The Fast and Furious Investigation: Quick or Dead?

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On June 28 the US House of Representatives voted 255-67 to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents subpoenaed by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Although the vote was largely along party lines, it still represented the first time in American history that a cabinet member has been found in contempt of Congress.

Partisan or not, the contempt vote was more than justified by the facts. The attorney general has stonewalled Congress’ investigation of Operation Fast and Furious, a crazy policy which amounted, in substance, to running guns into Mexico with the expectation that this would lead to prosecutions and the interdiction of weapons trafficked to Mexican drug cartels. One US border patrol agent has already died as a result of Fast and Furious, as have an untold number of Mexicans. Hundreds of the guns remain in the hands of criminals who will not hesitate to use them to kill people. While it should be noted that tactics resembling Fast and Furious were first employed by the Bush Justice Department, the stupidity was ratcheted up in a big way under Holder. In any case, the attorney general has provided Congress with about one tenth of the documents under subpoena, and contradictions have cropped up in his congressional testimony. The whole business stinks, and yet the scandal remains (except on the Fox News channel) for the most part under the radar screen.

On the day of the contempt vote I heard some talking head on a cable news program declare that the timing of the vote showed that the Republicans were not veryserious about pursuing their investigation. On the contrary, the vote was scheduled to coincide with what the Republicans thought would be an overturn of Obamacare by the Supreme Court — the second blow of a double whammy that would jumpstart the Republican effort to take the White House. This plan backfired when Chief Justice John Roberts found a way to declare Obamacare constitutional. The unexpected reversal of fortune for Obamacare washed the contempt vote right out the public consciousness.

It is a fact that the New York Times and the Washington Post have done little to get to the bottom of Fast and Furious. Nothing illustrates the mainstream media’s bias in favor of Obama more than its (non)response to this scandal. Even less surprising is the absence of a Democrat version of Howard Baker asking publicly “What did the attorney general (and possibly the president) know, and when did he know it?” Obama is no Nixon, but Holder might be another John Mitchell. We’ll never know for sure, because Holder, unlike Mitchell, will never wind up in the dock (the Justice Deptartment is not about to file criminal contempt charges against its own AG). So much in life depends on who you are, and even more on who your friends are.




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Prosecutorial Indiscretion

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On June 15, 2012, hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals living illegally in the United States turned on their television sets to hear that they had become eligible for (1) a renewable two-year deferral of removal from the country and (2) a work permit.

While this may seem like a big change for those immigrants, the focus here will not be on what it might do for them, but how it was done, and why.

How do you think it was done? Choose one of the following: (a) Congress passed a new law and the president signed it, (b) the Supreme Court struck down an existing law, (c) the president issued an executive order, or (d) none of the above.

If you chose (c), it would be understandable, as it was President Obama who announced this change in front of the cameras outside the White House. There was, however, no executive order. An executive order cannot be used to overturn an existing law. On September 28, 2011, President Obama told a group of Hispanic journalists that “this notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is not true. The fact of the matter is there are laws on the books I have to enforce.” The rest of the transcript is here:

http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2011/09/obama_on_dream_act_cant_just_c.html

The correct answer is (d), none of the above, which leaves the question, “Then how?”

On June 15, Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, sent a memo to three of her underlings directing them to “exercise prosecutorial discretion” in the cases of certain “low priority” illegal aliens, “effective immediately.” (Yes, she ordered them to exercise discretion.) The memo enumerates the criteria to be used to determine which illegal immigrants will get the deferrals and work permits. The memo is here:

http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/s1-exercising-prosecutorial-discretion-individuals-who-came-to-us-as-children.pdf

That’s right; it was done by interoffice memo.

It seems odd, doesn’t it? When I hear of prosecutorial discretion, I think of cases in which discrepancies in the chain of custody of a bag of pot lead the prosecutor not to bring charges or perhaps to drop charges, that sort of thing. But in this case, according to the June 15 New York Times, “more than 800,000 young people” are now eligible for deferrals and work permits because an unelected bureaucrat fired off a memo. Upon reading that, I had three thoughts: first, “That’s quite a few people.” Then, “That’s a pretty sweeping change.” And finally, “That’s some discretion.”

In any case, that seems to be how it was done. But why was it was done in just that way?

What follows is an informal examination of the power of prosecutorial discretion in the United States that may help explain the Secretary’s memo.

I once stayed with a friend who lived in the country just outside Düsseldorf. To go into town, I had to walk a few hundred yards to the end of a narrow lane and then cross a road to get to the bus stop. There was a crosswalk with a signal light activated by a button.

The first time I went to town, I walked down the lane, pressed the button and waited. Then I waited some more. With nothing but time on my hands, I looked down the road toward town and saw a straight, empty road that disappeared into some trees about of a quarter mile away. There were neat fields on either side. I turned my head and looked the other way and saw the same thing, fields and all. I then looked across the road toward the bus stop. After a minute or so, the light changed and I crossed.

On my second trip to town, I pressed the button, looked both ways, and, seeing exactly what I had seen before, quickly crossed the quiet, two-lane road.

In the shade of the bus shelter sat a German woman who did not approve of what I had done. I could tell that she did not approve because she told me so. Though my German is limited, I pieced together her strasse, verboten, and dummkopf, along with her gestures and facial expressions, and got the message. As I stood listening, I was reminded that German could do with more vowels and less phlegm. I was also reminded that I was not in Kansas.

Under the signs that tell pet owners to use plastic bags one often finds a fresh reminder of American pragmatism that would make William James proud.

Americans tend toward pragmatism. An American might say, “The purpose of the light is to prevent people from being run over by cars. If there are no cars, then the light, pragmatically speaking, has no purpose.”

Germans tend toward what might be called legalism. A German might say, “The purpose of the light is to tell the pedestrian when it is permitted to cross the street and, more importantly, when it is forbidden to cross the street.” To the German, the cars have nothing to do with it. While this is a simplification, it is not wrong.

In Southern California, where I live now, American pragmatism is on display for all to see. Each citizen sifts all rules, regulations, and laws through a personal pragmatic filter that removes those that are without purpose or of low priority.

A few examples will make the point. Speed limit signs are, of course, viewed as suggestions. Simple rules of the road regarding merging, tailgating, and signaling lane changes are ignored more often than not. Bicyclists are generally oblivious to traffic lanes, signs, and signals. Many locals feign surprise when told that the recreational use of marijuana is not legal. Only tourists stop at the signs that read “STOP”; locals just glide through. Under the signs that tell pet owners to use the plastic bag provided in the little dispenser one often finds a fresh reminder of American pragmatism that would make William James proud.

