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Monday
Jun192017

Washington Post: Senate's Secret Unusual Even in Washington

By Sarah Binder for The Washington Post

Directed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a dozen or so Republican senators have spent weeks behind closed doors crafting a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have not held any committee hearings or legislative drafting sessions for the bill, and Democrats are shut out. Even some Republicans complain they’re in the dark about their own party’s bill.

Dealmaking behind closed doors is common in the contemporary Congress. Still, the GOP’s extreme secrecy in hammering out a health-care deal strikes me as different in both degree and kind from past practice. Is this a legitimate approach, and can it succeed?

Why party leaders like secrecy

A generation ago, even before Watergate, Congress and the president enacted a number of “sunshine” reforms so citizens could follow the legislative process far more easily. In particular, Congress in 1970 put in new rules that made it harder for committee chairs to close hearings to the public, put individual lawmakers’ votes on the record immediately for public review and generally adopted more transparent procedures.

But since then, rising ideological and partisan conflict has pushed congressional leaders back toward opacity. Especially in the House, as political scientist James Curry shows in “Legislating in the Dark,” majority party leaders often limit lawmakers’ access to information on the majority’s high-priority measures, such as the economic stimulus bill adopted in 2009 in the immediate wake of the financial crisis. More and more, House leaders have been releasing bills right before they’re called up on the floor to defang opponents and limit defections from their own party. Limiting transparency with procedural sleight of hand, Curry shows, increases the party’s chances of success.

Even on bipartisan measures, House and Senate leaders prefer to manage all the bargaining behind closed doors. With no ideological sweet spot linking the parties, successful deals — such as the bipartisan budget deals in 2013 and 2015 — require “win-win” bargains: Each party gets its top priority and, in exchange, allows the other party to get its top priority. But negotiating win-win deals requires secrecy. If information leaks out about the less popular parts of a deal before the various constituencies hear about the parts they want, the entire negotiation can blow up. Closing the doors lets negotiators knit together an entire agreement before shaking hands. As the negotiators’ adage goes, “Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”

So what’s different about McConnell’s ploy?

Still, McConnell’s tactics on health care stand out from other secret dealmaking.

First, most closed-door bargaining in the Senate is bipartisan. True, Republicans are trying to repeal the ACA under special budget rules that eliminate the need for Democratic votes. Even so, it is highly unusual for the majority party’s senators to be kept in the dark on a top party priority. Even if House leaders often limit information on pending measures, McConnell’s tactics are far out of the norm for the upper chamber.

Second, when leaders close the doors, it’s often because the legislative process has ground to a halt. For example, negotiations over federal discretionary spending often take place in secret — but only after the annual appropriations process falters. But on health care, Senate Republicans went straight to closed-door negotiations among their own factions, without even trying to move the House bill — or their own alternative — through the usual public drafting and amending sessions in committee.

Third, McConnell’s tactics are particularly unusual because Republicans are trying to legislate on one of the nation’s most complicated policy issues. Health care affects one-sixth of the economy and may have life-or-death consequences for many Americans on Obamacare. Usually, issues that demand secret negotiations are must-pass measures about to hit a nonnegotiable deadline, such as failing to raise the debt ceiling or to fund the government on time. When the stakes are high and the consequences of failure broadly considered unacceptable, hiding negotiations from the public is usually easier to justify.

Fourth, it’s true that senators have in the past often resorted to small, bipartisan groups (such as the Gang of Six that struggled over health care in 2009 and the Gang of Eight that struck an immigration deal in 2013) working in secret on controversial policy matters. Even so, bipartisan deals that emerge from these “gangs” are usually then defended in public in committee and on the floor — and McConnell has said he won’t do that in this case.

Will McConnell back down?

McConnell holds his cards very close to his vest. But at this stage, he seems unlikely to back down under public pressure to open up the legislative process.

First, given the extreme unpopularity of the bill that the House passed, sunshine can only hurt GOP efforts to deliver on their promise to their base to repeal and replace Obamacare. A Senate deal could have fewer rough edges than the House bill, but it is still likely to be deeply unpopular.

Second, no matter how intense public or Democratic pressure might be, McConnell doesn’t have to worry about objections from anyone other than fellow Senate Republicans. McConnell can pass any bill so long as he has 50 Republican votes — meaning he can afford to lose no more than two of 52 Republican senators. And so the only thing that can influence him are GOP threats to withhold votes.

Third, keeping a tight lid on negotiations limits interference from President Trump, who reportedly called the House health-care bill — which he himself celebrated in the Rose Garden — “mean.” Less interference gives McConnell a better shot at crafting a bill that’s likely to pass. And for Republicans, that’s what it’s all about.

 

Monday
Jun192017

Trump Cuts Would Undercut Teacher Support, Training

By Julia Mikuta, Via the74

It’s no secret that traditional teacher training and “professional development” can feel far removed from the real world of the classroom. That’s daunting to many who might enter the profession, frustrating to many already there — and ultimately hurtful to students.

