Teachers are the real patriots

These are tumultuous times. It seems every single day brings a rollercoaster of emotions over what is going on in our country.

A couple of days ago, I read this letter to the editor in the AZ Star that floored me.

Not only that it had been written, but that the Star printed it (hope they also sent it to the FBI). But after further reflection, I realized that it is better to shine the light on hate like this. It is better to understand the threat so that we can be prepared to counter it.

This guy gets so much wrong. I too am a veteran who served 22 years in the Air Force. I too took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”. But, I don’t equate defending the President with defending the Constitution. Not, when that President has told over 10,000 lies since taking the Oath of Office and not when he refuses to respect the Constitution himself.

What is most galling and actually frightening about this letter though, is that Mr. Theriot thinks that Democrats are the enemy, not the Russians who hacked our elections and continue to conduct cyber warfare against us daily to disrupt our operations and sow hate and divisiveness.

Ultimately though, I remain hopeful. For every Theriot, there are dozens of others like a group of teachers in Flagstaff who recently pushed back on an invite from the Arizona Chamber. Saying they “recognize the gesture of a Teacher Appreciation Dinner, we respectfully decline the invitation. We feel attending your dinner would be condoning the AZ Chamber’s many coordinated attacks on public education over the years. You see, educators have been pleading with the state of Arizona for adequate public education funding for an entire decade, and it seems that at every turn, the Chamber of Commerce has been there to block our efforts and work against us.”

There is much to be proud of with these almost 100 teachers’ not only taking the stand, but individually putting their names on the letter to the Chamber. In our hyper-polarized nation, it is increasingly difficult to take a stand. But, these teachers understand that, “if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” So, they stood and said “we cannot and will not ignore the Chambers’ agression toward public education funding, and we refuse to allow your organization to bask in the glow of a feel-good PR campaign while consistently working against the interests of educators and working families across our great state.”

The teachers were also clear that they “will always welcome any collaboration with the business community designed to achieve positive educational outcomes for all of Arizona’s children.” They aren’t closed off to innovations for the betterment of all students, they just aren’t going to accept a system that is increasingly stacked to benefit those who “have” over those who “have not”.

I’m guessing Mr. Theriot would be as aghast at these teachers’ letter, as I was at his. The difference though is that the teachers’ words are aligned with the Constitution and good old American values, not at odds with it. They are exercising their 1st Amendment Rights to call out hypocrisy, not promising the “wrath of Hell will descend” on fellow Americans. The teachers are also standing up for their public school students, not a President who is a pathological liar and of whom, Mitt Romney said he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection”.

Where Theriot said, “there are many retired military who will protect our president” (in spite of the Constitution one might surmise), the teachers called out the AZ Chamber for their work in scuttling a ballot initiative supported by the voters and for giving “enormous tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy instead of requiring them to pay their fair share for the benefit of all”. They also called out the Chamber for making “it a top priority to devastate educators’ retirement security by privatizing our pensions”, demanding “the Chamber of Commerce leave our retirement funds as the earned, defined benefit they are.

These teachers, standing up for those most vulnerable among us, are the real patriots. They know there can be no great democratic republic when there is no educated citizenry and that our public schools are the only ones that can address the problems we face at the scale demanded. Over 90% of America’s K–12 population attends public schools and that is where our singular educational focus should be. No. That is where it MUST be. Yes, to provide an engaged citizenry who can think creatively and determine fact from fiction.

The focus must also be on public schools to ensure our country stays strong. According to The American Conservative in 2018, one in three potential recruits are disqualified from service because they’re overweight, one in four cannot meet minimal educational standards (a high school diploma or GED equivalent), and one in 10 have a criminal history. In plain terms, about 71 percent of 18-to–24-year-olds (the military’s target pool of potential recruits) are disqualified from the minute they enter a recruiting station: that’s 24 million out of 34 million Americans. The article didn’t mention that the frenzied focus on high-stakes standardized tests and siphoning money from public schools have largely not improved achievement, but often robbed our students of opportunities such as physical education, art, music and more. Research shows curriculums must be robust to adequately develop all parts of the mind and to keep students engaged in school. Unfortunately, students in schools that are able to offer more, have plenty of other choices besides military enlistment.

Yes, we have much work to do. But, allowing ourselves to be divided and conquered, whether by Russia, partisan politics, or school privatizers is not going to help us get it done. To stay strong and prosperous, we must be true to what is referred to as the “immortal declaration”. From the Declaration of Independence, it states that, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

America is undoubtedly a long way from realizing this dream. But even the aspiration itself is one of the things that sets us apart from most other nations and is one that we should fight tooth and nail to achieve. As patriots, we must steadfastly reject the nightmare Theriot and others like him would have us embrace and continue to fight with all our power for this American ideal and the Dream it promises.

