AUTHOR PAGE FOR HOWARD DENSON

Blog

Who's qualified to the U.S. President? (Part 2)

Posted by Howard Denson on April 19, 2016 at 11:15 AM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

Let’s continue looking at past U.S. presidents to see who was best qualified for the office.

.

A successful president requires a proper attitude, adequate training, and (perhaps most important of all) luck. Even with these, they engage in OTJ training since there is nothing that prepares a person to be President of the U.S.

.

When we pick up with Dwight David Eisenhower and compare his background and training to that of, say, either of the Roosevelts, we see that Ike’s biography and resume is simpler. He made it into West Point, played some football, served as a lowly officer and moved up the ranks (aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the 1930s) until, when WW2 came along, Gen. George Marshall picked him to head allied forces in Europe. Here he interacted with foreign leaders and their generals. He began comfortable taking orders (when necessary) and giving orders. His attitude and training led him to run the White House as a military command center, and he finished his eight years with high popular approval. Luck meant that he did not have a Great Depression or a Honolulu surprise attack. He left office warning the country about “the military-industrial complex.”

.

JFK campaigned naturally on the notion that the old guard was tired and that America needed leaders with “vigah.” Unfortunately, he encountered the ill luck of being assassinated. That froze his attempts to enact a program, but, with a modest apotheosis of the late president’s reputation, LBJ was able to wheel and deal Congress into approving many reforms.

.

Some candidates today want to compare themselves to John Kennedy. True, he went from being a sitting senator to president, the second to do so since Harding. However, his congressional experience wasn’t all that noteworthy. His experience as the commander of PT-109 during WW2 made him aware of the dangers of going into war willy-nilly. Kennedy had been a member of the House for three terms and had served as a senator from 1953 until 1960. (FYI Notes to some of today’s candidates: Two or three years as a senator or a representative doesn’t cut it.)

.

By contrast, Lyndon Johnson was the complete political animal. He was ready by attitude and aptitude to be president, but he was unwise or unlucky enough to continue our military involvement in Asia.

.

The Vietnam involvement was costing over 50,000 lives (about the number who died in Korea), so—ho ho ho—it was time for LBJ to go.

.

Like Kennedy, Nixon had similar governmental experience: time in the House and Senate, but eight years as Ike’s vice president. In fact, when Ike suffered a heart attack in 1955, Nixon was the unofficial president. He lacked the temperament of a Johnson or FDR, being as quirky as John and John Quincy Adams. When he was defeated by Pat Brown for governor of California, he and others were convinced his political career was over , even saying, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

.

It wasn’t unreasonable for the nation to choose Nixon in 1968. The poor Democrats had had their natural candidate Bobby Kennedy gunned down on the evening he won the California primary. The gentlemanly poet, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, couldn’t quite put away Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the eventual nominee. HHH was unable or unwilling to separate himself from his president and lost in a close count of the popular vote.

.

For a long time back then, Nixon was ranked as one of our worst presidents, thanks to the fall-out from Watergate and simmering resentments for his anti-communist stance while in Congress. His reputation has risen considerably.

.

Our first unelected president and vice president was the amiable Gerald Ford, usually a career minority leader in the House. When former Maryland politician Spiro Agnew was forced to resign as vice president, the Democrats preferred that Nixon should nominate Ford, who would be adequate and possibly could be beaten in 1976. Ford enabled the country to regain our equilibrium after the impeachment mess, but many used his pardon of Nixon as a reason to go for a Washington outsider.

.

Jimmy Carter had the proper attitude and aptitude to be president, but, like Hoover, he had the ill luck when major crises occurred: high domestic inflation and the Iran hostage standoff with TV’s countdown each day about how many days the embassy staff had been held prisoner.

.

Carter took the blame for a failed helicopter rescue attempt, knocking down his reputation even more. Finally on the day that Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president, the Iranians freed the American hostages.

.

In retrospect, Carter was able to say that their freedom came without the cost of American lives. A more impetuous and cynical president might have gone in with guns a-blazing and a draft of a eulogy to be read at the memorial services for those who were killed.

.

Conservatives like to argue that Ronald Reagan was the best of the modern presidents, while opponents argue that he was the worst. He was teased with the Bedtime for Bonzo label as being inadequate to the job. However, he had been governor of California and weathered various disputes. With Nancy protecting him from an over-zealous staff, he made to the end of his two terms without disgracing himself. He had the good luck of relative tranquility during his years in office.

.

George Bush the Elder and Wiser was the president when the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain crumbled. Conservatives wanted to give the credit for the collapse to Reagan, but the disintegration resulted from policies implemented by Truman through Reagan, with considerable aid from Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa. Credit should also go to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. If he had been another Joseph Stalin, millions of Russians might have lost their lives. The elder Bush, criticized for his verbal mistakes, lacked the quick wit and poise of Reagan and was even zinged for being a wimp, even though few wimps were combat pilots in World War II.

.

At the end of his term, the country had had twelve years of Republican rule, and the time for a change meant the election of Bill Clinton. He stands out as the complete political wonk and as someone who loves the hands-on give-and-take of a politico. He had repeatedly been elected governor of Arkansas, hardly as challenging as California, New York, or Illinois. (Actually former governors of Illinois more often just go to prison.) Clinton enjoyed himself as president, even in ways that Harding and JFK would especially understand, but he irritated the right-wing with his uppity First Lady.

.

Enter the Impeachment Process that Will Not Die and has become the unused tool of opposition by members of Congress.

.

My thesis has been that the impeachment process has never been used properly and has been destructive to the body politic at the presidential level. With the smoking gun of Nixon’s troubles, the country elected him twice and the second election occurred after major details were known about Watergate.

.

Clinton survived, and thrived, despite the attacks from the right.

.

Enter now the disastrous administrations of Bush the Younger: amiable, inarticulate, and easily led by the neo-cons around him. The 9/11 attacks enabled him to push the “stolen” 2000 election behind him (good luck for him, bad for the country). Then he created his own bad fortune with military endeavors that seemed almost quixotic as they mainly benefited what Ike warned us about: the military-industrial complex. His deregulation set up the Great Recession.

.

Neo-cons kept predicting that his reputation would rebound, as Truman’s had, but Bush the Younger was no Truman.

.

On paper, Barack Obama had no business hoping to be elected president. He had been a social worker/activist, in the stripe of Saul Alinsky. He had been in the state legislature, and he had been a senator since 2005 (about as long as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio served). He became the third sitting senator to be elected president.

.

Since the 21st Century Republicans have purged their ranks of any moderates or progressives, the opposition party is dominated by a regressive mind-set: restrict voting access of “fraudulent” minorities, eliminate abortion, put the Bible back into the classroom and courthouse, defend the flag by sending troops to wherever a conflict occurs, and so on. Missing are today’s equivalent of Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton, Daniel Moynihan, and Elliot Richardson.

.

It’s galling to the extremists that a black man could be presented as a good-to-great president, so they cry “impeach, impeach” and want him arrested, although they aren’t very good at specifying which law has been broken.

.

It’s galling to the left that this premature Nobel Peace Prize winner still has us involved in foreign wars, but it’s even more galling to the military-industrialists that he refuses to commit more troops to various frays.

.

When the Obama drama closes in less than a year, the stage may feature a protagonist who is female or elderly, a middle-aged businessman, a senator who has few friends in the Senate, or a governor who, so far, has only won a primary in one state.

.

Will that person have a decent attitude and aptitude…and especially will that person enjoy good luck in office?

.

--30--

 

Who's qualified to the U.S. President? (Part 1)

Posted by Howard Denson on April 15, 2016 at 8:05 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

Candidates are rightfully attacking each other and saying their competitors aren’t qualified to be President of the United States. They go at it hot and heavy because each wants to BE the president.

.

Unfortunately, if wishes were presidential limos, we would all be riding back home to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and calling staff to have that Russian putz on the horn by the time we get to the Oval Office.

.

A successful president requires at least three things: attitude, training, and luck.

.

One axiom is that there is nothing that prepares you to be President of the U.S.

.

With that in mind, let’s go back to 1900 and forward and take a quick look at the qualifications of the presidents:

.

