About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Republicans Lie About ‘Support Our Troops’

by Walter Brasch

For a decade, Republicans have been screaming at Americans to “support our troops.”
            But, they don’t really support our troops. Their constant chanting originally was code to support the Republican administration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
            If the Republicans truly wanted to support the troops, they would have demanded—early in the wars—better armament and vehicles for the troops.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Attacking American Sovereign Soil Diminishes the Rights of Religion

by Walter Brasch

The terrorists who attacked the American embassy in Cairo, Egypt, and the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, claimed the attacks were retaliation for the publication on You Tube of an anti-Muslim film. That YouTube video was a 14-minute trailer for a one-hour film, “Innocence of Muslims,” that was not only a vicious bigoted attack against Islam but also of no artistic merit.  
One of the extremist political parties in Egypt plucked the trailer from obscurity and used it as part of a newscast, inflaming the people of Egypt, who mounted a demonstration against the U.S. embassy. Within a week, the trailer had more than 10 million hits on YouTube.
An attack upon the consulate in Benghazi that followed the one in Cairo led to the deaths of the U.S. ambassador, a member of his staff, two Navy SEALS assigned to the mission, and 10 Libyan guards who defended the consulate.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly condemned the attacks. Mohammed Magarief, president of the Libyan National Assembly, apologized to the United States for the attack, and vowed to bring the killers to justice.
The man who gave the order that led to the execution of Osama bin Laden sent in Marines and the FBI and vowed to work with Libya to “bring justice” to the killers. Several persons accused of the murders have been arrested.
The attacks on American sovereign soil may have been planned and then carried out by a small group of terrorists to coincide with the 11th anniversary of 9/11; the video was merely an excuse for the attack.
Ambassador Christopher Stevens was highly respected by the people and new governments in the Middle East. He and the U.S. helped promote the Arab Spring that had led to the overthrow of dictators and the creation of governments that could lead to more freedom for the people. Large spontaneous demonstrations by Libyans showed the world they were furious at the content of the video, but that they also despised the attack and continued to support the United States.
Dozens of smaller demonstrations began appearing within a day throughout the MidEast; many were merely moments of opportunity for thugs and terrorists to cause damage by invoking their disgust of the film; some were attacks to secure or maintain perceived leadership in the region.
Nevertheless, no matter what the reason for the rioting, the people were legitimately mad at the depiction of the prophet Mohammad and the no-star film that reeked with the slimy viciousness of hate.
The people, not the terrorists, in comments to the media, said they were reacting because President Obama did not take action against the film makers. They believed he should have at least ordered the arrests of those responsible for making the film.
For a culture that existed for millennia in having leaders who would have taken such an action, it was not an unreasonable demand. A part of their culture is the integration of religion and government, just as it was a part of English culture and that of colonial America at one time. As much as some fundamentals in the U.S. may wish it were still a part of American culture, it is not. The First Amendment not only establishes a separation of church and state, but guarantees freedom of religion, speech, and the press; allows people the right to redress the government for their grievances, and to peacefully assemble to protest.
President Obama said that the United States rejects “all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, but there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.” He emphasized, “Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith.” Hillary Clinton was just as forceful: “Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
Long before the attack in Libya, as rioters had begun to mass in Cairo, the embassy tweeted “Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages [by rioters] will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech and criticizing bigotry.” It was a message that defined the ideals of a nation that had created the First Amendment. But, in a “shoot first and aim later” blunder while events were still unfolding and the U.S. was responding to the attacks, Mitt Romney, without the facts and the timeline of events, fired an angry polemic, politicizing the murder of American diplomats. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” he said. Romney, whose own religion has been viciously attacked by members of his own party, probably should have done what the President and Secretary of State did—condemn violence and religious bigotry. And then shut up.
President Obama and Secretary Clinton could not allow government action against the filmmakers, as the protestors wanted. The Founding Fathers demanded freedom of speech, the press, and religion to allow all views to be heard, even if it meant protecting the vilest messages of hate, as long as they did not advocate violence or the overthrow of government. It is a fundamental part of what they wove into the fabric that became the United States of America.
[Walter Brasch is a syndicated social issues columnist and former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and a specialist in First Amendment issues. He is the author of 17 books; the latest is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Grade Inflation; Education Degradation

