Tag Archives: Government

Video for the Classroom: Electing a US President in Plain English

Happy New Year!

We just rang in 2012 and amazingly, the Iowa Caucuses are tonight, beginning another presidential election season. 

Eventually, someone will ask about that 18th century enigma, the Electoral College.  This nifty video from CommonCraft.com explains the process in a straightforward way, so as to avoid those uncomfortable questions…

such as “Why the fuck do we need an Electoral College anyway?”

That’s for another class.  Enjoy.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why we Celebrate the Fourth of July – The Declaration of Independence

Flag of the United States in the Moon Light 月光...

Image by Yang and Yun's Album via Flickr

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776.

A DECLARATION BY THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, IN GENERAL CONGRESS ASSEMBLED.

WHEN in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.

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—-That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the Present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.

HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.

HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

HE has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People; unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.

HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.

HE has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People.

HE has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.

HE has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

HE has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and Amount and Payment of their Salaries.

HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.

HE has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislature.

HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

FOR quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us:

FOR protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

FOR cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:

FOR imposing taxes on us without our Consent:

FOR depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:

FOR transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:

FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule in these Colonies:

FOR taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Powers to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.

HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.

HE is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.

HE has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

HE has excited domestic Insurrections among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.

IN every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

NOR have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our Connections and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.

WE, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of the divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Can iCivics.org make Politics Fun? A Website Review

Who would’ve thought political backstabbing, smear campaigns and pandering to the electorate would be so fun?

Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court Justice who gasped at last week’s abysmal results in the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card, has lately lent her name and expertise to a new venture designed to get young people more interested in government.

With iCivics.org, we may have found at least the beginnings of a winning formula.

Most of us learned about our government through one, or both, of two methods. The first involved a careful reading of our founding documents, followed by meticulous listing of the powers, checks, balances and responsibilities of each part of our government. The second almost always came in the form of “Schoolhouse Rock” episodes covering the aforementioned founding documents in a zippy soundtrack and crude 1970s animation.

The good news is that it gave a student a pretty good foundation of the structure of our government on paper. Unfortunately, it left out a whole bunch of factors that not only make our democracy fun, but also effective.

I’m pretty sure your teacher never mentioned anything about the K Street lobbyists that encircle the chambers of Congress like vultures on carrion.

How about the backroom deals and handshake contracts that often seal a bill’s fate?

Did he/she mention the ideological mambo that is electoral politics? You know, the quick sashay to the right/left in the primary, followed by the mad dash to the center for the general election?

What about the backstabbing and double-dealing within the President’s cabinet—and a First Lady’s often not-so-secret desire to fire them all?

Perhaps he/she mentioned the constant shifting mood of voters, the need to pander to differing constituencies that probably hate each other, the campaign ads designed not on issues but on making your opponent the spawn of Satan, and the life and death struggle of pollsters and their “representative samples”?

Yeah, never learned any of that in school, neither.

iCivics is designed to appeal to those students who have felt distant or left out of the process of governing. Through lessons, media and especially games, students can get a taste of the murky water that is the reality of American politics. The games are the main focus, as they help enforce lessons in the classroom in a fun way, often with a refreshing honesty.

One game I particularly enjoyed is Represent Me!, where you pretend to be a Congressman, selecting and voting on bills to become law. However, don’t think for a minute you can vote on principle and get away with it. In a refreshing sense of reality, there are meters for each of the different constituencies in your district, and you have to pander to enough of them to get re-elected. By the end, you’ve created your own campaign ad and you see if you get another term.

I voted my conscience, and I got booted. That’s pretty freaking real.

Other games include arguing before the Supreme Court, serving as the President for a term, even guiding immigrants through the citizenship process. iCivics has games that cover the whole gambit of political life in this country. Furthermore, as in the Congress game, they pull few punches when it comes to the less-than-noble realities of politics. They never go whole-hog on the real-deal of Washington, but it gives students an important glimpse into a process rarely covered in textbooks.

It would be nice if some of the games went further, into the seedy underbelly of party politics, primaries, lobbyists, budget battles, etc. Wouldn’t it be fun for kids to cut a backroom deal in the cloakroom before an important vote? Or maybe to court opposing PACs and advocacy groups in order to vote for certain laws that may not benefit your voters? Or even to do “opposition research” on your campaign rival—research that’ll show up on the nightly news and next week’s attack ads?