William McKinley was the incumbent president and well-beloved of the American electorate. He was heading to a respectable niche in American history when he was assassinated by a nutcase.

.

Enter that “damned cowboy” Theodore Roosevelt. A sickly child, he forced his body to improve and admired his idealistic father. In an era still in the Gilded Age, his father was selfless and committed to serving the public good. After his death, young Teddy took over and served in the legislature, then on the Civil Service Commission, then as a New York police commissioner, then governor, all the while irritating the daylights out of the good-old boys in his Republican Party. To send him to oblivion, they named him Vice President, but disaster occurred when McKinley was gunned down in 1901. Roosevelt took all of that energy into the White House and deserves to be on Mount Rushmore with the three other greats. He was ready for the White House, and, when historians complain, they fuss that he created the “imperial presidency.”

.

He was followed by his Vice President, William Howard Taft, who really wanted to be U.S. Chief Justice. Taft served four years, actually busting more trusts than Teddy did, but TR split the GOP voters in 1912, enabling Woodrow Wilson to get in.

.

Wilson gets high marks for idealism. His admirers included Herbert Hoover and then Richard Nixon. A former university president and governor of New Jersey, Wilson campaigned to keep us out of war and, once elected, got us into the fight in Europe. The stroke that he suffered in his second term would have caused a replacement using today’s constitutional rules, but his wife used secrecy to keep from the public the seriousness of his debilitation. (Elected after a half-century from the end of the Civil War, Wilson was fairly disastrous as a president of ALL of the people and ignored the aspirations and afflictions of African Americans.)

.

In 1920, Americans had had eight years of a Democratic president and were ready to give the other party a try. The problem was that the GOP didn’t have another Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt (who died in January 1919). Finally, they settled on a guy who looked like a president, Warren Gamaliel Harding. He was mainly a newspaper publisher/editor and became a state legislator, a lieutenant governor, and finally a U.S. senator. In short, Harding was as accomplished as many of the presidential candidates of 2015-16. For years afterwards he was in a race to decide if he was the country’s worst president: Would it be Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, or Harding? His sexual exploits weren’t known during his lifetime, and they were exceeded by those of John Kennedy (who went after Marilyn and others) and later Bubba (who had Monica). Revisionist historians now want to kick Harding up a few notches (his foreign policy wasn’t bad), but it is a losing cause. He did invite his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, to sit in on the cabinet meetings (which helped to prepare him for what came later).

.

With Harding’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 57, Silent Cal became president, thanks to his stewardship as a Massachusetts state legislator, lieutenant governor, and governor. He eventually wrote, “The words of a President have an enormous weight, and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” (FYI note to Donald Trump.) Luck was with Silent Cal as he presided over most of the Roaring Twenties, despite the time-bomb ticking and waiting to explode under his successor’s watch.

.

Herbert Hoover’s credentials were outstanding. He was Horatio Alger’s poor orphan boy who worked his way through Stanford, became a mining engineer who had lived all over the world, amassed great wealth (up to $4 million in 1914), and began a life of humanitarian and government service, ranging from Food Czar during the Great War, to Secretary of Commerce under Harding, and finally to president. He never accepted a cent of pay for his service. Despite all of this, he is listed as a failed president. He had an adequate attitude (although he had no elected office experience). He had the needed personal tools, but he was unlucky enough to be president when the Great Depression occurred. (His dynamic First Lady, Lou Henry Hoover, was quite modern in her effectiveness, and, if Eleanor hadn’t come along, she would have been the model for future First Ladies).

.

FDR’s personal role model was his cousin Theodore. His ill luck occurred when he suffered paralysis of the legs in the 1920s. With discipline and at least the façade of an optimistic attitude, he added governor of New York to his resume (along with assistant secretary of the Navy, as TR had been). After twelve years of Republican rule, the country was now ready for a dynamic Democrat, and that seemed to be FDR. He campaigned as a fiscal conservative, but, once in office, whenever he found that a fiscally sound approach wasn’t working, he’d try another way to solve a problem. Critics noted that he didn’t bring us out of the Depression: World War II did.

.

Nonetheless, FDR became Mr. President for most Americans for twelve years, and he was the key American who positioned the U.S. to enter the ongoing war.

.

Then, shortly after being sworn in for the fourth time, he died and left us with a former senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman. He embodied the Common Man in many respects but was impressive when looked at closely. For example, he served as a captain of artillery during the Great War and would have gone to West Point if his eyesight had been better. He struck out in business, thanks to the depression of 1921, and finally found modest success at the local level: as a county judge (or commissioner), he networked with businesses and local citizens. He was supported by the corrupt Tom Pendergast machine, which liked to be able to point to a few candidates in their stable for their integrity and probity. Truman was one of these and wound up becoming the “Senator from Pendergast.” In 1940, with war on the horizon, Washington was spending wildly, and Congress wanted to stamp out any corruption. In the Senate, the Truman Commission put everything under the microscope and saved taxpayers about $12 billion. That performance led to FDR’s team bumping the leftist Henry Wallace as v. p. and installing HST. As president, he ruffled feathers but knew how to work with his former buddies in Congress. He surprised experts by winning the 1948 election, yet ended his time in office as a failure, in the eyes of many “experts.” In fact, the more the political scientists looked at Truman’s achievements, the greater his reputation became. (FYI to Bush the Younger: Your needle is still sitting on empty.)

 .

(NEXT: Part 2 will cover the presidents from Eisenhower to Obama.)

 

No tenure? Want fries with that diploma?

Posted by Howard Denson on January 31, 2016 at 5:05 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

A recent posting about a state college board of trustees getting rid of tenure reminds us once again how the anti-faculty establishment kisses up to the extreme right and then hints to future employees that they would be better off working elsewhere.

.

Elsewhere that is, unless they are willing to grade papers, conduct classes, and hand out french fries to the “customers.”

.

The guilty board is located at State College of Florida. Where the devil is that? The college used to be Manatee Junior/Community College, but it also serves Bradenton and Venice. Instead of coming up with a nifty name that would identify the region, they opted for State College of Florida, which tells nothing.

.

By contrast, in Northeast Florida, we have Florida State College at Jacksonville, so a taxpayer can figure out where that’s located. We also know that St. Johns River State College is along the river. Ditto for Indian River State College.

.

We give first-place naming ribbons to Miami-Dade College, Chipola College, and Pensacola State College. There are others, but you get the idea.

.

The state of Florida has had a history of trustee boards going whacko when faced with collective bargaining prospects or reality. The worst was probably Brevard CC, about the earliest to have a CB contract. The board fought it within the state, and, when it didn’t prevail, they fought it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it lost again.

.

Hillsborough CC wasn’t much better.

.

These colleges are located in Central Florida, where the most conservative of citizenry are located, so it’s not surprising that the board at State College of Somewhere in Florida buys into right-wing rhetoric. It will warm the cockles of the hearts of the Jebomeister and Gov. Voldemort.

.

Right-wingers love to say, “Tenure gives faculty life-time employment. It makes it impossible to fire anyone.”

.

That, of course, is total hooey. State colleges in Florida have routinely fired tenured faculty, often because they are incompetent but occasionally because they rock the boat and say “what the board doesn’t want its employees to say and they don’t show respect.”

.

Another technique to get rid of a tenured faculty member is to reduce him or her to annual contract status. The faculty member may have neglected to, say, give out certain required forms or tests to students. If the teacher has otherwise been successful with students, but has still transgressed, perhaps deliberately, then the reduction to annual contract status may be a proper disciplinary move.

.

And what happens with an annual contract teacher? He or she may be let go at the expiration of that contract.

.

Similarly, a supervisor may decide that a tenured faculty member doesn’t merit a Satisfactory rating for an academic year. The teacher is given a rating designated something like “Needs Improvement.” Typically, the college will mandate that the “Needs Improvement” should be worked off within three months or so. If the instructor doesn’t improve, he or she is out the door.

.

When an administration fails to terminate an incompetent faculty member, it’s often the result of two reasons:

.

First, the supervisor(s) may not have documented the flaws of the employee, and they haven’t given the proper warning about what needs to be improved.

.

