Let’s file this under great moments in corporate apologies. Faced with a deeply embarrassing explosion of their fracking well near Bobtown, Pennsylvania that couldn’t be explained away as their usual operational flatulence, and that accidentally incinerated a worker, Chevron opted to go all out. Of course, living near a fracking rig in Pennsylvania — the state that Governor Corbett has promised will become “the Texas of natural gas” — isn’t a picnic under the best of circumstances; scores of neighbors have complained about polluted drinking water or foul odors or ailing pets and livestock, of headaches and nausea and skin rashes. But Chevron figured the perfect solution for all those maladies in addition to the deeply embarrassing explosion would be to deliver to every Bobtown household a coupon for one large pizza and one 2-liter drink! … Along with an apology letter, of sorts:
“Dear Neighbor, We are sorry to have missed you. We wanted to provide you with a status update on the February 11 incident that occurred on Chevron Appalachia’s Lancoe 7 H well pads in Dunkard Township and see if you had any questions or concerns that we could address.
Chevron recognizes the effect this has had on the community. We value being a responsible member of the community and will continue to strive to achieve incident-free operations. We are committed to taking action to safeguard our neighbors, our employees, our contractors and the environment.”
No mention of the worker who was killed in the explosion, nor of another worker who still remains missing, nor the effects on the environment that blowing up a natural gas well in a spectacular fireball might have on nearby residents. That would be a downer and not nearly as cheerful as the pizza and 2 liter Coke Bobtown residents received merely for breathing near Chevron’s natural gas BOOM.
But at least Chevron did better on the PR front than the satirically named Freedom Industries. After poisoning the water supply of nearly half a million people, those wild and crazy folks over at Freedom Industries delivered onto the unsuspecting public one cranky CEO named Gary Southern. Rather than displaying sympathy for the blight of some 300,000 residents in West Virginia who could no longer use their water supply for anything except possibly flame retardant (and given what we’ve seen of fracking, maybe not even that) , our intrepid CEO decided to whine vociferously about his own exhaustion after un-explaining for the 10,000th time that day why his company poisoned the water supply for nearly half a million people. All the while, he drank water from a bottle purchased from an area safely removed from Charleston, West Virginia where said poisoning took place. (Epic Fail! As the cool kids like to say.)
Perhaps there’s a silver lining in all this. Such incidents can become a training ground for Public Relation wanna-bes, or as I like to refer to them, corporate flacks. With a little imagination we could cook up one of those grand lists that news sites like to churn out in place of real news … top ten things not to say when you’ve poisoned water for nearly half a million people. Five best gifts to placate the families of dead workers you’ve incinerated in your natural gas fireball! And so on. After all, if this type of thing continues, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t, we just might have an industry devoted almost entirely to softening the blow of our mortal stupidity. Right now, it goes by the unassuming acronym, ‘PR.’
Jared Diamond, author of Collapse, has a phrase for when things continue to go wrong: “creeping normalcy,” giving a nice academic patina to Al Gore’s example of a boiling frog. What Diamond is getting at, of course, is an acceptance of things “getting just a little bit worse each year than the year before but not bad enough for anyone to notice…” Like a frog set in water brought to a slow boil.
In his book, Collapse, Diamond does us the service of enumerating the various ways civilizations can destroy themselves. Kind of like the seven deadly sins. He narrows it to a neat list of five things not to do if you want to survive on planet earth:
Ignore climate change, maintain hostile neighbors, keep bad trading partners, have environmental problems, and, finally, don’t react responsibly to environmental problems when you’re made aware of them. Notice three out of these five deal with the environment. The first four may or may not prove significant in each society’s demise, Diamond claims, but the fifth always does. The salient point, of course, is that a society’s response to environmental problems is completely within its control, which is not always true of the other factors. In other words, as his subtitle puts it, a society can “choose to fail.”
For decades now, chemicals and waste from the coal industry have tainted hundreds of waterways and groundwater supplies all across our country. But because these contaminants are released gradually and in some cases not tracked or regulated, they attract much less attention than a massive spill like the recent one in West Virginia where Gary Southern quenched his thirst and whined about his work day. The Keystone pipeline is heralded as a ‘jobs program’ even as environmentalists like Professor James Hansen argue that if it’s pushed through it will be “game over for the environment.” Finally, quietly in the works is the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade agreement that will involve the Pacific rim countries and strip most nations of their ability to effectively regulate the environment and protect their worker’s rights. TPP would be the largest U.S. free-trade agreement to date, surpassing the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement. All this is being done in the name of ever-expanding trade.
Documents published by Wikileaks regarding the secretive negotiations around the TPP reveal that provisions of the TPP grant multinational corporations vast new powers and that, among these, are virtual veto-powers over local environmental and labor laws.
Diamond’s Collapse was written partly as a response to the dominant environmental discourse in the United States today, which holds that environmental concerns are secondary to economic and security concerns or at least in opposition to them.
As Diamond notes, “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.”
With the Easter Island Rapa Nui, it was an obsession with building moai, those famous Easter Island sculptures. With Westerners of course, it’s the dream of never-ending economic expansion.
Not to put too fine a point on it, our so-called ‘work’ values, our insistence on an ever-expanding economy and perpetual growth is leading us to a dark place. The Rapa Nui cut down the last of their palm trees and turned their island into a wasteland because they really dug building the moai heads on Easter Island. They were as addicted to their cultural artistry as we are to our endless pursuit of money. Or ‘trade’ or ‘jobs’ as we like to call it. By the end of the 17th century, the Rapa Nui had deforested the island, triggering war, famine and cultural collapse.
Bringing this concept to our contemporary politics, Diamond wonders rhetorically, “Did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree, shout ‘Jobs, not trees!’”
Maybe someone should ask Paul Ryan.
