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, October 26, 2011

Defining Poor


“We have the poor, and the poor have us.”

An old selectman with whom I worked twice a week for several years repeated that often when we discussed “General Assistance” cases, the only issues we kept confidential. Everything else was on the public record. He was almost old enough to be my grandfather and first served on the board back in the 1940s. Welfare existed at the local level then. Before President Johnson’s “Great Society” transformed everything, selectmen were “overseers of the poor.”

The old selectman's refrain had subtle implications. Regarding the first part: “We have the poor”: we have them to test us - to see what we’re made of. If it’s more blessed to give than to receive, we helped ourselves by giving to them. However, our judgement was also tested when deciding how much to help, ever cognizant that it was possible to help too much and cause the poor to become dependent - to lose the initiative to help themselves. The second part, “The poor have us” implied that not only did the poor have us to support them, they “had us by the short hairs,” as well. Basic human compassion obligated us to help when they faced existential threat, but we had to summon the toughness to say no when they were gaming the system. Such judgements were difficult enough to make at the local level, but even more so at the state level - even in a small state like Maine. When federal government mandates welfare in its many forms, such judgement becomes virtually impossible.During my nine years as General Assistance Administrator for my town of Lovell, Maine, I’d estimate that only one in three receiving assistance were in genuine need. Two out of three were scamming. In my particular circle of family, friends and acquaintances, there are several receiving all or a portion of their support from government. Some have legitimate needs, but for most I have my suspicions. I don’t think my circle is unusual. How is it in yours?

So what is poor anyway? Politically, it’s a volatile word and important to define. The federal government defines poor as below a certain income level for an individual, a couple, a family of three, four, five, and so forth. But numerical definitions mislead, especially considering that income derived from the underground economy is impossible to account for. Most of us would agree that someone is poor if (s)he hasn’t enough money for food, clothing, shelter, or medical care, so how many Americans are poor by that definition? Very few, if any. You might find some on the streets, but they tend to be alcoholic, drug addicted, or the deinstitutionalized mentally ill not taking their medications. A few weeks ago I noticed several of Portland, Maine’s street people participating in the “Occupy Wall Street” or OWS activities.Demonstrators at Denver OWS (from Atlas Shrugged)

Once I volunteered at a soup kitchen and noticed that most of those who came in for a free meal were overweight. I didn’t go back.

A Heritage Foundation study just last month reported that in American households classified as “poor”: 92% had a microwave oven; 82% had air conditioning; 74% had a car or truck and 30% had two or more; 64% had cable or satellite TV (34% with plasma or LCD televisions); half had personal computers and 42% had internet service; 70% have a VCR and 64% have a DVD player; 54% had video game systems. More than 90% lived in single-family homes or apartments. The rest live in mobile homes.Another at Denver OWS (from Atlas Shrugged)

The list goes on and remember: I’m talking about households our government classifies as “poor” here. Go back fifty years and people with these things would be considered prosperous. It’s hard to sympathize with people who turn out at OWS demonstrations and complain about “The 1%” of Americans who have more than they do. They join with communists, socialists, radical Muslims, public employee union thugs, and assorted whiners. They claim to be part of “the 99%” and they want to eliminate capitalism, the very system that enables the “poor” among us to overeat while watching cable TV in their warm homes.From politifake.com

Rather than be content with food, clothing, shelter, medical care, televisions, cars and X boxes, they’re consumed with misery when they visualize others who have more. They want government to take it away from “the 1%” and give it to them. Collectively, they’re the largest constituency of the Democrat Party which is driving our federal government into bankruptcy. They don’t seem to understand that benefits they’re already getting are unsustainable, that even if they took all the income from “the 1%” it would only be enough to keep the system going for 90 days.

This is what happens when federal government usurps authority from local government. If we don’t elect people in November, 2012 who begin dismantling the federal behemoth, it will bring us all down with a mighty crash.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Learning and Discerning


Too much information is coming my way and there isn’t time to digest it all. It’s causing me stress and I’m trying to do something about it.

