper editors could simply present one side of an issue and do so again and again — witness Fox “News.” Preaching to the choir replaced genuine dialogue and any effort to grasp both sides of complex issues. But even before the Fairness Doctrine bit the dust, there were clear signs that the art of conversation, the civilization of the dialogue, was in serious trouble — as was our democratic system. To quote John Wilkinson’s  occasional paper printed in the Center Magazine in December 1968:

“The American republic is running on the momentum given it by a galaxy of political virtuosos nearly two centuries ago. It is vain to rail against any one thing or any one group of persons as the cause of our loss of political momentum.. . . We need not believe that there has been some conspiracy. It is tempting but not necessary to suppose that our oligarchs meet secretly, swearing to do everything in their power to harm the people. The effect is the same as if they had. If democracy is the civilization of the dialogue; if, as Scott Buchanan held, ‘persuasion is the life of politics’; if, as Robert Hutchins has written, ‘With an educational system that does not educate and a system of mass communications that does not communicate, we have become incapable of the discussion of which political issues are determined,’ then it is easy to see why the self-styled political elite must be a cacistocracy when not a single one of them could bring forth a clear and distinct idea if he had lived as long and written as much as Varro himself.”

Aside from the fact that I had to look up the word “cacistocracy” to discover it meant rule by the worst and most ignorant elements, I found this passage particularly thought-provoking. Wilkinson is very concerned that the life is going out of our political body because conversation has forsaken us, we have lost the ability to express ourselves clearly, and very few of us are willing to listen to what the other has to say. And this “we,” of course, includes our  so-called “leaders.” Indeed, in his paper Wilkinson notes that before coming to the Center he had taught at six different universities (all of them so-called “prestige” universities). During that time he tested the vocabularies of his students and found to his dismay that

“More than ninety percent of the students proved, as Freshmen, to have a usable, active vocabulary of about eight hundred words. They could passively understand a further five hundred words in something vaguely resembling their proper meaning. Another fifteen hundred or so words lay in such a penumbra of understanding or misunderstanding that more could hardly be averred than that they remembered having heard them before. Beyond that, Stygian darkness.”

This was before texting and the onslaught of electronic toys, and is sobering indeed — especially in light of the fact that Panbanisha, the chimpanzee, is said to have a vocabulary of 3000 words! But in any case, whether or not one is in sympathy with Wilkinson, or believes that his vocabulary tests prove much outside those six institutions, I can attest that in my more than forty years of teaching at the college level my students increasingly exhibited the same inability to grasp meanings and write and speak clearly that was the case with Wilkinson’s students. They were “verbally challenged” and, as a consequence (since we think in words), their thoughts were frequently jumbled and incoherent. Thus we have in our time not only the reduction of genuine dialogue to a shouting match where the goal is simply to speak louder than one another, but we also have growing numbers of people who cannot express themselves coherently even if they have something important to say. And this in a democracy where dialogue is central to its survival.

The Speechless President

Like so many others, I had high hopes for our current President. After his predecessor, he seemed like such a breath of fresh air. But it is beginning to appear as though that’s all he is: “a breath of air.” Except for his annual appearance on ESPN picking the winners in the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament (seriously?) one hardly knows he’s around. However, he does have considerable speech-making abilities and is able to hold the attention of an audience and make his points in a most persuasive way, so this gives rise to a question I have had for some time.

Given the unwillingness of this Congress — especially the House of Representatives — to cooperate in any way with the sitting President (for whatever reasons), why doesn’t the President use his powers of persuasion and the ready availability of the TV networks to make his case to the American people to put pressure on a recalcitrant Congress? Recall the ability of Ronald Reagan in this regard (old “Teflon Ron”): he was forever going on TV and pleading with the American public to have them write or call their representatives to get things done. And it worked: it boosted his popularity and got the people involved. In fact, we can go back to FDR’s use of the radio to get the public behind him as Churchill was able to do in England. These men knew the power of their position combined with the power of the airwaves and they used them to their advantage.

There was one time, especially, when Obama could have made use of his considerable speech-making abilities and the magic of television to get the American public involved in one of his pet causes. I refer of course to gun control and wonder why, after Sandy Hook when the American public was outraged, the President didn’t go on TV and urge folks to get behind his efforts to push some sort of gun-control legislation through a refractory Congress backed by the considerable power of the NRA. Public polls showed that the American public was overwhelmingly behind some sort of gun controls — at the very least some sort of waiting period, including checks on those who would purchase guns. But it didn’t happen, and despite a good deal of public posturing and a smattering of small, ineffective, steps on the President’s part, nothing happened at the federal level. The issue is not whether or not gun controls could help prevent the madness that seems to have this country in its grips. The issue is why the President didn’t take advantage of the support he obviously had in the American public and “take on” the Congress and the NRA. After all, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In any event, the President complains about the lack of cooperation from this Congress and is out beating the campaign trails to raise money to get more sympathetic members of Congress during the mid-term elections to help him push through some of his favorite programs during his final years in office. But it’s not all about sympathetic members of Congress. It’s also about getting the apathetic American public more involved in the political process and the sitting President could play a vital role if (s)he chose to do so. There is considerable power out there sitting glued to television sets, and that power could have been tapped into a number of times during this man’s presidency. But it has not. One wonders if that power might even have been enough to thwart the growing influence of the monied interests who seem determined to buy this government and who silently line the pockets of politicians they know will surely answer the call when the time comes to push their narrow, all-for-profit agendas.

In the game that is power politics, Barack Obama has shown himself to be inept. Given his status and his opportunities together with the precedent for “going public” he has ignored one rather obvious avenue for courting political success: the sleeping giant that is the American public that might have been aroused by Obama’s considerable powers of persuasion, but who now sleeps on undisturbed and unconcerned.