A month ago, I wrote here about how those on the far-right trying to use "Personal Choice!" as their fake-excuse cry to freedom was utterly empty because pretty much everything was Personal Choice. It's Personal Choice, I wrote, whether or not to jump off a building. And Personal Choice whether or not to cross a busy street in the middle of traffic. It's Personal Choice to wear a seat belt, even though it's the law. You don't have to, you can break the law, it's Personal Choice. Just like it's Personal Choice to follow the admonition on a restaurant that says "No shoes. No shirt. No service." But just because you're making a Personal Choice, I wrote, doesn't mean you're making a good one.
James Akers took mere words and put it to action.
Akers is a father who went to the local school board meeting in his Dripping Springs Independent School District. Dripping Springs is in Texas, where thanks to anti-vaccination and anti-mask policies of Gov. Greg Abbott and the self-styled “freedom-loving” Personal Choice would-be cowboys have helped the state’s infection level spike problematically. It’s likely that the school board there hasn’t has a parent address them quite like James Akers did the other day.
It started out normally, as Mr. Akers took his turn at the microphone.
"I do not like the government, or any other entity, telling me what to do," he told the school board members. "But sometimes I've got to push the envelope a little bit. And I've decided I'm not just going to talk about it, I'm going to walk the walk."
And so he did.
"At work they make me wear this jacket," he said. “I hate it.” And to show how much he hated it, Akers took off his jacket.
"They make me wear this shirt and tie," he said. Adding, "I hate it." And so, he took off his tie. And then his jacket.
And he continued telling the board how much he hated wearing a lot of the clothes he was obligated to wear, but that the requirement to wear them were put on him by others than himself and his family. And all the while, as he explained this, he took off more clothes. Though he didn’t have many other clothes to take off, other than his shoes and his pants. But they went, too. And he stripped down to his underwear.
"It's simple protocol, people,” Akers went on. “We follow certain rules. We follow certain rules for a very good reason.”
School board president Barbara Stroud asked him to please put his clothes back on, but Akers wasn’t ready to yet, since he had his point to make in words.
"I have every right to drive as fast as I want to," he said. (It’s a Personal Choice, after all…) But he doesn’t. Because he wanted to show that we have rules in society for safety – and wearing masks is no different than any of those safety rules.
As you might imagine, James Akers’ presentation got a mixed response from those in attendance at the meeting, with a mixture of cheers and boos. But he made his point, and then put his pants back on.
I merely made the point. James Akers walked the walk.
I don’t have video of his full presentation. But happily, I do have the end of it. And the Texas news story that covered it. Though “covered” might be the wrong word to use here…
At this point, there's a good chance you’ve seen stories about Zaila Avant-Garde, the 14-year-old girl who the other day won this year’s Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee and wat the first African-American to do so. You may have also read about some of her other talents, like that she’s in the Guinness Book of Records three times. More about that in a moment -- and more, because I want to present her in a little more in-depth way than the coverage she's gotten. Because, as you'll see, she deservies it.
First though, let’s see her win the contest that got all the attention.
What you may have read about her Guinness world records is that they were for her skills dribbling a basketball. But while that’s certainly very impressive, it also sort of gives the suggestion of a solitary skill, another “geek” thing she can do by herself alone in her room like spelling. But the thing is, dribbling a basketball is a part of…well, actually basketball. And she’s really good in it. And by “good” I mean absolutely wonderful. Her ball control and physicality is tremendous.
And so, instead of jumping right to her dribbling, I first wanted to show a video of her playing basketball,. Though here's the thing -- as tremendous as the video is, it doesn’t do her justice. That’s because it mostly shows her dribbling and driving with the ball, not making many long, three-point shots. I did find a video of that, her shooting bombs from all over the court, but that’s all it was, her alone shooting three-pointers, and I thought a video of her playing actual basketball showed her skill far, far, far better – especially since it does includes some three-point shots about halfway through, made (not alone on court during her own relaxed time, but) during competition with opposing players guarding her after she’s been running around the court. And another reason this video doesn’t do her justice is that, as truly impressive as she is here…it's from three years ago, and she’s only 11 years old!
And trust me, you ain’t see nothing yet.
