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

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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.

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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!

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Sexual Behavior

Any male not now asking himself about his own behavior towards woman and children is extending the risk to both into future generations. Sexual abuse rolls forward from generation to generation until someone – both victim and perpetrator – decides to get honest with themselves and others. Victims are now coming forth in droves, perpetrators only when outed.

Mutual sexual attraction is one of our greatest gifts, a healthy and natural phenomenon occurring even before puberty. But we live in cultures, not the wild and so attraction must be tempered so it’s not just the powerful who control relationships. Sexual predation, especially on children or the powerless, is one of our most destructive and enduring behaviors. We must do more than just procreate, we must raise resilient and sexually responsible progeny.

But the boundary between natural sexual attraction and initiative, and outright abuse is fraught with confusion and complexity.

Age is one boundary. And I’m sorry, but there are no defensible Romeo and Juliet love affairs between men in their sixties and women in their twenties. Nor do they occur between boys in their twenties and girls in their tweens. Nature compounds the difficulty by generally maturing females sexually and emotionally faster than most boys, but age still matters.

Another is permission. A sexual relationship must be sober and consensual. “No” does indeed mean “no.” Alcohol or drug-induced rape is never “consensual.”

Predatory sex within a power hierarchy is a third border now filling news cycles. Whether focused on the casting couch, the office assistant, the student, or the prisoner, power clouds the very nature of consensual sex irredeemably. A sexual target of either gender who is in need rarely responds of their own free will to a sexual invitation. Their choice is clouded by their need, as it may relate to opportunity, freedom, or even survival.

The human science of proxemics is about the art of knowing intrinsically the amount of space people need between themselves and others. A person with this skill can encounter someone and know intuitively whether they will welcome a civil greeting from a discreet distance, a handshake, an air-kiss, a hug, or a flirtation.

We must all govern our own sexual behavior and intervene when we see victimization. And we must teach our young by example and through frank education. Otherwise we will only perpetuate the pervasive destruction that sexual abuse brings to victim and perpetrator alike.

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Ourselves, our children

At seventy-two, I often hear myself say, “Well, when I was young…” followed by some judgment about the behavior of today’s kids. I seem to remember my parent’s expectations of me as a kid were quite different from what parents seem to expect today.  Looking back, my parents’ expectations and boundaries hardly felt ambiguous.

All of which leads me to ponder how we raise and educate those who’ll take the reins from us and hopefully forge a better world. It’s a tall order to prepare our children to take risks, respect but question authority, create and innovate, procreate respectfully, and serve mankind.

Children learn by watching how adults behave and by listening to what we teach them at home and in school. For whatever reason, sometimes religious, we rarely teach our children about the physiology and ethos of love, commitment, contraception, and parenting skills. Nor do we teach them about the workings of democracy, their rights and responsibilities, or require them to serve their country and we’re just beginning to teach media and financial literacy and personal environmental responsibility.

And outside the classroom, our children learn mostly by our example. For better or worse, our kids will most often become who we are, not who we tell them to be.

Some parents today seem confused about their own roles, believing they must raise happy children rather than resilient ones. They crave the affection of their children often to the confusion and detriment of the children themselves. They see self-esteem as a gift rather than a hard-earned prize built on accomplishment.

We’re shocked when our children become teenage parents, get mired in debt, abuse drugs or alcohol, prey on others, or can’t be bothered to vote, and still we fail to see ourselves in our children. Countless studies detail the multi-generational persistence of abuse, addiction, poverty, and emotional dysfunction.

Our children are the future. As Marian Wright Edelman said many years ago at my son’s graduation, “A nation that does not stand for its children does not stand for anything and will not stand tall in the future.”

To raise resilient, capable, confident citizens and future parents, we must do better ourselves. STEM learning supports economic and scientific growth but if we don’t also raise rational, empathetic, responsible citizens living together respectfully, in time, our species will perish from this earth.

