Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tomthemick@gmail.com

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Lot To Learn

The lead story in Maine’s Portland Press Herald on Saturday told us that so many women are making knit hats for the Women’s March on Washington, the entire region was running out of pink yarn. The local chapter of the nationwide Pussyhat Project says it’s a dig at Donald Trump’s infamous remarks ten years ago. Remember? Because he was famous, women would let him grab them by their you-know-what. NBC had it on video and used it against him during the campaign. Women want to “reclaim the term” according to organizers. Three thousand Maine women have signed up to march with their hats which have two little ear-like things sticking out on top to resemble cat ears.
Portland Press Herald photograph

It’s not just about pussyhats. Former Maine State Senator and liberal Democrat Cynthia Dill says it’s about gender and race too and explains the march this way:

“The prism through which marchers will march is one of ‘intersectionality,’ a term coined by a law professor that now serves as currency in social justice circles seeking to recognize multifaceted levels of identity and power.”
I’ll admit, I don’t understand that. Probably my ignorance has something to do with being a white guy who hasn’t renounced his privilege — yet. Maybe it’s time I did. As a young man in the seventies and eighties, I was a left-wing Democrat, but then I moved right. Is it time to consider that maybe I went too far? Is it time for to modulate? Move toward the center?
American's deep divisions are on display as preparations for Trump’s inauguration continue. A hundred thousand women are expected to march on January 21st and I can’t understand when they tell me why. Still, I considered going down there Saturday and putting on a pussyhat with the rest of them. I’ve never liked wearing hats but my hair is getting thin and it's cold… Nah — I’ve got too much going on here in Maine.
How would I actually go about denouncing my while male privilege? Bring it up in casual conversation? “Ahh, the Patriots should go all the way to the Super Bowl, don’t you think? Oh! By the way, I’ve denounced my white male privilege.” Would that work? How many times would I have to say it? To how many people?
Huh?

And how about my toxic masculinity? How do I get rid of that? No, wait… one at a time. But I suspect both have been getting in the way of my understanding what the Women’s March is about, so I read the articles again. The Women’s March is about “intersectionality” including intersecting with LGBTQIA+ people, who are an integral part of the march. Notice how that acronym keeps getting longer? I understood the “LGBT” part — that’s been around a while, but what about the “QIA+”? I had to look that up. The Q could mean either “Queer” or “Questioning,” but I thought “Queer” was a pejorative? I had to look that up too. According to the GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates And Defenders) Media Reference Guide:

Once considered a pejorative term, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBT people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBT community. When Q is seen at the end of LGBT, it typically means queer and, less often, questioning.

Okay, but then there’s the “I,” the “A,” and the plus sign. Thanks to the GLAAD guide, I learned “I” means “Intersex,” the “A” could mean either “Ally” or “Asexual.” The plus sign stands for, well, just in case there’s some new group of unusual sexual people claiming they’re not accepted fully enough, and weren’t assigned their own letter yet. We can, of course, expect the acronym to grow longer as things progress. That’s what Progressivism is all about, right?
I didn't have to learn any of this stuff when I was a lefty forty years ago. You only had to resent rich people, believe in socialism, and hate capitalism to be accepted back then. It’s much more complicated now and people are so sensitive...
And this is just a partial list

Now that I understand what LGBTQIA+ means, I can start learning the new pronouns I’ll have to use when addressing each of the groups. The list is long, including the first person, second person, third person singular and plural, the possessive forms, and so forth. Then I still have to practice pronouncing them. Can you see why I can’t be ready to attend the Women’s March by Saturday? I’d offend whoever I talked to because I don’t know how to address them.
People tell me the bald spot on the back of my head is getting bigger. I can’t see it but I feel the effect on cold, windy days, so I really need one of those pussyhats. Maybe I can meet the busses when they return to Portland. Maybe they have some left over…