Second, the supervisor(s) earlier decided not to move against the employee for political reasons. They fear the individual might use discrimination protections to fend off a firing, and the chain of command didn’t want to go through a court case.

.

The two reasons above reflect two flaws in the administration:

.

First, they are incompetent to document the performance of an employee, perhaps because they have not been trained to do so, perhaps because they are too lazy.

.

Second, they are guilty of nonfeasance or malfeasance in deliberately failing to do their duty.

.

Another frequent problem is that administrators have accused individuals of violating rules that don’t exist.

.

For example, they may say that Professor Jones is failing too many students. At some point, Jones may ask, “Well, what is the right number?” Then the administration realizes that it does not have a policy concerning pass/fail rates.

.

Another official may maintain, “Ninety percent of students should pass.” Not only would few, if any, serious educators assert such a standard, that pass rate certainly is not in board rules. Still another official may say, “Your students are complaining about you,” which often means, “Out of 125 students of yours, three have come to me with complaints.”

.

The only protection that tenure affords is the right to a hearing. A fair committee may listen to all of the facts and acknowledge that the teacher has not violated any rules or standards . . . or, when an offense is blatant and gross, may vote to show the employee the door.

.

The State College down state decided to abolish tenure for any new hires. It did not try to take away tenure (or continuing contract) from current faculty. That is because tenure involves a property right for the employee.

.

A college or university could opt to buy out that tenure right. If so, would the amount be $5,000 or $10,000? If a college had 200 tenured faculty, it could buy out their tenure for $2 million, but, with budgets in crisis, would taxpayers want to see $2 million spent, perhaps needlessly?

.

Right-wing politicos and their trustee surrogates like to give lip service to such maxims as “we need to be careful about taxpayers’ money . . . we need to run [this agency/college] like a business.”

.

When push comes to shove, however, they really don’t care. If they did, they would notice that higher education is top loaded with administrators as compared to full-time instructors. The ratio historically is about 1:4.

.

If a college leader bloviates by saying the figures are all wrong, ask him or her, “How many employees are chalking and talking [teaching] and how many are not?” Once these are added up, the ratio is close to 1:4. If it’s more, say, 1:6, keep in mind that faculty are supervised MORE than Barbie and Brian are at McBurger Bob’s.

.

So, once again, I know you don’t have tenure, but can you give me some fries with that? Supersize it.

.

Afterthoughts:

.

1. Boards want to be competitive when setting salaries for their presidents, but they want to undercut teaching positions by claiming they only compete with private for-profit universities that rely on adjuncts. Moreover, they don’t emphasize to the public that students can get a good deal at the state college as opposed to the outrageous costs from the for-profit schools.

.

2. If you are from Kansas, Wyoming, or Vermont and get a chance to move to Florida to teach, would you choose to go to College A (which offers tenure) or College B (annual contract only)? Is it worth buying a house if you end up at College B, only to find that you have to find another job after the college let you go after two years?

 

Mirror of 1840-60 reflects us today

Posted by Howard Denson on December 14, 2014 at 11:35 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

It started when I was reading a biography of our 14th president, Franklin Pierce, who is usually grouped among the least successful presidents.

.

Since I don’t have a fly-paper mind, to which everything sticks, I never can remember much about Pierce, except that he and others did very little to avoid the Civil War. But I did know that he was a good friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had written a campaign biography about him, and, after Pierce’s presidency, I knew that it was he who discovered that Hawthorne had died during the night.

.

I seek out definitive biographies to read of our outstanding presidents, such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and others. I avoid the “academic biographies,” which tell you every damned thing the writer has been able to find out about his or her subject. I gave up on one on JFK when I reached page 300 or so, and the little boy was sending letters to his father, saying things like “Papa, I scored a touchdown today and will play halfback next week since Squeaky got hurt. Could you send me some money?” (Something like that.)

.

A passing reference to a tragedy in Pierce’s life made me seek out a quick life. That turned out to be Franklin Pierce by Michael E. Holt (part of the American Presidents Series from Times Books).

.

Until FDR, presidents were sworn in during March, so the president-elect, his wife Jane, and son Benny were consoling the family of Jane’s uncle who had died of a stroke. They were zipping along at forty miles per hour in a two-car train for a short trip to Concord, when the axle on their coach broke, derailing the passenger car and sending it down a twenty-foot culvert, where it landed upside down. The wreck bruised Pierce and Jane, but it sheared off the back of Benny’s head, killing him instantly.

.

That put a further damper on the future First Lady. Jane had fainted with despair when she learned that her Franklin had been elected president. She was like Bess Truman in that she disliked politics and politicians, but Jane Appleton Pierce took it to another level: She loathed and hated politics.

.

My spider senses are always alert to problems of alcoholism, so it came as no surprise that Pierce suffered from that disease. In fact, wags at the time said he was “a hero of many a hard-fought bottle.” In his post-presidency after Jane had died, he remarked that the only thing he had to look forward to was drinking himself to death (which he did).

.

I’ve been over the antebellum ground innumerable times, but this time what registered profoundly was how much today resembles that period.

.

Notice these similarities:

.

Problem with the U.S. Constitution

.

In 1840, the document had all those protections for the peculiar institution of slavery. Setting the stage for a major conflict was those, plus laws or court rulings that would force non-slave holders to return escapees to their owners.

.

Today, we have a peculiar 2nd Amendment that was written at a time when it took a minute to load the powder, the ball, and the wadding and another minute to reload, as former Chief Justice Warren Burger reminded everyone. With about 300 million guns in civilian hands in the U.S., we have the 2nd Amendment crazies arguing that we need MORE guns.

.

The slavery crazies argued that the Bible justified slavery (and did not notice that Jesus and the disciples didn’t have any slaves). The gun crazies argue that the Washington commies and pinko liberals are going to pry their guns from their cold dead fingers.

.

Disdain for the reformers

.

In the 1840s onward, right-thinkers were opposed to slavery or its expansion into new states, but they were revolted by the fervor and animosity of the Abolitionists. These slavery eradicators made a lot of noise and created disharmony. Even Lincoln did not campaign as an abolitionist, although nearly everyone today thinks that he did.

.

Today, right-thinkers are opposed to the trappings of a police state that imprisons over 2 million people, often for dubious crimes. These reformers make a lot of noise, and those wanting harmony want them to shut the hell up.

.

Factions splitting into factions

.

It is fascinating when Americans are offered intelligent debate based on issues. We think back to the writings of Thomas Jefferson and his crowd vs. Alexander Hamilton and his team, or Lincoln debating Douglas. But we also have the media reflecting our basest impulses (and both Jefferson and Hamilton were guilty of supporting and promoting these tactics).

.

In the 1840s and onward, we had the usual rural vs. urban oppositions, but factions also lambasted the Masons, the Catholics, and the immigrants. Their factions wanted everything to be true-blue (and red and white) all-American. They didn’t want to have foreign ideologies shoved down their throats. They would be called Know Nothings.

.

Today, it’s not much better. One party’s thinking consists of reading from a daily sheet of talking points: The other party’s leader is taking too many vacation days (never mind that the complainers’ leaders took far more holidays. A recent failed president, with eight years in office, was on vacation for over an entire year, but you would never know that from the members of his party.

.

Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and others tried to use scientific principles. They studied nature and kept up with weather changes, plus phases of the moon, especially as the data related to planting crops. In the Know Nothing era, you only needed to know what was in the Bible (and not know that very well). An almanac was also handy.

.

Today? We have our talking points. Someone asks a question that Franklin or Jefferson might have fielded 230 years ago, and today’s Know Naught reads the line he’s supposed to use: “I’m not a scientist.” If the Know Naughts want to emphasize that something is simple, one of them said, “This is not rocket surgery.” Tsk, tsk.

.

The slavery question divided, and destroyed, the Whig Party, and it made it difficult for Democrats to put together a ticket that could win the White House. Pierce kept trying to keep peace in the party and more than once announced that, because of this or that compromise, the issue of slavery has been settled indefinitely. No one has any business talking about it. So let’s talk about, say, tariff policy over a libation or three.

.

