Wednesday, November 26

So much. . .

. . . for which to be thankful. Though there have been a ton of things about which to write lately, I've not managed to be disciplined enough to write about them. Rather than do a hodge podge of topics, I thought I'd focus on the fact that we Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday.

This is an interesting holiday. Many of us have commented on the encroachment of holidays in the stores. Christmas things up before Halloween. We'll get to Christmas and, before you know it, the stores will be displaying merchandise for Valentine's Day. There's something wrong with capitalism working too hard to get the jump on everyone else, but that's a different blog post. Back to Thanksgiving.

There were some teachers who were doing some events focusing on myths of the so-called First Thanksgiving: the role of the Indians, the role of the Pilgrims, the importance of corn, etc. It is a deeply embedded story that seems to have to be retold in every school every year. There are, of course, variations on the debunking of such myths: the CNN version is geared towards what adults can tell kids and Mr. Shenkman's version at the History News Network focuses as much on the so-called Pilgrims as the event itself.

Regardless of the historical view of Thanksgiving, there are a few ceremonially-pardoned turkeys while thousands are prepared to be stuffed and put on the table for soon-to-be over-stuffed people. Families gather, joyfully and reluctantly. It is a joyous, raucous time for some. For others a time of tension and clinched teeth.

For many others the day is spent in a shelter where others spend a bit of extra time and perhaps a bit of extra money making sure that the homeless and otherwise needy have a semblance of a Thanksgiving feast.

Though there has often been controversy over the actuality of Thanksgiving (not really in the fall; not really in 1621; etc.), FDR caused a bit more controversy when he and his family celebrated Thanksgiving on November 23, 1939 rather than on November 30. The historical precedence for Thanksgiving being on the last Thursday in November was established by President Abraham Lincoln when he declared it thus in 1863. Though the holiday had no fixed date, presidents continued to follow the precedence when they issued their Thanksgiving Proclamation.

In 1939, however, FDR had a bit of an economic crisis on his hands. Statistics had shown that people did not begin their Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving. (That may be because most people prefer to celebrate their holidays in order and one at a time.) In 1933, there were five Thursdays in November so Thanksgiving fell on November 30, which meant there were fewer shopping days until Christmas. FDR ignored the pleas of businesses in 1933, but in 1939, once again there were five Thursdays in November so he declared that Thanksgiving would be on November 23.

Some business leaders were happy, but thousands of letters flowed into the White House. Schools were disrupted because of plans for Thanksgiving breaks, Thanksgiving plays, and, of course, football games. Small businesses were concerned about suffering loss of business because they counted on some of that last-minute shopping before Thanksgiving. Family plans were turned topsy turvy if states chose to defy the proclamation because people in different states might not have had the same holiday weekend.

Finally, on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law that declared that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November. It's fairly obvious that early on we lost the gist of Thanksgiving, with or without the historical myths.

Thanksgiving became the day before Black Friday: the official launch of the Christmas shopping season. This year, because of the current economic situation, businesses have been trying to entice people to begin that Christmas shopping a bit earlier. So this Thursday in November has become about school plays, eating too much, family gatherings (with or without tension), preemptory church service reminding us to be thankful, football, and girding ourselves for Christmas shopping. Bah! Humbug!

I intend to spend the day with a good friend. I may get up to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, or not. I'll read the paper, have some tea. I'll think about my friends, my colleagues, my students, my family. I may even make a few phone calls because that also seems to be compulsory on holidays. A friend of mine will have a meal together--she's asked me to reprise a salmon dish I made up a few weeks ago. And then maybe we'll go to a movie or watch football or take a walk.

I don't know if I'll be especially more thankful on this day than any other, though, because every day I am thankful for my friends, my colleagues, my family, my work. Every day I am thankful for the opportunities to learn, to be challenged. Every day I am thankful for the freedom I have in this country to speak my mind without fear, though perhaps with occasional harassment from those who disagree with me. Every day I am thankful for what God has given me. Every day I am thankful He shows me grace and mercy. Every day I am thankful that I have this day for which to be thankful.

Sunday, November 16

Tolerance fails T-shirt test

"Tolerance fails T-shirt test" is the title of a column written by John Kass for Thursday's Chicago Tribune. I'm not an avid reader of Kass because I often disagree with him or he annoys me, but I do appreciate his forthright view of things.

In this particular article, Kass related the experiment by Catherine Vogt, an 8th grader at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. The school is in Oak Park, IL, which is a very nice Chicago suburb. Anyway, as Kass tells it, Vogt had heard about Obama's message of inclusion and consulted with her history teacher before conducting her experiment prior to the election.

So one day she wore a T-shirt to school on which she had written the words "McCain Girl" in red. She was vilified. She was told she was stupid; there were death threats. She did not engage in conversation, she did not try to defend her position; she simply wanted to see how people would react. Students and teachers alike reacted badly. Only a few students pulled her aside to whisper they agreed with her, so there were a few closet McCain supporters who were afraid to express their opinions.

The next day she wore a T-shirt with "Obama Girl" written in blue. Catherine regained her senses, wasn't stupid anymore, teachers relaxed. Some people accused her a being a flip-flopper; that she couldn't be for one candidate one day and the other candidate the next. [Apparently it's not possible to change one's mind about anything ever and not be labeled a flip-flopper. We have the media to thank for that.]

Kass reports that they "asked the teacher, Norma Cassin-Pountney, whether it was ironic that Catherine would be subject to such intolerance from pro-Obama supporters in a community that prides itself on its liberal outlook." The teacher said they discussed that irony in class and she believes the 8th graders understood what they claimed to believe and how they behaved. Yes, well, call me cynical, but I can understand why they would say that in class but remain as clueless as they were when they responded to Catherine's T-shirt messages. There are adults who would know enough to say they understood but still, at heart, be unwilling to relinquish their hate, their disdain, or whatever label one might want to put on their ignorant behavior and attitude. But then you have to ask, and I mean you have to ask, where did they learn to think and behave that way? Were they following the majority in their school because we know what peer pressure can do? Or were they mimicking the behavior of their parents?

In Kass' follow-up article on Friday, he reported she had done a round of TV and radio interviews. Kass notes that Catherine learned a lot; that she, the child of a liberal Democratic mom and a conservative Republican dad, learned that kids most definitely learned their politics and their patterns of behavior from parents.

But with glory also comes some responsibility and consequences. In the aftermath of her experiment, kids and adults were nervous Catherine had named names, but her experiment seems to have been an objective one. No one but Catherine and the speaker knows who said what and I'm guessing they are just as concerned about the fact that Catherine knows and probably remembers what they said to her. There are certain phrases and tones that become seared in one's memory; all of us have experienced that. And then the parents got involved, being all outraged that she didn't follow some protocol but probably mostly being embarrassed that they were called out by the behavior of their children.

There is a lot to be learned from Catherine's experiments. Keep in mind she conducted her experiment before the election. In the aftermath of the election, the Tribune did report that Republicans who had supported McCain were being vilified for their stupidity or were being laughed at because they backed the loser. Grown-ups.

Ours is a culture obsessed with winning and losing. Only in America can we have successful TV shows with titles like "Biggest Loser" because the people who win have lost the most weight. But we watch competitions hoping our team will win and cheering against the losers. And when our team loses, we trash talk about the winners while the winners gloat over our defeat. So why are we surprised when that trash talk demeanor shows up in politics, as it has for generations. This is no big surprise.

By extension ours is also a culture that seems to be obsessed with being right or wrong. There are those who are already carping about how the Obama-gogues who are worshipping at the altar of the liberal and inclusive Democratic Party of Obama are not so liberal nor inclusive, but I can only imagine how very finetuned their scale of measurement might be.

If we take giant step away from politics, we'll see that this same behavior exists in far too many people about far too many issues and on both sides of the issue. Part of that seems to be because we don't want to engage in discussion or dialogue but an intervention because someone who disagrees with us must be wrong (or stupid).

Those 8th graders at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School probably really didn't know what they meant when they claimed Vogt was stupid for alleging to be a McCain girl. I'm not sure they would have been equipped to ask her why she supported McCain rather than resort so quickly to name-calling, but I wonder, too, if the parents of those or any other 8th graders would have been equipped or willing to discuss the issues rather than resort to name-calling.

Thursday, November 13

Bailout for bonuses??

