Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Katrina and a Burden Not Shared

Two years after Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans is far from recovered. The reasons for this are long and twisted and blame—where blame is due—can be spread far. But there is one failing I want to focus on, because it may just be the biggest failing of all: our collapsing sense of shared burden.

After the hurricane hit, I was outraged at how many conservatives turned the blame away from the government and onto the people who had stayed behind – even as those people were still suffering. The cold-heartedness was sickening. If a man who cannot swim jumps into a river, is the moral response to lecture him from the shore about his decision-making? Or do you jump in to save him? Apparently, the answer is unclear to many.

And that is the conservative contribution to our collapsing sense of shared burden – this belief that anyone who does not pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is unworthy of compassion. We witnessed it in the immediate aftermath and we’ve seen it again and again in the less-than-robust rebuilding efforts. I may have a fair number of rightward opinions but I do not consider myself a “conservative” primarily because I cannot abide by the ideology’s coldhearted strain.

Unfortunately, it’s too easy to look at the pain still gripping New Orleans and blame the whole mess on conservatives. Too many liberals now exist in a cold, us-against-them mindset that breeds contempt for their fellow Americans while inflating their own sense of righteousness. Liberals may be better positioned to show compassion towards New Orleans but how can they marshal the will of the people when they think so little of so many in this nation?

These are sweeping judgments, sure, but the truth is in there. I believe each of us as individuals has the desire to help our fellow men and women. But we are ineffective as individuals. What we need is a national movement. But national movements cannot spring from the two ideological strains currently in power. Both care far more about themselves than about those outside their fold.

Now some might argue we’ve never much had a sense of shared burden – I imagine black Americans do not see the neglect after Katrina as deviating from any previous trends. But the idea of a shared burden is, I believe, a cornerstone of a civil and democratic society. If we cannot rise up and heal our fellow citizens in their times of crisis then what point is there to being an indivisible nation?

I have faith that New Orleans will revive—that the spirit of individuals and small groups will triumph. But I despair that we have not done more, faster. This was an opportunity for us to remind ourselves of what grand achievements we are capable. We failed—and that’s in no small part because our leaders failed to marshal us.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Public Schools are Not a Cure-All

Apparently, Americans are fatter than ever. As a resident of a very tubby town, I’m not surprised. But what does surprise me is how often discussions about American weight problems end up as discussions about what kids are eating in school (the article cited above is a perfect example).

You know what I ate for lunch in high school? A full-sugared soda and a bag of Doritos most days (I liked to save my lunch money for video games and more Doritos at the 7-11). When I was a senior and could leave campus, I ate a rotating variety of meals that included Taco Bell, Wendy’s, CiCis Pizza, Arby’s and McDonald’s. I did not get the low-cal options.

And I’m not fat. Why? Because like most kids, my health habits were not conferred to me through school. I learned from my parents who prepared a lot of home-cooked meals and exercised regularly. I don’t think my personal example is an aberration. In fact, I think it’s pretty dang typical.

It’s all well and good to feed children healthy food at school. I totally support such moves. But it’s not going to end obesity or even stem it. As I’ve said to parents who want more abstinence-only classes in the school, or who want prayer in schools: Our schools exist for the education of the mind. The body and spirit are the responsibility of parents and the greater society.

Public schools cannot do all or even a slim majority of our child rearing for us. They should steer our children in the appropriate directions and they certainly should fill our children’s minds with the knowledge they need to be successful citizens, but they cannot cure our nation’s greater ills.

You want children to eat better at school? Fine, that's a worthwhile cause. You want to end obesity in America? You'd do better to search for real solutions.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Time for a National Primary

If all these states keep moving up their primaries, we’ll be picking the candidates before this Halloween. It’s gotten ridiculous. But it makes sense.

Although I live in the second most populous state in the nation, I’ve never once had my primary vote matter. By the time Texas holds its primary, the parties have already locked in their candidates. This is true for citizens in all but a handful of states. How is that remotely democratic?

What we need is a national primary just like we have national elections. Yes, yes, yes, I know a national primary would make it extremely difficult for marginal candidates to get their message out to the people. It’s much more affordable for poorly funded candidates to throw all their money into Iowa and New Hampshire and hope to build momentum.

That’s a nice theory but I tend to think marginal candidates have empty coffers because either 1) they are bad candidates or 2) they get no media coverage because most of us watch the primaries from the sideline, unmotivated to choose a candidate because our voices will never be heard anyways. Marginal candidates are kept marginal more by the choice of the media than by the lack of funds.

If all of us knew our primary votes actually mattered, wouldn’t a much larger percentage of us pay closer attention to the candidates? In the national polls, would so many people blithely answer the name with greatest recognition or would more people actually consider their choice? And wouldn’t candidates benefit from their supporters staying in their own home states and building organizations rather than descending upon Iowa?

A national primary, particularly one that includes a runoff, would not dilute the process as many claim. It would energize it. And it would stop this crazy rush to be the first state to cast a vote. The process would still be far from perfect but it would be a heck of a lot better than the antiquated system in place now.

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