The Broad is Back!

October 2, 2013

Another Fine Mess You’ve Gotten Us Into

Sequestration. That’s a rather benign sounding word, isn’t it? Doesn’t sound like it could hurt a fly. Automatic budget cuts that put some people temporarily out of work and cut services doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

And as everyone here in the US knows, we’re in day two of sequestration. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

On Tuesday morning, I found myself steaming mad. Why? Because a small, and I mean small, core of hard line Republicans are holding America hostage because they don’t like a law that was passed by both houses, signed by the president and decided upon by the Supreme Court of the United States. Welcome to democracy, folks. Welcome to the “three ringed circus” that is American federal government.  Checks and balances. Sometimes you don’t always get what you want.

Maybe it’s not a great law. It’s certainly not perfect. But bad laws have been passed before. Then even repealed sometimes. But the repeal didn’t come from playground level hissy fits. It came through getting out to the people and changing their minds. Engaging in discussion that leads to change. Instead of winning the people, theoretically the most powerful force in a democracy (but I’m not an idiot. I know the reality of that scenario), most Americans are now livid with all of the government.

Personally, I’m glad.  We need to be mad. We need to be hopping, spitting, crazy mad.  And we need to channel that anger, hone it to a fine point and use it to say “Enough! We the people are taking, no, wresting back our government!  Because obviously the people we’ve elected are not fit to lead.”

I pray that this comes to pass.

As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” The press is this country is freer than in many, I admit. But it’s tamed. My first career was as a reporter, a legislative correspondent in Albany, NY, to be precise. That was 30 years ago. A lifetime ago. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hirsh just wrote about the decline in the quality of the American press. He called it “pathetic,” which sums it up from my view. Very interesting reading, and you can find it here, ironically in The Guardian, a British paper!

The whole point of this blog is that I left America for 14 years, but now I’m back, so I comment on the changes. One of the huge changes is the quality of the news media. While I was gone 9/11 happened, and that event, terrible and evil, has done more to change American cultural values than I care to admit.  The Internet has changed people, as well. Because of it and jumps in technology, ideas about personal privacy are shifting at an alarming speed.

Whistle-blowers are vilified and praised. That’s a topic for another day, one I don’t find myself ready to discuss.  But we have truly undergone a cultural sea-change.

And then there’s education. This, as faithful readers know, is my personal bailiwick. I am a professor. I teach writing and literature, but mostly writing these days because few students can write well and even fewer can read. I teach college level students, but I’m teaching skills I learned in 6th-10th grade. If I had to guess, I would say the average reading level of my students is 8th-9th grade. They struggle to read The New York Times, a paper routinely read in American high schools. I do not teach stupid people. I teach bright people, lovely people, hardworking people. But they have been very poorly educated in New York City’s public schools.

When my parents attended New York City’s public schools, they were the finest in the nation. In fact, my mother remembers observers coming from all around the world to see how excellent public education was run. She graduated reading adult level works, in two languages, with a third language at conversational level. Sure, she was a smart cookie and worked at it, but she went to the neighborhood PS4 and Long Island City High School. Now I’m not saying New York City doesn’t still have some fine schools, some of the finest in the nation. But statistically speaking, over 50% of New York City high school graduates are not prepared for college level work or an entry level job when they leave school. And that comes from the city’s own reports.

Sure, there are a lot of challenges facing New York, and I’m not picking on New York, but I’d guess that about 80% of the students I teach are from New York City high schools, so it’s what I know best. About 5% are from other places in America and the rest are from foreign schools. I had a class last term with a student from Italy, one from France and one from Germany. I almost wept with joy as their academic skills were so strong. Until I wept with pain that their American peers were so weak.

And I do spend time from students from other places and even at other schools, good schools, Ivy Leagues, even. And I am amazed, constantly, at what they don’t know that I know I knew when I was their age. This is what happens when as a culture we glorify stupidity and are proud of ignorance.

