Saturday, January 29, 2011

African violence against women brought home at Huntington Theatre

Last week’s referendum on South Sudan may provide a respite in the stories of one of the most savage and dehumanizing conflicts in Sub Saharan Africa, but we must not turn away from the uncomfortable news that persists elsewhere on that continent. The current Huntington Theatre production delivers this message in a most disturbing way.

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined illuminates the horror of how cheap the life of women is in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, where “rape has become a weapon of war.” The production is a result of her interviews with war refugees from Congo, Sudan and Somalia. The powerful acting drives home to the audience the unspeakable brutality that girls and women suffer at the hands of both sides of African conflicts, no matter who may prevail from one day to the next. Nearly 20,000 U.N. “peacekeepers” are unable to secure the peace, much less keep it.

Rape, it is said, is cheaper than bullets. And, when girls and women survive the unspeakable brutalizing, their families refuse to take them back in. The setting is a bar/brothel in a small mining town in a rain forest. The owner, Mama Nadi played superbly by Tonye Patano, is herself a “ruined” woman who has somehow survived the horror of having her own body ravaged by setting up this micro-business. She insists she is saving the girls who work for her from the worse horror of being raped repeatedly by government militia or rebels roaming the jungle, but clearly she is also exploiting these teenagers. And yet at least she cares about them, trying to protect them from the worst violence, trying, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to arrange medical help for one of the “ruined” girls.

According to director Liesl Tommy’s notes, “200,000 females have been reported raped in the past decade” in just the eastern part of the Congo. One of the causes of the deadly fighting is to determine who will have access to coltan, a metal necessary to the manufacture of cell phones and computer chips. Eighty percent of the world’s supply of coltan is in the Congo. The play’s point is that we all, as consumers of electronics, are linked to this brutal war, whether we know it or not.

And we know it better as a result of “Ruined,” which runs through February 7th at the Huntington.  Without giving away the ending, I will point out that the play does end on a note of hope. Playwright Tommy said in a Globe interview that “The ability to find ‘the joy in the tragedy,’ is extremely African.” It is also a slim reed on which to survive.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Obama’s State-of-the-Union address tone-setting, but so what?

President Obama’s SOFU address was a good speech, not a great one. There were moments that were inspirational, but there were also moments that were, dare I say it, boring. In all, however, he was setting the right tone – bipartisan – and right course – centrist. Some conservatives wish this could have been his first SOFU. Liberals might rightly ask, yes, but what does he stand for? I think he stands as a practitioner of politics as the art of the possible. And even the centrist vision he has articulated is going to be difficult to implement.

I like Obama’s tying America’s competitiveness to our innovation and creativity in “this generation’s Sputnik moment.” I like that he stuck with the importance of education, infrastructure investment and clean energy. There’s an appealing symmetry in proposing to fund investment in clean energy, tomorrow’s fuel, by eliminating subsidies for oil, yesterday’s. But one person’s investment is another’s budget buster. And the reality of our dependence on fossil fuel is a lot more complicated that green energy advocates admit.

Obama wasn’t afraid of fellow Democrats in recognizing that reining in entitlements – Social Security and Medicare - over the long haul is essential to reduce the deficit. And he wasn’t afraid of Republicans in suggesting that, while it’s important to eliminate silly or intrusive regulations, he’s not going to back off of regulations necessary for safety or consumer protection. In other words, we’re still going to have an activist government, as Michael Gerson of The Washington Post points out.

Comprehensive immigration reform is still on the table, and the President even got a round of applause from Arizona Senator John McCain, who was for immigration reform before he was against it, as a 2010 candidate. And he isn’t going to cave to the push to repeal health reform, though he allowed as how he’s open to improving it, even flirting with some unspecified tinkering with malpractice insurance. He also gave a nod to corporate tax reform, noting that, by eliminating tax loopholes, the tax rates could be lowered.

Need I say “devil is in the details?” Obama’s speech lacked specificity about hard choices to be made, as economist Robert Samuelson points out. What are the trade-offs that will be necessary to get anything done, especially in this stage of the presidential election cycle?

Obama rightly read the national mood delivered in last November’s election results and no doubt is doing what Bill Clinton did after Newt Gingrich et al “shellacked” him in 1994. But beyond the comfort of his moving to the center and embracing bipartisanship, there’s probably not much to go to the bank on in the rhetorical flourishes of the State-of-the-Union address.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Patrick Term II Starts Strong

Good news coming out of this morning’s speech by Deval Patrick to the Mass. Municipal Association. He will be filing legislation to require cities and towns to provide public employee health insurance either by joining the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC) or devising a similar plan on their own. This was something Republican Charlie Baker had urged during the gubernatorial campaign that the Governor had flirted with, but danced around, perhaps concerned about alienating labor support.

