Thursday, April 3, 2014, Speaker Boehner, Charles Koch of Koch Industries, and NY Governor Cuomo

Encountered all three while surfing on the Internet late Thursday afternoon. I was looking for light reading material after having perused first chapters of Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind, Brian Fagan’s Cro-Magnon, and Doug Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop. And I was surfing because it wasn’t yet Happy Hour time when today I had promised myself I would share a bottle of Green’s gluten free dark ale  (Budweiser hasn’t yet joined the mad rush to gluten free) with my wife whom I knew was still upstairs in our “grande salle” hard at work at her iMac on her family archives, now numbering conservatively in the tens of thousands of pages.

Speaker Boehner was the first. I read about his latest pronouncement on the Cheat Sheet or Afternoon Edition of the Daily Beast. The Speaker, addressing the shooting at Fort Hood spoke saying that the mentally ill should not own guns. Wow! Good point Mr. Speaker. Or, in his own memorable words: “There’s no question that those with mental-health issues should be prevented from owning weapons or being able to purchase weapons.”

Why hadn’t I thought of that? But then, I wondered what would be the Speaker’s response on hearing about a fatal car accident, an ugly divorce made public, or a teen suicide? Would he have said, much in the vein of his Fort Hood comment, that those responsible for the car crash, the marriage bust-up, the teen’s suicide, shouldn’t be allowed to own a car, marry, or have children? No, of course not.

And anyway, who could/would determine the state of one’s mental health, as a preliminary to gun ownership? Imagine a world when in order to own a gun, not to mention a car, a picket fence with partner and children, one’s mental state would have to be somehow determined beforehand as being, what, normal? In the case of the millions of soldiers who have come back (at least those who have made it back) not to mention those who drive, marry, and raise children, what few among them all would be considered normal, ready and able to take on the various responsibilities?

Mr. Speaker, in the past, as I’m sure you well know, totalitarian governments have tried to determine that, although what they usually meant by their closed door determinations was whether the individuals being questioned and examined represented no threat to themselves, the examiners, to their own privileged positions.

But the Speaker missed the real lesson to be drawn from the Fort Hood and other similar incidents. And the lesson wasn’t at all that the military ought to have kept this individual from possessing a firearm. Not possible.

The real lesson of Fort Hood, one that neither the Speaker nor President Obama has drawn, is that war comes with its own negative externalities, and that what happened at Fort Hood was probably one of the very least of these, least in terms of lives lost for no good reason. Wars, especially those begun by recent American presidents, those in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, those “bad” wars should never have been started.

We probably cannot keep guns out of all hands that shouldn’t have them. We just don’t know how to do that in any democratic fashion. However we might at least do as we do with automobiles, make gun ownership more difficult, gun possession more responsible, that is, we might grow the number of regulations. And in fact haven’t federal and state driving regulations lowered the number of driving fatalities?

And isn’t it a good thing that the founding fathers didn’t drive. For if they had we might now have an expanded second amendment protecting the right of individuals to own and drive cars with, as in the case of guns, only minimal restrictions.

But the Speaker had more to say about Fort Hood, “This issue we need to continue to look at, [is] to find a way to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.” Wow again! And again, how would he do that?

A last comment. Mr. Speaker, when you think of all the young men who have been sent, first to Vietnam, then to Iraq, and now to Afghanistan, and then returned to their home base, isn’t it really extraordinary that there have been so few Fort Hood incidents? Banning bad wars might be a better place to start if you would lessen if not eliminate the Fort Hoods.

My second encounter was with Charles Koch, of the Koch Industries.  In a WSJ op ed piece of April 2, he writes:

I have devoted most of my life to understanding the principles that enable people to improve their lives. It is those principles—the principles of a free society—that have shaped my life, my family, our company and America itself.

Now I believe he believes this (although I’m sure he would have great difficulty in defining the “principles of a free society”). Like many others, in particular the current crop of Republican presidential aspirants, including Tea Partiers, anti-government  (anti-Obama) conspiracy theorists, the Rand borthers, libertarians who at best try to disguise themselves as classical liberals, and others including all the too familiar figures of the Republican establishment, if there is such anymore, led by Jeb Bush.

But he doesn’t seem to realize (how is that possible, does he know nothing about history) that the only “free society” there has ever been was that of the jungle where life was short, brutal, and not sweet. For our ancestors, our real ancestors, not the so-called founding fathers, but the hunter-gatherers who first appeared and entered the fossil record as they came out of Africa some 50000 years ago, the goal of preserving their freedoms, such as they were at the time, was much less important than their survival.

Just as for most of us today it’s jobs more than our freedoms that are most on our minds. For freedom by and large we have it, and most of all it’s thanks to government protections, beginning, for example with Federal Marshalls, with Marshall Matt Dillon of Dodge City, Kansas.

We might even say that if we have survived as long as we have, some 100,000 years or more, it’s because we have over and over again been willing to give up some of our individual freedoms for the sake of the community, for the peaceful and orderly growth of Dodge City, or as Koch would say, for the collective, the collective being for him what he is against. But aren’t the Koch Industries where Charles Koch made his billions, a kind of collective.

Koch says that he doesn’t understand why his life long efforts to preserve our freedoms (because that’s how he sees himself, a preserver of freedom —a kind of knight in shining armor) are villified, why he and his brother are put down not only by the by the political left, but also by the more liberal center. In turn he villifies his opponents, accusing them of engaging in character assassination.

Rather than try to understand my vision for a free society or accurately report the facts about Koch Industries, our critics would have you believe we’re “un-American” and trying to “rig the system,” that we’re against “environmental protection” or eager to “end workplace safety standards.”

Neither Boehner nor Koch seem aware of the reality of our nation, Boehner of the harm that the recent “bad” wars have done to our citizen soldiers, Koch of just how much our freedoms depend on government secured protections. The most casual reading of our own history reveals how over and over again we have gone to war for the wrong reasons and how repeatedly groups of our citizens have suffered at the hands not of government but of individuals with too much freedom and too much power.

And in fact it is only the government that is ready and able to rein in the bullies among us. This is not to say that it always does its job well, that there isn’t room for improvement. There is. But does Charles Koch really believe that the greater freedoms he would now promote for the ones, for the few, would secure comparable freedoms and rights for the others, the many, those with little or no power or influence of their own?

The probably greater freedoms of the country’s early years, were mostly the freedoms of the founding fathers, of the property owners, of those in power. They were not the possession of all, of the Blacks, the native Americans, and a bit later of the factory workers, the women, all of whom during hundreds of years of our history were anything but free. Changes have come about, good changes, such as the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, but not by conservative Democrats and Republicans, rather by the actions of a liberal and more responsible government.

Koch doesn’t seem to understand that the fundamental concepts of dignity, respect, equality before the law, personal freedom and other such, probably depend more on the government than on the actions of private individuals. While it is true that the Government also can be a bully on occasion  the answer is not less govenment, but better government. For, to say it again, only government is ultimately strong enough to do away with the bullies among us.

My third encounter was with Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. from reading a NY Times article, Cuomo Played Pivotal Role in Charter School Push. Here was a public figure doing the right thing. Suddenly after my encounters with the half grown, still child-like thinking of Speaker Boehner and Charles Koch I found myself in the presence of an adult.

Bill de Blasio, the newly elected mayor of New York had promised his supporters that he would make things tougher for the charters in the city. His predecessor, Mayor Blumberg had been a strong supporter of charters with the result that the district public schools were feeling left out. According to their reasoning charters, while representing only 10% of the students in the district, were receiving special favors from city hall. Mr. de Blasio was elected, and without questioning the reasoning of his public school supporters, promised to end this so-called favoritism for the no less public school charters.

So one of the very first things Mr. de Blasio did was to charge the charters rent for their use of public school buildings as well as forbid new charters from moving into public spaces. In particular he had decided to deny space to three schools run by Success Academy Charter Schools, a high-performing network founded by Eva S. Moskowitz, a former city council woman. And of course many supporters of Ms. Moskowitz’s schools were outraged.

Well, evidently the governor was also outraged. He attended a public demonstration of thousands of charter school supporters, parents and students, most of them black, Hispanic, and from low-income communities, gathered on the steps of the State Capitol, and announced, “You are not alone,” he told them. “We will save charter schools.”

And in fact his proposed legislation included provisions to reverse Mr. de Blasio’s decisions on school space, and it required the city to provide public classrooms to new and expanding charter schools or contribute to the cost of renting private buildings. It also suggested increasing per-pupil funding for charter schools and allowing them to operate prekindergarten programs.

The bully in all this was the newly elected mayor of New York City. There was no need to do what he did. The charters were already receiving significantly less support in terms of space and dollars than the district schools. There was no special treatment. But what could possibly stop the Mayor from taking public spaces from the public charter schools? Well someone with even more power, the Governor.

Andrew Cuomo’s exemplary words and actions stand out even further given the fact that both Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, as well as Barack Obama, would be supporters of charters, remained silent throughout the whole episode.

 

 

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