A German might ask, “What about the police?” In general, the police exercise a great deal of discretion. They use their personal pragmatic filters to screen out low priority violators and violations. Germans are surprised to see that people continue to disobey many laws even when the police are watching. Some of these violations, like dope smoking, depend on the jurisdiction, while others, like breezing past stop signs, are universal. What really shocks the Germans is that the police disobey many laws themselves. Those who doubt this can follow a squad car through traffic in Southern California and count the violations.

Some Germans find all this pragmatism bracing. Once, when I was camping in Zion National Park, a German with an RV and a sunburn walked up to me. In a beer-fed state of shirtless ecstasy, he threw out his arms and shouted, “Everything in America feels so free!” Most Germans, however, are appalled by our pragmatism. To them, it just seems stupid. I know this because they have told me.

The legal systems of the two countries reflect the difference between pragmatism and legalism. In the United States, as Rebecca Krauss explains in her essay The Theory of Prosecutorial Discretion in Federal Law: Origins and Development,“Prosecutorial discretion is a central component of the federal criminal justice system. Prosecutors decide which cases to pursue and plea bargains to accept, determining the fates of the vast majority of criminal defendants who choose not to stand trial.” She concludes the paragraph by pointing out: “In Germany, however, a rule of compulsory prosecution constrains prosecutorial discretion, checking the prosecutor’s ability to pick and choose which cases to pursue. No comparable regime restrains American prosecutors.” The entire essay can be found here:

http://erepository.law.shu.edu/circuit_review/vol6/iss1/1

Generally, then, in Germany, citizens obey the laws, the police enforce them, and the prosecuting attorneys, if the evidence is sufficient, take cases to trial. By contrast, in the United States, the pragmatic citizenry exercises what might be called perpetratorial discretion, deciding which laws to obey; police exercise enforcement discretion, deciding which offenses and offenders merit citation or arrest; and prosecuting attorneys exercise prosecutorial discretion, deciding which cases will be brought to trial. While this is an exaggeration, it is not wrong. (In China I was told, in response to a question about driving with my headlights on during the day, that “any behavior that is not explicitly permitted should be considered to be prohibited.” They make Germans look like softies.)

There is another connection between American pragmatism and Secretary Napolitano’s use of prosecutorial discretion. Pragmatism is at the root of the illegal immigration problem.

It is obvious that for millions of foreign nationals to reside illegally in the United States, millions of foreign nationals must be exercising perpetratorial discretion and knowingly disobeying what they deem to be low priority laws that cover border crossings and residing in the country without authorization.

In the United States, the pragmatic citizenry exercises what might be called perpetratorial discretion, deciding which laws to obey.

In order for them to stay, of course, it is also necessary for millions of American citizens to exercise their own perpetratorial discretion and knowingly disobey low priority laws that ban hiring illegal aliens. So, undocumented immigrants are hired to pick crops, mow lawns, frame houses, flip burgers, clean hotel rooms, assemble mobile homes, and take care of wealthy people’s children. It is not difficult to find workplaces in Southern California where most of the employees are in the county illegally. Both those doing the hiring and those being hired are getting what they want. As they see it, pragmatically speaking: no harm, no foul.

In addition, entire municipalities, counties, and even states are exercising enforcement discretion, looking at (or not looking at) the offenses and the offenders and deciding that immigration regulations are low priority laws that do not warrant action. Sometimes, the federal government even gently thwarts the efforts of smaller jurisdictions to give these laws a higher priority. Put another way, the crosswalk light says, “Don’t walk,” but there are few, if any, cars.

The consequence of all this perpetratorial and enforcement discretion is that there are very roughly estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. What could be a more fitting a punch line to this droll tale than to have the welcome mat put out for 800,000 of these immigrants with an act of mass prosecutorial discretion?

But back to the question: why was the memo sent?

The memo was sent so that the president could announce the good news in front of cameras on the White House lawn. He was pandering for Hispanic votes. Secretary Napolitano could not have sent the memo without his approval. He gave his approval because he wants to keep his job and, for that to happen, there must be a strong Hispanic turnout. The memo will help him get that turnout.

If the release of the memo and its theatrical announcement were not a reelection stunt, the policy could have been quietly announced to the press long ago.

Oh, wait. It was.

According to the Los Angeles Times (August 18, 2011), “The Obama administration announced Thursday that undocumented students and other low-priority immigration offenders would not be targeted for deportation under enforcement programs. . . . The move means that those who are in deportation proceedings will have their cases reviewed and, if they are set aside as low-priority, could possibly be given work permits.” Here is the entire article:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/08/dream-act-students-not-targeted-for-deportatiom.html

So, in effect, the change had already been quietly launched last August. The June 15 memo and White House announcement really were a political circus act.

There is a more serious problem with this memo. Prosecutorial discretion has traditionally been used by government attorneys to quietly decide if individual cases should be tried. If the circumstances of a specific undocumented immigrant’s case were such that the attorney in charge of the case judged deportation to be inappropriate, that attorney already had the discretion to defer removal. With this memo, there is not much discretion left. The criteria for deferring removal are enumerated. Discretion has also ceased to be discrete. Prosecutorial discretion has been transformed into a mass political weapon launched by the president from the White House lawn. Its purpose is not only to win millions of votes and the election in November, but also to circumvent the legislative process.

The memo was sent so that the president could announce the good news in front of cameras on the White House lawn. He was pandering for Hispanic votes.

Since the failure of the DREAM Act to pass the Senate, one of the president’s slogans has been, “We can’t wait for Congress to act.” With this memo, we now see what the slogan means. Executive impatience with the legislative and judicial branches of government has a long and colorful history. Historically, many elected executives have become so impatient with the separation of powers that they have arrogated legislative and judicial powers to themselves. While using prosecutorial discretion to alter, practically speaking, the status of 800 thousand people under existing law in order to win an election may not sink to the level of abolishing the legislature, it is an unfortunate step in that direction.

In her essay (see link above), Rebecca Krauss makes three points about this expansion of prosecutorial power. First, far from being embedded in the constitution, prosecutorial discretion does not make its first appearance in American case law until 1961. It has been cited with increasing frequency ever since. Second, prosecutorial discretion is not subject to normal judicial review, and is consequently outside the balancing framework of the separation of powers. Third, the rapid growth of prosecutorial discretion in both its breadth of scope and its frequency of use has been of increasing concern to legal scholars. Summing up these points, Krauss writes:

The Framers’ “constant aim [was] to divide and arrange the several offices [of government] in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other,” yet the other branches of government provide almost no check on prosecutorial powers. Rachel Barkow has remarked that “[o]ne need not be an expert in separation-of-powers theory to know that combining [modern prosecutorial] powers in a single actor can lead to gross abuses.”

