Sunday, February 26, 2017

Alien and Sedition Acts Redux

When you really think about it, conservatives have wanted to take this country back to the beginning of the republic ever since Reagan was elected in 1980. After all, Antonin Scalia and the Originalists (which is a great name for a rock band, yes?) made their political and philosophical careers on interpreting the constitution according to what they believed to be the framer's intent. And as long as Scalia and Thomas and the far right were on the fringe, it looked like the country might avoid the embarrassment of living in the 1790s.

That's all changed, hasn't it?

If the first month of the Trump administration was a bit of an organizational mess, the second month is proving to be a full court press on the nation's values and mission. What was once a pair of bedrock beliefs--that anyone who could make a contribution to society was welcome here, and that a free press was the major check on executive and congressional power--seem to be under assault by the president (shudder) and his minions in the White House. They are now committed to actually breeding hatred, suspicion, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-intellectualism and undermining news organizations and journalists who dare to cover them critically.

Gone are the days, if they ever existed, where Americans could take some solace in the idea that Donald Trump was more moderate than his campaign words and that he would try to unify the country around change that would benefit the working and middle class. His screed in front of the Conservative Political Action Conference was a call to arms against fellow Americans who understand that fear and suspicion are the enemies of representative democracy, and Sean Spicer's press wall against those news organizations that the administration blames for negative coverage is a dangerous admission that the Trump White House has little regard for facts or interpretation.

It makes sense, then, to think that we might be on the verge of new Alien and Sedition Acts (and reading the first paragraph of this entry made me laugh. The Soviet Union is gone, so just substitute Trump's America). Far-fetched, you say? Banning immigrants is on the check list. Muzzling the press and making it illegal to criticize the president? Former, yes, the latter, not out of the realm of the possible. These laws were terrible enough in the 1790s, but they would be a catastrophe today. The president and Steve Bannon seem to be in agreement on challenging every mainstream media organization and demonizing their reporters and executives. They champion their own press that has, shall we say, a spotty record when it comes to reporting actual facts. They want to plug press leaks too. Anybody seen G. Gordon Liddy around?

Of course, this all a great big Hypocrisy Woodstock love-in. When the press was using Russian leaks about Hillary Clinton, Trump encouraged more. When James Comey bombshelled the election 10 days before the vote, Trump was exultant. Now he's blaming the FBI for being against him. And there will be more verbal attacks on other agencies as they inevitably will need to come into conflict with the White House, because it's clear that Trump cannot be wrong. But don't worry; he'll tweet what's correct.

None of this is normal. None of this has a precedent. None of this conforms to any notion of responsible presidential behavior. None of it. We are moving in reverse. Time to dig our heels in.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Make America Great? Promote the Arts and Culture.

Had enough yet? Of course not. And it's still February.

If the press conference wasn't proof enough that the president still doesn't have a handle on his facts, then let's move on to those things that do not lie: the numbers.

Yes, it's almost time for the president to issue a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, that starts in October, and word is that it's going to include the GOP's greatest hits. That means that social programs will of course be on the chopping or reforming block, such as Medicare and Medicaid, programs that actually do a great deal of great for their intended beneficiaries, while we are in for a massive infusion of money to the military because, well, we need a huge amount of new weapons to fight, well, ISIS? Russia? China? I'm not quite sure. I guess maybe after being at war for 16 years, many of our weapons have been used and we need new ones? We'll come back to that one.

Some of the other cuts on the Republican wish list are oldies but goodies from the 1980s Reagan Revolution.  They include drug treatment programs and the Export-Import Bank, but the program cuts that really show where the right's priorities are will fall on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. That these programs account for maybe a few hundred million dollars in a $4 trillion dollar budget doesn't seem to matter. They will be on the chopping block no matter what that says about the ruling party's priorities.

The CPB, the NEA and the NEH, quite simply, bring a certain level of calm, thoughtfulness, pragmatism, knowledge, intelligence and, yes, democracy, to the country. So naturally you can see why the right would want to get rid of them. Chaos and unpredictability are in. Sober-minded analysis is definitely out. But ever since Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and "Tales of the City" made their way into the consciousness of the party of morality, they have tried to demonize publicly funded culture as elitist and leftist, arguing that if television programs and art exhibits can't pay their own way, then they should be thrown onto the bonfire of the inanities.

A country that loses its culture is in more trouble than one that loses a war. And some culture will always need public support. Artists cannot always get exhibition space on their own and some television programs are worth seeing even if they can't attract sponsors. The public benefits from programming and exhibits that supports new and vibrant artistic voices in areas of the country that might want or need to see different perspectives. This is what makes our country great. Democratizing culture serves everyone. And if you don't like it, turn it off.

