Sunday, June 25, 2006


(News-Herald, June 22) One of society’s challenges today is dealing with injustice and protected minorities, the groups in our culture that have special status. If they invoke that status in the midst of some struggle or strife, we may not criticize them.
Lots of folks in a variety of situations are abused, bullied, and mistreated. Some give as good as they get; some do not. Some ask for it; some do not. Often the business of justice, official or unofficial, is to talk about the various factors that led to the conflict. But if someone can make the claim that they have been mistreated because of the group they belong to, we can no longer discuss any of the particulars.
That’s not entirely wrong. When someone is beaten or abused or killed because he’s Black or gay or Jewish or Etc, that’s just plain wrong.
I want to be absolutely clear about this. There are no circumstances that justify attacking people simply because of their race or orientation. There are no circumstances that justify even giving people a hard time because of their race or orientation.
Prejudice is the business of judging all of a person’s character based on a small set of superficial characteristics. It’s the business of saying, “Since I know you’re black, I know everything I need to know. I know how you think, feel, and act.” At its very worst, it’s the business of saying, “Since I know these things, I also know that you deserve whatever abuse I want to give you.”
(Note: prejudice also includes looking at areas like Venangoland and thinking, “Well, everybody there is undoubtedly a dumb hick redneck who is racist, sexist, and homophobic.”)
But here’s where it gets tricky.
Because while people should never, ever be subjected to mistreatment just because they’re a member of a minority (have I made myself absolutely clear on this point?), that does not mean that all of their bad behavior should be automatically excused.
Every imaginable demographic subdivision includes some examples of a distinct and recognizable type of person—what we most politely call Jerks. These are people whose ignorance and obnoxiousness is always a trial to the people around them. When Jerks Behave Badly, everyone else suffers, and some people will fight back.
But in modern times, some Jerks hide behind protected minority status. These Jerks will punch you in the nose, and when you object, complain that you are picking on them because they belong to Group X.
This is of course unfair to the people these Jerks punch in the nose. But it’s even more unfair to the members of the minority who have real grievances. Minority Jerks tend to be very noisy, and too often they drown out the sound of minority members facing real injustice. Worse, Minority Jerks make it that much easier for Majority Jerks to dismiss all related issues. “Well, you know, it’s just those people trying to cash in on their status again.”
Any minority group member can play, though not all can play equally. We are still arguing as a culture whether fat people should be a protected minority. And while it’s pretty hard to pretend to be Black, anybody can claim to be gay.
If we’re going to work toward a more just, fair and free society, we have an obligation to approach these cases with brains fully engaged. When one of these cases appears, it’s a mistake to automatically jump onto the “for” or “against” bandwagon. We need to look closely at what really is going.
How do we spot the Minority Jerks?
Well, one way is to look for a pattern. If, everywhere they go, they find themselves surrounded by people who are Out To Get Them—well, it’s possible they are the victims of uncommonly bad luck, but then again, perhaps they carry their problems with them everywhere they go.
Second, if we look closely, Minority Jerks are usually angling for something other than justice. They are not looking for a solution to the problem; they are looking for a way to benefit from it.
Sometimes the benefits are obvious—that’s why Minority Jerks frequently appear in the company of lawyers. “I just have to speak out about this,” declares the Minority Jerk. “But if you give me a big wad of money, I believe I could shut up.”
Sometimes the benefits are less tangible. Minority Jerks can use their status to get revenge—“You didn’t give me my way, so I’m going to plaster you all over the newspapers.” Sometimes Minority Jerks just want attention. “Look at me! Look at me! I’m a victim of injustice. But mostly, look at me!”
There is too much real prejudice and injustice in the world to waste time on Jerks of any type.

