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Freedom and Its Dwindling Supply of Champions

This year’s winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom have been announced, and once again we have been overlooked. At this point in such a crazy election year we’re starting to suspect the system is rigged, but perhaps it’s just another sign of these desultory times.
The latest batch of honorees is the last to be chosen by the administration of Barack Obama, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect from that bunch. An award created by President John Kennedy to recognize “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” is this year being conferred on a couple of basketball players, a quartet of movie stars, a rock star and a soul singer, one of those modern architects and one of those modern artists, a sportscaster and a comedy show producer, an educator and a bureaucrat and a political activist, two wealthy and generous people, along with some scientists you’ve probably never heard of who have both significant achievements and politically correct personal histories. Given the current state of the culture, though, we suppose that’s about as good as it gets.
We have to admit that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan were two of the very best to ever play the great American game of basketball, but we an’t think of any other especially meritorious contributions they’ve made to the national security or world peace or American culture. Abdul-Jabbar has long been an outspoken activist, going from angry black nationalist to soft-spoken garden variety white-guilt-mongering liberal, and Jordan is now most visible as a pitchman for the Hanes undergarment company and Nike’s over-priced sneakers. Ellen Degeneres is a witty and likable woman by afternoon talk show hostess standards, we’re told, but we suspect she’s being honored mainly because she’s openly lesbian, which we have nothing against but don’t see as especially meritorious.
Of that quartet of movie stars, Robert Redford is overrated as an actor and an utter bore as an activist, Tom Hanks is also overrated but a better actor and less obnoxiously political, Robert DeNiro has had brilliant performances in great movies in the past but probably won for his recent videos threatening to punch Republican president-elect Donald Trump in the nose, and the last memorable role of Cicely Tyson’s slight career was as a civil rights martyr in the melodramatic mini-series “Miss Jane Pittman,” which apparently is enough for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. The rock star is Bruce Springsteen, an overrated self-styled workingman’s hero known as “The Boss,” and the soul singer is Diana Ross, who cut some nice records with the Supremes back in the Motown days but doesn’t quite crack our list of the 50 best women singers of recent decades.
The sportscaster is the venerable Vin Scully of longtime Los Angeles Dodgers fame, who was as good a sportscaster as you’re likely to ever hear but was otherwise not notable. Lorne Michaels is being honored as the longtime producer of “Saturday Night Live,” which provided a considerable in-kind contribution to Trump’s Republican primary campaign by inviting to be a guest host but has otherwise been impeccably liberal in its long and mostly undistinguished run. Frank Gehry, creator of curvy buildings that skateboarders will someday slide over in the post-apocalyptic world, is the modern architect, and Maya Lin, best know for that long slab of a Vietnam memorial on the Washington Mall, is the modern artist. The educator is Eduardo Peron, president of Miami Dade College, who is both widely respected by the other liberals in in his field and a Latino to boot. The bureaucrat is former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newt Minow, best remembered for declaring ’50s and ’60s television “a vast wasteland” and as the eponym for the S.S. Minnow that stranded those wacky castaways on “Gilligan’s Island.” A posthumous award is bestowed on Elouise Cobell, whose activism on behalf of traditional Native American tribes also imposed feminism on them, which earns double credits.
Bill Gates and his wife Melinda are also being honored, not for the pioneering role he played in the computer revolution that has transformed American culture but rather for their generosity in sharing the many billions of dollars he acquired along the way, which we think is well worth honoring. The mathematician and computer scientist is being honored for her work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper gets the nod for her role in bringing computer technology to the Navy, and although both were leaders in their fields we suspect the fact they were far away and the most of the prominent of the relatively few number of women involved also had something to do with it. Richard Garwin is being honored for such a wide body of work in physics that his whiteness and maleness and politically-incorrect role in developing America’s nuclear weaponry were apparently overlooked.
We’ll be expecting something completely different in the first batch of honorees chosen by a Trump administration, but not anything better. There’s a limited supply of Americans making especially meritorious contributions to the national security and world peace and American culture these days, and Trump seems as unlikely to discern them as Obama. Both the outgoing and incoming presidents are pure products of a popular culture that esteems celebrity over achievement, group identity over individual excellence, and the latest fads over the lasting truths. A former pro-wrestling performer and reality show star who seems unembarrassed to admit that he’s never been much of a reader is unlikely to recognize artistic greatness, and Trump’s long career as a real estate mogul has repeatedly proved his poor taste in architecture, while his campaign rhetoric suggests a convoluted notion about what’s good for America’s national security and world peace, and despite his reputation for political incorrectness we wouldn’t be surprised to see the same sort of demographic quotas being used.
In any case it should be at least another four years before we find ourselves on the roster of honorees, and in the meantime we’ll be reading old books and watching old movies and listening to old records to console ourselves.

