HISTORY LESSONS

My wife and I spend many companionable hours together reading books, often based on separate interests.  Sometimes, though, we share books the other partner might want to read.  That happened some some time ago, when Jan introduced me to Ginny Dye, the author of a series of novels collectively known as “The Bregdan Chronicles,”

This southern-born, northwest transplant, has written a remarkable collection of historic fiction books starting with the lead-up to the Civil War.  In fourteen books so far released, her fictional characters have lived through the war years, and are now involved with the economic, political and human turmoils of a nation not certain of itself during reconstruction. Ginny Dye is a fine storyteller. Not being a historian, I don’t have resources to judge the accuracy of her narrative as a record of history, but she seems to have carefully researched the times and events fictionalized in her books.

As Jan and I reflect together on books we’ve read, and especially those shared, we often discover truths about our own life histories  A recent such thought came about when discussing Ginny Dye’s books.  We found ourselves truly interested in the history lived through her characters, and wondered why neither of us developed much interest in history during public education in elementary and high schools. Our experiences were similar, though I attended large urban schools in the Seattle area, and Jan was in far smaller schools in rural Whatcom County.  The conclusion drawn was that the public schools placed little emphasis on teaching history, giving the classroom teacher assignment to whoever was available, regardless of training or interest.  Our memories of national and world history education come down to rote learning of many dates long forgotten now, and being able to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.

Time does not seem to have healed this gap in public education as we’ve observed it in Washington State schools.  On a recent December 7th gathering I talked with a couple of local high school girls, both known as excellent students.  When I asked if they knew the significance of the date, their reply was “Of course!  It’s only seventeen days before Christmas”.  I then asked if they had heard of Pearl Harbor.  “No.  What’s that?”

U.S. News rates Washington State as sixth in the nation for quality of education.  I can’t challenge the accuracy of that rating, though I think it must be based on a rather low standard.  Having lived in Europe for nearly fifteen years, with children in elementary school there, I was impressed at the difference in quality of education compared to our schools.  In particular, kids in secondary education had a far better knowledge of their world and the events that shaped it.  Some recent high school graduates I knew were able to name all the separate United States and their capitols as well as their own geography and history.

In the United States we are seeing attempts to change the school systems, particularly with the drive for more charter schools.  I don’t applaud this movement, because it strikes me as anti-democratic, often concerned more with demographics than with the quality of education.  Whatever the public education in our country, I hope change will lead to a better understanding of history.  Any solution needs to consider the use of teachers who truly understand history and how to teach it.  Equally important are the materials used in history classes. Unfortunately, this is a controversial topic and dependent on geographical areas.  I hope that school board members everywhere will come to the understanding that storytelling similar to the style of Ginny Dye can be an effective way of teaching.

Jan is a retired early childhood educator, still teaching as a substitute,.  She is in agreement with what I’ve written here, but adds a comment.  In today’s rules for teachers, “teaching to the standard” is common: i.e. standards set by the school system come before doing anything else.  The teacher must be sure that the class is educated to those standards, and anything creative like using their own ideas for storytelling must come later.  She would like to see more time allowed for teachers to use creative ways for captivating young minds in all fields of study, certainly including history as one of those.

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HELL OF A WAY TO RUN A RAILROAD

This week I finished reading an excellent police procedure novel, “Faceless Killers,” written by the popular Swedish author Henning Mankell.  It’s one of the best books in his series featuring Kurt Wallander, a police detective in southern Sweden.  The plot includes much about police and citizenry struggling against a great flow of refugees coming through open borders, poorly controlled by the Swedish government.  The book was published in 1991.  In the real world, Swedish authorities  have replaced border checks and limited grants of asylum, but complaints about refugees continue.

It was an apt choice for reading at this time, as chaos rules in deciding what to do about all the migrants at our southern border, with Old Bone Spurs saying he’s going to close the border now or maybe next year.  He’s getting lots of criticism about the  decision regarding separation of children from families trying to gain asylum.  Complaints are heard that the same thing was done by the Obama and Bush administrations. It’s not a fair comparison but that’s not my point, which I think is well described by the title of this piece, “Hell of a Way to Run a Railroad.” It  was the caption on an American cartoon of the 1920s, showing a signalman coolly surveying a number of trains colliding beneath his box.*

Readers will know that I am no fan of President Trump.  Now I’m beginning to understand how much deeper are the problems in governing our country than his inept leadership.  I’m tempted to say that among those problems is a do-nothing Congress, but that would be unfair.  Our Congress is busy, sadly much busier on political issues than on governance.  The number of House investigations having to do with Trump and his administration is so high that it’s no wonder our re[resentatives don’t have time for much  fruitful legislation.  Democrats inside Congress and out are obsessed with Trump, alongside a media that over-reports the man and his allies

Are we really to believe that America doesn’t have the brainpower to fashion an  immigration policy that is humane, that helps serve the needs of the downtrodden outside our borders, that regulates the intake in fair, sane ways?   Among us in our country is an untold number of brilliant thinkers, many of them immigrants, many in organizations called “think tanks,” many in Ivy League schools, and many serving in less known institutions.  Of course the ability to achieve a great immigration policy exists, but our government can’t seem to do it.  I am enough of a cynic to believe that the leadership in Washington DC stands in the way of achieving greatness.

There is certainly no easy solution to the problems of a government that through the years has accumulated too many customs that have lost their relevance, too many lobbyists wielding too much power, an antiquated presidential election system and far, far too little concentration on what is best for the people.  Among possible solutions I’m an advocate for the need to rid all states of voter restrictions based on race, religion, lifestyle preference or anything other than citizenship, and doing away with gerrymandering or other attempts to collect votes by residence.. We need a well-rounded education in history and current events as a base for having educated voters.

The last item above might be the hardest to achieve because of geographic and political biases in our large, diverse country.  Even so I believe it’s a worthy goal.  My public education in the 1930s and 1940s included civics and history classes that were required.  My wife has teaching materials from those times that include “Current Events, The National School Newspaper,” dated  in months surrounding the opening of World War Two.  A check on the existence of that newspaper today shows that old copies are for sale on Ebay.  It looks like “Current Events” hhs gone  the way of so-many other newspapers in the United States, people having more reliance on TV broadcasts for their news.

We can’t bring back “the good old days,” but we can promote current events and  knowledge of history for all, especially the young people who will include our future leaders.

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*   From “Dictionary of Catch Phrases: American and British from the   Sixteenth Century to the Present Day” by Eric Partridge, updated and edited by Paul Beal, Scarborough House, Lanham, Md., 1992.

 

“HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL”

Last week’s Saturday With Vaughn, titled“Amazing Grace in Times of Stress,” brought more responses than usual, along with a few comments that amounted to gentle criticism.  Briefly, some readers reminded me that even in the dark hour I described, there is always hope.  One responder wrote : “I shall not give up on our country. The goodness of America will prevail.”

It seems I overlooked the crocuses rising and birds singing in our garden; the calendar telling me that it’s spring, a time of renewal, a time when poets tell us that “Hope Springs Eternal.”  And there are, indeed, a few glimmers of hope trying to bubble up through the morass that is our national leadership in Washington, DC.

Another reader’s comment added a thought about about a new member of the Washington States delegation to Congress, Pramila Jayapal.  At a luncheon he attended, she spent 15 minutes talking about how one organizes to get things done in DC. My reader found her an impressive personality, already Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus,  “Pramila is on the right track and getting into positions of power. There is some reason to hope,” he wrote.  Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has described Pramil as “a rising star in the Democratic Party.”

It’s good to hear these thoughts and pay attention to the new class of representatives coming into Congress.  There is an excellent article in the New York Times entitled “Meet the New Freshmen in Congress.”   The lead paragraph reads:

“The congressional freshman class of 2019 is perhaps best described in        superlatives. It is the most racially diverse and most female group of representatives ever elected to the House, whose history spans more than 200 years. And it boasts an avalanche of firsts, from the first Native American congresswomen to the first Muslim congresswomen.”

Senate freshmen, on the other hand,  are all white, but at least the election brought a class that was half female, half male, hopefully a trend toward a more diverse legislative group.  The present makeup of the Senate is, in my mind, less exciting than that of the House.

I used Pramila Jayapal above as an exampte of the activism needed to get our democracy back on track, and I do believe that she and many new members of Congress will help bring a restart to the engine of governance in our country.  It is.spring, there is hope, and I do see a glimmer of positive change in Congress.  But my hope is muted by thoughts of the upcoming general election.  I believe that Trump and his allies must go.  Achieving that will be a difficult proposition, needing close attention by all politicians and voters of good will.  I see the popular vote in favor of a Democratic nominee as not too difficult, though more care in electoral vote strategy will be needed.  I’m frankly scared that an independent candidate could again skew the votes in favor of Trump, leading us further down the pathway to nationalistic, anti-democratic governance.

I’ve tried to be a good citiezen, voting in eighteen general elections, many times from overseas.  That makes me pretty old, and understanding of another reader’s comment.  This older lady said that if nothing else, the current situation has her holding onto a long life so she can see the outcome of all the political turmoil.

