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Posts Tagged ‘Ideology’

While Washington burns and the pols fiddle around, it’s time to pay attention to a few other deficits that have remained unnoticed in the media furor over Boehner, Barack, and Big Bucks.

Civility

There was a time in this country when American politicians were civil to one another. They’d go to work, argue, and then repair to the nearest pub for some congenial elbow bending. Not now. Congressmen feel free to shout, “You lie,” to the president while he is giving his constitutionally-mandated State of the Union Address.

This open breach of respect is only one example of a strain of behavior that has infected the American public to a degree unknown in previous eras. Fueled in large part by the anonymity afforded by the internet, it isn’t unusual to find the vilest comments in response to blogs, newspaper articles, and television reports. Hate merchants become millionaires by screaming their odious messages 24-hours a day over radio and television. Hate sells, which I find to be the most disgusting element in our disappearing ability to communicate coherently in a civil manner. Is it any wonder the Congress has entirely lost its ability to function as the Constitution intended?

Compassion

We seem to have lost a sense of empathy for those among us who are less fortunate through no fault of their own. Children always come to mind when I think about helping others. Every year in this country there are roughly 3,000,000 reported cases of child abuse. Millions of children in this, the richest country on earth, go to sleep hungry. This is a disgusting state of affairs.

Our treatment of the elderly and the infirm is no better than our disdain for the welfare of our children.  There is a move underway to reduce or eliminate social security, Medicare, and Medicaid, whose primary beneficiaries are the elderly. Imagine a million seniors suddenly without the means to buy groceries, pay rent, and afford medical care. We seem to forget that those receiving social security checks aren’t banking those funds for a rainy day. They are spending the money immediately on the basic necessities of life.

Also at the top of the scale of disgust is our treatment of veterans, Americans who have put their lives on the line for the draft-dodging elites among us and who as a result now suffer excruciating physical and emotional damage. Some in congress want to reduce the minor amounts of funding now available for veterans’ care and rehabilitation. How cheap, how low, can American elites go in the treatment of the very individuals who have protected their way of life?

Cooperation

Contrary to the American myth of the rugged individualist, cooperation is the social mechanism through which we develop great ideas, initiate powerful governing concepts, and accomplish great tasks. George Washington didn’t win the Revolutionary War single-handedly. Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves all alone. The Greatest Generation did not act individually when they slogged through foot deep mud across France and Germany. They did not run around like chickens with their heads cut off as they hopped from Pacific island to Pacific island toward Japan.  Imagine the chaos if everyone had said “It’s my way or the highway.”

Causes

The clearest sign that we’ve lost the ability to sustain the greatness of prior generations and achieve greatness on our own is the chaotic inability of governments at all levels in this country to function as governing bodies rather than as ideologically programmed lock-step un-dead hordes. Ideology today is the bane of our existence. It allows no room for dissent or for the accommodation that is necessary in a democratic political system. The two-party system isn’t much better, but it at least it recognized an essential need for accommodation.

Can We Recover

Yes, but change requires courage, determination, and common-sense. Thinking men and women must come together in a concerted effort to dislodge the ideological and monied interests that have taken control of our once-sacrosanct representative democracy.

We need to abandon the one-dollar-one-vote philosophy of the current Supreme Court and return to the one-person-one vote practice that formed the basis of our democracy before corporations became people.

Most of all, we need to realize that we are all in this together. Adam Smith once postulated that when one prospers all prosper. We need to believe that when one suffers, we all suffer. We need to become a unified society rather than an atomistic bunch of anonymous rugged individuals. Perhaps John Donne expressed it most succinctly.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee—John Donne

I am convinced that a renewed recognition of our unity would cause the mess in Washington to disappear in a puff of smoke            

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For about 20 years, I taught in a variety of 4-year and community colleges. This is just a partial list of the subjects and classes I taught—Beginning Political Science, American Government, Constitutional Law and Politics, International Law and Politics, Comparative Politics, the Politics of Hawaii, American Studies with a concentration in America’s Role in the World, and a few I don’t recall at the moment.

I taught classroom and internet courses, on and off-campus, day and evening classes, and classes in a medium security prison. My students ranged in age from 18 to 74 and spanned the gamut of ethnic groups. They were Americans and foreigners of varying political beliefs, attitudes, and opinions.

By now, some of you are probably thinking that I’m a braggart and you are waiting for an opportunity as you read this to expose my ignorance. You are fully prepared to kick ass. Well, wait no more.

When I began teaching, I did not know my ass from a hole in the ground about politics. Nada, nil, zilch, zero. At the end of my 20 years, I knew even less.

But I had a couple of things going for me. First of all, no matter how little I knew, I knew more than any student who ever enrolled in and attended my classes. In fact, the level of ignorance among my students was so high that I often referred to community college as a half way house between the tenth and twelfth grades.