And sometimes, in the dark recesses of my slightly Orwellian soul, I do hear whispers of “This is not a terrible mistake.” And Orwell’s whispers are joined by Huxley’s ruminations in Brave New World. There are times I think the brave new world is now. (Though to be perfectly honest, I do not believe in a huge government conspiracy. A huge corporate conspiracy is much more likely. As far as I can see Congress is the lap dog of corporate interest in this country. Corporations really don’t want you educated. Why educate a slave race? That was Hitler’s view. It’s rather pragmatic when striving for world domination.)

So, we live in a populace without a truly free press and with men, and women, since it’s the 21st century now, who are unable to read. We are not safe. We have much to fear.

If our government is so easily hijacked, it needs to be replaced. If the people ruling this country are so weak and ineffective that a tiny minority can close down government, well, I can’t see why they are staying in office. With pay yet.

Many have called for their pay to be docked. We the people are their employers. Fire them. And if we don’t do that, at least don’t pay them. Not that I think the predominantly wealthy people who run this country will suffer much with the loss of a month’s salary or so.  But how many of the federal workers who are now sitting home, effectively out of work, are living pay check to pay check? How much do support staff, park rangers, computer tech people make?

I realized yesterday that I had to do more than tweet my anger, that 140 characters weren’t enough. Well, I’m about to hit 1200 words, and all I can really say is please, Americans, let’s join together to stop the madness. Even if we’re of different parties we have to realize that what’s happening in America is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. It’s stupid, pig headed stupid, and we deserve better than that!

 

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September 11, 2013

Remembering Once Again

The title of my blog, The Broad is Back, comes from the fact that once upon a time, when I lived overseas, I wrote a weekly essay called A Broad Abroad.  A large part of the impetus for that blog was the 9/11 attacks. I’d been living abroad for six years at that point, and no other thing in that time made me feel more alien or more homesick than the attack on New York (and Washington and the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, but I’m a New Yorker. My dad was a construction worker on the Twin Towers. I’m partial, I must say,)  The first Broad essay went out on September 11, 2002.

So because of this, I really wanted to post today.  Last night the president addressed the nation about the situation in Syria. As one tweeter mentioned, he was addressing a “war weary nation.” so he’s garnering less support than he’d like for a military option.  I’ve written about my ideas on Syria earlier in the month.

Last night, in response to a tweet of mine about how bombing wasn’t going to help the situation, a friend whose opinions and mind I respect, asked “but are we supposed to ignore it?”

My facebook wall answer was “We ignore plenty that goes on in the Middle East. Atrocities happen all the time. Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds living in Iraq in 1989 and we ignored it just fine because he was our ally then. We cherry pick what we (as a nation) react to instead of giving a concerted unified reaction of “this is not acceptable behavior”. Up to last summer Assad was being treated as a friendly ally by the West, even invited to Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queen’s Golden. Some people complained, but most people ignored it. And I do believe if we’re gonna have a UN, we need to let the UN work. The problem is, the UN has no authority, so it’s basically failing its mission. Great IDEAL, lousy reality. The Syrian people, who are the ones being attacked by Assad, don’t want an American military strike. I do think what they want should count if we’re ostensibly helping them.”

To another friend I responded, “Not saying they aren’t worth the uproar. It [the gassing] is wrong. But why start publicizing dead children NOW? They have been being killed for a while. And why is it America’s problem? Why not defer to the UN? Oh, yeah, because the UN has no authority, legal or moral. Why all of a sudden is this a US security problem?  Every Syrian I speak to, who all have or had families on the ground in Damascus, does not want military intervention in terms of bombing. They are terrified that it will make things worse. And since they are on the front lines, in their own country, don’t they get a say? Or is the US so paternalistic that we know what’s best for everyone? Assad feels confident because he’s gotten away with it for so long.”

So basically, that’s my take on the situation. I find I’m much less censored on facebook than I am here. But I’m feeling tired and disgusted with the government’s hypocrisy. It ignores bad things until it is expedient to address them. Realpolitik, but wrong.