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AMAZING GRACE IN TIMES OF STRIFE

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
that sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

After another week of chaos in the Capitol, politicians sniping at each other while the media bashes partisan politics with little result, I think this hymn is appropriate as we march towards the death of democracy.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ’d!

These are the first two verses of a hugely popular hymn written by Englishman John Newton in the mid-1750s, after a turbulent life as a sailor.  In simple terms, Newton felt he was saved from a troubled life by the grace of God, a deep feeling at the heart of this remarkable hymn.  (Quotes and information from Wikipedia.)

Grace, is in my thoughts this week as I try to absorb what is happening to a country I’ve loved.  Grace is a remarkable word with a lot of meanings, many of them corrupted in our daily life and political leadership..  Besides the meaning of God’s good work, grace refers to kindness, reprieve, giving thanks, can be a title of honor, a quality of being considerate, and more.

We need something like a national conversion. We need leadership that recognizes the qualities of grace. We need an honest 2020 election with no interference from other nations, and participation of all citizens regardless of their skin color, religious preference, sexual orientation, or any other restrictions used by haters.  We need to incorporate qualities of grace into our education and daily life.

As we windup to the coming general election there are well-qualified candidates under consideration, but none I see with the grace and electability to lead us out of this mess.  I keep looking, but time is growing short.  I pray for a change but my faith is trembling.

We need grace.

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OLD BONE SPURS

Back from Panama, I’ve been sickened this past week by Donald J. Trump’s continuing denigration of Senator John McCain, attacks even more frequent than usual against a true war hero.

The president’s feelings about McCain’s reputation as a war hero were  expressed while on TV in July 2015, when he famously commented that McCain “wasn’t a war hero because he was captured.”  He added that he liked “people that weren’t captured.”  His comment ignored the many prisoners of war his country has suffered beginning with more than 90,000 who were captured by the German Army during World War II, a figure not counting POWs taken by the Japanese in the Pacific Theater, or those captured during the Korean and Vietnam wars.  I’m sure there were many, many heroes in those numbers, but I guess the president doesn’t like them either.

This petty talk by one filling our most exalted political position contrasts against the man’s own experience as a draft dodger. He is reported to have used educational exemptions from the draft during the Vietnam conflict, resorting to an excuse from a doctor when he left college and was called to serve.  It was allegedly bone spurs that kept him from joining some 2.2 million men drafted from 1964 to 1973.  One quarter of our fighting force in Vietnam was made up of draftees, men who fought, died, and many of whom would not be liked by Donald J. Trump because they were captured.

Our president enjoys bestowing mean names on political figures he dislikes, such as “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’Ted,” “Pocahontas” and oh so many more.  Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of all the nicknames he’s used.  Political life has given nicknames both fondly and critically to American presidents, such as “Honest Abe,” “Ike,” “JFK,” and the less popular “Tricky Dick.”  The current president has been called “The Donald,” but with his predilection for nicknaming others, he should be awarded a more fitting name for his current position.

Readers will know that I am not pro-Trump, but I think I have avoided simple meanness in criticism of him and his administration. After this week no more, no more.  For a draft dodger who has taken some satisfaction in mean-spirited remarks about one of our countries most outstanding heroes, I think it appropriate to award him with a name fitting his record and the fact that he’s the oldest president to have served us in the last hundred years.  Given those facts I came up with “President Bone Spurs.”  But it pains me to think of him in the role of being a leader of the western world.  So now – for my own satisfaction – I’ve decided to call him “Old Bone Spurs.”

In case you’re interested, I haven’t copyrighted the name.

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FROM SNOW TO PANAMA

You may have heard about the unusual snowfalls here in Puget Sound Country this  past week.  Last weekend there was enough snow at our Sandy Point home – not far from the Canadian Border – that we weren’t able to return to Edmonds until Wednesday.  Yesterday it started here and has us snowbound again. We laid in plenty of supplies and can live well, except we have a problem with transportation.

A long planned trip to Panama is scheduled to leave from the Vancouver, BC , International Airport a week from tomorrow, February 17th.  We have reservations there for long-term parking.  Driving should be okay again by midweek, but guess when the next snowstorm is due? That’s right, next weekend.  Fortunately, we have a backup plan: we can catch an Amtrak train right here in Edmonds, going to Vancouver.  Ah, the wonders of modern civilization.

We’ll be gone for three weeks, and so Dear Readers, I will be vacationing from this blog which has turned into a political commentary.  To tell the truth, I’m looking forward to getting away from U.S. politics for that time.  I’ve been observing a constant in the politics of Trumpism:  each week brings more outrageous statements and actions by the so-called leader and his administration, making the previous week’s antics seem not so bad.  That, and his constant repetition of words like the “Wall,” and phrases such as “no collusion” is having the intended effect of numbing the public mind.

