To the Free-Expressions YAHOO Group
By Deke Barker
January, 2006

To: "Free Expressions" []
From: "Deke Barker" []
Date: Tuesday, January 17, 2006  
Subject: [free_expressions] thoughts on perspective and ostriches

In his The Art of War, Sun Tsu offered the famous dictum, "Know your enemy!"
Much more than people in other developed nations, Americans are physically and psychologically isolated from the rest of the world. We don't have much contact with foreigners other than tourists and the illegal aliens who trim our palm trees or clean our pools. We live in walled enclaves and huge upscale suburban developments, so we rarely encounter people in poverty except the 'homeless' guys begging at freeway ramps. Our narrow perceptions are fed by a constant diet of perspective-distorting television. As a result, we have the habit of seeing the world only through our own eyes and assuming everyone else does as well. This is not good.
Some examples:
The example I most often mention is the public attitude toward sentencing policy for criminal acts. The conventional wisdom among people who know nothing about the subject is that increasing sentences -- the Supreme Court recently upheld a sentence of fifty years for an armed man selling a relatively small amount of pot -- has a strong deterrent factor. The assumption is that the average semi-literate criminal will respond like the average college-educated Houston suburbanite to long prison sentences. It doesn't work that way!
The most obvious example is our entire experience in Iraq, where the administration has made one stupid assumption after another, mostly based upon a suburban Houston mentality. The administration has been wrong at almost every point!
My thoughts on this matter were spurred by the recent and ongoing fiasco with the new Medicare drug coverage program. A few days ago, states began offering low-income Medicare recipients emergency grants so that they could fill their life-preserving prescriptions. The Bush administration originally claimed that this was unnecessary. They recognized the start-up pains -- common in nearly all new programs -- but they argued that all that the low-income recipients had to do was pay full price for their prescriptions, and the Bush administration would see to it that they were reimbursed.
Now, if any of us were in this situation -- and Shlomoh and Louise may well be -- we could do just as the administration asks us to do. Presumably, we all have sufficient resources to fork over a few hundred dollars, or maybe a few thousand if red tape delays things for six months. We'll scream and bitch and otherwise make life miserable for Medicare and our insurers, but we'll get our medicine and eventually get our reimbursement checks. A bureaucratic hassle, but what else is new? No doubt, the administration was thinking along these lines when it proposed its solution.
Unfortunately, with its suburban-Houston mentality, the administration wasn't aware of the fact that many elderly people are NOT in a position to pay $300 per month for a single prescription. Even $50 per month may be a stretch. The fact that they will (probably) get it back in a few months is meaningless. Anyone who has ever dealt with low-income people knows that they live on the edge. They have no disposable income, no spare cash in case their Social Security check is delayed. But the people in the Bush administration continue to see the world through the eyes of suburban Houstonites and fail to understand the reality that exists outside of their suburban enclaves.
I may have mentioned the following example in the past, but it is worth repeating as a classic example of this sort of mindset.
In Arizona, a married couple can donate up to $300 to a local school, all of which will be reimbursed through state tax credits. (That's not a deduction but a CREDIT. Pay $300 to the neighborhood school in December, get it back in March when you file your state return.) What's more, the donor may direct his/her donation not merely to a specific school, not merely to a specific program within that school (band, track-and-field, the Spanish club), but to a specific individual. It is not uncommon for people to go around to relatives, friends, and neighbors to solicit donations. Affluent parents can even 'front' the money for others, getting reimbursed when their (relatives or whomever) pay their taxes or get their refunds. As a result, several kids in Dani's varsity band covered the entire $1400 for last spring's trip to Hawaii through tax credit donations. IN EFFECT, THE PEOPLE OF ARIZONA -- THE TAXPAYERS -- PAID FOR THESE KIDS' TRIP TO HAWAII.
The original argument favoring the school tax credits was that this would be a good way to generate funds for low-income schools. In fact, the precise opposite has occurred:
Dani's school, McClintock HS in Tempe, is a wonderfully diverse school, mixing upper-income and low-income and middle-income kids. We get a decent amount of fax credit money. Tempe High, serving Guadalupe (a low-income Yaqui/Mexican village of 8,000 stuck between Tempe and Phoenix), a low-income section of SE Phoenix, and a lower-middle-income section of NW Tempe, gets very little. Corona del Sol HS, in affluent south Tempe, gets several times what McClintock gets, while individual programs at Corona like its band program can get twice as much as the total at Tempe HS. (Band members tend to be affluent, as the cost of instruments and lessons is quite high. At MHS, the band is by far the biggest recipient of tax credit funds.)
This pattern holds true throughout the Valley. Schools in south Tempe, Ahwatukee (far south Phoenix), and west Chandler -- all in the Tempe Union HS District along with McClintock and Tempe HSs -- make out like bandits. So do the schools in Scottsdale (except lower-income south Scottsdale), Gilbert, Carefree, Cave Creek, and Paradise Valley; they all clean up. Schools in the Roosevelt Elementary District (low-income, south Phoenix), in the Phoenix Union HS District, and in the nearby low-income Tolleson and Buckeye districts (heavily Hispanic) receive next to nothing. In effect, the tax credit system, rather than helping close the gap between rich and poor schools, has widened that gap significantly. And all because its supporters either didn't know or didn't care about its ramifications. They were thinking with a suburban mentality and oblivious to the realities.
Bringing it all back home, I would suggest that Shlomoh's attitudes toward the Middle East situation and toward Muslims in general reflect a similar 'suburban-Houston' mentality. The tragedy here is not that Shlomoh has become something of a racist, contrary to his normal state of mind. Rather, it is that Shlomoh's attitudes are widely held among American Jews and among American Xians as well. That is one good reason for our constant failure to deal effectively with the Middle East.
FWIW: Europeans don't have this problem. Instead, they have other problems which give them a perspective that is just as distorted as the American perspective, and maybe more so. Relative to the Middle East, it's hard to decide which group is worse, the Americans or the Europeans. Personally, I think the Europeans are worse. American attitudes are the product of ignorance, and ignorance is relatively easy to overcome. European attitudes reflect a set of mentalities that are not so easily corrected, including latent anti-Semitism and a tendency toward appeasing those who might threaten them.  
That's it. I can offer no great words of wisdom beyond what Sun Tsu said, other than to note that it's the ostrich that gets its ass shot off!

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