I am not arguing that these students were dumb. To the contrary, they were quite intelligent on the whole. They just didn’t possess enough factual information to fill a thimble. Consequently, they were unable to reason except in the manner of high school adolescents, which, if you recall from your own experience, and from watching the recent spate of town hall meetings, was and is rather emotional and bereft of the slightest hint of knowledge and comprehension.

As teachers, how were we supposed to handle a class of 35 students who, to be honest, could not compose a simple sentence or understand the simplest political concept? The answer is, we didn’t handle them very well.

Some of us found ourselves spending an inordinate amount of time on 8th grade civics, e.g., America has a Constitution. What’s a constitution, you ask? Well, it’s a written document that outlines the rules a government is supposed to follow. What’s a government, you ask? Well, it’s a tweedly dee tweedly dum and then some. Ah, good, you got that.

Others among us said, on a regular basis, “Screw the little shits. They’re supposed to be prepared when they arrive in college. I am not going to slow my classes down for the ignorant assholes. (Yes, friends, gray-bearded, bow-tie wearing, dark suit clad academicians are fully conversant with street-level vernacular).

And then there was that tiny minority of teachers who thought they could teach the peach fuzz generation by being one of them. They dressed in the latest teen fashions, dyed their hair, got a few tattoos, and in general hung around with juveniles, all on the assumption that the kids would learn better “from one of their own.” Well, the kids did learn from their own, but not the sorts of things some 50-year old wannabe might have imagined.

The funny thing is, none of these approaches changed the statistics. The overall drop-out rate remained relatively high from semester to semester over the years. The number of community college students who went on to a four-year institution also remained low, and of those who transferred to a four-year institution, the percentage who failed to complete their bachelors also hovered at the basement level year after year.

Many explanations for the appalling academic preparation of incoming freshmen and women have been offered over the years. I’ll discuss that aspect of the American education system at another time. My purpose today is merely to explain how I managed to walk through a 20-year teaching career in a state of blissful ignorance. One reason, explained above, is that, ignorant though I may have been, I knew more than my students.

The second major reason revolves around the issue of misunderstandings and expectations. This was particularly true of classes in beginning political science. There was, almost universally among my students, a virtually impenetrable wall of confusion over the meanings of the words “politics” and “political science.”

In a nutshell, politics is the practice of striving for and retaining political office once elected. This covers a lot of ground, but briefly, it includes such activities as conducting campaigns, the strategies and tactics of reaching a predefined segment of the voting population, and the use of loaded language (e.g. death panels).

In another sense, politics is practice; political science is theory. Still another way of phrasing it is that politics is doing something; political science is thinking about what has been and what might be done. Or, one that I prefer—politics is calling an opponent an asshole; political science is defining asshole. I did not teach politics. I taught political science.

Which brings me back to misperceptions and misunderstandings. Students were under the impression that they would walk in the door, sit down, throw their feet up on an empty chair (male students, anyway), and start calling politicians assholes, as if that were a mark of testosteronic maturity (I don’t know the equivalent female hormonal impediment to learning).

When I insisted repeatedly that they define asshole according to the techniques utilized in political science that I had or would teach them, many decided on another course of study. Critical thinking (meaning logical analysis based on factual information) was a concept so alien to them that my mere insistence on objectivity was considered radical liberalism or radical conservatism, depending on their own self-professed ideological outlook.

In fact, I was accused on more than one occasion of attempting to undermine their core beliefs, although I did nothing more than ask questions and insist that they be able to explain their stands on the issues.

I often skated around their abhorrence of objective analysis by using an example from the practice of law: A winning attorney is able to argue the opponent’s case better than the opponent can. In other words, know what the hell the other side is thinking and know the facts of its case.

A point of clarification is in order before I wind up. When I wrote that I taught for 20 years in a state of blissful ignorance, I meant that politics was and remains a mystery to me. True, the words and deeds of politicians are rather predictable, but the reactions and responses of the general voting public are astoundingly lacking in logical bases. But that is only one part of the problem. Why are large segments of American society so determined to remain ignorant? In fact, I believe that the only thing exceeding the ignorance of these segments is a fierce determination to remain in that state.

That, I believe, is the eternal mystery of politics, and that is what I intended to suggest by talking about my ignorance in the classroom. I may be ignorant about this particular political mystery, but I know how to think about it in the manner of political scientists. My students never seemed to get the distinction.

Finally, despite the negativities in this essay, I taught many outstanding students, and I can truthfully say that my teaching career was challenging and satisfying. I left teaching a couple of years ago but not because I was disgusted or beaten down by student inertia. I needed to care for my beloved. I’m thinking now of returning to the classroom on a part-time basis. That remains to be seen.

Pending a decision, I’ll probably visit a few relatives who think I’m nuts or weird and who will not hesitate to let me know that they know more about politics than I do. It’s the American way. A loud voice and a dearth of information are often confused with knowledge.

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