Bring Back National Service

Dad in Oregon
My dad (2nd from left) in Oregon with some of the “fellows,” c.1937

With fires raging in California and Oregon, and with unemployment rates high, I recalled the experiences of my dad, which I wrote about twelve years ago for TomDispatch.com.  My dad served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), mainly fighting forest fires in Oregon.  The CCC was one of those alphabet soup agencies created by FDR’s administration to put people back to work while paying them a meaningful wage.  You might call it “democratic socialism,” but I prefer to call it common sense and applaud its spirit of service to country.

We need to revive national service while deemphasizing its military aspects.  There are all sorts of honorable services one can render to one’s fellow citizens, as my father’s example shows from the 1930s, an era that now seems almost biblical in its remoteness from today’s concerns.

Hey, Government! How About Calling on Us?
Reviving National Service in a Big Way
By William J. Astore

Lately, our news has focused on tropical depressions maturing into monster hurricanes that leave devastation in their wake — and I’m not just talking about Gustav and Ike. Today, we face a perfect storm of financial devastation, notable for the enormity of the greed that generated it and the somnolent response of our government in helping Americans left devastated in its wake.

As unemployment rates soar to their highest level in five years and home construction sinks to its lowest level in 17 years, all our federal government seems able to do is buy up to $700 billion in “distressed” mortgage-related assets, bail-out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (at a cost of roughly $200 billion) or “loan” $85 billion to liquidate insurance giant AIG. If you’re Merrill Lynch, you get a hearing; if you’re just plain Marilyn Lynch of Topeka, what you get is a recession, a looming depression, and a federal tax bill for the fat-cat bail-outs.

But, amazingly enough, ordinary Americans generally don’t want bail-outs, nor do they want handouts. What they normally want is honorable work, decent wages, and a government willing to wake up and help them contribute to a national restoration.

How America Was Once Rebuilt

Before surging ahead, however, let’s look back. Seventy-five years ago, our country faced an even deeper depression. Millions of men had neither jobs, nor job prospects. Families were struggling to put food on the table. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt acted. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps, soon widely known as the CCC.

From 1933 to 1942, the CCC enrolled nearly 3.5 million men in roughly 4,500 camps across the country. It helped to build roads, build and repair bridges, clear brush and fight forest fires, create state parks and recreational areas, and otherwise develop and improve our nation’s infrastructure — work no less desperately needed today than it was back then. These young men — women were not included — willingly lived in primitive camps and barracks, sacrificing to support their families who were hurting back home.

My father, who served in the CCC from 1935 to 1937, was among those young men. They earned $30 a month for their labor — a dollar a day — and he sent home $25 of that to support the family. For those modest wages, he and others like him gave liberally to our country in return. The stats are still impressive: 800 state parks developed; 125,000 miles of road built; more than two billion trees planted; 972 million fish stocked. The list goes on and on in jaw-dropping detail.

Not only did the CCC improve our country physically, you might even say that experiencing it prepared a significant part of the “greatest generation” of World War II for greatness. After all, veterans of the CCC had already learned to work and sacrifice for something larger than themselves — for, in fact, their families, their state, their country. As important as the G.I. Bill was to veterans returning from that war and to our country’s economic boom in the 1950s, the CCC was certainly no less important in building character and instilling an ethic of teamwork, service, and sacrifice in a generation of American men.

Today, we desperately need to tap a similar ethic of service to country. The parlous health of our communities, our rickety infrastructure, and our increasingly rickety country demands nothing less.

Of course, I’m hardly alone in suggesting the importance of national service. Last year, in Time Magazine, for example, Richard Stengel called for a revival of national service and urged the formation of a “Green Corps,” analogous to the CCC, and dedicated to the rejuvenation of our national infrastructure.

To mark the seventh anniversary of 9/11, John McCain and Barack Obama recently spoke in glowing terms of national service at a forum hosted by Columbia University. Both men expressed support for increased governmental spending, with McCain promising that, as president, he would sign into law the Kennedy-Hatch “Serve America Act,” which would, among other things, triple the size of the AmeriCorps. (Of course, McCain had just come from a Republican convention that had again and again mocked Obama’s time as a “community organizer” and, even at Columbia, he expressed a preference for faith-based organizations and the private sector over service programs run by the government.) Obama has made national service a pillar of his campaign, promising to spend $3.5 billion annually to more than triple the size of AmeriCorps, while also doubling the size of the Peace Corps.

It all sounds impressive. But is it? Compared to the roughly $900 billion being spent in FY2009 on national defense, homeland security, intelligence, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $3.5 billion seems like chump change, not a major investment in national service or in Americans. When you consider the problems facing American workers and our country, both McCain and Obama are remarkable in their timidity. Now is surely not the time to tinker with the controls on a ship of state that’s listing dangerously to starboard.

