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Shall We Corporatize Public Education Too?

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   From its earliest beginnings in a 1647, when the Massachusetts General Court required every  town in the colony with a population of more than  fifty people to found, operate and fund schools, public education in the United States today has grown to encompass more than 15,000 separate school districts across the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are now 98,817 public schools. The U.S. Department of Education reports that the country currently spends over $500 billion a year on public elementary and secondary education, K-12, and that, on average, school districts spend $10,591.00 per pupil.
    Lately, much has appeared in the print media about the malaise of public education in the United States. Numerous reforms have been proposed, many of which involve empowering school administrators, testing students regularly, eliminating collective bargaining rights and tenure for teachers, holding teachers accountable for student performance, and creating more charter schools.

    Some of the more extreme measures proposed would dismantle public education entirely but use taxpayer funds to replace it with a system of vouchers for use in private schools and for-profit schools. Today, "private school choice" programs, as these vouchers are called by the  Alliance for School Choice, have been enacted in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Last year, during a time when states across the nation drastically slashed spending for public education budgets, 41 states introduced 145 pieces of private school choice legislation. The net effect of the more extreme proposals would be to remove education from public oversight and regulation, and permit unlicensed, poorly-paid and poorly-educated individuals to teach creationism, others forms of pseudo-science, extremist religious doctrines, and right-wing politics, history and economics without fear of censure and without any accountability whatsoever.

    A number of the reforms that have gained cachet in the mainstream media have been touted by President Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and former D.C. Superintendent of Schools, Michelle Rhee, among others. Interestingly, none of these proponents of public school reform have ever taught in a public school or have any direct experience in trying to challenge students, particularly students under stress, to  learn. The larger question, however, is: will any of their proposed reforms actually improve public education in the United States or will they further undermine it?

       The October edition of Atlantic magazine, Nicole Allen documents the travails of American public education. Students in the United States ranks 21st among counties in Science; 14th  in reading skills, and 30th in Mathematics skills, according to the International Student Assessment for 2009. By contrast, students in Finland rank 2nd in Science, 3rd in reading sills, and 6th in Mathematics skills.

    Many might argue that any comparison between Finland and the U.S. is meaningless, given the size of the population and racial diversity of the U.S. in contrast to Finland. But is it possible that the example of Finland can still instruct, and if so, how?   

    First, Finland has created uniformly high standards for all of its students and those standards are supported and insured throughout the entire country. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. where the federal government and the states impose, at best, minimal requirements upon local school districts.

    Secondly, only 7% of the applicants to the University of Helsinki's teacher programs are accepted. Upon completion of their education and practicum, teachers in Finland are paid more than 80% of the average of full-time earnings of college-educated adults in that country. By contrast, in the United States, teachers are uniformly poorly paid and are often recruited  from the bottom quartile of college graduates. As the Atlantic data shows, even in more selective education programs such as those at Johns Hopkins School of Education and at Columbia University's Teachers College, 53% and 56% of the applicants respectively are accepted.

       Third, teachers in Finland, as recognized and valued professionals  - all of whom are also unionized - are given great latitude in their methods of teaching; and collegiality, rather than a top-down management model, governs decision-making in the schools. By contrast, here in the United States, the GE management model of public execution and intimidation  - exemplified by the likes of Michelle Rhee - controls educational discourse.

    Lastly, and most importantly, Finland's education system succeeds because its students are ready and prepared to learn. As a social democracy, Finland has perhaps the Western world's most extensive safety net. The country has universal medical care, strong family-support, child welfare, and nutritional programs, minimal poverty and its population would never tolerate the kind of extreme economic inequality that is currently fashionable in the United States .

    Here in the United States, the evidence shows that the problems caused by a decentralized, unequally-funded system of local public education are compounded by the existence and tolerance of widespread economic and social inequality which also explains, in large part, the uneven outcomes in America's decentralized education system and the dismal performance of so many of the children who are enrolled.

    In a report released in March 2009, David Berliner, Regents Professor at Arizona State University, analyzed those "out-of-school factors" (OSFs) which "play a powerful role in generating existing achievement gaps" that continue to undermine the purpose of the federal "No Child Left Behind" act. Berliner, in a wide-ranging review of the existing data and summary of the educational literature, identified six significant factors among poor children that adversely affected their health and learning opportunities and which therefore "limit what schools can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth weight and non- genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics."

         These six factors, Berliner concluded, "are related to a host of poverty- induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic under-development, and oppositional behavior." Berliner further observed that, "Because America's schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier communities, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed."

    The data which Berliner cites showed that, in 2006-2007, the average white student attended a public school in which about 30 percent of the students were classified as low-income. By contrast, the average black or Hispanic student attended a school in which nearly 60 percent of the students were classified as low-income, while the average American Indian was enrolled in a school where more than half of the students were poor. "These schools," Berliner concluded, "are often dominated by the many dimensions of intense, concentrated, and isolated poverty that shape the lives of students and families."

    Horace Mann believed that education had the potential to become  "the great equalizer in the conditions of men." For that reason, he became an early advocate of the importance of public education for all citizens. Later, John Dewey insisted that "Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education."   

    The continued de-funding and fragmentation of American public education- as exemplified by the growth of charter school movement - coupled with the relentless, continuing assault upon teachers, the imposition of management models dawn from the private sector, the continued dumbing down of curricula, and proposals to turn public education over to entrepreneurs and for-profit business are precisely the wrong direction for American public education. Sadly also, these proposals show how far this country has strayed from the grand visions of Horace Mann and John Dewey.

       In his important book, What Money Can't Buy, Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel warns against the continued creep of the values of market economy into the public square,  the end result of which he fears will be the creation of a market society in which everyone and everything is for sale. Decades earlier, the Marxist philosopher and social critic, Herbert Marcuse argued that "An economic system that encourages its young men and women to tailor their educations to the needs of the marketplace, irrespective of their hopes and ambitions, is an economic system that should be roundly condemned. A nation that discourages the study of art, music and the Humanities is a nation that will inevitably find itself populated by unthinking dolts and automatons."

    Everyone who is concerned about the future of this fragile democracy and about the education of our children and grandchildren must hope that it is not too late to reverse the trend toward the continued corporatization of American public education.

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Is Islam at War with Modernity?

      Those who write the narratives usually control a culture's collective memories and its understanding of history. Even when the victors write the narrative, however, there is usually a counter-narrative that percolates and festers among the vanquished. These competing narratives complicate religious, ideological, political and economic disputes and often make them intractable. This is especially true of the present divide between the West with its secular democracies and those countries throughout the Middle East and Asia where government policies are professedly shaped by fidelity to Islamic principles. 


     Among their historic grievances, Muslims often point to the Crusades and the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492, the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, and the colonization of  the Levant, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco by the French and  British in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.

     The Western World has its own narrative. Long before the Crusades, in 711, Islamic armies invaded Spain from North Africa and destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom. In October 732, at the Battle of Tours, Charles Martel (the Hammer), marshaled a force of Franks and Burgundians who defeated an invading army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by 'Abdul Rahman, the Goveneror-Gernal of Al-Andalus (Spain), and saved what later became France from becoming a Muslim principality. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans who desecrated St. Sophia's desecrated and converted it into a mosque. And Muslim armies continued to besiege Eastern Europe well into the 17th century.