H.L. Mencken, who always had an eye for the weak and dumb in American life, paid an inordinate amount of time considering the case of the American South. One of Mencken’s tongue in cheek laws was that “Nature abhors a moron,” and one of his favorite pastimes was to attack the South for being ruled by what he termed the “booboisie.” …an interesting mash-up of boob and bourgeoisie. When Mencken called out Arkansas for especially sharp ridicule by elevating the state to “the apex of moronia,” the Arkansas legislative body complained and Mencken was, predictably, unmoved. Trying a different tactic, the Arkansas House of Representatives decided to hold a group prayer, to pray for Mencken’s soul. His response? “I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves and the sound of many things in my ears,” Mencken told the press, “and I knew the House of Representatives of Arkansas was praying for me again.”
This obviously didn’t convert the Arkansas House of Representatives to his view, nor, by the way, did it affect Mencken. If anything, his readership probably went up. In a famous essay on the South entitled the The Sahara of the Bozart, Mencken suggested that the South was now “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”
Harsh words. And it is true the South has changed extensively since Mencken’s time. In fact, as if in retaliation, a Southern literary boom followed shortly on his venomous pronouncement. But many of the Southern state’s governments are as backwards and as moronic as anything Mencken might have inveighed against today. Take the current refusal to support minimum wage laws, the rabid union busting, the disregard for environmental regulations, the South’s addiction to gun culture, and their denial of Federal funds for Medicaid expansion even when the Federal funds are being handed out freely. Really, all these are indicative of less than stellar intellectual activity. But perhaps the most significant parallel lies with those who still tow the biblical story line on creation, like Virginia House Delegate Richard Bell’s recent attempt to legislate the teaching of creationism and climate change denial. Mencken, I suspect, would take special delight in Delegate Bell, just as he took special delight in the infamous Scopes ‘evolution’ trial. He even convinced Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes in what he famously duped, “the Monkey Trial.”
Maybe Delegate Bell would like a brief primer on that historical event. Throughout most of the eight-day trial in Dayton, Tennessee, Mencken’s reports were syndicated nationally with equally stinging political cartoons seen by millions of Americans. In a not so funny twist, a mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton “yokels,” “primates,” morons,” and “hillbillies.”
But Mencken saved his most potent venom for William Jennings Bryan, the populist defender of the biblical view. “It is a tragedy, indeed,” Mencken wrote of Bryan, “to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”
Williams Jennings Bryan was a great orator, a great populist and religious man, true, but his view of evolution was more nuanced than today’s current crop of fundamentalists. In fact, he seems a far more sophisticated man than Delegate Bell, or Ken Ham, the current defender of the creationist creed at Kentucky’s local yokel creationist museum shop. According to historian Ronald L. Numbers Bryan, “not only read the Mosaic ‘days’ as geological ‘ages’ but allowed for the possibility of organic evolution. Bryan’s main argument with the Darwinian view was its application to human societies. Bryan believed that Social Darwinism served not so much as an explanation for injustice but more as an excuse for injustice, particularly in the areas of harming the weak and waging war.
Byran was actually victorious in the Scopes trial, at least from the perspective of the jury and citizens of Dayton, but it was a pyrrhic victory at best. Just five days after the Scopes trial ended, Bryan died. Not one to soften his rhetoric, Mencken declared privately, “We killed the son of a bitch.” Publicly he quipped that God had taken a thunderbolt and threw it down to kill Clarence Darrow but missed and hit Bryan instead.
God knows what Mencken would have to say about our current day creationists, Delegate Bell or Ken Ham, neither of whom have the rhetorical chops of Bryan, nor his intellectual acumen. In fact, if Ken Ham and his creationist project is any indication, the South has actually gotten worse since Mencken’s time. To be fair, it’s really not just the South—though it’s heavily represented. Roughly, half our population believes in some kind of creationist myth. That’s like saying half our population doesn’t believe in gravity. The fact that a debate took place at all, much less took place at a Creation Museum which purports that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs and man co-existed; and that geologic features such as the Grand Canyon and fossils were created in a global flood provoked by Adam and Eve’s original sin—make the debate even more strikingly weird than the one Mencken wrote about 83 years ago. By all accounts, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, won, but the fact that the debate was even held tells us more about the rabid anti-intellectualism of the new South than Phil Robertson waxing dumb in interviews after Duck Dynasty.
Unfortunately, Delegate Bell’s bill, HB 207, is a kind of a doubling down on dumb, not only supporting a ridiculously anti-scientific view of evolution and climate change, but demanding that public schools teach fiction beside non-fiction with equal weight. HB 207 would direct the Virginia State Board of Education and local school boards to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science class.” Sounds innocuous on its surface, but once you read the bill, you begin to understand that it essentially creates a “right” for teachers to teach kids to be skeptical of “scientific theories” — even when overwhelming scientific consensus exists. Fox News comes to the school yard.
According to a report by the National Center for Science Education, the bill forbids “any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science class.”
The language of HB 207 is so broad that just about any controversial topic involving science would fall under its restrictions.
Dickie is not acting alone, unfortunately. The bill is part of a national trend of legislative proposals, led by creationist organizations like the Discovery Institute and climate-change deniers such as the Heartland Institute. Together these organizations have pushed schools nationally to adopt curricula that has encouraged educators to include in their lectures the “non-scientific problems” creationists and intelligent-design proponents claim to have identified in the theory of evolution. A federal court held in 2005 that teaching intelligent-design in public schools is unconstitutional.
Mencken of course would love this turn of events — in a deeply cynical fashion, of course. Besides arguing about the relative merits of evolution, Bell’s House bill would also demand equal time for climate change deniers. There’s rich irony in this — for whether Bell and educators acknowledge it or not, scientists have identified climate change as a major threat to the Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia. The National Journal reported last February that, “the economic impact of these [climate change] forces will be profound; some estimates run as high as $25 billion.”
In 2012, Bell’s colleague, Del. Chris Stolle (R) called “sea level rise” a “left-wing term” and excised any mention of it from a state report on coastal flooding…Yes, please. Kill the messenger. That’s always an effective solution. Not only shall we deny science, we shall deny the reporting of science, the teaching of science. We shall mandate ignorance for our region and our time.
H.L. Mencken would feel right at home.