— Bud Norman

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On Racial Disparities in Educational Achievement

Our first awareness of a racial disparity in educational achievement came on our first day of junior high school, when an English teacher required each student in our diverse class to take a turn reading aloud a paragraph from the first page of the textbook. Some of the black students handled the assignment with ease, while some of the white students struggled with the longer words and more complex sentences, but it was glaringly obvious to our seventh-grade eyes and ears that most of the white students could read markedly better than most of the black students. Several of the black students stammered through three-lettered words and the most simple declarative sentences, all but the best one or two or three of thm were no better than what seemed the white average, and as one of the more illiterate readers grumbled in a loud and angry sotto voce that it was a racist exercise intended to make the black students feel bad we realized that everyone else in the room had also noticed.
The realization surprised us, as at that point we couldn’t imagine how the mostly-black elementary school our new classmates had attended could have possibly been worse than the mostly-white one we had suffered through, and even in the early ’70s and even in such Republican terrain as our middle-of-America school district we had already been diligently taught by our social studies classes and the evening news and all those Sidney Poitier movies to believe that racial equality prevailed everywhere except perhaps basketball, but it was quickly corroborated as a widespread fact by both the voluminous educational testing data we precociously read and our own experiences in every other class we attended through junior high and high school. By the first mugging of our junior high career, which also occurred on that first day, we also noticed a similar racial disparity in the school’s disciplinary problems that would persist through our high school graduation.
Even at that young age we were engrossed and dismayed by the apparently nationwide phenomenon, and since then we’ve avidly kept abreast of the late efforts to rectify this unfortunate disparity, but the latest data and the anecdotal tales we hear from our parent and teacher friends suggest the unfortunate situation has not at all improved since our long-ago schooldays. Our continued interest in the subject led us to the internet site of the City Pages publication in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis, where they recount all-too-familiar school day tales of teachers being assaulted, students being bullied, general mayhem occurring in school hallways, and glaring racial disparities showing up in the educational testing data. The same sad tale was noticed by a writer at the EAGnews.org site, who added the interesting fact that the Minneapolis school school district has paid nearly $3 million over the past five years to a consulting company called Pacific Educational Group which has advised that problem is an educational system built on “white privilege,” and that the solution is greater sensitivity and worry about “white privilege” and less disciplinary action and less emphasis on all that Eurocentric “verbal” and “intellectual” and “task-oriented” stuff. The multi-million dollar price tag for such dubious advice is allegedly explained by its cutting-edge trendiness, and exquisite political correctness, but it sounds very much like the same sort of pedagogical theory that made junior high so hellish for us and so disparately un-educational for the vast majority of our black classmates.
That kid in our English class who griped about the humiliation of by being asked to read aloud from a textbook turned out to be one of the more troublesome muggers at our school, and even our ill-educated seventh-grade eyes and ears soon noticed a similar correlation between educational achievement and troublesomeness throughout the school, but the experts at the Pacific Educational Group have reached different conclusions than we did about the cause and effect. Judging by the advanced educational levels of our relatively docile white peers versus that of the more defiant black students we assumed that an increased adherence to the rules of the educational system resulted in a greater benefit from its offerings, but the Pacific Educational Group has apparently concluded that punishing defiance of those rules is the cause of black students’ lesser achievement. They no doubt have some nuanced theory to back up this absurd claim, but it is not verified by our years in racially-diverse public schools.
We were further bemused to note that the Pacific Educational Group’s efforts on behalf of oppressed minority students is further complicated by a large minority of Hmong students. We didn’t have any Hmong in that seventh-grade English class of ours, but we fared well enough in our reading lessons to have since learned that they are an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Cambodia who fled that country’s killing fields to re-settle in post-Cold War fashion in America, mostly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis, and that like people from such mountainous regions as the Himalayas and Andes and Appalachians they are widely regarded by their countrymen as the hillbillies of their broader culture. Suffice to say that all those stellar statistics you see about the educational achievements of Asian-Americans, who presumably enjoy no white privilege, are vastly understated by the underachieving averages of the Hmong, yet the Pacific Educational Group’s recommendations are rendered strictly in black-and-white. The only change we have noticed since our long-ago school days that America’s educational problems are now all the more diverse, despite the same old disparities, and we’d like to think that the nuance arguments of those multi-million dollar consultants on the cutting-edge have at least caught up to that.
Even after so many years since our school days we can’t offer any definitive solutions to the continuing inequality of our public schools, despite our near-certainty that more tax money spent on such obvious scams as the Pacific Educational Group and the Justice Department’s insistence on racial quota systems for disciplinary actions and some obviously racist notion about “verbal” and “intellectual” and “task-oriented” being uniquely Caucasian attributes isn’t the answer, but we’d hazard a guess that starting to reach the black and brown and Hmong white kids to read standard English at an early age, and insisting that they refrain from mugging their fellow students or assaulting their teacher in between lessons, is a good start. The main reason we were reading above grade-level by the time of that seventh-grade teacher called on us was the tutelage of two parents who were avid readers and determined to inculcate the habit in their children, although we’d like to thank that our docile habit of refraining from committing mayhem on fellow students or assaulting teachers also had something to do with it, so reversing so many years of inequality will therefore take some time and doing, but we can’t start by assuming, as the Pacific Educational Group does, that those black kids we sat with are simply too “emotional” and “colorful” to keep up.
The issue continues to engross us because it is all-important. Since we our school days we have noticed that the disparities in intellectual achievement eerily predict future disparities, with the kids who were too cool for school faring poorly in life while the nerds who followed all the rules and did all the assignments and aced all the tests are enjoying their middle-aged lives, and that the the correlations cross all colors. Those one or two or three black students who handed a paragraph of a textbook with ease are better off than those white students who struggled with the longer words and more complex sentences, the majority of the white students who read better than the majority of black students are making more money, and all those racial income disparities that the guilt-stricken white folks worry about are clearly a result of the educational achievement disparities that they’re exacerbating by handing over $3 million to the likes of the Pacific Educational Group and similarly addle-brained educators. Start by insisting that first-graders everywhere learn how to read English at a first-grade level, and enforcing certain rules that have proved essential to that goal throughout the history of education, no matter how “emotional” or “colorful” you imagine their culture to be, continue the process right through high school graduation, and we believe it might take an important first step.