Many educators would be shocked that I would endorse such a frank discussion of our nation’s government. They would prefer to stay to checks and balances and “I’m Just a Bill” and let our students keep believing that our system works exactly the way it should.

In a different setting, this may work. It just doesn’t work with kids who are already knee-deep in the bullshit of government.

One huge assumption that I had to overcome with students is that they have an innate sense of acquiescence to authority. To a middle-class kid like me, the government and the Constitution was as holy as the Vatican. They were both made of marble, both have old people at the helm, and both have complicated rules and consequences. It wasn’t until my older years that the picture-perfect vision of our democracy was clouded by reality.

The populations I serve, as those of many other teachers, are under no such illusions.

Many already have a deep suspicion of law enforcement and government, and for good reason. They come from countries where authoritarian tyranny or criminal lawlessness abounds. They are in contact with government agencies and bureaucracies often on a daily basis, and not always in a positive way (from food stamps to the penitentiary).

They already know the hypocrisy of civic life. It does them no good to re-hash a paper structure that’s an illusion in their mind.

The only real way for students to believe in our system is to confront openly the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that we adults see as almost inherent in the system. iCivics, in an important first step, is attempting to come to grips with these realities, while also extolling those elements that make our system unique, special and effective.

Its important for students to see our system for what it is, even if it isn’t the idealized version we expect from the Founders or Mr. Smith heading to Washington.  To be fair, it probably never was that neat and clean anyway…and that’s the fun part.

Yes, civics and government can be fun. It just needs a healthy dose of reality to make it so.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 10/13: The Birth of the United States Navy

I don’t know what it is, but I always had a soft spot for the Navy.  They had the spiffiest uniforms–at least the officers, anyway.  Their ships went to exotic ports of call.  A US aircraft carrier could stop international incidents just by sticking itself in a foreign port.

Few recognize the naval contributions to medicine, particularly pathology.  Sailors are medical wonders, world experts at such subjects as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis (at least their transmission, of course).  Yeah, that went a little too far, but at least I didn’t go the “don’t ask, don’t tell” route.

And if you’re asking, no.  I will not put the lyrics to a certain Village People tune.

Today, on October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy, the forerunner of today’s United States Navy.  The original resolution is below:

“Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruize eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct.
That a Committee of three be appointed to prepare an estimate of the expence, and lay the same before the Congress, and to contract with proper persons to fit out the vessel.
Resolved, that another vessel be fitted out for the same purposes, and that the said committee report their opinion of a proper vessel, and also an estimate of the expence.”  — Resolution of the Continental Congress, October 13, 1775

The original provision called for construction of one or two ships.  A subsequent resolution upped the number to 13. 

It was an incredible case of wishful thinking.  The fledgling United States did not have that kind of dough, and its infant navy relied heavily on privateers: essentially pirates for hire who would attack British ships for their cargo and prize money. 

By the 1790s, the Navy would begin a more structured development, in that 4 large frigates would be constructed: The USS United States, the USS Constitution, the USS Constellation and the USS President.  Through the War of 1812, the young Navy with its four flagships would create among America’s first naval heroes, and establish a fighting reputation well in excess of its small size.

Attached is three filmstrips from the US Department of the Navy‘s series on naval history from the 1950’s.  Its done in that tried-and-true high school filmstrip style, which may put off some students.  At worst, do what I do: make fun of the hokeyness while highlighting the important information.

Have fun.  Anchors aweigh!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The AEI Report on High School Social Studies: Our Review of the Findings

For the past year, the Neighborhood has railed about the attack on social studies by those in the education establishment. 

Last week, a new report has data to back our claims—and its coming from an unlikely source.

Few people would peg the American Enterprise Institute as anti-establishment—unless that establishment was driving a hybrid, collecting welfare checks, having gay intercourse, aborting babies and growing funny crops in a hydroponics lab in the basement.  The conservative DC think-tank counts among its fellows Newt Gingrich, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Lynn Cheney: hardly a bunch that would rock the boat.

AEI’s education team, furthermore, is certainly no rabble-rousers, either.  It’s headed by Frederick Hess, who’s a good buddy of my favorite educational dictator, Michelle Rhee.  He also co-directs AEI’s Future of American Education Project, which involves Rhee and KIPP cofounder Michael Feinberg—what do they chant at the beginning of those meetings, Mike?

Yet amongst little fanfare, AEI’s Program on American Citizenship has recently released a report titled High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do. In it, researchers Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett studied high schools and teachers and reported essentially on the state of social studies in this country.  While their findings on content seem self-serving—especially in assessing attitudes towards American society and government—their view of social studies as a subject is spot on.

It is a disturbing picture, yet it gives credence to what we have been saying for years: social studies is suffering in America thanks to the NCLB establishment.

Farkas and Duffett studied a national random sample survey of 866 public high school social studies teachers, 245 Catholic and private school social studies teachers, and three focus groups.  Naysayers would point out that social studies teachers hardly constitute an unbiased data group on the subject.  Yet they are the ones most involved, most invested—and most attuned to the deficiencies in their subject area.

The strongest areas of the study are the findings about social studies writ large, about student learning, and standards of content knowledge.

In terms of the subject as a whole, the study backs up our claims.  45% of teachers say their school district treats socials studies as “an absolutely essential subject area.” This is opposed to 43% whose districts considered it unessential, or “important” at best.  45% claim their curriculum has been downgraded due directly to NCLB pressure, although 39% claim to be “holding their own”.  Even more disturbing, 70% of teachers say that social studies classes are of a lower priority due to the pressure of statewide math and language arts tests—even though 93% of teachers want social studies to be assessed in the same way.

Furthermore, these finding are not homogenous to all schools.  68% of private school social studies teachers feel that social studies is considered essential, as opposed to 45% of public school teachers.  Private school teachers also claim to have more control over the pace and content of their curriculum (86%), as well as a more nurturing school atmosphere for the subject.

(Wait a minute, aren’t private schools also subject to NCLB pressures?  What gives?)

The quality of teaching and learning is also of concern, according to the study.  Only 20% of teachers, and 36% of students, value the teaching of facts, dates and major events as an essential part of social studies instruction.  Only 56% of teachers can state that their students have carefully read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  64% value teaching the intricacies of the federal government, such as checks and balances, federalism, etc.  63% find knowledge of historical periods important.   Even though the current trend is toward understanding concepts and ideas in social studies, they are difficult to understand without the meat of facts, dates and events.

What’s more, we may not even be sure students are learning.  No more than 24% of teachers say they are “very confident” that their students will graduate knowing all they need to know about social studies to continue to higher education or the working world.

So on a macro scale, the Farkas and Duffett report paint a bleak picture of a subject under assault from an education establishment bent on testing progress, where teachers have lost focus of essential knowledge and students lack concrete understanding.

We knew this already.  The charts and numbers help our cause, though.

What doesn’t help is the study’s assessment of teacher attitudes and values, as well as the criteria for social studies knowledge.  The AEI education team bases knowledge of social studies on what they call the Twelve Concept s of Citizenship, which are:

  • To identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights
  • To have good work habits such as being timely, persistent, and hardworking
  • To embrace the responsibilities of citizenship such as voting and jury duty
  • To be tolerant of people and groups who are different from themselves
  • To understand concepts such as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances
  • To be knowledgeable about periods such as the American Founding, the Civil War, and the Cold War
  • To follow rules and be respectful of authority
  • To see themselves as global citizens living in an interconnected world
  • To understand economic principles such as supply and demand and the role of market incentives
  • To develop habits of community service such as volunteering and raising money for causes
  • To be activists who challenge the status quo of our political system and seek to remedy injustices
  • To know facts (e.g., location of the fifty states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor) (AEI Report, Appendix 2)

The problem, of course, is that this basket of items is both too broad and too narrow.  While knowing about the Bill of Rights is important, it could be folded into a larger standard about American citizenship and responsibility.   Some of these are so broad that they lack any meaning. To know facts and dates?  What facts and dates?   To be knowledgeable about different historical periods is okay, but you list three periods that are already broad without including the rest, which is just as important and also pretty hefty in it of itself.

Also, some of these tenets are just dripping with ideology.  Conservatives love law and order, we know that.  Most people, in fact, prefer a safe and secure society.  But there’s a better way to word such sentiments without sounding like a 50’s principal with a crew-cut and tortoise-shell glasses.  Good luck teaching inner-city kids, or any adolescents for that matter, to “follow rules and be respectful of authority.”  My kids would likely hurl you out the window.

The same ideological bent pervades the questions about teacher attitudes and values.  One finding was that 83% of teachers believe that the United States is a “unique country that stands for something special in the world.” 76% say that high school should impart respect for military service, and 82% think it is important for students to “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.”

These numbers, by the way, align almost perfectly to the attitudes of ordinary Americans.  Glad to know teachers are normal, loyal patriots and not the bomb-throwing, lazy Bolsheviks that are depicted by some members of (gasp!) AEI itself.

None of the values studied are particularly galling, at least to me.  Our servicemen and women should be respected, and few would argue that teaching American history must include diverse points of view.  I’m even an advocate of American exceptionalism, to an extent.  Yet if you look at the questions about attitudes and values, one could surmise that the questions were crafted to elicit certain responses.  Like our students, the format and the content/context of the questions shape the data we receive from them.

So the AEI report isn’t perfect.  Maybe they got so wrapped up in progressive education that they forgot to be neo-cons.  Or maybe AEI head Arthur Brooks warned Farkas and Duffett that they better tack right if they know what’s good for them (just ask David Frum).

Regardless of the ideological bent, the report still has value as a window on the sorry state of social studies in this country.  Amongst America’s public schools, social studies is being downgraded more and more, thrown into the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods of scan-tron sheets and number 2 pencils.  Students are lacking even the basic underpinnings of our history and government, even as they leave high school eligible to vote—a frightening prospect indeed.

Which leads me to an essential question, in fact the essential question of the study: “What are teachers trying to teach our youth about citizenship and what it means to be an American?”

My answer: Whatever fits into the pitiful 45-minute block in between assessments and test prep.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Devil and Jeff Spicoli: A Response to Sean Penn and Hugo Chavez

Mr. Hand: Am I hallucinating here? Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?
Jeff Spicoli: Learning about Cuba, and having some food.    – from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Sean and Hugo: It's like the blind and dumb leading the blind and dumb, only with guns and petroleum.

Like his stoner counterpart, Sean Penn has been spending time learning about other countries, often with food involved. 

Not only is he learning about Cuba, but also Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, Bolivia…

The problem is that Sean’s been paying a little too much attention to his Marxist hosts, and thus spreading a deciding one-sided view of these socialist “paradises”.  He is actually making some more gullible folks think that these places are actually “better” than us.  Better than the United States that raised him, gave him a film career and allowed him to speak his mind in between his insufferably self-serving film roles. 

Nowhere is Sean more deluded than in the bailiwick of his friend Hugo Chavez, Venezuela.

Unlike most socialist shitholes, I have a visceral connection with Venezuela.  In the 1950s and 1960s, a slew of European immigrants, largely from Spain and Italy, came to Venezuela to work on their burgeoning public works projects.  Many Italians from all over the country left postwar Europe for rosier opportunities in Latin America.

Some of these Italians included my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins and my father, who spent six years in Caracas before emigrating to the US.

The best recurring themes from my kin are the days when Venezuela was—gasp—not a shithole.  To Italian immigrants, Venezuela was a promised land with perfect weather and endless job opportunities thanks to a government that welcomed outsiders.  It made sense: the name of the place means “little Venice”, after all—too bad the only things the two places have in common today are a fetid stench and a constant sinking feeling.

So my view of Venezuela’s situation is decidedly cloudy.  I still have family there, and the situation there worries me on a personal level that could obscure my judgment.

 That doesn’t mean, however, that Sean Penn isn’t full of shit.

This week, Sean appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO and discussed his efforts in Haiti (Very commendable).  Inevitably, the subject turned to Hugo Chavez and media coverage of his regime (not so commendable).  In essence, Sean wants the media to provide more favorable coverage to this balloon head, and to jail any reporter who says otherwise.

How un-democratic. 

It’s time for me to be the Mr. Hand that finally straightens out Jeff Spicoli.  Sean made three points that are particularly irritating considering his subject matter.  Let’s tear them apart one by one.

Lie # 1: Chavez should not be called a “dictator.”

The first, and arguably the most bogus, is the whining about the media continually calling Chavez a “dictator.”  The dictionary defines a dictator as “a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.” 

Chavez, a former coup plotter, was elected president in 1998.  He then ordered a massive revision of the constitution in 1999, granting him sweeping new powers and packing the legislature and courts with his supporters.  He suppresses free expression.  He rigs judicial procedures against political opponents.  His favorites control the armed forces.  His political apparatus resembles a totalitarian surveillance regime that is slowly creating a police state.

