Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I Wish You Good Health (and Good Healthcare)

I probably won't be able to blog for much of next week, since I'm going into the hospital for knee surgery-- it's my third surgery in three years, and believe me, I'm really tired of spending time in hospitals (rehab isn't a ton of fun either). But I remain eternally grateful that I have health insurance, and glad that I live near good doctors and good hospitals.  Several of my friends aren't so fortunate.  They didn't have health insurance from their jobs, and now they are unable to work.

No, it's not that they are unwilling to find another job, and it's not that they are lazy-- in fact, both worked hard all their lives. But their jobs did not provide any benefits (one worked as a home health aide, one worked in a factory); and when they were left with permanent disabilities, they both ended up on fixed incomes-- which are quite low.  After the Affordable Care Act was signed into law (and please note-- neither of them is a fan of President Obama), they were encouraged when they learned about the Medicaid Expansion, which would make them both eligible for health care they could not afford up to that point.

But alas, determined to make a point about their dislike of the president and their opposition to "Obamacare," the Republican governors and legislatures of their states refused to accept the Medicaid Expansion, even though doing so would have been such a blessing to a large number of poor people, who would have been covered at a relatively minimal cost.  (In fairness, a few Republican governors DID accept the Medicaid Expansion, showing a willingness to help people who desperately needed it; but most Red State governors did not.)

This should not be political.  Like it or hate it, studies show the Affordable Care Act has been a major benefit for millions of Americans; some have even credited it with saving their lives-- one Wisconsin Republican named Brent Brown, who acknowledged he never voted for President Obama and had even made hateful remarks about him, completely changed his mind once he got sick.  Unable to get health insurance before the ACA, due to a pre-existing condition, he was now able to gain access to good healthcare, and have his serious illness treated.  He wrote to the president and thanked him.

Okay fine, "Obamacare" isn't perfect, and yes, it has some flaws.  Since it relies on working with the private, for-profit insurance industry, there have been been challenges in achieving lower costs; procedures and medications in the US remain outrageously high, especially when compared to other countries.  Bernie Sanders and others have suggested a Medicare For All plan, but in our current political environment, there's little chance such a plan will be given a fair hearing any time soon.  Meanwhile, the subject of why healthcare costs in the US are so high (and no, it's not always because of "waste, fraud, and abuse") is worth a serious conversation, one that should go beyond partisan rhetoric and talking points.

The fact remains that for all its flaws, the ACA has given many Americans coverage for the first time, and that's a step in the right direction.  And yet, my Republican friends continue to express their disdain for it,  and every Republican candidate for president has pledged to repeal it-- even though there is NO Republican plan to replace it, and lord knows, the GOP has had plenty of time to come up with one.  I truly wish they would.  Meanwhile, some of the problems with our current healthcare system could be remedied if only congress would act-- like, why can't Medicare negotiate for lower prices on prescription drugs? It was congress that forbade this back in 2003, as a concession to the pharmaceutical industry (once again, we see the power lobbyists have; those who contribute to campaigns get the ear of the candidates in a way that ordinary citizens do not).

And so, here we are:  I will get to go to a good hospital, see well-respected doctors, and get the treatment that will (I hope) relieve some of the pain I've been dealing with over the past few months.  But my two friends, by virtue of where they live, are not able to get the care they need, and there is no relief for either of them in sight.  That geography should determine the quality of one's health care, or how much (or how little) access one has to much-needed medicines seems unfair to me.  I want to hear answers from the candidates about how they will solve our healthcare problems, but thus far, I don't see both sides sitting down to come up with some solutions.  And there continues to be a system  of haves and have-nots while politicians in congress (and make no mistake-- both sides helped to create this mess) act as if there's nothing they can do.  But there is. And it's sad that too many of them lack the political will to even make the effort.    

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Are Conservatives on Campus an Endangered Species?