Because here it is. Here she is dribbling and juggling basketballs, what she got her three Guinness Book of World Records for. There are several videos of her doing other tricks beyond just these. This is merely just one of many. I’m not going to say anything more about the specifics you're about to see, this since it not only speaks loudly for itself, it shouts it from the rafters. And it’s not repetitious, her skills just keep getting better and better as the video progresses – and they’re jaw-dropping amazing from the first. And no, I’m not exaggerating. And no, too, there are no special effects here, this is all Zaila Avant-Garde. In real time.
And remember, as she was painstakingly teaching herself this unearthly skill, she was training to become the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee champion.
There are probably more "Oh, my God" moments here than in most tent revival meetings.
Yeah, between that and her regularly basketball, not too shabby for a Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee winner.
I thought I’d end with arguably the best video of all. Her being herself, interviewed on the Today Show. Showing why she can likely do whatever she wants to in the future. And probably will.
On this week’s Al Franken podcast, his guests (yes, there are two guests this week) are Miami Dade County Judge Steve Leifman and Norm Ornstein. As Al writes, they talk about Judge Leifman’s “remarkably successful Jail Diversion Program, which saves lives and big bucks. An inspiring, feel-good story about changing the lives of our society’s most vulnerable.”
With all the discussion this past week on Trump's insistence on opening schools, I thought that this would be a particularly good conversation on Al Franken's podcast to post here. Al (who was a member of the Senate Education Committee) talks with Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, about teaching during a pandemic and, as he puts it, “an important subject: how awful Betsy DeVos is.”
A few years back, the inveterate Chris Dunn told me about a comedian and filmmaker he liked, Mike Birbiglia. I've since checked out his work and, if I'm not at the same high level of appreciation as the Dunn fellow, I do agree with him that Birbiglia is good, and I like the fellow.
As it happens, Birbiglia was asked to give a commencement address at Georgetown University to the Arts & Sciences College, of which he's a graduate. And like all such commencements these days, it was a virtual one. (A common feature of all these is that they tend to be short. Even Barack Obama's commencement address to all high school graduates was only about six minutes. And Birbiglia's falls in that same range.)
He gave the address a couple weeks ago, and what with other things taking precedence we're only getting around to it now. But from there to here --
If you didn't get a chance to see the "Graduate Together" special last night, here is President Barack Obama's keynote speech.
He was low-key – only speaking for about five minutes, and it almost came across like a father talking to his kids. But he was so warm and so thoughtful and so decent. And got a brilliant dig into Trump that will infuriate him because it was so indirect without mentioning Trump that the proper response to his complaint would be, “But why would you assume he was talking about you??”
But then, the mere fact that Barack Obama was invited to speak to all high school graduates and not Trump is without question galling enough to him.
On this week’s Al Franken podcast, Al notes how “the Felicity Huffman/Lori Loughlin scandal pales in comparison to the scandal of our higher education admissions system, which protects the privileged and leaves everyone else behind.” So he and his guest Paul Tough talk about how the College Admissions system preserves our nation’s economic and social disparities.
One of the latest efforts by the Republican Party is to try and blame the college bribery scandal on entitled, liberal Hollywood elites. Meghan McCain did as much on her The View rant the other day when she attempted to paint herself as the victim (yet again) somehow. (I can't quite figure it out, but it involved Hollywood Liberal Elites not considering Arizona State University an Elite College like Yale and Harvard. And no, I'm not kidding.) And all of this effort -- as far as I can tell -- is because two actresses were on the list. So, apparently, in Far Right Conspiracy Theory World that means everyone was a Liberal Hollywood Elite.
What I find remarkable (although not surprising, given the empty state of today's Republican Party, throwing away the concept of morals to support Trump, accused pedophiles, wife beaters, pathological lying, neo-Nazis and more) is how Ms. McCain or most anyone on the far right actually know the political affiliation of all the donors. For all I know, they indeed all are liberals. Everyone of them. It's absolutely possible. Though what is even more possible -- in fact, probable -- is that they aren't. For all I know, 70% are conservative Republicans. (For those keeping score, note that I'm being fair enough to not say that they could all be Republican.)
I don't have a clue who they all are. And most anyone being fair would say the same.
What I can say, and do have a clue of is that --
Among money that can be directly accounted for, at least $220,000 went to Republican entities. Much of that to Mitt Romney, and a lot to the Republican National Committee, the Republican Senatorial Committee, and the Republican Campaign Committee. So, there you have it, and...Oh, okay, wait a moment. Not only that but also Lori Loughlin and her husband donated to Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mitt Romney (R-UT).
Well, gee, so much for that "Hollywood Liberal Elite Theory." It was really cool while it lasted... (Okay, with today's GOP, I have no doubt that this crackpot, disproven theory will nonetheless continue along with Pizzagate and HillaryIsTheRealOneWhoColludedWithRussia.
To be clear, there were donations to Democratic politicians and Democratic organizations. But then, I'm not someone blaming this all on reactionary Republican wingnuts -- or whatever the opposite is of Liberal Hollywood Elites. (Given that "Liberal Hollywood Elites" is often wink-wink code for "Jews," perhaps the opposite may be simply "Christians." Though again, I'm not blaming the scandal on them. As a fun sidenote, though, I did find a lovely interview with Lori Loughlin on the Christian Broadcast Network website where she talks about balancing her family, work and faith. It's very sweet.) Scrolling through the list, a quick glance appears reasonably split somewhat evenly between political parties.
(Disclaimer: Years ago, I very briefly had an agent who was just starting out. The agent's assistant was Lori Loughlin's sister. We had lunch once, though as personable as she was that was largely the limit of our interaction since she rarely responded to my emails which ultimately was one of the main reasons I left the start-up agency after only about six months, because I thought an assistant returning a client's emails was not an unreasonable expectation, at least as a starting point . I do not blame this on Lori Loughlin. She was busy balancing her family, work and faith.)
In the end, though, I think the only common denominator that we can fairly make about the people who paid bribes to get their children into colleges is that everyone of them were all financially well off. This is the polite term for "rich." So, if Republicans and Meghan McCain truly, honestly want to put the blame on anyone, that might be at least a good place to start.
Not that they will. Because it would give their brand a bad name.
Okay, worse name.
Six years ago -- almost to the day -- I wrote an article on the Huffington Post which I was thinking about the other day because it struck me as even more appropriate today to explain at least part of why Trump is president, and someone like a Roy Moore could come within two percentage points of being elected United States Senator. It was called, "The War on Education," and discussed a perception I've had for a long time that only continues to get proven again, over and over -- how the history of the Republican Party for the last half century has made a concerted effort to convince the public not to trust knowledge. Because when people don't accept the value of knowledge, they become so malleable you can make up anything you want and convince people it's The Truth. It ends up manifesting itself in voters who are taught not to think or question, but just "trust" everything they're told.
That was six years ago, and today we have the Trump administration trying to push the concept of "alternative facts," and cries of "fake news" against trusting honest, factual reporting, along with a president who lies so much on a daily basis that running totals are now kept by reporters. Only two weeks ago, the White House press secretary defended the president tweeting false video by saying that they spoke to a "greater truth." And for all this, there is a base which -- no matter how demonstrably, unarguably wrong something the president says is -- seemingly will literally follow him anywhere, off the edge of the earth if necessary, willing to support him, as he's said, even if she shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. It's gotten to the point where my most-common response on social media in a "debate" is -- "Willful ignorance is not a virtue." So, everything I wrote back in 2011 not only holds today, but is ratcheted up.
Here is the article, from December 1, 2011 -- "The War on Education." Yes, that's when it was written. Not last night.
Several years ago, a conservative fellow I was talking with got into a lather about a criticism he often heard. “Why is it,” he asked, “that liberals always say that Republican politicians aren’t smart?”
I politely avoided the quick answer. Besides, it wouldn’t have explained things properly. The truth is that “Republican politicians” aren’t remotely stupid. And there are plenty of Democratic politicians who are head-banging idiots.
That doesn’t mean the ball field is equal. It’s not. And conservatives only have themselves to blame for the rules they wrote and have been playing by for over half-a-century:
You Can’t Trust Really Smart People, Education Gets in the Way of Common Sense, Science is the Enemy of Religious Faith, College is for Over-privileged Elitists, Facts Matter Less Than What You Believe.
Those are the familiar rules that Republicans created. But it’s only the starting point. Because after making the rules, they played the game.
When Adlai Stevenson ran again Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1952, the big criticism that Republicans launched against Stevenson was that he was “an egghead.” Meaning, he was much too smart to be trusted.
When John Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Republicans disparaged him for filling the White House with his “Harvard Mafia.” Meaning, there were all these people so smart they were scary dangerous.
After Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, he put college students high on his Enemies List. Meaning…well, that one’s pretty obvious. Especially considering that troops were later sent onto the campus of Kent State, and four students were shot dead.
In 1988, the first George Bush campaigned for president as “the education president” – yet in a speech to service workers in Los Angeles explained it wasn’t necessary to go to college. This was an absolutely valid position, but spoke volumes from a leader supposedly promoting education.
When the second George Bush was president, he trumpeted his “No Child Left Behind” program – and then under-funded it, leaving those very schoolchildren far behind.
In 1996, the Republican Party platform stood for abolishing the Department of Education.
Last year, 111 Republican senators, congressman or national candidates were on record to abolish the Department of Education.
This only touches the surface of the ground-and-air war against education that conservatives have been playing. A relentless pounding against the importance of education, to reject facts, ignore history, dismiss science. To mistrust the news media. When information is diminished, it requires needing to rely on others. It demands having faith that others will lead you safely.
Indeed, it is no accident that conservative politicians court the religious right as their party’s base. Religion is centered on belief, on unquestioning faith. And that is the path to unquestioning faith in everything.
It is no wonder that New Yorker author Ron Suskind reported a Bush White House official ridiculing those who live in “the reality-based community.”
It is no wonder that the far right dismisses the science of global warming. And when science offers the breadth of cures from stem-cell research, we saw the far right fight the science.
And it is no wonder that conservatives cry to see Barack Obama’s report card, hoping the mere suggestion will demean his impressive education that includes being elected president of the Harvard Law Review and graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.
If one doubts this, consider that you never heard Republicans demand to see George Bush’s college report card. Or called for the report cards of John McCain – who graduated 894 out of 899 students at the Naval Academy. Or insisted that Ronald Reagan release his report cards from Eureka College, where he did theatricals.
Yet Republicans made Ronald Reagan a conservative god. And it had zero to do with his education. And y’know, it didn’t even have as much to do with his conservative credentials, given how often he raised taxes, massively increased the national debt, signed a bill for amnesty to illegal immigrants and, as governor, signed an abortion rights bill. He might not be able to get past the primaries if he ran today.
Many conservatives don’t realize all these things about Mr. Reagan’s politics, but then…well, that’s the whole point of education, which teaches you how to learn such quaint things.
But when you are told for half-a-century that you can’t trust smart people and science, you end up with a party that lays itself open to a leadership vacuum.
And so, at one time or another, we get Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, a pizza guy and even Sarah Palin leading the pack for the Republican nomination. And now Newt Gingrich, who, as Paul Krugman put it, is a “stupid man’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.”
No doubt, some will be up in arms by how supposedly-elitist this all is. Of course, wanting everyone to be as educated as possible is the exact opposite of elitism.
But then, calling others “education elitists” is one of those standard, conservative rules to demean education. Which proves the point.
Which brings us back, finally, to my conservative acquaintance wondering why liberals always say that Republican politicians aren’t smart. The problem is that he was looking at the wrong thing. This isn’t a matter of who is smart. There will always be people much smarter than you, me and even the smart people. Reading about a Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Galileo, Denis Diderot or Benjamin Franklin can only make one feel breathtaking awe. Republicans and Democrats are both bright and foolish. What this is about is the intentional, driven campaign for 60 years of Republican Party leadership to intentionally downgrade the importance of education. And what results from that when a party does such a thing to itself.
In short, it’s simple: if you don’t want to be angered when your candidates are perceived as less than brilliant, then promote brilliance. Don’t make it your platform to abolish the Department of Education. Don’t claim that opinion supplants fact.
Ultimately, though, there is something far more important at issue than mere politics.
Will Durant, with his wife Ariel, wrote the legendary Story of Civilization. Eleven volumes, over 8,000 pages of discovery that remains today insightful, even-handed and remarkable. And after they finished, they put together The Lessons of History. Written over 40 years ago, in 1968, its perception is as fresh as any news headline you will read.
“Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign. Education has spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple. A cynic remarked that ‘you mustn’t enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it.’ However, ignorance is not long enthroned, for it lends itself to manipulation by the forces that mold public opinion. It may be true, as Lincoln supposed, that ‘you can’t fool all the people all the time,’ but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.”
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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