It’s the internet. So much of my work - and yes, I’m still working even though I’m retired from teaching - involves a computer on my lap. I do banking for myself and a client. I write. I exchange emails with friends, family and business associates. I store images. The laptop is one of my portals on the world, past and present. I cannot remember the last time I wanted to know something and couldn’t find out about it on the internet.

Last night, for example, I looked up the life span of Ignatius of Loyola after discussing the Society of Jesus with a friend. Ignatius was born in 1491 - just before Columbus discovered America - just before Muslims were driven from the Iberian Peninsula back to Africa after centuries of domination. As Ignatius grew to manhood, his country became the richest, most powerful on earth by taking in gold and silver from the New World. The Protestant Reformation rocked Europe. Ignatius founded the Jesuits and led the Counterreformation. Thoroughly engaged in the far-reaching ideas and events of his time, Ignatius died in 1556 at 65. He had been overwhelmed by world events as a young man and then chose to step back drastically to digest it all and seek direction. Then, all through the rest of his busy and productive life, he retreated periodically to process.A client's dock on Kezar Lake, Lovell

Not being bound to a classroom anymore gives me more time to absorb information, but not enough. I’ve subscribed to news feeds from many interesting and trusted sources but I still can’t read them all. I scroll down my email list and think: “I’ll read that one later and that one too,” but the lists still get longer. My server warns me that my inbox memory is reaching its limit and I must delete still-unread news feeds. It pains me to watch as information I can’t absorb vaporizes back into cyberspace. Reading a book is different. It’s all there in my hands and I can see where the end is. A good author fashions the information with a beginning, a middle, and an end and that can be comforting.

Ignatius went to live in a cave and pray all day to make sense of his world. While I’ve been visiting regional caves with my wife lately studying archaeology and geology, I don’t want to live in one. What I’m learning to do however, is tear myself away from my laptop periodically and go outside. I’ll drive around Kezar Lake and look over the properties I’m responsible for. Smelling fresh air and feeling a cool wind helps clear my head as I watch what light and wind do to the water’s surface. I’ll stroll around nearby archaeological sites and see what may have been turned up by wind and rain. Most days I can pick up a piece of stone discarded by an unknown someone centuries or even millennia before - and that can put the hyperactive 21st century into perspective for a while.

There’s a limit to what I can know and understand. I’ve been pressing against that ceiling lately and discovering I must be discerning about what I feed into the mill wheel between my ears. I have to be careful about what sort of grist my mind should grind, and how much. I have to glean the important and chuck the rest. Walking around outside helps that process.Kezar Lake, looking northwest

At such times I’m reminded of people I learned about when moving to Lovell thirty-four years ago. There were about a half-dozen women who wouldn’t come out of their houses for months at a time and then only briefly when nobody was looking. I pondered why there should be so many afflicted with what seemed to be agoraphobia in a small town of fewer than eight hundred souls. Was it because they’d grown up during the early twentieth century and couldn’t absorb the changes going on around them? Life in Lovell before electricity, paved roads, or automobiles was essentially a nineteenth-century existence. Then, all of a sudden there were radios, televisions, cars, planes, telephones all around bringing noise and information galore. Did all that overwhelm them and cause them to retreat into their more-controlled domestic environment where they would get news only when someone stopped by for a chat? It would be easier to process information that way. It could be measured out in digestible chunks and discussed with a familiar human being.Mount Washington from Christian Hill in Lovell

Lately, I’m trying to do that too. I’m arranging to spend time with others who have common interests, one at a time, and process things. So far, it’s helping.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Visions of the Left

The left is on the ropes. Their Keynesian tactics to “revive” the economy are making it far worse instead. Conservative Tea Party types pushing the Republican Party to the right and taking over the House of Representatives are making it difficult for tax-and-spend liberals to continue on their road to bankrupting the country. The Supreme Court is poised to declare Obamacare unconstitutional. President Obama is sinking in the polls. The European Union, the ideal welfare-state leftists used as a model for decades, is disintegrating. Pundits claim that if the election were held tomorrow, Democrats would lose the Senate and the White House too. They took over everything in 2008 and they’re going to lose it all in 2012, so what is the left doing? They’re trying to start a left-wing tea party called “Occupy Wall Street,” or OWS.What's left when the left occupies New York City (from London Daily Mail)