Do I overstate? Here are just two data points. Last month our national unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, a five-year high. This year alone, we’ve shed more than 600,000 jobs in eight months. If you include the so-called marginally attached jobless, 11 million Americans are currently out of work, which adds up to a real unemployment rate of 7.1%. Now, that doesn’t begin to compare to the unemployment rate during the Great Depression which, at times, exceeded 20%. In absolute terms, however, 11 million unemployed American workers represent an enormous waste of human potential.

How can we get people off the jobless rolls, while offering them useful tasks that will help support families, while building character, community, and country?

Here’s where our federal government really should step in, just as it did in 1933. For we face an enormous national challenge today which goes largely unaddressed: shoring up our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The prestigious American Society of Civil Engineers did a survey of, and a report card on, the state of the American infrastructure. Our country’s backbone earned a dismal “D,” barely above a failing (and fatal) grade. The Society estimates that we need to invest $1.6 trillion in infrastructure maintenance and improvements over the next five years or face ever more collapsing bridges and bursting dams. It’s a staggering sum, until you realize that we’re already approaching a trillion dollars spent on the Iraq war alone.

No less pressing than a trillion-dollar investment in our nation’s physical health is a commensurate investment in the emotional and civic well-being of our country — not just the drop-in-the-bucket amounts both Obama and McCain are talking about, but something commensurate with the task ahead of us. As our president dithers, even refusing to use the “R” word of recession, The Wall Street Journal quotes Mark Gertler, a New York University economist, simply stating this is “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

The best and fairest way to head off that crisis is not simply to spend untold scores of billions of taxpayer dollars rescuing (or even liquidating) recklessly speculative outfits that gave no thought to ordinary workers while they were living large. Rather, our government should invest scores of billions in empowering the ordinary American worker, particularly those who have suffered the most from the economic ravages of our financial hurricane.

Just as in 1933, a call today to serve our country and strengthen its infrastructure would serve to reenergize a shared sense of commitment to America. Such service would touch millions of Americans in powerful ways that can’t be fully predicted in advance, just as it touched my father as a young man.

What “Ordinary” Americans Are Capable Of

My father was a self-confessed “regular guy,” and his CCC service was typical. He was a “woodsman-falling,” a somewhat droll job title perhaps, but one that concealed considerable danger. In the fall of 1936, he fought the Bandon forest fire in Oregon, a huge conflagration that burned 100,000 acres and killed a dozen people. To corral and contain that fire, he and the other “fellows” in his company worked on the fire lines for five straight weeks. At one point, my father worked 22 hours straight, in part because the fire raged so fiercely and so close to him that he was too scared to sleep (as he admitted to me long after).

My father was 19 when he fought that fire. Previously, he had been a newspaper boy and had after the tenth grade quit high school to support the family. Still, nothing marked him as a man who would risk his own life to save the lives of others, but his country gave him an opportunity to serve and prove himself, and he did.

Before joining the CCC, my father had been a city boy, but in the Oregon woods he discovered a new world of great wonder. It enriched his life, just as his recollections of it enrich my own:

“Thunder and lightning are very dangerous in the forest. Well, one stormy night a Forest Ranger smoke chaser got a call from the fire tower. They spotted a small night fire; getting the location the Ranger took me and another CCC boy to check it out. After walking about a mile in the woods we spotted the fire. It had burned a circle of fire at least 100 yards in diameter from the impact of the lightning bolt.

“You never saw anything so beautiful. The trees were all lit in fire; the fire on the ground was lit up in hot coals. Also fiery embers were falling off the trees. Some of the trees were dried dead snags. It looked like the New York skyline lit up at night. The Ranger radioed back for a fire crew. Meanwhile the three of us started to contain the fire with a fire trail.

“Later, we got caught in a thunderstorm in the mountains. We stretched a tarpaulin to protect ourselves from the downpours. You could see the storm clouds, with thunder and lightning flashing, approaching and passing over us. Then the torrents of rain. It would stop and clear with stars shining. And sure enough it must have repeated the sequence at least five times. What a night.”

Jump ahead to 2008 and picture a nineteen-year-old high school dropout. Do you see a self-centered slacker, someone too preoccupied exercising his thumbs on video games, or advertising himself on MySpace and Facebook, to do much of anything to help anyone other than himself?

Sure, there are a few of these. Aren’t there always? But many more young Americans already serve or volunteer in some capacity. Even our imaginary slacker may just need an opportunity — and a little push — to prove his mettle. We’ll never know unless our leaders put our money where, at present, only their mouths are.

Remaking National Service — And Our Country

Today, when most people think of national service, they think of military service. As a retired military officer, I’m hardly one to discount the importance of such service, but we need to extend the notion of service beyond the military, beyond national defense, to embrace all dimensions of civic life. Imagine if such service was as much the norm as in the 1930s, rather than the exception, and imagine if our government was no longer seen as the problem, but the progenitor of opportunity and solutions?

Some will say it can no longer be done. Much like Rudy Giuliani, they’ll poke fun at the whole idea of service, and paint the government as dangerously corrupt, or wasteful, or even as the enemy of the people — perhaps because they’re part of that same government.

How sad. We don’t need jaded “insiders” or callow “outsiders” in Washington; what we need are doers and dreamers. We need leaders with faith both in the people — the common worker with uncommon spirit — and the government to inspire and get things done.

The unselfish idealism, work ethic, and public service of the CCC could be tapped again, if only our government remembers that our greatest national resource is not exhaustible commodities like oil or natural gas, but the inexhaustible spirit and generosity of the American worker.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He now teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005), among other works. He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.

Copyright 2008 William Astore

Staying Sane in the Age of Trump

parallel-universe

Richard Sahn

As a social scientist living through horrific political, economic, and public health crises, I should be embracing with all my might philosophical materialism, the epistemological model behind science.  That I don’t could cost me personal and collegial respect, not to mention friendships. So, what exactly is philosophical materialism, and why do I find it ultimately non-collegial?

Philosophy precedes science.  It’s impossible to have science (or the sciences) without a presupposition about what is real, which is the arena of philosophy.  Philosophical materialism says that all that is real or factual is material or physical in nature.  And I find this too limiting.

I am more attuned to the Eastern philosophical model, intellectually supported these days by quantum physics, particularly the early 20th-century German physicist Werner Heisenberg.  It holds that non-material phenomena, such as dreams and hallucinations, are as real as physical phenomenon such as rocks and rivers, in one sense, even more real. (My dream is a reality sui generis. It is not electrochemical activity in my brain.) What’s more, all material and non-material phenomena come into existence from individual conscious intention and belief; there is no truly independent universe out there.

The good philosophical news here about the anti-materialist epistemological model is the plausibility of a multi-world or multi-dimensional universe.  If reality is a product of consciousness, rather than the other way around, it seems to me Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s claim that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself” is really possible. In fact, the psycho-therapeutic value of that statement is considerable.

But what do I do with my propensity toward progressive activism? And what do I do with those great discussions I have with my friends on how disgusting and horrible the Trump administration is? Can I have both perspectives at the same time? Emerson said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. And it seems counterintuitive to be, following the Bible, “in the world but not of the world,” to see everyday life as play, as a sort of game created by me and only for me.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing for “alternative facts,” as the supporters of Trump do.  I’m not denying science or the dangers of Covid-19.  When I go out, I social distance and wear a mask as needed.  But I also believe there is a reality outside of rocks and rivers, so to speak, a reality created by my consciousness, an immaterial realm that has its own existence, whether for me or for all of us.  Some might call this a “higher” realm; I prefer to see it as linked to the material, for I myself am both physical and mental, both material and immaterial.

Those epistemological paradigms, material and  immaterial, provide me with solace in these dark days.  Not everything is controlled by others, and especially not by the Cult of Trump.  I decide.  And for me that’s an empowering thought at a time when power is being actively denied to so many of us.

Richard Sahn is a retired sociology professor and a regular contributor to Bracing Views.

White Privilege

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Poster Child for White Privilege

W.J. Astore

As a concept, “white privilege” is disturbing, contentious, insulting, take your pick, assuming you’re a white guy like me enjoying “advanced middle age,” as one of my old friends recently put it.  Me, privileged?  I come from a working-class background, grew up in a triple-decker in a decaying city, started working at age 15, went to college on a ROTC scholarship, served in the military for twenty years, and so on.  I didn’t “succeed” because I’m a cis white male, right?  Where was “my” privilege?

Of course, privilege is often invisible or barely visible; it’s stealthy.  It may mean you’re not being watched because you’re white.  You’re not being stopped and frisked because you’re white.  People don’t cross the street because you’re white.  Maybe you’re not shot at or choked out because you’re white.

The clearest illustration of white privilege I can think of is Donald Trump, and it’s not because I’m a Trump hater.  (I’m opposed to Trump and Biden.)

Think about Trump.  He’s been married three times.  Has had five kids with three different wives.  Brags about pussy-grabbing.  Has had documented affairs with a Playboy playmate and a porn star while paying them hush money.  And none of this behavior has ruined his political chances, even among the “family values” evangelical crowd.  Indeed, evangelicals generally love “bad boy” Trump.

Now, imagine a black candidate for the presidency with Trump’s record.  The multiple marriages, the adulterous affairs, the pussy-grabbing talk.  Would this black guy have a ghost of a chance at being nominated in the USA?  Recall that Barack Obama needed to have the “perfect” family image, monogamous, faithful, wife, two kids, by all accounts a loving relationship, the prototypical nuclear family.  They even had a dog, unlike Trump, who seems to despise pets.  (Trump’s a germaphobe.)

Now, let’s imagine a woman of any race or creed.  What would America say about a female candidate who’s had five kids with three different husbands?  Who’s had adulterous affairs with porn stars and Playgirl centerfolds?  Who’s bragged of grabbing males by the you-know-what?  Would she have a chance to be our president?  To be embraced by evangelicals as their candidate of choice?  Of course not.

With Trump, all this doesn’t matter.  As a rich spoiled white guy, he’s been given a blank check by society to do whatever he wants.  Sure, he’s been criticized for his more outrageous comments and actions, but he still won the presidency — and may yet win again.  You simply can’t say the same of any woman or any person of color with the same baggage as Trump.

It’s amazing what Trump gets away with.  But this is not about partisan politics.  It’s about societal norms and expectations.  Consider John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Both were philanderers; LBJ was especially vulgar.  But all was accepted or at least tolerated because they were white males acting in “manly” ways.

This is just one obvious but nevertheless compelling illustration of white (male) privilege in America.  As my better half reminds me, for white men it’s easier walking down the sidewalk, buying a car, renting an apartment; basically, living.  And that is privilege indeed.

We Put A Man on the Moon …

apollo08_earthrise
Earthrise as seen by Apollo 8

W.J. Astore

Is it possible the U.S. hit a peak of sorts in 1969?  I know – 1969 was a Nixon year, another year of destruction in Vietnam, though the music in those days was far better than today.  But I’m thinking of Apollo, as in our landing on the moon in July of 1969.  Having recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, that momentous event is still on my mind, especially when I think of the old poster I had on my bedroom wall that showed the Apollo journey from earth to the moon, its various stages and maneuvers.  It was all bewildering to a young boy caught up in the space program, but at least I knew my country was at the forefront of science.

In 1969 America reached the moon!  We respected science.  Many Americans were trying to end a disastrous war in Vietnam.  People marched for civil rights, they fought for equal rights, there was a sense America’s potential was nearly limitless.

WTF in 2020?  Many Americans, including our president, don’t respect science.  We fire doctors for calling out quack medical cures.  We put a breeder of labradoodles in charge of our Covid-19 pandemic response.  Wars just go on forever with little resistance.  We’re sliding backwards in rights for minorities, for women, for workers.  And the space program?  Moribund in the USA.  We’re very much stuck on earth, an earth that is less hospitable to life than it was fifty years ago.

The years 1970-2020 has defined a half-century of American decline.  Perhaps we might speak of five bad “emperors”: Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Shrub Bush, and Obama, now joined by Trump, our very own blend of Nero and Caligula.  He fiddles and diddles while America burns.

Joe Biden and the establishment Democrats are hardly the answer.  Even Jesus isn’t the answer unless we start taking His words about the rich (and so much else) seriously.  The Jesus of my youth had no use for greed and money and material goods – He taught us our treasure was in heaven, gained by righteous living through faith while manifesting love.  That sacrificial message is drowned out today by the so-called prosperity gospel, preached by ministers who are cashing in even as they tell their followers that wealth is the most legitimate form of God’s grace.  Back in the Catholic church of my youth, such ideas would have been blasphemous.  At my church I recall the example set by Sister Emily and Sister Jane Elizabeth – they sure weren’t living in luxury.  Forgive them, sisters, they know not what they do.

Here we are, in 2020, in a land of un-truth, in a universe of alternative facts, in belief systems where money matters more than anything, where even ministers stoke conflict, and we wonder why we can’t come together and develop a clear, coherent, and coordinated response to the coronavirus crisis.

How to change this?  How about letting experts lead us?  You know the saying: it ain’t rocket science.  But Apollo was rocket science, and so we deferred to experts, and they got us to the moon and back six times and patched together an amazing rescue of Apollo 13 when it went wrong.  To beat Covid-19, we can’t listen to Trump and his band of grifters and losers.  We must listen to the scientists, the doctors, and act collectively based on sound medical science.  The “rocket scientists” will get us through this, together with the humanists and the selfless efforts of so many medical workers and (mostly) nameless others.

Longer term, we need to re-create our government, because it has, quite simply, betrayed most of us.  Simultaneously, we need to move beyond nationalism and think and act on a global scale to save our earth.  If Apollo taught us one thing, it’s the wondrous value of our own planet.  The moon may be a place of magnificent desolation, but who wants to live permanently in desolation?  We need global vision and action, not only to help prevent future pandemics, but also to preserve our planet as a viable biosphere for a global population projected to top ten billion people in the coming decades.

Nobody said it would be easy; yet if we stay on our current course, just about anybody can guess humanity’s fate.  But if we can put a man on the moon, surely we can come together to create a better future for ourselves and our children.

The year was 1969, and this song by the Youngbloods went gold: “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.  Right now.  Right now.”  It wasn’t – or shouldn’t be — just hippie dreaming.  Indeed, it’s the essence of true Christianity.

America’s Bizarre Cult of Death

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B-2 bomber flies over Kansas City to honor Covid-19 workers

W.J. Astore

A recent news item caught my eye: “Whiteman Air Force Base [in Missouri] to salute health care workers with flyover on Tuesday: Flyover will include B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, four T-38 Talons and two A-10 Thunderbolt lls.”  New York City had its own flyover by the aerial demonstration teams of the Navy and Air Force.  “America Strong” was the theme of the latter.

Isn’t it curious that we celebrate our life-saving medical workers with flyovers by warplanes that are designed to take life?  And, regarding the B-2 stealth bomber, a life-taker on a truly massive scale, since it’s designed for nuclear warfare.

Maybe there’s a weird form of (unintentional) honesty here.  We use death-dealing machinery to celebrate life-preserving medical workers, highlighting a bizarre cult of death in America, one seemingly embraced and advanced by Donald Trump’s policies on Covid-19, among other policies working against the health and welfare of ordinary people.

As Tom Engelhardt notes in a new piece for TomDispatch.com, Trump is only America’s latest assassin-in-chief, but this time the killing is happening here in the homeland, rather than being exported to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries across the globe.  Speaking of violence coming home, together with homeland insecurity, is there any other country in the world in which gun sales have soared during this pandemic?  From an article in The Guardian:

Estimated gun sales also soared to 2.58m in March, Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting reported, an 85.3% jump from the same time last year.

An explosion in gun sales during a pandemic suggests something about the American psyche that is truly scary.  So too do combat jets screaming in the skies as a celebration of heroic lifesavers.

American Health Care Is Wealth Care

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Covid-19 is exposing the American health care system’s greatest weakness: its focus on wealth rather than health

W.J. Astore

As millions of Americans lose their jobs due to Covid-19 disruptions, they also lose their health care, which is tied to their jobs.  Only in America is health care contingent on employment.  Efforts to create a national, single-payer, health care system have failed since the Truman administration in the late 1940s.  Americans have been sold on the idea that health care is best administered by “the free market,” which of course is neither free nor much of a market.

The American health care system puts profit over people; in short, it’s wealth care, not health care.  This is simply fact.  Health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, are motivated by money.  Indeed, health insurers make money by denying you coverage, not providing it.  They raise co-pays and deductibles to unbearable limits.  Meanwhile, they spend liberally on lobbyists to keep Congress in their pockets, as well as on advertising to persuade Americans that health insurers are always on your side.  Until you file a claim, that is, or need expensive treatment.

Health care should be about health, not wealth, and people, not profit.  Back in 2013, I wrote the following article on health care for Huffington Post.  Of course, the system has only grown worse.  America faces a crisis today, driven by a deadly pandemic.  Isn’t it time to embrace single-payer health care for all?

***

Americans generally, and politicians in particular, proudly proclaim that we live in “the greatest” country. But how should we measure the greatness of a country? I’d suggest that quality of life should be a vitally important measure.

And what is more fundamental to quality of life than ready access to health care? When you’re sick or suffering, you should be able to see a medical specialist. And those costs should be — wait for it — free to you. Because health care is a fundamental human right that transcends money. Put succinctly, the common health is the commonwealth. And we should use the common wealth to pay for the common health.

Here’s the truth: We all face the reality of confiscatory taxation. If you’re like me, you pay all sorts of taxes. Federal, state, and local income taxes. Property taxes. School taxes. Social security. State lotteries are a regressive tax aimed at the poor and the gullible. We pay these taxes, and of course some for health care as well (Medicare/Medicaid), amounting to roughly 30 percent of our income (or higher, depending on your tax bracket, unless you’re super-rich and your money comes from dividends and capital gains, then you pay 15 percent or lower: see Romney, Mitt).

Yet despite this tax burden, medical care for most of us remains costly and is usually connected somehow to employment (assuming you have a good job that provides health care benefits). Even if you have health care through your job, there’s usually a substantial deductible or percentage that you have to pay out-of-pocket.

America, land of the free! But not free health care. Pay up, you moocher! And if you should lose your job or if you’re one of the millions of so-called underinsured … bankruptcy.

Health care is a moral issue, but our leaders see it through a business/free market lens. And this lens leads to enormous moral blind spots. One example: Our colleges and universities are supposed to be enlightened centers of learning. They educate our youth and help to create our future. Higher Ed suggests a higher purpose, one that has a moral center — somewhere.

But can you guess the response of colleges and universities to Obamacare? They’re doing their level best to limit adjunct professors’ hours to fewer than thirty per week. Why? So they won’t be obligated by law to provide health care benefits to these adjuncts.

Adjuncts are already underpaid; some are lucky to make $3000 for each course they teach. Now colleges and universities are basically telling them, “Tough luck, Adjunct John Galt. If you want medical benefits, pay for health insurance yourself. And we’re limiting your hours to ensure that you have to.”

So, if Adjunct John Galt teaches 10 courses a year (probably at two or three institutions of “higher” learning) and makes $30,000, he then faces the sobering reality of dedicating one-third of this sum to purchasing private health insurance. If that isn’t a sign of American greatness, I don’t know what is.

