Monthly Archives: February 2011

Videos for the Classroom: The original 1939 “King’s Speech”

The Neighborhood would love to give a hearty congratulations to Colin Firth, director Tom Hooper and the rest of the cast and crew of the 4-time Academy Award-winning The King’s Speech.  Both Firth and Geoffrey Rush give magesterial performances as George VI and Lionel Logue, respectively.  Well done!

I had made a serious point a few months ago to defend this film against its detractors, and I still stand by it.  Yet when it comes to the classroom, I really wish The King’s Speech wasn’t R-rated so it can be used with my students.  Hopefully, a classroom version can be available in the future.

While that happens, today we have a recording of the actual “King’s Speech”: the speech given by George VI over BBC Radio to his people across the Empire on September 3, 1939, as Britain declared war on Germany.  Those who saw the film can help students imagine what it was like for someone like George VI who struggled with his speech impairment, yet still needed to address his people at this awful hour.

It’s a great way to get students into the spirit of wartime Europe by listening to the king the way Britons would have listened back in World War II.

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The Ham-Fisted Problem in the Wisconsin Union Crisis

Protesters at Wisconsin State Capitol, from cnn.com

It’s one of many mantras here at the Neighborhood—in a democracy, style matters as much as (if not more than) substance.

We’ve seen it in Obama’s election. We’ve seen it in Michelle Rhee’s unceremonious exit from the DC public schools. We’re seeing it now as Republicans and Democrats are held to a stand-off in Wisconsin over cuts to public unions—and America, as always, is quick to take sides.

Last week, the GOP-dominated Wisconsin legislature began voting on budget measures that would’ve stripped public employee unions of most of their collective bargaining rights, packaging it as a cost-saving measure in response to the current economic condition. The Democratic minority, rather than vote a pyrrhic negative on a rubber-stamp vote, fled the state, leaving the legislature without a quorum.

The Republicans will not compromise. The Democrats, backed by labor unions, will not back down. The state capital of Madison is a war zone with protesters. Similar scenes are playing out in Indiana and maybe in Ohio.

Pundits have, obviously, opined at length on this. Right now, I’m not concerned about the rightward shift in the politics of the Middle West, as many have brought up. Nor am I looking at the declining power of unions as a base of support for the Democratic Party.

What bothers me is the horrible way this situation got to this point. Unfortunately, both sides are to blame.

Back in the flush times, the pre-2008 meltdown days, many state governments, in an effort to cozy up to their public sector unions, proposed contracts that included ludicrously lavish packages: zero-contribution options for pensions, health benefits for nearly nothing, and annuity funds at hilariously high rates. The unions, sensing this was the time to cash in, willfully signed on to these contracts, packaging them as a victory for the members.

Furthermore, in many states, pattern bargaining made the situation worse. Under pattern bargaining, the state’s contract negotiations are based on the precedent of the contracts presented to the other public unions in the state. So if the police and fire unions were rewarded handsomely, then the teachers and health workers want a similar piece of the pie—it’s only fair.

But what happens when the well runs dry?

The economic crisis of state government is a collective problem (no pun intended). It was caused by a severe shortsightedness on the part of governments both state and municipal, both political parties, unions, government contractors and the business sector.

The fundamental rule of the economic cycle is that the good times never last—and when it comes to economics, government is a slow learner.

That being said, the solution proposed by the Wisconsin legislature—backed by Tea Party-aligned GOP governor Scott Walker—is akin to hacking off a limb with an ax instead of a scalpel.

Hopefully, many states are negotiating with their state employees and unions (key word: NEGOTIATING) on creating contract solutions that solve the mistakes of the past. As a unit, unions need to take initiative in preparing their membership for the worst—and proposing austerity packages to the state that are both prudent and self-sustaining at the same time. States, furthermore, must be both blunt in their assessment of the situation to their workforce and open to solutions that can solve the problem with as little economic bloodshed as possible.

Wisconsin Republicans are not doing that. They are out to neuter public unions, once and for all…and it will bite them in the ass.

Regardless of their employer, workers have a right to organize and negotiate with their management. Many people, particularly Jonah Goldberg in a recent Los Angeles Times column, make a distinction between public- and private-sector unions. They see public employees as foregoing collective bargaining for job security—and that the unions themselves are merely a political ploy while the old-guard AFL-CIO unions are more worthy of praise.

Those who make this distinction have a short memory.

What Goldberg and his ilk seem to misunderstand is that public sector unions are not only federal and state employees. The thousands of American municipalities have had workers that fought for their rights well before the rise of government worker unions under the Kennedy administration. Teachers, for example, have fought for better wages and conditions in New York since the turn of the century. Same with police, fire fighters, etc. Many public unions even predate their more “worthy” private antecedents.

Secondly, if the privatization of public services comes to pass, as so many in the right feel must happen, guess what happens to those public unions? They become PRIVATE unions, just like the Teamsters, the electrical workers and so on. The unions will not go away.

Thus, strong-arming basic collective bargaining, even with a working majority, wins no brownie points. Like in economics, in politics the good times don’t last.

