Thinking About Being a Liberal

I participated in the Democratic caucus yesterday. In Minnesota it’s the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party. Because Minnesota now has a presidential primary in addition to the caucus the primary function was to select delegates for the next level of party nomination and platform-setting business and to solicit resolutions for the party platform.

This has prompted me to think about what it means to me to be a liberal. For me, it really comes down to this quote from Paul Wellstone. “We all do better when we all do better.” I believe through government we can most efficiently pool our resources and provide equitable assistance to everyone so all have an opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our constitution allows us to make the government whatever we want, being of the people, for the people, and by the people. So, we should be able to make it work for all.

This does not mean that I think “half the people should get a bunch of free stuff while the other half works hard so the government can take their money and give it to them.” This is a condemning description of liberalism I have seen floating around social media. I don’t know any liberals who believe this. This is built on a false assumptions going back to the “welfare queen” stereotype of the 80s and 90s. I don’t know anyone who would choose to live in poverty on limited government assistance just so they didn’t have to work. And I bet you don’t either if you really think about it. If this were the case there’d be a lot more wealthy and middle class individuals who’d give up their daily grind of work to live the life of luxury of a “welfare queen.” It isn’t a life of luxury. Plus, (nearly) everyone wants to have purpose and be useful.

Yes, no matter the system there will always be those who commit fraud and try and milk any system involving money–from welfare cheats to hedge-fund managers. But we shouldn’t deny a safety net to all because of the illegal activities of a few, just like we shouldn’t suspend trading on Wall Street because a small percentage engage in insider trading.

I do believe that it is unconscionable that in a society with our collective wealth and resources that we have individuals going hungry, without shelter, proper education, or health care, and therefore not able to participate fully in the “American dream.” In this country the top 1% holds about 38% of the wealth, the next 9% holds an equal amount, leaving the remaining 24% to be shared by the remaining 90% of individuals. This kind of inequity is unethical and unsustainable. Currently, a significant segment of our population lives paycheck to paycheck and maintaining shelter, having minimal food, and access to healthcare is a day-to-day, all-consuming struggle for survival funded by piecing together sub-standard paying, part-time employment. Working full time should provide enough income to live comfortably and with dignity above the poverty line.

I believe that we still have significant racism in this country and systemic racism still contributes to wealth and resource inequity and we have a responsibility to work to correct for the fact that this country was in large part built by slave labor on conquered land. This doesn’t mean I think I’m a bad person because I’m white and benefit from this systemic inequity. It does mean that it is wrong to ignore or perpetuate this inequity.

I believe in gun control, meaning I believe in the second amendment as written, not as interpreted currently. I think that the word “regulated” is there purposefully. Being liberal doesn’t mean that I want to come and take your guns. However, I don’t accept that we are all going to be safer when more of us are conducting our daily business packing heat. I think we have the right as a society to decide that we want to regulate and control who has access to weapons designed for one purpose–to kill fellow humans. We regulate how many shells a duck hunter can put in their weapon. We should provide victims of mass shootings the same chance for survival as a duck.

Being liberal doesn’t mean that I want to abort pregnancies and kill fetuses. My preference would be that there is never another abortion. But, I do believe a woman should have complete control over what happens to their body. I also know that we reduce abortions most effectively by preventing pregnancy and providing proper reproductive healthcare to all, not by criminalizing it. And I don’t know any liberals who support practices as has been described by President Trump of delivering a baby and then deciding if it should live or not, or even late-term abortions purely for reasons of not wanting to continue the pregnancy. For God’s sake, we’re not monsters.

And speaking of God, I believe all have the right to pray whenever and wherever they want (even in school). I also believe in the right to not pray or worship a specific God at the behest of the government. Freedom of religion means complete freedom to practice or not practice a religion. Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to use one’s religion to discriminate against or mandate behavior and practice to another.

I believe that no one succeeds all on their own. Those with tremendous wealth have (possibly) earned it, but have done so within the system of our government, economy, and infrastructure which has contributed to that wealth acquisition. Our capitalist democracy contains many significant aspects of accepted socialism. We should embrace those that enhance everyone’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness and reject those that do not. I believe that we will all do better when we all can do better and fully participate in the economy. I believe economy trickles up, not down.

Being a liberal means I believe that we have a moral responsibility to care for one another and treat each other with dignity, respect, and humanely. We all have the same value as a human beings despite the circumstances and place of our birth, upbringing, or cultural origin.

