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: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

El Diablo?

“Chavez Says President Bush Is ‘The Devil’” read the headline of a newspaper I held up to the class. Going over to a wall map of the world I said, “Hugo Chavez is president of Venezuela, right here. We buy 12% our oil from Venezuela and that country gets rich from our purchases. Chavez was making a speech at the United Nations building in New York City yesterday.”

Looking at students’ faces as I was speaking, I could see that only about half were interested. “As Chavez was speaking at the podium, he sniffed the air and said he smelled sulfur. Why would he say that?” I asked.

No hands. Only blank looks. That’s how it is early in the school year. Few of them have any idea of what is going on in the world beyond school. That would take several weeks to change.

“Sulfur is the stuff on a match tip that flares when you strike it,” I said. “Why would Chavez sniff the air during his speech and say he smelled sulfur?” Still no hands, but a few wrinkled their foreheads as they thought about it. “If Bush is the devil as Chavez claims, where would he live?”

“In hell?” asked a girl nervously.

“Exactly,” I said. “In hell where it’s hot? Matches? Sulfur?”

“Oh, I get it,” she said. Others looked at each other and smiled.

“Chavez called Bush the devil yesterday. Today, he’s giving a press conference in Harlem, a section of New York City.” I turned on the classroom television to see Chavez in a bright read shirt sitting in a church and playing awkwardly with a young girl. He was wearing a bright red shirt.” That’s him, right there,” I said. Soon a black man walked over to him and they hugged. “That’s the actor, Danny Glover,” I said.

“He was in ‘Lethal Weapon,’ right?”

“That’s right.”

“Chavez is also good buddies with Fidel Castro,” I said, “the communist dictator of Cuba.” I walked back over to the wall map and pointed out Cuba. “Chavez says he isn’t a communist, but a socialist,” I explained, “but others claim he is a communist. He’s wearing a red shirt and red is a symbol of communism, but that could just be a coincidence.”

During the first week of school, I passed out a left-right political spectrum chart indicating communists and socialists on the extreme left, Nazis on the extreme right, with Democrats and Republicans on either side of center. Students had to study the chart to determine which political party they agreed with most and which they disagreed with most. Several declared on a test that they disagreed most with the communist party and none agreed with it. That usually changes later in the year when we study communism in more depth. Then, some students think it’s a good thing.

“So, Chavez called President Bush ‘the devil’ or ‘el diablo’ yesterday and he got a lot of applause from representatives of many small nations. What do you think?”

No hands.

“Do you agree with him? Do any of you think President Bush is the devil?” I asked.

Surprisingly, about six students raised their hands. “Why?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t agree with anything he does,” said a girl.

“Okay, you disagree with him. But does that mean he’s the devil?”

“Well, I don’t really think he’s the devil,” she said. “But I’m angry that he started the war in Iraq.”

“Is that what the rest of you think?” I asked.

They nodded.

“So you don’t actually think he’s the devil either?”

They shook their heads.

The following week, Hugo Chavez went back to Venezuela where he was quoted in a local newspaper claiming that the papers he used on the podium at the United Nations were contaminated because President Bush had used the same podium the day before. Chavez was treating his papers with holy water. He also claimed that President Bush had given orders to have him killed. I printed the article and showed it to students. “It appears that Chavez wasn’t just trying to make a point when he claimed Bush is the devil, but actually believes it,” I said.

“He sounds pretty loopy to me,” said a boy. “How does someone like that become president of a country?”

“At first, he used the military to take over the previous government there,” I explained. “Then he was elected by the people of Venezuela several times.”

“Jeez,” said the boy.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Gonads Gone?

There are over a billion Muslims in the world, about one out of five people. Not all are jihadists who want to destroy Israel and the United States, but how many? One percent? Ten percent? Half? Nobody really knows but it’s a very important question. Even if it’s one percent, that’s ten million. When news of September 11th spread around Muslim countries, there was a lot of celebrating in the streets. Were most Muslims glad we were attacked or was there only a small minority celebrating in the streets that day? Is there a “silent majority”? Hard to say.

Some analysts claim our enemies belong to a fast-growing group within Islam variously labelled Islamofascists, Jihadists, Islamists, and so on. President Bush’s strategy is to establish Muslim democracies to give a presumed silent majority voting power. But in Palestine, Muslim voters elected a terrorist group called Hamas to run the Palestine Authority. What will happen in Lebanon’s next election? Will Hezbollah win control? Both groups call for the destruction of Israel and the United States.

Bernard Lewis, America’s foremost historian of the Muslim world, says jihadist, radical Islam was first espoused by an Arab named Wahhab in the 18th century. Wahhab was allied to the House of Saud which eventually conquered Arabia. When oil was discovered there in the early 20th century, the Saudis gained power and so did Wahhabism by association. Our petrodollars fund its propagation. Last April, Lewis said Wahhabism is to Islam what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity. If he’s right and I hope he is, jihadist Islam will be bothersome for a time, but fade away to the wacky fringe as the Klan has but I’m not confident it will.