When I entered college in the early 1960s, most campuses were still very conservative; at Northeastern University, boys were expected to wear jackets and ties to class, and girls were expected to wear dresses.  Professors too were expected to wear "businesslike" attire, and most maintained a very formal (and somewhat aloof) manner when talking with students.  I was never taught anything positive about Marxism, nor was I taught anything negative about McCarthyism.  The war in Vietnam was necessary, I was told; and those who protested it were just anti-American (or worse yet, hippie Marxists).  Most of my professors were white men, and they were in charge:  students could discuss the course material, but the professor was always right, since he had much more knowledge than we did.

As for the courses, I was studying liberal arts, but there was nothing "liberal" about it.  We rarely if ever analyzed the work of poets or authors who were non-European-- the curriculum revolved around the so-called DWMs ("dead white males"). History courses utilized the traditional historiography of the "Great Man Theory"-- we mainly studied famous kings, presidents, and generals; and when the story of immigrants was mentioned, it often focused on how quickly they abandoned their "old country" ways and assimilated into the majority culture.   Courses like Western Civilization focused on the important contributions of European Christians (Muslims were warlike and trying to conquer by the sword; and Jews were an afterthought-- or as the historian Arnold Toynbee called us, fossils of history, a people who didn't quite fit anywhere).  I was taught about the "Protestant work ethic," but I was rarely taught about why poverty existed-- it was common knowledge that if you worked hard, you would get ahead, and if you were poor, you must be lazy.  Girls were still being taught that while it was okay to attend college, the real reason for being there was to find a potential husband; and of course, no self-respecting girl wanted to enter a profession other than teaching, nursing, or secretarial work.  

For some of my conservative friends, those traditional attitudes are much needed, and sadly lacking, on college campuses today.  As I am told on a regular basis, colleges have become hotbeds of radicalism, where innocent students are being taught to hate America, where History courses teach that Europeans were nothing but brutal colonizers, and where white kids are taught to be ashamed of being white.  If you get your news and commentary from conservative media, there seems to be genuine nostalgia for the (alleged) good old days, that era when everybody knew their place and nobody complained about it.  There is also a dominant belief in right-wing media that conservative professors are not getting hired at most colleges-- or if they somehow do get a job, they are told to keep their retrograde views to themselves.  As conservative media tells it, college has become a liberal, multicultural paradise, and conservatives are not welcome unless they know when to keep quiet.

So, I was both surprised and disappointed when this popular (but, in my opinion, flawed) right-wing discourse was recently reinforced by an article in the New York Times, in which columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed that yes, liberals on campus do have contempt for conservative points of view:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/a-confession-of-liberal-intolerance.html?_r=0

Needless to say, I disagreed with large parts of the article:  for one thing, the comment section of Facebook postings is rarely a reliable measure of the average person's attitude. As I've noted in previous blogs, the internet often brings out the worst in people, so finding some rude posts about conservatives does not prove "liberal contempt," any more than finding rude posts about liberals proves "conservative contempt."  I also disagreed with other points Mr. Kristof made, and I said so in the comment section.  Soon, I ended up in a brief Twitter war with a number of conservatives who came at me with "See? Even the liberal New York Times admits that conservatives aren't welcome on college campuses."

But with all due respect to Mr. Kristof, his "liberal intolerance" theory isn't entirely true.  I've been a professor for the better part of thirty years, and I've taught all over the country.  While some campuses are indeed more liberal, that doesn't mean conservative professors don't exist, nor have I seen them being treated with either contempt or intolerance.  I've had some very interesting discussions with some conservative professors (and students) at my current place of employment, and I can assure you that no rocks were thrown; and as far as I know, we have all remained friendly with each other.  It is also worth noting that just like there are liberal campuses, there are many other universities that are quite conservative.  For example, many schools that are run by religious denominations (such as Liberty University or Brigham Young University) often display a conservative ideology; and while they may occasionally have liberal guest speakers, the dominant belief system is conservative, and the professors and students are expected to uphold those beliefs; publicly deviating from them is generally not encouraged.  Of course, none of my conservative friends ever mention this, since it doesn't fit in with their insistence that ALL universities are run by liberals.  As it turns out, the truth is more nuanced, and it often depends on who owns your school.  