Even more damaging would be cuts to or elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This is where the United States shows its commitment to learning, academic research, and school programs that encourage people to read poetry and great literature, and to involve themselves in timeless and timely ideas that might not see the light of day without this support.

The NEH sponsors educational institutes for school and college teachers in areas that allow for significant pedagogical growth across the education establishment. Thousands of teachers, including me, have spent wonderful summers researching, studying, arguing, observing and learning something that they never would have learned without these programs. The NEH provides a lifeline to teachers and students and makes our schools richer in every way. Why would anyone want to cut that?

It would be terrible for this country to lose its creative could in order to save a pittance. We can't afford not no have these programs. And once they're gone, they're gone for good.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Hey You! Wanna be Governor of NJ? We Need One.

Chris Christie will go down in New Jersey history as one of the most unpopular, least effective, self-serving governors this state has ever had. And given our history, that's saying a lot. But for someone with the political skills he has and the ability to connect with everyday people, having a 17% approval rating is shocking. He spent all of his political capital on Hurricane Sandy and thought that he would be the big mouth with the righteous anger in 2016, but that didn't work out either.

And now he seems to have disappeared. OK, not entirely. He is spending his last few months highlighting the problems of drug addiction and is stumping for more money for treatment programs, but otherwise, he doesn't have much else. His school spending plan is pretty much dead on arrival and Trump has taken all of the available space and oxygen in the politician realm. Christie was passed over for a cabinet position, but I can see him taking over after one of Trump's originals flames out, which will happen sooner rather than later. Heck, if Christie can hang on, he could become VP if Trump does something high-crimish or misdemeanorlike in the next two years, which is also looking somewhat possible given that he can't stand criticism and thinks that everything that goes against his family is unfair.

Even Christie's Lieutenant Governor, Kim Guagdano, is fleeing Trenton and is running to succeed her boss. It will be interesting to see how she's going to separate herself from him since we didn't see much of her leadership style for, well, eight years. And that includes the time when the state got smacked with a blizzard when Christie was on vacation and Guagdano was the acting Governor. Not a peep. And the state ground to a halt. Talk about laissez-faire.

The Democrats are in much better shape in this state than nationally, but they are still going to have to round up votes in the traditionally Democratic urban and suburban areas. Right now Phil Murphy is the front-runner and has already been endorsed by party bigwigs and some unions. John Wisniewski is also running and he actually has state-level governing experience as a member of the State Assembly for the past 20 years. He's trying to run as an outsider, but if Trump is any guide to how an outsider runs a government, Wisniewski might want to run as the trusted, sure hand who can actually govern.

But this is all for the future as we're in the money grubbing phase of the election until springtime, and the primaries aren't until June. Another election. Fun.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Readin', Writin' and 'Ridiculous

There's a certain perverse pride public educators should feel due to the fact that Betsy DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education, is, of all the Trump cabinet picks, the object of the most phone calls and other communications objecting to her confirmation. She's also the only nominee that some Republican Senators will oppose. At last, education is at the top of the priority list. Feel better?

The corporatization of public education has been gaining strength since A Nation at Risk was released in 1983, warning the United States that students were not learning the content and skills they needed in order for our country to compete in the economic and political world. Despite efforts to reform the curriculum, incorporate technology, and change teaching practice to include cooperative learning, Back to Basics learning and the upside down classroom, schools are being shortchanged in state budgets and students are being tested over the course of multiple days which could be used for more quality instruction.

The solution? Betsy DeVos.

Yes, what this country needs is a Secretary of Education with no public school...anything. Not attendance, not school board, not having children attend public school, and not any knowledge of laws that govern the public schools. She is the perfect manifestation of the ideology that puts money, competition and strict, top-down management above all else. She represents the conservative view that, really, anyone can be in education because, well, teaching is easy and the schedule is cake and, honestly, if you were so smart, you would have gone into a field where you were respected and could earn piles of cash.

Stupid teachers.

But just public school teachers. Conservative ideology says that private school teachers are just fine because they understand the private nature of capitalism and that skimming the best students off the top is the American way. And Charter School teachers? You are even better because you are directly challenging the public schools and those nasty unions in your districts. Cynical? You bet. True? No.

But that seems to be where Betsy Devos is on the educational continuum. She is highly unqualified,  regal in her detachment from all things public school, blithely ignorant of what she doesn't know, and dismissive of what really works in education. She is also a reflection of the president's (shudder) own uncaring attitude towards anything that requires thoughtfulness and academic rigor. What do you expect from someone who doesn't read books?

The silver lining is that conservatives don't want a federal presence in education, preferring to keep the major issues at the state level. The problem is that DeVos will champion vouchers and the growth of non-public schools. How much of an impact she'll have will depend on how much power she can carve out of the department.

The responsibility of all public school educators is to oppose her at every turn and to do what's right for our students.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest