Monthly Archives: July 2013

Egypt’s lesson for America

Americans look at the turmoil in Egypt and see a an experiment in democracy that may be on the verge of failure.

Our ability to view that country’s turmoil with the objectivity that comes from distance provides useful insights into the political woes of the United States.

Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, as president. His short tenure generated massive unrest. Poverty is dramatic and growing, which always fuels the disenchanted. More to the point, Morsi rejected pluralism and seemed determined to undermine the democratic principles that got him elected.

David Brooks, a conservative columnist with the New York Times, theorized that Islamists are not capable of democratic governance.

“They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity,” Brooks wrote. “You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy.”

Responding to popular protests that took millions of Egyptians to the street, Egypt’s military ousted Morsi. The obvious question is whether democracy would have been better served to wait until the next election, when Egyptians presumably would have used the democratic process to send Morsi packing. Brooks, though, agrees with the reasoning that led to the coup. When a democratic nation is led by officials who are seeking to undermine democratic principles, it is imperative to remove them immediately.

“The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup,” he wrote.

Especially in Alabama, we see many instances where our politicians, like Morsi, use religion as a justification for rejecting pluralism and individual rights. Whether Alabamians like it or not, women have a constitutionally protected right to abortions until the fetus is viable. Last legislative session, politicians used Christianity as a justification for a law that would effectively end that right. Christian doctrine is likewise the excuse for laws condemning homosexuals and subsidizing parochial schools with tax dollars. Just as the majority of Egyptians practice Islam, the majority of Alabamians practice Christianity. Resistance, if it comes at all, typically arises among citizens who subscribe to the faith but resent the use of government to impose it on others.

I think, however, that in Alabama and nationwide the political use of Christianity is usually disingenuous. It is a ploy designed to create unity and, too often, to create hostility toward political enemies. If Democrats are a godless party — if President Obama is a Kenyan Muslim — it is easy to gather political support for Republicans.

The dominant force against democracy in Egypt may be Islam, as Brooks theorizes, but in America it is money.

America’s capitalist economy makes it easy to determine who benefits from the status quo: the wealthy. Those with a rational desire to upset the status quo are in poverty.

Americans like to think they are free to pick any candidate they want when they go to the polls. This is the core right of citizens in a representative democracy.

The truth, though, is that those who benefit from the status quo — the wealthy — dictate which candidates appear on the ballot.

We have a two-party system — one not mandated by the Constitution — that goes to great lengths to prevent other parties from gaining political significance. Both parties want to win. In selecting candidates, they necessarily gravitate toward those with the ability to raise money. Most Americans give no political contributions. People with the most urgent incentive to upset the status quo — people living in poverty — have no money to give.

The choices we have on the ballot have been vetted by those who may differ on specifics, but who have a common desire to avoid major disruptions to a system that benefits them. They are the source of the political contribution that determine Americans’ choices on voting day.

This system not only flouts effective democracy, it is dangerous. It disenfranchises those with the greatest frustration. The poor will always be with us, but one of the functions of democracy is to allow them meaningful political input into a system that plays a role in their desperation. As U.S. poverty continues to increase, and the gap between the poor and the wealthy becomes a chasm, frustration intensifies. A look at the role poverty and wealth polarization plays in unrest in Egypt, in Syria, in Turkey and even in Spain and England should haunt Americans. It should also have them scurrying to increase the political channels open to the poor.

The effort to “centralize power” — the term Brooks used in condemning Morsi — continues once the vetted candidates take office.

The routine use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate is a transparent effort to block the will of the majority, particularly remarkable given that the Senate is designed to temper democracy by giving the same power to states of vastly different populations.

In the House, the “Hastert Rule” is another effort to thwart democracy. Rather than all of our representatives voting on bills, most bills only come up for a vote if a majority of the majority caucus — currently Republicans — approve of them.

Some efforts to centralize power are a more direct affront to democracy. The literacy tests and poll taxes of old have given way to requirements that voters obtain photo identification before they can vote. No single vote has significant financial value, which is why neither Alabama nor any other state can come up with examples of in-person voter fraud. The transparent purpose — recently admitted by Pennsylvania lawmakers defending their law — is to hurt Democrats, who are three times less likely than Republicans to have a driver’s license. Alabamians who are too poor to have a car — who already are frustrated by their political impotence — now have an extra hurdle before they can exercise their right to vote.