So let me get this straight: major financial institutions that were in serious financial trouble because they made poor or downright bad financial decisions were able to con Congress into giving them 700 billion dollars of taxpayers' money. That $700 billion representing some kind of debt that we will have to manage over time because so-called financial wizards a) exercised extraordinarily bad judgment, b) demonstrated fiscal irresponsibility and stupidity, or c) are just plain greedy. Perhaps d) all of the above.

Now, Treasury Secretary Ted Paulson's Goldman Sach's buddies are planning to their ineffective, perhaps even criminally negligent employees bonuses. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, "bonuses for traders, bankers, and executives can be a multiple of their salaries, which range from about $80,000 to $600,000" (para 7). The bonuses are performance based. According to the same article and other sources, Goldman's profit has dropped 47% so far this year and the stock price has plummeted 67%. So these people are getting bonuses for what? In any other corporate environment, those folks would have been asked to pack up their personal belongings and clear out by the end of a business day. By my reckoning, and considering the writedowns, credit losses, and job cuts in most financial industry companies, performance was pretty shoddy. If anything, those people who got big bonuses last year and who still have jobs should just be grateful they aren't being asked to return funds and that they still have jobs.

Some companies, such as Citigroup and Wells Fargo, are suggested that bailout funds won't be used for bonuses. Like they can tell? How absurd is it that suggestion?

CBS News reports that the bailout package specified that the top five individuals cannot get a golden parachute; compensation is not limited for other employees.

Apparently spokespeople for these organizations are saying that compensation is important to keeping quality employees. Goldman Sach's CEO Lloyd Blankfein was quoted on November 11 as saying "The real core strategy of Goldman Sachs at its heart is to be able to recruit and retain the best people that we can get. Compensation plays an important role." In the CBS News report, Stephen Gandel, a senior writer for Money magazine, stated "Compensation should be down 70 percent but, because all this new money is coming from the government, the firms are now saying they can pay more, and so they're only going to cut bonuses by 40 percent."

Memo to companies: That new money is coming from the taxpayers, many of whom are in foreclosed properties, have lost their jobs, may lose their jobs, are struggling to make ends meet. You do not deserve any kind of bonus and certainly not with my money from my pocket.

Memo to Mr. Blankfein: You need to redefine what you mean by "quality" and "best" because clearly a whole bunch of folks at Goldman Sachs aren't very good at their jobs.

Wednesday, November 5

Wildly Conflicted

It's over. It's just begun. Overjoyed. Filled with trepidation. Hopeful. Hateful.

As I read some of the articles and blogs, and then the posted comments to the articles and blogs, I'm amazed by the degree of venom spewing from both sides. The Dems seem to hate the GOP and all it represents and the Republicans seem to think Obama and the his Democratic coterie will lead the country to socialism.

So the election is over but a new era has just begun. The United States has elected a biracial man for its president. That is historic and a new era. That the man is a relatively inexperienced former freshman Senator will inform his presidency as will the apparent fact that he is a thoughtful individual who works hard to build consensus, who seems calm under fire, and who seems to surround himself with individuals who are also thoughtful, intelligent, and not given to wild extremes. But rhetoric about leadership is not leadership. President-elect Obama did not give us much to review in terms of his political chops. After all, he barely served his freshman (as in first) term in the Senate.

Obama speaks of change and one of the first things I think he has to do is change the way he talks about and to Republicans. If he wants to lead by example, it will be up to him to stop the demonizing and villification of all things Republican. I've heard he plans to have a Republican on his Cabinet. Tokenism already? An attempt to extend the olive branch?

If the hateful diatribes are to begin to subside--and they will not completely because some people seem compelled to be hateful--Obama and his team cannot, must not gloat. And neither should a single Democrat. There must be no political pillaging by the victor. Instead, every single Democratic elected official--if we're talking about real change--will push hard for campaign and political reform by eliminating political action committees and lobbyists, but most importantly, they will treat their Republican colleagues and their Republican constituents with respect and dignity.

The Democrats absolutely must not engage in a single bit of unilateral action; they must work very hard to include the tattered remnants of the Republican party in all discussions. This is a political reparation, I think. How fitting it is to be led by a man of color.