Washington IS The Problem — But Not As Perry/Bachmann Claim

A week ago I was riding in a cab down Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C., with massive federal building after cliff-face edifice hulking on my right. Department of Transportation. Department of Agriculture. Federal Aviation Administration. Then my destination – Department of Health and Human Services, Hubert H. Humphrey building, where I had a communications client.

I could understand why people respond to the Bachmann/Perry complaint that
government is a bloated behemoth that feeds off the taxes grudgingly given up by good honest people making ten bucks an hour. Makes sense, superficially. You can see the size and feel the weight of government right before your eyes. From the air Washington is a little green space in the shape of a cross with beauty points of the Capitol, Mr. Lincoln, Citizen Jefferson, the White House and the founding General’s priapic monument all crowded in by thick hungry buildings full of bureaucrats.

But the real business of Washington is harder to see. Wealth and influence buying power. Lobbyists building bulwarks around the status quo. Money serving money. Influence preserving influence. And nowhere in this town, except in the labor union buildings, is the influence of good honest people making ten bucks an hour represented.

In the 1860s in this town you could easily see the troops and wagon tracks and wounded of sectional warfare. The tracks of class warfare are harder to see. They are indoors. In the charming boutique hotels and the sleek restaurants where a room and a meal cost an honest earner’s full week’s wages. They are tucked away in the manicured suburbs where people whose suits cost more than a soldier’s month’s pay lie in wait for any piece of legislation or regulation that might stop the siphoning of money from the middle class to the already rich. The class warfare Republicans warn about has, of course, been waged and won in this city by the rich and powerful since Ronald Reagan’s days. And except for a couple of Roosevelts, almost non-stop since the city’s founding.

The sin of this town is not bureaucracy that sucks the life out of average
citizens and striving business. The sin of this town is the perpetual
fortification of those who already have so much. The shock of it all is how
those with so much have motivated those with so little to build and maintain the earthworks that protect these best off. The shame is how the very rich and powerful are taking average taxpayers’ labor at an increasing discount and shrinking their share of the American dream.

In this teeming city Fagin is the powerful wealthy criminal picking the pockets of the workers while distracting them with passionate demonstrations crying out against gaysabortionsimmigrantssocialists. “Look, a family-freedom-hating Democrat,” the robber baron calls out at the Tea Party rally, his long claw fingers slipping the mark’s wallet out of his pocket.

I love this city. I was born here. Every time I’m here I am inspired by its
monuments to flawed humankind’s best yearnings.

What’s amazing is that somehow the framing vision of the intellectual artists
who started all this 230 years ago survives our superficial whims and passions, survives our irresponsible lazy lack of critical thinking and learning. This place has endured W’s ignorance and LBJ’s ego and Nixon’s paranoia and TR’s sense of empire and the smallness of Newt and the ineffectualness of everyone from Buchanan to Coolidge to Taft. We survive because occasionally we surprise the universe by sending here a tall thin man from Illinois, a rumpled mayor from Minneapolis. Occasionally we listen to the better angels of a patrician from Virginia, a class traitor from New York, a lieutenant from Hyannis, a preacher from Atlanta.

Washington is a monument to the people of this country, at our best, at our
worst. It is us. Fitting that the monument to Washington, the stubborn general who refused to let a fading dream die, has recently been shaken to its roots by an improbable earthquake. But it stands, still. O’er the land of the free, and the home of the too-easily gulled.

— Bruce Benidt
(Photo from Dan DC)

Baseball In The Dome

Manic joyous crowd screaming and leaping and jabbing fists in the air. The cheers echoing off the Dome. I’m yelling “That’s just not possible.”

Metrodome ’87 or ’91? No, Tropicana Field on Tampa Bay last night. Lisa and I saw a baseball game any fan would go coronary over (and anyone who despises the Yankees, as I do, felt an extra moral pitterpat).

I think it’s in the Magna Carta and the UN Charter that one shouldn’t leave a baseball game early. Half the fans did. We did not. OMG.