Many Whigs and Northern Democrats gravitated to this new party, the Republicans, and Pierce wasn’t even nominated for a second term by his own party. He erred, while president, by having a place in his cabinet for all views, even for individuals who were out to undercut positions he favored.

.

Young blood, ideas, and hearts

.

It’s a rule of thumb in politics that, if you are still wet behind your ears, you campaign on the need for fresh ideas and a new approach. JFK used that against Nixon and Ike. Conversely, if you are long in the tooth, you argue about the value of experience and of our need for a steady hand at the helm.

.

In 1852, the “old fogies” were William L. Marcy of New York, William O. Butler of Kentucky, Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire, Lewis Cass of Michigan, and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. There was a Young America movement back then (patterned after similar movements in Europe), and their favorite was Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

.

When Woodbury died, New Hampshire named Pierce as their favorite son. Pierce was about nine years older than Douglas, and, after all of the balloting, he emerged as a favorite. He supposedly would have fresh ideas (he didn’t).

.

Keep in mind that back then it wasn’t considered seemly for a candidate to actively campaign for a party’s nomination or even to give an acceptance speech. It took FDR in 1932 to change that.

.

Today, both parties have people who are calling for “fresh faces.” Typically that means they are supporting somebody else for president and any rationale will do to oppose a Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton.

.

To get an honest handle on what is going on, today we rely on the Comedy Channel’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. That seems to confirm what Will Rogers said: “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”

 

Impeachment's Checkered History

Posted by Howard Denson on July 1, 2014 at 11:45 AM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

A lead letter recently in The Florida Times-Union purported to explain why Barack Obama should be impeached, and, although the writer’s rhetoric appeals to his fellow patriots, it was as imprudent as can be.

.

First of all, the impeachment process for various presidents has an appalling record for wrong-headedness. The first impeachment, against Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson, was based on trumped-up charges by an over-reaching U.S. House of Representatives. The Radical Republicans then passed a law that said that the President couldn’t fire a cabinet member without Congress’ approval. Johnson correctly fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and asserted the rights of the executive branch. The Senate narrowly refused to convict him.

.

Nixon resigned before an official impeachment could have been voted, but, even with the break-in and cover-up, Nixon did less harm to the country than did the investigations and impeachment hearings. European leaders back then were wondering what all the fuss was about in the U.S.

.

The ultimate impeachment silliness occurred regarding Bill Clinton. True, he needed his butt kicked for his personal conduct, but male politicians of both parties have demonstrated similar problems. What occurred did not rise to the level of a valid impeachment, but these modern Republicans carried on because it was such jolly fun and it made the base happy.

.

Barack Obama does not entertain us with Clintonesque escapades, but the extremists lambaste him for his alleged dictatorial behavior, his birth, other personal defects that they imagine, etc. Again, nothing has risen to the level of a valid impeachment charge, but, again, the impeachers enjoy it so darn much that they don’t want to stop.

.

They are illogical because normally they wouldn’t want to kick out a sitting president and replace him with a future President Joe Biden. Perhaps they fear facing Hillary Rodham Clinton so much in 2016 that they figure Biden might be as beatable as Gerald Ford was in 1976. They are also illogical because the two-thirds votes aren’t there in the House or Senate.

.

 

We should also reject the impeachment option because it has only been applied to lame-duck presidents. Andrew Johnson, in theory, could have been re-elected, but Lincoln had made him V.P. to have a unity ticket during the Civil War. Though loyal to the Union, Johnson was an anathema to many Republicans then. Neither the GOP nor his old party would have nominated him in 1868.

.

Nixon had already been elected to his final term, as had Bill Clinton. Ditto for Obama.

.

Impeachment is so intertwined with fund-raising that its constitutional usefulness has become questionable. GOP fund-raisers could once rouse their rabble by lambasting Ted Kennedy and the threat of the libs’ taking away their guns. Ted is dead, alas for fund-raising, but isn’t impeachment a dandy tool? (The Democratic fund-raisers were rousing their rabble by going after anti-choice right-wingers and now efforts to deprive people of color of the vote.)

.

 

It’s too much trouble to add an amendment getting rid of the impeachment process, especially since that process can more validly be applied to corrupt federal judges, but there is another solution.

.

We may view each election as a trial and the voters as jurors. The American voters knew about the White House connection with the Watergate break-in soon after it happened and well before the elections in November. (The specifics and the taping business were revealed later.) Nonetheless, Nixon won handily, and the American jury rendered its verdict.

.

Obama has faced a second trial with the American jurors, and he too won handily.

.

If we already have a “trial” that the President won, then we may penalize any perceived wrong deeds another way. If, say, two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate agree that the President’s behavior has been egregious, with properly crafted legislation, they may hit the president where it hurts: by greatly reducing or eliminating the $450,000 annual retirement salary paid to former presidents.

.

With all of the crazies in the world, it’s probably best not to remove Secret Service protection altogether, lest we have an ex-President taken hostage and killed (as happened to former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1976). Even so, the level of security may be trimmed a bit. There are other emoluments (franking privilege, etc.) that could be reduced or eliminated as necessary.

.

With the Congressional silliness out of the way, voters (and jurors) might be pleased to see the Congress sentenced to actually doing its job for a change.

.

God knows, we’ve waited long enough.

 

How to MOOC things up

Posted by Howard Denson on May 3, 2014 at 4:15 PM Comments comments (0)

 

By HOWARD DENSON

.

Maybe you will laugh at how provincial I am—which is perfectly all right since I’m not a moth who flutters around the street lamps of New York, Paris, or London.

.

I came across the acronym, MOOC, but the article in a British publication did not explain to its readers what the acronym stood for. I suspect it may be as well known an acronym in the U.K. as NATO or the NAACP is in the U.S. They assume, if you have half of a decent mind, you simply know what it is.

.

Well, I didn’t and had to do a web search, during which I discovered that the term stood for “Massive Open Online Courses.” The article evaluated the merits of lecture-based courses vs. the online courses and cited the efforts of the University of Phoenix on the MOOC team and my own college, Florida State College at Jacksonville.

.

The article eventually asks, “So what does FSCJ have to offer that a Mooc does not? Its academic staff argue that their strengths lie in face-to-face interactions between instructors and students, and between students. They see their comparative advantage as ‘curated’ classrooms and seminars where ideas and concepts are presented logically and sequentially to be tested.”

.

During my nearly 40 years of teaching about 15,000 freshmen and sophomores (okay, “teaching at” many of them), I tried out various innovations as they came out. For example, I was the first at my college to REQUIRE that composition students complete computer-assisted  grammar and writing lessons (PLATO, then SkillsTutor). I was the first to REQUIRE that the students write their papers using word processor programs: first, Apple with Applewriter or Bank Street Writer, then the Microsoft wp programs. My colleagues were wimping out when they said, “Oh, yes, I recommend that they do their papers on computers.”

.

“This is the way writing is going to be done in the next century,” I told dubious students. “You are also picking up skills that you will use on the job and skills that you will need to put on your job resumes.”

.

With our dot matrix printers that used continuous computer paper, students learned how to unjam and reload the paper. One African American young lady proudly told me during a lull, “Mr. Denson, at work, nobody knew how to get the printer to work, but I was able to load it and get it working.”

.

At first, I permitted the developmental (remedial) students to write their papers by hand. When I noticed that some of them couldn’t write the same sentence twice without making an error, I switched them to word processing. At least that “froze” a version, which could be improved with further revision.

.

Except as a substitute for a colleague, I didn’t get in on the campus-to-campus live TV courses (transmitted on phone lines). These classes eventually went belly-up. The TV equipment at the broadcasting site would not work…or the equipment at the receiving site was on the blink on another day. The teacher might try to do audio-only, but often the students were sent on their merry way. The coup de grace: The phone company charged an arm and leg for such arrangements.

.

I did teach some telecourses, which initially were broadcast at set times. These required that the students watch various programs (in essence, lectures). All of the instructors of a particular course had to use the same syllabus, which irritated me because my syllabi were notorious for being explicit and complete. I did help to write and edit the programs for English Composition I.

.

For ENC 1102, unfortunately, the college purchased some programs made in a Western state. I still get shivers just thinking of the episode in which the characters in an office setting were planning a birthday party for Binky (or whomever). They segued from sit com to comp com. At times, they would have talking heads gassing on as if they were on a Sunday talk show.

