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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

To Whom and From Whom


On Thanksgiving Day Americans give thanks to God. Used to be everybody knew that but the multiculturalists among us have done their damnedest to hide it, so it’s become necessary to state it up front. When I ask my students about who is to be thanked on this national holiday, they look puzzled. “Indians?” they guess. That’s a clue about what we’re becoming in the 21st century. Only after discussing it some will a student say, “Wait a minute. Isn’t it God?” Those of us fortunate enough to have extended family members in their eighties can ask them the question as a kind of experiment. My prediction is that they, too, will look puzzled, but not because they don’t know the answer. They’ll be puzzled that anyone would even ask the question.

Americans face uncertainty this winter, but not the kind we thought we’d be facing. Just a few months ago we were worried about high fuel costs when gas prices and heating oil prices were around $4 per gallon. Those costs are back down to manageable levels, but now the economy itself is uncertain. People are being laid off. Nearly all of us know someone who has either gotten a pink slip or whose business has slowed dangerously. The stock market is doing a slow-motion crash. Corporations and banks are failing left and right and few economic advisors are predicting that bottom will be reached anytime soon. Unlike his soaring rhetoric during the campaign, our newly-elected president is sending out spokesmen to damper down expectations that he’s going to fix everything next year, the year after, or even in four years.

This year, I’m thankful for basic things like life, health, family, food, clothing, shelter, and heat. After several years of idleness, I’ve dusted off my chainsaws, dropped trees, and worked them up with my splitting maul - and it felt good. I’d almost forgotten how satisfying it can be to work on the woodpile when it’s getting cold. It’s simple and meaningful work in a complicated world. When I moved my young family to Maine thirty-one years ago, that became my routine because I had no choice. Oil was too expensive. The kids pitched in and it was all good. On the woodpile, there’s no disconnect between the work you do and the reason you do it. It’s hard work, there’s no better feeling than looking at a full woodshed when snow starts to fly. For a man whose job is to take care of his family, it’s a labor of love.

Back to basics is good. So is self-reliance. There was a time when Americans depended on themselves for just about everything and wouldn’t think of calling on government unless there were an emergency. There were no such things as entitlements. We were strong then because the only thing we felt entitled to was the opportunity to work. We always believed in helping each other, but that help was direct. It was bringing your tools over to your neighbor’s and working with him. It wasn’t in the form of government shaking you down for taxes to be spent on people you believe should be doing more for themselves. There’s no satisfaction in that.

Thanksgiving Day is uniquely American. It started with ordinary people celebrating the fruits of their own labor, working side by side for their common welfare - their life, their liberty, and pursuit of their happiness, all of which they knew were theirs by right. They also knew where those rights came from - from their Creator, not from their government. A century and a half later, their descendants put it down in writing and sent it to the king. On that day back in 1621 however, they gave thanks to God.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Liberal Racism


Can we finally get rid of “Affirmative Action” now that we have a black president? Barack Obama was freely elected by the votes of more than 63 million Americans with all shades of skin. We know this because our government and our media are obsessed with race. Endlessly, they classify us all even though biologists insist there’s no such thing as “races.” We humans belong to only one race - the human race. Any others are socially-constructed categories based on skin color or other variances within the human species. In other words, they exist only because we insist they do. How many times have you been asked to classify yourself as “White-non Hispanic” or “Black” or “Native American” or “Pacific Islander” or any one of a growing list of “races”?

The Constitution requires our federal government to count us all every ten years for the purpose of apportioning congressional districts according to population. Slave-holding states insisted that slaves be counted so they could have more congressional power. Anti-slavery states didn’t want to count them at all since they were not citizens. A compromise resulted in which only three-fifths of the slave population would count toward seats in Congress. After post-Civil-War Amendments 13, 14, and 15, there was no need to categorize American citizens this way, but it persisted and even expanded nonetheless. Such is the nature of government bureaucracies.

When I was visited by a census taker eight years ago, he sat at my kitchen table and filled out a form as he questioned me. When he got to the part about “race” I watched him as he was about to check off “white.” I said, “Wait a minute,” and insisted that he put me down as human. He said he had to check off one of the categories and there were none for “human.” I said leave it blank then. He said he could see that I was white and he marked it. I let it go, but I won’t in 2010 when census-takers come around again. I’ll refuse to cooperate when my government discriminates on the basis of race. It’s racism, pure and simple, and we have to get off this ludicrous merri-go-round.