We struggle to see the enormity of the problem when looking at our own nation, but the anti-democratic tendencies of Egypt bring our own into focus. We have strayed far from the ideal of representative democracy. We need to find solutions before the disenfranchised poor get tired of waiting.


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Filed under Alabama politics, Democracy, Poverty

The times they are a-changin’

Many in Alabama and throughout the United States yearn for the good old days. The way we used to deal with challenges worked, so they question the wisdom of change.

This frustration is particularly evident in education. In the not-so-distant past, simple schoolhouses whose most advanced technology was colored chalk catapulted the United States to the top of the developed world. No nation could brag of a better-educated or harder-working workforce.

Regaining global dominance, though, requires addressing new challenges. America competes directly with other nations, and it is falling behind. Many nations are adjusting to a changed world more quickly than America.

Athens City Schools will receive plenty of negative feedback for an ambitious plan to supply every student and teacher with a laptop or iPad. The plan is expensive — about $2.3 million over the next four years — and it contemplates instruction that has little resemblance to the reading, writing and arithmetic drills that once served the nation well.

Athens school officials recognize they are aiming at a moving target in their effort to prepare students for careers or college. A generation ago, computer and Internet skills were irrelevant. Today, success in every college and almost every career requires them. Students still need the skills that were required 30 years ago, but now they need more.

Athens school officials also recognize an economic reality, especially profound in Alabama. Poverty is increasing. School officials — in Athens, in Decatur, and in all school districts actively seeking to improve the prospects of their students — know both that technological proficiency is essential to success and that fewer families have the income necessary to provide computers to their children. Many are doing well to feed them.

Athens City Schools is competing not just with neighboring school districts, but with schools in other nations. A recent global study by Pearson education firm concluded the United States ranked 17 among the 51 developed nations or territories for education. The top five were Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

Even that ranking is tenuous. A Harvard University study found that students in Latvia, Brazil and Chile are making academic gains three times as fast as American students. Those in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia and Lithuania are improving at twice the rate.

School officials don’t have the luxury of continuing practices that worked fine a few decades ago.

Among the findings of the Pearson report were two that seemed especially applicable to Alabama. One was that attracting excellent teachers to the profession was crucial, and that requires recognition of their importance and good pay. The other, understood by Athens City officials, is that schools need to adjust to a changing world.

“Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago,” the report concluded. “Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in the future and teach accordingly.”


Filed under education, Poverty

Zimmerman verdict narrow in significance

The unsuccessful prosecution of George Zimmerman was like a national Rorschach test, where everyone sees in it a picture that proves the validity of their beliefs.

Those who worry about discrimination against blacks see Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal as manifestations of racial prejudice. Those concerned about crime or convinced black citizens pose a threat see the prosecution as a political stunt and the verdict as a vindication. Some Second Amendment enthusiasts see the prosecution as an attack on gun-owner rights. Those convinced that Caucasians are victims saw in the prosecution and in media coverage an affirmation of their belief.

Criminal trials, though, make lousy symbols.

The primary purpose of a U.S. criminal trial is not to reveal broad truths, and it certainly is not to expose social flaws. The main goal is to give the accused a fair trial.

The six white women who made up Zimmerman’s jury knew less about the highly publicized case than did the public. If they followed the judge’s instructions, they considered only those pieces of evidence the judge determined were relevant to the narrow question of guilt or innocence under Florida’s penal code.

More importantly, they could only render a guilty verdict if they were convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman was guilty of the crimes charged. If they thought he probably was guilty, even if they were fairly sure he was guilty, that was not enough. Letting some culpable people go free is preferable, in the U.S. system, to penalizing defendants who are innocent.

The issues raised in the Zimmerman trial are of great social importance. The national debate on those issues is valuable. The verdict, however, offers neither condemnation nor vindication of any broad social issue.

On the narrow set of facts before them, the jurors were not certain that Zimmerman’s actions on Feb. 26, 2012, constituted manslaughter or second degree murder. They were not called on to determine whether Zimmerman was a bigot or whether he acted prudently in following Martin or whether he had any business carrying a gun.