As the Rays ($41-million payroll) came back from 7-0 against the CorporateYankees ($161-million payroll) I hit the decibel meter on my iPhone (yes of course there’s an app) and the cheers rolled between 90 and 100 dB. My memory of the 1987 World Series in the Metrodome is that the sound meter we borrowed (I was a reporter and my then-wife Sharon and friend John took turns reading the meter in the left field stands at peak moments) from the MPCA neared 130 dB on Kent Hrbek’s home run — that’s about the sound of a 737 landing on a speeding freight train in your back yard. The Trop rocked last night, but my eardrums didn’t vibrate out of phase as if they’d shred like torn sails in a hurricane as they did in the Dome in ’87. Remember how that felt? Literally your eardrums were thrumming like the blade of grass some kids can put between their thumbs and whistle through.

Tropicana Field is smaller than the Metrodome — ranges from 38,000 to 45,000 capacity, depending on what seats are covered with tarps — to begin with and the crowd was only 30,000 last night at high tide. By the time there was something to cheer about the stands were thin as a Pawlenty rally. Too bad. What a game.

Indoor baseball. Gotta have it down here — it was 91 yesterday (sorry, Minneapolis friends) and a bit steamy. July outdoor games here would need coroners more than umpires. Tropicana field is dissed by fans and sportscasters around the country. But those folks forget what baseball was like in the Metrodome. Except for the thunderclap cheering, the Dome (the Hump, the Dump) was an awful baseball stadium. The Trop is not awful. It’s small. Intimate. Good sight lines. Built for baseball. In a weird way, it’s cozier than Target Field. Really. It’s a decent place to see baseball.

The team, of course, wants a new stadium. This one is stuck down on the St. Petersburg peninsula, a bit hard to get to. Fan support here has been lousy — is it the stadium? The Rays have been a wonderful baseball team for several years, but the ballpark is seldom even half full. Almost half the fans last night were (shudder) Yankee fans. The Yankees’ spring training home is here, and George Steinbrenner was revered here (he bought favor, as any felon would, by funding hospitals and kids’ causes here — this hustler whose philosophy “winning is everything, win at any cost, buy what you don’t have the character to grow” should be shunned not celebrated), so it makes sense the place would be infested with pin-stripe fans. Even, under Christians’ pressure, taking the word “Devil” out of the team’s original name “Devil Rays” (for the huge majestic Manta Rays that sail in the Gulf of Mexico) didn’t improve attendance.

It’s a nice little ballpark and a fine team. Home-town Tampa product Matt Joyce stuck a three-run homer in the Yankees’ eye Tuesday night, and Evan Longoria, the Ray’s marquee player, homered twice last night to dispatch the forces of evil, the game-winner barely clearing the lowest part of the fence in the left-field corner, 315 feet down the line. Dan Johnson, two outs, two strikes, bottom of the ninth, down one run, homered to the right-field corner (322 feet, the ball barely out, barely fair) to tie the game. As hundreds of us stood near the field after the game, Johnson being interviewed was told people in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, were dancing in the street — Minnesota boy.

Watch these Rays. September Rays baseball was heavenly. Last night was ridiculously fun. There could be more. Twins fans — these Rays play the way Minnesota has until this year. Adopt a Ray.

— Bruce Benidt

A Little Too Rowdy Of A Crowd

Political communicators work day and night to control everything about political events. The stagecraft. The music. The tempo. The supporting cast. The wardrobe. The make-up. The messaging. The media coverage.

But there is one thing that seems to be increasingly difficult for political handlers to control. The audience.

At this phase of the campaign cycle, the Republican frontrunners’ campaigns are doing their best to win partisan primary and caucus voters without spooking less partisan and zealous General Election voters watching TV coverage of events. It’s a tricky balancing act under any circumstances, and the audiences at Republicans events are making it much more difficult.

The boisterous zealots bellowing forth at nationally televised Republican events are diverting attention from the front-runners’ carefully focus group tested messaging, and instead making the candidates look bloodthirsty…

intolerant…

and heartless…

These candidates look extreme by association. These are not the warm and fuzzy images that the political handlers strive to create. Long after background flags are returned to the rental company, these Gladiator-esque reactions of the Republican crowd are what many of us remember about the moment.

A winning Republican formula in the past has been to run candidates with warm-feeling personalities to mask the harsh impact of the conservative policies they support. Reagan, Pawlenty, McCain and Romney are among those who played that game especially well. But the discordant chorus at Republican events is taking the sheen off the frontrunners’ carefully managed nice guy images.

This is not an insignificant issue for political communicators in the age of extreme political polarization. If I were a Republican spin savant, I’d be spending less time obsessing about the size of the candidates’ flag pin decal, and more time on crowd control.