For a century after slavery was outlawed, black people (and others) were discriminated against. To remedy that, the Civil Rights Bill was signed into law by President Johnson in 1964. It became illegal to “limit, segregate, or classify his employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Yet that is exactly what Affirmative Action does. It classifies people according to the above-mentioned categories and grants them preferential treatment at the expense of others. “Affirmative Action” is a euphemism for racial preferences - the very antithesis of what the Civil Rights Bill intended. It was wrong in principle when white people got racial preferences, and it’s wrong when any other group does also.

When people like Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute moved to eliminate racial categories from the US Census altogether, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) insisted they remain. How else could they use the power of government to “advance colored people” if they were not identified by that government and given preferences in hiring, college admissions, and business contracts? A sort of compromise was worked out in which citizens were allowed to check off more than one of 126 possible classifications of race and ethnicity, but this only made things worse.

Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute has been effective, however, in its efforts at outlawing Affirmative Action in several states including California, Washington, Michigan, and Nebraska through the referendum process. Enacted in 1996, “The California Civil Rights Initiative,” for example, reads as follows:

“The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

For this, Connerly has been attacked as “racist” by fellow black activists. How an initiative that bars discrimination on the basis of race can be called racist is beyond me, but such is the hopelessly skewed thinking of race-baiting activists like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, as well as most members of the NAACP and the Democrat Party.
While there’s still a question of whether Barack Obama got into Columbia and Harvard through Affirmative Action, he won the highest office in the land without it. If that’s not proof that it’s time to eliminate Affirmative Action once and for all, please tell me - what is it going to take?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Objective Pretense


It was a bad week. Couldn’t start my column on Sunday like I usually do because the hard drive on my laptop crashed while I was away for the weekend. Monday morning I got it outlined on my back-up machine before leaving for school, but after school I had to drive a hundred miles (round trip) to drop my main machine off with the nearest Apple-certified technician. Tuesday after school I picked it up and hurried home to vote before the polls closed. Election results were depressing for conservatives like me. Wednesday morning I was pulled over for speeding on the way to school. Been driving that road the same way for thirty-one years, but oh well. I was going 55 in a 45.

Most of my students are Obama supporters. I’m not and they know it. I knew they would be giving me plenty of “I told you so’s” that day and I wasn’t looking forward to it. In the first class, students asked if I’d heard that Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country and not a continent.

“No, I didn’t,” I said. “Where did you hear that?

“On television this morning,” said one student and another concurred right away. “She’s pretty dumb,” he said.

“What news show were you watching?” I asked. Neither could tell me, but I learned later that the information came from sources in the McCain campaign and was widely reported in the Mainstream Media. For two months, students had been repeating reports about how ignorant and inexperienced Sarah Palin was. I asked each class that day how many of them had seen reports like that. About two-thirds raised their hands. Several told me Palin spent too much on clothes, thought she could see Russia from her house in Alaska, shot animals from a plane, had a pregnant teenaged daughter, or avoided answering interview questions.

“Hmm,” I said. “Let me ask you a few questions. Did you hear that Obama claimed a few months ago that he’d campaigned in 57 states and still had one more to go?” In five classes with approximately 125 students, only one girl had heard it on the radio.

“Okay, how about this one: When Katie Couric interviewed Joe Biden about comparing our financial crisis to the Great Depression, he claimed President Roosevelt went on television to explain the 1929 stock market crash to the American people. How many of you heard about that?”

Not one had. Several students said television hadn’t been invented then. I told them it had, but televisions weren’t being sold because nothing was being broadcast until the late forties. We’d been studying the Great Depression and several knew that Roosevelt didn’t become president until 1933 - nearly four years after the stock market crash.

Then I told them that during the vice presidential debate, Biden claimed that “Article One of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States” (find it at the 4:00 mark) when actually, the executive branch is defined in Article Two. Not a single student heard about that blunder either.

Many times during September and October I’d had students turn to Article II in their textbook’s copy of the Constitution so they could read about qualifications, duties, and powers of the president and vice president. They’d also read several parts of Article I which outlines the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. “Biden has been a US senator for 36 years,” I said. “Don’t you think he should know this stuff?”

Many nodded gravely.

“So what’s the point I’m making?” I asked each class and waited for them to think it over. “I can show you Obama and Biden saying dumb things on ‘You Tube,’ but only one girl heard any of it. On the other hand, most of you heard plenty to make Palin appear foolish. What’s up with that?”