Note: HB 207 was effectively killed in the Courts of Justice Committee on February 12, 2014
When Apryl Prentiss first realized she was a lesbian, she decided to white knuckle it. She wanted to ignore the impulse, and if it couldn’t be ignored, she wanted to deny it, put it in a cage.
“I was freaked out when I realized…when I started to understand what was happening.”
This was in high school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She was raised a fundamentalist Baptist and her church and the community it provided were deeply important to her. At the time, she described herself as kind of a “Christian All Star.”
“I was the chaplain of my class. I was going on missions trips. My whole class was even on the Christian Broadcast Network for a show. I was hitting all the expectations.”
That’s why coming to terms with her sexuality was so difficult. According to her Christian based belief system, she was ‘being rebellious,’ she had a ‘broken sexuality,’ she was trying to separate herself from God.
“Homosexuality was the sin to trump all sins” She explains. “It’s spoken of with great disdain—it seemed to be a visceral reaction. They think of gays as ‘those people’ …people who are horrible and perverted. People who are sick. People are always so scared of what they don’t understand.” Though she never heard these messages at school that was what was preached from the pulpit of her childhood church in Virginia Beach.
When she attended Campbell University in North Carolina, her church connected her with counseling and what is referred to as reparative or conversion therapy. Like many other far right Christian denominations across the country, the church encouraged her to go to therapy to ‘cure herself’ of being gay.
The counselor also offered to exorcise her should the therapy prove insufficient.
Apryl describes those years as some of the darkest of her life: “I absolutely detested myself.” Although she didn’t kill herself, she came close; close enough to want to save others from the same trauma. That’s why she’s working with the Alliance for Progressive Values to ban the practice of reparative therapy that tries to “cure” minors of being gay.
Delegate Hope who introduced HB 1135* which would ban the practice in Virginia said that evidence suggests such conversion therapy doesn’t work and in fact harms many people. Apryl’s story is a case in point.
According to Apryl, the therapy she underwent on and off for nearly three years was intense and mind bending; the kind of practice you would not wish on your worst enemy, much less a vulnerable teenager.
“I remember after months of talking and fasting I was still told that I was rebellious. It was their explanation for why I wasn’t cured. They thought they could see demons in my eyes. And I believed it! They suggested that I undergo an exorcism. The therapist brought in a prayer partner and they circled me and prayed over me. They asked to speak to the demon of brokenness in me. They asked to speak to the demons of same-sex attraction. …it was unbelievably painful. I cried the entire time and, after it was over, I felt completely stripped bare.”
After the failed exorcism, Apryl turned to alcohol and other self-destructive behavior to anesthetize. She recounts having alcohol poisoning at least seven times after the exorcism. “Fighting my sexuality had become a daily battle and truthfully—I just wanted a break. My 21st birthday, which was at the height of the reparative therapy, consisted of a fifth of Smirnoff and a straw. I drank it in about an hour and a half.”
Apryl admits she was trying to kill herself, in a less than methodic fashion. “I thought if I die and go to heaven, I won’t have to deal with this anymore. That seemed like a good option. Death would have been a release from the constant inner turmoil.”
Shortly after, she met a woman and developed a relationship with her. “She was someone who had found peace with her sexuality.” This person told Apryl that she could be both “gay AND Christian and that God was okay with that. When I was with her, I felt more whole and authentic than I ever had before.”
The relationship lasted for a few months, but the guilt weighed on Apryl. She couldn’t handle it. “I freaked out and went back to the church. I confessed to my pastor what was happening and I went back to reparative therapy again.”
They came back with the same ideas, “gay people are all miserable, they’re all enveloped in darkness.”
But this time it was different, Apryl explains, “Their assertions no longer made sense. I had experienced the opposite.”
When they suggested a second exorcism, she just said no.
Apryl left North Carolina and went through a series of jobs in California, then back to North Carolina and even a short stint in Virginia at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. She tried different approaches to dealing with her sexuality, ‘white knuckling’, a short hand for celibacy, and when that didn’t work, another version of therapy, ‘Sought Out’ similar to reparative therapy, but incorporating some of the same principles developed for twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
It was “twenty weeks of unbelievably hard introspection, confession, accountability and counseling. We started by examining possible causes of our homosexuality or sexual brokenness. A basic premise of the program was that no one is born gay so there must be a cause…a root of our same-sex attraction. Overbearing Mother? That’s why you’re gay. Sexual abuse? That’s absolutely why you’re gay. Only child and you grew up lonely? That’s why you’re gay. We did things like write down wrong ways we had been labeled on sheets of paper and burned them. Very cathartic and very meaningful. We wrote down things we believed about ourselves that contributed to our ‘sexual brokenness’ on mirrors then smashed them. We confessed our sins (mental and physical) both publicly to the entire group and privately to our small group leaders, wrote them down on special paper, immersed them in water (meant to be a picture of God’s forgiveness) and watched them dissolve. These activities were all designed to make us confront the causes of our sexuality, bring them out into the open and then destroy them.”
“I literally nailed my areas of brokenness, their causes, and my own sexual behavior to a cross then bowed below them begging for forgiveness and for restoration. I lay on the floor of a church weeping, begging to be delivered. This was a nightly experience.”
According to Apryl, the program suggested that “all homosexual relationships are born out of brokenness and cause nothing but pain and unhappiness.”
“This was drilled into us and because my own experience in a same-sex relationship had been wonderful, but riddled with guilt and constant turmoil, I couldn’t totally counteract the concept. In fact, most of us who sat in that room every Monday night had never met a happy same-sex couple. We didn’t understand that in the Christian circles we lived in there would naturally not be ANY healthy same-sex couples.”
“I ended up working as a counselor for the Sought Out program, teaching the same repressive techniques. I stopped one day when I sat there with this vulnerable 17-year-old. You could see at 100 feet that she was a lesbian. She had no attraction to men whatsoever, but she desperately did not want to be gay. I had to tell her that her only two choices were celibacy or learning to date men. This was the message I had been taught and what I believed about myself. It was the depressing reality that I was grappling with. But, when I realized I was telling a 17-year-old who had only begun to live life that those were her only two options—it just didn’t add up. I couldn’t do it. I saw myself in her and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do this. I’m done with this. I can’t do it anymore. That was the beginning of the end.”