Friday, June 16, 2006

June 16 my parents will celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary.
It’s the kind of milestone worth noting. The institution of marriage has taken a bit of a beating (and that’s from heterosexuals— “protecting” marriage from gay folks is like sending more troops to Iraq to protect Iraqis from mad cow disease—not the biggest problem needing attention).
Fifty years of marital commitment is no small feat. There are millions of us who couldn’t pull it off.
My parents are good New England stock, which means they were raised in an environment a bit less emotionally demonstrative than here in Venangoland. In New England, if you pass a car crashed into a tree, you think twice about stopping because you might be intruding. If your hand is accidentally cut off, you try not to bleed on anyone else, and you certainly don’t interrupt someone else’s conversation to ask for help.
So for my siblings and me, assembling our parents’ story has been a lifetime hobby.
My mother started out in a privileged family, attending a classy private school in Boston. It appears that my grandmother was basically a flapper, my grandfather the sober young man who settled her down. But somehow they lost it all; they moved the family into a small cottage in the sticks of New Hampshire.
That was Rye, where my father’s family has lived since the invention of dirt. He was the son of a contractor; his mother eventually became a New Hampshire legislator.
My mother grew up working; there are a lot of her stories that include the phrase “I never did X because we were too poor.” She started out two years ahead of Dad in school, but lost a year to illness.
My father’s youth is—well, not what you’d necessarily expect if you know my father. His parents shipped him off to private school—to straighten him out. Most of his classmates went on to Yale; he made do with the state university. My father was a hot-rodding ladies man. My mother went to Keene State College to become an elementary school teacher.
Somehow they came back to each other, and they were married after she graduated from college, the summer before his senior year. She worked while he studied, and at the end of the year, he received a college diploma and a son.
He took a job offer from Joy and the family moved across the state. They lived with a nice older couple until they bought a house of their own. Joy told them, “Sell your house; you’re going to Pennsylvania.” They sold the house. Joy said, “Oops. We meant next year.” They rented a place.
They moved to Franklin, about twelve hours from home. We made the trip back twice a year, saw the family rarely. My mother’s father died when she was about 40, and Grammy Binmore moved to Franklin where Mom could look out for her.
Were there times that put a strain on their marriage? I don’t know. They experienced losses and disappointment. Their children have certainly given them some hair-greying moments. But if there were any great rocky moments in their marriage, we never saw any signs. No matter what else I felt about home, it never once occurred to me that it was anything but stable and rock solid safe.
Their marriage is not, as near as I can tell, grandly romantic in the classic sense. My father proposed on a New Year’s Eve. He had told my mother that he was buying a new car stereo; instead he surprised her with a ring. She was mad at him for lying to her.
My mother grew up with music, but had to leave that behind when her family went bust. Years after we had moved here, my father drove us to Sharon and made her pick out a new organ. He bought it; she cried all the way back to Franklin.
They don’t do every little thing together. He fixes windows at the church. She quilts with the ladies downstairs. He fixes things in the attic at DeBence; she works at the front desk. They take care of the people around them. They have little disagreements about what happened when, about how to carve a turkey. They are a constant source of amusement to their grandchildren. They take care of each other. They are a great example of how people can make a good life for themselves by looking after others.
Their fifty years of marriage would not make a good novel or movie, but it makes a marriage that any couple would be happy to have. No doubt this weekend there are other couples tying the knot; may they all have a bond as strong and lasting.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Making a good problem is a tough skill to master, but it’s necessary for just about any kind of managerial job.
For instance, an important part of teaching is creating problems for your students. The trick is to create a problem that can best be solved by learning whatever the teacher wants the students to learn.
The classic example is a test. The problem is how to get the right answers; the solution is supposed to be knowing the material.
Creating the problems is like an old Karnac routine in which the teacher works backwards from the desired solution. The trick is that, working backwards makes it very easy to come up with a poorly designed problem. You make the mistake of assuming that only the desired path leads to a solution.
For instance, say I want the solution to a problem to be reading all of a particular novel. Well, that would be a solution to a simple problem like answering the question “Did you read the book?”
But the problem has other solutions, simple solutions, like lying. I could come up with a trickier problem like writing a plot summary, but there would still be solutions to the problem other than reading the book.
The Commonwealth has created a problem for school districts called the PSSA, the delightful test that PA students waste a certain amount of the school year taking and on which every school district is supposed to make certain high scores. The solution to the problem is supposed to be that PA schools produce scads of students who have all been educated well above average.
The problem is how to get the required test scores. The solution is simple and obvious—by taking student time away from what we used to do in schools and spending a bunch of our time teaching them how to take the PSSA. This solution is called “teaching to the test” and everybody in education knows it’s a bad way to do business, but it is absolutely the most efficient way to solve the problem that the state has created.
Defining a problem well is the mark of as good manager. Your building is burning and someone is in the boss’s office screaming, “The building is on fire!!” Here’s a quick quiz. Which of the following people would you rather work for?
Boss A: The problem is that the building is on fire.
Boss B: The problem is that the people in the building are in danger of being killed in a fire.
Boss C: The problem is that someone is complaining loudly about something or other.
Problem definition skills have changed the course of major industries. When American auto sales started to circle the drain in the seventies, Lee Iacoca became famous because while his peers were recognizing one problem (People don’t want to buy our cars) he was recognizing a whole other problem (We aren’t making cars that anyone would want to buy).
A good problem is one that you have the power to solve; a bad problem is one that you don’t. So “people won’t come give us their money” is a bad problem, but “we don’t offer people things that they want” is a good problem.
The second problem is the one many bad managers avoid, because to them it sounds too much like “it’s our fault.” But it is also the definition of the problem that gives us some power to create a solution. It may make you feel better to define a problem as “stupid doodyheads are being mean for no reason,” but that is not a problem that you can solve.
Problem definition skills are critical in politics. I don’t, for instance, think that people voted for Gore or Bush because of some belief that either of those yahoos had a solution for anything. But we trust politicians who see the same problems we do.
Local politics are no different. The Venangoland air often carries a whiff of despair that comes from defining problems like “The business world has changed since 1962” or “People don’t want to come give us all their money.” These problems can no more be solved than “The sun keeps coming up in the east.”
The critical issue is not the search for solutions. It’s the search for problems that put the power and responsibility on the people whose actions we can control—ourselves. Once we see problems that put the power to make a difference in our hands instead of the hands of fate or luck or Big Government or shadowy unknown rich people—well, once we see those problems, then the solutions will announce themselves.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