But how does this all tie in with 9/11? Well, it’s all inextricably linked, of course.  The idea of a military strike right now is abhorrent to me. But I’m one person, but I’m one person with a pen, metaphorically speaking, and I’m gaining the confidence I need to share ideas.

But what I really want to talk about today is not the future, but healing the past. In fact, what follows is mostly what I wrote on my “crunchy granola” blog. I try to keep that apolitical, but I am who I am. Opinionated and trying to pay attention.  BUt for me, the healing is more important.

“It’s when we start working together that the real healing takes place… it’s when we start spilling our sweat, and not our blood.” ~David Hume

From the building I teach in, I can see the construction of the new Freedom Tower in New York City. I walk through a construction zone in the bottom of the old World Trade Center to reach my train.

Sweat is spilled every day. Downtown New York is being rebuilt from the ground up, even more shiny and bold than before. This is what’s bringing healing to many. Not the talk, not the debates. The reconstruction.

People like me can not not remember. Even though I lived abroad 12 years ago, I am still a New Yorker. It was all too close to home.

I had a friend, someone I baby sat when he was a boy, who worked in the Pentagon. At the American Church in Geneva, which I attended. our priest’s brother was missing.  All too close to home.

I had students from America and some from Saudi Arabia in the same class. They were all terrified. The memories of the next day are actually more poignant to me than the first day. First we had shock, but then we had aftermath, even in Geneva. Students far from families needed mothering more than teaching.

What I remember best are the hugs. There were so many hugs. Barriers were broken because hugs were needed. Faculty hugged students, co-workers hugged one another, friends clung a little tighter.  I remember the shock and fear, but I remember the love best of all.  For me, that was the overwhelming reaction.

Oh, there were a few ugly incidents, but they were overshadowed by the positive.  Love started the healing process, and it continues.  There is still a nasty, nasty scar, but the healing is in process.

Someday people will forget. Impossible, people tell me. But I teach. I ask my students every December 7th, “what’s today”? Most have no idea.  I mention Pearl Harbor and they say, “oh, yeah, I learned that in school.” So they remember, eventually, but the healing is pretty much complete.  The youngest of those who were alive and old enough to remember are close to 80 now. Within two decades, there will be no living memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Because I teach so close to Ground Zero, on the day itself I used to have students write a narrative of their memories.  At first students loved this. They were a little edgy being there, and many said they found it cathartic.  But  I stopped two years ago because the essays I got were mostly variations of, “I don’t remember much, but I was in my second grade class.”  For my current students, it’s just something the grownups talked about.

So today in America we remember. But we are healing, which is the most hopeful thing of all.

August 30, 2013

And So We Sit and Wait

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” ~George Orwell, 1984

The events in this prescient novel written in 1949 were to have happened almost 30 years ago.  While the dystopia of the novel is not yet fully blown, I read these words, and I want to weep. In my country, ignorance has become strength and war may as well be peace for so many people appear unperturbed that we’ve been in a constant state of war since 2001.

I remember exactly where I was when news of the first airstrikes against Afghanistan broke. I was in a church. It was in Switzerland, and I was with a room of mostly women from many different countries, predominantly American and British, but from all over the world.  “Viet Nam” was muttered by more than one person, and I thought, “No, not again. It couldn’t.”

Just a month earlier we’d faced 9/11. Many of my students were seriously frightened that they had just seen the start of WWIII. But when the Afghanistan War started, they were no longer afraid. They were angry.

Just two years later, I was in a different country, Sweden, when the Iraq War started. Let’s just say that reaction in Sweden was far from positive. I don’t have pleasant memories of that time. Sometimes when tempers flared, people would forget that I am not the US government, nor am I even a representative of the government. Water under the bridge.

But again, WWIII was mentioned in passing.

