Friday, February 25, 2011

Squeezing the Middle Class

(News-Herald, February 24) Miles of words have described how the middle class is economically strapped, squeezed between the filthy rich and the ever-poorer wards of the state. But the middle class is increasingly squeezed in another, more subtle vise.
Many Americans choose a middle class life with a middle class profession because it offers a chance to make a difference. Become a teacher, lawyer, doctor, manager, the dream goes, and you can use your education and training and smarts and character and professional judgment to make a difference for the people around you. But over the past few decades that dream has been grabbed by the neck and slowly strangled.
A professional life was many peoples’ answer to the question, “how can I make a difference?” At the end of their working life, they could look back and think, “It mattered that I was there, that I was the person filling that job. Somebody else could have done it, but not exactly as I did.”
We’ve celebrated doctors and nurses as heroes in countless movies and tv shows and the ways in which their character, personality and skills left a mark on the people they met. Dr. Manly would flex his stethoscope heroically and bark, “No, no, no—it’s not lupus! Get me an IV drip with Ringer’s lactate and call the ER stat—cancel my dinner date, because I’m gonna crack this guy’s chest. We’ll stay here all night if we have to—nobody dies on my watch!!”
Today, heroic medical personnel are instead required to bark things like, “We’ve got a call in to the insurance company—they’ll get back to us with how much treatment they’ll allow” or “We’ll get you the very best treatment that law permits.”
Teaching is another field where middle-class professionals are hemmed in. The state and federal governments are increasingly interested in telling teachers what they should teach, and how and when they should teach it. And of course the state will to give the final exam.
Those are, of course, only two areas where the feds (with enthusiasm unchecked by either party) are stepping in to regulate us into a better world. With every new bit of oversight, a bunch of middle-class folks lose the right to exercise their professional judgment.
The desire to make a difference has always driven some upward career mobility. Some people pursue that promotion because it means bigger bucks, but many believe that if they could rise a step higher, they could solve some of the problems that they see—a move up on the ladder would let them make more of a difference. But these days only ladders that lead to the highest levels of bureaucracy give that kind of view.
Middle class folks used to choose professional careers so that they could make a difference, but the push from the Powers That Be has been in exactly the opposite direction. The new ideal is that the results should always be the same; the matter of which particular person is doing the job should make no difference at all.
This is a hard issue to raise without seeming whiny. As with money, some people don’t want to hear a doctor complain about having less of what those people have never had at all. If you’re a chef who thought he’d be making gourmet steaks, and you discover you’ll only ever get to make fast food burgers, saying “This is not what I signed up for” isn’t very compelling to people who just want something to eat. Particularly in an era in which college-educated folks are called “our elitist overlords.”
The fear of a personal touch is not unfounded—nobody wants his kid to get the Bad Teacher or the Bad Doctor. But a bureaucratic straightjacket that keeps everyone on exactly the same page does not breed excellence. Make everyone cook and eat the same, and you don’t get universal filet mignon—you get endless tv dinners. You get soul-crushing, stifling mediocrity. And you get people who could have been excellent, who could have made a difference, leaving professions where their new, improved role is to be button-pushing faceless implementers of some stuffed suit’s canned spam.
It’s not just that the wallets of the middle-class are shrinking, but that their hands are increasingly tied. It’s one of the things people are trying to articulate when they call for smaller government. So many people are capable, caring and committed to making a difference for good. They want to live in a country where all that matters.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Grief