Now he's doing the right thing. City and town workers’ health insurance takes a huge bite out of city budgets, in some cases over 20 percent. That comes right out of property taxes and, hence, out of taxpayer’s pocketbooks. In some cases, those same taxpayers are underwriting a level of health benefits for public employees that those taxpayers don’t even enjoy themselves. The Boston Foundation found that “these health benefits are among the most generous offered by any employer in the Commonwealth, including the state and federal governments, as well as private employers!”

That same report noted that Boston alone could save more than 17% or $45 million if its workers got coverage through the state’s Group Insurance Commission. Statewide, there would be tens of millions of dollars saved. That’s crucial since the state’s need to lop $1.5 billion off next year’s budget means that everything will be on the table, including local aid.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino is trying to rationalize health insurance by home rule petition, but that, too, needs legislative approval. Let’s hope that such sanity prevails. If local communities can’t achieve savings in their health insurance, that will mean laying off police, firefighters, and teachers, some of the unions who are fighting to preserve their laughable $5 co-pays and scant 20% share of premiums. The Governor’s proposal recognizes the fairness of linking what city and town workers get for health insurance to the level of benefits that state workers enjoy!

Patrick is also moving ahead significantly on other fronts, notably, pension reform and parole and probation  overhaul. On pension reform, he’d require future state and local workers to work longer before collecting retirement pay. It's about time, though it would only affect new hires.  So your 55-year-old neighbor who retires this year from the state will still be off on the golf course or sipping a cold beer on his porch on a sunny afternoon while you’re dragging yourself off to work every day till  you're 65 or 66.  And the 35-year-old worker already in the state's employ will still get to retire when he or she turns 55.

The Globe’s Steve Syre says Patrick could still go much farther in pension reform. Alicia Munnell of Boston College, who chaired Patrick's commission on state pensions, said on WBUR that she doesn't see how you can change retirement terms for someone already on the payroll.  She makes a compelling case that the Governor has taken made a serious step forward.

Also impressive was the Governor’s action overhauling the state’s parole board and probation department. He was criticized by an angry public for not taking immediate action right after the slaying of Officer Jack McGuire by parolee Domenic Cinelli, who should never have been out on the streets. But the Governor kept cool and called for a study of the system. When the study was complete, he acted on it. The result is that the parole board members who voted to free Cinelli are looking for new ways to spend their time. Folks tainted by scandal in probation department hiring politics are out, and we have a chance for a dramatic reform of how we deal with prisoners, many of whom may one day be back on the streets.

About the worst news for the Governor these days is the departure of Evergreen Solar for China and the loss of 800 jobs at Fort Devens, despite the tens of millions in state subsidies provided to support the green energy. From a journalist's perspective, this story is the gift that keeps on giving, and well it should, until we learn exactly all that  went wrong in that deal and how the state can learn from it. Otherwise, term II is off to a good start.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sorting out the Mommy wars

It’s good to know that, when we’re tired of the political vitriol and the rantings of Sarah Palin as she insists she is being “blood libeled,” we can turn for sport to the most recent iteration of the mommy wars. For decades, this has referred to the debate between the virtues/shortcomings of working moms versus stay-at-home moms. But a new book by Yale law professor Amy Chua has unleashed the furies in a whole new way. Chua’s new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” was selectively excerpted a week ago in the Wall St. Journal.

Her basic thesis, the foundation on which she has raised her children, is that American parents are too permissive, too concerned about children’s self esteem, too accepting of anything less than excellence. Her “tiger mother” approach is authoritarian and unyielding: no after-school sports, no sleepovers at friends’ houses, drill and retest and drill again if a grade slips, threaten to destroy a beloved stuffed animal if the child’s musical practicing doesn’t yield perfection; scream; harass into compliance. You get the idea.

The excerpt produced the most prolific reader reaction ever experienced on the Journal online, more than 5700 reader responses. The Journal then published an opposing view in “defense of the guilty, ambivalent, preoccupied Western mom,” a sampling of tons of letters on both sides of the debate about what constitutes good parenting, and a defense and qualification by Chua herself.  There have been more than 100,000 comments on Facebook, articles in local papers, and a column this morning by no less than David Brooks entitled, “Amy Chua Is A Wimp.”
Clearly the discussion tapped more than unease about whether we’re raising our children the right way. Let’s face it, the wisdom of the maturation process lets us know that, wherever we are on the authoritarian/permissive spectrum, we – and certainly our kids – will determine that we’ve done something wrong. But the intensity of this debate suggests it may be a proxy for our concerns about 21st century economic competition with China.

