Archive for November, 2009

When I was a child, I had an experience which frightened me then and which scares me now as I hear overtones of the same kind of talk.

I attended grade school in Wenatchee, WA. One day, in early 1942, three sheriff’s deputies came unannounced into our first grade classroom. To a child of six, everything in your world seems large. So these three with big guns on their hips, brimmed hats, deep voices and their brusk manner seemed huge.

They came to arrest three of my small Japanese-American classmates. At that age, all three were likely born in this country. One ran crying to the teacher but was eventually carried out of the room as were the other two. By then, all of us were crying. And scared.

Our little minds didn’t know it for what it was: one of the most embarrassing and wrong-headed national actions in our history. By Executive Order 9066, Feb. 19, 1942, local military commanders were authorized to designate exclusion zones (most of Oregon and Washington States and all of California) and to “relocate” all people of Japanese ancestry … no matter how remote that ancestry … to mostly isolated internment camps.

Oregon had one camp near Portland; Washington two; California about a dozen. They were called “relocation camps” and our government “relocated’ about 120,000 Japanese-Americans for no other reason than their race. They stayed in those camps until after the war when many just faded into oblivion upon their release. Most had lost homes, businesses, farms and family members. All they had.

I’ve been to a couple of those camps and nearly all were barracks buildings of tar paper and lathe, remote locations, short on necessities of life, crowded, very hot or very cold depending on the weather. It was up to the “internees” to provide most of the necessary services.

While the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the validity of the executive order in 1944, it sidestepped the issue of interning only Japanese-Americans. But in 1988, Pres. Reagan signed a bill apologizing for the internments; a bill which noted “race prejudice, war hysteria and political leadership failures.” Reparations of more than $1.5 billion were paid to survivors.

Why bring up that tragic national stain now? Why talk about one of our nation’s worst moments? Because in coffee shops from the small town where I live to fancy bars on Capital Hill to the national media, you can hear people talking about Muslims in this country. Any Muslim.

In the wake of the Ft. Hood massacre, allegedly by a man born in Virginia who happens to worship God as a Muslim, conversations are again turning to people who are “different” or are part of a “foreign” religion and whether “they” can be trusted or whether “they” should they be in the military or whether “they” can be Muslim and still be American. Or “How would you feel if a young Muslim man sat next to you on an airplane or the bus?”

These “conversations” … and some of my e-mails … are beginning to sound like the history books detailing our national mood in 1939-41 American coffee shops. And Capital Hill. You don’t hear racism or religion directly now so much as you hear “difference.” They are “different.” “Their religion is not American” as if the roots of Catholicism, Judaism or even Methodists and Presbyterians are.

It’s small talk now. But you hear it on radio and TV talk shows and the Internet. Nothing open or directly accusatory. Nothing overt. Just talk.

But to those of us who know the last such “talk” turned into a national executive order affecting the lives and futures of thousands of people who had done nothing wrong but be born of another race, it is too familiar. To those who have studied the history of that last tragic political rush-to-judgment, there are unsettling parallels.

We are a country badly divided at the moment in nearly all ways. Many are scared, frustrated and looking for answers that don’t exist. We are trying to maintain our individual economic and social balances on a platform that keeps shifting underfoot. Very much like 1939-41 when huge wars loomed over a nation trying to stay out of them.

These are the sorts of conditions … the kinds of political grounds … in which division and prejudice grow well. What starts as talk can be fed until it becomes irrational public policy capitalizing on what divides us rather than what unites us. There are those that profit handsomely from directing a willing public to narrow points of view and political “purity.” We cannot afford them.

I think more of us would ignore the “talk” if we remembered three scared, crying first grade friends … who just disappeared.

From time to time, I’m criticized by some as being opposed to things conservative and of being a “flaming liberal.” Of course, the intent is to say conservative is good, liberal is bad and, thus, I’m a bad guy.

Then comes the complaint that I’m a “left wing nut” who can’t see anything good in more “moderate” or “conservative” views.

Well, let’s take a look in the old Webster’s Ninth Collegiate for an impartial definition of these oft-used terms.

My desk copy says conservative means “traditional, careful, economical, thrifty, temperate, conventional and moderate.” Yes, Virginia, moderate. And I really do think my overall outlook could be accurately be described by just those adjectives.

The problem is we have stricken the word “moderate” from the definition of conservative. “Conservative” now is most often used with only hard-edged descriptions and in political applications we have struck nearly everything else from the meaning.

If, for example, I believe government has no business inserting itself into the private family issue of abortion, I am immediately cast as anti-conservative, not moderate. But I think of my view as pro family. Now that’s supposed to be moderate, even conservative.