The Napolitano memo was an abuse of prosecutorial discretion. While it may have been legal, it was an electioneering gimmick and a contrived expansion of prosecutorial discretion. Some day, the shoe may be on the other foot. What if a future president, exercising prosecutorial discretion, deems an array of federal gun control laws to be “low priority,” and directs the responsible authorities to defer all action in enforcing those laws and in bringing such cases to trial? What do you suppose the New York Times editorial page will have to say about prosecutorial discretion then? Or suppose a president deems the laws that defend private property to be “low priority” and has one of his secretaries fire off a short memo that suspends “effective immediately” all enforcement of private property rights? What do you suppose libertarian journals will have to say about prosecutorial discretion then?

Our democracy is an untidy system, with its checks, balances, two houses, three branches, and 50 states. It’s full of squabbles and compromises, contradictions and delays. It is that way by design.

Tyrannies are neat. All you have to do is send a memo.

rdquo;; locals just glide through. Under the signs that tell pet owners to use the plastic bag provided in the little dispenser one often finds a fresh reminder of American pragmatism that would make William James proud.




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Like Father?

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Republican Rand Paul, scion of libertarian lion Ron Paul, has done something amazing.

He has endorsed the Republican candidate for the presidency.

Libertarian movement chronicler Brian Doherty put the situation nicely when he said, “There are a lot of Ron Paul people who like to think of themselves as a ragtag rebel army. But Rand Paul is clearly positioning himself to play the part of the loyal opposition. Emphasis on loyal.”

That he endorsed Romney was bad enough to some ofhis father’s supporters, but that he did it while his father was still seeking the nomination (even if not actively campaigning) was especially galling. Here are a few of the comments Rand Paul’s action elicited online:

  • “Nothing but a Judas! Burn in hell Rand!”
  • “Shame on you rand . . . you sold out on everything your father stands for . . . Damn you.”
  • “I did not donate my treasure and time to end up supporting flip-flop. I feel like a deal with devil has been made.”

My favorite, though, is this bit of conspiracy theory: “The only thing that makes sense is that they must have lured him in with a hot woman and set him up with photographs of the event. . . . No son would do this to his own father.”

I dunno . . . maybe he was enticed by a whole group of hot women. Or maybe he figured that: (a) Obama is infinitely more distant from Paul’s principles than Romney is; (b) Romney has a good chance of winning; (c) in office Romney will have people of all ideological persuasions trying to influence him; and (d) by being one of those voices, Rand Paul will be able to advance his own principles.

I think the second "maybe" is the likelier one. I also note that Rand Paul has followed his endorsement of Romney with an essay strongly criticizing Romney's position on war, foreign policy, and the Constitution itself. Apparently there weren't enough of those women.




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Why the Moneyed Media Should Pray for Obama's Defeat

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Everybody knows that the Moneyed Media (also known as Mainstream Media) are in trouble. The press, in particular, is doing badly. Readership and advertising income are down. The Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism reports that it's so bad they are going to rename themselves the Observatory of Media Mediocrity. Nah, actually, they report that 2011 newsstand circulation was down 43% since 2008. Overall circulation was down "only" 6% thanks to cut-rate subscription rates. Magazine ad pages went down 46% in the same period. Newspaper advertising and circulation, on average, went down about 50%. In short, a bloodbath.

Is it because Americans watch more TV? Nope. According to Nielsen's annual "Television Audience" report, a growing percentage of households in the 18-to-49 core demographic that advertisers so covet do not even own a TV set (about 3% this year, vs. 1% last year). If they ever want to watch a show or a movie, these people play a DVD on their computer or, increasingly, stream video from Hulu, Netflix, or the like. They are exposed to a few ads, but that's nothing in comparison to the 35% of airtime devoted to commercials that cable viewers get to swallow. And of course, all the news and infotainment spewed by network TV never reach these unplugged eyeballs. Even among the declining TV owners, the big networks and their affiliates saw their prime-time audience decline 12% since 2005. Live ratings of programs have been decreasing constantly for the last three years.

All these factors are a good reason to stop calling Big Media "mainstream." They still have income, a payroll, and some notoriety, though, which is why they can be called "the Moneyed Media."

What are the causes of this decline? According to every media consultant I've read, it's because of this darn internet. The ponderous Paperosaurus Rex and Teeveelociraptors are in competition with the small, nimble Internet mammals, and the old beasts are losing.

The modern-liberal media outlets show a disconcerting uniformity and are rarely critical of the Obama administration, except when considering the most irrelevant subjects.

According to the consultants' narrative, professional journalists see their carefully researched stories ripped and copied to multiple sites. Cheap local TV with underpaid, half-starving crews gains an undeservedly equal footing with the major networks, thanks to their websites. And the world mourns the death of Real Investigative Journalism, since these blog writers that now pass for journalists don't leave their mom's basement to go track toxic iPad factories in China or children killers in Africa.

Yes, granted: these factors certainly count. But isn't there another big reason for America's disaffection with the Moneyed Media?

Let's look again at the Pew report mentioned above. In 2011, the only national newspaper that increased its circulation was the Wall Street Journal, a resolute opponent of state intervention in the economy. The WSJ may not be every libertarian's cup of tea, but we have to give them this: they are, with Investor's Business Daily, one of the few national conservative dailies left in the country.

Similarly, Fox News has a notable anti-liberal slant, and gathers almost four times as many watchers as the combined CNN, MSNBC, and HLN (5.7 million vs. 1.5). Are we seeing a pattern here?

Fox and the WSJ are rare exceptions. In their enormous majority, the Moneyed Media are consistently modern-liberal. In 2007, the aforementioned Pew Research Center surveyed journalists and found that about 80% of these professionals identify themselves as liberals or at least as Democrats. Only 8% identify themselves as conservative (which would, presumably, include libertarian or classical liberal). It is a truism that most newsrooms are staffed with liberals and that a conservative journalist has very few employment opportunities in the Moneyed Media.

Now, let's put ourselves a second in the Birkenstocks of Dave Democrat and Lisa Liberal. They want to read a paper or a magazine during their train commute, and after their tofu and granola dinner, they want to watch some political commentary TV. They won't watch Fox or buy the WSJ, of course. But once past this initial filter, hundreds of publications and shows compete for their attention, from the allegedly moderate ones that Dave Democrat might favor to the rabidly leftist ones that Lisa Liberal may prefer. Lisa is even suffering from an embarrassment of riches: recall that only 19% of Americans call themselves liberal, yet a disproportionate share of the media caters to them.