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Monday, January 09, 2017

Too Much Information

Every day I get emails from news aggregators, those individuals and organizations who scan the news day and night and select links to what they think I should know. I signed up for them but I cannot read them all. There’s not enough time in the day — and if there was, I don’t have the energy. I have to delete some each day without reading them and I feel guilty when I do that. I feel I’m missing something I should know.
There was a time I thought it was possible to get at least a cursory understanding of anything and everything. Long ago I learned that’s not possible, but sometimes I forget. As a boy, I read newspapers, magazines, and  books of all types. My father subscribed to The Boston Globe, The Lowell Sun, Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, National Geographic, and others. Occasionally, I’d see a Playboy left in the woods. The library was just over a mile away. I also purchased comic books and Superman was my favorite. Then there was a collection of Classics Illustrated — abridged, edited, comic-book formatted classic books like “Last of the Mohicans”; “Moby Dick”; “Silas Marner”; and many others. There was never a lack of things to read. It was a rich environment for a boy who wanted to learn about the world, past and present.
And I was sent to school — Catholic schools from second grade through high school. There I was taught many things, including the long history of the Catholic Church — the oldest, continually-functioning institution on earth. After that, I attended various colleges and earned degrees. All during that time, I took lessons from the school of hard knocks and I have the scars to prove it.
Understanding the present is difficult enough but then I was a history teacher. I had to help students make sense of the human past and relate it to the present. Courses were chunked into specific places and time spans but that didn't make it much easier really. There was the stuff we know happened, but what did it mean? It was humbling.
Since the late 20th century, I’ve used the internet to supplement my information gathering, but I have mixed feelings about it. My laptop has become the primary way I interact with the world beyond family, and sometimes with family as well through texts, email, and social media. I’m using it now to write this. Soon I’ll send it out for publication in various places, hard copy and digital.
In my pocket is another device with which I can tap the worldwide web, but I prefer my laptop because I don’t like typing with my thumbs, because the laptop is faster, and because its screen is bigger. I can’t remember the last time I looked online for information and didn’t find it. Can you? So, nearly all of us have something in our pockets that can reveal to us almost any kind of facts we may be looking for.
But is this access making us wiser? Better citizens? Better people? Not from my perspective it isn’t. For many of us, the information we’re looking for isn’t edifying. For some, it’s gossipy. For others, it’s prurient. Online, there’s always an option to go in a different direction. We may have originally been searching for edification, but were distracted and taken somewhere else. 
That’s not possible when we’re reading a book. Turn the page and we go where the author wants to take us, and if we chose the book wisely, that’s a positive direction. We can put the book down and pick up some kind of pulp, but it has to be readily available. To read a Playboy growing up, I would have to close whatever I was reading, go out into the woods, look for it, and it probably wouldn’t be there. Online in the 21st century, hooks are everywhere. If someone nibbles, more is just a compulsive click away. We must choose not to bite. When laptops with wireless internet were issued to all my students during my last years teaching, use of social media or accessing pornography were forbidden, but it was difficult to monitor, especially because they could be taken home. Compared to Playboy of my youth, pornography available to children today is shockingly evil.
Even without distractions, it’s not possible to learn all we want to know. There’s simply too much information available at our fingertips now. We’re nearly always on overload. and we don’t take time to process, and our online experience tends to be solitary. Someone may put a phone under our eyes wanting us to watch something, but how often do we discuss it? How much time do we spend just thinking about it? Not nearly enough would be my guess. Instead, we're always looking for more.
All this is taking us all somewhere, but exactly where is anybody’s guess.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

UK out of EU; US out of UN next?

Watters' World

Why are we surprised that our young people are ignorant of US History? For decades now, our academic elite has been consciously making them so. George Washington University is just the latest institution to drop a US History requirement — even for its history majors. Will Jesse Watters of O’Reilly Factor’s “Watters’ World” go to our nation’s capital and ask a GWU student who George Washington was? Will we see a blank look followed by a giggle and a shoulder shrug, and then an answer something like: “Umm… I should know this…”? Watters isn’t the first to expose this ignorance; Jay Leno did it for years with his “Jaywalking” segment on the Tonight Show.
Jaywalking