(News-Herald, February 17) Sooner or later, everybody dies.
Of all the universal truths, of all the inescapable pieces of cold, clear knowledge, this is the one we least like to admit. We might let it stand around in the lobby of our brain, but we rarely invite it to come in, sit down, and make itself at home in our hearts.
It’s almost impossible to ignore death, but we get pretty good at letting it become a background noise, like the tv in the next room tuned to a show that we don’t really follow.
And not all deaths are created equal; some are easier to cope with than others. William Cullen Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis,” once a staple of funeral services, suggests that after a well-lived life, death is an opportunity to “lie down to pleasant dreams,” and I suppose sometimes death is like that.
But sometimes death jumps up and clubs us in the face. We are suddenly reminded of death’s finality, how completely it erases possibilities for the future both for those who pass and for those who love them. No more opportunities, no more shared joys, a future slate that will remain forever blank. It is gut-wrenchingly horrible to see someone swept up suddenly by that oblivion, even harder to see someone willingly embrace it with either a quick final choice or a slow steady spiral.
It’s a grief that renders us stumbling and mute, because there is suddenly so much that we want to say to someone to whom we can no longer say anything at all. There is so much that we want to have explained to us by someone who will no longer explain anything. And it’s just plain unfair.
The responses to such untimely death are such familiar clich├ęs (be nice to others, don’t waste time, honor their memory with good work, blah blah blah) that is surprising how real and compelling they are when you really mean it. You can go through the motions of love or prayer for years, but when the day comes when you really do it, do it with your whole heart and intent and energy, the power of it knocks you off your feet and you whisper, amazed, “Oh, so that’s what it is.”
This is like that.
You grieve, sometimes a huge grief when the loss itself is huge. But there’s more. You carry forward the work of the departed, do for them the things that they no longer have the power to do for themselves and in so doing, you become a forward extension of their too-shortened lives.
That means you give love to the people they would have loved if they had been here to do it. And you work for the causes that they would have worked for had they stayed longer. You become their heart and hands in a world that they can no longer touch for themselves. You do the best you can for all the Jamie’s and Mike’s and Molly’s and Leslie’s and Chris’s who can no longer carry on for themselves.
And you remember that sooner or later, everybody dies.
It is so easy to slip into denial. People talk about just zipping through a day, as if, on the other side, there is an infinite supply of days. People make choices—or DON’T make choices—as if they are simply rehearsing for some infinite supply of opportunities ahead. Some people slip into the ultimate version of the old lie “If I don’t really try, I can’t fail”—“If I don’t really live, I won’t actually die.”
Our lives are powered by our passions and commitments; that flame which we carry forward has been fed by the people we have known and loved, and many of them are no longer in a position to carry their own flame. That’s our job now, and when we stop feeding our own fire, theirs dims as well.
Life can break people in places that no doctor can reach, and death can be cruel. Sometimes people lose their way, or their strength fails. But mostly human beings still get a choice about how to care for each other, how to use our time, who and what to hold in our hearts. It is not always a bad thing for us to remember to conduct ourselves with love and care, because we have an unknowable expiration date, and so do the people around us. Sooner or later, we are all going to die. But in the meantime, we live.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tenure

(News-Herald, February 10) It’s time once again for politicians around the country to wind up the educational wind machine. And this time the big wind is trying to blow away teacher tenure.
Tenure, the argument goes, is no longer necessary or desirable. With tenure swept away, classroom teachers will be subject to market forces that will justly reward the strong and punish the incompetent. That makes a certain amount of sense, though I do have one question—will these be the same market forces that have been kicking many of America’s best workers in the teeth for the past twenty years? Or maybe the same market forces that have insured that the crooks who ran the megabanks into the ground stay fat, happy, out of jail, and raking in massive bonuses after doing their best to trash the US economy?
I cannot take people seriously when they start suggesting that teachers live on an insulated island, protected by a wall of fluffy bunnies and unicorns from the Real World Outside. This RWO, the story goes, is a survival-of-the-fittest meritocracy, where to thrive you must be excellent and the weak and incompetent are kicked to the curb. And yet, this is the world in which Snooki and Paris Hilton are famous celebrities and ER nurses are not. This is the world where the Herb Baum’s get to retire in rich comfort and the people whose jobs they trashed get to consider working as a Wal-Mart greeter. Surely we have higher aspirations for schools.
I would still concede the point if tenure really were a magical insulator that protected the most incompetent teachers, but it isn’t. Teacher tenure is not a guarantee of a job for life.
First, tenure is not automatic. Here in Venangoland, a teacher is not granted tenure until a few years in the classroom. Before the teacher receives tenure, the district can let him go for any reason. Districts have a window during which they can watch a teacher closely and determine if he is filled with promise or with something that doesn’t smell nearly as nice as promise.
Second, tenure doesn’t guarantee the teacher a lifetime job. What it guarantees is due process in case the district attempts to fire him.
Tenure is insurance that teachers don’t work in fear of being fired for reasons having nothing to do with competence. It is not hard to imagine a school board member asking a teacher out on a date or demanding more playing time for his child on a sports team. What happens if such complaints can be coupled with credible job threats?
Some guarantees of due process have improved considerably since tenure first appeared. Back then female teachers were fired for getting married or wearing pants. Today, as Cranberry Schools learned years ago, you cannot fire a teacher for being gay—and it doesn’t take tenure to provide that protection.
Like many legal processes, tenure has grown a variety of extraneous limbs and branches, particularly in big city districts with gargantuan teacher staffs. This can make getting rid of a teacher an expensive and frustrating proposition.
There is no denying that tenure is one of the perks of teaching. Teachers don’t get promotions, and we aren’t getting rich any time soon, but we have some job security, and we would be smart to recognize how enviable that is to many Americans.
Likewise, critics should recognize that good teachers have no interest in saving the jobs of their incompetent colleagues. A teacher who can’t or won’t do her job annoys to the teachers who must pick up her slack. But they don’t want to live in fear of an axe that may fall without warning at any time for any reason.
This is not a problem with a simple solution. Some folks would like teachers’ jobs simply tied to student test results, which is a great idea if you think you should pick your surgeon based on how nice his manicure is. Finding incompetent teachers isn’t always that easy (but we’ll discuss that another day).
Reform tenure, or pass new due process laws—either way, it’s still in a school district’s best interests to know that they can work to gather a top notch staff without a rogue board member or administrator becoming the capricious bull in the educational china shop.
All of the tenure debate sidesteps another issue. Few of the best and the brightest are drawn into teaching, and many quickly run right back out. After you fire a teacher, then what?

