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, April 25, 2012

Willful Ignorance

A lot of reaction to the “How Stupid Are We?” column last week, including one comment quoting the late George Carlin: “Just think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of them are even stupider.”

That would be “more stupid,” George, not “stupider,” but it wasn’t a good choice of words on my part either. “Ignorant” would be more accurate than stupid. Stupid means unable to learn. Ignorant means not having an opportunity to learn, or worse - refusing to learn. As a teacher, I called that "willful ignorance."

Jay Leno showcases popular ignorance with his “Jaywalking” series, stopping people on the sidewalk and asking questions like: “In what country is the Panama Canal?” and they don’t know. He asks “What countries border the United States?” and people guess: “Australia?” On and on it goes.

Schools issue diplomas, degrees and certificates to people who have completed a prescribed course of study. I can’t tell you how many small business people complained to me as a local teacher that young people who have graduated from local high schools could not fill out simple job applications or read a ruler on a job site. They paid a big portion of our property taxes which funded our schools and they were angry.

Colleges are no better. Admission standards are so weak that a big percentage of freshmen must take remedial English and math courses for no credit. As long as applicants have high school diplomas and qualify for federal grants and subsidized loans, they’re in. Many enroll in watered-down, pointless majors such as “Gender Studies”; Queer Studies; “Fashion Design”; and courses like “Cyberfeminism” (Cornell) and “The Science of Superheroes: (UC Irvine) that cost thousands. When I saw signs and interviews of people at “Occupy” demonstrations last fall complaining about their student loan debt, I wondered what it was they had studied. If they majored in Women’s Studies and couldn’t find a job, whose fault is that?

Our economy still reels from the housing bubble, but next on the horizon is the student-loan bubble. With average debt over $25,000, there’s more than a trillion dollars of shaky loan debt out there. The biggest default danger, however, is the United States itself. As a republic, our leaders are elected by the people. Stupid people elect stupid leaders. Beginning with the New Deal, accelerating during the Great Society, and culminating with Hope and Change, those leaders made promises they couldn’t keep. Voters believed them, which brings us to the biggest indicator of collective American stupidity: our steady march to bankruptcy.

Most people stop believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy by about third grade. By the end of fourth grade, Americans used to know basic arithmetic until the federal government began “fixing” public education. We cannot depend on that being true anymore, but I think we can still say that a majority know it by the end of eighth grade. Why then does a majority of Americans continue to elect and reelect leaders in Washington who borrow or print 40 cents of every dollar they spend?

Knowing that basic arithmetic, how can a majority of Americans continue to believe the federal government can borrow and print money for decades into the future to pay unfunded mandates in Social Security and Medicare approaching $100 trillion? It defies logic.

Remember the learning process around Santa Claus? We liked the myth of a kindly old man who could give us anything we want, magically. As long as we behaved, he would grant our requests. We started to have doubts about him in first or second grade when we questioned the likelihood of an old man with flying reindeer and a flying sleigh delivering all those toys around the world in one night. We still wanted to believe it though, so we pushed the doubts away. Our parents wanted us to believe it too so they reinforced the myth with ever more elaborate explanations of how it really was possible and we should keep on believing it.

Politicians do that too. They insist that people can retire at 65 with full benefits and free medical care for twenty-five years until death at 90 or so. President Obama and congressional Democrats assert the only thing that might derail the gravy train is tax cuts for greedy rich people.

When Congressman Paul Ryan pokes holes in the myth of Social Security’s and Medicare’s sustainability, when he says we cannot believe the Santa Claus-Democrats we sense that he’s right, but we don’t want to give up the myth. We know it’s stupid, but we really, really want to believe it - so we do. Will a stupid majority reelect stupid leaders in November? Time will tell.

As Forrest Gump put it: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How Stupid Are We?

“Sometimes societies become too stupid to survive,” wrote columnist Mark Steyn last Saturday.

I cannot get the line out of my head. He was talking about America’s steady march to bankruptcy which, if it goes on much longer (like past November), will become irreversible. Has America become too stupid to survive? It would be an easy case to make.

We have a congress with the lowest approval ratings in history. Fewer than 10% of us agree with what our representatives are doing down there in Washington. The people answering the pollsters’ questions, however, are the same people who vote them in every two to six years! What does that tell us about ourselves? Answer that. Are we stupid?

Clearly, President Obama and his campaign operatives think we are. Either that or they’re stupid, and it wouldn’t be difficult to make that case either. Last Thursday, columnist Charles Krauthammer quoted our president speaking in September, 2011:

Warren Buffett’s secretary shouldn’t pay a [higher] tax rate than Warren Buffett. . . . And that basic principle of fairness, if applied to our tax code, could raise enough money [to] stabilize our debt and deficits for the next decade. . . . This is not politics; this is math.
But it’s not math. It simply doesn’t add up as both Krauthammer and Steyn emphasized last week. Both demonstrated mathematically that if the “Buffett Rule” were to collect taxes from wealthy Americans as the president proposes, it would take centuries to offset even one year of Obama’s deficits. So the president’s claim is either politics or stupidity, but it’s certainly not math.

My liberal friends - and I do have some, believe it or not - fervently believe President Obama is highly intelligent. For me even to suggest that he may not be makes them think I’m stupid. But consider this: Just a few weeks ago, President Obama said it would be “unprecedented” for “unelected” US Supreme Court to overturn his Affordable Care Act which most people know as “Obamacare.” That’s just flat wrong. So why would he say it?

Four possibilities:

One - he’s stupid, because he doesn’t understand how the US government has worked since 1803’s “Marbury vs Madison.”

“But he graduated from Columbia and Harvard Law School where he was editor of the Law Review!” my liberal friends exclaim. That means he can’t be stupid, right? He must be brilliant or he never would have gotten that far, right?

We cannot see President Obama’s college records. He won’t let us. Why? Did he get admitted to the Ivy League through Affirmative Action because he’s black? Where’s the evidence that he’s intelligent? I haven’t seen it. Is reading well from an teleprompter evidence of intelligence? Not to me. I’ve met too many Ivy League graduates whose intelligence is underwhelming. Of President Obama’s profound intelligence, I remain profoundly unconvinced.

Two - He’s a narcissist who believes his press clippings and thinks he can’t be wrong.

Three - He’s trying to bully the Supreme Court into voting for the constitutionality of his biggest “accomplishment” - the so-called “Affordable Care Act.” You know - the one we can’t afford because it’s costing twice what he said it would. A more suitable name would be the “Unaffordable Care Act.” By calling Supreme Court “unelected” he’s trying to stir resentment by suggesting to American voters that these “unelected” justices might take away their healthcare.

Four: It’s politics. Obama was forced to admit last week that the “Buffet Rule” is a gimmick that won’t do much to reduce the deficit, but he keeps saying “the rich aren’t paying their fair share” because he’s already planted the idea in feeble-minded voters that it will. And, he knows stirring up class warfare will help him in November. He believes America is stupid enough to buy it all. If he’s right, he gets reelected. If he gets reelected, we’re doomed.

That’s the biggest part of President Obama’s campaign strategy. He has no plan to reduce the deficit. Instead of reversing our march to bankruptcy, he’s accelerating it. If he wins, I guess I’ll have to accept that Mark Steyn’s fear is realistic America may have become too stupid to survive.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Uncle Joe

It had been a while since I lost a close family member. Lately, however, I’m losing several and others are seriously ill or injured. It’s less difficult with the older ones, but some are younger. A couple of friends and acquaintances have passed too.

Joe Haggerty was my favorite uncle and my last surviving one. He was part of the “Greatest Generation. He did things for me no one else took time to do. He took movies of us kids growing up - Hours of 8mm film chronicling two decades that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for him buying a camera and then pulling it out so many times as we were growing up. Joe taught me to appreciate music and art. He explained what caused the Great Depression. He taught me to sail. He organized a surprise party when I finished graduate school. He encouraged me and everyone else to strive and to savor life. He was an example of someone who did both.
Joe lived on a lake. That was wondrous to me as a kid. Go swimming or fishing any time you want? Amazing. When he took his family on vacation somewhere else, he invited our family of eight children to stay there, even when knowing that some of us wet the bed. He brought his family to our house every Christmas Eve. For the first few years he and Aunt Pat gave each of us a pair of pajamas. Practical. Then one year he said the heck with the pajamas and gave the whole family a ping-pong table. My brother and I became quite good at it.
Joe and his sister Mary (my mother) in the Aran Islands

Joe smiled a lot. I have a hard time remembering him when he wasn’t. He was positive, always looking for a silver lining though his life wasn’t always easy. For years, he and Pat were unable to conceive, so they adopted three children. Then she got pregnant - with triplets! None made it, however, living only a few days. Later, Aunt Pat came down with MS. Joe nursed her lovingly for years until she died, and we never heard him complain.He joined the Navy before World War II broke out and was assigned to guard the Panama Canal as a crewman aboard a PB4Y - a huge “flying boat” that could land in water and take off from it. I asked him if he ever saw action and he answered, “Yes and no.” While flying a diplomat from Hawaii to Australia the clouds opened and he looked down at the Battle of the Coral Sea raging below. He hoped no Japanese pilots looked up and spotted his big plane because they would likely have shot it down, but the clouds came back together and it proceeded unmolested. He saw action, but did not participate. A painting in one of the US History books I used to teach from depicted just the kind of view he would have seen and I’d share Uncle Joe’s story with my classes each year.After the war he went to Northeastern University on the GI Bill and became an electrical engineer. As the grandson of Irish immigrant coal miners, that was a big deal. He was the only one if his generation on both sides of my family to have gone to college, much less graduated. After years at Raytheon and RCA, he changed careers and taught economics at a small college in Massachusetts. It was then I asked him what caused the Great Depression and he took the time to give me an understanding that I’ve built on throughout my life.Asking other family members how they remember Uncle Joe, I hear that he listened. He was easy to talk to. They trusted him. I drove down for his 90th birthday three years ago. He’d been a widower for some time by then and he introduced me to his “lady friends.” There were five of them. He went dancing with them regularly. He played the piano. He was a prolific painter, mostly with water colors. He was good at both.At a pub in the Aran Islands: Me, my mother Mary, Joe, my wife Roseann