The modern-liberal media outlets show a disconcerting uniformity and are rarely critical of the Obama administration, except when considering the most irrelevant subjects, such as Michelle's wardrobe or the antics of Secret Service agents. A grayish, soothing conformism oozes from all these mouths that babble without actually saying anything important, spewing a verbiage that carefully avoids important problems. It's a nice, relaxing way for Dave and Lisa to reinforce their biases, but it's pretty boring.

At the end, Dave will browse the Democratic Underground on his iPad while Lisa will read Daily Kos. At least, the crazy comments sometimes elicit a smirk.

And here lies the problem of the Moneyed Media: it's all the same leftist drivel, a uniform river of meaningless information that never evokes crucial problems.

The Moneyed Media carefully minimize all the news items that could harm or ridicule Obama and his peons. And yet, what golden material the Obama administration offers! The shady, undocumented past — even his student records are sealed. The illegal alien relatives. The DOE subsidies and loans to dubious firms, with taxpayers' money ending up in the pockets of rich Democratic donors. The gun-running scandals, which NBC News didn't mention until mid-June. The runaway regulations. The EPA undoing congressional laws. The beyond-reason deficit. The laws and court decisions that are ignored — sorry, "not enforced" — except in the case of medical marijuana, against which the law is sternly invoked. The continuing unemployment four years after the financial crisis started. The lawsuits against states. The gleeful, careless waste of money by the federal administration. The secret meetings while golfing. Why, if Nixon had done any of this, popular culture would still reverberate from the outrage!

If only half of Obama's stupid gaffes had been uttered by Bush I or II, they would be sarcastically recounted daily on every channel, in every paper.

And the gaffes, the gaffes! Whenever Obama strays from his teleprompter, hilarity ensues. "I've now been in 57 states" during the campaign was a howler by itself. Then we had "I don't speak Austrian" — yeah, I hope you speak Australian at least. We heard a Navy member being called a "corpse-man." We saw the president, parading at a goofy show, disparage his own bowling, comparing it to the Special Olympics — how classy. Oh, but that's OK, because "We're the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad." Too bad the country is inhabited by working-class voters, because "they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Then we basked in his wisdom: "Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries." But don't think he is unpatriotic: to a veteran crowd, he said, "I see many of the fallen heroes in the audience here today as we celebrate Memorial Day." And there are many more. If only half of these stupid things had been uttered by Bush I or II, they would be sarcastically recounted daily on every channel, in every paper, and used as icebreaking jokes by every attendee of conferences.

And then there are unexplainable acts that occupy a class by themselves, Obamaisms that, by their weirdness, leave any Bushism far behind. Bowing to the Saudi king. Bowing to the Japanese emperor. Giving a speech during "God Save the Queen" at Buckingham Palace. You can treat these awkward moments as fodder for comedy or for indignation, but they certainly deserve better than the silence that greeted them in the Moneyed Media.

You see, our talking heads are being protective of this "mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," in the immortal words of Joe Biden. (And speaking of comedy, Biden's bloopers would have launched a hundred standup routines in a less leftist America.) But this unflinching support makes the heads uninteresting drones who can no longer connect to an audience or a readership. The public is bound to notice mindless idolatry, at some point. And it has. It pays less and less attention to the babbling poseurs in the Moneyed Media. That's why business is down.

The remedy is obvious. Since all these fine intellects in the newsrooms are currently paralyzed by unconditional devotion, let's turn the love into rage. Let's replace blatant self-censorship with thundering, fact-exposing editorials. In a word, let's have a Republican president. Faced with the fall of the One, all the creative energy currently spent in covering up scandals and making media boring will suddenly get channeled into the pursuit of truth. If the present GOP favorite is elected, we won't see much difference (alas) in the level of statism, but we'll immediately be regaled with the slightest nuggets of scandal unearthed from a boring Mormon life. After four years of self-muzzling, our media will once again learn to analyze documents, discern truth, and expose coverups. The moneyed media will be back in business.

But of course, they will fight tooth and nail against it.




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Problems of Perspective

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Perspective. Two people can look at the very same scene, or experience the very same event, yet come away with completely different ideas of what they have seen. That seems to be the point of Wes Anderson's latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, and he begins making that point, cleverly and creatively, with his opening scene.

We see a painting of a seaside house. As the camera comes closer, we enter the house. It is obviously a dollhouse, full of tiny dollhouse furniture. Then a boy walks into the scene, passes the tiny chair, and demonstrates that it is actually normal size. As the camera pans from room to room, similar anomalies appear. We see a giant set of binoculars at the far side of a room, until a young girl walks into the scene and comes toward the binoculars. Only then do we realize that they were normal sized binoculars sitting on the window sill in the foreground, not the background. Again, we see a full-sized lighthouse in the distance, until a car drives into the scene and we realize it is merely a mailbox in the foreground, decorated to look like a lighthouse.

These optical illusions are no accident, and they are not merely a filmmaker's cinematic game, although they are mighty fun. Anderson uses this technique to establish, early in the film, that what we see is not always what we get. Our perspective of anything we see is often skewed by our expectation of what it is. The girl carries her binoculars everywhere and sees almost everything through their lenses, suggesting that if we look at events more closely, and put people into the picture, we are more likely to gain a proper perspective.

Wes Anderson is known for his quirky story lines, dysfunctional families, vivid color palate, and deadpan direction. This film is no exception. Moonrise Kingdom is a story of young star-crossed lovers — a familiar story, here turned upside down. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is the oldest child of a pair of lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who speak in legal jargon and call their four children to dinner with a megaphone. At one point a shirtless Mr. Bishop walks through the living room, carrying an axe, and announces to no one in particular, "I'm going to find a tree to chop down." No wonder Suzy has anger-control issues.

Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphaned "Khaki Scout" staying at a summer camp across the island from Suzy's house. Sam doesn't fit in with the other scouts. Authority figures in 1965, when this film is set, would probably have said he needs to "be a man"; certainly no one seems concerned about how the other boys treat him. Those same authorities today would probably say “he is being bullied.” It's all about perspective, isn't it?

Sam and Suzy meet by accident when the scouts attend a church production of Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludde," in which Suzy plays the raven. (Okay, it's not exactly by accident; Sam sneaks into the girls' dressing room to find out who she is.) Britten's music provides the score for much of the film, and "Noye's Fludde" foreshadows both the pairing up of the two young romantics and the tempest — figurative and literal — that is about to break forth.