Students suggested that television stations don’t like to show bad things about Democrats. “That seems like a valid conclusion,” I said. “Our broadcast media had plenty of material on both sides, but only used it against one. Why would they do that?”

“Because they’re biased?” several asked.

“I think so,” I said. “Their reporting has certainly had an influence on you. Do you think it’s had a similar influence on Americans who vote?”

There were nods all around.

“Fox News seems to have a conservative bias, but all the rest have a liberal bias. The worst part, however, is that none of them admit it. They pretend to be objective.”

“You’re taking this too hard, Mr. McLaughlin,” said one boy as class was ending.

“Perhaps,” I said. "Been a hard week."

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Turbulent Times?


The times we’re living in are fertile ground for what I do, which is teaching US History since 1901. We’re in the end stage of a presidential election that has riveted most people’s attention, no matter what their political orientation. We’re engaged in a war with people who wish to impose their religion on the entire world and are willing to die in the process. Then, in the midst of all this, we’re faced with a financial crisis almost nobody understands, but is being called the worst since the Great Depression. About 125 different students started filing in and out of my classroom in early September and I’ve been trying to help them understand it all.

Few of us learn history chronologically. Rather, it’s a little here, a little there, and gradually we develop a working hypothesis to understand the dynamics, the cause-and-effect, of those events with which we become familiar. Then something comes along that doesn’t fit and we have to adjust that hypothesis to accommodate it. I’m charged with teaching 20th century US History, weaving in economics, geography, civics, and current events. I can’t teach everything that happened since January 1, 1901 when the 20th century began, so I have to leave out some things and emphasize other things. The choices I make, no matter what they are, will please some and annoy others. This year, I’ve largely abandoned chronology and taken things as they come. I’ve been comparing this presidential election with the 1932 election, for instance. There are many parallels and many differences - and both are helpful.

One parallel is panic. Fear that stock prices would collapse in 1929 and the panic-selling which resulted helped cause the collapse. So began the Great Depression. Then, as Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, fear that banks would collapse caused people to withdraw their deposits - and that caused banks to fail. When teaching these events, I’ve found it helpful to call up from students what they already know. I ask them to tell me the “Chicken Little” story most of them have been told about the stupid chicken who gets hit on the head by a falling acorn and goes running to tell the king that the sky is falling. Panic spreads as he’s joined by Henny Penny, Turkey Lurkey and the rest. Their birdbrained fear is soon exploited by Foxy Loxy and they come to sad end in his lair. The lesson, of course, is that their fear brought about their demise. Then I tell students that they already know part of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, but they don’t know they know it. When I tell them that, they give me funny looks. Then I say, “There’s nothing to fear but . . .” and gesture for them to finish the sentence, which they do, saying: “fear itself.” Thus they put into context what they already know. Another piece of the incomplete puzzle that represents their understanding of their world goes into place. Their working hypothesis becomes a little clearer.

One difference between the elections of 1932 and 2008 is that things are not nearly as bad today as they were then. The unemployment rate in 1932 was approaching 25% - one out of four people were out of work. Today it’s only around 6%. Also, there were no supports in place for those laid off - no unemployment insurance, no housing or heating assistance, no welfare other than what a municipality or private charity offered. Also, people here in northern New England tended to live on small, subsistence farms, so they were able to provide their own basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, heat, etc. When I’ve sent former students out into the community at the end of each year to interview the elderly, they ask how the Great Depression affected our now-senior citizens. The most common answer goes something like this: “Well, we weren’t poor. We just didn’t have any money.”

That’s not true now. Most of us don’t live on subsistence farms anymore. If there should be another Great Depression as some fear, we’ll have to find other ways to cope.

People sense turbulence ahead and have elected a new president who promises “Change we can believe in.” He’s pretty vague, however, about what that change will be or how he’ll bring it about. His vice president-elect warns us that the new guy will be tested by hostile foreign elements very soon after taking office. He, too, was vague in his remarks, but he indicated that the American people might not be happy about the way the new president responds to this test. Roosevelt had eight years in office before he was tested by hostile foreign elements. It’ll come much sooner for President Obama if we can believe his VP. We know he can give a good speech, but will that be enough to pass the test? We’ll see, I guess.

There’s a Chinese proverb which says: “I’d rather be a dog in peaceful times than live as a man in turbulent times.”

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