Business-as-usual or…?

“Build it and they will come” is the oft-misquoted meme from the classic movie Field of Dreams. And in the case of the proposal by CoreCivic, a private prison firm, to build and lease back to the State a 925-bed prison in Franklin County, this meme embodies the worst fears of the corrections reform movement.

Many Vermont leaders already oppose the idea, including former head of Corrections, Con Hogan, the Attorney General, the ACLU, NAACP, and Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. In the face of such headwinds, few believe the prison will ever be built.

Meanwhile, Vermont spends nearly double on corrections what it does supporting our five state colleges, two of which are struggling with declining admissions and rising costs.

We know prevention is always more cost efficient than remediation, so perhaps we could take some of the hundred and fifty-million dollar Corrections budget and, partnering with enlightened employers like Twincraft, Rhino and others, repurpose one of the two campuses to create a low-security, remedial education and employment training center for offenders who pose no threat to the community and fulfill the legislative intent to repatriate our prisoners currently serving in Pennsylvania.

We’ve criminalized the poverty that many of our austerity policies have nourished and we treat mental illness and addictions as crimes rather than the health crisis they are. We jail impulsive young people for stupid decisions rather than counselling them back into society even when prisons have long been understood to be universities for crime and drivers of recidivism, and we jail Black men at a higher per capita rate than any other state.

Nearly half our prisoners are either past their release dates or detainees awaiting trial. A focused diversion curriculum would offer a pathway back into society and the changing economy for newly released offenders as well as for young offenders that would meet them where they are.

In our current system, each male prisoner costs about fifty-thousand dollars annually and each woman, eighty-thousand, and that doesn’t count the social cost of caring for their six-thousand children, whereas the average state college tuition is a mere fifteen-thousand.

Given increased competition, skyrocketing student debt, and declining applications, it’s easy to imagine how we might put one of our existing state campuses to much more productive use.

“Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light”

The long-accepted stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As in grief, there are similar stages through which one must pass to acquire wisdom and learning.

As humans, we all acquire perceptual data through our senses. We only process this into information by aggregating and contextualizing it. Knowledge comes only when that information is tested against other sources of information and fairly assessed. We graduate to wisdom when we measure our acquired knowledge against our life experience and against the lives of others we learn about through reading or friendships.

If these paths eventually lead us to acceptance and wisdom about life’s complexities, might they also apply to the current political standoffs and the demise of political debate and compromise?

Perhaps there’s a similar pathway to civil discourse beginning with the core elements of learning: intellectual humility – that is knowing how little, in fact, we know – curiosity, the ability to listen respectfully and process, and, finally, the courage to speak.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand just how little I really know. As to curiosity, I believe children are born curious and, nourished properly, they remain so for life. The capacity to pay attention to others is natural in children raised in healthy families and communities, and the courage to speak an informed truth with kindness and respect becomes the endgame.

Have we lost this in America? I don’t believe we have. I see examples every day among friends, talking with strangers, and from responsible media organizations. But leaders must be held accountable for modelling civil discourse rather than debasing it in pursuit of their own self-serving agenda.

The most destructive weapon against civil discourse lies in a leader’s effort to generate irrational fear. All the great autocrats have done this – fear of minorities, immigrants, women, the poor, intellectuals, the mentally handicapped, the “other.” A fearful citizenry stops reasoning. Discourse turns to diatribe and that’s where courage comes in.

By way of example, without notice or comment, The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS) recently deleted its century-old introductory phrase… “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants…” and added, “protecting Americans” and “securing the homeland.” From whom? Refugees, asylum seekers, those seeking freedom and opportunity as our grandparents did?

To quote the poet Dylan Thomas, the time has come to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Last Communion of an Island Dog

I died today or yesterday of fleas and famine – sooner both,

but consciousness and hunger haunt my rest.

I fought life hard, bore countless pups, though none would know me now,

And ran tantivy with my gang, now mostly gone.

Today, I hop three-legged door-to-door, my fourth snapped by a motorbike when I was young, a mangled stilt I always wanted gone.

Like cleats my dry dugs wither in the sun.

I lean against a wall or splay on restaurant floors in hopes of table scraps, kind words and touch.

New fingers rub behind my ears, massage the cartilage below, and gently rub the wetness of my nose. My tongue lolls in the sand.

The words elude me, though I recognize their lilt.

A stale wafer used to wipe a plate is settled on my tongue that I might die in grace, as consciousness and hunger ebb.

Bill Schubart – March 2018, Las Galleras D.R.