After a year of clandestine correspondence and furtive binocular spying, Sam breaks out of his tent, Shawshank style, and runs off with Suzy into the woods. The shenanigans that follow, with scouts, family members, and a robotic matron (Tilda Swinton) known only as "Social Services" trying to find the runaways, is classic Anderson, with bizarre, illogical, unexpected happenings presented as perfectly natural events. The sweet budding romance between Sam and Suzy as they play house in the woods (also bizarre and illogical) is contrasted sharply with the mean-spirited antics of those who are sworn to protect them.

Under the direction of their gung-ho scoutmaster (Edward Norton) the rest of the scouts form a posse to track Sam down and bring him back to camp. "I resigned," Sam tells them simply, to explain why the boys have no jurisdiction over him. To this one of them asserts, "You don't have the authority to resign!" His perspective on group dynamics is funny and chilling, so obviously wrong and yet so socially accepted. Recalling the furniture in the film's opening scene, the boy appears to be a small GI Joe, but he is spouting grownup beliefs. Sam is correct when he says to the boys, "I don't like you and you don't like me, so why don't you just let me go?" But they won't let him go; they expect him to conform to the group.

All of this might be charming and delightful if only our star-crossed lovers were a little older. But to me there is something creepy and unnerving about 12-year-olds kissing in their underwear and talking about hard-ons and breasts. Yes, these children have faced some difficult obstacles, with Sam being sent to foster care after his parents died and Suzy spying on her mother's infidelity with the local cop (Bruce Willis) and being bathed by her mother at the age of 12. But I hardly think that running away to play house and have sexual experiences at that young age is the answer.

I also couldn't shake the realization that Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman were 12 themselves as they experienced their first "touching sessions" in front of cameras, boom operators, and director Anderson. As the film points out in its opening scene, a little perspective is wanted. Things that are large sometimes turn out to be small, and things that are small often turn out to be large. Children are small. They should not be placed in adult situations, no matter what the director — and their parents — tell them to do.


Editor's Note: Review of "Moonrise Kingdom," directed by Wes Anderson. Indian Paintbrush, 2012, 94 minutes.



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Like the Father or the Dog Just Died

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Leading up to Father’s Day, I count my victories in small bites. This month, it was a button.

While filling in my son’s information on ePACT, an online emergency preparedness resource for families, I noticed that on the mother’s page there was a button for "same address as child." For the father, there was no such button. I wrote a letter. Now fathers have a button too. A button-sized victory for dads everywhere. Well, for dads in British Columbia anyway.

There’s still a part of me that feels ridiculous writing complaint letters about these sorts of things. Two years ago, I would never have noticed the discrepancy. Who cares about a button? But after two years as a single dad — two years of dealing with gender-role stereotypes at nearly every level — there I was, not only noticing but writing letters.

Unfortunately, not every institution is as responsive as the nice folks at ePACT. There is, to pick on the local 800-pound gorilla as an example, Revenue Canada. Its policy for the Canada child tax credit explicitly and unabashedly discriminates based on gender: “If there is a female parent who lives with the child, we usually consider her to be [the primary caregiver]. However, if the male parent is primarily responsible, he must attach to Form RC66, Canada Child Benefits Application, a signed note from the female parent that states he is primarily responsible for all of the children in the household.” And if the female parent will not provide a signed note, then the burden of proof on the father is somewhere between that of a criminal trial and the Spanish Inquisition.

In my case, a sole-custody court order was deemed insufficient to prove that I have “primary responsibility” for my son. I was asked to provide letters from his school, from his afterschool activities, and from community leaders such as doctors and lawyers. For a mom, it’s automatic. For a dad, it’s a two-year treasure hunt.

But resistance is futile, so I tried to comply. In doing so, I noticed that my son’s elementary school had changed his student information from “Father has sole custody” to “Mother has sole custody” despite the fact that the school had a copy of the court order. Like ePACT, the school is full of good people. The teachers, the principal, everything about it is great, and it was apologetic about the error — a simple accident, not conscious discrimination. But even as an accident, it says volumes about social expectations. People assume that the mother is the caregiver to such a strong extent that it changes what they see on the page.

It’s somehow become socially acceptable (again) throughout North America to devalue a human being purely because of an identity-characteristic such as gender.

Dealing with this over and over has made me hypersensitive, a bit like a feminist in the 1980s. When my son’s teacher corrected his grade-one essay about his family from “My family is my dad, my mom, and . . .” to “My family is my mom, my dad, and . . .” I asked the teacher why. She told me I was “ridiculous” and “offensive” to bother her with such an issue. She was both right and wrong. It is ridiculous to complain about a simple swapping of the word order — though not that dissimilar from the campaign 20 years ago to change “businessman” to “businessperson” — yet when you correct a child you’re telling him he’s wrong, that he made a mistake. Why is it a mistake to put “dad” first?

When did it become such a bad thing to be male? Why has “testosterone” become a dirty word? Thinking about these things, I started to do something men don’t often do: I talked, communicated. First during poker games with friends who happened also to be single fathers. Then through a website I started for single dads, initially as a fitness site for dads with little spare time. And finally through systematic research for a book that grew out of this frustration.

What I’ve seen coming out of all this talking is that it’s somehow become socially acceptable (again) throughout North America to devalue a human being purely because of an identity-characteristic such as gender. In the US, President Obama's method of counting civilian casualties excludes all military-age males, within a strike zone, who have not been explicitly proven innocent. Meaning that it’s official government policy that in certain situations the simple fact of being male makes you guilty until proven innocent.

Here in Canada, we have a Ministry for the Status of Women — a cabinet-level government ministry — that publishes reports of journalists who write articles discussing the gender discrepancy that’s leaving boys behind in schools, and reframes this as a “hate” issue against women. A report from 2003 titled School Success by Gender: A Catalyst for the Masculinist Discourse, for example, argued for greater government monitoring of websites that seek to help boys in school or give fathers support in custody disputes. "Some masculinist groups use the Internet as a vehicle for hate-mongering against feminists. This accessible and virtually universal medium gives them the opportunity to say and post almost anything. It is no accident that this medium is being used by those on the extreme right, pedophiles and pornographers.”

This is not a fringe group writing. It’s a report for a government ministry associating men with pedophiles and pornographers simply because they are seeking each other’s support — something that women do far more naturally than men for reasons of culture and history. If men are forming support groups, if they’re seeking a greater role in caring for their sons and daughters, if fathers are engaged with their sons’ education and well being, then those are all good things. They should be encouraged. It means we’re slowly moving to a post-gender society. Ironically, however, all the institutions we’ve put in place to help enable that transition are precisely the ones that are now causing the greatest obstacles.