The KKK got fairly strong in the south after the Civil War and spread north a few decades later. Mainstream Christian leaders, however, publicly condemned it. Ordinary Christians were horrified by KKK terror tactics and said so openly. Yet I’m hearing very little condemnation of Jihadist terror from Muslim clerics or Muslims in general. Instead, we see them burning American flags, Israeli flags and Danish flags. They jump around, yell, shake their fists, burn President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI in effigy, behead captives and blow themselves up to kill infidels all over the world. In European cities, Muslim minorities demonstrate with signs exclaiming: “Behead Those Who Insult Islam” and “Kill Those Who Insult Islam.” Now they want to kill the pope.

I’ve learned a lot from Bernard Lewis but I have to ask myself: was he downplaying Jihadist strength? He made the KKK comparison in April, but by August he was warning that mad Muslim mullahs who control Iran might try to trigger an Apocalypse on the 22nd of the month. They didn’t, thank God, but Lewis got me nervous and I listened to the news more closely that day than usual.

Lewis’s 1990 essay in the Atlantic Monthly called “The Roots of Muslim Rage” first opened America’s eyes about what motivates jihadists who have since become a threat to civilization itself. Jihadists blame the decline of a once-great Arab/Muslim civilization on western oppression. To regain power, they would impose a purified, 8th-century brand of Islam on themselves and everyone else. They would return to the beginnings if Islam and that’s what al Qaeda means: “The Source.” Then they would rise up again to smash the west and Christianity as they did fourteen hundred years ago.

How many Muslims are (take your pick) Jihadists? Islamofascists? Wahhabis? Radical Islamists? We don’t know, but it doesn’t take a majority in any given country or region to turn things completely around. Nazis were a minority in 1920s Germany but they took over in the 1930s. The Bolsheviks were a minority in 1917 Russia, but they controlled the Soviet Union a few years later.

After Pearl Harbor, Americans understood the threat and were ready to do whatever it took to destroy our enemies. Roosevelt demanded nothing short of unconditional surrender and we smashed the fascists in less than four years. Then we fought a cold war for more than forty years to defeat Communism. Do we still have what it takes to defeat the Jihadists? I’m not so sure. We have the strength, certainly, but lack the will. We’re afraid to offend them, much less destroy them. Two generations ago, we summoned the will and the courage to fight. Now it seems our national gonads are gone.

For decades, Muslim terrorists called for the destruction of America and we ignored them. Even after we suffered a worse attack than Pearl Harbor, we still don’t have the will to destroy our enemies. Many insist Islam is a religion of peace and our only enemy is Osama Bin Laden. However, Islam means “submission.” Will we submit? Iran will soon have nuclear weapons and its president threatens to wipe Israel off the map while his proxy army, Hezbollah, chants “Death to America.” Meanwhile, Americans are more worried about global warming than jihadists with nukes. Have we lost our minds along with our gonads?

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Editors Decide

On the first day of school I outlined what students would be learning, how they would be graded, and explained that current events were an important part of the curriculum. We would be covering stories in three newspapers each day.

“Editors decide what the biggest story is and put it in the headline above the fold,” I said, holding up the Sun Journal headline about three bodies discovered in Newry, Maine. “Why do you suppose this is the headline?” I asked.

No responses. That was not unusual for the first day and there were only a few minutes left. “Reading on, I see that all three bodies were women and they were murdered. Newry is a small town just north of Bethel and very similar to your town. A triple murder is big news, don’t you think?”

Some students nodded, but the others just stared at me shyly. It was time to move on to their next class and I dismissed them saying, “We’ll see what’s in the headlines tomorrow.”

The story got a lot more attention the next day and I picked up five daily newspapers at Jockey Cap Store before school. I held up the Sun Journal again and there were bold, big-font headlines about a quadruple homicide above a large, color photograph of the man arrested. He was doing the perp walk from the Oxford County Jail to the Oxford County Courthouse. A deputy held him by the arm. I explained that he had confessed to the murders and that three victims were dismembered. After giving them a little time to react to that disturbing detail, I told them that I didn’t want to discuss the murders, but analyze different ways media covered them. “Why do you think the editor chose this picture?” I asked the class. “There would have been dozens of others to choose from.”

Again, no answers.

I held up the Portland Press Herald, which also displayed above-the-fold headlines and a large, color photo. “Why did the editors of this paper choose a different photo?” I asked.

They looked at it for a few seconds before a couple of hands went up. “Because he’s smiling,” said a boy.

“Why is he smiling?” a girl asked.

“Good question,” I said.

“Is he crazy?” asked another student.

“Of course he’s crazy,” said another. “He’d have to be to do what he did.”

“That’s creepy,” said the girl.

“Do you think that’s why the editors choose this picture?” I asked. “Did they want to creep out readers?”

“I guess so,” she said.

“Definitely,” said a boy.

“These two papers were side-by-side on the rack over at Jockey Cap Store,” I said. “Which one would people be more likely to buy?”

“The one that shows him smiling,” said the boy.

“Why?”

“Because it’s scary,” he said.

“Do people like to get scared?” I asked.

Several nodded. “Some do,” said a boy.