Town Meeting Day is Upon Us

Soon, it’ll be March and Town Meeting will again be upon us. Our venerable system of local government – where it’s still practiced – calls townsfolk together to debate and make decisions of local and global import with a mix of comity and comedy. The characters and issues vary from town to town, but there are some regulars one can count on seeing and hearing from.

I’m especially fond of the harumphers, those with the ageing teenage-pout who glower at the moderator with their arms firmly crossed on an ample bosom or chest. When recognized, their pronouncements are usually terse and glacially clear, after which they settle back into their harrumph posture with a “go ahead and top that!” look in their eye.

Contrast the concise harumpher with the hortatory flatlander, who after rueful recognition by the town moderator, rises loaded for bear to address the assembled multitude, often with notes. The topic of their discursive oration rarely has much to do with the issues warned in the Notice of Town Meeting. They might ask how townsfolk propose to address the toxic impacts of gluten in our society or the trash accumulating on Mount Everest. Eventually the flow of their homily is interrupted by the moderator who thanks them for “their deep concern about such an important issue” and, to the relief of all, we move on to the next warned item.

Occasionally, we encounter the truly addled, demanding time to speak on their unique issue, the significance of which largely eludes the puzzled assemblage. “The sperm count among males in the Western Hemisphere is down by fifty percent and the reason, I read online, which no one wants to talk about, is feminism.”

“Not germane” says the moderator firmly, pounding his or her gavel on the nearest hard object. The moderator’s efforts to restore order only elicit further gales of laughter, and the prophet of doom usually retreats from the proceedings in a huff.

My favorite is the enterprising local who has a much cheaper solution for every planned town purchase, for example, the Fire Department’s request for a new half-million-dollar ladder truck in a community of two-story farm and village houses. “For several hunnerd dollars”, he suggests, “the town could buy some ’luminum ’xtension ladders, weld hooks on the side of the last quarter-million-dollar pumper truck we bought nine years back and are still paying off, and hang the new ladders off it. Ought-ta work jess fine.”

Or the local mechanic who rebels at the idea of the town spending four-times what his raised ranch cost in 1953 to buy a brand-new town dump truck for the road crew. “Chrimie, I could rebuild that engine with new lifters and valves for what I paid for my used ride-on lawn mower last spring. What chu thinkin’? Or ain’tcha?”

Still, our town meetings survive in the face of change, as they’re among the last opportunities for townsfolk to assemble, eat home-made brownies and cookies rich in gluten, drink cider, exchange news and views about the town and share their own hardships. It’s a place to think beyond the self, escape screens, and ward off the loneliness of our technical age.

Our American Arrogance

Recent federal policies are putting our international standing at risk.

Traditionally our moral standing as a world power lay in our persistent efforts to exemplify democracy, support international development, welcome strangers, and maintain a lead in technical, scientific, and environmental innovation – all while maintaining our financial and military hegemony in a fragile world.

The notion that we know better than our neighbors and have nothing to learn from them is little more than a form of national racism – an arrogance that denies the fundamentals of learning: curiosity, open-mindedness, and collaboration.

We are beset by internal problems like the cost, quality, and access to home ownership, health care and nutrition, education and a crumbling transportation infrastructure. We’re burdened by over-incarceration and the scourge of opiate addiction, even as we’re surrounded by nations quietly trying out and implementing promising solutions.

Take Norway for example. Recidivism there is 20%; here it’s 76%. They use restorative rather than punitive justice and are world leaders in safely returning offenders to society – while sadly, our justice department is not only creating new crimes, they’re stepping up prosecutions.

Finland has one of the best educational systems in the world, ranking near the top in the Program for International Student Assessment – or PISA – ratings, while we rank 36th. In Finland, teaching is one of the most respected and best remunerated professions. Time for play is integrated into the early grades and college is free. What can we learn from them?

In a recent assessment of world health care systems, the World Health Organization found that France provides the best overall health care in the world, spending 11.6% of GDP on health care. We spend closer to 20% of GDP for far less access and much poorer outcomes.

Portugal made addiction a medical issue, decriminalized all drugs and established accessible treatment centers. But here only 10% of addicts seeking treatment can find it. Portugal’s drug mortality rate is the lowest in Europe and 1/50th the death rate here. Yet Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced the Justice Department is going to prosecute marijuana crime aggressively in defiance of new state laws.

We have so very much to learn. Arrogance is a façade for ignorance and insecurity – serving only to isolate us and deny us access to the whole rest of the world, as our neighbors go about creative problem solving… without us.