The Festering Wound

First, let me be absolutely clear. I will applaud any modicum of success Donald Trump realizes as POTUS. It’s currently hard to envision, but if it does happen, I will give credit where credit is due. My bottom line is that I want our country to succeed and flourish.

Second, although I didn’t vote for him, I don’t believe President Trump is the worst threat to our democracy. He is just the most visible symptom…the metaphorical “pus” that oozes from the infected wound. Yes, part of reason he was elected is that middle America is tired of being ignored and wants change. I get that. I wish our system had offered them better choices. But, he was also propelled to victory because of the “bacteria” of racism and hatred, fed by the “talking heads” and Internet content of questionable veracity. Over time, this bacteria infected the wound, generating the “pus” which indicated a problem.

What was the original wound? Well, it depends on how far back you want to go. In my lifetime, I think it would have to be the denial of civil rights that led to the civil rights movement that led to resentments (that I believe were unjustified) that so significantly wounded our national psyche. Please don’t get me wrong. President Lyndon Johnson was absolutely right to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It helped right many of the wrongs that had permeated for too long against way too many. Unfortunately, the change in law was, in some ways, just a band-aid that masked the wound. It helped the healing begin, but did not deliver the antibiotics to cure the sickness. No doubt, the antibiotics (eradicate poverty, fix the criminal justice system, win the war on drugs) were huge pills that we weren’t willing to swallow. As a result, the wound never properly healed.

The more optimistic part of me says, “at least now the hatred and resentment is out in the open. At least now we can see the extent of the sickness and begin to deal with it.” Problem is, it will now take even more powerful and costly antibiotics to heal the wound, assuming we could even agree what the wound is.

A couple of days ago, I was listening to NPR’s “On Point.” The discussion was about President Obama’s legacy and a caller said he was really glad Obama was gone because of “the hate he sowed.” The show’s host was obviously incredulous and asked the caller why he thought this. The caller said, “when Trayvon Martin was killed, Obama immediately came out with a statement about how ‘it could have been my son.’” The host said he didn’t think there wasn’t anything racist in that statement, rather, President Obama was trying to empathize with Trayvon’s family. The caller though seemed undeterred. I don’t think he was trying to be inflammatory, but sincerely believed Obama was stoking racism. Try as I might, I can’t begin to understand how he came to that conclusion and it makes me really sad for our country and our democracy. Day after day, especially since Trump’s election, I encounter viewpoints from neighbors and acquaintances that are 180 degrees different from mine on a myriad of issues. How did we get to this place and more importantly, what are we going to do about it?

Obviously there were a combination of factors that brought us here. First, the choice of “news” sources we now enjoy ensures there is much less homogeny in our perspectives than when Walter Cronkite told all of us “that’s the way it is” at the end of each day. Not only that, but algorithmed social media continually feeds us “news” that only serves to ingrain the beliefs we already hold. This is compounded by the “echo chambers” “that allow us to promote our favorite narratives, form polarized groups and resist information that doesn’t conform to our beliefs.”

Second, some of us have lost the true meaning of patriotism. I contend patriotism is not about symbolism such as wearing a flag pin or flying the flag. In fact, George Washington implored Americans to “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” Rather, as John F. Kennedy said, patriotism is about asking “what we can do for our country” versus what “our country can do for us.” Patriotism is also, as Republican President Theodore Roosevelt said, “to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”  Our nations’ newest President would do well to heed the words of his 26th predecessor who was after all, immortalized on Mt. Rushmore for being one of the most popular and important of our Presidents.

Third, is our “me-first” attitude at the expense of any concern for the common good. Government is evil and should be reduced in size “where we can drown it in the bathtub” said Grover Norquist. And yet, government is us. It is our collective voice. It is the entity that we elect to ensure the safety and security of our citizens and the education of our children. In fact, our lack of national committment to a well-rounded, well-resourced, and truly public, educational system is a great example of the “me-first” attitude. The school choice movement, pushed by corporate profiteers, is cleverly devised to take advantage of this. It is not about ensuring ALL children have every opportunity to succeed, just “my” kid. It IS about resegregating our society by socio-economic status thereby over the long-term, ensuring wealth inequity is only exacerbated. It is also about reducing the people’s voice in our democracy and funneling as much of the $700 billion education market to the private sector as possible. It should be no surprise this is the goal of the rich and powerful. After all, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” The less we all think it seems, the more our leaders can…well…“stink”, without us calling them on it.

Last, is our collective laziness surrounding the exercise of our civic duties. “Somebody” we say, should vote, should call, should march, should write letters, should run for office. Truth is, all of us should do most of those things. Charles de Montesquieu, a French philosopher who lived in the 17th and 18th century, said, “The tryanny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” A democracy simply must have an engaged citizenry to be successful. I believe one of the important ways to be engaged is for each of us to pay our fair share of taxes. Author Alain de Botton eloquently said, “Paying tax should be framed as a glorious civic duty worthy of gratitude – not a punishment for making money.” Performing jury service or signing up for the draft are two other ways we fulfill our civic duties. The important point is that each of us realizes that the freedoms we enjoy don’t come free.

As for what we can do to turn things around, well therein lies the rub, right? I’m pretty sure that it starts with listening to each other again. As the saying goes, “that’s why God gave us two ears and one mouth.” It’s not just enough to listen though, we must actually hear and respond with compassion because even though it doesn’t seem like it now, we really are all in this together. If we could just find some common ground, we could start to rebuild. This rebuilding would initially look like tolerance of each other but hopefully would work its way up to acceptance. It would require respect for one another’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and that each of us strive to develop a “more perfect union.” Of course, to truly be a “more perfect union” we must understand that there are blue states and red states, white people and people of color, Christians and Muslims, men and women, etc. We must understand that our diversity doesn’t “ruin” America, it is what makes us great. It is what has always made us great. United we stand, divided we fall. Words to live by, now more than ever.

Is the NRA America’s Taliban?

Six Taliban militants killed 145 people and injured another 100 on December 16th in a school in Peshawar, Pakistan.  The dead included 132 children, 10 staff school members and three soldiers.  CNN.com reported:

“Seventh-grader Mohammad Bilal said he was sitting outside his classroom taking a math test when the gunfire erupted. He fell into bushes before running to the school’s gates to safety.  Ahmed, the 14-year-old student, remembered being in the school’s auditorium when four or five people burst in through a back door “and started rapidly firing.” After getting shot in his left shoulder, the ninth-grader lay under a bench.

Bajwa told reporters that Pakistani security forces reached the school 15 minutes after the attack began.

They found, he said, “the children … drenched in blood, with their bodies on top of each other.”

As horrific as this story is, it really shouldn’t surprise Americans.  After all, we had 26 children gunned down at Sandy Hook and yet our leaders were unable to enact any sort of meaningful legislation to ensure more gun safety.  Since the tragedy in Newtown, there have been 74 more school shootings resulting in 38 deaths and 53 injuries.  In general, 282 people are shot each day in the U.S. – that’s almost 12 an hour.

The fact that not even the Sandy Hook tragedy lessened the seemingly stranglehold the National Rifle Association (NRA) has on our leaders at all levels, has led me to begin to think of the NRA as the American Taliban.  I’m quite sure that just as we look at the Taliban in Pakistan with total dismay for the killing of 145 innocents, other countries around the world look at us and think how crazy we are to continue to accept death after preventable death. After all, per the Brady Campaign, “our firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.”

I’m okay with gun ownership, but believe your right to own, carry and use does not trump my right to feel safe.  Truth is, I don’t feel safe in a public place with civilians openly carrying guns.  I know how to use guns, and I qualified as “Expert” during my 22 years in the Air Force.  There is a time and place for guns however and I don’t think that includes the grocery store, library, school, etc.  It also doesn’t include automatic weapons with extended clips.  And it surely doesn’t include allowing nine year olds to fire weapons they are not equipped to handle.

We know what we need to do to improve gun safety.  Many Americans want it done.  Those who don’t, have been convinced by the NRA that ANY safeguards put in place are just a toe in the door to ban guns all together.  That’s just B.S.  Gun ownership is a constitutional right.  But, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are also important principals to Americans.  Unfortunately, until we realize the NRA is out to protect their own interests (money and power) versus those of American citizens, they will continue to be major players.

I often see NRA stickers on people’s cars indicating they are proud of their membership in this organization.  Along with the NRA stickers, will often be military stickers, or US flags or something about patriotism.  I’ve got news for those folks.  Being a member of the NRA does not make them patriots.  It is more akin to their worshipping a false idol.  I view the NRA organization as domestic terrorists.  Just like the Taliban, they build their power base through fear and intimidation.  Just like the Taliban, they claim they have a higher purpose, but the truth is, they want power and money.  Just like the Taliban, there is probably no negotiating with them because they don’t ever operate in good faith.  And just like the Taliban, they don’t care how many innocent people are killed to maintain their power base and achieve their goals.

I urge patriotic Americans to drop their membership in the NRA.  Take a stand today that the status quo they’ve been perpetuating is unacceptable and we want common sense gun safety enacted.  Do it for yourself, for your family and for your country!