With my wife and mother, we toured the west of Ireland together the following spring. I was concerned that she at 85 and he at 90 would slow us down, but I needn’t have been. I had to pull them both out of a Doolin pub our first night there because I wanted to go to bed. We looked around the village of Crossmolina in the County Mayo countryside from where their grandparents (my great-grandparents) Peter Haggerty and Kate McDonnell came. Both knew Kate, but Peter had died of black lung in Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania before they were born.
Getting ready to take a shot in Connemara

Uncle Joe has joined them now in the Great Beyond where we’ll all go someday. I’ll have more questions for him when I get there and I’m confident he’ll take the time to listen.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Liberalism and Catholicism

Coming up Catholic in fifties and sixties America affected me deeply and still does. My parents were of Boston-Irish-Catholic-Democrat stock and I was inculcated with the attitudes and beliefs common to that demographic - all cemented by eleven years of Catholic education. I accepted it as most kids do, then began to question it as most adolescents do. After that came seductive, intellectually-fashionable ridicule of conservative Christianity, and especially Catholic teachings of the Magisterium. For more than a decade, I avoided mass except for weddings and funerals and didn’t realize that many bishops and priests as well as rank and file Catholics succumbed to those seductions. I was shocked to discover in 2002 and 2003 that thousands adolescent boys were sexually assaulted by hundreds of homosexual priests and bishops who hid their debauchery for decades. Liberals have fixed the Catholic Church in America about the same way they fixed cities like Detroit. The American Church has bumped along the bottom for about a decade but is lately showing signs of resurgence.

East Side of Detroit today
When I’m at Sunday mass in a different town or city I’m careful to look over people in the pews and gauge demographics. Usually I notice gray or bald heads, few young families with children, and a lack of enthusiasm. That was not the case, however, when I attended mass a few weeks ago at St. Ignatius Parish on Grand Cayman Island. There, my wife and I were a distinct minority: I noticed very few older, white people like us in attendance - and there was lots of enthusiasm from the young, mostly dark-skinned people who proliferated in the pews, in the choir, and on the altar. They were native Cayman Islanders of mixed white and African ancestry and what looked like immigrants from India, the Philippines, and elsewhere in Asia. They chanted ritual responses as if they really believed what they were saying and they sang with gusto. It was the refreshing and encouraging Catholic heritage of work done by missionaries from Portugal, Spain and France over five hundred years. Though things may have been bleak for Catholics in the United States and Europe lately, the Church elsewhere in the world is growing and strengthening.
Catholics in Hanoi
The struggles within the American Church parallel those of America itself. It’s left versus right - and the left has been ascendant in both arenas. I don’t know if it’s just coincidental, but strong leftist influences both political and religious have come out of the Chicago area. Chicago and Boston are similar with their strong Irish-Catholic-Democrat traditions. Politics and religion have been closely mixed for more than a century, and there has been a profound right-to-left drift in the past four decades. That trend, however, may have peaked.

President Obama came out of Chicago in 2008 and was invited to speak at nearby Notre Dame - the flagship American Catholic university - shortly after his inauguration in 2009. Of all the various Catholic institutions, its colleges and universities have drifted furthest from traditional teachings, and Notre Dame is no exception. Whenever Catholic issues like the death or election of a pope are in the news, liberal networks have invited liberal priests like Chicago’s Father Andrew Greeley and Notre Dame’s Father Richard McBrien to provide color commentary. Then there’s the infamous Father Michael Pfleger. He the Chicago Catholic sidekick of President Obama’s friend and mentor Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Here in 2012, however, it looks like religious and political liberals are beginning their descendancy. While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) endorsed Obamacare in 2009, they’re changing their minds in 2012 as President Obama is forcing them to pay for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs. USCCB President Timothy Dolan has virtually declared war. That he’s a conservative and was elected by his fellow bishops is promising. Dolan is smart, engaging and tough. Obama won’t be able to cajole him or push him around. Obama won the Catholic vote in 2008, but isn’t likely to in 2012.

Father Pfleger was suspended briefly by his Chicago bishop, Cardinal George, last spring but reinstated a month later. If he continues to challenge Catholic doctrine the next suspension won’t be brief. Racy novelist Father Greeley got his coat caught in a cabbie’s door and sustained a head injury from which his recovery has been very slow. Father McBrien’s book “Catholicism” has not been endorsed by the USCCB for doctrinal reasons. Not sure who the Mainstream Media will invite any of them when next they need a liberal priest to echo their prejudice against conservative Catholic teachings.

Liberalism lost it’s appeal for me both politically and religiously over twenty years ago. The USCCB has been slower to come around but better late than never. Let’s hope their new movement rightward picks up momentum.

I have a strong feeling it will.