The Wisconsin legislature will probably get their vote (even though the courts will weigh in inevitably). The governor may even have his union-busting victory. Now what? How does that make Wisconsin look to other teachers, policemen or government workers who want to work there? Besides a brain drain, Wisconsin will probably suffer shortfalls in hiring, once the economic cycle picks up. Who would want to work in a state that treats them like cattle?

The solution to economic problems is seldom easy and never painless. The state has to be honest about its situation and open to all suggestions—including compromises. The unions have to be upfront with their membership and with management about the sacrifices that need to be made—including compromises. Lawmakers have to find that middle ground that democracy depends on—a middle ground that includes compromise.

If one side refuses to compromise (like in Wisconsin), then short-term victories can turn into long-term catastrophes.

And a final message for Governor Walker: if you insist on treating public employees like cattle to squeeze out a tax cut, go ahead… Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about the stampede that’s coming.

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This Day in History 2/22: Happy Birthday, George Washington!

A big birthday salute to our first President (under our current Constitution) George Washington, born on February 22, 1732 (according to the current Gregorian calendar) in Virginia.

Needless to say, almost every school boy and girl can recite Georgie’s accomplishments ad nauseum–well, at least my kids can:  Planter (and slaveowner), surveyer, inadvertantly began the first real “world war” in the French and Indian War, delegate to the Virginia House of Burgesses, commander of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention, and of course the first President under the document that came out of said convention.

Attached is a scene from the 1999 A&E film The Crossing, which deals with Washington’s Christmas victory at Trenton in 1776.  General Horatio Gates, a former British soldier, outlies his reservations about Washington’s plan–and Washington himself.  In his response, played by Jeff Daniels, you can note Washington’s stature, resolve, reckless nature and his fiery temper: something often forgotten about him.

It’s a great scene to use in the classroom to compare with the idealized Washington of paintings, prints, books and film.  Hope you enjoy the rest of Washington’s birthday.

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Movies for the Classroom: Crisis in Levittown, PA

I’ve been pretty silent about commemorating Black History Month this year, but I aim to correct it with this groundbreaking documentary.

In the years following World War II, millions of Americans moved to the suburbs, thanks to lavish grants to building contractors, cheap loans from the GI Bill, and a Fair Housing law that forced down property values in urban areas if minorities were living there.  The result was the all-white suburbs seen in TV sitcoms throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

These places were clean, manicured, happy–and almost exclusively white, even by design.

Though there was no law barring blacks from living in the suburbs, their entrance would often cause harrassment and unrest, mostly due to fears that minority ownership would decrease property values.  In fact, the Federal Housing Authority‘s manual explicitly redlined–or devalued–minority families in suburban areas until 1966.

In August, 1957, the Myers family, a middle-class Black family no different than other suburban families, moved into Levittown, Pennsylvania, a suburban planned development located outside Philadelphia.  Levitt and Sons designed the first Levittown on Long Island in 1952: the Pennsylvania project would be the second of many.  They were designed with an unwritten proviso that it would remain completely white.

The Myers would endure harassment, threats, snubs and worse, simply due to fear and prejudice.  A similar pattern happened in “Levittowns” across America.  In 1963, it was Levittown, NY‘s turn to integrate, with the same painful results.

The film attached is the 1957 documentary about the Levittown affair, Crisis in Levittown, PA. It shows the citizens of Levittown in its showdown with their black neighbors–a showdown that required intervention by state authorities.  The Myers became a symbol of resistence in the civil rights movement–Daisy Parks was even hailed as the “Rosa Parks of the North.”

This film is a great way to show that the way “up” was often not open to many people, for reasons both official and unofficial.

 

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Watson Vs. The Champs on Jeopardy!

A partially revealed Jeopardy! Round board in ...

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As a former champion of the show, it’s kind of an obligation.

This week, go to your local ABC station to watch Jeopardy! as Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, two of the show’s greatest champions (Besides Mr. D, obviously) will square off against Watson, an IBM supercomputer that apparently has the recall and reflexes to outwit almost anyone.

I was asked last year to schedule a sparring match with Watson, as a former champion.  I never got the chance, and would still love to duke a few rounds with that behemoth from Armonk.  As for me, I’m rooting for Brad and Ken this week.

Apparently, tonight Brad and Watson came out tied for first…which I guess is a victory for us mortals.  I’m still not sure if Watson can handle the interviews after the first commercial break.

 

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What’s your Favorite Book for Presidents’ Week?

Seal of the President of the United States

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Like so many parts of American life, our holidays lend themselves to self-gratifying aggrandizement.

Presidents’ Week nee Presidents’ Day nee Washington‘s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday have taken a strange path through American education.  At first, the days were merely milestones to remember two of our most important Presidents.  Then, in some odd spirit of inclusiveness, the holidays were combined to form Presidents’ Day, thus including all Presidents–even James Buchanan, and that’s a stretch.

Today, the mere day just won’t do: retailers and car dealerships require a WEEK to find an excuse to dress two schmucks as Washington and Lincoln so they can hawk their crap while the kids are home on their winter break.