Sean, if that’s not a dictator, I don’t know what is.  If you don’t like the term, here are a few that you may like:

Chancellor, First Consul, Princeps, Chairman, Prime Minister, General Secretary, or Generalissimo

These titles were worn proudly by such democratic luminaries as Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Caesar Augustus, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin and Francisco Franco.  All of them dictators, almost all of them rotting in a dank corner of hell.  Pretty much all of them would re-assess their role as being truly a dictator, if given the opportunity.  Hitler may be reluctant, but Joe Stalin would straighten him out.

Don’t believe me?  Human Rights Watch, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, stated in their country report on Venezuela in January that

“President Hugo Chávez and his supporters have effectively neutralized the independence of Venezuela’s judiciary. In the absence of a judicial check on its actions, the Chávez government has systematically undermined journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and the ability of civil society groups to promote human rights.”

He even uses the guise of democracy to exercise his dictatorial control.  Many left-wing pundits laud a certain aspect of the regime as the epitome of participatory democracy—the “Bolivarian circles”, and later the “Bolivarian Missions.”  The regime would have you believe that these circles are community groups coordinated to solve common problems.  The missions, furthermore, are outreach organizations to other areas of Venezuelan life.

Don’t be fooled.  I’ve seen these “circles” and missions before.  They are very effective in identifying and reporting on political opponents, much like the block captains and revolutionary committees in Cuba. 

One mission, the Mission Miranda, is particularly disturbing.  It is a civilian militia trained to defend the country in an emergency.  More likely, he’s arming his poor, deluded supporters into being cannon fodder in case the “inevitable” US-backed right-wing military coup was to take place.

Lie # 2: elections in Venezuela are “free and fair.”

Sean stated on Monday that Chavez was elected in the freest election in the hemisphere.  On the surface, he seems to be right.  In the elections between 2002 and 2009, political opponents were able to field candidates and campaign.  A lively debate ensued.  Outside monitors were in place to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. 

Yet Sean, in his naïveté, refuses to acknowledge that old Hugo would subtly stack the deck in his favor—and often not so subtly.

The 2002 and 2006 presidential elections, the 2005 legislative contests, and the 2009 referenda on constitutional amendments were all deemed “free and fair” by various international groups, including the Carter Center.  Yet each had widespread allegations of vote tampering, harassment of opponents, oppressive and biased media coverage, constitutional arm-twisting, and outright fraud.

The best example of this is the 2005 legislative election, in which seats for Chavez’ rubber stamp national assembly were contested.

After the 2002 elections, an attempted coup briefly deposed Chavez.  He quickly regained power and exerted even harsher pressure on opposition candidates than before.  Due to this more repressive climate, as well as tactics by the national election board to tamper with voting machines and disqualify candidates on trumped-up charges, the majority of the opposition boycotted the 2005 elections in protest.

The result was a “free and fair” election with just 25% turnout.  With the consent of a fraction of the Venezuelan people, with political opponents boycotting the proceedings, Chavez’s cronies gained 116 of the 167 seats in the legislature—enough to change the constitution at will.

Would we allow this in any other setting?  Would Duke automatically win a national championship if Kentucky forfeited in protest because of biased ACC officials?  Would the Red Sox simply be given a World Series ring because other teams refuse to play in a hopelessly biased Fenway Park? 

The election itself may have been conducted correctly—orderly lines, few machine mishaps, a transparent tabulation system.  Yet the circumstances behind that election show that many Venezuelans had no illusions that this system was either free or fair. 

But what about 2007, you may ask?  The 2007 referendum defeat that would have given Chavez unlimited terms of office and even more powers?  Let’s just say Hugo wasn’t going to overreach twice.

What few people realize is that Chavez got those term limits lifted, albeit quietly, in February 2009, in a referendum that many Venezuelans claim violated the very constitution Chavez forced down their throats ten years earlier. 

Yeah, Chavez really loves to play by the rules.  You have to admire a guy that is so hungry for power, he’s willing to break the same rigged rules he put in place before.

Lie # 3: Opponents of Chavez are content with oppression of the poor

Finally, Sean seems to think that Chavez is something of a zero-sum argument.  If you don’t support him, then you don’t support the poor, and you’re some kind of capitalist monster.  I would prefer not to be lumped with Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, thank you.

Let’s be fair.  Something had to be done about the poverty in Venezuela, and numerous administrations since the 1920s have done little, if anything, to provide even a modicum of hope in their desperate lives.  Chavez, at least on paper, is an advocate for Venezuela’s underclass and counts on them as a base of support—one that has turned out in droves for him at the polls.