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The Comforts of a Mediocre Education

It’s no secret that many colleges and prep schools are in financial trouble. Accrediting organizations predict a significant number of institutional failures in the next decade. We even feel the pain here in Vermont but, understandably, no one wants to discuss it, as any faint whiff of distress further discourages applications.

The college value equation has been eroding for decades. Total private college costs average $45,000 annually, $20,000 at in-state colleges. Accounting for payments, discounts and scholarships, average college graduates carry $37,000 worth of debt. And in return, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to which the U.S. subscribes, we rank thirtieth in math and nineteenth in science among the thirty-five sponsoring countries.

Access to a free and superior education was once the great promise of America. But cultural shifts in our country inevitably manifest themselves in our institutions. Our societal inclination towards comfort, entertainment, consumerism, and ourselves is displacing investments in educational excellence and mission.

And while the $65,000 price tag for our elite institutions may still serve those who can afford it, it does little to spread opportunity to others aspiring to the opportunities a great education enables. Many of our schools look like wealthy island resorts surrounded by a sea of poverty and economic decline. Income on non-profit college endowments isn’t taxed, representing a public tax expenditure at Princeton, for example, of almost $100,000 per student per year.

To combat application declines, colleges invest in amenities to attract more students. But these amenities inflate their carrying costs. Rich alums love building monuments to themselves at their alma mater, but almost never fund their monument’s ongoing expense.

To survive, education must refocus on teaching excellence. The cost of a new gym could easily endow twelve faculty positions, allowing deans to attract and hire the greatest educators in the world. But if colleges compete on amenities, they’ll continue to lose value and relevance. And if they continue to market amenities instead of great teaching and learning opportunities, we may not need them anyway.

When asked what I recall from my own education… gyms, dorms, shops, and student centers don’t come to mind. Instead, I remember the few outstanding teachers who intrigued and encouraged me to learn. They weren’t concerned about my comfort or self-esteem but instilled in me a life-long desire to learn. All the comfortable stuff I learned on my own.

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The Vegas Shootout: Yes, Let’s Politicize it.

When I was eight, I took the NRA safety and target training at a camp in Maine. Two years later, my parents gave me a Winchester .22 long rifle. We kids would peddle our bikes up to the dump after it closed on Saturday to “pop” rats. During deer season the high school boys brought their 30.06s to school and left them in the principal’s office so they could hunt right after school before sundown.

Today, our property is the only one in the neighborhood not “posted.” We have friends who hunt here and we welcome them. We have two old hunting guns in the house, and believe in hunting for food, sport, and to manage our wildlife populations.

But I draw the line at weapons that don’t remotely resemble hunting gear. No hunter I know would hunt wildlife with a machine that can fire a hundred rounds a minute. Nor can I imagine our much vaunted “founders” advocating for silencers, automatic weapons, or against trigger locks. They never envisaged the antipersonnel weaponry we’ve devised and protected under their still ambiguous second amendment.

Monday, I awoke to learn that more than fifty people had been killed and a rising toll were injured in the worst gun tragedy – among many – in recent U.S. history. We’ve since learned that a lone shooter managed to kill or injure a number equal to the population of the town I used to live in.

Our foreign exchange student asked me that morning if she’ll be safe here. And once again I’m getting emails from European friends asking, “What’s happening to your country?” Internationally we’ve become an embarrassment to our increasingly skeptical nation-partners.

A seasoned national journalist visiting us this week suggested wryly that perhaps we could manage this trend in gun-related violence by declaring a limited season on humans and regulating it, as we do with other species.

We’ve since learned that police discovered an arsenal of twenty-three weapons in the shooter’s room, including either banned but easily accessible automatic weapons – or semi’s that appear to have been modified.

What’s next: grenade launchers perhaps – or maybe pocket nukes?

And please, enough with the “our thoughts and prayers…”

We can’t predict or control all human behavior, but we can surely differentiate between hunting gear and the weapons of mass destruction that Stephen Paddock used in under fifteen minutes to kill or maim what’s nearing six-hundred people.

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