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Thoughts From a Loser Teacher

Well, it’s official. I’m a loser. Have been since the age of 24 when I got my first teaching job. Probably longer since I was raised by a loser teacher and knew that’s what I wanted to do before I entered college. Damn. This is according to Donald Trump Jr. anyway.

I love seeing some young conservatives because I know it’s not easy. Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth. You don’t have to do it. Because you can think for yourselves. They can’t

Donald Trump Jr. 2/17/20 El Paso Texas

I should clarify that his opinion of me doesn’t really matter to me. But it does continue to worry me that the primary crowd motivator that the Trump campaign uses is to prop itself up by putting others down. It’s such classic strategy of a bully with low self-esteem. And yet, it is working. It is destroying us as a country.

Do I need to counter the tired criticism of “summers off” and “working 8 am to 3 pm?” Most teachers work other jobs or use summer to continue their own education and complete required professional development to keep their license current–professional development not funded by the employer requiring that professional development. Teachers in most schools spend seven hours of their day conducting instruction of a class. The time to plan that instruction, attend meetings, grade student work, communicate with parents, consult with colleagues, etc. takes considerably more time than the remaining hour. Teachers in Scandinavian countries spend about half the time conducting instruction, leaving much more time for planning and professional development. Just saying. Teaching in the U.S. is routinely a ten-hour a day (minimum) profession if done properly, not counting coaching or leading an after school extra-curricular activity. Losers.

I think what DJT Jr. is really troubled by is his perception of “indoctrination.” I suppose there is some truth to this since beginning in kindergarten we teach children to share with, and care for one another as fellow humans. And as they mature and develop more ability for abstract thought we attempt to teach them the complexities of history, the scientific method and analyzing properly collected data and conclusions, and in general, critical thinking skills. Fucking socialists.

Years ago, during the Newt Gingrich-led contract for America days, there was a push by conservatives to take over school boards and address the liberal agenda in the curriculum (primarily the teaching of evolution by natural selection). This occurred in the small town where I was a young teacher. I was appalled when one of these new board members described what he thought a teacher did (and why they were over-paid and over-appreciated). Paraphrasing as best I can he said, “All they need to do is open up the book and tell the kids what assignment to do according to the script they have to follow.” I was working way too hard apparently.

Trouble is, the accountability movement of the last 30 years has led some school districts to adopt such a scripted curriculum. Scripted lessons that are completely homogenized and one-size fits all, that can be read by an automaton to the students and then assessed with an objective, standardized test.

Unfortunately, everything we know about how the human brain works, how children learn in social settings, and how complex information and skills are committed to permanent, long-term memory tells us what we are doing is completely wrong. Ironically, while teachers are expected to get all 30+ students/class to the same point by the same date in time, they are also required to complete professional development on how to individualize the instruction for the 30+ different learners with different backgrounds and abilities. This is of course a monumental task and paradox.

It is emotionally exhausting to care for that many dependent individuals (up to 150+ for secondary teachers) day after day for months at a time. Without some extended breaks to change up what we do, either summers or extended breaks in year-round school, the burnout rate of teachers would be much higher than it is now. Currently, about 50% of teachers leave the profession during the first five years.

I was recently observing a small progressive school complete professional development discussions about utilizing thematic, project-based learning. We know that having students learn subjects integrated together and doing so through inquiry and then assessing using projects and other “performance” assessments is much more effective than didactic delivery of information and testing memorization of facts. This kind of teaching is nearly impossible to do in almost all public school settings because class sizes are too large.

Let’s do the math. If I have 30 students/class and each student completes a unique writing assignment, project, presentation, etc. as their means of demonstrating not only knowing the facts but also then application to a problem to be solved this takes considerably more time to 1) plan for, 2) conduct with the students, and 3) provide meaningful feedback and assessment. Let’s assume that each student’s completed work requires ten minutes to review and provide feedback. That’s working quickly. That means it would take the teacher 25 hours to complete that feedback. This is during time other than the seven hours working directly with his or her classes, planning the instruction, attending meetings, etc. The math doesn’t work.

There really is a simple solution. If we did these three things I believe we’d see changes in education “like no one’s ever seen before.” Oops, slipped into Trump hyperbole there.
1. Pass legislation that class size cannot exceed 20 students–and then fund it.
2. Keep the standards, but eliminate the standardized testing that is driving current instruction back to turn of the 20th century drill and practice memorization. Allow schools to conduct their own assessment, individualized for students and the setting and then report on the progress of students.
3. And then expect schools to expand instruction to curriculum that integrates subjects, utilizes hands-on, real-world, experiential learning, and assesses with more complex writing, projects, and performance assessments. This is how us loser teacher educators are training those loser teachers, but most don’t end up in a place where the logistics allow for this kind of instruction and assessment. Those that cannot do this need ot be trained or ushered on to a new profession.

