Hard To Believe

A recent story from the newswires of CNN raises some deep and disturbing issues:

Administrators shut down 24 schools in Augusta County, Virginia, on Friday after a homework assignment on Islam drew fury from parents, CNN reported.

Cheryl LaPorte, a world geography teacher at Riverheads High School, assigned her students homework using a standard workbook on world religions that asked students to copy religious calligraphy.
The assignment read: “Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”
The calligraphy translated to, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah,” according to CNN.
The assignment immediately drew ire from some parents who called for LaPorte’s firing for “violating children’s religious beliefs,” reported The News Leader, a local newspaper. The Virginia Department of Education reviewed the the assignment and found that it did not violate student rights.
The cancellation of school on Friday essentially started the district’s winter break early.
School administrators released a statement to parents saying that while there was no specific threat to students, schools were closed on Friday.
They cited a risk of harm to officials as the reason for the closure. “Some communications posed a risk of harm to school officials,” the school’s statement read, according to WHSV-TV, a local news station. “Others threatened significant protests on or near school property. Those communications are in the hands of the sheriff.”

The threats to teachers and administrators raises the greatest concern. We have truly become a nation of bigots and haters who see no reason not to threaten those who disagree with us. And, of course, there are those running for the highest office in this land who not only encourage this attitude, but give it strong impetus. One might feel these things, but it takes assurance from those around us to actually make those feelings public. And when those around us are led by a few who are regarded as smarter  (and more “successful”) than the rest of us, it becomes all too tempting to give vent to the most hateful feeling that are deep within us. And if this seems a bit of a stretch, please consider that Donald the Trumpet, for one, recently spoke with an interviewer about his relationship with Vladimir Putin whom he admires as a “strong leader” and responded to the question of whether he would approve the killing of journalists with the following dismissal: “He’s running his country and he’s a leader,” . . . Unlike what we have in this country.”

In any event, at a time when we need increased understanding of those who differ from us, the parents who shouted loudly at this class assignment were guaranteeing that they and their children would have little or nothing to do with the religion of Islam. “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up.” This sort of attitude tells us many things, but above all else it shows what a difficult, if not impossible, job our teachers have in opening closed minds when the parents of their students resist strongly and threaten grievous bodily harm. It was wise to close the schools until tempers cool off. But the deeper problems will persist.

Taxing Situation

I have been reading a history of early British America — America before the revolution. It is intriguing. The Americans were a recalcitrant people who really didn’t want to cooperate with the British in protecting their own frontier. Further, they were a bit of a burden to the British who spent hundreds of thousands of pounds over seven years protecting that frontier against the French and Indians in the New World. It was costing the British about £350,000 a year to maintain their army in America even after the war.

Of course, the British had been fighting the French for centuries so that was nothing new. But the fact that they had to protect fiercely independent colonists across the pond against an ancient foe and their new allies was not something they welcomed. And the fact that it cost thousands of pounds and placed the Mother country in debt up to her ears created tensions between Britain and its New World colonies. The solution proposed by Lord of the Treasury George Grenville was to tax the colonists and recoup some of the losses.

The initial tax in 1733 (in the form of a “duty”) was on molasses that came from the West Indies and was used by New Englanders to make rum. The tax was generally ineffective and simply encouraged smuggling in the colonies. But when the sugar tax was levied in 1763, and actively enforced, it began to bring the disparate colonies together as one and to create strong resistance that eventually led to the Revolution. Until I read this book I was unaware of how independent each of the colonies was from the others and yet how the people in the distinct colonies all felt themselves to be British citizens — and therefore privileged above the rest of the world — but not the least bit beholden to the Mother Country for protecting them against enemies. But it was taxation that brought them together and actually helped to create some sense of unity out of the diverse — and very different — American colonies (think: Massachusetts and Virginia who were worlds apart in so many ways and never really got on the same page).

Taxation, especially the Stamp Act, got the colonists all riled up; it was something to be avoided like the plague. That has never changed. We still lump taxes together with death as the two things we fear most and neither of which can be avoided. And it is that attitude that has given birth to the Tea Party and its insistence that there be no more taxes — in the spirit of the early colonists about whom I dare say most Tea Partiers know very little, if anything at all.