.

Eventually, the telecourses died, partly because they could be replaced by DVDs bundled with the textbooks for the courses. (Publishers love to bundle, and, when it comes time for students to sell their books back, they can’t just sell back the textbook itself. Everything that was bundled has to be there. Heh, heh, the joke’s on you, kid.)

.

I was curious about online courses and taught many of them in Comp I and II, Creative Writing, and the humanities. My main worry was about whether online courses could deliver a quality product. In the early days, each instructor had his or her own syllabus, and mine was, as usual, specific and complete. Eventually, we were pushed toward a common syllabus, and a common syllabus typically reduces individual creativity and aims for the lowest common denominator.

.

Neither online courses nor other “distant learning” courses work well if they attract the procrastinators or the sloths.

.

Quick digression: We have three types of students (and probably citizens in general): 1. The busy bees or busy beavers, who will build you a honeycomb or a dam in no time. 2. The five-toed sloths, who are hanging about couches, recliners, or beds, who will do little or nothing. 3. The weasels, who look for loopholes, shortcuts, etc. to slip through a course or project. (Alas, I have been all three of those.) Oh, and there’s a fourth type: in a group project, the Cowbird sits back, lets others do all the work, enjoys the group grade. Or there’s the Rustler, who steals papers and rebrands them. (I have never been the fourth type.)

.

The MOOC courses worked well with the busy bees and beavers. One student was a young mother with two preschoolers. It was difficult for her to get to classes, but she could manage courses that were televised or held online. She made an "A." Another student was a quadriplegic. He COULD have gotten to a classroom, but he rationed his energy by taking my class in the humanities…and making an “A.” Another student was online from 50 miles away and simply didn’t understand something. She drove to the campus to meet with me, and, as I ran over whatever was bothering her, she remarked, “Oh, so that’s it. I had to skip my morning medications so I could drive out here. I’m glad I did.” She too made an “A.”

.

One problem with these (and campus-based) courses is the assumption of some enrollees that, since they have gone to all the trouble of enrolling in a course, they should automatically be given a grade. Anything a “B” or above will do.

.

Innovators like to schedule special sections, just for [fill in the blank for the target audience]. Once enrollment starts, they attract five or six of the target audience, but then fill up the other 20-25 slots with the five-toed sloths and a few rustlers.

.

When an instructor grades according to the work turned in, a mid-manager may grumble, “You realize that 90 percent of students in a class should pass.”

.

Someone who is not deferential may point out, “That’s hooey. No study in the world says that.”

.

Online testing is frequently used today for on-campus courses and any distant courses. The approach is an open invitation to cheating. Some courses may require students to come to a testing center where they can be monitored. Another approach is to treat the tests as open-book. (Even so, I worried about any student who would make, say, a 37 on a 100-point test online.) 

. 

How do we resolve the situation? We can’t leave it to state legislators because they don’t care about quality. They only care about spending less, or, if something is costing more, they want the money to go to their own independent companies, as Florida’s corrupt legislators are doing today.

.

Many administrations can’t be relied upon. Too often, they equate success with more bricks and mortar and throw enrollment figures around like it was the 1960s and we all had a system to build. We don’t.

.

I would hate it as a student, but one option that should be put on the table is that we require all college graduates to take a comprehensive exit examination (not from Pearson et al., who are suspect), similar to what scholars had to take in the 19th Century.

.

Are the MOOCs delivering at Phoenix, FSCJ, or wherever? A comprehensive exit examination might be interesting and useful.

.

Thank goodness, I don’t have to take it. I hate exams.

.

A post script

.

Three decades ago, a colleague who could be blunt at times was returning test papers to a class. She joked, “A monkey could make a 30 on this test.”

.

She taught the materials to be gone over that day, and a glum student approached her afterwards. He complained, “You called me a monkey.”

.

Startled, she said, “I most certainly did not. I would never say that to a student, never.”

.

With a pout, he said, “You said a monkey could make a 30 on the test, and I made a 19.”

Candidates who could have been President

Posted by Howard Denson on March 16, 2014 at 4:40 PM Comments comments (0)

 

By HOWARD DENSON

History buffs often have one glaring fault: We often don’t look at what actually happened, but at what could have happened. Professional historians with mega-reps often don’t fare that much better. They wind up all over the map as tastes change in historical interpretations. You may end up thinking that nothing is really true, whereas common sense tells us that something, by golly, had to be true.

.

When we have events unfolding each day, we realize that we can’t risk final judgments when one historical narrative is only in the third inning.

. 

Let’s focus for this discussion on potential presidents, who’s hot, who’s not, who was, who wasn’t, and that sort of stuff. On the GOP side, we watch the apparent unraveling of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. At one time, he seemed to have the efficient gruffness that four-time New York Gov. Al Smith once possessed. His supporters could argue the U.S. could use more plain-talking guys. Should we write off Christie permanently? That’s tempting, but let’s remember that a history of Venice noted that many prominent male citizens disgraced themselves in their 40s or 50s, but they settled down and lived uncontroversial lives in subsequent decades. It was common for them to be elected as the Doge when they were in their 80s or 90s.

.

It is tempting to write Christie’s political obituary, just as many commentators did in 1962 when incumbent Pat Brown defeated the former U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon in the California gubernatorial race. Even Tricky was acknowledging that the media wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore. Thanks to the JFK-LBJ actions regarding civil rights and wars in Southeast Asia, plus Barry Goldwater’s kamikaze presidential race in 1964, Nixon was narrowly elected president in 1968, when he defeated Hubert Humphrey.

.

A history buff can’t help musing about “ain’t it a shame that ---- wasn’t elected when ---.” Like Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover was a fine man and a selfless public servant. The country would have been much better off if he had been elected in 1920 instead of the inept Warren G. Harding. He could have served two terms, perhaps avoiding some of the shenanigans that Republicans and Democrats got us into regarding Wall Street. (Or perhaps not.) If Al Smith had managed to win in 1928, the market crash may still have occurred, but the unemployed shanties would be called “Al Smithvilles.”

.

The 1940 election saw FDR winning a third term, with his vice president being Henry Wallace. The Republicans had a fight involving New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, and Hoover before deciding on businessman Wendell Wilkie. Any of the individuals in this paragraph would have been competent presidents, and FDR even tapped Wilkie to handle some missions.

.

The country might have had a different experience if Wilkie and his v.p. partner Oregon Sen. James McNary had won. Although both had solid credentials, neither would have served out his term. McNary died in February 1944 of cancer that spread from a brain tumor, while a heart attack took out the 52-year-old Wilkie six months later. This is the only time in U.S. history that the top two on a party’s ticket died before serving out the term for which they could have elected. (Think of the conspiracy madness that would have occurred if this had happened to John McCain and Sarah Palin.) The deaths of Wilkie and McNary would have meant that Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn would have become president. (Wilkie had delayed seeing a doctor while having a heart attack. If Wilkie had been president, a competent physician might have been on hand.)

.

When we look at potential presidents in the 1700s and 1800s, we realize the calendar would not have permitted a presidency for Benjamin Franklin, who died a year after George Washington was sworn in. Alexander Hamilton, if he could have stayed away from musket balls, wild women, and feuds with Aaron Burr, would have had an interesting presidency, whereas Burr might have given the country a rollercoaster ride as head of the Executive Branch. Three senators were giants and often more effective than actual presidents of their day: Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and perhaps John C. Calhoun. Like Al Gore, New York Gov. Samuel Tilden won the popular vote in a crooked election count in 1876.

. 

James G. Blaine, according to the Democrats, was “the continental liar from the state of Maine.” Even so, he had splendid credentials: Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Secretary of State, and U.S. Senator, but Blaine lost to Grover Cleveland, despite the GOP’s taunts of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” and the Democrats’ riposte with “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha.”

.

In the 1900s, would William Jennings Bryan have given us a memorable presidency with his oratorical abilities…or would an assassin have taken him out instead of McKinley and given us President Adlai Stevenson? (Would Lee Harvey Oswald have managed to take out Nixon, elevating Henry Cabot Lodge to the presidency, if Nixon had been elected in 1960? Would the U.S. be panting for JFK in 1964 or 1968?)