I’m sure I’ll miss another dozen Democrats crowding onto the stage of their party’s presidential candidacy, and maybe even another independent planning to compete with Howard Schultz.  By the time I’m back, we could be well into another government shutdown. I’ll not miss that cruel pain if it comes about, nor the threatened emergency measures at our southern border.

Give me the risks of sunburn.  I welcome the discomfort of putting on a bathing suit that’s not yet dry, and getting used to running around barefoot.  But I’ll leave you with a simple fact:

Somebody’s gotta do it.

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KEEPING ON KEEPING ON KEEPING . . .

So you just crawled out of a cave you chose to escape the current insanity affecting the U.S. political scene?  I don’t know the particulars of what sent you down there.  But let me give you some advice: go right back and take me with you.  They say that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  I hope you won’t mind having a madman in your hidey-hole, because I fit that definition all too well.

I sleepily turned on the TV as I arose this morning, discovering it was already tuned to CNN.  The first thing I heard was that Nancy Pelosi had decided to give The Wall a different name: The Barrier.  I went back to bed with the TV still glowing.  Then CNN showed President Trump telling the nation that he would never concede on the issue of The Wall.  He’s so confused by all the negative press about his stand regarding The Wall that he’s forgotten to give Pelosi a mean name, referring to her only as Nancy

I confess that I’m writing this on the last day of January 2019, which is a Thursday.  Perhaps I wll find something on Saturday that might actually be some different news

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Well, it’s Saturday and I’ve just swung through the cable TV news stations. Same faces playing hosts, hostesses and guests on Saturdays.  Almost the same political news except for a southern governor reported to have appeared in black face when in medical school.  The governor admitted it, issued a statement of apology and denied that it was him in the picture, all in the twenty-four hours leading up to this Saturday.

Another bit of madness.  My mind has trouble processing news like that. When I was a lad it had to process the popularity of one of the all-time most popular American entertainers, Al Jolson. He was famous in my early memories for singing the songs “Swanee” and “Mammy” in blackface.

I’m totally in favor of the advancement of civil rights during my lifetime. What bothers me is a certain hypocrisy lingering in our culture, seen in the varying reactions to the governor’s problem.  The extent of efforts to unearth any transgression in the past lives of politicians suggests a restriction on running for electoral office: “only saints need apply.”

I think I’ll stay in the cave for another week.

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SOARING ABOVE

The past week was politically memorable, alternatively stressful and relieving, and for me another disappointment.  While liberals crow over President Trump’s decision to open government without having an agreement about his Wall, he takes credit for making federal salary payments given again to government employees.  In the meantime Nancy Pelosi is raised to near sainthood for refusing to budge on the issue of The Wall, forcing what the anti-Trump forces see as the president’s capitulation on the issue.   It’s likely to be a short-lived victory

In other words, business as usual for our federal government in this age of chaos.

With like-minded friends I long for some leadership out of our capitol that is thoughtful, caring, reasonable, and intelligent in the broad sense, not totally rooted in partisan politics.

One of the car ads on TV recently has included a brief shot of a huge flock of birds, where the birds turn as one, seeming to act with orders from a single brain as they move in different directions.  This scene sticks in my mind because it ends with a single bird leaving the flock to soar upward and over the hundreds of others, showing some initiative not found in its mates.  We need political leadership like that, people who have the charisma to attract voters along with the experience it takes to manage government.  As an Independent I’m not as interested in the political party such leadership represents as I am in their moderation and their empathy for all citizens.

The current administration in Washington DC is often described as divisive, but too often the description focuses on political issues.  There certainly is a deep chasm between our major political parties and their followers.   It deserves media attention, as do racial tensions inflamed by a president who – if not racist – doesn’t seem to care.  But I think we need much more attention to the growing divide between the haves and have-nots in our country, between the rich and the poor.

It’s a national shame that we rank far below some northern European countries in many health issues, infant mortality being only one example.  Many servicemen and women need to supplement their living standard by using food banks.   The real income of a lot of jobs is so poor that low-income families need two or three jobs simply to exist.  And too many children in this land of promise are hungry when they go to bed.

I understand that in my State of Washington, the proportion of young voters increased greatly in the last election.  That’s a sign of hope in my opinion.  Donald Trump’s “drain the swamp” (get rid of the old bureaucracy) campaign strategy had some reason behind it.  Unfortunately, once in office he used it to place old cronies in plum jobs, a tactic that has backfired on his personnel policy.  But with more young candidates standing for election, and more young voters to help them into office, I think my hope might bear some fruit.

