Archive for February, 2013

Reflections On Disgust and Cynicism

February 24, 2013

Am I the only one to have noticed this recent phenomenon? You know, the ascendency of Republican women in the social vandalism sweepstakes. I’m thinking here of the Bachmanns and Coulters on the national stage and the cadre currently inhabiting the New Mexico Roundhouse and state offices. The Spanky-Mama vandals who are taking over from their men, baring their teeth, and going after civility and comity. Maybe the boys just aren’t up to the task.

Some recent New Mexico examples:
1.    (Monica Youngblood) A New Mexican woman legislator who commented that the minimum wage should not be raised because it apparently leads people to enjoy poverty. Perhaps she should try poverty and see if she’s been missing something.
2.    (Cathrynn Brown) Famous for her stealth attempt to criminalize victims of rape and incest seeking abortions. She also voted against extending the deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
3.    (Diana Duran) Our Secretary of State delayed voter confirmation for a year until the election cycle – “What? – Who? – Me?”
4.    (Nora Espinoza) She proposed a constitutional amendment to “define marriage” as being between a man and a woman. She was also a cosigner to Brown’s rape-and-incest end-run. Not to forget Nora’s attempt to make it a felony to enforce federal firearms laws.
5.    (Hanna Skandera) Author of a long list of destructive strategies and efforts to destroy public education de facto and de jure as the Secretary Designate of Public Education. Her mandate comes from the legislative committee that hasn’t had the courage to vote her up or down, thus giving tacit approval to her work.
6.    (Susana Martinez)  The governor who loves all of them.

Like the historic Vandals who sacked Rome in AD 455, these latter-day vandals are hell-bent on senseless destruction of the social contract out of a general disrespect and disregard for others. It’s a well-fed country-club matron’s mentality that all those of lesser circumstances are there by their own fault, lack of ambition, effort, and intelligence.

Monica Youngblood, a New Mexico Republican legislator who wants to see “people strive”; she wants to see them “aspire to be more than minimum wage.” In the meantime we must assume that by her dictate they and their families must live in poverty. This is as cynical an attitude as I can imagine. It reminds me of Marie Antoinette’s “let-them-eat-cake” remark. Youngblood “wants” to see impoverished people strive and aspire, as if it is imaginable that people aspire to live in poverty.

Cathrynn Brown, the New Mexican Republican legislator who tried to slide her legislation through the system to punish, to criminalize, in fact, women who abort a fetus caused by rape, is a cynic of apparently generous proportions. When called out she laid blame on someone else for not expressing her real intent when drafting her legislation—neglecting to say that she signed the bill after it was drafted and then introduced it with a bevy of other eager Republican women legislators on board. How cynical is that? Are we to believe that Republican women legislators do not read the legislation they sign on to. One has to wonder.

We also have the spectacle of a Republican woman governor and a Republican woman Secretary Designate of Public Education proposing the antediluvian, draconian and discredited educational policy of retention of third-grade students who fail to learn to read on an arbitrary schedule. Both the governor and her secretary designate are cynically engaged in the process of privatizing New Mexico public schools, using a variety of tactics including intimidating teachers with Gestapo-like raids and starving funds to such an extent that New Mexico has earned first place in the US for the largest reduction in public education budgets.

This essay is as much about moral disgust as it is about the specific behaviors of society matrons and matron wannabes with their mink cuffs and collars as they denigrate the society that supports them. Charles Darwin in his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, wrote that disgust refers to a reaction to the quality of something revolting. Disgust is a basic emotion, a response to things that are fundamentally and viscerally offensive. Among the varieties of disgust is moral disgust—a revulsion to certain behaviors, comments and attitudes. Hence disgust expresses my response to the behaviors and comments of Republican women politicians as described above.

What can be said of a society wherein elected officials mistrust the very society they ran for office to represent, or of politicians, national and local, who stuff their PACs with money from generous donors who want favors done? Does one have to be cynical to ascribe cynical motives to that sort of cynical behavior? What kind of society does this lead to but one underlain with cynicism? And, it certainly cannot be a civil society.