Some critics suggest that the harsh discipline of the Chinese emphasis on rote learning creates high achievers who perform well on tests but dampens the capacity for creativity. Brooks goes further and asserts that the skills a child achieves in sleepovers and other social interactions prepares children in “managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinctions between self and group.” All these are important, he points out, because most people do work in groups.

And, while Brooks may well be writing tongue-in-cheek that “the school cafeteria is more demanding than the library,” he still raises a valid point that, while learning “things” and getting good grades is very important, there are other ways by which to measure learning and fulfillment. Fostering innovation and creativity is a very American phenomenon, and it may not be a reach to look at how we’re raising our kids to understand one reason why R & D happens in the United States, and manufacturing (the rote assembly-line jobs) have moved to China.

Most of us, concerned that our children’s generation may be the first not to improve on the standard of living that we enjoy, would like to have it both ways: R&D and keep manufacturing at home, just as we want disciplined academic performers with well-rounded personalities, able to interact easily with others and at home as well in the worlds of sports and music. How to achieve that is a major challenge facing us as parents and as policy-makers. No doubt our uncertainty that we are doing the right thing just expresses in microcosm what our nation is grappling with as it interacts with China going forward. (Note the significance of  Hu Jintao's visit to the White House this week.)

“Tiger Mother” is about much more than parenting. It should be seen as a logical successor to Chua’s earlier provocative books, “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability” and “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance--and Why They Fall”

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Lesson from Tucson: First Aid Training courses in high school

People continue to cast about to identify lessons learned and take-away “to do” agenda items in the wake of last Saturday’s shooting rampage in Tucson. The overarching theme has been the need to dial back the hatred that colors so much rhetoric across the political spectrum. Restore civility. Eliminate or reduce incendiary language.

There are calls to curtail gun ownership, allowing only the purchase of one gun a month; to do more meaningful mental health checks before consummating a sale; to bar gun clips that enable the rapid shooting of so many rounds. There are calls to loosen HIPAA laws so information about potentially dangerous individuals can be more easily shared among educational, community and public safety organizations. And, of course, there are those who argue we need to step up funding of mental health services in the community.

Some members of the U.S. Congress have called for increased security for themselves and for staff.

We should be weighing the pluses and minuses of all of those, but I would like to suggest another proposal, one that helped save the life of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and that could saves lives of countless others. I point to her intern, 20-year-old Daniel Hernandez, Jr, who has become a significant hero in the eyes of people across our nation. Hernandez was able to play the role of hero because he had had emergency medical training in a nursing assistant program in “a few classes in high school.” That training put him into “critical thinking mode” as soon as he became aware of the danger.

He rushed toward Giffords, apparently checking two or three others’ pulses along the way.
When he reached Giffords, he knew to sit her up so that she would not choke on blood from her head wound. He knew to apply pressure to the wound to stem the bleeding, a move that Tucson doctors say probably saved her life. He also knew to keep talking to her to help keep her alert. At all times, his calm demeanor was reassuring and amazingly mature, an obvious result of the training he had had.

If I were an education administrator today or an official involved in setting policy, I would try to make emergency medical training (call it First Aid), including CPR, a requirement for graduation from high school. Kids would know what to do and not do as a stopgap measure until EMT’s arrive on the scene. Its applicability on the sports field is obvious, but its value goes well beyond that. Heart associations and ambulance service associations offers courses to school systems.  Some larger employers provide such training as part of their investment in their workforces.
No doubt Daniel Hernandez, Jr. has the right stuff, the mettle for heroic action. He showed that on Saturday. But all of our young people should be exposed to the training and tools to give them the confidence to act skillfully should the circumstance arise.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Is this a wakeup call? Is it wrong to look at the unspeakably tragic shootings in Arizona as an opportunity to call for the toning down of political rhetoric and the return of civility to public discourse? I think not. But will those who are advocating a return to civility walk the walk?

Ironically, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, now fighting for her life, seems to have been the kind of individual who could bridge gaps. Decidedly centrist, she is a supporter of the health reform law as well as a strong defender of Second Amendment gun ownership rights. She supported John Lewis not Nancy Pelosi for House Minority Leader. She was a Republican; she’s now a Democrat. She appears , on issues and style, able to communicate with disparate individuals and groups.

