Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Choices in This Election


(From the October 11, issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

All the candidates in this election season are talking about the important choice or choices we need to make as citizens. Well, yeah, that is what happens when you go into the booth. You choose.

But other than considering statements of the obvious, the emphasis on choice has made me think about that word. That’s when the irony hit me: so many candidates and/or elected officials who claim to be “pro-choice” on abortion seem to be working against allowing choice on other issues.

Certain politicians years ago framed the abortion debate as one of “choice.” A woman should be allowed to choose what happens with her own body, the logic goes. At rallies you would see signs that read “My body! My choice!” All of this was to turn attention away from the fact that a human life was at stake. So people against abortion described themselves as “pro life” and have bumper stickers and rally signs that say “Choose life!”

But if choice is so important as an operative word, it is interesting to me that our society lately seems to be working to remove choices. Let me run through a few examples.

One has to do with school vouchers. The basic idea here is that, since a portion of taxes people pay go to public schools, parents should get a voucher from the government to send their children to a school of their choosing. So if they don’t like the local public school, they could use the voucher to send their child to a private school, a charter school or any other school that charges tuition. Parents could use the tax dollars they paid—or the portion “covering” their child’s public education—for another school if they so choose. But there are many people against school vouchers. This is the first societal hypocrisy—people should have the right choose to end the life of their unborn child, but if the child is born and reaches school age the same parents can’t choose their school.

But say school isn’t an issue. Say kids are in the public school. Then we have the issue of choosing what to have for lunch. Recently, federal guidelines went into effect mandating what types of food schools serve for lunch. There have been stories of some school employee telling a little girl not to eat the lunch her own mother packed for her. Late last month a group of students launched a YouTube campaign to protest the new school lunches. Good for them! They are showing critical thinking and communication skills, not to mention exercising the right to protest abuses of government in a democracy. But, so far, it still remains that parents can choose to end the life of an unborn child, but they can’t choose what to feed them.

Let’s say that these children survive school food and live to see graduation. Then they want to get a job at a place that has a union. “Right to Work” legislation that has been hotly debated is about whether or not a person should be allowed to decide whether or not to join a union. Many are advocating that employees have no choice but to be part of a union. This is a great way to bolster union membership. But it’s not so great if you say you are in favor of personal choice. So our society says it should be a right to snuff out the life of an unborn child but a grown-up child can’t choose whether to be part of a union or not.

The recently passed massive health care legislation includes one controversial aspect called the “insurance mandate” that requires everyone to buy health insurance. There are lots of arguments for and against this. But on the issue of choice, it’s another case where personal responsibility and choice is being taken away from individuals. So add to the list of hypocrisies that our modern society endorses the right to terminate “fetuses” but if they emerge into the world as actual human beings they don’t have the right to choose whether or not they want to buy health insurance.

The most recent example is specific to New York City, but it could spread. I’m speaking of course about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s dictate that people in the Big Apple can’t buy big sodas, at least nothing as big as 16 ounces. Apparently it’s an effort to battle obesity. Whatever happened to “My body! My choice!” Apparently, what you imbibe and how much is a government decision in New York. You can get an abortion there, just not a large diet coke.

The real irony is that many of these restrictive policies are advocated by folks who call themselves liberals or progressives. The original political meaning of “liberal” had freedom at is core—it seems the opposite lately. As for progressive, one wonders toward what we progress if we keep making government policies taking away  freedom of choice. Perhaps England, before the American revolution?

One choice we do still have is in the ballot booth. This election really is about choice.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Humanities Deserve Celebration

October is National Humanities Month. Unfortunately, not too many people know about that or even care. Fortunately, there are efforts in West Michigan to address that.

Grand Valley State University once again has its Fall Arts Festival to celebrate the arts and humanities in our region. And new this year is an effort in Muskegon called the Muskegon Area Arts & Humanities Festival that has the same goal.

Not only are these fun and thought stimulating events worthy of our participation just for personal enjoyment. They are important efforts to remind us collectively as a community that the arts and humanities matter, and matter greatly, even in an era when the emphasis increasingly seems to be on science, math and technology.

We should not disparage one field of academic study or professional pursuit to elevate another. Rather, we should recognize that while individuals may have different competencies and interests, as a society we are better when our talents and interests are as diverse as our ethnic backgrounds.

Never has there been a stronger and more timely endorsement of this than Steve Jobs, the legendary CEO of Apple Computer who died one year ago today. His company's products were known for technical genius, but also magnificent design and aesthetic. As he says in a video tribute posted on Apple.com today:

"It's technology married  with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the result that makes our hearts sing."
Yes. That sentiment may be more important than any of the gadgets he gave us.