The philosopher Ivan Illich once pointed out that every institution gradually becomes counterproductive to its original intentions: the medical industry causes illness, educational institutions induce ignorance, the judicial system perpetuates injustice, and national defense makes a nation less secure. Similarly, the fight for gender equality has now made it almost politically incorrect to acknowledge equality among parents.

So let me put my cards on the table before I get added to the ministry’s list of “certain writers acting as the customary spokespersons for the masculinist discourse.” I’m not a misogynist. I’m not anti-feminist. I like feminists, and I have read more feminist literature than any man I know. I don’t agree with all of it. I tend to prefer French deconstructive feminists, such as Luce Irigaray, and literary ones such as Gayatri Spivak, over the more combative ones, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon,who once wrote that "to be rapable, a position that is social not biological, defines what a woman is." Which inevitably implies that to be a rapist defines what a man is.But I’ve read them all, I appreciate them all, and I think it’s time for men to start learning from them all.

That's because it is time for a masculinist discourse to complement feminist discourse, especially in family matters where the unofficial policy often seems to be mirroring the official “guilty until proven innocent” approach to defining war casualties based on gender. We don’t need men shouting words like “feminazi,” which is the way masculinists are caricatured — but it's worth pointing out that to be a good feminist you also have to be a masculinist (and vice versa). I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to become as hypersensitive as I am now to missing buttons for the dad’s address or the constant bombardment of “man as idiot” commercials on radio and TV. But we do need to start some sort of conversation about gender that is rooted in today rather than in history. I have a son, and to me that trumps any notion of historical wrongs. I don’t want him to grow up voiceless, any more than a feminist 30 years ago wanted her daughter to grow up second class.

And if not for your sons who will one day become fathers, then do it for the girls. Because if you assume men cannot raise healthy, well-adjusted, and confident children just as well as women can, then you’re also implicitly re-opening the question of whether a female firefighter can perform certain rescues as proficiently as a stronger male counterpart.

In the song "Everybody Knows," Leonard Cohen sings the line, "You've got that broken feeling, like your father or your dog just died." Within family matters in North America it does sometimes seem that this is the status that fathers are assigned. So on this Father’s Day, let’s give the dads a promotion. Fathers are wonderful. They’re just as cool as mothers.




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The Hoot-Out at the OK Corral

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Say, what is it with these lousy mouse-munchers? Every time you turn around, the damned spotted owl is making people’s lives miserable, with the able assistance of the federal government.

A story out of Tombstone, Arizona, reports that the legendary town — erstwhile home of Doc Holliday and the Earp Brothers, and venue of the most famous gunfight in Western history, the OK Corral — is being destroyed by the US Forest Service. Yes, this storied burg that survived the guns of the outlaw Cowboy gang (Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne) is in danger of being throttled by the talons of the now legendary bird, backed by the now infamous Forest Service.

You see, last summer there was a fire in the nearby mountains, where the springs that provide water for the town are to be found. The fires burned away the ground cover, and recent rains have washed away part of the 26-mile pipeline that brings water into town. The pipeline has been there for over 130 years and needs to be repaired quickly, or the next round of rains will wash it away. Since Tombstone’s reservoir has run dry, this will pretty much kill the town.

Enter the owl. Forest Service rangers have discovered a nest of spotted owls — Mexican spotted owls, to be precise. Pero caramba! The species has been declared “endangered” (in the United States) so the Forest Service is trying to stop the town’s residents from using machinery to repair the pipeline.

Tombstone has gone to court, saying that since it owns the springs in question, it shouldn’t need the federal government’s permission to rebuild the pipeline. (The town is defended by the wonderful Goldwater Institute, and hundreds of ranchers, not to mention Western fans, throughout the West.) The feds respond that the town is just using this as an excuse to expand its water supply — a horrible sin, no doubt, for a desert town. Why exactly the construction equipment would harm the birds, which managed to survive the fires, is unclear — but then, almost everything the Forest Service does is unclear.

Its mindset is revealed by the answer one of its supervisors gave in court to the question, “What is more important, owls or the people of Tombstone?” The moral idiot replied that it is hard to say.

And so far the Forest Service is winning, of course, in federal court. The US Supreme Court just recently turned down Tombstone’s request for an emergency injunction to allow the use of construction equipment to repair the pipeline. The Forest Service will only allow individuals using hand shovels to do some repair work, in the 100 degree heat.

So an historic town may die because the government is worried about whether a couple of tractors will scare away Mexican spotted owls, however many of them there are. The Tombstone epitaph will wind up reading, “What the Cowboys could not kill, the Spotted Owls did!”




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Abundant Resources

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Free market advocates have long argued that there is no shortage of fossil fuel (oil and natural gas) in the US, for as long as that is going to be the dominant energy source in this country — in other words, for the foreseeable future. We have argued that the US ought to use its own abundant supplies.

We argue this on national security as well as economic grounds. Building regulatory walls against exploiting our abundant fuel reserves deprives the nation of jobs and wealth, so it is economically stupid. This is obvious. But it should also be obvious that those walls channel money to regimes that wish us all manner of ills, even extermination — so the restrictions are strategically stupid. We send ever more troops to ever more dangerous places, so we can keep importing that which we have utterly no need to import.

It is with interest, therefore, that I note the complete lack of interest shown by the mainstream media in the congressional testimony of the federal government’s own Government Accountability Office (GAO) regarding America’s fossil fuel reserves.

The GAO reports that the Green River Formation of shale (which lies under the area where Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming join) contains the world’s largest known oil shale deposit, holding an amount of recoverable oil equal to all the world’s proven oil reserves. In fact, Anu Mittal, director of natural resources for the GAO, testified that the formation contains about three trillion barrels of oil, about half recoverable with known technology. And remember — we can only guess at future technological improvements.

In fact, the GAO now estimates that the US has more by way of fossil fuel reserves than any other country on earth by far, with Russia in second place and Saudi Arabia a distant third. Bottom line: even while Obama is telling the public that we use 20% of the world’s oil and have only 2% of the known reserves, his own GAO reports that America has the largest reserves of fossil fuel on the planet.

But while Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other energy endowed countries are moving ahead to develop what they have, our government would rather block our own development. Go figure.




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And May the Better Blur Win

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The old Reader’s Digest used to run a lot of one-page features, each with nine or ten little paragraphs of something vaguely related to a central theme. (If that reminds you of Word Watch, please think again.) There was “Humor in Uniform” — funny anecdotes about soldiers and sailors. There was “Life in These United States” — funny anecdotes about virtually anything. And there was something called “Toward More Picturesque Speech” — examples of colorful ways of saying things.

