Having to Explain Betsy DeVos

Having to Explain Betsy DeVos

When I was in college, I played broomball. Broomball is basically ice hockey but instead of skates, sticks, and a puck you use tennis shoes, brooms, and a semi-deflated volleyball. It was a way for Michigan Tech students without winter sports skills to play a winter sport. Because there is a LOT of winter in Houghton.

Each section (or “house”) of the dormitory had a team. So other than my roommate (who was friend from high school), my teammates were basically randomly selected by the universe. This was fine except for one guy — he was one of our better players and nice enough to everybody on our team, but he would go out of his way to hurt players on other teams.

During games I would, of course, support and defend him when the other team got angry at him. That’s what teammates do. And outside of games when somebody from another team would see me on campus and say, “Hey, what’s the deal with that guy?,” I’d make excuses, “Well, he’s good player, he’s just a little intense.” But after awhile, that wore thin. The truth was, he was not a good person. Probably a sadist. I still feel bad that I defended him.

So here we find ourselves with Betsy DeVos, randomly selected by the universe to be on our state of Michigan team. You saw her performance earlier this week on 60 Minutes. You saw her performance at her confirmation hearings. You’ve seen her performance as Secretary of Education. I cannot explain or excuse any of that.

Being a “member of our team” by geography or even “on our side” politically makes some sense, but it really should be a secondary consideration. At some point a lack of competence has to be the more important consideration. At some point the indefensible must actually, you know, not be defended.


Scott Walker Teaches Us About…

Scott Walker Teaches Us About...

Next week, March 11–17, is Sunshine Week. For us Michiganders, the timing may seem a little off. It is squarely in the hopeless stage of our long, gray winter — what’s this talk of “sunshine”? That’s just mean.

Nevertheless, the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press use this week each year to promote the importance of access to public information. Sunshine is a symbol for our communities to have transparent access to what’s going on in our government. The tag line is: “It’s Your Right to Know.”

And certainly, when another state makes a play to draw a significant amount of Great Lakes water to outside of the Great Lakes basin, we have the right to know. Thank goodness we do know because the Scott Walkers of the world have proven over and over they are not inclined toward full disclosure. It’s not in their best interest (and their best interest is typically their only interest).

To be fair, Wisconsin is not the only state challenged by balancing economic development with environmental protection. We in Michigan are always grappling with how best to take care of our most valuable natural resource — fresh water: Should we let Nestle expand its bottled water operation? Should we allow a new potash mine to draw millions of gallons of groundwater?

Plus, it’s not like Michigan hasn’t gone down the dicey tax break path with solar panel manufacturing and batteries for electric cars. Truth be told, our own free market capitalist GOP governor made a “government picks the winners and losers” bid at Foxconn. But Walker and Wisconsin way outbid us. Way outbid. One could even say absurdly outbid.

So let ’em have it. We’ll see how viable LED screen manufacturing is in 25 years when their investment is scheduled to begin paying off. But let’s be suspicious about diverting water outside the Great Lakes basin to do it. Let the sun shine so we know what’s going on.


Drinking Bleach

Drinking Bleach

There was a punk rock band called “The Dead Milkmen” that had a fun little run of popularity in the late 1980s. They were goofy and sardonic and unapologetically without polish. One of their songs was called “Bleach Boys” in which the singer extols the supposed virtues of his buddies all drinking bleach (as apposed to indulging in alcohol or other drugs). It’s hilarious. A sample lyric:

Bleach keeps you young so I’ve been told
’cause no one who drinks it lives to be old

Ridiculous, right? But it reveals just how ridiculous it is to enthusiastically abuse anything. And how ridiculous it is to put a positive spin on something that is killing you.

So what’s the connection to the cartoon? Well, it’s that particular lyric that inspired me to think: The United States as a country continues to suffer death and injury at an unacceptable level from gun violence and opioid abuse. Why? Why if both are clearly killing people have we in the recent past allowed the doubling-down on their use?

It seems so obviously counterintuitive. Especially when other countries have found better methods. Yes, all countries are unique, but Canada is very, very similar to the United States. Why is their gun violence rate so much lower? Why is their level of opioid abuse (while still unhealthy) significantly less?

Until we get truly serious — which means sensible solutions to reduce availability and use — we’re kinda drinking bleach.