And now we wait and watch what will happen in Syria. More than one person has mentioned WWIII, as if another World War is inevitable. As if “the war to end all wars” never happened. Oh wait. Never mind. Not counting the Cold War, the US was embroiled in another war five short years after WWII ended.

My tone is may sound bitter today, but I’m actually not feeling bitter. I’m feeling sad. I’m an unrepentant child of the 60s and early 70s. I do believe all that peacenik stuff people called “Commie”.  It’s out of fashion now, but as John Lennon, a powerful voice in the peace movement, said, “If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliche that must have been left behind in the Sixties, that’s his problem. Love and peace are eternal.”  But we seem to have lost our way, John.

These days, I teach many vets and even active service people. I have nothing but the utmost respect for them.  They don’t start the wars. They just fight them. As Gen. Doulgas MacArthur said, “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”  I mostly agree with him, of course. My soldiers write things to me that break my heart. They tell me what they’ve seen, what they’ve done, what they’ve experienced. I can not even imagine, but I am privileged to carry their stories. If I can relieve their burden one iota, I will do it gladly.  One student wrote to me: “I like reading poetry in your class because it’s the only time the guns in my head stop.”  I would read poetry with him for hours if I could.

But of course, it’s the civilians I worry about. War is cruel. A student this morning told me of a bombing near a Syrian school.  Children.  But children have always had the worst of war.  Still, things have been insane and dangerous in Syria for too long now, and something has to change.

So this compounds my sadness. The peacenik, the mostly pacifist, can’t see a way to calm things. Do I think attacking Syria will help? No.  But this is too big for me. I can’t think.  But I can pray, which is what I seem to do best these days.

The UK House of Commons voted to not support a military intervention in Syria, and I’m wondering whether the US Congress will have the same opportunity.  According to an article on CNN, “More than 160 members of Congress, including 63 Democrats, have now signed letters calling for either a vote or at least a ‘full debate’ before any U.S. action.”  But Congress is in recess until September 9th. Yes, I can see the White House waiting till they are all back. Yes. Sure.

This situation is changing rapidly.  So we sit and wait and see. And nothing is worse than waiting.

May 6, 2011

Nice to know humans don’t change

Yesterday I wrote about the death of bin Laden. Do I believe he’s dead? Of course. Do I need a picture? No, and frankly, I don’t want one. I don’t think they should be released not because they might upset Muslims and incite terrorists. I don’t want them released because it will upset me.  My high school history textbook had a small black and white photo of Mussolini hanging by his feet. It still haunts me. Pictures of lynched African-American men in America’s south haunt me. So a close-up color shot of a high-powered rifle bullet to the head? I’ll pass.

And frankly, people who want to doubt are going to doubt. Even if the photos are released, and the president has vowed not to release them, there will be those who cry “Photoshop”. So really, releasing them isn’t necessary.

The kill has been confirmed by Al-Qaeda itself. I don’t really think Al-Qaeda cares about Obama’s approval ratings. I don’t think its leadership has an interest in making the US look “good”.  Of course, my mind can do paranoid and conspiracy as well as the next guy’s. Maybe bin Laden is still alive, and well, the US is lying to make itself look good and Al-Qaeda is lying to reenergize itself. They haven’t been as popular as late, you know. They had no role in the liberation movements that have been happening throughout the Middle East. This is a perfect way to drum up support, having their leader be “dead”. But truly, I don’t think so.

Conspiracy theories have been around as long as there have been people. Do governments lie? Yes. Can governments be fully trusted? No. Should they? No. But does that mean everything that a government does is bad because, by definition, governments are evil and everything said is a lie? No.

During war, bad things happen. Soldiers are trained to kill and are rewarded for doing it well.  Decisions are made in less than an instant and unless I was there, I am not going to second guess a soldier’s actions in the heat of an attack. As George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” I don’t like that uncomfortable truth, but there it is. I live in a world in which violence is used by nations on a regular basis. As an idealist, I wish that weren’t so. But as a thinking human, I know it is. I can work to change it, but in the meantime, battles rage.