Friday, February 04, 2011

NW PA's Unloved Minority

(News-Herald, February 3) They live among us. Some keep their difference hidden as a secret, afraid to shame their family and friends. Others live defiantly, proudly out in the open. Some are accepted by their friends and family for who they are, while others find themselves ostracized, cut off from those around them. Many are pressured to change their lifestyle to something more socially acceptable.
I’m speaking, of course, about people who don’t care about the Super Bowl.
Maybe places exist where it’s not so big a deal. But this is a sports-intensive corner of the world. You may hear people complain about welfare recipients who spend money on fancy food or cell phones, but I’ve never heard a person in Venangoland question someone on the dole buying tickets for a sporting event.
Some non-fans will try valiantly to blend in this week. They’ve got a black and gold t-shirt somewhere, maybe a jersey that some well-meaning relative gave them for Christmas. They know how to nod enthusiastically at certain familiar names, and to glower menacingly at others.
The advantage of living in such a sports-steeped environment as Western PA is that even the densest book-wormiest couch-potatoest non-fan of sports has picked up the basics simply by osmosis (though there are always exceptions— what in the name of all things Pittsburgh were UPMC brass thinking when they picked for their new corporate color purple? Purple?!?!).
Any Western Pennsylvanian who knows a college student has heard first or second or third hand stories about Big Ben and his sorry record of off-the-field pass attempts, but they’ve also heard via every form of media up to and including smoke signals that we are all forgiving the New, Improved, Better Behaved Ben. We all know that Polamalu is more or less godlike, and that the team is gritty (just for fun, I googled “steelers” and “gritty” and got 824,000 results).
Take this basic knowledge and throw in some comments like “Well, that secondary will just have to do their job” or “I look for the offensive line to make things happen” or even just grunting “Seven, baby, seven, oh yeah!” and even the most apathetic non-fan can avoid attracting attention in a crowd. (It’s also best not to critique others’ comments by saying things like, “You realize that it’s mathematically impossible to give 110 percent.”)
Not all non-fans adopt protective coloration. In fact, some can be pretty aggressive in their non-interest. These anti-fans will be the ones at the party pointing out that one hard working nurse will not make as much in a lifetime of healing people as a star athlete will make chasing a bag of air up and down a field for half a year. They’ll try to inject fun facts into sports events, such as the number of people who have starved to death in third world countries in the time it took the Steelers to make one first down. Other hard core grumps may throw in little bon mots such as, “I wonder if the Chinese workers doing American jobs worry about spending a day watching football.”
This is simply mean-spirited. People are entitled to their entertainment, and while most NFL players have little real personal connection with the cities they are paid to represent, the city fathers of the burgh have certainly made sure that every citizen within spitting difference of the stadium has had a chance to help pay up. But “Of course they’re our team—we paid for them,” lacks a little something as a cheer, and that grit does have a Western PA blue collar feel to it.
Yes, some fans get a little carried away. St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon is wrapping all newborns in terrible towels this week, and I really don’t want to know more about celebratory tattoos. And despite the similar amount of coverage given each, the only thing that the Super Bowl and the fall of the Egyptian government have in common is that, sitting here in Venangoland, we can’t really do much about either one.
Closeted non-fans will eat the food, watch the commercials, and try to grunt loudly in the right spots. More Americans will watch the Super Bowl than voted in the last election. More Americans will watch the game Sunday night than will attend church Sunday morning. Non-fans could do worse than join in one of the last American community events, and fans could do worse than display the American virtue of tolerance. Also, Polamalu, gritty secondary, and seven, baby!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