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Paul Ryan: Patriotic American Women Should Breed More Workers & Consumers???

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has suggested that our economic recovery could be stoked by American women simply having more children.

According to the Center for Disease Control, or CDC, America’s fertility rate is at an historic low – partially due to choice and partially biological. Reuters has reported that scientists are alarmed by a precipitous decline in male sperm count – more than fifty percent in the U.S. and E.U. that they attribute to chemical exposure, pesticides, stress, and obesity.

But to me, Mr. Ryan’s formula for recovery – breed more workers and consumers – is rich in dark irony, especially since we don’t care for those we have. And if his goal is indeed for women to have more children, we’ll need to improve their chances of survival.

The U.S. ranks 36th among the 41 developed nations tracked, with nearly a third of our children living in poverty. Newsweek reports that 1300 kids a year die in gun violence. Americans between the ages of 15 and 19 are 82 times more likely to die from gun homicide than children the same age in more than a dozen other rich democracies, according to a new study. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports 1740 deaths from child abuse and four million child abuse referrals this year alone, while according to a new CDC report, we have a higher infant mortality rate than any of the other 27 wealthy countries in that survey.

Maternal mortality and morbidity are generally in decline around the world, but they’re rising steadily here, mainly due to inadequate medical access in rural areas, racial disparities, incomprehensible coverage systems, and women’s choices to delay childbirth.

Another recent study found U.S. students ranked 25th among 34 countries in math and science, and The Economist reports U.S. student loan debt exceeded $1.2 trillion in 2014, with more than 7 million student debtors in default.

If the new tax-cut package balloons the deficit by well over a trillion dollars as many predict, it may be necessary to raise taxes or cut the family-friendly and community-supportive programs that have been targeted for years – programs like CHIP, Medicaid, and Social Security.

And all of this is why I find Mr. Ryan’s effort to draft women into an economic recovery by urging them to breed more workers and consumers to be both hypocritical and completely out of touch with reality.

Would-be parents struggling to find jobs, adequate nutrition, daycare, affordable housing, accessible healthcare, and good schools probably are not sitting around discussing the number of children they want to bring into the world.

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Fawn In Headlights

You will never again be this alone or alive,
Near your mother lying dead in the breakdown lane,
And you in the travel lane, trying to stand on spindly legs,
A fawn among the speeding headlights, mystified.
How did you get here? who licked you clean?
Will you, too, be hit? If not, who’ll suckle you?
Will a highway crew or highway crows recycle you?
I cannot sleep for thinking of you.

– Bill Schubart
November 2017

Truth, Propaganda and Art

They say truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But this doesn’t mean certain truths aren’t verifiable. Much depends on the granularity and scope of a statement. “That’s a dandelion,” and “God exists,” are two assertions of truth with wildly differing levels of verifiability. And some truths are indeed relative. I find one of the miseries of age is my ability to effectively argue either side of an issue.

But the relativity of truth isn’t new. Propaganda dates back centuries, but today is amplified and weaponized by new media technologies. To the extent we can verify it, a shared understanding of what is true is vital to our democracy’s survival but, sadly, truth is losing sway among those who gorge on the all-you-can-eat buffet of politicized news sources.

So, I turn to the arts and humanities to nourish my understanding of issues that transcend fact-checking. Only in a broad reading of pre-revolutionary Russian literature did I come to understand the forces behind the Russian Revolution and the roots of its collapse. Picasso’s Guernica, Aaron Copeland’s Quiet City, Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, Robert Frost’s Mending Fence, and Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange’s photographs helped me understand as much about the world I live in as decades of reading and listening to the respected journals and broadcasts of record.

We know why Hitler burned books, why autocrats ban certain music in favor of military marches and nationalistic folk mythology. Is this the same reason we spend more in America on military marching bands than on the National Endowment for the Arts, why our president wants to zero-out the budgets of both national endowments and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or why he feels compelled to dismiss established and respected media sources as “fake news?”

The concept of absolute truth is elusive. We’re all blind to our implicit biases and to what we don’t know. But within us lies the ability to subject every “truth” we hear and read to critical scrutiny – from the granular scientific truths that support our understanding that we’re degrading our environment to the subtler truths we discover in the world of arts and letters.

We may prefer to pick and choose facts that support our self-referential view of the world, but unless we each pursue the broader more complicated truths we confront in our pantheon of great arts and letters – as the poet Yeats so elegantly stated – our center will not hold.