I groan as much as the next guy when I pay my taxes. But I’d groan a lot less if I knew my money was funding free health care for all (including me and mine). Commonwealth for the common health. With no death panels in sight.

A healthy republic that prides itself on “greatness” should place the health of its citizens first. That we don’t is a cause for weeping — and it should be a cause for national soul-searching.

What’s “Great” About Donald Trump?

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Trump: Legend in his own mind

W.J. Astore

MAGA: Make America Great Again.  That was Donald Trump’s slogan for 2016.  He obviously believes he has succeeded, since his slogan for 2020 is Keep America Great.  “Great” is obviously vague, protean, and labile in meaning, but what does it mean to Trump?

It’s a serious question that deserves consideration.  Here, to my mind, is how Trump thinks he’s made America great, keeping in mind that greatness to Trump is all about that which produces adulation for, well, one Donald J. Trump.

  1. Military might. Trump loves to brag about how he’s “restored” the military, making it bigger and badder than ever.
  2. More riches for the richest. Hence that huge tax break for the richest, perhaps the signature achievement of his first term.
  3. A galloping stock market. Well, until Covid-19.
  4. More power and money for Trump and his family. Trump views greatness in terms of what’s best for him and his family empire.
  5. Walls to keep out “the other.” For Trump, part of being great is denying that status to others.  A world of great heads like Trump demands lots of little people suffering.
  6. A neutered press (the “enemy of the people”). For Trump, the press is his foil, his lapdog, his trumpet, and his enemy, all in one.  When it’s dancing to his tune, Trump knows he’s winning – and he feels like a winner, too.
  7. Permanent partisan divide in which the Democrats are seen as almost demonic. Trump needs an enemy to measure himself against, and “Demoncrats” like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are tailor-made rivals to belittle, which helps to make him feel bigger.
  8. Near-total dismissal of expertise, especially of science (climate change as a “hoax”). A “very stable genius” needs no help from others; he is omniscient.  He even knows the best way to tackle and treat a pandemic!
  9. Always blaming someone else for any setback. Greatness, to Trump, means never having to say you’re sorry.
  10. Disenfranchising or discouraging as many “bad” Americans as possible from voting. Not every American can wrap their heads around Trump’s greatness.  Those who can’t really don’t deserve to vote.

In all seriousness, Trump is great at one thing: shameless deception.  The man knows the craft of the con.  He often can fool most of the people most of the time.  Imagine the good a man like this could do if he had empathy, ethics, and truly sought to serve others.  But Trump serves only himself.  A petty tyrant, he has commanded the attention of Americans in an almost unprecedented way, only to divide them and diminish democracy.

Herein lies a conundrum: How has a man whose spirit is so small, whose sense of service is so shriveled, whose judgment is so un-great, convinced so many that greatness lies within their grasp if only they listen to him, follow him, cheer him on, and reelect him?

Great may indeed be a protean concept – but by any definition the greatness of America does not reside in enabling or empowering one Donald J. Trump.

There’s No Vaccine for Stupidity

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Trump gives himself an A+ and a 10/10 for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.  Not everyone agrees.

W.J. Astore

A few thoughts generated by these coronaviral times:

Perhaps in a year, we’ll have an effective vaccine against COVID-19.  But developing a vaccine against stupidity will remain elusive.

Perhaps we should redefine COVID-19 as a terrorist outfit, thereby unleashing unlimited funding from Congress to combat it.

People are stunned by this pandemic and the changes driven by it.  We’ve been knocked out of our routines and perhaps our complacency.  At least some of us are now open to new ideas.  Which is precisely why our government is rushing in with old ideas, doubling down on trickle down, telling us to remain in place, not only physically, which is necessary, but mentally.  Look at the parade of old ideas trumpeted by the president.  And for that matter Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic establishment.  Trump and Biden are literally tired old men, not in age alone, but more importantly in how they view the world.  There’s nothing fresh or original about them.  Nothing.  Whereas Bernie Sanders is fighting for health care for all, better pay for workers, and a system that puts people first instead of profits.

The courage and selflessness of doctors, nurses, first responders, and indeed all those who are risking exposure to the virus to help others has truly been inspirational.  We’re hearing a lot from the media about our doctors, nurses, etc. being “heroes,” which is encouraging.  Far too often in the U.S., and for too long, the concept of “hero” was linked to military service, with all troops being celebrated as “hometown heroes.”  Athletes, too, were called heroes for hitting homeruns or throwing touchdowns.  Our coronaviral moment is reminding us about the true nature of heroes.  As I wrote a decade ago:

Here, then, is what I mean by “hero”: someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place.  Heroes, of course, come in all sizes, shapes, ages, and colors, most of them looking nothing like John Wayne or John Rambo or GI Joe (or Jane).