     Gradually, as the fear of Islam retreated from Western Europe, a triumphant Catholic Church consolidated its religious and political power throughout vast expanses of the region. Thousands upon thousands of  those who were deemed to be heretics, apostates, Jews, or other enemies of the Church were brutally suppressed  by the Holy Office - the Inquisition. Torture, dismemberment and auto de fes became the preferred methods to enforce orthodoxy. Hussites, Albigensians, Jews and other heretics and non-believers lived in constant fear of exposure and persecution.

     As the fear of further invasions by Christian armies receded, Islamic rule in the Middle East was also consolidated. Under the rule of the Ottomans, non-Muslim subjects (dhimmis) were allowed to practice their religion, subject to certain restrictions; were granted some measure of autonomy within their own communities; and their personal safety and property were guaranteed, in return for paying a tax and acknowledging Muslim supremacy. While he conceded their inferior status, Bernard Lewis in his book, The Jews of Islam, observed that, in most respects, the position of non-Muslims was "was very much easier than that of non-Christians or even of heretical Christians in medieval Europe."As Lewis notes, dhimmis rarely faced martyrdom or exile, or forced compulsion to change their religion, and with certain exceptions, they were free in their choice of residence and profession.

     Today, the relative positions of believers and non-believers alike in Western society and in the Muslim world have largely been reversed. How did this happen? In the Western world, the Protestant Reformation, and the ensuing wars between Catholics and Protestants persuaded an exhausted population and their leaders that toleration of one another's religious beliefs was the only viable way to avoid incessant warfare, death and despoliation. The Peace of Westphalia, a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648, ended the Thirty Years' War. Most importantly, the treaties allowed the rulers of the signatory states to independently decide their religious preference. Protestants and Catholics were declared to be equal before the law, and Calvinism was accorded legal recognition.

     Slowly, as a result of these treaties, the concept of toleration took root in the Western world. From this root, as democratic societies blossomed, nurtured by the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the ideas of personal autonomy and freedom became central. As a consequence, by the later part of the 19th century, an important set of distinctions had been drawn between the realm of the church and its responsibilities, and the proper role of elected governments toward their citizens.

     In the Middle East, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the existence of autocratic governments, pervasive economic backwardness, illiteracy and intense anger spawned by the emergence of the State of Israel- exacerbated by its mistreatment of its own Arab citizens and the Palestinian population - have created an unstable region in which the concept of tolerance has all but disappeared. With the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate, during the past seventy years the Middle East has become virtually depopulated of Catholic, Orthodox and Nestorian Christians, while the few who remain endure constant discrimination and persecution. Sadly, the Middle East - which was the birthplace of Christianity - has become hostile to the adherents of a major religion whose presence there predated Islam by more than six centuries.

     Today in the Middle East the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, fueled by fanatics, poses a threat to the Western democracies and to the entire world. The current wave of demonstrations against the movie trailer allegedly created by an Egyptian-born Copt who is now an American citizen is the latest manifestation of what can only be described as a collective psychosis in which all principles of proportionality and rationality have been lost. While many uninformed Muslims demand the execution of the Copt who satirized their prophet, they remain unfazed by the recent burning of bibles by Muslim mullahs in Cairo, and oblivious to the constant pogroms throughout the Muslim world against non-believing innocents who bear no ill-will toward their religion. This sad spectacle, compounded by an educated Muslim elite who have been cowed into silence, reminds us of the words of Yeats, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

     A series of articles in the Economist ("Islam and democracy: Uneasy companions," August 6, 2011) quotes a Lebanese woman, who is described as a sophisticated Sunni Muslim in her 50s, who could easily navigate from English, to French and to Arabic. "Of course, they say nice things these days,"They know who they're talking to. But you cannot trust them--absolutely not." As the magazine reported, "Again and again, in secular and liberal circles in Beirut, Cairo, Rabat, Tunis and even Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, you hear almost identical
dark warnings against the Islamist movements that are gaining ground across the Arab world as dictators are toppled, tackled or forced into concessions."
     As a religion, Islam asserts an exclusive claim to the Truth. That Truth is derived entirely from the Qur'an - which is accepted as the unmediated word of the living God. The religion's teachings are supplemented by the Hadith, the commentaries that recount statements and deeds attributed to Mohammed.

     Hence, Islam does not present a challenge to the Western world as a political philosophy. Rather it represents a challenge posed by a set of religious dogmas that have been hijacked by Wahhabis and other fundamentalists who insist upon interpreting the Qur'an as a rigid and unforgiving set of religious dogmas. Their fanaticism has widened the chasm that separates Western secular democracies from much of the Muslim world, imposed insuperable obstacles that impede the development of civil societies and their institutions, and constrained critical economic development. Their demand that truly observant Muslims must focus upon the next life rather than the present condemns millions of Muslims to lives of penury and misery, and left many with only rage and a false sense of victimization to sustain them.

     The insistence by some Islamic imams of their right to impose Shar'ia upon believers and non-believers, coupled with the appallingly subordinate status to which so many women in the Muslim world are subjected, are inimical to the core values of the European Enlightenment. Those within the Western democratic political traditions, whether conservative, liberal or socialist, will continue to criticize Islamic practices so long as apologists refuse to condemn an extremism that refuses to distinguish between the province of God and the province of man, denigrates the rights of women and non-believers, and eschews the quest for social justice here on earth in deference to some future, heavenly reward.

     Absent the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation or the Thirty Years War followed by an edict of toleration such as that expressed in the Peace of Westphalia, the Islamic world is unlikely to embrace the idea of toleration, as a central social concept, anytime soon. Until Islamic leaders endorse that concept unequivocally and acknowledge the importance of other Western notions, admittedly more often preached than observed in practice, - i.e - that social change can be sought and achieved through political discussion, by the emergence of new ideas, and by the evolution of policies - the chasm between the West and Islam will remain wide and deep.

     In the short term, infinite patience is the best response, along with a firm commitment by Western polities to promote and to provide extensive financial support for the education of Muslim women. Only when women have become an educated force throughout the Middle East will the forces of religious fanaticism be stilled.

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The Lessons of 9/11

       Yesterday, we commemorated the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Tearful observances were held at Ground Zero in New York, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07:  A worker looks u...

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07: A worker looks up at beams of the Tribute in Lights ahead of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on September 7, 2011 in New York City. The Tribute in Light is comprised of 88 7000 watt searchlights that beam into the sky near the site of the World Trade Center in remembrance of the September 11 attacks. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

   The solemn occasion, however, did not deter GOP from its calculated campaign to persuade the American electorate that President Obama is not to be trusted.

    On Monday, a right-wing funded think tank, the Government Accountability Institute, issued a report that contended that President Obama attends fewer than half of his daily intelligence briefings. Former Vice President Dick Cheney cited the report to criticize the President."If President Obama were participating in his intelligence briefings on a regular basis then perhaps he would understand why people are so offended at his efforts to take sole credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden," Cheney said in a statement to the Daily Caller. "Those who deserve the credit are the men and women in our military and intelligence communities who worked for many years to track him down. They are the ones who deserve the thanks of a grateful nation."

    On "Fox and Friends," Senator John McCain asserted, contrary to all of the existing evidence that, "As far as the Middle East is concerned, this president's national security policy has been an abysmal failure."

      Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani used the remembrance to find fault with President Obama's unwillingness to join with Bibi Netanyahu and his Likud Party in a jihad against Iran's nuclear program."They are the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. If they have nuclear weapons, the next time there is an attack it could be with nuclear weapons," he said on the same show. "There has to be a sense of urgency about stopping them instead of this almost irrational desire to negotiate with them. They have to be afraid of us if we're going to stop them. I'm not certain that's the case right now."

     By contrast, Kurt Eichenwald offered a sober riposte to the GOP's braggadocio. In an op ed column in the New York Times yesterday, entitled "The Deafness Before The Storm," Eichenwald reminded readers of the Bush administration's refusal to act in the summer of 2001 upon the advice of the CIA, which issued a number of warnings about an imminent terrorist attack. Eichenwald wrote, " But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power in the Pentagon were warning that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat."

    History now records, in graphic detail, the consequences of that failure to set aside their ideological blinkers and the refusal of the neo-cons to view the world as it is. Because of their triumph over foreign policy, the U.S. became involved in two wars that led to the deaths and injuries of thousands of our soldiers, with an untold number of dead and the pervasive misery suffered by hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here at home the costs to the U.S. tax-payers from these ill-conceived wars, including the long-term care and treatment of our wounded veterans, may ultimately exceed $6 trillion dollars.  

    But what are there other lessons to be learned from 9/11? One is to be very weary. The very same neo-cons who advised the Bush Administration - including Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton - have become top advisors to Mitt Romney. They, along with Cheney, Giuliani and Romney - all of whom successfully evaded military serve during the Vietnam War - now stridently beat the drums of war on behalf of a tone-deaf, right-wing Israeli lobby that would involve this country in another misbegotten war of foreign adventure that could potentially explode the entire Middle East.

    A second lesson to be learned is that neither the GOP nor any other political group should ever be permitted again to use fear as an instrument of national policy, as the Bush administration so successfully did. Fear eclipses reason and, a Franklin Roosevelt sagely noted, prevents us as a people from tackling urgent problems with real-world solutions.                    
     A third and equally important lesson to be learned is that lies, slogans and cant can never be relied upon as a substitute for a serious discussion of policy differences. The GOP and its supporters continue to insist that government is not a solution, and that the public sector does not create jobs that provide important or meaningful services. Yet 125 of the people who died  at the Pentagon on 9/11 were public employees; 343 New York City Fire Department firefighters, 23 New York City Police Department officers, 37 Port Authority Police Department officers,15 EMTs and 3 court officers died responding to the attacks on the Twin Towers. Another 2,000 first responders were also injured in the attacks. They offered their lives heroically, without hesitation and never insisted, aside from being paid a fair wage, that their lives were indispensable or that, because of the vagaries of tax policy or a failure to be paid extravagant bonuses,they were unwilling to sacrifice their lives in an effort to  help others.
     The events of 9/11 should serve as a stark and perpetual reminder of the responsibility of the Bush administration and the GOP for this national tragedy. Those who continue to enable them should also should also be publicly repudiated for their continuing, irresponsible efforts to distract voters from the need to focus upon the real problems that have reduced millions of our fellow citizens to lives of penury in a Dawinian war that GOP has unleashed against the rest of us on behalf of its wealthy elite.

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Thomas Aquinas, John Locke and Paul Ryan?

      Until recently, Congressman Paul Ryan repeatedly expressed his admiration and enthusiasm for the writings of Ayn Rand and he is reliably reported to have required that all of his Congressional staff to read Rand's Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand extolled unbridled selfishness and condemned altruism as a misguided instinct.

    Now that he is the presumptive GOP Vice Presidential candidate, however, Ryan has discovered the need to counter the public perceptions that he is an uncaring disciple of the gospel of selfishness. For that reason, Ryan has begun to insist that his worldview is largely inspired by the writings of Thomas Aquinas:"If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don't give me Ayn Rand."
      But is Ryan being truthful? Is Ryan, in fact, a Catholic conservative?
     The kind of anti-government rhetoric advanced by Congressman Ryan is at loggerheads with the Catholic social thought. That tradition, which traces its lineage from Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, to Catholic philosophers today, is fundamentally at odds with the kind of anti-social individualism that dominates current GOP political discourse. In stark contrast to Catholic social teaching, that discourse draws its values from the tradition of classical liberalism that emerged after the Protestant Reformation and was trumpeted by Thomas Hobbes, and, most importantly, John Locke and his intellectual disciples, David Hume and Adam Smith. Because  Locke's political legacy inspired the Founding Fathers, was encoded into the constitutional  machinery of the United States, and has become embedded into popular consciousness, the gospel of selfishness had already found a receptive and enthusiastic audience along before Ayn Rand's "Objectivism" was touted as something new and fashionable.

     In contrast to Congressman Ryan's embrace of an ideology based upon radical individualism, Thomas Aquinas argued that, with respect to relations among one another, human beings are obliged to seek as the summum bonum  - the common good - which is synonymous with  justice. As the primary object of all human aspiration, true justice is something that can be achieved only through the law acting as an instrument of the social order. Aquinas quotes Isodore, "Laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of citizens." Further, "A law properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order of the common good..."

      Aquinas also insisted that justice is based upon a notion of proportionality,"Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will" and "Just as love of God includes love of one's neighbor, is the service of God rendering to each one his due." Finally, Aquinas invokes Cicero to the effect that "...'the object of justice is to keep men together in society and mutual intercourse.' Now this implies relationship of one man to another. Therefore justice is concerned only about our dealings with others."

     To the present, in addition, the Catholic conservative political tradition, harkening back to the Greeks and Romans, continues to insist that individuals realize their full potential and humanity to the extent to which they participate as full members of a political society - as citizens.That notion of citizenship, based upon mutual obligations and reciprocal rights, remains central to that political philosophy.

     Hence, while Catholic social thought is essentially communitarian, Ryan and his right-wing antisocial individualists confidently assert that society is an abstraction and that only the individual is real. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who was steeped in the tradition of Catholic social thought and epistemology, countered that the self is an abstraction and he rejected the argument that one's ability to reason and the quality of that reasoning are unique attributes which belong to the solitary self as opposed to the social self. Because of the self's ephemeral nature, the knowledge, customs and habits contained within a given political culture are essential guideposts to properly orient the self to its social self and to other social selves and to bind each of us as persons to our ancestors and our descendants. Which, then, is the abstraction: the individual or the society?

    If man is a reasoning being, Unamuno notes that this ability to reason, alone, is incontrovertible evidence that the individual is a social being: "But man does not live alone; he is not an isolated individual, but a member of society. There is  a little truth in the saying that the individual, like the atom, is an abstraction. Yes, the atom apart from the universe is as much an abstraction as the universe apart from the atom. And if the individual maintains his existence by the instinct of self-preservation, society owes its being and maintenance to the individual's instinct of perpetuation. And from this instinct, or rather from society, springs reason." Further,  "Reason, that which we call reason, reflex and reflective knowledge, the distinguishing mark of man, is a social product."

     Unlike Locke who argued - as Paul Ryan has agreed - that the individual is the only concrete realty, that society is a phantasm, and that government is an artificial construct created solely by contract, conservatives contend that political societies, as historical entities, are the only operative reality: Political societies exist over the course of history, whereas individuals, as mere mortals, suffer abbreviated life spans.