Franklin Roosevelt’s agenda, inspired by the “Great Depression,” between 1933 and 1936 was characterized by an intent to alter social conditions. Just as certainly it wasn’t intended to oppress or denigrate the middle or lower classes of society. So much of the good for working people that followed sprang from the many programs Roosevelt’s “New Deal” put into place that were in most considerations successful in lifting people out of the oppressive poverty of the Depression. Which Depression I will point out wasn’t caused by working-class people anymore than the recent stock market and bad mortgage crisis was.

People who earn minimum wage do not cause financial crises; greedy, cynical, wealthy people do that with the help of legislators both national and local, which “help” falls into the category of cynicism by definition. When people run for political office because they have an agenda to somehow alter society in a regressive and oppressive nature we have a serious problem on our hands and a problem which historically has led to serious and widespread social unrest.

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Creating a Corpse

Graph 2

As every bureaucrat knows, if you want to kill any public process or project the preferred method is to starve it, and starving public education they are. If you want make a corpse of public education simply starve it to death by underfunding it. Doing things this way kills your target softly, which avoids confrontation and rancorous public discussion. The by-word is stealth.

It is no coincidence that the two worst states in the US when it comes to cuts in per student spending are the two states where the most ambitious wanna-be Republican governors have declared war on public education and public school teachers; two governors who have overweaning national political ambitions. They are, of course, Scott Walker and Susana Martinez.

The accompanying chart, created by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, vividly tells the sad tale. Read it and weep, New Mexico – we are leading the country in starving public education out of existence. Wisconsin and New Mexico lead the country, with New Mexico taking first-place honors cutting per student spending by $707.00 from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012. Yes, New Mexico leads the nation in something besides great enchiladas, and by a fair margin. Wisconsin is in the game with minus $625.00. West Virginia, on the other hand, spent $504.00 more per student during the same period. West Virginia!

“Civilization works only if those who enjoy its benefits are prepared to pay their share of the costs.” Thus begins a recent editorial in the Economist, “The Missing 20 trillion,” about the amount of non-taxed money generated by individuals and corporations through one dodge or another that are secured in various countries, off-shore shelters and the like. Essentially it is an article on sociopathy in the form of capitalism. The editors could have beneficially stopped with the above quotation but, ever the defenders of capitalist ways, went on to rationalize the underlying causes and ignore the moral issues.

This is not to say the editors didn’t suggest fair and honest ways to tax the money; what they failed to do was address the core problem. Where they dropped the ball, so to speak, was to not address first principles, their own assumptions about the social contract and the underlying causality. What is missing is a frank discussion of the missing moral commitment to a social contract that includes the rest of us. But this is both typical of these kinds of economic analysis, which ply the reader with platitudes about capitalism while they ignore its fundamental and deadly flaws.

Nowhere do we find a better and more telling example than the ongoing war on public education in the United States by the wealthy and the politicians they have purchased with campaign financing and generous PACs. The selling of America, indeed.

The Skandera Scam

Time is of the essence in addressing education and the machinations of the New Mexico Public Education Department and its conservative allies such as the Rio Grande Foundation to undermine and replace public education with privatized for-profit schools. Nowhere is the devolution of the American social contract more evident and more tragic in its consequences than the attack on public education. Public schooling has become a target for every know-nothing politician, up-and-coming right–wing operative and demagogue with an agenda and looking for attention across the country – not to mention campaign contributors from special interest groups. Political campaigns against public education are being fueled and funded by right-wing foundations, alliances, institutions and so forth with one objective – to privatize public education. To turn public schools into profit centers.

New Mexico does not have a legitimate Secretary of Education. We have an “acting” secretary, a secretary designate, and brother, is she ever “acting,” especially on behalf of her out-of-state sponsors and benefactors. She is also “acting” in that she has absolutely no credentials as an educator; she is, in truth, a Trojan horse for the school privatization cartel. Hannah Skandera came to New Mexico with an agenda, and she has pursued it relentlessly, with the help of the Rio Grande Foundation, enabling that organization to front for the online charter schools —New Mexico Connections Academy. In a moment of rare candor she once excused herself by saying that she perhaps needed to have learned more about New Mexico before introducing so many “reforms”. Yeah!  Right!

The governor, for her part, also a non-expert on childhood education, has beat her drums for retention in grade for third-grade students who fail to learn to read on someone else’s schedule. Anyone who drags this tired fossil out of its well-deserved mummification deserves banishment from any position where they might have contact with students and teachers. In Finland, where they boast one of the world’s most successful public education systems, they don’t even have grades between primary and secondary levels. In Union City, New Jersey the school system was in shambles and the state was poised to take over the system. Today, they have a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent, which is 10 percentage points above the national average. How did they do it? With third-grade retention? Absolutely not! No teachers were fired, parents were integrated into the programs; there are neither charter schools nor “Teach for America” operatives in the system either. They start pre-kindergarten with as many 3- and 4-year-olds as possible. What’s their “secret”?  Respecting good teachers, bringing parents into the process, setting high expectations, while at the same time working with children as individuals.

As I wrote some time ago, Skandera was hired as a pay-back to Gov. Martinez’s election contributors. Prior to moving to New Mexico, and after serving on Jeb Bush’s staff, the young lady was given a plum job in Texas running a private training school, Laying the Foundation. The mission of Laying The Foundation is to train individuals to replace real teachers on the cheap. Skandera has no education credentials whatsoever but she does have political credentials in abundance – she was and still is a trusted operative, a foot soldier, in the public school privatization movement led nominally by her former employer, Jeb Bush. Since her appointment here, Skandera has appeared at numerous conventions and conferences across the country organized around the idea of public school privatization, sharing the stage with such notable sharks as Rupert Murdoch, who once exclaimed his enthusiasm for the education business as a multi-million dollar opportunity.

The grade school non-scandal perpetrated by Skandera is a good example of her tactics and how little respect she has for public education and teachers. Officials from Skandera’s office conducted a Gestapo-style “raid” at Albuquerque’s Sierra Vista Elementary school on the pretext that teachers were gaming the testing system. The school’s teaching day was disrupted, substitute teachers had to be brought in, teachers were cross-examined, and in the end the PED issued a letter stating that while no crimes were found the school and teachers had better well be careful – or else. This raid, in the PED’s own words, was based on “circumstantial evidence” and “hearsay.” Brilliant! No! Disrespectful? Yes!

So, the question is: What is this all about?

The answer: Money!

Money for whom? Money for people like Rupert Murdoch and Jeb Bush and, of course, campaign contributions to the governor’s PAC.

There is no need here to enumerate more instances of Skandera’s disrespect for children, teachers, administrators, the New Mexico Public Education Commission and just about anyone else not signed on to her political agenda. Skandera has been engaged in a relentless campaign to privatize public education from her first day in New Mexico, and she is gaining on it every day. For delivering New Mexico into the hands of the privatizers Skandera will no doubt be handsomely rewarded with another public education department assignment in a vulnerable state or a comfortable sinecure at one of their numerous front foundations or propaganda think-tanks.

The matter once again rests in the hands of the New Mexico Senate Rules Committee. Will they punt Skandera’s nomination again or will they man-up and send her packing? The governor, for her part, needs to commission the PEC to conduct a thorough search for candidates with proper academic credentials and experience as opposed to canvasing donors for political hacks.

For the children, teachers, parents, communities, and for the future of New Mexico, the stakes are high.

Low-Effort Thinking

A study published in the journal Personality and Social Science Bulletin last year showed that those who score low on intelligence tests eventually gravitate towards “socially conservative political views.” The study concluded that “low-effort thinking” promotes political conservatism and acceptance of hierarchy. Who’da thunk it?