Yes, this would be expensive. We are currently spending $750 billion a year on military. It’s just a matter of priorities.

I don’t think that’s actually what the current power- and wealth-holders want out of education. In order to keep working-class wages at a minimum they need to keep education designed in the factory model to train the working class to play their part. And part of doing this is to stoke anger and fear towards one another and the “others” so that anger and fear doesn’t turn on them. The GOP beginning with Reagan has been very successful with this strategy. But in the end it is not sustainable. Those voting out of anger for Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders) due to frustration with being stuck generationally as working poor will eventually turn on the power- and wealth-holders when things don’t get better (and most likely get worse) for them. You think it’s ugly now. Just wait until those in charge have to resort to direct, violent oppression quell the rising anger and keep the labor class in line.

But, what do I know. I’m just a loser teacher.

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Water is Life

Water is life. Yet, the EPA, under the direction of the current administration is changing the interpretation and implementation of the Clean Water Act. This will result in up to 6 million miles of streams (half of the total in the U.S.) and 42 million acres of wetlands (again, about half) no longer being protected from being used as a dumping ground for industrial and household pollutants.

The change is to focus on only protecting permanent waterways and not bodies of water that dry up at any time during the seasons. This is 2020 isn’t it? How can this even be a consideration with so much evidence that pollutants such as lead and mercury have had profound effects on the population of the U.S. (and other countries), let alone the damage done to these ecosystems.

The willful ignorance is shocking.

Water is life. This is not a metaphorical statement. Coursing through my body are water molecules that could be thousands, millions, even billions of years old. Our lives are sustained by, and intimately connected to the flow of water throughout the global water cycle. This is a physical connection we all experience every moment of every day. The majority of water on the earth is in forms we cannot use and to sustain living function the available freshwater must be continually recycled by the earth system.

Once polluted, that water cannot be truly cleaned unless effectively distilled (through the evaporation component of the water cycle) when the individual water molecules float into the air and leave behind the pollutants dissolved and suspended between the water molecules. Problem solved, right? No. Those pollutants are left behind in the soil in greater and greater concentration.

We know this. Individuals in the administration making decisions know this. And if they don’t, they aren’t qualified for the job they are doing. But, we know this too.

Water is life. Water in our streams and wetlands are not a commodity. But this is how we treat it. We know that if you remove regulations controlling what corporations or home owners/individuals can dump into wetlands or streams, they will begin putting pollutants like lead and mercury back into these water systems.

Even though these waterways are not liquid 100% of the year that doesn’t eliminate the impact of the pollution dumped there. The next time that waterway fills it will “dissolve” those pollutants and carry those chemicals to anything that uses that water, be it plants, wildlife, or humans. What isn’t absorbed by an organism in that location eventually gets carried to a more permanent body of water fed by these vernal or temporary pools/streams either downstream or in the aquifer connected to that body of water. Either way, it eventually gets into the larger system and into all living systems relying upon that water for life–including us.

We know this too. Why are we even having to discuss this? How can anyone think it is not wrong to dump waste anywhere? I mean really, WTF?

Water is life. But instead of treating it as a sacred component of life, we once again are letting the interest of corporations’ profits dictate our decisions. The metaphorical swamp that was promised to be drained is now going to destroy the real “swamps” that sustain our ecosystems and therefore us! It’s very difficult to not just type a string of expletives in an angry tirade at this point.

A few will make even more money by destroying a public commons of fresh water and we the people will eventually pay the price. We will do so literally when we fund some future clean up effort with tax dollars, and we will pay the price with the health of our children and grandchildren.

Of course this will affect the poor and marginalized in our society the most since corporation decision-makers won’t dump waste in areas that affect their homes, but instead in areas nearer the poor and marginalized. This repeated pattern demonstrates they know it’s wrong and harmful to do this, but will do it anyway and then resist all efforts to be held accountable. In the end the cost of clean up will be less than the profit made so for them it is just a cost of business. But for the rest of us it is the cost of our lives.

Water is life. Until it isn’t.

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The Old Man and Lady Liberty

I’ve been thinking about the Impeachment. We all fully expected acquittal. In some ways, I agree with the GOP Senators who agreed Trump had done inappropriate (even illegal) activity, but to remove him would be too dangerous in the current hyper-politicized country. Though if they really believed he is guilty, then they swore an oath as a juror that they did not follow. For those that took this stand, I think it was an attempt to appease both sides, not a moral decision. We’ll see if that helps them in November. But, I do think the country will be better off removing this president through an election. But if we don’t, I shudder to think the economic, social, and ecological damage that will be done.

What I found more disheartening was that the Senate refused to hear additional testimony and view additional documentary evidence. They freely admitted they were specifically blocking the American public from learning all of the facts. I believe this is the bigger issue and constitutional crisis. Agree or not with the House impeachment, the house has the legal authority to subpoena witnesses and documents, and those subpoenaed are legally bound to comply or should be found in contempt of congress. It’s been done before. By not enforcing the subpoenas, seeking additional witnesses, and then acquitting on the charge of obstruction of justice, the Senate has given this president complete free reign to break any laws. We’ve seen no evidence that this Senate will hold any line with this president and we’ve seen no evidence of any ethical or moral boundaries on the part of the president to contain his actions. I fully expect we will see attempts to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate political rivals to this president. That is not what happens in an open and free democracy.

Anyway, here’s a song, an allegory if you will, titled “The Old Man and Lady Liberty.”

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Well, That Was Unexpected

Twenty-two years ago, I stumbled into the house after a day of teaching and when my wife asked what was wrong, I collapsed onto the bed and tearfully let go of concealing the intense abdominal pain that had been building all day. After a few days of diagnoses and testing, they used a scope to clip the end of my bile duct and remove a gall stone. They didn’t take out the call bladder. I’m not sure why, and boy, do I now wish they had.

Monday, now working from home, I called my wife and uttered “gall stones.”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” is all she said, and hung up the phone.

An eternity later, she got home and off we went to the ER. Having experienced this before, I knew exactly what this pain was. But this still was unexpected.

Fortunately, I’m part of a very large pool of employees as a professor in the MN State College system, so I have good health coverage. Or, at least good by today’s standards. It still costs me and my employer thousands to cover my family with a moderate deductible and maximum out of pocket cost, both of which are much higher and cost considerably more than when I first started teaching (a long time ago, we’ll say).

One aspect of debate in this country around health coverage is the control of the costs. I often will hear that free-market solutions can control costs if the patient is thought of as a consumer. From my experience as a consumer, so decidedly a one-sided perspective, I call B.S. There’s one ER in my town. When your spouse is doubled over in pain, you’re not going to shop for the most reasonably-priced ER. Then once in that ER, am I going to refuse their ultrasound service and go to another hospital or clinic to get an ultrasound? Once diagnosed, and assuming the pain has been managed, it isn’t really feasible at that point to shop for the most reasonable-priced surgeon and operating room facility. Again, that would require transporting to another town, plus most likely starting over with a new doctor from scratch after medical records have been transferred.

When in crisis, you are no longer a consumer. You are a patient. They are very different paradigms. The ER doctor and surgeon are not sales representatives, they are health care providers. At no point in my experience of walking into, being diagnosed, and initially treated in the ER, or the next day having surgery to remove the offending organ, was I ever treated like a “customer.” And I’m thankful that I wasn’t. I was a patient in distress and incapable of making a sound purchasing decision. At no point was the cost of anything discussed, or was I given a menu of levels of treatment for different costs. We’re not putting a new alternator in my car. We’re keeping me alive. I am extremely fortunate to have my wife as a personal ambulance service, access to health care and insurance, the means to pay the deductible and out of pocket maximum (though that’s a bit more shocking and painful–but less so than gall stones!) and the knowledge that my insurance will cover the rest of the cost. Therefore, in my situation, there was no hesitation about going to the ER. Many are not so fortunate.

Maybe some things are better left out of the free market, and even should be left out of capitalism entirely.

Now I’m regretting declining a copy of the ultrasound of my gall bladder and it’s warehouse of stones emailed to me. So, instead here’s my rendition based on what it felt like.

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Otherizing and Futilizing

Are you stuck “otherizing” and “futilizing?” Don’t know those words? They are words I’ve invented to mean the act of holding others distant and different resulting in a lack of empathy or concern (otherizing) and continuing to take no action believing one’s individual action cannot make a difference (futilizing).

I was attending an MLK day event on Monday. While listening to the speaker I was conducting some impressive futilizing in my head. What have I done to make a difference? What can I do? After all there will never be a TEG day fifty years from now like there’s an MLK day. King was 39 when assassinated, and look what his short life stood for and accomplished. I’m pushing 52 (pretty hard), and what can I possibly do that will matter? Oh, woe is me, right? Plus TEG day just sounds stupid.