by Walter Brasch

        As a society we have allowed our children to believe they are all not just above average but superior.
        Because we’re afraid to hurt anyone’s fragile egos, or not be loved, or because we’re afraid of some nebulous retaliation if we aren’t soft, we dish out A’s and B’s as if they were scoops of ice cream on a hot humid day, the equivalent of myriad certificates and trophies we give our children for showing up so they don’t feel “left out” in sports and innumerable other activities.
        Grade Inflation is rampant throughout the educational system. A recent UCLA study revealed that although students are studying less than ever, grades of A- and A in high school classes are the most common grades. At many colleges, over half the class graduate with some kind of honors, making it difficult to distinguish the truly exceptional from the grade-exceptional. The pursuit in college is of grades, not knowledge, so it’s not surprising that students are as adept at cheating as they are in hiding booze in dorm rooms.
        At the university where I taught, last year’s freshman class had an average SAT of 1004 in verbal and quantitative tests, making their achievement dead-center average for the nation. But their high school g.p.a. was 3.3, about a B+. Those who don’t do well on the SAT shrug it off as “Well, like, y’know, I just kinda don’t do good on tests.”
        At many colleges, at least one-third of incoming freshmen are enrolled in remedial courses. But they and the rest of the student body can graduate within six years by packaging a program of “cake” courses with watered down content.
         At many colleges, the grades of “D” and “F” officially don’t exist; at many colleges, students can even drop classes any time, just so they don’t get a (horrors!) “C.”
        In 2004, Princeton established a guideline that there should be no more than 35 percent A’s in freshman/sophomore courses, and 55 percent A’s in specialized upper division courses. Even then, the recommendations, while lowering some of the grade inflation, were still above what used to be a “bell-shaped curve” that once suggested A’s and F’s should be about 10 percent of a general education class; B’s and D’s about 20 percent; and C’s, the average grade, about 40 percent.
        One of the reasons for grade inflation is that some teachers and professors can’t distinguish achievement levels or create tests that require higher level thinking and not a recitation of facts. Another reason is that teachers and profs want to be liked, to be seen as a buddy, who often allow students to call them by their first names and who go drinking in the same places students congregate. More common, there is a strong correlation between semester-end evaluations of professors and grades; high grades by teachers and profs, especially in colleges that use student evaluations for tenure and promotion, tend to propel similar high student evaluations.
        Because of runaway grade inflation, students avoid professors who believe the grade of “C” is the average grade and who set up standards that require students to do more than show up, read a couple of hundred pages, and answer a few questions. Even then, a significant minority of our students spend more time trying to plea-bargain the professor into raising the grade than they do studying for the exams. If the professor doesn’t acquiesce, the student’s parents call administrators whose backbones are as strong as warm Jello and who subconsciously go along with the fiction that because some parent is paying thousands of dollars to send their precious child to college, the college has an obligation not to educate that child but to reward that child with trinkets known as high grades. Thus, some Helicopter Moms are sure that grades of C, D, and F are not their child’s fault, but the fault of a system that took their hard-earned money and won’t even do the minimal work of issuing the “right” grade.
        High grades are important, every student wails, because it means being able to get into college, grad school, or to get a little extra consideration in the job market. But if all students get high grades, then the evaluation criteria becomes meaningless; the exceptional student may get into college and grad school, but so will those who get high grades but aren’t as exceptional. Companies hiring freshly-scrubbed graduates may soon disregard not only syrupy letters of recommendation but grade point averages as well.
        Until we stop believing it’s a Constitutional right to get A’s, with B’s seen as acceptable and C’s as failure, as a nation we’ll continue to complain about inferior workmanship, and, wonder why the U.S. ranked 32nd in the world in math abilities and 17th in reading ability, according to a recent study by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.
        [Dr. Brasch was a university professor for 30 years. He is an award-winning columnist and author of 17 books, including the critically-acclaimed novel, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution. For several years he was a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor.]