What Democracy Is Not

It's a snow day, so here's an old column from June of 2003 (because the purpose of technology is to make me less bored) in honor of the mess in Egypt.

(News-Herald, June 2003) Now that we’ve completed the conquest of Iraq, we move on to the trick of helping them pull a new form of government out of their turbans.
This is no small feat, not just because our own form of government might not be well-suited to Iraq, but because we don’t generally understand, really, what kind of government we actually have.
For instance, I am unceasingly amazed at how many people have no idea what the founding fathers considered the actual purpose of government.
It is not “to keep people under control” or “force people to behave” or “to make life fair” or “to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t want.” The Declaration says we’re all born with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the government’s job to see that these rights aren’t taken away.
That’s important to understand, because although we call our government a democracy, it’s less notable for the way it insures democracy than for the ways it protects citizens from democracy.
We cannot, for instance, change our constitution very easily. This is undoubtedly a good thing; otherwise we would be changing the laws every year to suit whatever current craze is making the rounds. We often come up with reasons to abridge various parts of the Bill of Rights; a month doesn’t go by that we don’t try to get rid of that pesky First Amendment freedom to say annoying, stupid things. If these rights were not set in a sort of institutional cement, we would have thrown them out ages ago.
And who protects this document that says the majority can’t change the rules every time they’re in the mood? Why, that would be the Supreme Court, the nine wise judges who, in our very democratic system, are elected by absolutely nobody. Democratically elected officials can go through the democratic process of concocting laws that the majority of citizens clamor for, and then be told by the Robed Old People Who Can Never Be Voted Out of Office that such a law isn’t allowed.
And that’s not always a bad thing.
We like to think that Democracy is a system that is the very opposite of tyranny. It isn’t. Democracy can accommodate tyranny quite easily. Democracy would have made it entirely possible to perpetuate the abomination of slavery forever. The Jim Crow laws were democratically produced; we sometimes forget that Rosa Parks was not bucking prejudice—she was breaking the law. Democracy in Iraq could make it entirely possible to legally, legitimately, democratically outlaw the kurds or the shi’ites just as effectively as any pogrom by Saddam.
Our legal system features similar protections. We could democratically decide to toss people into deep dark holes. We could democratically choose to strip people of every single right the moment they emit even a whiff of suspicious behavior. It is easy and human to decide that certain people do not deserve to have rights, and occasionally we do just that. It was perfectly democratic to lock up Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.
The glory of our system of government is not just our representative democracy (which is a good thing, since so many of us would rather complain than vote), but the restraints placed on that democracy. It’s not just that every citizen can have a voice, but that no amount of democratic process can take away any single person’s right to life, liberty, or that all-too-elusive pursuit, no matter how many votes the majority rounds up.
The problem in Iraq is not that citizens do not have a voice. Most citizens have both a voice and a semi-automatic amplifier to go with it. The problem (well, one of the problems, anyway) is that the Iraquis, like many folks in this world, are too willing to accept the notion that restrictions should only apply to people who are wrong (that would be you), but that people who are right (that would be me) should be free to do whatever the heck they want.
Democracy is not really the foundation of our system. Democracy (or our republican form of it) is simply our recognition that it goes against the laws of nature to deprive any human being of his voice, no matter how obnoxious, offensive, or just plain stupid that voice may seem. Our form of government is supposed to recognize that people do not exist to preserve the system; instead, the system is only valid as long as it protects the people. And as a citizen, I have to believe that compromising with opposition to have a stable country that works is better than insisting on having it all my own way, but creating an unstable powderkeg doomed to explode. That’s not an easy lesson to export.

From my Flickr