The problem is that there is another side to the issue: taxes are essential for the running of the individual states and the country itself whether we like it or not. And as noted by one of my favorite blog-buddies, our country is taxed at a lower rate than almost every other developed country in the world yet we complain the loudest. Perhaps this is part of our inheritance (as noted above, we have a long tradition of complaining about taxes), but it is unseemly and also unworldly. Taxes are essential to the well-being of each and every one of us. As noted by another of my favorite bloggers, our tax money does immense good. Not only are taxes necessary to maintain a strong defense against terrorism (a point that is accepted by almost all) but they are also necessary to maintain social programs that benefit those who are most in need and ultimately make us a stronger nation (a point that is rejected by many).

To be sure there are abuses, as critics are quick to point out. They know — or have heard about — a fellow who takes his student loans and buys himself a new car, or, perhaps, $15,000 worth of weapons that are later used in a shooting in a movie theater. These things certainly happen. But this money also makes it possible for people in need to keep their collective heads above water, to buy food, clothing, and shelter for their struggling families. And we must never forget that. Instead of focusing on the abuses and the waste we can all attest to, let’s instead focus on the immense good that our taxes do to not only those in real need but all of us who benefit from health care and better schools for our children. After all, we are supposed to be a charitable people. We need to alter our mind-set and start to think of taxation not in conjunction with death, but with life itself.

Political Soft Shoe

It has been interesting to read about the political spin-off from President Obama’s announcement recently that he was in favor of gay marriages. Many a pastor around the country had to calm down enraged parishioners because they find in the Bible what they regard as clear evidence of God’s opposition to such an “unnatural” relationship.

But the spin-off has also affected other Democrats who are running for political office this Fall and they have been showing how adept they are at the old soft-shoe. In a recent Yahoo article Senatorial candidate  Tim Kaine from Virginia apparently supports Obama’s stand on gay marriage, but gets high marks for euphemism in coming out in favor of “equal relationships,” avoiding altogether the mention of the word “marriage.” “The underlying issue is: Should committed couples have the same legal rights and responsibilities? And the answer to that is an unequivocal ‘yes,'” Kaine, the former governor of Virginia now running for Senate, reportedly told the media Tuesday. “I believe in the legal equality of relationships… Just say I’m for relationship equality.”

Let’s ignore for the moment, the candidate’s slick soft shoe. There are two separate issues here, at least. On the one hand, neither the Federal government nor the President can legislate on this issue: they cannot order the states to allow gay marriages. Obama himself made that clear. It is a question of states’ rights and the states in many cases have already spoken — including North Carolina that recently voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage (which should make the Democratic Convention interesting in Charlotte this Fall!). But the second issue is one of the legal rights of married couples. Whether or not one happens to think that men should marry other men or women marry other women, the fact remains that if there is no marriage contract, very often members of these relationships are denied the right of equal treatment. They may not be able to inherit and or have any legal claim to property should there be a separation or death, for instance. In addition, if there are adopted children, the status of the child is in legal doubt, though the evidence suggests that children raised in a same-sex marriage are as healthy and well-adjusted as children raised in heterosexual marriages.

But aside from these technical issues, there is the larger issue of tolerance. The fact that a sitting President took a strong stand on a controversial issue (whatever his motives might have been) is like a breath of fresh air in the stuffy room of contemporary politics where the political dodge and the old soft-shoe are the moves of the day.  As a nation, we pride ourselves on being honest and tolerant. And in many ways we are  — certainly more tolerant about the rights of women than, say,  Middle Eastern countries where women aren’t even allowed to uncover their faces in public or drive a car.

But we have little bragging room, since in issues such as the one before us at the moment we hear considerable outcry surrounding the president’s position on gay marriage and much of it comes from those who pride themselves on being the most devout members of the Christian churches in this country,  We read, for example, that Some churches were silent on the issue. At others, pastors spoke against the president’s decision Wednesday—but kindly of the man himself. A few blasted the president and his decision. A minority spoke in favor of the decision and expressed understanding of the president’s change of heart. I cannot for a moment think that the founder of that particular religion looks on with approval. But then the history of the Christian church in the West is a history of intolerance, including the Inquisition that went on in Spain for several hundred years, and the persecution of witches and other non-believers in this country by the Puritans early on. Perhaps it is time for those who call themselves “Christian” and cannot find anything in their religion about love of their fellow humans to read and take to heart the New Testament. In the meantime, we will continue to admire the politicians in this country who are most adept at the political soft shoe and the ability to say something without actually saying anything. We might at least get some entertainment value for our tax dollars.