Do I question the legality of the raid? Yes. The US did violate another country’s sovereignty to carry it out.  Do I understand the realpolitik thinking behind the decision?  Of course. I do think the US should be above reproof not because it’s the US and what it does is inherently “right,” but because its actions are right and proper indeed. On the other hand, this “War on Terror” has changed the art of war . No longer are the combatants clearly defined. War against a thing and not a nation? How can this work? Obviously not well, at all. But the world is changing, so the rules of war are changing as well.  How can the old rules work when the board and players are radically different?

And humans like to think we’ve changed, too. We  are civilized and compassionate. We have learned much about violence and how it’s a bad thing. Yet we still want the world “safe for democracy”. We want our peaceful comfortable lives. We want to “fight the good fight”. As long as no one dies, is injured, is damaged in any way.   People want Al-Qaeda gone. They want the terrorism to end. We send soldiers to fight, searching for the terrorists and those soldiers die or are injured. And people are shocked.  What part of “going to war brings death” are they confused about, I wonder.

We are constantly shocked and outraged about “women and children” and “innocent civilians” being killed during attacks. I don’t want to see children killed, or women, or civilian men, but since when is it a surprise that it happens? Once upon a time wars might have been taken place in battles outside a town or city on a field, but even when the fighting was mostly hand-to-hand, civilians got caught in the crossfire.  Children went to battle on a regular basis. If family legend is true, my own great-grandfather was in the Crimean war at the age of 10, sent as a bugler, but still on the battlefield. 

I am not saying these deaths are right or are to be accepted. What I’m saying is why the shock? What do we expect? A bloodless war?

We want it all–all the benefits of war without the drawbacks. This would be great if we could figure out how to stop human beings from resorting to war, but we can’t. Why? Because human nature doesn’t really change.

May 5, 2011

We live in interesting times

After I had gone to bed on Sunday, I got a text message. Grumbling at inconsiderate students, I decided it would be best to check it since I was mostly awake.

“Osama bin Laden is dead. Prez about to speak” read the text from my sister.

I immediately put on the computer and the TV and called my son out to watch.  And history unfolded itself in front of my eyes for the second time in a weekend, but this was much more somber news.  I’ve been meaning to write about it since it happened, but I have no time. I work 70 hours a week, sometimes more. Leaves little time for thinking much less writing.

So many emotions. I teach many vets and active service people, so my first thoughts went to them. Maybe they weren’t part of the raid, but they played their roles in the War on Terror.  I have students who are in Afghanistan, so of course I worry but my overwhelming emotion was pride–I’m proud to be their teacher because they are the best. All of them have volunteered to face a danger most of us cannot conceive of ever facing, and while they are at it, they earn their college degree.

I watched the president’s speech. I liked it. I followed Twitter. I was disgusted by tasteless jokes and impressed by deep thoughts that can be conveyed in 140 characters. The talking heads came on right after the speech, and I pretty much tuned them out. The 24/7 news cycle has destroyed thought in this country, at least, probably elsewhere, as well.  

Because I live in NYC, local news programs had many of the WTC victim’s family members. Each one spoke movingly. Almost all said this was a time for somber reflection not jubilation, a sentiment I share.  I watched till 1AM, but since I get up at 6, I soon had to force myself to bed.

The next morning, reaction in my classroom was mixed. Relief, joy, fear, disinterest, disbelief.  As a whole, I think that matched the rest of the country.

Today President Obama came to NYC to visit Ground Zero. He also visited a fire station in my neighborhood that lost every man on duty that morning.

All week I’ve been wanting to write, but now when I’ve carved out a little time to do so, nothing is coming. Sitting here I realize I feel numb, and I don’t know why. I think in part it’s attributable to this being the last two weeks of classes, so work has become intense. I’m tired from a year of teaching, exhausted from having to work three jobs to survive. I’ve come to the conclusion that while it’s a good sense of closure for the families that bin Laden is dead, I’m far more concerned with America’s crumbling economy and wealth inequity, and to be honest, my own state of underemployment for the past three years.