But there’s nothing easy about transitions, about coming out or staying in denial. Apryl still loved the church and didn’t want to leave it. She was on a mission in Serbia and Slovakia teaching English through bible lessons before she realized how much about her life still needed to change.
“It was summer camp and I had spent it with the Serbians who have a real love of life. When some missionaries arrived from Canada they acted prudish and started scolding the Serbians for wearing short skirts or dancing and hugging. They were trying to impose westernized Christianity’s rulebook on these vibrant and passionate people. I realized the missionaries were missing the point. The Serbians were praising the Lord in their own way, just as David had danced. Why would God make them this way, just to condemn them? Why would he make me this way, just to condemn me? All of these ideas about correct behavior, correct sexuality were inventions. They were Westernized ways of trying to control people and put them in a box. My eyes were opened and I began to evaluate what I knew of God on my own and not through the fabricated conventions of the conservative church. All of a sudden, it was like I experienced the true God, a force of love for the first time.”
“There was no guilt, there was no shame. I finally got it. As cliché as it sounds, I went to one of those fields of sunflowers as tall as your head in Serbia, I sat there for hours and I made my peace with God.”
Since that summer in 2005, Apryl has undergone therapy to ‘repair’ the reparative therapy. She has been married to her wife for 7 years and she says that people who had previously rejected her in the church are coming back.
“I miss the community of the church. But, there’s a real sense of us vs. them. It’s fine when you’re the ‘us’, it’s cool and beautiful. But when you’re all of a sudden part of the ‘them’, it’s a cruel, cruel thing.”
Her family has been surprisingly supportive. In fact, one of Apryl’s main regrets is that for years she avoided visiting her Christian grandmother because she was afraid that her grandmother would be disappointed that she was gay rather than pursuing ministry. After her grandmother died, her aunt was unpacking a box of old photographs. Near the bottom, at least two years old, was a photograph of Apryl with her wife, Adrian.
“I should have visited. I should have known …” Apryl tilts her head, a nod toward what might have been. “She knew about us all along and, like the amazing woman she was, she loved me anyway… That’s a true example of a Christian.”
*Full Text of HB1135 can be found at this link:
Note: Major medical groups like the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and others have moved to discourage reparative therapy.
According to the American Psychological Association, “The terms reparative therapy and sexual orientation conversion therapy refer to counseling and psychotherapy aimed at eliminating or suppressing homosexuality. The most important fact about these “therapies” is that they are based on a view of homosexuality that has been rejected by all the major mental health professions.”
To wit, they’ve decided that gifts over $250 to themselves or a family member must be announced, and limited if from a party with ‘business’ before the state. They’ve also agreed that there should be biannual rather than annual disclosure requirements for lawmakers and lobbyists. They’ve surmised that it might be a good idea to bone up on ethics training, especially for the new lawmakers, because, naturally, the veterans were never a problem … (just ask outgoing Governor Bob McDonnell). Actually, to be fair, they did offer a refresher course to ‘veterans’ in the event that they forgot whatever rules they weren’t following in the first place. They also decided to create an ethics commission that could exclaim: ‘tut, tut!’ at opportune moments.
Excellent work, gentlemen and sufficient perhaps to provide a cloak of respectability for the next few months. But, let’s face it, not much of substance. Not that I object, mind you. I’m happy to see Virginia move a notch or two up from its current position as the 44th most corrupt state in the Union. Progress! A new slogan comes to mind: “We’re the 41st most corrupt state in the Union, but we try harder!”
Alas, as many suspected the new ethical ‘rules’ that the General Assembly has on offer are hardly exhaustive.
For example, the limits on gifts are only for those individuals with ‘business’ before the state. Given the contours of the recent scandal this is easy to understand, but why not just set a limit and be done with it? Every other state in the Union with the exception of Virginia and three other states curtail the amount of money that can be funneled directly to a politician and/or his family. State Senator J. Chapman Peterson offered a bill that would set a hard limit of $2000. But that didn’t make the negotiation round for some reason.
While we’re at it, twenty-two states simply ban corporations from giving to political campaigns, period. Why can’t Virginia be one of them?
And, of course, we have to ask, will that ‘business before the state’ clause apply to corporate entities?
ProgressVA reported in January 2012 that the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wrote more than 50 bills introduced in the Virginia legislature in recent years. ALEC, which is funded by Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart Stores, Koch Industries, and other wealthy corporations, writes model legislation of interest to its funders that sympathetic lawmakers have introduced in many states. In Virginia, dozens of lawmakers are members of the group or have attended its legislative conferences at a cost to the state of more than $200,000 since 2001. Its drafts provided the basis for Virginia’s legal challenge to the Obama administration’s health care reforms, a bill requiring voters to show identification at the polls, and a bill prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. House Speaker William Howell was ALEC’s national chairman in 2009 and remains on ALEC’s “national leadership team.”
Will these new ethic ‘rules’ apply to money spent at ALEC gatherings…or funds provided by corporations that support ALEC?
As long as we’re asking questions, why is Virginia only one of two states (South Carolina is the other) where the part-time legislators handpick the judges before whom many of them practice law? If not an ethical breach it certainly does allow one to indulge in speculation about possible improprieties.
Sins of omission aside, the Virginia General Assembly has actively sought to block transparency by exempting key institutions from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Foremost among these is the State Corporation Commission (SCC) which has been exempted from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. The SCC regulates businesses, utilities, financial institutions, insurance and railroads. This would be the single state agency where a FOIA is essential for understanding how corporations are influencing Virginia law. There’s nothing in the new ‘ethics compromise’ on making the SCC or other relevant agencies more transparent. Oh, and, by the way, the state’s 31,000 prison inmates also are forbidden to make requests under the FOIA.
To give some sense of what this means vis-a-vis transparency, when the Associated Press tested the effectiveness of the exemption in 2006 by sending reporters to each county to ask for public records, only 43 percent had success. The rest were told, variously, that the records would not be released or would cost thousands of dollars in fees. Maybe that’s the reason the Richmond Times-Dispatch is posting news of the ethics ‘compromise’ like it’s, well, news. They just haven’t been able to report on all the other threads that a few decent FOIA requests might reveal.
Says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, “Here’s an easy prediction — we’ll all be tut-tutting about how little the [Virginia] General Assembly did to reform the gift laws come March.” Sabato was actually pessimistic about an ethics compromise getting even this far. Last week he suggested in the Daily Press that “The chances of any limits on campaign donations are absolutely zero. File that one away in old number 13.”
He said Virginia officials and many voters tend to rely on the old assumption that Virginia’s politicians are more honest than politicians in other states.
No, really. He did say that. But then he qualified it, “Well, maybe. But how would we know? Look at the McDonnell situation. It took a whistleblower who felt he was being railroaded to expose a shocking arrangement that looked to most people like a wealthy businessman was buying the governor and first lady. How many other questionable activities have never seen the light of day? I’d guess many.”
“Many”? …Unfortunately, that sounds about right. But given the current structure of this compromise, we’ll still never know for sure.
The recurring theme of a “War on Christmas” is now a tradition. Annually, stalwart intellectuals like Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, Michelle Bachman et. al. will take to the air waves and will announce that our Christmas spirit is somehow less than Christian because we say ‘Holiday’ rather than ‘Christmas.’ The only thing more vitiated of actual intellectual content is the peals of outrage over Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson’s suspension because he managed, in a single interview, to shred whatever veil of civility his on air persona once presented. There are millions of writers, thinkers, speakers of all political and cultural persuasions who will never garner the kind of audience Phil has, precisely because speech, of the variety that Phil has the privilege to practice, is NOT free. It is very expensive. Considering the banality of Phil’s assertions, it should cost him more than his pathetic job is worth.
But the ‘War on Christmas’; now that has something of value to it, aside from the unintended humor it invokes: a great ‘teachable’ moment, as they say. After all, its history is the story of one makeover after another. In truth, it begins before Jesus was even a twinkle in Joseph’s eye. In those heady pagan days, when the unconquerable sun was worshipped in all its pagan glory and the winter solstice rejoiced at the coming gift of the sun (or ‘son of God’ if you want to be playful) there was an honored period of about 7days – running approximately from just before the Solstice (Dec 17,18th) through to Dec 25th that became one long party ride, a kind of burning man for the pagan era.
The premise from today’s principle talking heads is that Christmas has always been about Christ, and any sense of holiday or festivity outside ‘Christ’ is somehow an interloper watering down the spirituality of the time. This, of course, is exactly backwards. Most of our cherished Christmas traditions have nothing to do with Christianity—and everything to do with the underlying pagan traditions that celebrated the winter solstice and the return of the so called ‘unconquerable sun.’
The infamous Roman holiday of Saturnalia is really at the center of all this. It was a huge party, a gigantic fair and festival of the home. The ancient Greek writer, poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes a time of widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; where, as he said, “sexual license” was taken; and even incidents of human sacrifice were recorded. These incidents were given a culinary representation in human-shaped biscuits, something we still see in traditional Christmas cookies. Remember those ginger bread men?
According to Janet Shotwell, lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. ” Riotous merry-making” took place, and the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees that were brought in by the citizenry in the hopes that they would guard the life essences of the plants until spring. As one comic put it, our Christmas tradition is based on an act of sympathetic magic. Schools were closed, the army rested, and no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense. Processions of people with masked or blackened faces and fantastic hats danced through the streets. The custom of mummers, visiting their neighbors in costume, which is still alive in Newfoundland, is descended from these masked processions.
But one of the most equalitarian aspects of Saturnalia was a sit down feast shared by masters and slaves. In fact, during the festivities slaves were given the freedom to do and say whatever they liked. A Mock King was even appointed to take charge of the revels, and from this fantastic class reversal, developed the so called “Lord of Misrule’ of medieval Christmas festivities.
About 354 AD, Christianity came along and tried to co-opt solstice festivities, but couldn’t really suppress the whole merry making, drinking, gift giving thing. They did manage to make the climax of the winter festivities the official day to commemorate the birth of Christ, however, and, of course, gave it the name we know and love. Christmas.
Since the hero of the New Testament was born in the Middle East, forcing native pagan activities to mesh with the birth of Jesus creates a weird iconography for the season. Do we actually ever look at the classic manger scene, laid in a bed of snow like cotton, ringed in red and green, under a evergreen spruce and begin to wonder? The iconography of Christmas is ridiculously mixed in with reindeer, holly, snow scenes and other phenomena peculiar to northern European myth. There’s an urban legend of a Japanese department store that tried too hard to symbolize the Christmas spirit by mounting a display of a Santa Claus figure nailed to a cross. Crucified Santa would be just as surreal as a chocolate Jesus. The iconography which presumably represents the ‘spirit’ of the Holidays is nothing more than a co-opted pagan winter Saturnalia that Christians for the last two thousand years or so have been trying hard to forget.
In fact, if you want to find the first real Grinch in history, you need only travel back to the time of real conservatives: the Puritans of England. Under Oliver Cromwell’s reign, Christmas was officially cancelled. During the English Interregnum, when England was ruled by a Puritan Parliament, Puritans sought to remove elements they viewed as pagan from Christianity—this effectively meant the entire holiday. We will bomb the holiday in order to save it!
Under Cromwell, in 1647, Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, replacing it with a day of fasting. They considered the festivities “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. Now that’s a true defense of the Christmas spirit!
Taking Cromwell’s lead, in Colonial America, the Puritans of New England outlawed Christmas celebrations in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The ban was eventually revoked, but by the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Christmas was not widely celebrated in the US. And it wasn’t until the flux of immigrants in the next century (especially the good Irish and Italian ‘papists’) when the Christmas spirit would really take hold again.
So sadly, there have been moments when Christians themselves almost succeeded in destroying the Christmas holidays. But this isn’t one of them. In fact, one suspects that the only thing which can kill Christmas are the religiously intolerant set on defending their ahistorical sense of the season’s ‘spirit’ or the concomitant commercialism that seems to accompany the season every year.
I can’t wait for the right wing talking heads to start harping on that.
A Handy Template Article for Your Next School Shooting, Mass Murder, or Inexplicable Slaughter of Innocent People
As many of you know, one year ago on December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the village of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. Before driving to the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother Nancy at their Newtown home. As first responders arrived, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Notable things have occurred since that shooting. Talks with Iran have been opened and years of diplomatic antagonism between the US and Iran are beginning to thaw. The Affordable Care Act has gone into effect and hundreds of thousands of US Citizens have health insurance for the first time, ever. Also, the website has been fixed. We hope.
Cuccinelli did not become Governor of Virginia. God whisperer, E.W. Jackson, went down in flames for the Lt. Governor slot and Herring is likely to seal the deal for the Attorney General office, making it a clean sweep for Democrats in an off-year election with their own party holding the Executive Branch. This is something that almost never happens. The take away is that change is possible in many things. Except one, apparently.
Based on data compiled by Slate.com using mainly media reports (because Republicans passed a law promising to defund the Atlanta-based CDC should it start tallying gun deaths), since Newtown, more than 11,400 people have been shot and killed in this country. Impressive! But that’s a low tally, actually, because the majority of gun deaths are suicides and the vast majority of suicides aren’t covered in the news. Of those shot and killed, at least 194 were children under 12.
Other notable non-happenings: since Newtown, no federal gun legislation has been passed, though multiple gun control measures fizzled out in the Senate without even making it to the Republican controlled House. But just that whiff of gun control was enough to send Red states into paroxysms. Kansas and Alaska lawmakers voted to enact laws nullifying federal gun regulations for guns manufactured and kept within state borders. Missouri Republican lawmakers passed a nearly identical bill, but failed to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto by one vote. Montana went to federal court to defend a similar law it passed in 2009. The law was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, with the rabid 2nd Amendment secessionists momentarily held at bay, some states opted to double down on the dumb, voting to both loosen gun restrictions and clear the way for armed volunteers to guard schools. The apparent logic being more guns should be able to solve the problems that some guns never caused in the first place. Thus we see teachers ordered to gear up and get trained at shooting galleries. On the surface, this might seem outrageous, a kind of callous attempt by the NRA (and their sponsoring gun manufacturers) to deny culpability for the Newton shooting by devising– in advance– a specialized nationwide insanity defense.
I immediately thought, ‘well yes, arm the teachers and, while you’re at it, lets create a template form for mass shootings so that we don’t have to waste all this time writing up ‘original’ stories about something that will become—if it has not already– more common place than auto deaths.’
But with age comes wisdom. Given the fact that we, as a nation, haven’t done anything to prevent future massacres after 12 long months of slaughter, and, indeed, have gone out of our way to increase their likelihood, I began to realize it just wasn’t a priority for us. The Democrats are bipolar, wringing their hands about wanton massacres but scared to touch the issue for fear of the gun lobby, while the Republicans inhabit their usual cogently direct, if deeply cynical, sucking up to the NRA in all things no matter how deeply misanthropic (and make no mistake, a 30 round ammunition clip is deeply misanthropic).
So let’s just cut to the chase. Since our kids are obviously the root to all our angst –what with worrying about feeding them, educating them, protecting them (or at least our right to protect them with heavy weaponry) providing them with healthcare, and ultimately some form of retirement, we should take the Newtown School shooting as a lesson in one way of handling our many social ills, reduce our ballooning healthcare costs, dramatically cut our Social Security payouts and ultimately still preserve our cherished freedoms and The American Way of Life ™.
Once we arm teachers, and train them so they are excellent marksman (thank you in advance, NRA, we know you’d be willing to help) we’ll have them, on some appointed date—say, December 14—line up and shoot all their children, thus eliminating the future costs of education, healthcare and retirement in one fell swoop. The real glory of this plan, of course, is that we’ll be belt-tightening and cost cutting in the all American way we’ve come to know and love, which is to say, systematically, and with extreme violence. We’ll give the plan a really cool name like, “War on America’s Future.”
I’m betting Paul Ryan will be all over this.
This strife among ourselves wastes our energy and destroys our unity. My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: Take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea! ~Nelson Mandela
When I was 25 in 1985, I took a course in South African political culture and current affairs. The general consensus at that time, at least among my professors, was that the lower third of Africa was headed inexorably towards murderous race war, probably within the next decade. The Reagan administration had no interest in mediating the situation and, in fact, tacitly supported the apartheid government in South Africa and its satellite in Rhodesia. South Africa had a nascent nuclear capability and a VERY well-armed white populous as well as a highly trained professional army and an extensive and brutal internal police apparatus. The African nationalists including the ANC had plenty of guns of their own, vastly superior numbers, time and moral authority. On the periphery, the Soviets, the CIA, the Israelis and the Organization of African Unity to name just a few, were all sniffing around. In the townships, a state of constant, low-level rebellion existed with civilians being killed on a daily basis either by a vicious police force or a murderous vigilante opposition. It seemed as if every night on the news there were more images of police massacres and the aftermath of “necklacing”. The Afrikaners were trying (and largely succeeding) to buy out the Zulus and make side deals with the mixed race half-casts who had marginally better rights than the blacks. The Communist wing of the ANC was threatening a full-scale reorganization of society if they took power and everyone knew that there was going to be a bloodbath in those circumstances. Would the US and Europe stand by if the Afrikaners lost and a black on white genocide began? Would the rest of the African continent and the US and Europe stand by if white South Africans won and sought to extend and intensify their own longstanding policy of ethnic and racial cleansing? If outside powers were seen to take a hand, would the Soviets get more involved, maybe through their client state Mozambique? After all, there are few places in the world of more strategic importance than the Cape. Southern Africa is a veritable treasure chest full of strategic materials like chromium, aluminum, beryllium, cobalt, diamonds and gold among other things. Many nations might be tempted to intervene for any number of reasons and a much larger and more general continental war was likely to start from a localized apartheid war. The Afrikaner administrations of Botha and later DeClerk were desperately looking for a way to step down from this precipice, ideally with their white supremacy intact, but there were few credible takers.