     It was Edmund Burke, a Catholic sympathizer and an alleged favorite of William Buckley, who observed that political society exists as an historical project into which individuals enter and depart while sharing a common destiny: "...society is indeed, a contract....It is to be looked on with  reverence; because it is not a partnership in things...It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born..."
    Catholic social thought emphasizes that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as liberals would have it, the needs of individuals. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument designed solely to protect private property or to protect rights, as distinguished from obligations. Instead, consistent with the teaching of St. Thomas of Aquinas, Jacques Maritain reminds us that  "...the primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the crucial need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."

    Thomas Aquinas taught that, since God endowed each man in his own image and likeness, man has become the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and its bounty. For that reason Catholic social philosophy to the present remains deeply skeptical about arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth. As Aquinas observed,"It is lawful for a man to hold private property" but "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need ..." Historically also, Catholic social doctrine has condemned, in theory if not in practice, aggrandizement and selfishness. Avaritia (greed) and luxuria (extravagance) are counted as two of the Seven Deadly Sins.

    Aquinas' skepticism about the importance of accumulating material possessions has never been shared by Congressman Ryan. Rather, Ryan, as a radical individualist, would agree with John Locke that "The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealth and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property."               

     Part of the confusion over whether Ryan's politics reflect consistent Catholic social teaching is directly attributable to the confusion and timidity of the current U.S. Bishops. Obsessed with matters sexual and reproductive, blind to enormous scandal in their own midst, and chosen primarily because of their obsequious, unquestioning loyalty to an increasingly rigid and doctrinaire pontiff, many U.S. Bishops have chosen to mute their fidelity and responsibility to teach and affirm historic Catholic teaching. Instead, they have entered into a Faustian bargain not to offend the GOP politicians like Ryan who agree with them solely on issues of contraception and reproductive rights. Although Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, decried Ryan's proposed  budget cuts this past spring for having failed the moral test of fairness, Cardinal Dolan of New York, sadly, continues to express his admiration for the Congressman and to praise Ryan's commitment to Catholic values.

    In contrast to Catholic social teaching, Paul Ryan has never expressed a commitment to the idea of social justice, nor is he able to comprehend the notion that the public interest is something different and distinct from a mere aggregation of self-interests. He would also undoubtedly disagree with Thomas Hill Green, the father of  "modern liberalism" who, after he witnessed  the pervasive human misery spawned by the Industrial Revolution, disavowed laissez-faire and concluded that government should be used as a positive instrument for the public good.

    Faced with a similar specter of poverty and economic inequality today, Congressman Ryan remains utterly oblivious to the suffering all around him. How can this insensitivity and indifference, Cardinal Dolan and other apologists notwithstanding, be reconciled with the message of the gospels and the social thought of Thomas Aquinas?

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Bread and Circuses?

  A number of events  of this summer have cast in stark relief the continued unraveling of civil society in the United States. These events raise a concern as to whether the majority of American citizens suffer from a kind of pervasive Attention Deficit Disorder that has rendered many of us unable to understand the implications of what we are seeing before our very eyes.


    While large parts of the country are consumed by wild fires, drought  and excessive heat, timid politicians on both sides of the aisle, fearful of offending corporate  interests and incurring the wrath of their Super PACS, continue to blithely ignore the unmistakable signs of global warming. As millions of acres of land in the States of Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado, to cite just three examples, have been consumed, most of their elected officials have insisted upon further reductions in state spending, including fire fighting, and decried federal spending while simultaneously demanding additional federal aide to help them combat the effects of a phenomenon that they continue to deny.          

    Within the past two weeks, the country has witnessed horrific two incidents involving the use of semi-automatic guns. After obligatory expressions of condolences from elected officials, and a moment of silence observed by the Congress in the wake of the Aurora tragedy, it is still virtually impossible to find any elected politician, whether Democrat or Republican, who will dare to suggest publicly - for fear of antagonizing the NRA and the gun-manufacturers' lobby -that there is something fundamentally deranged about a culture in which any virtually lunatic or white supremacist can purchase unlimited numbers of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition anonymously at unregulated gun shows or over the internet. Sadly, the current incumbent at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, from whom we expect more, as well as the dauphin-in-waiting, from whom we expect nothing, have equally failed the test of leadership in refusing to address the need for a vigorous response to this unending mayhem.

    This collective insanity has been blessed by the imprimatur of the country's highest court. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008), five linguistically-challenged, right-wing jurists, who enjoy life-tenure for good behavior, cavalierly disregarded the principle of stare decisis and set aside what had heretofore been the settled Second Amendment jurisprudence. In overturning United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), Justice Scalia claimed to divine some constitutional right on the part of individuals to bear arms, and  piously intoned, "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."    

    A third ominous example involves the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in states as varied as Massachusetts, Missouri, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, among many others, where SuperPACs are determined, through the use of electronic media and negative ads, to control the election results and thus gain complete control of the machinery of government. The phenomenon was again sanctioned by the same five result-oriented jurists on the Supreme Courts who comprised the one-vote majority in the Heller case. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. ____, 30 S. Ct, 876 (2010), these ideologues held that corporations were people within the meaning of the 14th Amendment and that, as such, expenditures of money by them to influence the outcomes of  political  elections were protected speech under the First Amendment.

    The journalist Eric Schlosser has predicted that,"The history of the twentieth century was dominated by the struggle against totalitarian systems of state power. The twenty-first will no doubt be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power." In a similar vein, Harvard political philosopher John Rawls warned that, "In constant pursuit of money to finance campaigns, the political system is simply unable to function. Its deliberative powers are paralyzed."

    Their concerns were recently echoed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) who in public comments observed that, "So far this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And, that's only what has been publicly disclosed. This $61 million does not include about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama; or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season. These 26 billionaires have a combined net worth of $146 billion, which is more than the bottom 42.5 percent of American households (equal to nearly 50 million families in the United States.)"  Sanders added, "What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: 'You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we're going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government."    

      The response of ordinary citizens to these appalling developments is profoundly disheartening. In the second century A.D., the Roman poet Juvenal lamented the demise of the Roman Republic after it was corrupted into an oligarchy, largely, he believed, because of the indifference of its citizens: "Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions -- everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."(Juvenal, Satire 10.77-81)
      Will history be allowed to repeat itself? Have too many Americans opted to become merely passive spectators, content to surrender our rights and eschew our civic responsibilities, in return for an endless menu of NASCAR and 24 hour reruns of the Kardashians on cable television?    

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Market Myths and Individualism Run Amok

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     The mythology of capitalism and the market economy that it has spawned continue to exert a bizarre intellectual stranglehold over many Americans. As every student of political philosophy knows, the central tenets of modern capitalism evolved out of liberal political philosophy. John Locke's insistence that a human beings were by nature motivated by the singular concerns of the self, that utilitarian calculations formed the true basis of moral decision-making, and that the acquisition and protection of property were the primary animators of  human conduct formed its core beliefs.


    David Hume, through his essays about the importance of money and trade, Adam Smith, with his emphasis upon the role of market as self-regulating entities, and David Ricardo, with his concept of comparative advantage, completed the edifice of what is today's liberal economic orthodoxy.  

    The question that needs to be asked about this orthodoxy - as with all other orthodoxies - is, does it, in fact, explain existing social reality? If the markets for goods and services, absent public regulation, naturally seek to move into equilibrium, as advocates of unbridled market economics assert, why then have the annual median incomes of Americans, as of 2010, fallen to the lowest level since 1999?  Why have "fair trade" policies, despite increasing levels of education in the U.S., caused a net migration of millions of U.S. jobs overseas during the past four decades, while the U.S. has continued to accumulate ever increasing balance of payments deficits caused by ever increasing purchases of foreign-made goods that were previously made and still could be made in this country?  