It’s sad, but cluelessness about our nation’s history has been the desired outcome of academia for decades now. A high school graduate may not be able to tell you when World War II was fought, who the combatants were, or even who won — but would have heard about internment of Japanese-American citizens. That’s because the dwindling number of students still taught US History learn more about America’s sins than America’s glory. The texts I used reflected that. After many chapters I had to offer students a contrasting perspective.
According to Ian Tuttle writing in National Review Online: “To the administrators and academics who revise these institutions’ mission statements, the nation-state has had its day… [They] work toward a ‘global community.’” Our elites see themselves as citizens of the world. Senator Barack Obama declared himself such in Berlin, Germany six months before being elected president — and his entire presidency seemed predicated on that vision. By contrast, his successor was elected promising to “put America first.” Donald Trump sees the world through an American lens, whereas Barack Obama saw America through a world lens. After his inauguration, Obama went around the world apologizing for America. Don’t expect that from Trump.
Academia had its way for decades, but backlash has been brewing among Americans living away from coastal bastions who are proud of America and would die for it. The coastal elites acknowledged them, but only to heap ridicule. In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama described them to a Marin County audience: “[T]hey get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” In 2016, Hillary Clinton called them “[T]he basket of deplorables… racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic -- you name it… Some of those folks -- they are irredeemable.” Two months later, those people elected a man who traveled the country wearing a baseball cap famously emblazoned: “Make America Great Again.”
Nationalism is ascendant throughout the western world now. People in Europe and in the USA want to preserve their way of life, not see it subsumed under a bland multicultural miasma in the European Union or the United Nations. There’s a common thread in the rise of Brexit and the rise of Trump. It’s no coincidence that Nigel Farage, the face of Brexit, appeared with Trump on the campaign trail here in the USA. Both tapped movements the elites scorned: renewed nationalism and disdain for globalism. Voters in both the UK and USA saw their nations as bulwarks against the vagaries of the world. They were willing to die for their countries but not for the EU or the United Nations (UN).
Nigel Farage wallops EU president to his face

Will the UK be better off out of the European Union (EU)? Will Donald Trump make America great again? Will he take the US out of the UN? 2017 will offer hints, but it will take at least a couple of years for enough evidence to make an educated guess. Government elites, as well as their cocktail party friends in elite media and academia predict disaster. They did their darnedest to forestall both developments and have yet to accept either. Some among them, however, are bold enough to predict the continued decline of EU and even its eventual collapse — with radical Muslim terrorism and uncontrolled Muslim immigration being the driving forces. Trump warned often against both here in the USA. Working through the United Nations, Obama has done his best to hamstring the Trump Administration in the Middle East and keep importing Muslims even after his term ends.
When it looked like her husband would win the Democrat nomination, Michelle Obama said: “For the first time in my adult life, I’m proud of my country…” We can assume that, like so many who who attended elite universities, she was ashamed of it.
Trump and LePage

Resisting the trend in our universities, Maine still requires US History as a condition for high school graduation. That won’t change over the next two years with LePage as governor. Nor is it likely to over the next four years with Trump as president. After that, we’ll see.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Not A Party Pooper

Happy Birthday Lila

“I like birthdays,” said my granddaughter last year. “You get presents. You turn another number.” She had just turned five. “Next year, I’ll be six,” she added matter-of-factly and that day comes Saturday. She’s a New-Year’s-Eve baby who arrived just in time to give her parents a tax deduction for 2010. I’ll be in attendance, bringing her a present — the Calico Critters Hazelnut Chipmunk Family Playset. It’s a box of four tiny anthropomorphic chipmunk figurines for $25. If I were shopping blindly for a present to give her and saw this on a shelf somewhere, I would never have purchased it. It looks overpriced, but that’s what she wants according to her mother. It’s not the $25 because that’s not a big number for us; it’s the objective value — but then I’m not objective when it comes to my grandchildren. She loves those little critters.
It so happens that I turn another number soon myself: 66. I’ll be entering my late sixties, one could say, and I’m going to start collecting Social Security. I’ll only be getting 30% of what I would have otherwise been entitled to because of a law signed by President Reagan thirty years ago to prevent double dipping by teachers in states like Maine. As a career public school teacher in this state, neither I nor my school district paid into Social Security for my teacher salary over 34 years. We both paid instead into the Maine State Retirement System. Because I worked other jobs all during that time, I paid into Social Security for those salaries, and I still do in the form of self-employment tax because I still work part time. If I’m only going to get 30% of my SS benefit, I should only pay in 30%, right? But no, I have to kick in the entire amount. Will I get back what I paid in? Well, that depends on how long I live, and who knows how long that will be? I don’t want to know.
Will the checks continue if I make it past 80? Probably not unless serious changes are made. There are simply too many people collecting and not enough paying in. Any dummy knows that can’t go on forever but neither President Obama nor President-elect Trump have any announced plans to address that. There’s nothing but IOUs in the Social Security Trust Fund. More than 90 million Americans are out of the workforce and obviously not contributing.
Meanwhile, there’s more than $12 billion in the Maine Public Employees Retirement Fund. It’s over 80% funded and Governor LePage has made provisions to steadily increase that percentage. Compared to retired teachers in other states like California and Illinois, my pension is meager and I can’t survive on it alone. Teachers and other public employees there get defined benefits that are two, three, and in some cases ten times what mine are, but those states are close to bankruptcy because of it. According to Forbes Magazine, Illinois has a $111 billion pension shortfall in 2016. Chicago’s alone is $9.5 billion. California had an unfunded pension liability of over $500 billion in 2014. It’s worse now despite Governor Moonbeam’s rosy reports on California fiscal situation.
Democrats have been running those states for generations. They’ve made commitments to public employee unions they knew couldn’t be kept. They also knew they’d be gone when the bills came due and they didn’t care. It’s called “kicking the can down the road.” They’re still kicking, but the end of the road is approaching fast. Should the federal government bail them out? Over my dead body.
I’m at that stage of life during which many of my contemporaries are dying or becoming debilitated with various aliments. I’m not what I used to be, but I’m doing well compared to most, and so is my wife. We both hate to exercise, but we do it anyway and it’s paying off. She also nags me about eating vegetables. Life is good, for now. I’ve been on Medicare since my last birthday and she goes on it in 2017when she turns 65. But Medicare is another kind of Ponzi scheme like Social Security. More and more are collecting it but the number paying in isn’t nearly keeping pace. Are our “leaders” in Washington addressing that? You know the answer.
President Obama has been patting himself on the back as his administration is about to end. When it does, he will have more than doubled our national debt from $10 trillion to $20 trillion. All I can do about that issue and the others outlined above above is write about them. I’ll keep on pointing it all out to people, most of whom don’t want to hear it. When I attend my granddaughter’s birthday next Saturday where all my other grandchildren will be, I’ll think about it but I won’t say anything. Why ruin a good party?

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Paperboy

Maybe there’s no such thing as a paperboy anymore. I haven’t seen one in decades, have you? I gave up my paper route fifty years ago after delivering the Lowell Sun every single day for five years. It was my older brother’s before it was mine and my little brother took over from me. We kept it in the family because it was a coveted thing. I averaged 40-50 customers and it took about an hour if I hurried. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays took longer because the papers were thicker and I couldn’t fit them all in my canvas bag with its wide, over-the-shoulder strap. I had to go back two, or sometimes three times to reload. Saturdays were easiest because the paper was always thin.
My bag said "THE SUN" on it

To learn the route I walked around with my brother shortly before he gave it up, then took it on myself when I was ten. The bag was heavy and my shoulder ached until I got stronger. Eventually I could ride a bike with it and things went quicker. I learned to deal with dogs and with people. Most were nice but some were a pain, sometimes literally in the case of a dog here and there. I’d try to make friends, but with some dogs it was impossible. If I turned my back on them they’d nip at my legs until I learned to turn around quickly and administer a swift kick. That usually took care of it, but sometimes it made things worse. Seldom did the owners come out and discipline those dogs, which is probably why they behaved that way.
Friday was collection day and I’d knock on every door. I’d hear “Who is it?” from inside. “Paperboy!” I’d yell back, “Collecting!” It was 42¢ for six days and 62¢ if they got the Sunday paper, which most did. Some thought they were good tippers if they gave me 65¢, but 75¢ was decent. Very rarely did anyone give me a dollar. Saturday mornings I’d meet the Lowell Sun’s district manager on the corner and pay him for the papers. 
The Lowell Sun building

Each week, I netted about five dollars, tips included. My father made me put three in the bank and let me keep two which I spent on comic books, chocolate bars, bicycle repairs, and an occasional movie. For those, I had to take a bus to Lowell and the bus stop was a mile away. He let me take money out for a new bike once in a while because it was a capital investment, but that’s all. The Friday collection just before Christmas was the biggest payday and some years I’d clear $100.
It was something I had to do every day and was most difficult when I had to leave an afternoon sandlot baseball or football game to deliver papers. Other players would beg me to stay longer — not because I was so good, but because the sides would be uneven when I left. Sometimes it rained, snowed, and there was heat and humidity. Sun truck drivers turned over often and sometimes threw my bundle in a puddle if I wasn’t right there to take it from them. Then I’d have to decide who to deliver the wet papers to. Sometimes they’d drop off the wrong bundle and I’d either be short or have too many.
My favorite time to deliver them was exactly this time of year. Not so much because of the big Friday collection day, but because it was cold and dark and I had the street to myself. I could see people inside their houses but they couldn’t see me outside walking along. I could see their Christmas trees lit up and all the other decorations. I could smell their balsam wreaths when I opened the storm door to put the paper inside. I liked to watch snow fall through the illuminated cone under a street light.
The obnoxious dogs were usually inside in winter but some of the good ones would be out making their rounds, going about their business as I was going about mine. They’d lift a leg here and there to mark their territory. They knew me and I knew them and sometimes we’d greet each other in passing.
When I finished, it was suppertime and the other nine people in my own family would be around the dinner table. My mother would open the door a crack and say, “Take off your boots on the porch!” I would, then walk past them all to hang my coat, my hat, and my empty canvas bag on a hook in the cellar hallway. Then my sister would slide over on the black-painted, pine bench my grandfather made to make room for me in my usual spot on the end.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Don't Do It