“Hero,” sadly, is now used far too cavalierly.  Sportscasters, for example, routinely refer to highly paid jocks who hit walk-off home runs or score game-winning touchdowns as heroes.  Even though I come from a family of firefighters (and one police officer), the most heroic person I’ve ever known was neither a firefighter nor a cop nor a jock: She was my mother, a homemaker who raised five kids and endured without complaint the ravages of cancer in the 1970s, with its then crude chemotherapy regimen, its painful cobalt treatments, the collateral damage of loss of hair, vitality, and lucidity.  In refusing to rail against her fate or to take her pain out on others, she set an example of selfless courage and heroism I’ll never forget.

Perhaps it takes a crisis like this for us to recognize the “ordinary” heroes among us, the ones who aren’t “top guns” flying warplanes, the ones who aren’t throwing footballs for multi-million-dollar salaries.

Remember when Trump said: “I could stand In the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”?  This moment is proving him right.  He has colossally mismanaged this crisis, yet his followers still place their faith in him.  For his followers, Trump is the ultimate Teflon president.  Nothing sticks to him.  Eat your heart out, Ronald Reagan!

Finally, as a pandemic rages, the Trump administration is warning of a possible sneak attack by Iran even as it deploys ships and air assets in the drug war, specifically against Venezuela.  Echoing the words of Mehdi Hasan, a journalist at The Intercept, what kind of maniac does this?  But maybe it’s not mania; after all, Iran and Venezuela have something in common: huge reserves of oil, and regimes that resist the USA.  Once again, old thinking prevails, old scores must be settled, even as a new world order takes shape because of this pandemic.

Of course, Trump has never put America first.  He’s always put himself first.  He’s given himself an A+ and a 10 out of 10 for his leadership in facing this crisis.  Sad to say, his followers believe him.  Remember when I said there’s no vaccine for stupidity?

Quick Thoughts on the Coronavirus Crisis

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W.J. Astore

As millions of Americans are laid off or lose their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis, they often also lose their employer-provided health care.  You think maybe it’s finally time for Medicare For All?

Americans will have to rely increasingly on credit cards, which charge usurious interest rates of 25% or higher, even as the Fed has lowered the prime rate nearly to zero for banks.  Any chance that banks and credit card companies will dramatically lower their rates to help Americans in this time of crisis?

Speaking of credit card companies and high interest rates, guess who their greatest friend was in the U.S. Senate.  Yes, Joe Biden, Senator from Delaware, where laws favor banks and credit card companies.

Speaking of Joe Biden, guess who’s been virtually invisible during the coronavirus crisis.  His handlers apparently think Joe isn’t ready for prime time.  Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has been raising millions for charity and promoting sensible ideas that are later adopted by the Trump administration.

The DNC, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer don’t know what to think or do until their corporate masters provide guidance or give them permission.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration and the Republicans are filling the vacuum, even as they push legislation that supports their pet ideas and programs (restrictions on immigration, further attacks on public education, and the like).

Party-line Democrats want payments to Americans to be means-tested.  Yet help to corporations is never means-tested.  What gives?  In the spirit of trickle-down economics, expect a few drops of assistance to the poor and buckets-full of support for the rich.

Huge crises don’t always produce good leaders.  The Great Depression exposed Herbert Hoover and his small-minded thinking.  COVID-19 is exposing Trump for what he is: ignorant, lazy, incurious, incapable of empathy, petulant, and vain.  Meanwhile, as an alternative, the DNC puts forward Joe Biden, a corporate tool in his late seventies showing signs of confusion and cognitive decline.  Sadly, it’s not true that strong leaders arise to meet the moment — not in this White House, not in this corrupt political system.

Americans have been told for decades “You can have it all.”  To have “No Fear.”  To take selfies of ourselves and revel in our own individualism.  Even after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, our leaders told us to go shopping and visit Disney, to consume and party.  Now we’re being encouraged to come together, to help one another, to be unselfish, to live a life that’s not self-centered.  But in many cases it’s too late.  People aren’t listening.  They’ve been told forever to focus on themselves and their own self-actualization.  And you just don’t flip a propaganda/conditioning switch that easily.

That said, I salute our doctors, nurses, other medical personnel, and first responders.  I salute everyone working at supermarkets and hardware stores and the like, serving us all despite the risks.  I meet my neighbors on walks and I admire the spirit of friendliness and our collective willingness to help one another.  We’re going to need this spirit to get through the weeks and months ahead.

“Keep calm and wash your hands” is a sign I saw at my local bank.  It’s not the worst advice.  Be safe out there.

Update (3/23): To no surprise, a deeply corrupt and compromised political system is responding to this crisis in a deeply corrupt and compromised way.  Truly, this is a national emergency. And what is Congress doing to help ordinary people? Virtually nothing. The Senate’s “relief” package is relief for the rich and corporations and industries.

In this immense crisis, we are seeing the sheer awfulness of the religion of American capitalism.

As Trump has dithered and Biden has remained invisible, Bernie Sanders has led the charge, raising millions for charity and fighting for workers.  Why can’t people see this?