I need some html for dummies, but am slowly getting this up and running. If you're reading this, you're probably the first...

Friday, June 02, 2006

For a while, Memorial Day was in vogue again. It was all the rage to be patriotic, and along with booming sales for American flags, those who celebrate Memorial Day every single year suddenly had lots of company. But that passed fairly quickly (we Americans are a resilient species) and the last couple of years, the crowd for Memorial Day park services has been dwindling again.
That’s a shame. Memorial Day is a uniquely American holiday, and Americans ought to respect its meaning and its history.
It’s only right that Memorial Day got its start in the aftermath of the Civil War, a conflict that captured all the contradictions and difficulties of war.
It was a war fought for complicated reasons. Up North, we like to believe that it was fought because we were intent on making Southerners stop their naughty slaveholding ways, but that’s not entirely true. The causes of the war were deep-rooted and complex, and sometimes it seems as if the war was fought mainly because nobody could figure out how to avoid it.
Nor did the public greet it cheerfully. Some did look forward to glorious battle and honor. But when Lincoln instituted the draft, there were protests. And not nice sit-down-and-sing-folk-song protests, but riots in which chunks of cities were burned and people were killed.
Once the politicians and people failed to prevent the war, the generals botched the fighting. Even a quick reading about the war leaves you boggled at how many soldiers died because they were led by men who just weren’t up to the task.
The fight was long and hard and bloody, between people who both believed they fought for the ideals laid down in 1776.
And when it was all done, next came the hardest lesson of all, the one that nations are so good at forgetting—that botching the peace after the war is over can lose much of what you fought for in the first place.
Nobody knows when or where Decoration Day started (at least two dozen places claim the distinction), but by 1868 General John Logan, a veteran and rising politician, was ready to make it official as a day to look after the gravesites of the fallen soldiers of the war.
The day was not recognized in the South for decades, where each state set aside its own day for honoring the dead. After World War I (another battlefield monument to the folly of misguided leaders and political warfare), Decoration Day became Memorial Day, and its focus changed to honor the fallen soldiers of all wars. At that point, the Southern states recognized the May 30 holiday.
When Memorial Day rolls around, it’s easy to miss the point.
For instance, it is not a day to celebrate how great war is. History is pretty consistent on one point about war—the only people who rush into it with joy and enthusiasm are people who have never fought in one. War demands enormous sacrifices of the soldiers who fight, as well as their families and friends and neighbors. The Civil War and its nasty aftermath destroyed the lives of millions of Americans and laid ugly wounds across the entire country, wounds so deep that we still deal with the scars today.
Nor is it a day to crow about having God On Our Side. In the Civil War, both sides were pretty sure that they had the endorsement of The Big Guy; it seems likely that at least one side was wrong.
But it is also not a day to point out that sometimes war is unjust and that occasionally politicians (and the people that support them) make choices that some folks really really REALLY disagree with. The right and wrong of these things is often hard to see; during the Civil War, hardly anyone in the country could make it out through the blood and smoke. This is not the day to have that argument.
None of that is the point. The point is this—in the midst of difficult times, these men and women were willing to make a total sacrifice for their fellow citizens and those who were to come after them. In other words, for us.
Not many of us risk for our lives for what we believe. These people did. Not many of us put our country ahead of everything else we love. These people did.
It’s a small thing for those of who are still here, still breathing, to take a moment Monday to remember those who have died in the service of our country. The causes and effects of war are complicated, but what those individuals did is pretty simple. They deserve a minute of our thought.

From my Flickr