.

Earlier, Bryan’s Adlai Stevenson had been vice president under Grover Cleveland and never learned how close he came to becoming president. Cleveland supposedly had extensive dental work done in 1893 but actually had an operation for cancer of the mouth. They removed his upper jaw and replaced it with a prosthesis (a secret until a quarter-century later).

.

Adlai Stevenson II, the grandson, twice ran up against the Dwight Eisenhower juggernaut, losing by 9-10 million votes in 1952 and 1956.

.

Alas, no presidency for either Adlai, nor Nelson Rockefeller, nor Humphrey, nor Gore. A Goldwater presidency might have been fun in a positive sense since he wasn’t the “nuke ’em” individual as depicted in the LBJ campaign ads.

.

Today, Hillary seems inevitable, to the likely consternation of Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, and other ambitious ones in the donkey party. But things do happen. Theodore Roosevelt was shunted out of the way into a vice presidency until the 1901 assassination put him front and center. He would not even have been VP if his predecessor, Garret Hobart, hadn’t died of a heart attack in 1899 at the age of 55.

.

When you put on the scales Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and Jeb Bush, along with John McCain or George McGovern, which ones could have done the job adequately? Which ones will become the Harold Stassen of the 21st Century? Stassen eventually became a joke for campaigning so often, but he had very respectable credentials and was not a joke.

.

“SO WHAT” DEPT. – If you look at an 1896 photograph of William Jennings Bryan, he will remind you of the Canadian-American Ted Cruz.

.

Boring candidates (Gore?) often don’t get near the office; thus, we end up trying to remember the otherwise excellent Henry (Scoop) Jackson, Walter Mondale, or Stassen. Many of today’s GOPers may be filed under “boring.” Conversely, the manic candidates don’t do so well either (Huey P. Long, Henry and George Wallace, Cruz, Palin, et al.) since Americans tend to vote towards the center.

.

Allen Drury wrote a series of political novels, beginning with 1959’s Advise and Consent. A recurrent theme in his books is that (think Truman) the vice president who becomes president will rise to the occasion and give the country and his responsibilities his all. Would Sarah Palin have surprised us all?

.

Perhaps, but, despite his credentials, Dubya didn’t.

 

 

 

Are creative writing courses any good?

Posted by Howard Denson on March 10, 2014 at 2:35 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

.

During my recent “travels” on the internet, I came across one of those articles frequently found in English-language newspapers or magazines. This time, a cranky academic in the U.K.’s Guardian was grousing that creative writing classes were wastes of time and energy. They didn’t teach students to write, and the students only turned in dreadful assignments.

.

Before you go running out of your domicile hollering that the “sky is falling,” let’s keep a couple of things in mind. First, any faculty will have individuals who grumble that this or that course isn’t needed. Often such remarks are ignored because they only reflect territorial spoors. On a few occasions, such sentiments cause curriculum reformers to drop x-amount of courses and replace them with y-courses (which essentially cover the same territory).

.

Florida has state legislators who hate university faculty perhaps because of the “D” they received in Comparative Government, never mind that they failed to turn in a key paper. They rejoice in their ability to tighten the screws and have a bit of payback. So we have a governor who goes around wondering why anyone needs, say, anthropology instead of a good course entitled “How to Stick It to Uncle Sam for Billions of Dollars in Unwarranted Medical Charges.”

.

Luckily, even the crass legislators of Florida won’t add a course in HSUSBDUMC 1101. It’s too much like sporting a bumpersticker saying “Willie Sutton is My Hero” or “Dillinger Had the Right Idea.” Besides, the crass lawmakers have discovered that the private charter school industry will enable them and their friends to learn “How to Stick It to Florida Taxpayers for Millions of Dollars for Unwarranted Educational Charges.”

.

(Yes, yes, there are some ethical and sincere private charter folks. We can read about them in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.)

.

Let’s give a little attention to the notion that creative writing classes are wastes of time. Briefly, they aren’t. There’s an adage that says you have to write a million words (and throw them away) to become a good writer. Others want to update the maxim to two million words. If creative writing classes in high school or college help the individual to exercise the writing muscle, then all is well.

.

A rule of thumb is that teachers can’t teach their students how to become good or great writers. Each student has to learn it, and individuals learn it by absorbing good writing through courses or directed study (as William Faulkner did) and by then trying to write the best they can. Such courses can teach evolving writers how to revise and to let go of the idea of “what I write the first time is what’s best and freshest.” It’s not.

.

Invariably, when the evolving writers come across pieces they wrote in high school, they will cringe here and there or even despair at the inanity of what they wrote years earlier. Similarly, if they take undergraduate courses in creative writing, they will evolve and look back in horror at what they produced as juniors or seniors.

.

The evolving writers may choose to burn their apprenticeship work. . .or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did, they may “mine” the defective works, finding a gem of an image here, an excellent character description there, etc.

.

I have taken creative writing classes as an undergraduate and as a graduate (and found them enjoyable). I have taught college-level creative writing classes both on campus (less successfully in small classes that barely made) and online classes to groups of 30 students each (more successfully). I would argue that one should only take such classes to improve one’s writing, not to aim for a best-selling novel or collection of poetry.

.

A CW student often learns what he or she does best and what is painful to muddle through. A CW class will not teach you to be a great or successful writer. However, neither will any lit course. In fact, with some exceptions (e.g., John Keats and young Truman Capote), nothing we write as youths or undergraduates is worth reading five or ten years later; moreover, very little that we write as graduate students is meaningful and worthwhile. The key problem for CW classes is that so much of what is produced is derivative and rises only to the level of cliché. Similarly, lit courses end up eliciting the tried and true and become as stale as old bread when new fads and trends arise.

.

During the two decades when I coordinated a novel contest (with the final judges being David Poyer and Lenore Hart), I checked the bio’s of the entrants and noticed each year that several had doctorates. We did have years when the winner had a doctorate, but the honors often went to those who had not been lit majors.

.

Unlike She Who Knows All, I don’t have a flypaper mind to which all facts and information stick, but I believe it was the oral historian T. Harry Williams who had an insight about storytelling. Williams wrote a fine biography of Huey P. Long. He interviewed a wide range of individuals who had known the Kingfish and discovered that professors often made the worst storytellers, whereas individuals with minimal education had more useful information. (Okay, maybe it was Studs Terkel.)

.

So. . .

.

Knowing grammar won’t make you a good or great author. Taking a course in Symbolism in Modern Poetry won’t make you a good or great author. Taking a course in CW won’t make you a good or great author. You only become good by absorbing and then reprocessing, and adding to, what we have learned about the human condition.

.

Oh, how do you become a great writer? Don’t worry about it. Do your best and simply strive to have something worthy to be read.

 

Is there a big change in racial relations from the Sixties?

Posted by Howard Denson on June 29, 2013 at 1:25 PM Comments comments (0)

 

 

By HOWARD DENSON

.

When a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court threw out key civil rights provisions in June 2013, they created a day of outrage in the political middle and on the left. It was the Ku Klux Kourt, according to some critics.

.

On the next day, of course, the right was lambasting the court for its pandering to the gay coalition when it upheld same-sex marriages. How dare the court ignore the valid will of the states that had voted for the restrictions?

.

But isn’t this odd? No one on the right complained when Anthony Scalia, being the Supreme Gloater of the United Smirks, dismissed the 98-0 vote by the U.S. Senate upholding the Civil Rights Law by implying they were too weak-willed or weak-minded to vote their consciences and best judgments, which luckily he had in spades (“come on, pick a card, pick a card”;).

.

Along the way, the Justices opined that racially things are different in 2013 from what we had back in the Sixties, and the old era’s restrictions were no longer needed.

.

Yes, some things are different: We have an African American president, even though the right says he’s a commie Kenyan with a time machine; we have more blacks in Congress; we have more in the state houses; and we have more African American mayors.

.

Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. All right, I didn’t invent that saying, but it does point to some major comparisons between now and the Sixties (and before).

.