I thought about that feature at the end of last month, when Turner Classics ran Wells Fargo (1937), an historical-fiction movie. Captivated by the opening shot of an early railroad train jolting along toward a station full of excited people, I watched till the end. The movie was a sympathetic exposition of capitalist investment and innovation, though it offered few things as good as the train. But one thing was better. It was a scene in which an old mountain man lamented his failure to find gold in California. “I ain’t had no more luck,” he said, “than a duck with a doorknob.”

Now that, I thought, is picturesque speech.

Unfortunately, the humor in recent examples of the verbal picturesque is mostly unintended.

Such examples can be arranged in any order, so why not start with the Yahoo News report on the French election? There one learned that “François Hollande won the French presidential election on Sunday, capturing more than 51 percent of the vote.” Or, to put that in another way, “Sarkozy, who has held the French presidency since 2007, grabbed 48.1 percent.” Quite a picture. Sarkozy, we see, didn’t spend the past few years just being president; he spent them grimly holding the presidency. But Hollande found a way to break his hold, and captured a majority of the vote. Now, apparently, he’s waiting for an exchange of prisoners, because at the same time Sarkozy reached out his hairy hand and grabbed almost half the voters for himself!

Picturesque speech — and it isn’t a pretty picture. Be warned, however: this is the kind of picture that is going to be painted from now until November 6, election day in America. We’re going to hear a lot about how Nevada is up for grabs, Romney is scoring big in the Kentucky polls, Obama may deal Romney a punishing defeat in Missouri, Biden has doubled down on his anti-Romney rhetoric, and come next Tuesday the two campaigns will be gearing up for their moment of truth. “Come” is such a poetic substitute for “on,” isn’t it? And if you see a chance to combine a reference to gears with a bullfighting metaphor, well, chase after it, tiger. After all, this election is going down to the wire, and we’re all going down with it.

“Public servants” exist only in metaphor. No one actually goes around dressed in a maid’s or butler’s costume, serving the public.

Everyone understands the plight of the daily sportswriter, who constantly has to come up with new synonyms for “beat.” You know, “Last night, East Overshoe crushed, blinkered, snowed, spooked, buried, sliced and diced West Overshoe, 12 to 8.” The sports guy’s life is a game with no winners (sorry — conquering heroes): nobody receives any particular reward or recognition (claims the laurels) for finding odd ways of not using the same word twice. That’s just part of the job, in the same way that saying “Doesn’t he look natural?” is part of everyone’s job at open-casket funerals. No one knows why the tradition is maintained — although everyone should read the section of Fowler’sModern English Usage called “Elegant Variation” and consider the logic of the thing. Fowler’s point was that you might as well repeat a word, if the word is appropriate in the first place, rather than resorting to a supposedly elegant variation and making your readers waste their time deducing the fact that women representatives are the same as female delegates.

Reading the sportswriter’s elegant variations doesn’t blow out many brain cells; it’s just annoying. But the political reporter’s verbal gymnastics are both annoying and misleading. When they depict political disputes as mildly comic games, as the kind of warfare that takes place on the Scrabble board, where someone grabs points and captures the lead by putting “adze” in the right place, the artists of picturesque speech transform the serious into the trivial.

Or the trivial into the serious. The latest fad is for politicians to picture themselves, not as people who started out running for student council, then majored in poli sci because they liked the idea of government, then became interns for various hacks in the state legislature, then ran for the legislature themselves, and so on and so forth, through all the stages of a humdrum existence, culminating in a government pension, a dacha in Florida, and an occasional invitation to address their granddaughter’s third-grade class — the latest fad, I say, is for politicians to depict themselves not as people like that, but as public servants. There hasn’t been a day in the past month when I haven’t heard some politician pompously describe himself in that way, usually because somebody dared to lob a protest or an ethics investigation in his direction. Da noive!

Public servant is an odd phrase. It isn’t like calling yourself the chief cook and bottle washer. Cooks and bottle washers actually exist. Public servants, by contrast, exist only in metaphor. No one actually goes around dressed in a maid’s or butler’s costume, serving the public. No one appears in the slave market with a sign around his neck saying, “For Sale: Faithful Public Servant. Works Hard. Eats Little. Priced to Sell at $500.” No one devotes himself to doing the public’s business, claiming no rewards of money and power. If you wonder what literal public servants look like, too bad for you. You won’t find any.

But you will find people like Kathleen Sebelius, US secretary of health and human services, who on May 17, in the face of protests about her role in the abortion controversy, declared, “I have spent virtually my entire life in public service.” What that has to do with abortion, one way or another, you may well guess. I’m still wondering myself. But what chiefly concerned me was the idea that an innocent young girl had been forced by her parents into public service, and had wound up spending virtually all of her life there. Alarmed, I rushed to Wikipedia and discovered what a virtual life in public service really is.

Sebelius, age 64, is the daughter of a governor of Ohio. She went to an exclusive private prep school, then took a B.A. in (guess what?) political science. To this she added (guess what?) a master’s in public administration. From the age of 29 to the age of 38 she served, as Wikipedia says, “as executive director and chief lobbyist for the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association.” (This Wikipedia article was written, in bulk and by the ton, either by Sebelius or by a fervent admirer who has kept meticulous track of every instant of her service to the public. Why do I think so? The entry says, among other things, that “in January 2006 [she] was tied for 20th most popular governor in the country.” No, really it says that.) After helping the Trial Lawyers, Sebelius was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives and served for eight years there, making laws for other people to obey. Then she was elected state insurance commissioner, then governor of the state.

Few or none of Sebelius’ elections appear to have taken place against her will; it seems, in fact, that she persistently pursued public office. Denied, by one of those pesky term-limits laws, a third chance to capture the governorship, she packed her bags and moved out of Kansas, grabbing her current job in Washington. Immediately, according to Wikipedia, she went from 57th most powerful woman in the world to 23rd most powerful woman in the world (rankings developed, no doubt with scientific accuracy, by Forbes magazine). She hasn’t been quite as successful as Dorothy Gale, who attained even greater power in the land of Oz, but who knows what her future holds? In any event, this is how Kathleen Sebelius came to spend virtually her entire life in public service.