So when Louisiana announced that every new teacher in the state would receive a full year of “residency-based” training, modeled on how doctors learn their craft, the question the rest of the country should have asked is, “How do we make that happen here?”

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is moving in precisely the opposite direction, with a plan to zero out the funding for innovations like Louisiana’s. The administration’s budget proposal — which includes the largest cuts to federal education funding in memory — would undercut an essential means by which innovations in teacher training and support are developed and spread.  

Louisiana’s plans for residencies rely on long-term funding from Title II of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in 2015 to replace the No Child Left Behind Act in a rare moment of deep bipartisan accord. Yet Trump has proposed to ax Title II entirely in his budget for 2018. If the effort to quash Title II succeeds, it will squander some of the country’s most promising opportunities to strengthen teaching.

Some of these new models of professional development are being led by school districts where student achievement has been on the rise. DC Public Schools in Washington, for example, recently overhauled its teacher training. 

Instead of large group workshops, teachers meet weekly in teams to master the lessons they need to understand in order to teach students well. The DCPS teachers grapple with complex content — like working to understand what it means to multiply or divide fractions, going much deeper than just plugging numbers into an algorithm — and then practice their lessons with each other. 

By the time they teach students, they have received feedback from peers and have tested out responses to common misunderstandings. As DCPS — like many other districts — is seeking greater value out of the money spent on professional development, it has contracted with the University of Virginia to conduct research on this approach, which district officials will continue only if it improves teaching and learning.

In addition to derailing such fresh approaches to teacher preparation and support, the administration’s proposed cuts would gut promising partnerships between school districts and partners with track records of providing professional development that results in better student outcomes.

For example, the New Teacher Center, in its work with districts around the country, not only improves student learning; its support of new teachers has been shown to improve teacher retention — addressing another critical need in this time of a growing teacher shortage.

Supporting principals is just as essential to creating great schools. New Leader stakes on that challenge in partnership with districts, and its training of school leaders results in gains measured in multiple months of additional learning. Title II support is make-or-break for continuing and expanding such work.

 Concerns about the education budget run far wider than Title II; it’s a mistake broadly to believe we’ll put “America first” by slashing our investment in our children’s future 

And it’s a particular mistake to dismantle federal supports for improving teaching and school leadership – though perhaps a predictable one.

Why predictable? Because Title II has long been a fund for which budget hawks have harbored evidence-based hatred. In the past, states and districts have directed much of the funding toward low-leverage in-service professional development activities. Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers report that the impact of the funds on professional practice and student learning has been “mixed [and] mostly disappointing.” 

If this were 2015, that critique would be pertinent. But much has changed since then. The biggest difference is the new law underlying the funding, which took into account that critique. ESSA responds by encouraging states and districts to think smarter and deeper about what development of teachers and principals might look like – in keeping with the strongest practices of excellent schools and of other professions. Indeed, the law lays out a wide and enticing list of ways the funds can be used to make teaching more appealing and effective.

What that freedom makes possible, crucially, is a runway for desperately needed innovation. After a decade of working to provide philanthropic support for new thinking, I can say with confidence that Title II is essential to taking good ideas about teacher and principal preparation and support to meaningful scale.

And the timing is crucial: Numerous state ESSA plans are reflecting changes in the reach of more thoughtful, more individualized approaches to developing talent in the field. These new efforts represent the best hope in a generation for fresh, newly effective approaches that draw on what’s been learned inside and outside the education field.

Cracking the nut of helping professionals get better faster is simply essential in education. Schools, fundamentally, boil down to what happens among students and the adults who instruct, guide, lead, and care for them. So much of the quality of education depends upon the skills teachers and principals have, and how long it takes for them to develop those skills. Title II is crucial to any meaningful national vision for improvement — an effort with the twin benefits of serving students better and making the teaching profession more attractive. 

Every day, the world our children will inhabit grows more complex, interconnected, and dynamic. Every day, we raise the stakes on what it means to be prepared to succeed. And that means we’re raising the bar on what we ask of the professionals in our schools.

This is not the time to scrap plans to support them better — it’s a time to make good on our promises and spread smart new ideas. At this moment of exceptional promise, let’s invest wisely. 

Julie Mikuta is senior director of education at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The foundation has made grants to New Leaders, New Teacher Center, the Louisiana Department of Education, and the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Saturday
Apr152017

10 Ways to Ruin Easter for Your Family and Friends

 


Read more at http://www.christianpost.com/news/10-ways-to-ruin-easter-180611/#5v8H34iY8wLGjbHG.99

 

1. Refuse to let your kids participate in the "pagan" practice of collecting dyed Easter eggs. Instead lecture them on the dangers of syncretism.

2. While you're driving to church flip off the driver who cuts you off and then watch in horror as he pulls into the same church parking lot as you.

3. Gather the family together for a meal but feast on criticism over __________ (politics, family members, the church service, etc) instead of gratefulness for the resurrection.