Back then, blacks could not be served in cafes, restaurants, etc. in the South. They may have had to pay poll taxes if they could vote. If they tried a sit-in, they ran the risk of being attacked by members of the Klan or White Power groups. That occurred in Jacksonville, as is chronicled by Rodney Hurst in It was never just about a hotdog and a Coke. It occurred a few years later in Bessemer, Ala., one summer when our Army National Guard unit was doing our annual two weeks of active duty down in Hattiesburg. While we were gone, a sit-in occurred at a dime store counter. The Klan-types came, locked the doors, and attacked the demonstrators with kiddie baseball bats and clubs.

.

Little black girls could go to their own church in Birmingham but be blown to bits by bombs set by racists from a neighboring county. Mississippi provided atrocities galore, from the murder of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, to the torturing and killing of Emmet Till, and to the murder of Medgar Evers. Add on top of these the assassinations of Rev. King and the civil rights advocates John Kennedy and his brother Robert.

.

If sincere whites tried to do the right thing (e.g., going ahead and serving them at a lunch counter), they risked the business being boycotted or burned out. When they said some changes needed to be made, the power structure assured them that a bunch of commie NAACP agitators were behind everything. Things will calm down after we get that scum out of town.

.

A demonstrator could stand in line, perhaps to get a voter card, and be beaten to the ground. Demonstrators coming to town could be trapped inside buses that were set afire.

.

All of the above is a condensed history of what occurred in the Sixties, but the bottom line is this: The Power Structure was largely made up of Southern Democrats (a.k.a. Dixiecrats). They didn’t want to give any voting power to the uppity “colored” community. As the Southern strategy of Saint Richard the Reluctant Confessor kicked in, the Dixiecrats became Republicans, and they still had one major goal in mind: keep real power away from the uppity blacks.

.

So what is different today? Places are integrated, and someone standing peaceably in line doesn’t have to worry about being beaten up or shot. Well, maybe there will be a drive-by shooting, or some nutter will show up with an assault rifle, or a trigger-happy officer may confuse the glint of a cell phone for the glint of a weapon and put 29 bullets into some unfortunate dude trying to find out why his date hasn’t shown up.

.

Today, we still have a Power Structure (still largely dominated by whites) trying to take the vote away from minority citizens or to discourage them from even trying to vote. That hasn’t changed since the Sixties and before, and that is the reason a Civil Rights statute is still needed.

.

Anthony Scalia was asking about the necessity of civil rights provisions when he asked if such-and-such a measure was simply trying to put the screws to the Democratic Party. As I recall, he said, “If so, I don’t have any problem with that.”

.

Instead of baldly stating a preference for one political party over another, I think he was saying that the American system featured Republicans fixing rules and districts when they were in power (the Sun Belt) and then Democrats (in Chicago, Boston, etc.) fixing those things when they had the power. He implied that it’s the all-American way.

.

Actually, it’s not because the political parties did not exist when the country was founded. They weren’t around when we operated poorly under the Articles of Confederations (Confederacies just don’t work), and they weren’t around when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were implemented. Party politics came later and exploded like an atomic bomb under the reign of Andrew Jackson.

.

If we want a fair judicial policy regarding voting procedures and districts, I recommend it revolve around the 14th and 15th Amendments, even though it may make Established Parties squeal in Chicago and the Sun Belt. The overriding principle should be that we will have one voter and one vote per person and that the votes will count equally. We will need to throw out the Establishment Party district lines that favor one party and subtract vote strength from those out of power. It may be impossible to get each district exactly alike, but we can get closer to an ideal.

.

If we are having voter ID restrictions, then the rules should be uniform and fair. (Sorry, Corrine, you can probably win in a more compact district.) A voter with a driver’s license or a student ID should be considered identified. Concealed handgun permits or fishing licenses should not be used for voting purposes. Any time that voter IDs require photographs, etc., the state, county, towns, and cities will need to make ID stations readily accessible, in churches, malls, shopping centers, plus governmental facilities.

.

The canard in the Sixties was that commie outsiders were stirring up the locals (by implication, they were too dumb and ineffectual to do it on their own). The canard in the 21st Century is that massive voter fraud is occurring on site at polling stations. It’s not.

.

Very likely, more shenanigans are occurring with the absentee ballots preferred by Republicans. If Grandpa is ga-ga in a nursing home, do we really know that that’s his signature on the ballot? Yes, Gramps could be a Democrat or an Independent. These ballots aren’t being policed in the same way that the Republicans want to vet on-site voting credentials.

.

Liberals get upset when they notice that the U.S. Constitution originally only counted blacks three-fifths of whites (for purposes of voting strength in Congress for the delegations). The South wanted their cake (to have more votes in Congress) and they wanted to eat it, too (the blacks couldn’t vote and weren’t citizens).

.

All of the restrictions being proposed after the Supreme Court’s meddling appear to return the country to the double standard we had over 200 years ago. All right, blacks and hispanics this time may be able to vote, but we’ll see that their votes don’t carry as much weight in the counting.

.

After all, it’s the American way (heh heh heh).

Mechanical linguists

Posted by Howard Denson on May 6, 2013 at 3:05 PM Comments comments (1)

 

 

By HOWARD DENSON

One writer of my acquaintance was saying that he wished that readers in other languages could read his work, but he admitted, “I still remember some of my high school Spanish, but not well enough to translate everything myself.”

 

 

A friend then asked, “How about using one of those computer language translation programs? I bet that will be just the thing.” She admits that she has only used the translation feature to decipher individual words or phrases in books she reads.

 

As they chatted, I suspected that the automatic translation programs would not do the job. Software programmers have made admirable strides, relying (I’m assuming) on the intricate principles of languages unveiled by transformational generative grammar (which I fought against in grad school with my minor in linguistics). That grammar system reduced English language sentences to what resembled intricate algebraic formulae, as some of them eschew mentions of traditional terms, such as nouns, verbs, and the like.

 

Despite my natural distrust of strange stuff, I recalled that in an undergraduate course at Florida State I had passively refused to learn the international phonemic alphabet, convinced that it was stupid and that I would never use the information. I now dread thinking “I’ll never use this” because invariably I will need the information a short time later. Sure enough, five years later, I was in a graduate course grappling with this generative grammar and even the phonetic alphabet. (What’s the difference between the phonemic and phonetic alphabets? As the old joke says, that’s what I say.)

 

Computers and language, of course, have made big advances with voice recognition software, and I don’t know (and won’t research) whether linguistics and various insights went into giving the software their marginal success. I do know that there is a downside to some of the programs: If you had a family member practicing on an accordion when you were recording the way you pronounced and enunciated each sound, the program might not recognize the sounds when they are recited in silence after the Office of Homeland Serenity shows up to take away that odious instrument of mass distraction.

 

Automatic translation has many challenges, but how useful is it overall?

 

I don’t often receive a letter in German, but the last one was from a gentleman from Düsseldorf who liked one of my rare cartoons. Despite my exposure to Latin in high school and German and Greek in college, I don’t have any great facility in any language. I approach a paragraph in a foreign language as if it were a crossword puzzle. Except for some prepositions and most conjunctions, I rarely know most nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. That means I must look up every one of them. I do pretty well in a language course if Lesson 1 has, say, 20 words for us to learn; ditto for Lesson 2. But my discipline breaks down in Lesson 3 when my willful stubbornness kicks in. I think it’s a shame that American schools discontinued the practice of caning. I’m fairly certain that the threat of a good beating would have kicked my language skills up several notches and definitely have meant that I would have made more than a “D” in trigonometry.

 

Thousands or millions of people don’t have such limitations. Let me mention three of them. First, my long-time colleague Jonah Eng is of Chinese descent but was born in Malaysia. I never hear him make an error in spoken English, and he knows several languages and dialects. Second, author Sohrab Homi Fracis has similar facility and has gone from his native Mumbai (née Bombay) to the U.S., where he completed his mastery of English and became the first Asian to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award with his collection “Ticket to Minto.” Third, my cousin’s wife, Florence “Tiny” Westbrook, taught German for years at Emory University. She is fluent in her native German and English, and her now grown children go from English to German seamlessly.