    As Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher reported in the New York Times ("How the U.S. Lost out on iPhone Work," January 21, 2012) nearly all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other assorted products sold by Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas, primarily in China by third-party vendors with whom Apple contracted for services and products. Apple employs only 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas but,as a result of its exploitation of workers through  third-party vendors, Apple made a profit of $400,000 per each of its actual employees, a sum greater than that made by Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil and Google.

      If unregulated market economies are the answer to economic progress, as Mitt Romney and his GOP allies insist, how then do we explain the implosion of Wall Street and the related financial scandals that have destroyed trillions of dollars of wealth possessed by ordinary Americans?   

      Conversely, if government regulation of the economy is the problem, how do we explain the growing economic inequality in the U.S. Why is it that, despite what right-wing libertarians claim is a confiscatory tax code, the wealth of the top 1% continues to grow exponentially?  In October of 2011, the Internal Revenue Service and the Congressional Budget Office released findings which showed that, as of 2009, the 1.4 million who belong to the top 1% made an average of $1 million dollars in 2009. Since 1979, the share of U.S. Income enjoyed by the top 1% has increased from 9.18% to 17.9% as of 2009, or more than the entire bottom half of the U.S. population. Almost simultaneously, Forbes Magazine reported that, as of November, 2011, the four hundred richest Americans enjoyed a combined worth of $1.53 trillion, which figure had increased from $1.37 trillion over the previous year. Their combined wealth was thus approximately equivalent to the GDP of Canada.

        President Obama and Elizabeth Warren, the progressive Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, have been criticized by the Republican noise machine and its right-wing media outlets for stating the obvious: that each of us has depended for our success, to some degree, upon the help, assistance and inspiration that we received from others. Further, they have emphasized the obvious: that public goods - rail, road and airport infrastructure, public education, government support for R&D, public health, food and safety regulation, environmental regulation,  civil rights protection, consumer protection, anti-trust regulation, protection of intellectual property - are essential  prerequisites for economic success. Consider, for example, the rewards reaped today from the government funding and research to create satellite/GPS technology and the internet.
    Market economies are affected by the frailties and foibles of human actors. Many of these actors are motivated by selfish, short-sighted concerns; but the consequences of their actions harm everyone. It is for that reason that regulation in the public interest and investment by the government -as the agent of the people in a democracy - are essential antidotes to the temper the excesses of capitalism and to create the foundations for a truly just society.

    The continued clamor to reduce public regulation and investment is a siren call that is orchestrated by corporations and the wealthy elite who want free reign to continue to game the system. Ordinary citizens need to resist that clamor and to understand that their true, long-term interests have little in common with the interests of the top 1%.  As Nicholas Kristof remarked (New York Times, "Markets And Morals," May 30, 2012) "If you're infatuated with unfettered free markets, just visit Waziristan." 

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The Ghost of John Marshall And The Public Interest

A July 4th meditation

     The narrow 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court that upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on the basis of Congress' power to lay and collect taxes under Article I, § 8,  rather than its power to "regulate commerce among the several stares" underscores the reality that the political and legal institutions of this country are ill-equipped to tackle significant social problems because of the pervasive, crippling effects of ideological bias.     
First Floor at the Statute of John Marshall, q...

First Floor at the Statute of John Marshall, quotation from Marbury v. Madison (written by Marshall) engraved into the wall. United States Supreme Court Building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

   The U.S. Census Bureau reported that a record 50.7 million Americans--16.7% of the population--were uninsured in 2009. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation's report on Medicaid and the uninsured, in 2004, at which time when 44 million Americans were reported to be uninsured, uncompensated care was estimated to be $40.7 billion. Today that cost has likely doubled. In a remarkable and important book, The Great Risk Shift, Yale University Political Science professor, Jacob S. Hacker, after reviewing longitudinal studies, concluded that "Over a two year period, more than eighty million adults and children - one out of three non-elderly Americans, 85 percent of them working or the kids of working parents -spend some time without the protection against ruinous health costs that insurance offers."
     The cost of medical treatment for the uninsured is borne by all of us, as taxpayers through Medicaid and by additional, pass-through assessments imposed by insurers on the healthcare insurance plans of those of us who have coverage. For that reason, those who are financially able to purchase health insurance, but choose not to, are essentially free loaders who are being allowed to game the system.

    Despite the obvious and indisputable facts, Chief Justice Roberts and the four joint dissenters, Kennedy, Thomas, Scalia, Alito, were preoccupied with a more esoteric and absurd concern: whether imposing a penalty upon younger, healthy individuals who choose not to purchase health insurance was, in fact an attempt by the Congress to regulate economic inactivity?  As Roberts unctuously intoned, "To an economist, perhaps, there is no difference between activity and inactivity. But the distinction between doing something and doing nothing would not have been lost on the framers, who were practical statesmen,'" quoting Industrial Union Dept, AFL-CIO. v. American Petroleum  Institute,  448 U.S. 607, 673 (1980), National Federation Of Independent Business, et al v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. ___(2012), at 24.    

     Based upon that specious logic - an ad hominem attack against empirical evidence and economists - Roberts concluded that the individual mandate could not be justified as a valid exercise of the power given to Congress to regulate "commerce among the several States," nor could it be sustained under the "necessary and proper"clause of Article 1, §, 8 which gives Congress the power "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution  the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United  States..." 

    Although Roberts was careful in his opinion to pay homage to the legacy of Chief Justice John Marshall, his conclusion, absent the pious invocations, had little in common with either the letter or intent of Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.)1 (1824). In that important case,  Marshall ruled that the power of the Congress to regulate "commercial intercourse" extended to all activity having any interstate impact -however indirect - and that this power was plenary and virtually unlimited: "The wisdom and discretion of Congress, their identity with the people, and the influence which their constituents possess at elections are, as in many other instances...the sole restraints...on its abuse." Ibid. at 197.

    The refusal of Roberts and the four joint dissenters to be bound by settled precedent  - the principle of stare decisis  - is exemplified by their pronounced hostility to Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942) and their disingenuous efforts to distinguish that case from the mandate imposed by the Congress under the Affordable Care Act. In Wickard, the Supreme Court,  applying economic analysis rather than "the wisdom of the Framers," held that the Congress could regulate a farmer's cultivation of wheat for his own family's consumption because the cumulative effect of that kind of act by individual farmers would affect the supply and demand for wheat in the interstate commodity markets. 

    Fortunately, Roberts remembered, unlike the other four dissenters, that under the canons of statutory interpretation, "every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality," quoting Hooper v. California, 155 U.S. 618 (1895), National Federation Of Independent Business, at 32 . To his credit, Roberts thus eschewed the kind of radical judicial activism urged by his four ideological fellow-travelers, and instead upheld the individual mandate on the theory that it was tax. In so doing, he unwittingly vindicated Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reminder that, "Taxes are the price we pay for civilization."

    It is important to remind those who insist upon a strict construction and constitutional literalism that there is no language anywhere in the text of the United States Constitution that suggests or permits the Supreme Court of the United States to pass upon the constitutionality of statutes enacted into law by the Congress. Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No.81 suggested that such a power might be a necessary extension of  Supreme Court's jurisdiction given the need for at least one of the three putatively coequal branches of government to determine which actions of the federal government or the states might violate Article VI of the Constitution which expressly provides that "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all treaties made...... shall be the Supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every States shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding."