The death of Martin raises important social issues. The verdict, however, merely confirms a fact that Americans already know: the justice system is designed to err on the side of protecting the innocent, even if that means the guilty sometimes go unpunished.

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Filed under Justice system, Race

Voting rights case hurts the South

The conventional wisdom is that Alabama won a stunning victory last month when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. The reality — for both Decatur and the rest of the state — may be very different.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed a long line of efforts to end voter suppression. The first such effort was the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The amendment — which also authorized Congress to pass laws preventing voter discrimination in the states — was a failure, as were the various laws Congress attempted before 1965.

What made the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unique was its preclearance requirement. Rather than playing a losing game of whack-a-mole — with southern states erecting a new barrier to voting as soon as the previous one was blocked — the law required jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression to submit changes in voting laws or procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice before they took effect.

In the five years after the law passed, almost as many blacks registered to vote in southern states as in the century before. The number of blacks holding elected positions in southern states has increased 1,000 percent since the law passed.

The preclearance requirement in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act applied only to voting jurisdictions described in a formula contained in Section 4(b) of the act. The formula singles out those states and jurisdictions that historically had used voting tests to suppress voter registration or turnout, including Alabama.

Last month’s Supreme Court decision, ruling in favor of Shelby County, struck down Section 4(b). Since the preclearance requirement only applies to jurisdictions described by Section 4(b), it effectively ended the preclearance requirement.

Claims of a victory for states’ rights, however, are premature.

The preclearance requirement was only one part of the Voting Rights Act, and it was more procedural than substantive. Section 2 of the law bans all states from voting practices or procedures that have the effect — regardless of intent — of discriminating against minority voters. Other sections ban particular methods of voter suppression, like poll taxes, in all states.

Alabama and other states with a history of voter suppression had to get advance clearance to change voting laws, but their changes were held to basically the same standard as changes in other states. In states not meeting the Section 4(b) formula, the Justice Department had to file suit against the state (or a city or county within the state) to invalidate a discriminatory voting law.

Indeed, several states — including Mississippi and North Carolina — requested that the court leave the preclearance requirement in place. One of their major arguments was that the administrative hurdle of obtaining preclearance for changed voting practices was far cheaper and less intrusive than defending a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department under Section 2.

“The streamlined administrative review of Section 5 is far less onerous than the intensely complex, costly and time-consuming nature of Section 2 litigation,” argued the attorneys general of Mississippi and North Carolina, “which can cost millions of dollars and hundreds of hours for states or localities to defend.”

To understand the advantages of the preclearance procedure, look at Decatur.

In 2010, a slim majority of voters approved a new form of government. Instead of a full-time mayor, the referendum adopted a state-law alternative government with a professional city manager. The state law also reduced the number of districts from five to three. While the intent of the referendum probably had nothing to do with the voting rights of black citizens, the arguable effect was to limit their ability to elect a councilman of their choice. If the number of districts drops to three, no district can have a black majority.

Does this mean the new form of government violates the Voting Rights Act? Probably, but not definitely. As the Shelby County case demonstrates, interpretations of the Voting Rights Act are in flux.

The city originally, and falsely, claimed that the Justice Department denied preclearance of the law. It then claimed it did not have enough time to obtain preclearance due to delays caused by the 2010 Census. Now it appears to be arguing that the referendum violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The political problem with the same city officials who would be disadvantaged by the referendum being the self-anointed arbiters of whether the referendum violates federal law is obvious. The advantage of preclearance was that, while avoiding the expense of a battle in federal court, it gave the decision to legal experts at the Justice Department who were removed from local politics.

Despite the claims of Shelby County, the preclearance requirement was narrowly tailored to affect as few states as possible. It started with a baseline of states that historically suppressed the vote, but allowed them to “bail out” — as Pinson did last year — if they eliminated discriminatory practices. Other jurisdictions — such as several districts in New York — had to “bail in” when they began using discriminatory voting practices.

As Mississippi and North Carolina argued, the limitation on the preclearance requirement made the Voting Rights Act less intrusive than most remedial laws because it confined preclearance “to those regions of the country where Congress had specific evidence of voting discrimination.”
The end result of the decision — for Decatur, for Alabama and for the nation — could be more federal intrusion, not less.