If I say we should use tax dollars to assure some form of basic medical care for all, I’m that liberal nut again. But the proven fact is more people being taken care of before they get really sick means spending a lot fewer tax dollars in the long run. That seems to me to be “economical,” “thrifty,” even reasonable. Words which also define a conservative.

If I criticize a “conservative” politician for saying something wrong, divisive or even stupid, I’m called anti-conservative. But if my criticism is because I expect more careful and rational thought from someone in a position of leadership, rather than flash and an over-simplified answer, that seems to me to be “traditional,” “reasonable,” “prudent” and, yes, even “moderate.”

As a nation of mostly moderate folk, we have allowed ourselves to be shoved into a dangerous corner by loud minorities from both ends that have created the divisive political philosophy of “you’re either with us or against us.”

Nothing defines that clearer than those ideologues on the right who have made issues of personal choice and private family matters into politics and something unacceptable if someone else’s response to those issues differs from their moral standards.

That’s not conservatism. That’s political bigotry, which also is found in your dictionary. “Bigot: one obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his own prejudices.”

But, in my love of language, I find that word “bigot” also can be used to define the other end of the political scale: the strident liberal. Just tell one of them that there’s such a thing as a good conservative approach to one of their heartfelt issues and they’ll brand you as a right wing nut case.

The answer to how we look at ourselves politically should, I think, be described in the way ice skating and some other athletic events are judged at the Olympics. Take out the high and low ends of the scoring and average the middle.

Because that is, after all, where most of us are.

The congressional full employment season has begun in Oregon and other parts of the hinterlands. We used to call it “political campaigning” but it’s largely become a job placement activity.

Looking on both sides of the road you can see activity in the bushes as the job seekers try to find the best opening and begin foraging for the resources (read “money”) to find employment at the public trough.

Certainly this doesn’t describe all the candidates out there. Some good ones are beginning to be picked up in our headlights. But it does describe the activities of far too many.

It’s been said you can’t go broke underestimating the intelligence of the public. I’ve never really bought into that as a whole. However if you substitute “some members of congress” for the word “public” you now have a proposition I can support.

I’ve been astounded watching some of these offenders of ethics and honesty stand in front of crowds and deliberately lie about what was in the non-existent “health care reform bill.”

At the time, there were several proposals floating around congress claimed by these miscreants as “THE BILL” but none had yet been laid on the table for committee action or authored by the president. None. Which may have been Mr. Obama’s biggest problem.

The president handed control of this uncontrollable situation to anyone in congress who wanted to say anything … factual or not. What was needed when he began his pitch for health care reform was his “health care reform bill.” Imperfect or improbable, it would have established a point of reference … a ground zero as it were.

Imagine Moses coming down the mountain with no stone tablets and saying to the masses “God wants you to follow his rules which will be adopted after future hearings.” You can guess how effective that would have been.

But I digress. We were talking about the ethical fitness … or lack there of … of some of the civilians in the hinterlands who want to get on the gravy train.

Neither party has a corner on the unfit-for-public-service candidacies of some of these people. Offices in the Longworth House or Dirksen Senate Office Buildings have long been catnip to many. Then, they get that sip of Potomac Kool Aid (read power) and the career politician is invented.

People on the fringy right often drape themselves in the constitution of this country, attempting to twist and bend certain out-of-context parts to make their points, as they do with the Bible. Several readers have made sure I have my own vest pocket version to carry around. Which I don’t.

What they fail to look at is the office-holding mindset of those who wrote that document. Contrary to the mail I get, no, they weren’t all lawyers and several weren’t Christians. Those guys put aside varied personal private sector careers, went to Philadelphia to kick this country off, then went home to go back to work. None … including G. Washington … wanted a federal career.

Now we’ve bred a class of people wanting to grasp the federal brass ring and hold on with both hands … cradle to grave. Oregon and her sister states have produced a few who could be full-time legislators and who served with distinction. But we’ve also elected our share of duds who would’ve had trouble staying employed in the private sector.

We don’t ask much. If we sense one or more of the applicants for employment have some good ideas and some sort of ethical compass, we give ‘em a “ticket to ride.” If they work out, we renew their option. To most of us, it doesn’t make much difference which political party they represent. I’ve split my ticket for years. I’d bet most voters do.

Problem is the system has been rigged so, once in, it’s damned hard to get ‘em out. Rep. Mo Udall told me once “These people learned the rules to get themselves here and they darned sure aren’t going to change them!”

There isn’t much we can do about the quality .. or lack thereof … of people chasing our vote. It’s like shopping at a discount warehouse: what’s on the shelf that day is all there is. But we can learn to be more careful with our ballot, more discerning of the ethics and honesty of the model we’re offered and remember that, once we give ‘em the ticket, it’s hard to get ‘em off the train.