“Do editors think about that when they’re choosing what photos to run?”

“Probably,” said a girl.

I held up the Boston Globe. “This paper, which has ten times the circulation of the other two, ran the story on the front page but below the fold. Why did they decide it was less important than the two Maine papers?”

“Because Boston is far away?”

“Maybe,” I said. “But people down there are familiar with Newry and Bethel because they come up here on vacations. Most of the skiers at Sunday River are from Massachusetts, aren’t they? The Globe’s editors know this, so they put the story on the front page but below the fold.”

Next, I held up The Boston Herald. The entire front page was taken up with a different photo of the confessed killer. “Why did the Herald’s editors choose this picture?” I asked.

“Because the killer is looking right at the camera in that one,” said a boy.

“So when you look at the guy, he seems to be looking right back at you,” I added. Students stared the photo more closely. “Do you think I’m reading too much into this?” I asked. “Or do you think editors really consider this stuff when they’re deciding what to put on the front page?” I held up three papers for them to see side-by-side. Nobody responded.

“Since you’re not answering, I’ll just tell you that editors think a lot about what stories and photos go on the front page, and which ones don’t. People in media are making decisions all the time about how you see what you see. They also decide what you don’t see. Remember that.”

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

White Guilt

There it was again on the second day of pre-school teacher workshops. The principal passed out results of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) testing were segregated according to how “African Americans” and “Pacific Islanders” performed. My school didn’t request that data be broken down this way. It’s our federal government which is obsessed with race.

Some may object to my use of the word “segregate” in this case, but it fits. Once again, our federal government is discriminating on the basis of race - something it’s supposed to outlaw. Usually there are many more racial categories like Hispanic, Asian, Eskimo, Native American, and so on. If as a country we really believe there are no other differences between people with different skin tones, why do we keep this up? What if test results showed some races doing better or worse than others? Would government then require special programs for students of one race and not another? Is this what we should be doing? Is it racist?

Some would be appalled that I would even ask the question. “Of course it isn’t racist,” they think. “We’re only trying to help.” They support affirmative action programs and the like, to give minorities a “leg up” over members of the majority race - whites, in the case of the United States. They’re blind to the condescension inherent in such programs. They think they’re atoning for the sins of history for which they feel guilty, though they were born after slavery and discrimination were outlawed and virtually eliminated.

White guilt is a major force - not just here in the United States, but worldwide. In the 1860s and the 1960s it was a force for good. Slavery was abolished in the 1860s after the Civil War, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s finished the job a hundred years later. White guilt is still with us, but now it’s making us all sick - not just white people, but nonwhite people whom white saviors purport to help. Guilt-ridden whites cannot perceive the racial insult inherent in their firm belief that minorities could never make it on a level playing field without the boost of racial quotas.

Last week we were bombarded with reports like “Katrina - One Year After.” The should-have-been-former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin appeared on top-rated radio and television shows like “60 Minutes” and “Meet The Press” and continued to suggest that our federal government discriminated against the “chocolate” people of New Orleans (as Nagin calls them), by delaying emergency aid. If New Orleans had been majority white, Nagin keeps claiming, the federal response would have been quicker and fewer black people would have died. His claims are ridiculous of course, but the media continued to give them the most extensive coverage. White guilt. And Nagin continues to dodge questions about why he failed to evacuate his city after getting plenty of advance warning, even when shown pictures of the rows of drowned school busses he was supposed to use. If the voters of New Orleans reelected him after all that, they deserve him. That he’s still mayor is a strong argument that a lot of people in New Orleans are beyond help.

What else but white guilt is responsible for the decades-long obsession with bussing white and black students past their neighborhood schools and across town long after everyone concerned realized there is nothing to be gained by doing so? Though it has certainly increased racial tension, has achieving “racial balance” had any benefit at all? Evidence simply isn’t there.

“White Guilt” happens to be the title of a recent book by Shelby Steele. After many essays and articles on the subject, Steele makes a strong case that his fellow blacks become dysfunctional when they continually blame severe social and economic problems on white racism and not on their own behaviors. Trying to blame your problems on someone else is a common human tendency, but white guilt has enabled it to grow to the point where it’s the biggest obstacle to progress in the black community.

Steele’s book was not a surprise, coming sixteen years after “Content of Our Character,” in which he first questioned racial set-aside programs allegedly benefiting blacks. More surprising is the most recent book by Juan Williams entitled: “Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It.” Williams echoes many of Steele’s themes. Remember, Williams co-authored “Eyes on the Prize” with Julian Bond and works for NPR.

Though he wasn’t the first prominent black man to question things, I guess it was Bill Cosby who really blew the lid off. Two years ago, he made a speech to Operation PUSH in Jesse Jackson’s back yard, saying: “It is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us, and it keeps a person frozen in their seat. It keeps you frozen in your hole that you are sitting in to point up and say, ‘That’s the reason why I am here.’ We need to stop this.”

We can all do our part to “stop this.” The next time you’re asked to put a checkmark in a box next to a racial category, draw your own box, print “HUMAN” next to it and put your checkmark there. If enough of us do that, maybe government will finally get the message.

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