One of OWS’s catalysts is Van Jones. Remember him? He was President Obama’s “Green Jobs Czar.” He was going to turn America’s energy economy around to wind mills and solar panels, lower the oceans and defeat capitalism. Then he was forced to resign when people began realizing he was a nut case. He was a “Truther” who believed America orchestrated the September 11th attacks and he was a communist. He announced to the Mainstream Media his “American Autumn” which was going to “rebuild the dream” of America in the spirit of the Arab Spring. He described the “phony, made-up deficit stuff” as if our bankrupting $14 trillion debt didn’t exist. “If we could pass the president’s jobs bill . . .” everything would be all right. He wants 99% of Americans to tax the richest 1% and spread the wealth.Hungry mouths to feed? This Chicago woman is overfed.

OWS’s unique brand of weirdness is coming to a city near you if it’s not there already. Do they know what they want? A perfect world, it looks like. Some want to plant trees. Others want free colleges and forgiveness of five and six-figure student loans they ran up as Gender Studies and Queer Studies majors. They certainly weren’t Math majors or they’d know that if we took all the income of the richest Americans, we could run our federal government for less than three months.OWS freaks blocking Brooklyn Bridge (From Christian Science Monitor)

Others want the homeless to be given homes. Many are just strange-looking, smelly, dreadlocked, pierced, tattooed freaks. They’re the social/political, left-wing equivalent of, evolutionary-throwback, agricultural types one sees at Fryeburg Fair. They make you wonder where they go the rest of the year. They can’t possibly work; who would hire them? A head shop? A punk-music group? A marijuana farm? They followed the Grateful Dead for years until Jerry Garcia died, and now they’ve found something else to do.Old Hippie camped out at "Occupy (Portland) Maine"

Others are trust-fund babies, left-over hippies who believe in governing by consensus in long meetings in which everybody feels safe to talk about their feelings. Drudge posted an example of what OWS calls “collaboratism” from Atlanta. “Occupy Atlanta” discussed allowing Congressman John Lewis to speak. A leader with a microphone spoke in three-word cadences so that the entire consensus-cult could chant in repetition everything he said. They used weird hand gestures to communicate consensus or lack thereof. Others took turns speaking in the same creepy cadence - which were, again, repetitively-chanted by the group, while Congressman Lewis waited and watched. The expression on Lewis’s face indicated he was thinking: "Who the f*** are these people?" just as I was when watching the spectacle on You Tube. Ultimately, these politically-correct zombies decided against letting Lewis speak, and he walked away with his union entourage. Those reading this in a newspaper really should go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QZlp3eGMNI and see for yourself what many of these OWS people are like. "Occupy Chicago" led similar zombie chants.

Unlike the smelly, dreadlocked contingent, these zombie leftists appeared to maintain personal hygiene standards. Mentally, they’ve gone over the edge. I sat through enough teacher staff meetings at which we had sensitivity consultants coach us about how to make everyone present “feel safe” enough to speak - so we could “come to consensus.” They trained us to use “thumbs up,” “thumbs down,” and “thumbs sideways” gestures so the leader could “take the temperature” of the group non-verbally. Sometimes I was tempted to make other hand gestures, but restrained myself so my hot-house-flower colleagues wouldn’t faint. If the sensitivity consultants trained us to do the OWS repetitive-chant technique, I’d have left the profession much earlier.I don't get it, do you? Sign at "Occupy Maine" encampment in Portland.