In the mid eighties, across Europe and the US, young people on college campuses began agitating for their schools and for major corporations to divest themselves of South African investments (I am proud to be one of those students), this threatened the last real connection the South African economy had with the West, and the Afrikaners understood that Reagan wouldn’t be there forever to protect them and Israel alone wasn’t much of a trading partner. The most militant elements on both the Afrikaner and Pan-African and Black Nationalist sides were ready and willing to kick this thing off, and I for one saw little chance that this could end in anything other than war waged on a map as big as the US with millions of civilians trapped in the middle.
Into this mess stepped Nelson Mandela, a man in the midst of his third decade of captivity, a man who had been tortured and abused, often in solitary confinement for as long as I had been alive. South African leader F. W. DeClerk deserves his share of the Nobel Peace Prize he and Mandela were awarded later for seeing the writing on the wall and choosing peace over war, but it is Mandela who shines. He brokered a peaceful transition to majority rule that convinced whites to largely remain in the country of their birth and keep the wheels of the economy turning, and convinced blacks to hold their rage in check and begin building a positive multiracial society. He did this through a brilliant political acumen and masterful diplomatic skill, but also in large part it seems through the power of his personal character and integrity. He had the credibility born through hardship and sacrifice among his colleagues in the ANC. This allowed him the room to negotiate with DeClerk. He had the gravitas and sense of the moment needed for the Afrikaners to take him seriously as a partner.
South Africa is not perfect and neither was Mandela, I am sure. The nation today has a terrible AIDS epidemic, and a generation later many blacks have yet to see much economic progress for themselves or their families. The ANC leaders who have come after Mandela are lesser men and they are prone to the kind of mortal weaknesses that apparently didn’t affect the great man, but one has only to look North to Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) to see the way things might have gone if not for the smooth transition in the south. While Zimbabwe limps along on the verge of becoming a failed state still ripped by racial and class resentment on all sides, the nation Mandela built continues to nurture the seeds necessary to one day become an international powerhouse like Brazil or India.
What has happened in South Africa is still something of a miracle to me, and Mandela was the catalyst. He will of course be compared to Gandhi and MLK and there are clearly many similarities and cross-references, but perhaps the most striking and gratifying difference to me is that Nelson Mandela died in his bed at the ripe old age of 95 in a largely peaceful region of the world that he primarily made, not a martyr for whom we can only speculate as to what he might have done, but as a beloved and respected leader who served his nation and mankind to the fullest of his capacities.
When I was a young man, that part of the world looked set to explode. Because he lived and because he could put aside the wrongs done to him and his people, that never happened. We’ll never know just how bad it could have gotten. His strength gave others the strength to forgive while not forgetting; and for that the world owes Nelson Mandela a massive debt of gratitude.
~ Scott Price, APV President
For a long while, Teach For America was the dazzling new kid on the educational reform block. All doors were opened for the program that recruits elite college graduates (many from Ivy League Universities like Harvard or Princeton), gives them about a month of intensive training, and places them in two-year termed teaching positions at low-income schools across the country. President Obama praised TFA corps members as “a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas — that people who love their country can change it.” Their political support crossed party lines, and just about everyone was on board, except, unfortunately, for the people who were actually affected by the program.
In Chicago, the push back originally came from the teacher’s union. Teach For America was initially instituted as a temporary solution to a temporary shortage of teachers. The five-week ‘intensive’ training program that substituted for a BA or MA in Education and much lengthier student teaching requirements was meant to fill an immediate need—to get teachers on the ground and teaching in poorly served areas. But that ‘temporary solution’ became a permanent fixture that displaced seasoned veteran teachers, many of whom had 20 plus years experience. When one teacher moved to New York after graduate school, boasting high grades and a teaching award, she found the district closed to external applicants. “But they had a contract with TFA where they were still taking college graduates with no training besides doing TFA.” The pattern is happening nationwide, she complained. “Meanwhile, they’re laying off highly experienced teachers.”
According to a recent article in the American Prospect, the criticisms come in triplicate. “The organization’s five-week training program is too short to prepare its recruits to teach, especially in chronically under-served urban and rural districts; corps members only have to commit to teach for two years, which destabilizes schools, undermines the teaching profession, and undercuts teachers unions; and TFA, with the help of its 501(c)4 spin-off, Leadership for Educational Equity, is a leading force in the movement to close “failing” schools, expand charter schools, and tie teachers’ job security to their students’ standardized test scores.”
What once looked like a kind of Peace Corps styled guardian angel for troubled inner city schools, more and more resembles a Trojan horse designed to eviscerate unions, privatize schools and leave public school systems worse off than when they started. As with so many other things in the private/public debate in this country, the public side is wildly outspent. Indeed, the resources devoted to TFA alone go far beyond what most large school districts could ever dream.
“The organization’s total assets for the 2011 fiscal year topped $350 million. That includes eight-figure support from the Broad, Walton, and Gates Foundations, leading bankrollers of campaigns to privatize school districts and ramp up standardized testing. The TFA orbit is also growing. It now has more than 10,000 corps members in 48 regions, as well as more than 32,000 alumni. Districts pay thousands in fees to TFA for each corps member in addition to their salaries—at the expense of the existing teacher workforce. Chicago, for example, is closing 48 schools and laying off 850 teachers and staff while welcoming 350 corps members. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans cut 7,500 school staff, converted the majority of its schools to charters, and, between 2005 and 2010, saw its share of black teachers drop from 73 percent to 56 percent. Over the past five years, TFA expanded its Greater New Orleans corps from 85 teachers to 375.”