4. Leave your chocolate Easter bunny in the sun.

5. Forget to share the Gospel with someone who hasn't yet experienced the power of the resurrected Christ.

6. Choke on a peep.

7. Let your kids participate in an Easter egg hunt but ONLY use hard boiled eggs. Then collect all the eggs from their baskets and make deviled-egg hors d'oeuvres.

8. Make Easter about you, your family and traditions instead of Jesus, his death and resurrection.

9. Make eating "bunny stew" part of your Easter tradition.

10. Forget to pause and praise God for sending his Son to die for our sins and rise victoriously from the dead.

Special to Christian Post

Greg Stier is the Founder and President of Dare 2 Share Ministries International. He has impacted the lives of tens of thousands of Christian teenagers through Dare 2 Share events, motivating and mobilizing them to reach their generation for Christ. He is the author of eleven books and numerous resources, including Dare 2 Share: A Field Guide for Sharing Your Faith. For more information on Dare 2 Share and their upcoming conference tour and training resources, please visit www.dare2share.org.
Read more at http://www.christianpost.com/news/10-ways-to-ruin-easter-180611/#5v8H34iY8wLGjbHG.99

Tuesday
Apr042017

MLK Jr. Riverside Speech Still Resonates Today

Note: MLK Jr., was assasignated April 4, 1969. This column by Peniel Joseph, remembers a speech that connected the civil rights struggle with global efforts for peach and human rights. 

Fifty years ago this week, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the most important speech of his life at the Riverside Church in New York, denouncing the Vietnam War and connecting the American civil rights struggle with a larger, global movement for peace and human rights. Forty-nine years ago this week, King was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee.

King's assertion that the United States was the "world's greatest purveyor of violence" threw down a political gauntlet that would frame the revolutionary path he would follow during the last year of his life. "The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve," King told a packed audience in Riverside's pews.

At first blush it may seem counterintuitive to elevate this speech above the watershed "I Have a Dream" speech delivered four years earlier, or the "Mountaintop" speech he would give on the eve of his death. But if King's address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom made him into an American icon, his Riverside Church speech announced him as a genuine prophet for social justice, one who willingly sacrificed his hard-won status to defy an empire.
The 50th anniversary of this speech is a profound occasion to counter the selective memory with which America has retrospectively embraced King. As a nation, we -- especially our elected officials and political leaders -- only remember the parts of King that align with what we choose to emphasize: his robust embrace of America's democratic traditions going back to the founders. King's elegant lauding of "those great wells of democracy" in his Letter from Birmingham Jail remains a touchstone in our own time. 
Yet King grew increasingly bold and courageous as he confronted systemic challenges to his dream of multiracial democracy, what he called a "beloved community." The proliferation of urban violence, rural poverty, institutional racism and war forced him to reconsider the extent that mere political reforms would lead to economic and racial justice for all. 
In the year between the Riverside speech and his assassination, King became America's most well-known anti-war activist, assuming the mantle from Black Power firebrand Stokely Carmichael and in the process lending a Nobel Peace Prize winner's moral power to a peace movement struggling amid a political landscape where most still supported the war. 
King's speech blamed the nation's Cold War-fueled ambitions for the faltering war against poverty, the policy jewel in Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. While resources to fund the war drained the nation's financial and moral capital, suffering and discord at home inspired riots that King characterized in another speech as "the language of the unheard." 
For the first time in the Riverside speech, King connected a domestic civil rights movement with US foreign policy. He based his criticism of the war on a profound love for America, contrasting the "hopes" and "new beginnings" promised by a national anti-poverty crusade with the escalating death, violence and destruction in Southeast Asia. 
Many blasted this decision as unwise and irresponsible. His criticism of the Johnson White House ended a once-close professional relationship that found him on the receiving end of presidential pens signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Once praised by mainstream political and civic leaders for his philosophy of nonviolence, King found himself vilified for calling for an end to the bombing of Vietnamese villages and the napalming of innocent children. 
The Riverside speech's unpopularity -- fueled by its candid assessment of the shortcomings of American democracy -- is precisely what makes it King's most powerful and important speech. 
King loved America enough to always be honest. 
A political leader who dined with royalty and met with presidents at the White House found himself increasingly drawn to the plight of poor people around the world.
His belief that black sharecroppers in the Deep South deserved the same consideration as intellectual and economic elites led to hischampioning a Poor Peoples Campaign that planned to descend on the nation's capital in May 1968 until Congress passed legislation that addressed growing inequality in America. After King's assassination that April, his widow and others tried to continue this work. 
By the time King approached the pulpit at Riverside Church that early spring day in 1967 the gap between America's democratic ideals and its stubbornly unequal reality had, according to King, grown into an unconscionable chasm. There comes a time when "silence is betrayal," said Kingin words meant to admonish himself as much as the rest of the nation. 
A half-century later, King's words continue to haunt our contemporary democratic imagination. At Riverside Church, King spoke of the need to "speak for those who have been designated as our enemies," words that resonate in our own time as much as they did in his. Ultimately, King's call for a "radical revolution of values" anticipated the scourge of economic inequality, racial injustice, religious intolerance and anti-immigrant sentiment that confronts American democracy in 2017. 
Yet the radical King never abandoned his faith in America's capacity for social and political transformation. Near the end of his speech he spoke of the "long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world" he proudly engaged in. It is a struggle that King willingly sacrificed his own life for one year later and one that continues to this day.
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently "Stokely: A Life." The views expressed here are his.
Wednesday
Mar222017

Today is World Water Day: 7 Actions to M

Mar 22, 2017 | Special to Christian Post

Today may be World Water Day, but given that water is the source of all life and all health, just maybe it's time we make every day a world water day.