— Bud Norman

A Bittersweet Departure

Attorney General Eric Holder has announced his resignation, yet we feel no glee. Holder was by far the worst Attorney General of our lifetime, which stretches back to the days of John Mitchell, but his departure provides no vindication and little hope.
The man’s execrable record began long before he assumed the office of Attorney General, from his days taking over campus buildings as a college radical to his role in the Clinton administration’s final days pardons of a Democrat-contributing expatriate scammer and some bomb-throwing Puerto Rican terrorists, and continued into his private sector work at a law firm that provided pro bono defense for Islamist terrorists. In the euphoria that followed the hope and change election of ’08 this record was insufficient to prevent the appointment of the first black Attorney General, however, and his outrages as Attorney General began immediately with his decision to drop charges against the paramilitary-garbed and club-weilding New Black Panther members who had already been convicted of intimidating voters outside a Philadelphia polling station and an address that branded America a “nation of cowards” for declining to talk about race on his resentful terms, then continued with a disinclination to pursue hate crime charges on behalf of white victims, his insistence that school discipline be administered by racial quotas, his apparent approval of the “Fast and Furious” program that allowed gun sales to Mexican gangsters who wound up committing hundreds of murders that included the death of American law enforcement agents, his subsequent stonewalling of congressional investigations that led to a contempt charge, his refusal to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of his party’s political opponents, his resistance to reasonable rules regarding eligibility for voting, his prejudicial statements concerning various racial contretemps playing out in the local justice systems, and other offenses so numerous that we can’t off the top of our head recall them all.
None of this was sufficient to remove the first black Attorney General from office, however, and so far as we can tell he is rather smugly leaving for a lucrative career in the private sector of his own accord. There is speculation in the conservative press that Holder is departing under duress of those still-lingering contempt of Congress charges stemming from the “Fast and Furious” scandal, but this seems wishful thinking. All those dead Mexicans and American law enforcement officers weren’t an issue in the re-election of Holder’s boss, and are now rarely mentioned in the public discourse, so we can’t imagine that Holder or his boss feel at all concerned by it now. Disturbingly enough the more plausible explanation is Holder’s statement that six years of bedeviling American justice is enough and that he’s ready to follow his wife’s advice and take on the less stressful and more remunerative life of a very well-connected private sector lawyer. He announced his resignation with a lachrymose farewell from the President of the United States and such polite press as the Politico web site admitting that his resignation is perfectly timed to allow a replacement to be confirmed by a lame duck Democratic Senate but still gushing that he is “leaving on arguably the highest point of his personal career, after a year of progress on his plan to reform sentencing laws and just after his well-received, calming-the-waters trip to Ferguson, Missouri, during the riots in August.”
That Holder is leaving as the least popular person in the Obama administration went unremarked, as was that his trip to Ferguson calmed the waters by promising the mob its preferred decision on the police shooting that prompted the riots and it wasn’t at all well-received by the vast majority of Americans who don’t write for Politico, but otherwise the article seems credible in its assertion that Holder is leaving on his own. The publication’s posterior-kissing approach to journalism has probably given it credible sources within the administration, too, so we take seriously their list of the equally-radical and racialist candidates being considered to replace Holder. One can hope that a more Republican Senate will refuse to confirm the first few put forth, but they’ll eventually have to agree to one of them and in the meantime Holder will stay on the job. We’ll be glad to be rid of Holder, but don’t expect that anything will soon get better.

— Bud Norman