Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Then Again, Maybe We Had That Coming.

Yeah, I know. It takes all the whimsy out to see the people drowning because they wouldn't listen to Noah. Then again, as the story goes, they had it coming.

After all I've written lately about the innocence of children and the selflessness of teachers, this is going to be one hell of a cynical blog post, of the "humans suck" variety. You'll see me tap into a variety of issues I have previously addressed, including health insurance, football helmet butting, capitalism, and that most horrible of children's bedtime Bible stories, Noah and the Flood. I may figure out a way to end it that's a tad less dark; the preacher in me is always looking for grace, after all. And let's begin.

America's real God is the dollar. It's appropriate that our money has the motto, "In God We Trust," because profiteering is the greatest American virtue. Capitalists despise a monetary vacuum. Anything that creates a demand will be monetized as quickly as the sales stickers can be printed.

Last night, I drove past "Everest College," a for-profit "institution" in downtown Portland. For-profit "higher" education is founded on the principle that "everyone deserves a chance to an education"--and also to line the pockets of the shareholders of these schools. For-profit education identifies fields that are in demand, crafts programs that can lead to certification in those fields, and sells it to segments of the population who cannot afford--or, more likely, lack the expertise or academic qualifications to obtain existing financial aid to cover the cost of--post-secondary education. They then maneuver these students into taking out enormous educational loans, often backed by the federal government, in the tens of thousands of dollars for an education that would cost much less at a community college. If the student finishes the program, he or she is awarded the certification required to be employed in this field, though typically finds that it pays significantly less than she or he was led to be believe by the college. The student also now owes the bank that issued the loans an enormous amount of money. And if the student doesn't finish the program? Still there will be loans requiring payment--and by someone who was unable to qualify for a professional position. Either way, Everest College walks off with a hefty tuition check.

I'm appalled by this for a host of reasons, not least of which is the sheer audacity of exploiting the laudable thirst for self-improvement in order to line pockets with greenbacks. Educators I know, regardless of the age of their students, teach because that is what they are called to do. Sharing knowledge and skills with students makes up for our puny salaries, and then some. It takes a twisted, greedy mind to want to turn something like that into a cash cow--and yet, that is what not just for-profit colleges, but charter schools do all the time.

It's also what hospitals and private insurance companies do. Americans need health care, and are not about to outgrow that need. They also need to be able to pay for it. Enter the insurance company, an institution founded on the notion of spreading the cost of health care across a large population by cashing in on their natural fear of illness and death. The Affordable Care Act takes a standard element of this industry--spreading costs for the sick among all patients, including those who are healthy--and applies it to a much larger group of people. That brings the costs down for everyone--except those who have no insurance at all.

It makes sense: if we're going to stay with the same private infrastructure, with profiteering middlemen holding the reins of the health economy, then for both their sake and ours, currently healthy people will have to subsidize the care of the unhealthy. This is, in fact, how socialized healthcare works, except that instead of paying inflated premiums to for-profit companies, citizens pay taxes to more efficient government bureaucracies. The blasphemy of the single-payer government health system, as Americans see it, is that nobody makes a profit. So we all pay more to preserve the profits of the investors.

Extending our analysis beyond the almighty buck, let's turn to the world of professional sports; more specifically, football. I rarely televised sports, hardly ever for entire games. The Super Bowl is one exception, as is any bowl game with an Oregon team. Several of the last games I have watched have featured strategic manipulation of the time out rules, and I find this infuriating. When I'm watching a game, I want to see it won or lost by the skill of the players and their ability to work together as a team. One thing I do not want to see is victory through creative bookkeeping. Playing with the clock, allowing it to run up to a certain point, calling a time out, stopping the clock at the most advantageous moment--this strikes me as having as much sport to it as tax evasion. And yet it is one of the things that makes football such a human sport: the human drive to take advantage of whatever loopholes can be found in a rulebook.

Sticking with football for a moment, I recall my last mention of this blood sport: the use of a protective device, the helmet, as an offensive weapon. Here's a manufacturer's warning from inside a football helmet:

And yet, as long as ramming one player's helmet into another player's head gives the first player's team an advantage, it will take a major revision of the rules to eliminate this lethal practice. When it comes to winning, whether the reward is money, fame, or just self-respect, anything not specifically ruled out is fair game, even if the cost is a lifetime of disability--or death.

Let's take it to a higher, but less (visibly) bloody level: Congress. Since President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Republican senators and congresspersons have fudged, violated, reinterpreted, and exploited every rule of procedure for their respective chambers to overturn the results of not one, but two national elections. Legislation has been discarded in favor of obstructionism. Rules designed to protect the rights of the minority have been used and abused to obviate the will of the majority. This has been true both with respect to the use of the filibuster in the Senate and the exaggerated voice of the Tea Party in the House.

Examples from the history of crime in America are also telling. The prohibition of alcohol led to the meteoric rise of organized crime, and current prohibitions on marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, and other controlled substances have birthed a thriving shadow industry that exploits addicts.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone. Since the dawn of time, humans have been exploiting vague and general rules, finding ways to turn restrictions into advantages. The book of Genesis dates it back to the first humans: Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, finding it attractive precisely because it was forbidden; then tried to weasel out of their punishment by passing the blame to others. One of their sons went on to murder his brother. Murders, thievery, prostitution, idolatry, all of it growing out of essential human depravity, using the gift of a free will to exploit and subvert the Creation that God had so recently called "good": no wonder God decided to wipe the slate clean and start over from scratch. It's a good thing God promised not to do it again, though, because before there had even been time for another generation to be born, Noah and his family were indulging in their baser instincts.

It's a bleak picture. And yet, at the beginning of this essay, I promised a taste of hope at the end. So here it is:

Kindergartners can be incredibly frustrating to teach. Of all the students I deal with, their personalities come the closest to primitive, sometimes even feral. They will exploit any opportunity for running, chasing, pushing, blaming, denying; really, they are everything I've just accused football players, senators, health insurers, for-profit educators, and essentially the entire human race, boiled down into a concentrated but cuddly form.

It's the cuddly that I want to focus on here, because as selfish as kindergartners can be, they also have an altruistic streak that dwarves their tiny bodies.

Occasionally for one reason or another, a kindergartner winds up in tears during music class. Sometimes it's because one of the other children got a little too enthusiastic during the movement activity with which I started the class. Sometimes one of them has felt snubbed by another. Sometimes it's impossible to know exactly what happened, because the weeping child speaks very little English, or simply refuses to say.

Every time this has happened, without exception, other children rush immediately to comfort the weeper. It doesn't matter how obnoxious this child has been: kindergartners have a native compassion that puts that of humans to shame. They just can't stand to see another child in tears. Whatever I'm trying to teach takes an instant back seat to comforting the afflicted. They also become obsessed with tying each other's shoes, but that's another story.

As with so many other things, I can't really fault these children for caring. As much as I want to teach them something about music, I have to celebrate their concern for each other. And did I mention the cuddle factor? When it's time to get them on the bus, they will often clump together in a hug-fest that, as irksome as it can be for furthering the goal of getting them home, is delightful to behold.

So there's the hope: as much as our human nature may revolve around exploiting each other and manipulating the letter of rules to subvert their intent, way back, deep down, we care. We really do. Take long enough to pierce that manipulative cloud and you'll find a bleeding heart.

So hold off on the flood, God. We may yet surprise you.

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