I have two students facing eviction next week–just in time for finals. Many of my students have just learned that due to budget cuts they won’t be able to finish their degrees on time.  They are more real to me than someone a half a world away.

There is much to think about, of course, and for someone who sincerely cares about America, this numbness is a frightening, much more frightening than any terrorist threat.  

 I know I’m not saying anything of value here, but I couldn’t let this momentous event pass uncommented upon. I couldn’t come back in a few weeks and write about something without pausing to at least mention something so important here in America. 

Good riddance to bin Laden.

September 11, 2008

9/11/08 Impressions and reflections

Filed under: 9/11,New Broads,students — by maggiec @ 4:09 pm

It’s 8:46 AM, Sept 11, 2008.  Seven years to the day, to the minute, since the first plane hit.  I’m blocks away, sitting at Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Murray St. building, a school that actually lost a building  in the attacks when WTC 7 collapsed the fateful afternoon.  The streets around here–Broadway, Warren, Church–are full of police and fire vehicles.  There will be a ceremony starting now.  I have to teach, or I’d be there.

Lots of American flags on people’s lapels on the way in.  Memories flood back. I was in Geneva, Switzerland in 2001.  Sick in bed with a sinus headache when I got the call a little after 3PM our time.  It was my mom, calling from Oregon.  She’d been watching the morning news when she got up that morning and saw the second plane as it happened.

The memories of the rest of that day are sharp, clear.  My 10 year old son was home from school that day as well.

This is my first 9/11 in NYC since it happened.  I just saw Ground Zero for the first time in July.  I couldn’t look.  I couldn’t go there.  I worked in this area for years.  I loved walking through the WTC grounds.  My dad helped build them.  And because my dad died when I was only 11, the WTC was a tangible tie to him.  I always felt a thrill of pride walking there.  My dad was part of this beautiful place.  My dad was part of NYC’s history.

Later, 9:37 AM

Sitting in class while my students do planned group work.  Heavy atmosphere.  Students are a little down, too, I think, but it’s hard to tell in here.  This is a tough sell class.

My heart hurts.  Too much pain around me.  I can only shield out so much, and since I’m feeling it myself it’s in there already.

Later, 5:00 PM

After my classes today I walked down to Ground Zero.  Stopped first at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Church St.  NYC’s oldest Catholic church, it’s right around the corner from Ground Zero.  It used to sit in the Towers’ shadows.  There had been a ceremony there and a mass at 12:05, but I got there just as mass was getting out.  I went in to pray and light a candle for all souls lost that day and a world that was changed that day.  There were still many officers there in full dress, but there were also two K9 officers there with sniffer dogs.  A sad reality, but I hated to see sniffer dogs in a church.  I cried then.  It seemed like a rational response at the time.

Took some pictures, walked around.  Lots of people, quiet, respectful, police and soldiers in dress uniforms.  Firemen remembering their dead.  Shrines, conspiracy theorists, tourists.  But it wasn’t like a carnival, something I was afraid would happen.

During my second class today, alarms started sounding out on the street and students and I panicked momentarily.  Any other day we would have ignored it.

Stories came out–where we were that day.  Memories, sadness.  Goosebumps.  But we shared love.  Sounds silly, but I loved them so much, sharing with me.  Remembering the students I was with on Sept 12.  I still remember them all–the shocked and frightened American exchange students, the terrified Saudi students, afraid of retribution, the traumatized Serbian, Albanian and Middle Eastern students who had literally lived through wars during their childhood.  The frightened Europeans, sure that WWIII was going to break out.  We loved each other and made it through.

Love is the answer.  Cliche, I know.  Hackneyed even.  But it’s true.  Seven years later, the response in my classroom was love–maybe not for the terrorists, but for one another, for our families, for our city.  And that helps the hurt go away.

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