Now let’s see what he delivered.  There have been, I’ll admit, modest improvements in the quality of life of some poor Venezuelans: NOT all, but some.  Yet the cost of this “revolution” is disastrous.

Venezuela’s crime rate is at its highest point in its history.  The gap between rich and poor, rather than shrinking, is now wider than ever.  Nationalization measures have wrecked havoc in all major industries—even PDVSA, the state oil monopoly, which dared to defy Chavez a few years back with a threat of a strike.  2010 will be the second year in a row in which the Venezuelan economy has contracted.  Its once-vaunted infrastructure is crumbling to ruins, with rolling blackouts and abandoned roadways.  What little revenue exists is placed in pet projects, corrupt politicians, and ill-advised “relief” programs that the country cannot afford.

He’s been in power since 1998.  That’s twelve years.  We don’t give our presidents 100 days to fix things, and he’s been given three of our presidential terms.  Don’t you think the poor should be fed up with this?

Yet why don’t the poor rise up to throw out Chavez?  It’s probably because the opposition has their thumb up their butts, too.  The official opposition is a loose conglomeration of about a dozen parties, mostly the groups that used to run the show before 1998.  Not only is their opposition fractured, their message is one not even conservatives in the US want to hear: a return to the “good old days” of pre-1998. 

The one thing that Chavez did that should be acknowledged is to bring the plight of Venezuela’s poor into sharp focus.  Whoever succeeds him, whether they are from the left or right, must take their situation as part of the agenda, not shunt it aside as in generations past.

So Sean, you have every right to say what you say.  That’s the beauty of America.  It’s also something you can’t do at your buddy’s country.  Yet I also have the right to respond you your inane nonsence.

Therefore, my response to you is this: you may be right that Chavez is an advocate of the poor, but that does not mean their “liberation” comes at all costs. 

If you were dictator of the good ole’ U S of A, Sean, would you be willing to sacrifice our Constitution, our basic civil rights, our infrastructure, our financial base, our military preparedness, our popular culture, YOUR lavish lifestyle, the lifestyle of your friends, artistic and intellectual freedom, and our standing in the world—simply to make it look like you care for the little guy?

Are you willing to give up your mansions, press junkets, interviews, signing fees, bloated contracts, agents, managers and publicists for the poor and destitute?

I didn’t think so.

Class dismissed, Mr. Spicoli.

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Teaching the Bill of Rights to those who Shouldn’t Use them Yet

ONE DAY LEFT FOR “HISTORY’S GREATEST ASSHOLE” CONTEST!  DON’T BE LATE!

Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal. He loved his Fifth Amendment

The Founding Fathers never counted on kids who know too much for their own good.

My students, in their urban-battleground existence in the Bronx, have seen enough bad situations to turn your Nantucket Reds a deep brown.   As much as they don’t want to admit it, their childhood has been accelerated.  They think grown-up thoughts, grown-up ideas, even grown-up vocabulary (especially what you can’t say in school.)

In spite of this, they are still children.  Still the ward of their parents. 

Now try to explain the Bill of Rights to them.  It’s as if you’re dangling the keys to a Porsche, yet you keep snatching it away until the drivers’ test.

The United States Bill of Rights, written in 1789 and ratified in 1791, outline the basic freedoms and rights enjoyed by all Americans.  It takes its rightful place among the faded parchment of our lore: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The Bill of Rights is also the most controversial of the three crinkly papers in the National Archives.  The exact meaning and extent of these rights is still hotly debated.  Conservatives want to go over the thing with White-Out and a Sharpie.  Liberals want to tack on another ream of paper covering everything from environmental awareness to Hacky-Sack regulations. 

Yet whatever your persuasion, one thing is clear: this is not kid stuff.  The Bill of Rights was meant for adults.

Many of your high-minded, Kum-Ba-Yah teachers of the granola type forget this mantra, with disastrous results.  After 30 minutes of finally getting a semblance of quiet from his little hellions, Mr. Patchouli diagrams how the Bill of Rights protects the freedom of everyone–even the students.  “That’s right, boys and girls, you have the right to say what you want, do what you want, read and write what you want…”

Think he’s getting his book reports on time anymore?  That science fair project ever get done?  How about the assessments he needs to perform his “data-driven instruction”? 

By January, this class has gone completely unhinged.  And all of them utter the same thing: “I’m allowed to!  It’s in the F***ing Bill of Rights!”