Sustaining Our Communities

In physics, centripetal forces propel objects toward the center and centrifugal forces drive them away. And today, our societies and communities are engaged in an epic battle between these two opposing forces.

I once attended a Salzburg Seminar and the most compelling presentation I heard was from a sociologist analyzing the Bosnian War. He explained how the Serbs destroyed villages by first attacking the places in which villagers gathered – like libraries, cafes, schools, and houses of worship.

The rationale was simple, if you destroy the places where people come together, you shatter the cohesive spirit of a community. And while we’re hardly besieged by a warring tribe today, technical and societal forces are exerting a strong centrifugal force on our fragile communities.

In the best of worlds, family and community exert a powerful cohesive effect on us as individuals, reminding us constantly that we’re not alone and that we’re dependent on one another for friendship, help in time of need, commerce, and decision-making. For two centuries, the Vermont town meeting has exemplified this understanding.

Urbanization, the out-migration of commerce, the deterioration of spiritual communities and the malignancy of shallow digital relationships, as opposed to those that are face-to-face, all exert centrifugal force. Digital relationships often degrade conversations into online yelling matches; whereas our collective sense of interdependence exerts a cohesive effect. We may disagree, but we must also live together, knowing our families and communities will survive our disagreements.

And speaking of community cohesion, we’ve just learned that the Chittenden County Solid Waste District is closing our Hinesburg drop-off site. When I was young, we called these “dumps” and they were a community gathering place.

Every Saturday morning, people brought their trash. Wyvis, the dump-man, had a cabin there and sorted reusable goods like salvaged wheels, old generators, rusty hardware, and the like. When it came time for the annual soap-box derby, the dump was our parts place. After closing, kids took potshots at rats with their .22s, and WDEV still broadcasts “Music to Go to the Dump By.”

If our communities are to survive, we must sustain the few remaining places that bring us physically together. So, as the holidays approach, turn off the TV, put down your smart phone, and share your thoughts and feelings with one another around the family table, at church, or even at your local community watering hole.

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The Curse of Instruction Manuals

When I was young, cursing was frowned on in our family. I was raised a Catholic and it was a mortal sin to take the Lord’s name in vain.

But I remember shocking myself one day as I led a pack of Stowe ski friends down the mountain after a 20-inch snowfall in a game of “follow the leader.” To show off, I veered off the summit trail and over the cliff that begins the National, a notoriously difficult racing trail. The new snow had obscured a chain and a pendant sign across the trail indicating it was closed. I felt the sharp pain in my shins and pitched forward over the chain. Both skis and one boot released, and I avalanched down the 45-degree slope in a billow of fresh powder to the vast amusement of the tourists riding slowly up the then single chairlift. I came to rest where the National crosses the lift-line, swearing like a banshee and evoking even more amusement. Since I was missing one boot and both skis, a kindly ski patrolman brought me a skip-jack to ride to the bottom. In the spring, a mountain company employee found one of my skis below the parking lot in the spring with a broken Arlberg strap.

By the time I was twenty, I was married and had a child so I stopped cursing altogether. But now that the kids are all grown and departed, the need to role-model went with them and I’ve started swearing again.

At 72, it’s no longer epic sports accidents that trigger my umbrage, but rather new devices that don’t work as I expect them to: a TV remote or an “intelligent” thermostat with too many buttons, a microwave clock impossible to reset after a power outage, or a “smart” phone I don’t know how to answer when it rings. The list goes on.

Like many dotards, to quote Kim Jong Un, I have little patience for 40-page instruction manuals in micro-type, the first twenty pages of which are safety warnings and death threats about misuse of the device, like how swallowing certain of its components might cause heart failure or impotence.

I generally discard instruction manuals more than a page along with the packaging. I’m told I can always download a .pdf from the Internet, but I’ve lost the instructions on how to download a pdf.

My children and my patient wife urge me to read the illegible manuals, assuring me it will make my life and theirs easier. But I’ve chosen a better route, one that has brought relative calm to our household. I’ve discarded every “tool” that has more than one page of instructions or the use of which is not wholly intuitive, like good old kitchen knives, scissors, screwdrivers, flashlights, and wooden pencils. I’ve replaced all our smart appliances with dumb ones. I find myself wishing I’d never sold our ’50s-era Maytag wringer-washer, but I’ve solved the incomprehensible modern washer dilemma by letting my beloved do the wash, as she seems to have mastered the new washer, which looks to me like the cockpit console of a 747. And now we dry our clothes on a handsome wooden rack in front of the woodstove and the living is easy!