Loveland

Incredibly Religious

I recently returned from a week at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Hiking the back trails of the great ancient gorge has been a nearly annual ritual for the past 39 years. There were five of us this year and a lot of nervous jokes about knee replacement surgery, the miracle of Flexeril, Vicodin drips, failing memory — “I don’t remember this thing being this deep … ” — and recollections of characters we’ve run into in years past. Like the rafting party nine or ten years ago led by, swear to God, some creationist preacher describing in ludicrous detail to his dozen or so wide-eyed client/chumps how the various layers of sediment, 5000 feet of them, were cut by the hand of the Lord Almighty in six short days, pretty much exactly as it says in the Bible.

The list of reasons for this hiking ritual is pretty long. But quietude is high up there. I like places where if you stop, calm your breathing and listen, the only sound is that of your own blood pulsing in your ears. The combination of that kind of tranquility and the long hours of exposure to blistering sun, jagged rock, flesh-ripping yucca and cactus gives the mind uninterrupted opportunities to mull … on the rampant, appalling bullshit up beyond the rim.

Prior to leaving, in fact in my bag on the plane to Las Vegas, was a copy of my nominee for the Post of the Year. Titled “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a Republican Operative Who Left the Cult”, it was written by Michael Lofgren a 30-year staffer for the Republican House and Senate Budget Committees. No fan of Democrats or Barack Obama, Lofgren’s view from inside the belly of the modern Republican beast — a creature vastly different and devolved than the one he joined up with three decades earlier — is vivid, spot-on and unsparing.

His indictment of what the Republican party has become will of course outrage every conservative wedded more to electioneering than caring if what the party is selling these days makes any sense, Social Contract-wise. But among Lofgren’s indictments of his party was this:

3. Give me that old-time religion. Pandering to fundamentalism is a full-time vocation in the GOP. Beginning in the 1970s, religious cranks ceased simply to be a minor public nuisance in this country and grew into the major element of the Republican rank and file. Pat Robertson’s strong showing in the 1988 Iowa Caucus signaled the gradual merger of politics and religion in the party. The results are all around us: if the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution versus creationism, scriptural inerrancy, the existence of angels and demons, and so forth, that result is due to the rise of the religious right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary or quaint beliefs. Also around us is a prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science; it is this group that defines “low-information voter” – or, perhaps, “misinformation voter.” …

It is my view that the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism (which is a subset of the decline of rational problem solving in America) may have been the key ingredient of the takeover of the Republican Party. For politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes – at least in the minds of followers – all three of the GOP’s main tenets.

Televangelists have long espoused the health-and-wealth/name-it-and-claim it gospel. If you are wealthy, it is a sign of God’s favor. If not, too bad! But don’t forget to tithe in any case. This rationale may explain why some economically downscale whites defend the prerogatives of billionaires. …

It is the apocalyptic frame of reference of fundamentalists, their belief in an imminent Armageddon, that psychologically conditions them to steer this country into conflict, not only on foreign fields (some evangelicals thought Saddam was the Antichrist and therefore a suitable target for cruise missiles), but also in the realm of domestic political controversy. It is hardly surprising that the most adamant proponent of the view that there was no debt ceiling problem was Michele Bachmann, the darling of the fundamentalist right. What does it matter, anyway, if the country defaults? – we shall presently abide in the bosom of the Lord.

The drive from Vegas to the North Rim of the Canyon requires passing through tiny, otherwise unremarkable Colorado City, Arizona, best known as Ground Zero for hyper-conservative religious Mormon pedophile/convict Warren Jeffs and his cult of uber-Mormon like believers. It’s a place where Old Tyme Religion has allowed a few ruthless alpha males to collect themselves a comely flock of child brides … under the banner of heaven, as Jon Krakauer put it in his book. (Being damned funny guys another ritual of ours requires our lone female hiking companion to get out and stroll about at the Merry Wives convenience store, just to see if she’s still got the magic to attract a suitor, wear a bonnet and submit to some good old fashion gender servitude.)

The cult of Colorado City is of course ridiculously medieval, yet little different from the credulous rafters soaking up the claptrap theo-geology lessons from their no doubt nicely remunerated float leader. But Warren Jeffs’ Colorado City is also only a couple of microns off the beam from the now normalized religiosity of Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and the whole evolution-denying, gay-intolerant, climate change scoffing modern GOP.

Not that mainstream religion offers any hope of tamping down this fear-borne nonsense.