     John Marshall, as a member of the Federalist Party, shared Hamilton's vision of the need for a strong central government that could create a modern commercial economy. As such, he too, along with Hamilton, rejected the parochial views of Jefferson and Madison. It was they, in an effort to protect their property interests as member of an agrarian, slave-holding Southern aristocracy, who insisted that the powers of the federal government should be construed to be extremely limited and narrow. Not long afer his appointment as chief justice, in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803), Marshall crafted a perverse and ingenious decision that was intentionally calculated to handcuff Thomas Jefferson and other advocates of limited judicial power. He held that the Congress, in the waning days of John Adams' administration, had acted unconstitutionally in granting the Court the authority to issue original writs of mandamus.  

    During the next fifty-four years the authority of the Supreme Court to set aside acts of Congress  was not exercised. Sadly, however, in a remarkable and unrestrained burst of judicial intemperance, Chief Justice Taney, who was Marshall's successor, in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), denied that any black person could be a citizen of the United States and  held that the Missouri Compromise enacted by the Congress was unconstitutional.  His ruling made the Civil War inevitable.
      Sixty years later, in response to the legislation of the Progressive era, the Supreme Court once again sought protect the status-quo by denying to Congress to authority to impose liability upon carriers for injuries to their employees in interstate commerce,The Employers' Liability Cases, 207 U.S. 463 (1908), and to prohibit the federal government from enforcing legislation that  outlawed yellow-dog contracts, Adair v. United States, 208 U.S. 161 (1908).

    Another four decades passed when, at the beginning of the New Deal, Congress and the Executive once more sought to challenge the power of entrenched interests. Once again a majority of a Supreme Court valiantly arose to deny the right of the people, through their elected representatives, to obtain redress for the harms caused by powerful, unregulated interests. See Railroad Retirement Board v. Alton R.R., 295 U.S. 330, Schechter Poultry Corp. V. United States, 295 U.S. 495(1935), and Carter v. Carter Coal Co, 298   U.S. 238 (1936). The efforts of that Court to dismantle the New Deal only ceased after a threat by President Roosevelt to increase the size and composition of the Court

     Since the advent of the Rehnquist Court, an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court has labored to narrow the scope Article I, § 8, which confers upon Congress, without any limiting language, the power "to regulate Commerce with foreign nations; and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes." To do this, they have chosen to breath new life into only prong in the language of Tenth Amendment that reserves certain powers not delegated "to the States respectively, or the people." Thus, for example, in San Antonio v. Lopez, 115 S. Ct. 1624 (1995), by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down a gun conviction that occurred within a 100 yards of a school on the grounds that the interstate commerce clause did not apply.

    Absent from this Tenth Amendment, pre-Civil War legal exegesis is any inkling or even a  grudging concession that the other operative term in the amendment "the People" refers to a collectivity in whom all sovereignty, in a democratic society, ultimately resides. The recognition of the existence of that residual sovereignty should, as a matter of constitutional interpretation,  supersede the fictional legal sovereignty accorded to the states: Thirty-seven states, beyond the original thirteen colonies, that were subsequently admitted to the union expressly subject to the rules and conditions imposed by the Congress. 

     After the more recent appointments of Scalia, Alito and Roberts, questions about the Court's independence as an impartial, precedent-observing, judicially- restrained and non-partisan arbiter of the Constitution have become more pronounced. The obvious hostility of these last three appointees, coupled with the reflexive, unabashed and well-documented animus of Clarence Thomas toward Congressional power, and the intellectual and linguistic difficulties with which Justice Kennedy appears to struggle, raise worrisome concerns about the future jurisprudence of the Court.

     The Industrial Revolution transformed the older, agrarian economies in the Western world and created the modern market economies in which labor, the  production and sale of goods, and the availability of credit financed by capital formation now played crucial roles. Investment in public goods and services and infrastructure by the government were and remain essential complements. Modern market economies, given the constant movement of goods, capital and now labor, are dynamic and increasingly interrelated. What affects one, affects all. This proposition is as true for the healthcare market as it is for the labor market and for the financial and banking sector.

      A jurisprudence rooted in John Locke's 17th century notions of individual rights and Adam Smith's economics has shown itself to be profoundly tone deaf and ideologically unable to address pervasive and intractable problems such as high structural high unemployment, wage stagnation, growing economic and political inequality, increasing poverty, collapsing infrastructure, deteriorating school systems across the country and a host of other social problems that have grown worse since the 1980s.

      The doctrine of "original intent" to which Roberts and ideological soul-mates profess a kind of religious fealty represents a kind of constitutional death-wish. If routinely applied it will induce rigor mortis in the country's political institutions and perpetuate the advantages that the advantaged already enjoy. Through the use of "original intent," apologists for the status quo have devised an analytical technique that is designed to emasculate this country's foundational document - but it does not comport with reality. As Justice Ginsberg noted in her dissent, many things were never specified or anticipated by the Framers of the Constitution, including the need to create an Air Force. Hence, the reflexive, unthinking invocation of that doctrine condemns the federal judiciary to play the role of a purely negative, obstructive, unhelpful partisan.

    John Marshall would be appalled. He understood, far better than the current five ideologues who sit on the Court as well as their chorus of corporate enablers with their privately-funded think tanks, that the Constitution must continue to be viewed as a flexible, living document supported by a jurisprudence equal to the task. Marshall would have noted that if the public interest and the needs of citizens cannot be addressed by the very institutions created by the Constitution and that are charged with the responsibility to promote the general welfare, government itself and the rule of law will inevitably become irrelevant.


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E(x) Uno Plures?

   The idea of public education has been one of America's singular contributions to the democratic project. The genesis of American public education may be found in the early laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Connecticut and New Hampshire which, immediately after their founding, urged the formation of grammar schools in every village to promote literacy in order to encourage the study of the Bible among their citizens, who were overwhelmingly Puritan. After the adoption of the Massachusetts Constitution, which was drafted by John Adams, the duty to support and promote public education was incorporated into the Massachusetts Constitution.

    By 1791 seven of the fourteen states had specific provisions for education. Thereafter, a native son of Massachusetts, Horace Mann, successfully championed the adoption of universal public education. During the administration of Abraham Lincoln, the Morrill Land Grant Act in1862 provided federal support for the study of agriculture and engineering at the university level, By the 1870s, Mann's model of universal public education - kindergarten through university - had become the goal throughout the United States.
Portrait of Horace Mann from a selection of pu...

Portrait of Horace Mann from a selection of public domain portraits of historical figures at the Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas at Austin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

     With increased state and local support for public education and the enactment of truancy laws and mandatory school attendance ages in the twentieth century, illiteracy in the United States was virtually extinguished while the possession of a high school diploma became the norm rather than the exception. The passage of the GI bill after World War II enabled 7.8 million veterans to attend colleges and trade schools or to be trained in business and agriculture programs. This surge in higher education enrollment was accompanied by an extraordinary expansion of the public, taxpayer-supported universities across the country that became the envy of the Western world.  

     The American philosopher John Dewey extolled public education as the great equalizer and as a crucible of American democracy. His message resonated. By the late 1950s, it appeared that Dewey's conviction and Horace Mann's vision had become the American reality.