And let's take a closer look at the "campuses are hotbeds of radicalism" discourse.  Here's how it unfolds:  it starts with a story on Fox News or in the conservative blogosphere about some crazy thing an ultra-leftie professor said; it doesn't matter if the person was taken out of context, or if the person is some fringe instructor that nobody on campus takes seriously.  The story immediately takes on a life of its own, with the professor being elevated to a status of "typical liberal professor."  His or her quote is sent around in outraged emails, expanded upon by right-wing talk shows, and then used in numerous social media comments to "prove" that ALL leftie professors are disgraceful. It's the ultimate in confirmation bias-- selecting material that agrees with what you already believe-- and sad to say, it happens over and over.  (And truth be told, my liberal friends do it too-- taking a totally bizarre remark from some right-wing scholar and then using that to "prove" that ALL righties are lunatics.)

I hate to disappoint my conservative friends, but the views of the extremists are NOT what's dominant on most of the so-called liberal campuses where I've worked.  What's dominant is critical thinking-- teaching students both sides, exposing them to a wide range of views, and above all, showing them how to do research, evaluate evidence, and make informed decisions.  And yes, it's true that most American History courses today are different from when I was in college. Today, we no longer present Americans as 100% right all the time (a wonderful belief, but not an accurate one); nor is the story only told through the eyes of "Great Men." But that's not necessarily a bad thing:  including the voices of women, the poor, immigrants, or minorities tells a much more factual story, one that does not negate what white Europeans accomplished.  (And teaching a more inclusive version of history is a far cry from the claim that we are teaching students to hate America.)

Where I currently teach, which is known as a "liberal university," I still find that certain departments are more liberal, and some actually lean conservative.  However, across the campus, it's accurate to say that liberal views about social issues (like marriage equality or support for Planned Parenthood) are more common-- even among the students who identify as conservative; and it's also true for our Republican governor, by the way. Thus, a student who agreed with, let's say, Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin might feel it would be unpopular to say so-- although I have no evidence that anyone has been (or would be) silenced by our college's administration.  Rather, sometimes people simply decide that certain "hot button" issues are just not worth arguing about-- it's called "self-censorship," and we all do it at one time or other.  One other thing I've noticed:  most of my students, especially the freshmen, follow whatever political beliefs they learned from their parents. Some of them will change their views as time passes, but not because I, or any other professor, tried to persuade them. Rather, they will develop their own viewpoints, some of which will mirror those of their parents and some of which will not.  As I said, being exposed to a wide range of ideas and beliefs is what college is supposed to be about.

I know that nothing I say will persuade my conservative friends that I don't spend my days indoctrinating my students.  Many conservatives remain certain that "liberal universities" are training the next generation of Marxists (I wonder how I got a job-- I've never been a fan of Marxism...); and they sincerely believe no self-respecting conservative is welcome on the average campus.  Having seen it both ways-- campuses dominated by conservatives, and campuses dominated by liberals-- I'd like to see people from both ideologies in the classroom, and I'd like to believe that there are many campuses where diversity of viewpoints DOES occur.  But then, people who get along with each other are rarely considered newsworthy, so you probably won't hear about them.  It's conflict and division that sells; and so does the myth of the liberal campus, a harsh and cruel place where innocent conservatives are being persecuted every day...

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Bernie Sanders Still Gets No Respect (But He Should)

To say the least, this has been a bizarre year for politics.  I mean, who would have predicted that a brash New York billionaire, who has been married three times and has a tendency to make outrageous claims and use schoolyard taunts on his opponents, would be the presumptive nominee for the Republican party?  And who would have predicted that massive numbers of  people (many of them young, first-time voters) in both red states and blue states would become passionate supporters of a 74-year old self-identified Democratic socialist from Vermont, best known for his thunderous oratory against corporate greed?