Here are 7 easy steps you can take:

Step 1: Remember WASH. WASH is WAter/Sanitation/Hygiene. Make sure the global health and development organizations you support prioritize WASH.

Step 2: No More Rusty pumps! Many churches enthusiastically commit to installing "the village water pump" but 50% of these one-off projects fail. We've got to provide far wider support to what works, not to what makes us feel good.

Step 3: Know your water footprint. The U.S. leads the world in per person water use. In just four days, we use more water here than the world uses oil in a year. Agriculture is the biggest water user in the U.S. and think about how much food we waste. We over-water our lawns and flush almost six billion gallons of clean drinking water down our toilets every day. There are plenty of ways to save money by being smarter about our water use.

Step 4: Have fun! Community-building activities that engage youth and congregations make a difference at home and church. Consider enriching your community experience by reaching out to a neighboring church, synagogue or mosque and share opportunities to make a difference, together.

Step 5: Water is a woman's burden. Supporting sustainable WASH projects is an opportunity to stand in support of all women. Like water, women are the source of life and health around the world.

Step 6: Connect with Clergy. Connect with international counterparts because faith leaders in developing countries can influence everything from policies that prioritize WASH, to changes in hygiene behavior that make the difference between life and death.

Step 7: Support U.S. foreign assistance: No matter how much good work we do in the faith sector, no funding or leadership is more influential than U.S. government foreign assistance. Our government spends just one one-hundredth of a percent of the federal budget on WASH. The faith voice is important on Capitol Hill, so let's use it to remind our representatives in Congress that WASH is vital to success. And to life.

Susan Barnett, a former award-winning network news journalist, is a strategic media, communications and advocacy consultant for nonprofits, specializing in faith and justice. She is founder of Faiths for Safe Water and Cause Communications.
Friday
Mar172017

Bradford Pears: the Good, Bad and Ugly

By Bob Polomski, Ph.D./Clemson University

Once upon a time the Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) was the darling of the nursery industry. Since its debut on the cover of American Nurseryman magazine on April 15, 1963, Bradford pear’s popularity soared as a street-tough tree that offered beauty and durability.

In early spring Bradford pear trees erupted into bloom, these giant ovate snowballs of bright white flowers that were best admired from a distance because of their rotting fish aroma. The flowers, favored by honeybees, bumblebees and other pollinators oblivious to the stench, gave rise to leathery, dark glossy green leaves that “present[ed] a pleasing picture, particularly as they stir in the breeze and their wavy edges catch and reflect the sun’s rays,”  according to the authors of the 1963 American Nurseryman article “Bradford ornamental pear—a promising shade tree.” In the fall the longlasting leaves exploded into shades of orange, red, and purple. The beauty of Bradford pear was matched by its unparalleled toughness: tolerance to drought, pollution, and pests, notably to fire blight, a devastating bacterial disease that injures and kills edible pears.

Bradford pear appeared to be the perfect ornamental street tree, but like kryptonite and Superman, Bradford pear’s Achille’s heel was its production of closely spaced upright branches. As these poorly attached branches grew and expanded in girth, the crown to split apart, often during snow-, ice-, and windstorms. It often happened to unpruned or poorly pruned trees when they reached 15 to 20 years of age.

In the past I counseled anyone who purchased a Bradford pear to buy a pruning saw as well. As described in the 1963 American Nurseryman article, the limbs of young trees must be selectively removed to produce branches with wider angles and stronger unions to develop a strong canopy.

To overcome this structural flaw, cultivars were developed that offered improved branching habits, such as ‘Aristocrat’ and ‘Chanticleer’, a 2005 Urban Tree of the Year by the Society of Municipal Arborists. Other cultivars were developed with narrower forms, such as 'Capital', a U. S. National Arboretum release, that embodied the aesthetic and urban-tolerant traits of Bradford but offered applications in tight, confined locations.

This profusion of callery pear cultivars eventually led to another problem that had ecological consequences. In the past, Bradford pear rarely produced viable fruit because it’s self-infertile and cannot pollinate itself.  With the widespread planting of cultivars that were differed slightly genetically, the barrier to fertility and subequent fruit production was overcome. In some cases the callery pear understock of a Bradford pear would sprout, flower, and provide pollen. The fruits were consumed and dispersed by starlings, robins, and other animals to open, disturbed habitats where the progeny formed dense thickets.