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SPINNING

This past week has added to the accusations, fixed positions and heartbreak brought on by The Wall and shutting down much of government.  A noise I heard within all the political caterwauling was talk of getting rid of President Trump, something that needs careful scrutiny before putting an attempt into action.  Impeachment is the loudest of those noises, but serious concerns about such an action are being raised even among some anti-Trump forces.

One way to remove Trump from leadership would be to continue media badgering until he gives up and resigns. Don’t hold your breath on that one, which might also leave him claiming to be a martyr of sorts.

So what about impeachment? The steady political voices in my mix of media sources warn that there is still not enough solid proof of Trump’s committing acts that would justify the constitutional requirements for impeachment.  While such an act might pass the House of Representatives, now under Democratic control, It would take some truly rock-solid evidence to move the Republican-controlled Senate to approve.  And how would the Democrats look if their most successful political move were so negative in character?

I’ve heard rumbling that Democrats would do well to leave President Trump to his follies, focusing on their own need to bring some policy ideas that together could form an attractive platform for the 2020 election.  They need new ideas that can stir excitement in the middle class with hopes that it might be possible to live safely, with good health care, food and dignity to their surroundings.  The Democrats need banner carriers for the office of president on the ballot, winning personalities nominated for that and other  top leadership.  The challenges for a modern world-class government are changing.  I believe the changes call for young leaders, old enough to have some experience in governance but young enough to have energy and with charisma that will capture young voters.

Those needs apply to the Republicans as well as the Democrats.  Their party is in such disarray that they will find a very deep slope to climb in the 2020 election.   I would have given odds for a Democrat win for the presidency at that time, but the past weeks have shown such a stubornness on The Wall and government shutdown by Nancy Pelosi that the stain of poor governance seems to be oozing towards that side.

It takes an optimist to believe that the 2020 election will bring back good governance.   So I guess I’m an optimist in sharing my belief that that event will make things better for our country, if only because we’ll have one direction to move: UP!

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WIN-WIN (LOSE-LOSE)

I’m suffering from self-inflicted wounds these days, injuries that are mental rather than physical. They come from too much watching of TV news, due to a weakness developed during CIA service abroad. In short, I’m always eager to know what’s going on, willing to watch even the sad show of what is claimed to be the governance of the United State of America.

Following adventures abroad I became a mediator, helping people in conflict both in family and court settings. One of the tenets of mediation for which I was trained is that successful conflict resolution usually results in each party losing something in order to find the greater good. Parties coming to the table with no intention of moving from fixed positions have no chance of finding solutions to their conflicts, and thus should not go through the charade of empty negotiations. I more than once have stopped negotiations after only a few minutes, certain than the parties are not really interested in taking a path to the greater good.

My current concerns come from the national spectacle of stalled negotiations between President Trump, tied to his campaign promises; vs. the Speaker of the House of Representatives, equally immovable.

Back to TV news and my mental wounds, cable TV has jumped on the topic of Trump’s Wall and government shutdown like a dog on a bone.. In our leased cable service, MSNBC leads the left-leaning media in saturated coverage of the Wall spectacle, followed closely on that side of the topic by CNN; with of course FOX News not only covering the other side but reportedly influencing Trump with their ideas.

President Trump is infamous for language demeaning anybody who doesn’t agree with him, “Crooked Hillary” and “Lying Ted” for example. The same is true of opposition to his desired policies, which get his scorn in false claims such as Democrats wanting a policy of open borders for immigration.

While I am admittedly anti-Trump, I do not look at the other side as favorably as some TV cable news programs. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer (minority leader of the Senate) counter Trump’s demeaning language with words of their own that are intentionally aggravating to the President, aimed at public support for the Democrat position. Were I a mediator in this conflict I’d send the parties home after five minutes of listening to talk about temper tantrums, disparaging references to the Wall, and the hordes at our southern gates, with a gag order and instructions to bring something of consequence to the table.

From considerable experience with state and national legislators, I know that a response to these remarks would be that I am simply not equipped to judge such actions, too naïve to understand the climate of negotiations at that level. Perhaps, but I feel that I have a good understanding of human interaction and how it influences behavior in and around negotiations.

Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) appeared on cable news earlier this week, urging parties in the Wall conflict to spend their efforts on finding ideas to end their dispute rather than publicly goading each other (not his words but you get the idea). I couldn’t agree more. Neither party has shown good faith in trying to end a conflict that has brought government closure and stopped payment of salaries for some 800,000 federal workers. The trickle down in their communities will also be harmful, and all because elected officials are playing at politics instead of doing their job: governing.

Somebody find me a bandage!

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