You can decide for yourself if you would rather hear such picturesque speech as Sebelius’ self-descriptions or listen to stuff that tries not to create any picture at all — because that’s the other way in which words are used in our political environment. Among the alternative-media sensations of May 2012 was one of those recordings that seem to surface whenever a public servant imagines that there are no electronic devices in the vicinity. It documents an impromptu classroom debate between a public school teacher in North Carolina and a student who insists that it’s all right, it’s really all right, to criticize President Obama. The teacher refuses to permit such critiques in her classroom, asserting that people can (and presumably should) be arrested for them. Responding to complaints about her ridiculous statements, the relevant education authorities issued their own statement, reported by the Winston-Salem Journal (May 12, 2012):

“The Rowan-Salisbury School System expects all students and employees to be respectful in the school environment and for all teachers to maintain their professionalism in the classroom,” the statement says. “This incident should serve as an education for all teachers to stop and reflect on their interaction with students. Due to personnel and student confidentiality, we cannot discuss the matter publicly.”

You gotta love it. Reading these words, could you possibly picture what might have occasioned them? They not only refuse to describe a single thing that went on; they also refuse to conduct any further discussion of the matter publicly. Don’t bother to write — we’re not writing back. If you don’t think this is funny, you should reflect on the fact that the institution that refuses to discuss the matter publicly is itself a public institution.

But the more I reflect, the more I see in this non-picture. I see that all teachers are in need of reflection and education, which they acquire only when one of them makes a mistake that astonishes the nation. I see that there are things called respect and professionalism, which exist in certain environments, though perhaps not in others; it is impossible to tell whether these things exist in the school district in question, because of two mysterious things — personnel confidentiality and student confidentiality.

I would like to know what those phrases mean. Do they mean that students and “personnel” never say anything about anything, preferring to remain confidential? Or do they mean that no one has the right to say anything about students or “personnel”? Or do they mean . . . ? They could mean almost anything.

This is not what the Reader’s Digest had in mind. It’s not what anyone, not under the immediate control of Satan, has ever had in mind.

But now, turning to the pair of 500-pound whatevers in the room, let’s think for a moment about the picturesque speech of President Obama and former Governor Romney. Take a moment — take a million moments — and try to recall anything interesting, resonant, poignant, piquant, picturesque, or memorable in any good way that either of these men has said during the past several thousand years of the current political campaign. Try to recall . . . well, try simply to recall their campaign slogans. What are they? A new deal! No, that was Roosevelt. Are you better off today? No, Reagan. Let’s see, let’s see . . .

What chiefly concerned me was the idea that an innocent young girl had been forced by her parents into public service, and had wound up spending virtually all of her life there.

Try to remember the speeches they made. Go back as far as you want. “Ah,” you say. “I remember that speech where Obama claimed that because of him, the oceans would stop rising, or drying up, or something like that. Then there was that hopey-changey thing . . . when did he say that? What was it he said? Then he said something about how the Republicans had a car, and they drove it into a ditch, and now they were trying to get their hands on the wheel, so they could drive it out again . . . Something along those lines. I know he said that he looked exactly like Trayvon Martin. Or have I got that wrong? I guess I’m not doing very well here.”

No, you’re not. Now what about Romney? The picturesque speech of Mitt Romney. Recall some instances.

(Silence.)

Thank you for completing the survey.

Here’s what I think is happening — mere speculation, but I could be right. Barack Obama, having written a book that nobody read, was expected to produce picturesque speech. When he did, however, it either sounded weird or just fell flat. His campaign advisors learned to discourage any further attempts at the picturesque. It’s a gamble they can’t afford. Mitt Romney is in less danger, because the only vaguely memorable thing he ever said was that strange story about his dog. But his flacks have adopted the same policy as Obama’s.

Notice that neither of these candidates has disciples, people who learned or even claim to have learned something from them. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, neither Obama nor Romney is Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or Wilson (thank God, in that last case). They don’t have disciples, and they may not even have friends; but they do have flacks and handlers. Flacks and handlers don’t want a picture. They’ll settle for a blur. So that’s what we get.




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Schools: What Kind of Reform?

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Now that Governor Scott Walker has won the recall election, Wisconsin is pushing through the education reforms that were part of his 2010 legislative agenda. Like most education reform initiatives, Wisconsin’s contains some form of merit-based teacher pay and a voucher system. Indiana has proposed similar reforms, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have made national headlines with education reform plans that in some ways resemble Wisconsin’s.

The proposals are pushed by Republicans who tout them as free-market solutions to the education problem in their respective states. But what they don’t say, or perhaps don’t see, about their proposals may make the system worse than the one we have.

Teachers object to having their pay tied to student performance. But this is what happens all across the private sector. If a manager’s employees are not doing what the company demands, the manager will be replaced. Likewise, if a high school coach’s team doesn’t win enough games, the coach will be replaced. Teachers must be held accountable if their students are not learning, and be rewarded if they are. It is time they were held to the same standard as everyone else.

The practical problem isn’t whether teachers should be assessed, but how they should be assessed. Yet that means there’s still a problem.

Standardized tests are the primary measure by which we judge a student’s level of achievement, and changing our measure of achievement must be among the first reforms enacted. Standardized testing prohibits experiential learning and diminishes the value of differentiated instruction. As an educator, I have found that certain topics are more attractive to students than other subjects, and those topics change from year to year and class to class. For instance, in 2001 my ninth-grade world history class we dedicated significantly more time to world religions, particularly Islam, than had originally been planned — because of what happened on 9/11. Had there been a standardized history exam I would never have been able to capitalize on the students’ interest, and we all would have missed out on a teachable moment.

So whatever measure states use to evaluate teachers must not limit their flexibility or autonomy. This goal is doubly difficult to achieve, however, when government enters the picture, even in the form of a school voucher system.

Supporters of school choice ground their argument in free-market principles. Opponents object that tax dollars will be siphoned away from already cash-strapped schools. The reply is: “If you want the money, you must earn it.” Where there is a monopoly, providers become inefficient and weak. Where there is competition, we see innovation and greater progress. A school voucher program works to break the monopoly to allow free market mechanisms to enter the education system. Ironically, however, it is the government that is seeking to instill this aspect of the free market.

We should be wary of that. If the government begins, indirectly, to fund private schools through vouchers, the schools will not have to be as competitive when trying to secure funding either from student tuition or from donors.

Any time government takes action there are unintended consequences, and there are at least two educational consequences that we can see looming on the horizon already. The first is an undermining of free market principles. The second is the opportunity for government to regulate private schools, with vouchers being construed as funded mandates. If private schools begin to depend on indirect government funding, then the government can gain leverage over what these schools teach and how they teach it.

There is no easy solution to our education problems. Problems with education have been documented for more than two millennia. No reform or policy will be the final solution, for education is a process, and improving it should be seen in the same way. Which is why, in the end, we should advocate reforms that promote the greatest amount of flexibility and accountability.




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