Callery pears mature early—flowering at 3 years of age--and is one of the first trees to bloom in early spring. It’s also one of the last trees to lose its leaves. Callery pears are resistant to insects and diseases and their thorny stems and branches discourage deer-browsing. Interestingly, the "Survivor Tree” at the 9/11 Memorial is a callery pear that survived the September 11, 2001 terror attacks at the World Trade Center. In the context of the Memorial, it serves as a symbol of survival, recovery, and resilience.

Some states in the mid-Atlantic, southeast and midwest regions have declared callery pear an invasive, self-sustaining species that dominates and disrupts native flora. In South Carolina callery pear is on the “watch list.”

In the past I encouraged Bradford pear owners in our state to selectively prune the branches. Now that I witnessed large tracts of land throughout our state covered like a white fog in early spring, I encourage them to prune their trees at soil level.

The glorification and eventual demonization of  Bradford pear is the result of our unwillingness to foster biodiversity in our urban environments. While we make our communities more livable for people, we don’t do the same for trees. We disregard decades of arboricultural research and practices and continue to shoe-horn trees into unsustainable 4 square ft. tree pits that are better suited for traffic lights, signs, and streetlights than trees. It’s the survival of the fittest, and only a handful of tree species can exist in these inhospitable conditions. Bradford pear is one of them.

This monocultural approach that relies on a single or limited number of species or cultivars had already led to catastrophic losses in our urban forests as witnessed by the demise of American elms to Dutch elm disease and ashes to emerald ash borer. However, we continue to rely on a handful of nearly indestructible species and cultivars that thrive in wretched conditions. Crapemyrtle, Chinese elm, sawtooth oak, and Chinese pistache have supplanted Bradford pear as street-smart urban warriors.

Because cities are responsible for 70% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions but comprise only 2% of the world’s land mass (Time; Dec. 26, 2016/Jan. 2, 2017), we rely on trees to assume a greater role as ecological engineers in our urban communities. It’s important that communities create growing conditions that support a diverse population of native and noninvasive adapted tree species that provide environmental services and not ecological messes.

Bob Polomski, Ph.D. is a Clemson Extension Specialist--Horticulture/Adjunct Asst. Prof. • Dept. of Plant & Environmental Sciences

Monday
Mar062017

Opinion: Racial Understanding Takes Step Forward in Anderson, Thanks to One Man's Efforts

By Greg Wilson

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

 - Dr. Seuss

The power of one man’s vision offered the citizens of Anderson County the opportunity to shine some light on the issue of race relations right here at home. On a chilly Saturday morning, a crowd of a little over 150 gathered at the civic center to participate in guided exercises, encourage discussion and understanding, and to find common ground on issues related to race and culture.

“If we are going to begin to love our neighbors, we have to love our neighbors even when they don’t love us,” said Bakari Sellers, the keynote speaker for the event. “Only then, can we mend the fences that have been broken so long.”

Justus CoxThe get together put on display an honest approach to discussing issues, and allowing anyone who was on every side of the issues to have their say. Passionate, but civil discussion ruled the day.

I grew up in Anderson at a time when there were plenty of “Whites Only” signs downtown. I attended segregated schools until late elementary school, and vivd remember those signs as well as the “Colored Only” signs scattered around the county. 

I was discussing this with friends recently, some of whom also shared similar memories of growing up here. However many of them have reached the conclusion that since the signs are gone, schools are integrated and voting rights laws have opened up the polls to all Americans, racism is no longer a serious issue. Their reaction is shaped by their experience, those of white people on the outside looking in. 

Anderson County now has about 195,000 residents. Just under 33,000 of those citizens are African-American. Another 6,000 are Hispanic. We’re still a very white county, something easy for white folks to forget. 

A quick look at history shows that changing the world it is not only about changing the laws. During the segregation era, Southern states had the Jim Crow Laws which enforced racial segregation, but in many places in the Northern states without such laws on the books racial segregation was culturally enforced in restaurants, businesses and schools. Laws don’t change hearts. (Even God’s 10 Commandments did little to change the hearts of his people). 

While such behavior is no longer allowed by law, it is impossible to miss the discrimination that we still have a long way to go in regards to judging people by the content of the character. Forget the sensational headlines, it’s happening somewhere every day, in ways less blatant, but equally insidious.

If you don’t believe it, ask someone of color who has experienced suspicious or accusatory looks in a place of business, or who has been stopped by law enforcement with dubious reason.  

S.C. Senator Tim Scott not so long ago said that in his first year in Washington, he was stopped seven times by law enforcement. Most of those encounters, Scott said, were due to “nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial.” 

As a white person, I have little frame of reference for such experiences on a day-to-day basis, but I have seen the ugliness in full vitriol as late as the civil rights marches in the 1980s. Men and women holding their children in one hand, while holding signs sporting racial epithets lined the march route in Cumming, Ga. Some threw rocks and bottles at us as they screamed out hateful things.

I also know, from decades of interviewing men and women of color, we still have a long way to go, including right here at home. 

As neighbors in Anderson County, we took a step in the right direction Saturday with the racial relations conference. 

And we were able to take that step forward because of the vision of one young elementary school who, as Dr. Seuss wrote, cares a lot and believes things can be better.

Justus Cox is a graduate of Anderson University and a former intern at Anderson County. Cox was not discouraged when a similar event last November was poorly attended. He used that event as a strategic planning session to make Saturday’s conference a reality. He also plans to continue his effort and maintain momentum. 

It is hard to overstate how important such a commitment is to our community. To watch a young man in his early 20s, one who is busy establishing a career devote his time and effort to making our community a better place is, sadly, uncommon. To witness one who does not easily grow discouraged, who believes things can be better and is willing to work however hard necessary to see it through is even more rare. 

Perhaps is is born from his experience. Raised by a single mother, often homeless, Cox found a path through his faith and the support of his church. In college he became a part of Anderson University’s student-led “Connect” program, which seeks to take a sensitive approach and honor the differences and similarities of all races.  

He sees continuing such dialog as important to the community, promising Saturday is only the beginning of what is to come. 

“He is the man who made this happen,” Sellers said. “Justus cannot be given enough credit for putting together this event. When he asked me to be a part of it, I considered it an honor.” 

Sellers also said Anderson’s racial relations conference is part of the recipe for a better future.

‘We’re going to dedicate ourselves not about what this country was or is, but what it can be. That is how we will make America great.”

Sunday
Mar052017

"Minimalism" Anothe Fad Only the Rich Can Afford

I hate it as the incredibly tedious piece of personal performance art it has come to be in our society, but I also hate it as an aesthetic: your white-on-white-on-white life and meticulously crafted wardrobe of only the most wispy products Everlane and Aritzia have to offer are, frankly, a saltine cracker’s idea of what a Cool Girl would wear.

In terms of its visual merits, or as a capital-S style, the hyper-curated minimalism really only conveys one thing: “I wanted to take the very safest route to chic, cut away every possible misstep or risk. I saw the French Girl Chic articles and I was like … that’s pretty damn homogenous, but smoking tests poorly in focus groups and those occasional striped shirts are too bold. Time to reduce my look even further until literally every item I purchase tells people ‘I could get something more interesting, but I have enough money to choose not to’.”

Because let’s be clear about what the minimalist aesthetic, at least as a personal style choice, actually is: it’s a way of aping the connotations of simplicity and even, to a degree, asceticism, without actually having to give up those sweet, sweet class signifiers.

Being minimalist in this way – “Stop wasting money on all that IKEA nonsense! With this $4,000 dining table hand-whittled by a failed novelist in Scandinavia, you will never need another piece of furniture!” – really just means having enough upfront disposable money to “invest” in your wardrobe and surroundings. Reducing a wardrobe down to a few painfully elegant cashmere-cotton blend tops is only really possible if you can put down at least $1,000 in one go for the creation of your “capsule wardrobe”.

The visual cues and undercurrents of moral superiority it apes, the “no-makeup makeup” because you’ve bought $250 worth of nigh-invisible Glossier products, the vaguely Japanese home decor because we assume literally anything that isn’t crowded with color and pattern is somehow automatically Japanese – it’s all about spending an incredible amount of time and attention to look as if you hadn’t thought about it at all.

And these are all fine things! You are allowed to enjoy having precisely 10 sweaters in slightly different shades of taupe, or meticulously keeping your all-white dining set on white open shelves, despite the fact that it clearly implies at least once-weekly dusting of your entire kitchen, but what is #problematic about it is pretending that this is somehow a noble or morally positive way to spend your money.

It is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world: “Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy, and the incredibly-expensive, sparse items I have deemed worthy instead!”

And we are entitled to buy whatever we like, but to pretend that the intentional and costly upfront implications of a minimalist-chic life are anything but privileged posturing is ridiculous. But I believe that we feel these things because the minimalism-as-luxury-good phenomenon is extremely caught up with the minimalism-as-faux-spiritualism phenomenon, which is its own can of farm-to-table, artisanal worms.

Long story short, the past 10 years or so has sold us one of the most oddly logical, yet no less cloying, answers to our hyper-consumerist late capitalism: minimalism as a secular kind of religion, an add-on to the cultures of yoga and green juices and general living well by putting together a tapas platter of cultural and spiritual practices without ever fully committing to one.

The premise of minimalism in this way is very vague, and ever-shifting to accommodate the tastes and stomach for consistency of the individual practitioner, but the overall theory is the same: by paring your life down as actively as possible, you are almost guaranteed to appreciate what remains more, and are likely to pick up some serious wisdom in the process, which usually makes for excellent self-serious Medium content down the road.

There are a million variations – fitting all your belongings into a single box, small-house or van living, radical de-cluttering, extreme purges of technology or social activity, etc – but they all hold the same vague, usually unspoken level of superiority.

They all imply that they are in some way a moral upgrade from the life of “mindless consumerism”, and as a bonus, allow you to take on some of the desirable aesthetics and morality of poverty without ever having to be poor. You’re not homeless, you’re on the road, doing some chic van-living and following the good weather! You’re not unable to afford basic home goods, you’re choosing to pare everything down to a single cardboard box! If life were a video game – and there are some scientists who seem to believe it may be – minimalist spirituality is a great way to get all the gold coins of poverty without ever having to be one of those icky poor people.

The implication of this kind of minimalism is obvious, and yet it somehow never seems to get addressed: the only people who can “practice” minimalism in any meaningful way are people upon whom it isn’t forced by financial or logistical circumstances.

You cannot choose to “declutter” if you are already living in a sparse home you cannot afford to furnish. You cannot “reduce” the food you consume if you are already only able to put one good meal on the table per day. And when nearly halfof Americans would be unable to pay their bills if they missed a single check, this “forced minimalism” is much, much more common than we would like to imagine. We cannot pretend that performative reduction in consumption, or choosing to only consume in certain ways, is not one of the most gratuitous displays of privilege out there, and to frame it as in any way a moral choice is more than a little offensive.

But the truth is that, as with so many other social phenomena that insufferable white dudes have co-opted, this spiritual minimalism has essentially become yet another competition for who can be the best at whatever you’ve chosen, even if that “whatever” is literally “having less shit”.

Even ignoring the class angles, this idea that any “decluttering” in your life is automatically a positive thing is simply an aesthetic choice being reframed as a moral one because, let’s be honest, it’s really easy to look at a lot of what (mostly) women own as being totally frivolous. Makeup, more-elaborate wardrobes, cozy home decor, art, supplies for hobbies, nice home goods – it’s not a coincidence that most of the stuff we’re being told to flush away from our lives happens to be stuff that women mostly accumulate.

And, yes, there is a very strong capitalist-critical argument to be made about buying in more intentional and ethical ways, but color me shocked that very few of these minimalist troubadours ever really take things to an economic or class-based argument. It’s about reducing for personal enlightenment and pompous blog posts, it’s not about arguing for a more equitable society in which people consume proportionate to their needs. (If you need a perfect example of this, note the fetishization of the curated “simplicity” of the ultra-rich: their clean loft spaces, their designer capsule wardrobes, their elaborately reduced diets. These people are still conspicuously consuming in mind-boggling ways, they’re just filtering it through the convenient prism of simplicity, and that allows their million-dollar wardrobes to somehow be aspirational for someone advocating for “minimalism”.)

The point is, the points being made by the minimalism crew are neither truly spiritual nor truly socioeconomic. They’re another style, as superficial as anything else that might come down the runway at Fashion Week, just with an added layer of condescension. At the end of the day, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: this kind of “minimalism” is just another boring product that wealthy people can buy.

This piece was originally published on The Financial Diet

Tuesday
Jan242017

"Alternative Facts" are Lies

, The Guardian

I just bought my first official souvenir of the Trump era. No, it wasn’t a pink pussycat hat. It’s a black T-shirt with white typography that says “Alternative Facts are Lies”.

The shirt commemorates a piece of Orwellian newspeak that flew from the lips of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. She made the absurd claim that the new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, hadn’t lied to reporters about the size of the inaugural crowd, he had merely presented them with “alternative facts”. The salient part of her exchange with host Chuck Todd is worth setting out in full:

Chuck Todd: ... answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood. Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office ...

Kellyanne Conway: No it doesn’t.

Chuck Todd: ... on day one.

Kellyanne Conway: Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What ... You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains ...

Chuck Todd: Wait a minute ... alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered, the one thing he got right was Zeke Miller. Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true. Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.

By the time Meet the Press aired, I had actually grown tired of the argument over the size of the crowd at Trump’s swearing-in. It’s the kind of trivial issue that catches fire on social media and in the press, something Trump knows better than anyone. In this case, anyone on the internet could see a comparison of the Obama and Trump in photographs and catch the new president in his lie. Nonetheless, obsessive attention to crowd size dominated several news cycles.

The New York Times was right to call out the White House on obvious falsehoods, but its big headline was part of the reactive news coverage that Trump gamed throughout his campaign. Through a provocative tweet or gross insult, he could ignite a firestorm on social media and in the press. The timing is always interesting because when these storms blew, it was often to obscure a deeper and more serious menace. All the attention paid to the number of people at the inauguration obscured the import of both the executive order on healthcare he signed on Friday and the huge women’s protests on Saturday.

The farrago Trump has created on healthcare is consequential and shameful. Conway happily presented some “alternative facts” about it in the same television appearance, claiming:

He signed executive orders to stop Obamacare and all of its problems. Many people have lost their ... millions of people have lost their insurance, their doctors, their plans. So that stops right now.

He’s going to replace it with something much more free-market and patient-centric in nature.