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Filed under Alabama politics, Race, States' rights

Burdening our schools with poverty

Standardized test scores may be a useful indication of how well communities are doing in preparing their children for careers, but they are not particularly helpful in evaluating school performance.

The failure of standardized tests as a method of grading schools is that too many factors outside of a school’s control directly affect a student’s academic success. The most dramatic factor is poverty.

Last week, Decatur City Schools secured a grant that allowed it to increase the number of free breakfasts it serves at schools from 1,500 to about 2,500. Even with the grant, this increase added to the burden on DCS. Education purists can point out with frustration that this is yet another example of a use of school resources that is not focused on academics.

What DCS is doing, though, is a necessary step if it hopes to raise test scores. Repeating multiplication facts ad nauseam to a hungry child does no good. Indeed, many DCS programs are expanding beyond pure academics in an effort to address the extensive needs of children living in poverty-stricken households.

What Superintendent Ed Nichols recognizes — what teachers long have understood — is that academic success is impossible for a child whose basic physical and emotional needs are not being met. If neither the child’s family nor her community is meeting those needs, and if the school expects her to succeed academically, then the school must meet them.

The problem with the federal No Child Left Behind law and with the Alabama Accountability Act is not so much that they evaluate schools based solely on students’ standardized test scores, but that they fail to acknowledge the immensity of the challenge for school districts — like DCS — with high poverty rates. Instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic is an essential part of educating a student, but it is not enough for many students who live in poverty.

By demanding that schools meet rigid measures of academic success, the laws effectively are requiring those schools to assume the task of meeting the many non-academic needs that are a prerequisite to academic success. In schools with a high percentage of impoverished children, those needs are many.

As a community, we should demand that all children have the academic foundation needed for career success. If we want our schools to bear the full burden of accomplishing this task, we must recognize we are asking them to perform functions not traditionally demanded of schools.
Either we need to acknowledge this reality with increased funding, or as a community we need to find other ways to meet the non-scholastic needs of children living in poverty.

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Filed under education, Poverty

Church and state best kept separate

Recent events in Egypt are perilous for the infant democracy. They also are a reminder of the wisdom America’s Founding Fathers demonstrated in trying to keep religion and government separate.

Two years after a popular revolt resulted in the ouster of a secular dictator, the military stepped in to remove Egypt’s elected President Mohammed Morsi. The military’s action came, at least in part, as a reaction to massive popular protests against Morsi’s government.
Morsi was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

While most Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, many are not. The protests grew out of a belief that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were using the power of government to impose their religious beliefs.

In most respects, Egypt and the United States have little in common. The Islamic beliefs that are dominant in Egypt are very different than the Christian beliefs that prevail in the United States. Democracy in Egypt is fragile, whereas U.S. democracy has endured for 237 years.

What the nations have in common, though, is a tension between the role of government and religion. The tension was expected by America’s Founding Fathers. People of any faith tend to view their religious beliefs as being of ultimate importance. They sincerely believe their nation would be better off if it conformed to those beliefs. Religious people struggle to resist the temptation of using government as a tool to promote a faith-based agenda.

Succumbing to the temptation never ends well, a fact the Founding Fathers — brilliant students of political history — understood. In the Constitution, they prohibited Congress from passing laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Thomas Jefferson described the provision as requiring separation of church and state, a view the courts adopted. Just two decades after its founding and six years after the adoption of the First Amendment, the U.S. Senate ratified a treaty reaffirming the “government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Egypt’s turmoil demonstrates the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. While the effort is constantly difficult when a majority of the people in a democracy subscribe to the same faith, government should not be used as a tool for religion. Both institutions suffer from the combination.

Much political acrimony in the United States today arises from this tension. Some Christians, certain they have absolute truth on their side, seek to use government as a tool to impose their biblical views on others. Whether the issue is homosexuality or abortion, tax support of religious schools or foreign relations with non-Christian nations, the friction is constant and damaging.

The issue is not whether Christian beliefs are right or wrong, but whether government is the proper institution to promote them.

Maintaining a secular government in a democracy is difficult when a popular majority subscribes to a single faith. The Founding Fathers thought it was worth the effort, and the crisis in Egypt is a reminder of their wisdom.

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Filed under Conservatism, Democracy, Religion