For teachers, the days leading up to Presidents’ Week inevitably involve books concerning our chief executives.  As a nifty way to share resources, The Neighborhood is now asking its readers to submit their favorite book for the holiday.  They can range from the tried and true childrens’ biographies of the past (Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire‘s incredible 1939 classic Abraham Lincoln comes to mind) to the modern tomes that deal more realistically with the office (Such as Judith St. George‘s So You Want to be President?).

Please leave your suggestions in the comment box.  I’d love to see the different resources our readers use and share them with fellow teachers.

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Secrets from the Confederate Constitution

The "Battle Flag of the Confederacy,"...

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So many bad ideas have festered south of the Mason-Dixon Line that we often overlook the good.

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a short list of the South’s contributions to American life: Slavery, secession, civil war, debutantes overcome by “the vapors”, segregation, racism, bigotry, Hee Haw, Colonel Sanders, the tractor pull, Jeff Foxworthy, mullets, Larry the Cable Guy, furniture on top of RVs, furniture anywhere outside the house, toilets as lawn ornaments, and the nifty little Confederate battle flag most kids simply think is a keen rooftop decal for a certain Dodge Charger on the Dukes of Hazzard.

Yet over at the New York Times’ online blog The Opinionator, John Miller of National Review noticed some rather interesting ideas in the constitution of the Confederate States of America.

In his contribution to the Disunion series on the Civil War, Miller mentions that, by and large, the Confederate constitution was a carbon copy of our own.  Yet he also notes two important “improvements” made by the Confederate founding fathers: the line-item veto and the 6-year presidential term.

The first is a power that Presidents have coveted for years.  According to the constitution, any bill brought to the President, especially the budget, has to be signed into law as it is.  It cannot be amended, or vetoed in part, by the executive–it’s a take-it-or-leave-it situation.  According to the Confederate Constitution, Article I, Section VII states that:

“The President may approve any appropriation and disapprove any other appropriation in the same bill. In such case he shall, in signing the bill, designate the appropriations disapproved; and shall return a copy of such appropriations, with his objections, to the House in which the bill shall have originated; and the same proceedings shall then be had as in case of other bills disapproved by the President.”

Its a pretty nifty gadget for old Jeff Davis to strike off all those pesky earmarks that get in the way of funding the inevitable Confederate defeat.

The second idea is one that, according to Miller, goes back to the original 1787 convention.  The Founding Fathers hemmed and hawed about the the power of the Presidency: some thought it should be limited further, others felt the honor should be for life.  The sons of Dixie managed to solve this situation with a one-term presidency of six years.  History shows that the second term of a two-term president is usually worse than the first: time, changing attitudes and midterm elections usually make the honeymoon period short.  The single term of longer duration allows the President more time to work, but not so much time as to drag on like a claim horse on the last race at Saratoga.

Miller does some pretty good work, and in perusing the Confederate Constitution myself (linked here) I found these other curiosities:

Article I, Section VIII, subsection 18: “Congress shall have the power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the Confederate States, or in any department or officer thereof.” – all that business about states’ rights, and they kept the Elastic Clause?  Its like leaving rat traps with no bait on them.

Article I, Section IX, subsection 1: “The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.” – Nice to know the slaveholding planters had a heart and kept the 1808 prohibition of the transatlantic slave trade in place.  A little too late for Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Uncle Tom and Kunta Kinte, don’t you think?

Article I, Section IX, subsection 10: “All bills appropriating money shall specify in Federal currency the exact amount of each appropriation and the purposes for which it is made…” - you know, if you want to be your own country, man up and use your own currency.  Don’t mooch off the greenback for fiscal solvency.  If you’re going to secede, then fucking SECEDE!

Article I, Section IX, subsections 11-19: Now here is an actual good idea.  Unlike the original Constitution, that needed to tack on a Bill of Rights after the fact as a bargaining chip, the Confederate Constitution folded them right into the original document.  Sure, it buries them somewhere where they can’t be found easily, but it also allowed future jurists to interpret them without sanctimonious drooling as if they were brought down from Sinai.

Article II, Section II, subsection 1: “The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the Confederate States, and of the militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the Confederate States…” - again, big talk for a country that claimed to respect states’ rights.  I’m sure the state governors were really pleased when Jeff Davis invoked this codicil.

Article IV, Section II, subsection 3: “No slave or other person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the Confederate States, under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs; or to whom such service or labor may be due.” - Well, you kind of half-expected this one.  This is the 1857 Dred Scott decision codified into constitutional law.  Slaves were property, and nothing was going to change that…except for half a million armed men in blue uniforms.

Article IV, Section III, subsection 3: “The Confederate States may acquire new territory…In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and  protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.” – again, this is your textbook explanation for the Civil War itself: the South wanted to expand slavery to the new territories in the West.

And finally we have Article VI, Section VI: “The powers not delegated to the Confederate States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people thereof.”

That 10th Amendment–the states’ rights one that segregationists and literal-minded judges loved so much.

What was funny was…well…Jeff Davis and the CSA were a tad confused as to who had the power.

Here’s a hint at who did–they wore blue coats.

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