When the 2016 election season began, many Republicans expected former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (who had a famous name, conservative credentials, and millions of dollars in SuperPac support) to quickly become the party leader.  And although some Democrats had their doubts about Hillary Clinton's electability, she too had a famous name, she had served as a senator and a Secretary of State, and few doubted that she would become her party's nominee.

Last year at this time, none of the pundits were predicting that Donald Trump would eliminate all the "establishment" candidates and win decisive victories in a majority of primary states; in fact, most of the pundits treated his candidacy as a media stunt, or even a joke.  Similarly, I can't recall anyone who took Bernie Sanders seriously when he challenged Mrs. Clinton.  The mainstream media had just about anointed her as the Democratic nominee, and nobody expected Senator Sanders to be around for very long; after all, who but a small bunch of old hippies would support some 74-year old guy from a small New England state who talked about a "political revolution"?

As it turned out, both Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders touched a chord with frustrated, angry, and alienated voters.  Their styles were very different, and in many cases, their issues were different too; but their voters were equally certain that these two non-traditional candidates were the only ones who spoke the truth.  As a result, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have each had a major impact on the presidential race.  Mr. Trump has now, for all intents and purposes, sewn up the Republican nomination-- much to the chagrin of the Republican establishment.  Mr. Sanders, for a number of reasons (some not of his making) is far behind in pledged delegates, but he has received millions of votes, raised an amazingly large amount of money from individual donors (typical donation $27, and he refuses to have a SuperPac), and won a respectable number of states.  Although Mrs. Clinton and the Democratic establishment wish he would just go away, he shows no signs of doing that.  (Note to fans of Hillary:  I have nothing against her.  I just find the case that Bernie is making much more compelling.)  Meanwhile, even in the face of long odds, Senator Sanders has vowed to fight on. 

That shouldn't surprise anyone who knows him. I've followed Bernie's career for years, and he has a long record of consistently fighting for what he believes in-- for example, he has been a champion of workers' rights, and has long railed against income inequality.  Contrary to claims by his opponents he's anti-business, he is not at all opposed to capitalism-- but he is opposed to corporations that treat their workers with disdain while negotiating huge bonuses for their executives; and he is opposed to corporations that manipulate the tax code to avoid paying their fair share, or park their assets in the Cayman Islands.  Frankly, as someone who has worked for companies where all of us consistently produced at a high level yet we rarely got even a small raise (while the company's executives got lavish salaries and perks), I can relate to his message.  And I'm not the only one.

To be honest, I never expected Bernie to get as far as he did.  And much as I like him, I never really thought Bernie would be able to win the nomination.  But I did expect that once he began winning some states and attracting large and enthusiastic crowds to his rallies, the mainstream media would cover his campaign more thoroughly.  They never did.  On a regular basis, I saw reporters and anchors either ignoring him or giving him a bare minimum of attention.  I even saw anchors mocking his stump speech, or cutting him off whenever he began to talk about corporate greed.  And more often than not, when anchors did interview him, it was to ask when he was getting out of the race.  And yet, night after night, when it came time for Donald Trump to give a speech, the same media outlets faithfully covered his every word, even if much of what he said was also his standard stump speech (with a few insults or rude remarks thrown in from time to time), and even though he had not yet come close to winning the nomination of his party.

It's fairly obvious that the mainstream media have their favorites.  Donald Trump, with skills he honed in reality TV, often provides a boost to network ratings-- or as Les Moonves, the chairman of CBS, admitted: "Donald Trump's candidacy may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS."  (Actual quote. Not an urban legend.)  Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has inspired millions of young voters, raised issues seldom discussed by traditional politicians, and run a dynamic and exciting campaign-- but he's not telegenic in the way Mr. Trump is, and he's not a ratings machine.  So he doesn't get the coverage Mr. Trump gets.  In a way, that's a sad commentary... both on the state of our politics, and on the state of our media.