Flash ahead to Neal Conan’s “Talk of America” show of last Thursday, with his guest panel of “Biblical scholars”. Submitted for our consideration as credible experts on religion, it produced instead a “Twilight Zone”-like spasm of dumbfoundedness. Here were a handful of America’s serious thinkers on religious matters arguing over the historical veracity of creation and original sin … you know, Adam and Eve and the talking snake. In fairness, one panelist was struggling to assert the compatibility of science and Biblical doctrine. But he was pretty well smothered by the “scholarly” view that faith — which could be your devout belief in a week of Creation, a stable of child brides or talking snakes — is every bit as valid, and in moral terms more valuable than science.

A concluding point was that to challenge the concept of original sin — which required Christ you see to die for our sins — is to challenge, in a mortal way, the bedrock foundations of Christianity. To which all I could say, as I drove along, was … “Are you fucking kidding me?” It’s a talking snake or bust? If Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam) can’t survive on the ethos inherent in The Golden Rule (or The Sermon on the Mount) it deserves to wither and die.

There are books worth of material within the convergence of religious superstition and politics, but at the moment only the modern Republican party has entered into an unconditional compact with a form of preposterously anachronistic, anti-intellectual religiosity. Democrats and liberals aren’t players in this game, and they may well be losers because of it.

You want religion? Let me tell you about the Milky Way over the Grand Canyon.

Dayton’s “Dog Doe”

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” That quote, falsely attributed to Harry Truman, may be on Governor Mark Dayton’s mind as the bachelor prepares to adopt his THIRD black German Shepherd.

Dayton is in the news today inviting Minnesotans to help name his adorable new pup. To give you a sense of the Governor’s naming tastes, the first two were named Mingo and Mesabi, and Dakota recently passed away.

Some of the early nominations for Dog Doe’s new name:

• From Republican Senate Majority Amy Koch: “Marx.”
• From DFL Chair Ken Martin: “Taxable.”
• From Democratic U.S. Senator Al Franken: “Smalley.”
• From accuracy challenged U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann: “Cat.”
• From Minnesota Democrats Exposed blog: “Dog of Satan.”
• From Former Governor Tim Pawlenty: “President Pawlenty.”
• From MN Independence Party Chairman Mark Jenkins: “None of the Above.”
• From GOP Chair Tony Sutton: “Target Practice.”
• From South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard: “Overtaxed.”
• From Governor’s Mansion neighbor: “ANOTHER?!”

Okay, surely you can do better. Nominations are open.

– Loveland

Grading Standardized Tests

Tests effective?
The news last week about Minnesota’s standardized reading scores reminded me how much I hate standardized tests. In my considered opinion, one-size-fits all standardized tests are the absolute worst tools I have seen for improving education.

Except for all the other options available to us.

Before explaining my Churchillian verdict on standardized tests, I should mention that I was a very poor standardized test taker back in the day. When I should have been answering questions, I tended to be thinking about why they asked the question…or why they used that particular wording…or what kind of deductive mind games they were trying to play…or what kind of test scores Charlie on Charlie’s Angels got in order to land that awesome job…or what is so special about #2 pencils for chrissake…or why the cute girl three rows over would never be interested in a guy like me, or why… And then when they announced there was one minute left before our life’s course would be charted by optical mark recognition equipment, I would guess “C” on the large portion of the test that I had not yet read.

Maybe that shows that I had an attention deficit disorder. Maybe it means I was analytical, creative, intellectually curious, hormonal, or moronic.

Psychoanalysis aside, this was not a winning strategy for me. It also wasn’t a winning strategy for the institutions who wanted an honest assessment of my likelihood of success. Because I turned out to be a “late bloomer,” someone who wasn’t predicted by the optical recognition scanner to succeed in academics or a white collar career, but did.

Given my personal experience, you would think that I’d want to ban standardized tests. I’m sorely tempted. But at the same time, I do think that K-12 schools need to be intentional and disciplined about teaching the foundational skills most of us need to succeed. I do want to keep kids away from teachers and schools who can’t or won’t teach those things. I do want to measure student performance in order to incent individual and institutional improvement, empower parents to vote with their feet, and target early help to kids who are falling behind.

And I can’t figure out how to achieve those things without standardized tests. Maybe those of you who got kickass standardized test scores can figure that out, but I can’t.
Continue reading “Grading Standardized Tests”