In addition to the money bags approach, there’s something a little unsettling about the underlying ideology which insists that “singular change agents can overcome poverty.” As TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp likes to put it, successful teaching “requires all the same approaches that transformational leadership in any setting requires” The emphasis on the individual and the so-called ‘transformational leadership’ devalues and patronizes current staff, of course, and elevates a solipsistic view of the world where individual effort trumps community context and values. Perfect for the libertarian billionaire’s ethos, but rather a contradiction if you’re actually trying to build communities and community standards. Indeed, there’s a shallowness to all the sloganeering and when push comes to shove, many of the TFA darlings simply quit. The high turnover of trainees being dispatched to some of the country’s most challenging school districts—often without any long-term plans to be teachers—is a major problem. In a typical cycle, a school might lose about half of its corps members after their second year. By the third year, half of those who had remained after the second year would be gone. The root problem, of course, is precisely that lack of community context and commitment. Many—perhaps most– who join Teach For America don’t actually want to be teachers in the first place, instead using the program as a prestigious stepping stone for policy work, law school, or business school. According to the Prospect, “One study found that roughly 57 percent of corps members planned to teach for two years or less when they applied, while only 11 percent intended to make teaching a lifelong career. (TFA has claimed, however, that 36 percent remain in the classroom as teachers. But their recently announced partnership with Goldman Sachs, which provides TFA recruits with jobs at the banking firm after two years of service, doesn’t entirely help their cause.)”
Ultimately, the two years of service is an empty promise to communities who more than anything need continuity and long-term commitment. If you want a school to become a community hub, you necessarily need to minimize ‘churn’—the rotation of teachers and principals. “Their framework is about developing leaders, not teachers.”
Gary Rubinstein, a veteran teacher, TFA alumni, and prominent critic of the program explains his motivations in joining as many do: “It [TFA] sounded exciting. For once, I’d be doing something ‘real.’ I’d be doing something valuable for society. I’d be making a difference.” But in its mission to enact progressive education reform and eliminate the cycle of poverty, TFA has advanced a conservative agenda that doesn’t seek education reform so much as its privatization. Like many others, he’s become acutely aware of the difference.
Now, of course, never one to let a bad idea go to waste, Richmond wants to join forces with TFA.
With a vote of 5-2 (with two members absent) the Richmond School Board has decided to contract with Teach For America to hire up to 30 teachers. Since TFA ‘teachers’ are paid an additional $5000 dollars for their services, Richmond taxpayers will need to pay out over $150,000 extra ($5,000 per corps member = $150,000) to TFA to hire folks who have had all of 5 weeks of training.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch,“During Monday’s (November 4th) work session, two board members and half a dozen members of the audience — including Christine S. Walther-Thomas, the dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education — vehemently opposed the idea of bringing Teach For America to Richmond.
“What we know is that they are talented young people but they don’t get a lot of preparation,” said Walther-Thomas, who spoke in favor of a 3-year-old teacher residency program VCU runs with Richmond Public Schools.
Jacqueline T. McDonnough and Kurt Stem-hagen, associate professors at VCU, were more direct. McDonnough said she would “lay down in the door” before she would allow Teach For America into city schools. Stemhagen said “poor and minority students deserve the best.”
Mamie Taylor, 5th District, and Shonda Harris-Muhammed, 6th District, were also vocal in their opposition, and both voted against the proposal.
On Tuesday, Taylor said the school system can’t afford Teach For America’s fee of $5,000 per teacher. And even if it could, she said she would still oppose it. “You can’t show me data that supports it,” she said. “Everything I’ve heard has been individual people’s experiences. I don’t see anything that tells me this is a direction Richmond Public Schools needs to go.”
At the November 4th meeting, Alliance for Progressive Values’ Deputy Kirsten Gray also pointed out that the rationale for hiring 33 TFA positions because of a shortage of teachers didn’t make a lot of sense, “… the city needs 33 positions filled but the openings aren’t advertised on the Richmond Public School system website. We were told there is no money to hire teachers and that “quality” teachers are hard to find. 8 licensed long term subs have been hired but we cannot afford to hire them full time. It was recommended that the School board work within budget and not ask the city for more money. ….but when the subject of Teach For America came up, all of a sudden almost half the board is willing to pay $5,000 more plus salary for a TFA teacher. I can not wrap my head around this. How can a system claim it is hard to find “quality” teachers when the RPS website claims zero openings?”
Teacher, parent and public school advocate Rachel Levy posted on her own blog that she had problems receiving a timely response from the Richmond Public School systems when she applied for an ESOL position. She was ultimately notified that a position might be available, but the reply came so late in the season — a month after school had started — that she had already accepted a position at another school.
“The problem there is not lack of “creativity” or lack of qualified applicants; it’s lack of competence, disorder, and a lack of, um, hiring. TFA’s presence won’t change that.”
Kirsten Gray said, “I believe change in the Richmond Public Schools needs to start with the people, not from above in the form of Corporate Reform. We know what works in this city, but it is a slow process, one chosen by the people. Look how many good elementary schools we have compared to just over a decade ago. Look how long our alternative schools such as Open High School and Community High School have been around. … These schools did not form out of corporate interests. This organization [TFA] is being used as a tool of the privatization movement.”
Kirsten added that when you looked at the rush of local events, it was hard not to see a concerted push toward privatization. She said that a Style Weekly piece recently noted public school closures and the possible inclusion of additional Charter schools.
“This is not sheer coincidence. It is happening in other cities… All of the measures that have been implemented so far have been fought against in the General Assembly by citizens and organizations such as the PTA.”
Public school advocate Sarah Radcliffe Gross added, “TFA teachers are not the answer for our hard-to-staff schools and most challenging students. But they are an easy out for a school board bent on reforms– for the sake of reforms.” Richmond’s public schools need strong committed teachers and leadership determined to address the needs of all students, but contracting to hire a revolving door of less qualified personnel from Teach For America barely gives the appearance of solving problems.
It does, however, assist a deeply conservative agenda that seeks to deconstruct our public school system -one teacher at a time.