Most Easy Job I Have Ever

Most Easy Job I Have Ever

Three inspirations for this week’s cartoon:

  • A recent This American Life episode titled “Words You Can’t Say.” There are two stories, and both are really good. But if you only have a half-hour, definitely listen to Act 2. It is a textbook (and real) example of how strict adherence to ideology can absolutely obliterate common sense and common good.
  • Special counsel Robert Mueller bringing indictment changes to Russian nationals for interfering with U.S. elections and political processes. It’s becoming more and more apparent just how easy it was for outside agitators to hijack political dialogue. American voters in 2016 weren’t so much tricked as we were manipulated and amplified. Instead of questioning sources, we enthusiastically became accomplices. How is that not a top threat to our nation?
  • The most recent flurry of memes that followed the Parkland, Florida massacre. I applaud those who are off of social media for Lent. Good timing, I’d say. But because I draw this political cartoons, I didn’t feel right totally cutting myself off, so instead I’m making a special effort to avoid anger triggers. And that’s exactly what most memes are, anger triggers. Anyway, the small sample I’ve let my eye wander across, oy! If they weren’t authored by Russian trolls, then they were authored by Olympic Trolls from Russia.

Oh, wait, there was a fourth: All the new freeze/thaw potholes, which are destined to ruin my cars and shake the fillings from my teeth. Oh how I hate potholes.


Funny How the Federal Deficit Doesn’t Seem to Matter Anymore…

Funny How the Federal Deficit Doesn't Seem to Matter Anymore...

Last year, the Trump administration budget proposed eliminating the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal program to clean the lakes and protect them against invasive species. It was fairly up front about it, spinning it as the fiscally responsible thing to do. “We must make cuts, can’t just keep growing the national deficit, think of our children and grandchildren, etc.” That used to be standard dogma for Republicans and a President who sold himself as an expert on debt, assuring us he would eliminate the federal deficit in eight years.

This year, the Trump Administration is proposing not total elimination of the GLRI, just a 90% reduction. What’s the other difference between this year and last? Oh, yeah: THE FEDERAL DEFICIT NO LONGER MATTERS!

Enormous tax cuts followed by a giant leap in spending is going to balloon the deficit, and this is suddenly OK with the very same people who just an administration ago preached this as our financial Armageddon.

You gotta laugh. Except it’s not really all that funny.


Defying Authority to Protest Injustice

Defying Authority to Protest Injustice

Back when I was a senior at Powers Central Catholic High School in Flint, I went on a weekend religious retreat with a few of my classmates. Retreats vary in form and length, but this was fairly standard — two days away from the world to reflect and pray and to share the experience with peers. It took place on the grounds of a monastery that was also a working farm, so there were some rules. Mostly we needed to stay in or around the building that was dedicated for retreats.

It was a great retreat, and I took it seriously. At least up until the end when they had us fill out an evaluation form. For the amusement of my friends (and some girls from another school), I wrote down and then shared my less-than-serious answers. For example:

Q: What did you wish there were more of?
A: Definitely the cow rides. I really liked going out at night and riding the cows around the pastures.

Q: Are there some things you enjoyed more than others?
A: I preferred the bathrooms in the monastery to the ones in the retreat house.

The following Monday at school I was called into Mr. Reynolds office, the counselor who had coordinated the retreat. It seemed some folks at the monastery were quite upset about my evaluation, taking it at face value. Luckily Mr. Reynolds had enough insight into teenage behavior (and knew me well enough) to understand the situation and work with me to fix it. It ended up being a pretty good life lesson — just because my friends (and even Mr. Reynolds) think something is funny, doesn’t make it a good idea.

I tell you this story to contrast my goofing off with the earnest and thoughtful behavior of four Lansing Catholic High School football players who took a knee during the national anthem at football games. By all accounts these boys were serious in their protesting racial injustice (both locally and nationally) and about starting a conversation. The response it seems has been more about telling the boys and their peers what to do than about listening to what they have to say.

It’s been many years since high school, but I’ve been an adult leader on several retreats, and I can tell you that teenage boys still do dumb things to amuse their friends and impress girls. But they can also be quite thoughtful and deeply honest. And if you spend all your time trying to correct their behavior instead of working with them to understand it, it’s not going to be a positive experience for anybody.


Journalism Shines Light into Dark Corners

Journalism Shines Light into Dark Corners

A single word to summarize these Larry Nassar trials? How about, “ugh”? Well, it may not be a real word, but it’s a real feeling. Still, as stomach-churning as this experience has been, there are some, if not positive, then at least hopeful takeaways.

First and most obvious is the lesson learned. Or should I say, the lesson again learned: Organizations must have accountability standards in place to protect the vulnerable (especially children). Whether a church, a university, or a gymnastics team — there must be standards and practices that prevent abuses, and if abuses happen, stop it quickly.

The second takeaway is not as obvious but just as important. The crimes were committed, but now at least justice is being served. It required brave young women to step forward and testify. It required dedicated law enforcement and a vigilant judiciary to complete the process. And it also required professional journalists to shine the light.

Without the hard work of reporters like Michigan Radio’s Kate Wells, these awful stories could very well have remained in the dark, hiding those responsible and leaving the victims without a voice, the public uninformed.