Many liberal-minded teachers are, unfortunately, like Mr. Patchouli.  They’re not bad people, and I’m sure they mean well.  Their problem is their audience–a pack of self-absorbed, out-of-control, feisty, moody, bored, defiant snot factories.   This is not the informed citizenry that Madison and Jefferson envisioned.  Yet these teachers treat them like adults, forgetting to be honest with them about their status.

So for those who must teach about American freedoms to children, here’s a step-by-step guide. 

AMENDMENT 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

This one is simple.  Make sure you stress two important caveats:

(1) You have all of these rights, but you can’t hurt anybody or cause anybody to get hurt.  (Conservatives can include caveats about Communism, terrorism, atheism, hippies, etc.  Liberals can include caveats about neo-Nazis, racists, Klansmen, fascism, capitalism, anyone remotely resembling Barack Obama, etc.)

(2) You’re a kid.  In school, at home, in life, you’re the property of adults until you’re 18.  You don’t have these rights yet.  Deal with it.

AMENDMENT 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

This one should be a no-brainer, just be careful of your students.  “Well-Regulated” is key: to legally own a gun, you have to abide by the gun ownership laws of your state.  The gun Ramon got “from his friend” who “just got out” probably doesn’t count.  Finally, for God’s sake, don’t mention Texas.

AMENDMENT 3: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

This antique of the Revolutionary War served a purpose.  Stress the bad things the British did to houses, money, furniture and goods when discussing the quartering situation to younger students.  In high school, mention what the redcoats did to women–that’ll perk up the back row.

AMENDMENT 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendments 4, 5, 6 and 8 are often grouped together.  I call them the “Law and Order/CSI/NCIS Amendments” since my kids probably know all these rights from these television programs, if not from their own experience.  Sit back and enjoy when your tough boy does his best Eliot Stabler impression and mimicks “tuning up” a suspect.

As for Amendment 4, this is when personal stories arise of families dealing with law enforcement.  If they’re guilty as sin, don’t tell it to the kid’s face.  Besides, he may get that gun he bought from Ramon and train its business end on you.

AMENDMENT 5: No person shall be held to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Few amendments have such legendary status as the fifth.  It’s chock full of protections for the accused, as well as the old eminent domain clause (to be avoided if in the Bronx, as the Cross-Bronx Expressway can be a touchy subject).  Just make sure they know that double jeopardy has nothing to do with the game show.  The “Right to Remain Silent” comes from this amendment. 

Finally, include a funny anecdote about “taking the fifth”, such as Las Vegas gambling kingpin Lefty Rosenthal invoking his rights 37 times to a Congressional subcommittee, thus earning his nickname.  Administrators love when teachers use organized crime: the RICO charts help kids with their organizational skills.

AMENDMENT 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

Kids may get the impression that this is how all criminal trials are conducted.  Well, “Assistance of Counsel for his defense” does not mean GOOD assistance of counsel.  Again, as before, try to avoid personal stories with Amendment 6.  Last thing you need was a fistfight over why a cousin got a 10-year bit due to a dumbass public defender screwing up their case.

 AMENDMENT 7: In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

This is why the Enron people, the Adelphia folks and Bernie Madoff could not go to Judge Judy–to our chagrin.

AMENDMENT 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

This is why we don’t have public flogging, disembowelment, breaking at the wheel, the stocks, the pillory, crucifixion, public beheadings, or body parts on pikes–don’t you just love the old days?

AMENDMENT 9: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

This is the “dumbass” amendment.  Opponents of the Bill of Rights thought that such a bill was nonsense because it would be impossible to list all the rights a person had.  What about slapping your little sister?  How about dressing in your mother’s nightgown on the street?  When a fat kid takes your Twinkie, do you have the right to belt him in his chubby kisser?

Obviously, you have other rights.  These aren’t all of the rights, and Amendment 9 takes care of that.  Now shut up and finish your long division, you little pissant!

AMENDMENT 10: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This is the one that caused a lot of trouble.  Southern rednecks thought this amendment gave them a green light to put on bedsheets and go buck-wild on blacks.  Some states thought it gave them carte-blanche to insert a prayer into public schools.  The fat kid invoked the Tenth as reason enough to take your Twinkie.

Legislation has taken a lot of the loopholes out of the Tenth, so much of the damage has been undone.  Thankfully.

Let me know how you do with this.  If there’s any questions about this method, let me know.  I’ll send that fat kid with the Twinkie.  That’ll straighten those little bastards out.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized