Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Not-Education Lottery

When the N.C. General Assembly was debating joining other states that allowed state-sponsored lotteries, I was one of the public voices opposing the bill. Passage of the bill required overcoming an odd coalition of religiously conservative Republicans who opposed the lottery as a form of forbidden gambling and liberal Democrats who opposed the lottery because it preyed on the poor and uneducated.

But the lottery passed with the unrelenting, insistent support of then-Gov. Mike Easley and others who decried the "loss" of N.C. dollars to lottery tickets sold in South Carolina and Virginia and who promised that all of the profits from lottery sales would bolster public education. Supporters went so far as to name the state lottery the "North Carolina Education Lottery," as if the games would educate the state's residents.

Years later, and with millions of dollars going into lottery sales and a few North Carolinians winning lottery jackpots, it is apparent that the promises of lottery supporters were all lies. The lottery has not meant a bonanza for the state, and it has not improved education. In fact, a News & Observer op-ed column points out, North Carolina is spending less on public education per capita today than it did before all those promises were made.

There has been no windfall for public schools. The "Education Lottery" has not benefited public education. Instead, legislators have done what they claimed they wouldn't do. They have allowed lottery money to substitute for education funding from other sources. Legislators have cut per capita education spending even as lottery profits have fattened state coffers.

Meanwhile, the fears of Democratic opponents have come true: Lottery ticket sales are highest in the poorest communities. Many poor people foolishly spend their limited incomes on lottery tickets even as family needs go unmet. The lottery is most popular among the least educated, people who don't seem to comprehend that the odds of winning a lottery jackpot are worse than the odds of being struck by lightning.

Education lottery? It would be more honest to call it the Lack of Education Lottery or the Lack of Education Funding Lottery.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Civil War sesquicentennial and the horrors of war

It's the 150th anniversary, the sesquicentennial, of the Civil War, so I have attended two 150th anniversary events in the past year. In September, I went to Winchester, Va., for the commemoration of the Third Battle of Winchester, where my great-great-grandfather took a bullet to the abdomen while advancing with his 43rd North Carolina regiment and disappeared from the historical record. He presumably is buried in one of the unmarked graves at Winchester.

At Bentonville Sunday, I watched the re-enactment of the three-day Battle of Bentonville, where a badly depleted and outnumbered Confederate army tried to halt, or at least slow, the advance of Gen. William T. Sherman's march from Georgia up the coast to close out the Civil War.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sunday's event. We wandered among the sutler tents selling uniforms, weapons, civilian clothes and the provisions of the 19th century. We sat on the ground and waited for the re-enactment to begin, then watched as dedicated re-enactors fired historically accurate muskets, pistols, repeating rifles and cannon in an effort to show an audience of thousands what the March 19, 1865 battle was like.

For all of the fascination I and others held for this event, we have to admit that this was a sanitized, bloodless, danger-less, fairy tale version of war. The muskets fired black powder, which made huge clouds of smoke, but no musket balls or more accurate minie balls whizzed through the air. The re-enactors followed 19th century military procedures. They marched in formation. They wore authentic, handmade clothes and wore shoes and boots of the period.

Missing, however, was the horror of the war. A few re-enactors fell in battle, but they fell from the directions in a script, not because a minie ball had shattered a femur or because a cannonball tore off their heads. This was a battle without carnage. In a typical battle, scores of horses might die from artillery fire or bullets. Their carcasses would lie for days or weeks on the putrid battlefield as the hundreds or thousands of dead soldiers were buried first.

No one exploded into a red cloud when struck by a cannonball's shock wave. No one lost an arm to gunfire or to a cavalry sword. No arms or feet or legs littered the battleground when it was over, as would have been the case in a major engagement such as happened at Bentonville 150 years ago when 80,000 soldiers engaged in well-planned and pitiless murder.

This Civil War sesquicentennial is growing to a close, and that may be a good thing. I have been fascinated by the Civil War for more than 50 years, when America celebrated the centennial of that awful conflict, and I have visited many battlefields and museums dedicated to the war. But I see now not the glory of battle but the horrors of it. That is one thing we must not lose sight of at this sesquicentennial or at any other time.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Remember this day in all its glory

It's springtime in the Carolinas. I wore a light jacket to work Monday to ward off the morning chill. By mid-day, I had shed the jacket and was walking around in short sleeves. This morning is a bit cooler but still bright and sunny as birds call and flowers bloom all around me.

These are the days, the wondrous, dazzling days that fill us with unsought and undefined joy. The air is fresh, the breeze, which was bitter and cutting just weeks ago, is welcome with its rich aroma of freshly mowed grass and budding trees. Here is reason for making memories, for recalling just how joyful, life affirming and comforting this day is. Remember this day when the August heat and humidity stifles every intention to work or to move. Remember this day when the January wind rattles the bare tree limbs and whistles around the house like some invisible force laying siege to your home.

Remember this day. Remember the smell of the air, the glint of the sunlight, the songs of the birds, the green of the grass, the blue of the sky, the pure delight of being alive on a day such as this. Take this memory with you into the blazing summer and the bone-cracking winter. Take it with you into your aging years when memories dim and he senses fade.

Remember this day.

Monday, March 9, 2015

In Selma, the violence shocked America

Last weekend, President Obama joined thousands of Americans — elected officials and ordinary neighbors — to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement officers ambushed peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

 All were there to honor the perseverance, the courage, the determination, the principles, the sheer bravery of marchers who were attacked and beaten by frenzied law enforcement officers for the offense of demanding the right to vote in Alabama, a right guaranteed by the Constitution.

That one notoriously violent incident is credited with giving the 1965 Voting Rights Act the impetus it needed to pass Congress. It's no doubt true that without that march, the Voting Rights Act might not have passed, at least not in 1965.

But for all the bravery and determination of those peaceful marchers, it was not they but the other side that deserves credit for making the Voting Rights Act "must pass" legislation. It was the state troopers and local police who made the greatest impression on members of Congress and the American public. Black men and women had tried for decades to win the right to vote in Alabama and other states. Their struggles, though not universally known, were widely reported. Most Americans agreed that it was shameful and un-American to deny upstanding citizens the right to vote.

But most Americans did not know how viciously and sadistically white authorities would defend their contention that African-Americans should never be allowed to vote, regardless of what the Constitution said. They were willing to beat peaceful fellow citizens with baseball bats and truncheons, run over them with mounted police, hit them, drag them, do whatever had to be done, including murder, to stop them from walking to Montgomery and demanding their constitutional right to vote. When Americans saw the reprehensible, inhumane, irrational fury of those white officers, they demanded change. They demanded passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Just as images of fire hoses and police dogs attacking peaceful demonstrators had turned America's sentiment in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge turned Congress and America in favor of the Voting Rights Act.

The sadistic men who beat helpless marchers were trying to stop African-Americans from winning the right to vote in Alabama. Instead, they achieved exactly the opposite of what they had wanted. The instigators of hatred and violence against innocent, peaceful people assured the passage of the most sweeping voting legislation since the 15th Amendment 95 years before.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Past missteps raise doubts about Clinton's inevitability

Hillary Clinton's candidacy for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination has held an aura of inevitability almost from the counting of the 2012 votes. Clinton admirers loved that trajectory; Clinton haters were beginning to face the inevitability of it all; political junkies hoped for something more lively than a foregone conclusion.

Despite all of the reasoned expectations, the lack of strong opponents and Clinton's own coyness about her candidacy, there has been reason to think that Clinton's anointing might not go as smoothly as scripted. Although she ignites fierce loyalty among her fans, Clinton also sparks ire among political opponents. She has won election to the Senate and served as secretary of state, but her success and effectiveness in both jobs are subject to debate.

She is one of the most polarizing figures in American politics. Many Republicans clearly revile her and would like nothing better than to defeat her at the polls in 2016. Clinton's own missteps provide the openings to stop her. Although her admirers see her as a gifted politician and brilliant policy builder, her instincts have not always served her well.

Early in his first term, Bill Clinton appointed his wife to create a universal health insurance plan. Expectations were high, but the health insurance commission got off to a bad start and never recovered. Hillary Clinton insisted on secrecy and limited public input into the health care proposal. This raised doubts about what was afoot behind closed doors. When the details of the proposal were released, critics quickly shot holes in the gargantuan, Rube Goldberg-like complexity of the plan. Clinton and others had difficulty explaining why the plan had to be so byzantine. The proposal flopped, never even coming to a vote.

Throughout the remainder of Clinton's presidency, the first couple's preference for secrecy was a constant theme, as was their focus on gaining wealth for themselves. A real estate investment scandal, fundraising on federal property and pardons in exchange for political donations dogged the Clintons to the very end.

It is this background of doubt and suspicion that makes the latest Clinton misstep so damaging. Two years after leaving the State Department, it has been revealed that Clinton did not use automatically archived State Department email addresses, only a personal email address for her official correspondence. It gets worse: She set up a private email account on a server owned and operated by herself. Why? The only explanation seems to be that she wanted to control what gets released from her emails and how it is released.

Clinton might survive this minor crisis — no illegality has been proven — but the episode highlights once again the lengths to which Clinton will go to control things and to avoid doing what others do and what the law expects. Add to this her recent missteps ("What difference does it make ..." about the Benghazi diplomats who were murdered and the "We were broke" claims by a couple, each of whom garner six-figure incomes per speech and make millions on their memoirs) and you see a vulnerability in the notion that Hillary Clinton is the inevitable Democratic nominee and 2016 presidential winner.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

March swings between winter and spring

My wife and I took a walk last night after work as the sun glinted through the tall pines and oaks and our shadows stretched to half a block. The temperature was unseasonably warm, rising into the 70s in the afternoon, so we took advantage of our slender window of opportunity and walked two miles or so, briskly moving as we talked.

Tonight the temperature will fall into the 20s, and there is talk of "frozen precipitation," just days after we dug out from the second icing in two weeks. Ominously, this morning's newspaper carried an article about tornado drills in schools, a reminder that spring's sudden shifts in temperature can stir up violent storms.

As North Carolina natives, we know the winter's cold can linger well into April. Many an Easter sunrise service has found us bundled against the frigid temperatures while all the stores are lively with bunnies, chicks, eggs and swimsuits, all in bright spring colors.

Today, the forecasters tell us, March winds will blow and the temperature will fall. Tonight, we'll rely again on a 29-year-old furnace to keep warmth in our home. This weekend, it will be too cold for the outdoor maintenance that I've put off for four months.

But the daffodil and crocus shoots bravely spawn new buds, confident that  spring will come, warmth will blanket the earth and life, so recently frozen stiff, will flourish once again.