Tag Archives: U.S. Politics

Movies for the Classroom: 100 Free Movies Online from OpenCulture.com

Today I wanted to wish all 5th graders in New York State the best of luck on their state social studies tests.  I think the test this year was pretty good.  If you had issues with the test with your classroom, let me know.

I was drawn to a posting on OpenCulture that had 100 free movies online, many of them true classics.  I decided to embed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) as an example.  I know, its hackneyed, hokey and anything if not sentimental, but at least it conveys the ideals of what public service should be about.  It makes for a great opening or closing film about U.S. government.

Many of these films will work great in your classrooms.  If you have any suggestions for more free movies, please inform us at the Neighborhood.  We’re here to help.

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The Khaki-clad Elephant: The Dangerous Waters of Teaching Politics

The minute I said it, the gasp from the class was overwhelming.

Some stood open-mouthed.  A few were clutching their mouths in a wretch of fear.  Still another student hid under his desk, not willing to withstand another onslaught.

All because I said I was a Republican. 

I didn’t say who I voted for.  Nor did I indicate my own disagreements with the policies of the previous administration.  The admission was enough to send students into a state of shock, dismay, and, in some cases, outright anger—although they wouldn’t hit me, out of respect.  I think one kid made a crack about it being obvious because I was as “big as an elephant.”

I was now the khaki-clad, L.L. Bean shirted elephant in the room (no pun intended), and I had to get used to it.

The question of politics is a tricky one in situations like the south Bronx, an area that has been overwhelmingly Democratic for decades.  As students, my children have to know about government.  One cannot divorce today’s government from politics, which dovetails into a discussion of the two dominant political parties.  It’s important to understand the sometimes fluid ideologies of both parties, as well as the histories of their development.

Yet how can a person teach effectively and accurately about our political system when one side of the political spectrum is immediately painted as a monster?

This was especially true this past winter on Inauguration Day, a day we should all celebrate as the beginning of a new Presidential administration.  This inauguration was even more significant, as the first African-American chief executive was about to be sworn in.  The students were wild with excitement, as they should be.  This was a day where we could all stand proud and watch our process continue to work as it began 222 years ago.

The ceremony inside the auditorium, however, really bothered me.  Some of the teachers had the students chanting Barack Obama’s name, almost in a Nuremburg rhythm complete with drums and jackboots.  There were songs, speeches, poems from children praising the new President.  None of this was particularly bad—how can an 8 year old think of foreign policy beyond “saving the world” and “make people happy.” 

Yet the prospect of hero worship, even if it’s somewhat deserved, was anathema to my sense of democratic fairness. 

You cannot have a hero without a villain—that’s the cardinal comic book rule.  Someone had to play the heavy (again, no pun intended).  After all, the heroes are defined by the villains they pursue, be they the Joker, Lex Luthor or Dick Cheney.  Luthor would’ve made a great CIA director.

On top of this was the tingling sense that these children were not getting a complete picture of American political reality.  We do, after all, have two political parties–with each party enjoying a sizeable electorate.  I wasn’t sure that my students were getting a fair representation of government.  As a child, I knew Ronald Reagan had faults–he couldn’t be right all the time, even if he could fill out a suit well.  As much as the liberal establishment cringes at the thought, Obama deserves the same scrutiny.

I had to provide some sort of sanity to the whole situation.  If this goes any further, there may be Obama youths walking around with multi-colored neckerchiefs.  Students may start roasting elephants in effigy.  Piles of Babar books could go up in flames.  Dumbo would be banned from the library.

After the celebrations, I was meeting with some of my older students: the same students that cringed in fear about my political affiliation.  To them, I represented everything Obama campaigned against: the war on terror, Iraq, big oil, Wall Street, the Patriot Act, all in one bald, chubby package (not unlike many leading Republicans.).

 It was then that I stiffened up and said the following:

“Guys, I’m really glad you’re excited about Obama becoming President.  You should be, and it was an important moment in our history.

 I just want to make sure that you’re realistic about what the President can and cannot do.  Remember that we learned that the President does NOT run this country—we do.  We elect a Congress and an executive to write and administer laws.  They work together, so no one person can do what they want.

Let me be clear.  You know I’m a Republican, and you may also know that I did not vote for Barack Obama…”

(another gasp from the students)

“I felt that my ideas were better represented by Senator McCain.  That does not mean, however, that Mr. Obama deserves less of my respect.  Even if I did not vote for him, he is the President of the United States.  He holds the highest office in our country, and I respect whoever is elected to that office.  Right now, that person is Barack Obama.  Who knows who it will be in four or eight years.   No matter who it is, they deserve our respect.

This leads me to my last point.  Remember that Barack Obama is a man like anyone else.  He will make mistakes—even George Washington made some.  So did Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.  Don’t expect him to make miracles.  There were 42 men who were President before Obama, and there will be many more after him, God willing.  We may even see a woman in the White House. 