When I stopped gazing at my own navel and looked around this room full of individuals, I saw some influential (or at least vocal in the local community) individuals, but mostly other anonymous (to me and and me to them) regular community members. If we all otherwize and futilize, then we are certainly doomed to render all but those holding the wealth and power in a perpetual state of marginalization. Most of us will have little if any impact on “the world” but we can certainly impact those immediately around us. I think a realistic starting point is to work on our individual and collective empathy. If we can all individually work to build empathy and teach that empathy to others by doing such things as:
– noticing and rejecting stereotypes
– respecting and valuing differences
– widening our circle of concern
– listening closely to others (and “others”)
– managing difficult feelings like sickness, anger, and frustration
– navigating social situations ethically and fairly
(adapted from Making Caring Common Project: https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/resources-for-educators/how-build-empathy-strengthen-school-community)

These all sound nice, but remain abstract ideals until used as a metric to measure one’s daily actions. So maybe pick on and learn more to then prompt action so that you can have an impact on at least one other, and then another, and another…

Maybe learn more about implicit bias. These are links to information and an implicit bias self-assessment from a Harvard project.
https://perception.org/research/implicit-bias/
https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

Seek other news sources, making yourself aware of potential bias in various news sources. Here’s a couple of media bias charts to get you thinking. Of course, they come from media sources and in and of themselves may include bias.
https://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-biased-is-your-news-source-you-probably-wont-agree-with-this-chart-2018-02-28
https://www.allsides.com/blog/introducing-allsides-media-bias-chart

Learn, practice, and model active listening and how to engage the “other side” productively and with civility.
https://libguides.lmu.edu/fakenews/LeftCenterRight (includes links to some interesting TED talks about how to have civil conversations)
https://www.ted.com/speakers/jonathan_haidt

Act purposefully. Take the time to pause and ask yourself, “What then?” If I do this, purchase that, throw away this, say that, what then will happen?

Today, I’m going to dig into the Reunir Project. This is a project initiated by the First Presbyterian Church in Marshfield Wisconsin. They state that “[t]he REUNIR project was developed by the Immigration Action Team, part of the Outreach program at First Presbyterian Church in Marshfield, WI. Our concern is for those children and parents separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. REUNIR means to ‘bring together,’ which is both a Christian and humanitarian aim.” They have created this bracelet to increase awareness and provide a vetted list of agencies assisting children separated from parents and detained at the border. No matter one’s feelings about immigration, if we all had empathy and looked at these children as if they were one our own children, we wouldn’t allow this to occur.

Enough otherizing and futilizing.

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What if We Had This Hope?

What if…
What if the young woman did not fear an unknown attacker?
What if the child did not fear the stranger?
What if the teen did not fear their bullying peer?
What if the black man did not fear the police?
What if the Anishinaabe woman did not fear her abduction?
What if the refugee did not fear those charged with their processing and asylum?
What if the faithful did not fear their God?
What if the bigot did not fear?

We fear what we don’t understand, among other things. I’m not discounting inherent dangers such as heights, or in my case, chit chat. Our society is in a constant state of heightened adrenaline, ready to fight or take flight, and some of our leaders and media have capitalized on this seizing power and influence. We suffer a lack of empathy, collectively crippling us; this prevents progression through civil conversation, trapping us in a downward spiral of distrust and anger.

What if we tried this. Begin any exchange with another under the assumption they are doing the best that they can. I know, I know, how incredibly (and wondrously) naive. I’m not giving permission to excuse or accept the racism, hate, or general repugnant behavior. Yes, some people are just the shits. But, everyone’s behavior has an origin, and when when I meet someone, I have no idea about their story; their story filters every input their brain absorbs and attaches that experience to a previous memory, coloring the new experience. You cannot separate a person’s present behavior from their life experience. Again, this is not to excuse being an ass.

I do try and always begin from the premise that we both are bringing their best to the table–even if that best is woefully inadequate for a civil society. So, what does this naivete get me? It provides me a starting point for conversation, though I admit I often don’t see the opportunity due to my own blinders or lack of social skill–but I do work on it. It provides a place for empathy, trust, and even gratitude for their life experience and very existence. While it does not justify behavior causing fear or harm to others, it provides respite from feelings of anger, despair and futility.

This is not altruism or selflessness. I’m also hoping they do the same for me because there is plenty, for which I need grace. This also is not offering pity or a southern “Oh, bless your heart.” We know what that really means. It must be a sincere intent to understand what is at the root of another’s story.

What if you offered grace?
What if we could have difficult conversations and repair this fractured republic?
What if we had this hope?

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