It’s hard to imagine offering anything more patient-centric than providing more good health insurance. The Affordable Care Act has driven the number of Americans without insurance to an all-time low. Conway’s claim that “millions of people have lost their insurance” comes directly from specious Koch-funded ads during the campaign. It’s a provable fact that far more people gained coverage than had their policies cancelled. And in the latter cases, some individual market plans were discontinued, but policyholders weren’t denied coverage. They were often offered cheaper alternatives, because many qualified for federal subsidies or could buy new policies with better coverage on state and federal marketplaces.

Repealing Obamacare could deny more than 18 million people health coverage, and Republican proposals to replace it are a muddle of insufficiency. Some proposed bills may cover more people but the coverage is skeletal and won’t begin to pay for many procedures. The new secretary of health and human services, Republican Representative Tom Price, has offered a plan in Congress that makes good health care less affordable and less accessible for most people. The health care savings accounts that many Republicans embrace won’t help people who can’t save enough to cover anything approaching catastrophic treatment.

Trump and Conway are playing Three-card Monte with their alternative facts on health; “condemn the policy you don’t like, propose something far worse as a replacement and claim that it is much better”, as the New York Times described their hypocrisy.

The new president doesn’t seem to understand the actual facts. Spicer, who so viciously attacked the press on Saturday, had to hurriedly walk back the comments of his boss when Trump, during an interview with the Washington Post before the inauguration, promised “insurance for everybody”. Spicer’s amendment to his comments dragged Trump back to Republican orthodoxy: access to insurance would be increased and costs cut through marketplace competition, not huge new government spending for universal coverage.

When you’ve spent your career being scrupulous about facts, it’s hard to adjust to life in Trump’s post-truth America. Certainly, the press has made its share of mistakes and had serious flirtations with what Steven Colbert labeled “truthiness” during the Bush years, when news organizations, including the Times, published stories based on false intelligence. There were far too many fake news stories in 2016 from sketchy sites. But I agree with Susan Glasser, the editor of Politico, who recently wrote an important essay for the Brookings Institution called “Covering Politics in a ‘Post-Truth’ America”. She concluded that serious political reporting (not poll prognostications) has never been better. But there is too much of it, and so little of it, even the fine investigations of Trump’s business dealings or past treatment of women, seems to matter to people.

The world, however, does pay attention to the words of the leaders of the last remaining superpower. The “American carnage” that President Trump described doesn’t comport with the American reality. We do not live in a country that is economically shattered and crime-infested. Crime rates are historically low and there has been record job growth over the last eight years. His cry of “America First” evokes Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist and antisemitic poison, not the inclusive and empathetic beliefs shared by most Americans. Globalism and technology have hollowed out some industries and parts of the country, but an interconnected world has benefited more people than it has hurt.

Most people believe there is truth and there are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies.

Thursday
Jan192017

LA TImes: Betsy DeVos Not Qualified to Lead in Education

Betsy DeVos’ love of private school vouchers didn’t disqualify her for the role of U.S. Education secretary, even though vouchers are a bad idea. Nor did her lack of experience in public schools. 

What did render her unacceptable was her abysmal performance at her confirmation hearing Tuesday, during which she displayed an astonishing ignorance about basic education issues, an extraordinary lack of thoughtfulness about ongoing debates in the field and an unwillingness to respond to important questions.

She was so unprepared that she sounded like a schoolchild who hadn’t done her homework. She frankly embarrassed herself and should be rejected by the Senate. Better yet, President-elect Donald Trump should withdraw her name and find someone who at least meets the basic qualifications for the post.

The hearing probably will be remembered for the grizzly-bear moment, when DeVos suggested that a public school in Wyoming might need to have guns on campus to protect against trespassing grizzlies. But her important bloopers were on more substantive ground.

A forgotten mortgage stimulus program that was passed by Obama to help the middle class Americans reduce their monthly payments by as much as $4,264 each year.

DeVos suggested that a public school in Wyoming might need to have guns on campus to protect against trespassing grizzlies.

DeVos said, reasonably enough, that all kinds of schools — traditional public, charter, private — could expect her support if they did a good job of educating students. But then she contradicted herself by refusing to say that she would hold charter and private schools just as accountable as conventional public schools. Doing a good job matters only for some schools, apparently. 

And how would schools be measured — based on whether they meet a certain standard of proficiency, or how much they improve over time? DeVos floundered trying to address this issue raised by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), clearly unfamiliar with one of the central questions in school reform. As Franken said in a deserved rebuke, “This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years.”

DeVos apparently didn’t even realize that there’s a federal law protecting the educational rights of students with disabilities, saying it should be up to states to make decisions about disabled students. Told that this was a matter of federal law, she stumbled yet again, saying, well, then, the law should be followed, and suggesting that she might have been confused earlier. In addition, she was wildly off in her figures on student debt.

Add to this her failure to answer questions about her home state of Michigan’s underperforming charter schools, whose growth she advocated; about existing laws to protect adults from predatory for-profit colleges; or whether she would honor the Obama administration’s rules regarding sexual abuse on campus.

DeVos is entitled and expected to disagree with Obama administration policies; what disqualifies her is her lack of understanding of existing law and policy, and her inability to address them thoughtfully.