      The emergence of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam anti-war protests, supported by large number of students, sparked the counter-revolution.  By the late 1960s, public education at all levels was under assault. Ronald Reagan began his political career in 1966 by attacking the student peace demonstrators at the University of California-Berkeley as well as its professors, and the University of California itself. As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan waged a relentless campaign against the independence of the University of California system, reduced its funding, and fired its president, Clark Kerr.

    Elsewhere around the country, right-wing organizations, fueled by private foundations and money, ominously warned that public education posed a clear and present danger to the "American way of life" because its institutions had been infiltrated by liberals, socialists an other assorted "do-gooders" who were bent upon subversion. Slimy demagogues such as Spiro Agnew pandered to the ever-present strain of anti-intellectualism present in American culture with appeals to the "silent majority" as he railed against the "nattering nabobs of negativism," a phrase originally coined by H.L. Mencken.

    As the assault upon public education has widened, advocates for public education have beaten a hasty retreat while the voices for charter schools, vouchers, and privatization have grown ever louder.      
      Recently, an article in The New York Times by Stephanie Saul  ("Public Money Finds Back Door To Private Schools," May 22, 2012) described an ominous trend in which a number of U.S. states have created or are considering scholarship tax-credit programs to fund private school tuitions, the effect of which will be to further de-fund and destroy pubic education. To date, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania  have enacted legislation that, as of 2011, had already extended tax credits in excess of $329,000.00 to individuals and corporations.

       Ms. Saul reports that, during a time in which hundreds of thousands of public schools teachers have lost their jobs because of right-wing demands for public austerity as a response to the collapse of demand in the market economy, the programs that now operate in eight states are the most rapidly growing components of the school choice movement. By the end of this school year alone, Saul reports that these programs will have redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students.

    Equally worrisome, a significant amount of money has also been given to private, sectarian schools that openly teach the theology of creationism. In her article, Saul noted that almost a quarter of the schools that participate in the program in Georgia require families to openly profess their religious faith and that many of those schools espouse Christian fundamentalism. One widely accepted sixth-grade science text recounts the creation story contained in Genesis, but omits any other possible explanation. An economics text that is used in some high schools predicts that the Anti-Christ will one day subvert the market economy and control all sales and purchases.

       Saul also reports that a number of these schools use textbooks produced by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book, a Christian publisher in Pensacola, Fla. She quotes one Jon East, vice president for policy at Step Up For Students, the organization that runs the Florida scholarship program to the effect that, "It's a Christian curriculum, and some parts of it are controversial."

    An A Beka high school science text Ms. Saul perused argues that "much variety within the human race has developed from the eight people who left the Ark." Another text, used in sixth grade, repeatedly makes references to Noah and the Great Flood whom the book's author asserts is the reason for the existence of the world's petroleum reserves and for the development of fossils.

    Saul also found that many of the history and economics texts used in these sectarian schools that receive public funding through tax credits reflect an undeniably right-wing world-view. One text asserts that the magnitude of the Great Depression  was exaggerated to persuade the country to accept socialism, and it described "The Grapes of Wrath" as propaganda.

         Ms. Saul  interviewed the headmaster of the Covenant Christian Academy in Cumming, Georgia,who confirmed that his school used the texts she described but claimed that  they were part of a larger curriculum."You have to keep in mind that the curriculum goes beyond the textbook," the headmaster said. "Not only do we teach the students that creation is the way the world was created and that God is in control and he made all things, we also teach them what the false theories of the world are, such as the Big Bang theory and Darwinism. We teach those as fallacies."

    The totality of the evidence suggests that American education, at almost every level, is experiencing a profound crisis and has failed to create a literate, educated citizenry. For example, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that over forty million Americans age 16 and older have significant literacy deficiencies. In addition, more than 20 percent of Americans read at or below a fifth grade level which is far below the level needed to earn a living wage. The data with respect to scientific literacy is also disquieting. Americans in general do not understand what molecules are, less than one third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, and one adult in five thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

   The further fragmentation of American education, coupled with the indoctrination of children in Christian madrassas, can only exacerbate this trend and contribute toward further gridlock and polarization in American politics. Sadly, many Americans are as unable to distinguish between a scientific theory and a theological conviction as they are to understand that the infinitive "to educate" is not a reflexive verb. As a consequence, they are equally unable to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and propaganda. Illiteracy in all of its manifestations thus becomes the enemy of democracy

     The link between language and thought is explored in George Orwell's profound novel 1984. In that seminal book, the central character, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to help to create for the omnipresent tyranny which governs Oceana a new language, Newspeak.Newspeak is the ultimate language of control: Each year in the Ministry of Truth, thousands of words are eliminated. In addition, antonyms are collapsed into synonyms. Hence, "Freedom is slavery, "Ignorance is strength, "War is peace." As Orwell reminds us in the appendix to that novel, when one loses the capacity to use words correctly, one loses the capacity to think; when one loses the capacity to think, the ability to rebel or to imagine alternatives to the status quo is irrevocably extinguished.

      The goal of many of the religious zealots who oppose public education is to create a fundamentalist majority who will impose the stamp of their religious convictions upon this country's institutions and convert the United States into a theocracy. The goal of the right-wing foundations and the corporate supporters who fund these religious lunatics is equally sinister: It is to create a passive, poorly educated population who will  accept their lot in life and willingly subordinate their lives and educations to satisfying the needs of the market economy.

    The Marxist philosopher and social critic Herbert Marcuse warned that "An economic system that encourages its young men and women to tailor their educations to the needs of the marketplace, irrespective of their hopes and ambitions, is an economic system that should be roundly condemned. A nation that discourages the study of art, music and the Humanities is a nation that will inevitably find itself populated by unthinking dolts and automatons."  Dolts and automatons will never be able to imagine the possibility of creating a better future for themselves and their children or understand that collective action by citizens, in the ballot box and in the workplace, is the only means to curb the further growth of plutocracy.
         The Balkanization of the United States is well underway. The de-funding and further destruction of public education will only exacerbate this trend. If not reversed, the motto of this country will inevitably metamorphose from e pluirbus unum to its antithesis, e(x) uno plures.       


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Memorial Day, 2012


      Since the end of the Civil War, our country has chosen to set aside one day in particular to remember and to pay homage to those who have lost their lives in the service of this country. On this Memorial Day, however, we should also set aside some time to reflect upon, and to discuss with friends and families, the terrible toll that war has inflicted upon this country and its citizens.                      

     Today, the United States spends more on defense than any other country, and about five times more than China, which ranks second on the list of major defense spenders. According to a CNN news report by Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer [Defense spending: Slaying the sacred cow, July 11, 2010 ], at $689 billion this year, "defense spending it accounts for about 20% of the entire federal budget and  it consumes up to 50% of the so-called discretionary budget, which pays for everything but entitlement programs and interest on the debt. In other words, all federal funding for education, infrastructure, transportation, the arts, and scientific research, to name a few."
    As of this date, there are approximately 1.5 million active duty personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States. There are an additional 1.5 million members of the Army Reserve and the National Guard, hundreds of thousands of whom have been regularly deployed overseas since 9/11. As of 2009, the budget of the United States spent $965 billion dollars on military and military-related expenses. Further, the most recent "Base Structure Report" of the Department of Defense states that the Department's physical assets consist of "more than 600,000 individual buildings and structures, at more than 6,000 locations, on more than 30 million acres." Most of these locations listed are within the continental United States, but 96 of them are situated in U.S. territories around the globe, and 702 of them are in foreign countries.