It is especially popular these days to talk about “the media” and “the press” as a monolithic failure. And yes, it’s fair to desire quality work — we should insist journalism be as honest and unbiased as possible. But don’t dismiss the institution. There is no question that professional reporters play a critical role in a free nation. We can’t shout “fake news” whenever something violates our ideology and continue to expect journalism to stay strong.


And Now the Opposing View to Infrastructure Investment and Fiscal Responsibility…

And Now the Opposing View to Infrastructure Investment and Fiscal Responsibility

Governor Rick Snyder delivered his final State of the State address this past Tuesday. It was, well, pretty much what we’ve come to expect from Snyder — a vaguely corporate PowerPoint presentation. That of course is in keeping with “business nerd” shtick, so no big surprise or disappointment.

The part I found remarkable was his emphasis on investing in our state (roads, education, etc.) and the need to commit to those investments by being good financial stewards. I know. Not exactly words that set your heart ablaze with passion, but still notable for their intention. We’ll see how it goes — Snyder’s past seven years of delivering on intentions can charitably be described as a mixed bag.

Still, his apparent desire for infrastructure investment with fiscal responsibility seems noble. In fact, if you were to ask me a few years ago the definition of conservative governmental policy, “infrastructure investment with fiscal responsibility” would be pretty close.

These day, pfffftttttt! (That’s me making a raspberry sound.) Conservative governmental policy has morphed into a groupthink that views all government as the enemy, as some sort of occupying force that needs to be dismantled and rendered unresponsive. This ideology has proven to be remarkably effective in benefiting its donors but also remarkably effective in starving our infrastructure while shirking fiscal responsibility.

This is what Governor Snyder is up against. The question is, in this last year in office, will he be a leader who delivers?


Jorge Garcia

Jorge Garcia

On Monday this week, while our nation celebrated the life and principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., immigration officials were actively deporting a family man from Lincoln Park, Michigan. Jorge Garcia came to America 30 years ago when he was a 10 year-old boy, brought by undocumented family members. He built his life here: a wife and two teenage children (all US citizens), a home, a career as a landscaper, and a law-abiding, tax-paying member of the community. The last piece of that American Dream puzzle was full citizenship, which he pursued for years spending $125,000 in legal costs. But it wasn’t enough to keep him from being deported.

You can read a full story from the Detroit Free Press.

Many people would consider this story a tragedy. Many others would certainly not feel great about it, but point to the fact that the law is the law. (A few lost all empathy at reading the hispanic name “Jorge Garcia.” Let’s just leave them out of this.) The issue then is one of alignment. Are we a nation that exemplifies Reagan’s “Shining City upon a Hill” or are we a nation of dedicated rule followers? Well, in fact, we are both. And we need to be both. We need to have ideals and virtues and lofty goals. We also need to respect the rules and laws we have created.

But they need to align. And clearly in Mr. Garcia’s case, we are way out of alignment. The laws need to be updated so we can say we are the best nation in the world and actually be the best nation in the world.

It’s deeply unfortunate that every worthwhile movement in our nation’s history seems to require martyrs. Dr. King certainly was one for the civil rights movement. Mr. Garcia and his family now find themselves candidates for the immigration reform movement. Let’s pray that a brief separation is all that is required from them to achieve reform.


Flint at the Purple Rose

Flint at the Purple Rose

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner used to do a routine called “The 2000 Year Old Man.” In it, Reiner was a reporter interviewing Brooks, a man from ancient times. It was largely adlibbed with the reporter deftly setting the premise with genuinely curious questions and the old man providing outrageous answers (in a thick Yiddish accent).

One of my favorite bits was the question of a national anthem. The old man claims to have created the very first national anthem, clarifying that they didn’t actually have nations at that point — just groups of people who lived in caves.

The reporter: “Do you remember the national anthem of your cave?”

The old man: “I certainly do. I’ll never forget. You don’t forget a national anthem.”

The reporter: “Well, please, let us hear it.”

The old man (singing without hesitation): “Let them all go to hell, except Cave 76!”

It’s just a brilliant, brilliant piece of satire that lampoons the dark side of our natural inclination toward tribalism and (by extension) nationalism. I was aiming at the same target with the cartoon (fully aware it would fall well short of Brooks & Reiner).

There are plenty of preconceived notions of why Flint is the way it is. And tribalism solidifies these notions, pushing us to identify with our type, our group, our team. Alignment becomes the first priority and soon we are forming opinions about experiences before actually having the experiences.

In the press release for Flint, Jeff Daniels describes his intention for the play: “Flint will bring you up close and personal with the play’s four characters. I want you in the room with them. I want you to feel what they’re feeling.” It’d be a shame to miss out on understanding the Flint experience better because we think that we already know everything about it.


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