Many have noted that Giffords was targeted by Sarah (“don’t retreat, reload”)Palin, who put Giffords’ district in the cross hairs of a gun sight and whose Tea Party endorsee, Jesse Kelly, used the language of gun violence to go after the Congresswoman during the campaign. But, according to many sources, she was also “targeted” by the left-wing blog for her vote against Pelosi.  In fact, we often use the “targeting” metaphor as a way of focusing on goals. In the wake of this tragedy, we don’t want to be calling out the language police.

But it’s not just words; it’s tone and spirit. Rhetoric on both ends of the spectrum needs to be dialed back. As Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupink said, those who use inflammatory speech seven days a week, including the media, can have a very real, negative impact, especially on individuals who are unbalanced to begin with.

Giffords herself, speaking of the way Sarah Palin had targeted her, warned that people have to realize there are consequences to incendiary speech. The fact that we don’t know what motivated shooter Jared Loughner (some reports suggest his politics were all over the place, far left to far right), or who may have spurred him to violence, should not impede the soul searching that politicians on both sides of the aisle and media types of all persuasions should undertake.

Loughner may well have been a Columbine type of nutcase. He had classmates who feared him and the possibility he might bring a gun to class. Yet his unhinged paranoia and individual lunacy doesn’t obviate the need for soul searching. A Boston Herald editorial today is dead wrong when it dismisses such soul searching as “hideous nonsense – not to mention ignorance.” And you don’t have to be “cynical” or “politically addled” to examine our civic discourse for incentives to violence, as the Herald suggests. In fact, the Wall St. Journal editorial, while urging that we look to the individual rather than the political world for explanations, did it far more civilly.

As kids we chanted, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We know that this is not true. Vicious speech can fuel hate and can give license to the unbalanced to act out their anger in destructive and obviously criminal ways. As House Speaker John Boehner noted, a violent attack on one Congressman is an attack on all.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the country came together. Many felt optimistic that there would be less divisive rancor in the country. And there was, for a while. But, much as New Year’s resolutions quickly fade away, the post 9/11 spirit gave way to nasty, ad hominem, hateful speech, often including metaphors of guns and violence. Technological innovations in communications since 9/11 have virtually eliminated any filters on our expression. Media competition puts a premium on black-and-white simplistic arguments. And too often our political leaders dance to their tunes, playing to the worst in us.

Strong debate – on all the issues facing us, from health reform to taxes and the deficit, to energy and environment – is essential to the workings of our democracy. It is damaging to label those whose ideas are different as traitors to the country. Giffords herself was practicing the values of the First Amendment, which she had read on the floor of the House early last week. Viciousness and hatred in the exercise of First Amendment freedoms may be lawful, but the lack of self restraint and comity undermines the fabric of the democracy it was designed to serve.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Governor Deval Patrick is nothing if not a good speaker, and his inaugural address today was no exception. It was sobering, as appropriate to the times, yet inspiring, as appropriate to the occasion. He touched on, but didn’t wallow in the accomplishments of the last four years but moved quickly to the challenges that lie immediately ahead. Underlying all aspects of his agenda is his sense of an intergenerational compact, what our generation gained from our forebears and what we must leave to our children and grandchildren.

His priorities are on jobs (he plans to be an ambassador to market Massachusetts), education (“Being first in the nation is a good start. Being first in the world is where we’re headed”), health costs (“We can’t stop till health care is as affordable as it is accessible”) and youth violence (“The cycle of violence in any community is a threat to all communities.”)

Fresh off a solid if unexpected campaign win, the Governor must now face the reality of making more than $1.5 billion in cuts in the state budget. It won’t be pretty. In a series of meetings with leading media, he made it clear that almost no program will be spared. He promises to “take some bolder steps” in enabling municipalities to deal with burgeoning employee health care costs. He also hopes to wring more out of the bloated public pension system. He spoke making the tax code simpler and fairer.

In the very near future, Patrick will be evaluating reports on the parole board and probation system and, as he told WBUR, for example, moving to create a modern system.  Both the Parole Board’s implementation of the rules and the logic of the rules themselves are being reviewed. His measured approach makes sense, and his commitment to reform is clear.

On all these issues, the Governor said, “I will stand up to anybody if that’s what it takes to bear our generational responsibility.” Let’s hope he does.

Let’s also hope that the passion and commitment he gave voice to today endures through the four years of his term, that he is freed by not running for re-election or for U.S. Senate or for President, to act in the most principled way, irrespective of what constituency he might offend.