Even the fast food business has a hiring probationary period. If it’s good enough for burger flippers, it ought to be good enough for congress.

As our local newspaper was printing a weeklong series on the beating our local economy has been taking in a small Oregon town, another large document on the subject landed on my desk taking the story even further.

The Northwest Area Foundation covers eight states in the northern area of this country from Washington and Oregon to Iowa and Minnesota. One service it provides is research on the lives of people who live within those boundaries. The latest product deals with how the economy of the last 12 months has changed life for nearly all families. Results were quite similar in all eight states.

Dealing only with the Oregon research, 64% of families surveyed said they have cut back on spending as a result of the recession and, of those, 62% say the cuts will be permanent.

Rural Oregonians are more likely to have had a family member lose a job in the last 12 months (37%) and 27% say they or a family member has had problems paying for basic necessities of food, shelter and utilities.

One of the more revealing figures was the 56% of Oregon families who have cut back on how much was spent for food in the past year. More than half. Almost as startling was 62% of Oregonians believe a family of four in our state would need an annual income $40,000 or more just to make ends meet. Compare that to the federal government’s official poverty threshold minimum: $21,834.

With these figures in mind, and considering how many in our state are in real trouble even with basics, another finding by the Foundation was troubling. More than 40% of people in the survey have no idea where to go in their own communities for help with basic necessities. 40%!

There seems to be two messages there. One is a challenge for those agencies that do provide services for such needs to do more to get their identities out. The other message, to me, is that many people having real trouble now are doing so for the first time and have not previously thought they needed to know about these services so they never bothered to find out about them.

I don’t like writing columns filled with statistics, but there are too many important ones here not to keep going. For example, 55% of sampled Oregonians … or someone in their households … have given or lent money in the past year to someone struggling to get by. But the next finding is even more striking: 58% of those givers/lenders are in the lowest income brackets of $35,000 per year or less! More than half of those needing help have given help to someone else.

And one more significant number on that subject: about one in three (32%) has taken a family member or friend into their home to provide life’s necessities.

While we all know … and keep telling each other … that this financially difficult period will eventually end, the NW Foundation findings came up with an interesting split on that. Overall, 54% of Oregonians are hopeful about the national economy on this subject. But in rural areas, that drops to 48%; less than one in two. Not hard to understand.

Nearly everyone sampled has been affected by these bad economic times, of course, but there was a surprise finding. Well, maybe a surprise only to me. A majority (64%) would be willing to pay $50 more taxes if the money went to help people struggling in their community; 35% were classified as “very willing.” How about that for a ray of sunshine?

Finally, two sets of numbers that really jumped out: 74% said when voting, they think about how well a candidate for office (or incumbent) would help those struggling. And 74% of Oregonians said affordable health care makes a big difference in a family’s ability to make ends meet and they view that as a top or high priority for elected officials. Three out of four!

That’s the kind of overwhelming statistic that makes the current wrangling in Washington DC so embarrassing. We, the people, are telling the elected what we think is important … what we need to make our lives better … and most of them are struggling only with how to keep their “jobs” and, in the process, protect their posteriors with some small voting group.

Given these findings, I’d like to put a question on the next Northwest Foundation survey of all states within it’s purview: “Are those you voted for last time around representing you by addressing your needs and what you consider important in your life?”

I doubt the results would be surprising. In Oregon or anywhere else.

Each November since that remarkable one in 1989, most of the free world takes a few moments to remember the demise of the Berlin wall.

As the world watched people scrambling, the wall becoming just so much rubble under foot and all the following celebrations, the wall that never should have been became the wall that was no more.

Great moment! Great history. But historians in this country and abroad are finding the causes for the event are not widely understood.

Pres. Reagan, against the advice of many on his senior staff and other administration officials, wanted to send a message to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The message was not so much that Gorbachev should take a sledgehammer and beat down the wall. In Reagan’s view, the time had come that the wall served no purpose other than telling the world that the Soviet Union was ignoring fact. Freedom was coming.

In Reagan’s mind, according to researchers, he and Gorbachev had reached such an honest relationship that the president felt Gorbachev was looking for the right stimulus for action. Reagan waited for an opportunity to make his move and decided the 1987 speech at the Wall was it.

He was right. Reagan opened the door and Gorbachev drove through when the time was right for him; nearly two years later. Gorbachev got a Nobel prize and world acclaim; Reagan was “best supporting actor.”

Historians and other researchers pretty much agree on that scenario. While partisans cling to the myth that Reagan’s demand was pure “freedom’s call” and the reason for reuniting Germany, those who’ve studied the occasion with an eye on fact have concluded that Reagan was the match and Gorbachev the fuse. Gorbachev wanted to do it but needed a partner.

All of that is likely the truth behind the line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Good theater and Reagan the good actor with good timing.

None of this is to detract from what happened; just an attempt based on some research to put the light where it really should be.

I’ve long believed something else contributed heavily to the success of that moment. Jeans. Jeans and compact disks and music videos and electronic games and funky clothes and long hair and teen footwear and all the other accouterments of Western culture and youth. Blocked by that wall and living in a world without those creature “necessities” in the hands of the average young person, youthful cultural pressure was building to get over, around or through that barrier.

Television, I believe, also played a large part. It was widely available; certainly to those living in Moscow and the major cities. Soviet young people could see what was happening in the lives of their counterparts in the rest of Germany and the world. And, like those counterparts, they wanted some of the “good life” and all the things that came with it. Old Communist doctrine was not their concern.

I believe that’s why, looking at the footage of people climbing over and beating on the wall that November night, you see so many teens and twenty-somethings leading the charge. The door was open just a crack and they were going to go through it. All of them.

I certainly don’t want to detract from Reagan, Gorbachev and all the other principle players who started the ball rolling. Or the hammers pounding. They did their parts.

But so often the people are ahead of the leaders. Many of the Soviet people had already decided what should happen. With the right pressures from below, and with good political instincts like Reagan and Gorbachev above, all the leaders had to know was “when.”

Reagan knew that. And he knew when.

Several months ago, I offered some pretty harsh criticism of the BCS football situation and how schools like Boise State University, Texas Christian (TCU), University of Utah, Brigham Young and others are frozen out of the big money and national BCS bowl games regardless of their records.

Take that harsh criticism and double it!

One of the raps on these teams has been the toughness …or wimpiness … of their regular season schedules. Especially in the case of Boise State. To some extent, that criticism has been accurate. I’ve long wished Boise State, for example, would break out of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and go up a couple of steps.

Well, sports fans, if the phoniness of the BCS business has never been accurately portrayed, have I got some facts for you.

In the last couple of weeks, WAC Commissioner Karl Benson and an ESPN representative with a national television contract and BIG money in hand have been contacting some of the top names in college football to try to get Boise State on their 2011 schedules.

Benson won’t say who he contacted, just that he and ESPN talked to about 10 schools. But it’s widely known the only major teams with 2011 schedule openings at this point are Michigan, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas A&M, Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma State and a few smaller names. Now, that includes some major players!

Benson was offering national television exposure and money, BSU would go to the other school’s stadium with no requirement to play a return game in Boise and pretty much a blank check.

Not one school would play. Not one!

It appears they all looked at the 2009 fortunes of the University of Oregon and said, “No.” Then the phone went dead.

Here’s where the crux of the problem is with the BCS screwing up college football. Oregon played BSU on the blue turf in Boise in the season opener for both schools. Boise State won. Now, no matter what Oregon does with it’s very fine team, it can’t be ranked higher in BCS listings than Boise State if Boise State finishes the season unbeaten. Which looks likely.

So when a little nowhere western school comes knocking on the door at Alabama with cash in hand, a national TV contract and literally offering to be a doormat for the Crimson Tide, Alabama figures if what happened to Oregon happens to them, they’re out of a title shot right off the bat!

Same for the other nine or so university programs contacted. They’re all afraid to take on this little football program from a nowhere western school. ‘Cause if that program is as good as it looks (and it is), well, title hopes, rankings and maybe even the coach’s contract will be on the line.

The most often used route to the BCS finals is by winning the games on your schedule, conference or not. A win is a win is a win. That’s been the rule forever. But, when you throw in this BCS twist, good programs at Boise State, Utah, BYU, TCU and others are out in the cold. They’re good teams. But the big schools figure maybe they’re too good.

So along come the critics saying “Oh, they’re good teams alright, these little programs. But just look at their schedules. They don’t play ‘anyone’ tough.”

At the same time, BCS managers have twisted and turned and perverted their own rules to get some teams into the big money finals. When it suits them, some schools are ranked better than their records. Check out USC this week, for example. Given it’s two loss ‘09 season so far, USC shouldn’t be in the top 20. Yet, they’re number 12!

I don’t know who the idiots were that scheduled Oregon and BSU to meet in their first games of the season. It was a terrible decision given the excellent programs at both schools. That kind of match up you save for mid-season after both teams have had a chance to work out the kinks and play the kinds of games they’re capable of. Imagine what a match-up between those two would look like in November! Wow!

The BCS concept is rife with problems. The Broncos are pointing out a major one. As a result, they are in what seems to be a no-win spot: criticized for who they play while no major team will take them on, even with a blank check.

Can anyone say “national playoffs?”