Never judge a book by its cover, they say, but sometimes I can’t help myself. What’s the first thing you notice about Donald Trump? The hair, right? For a long time, I couldn’t get past it and dismissed him from serious consideration. Who would go out in public with that coiffure, I asked myself. Think of the time it takes every day to make his hair look like that. It was hard to see it as anything but a vanity flag.
When I wrote about this before the election, several enthusiastic Trump supporters emailed me to express dismay. They saw what I saw, but to them his hair indicated he didn’t care what people thought. It was a sign of confidence and they liked that. They believed Donald Trump alone had the gumption to go to Washington, DC and turn things upside down, and that’s exactly what they wanted him to do. I knew I’d vote for him if he won the nomination but I hoped he wouldn’t. Neither did I expect him to win the general election, but he did.
Betsy DeVos

It’s only been a month, but I have to admit I really like what he's doing so far. The people he’s appointing are terrific. As a career teacher with strong opinions about how to improve education, I applaud his appointment of Betsy DeVos. The best way to improve public schools is to break the teachers’ union stranglehold over them. The best way to do that would be fostering voucher programs in our states and local districts — and the best person to do that is Betsy DeVos. She is a longtime champion of vouchers in her home state and supported with her own money. Vouchers would empower real innovation in education by breaking the public school monopoly and allowing private citizens to form their own, decentralized schools. Local control of education will bring real change, unlike that bastion of entrenched special interests and stifling bureaucracy that is Washington, DC.
I might have violated that “never judge” dictum in the case of another New Yorker — the writer, Tom Wolfe — but I never got the chance. If I’d seen Wolfe on the covers of Time and Newsweek dressed like a dandy courtier for Louis XVI, it is likely I would never have picked up Bonfire of the Vanities, the first of his books I read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was somewhat shocked afterward when I saw what he looked like. I was also surprised that it was his first novel. He was a successful writer of non-fiction up to that time and the move to novel writing seemed effortless. After Bonfire, I enjoyed A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and Back To Blood.
Language is Wolfe’s stock in trade, and he believes it a uniquely human ability that did not evolve from lower animals. Just a few months ago, he published Kingdom of Speech in which he ridicules two sacred cows of the secular left: Darwinism and Chomskyism. He claims Charles Darwin stole ideas from an obscure researcher named Alfred Russell Wallace and published them as his own. He also portrays MIT linguist and leftist demigod Noam Chomsky as vile and vindictive toward anyone who questions him. Anthropologist Daniel Everett’s work on the language of the obscure Piraha tribe of the Amazon is outlined in the bestselling Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. It casts doubt on Chomsky’s long insistence that humans evolved with a “language organ” in our brains even if neurosurgeons have never found one. The language organ explains “universal grammar” in all language, Chomsky maintains. Piraha language, however, not only lacks “universal grammar,” it lacks tense. There is no future, no past, only eternal present. There are no numbers or colors either.
Piraha and Everett

Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech enrages the left, but it cannot be attacked as religious hocus-pocus. While Daniel Everett is an evangelical Christian, he doesn’t argue from there. Rather, he bases his case on scientific observation while living with the Piraha for decades. And, Tom Wolfe is an atheist. He endorses Everett’s ideas from a logical standpoint and teases both Chomsky and Darwin for their pomposity. Typical of the left, neither Chomsky nor his defenders have any sense of humor which makes teasing them so much fun for Wolfe.
Wolfe has been cranking out books that are windows on American culture for a long time while Trump is just beginning his career in government. He could still screw up, but he seems to have already taken over the presidency. He’s leading us while Obama is yelling, “Hey! I’m still here! Look at me and my legacy!”
There’s a lesson for me in all this. From now on, I won’t judge people with facial metal, neck tattoos, or purple hair. I’m going to look past those things… I think.

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