He was somewhat clumsy in some media interviews in which he indicated that not only would he be travelling more during this term to market the Commonwealth, but also to support President Obama’s reelection campaign and to promote his book, an autobiography, for which he received a hefty advance. This became a troubling headline and prompted columns such as that of Brian McGrory, who wrote, “This is degenerating into something far less than we hoped, this reelection, a slippage not born of the inexperience that Patrick had four years ago, but of a seeming arrogance that is profoundly misplaced.”

Brian is astute, but let’s hope he is wrong about the Governor. He’s right, however, that, with all the problems the state is facing, this isn’t the time to be announcing multi-purpose travel plans. Patrick has an opportunity to build on the good will he engendered during the campaign, expand on the reforms passed last term to make them even more substantive, and continue to improve the working relationship between the state and the business community to expand jobs.

It’s been a while since we heard a politician talk about the importance of the intergenerational compact. The Governor is right that we must pay our debt to the future by building a better Commonwealth today. He’s also right that “the time for talk is over; the time for action has arrived.” Good luck to us all.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Daring a public change of heart

Often, elected officials vote yea in committee and nay on final passage of a bill so they can have it both ways. How many officials, elected or appointed, can you name who have done a complete, authentic 180 on an important issue and been better off for it? I’m thinking Tip O’Neill on the Vietnam War, or Colin Powell on "don’t ask/don’t tell." Usually, a politician who changes his or her mind is mocked. “I was for it before I was against it” became then-presidential nominee John Kerry’s middle name.

Now Diane Ravitch, Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, a giant in the field of public education, has done such a 180. She has done it with intelligence, grace and maximum impact. Full disclosure, Ravitch is a longtime friend. She is searingly intelligent. Her contributions to the field of education are immeasurable.

Under Bush 41, Diane led the fight for the establishment of national standards. In the next administration, President Clinton appointed her to the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) board, charged with developing and measuring national standards. Educators who did not want to be judged by their students’ test performance saw her as the enemy. Under Bush 43, she became a big supporter of No Child Left Behind, which increased the emphasis on standardized testing to measure classes against national standards. And she enthusiastically embraced the charter school movement as a way of providing choice.  But that was then, and this is now.

In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch says the over-reliance on standardized testing has proven wrong. Today, after studying the experience with No Child, Ravitch is taking a second look at standardized testing (and judging teachers by how their kids perform), among other things.

She frowns on Obama’s Race to the Top program, which she calls “No Child Left Behind on steroids.” She is especially critical of its incentivizing the creation of new charter schools, which she now finds to be a mixed bag at best. Citing a Stanford economist’s study, she says that 17 percent of charter schools are superior to a matched traditional public school, 37 percent performed worse than public schools, and 46 percent had gains no better than public schools.

Ravitch said that the teaching force will only be improved when we improve principals and supervisors. Not surprisingly, she has little zest for the fad of hiring business people to be principals. She warns that only highly experienced teachers should become head teachers (or principals). She has taken on Bill Gates and other corporate leaders, saying,

"I don't hear any of the corporate reformers expressing concern about the way standardized testing narrows the curriculum, the way it rewards convergent thinking and punishes divergent thinking, the way it stamps out creativity and originality. I don't hear any of them worried that a generation will grow up ignorant of history and the workings of government. I don't hear any of them putting up $100 million to make sure that every child has the chance to learn to play a musical instrument. All I hear from them is a demand for higher test scores and a demand to tie teachers' evaluations to those test scores. That is not going to improve education."

And, she reminds us, we’ll only produce better educated young people when we understand the impact of poverty, parental education, peer groups and other aspects of students’ social environment.

The point of Ravitch’ turn-around on these major education issues is that testing is important but should not be dispositive in measuring the effectiveness of the educational process. Charter schools can be a positive opportunity but are not a panacea. There are no easy answers.

Diane Ravitch was just selected as the 2011 recipient of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, created by the American Academy of Political and Social Science to honor those individuals whose careers in the academic or public arena have been dedicated to the use of social science research to improve public policy. That means learning the facts, understanding the data, appreciating the real-life experience and refusing to be swayed by fads and ideology. Such an approach doesn’t grab the public’s attention or easily reduce to media headlines and banter, but it is surely a breath of fresh air in the public policy arena.

Years ago John Maynard Keynes, when challenged for changing his position on some economic policy, said “when the facts the change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Would that more public leaders today were unafraid to reverse themselves when changing reality so demands.

Please let me know your comments in the section below.