 

Education in America: Of Hungry Wolves and Docile Sheep

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W.J. Astore

I was educated in public schools by dedicated teachers in the pre-digital age.  My teachers read books to me and had me read books.  I learned math, partly by rote, but also through friendly student competitions.  Science I learned by doing, like chemistry with Bunsen burners and test tubes.  I had classes in art and music, and even though I had little talent in drawing or playing an instrument, I still learned to appreciate both subjects.  My high school was big and diverse, so I took electives in courses I really enjoyed, like science fiction, photography, even a course in aquariology, in which I built my own aquarium.  And I must say I’m glad there wasn’t the distraction of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and similar social media sites to torment me; video games, meanwhile, were in my day still crude, so I spent more time outside, playing tennis, riding my bike, hanging with friends, being in the world and nature (fishing was a favorite pursuit).

When I was a teen, we learned a lot about history and civics and the humanities.  We spent time in the library, researching and writing.  I took a debate course and learned how to construct an argument and speak before an audience.  When I graduated from high school, I felt like I had a solid grounding: that I knew enough to make educated choices; that I could participate as a citizen by voting intelligently when I was eighteen.

Something has happened to education in America.  You can see it in the big trends that are being hyped, including STEM, vocational training, computers and online courses, and privatization (charter schools).  What suffers from these trends is the humanities, the arts, unionized teachers, critical and creative thinking skills, and, most especially, civics and ethics.

STEM is all about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  My BS is in mechanical engineering and I love science and math, so I’m sympathetic to STEM classes.  The problem is how STEM is justified – it’s usually couched in terms of keeping America competitive vis-à-vis other nations.  STEM is seen as a driver for economic success and growth, a servant of industry, innovation, and profit.  It’s not usually sold as developing critical thinking skills, even though STEM classes do help to develop such skills.

From STEM we turn to vocational training.  Many students seek a career, of course, and not all students wish to go to a four-year college, or to college period.  But once again vocational training is mainly justified as a feeder to business and industry.  It’s often reduced to education as training for labor, where the primary goal is to learn to earn.  It may produce decent plumbers and welders and electricians and the like, but also ones who are indoctrinated to accept the system as it is.

In The Baffler, Tarence Ray has an article, “Hollowed Out: Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia.”  Ray critiques ARC (the Appalachian Regional Commission) in the following passage that resonated with my own experiences teaching at a vocational college:

“The ARC [in the late 1960s and early ‘70s] also placed a lot of emphasis on career and vocational education.  This appealed to President Nixon, who was desperate to counteract the student activism of antiwar and environmental groups.  ‘Vocational education is more politically neutral,’ one White House aide put it.  But it was also advantageous for the multinational corporations who controlled Appalachia’s coal resources and most of its institutions of power–the goal was to create a workforce that was skilled but also obedient.  An education in the humanities emphasizes critical thinking, which might lead to political consciousness, a risk that the ARC could not afford to take.” [emphasis added]

My dad liked the historical saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  A vocational education sounds good, especially to those in power.  Doubtless young people need marketable skills.  The shame of it all is that the final “product” of vocational colleges–skilled graduates who are “workforce-ready”–is by design a limited one—an obedient one.  America needs active and informed citizens as well, and they need to have the skills and mindset to question their bosses, their so-called betters, because if they lack such a mindset, nothing will change for the better in our society.

Along with STEM and vocational training is an emphasis on computers and online courses.  Nowadays most school administrators would rather fund computers and networked classrooms than raise pay for teachers.  In fact, online courses are advertised as a way to replace teachers, or at least to reduce the number of full-time teachers needed on staff.  But I question whether one can learn sociology or art or philosophy or ethics by taking an online course.  And I remain skeptical of big “investments” in computers, SMART boards, and the like.  They may have their place, but they’re no substitute for education that’s truly student-centered, and one that’s focused on civics and ethics, right and wrong.

The final trend we’re seeing is privatization, as with charter schools.  The (false) narrative here is that teachers in unions are overpaid, unaccountable, and otherwise inflexible or incompetent.  Somehow the magical free market will solve this.  If only one could get rid of unions while privatizing everything, all will be well in America’s schools.  Private corporations, driven by profit and “efficiency,” will somehow produce a better product, a word I choose deliberately, for they see education as a product.  And while some charter schools have been innovative and effective, many others have failed, mainly because education isn’t education when it’s reduced to a “deliverable” – a commodity driven by and reduced to money.

At a time when the United States desperately needs critical and creative thinkers educated in the arts and humanities as well as STEM and vocational subjects, our schools and especially our legislators are rejecting their duty to serve democratic ideals, choosing instead to embrace business, industry, economic competitiveness, and obedience, all in service of the bottom line measured in dollars and cents.  Now more than ever, America needs young people who are engaged civically and ethically, who value more than money and materialism.  Yet many of our schools are pursuing a much different agenda.

Is it because hungry wolves prefer docile sheep?