     Currently also, the United States has active duty personnel stationed in more than 150 countries. While many of these deployments involve assignments to American embassies and special training projects overseas, the presence of U.S. active duty military personnel in Europe, Japan and Korea remains significant, sixty-five years after the end of World War II and fifty-six years after an armistice was declared in Korea. More than 100,000 active-duty American military are currently assigned to these three countries, the cost of which is still largely borne by U.S. taxpayers. These three countries have been able, as a result of American military shield, to invest in the modernization of their manufacturing sectors and to increase the number of their exports to the United States at a time when American manufacturing has been increasingly our-sourced to third world countries. Japan and Korea, in particular, have adopted onerous, restrictive trade policies that make it almost impossible for American automobile companies and heavy equipment manufacturers to compete successfully in those countries.

    In response to the protests engendered by the Vietnam War, the United States Congress abolished military conscription. With advent of an "all-volunteer" military, this country's wars and foreign adventures have become, for most Americans, video diversions far removed from the daily experiences. The enlisted personnel for these wars have been largely drawn from the ranks of poor whites, blacks and Latinos who have been given few other opportunities in the current American economy; many of the officer corps are increasingly drawn from the families of professional soldiers and military academy graduates who are, by temperament and acculturation, right-wing, pro-defense Christians who strongly support the continued projection of American power abroad. As our professional officer corps has increasingly become composed of the children of previous officers, and the ranks of enlisted soldiers increasingly beckon to men and women to whom our country has extended few other options, the concept of the citizen-soldier has  begun to recede from the consciousness of most Americans.

    After the children of the affluent were sheltered from the shared sacrifice of conscription, the Pentagon and the defense contractors that depend upon government subsidies for their existence were able to vastly increase their share of the US. Budget. "Out-of sight,out-of- mind" has meant that the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower warned, and worst fears of the Founding Fathers about entangling alliances and the dangers caused by a standing army, have become the American reality. Anyone who doubts the stranglehold that the military-industrial complex now exerts needs only to be reminded of the F-35 airplane that, notwithstanding even the Defense Department's efforts to eliminate the project as unneeded and redundant, continues to be funded by tax-payers because a craven Congress is unable to resist the lobbying power of defense contractors. Many of these same Congressional supporters decried the Obama administration's bail-out of the American automobile industry as a waste of money and have refused to vote extend unemployment benefits to those who have been unemployed more than ninety-nine weeks.

    Simultaneously, we are all paying the price for two misbegotten wars in which we were viewed as the invaders and in which we had little prospect of ending easily or of achieving "favorable outcomes." In addition to the thousands of soldiers lost, physically injured or traumatized, hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and maimed. Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate Economist Joseph Stiglitz has predicted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost the U.S. taxpayers more than $4 trillion dollars when all costs, including long-term veterans care and disability payments are calculated.

    The welfare-through-warfare mentality that continues to dominate Washington groupthink threatens, if not challenged, to metastasize our republic into a garrison state perpetually at war, as Andrew Bacevich in his book Washington Rules has warned. As a nation, we will increasingly impoverish ourselves while our pandering political and economic elites, and their media surrogates, will continue to argue that this country no longer has the resources to address pressing domestic problems here at home. And, of course, our cemeteries and veterans' hospitals will continue to fill with the dead and traumatized whom we, by our indifference, will have allowed to be dispatched into harm's way.

    The Roman Republic, over time, was transformed and subverted by corruption and apathy. Its citizen-soldiers were ultimately out-numbered by legions of mercenaries recruited from abroad to fight its wars and to guard its borders. When the Roman Empire collapsed, it no longer had the resources to bring its legions home; thousands of its soldiers were abandoned throughout the vast reaches of the former empire.

    War exacts a terrible toll on its perpetrators as well as its victims. We are all diminished as citizens and as human beings because of our indifference in the face of such horror. The best pledge that we can make to one another on this Memorial  Day is to demand an end to our "welfare- through-warfare" economy. We need to bring our troops home and support international institutions that will promote ways to create a more peaceful future for all of God's creation.

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Is This Still Our Land ?


          "Woody" Guthrie was born in 1912 in Oklahoma, seven years after it was admitted as a state. He was one of eight children,  one whom, a sister, died in a coal fire. His father, who was active  in the Democratic Party, named him after the future President. Guthrie's father was a businessman and property owner who later fell upon hard times. Guthrie's mother, Nora, suffered from Huntington's disease - the same debilitating illness that would afflict Woody Guthrie during the last decades of his life.  Nora Guthrie was institutionalized when Guthrie was only 14 years old. Since Guthrie's father by then living and working in Texas in order pay off debts from failed real estate deals, Guthrie and his six remaining siblings were on their own in Oklahoma.

     , half-length portrait, facing slightly left, ...

     At that very early age, Woody Guthrie worked odd jobs around his home town, where he came to depend upon the compassion of family friends for meals and shelter. He soon taught himself to play the harmonica and displayed an aptitude for music that he learned to "play by ear." As a gifted listener, Guthrie also learned a number of ballads and traditional English and Scottish songs from the parents of his friends. To ward off hunger, Guthrie would often play a song in exchange for a sandwich or quarter. 
     When he was eighteen years of age, Guthrie began to travel with the migrant workers from Oklahoma to California. From them, he learned the traditional folk and blues songs. Many of the songs he later wrote described the wrenching suffering and injustices that he witnessed during in the Dust Bowl era and in the throes of  the Great Depression. His experiences instilled within him a life-long commitment to social justice that he expressed in his folk songs. His most famous ballad "This land is your land" has been a inspiration to generations of folk artists:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream  waters
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

    The lyrics of Woody Guthrie's ballad capture the passion and love of country that is expressed by Walt Whitman in his poem, "I hear America singing," in which Whitman celebrated the lives of the mechanics, the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the shoemaker and the woodcutter. Much like Whitman, Guthrie believed that it was the ordinary person -  the Everyman - who personified the quest for equality and whose lives expressed the essential democratic values. Guthrie also understood, as did Whitman, that great concentrations of wealth in the few, if not curbed, would subvert democracy and render meaningless the phrase "equality of opportunity."

     In 1968, Guthrie's ballad became the unofficial song of Robert Kennedy's tragic presidential campaign. Kennedy's murder that year, coupled with the assassination of Martin Luther King and the tragic death of Thomas Merton, caused this country to fall into a deep, numbing slumber from which it has yet to awaken. Since that fateful year, the democracy that the Progressive Movement, the New Deal and the Great Society endeavored to create has been chipped away, brick by brick, by the purveyors of money and influence.

    The right-wing noise machine, fueled by an array of wedge issues such as guns, religious liberty, hostility to unions and public employees and budget deficits, are working feverishly to distract the attention of all of us who are vulnerable from noticing the root causes of our misery: a dysfunctional federal system and a poorly performing economy that are largely the fault of the political elite, at all levels of government, who continue to pander to the agenda of the wealthy and their corporations, rather than to address the needs of ordinary citizens.                  

        If a song has the power to summon a nation to reclaim its destiny, Woody Guthrie's ballad should become the anthem for all progressive voters in the 2012 election at all levels. The lyrics challenge each of us to take our country back from those who seek to privatize the American Dream and to close off the access of ordinary citizens to the public square with signs that say  "no trespassing."    


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