Though they were organizing behind the scenes from the beginning, the public employee unions SEIU and AFSCME are in the open now. They’re joined by street people drawn to the free food provided by sympathetic businesses. Teenage party types come too, drawn by drug use and public sex. Others are paid by Soros-funded recruiters who advertise on Craig’s list. Many in the OWS contingent are anarchists. In what is becoming the icon of the OWS “movement,” one was photographed by the London Daily Mail defecating on a police car in Manhattan. Other pictures showed mountains of trash.OWS Movement (from "London Daily Mail")

None of this was seen at Tea Party demonstrations. The contrast between left and right in America is quite stark, and which side wins in 2012 may well determine the survival of our republic. For almost three years now, we've been seeing what leftist policies do - and it's very clear that our country cannot survive them much longer.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Woodsmen's Day At The Fair

After thirty-four years of wanting to, I finally went to Woodsmen’s Day at the Fryeburg Fair. It’s always been on a Monday and I always had to teach at my old school about half-a-mile away. If I skipped and went to the fair I’d see dozens of people who knew me, knew where I was supposed to be, and who could see I wasn’t sick, so I put it off until after retirement. Weather wasn’t the greatest though. Rain was forecast. It didn’t come, but the day was mostly cloudy, damp, and raw, and that added to a certain sadness I felt.Why sadness? There was a kind of “John Henry” feeling about it. Older readers may remember hearing someone like Johnny Cash sing a version of the old “Steel-Driving Man” ballad. As the legend goes, John Henry was a big, strong man who drove steel spikes into wooden ties to hold down the rails. His job was threatened by a steam-driven machine that would replace human labor and he challenged that machine to a contest. John Henry won, but it wore him down so much that he died of exhaustion in the way a horse will run itself to death.Woodsmen’s Day had lots of ax-wielding events - though axes are a tool you’re not likely to see at a logging site anymore. There were buck-saw and two-person crosscut saw events too. All these old tools were replaced by chainsaws, of course, and there there were also competitions for those. Guys with whining souped-up saws cut through a 10X10 pine beam three times - down, up, and down again - in less than four seconds. If you blinked, you missed it.Lately, even chainsaws are being replaced in the woods. Giant machines called feller-bunchers with big steel arms grapple onto trees while a huge steel circular saw cuts them off at the stump, then lays down a bunch of them for newer grapple skidders to muckle onto and drag to the landing where another giant machine grabs them and feeds them into a chipper. They’re getting more common than chain saws and old-style steel-cable skidders. Feller-bunchers were on display for sale in an area adjacent to the Woodsmen’s Day events. You’ll probably still see a chainsaw on a logging site today but it’s seldom used. Somebody may pick one up to cut a little tree out of the way or, ironically, to drop a tree too big for the huge machines to handle. As far as I know, there are no competitions planned at Fryeburg Fair for feller-bunchers, and Paul Bunyan isn’t around to challenge one of those machines the way John Henry did in the twilight of his profession back in the 19th century.They’re all dead now, but when I moved to Maine way back in the 20th century, there were still guys around who had logged with horses, crosscut saws, buck saws, and peaveys. One showed me how easy it was to limb a downed tree with a sharp ax. Chainsaws and skidders had taken took over by then however. Most loggers worked in three-man crews - one called a chopper downed the trees and limbed them. Another drove a cable-and-winch skidder to drag logs to the landing, where another worked to cut the trees to market-length logs. When the landing was full of logs and/or pulpwood, an independent with a logging truck would come in and haul them to the mill.

Cutting firewood and twitching it out of the woods with an old tractor for about twenty years gave me enough of a taste to know it’s all very hard work, and dangerous too. I cut only ten or twelve cords a year - just enough to keep my family warm and sell a little once in a while. As soon as I became prosperous enough, I went back to using oil and only worked up a little wood here and there for the fireplace. I could still do it, but I won’t unless I have to.Quite a few competing in the Woodsmen’s Day events were older than I am and there was a special category called “Masters” for them. That’s a euphemism for old-guy league and I found myself rooting for them. They came from all over the country and Canada too. One looked amazingly like Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country For Old Men.” Jones’s character played a sheriff in rural Texas who was near retirement and struggling to deal with how much the world and the people in it had transformed around him.Tommy Lee Jones in "No Country For Old Men"Separated At Birth?

I was surprised to see women competing in their own classes for nearly every event. Most looked like Russian weight lifters, but not all. Some looked quite feminine and handled their axes and saws with great skill. That got me wondering if the Fair Association will ever start calling Monday “Woodsperson’s Day.”

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