 

Over the years I could have practiced my German with my cousin’s family, but a general embarrassment has kept me from making the attempt. In a tavern, if I ever had more than one beer, I could repeatedly tell the barmaid, “Noch ein Glass Bier,” but wouldn’t know how to ask where the restroom was. (Yes, I know, a tavern would probably have dual signs in German and English. . .or at least carved/painted figures of males and females on the doors.) I can ask someone, “Wie geht es ihnen?” (“How are you?”;), but if the person doesn’t say “sehr gut” (“very good”;) because of the miseries of post-nasal drip or the flu, I can’t handle anything more complicated than “nicht so gut.”

 

We Americans like to deceive ourselves about why we don’t learn other languages well enough to use them in everyday life (“If you’re in the U.S., speak English"), so I could work up an argument that my mind is so active that it can’t be slowed for such mundane, even unpatriotic distractions. Yeah, that sounds plausible. However, by and by, I will be forced to admit that I’m lazy, stupid, or stereotypically American.

 

At any rate, I wrote back to the letter-writer from Düsseldorf and sent it through an English-to-German translation program, so that what I replied did look like German. I left a draft print-out in the paper kitchen midden near my PC, and, after a few months when I again came across that response, it certainly looked like it could make good sense.

 

It recently occurred to me to make an experiment, and I selected for the test the opening to one of my short stories in progress. In “To Make a Crop,” Clare and Bert Robinson are on a train in 1913 as they return from a nearby town to show off their baby Sarah, and they will soon learn that their modest house in Waldentown has burned down. The opening says:

 

Clare Robinson blew the ash away from baby Sarah’s face and gestured for her husband Bert to close the window on the train car.

 

The train on the dogleg from Marsay slowed as it neared the main line to Waldentown.

 

“How are you holding up?” Bert asked. “Train sick yet?”

 

“Not on this short trip.” As the baby burped, she patted her back and eased her back to sleep. “But when I rode the train all the way to Missouri, that was different.”

 

I highlighted that passage and pasted it into the English section of a translation program and then hit “translate” into German. Here are the results:

 

Clare Robinson hat die Asche von Baby das Gesicht von Sarah wegblaset und hat für ihren Ehemann Bert gestikuliert, das Fenster auf dem Zugauto zu schließen.

 

Der Zug auf dem dogleg von Marsay hat verlangsamt, als es auf die Hauptlinie zu Waldentown zugegangen hat.

 

„Wie sind Sie, der auf hält“? Bert hat gefragt. „Bildet krank noch aus“?

 

„Nicht auf dieser kurzen Reise“. Als das Baby gerülpst hat, hat sie ihre Rückseite geklapst und hat ihre Rückseite erleichtert, zu schlafen. „Aber wenn ich den Zug der ganze Weg nach Missouri gefahren bin, war das verschieden“.

 

Looks good, right? You won’t be surprised to see that the translation program has no railroad equivalent for a “dogleg line,” a spur line that resembles the hind leg of a dog (a term that I heard my grandmother use when she was describing the ashes from the steam engine blowing into the cars). Also, the idiom, “How are you holding up?”, confuses the program. Finally, the German version has about ten more words than the original.

 

Even though the passage resembles German, what happens if you then see what English it produces with another program? We get this:

 

Clare Robinson has the ashes of baby and has the face of Sarah wegblaset gesture of her husband Bert, to close the window on the Zugauto.

 

The train on the dogleg of Marsay has slowed down, as it has received on the main line to Waldentown.

 

"How are you, the on hold"? BERT has asked. "Is sick nor"?

 

"Not on this short journey". As the Baby burped, she has your back geklapst and has your back makes it easier to sleep.

 

The first program recognized that “train car” could be translated as “Zugauto,” but the second one did not recognize the supposed German compound. Overall, the translation is more than just a little rough, but let’s plod on and take their English and send it back to the first program for a translation into German:

 

Clare Robinson hat die Aschen des Babys und hat das Gesicht der Sarah wegblaset Gebärde ihres Ehemanns Bert, das Fenster auf dem Zugauto zu schließen.

 

Der Zug auf dem dogleg des Marsay hat verlangsamt, als es auf der Hauptlinie zu Waldentown empfangen hat.

 

„Wie sind Sie, das auf Halt“? BERT hat gefragt. „Ist krank noch“?

 

„Nicht auf dieser kurzen Reise“. Als das Baby gerülpst hat, hat sie Ihren hinteren geklapst und hat Ihre hinteren Ausführungen es leichter, zu schlafen.

 

Since I’ve never been one to let bad enough alone, of course, I sent it through another translation to English and discovered the following:

 

Clare Robinson has the ashes of the baby and has way blows the face of the Sarah gesture of its husband Bert to close the window on the train car.

 

Did the train on the dogleg of the Marsay slow down when it received on the head line to Waldentown.

 

"how are you, whom on stop"? Did BERT ask. "is suffer yet"?

 

"not on this short trip". When the baby gerülpst has, it has your rear geklapst and has your rear executions it more easily, to sleep.

 

No, the current automatic translation programs aren’t a solution. Jonah (who taught COBOL programming and math) says, “Understanding and using words in proper context has always been a challenge in human communication. It is by no means the computer's fault when we change the meaning of words over the years or engage in subtle inferences. Big Blue, of chessmaster fame, has moved into the ‘Jeopardy’ arena and will probably do a better job of language translation if only we can afford the horsepower needed for that assignment.”

 

Until that happens, your only options are these: You must either learn the language yourself enough to write and read comfortably or you must hire an actual red-blooded, living-and-breathing translator who has a good grasp of English idioms and their equivalents in another language. The experiment demonstrates that an author trying to rely exclusively on the computer programs would waste time and then suffer embarrassment when the so-called translation was presented to the world.

 

Sohrab was fortunate that his “Ticket to Minto” was well received in Germany, prompting the senior editor at Mitteldeutscher Verlag to approach the University of Iowa Press directly and purchase the German rights to "Ticket to Minto."  You will find “Fahrschein bis Minto,” translated by Thomas Löschner, on Amazon.com. Out of curiosity, I sent the title through the translation programs. One said it meant “Ticket until Minto,” while the other said “Ticket to Minto.” Yet, when I began with “Ticket to Minto” and asked each program to translate it into German, I got “Karte zu Minto” from one and “Buchen Sie zu Minto” from the other. Sohrab explained that Löschner “was fully conscious that ‘Fahrschein bis Minto’ translated literally to ‘Travel-Pass until Minto,’ more or less as your first program has it.” The Germans have their version of language tension, similar to the differences of “y’all,” “you all,” and “youse guys” in the U.S. For example, Fracis said, “My German girfriend at the time thought ‘Ticket nach Minto’ would be the most current and natural, since the English ‘ticket’ is ubiquitously used in Germany. But Thomas, a jazz musician with a musician's ear, didn't like the ring of the West German ‘nach,’ preferring the sound of his native East German ‘bis.’")

 

International students may arrive in classes in the U.S., being as bilingual as Jonah, Sohrab, and Tiny, but some may find themselves closer to my skill level. They may understand most of what is said in class but may dread having to write papers in English. They first write their paper in their native language and then, using my crossword puzzle approach, look up every word until they have something that resembles English.

 

Michele Boyette, a coordinator of instructional support at the Academic Center for Excellence at the University of North Florida, says the best practice for international students is to write their first draft in English and not transcribe it from their language. As an undergraduate student, I took all available short-cuts and understand the security blanket of writing the first draft in one’s native tongue. Michele says the main offense is some students will run their paper through an automatic translation program and then bring that version to the writing center for feedback. The students don’t recognize that, just as the programs made a mess of the opening of “To Make a Crop,” the programs don’t produce English sentences that will make sense to the tutors and certainly not their professors.

 

All of this sets off a storyline in my pumpkin head: Our computers have been set up to communicate with each other across the world. Substantial time passes (think of Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” with the boy bot as the last echo of the human race), and the computers are still communicating. They translate from this to that language, and they repeat it, refining each translation to slightly different passages. When the sentient machines or creatures then begin studying us, will the translations teach them anything about our civilization? Or (cue the eerie theremin music), will the translations simply prove to them that our demise was inevitable?