In the military blaming a subordinate for a mistake or failure made on your watch could result, at minimum, in a reprimand, or at worst being brought up on charges of conduct unbecoming of an officer. In New Mexico we are witnessing a scandal brought about by a Republican State Representative, Cathrynn Brown, blaming a bill drafter for making errors in a bill she requested, subsequently reviewed, signed and introduced to the Chamber. I fully understand that charges of “conduct unbecoming a politician” would be a conundrum of challenging proportions, but they should certainly be pursued, if only by the rational voters in her district. The legislation proposed was most certainly antisocial and demonstrated a lack of conscience and empathy. It is / was a piece of sociopathic legislation designed to punish women who have been raped for not carrying the child to term. Denials of responsibility followed public disclosure of the bill.

This was religious zealotry and low-effort thinking attempting to become law plain and simple. What you have here when you shovel your way through the “don’t-blame-me” propaganda is a bill that makes criminals of rape victims who don’t want to carry the rapist’s child. What’s next on this agenda? Perhaps witch burning such as took place in Papua New Guinea this past week. A 20-year-old mother was burned alive there in front of hundreds of witnesses (taking photographs no less), she having been accused of sorcery. It was, along with photographs, front-page news in the biggest newspaper in the country. Irrational, dogmatic religious zealotry takes its toll on a society; it makes mockery of claims of being civilized.

In New Mexico we have Cathrynn Brown, and in Missouri they have Todd Akin, a former US Representative who claims there is “legitimate rape” and that women’s bodies have a built-in mechanism for “shutting down” so pregnancy from rape won’t occur. Next we have Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia, an MD, who claims that evolution, embryology, and the “Big Bang Theory” are “… lies straight from the pit of Hell.” I would be remiss if I forgot to mention Terry England, a Georgia legislator who wanted to pass a bill requiring women to carry still-born fetuses to term. His rationale? Cows and pigs do. I should also include Richard Murdock, the Republican state treasurer of Indiana who opined: “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” There you have it, ladies, Grin and Bear It – God “intended” that you should be raped.

In Mississippi recently a five-year-old child was taken home from kindergarten in a police car “to teach him and his mother a lesson.” What was the crime? The school requires all students to wear black shoes, and this kid’s family was too poor to buy him black shoes. Mom, being resourceful, colored over his red and white sneakers with black marker. Unfortunately she missed a few places and so had to be “taught a lesson” in low-effort thinking by school officials.

Every example of low-effort thinking throughout history that failed to embrace and maintain common compassion, justice, equal economic opportunity, and respect for individuals did so as their social contract ceased to be viable. As in 14th-century Venice, people do not long subscribe to a social contract they perceive as being unfair and delimiting. The United States has the fifth-highest wealth disparity among 150 countries. It has happened before and it could be happening again. Even the Greek-born Roman essayist Plutarch recognized that “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” It is not simply the disparity of wealth that matters, so much as the disparity of opportunity that in itself is the measure of a nation, of a society.

The most serious question certainly is: What does this low-effort thinking in the simultaneous trends of zealotry and material greed portend for the American social contract? The recent election and its aftermath have shown how conservatives such as moderate Republicans and Tea Party activists cannot connect with each other even to win an election. Tea Party zealots have now vowed to run candidates against moderate Republicans in future elections. Like everything else involving people, low-effort thinking is a spectrum across which people and ideas are spread, ranging from virulent to somewhat reasonable. Every form of sociopathy has its destructive consequences.

It isn’t a joking matter that scores of people in states across the South and in the West have signed petitions demanding their state secede from the United States. When thoughtful engagement is required to sustain a society, low-effort thinking is the kiss of death.  The wisdom of Shelley’s Ozymandias rings true to this day:

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
What better example of low-effort thinking need there be? Perhaps the Texas GOP has the solution: Do not teach “critical thinking” in public schools.


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