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Don’t Count Out the Labor Movement

by Walter Brasch

Almost every conservative political columnist, pundit, commentator, blogger, and bloviator has written about the decline and forthcoming death of the labor movement.
            They happily point to Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker shortly after taking office in January 2011 took advantage of a Republican majority in the House and Senate to ram through legislation that stripped numerous collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. Among collective bargaining rights are those that assure decent working conditions and a fair grievance process to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory discipline.
            The Republicans point to Ohio, where Republican Gov. John Kasich, with similar legislative support, signed legislation in March 2011 that restricted collective bargaining rights for public sector employees.
            They point to state after state where Republican legislators, with the financial support of private industry, have brought forth self-serving bills to oppose collective bargaining.  
The conservative mantra is to pander to the middle-class pocketbook by creating a pseudo-populist appeal. The right-wing claims they are the ones who care about the people enough to cut government spending, which will lower all kinds of taxes. They altruistically scream that inflated payrolls and pensions caused economic problems, and the best way to help those who are struggling in a depressed economy is to lower those costs by curtailing the perceived power of unions. It sounds nice; it’s also rhetoric encased in lies.
            Numerous economic studies have shown that the pay for public union employees is about the same as for private sector employees in similar jobs. And in some jobs, public sector workers earn significantly less than non-unionized private sector workers, leading to professionals and technical specialists often switching jobs from government to private industry, usually at higher wages and benefits.
            So what, exactly, is the problem? Tax cuts. Bill Clinton left office, having given the nation a strong economy. During the Go-Go years in the first part of the 21st century, under the Bush–Cheney administration, states and the federal government created tax cuts for individuals, and held out generous tax cuts, tax waivers, and subsidies to corporations. The Republican theory was that these tax cuts would eventually “trickle down” to the masses by stimulating the economy.
What happened is that instead of benefitting the masses, these forms of wealthfare and corporate welfare have done little to stimulate an economy that was heading down because the Republican executive and legislative branches, preaching less government, didn’t want government interference in financial institutions, the most politically conservative business. As a result of deregulation or, in many cases minimal regulation oversight, came the twin catastrophes of the Wall Street scandals and the housing mortgage crisis that spun the nation into the deepest recession since the Depression of the 1930s.
            But you don’t hear the Republicans tell you they caused it, only that a run-away economy is because of those fictional high government salaries that need to be cut.
            Joseph Slater, professor of law at the University of Toledo, says because of the 2008 crisis, states experienced massive budget shortfalls because growing unemployment decreased tax revenue. The problem in the states and the federal government, Slater told NEA Today, isn’t because of collective bargaining, “because some of the worst state budget problems are in the small handful of states that prohibit public sector collective bargaining, states like Texas and North Carolina.” However, said Slater in an article for the American Constitution Society, “states with strong public sector collective bargaining laws . . . have smaller than average deficits.”
In response to conservative calls to curtail “pension abuse” in the public sector, Slater pointed out that “the vast majority of states don’t allow unions to bargain over public pension benefits,” and that some of the worst pension problems are in the so-called right-to-work states that have no public employee unions.
            In contrast to the all-out assault upon the workers by Republicans, Govs. Dan Malloy of Connecticut and Jerry Brown of California, both Democrats, have been reducing budget deficits, sometimes with a heavy hand as they slash programs and the number of workers, in consultation with the unions and without curtailing union rights. Unionized workers in both private and public sectors have taken temporary pay cuts or agreed to taking vacation days without pay. Few corporate executives and no state legislators have willingly matched the sacrifices of the workers.
            Now, as for those conservatives who are dancing on what they think are the graves of the working class labor movement. There are a few stories they aren’t happily reporting.  
In Wisconsin, the recall election of Scott Walker did fail, as out-of-state individuals, PACs, and corporations contributed about two-thirds of his $30 million campaign to keeping him in office, as opposed to his opponent raising only about one-eighth of that amount. However, in subsequent elections, all three Democratic senators survived recall votes, and two of six Republican senators were recalled, leading to a change in Senate membership from 19–14 Republican to 17–16 Republican, but effectively blocking a “super majority” from ramrodding further anti-worker legislation into law.
            In Ohio, voters overwhelmingly rejected, 62–38 percent, the new Ohio law that stripped collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. In defeat, Gov. Kasich, whose attacks upon collective bargaining were a central part of his campaign, said “It’s clear the people have spoken.”
            Monday is Labor Day. It’s more than just picnics and a three-day weekend. It’s a time to honor the working class, and the unions that gave them the rights of collective bargaining. They may be struggling but they are far from dead.
            [Walter Brasch is a syndicated social issues columnist and author. His latest book is the critically acclaimed journalistic novel, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, which has an underlying union theme. He is a proud member of several professional and trade unions, including The Newspaper Guild/Communication Workers of America.]