The people in our government come and go.  It’s the Constitution, our plan, our engine of government that lives forever.  It was this plan that made us a great nation, and will continue to make us a great nation.  There have been good and bad people in our government, but the system they served still survives.  That’s what’s most important.”

I thought I’d be crucified at this point–or lynched, at the very least.

Instead, most of the students nodded in agreement.  Many understood how Obama fit into the context of our system.  Still others were grateful that I was so honest in my opinions.

It was incredibly satisfying to see that students, even students in a highly partisan community, can open up to different points of view.  I felt ecstatic, as if I had slain the Democratic PR machine with my use of doctrinaire constitutional policy. 

All I really did was deflate the Obama balloon and bring it that much closer to Earth. 

Flash forward to a few weeks ago.  I opened my unit on government with a new set of students.  We had discussed the heated debate over health care reform, and one of the students asked:

“I heard from an older kid that you were Republican, is that true?”

I nodded.

“Does that mean you’re one of those weirdo white people that yell and scream at one of those meetings?”

Nope.  I’m too busy correcting your terrible essays for that nonsense.

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Obama of Tammany Hall: Presidential Meddling in State Politics

William M. Boss Tweed, Boss of Tammany Hall 1858-1871

William M. "Boss" Tweed, Boss of Tammany Hall 1858-1871

“He that blows the coals in quarrels that he has nothing to do with, has no right to complain if the sparks fly in his face.” – Benjamin Franklin

We hate to admit it, but local politics still carries the cigar odors and whiskey stains of generations past.

In 1868, the Democratic National Convention was held in the New York Democratic Party’s extravagant new building on 14th Street—Tammany Hall.  Tammany Hall was also the name of a fraternal society and political machine that dominated Democratic politics in New York City from the early 1800s to the 1960s.  The Hall itself was built with ill-gotten gains from extorting contracts to build the city’s new courthouse—the same place where New York’s Department of Education is housed. 

William Tweed, then boss of Tammany Hall, basically summoned the regional bosses to the Hall, ushered them into a room, and closed the door.   They left with their presidential candidate, Horatio Seymour, and that was that.  Such was the politics of the 19th Century—backroom deals, stuffing of pockets, and treacherous double-dealing.

Sometimes those old habits die hard. 

As much as our current President advocates bipartisanship and a return to principled government, the bare-knuckle brawls of the local ward heelers are never far from his mind.

Such was the case on Monday, when Barack Obama culminated weeks of machinations to pressure the widely unpopular governor of New York, David Paterson, from running in the 2010 gubernatorial election.  En route to a speech on the economy in Troy, New York, Obama gave Paterson a chilly reception at the local airport, whispering words in Dave’s ears that seemed to knock him senseless.

He then met with state Democratic leaders behind closed doors.  Paterson was not invited.  Yet what happened at the speech made me cringe.

At the speech at Troy Community College, Obama lavished praise on New York’s Attorney General—and potential 2010 candidate—Andrew Cuomo, saluting and giving praises to the presumptive candidate to the cheers of the honchos present.  It was almost like a coronation, and it happened in front of the crestfallen governor.

This display, I’m sorry to say, was petty, vulgar, tasteless and a stain on Obama’s high office.

President Obama crowning Cuomo yesterday.  Wouldnt the Boss be proud?

President Obama crowning Cuomo yesterday. Wouldn't the "Boss" be proud?

There is no doubt that the chief executive has often found itself embroiled in local politics, particularly with midterm elections around the corner.  Such was this case, where New York’s gubernatorial seat was up for grabs.  He may even need to ruffle a few feathers in the smoke-filled room to make sure his demands are met.

But insulting a sitting governor in public is an unforgivable sin and a shameful act.

No matter what the dispute, no matter how contentious the politics, the institutions of power demand respect.  I don’t agree with David Paterson.  I often don’t agree with Barack Obama.  Yet both are worthy of my respect because of the offices they hold.

David Paterson, like it or not, is the governor of the State of New York.  Andrew Cuomo is the Attorney General.   David outranks him.  Period.  End of discussion.  Paterson’s snub offends not only his person, but the state as a whole.  Woe to any other state of the Union that dares defy Obama’s plans.

Barack Obama’s actions are even more insulting given his reputation and vision for government.  In an age where transparency, legality and institutional order are necessary, Obama has reverted to the arbitrary, often brutal tactics of Chicago bosses and Tammany ward heelers. 

These are not the actions of a President of the United States.  These are the acts of William Tweed, Richard Croker, James Michael Curley, Tom Pendergast, Edwin Edwards, and Richard Daley—bosses whose actions forever haunt our democratic process.    

Regardless of your opinion on any of the principals in this affair, the office of the Presidency is not an ax used to decapitate dead weight in local elections.  It is a national bulwark that must transcend the guttural minutia of local politics. 

Mr. President, please leave the glad-handing and the ballot-stuffing to the ward bosses.  You’re too important to be mixed up in this mess.

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