I don't know who the joker was that invented the idea of "human progress." But I can tell you this: She wasn't a Cubs fan.
Readers of this column will recall that about once a year I turn my attention to the trials and tribulations of a certain hapless baseball team located on Chicago's north side. In this, I am not unlike a couple of other ink-stained wretches here in Indianapolis. Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Tully, I salute (and commiserate with) you.
As I write this, the Cubs are firmly ensconced in last place in the National League's Central Division. While the season is still relatively young, the team shows every sign of making the cellar its permanent address. Things have gotten so bad, sports writers are paying less attention to whether the Cubs win or lose than to those fleeting moments when the team manages, however briefly, to eke out a lead over one or another of their opponents.
Cubs fans are used to this sort of thing. This is a team that hasn't won a championship in over 100 years — which is shorthand for saying that this is a team with fans who, for generations, have shown more loyalty than sense.
We've put up with such occult shenanigans as the curse of the Billy Goat and the College of Coaches. We've suffered through Carmen Fanzone's broken-noted trumpet playing, Joe Pepitone's mutton chop sideburns and the butter-fingered defense of the infelicitously named Pete LaCock. You'd think it could never be worse than this.
But you'd be wrong.
Earlier this month, The New York Times revealed that Joe Ricketts, patriarch of the family that bought the Cubs in 2009, was prepared to spend $10 million on an ad campaign aimed at smearing President Obama's character.
Ten million dollars may seem like a lot of money to you and me, but it's chickenfeed to a billionaire like Ricketts, who has made a fortune on Wall Street through his brokerage firm, TD Ameritrade. His family pays left fielder Alfonso Soriano almost twice that much every summer to strike out with men on base.
It seems Ricketts has never gotten over those grainy videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that were trotted out by rightwing mudslingers during the 2008 presidential campaign. The Rev. Wright is a fiery orator, with a hardcore take on how power has been used in the United States to maintain what he considers a racist status quo. The Obama family attended Wright's church; some pundits hoped the videos would instill a fear among voters that Obama secretly hated white people.
But John McCain, Obama's 2008 opponent, didn't want to go there. He considered using the videos racially divisive, not to mention beside the point, since Wright never claimed to speak on behalf of, or for, Obama. McCain vetoed a proposal to use the Wright material in his ads.
This wasn't Ricketts' take. When he was shown an ad exploiting Rev. Wright that McCain had squelched, he reportedly said: "If the nation had seen that ad, they'd never have elected Barack Obama."
Ricketts paid a political advertising strategist to come up with a proposal for an ad campaign aimed at dredging up the Rev. Wright story all over again. That proposal, titled, "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama," became an instant sensation on cable news programs of the "OMG, what was he thinking?" variety.
Not only did the proposal indicate that Ricketts was interested in trying to reinforce the most bigoted side of people already predisposed to vote against the nation's first black president, it also betrayed an almost pathological cluelessness.
It turns out that while Ricketts says he is incensed by the way the government spends money, his family was in the midst of negotiations with the City of Chicago to obtain $300 million of taxpayer funding for renovations to Wrigley Field, the ballpark where the Cubs ply their misbegotten trade.
Apparently, no one — not even Ricketts' daughter Laura, who is one of Obama's biggest financial contributors — thought to remind the old man that Chicago's mayor is Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff. It seems the mayor has suddenly stopped taking the Ricketts' phone calls.
Ricketts has a right to his political views, no matter how cracked they might be. But when you own a professional sports team — particularly a team whose following is based on the oddly quixotic loyalty inspired by the Cubs — you also take on a kind of public trust. It's bad enough that the Cubs are in last place. It's unspeakably worse to think that supporting them in any way endorses the paranoid arrogance an insanely rich dope with a baseball hobby.
On the weekend following the revelations about Ricketts' political adventures, the Cubs played their cross-town rivals, the White Sox. This series is usually one of the hottest tickets in town; people with experience of such things say the games have a playoff atmosphere. This time, though, there were empty seats in the bleachers. Neither team is playing well this year. But maybe even Cubs fans have their limits.
I'm sorry, but John Gregg must be out of his mind.
In case you hadn't heard, Gregg is the Democrats' candidate for governor.
He's running against Mike Pence, the silver-haired darling of right-wing Republicans. Pence used his six terms as a member of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. to sharpen his media profile.
He's been on the talk shows, calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood and giving seniors coupons instead of Medicare to help pay their doctor bills. Many people in the outer reaches of the drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub movement thought Pence would make a dandy candidate for president.
Gregg, on the other hand, is known mainly for his walrus mustache.
As is typical in Indiana, when one party comes up with a candidate burnished with what, in politics, passes for celebrity, the other party obligingly keels over and holds its paws in the air. It appears no one on the Democrat side had the gumption to truly challenge Pence on how his essentially anti-government beliefs might serve a state where cutting government services to the bone has done nothing to improve one of the lowest rates of household income in the nation.
Gregg, a former Speaker of the Indiana House, apparently agreed to take one for team.
But rather than offering creative proposals to distinguish himself from Pence, it seems Gregg has decided to try running round his opponent's right flank. Last week he pledged to eliminate corporate taxes for companies with their headquarters in Indiana, or for those who would move their headquarters here. Gregg would also give tax credits to companies doing life sciences and advanced manufacturing work. He calls his plan "a Hoosier Handshake."
Gregg's handshake would wring about $350 million dollars out of Indiana's annual revenue stream. He claims this loss could be made up through the collection of online sales taxes, a proposition John Ketzenberger of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute told the Indianapolis Star was "pretty iffy."
Gregg, like so many of his fellow Hoosier politicians, wants to believe that taxes are the only thing standing between Indiana and the state's next business boom. The trouble with this nugget of magical thinking is that, when it comes to business taxes, Indiana is already one of the friendliest states there is. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation ranks the Hoosier state as having the eleventh best tax environment for business in the country.
Cutting business taxes, also known as trying to bribe businesses to locate here, is not what's holding back Indiana's economy. If this were true, the tech companies in high tax California would be making the Wabash Valley the new Silicon Valley.
That's not happening. The reason it's not happening is because Indiana has one of the most poorly educated workforces in America. For generations, you didn't even need a high school diploma to make good money in Indiana manufacturing. Kids dropped out of school because spending those last two years studying the Gettysburg Address and dissecting frogs seemed a waste when they could be earning enough cash to buy a car or make a down payment on a house by working a factory line.
This was the Indiana way until the 1980s, when many of the state's independent manufacturing plants starting closing in the wake of a national recession. Globalization did the rest. What we've been finding out since is that it's hard turning generations of contempt for education into a culture that truly appreciates the value of knowledge. It's one thing to see the statistics about employability and hear the exhortations of state leaders about the importance of academics. But when so many of the state's citizens lack any real experience of having achieved in school, turning the recognition that education is important into meaningful action, let alone paying for it, is easier said than done.
John Gregg says he wants to cut business taxes in order to create jobs. This echoes the Republican mantra that business leaders are "job creators." But that's only partly true. Workers are the wealth creators for business owners, who can't accomplish anything without a pool of able employees capable of turning their business plans into profits.
What makes Gregg's tax-cutting idea nonsensical is that cutting business taxes threatens to create more pressure to cut funding for education, which accounts for the largest share of the state's budget. Many schools, from K-12 to state universities, have been hit with budget cuts due to property tax caps and legislative budget machinations. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of the state's elementary schools have failed to teach 90 percent of their third graders to read at an acceptable level according to the Indiana Department of Education.
Rather than trying to get attention by promising tax cuts to constituents who don't need them, Gregg would be well-advised to do something Mike Pence can't imagine: Come up with a comprehensive plan aimed at making Indiana a national leader, not only in K-12 education, but in training programs that actually help Indiana adults find and keep jobs. The collapse of traditional manufacturing in this state has put an entire generation on the scrap heap. Making Indiana an even cheaper place to do business than it is now won't do anything to help them.
The whacking Republican voters handed St. Richard Lugar last week is a good example of the kind of weirdness people can commit in the name of love.
I'm sure at one time or another you've known someone who professed an undying loyalty to a partner they otherwise appeared to detest. One might be a neat freak with a perverse pleasure in complaining about the other being a slob. Or a person who by nature is shy and retiring might unaccountably pair off with a mouthy, aggressive type. These are the sorts of couples who give each other "I'm with stupid" t-shirts and claim it's just a joke.
This appears to be the sort of relationship Tea Party voters who chose Richard Mourdock over Lugar have with America. They claim an essential love for this country. Yet it seems there's little they actually like about the way this place behaves.
Tea Partiers are steamed about the mountain of federal debt and what they say is a government trampling their rights. These are real concerns many people share. But the Tea Party's way of dealing with these issues is to back candidates like Mourdock, who would use the debt as a wrecking ball to effectively bring down the federal government as it has existed since the days when Franklin Roosevelt used it to make life bearable during the Great Depression.
Mourdock has said he sees little point in trying to compromise with Democrats. What he says he wants is a Republican dominated Senate or, in other words, one-party rule. That, as someone once said about Mussolini's Italy, is a great way to make trains run on time, but it has nothing do with governing a complex nation made up of a wide variety of people living across a spectrum of circumstances.
America's spending with largess, it's true. We shoveled at least $3 trillion into a fruitless war in Iraq, to take just one example. But our national debt is due to more than the tendency to throw money at problems.
A country this size has real needs that states cannot meet by themselves. Finding ways to address these needs is how our government makes sure everyone shares an American life, regardless of what state they've landed in.
The federal government has, since the 1930s, invested in programs like Social Security and Medicare to protect older citizens, civil rights laws to create equal access to voting and public facilities, even an interstate highway system to enhance travel and commerce across state lines. The manifest success of these programs makes you wonder what America the Tea Partiers and candidates like Mourdock want to "recover."
Mourdock's victory seems certain to push the easily impressed Mitt Romney further to the right as he makes his bid to be president. Moderate Republicans (an increasingly antique breed) and some independents have been hoping Romney might find a way to pivot toward the center now that President Obama is his sole adversary. But the Tea Party's virtual takeover of the Republican agenda means that to do this, Romney would have to run against, not with, the tide in his own party. And if we know anything about Romney by now, it's that he's not one to buck a trend.
This puts President Obama's personal endorsement of gay marriage into context. The president had previously danced around the issue, claiming that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but that he supported civil unions and was also in favor of equal rights for gay people. Over time, he said, his view of gay marriage "evolved," until finally coming round to support for the idea.
Although Obama's endorsement is not tied to any kind of legislative initiative, it has, nevertheless, stirred up a lot of speculation about how it could impact his race with Romney. Romney, predictably, is a man-and-a- woman guy, against gay marriage and civil unions, too. In light of the fact that both candidates say they think this issue should be left to the states, many pundits have questioned why Obama would choose to bring it up.
The reason may be that he sees that he's running against the Tea Party — a party, as Mourdock has proclaimed, of no compromise, bent on undoing generations' worth of nationally unifying work in the name of balancing the federal budget.
By waiting to make his endorsement until national polling confirmed that a majority of Americans have no problem with gays marrying one another, Obama adroitly found a simple, unmistakable way of showing the difference between how he and Romney understand American life.
It might also be that Obama is at last beginning to understand the nature of his opposition: the Tea Party doesn't want to make America better, they want to change it.
A lot of marriages are based on this same, fatal premise. What starts out as a weird attraction winds up becoming a tug-o-war, as one benighted spouse tries to make the other conform to his or her idea of a dream lover. It's no wonder almost half the marriages in America end in divorce.
Have you seen the new ExxonMobil ad about where America ranks in math and science education? The ad shows a series of cut-outs, each one in the shape of a different country, like Finland, Hong Kong or Japan. The cut-outs are brightly colored. As the names of the countries they represent are called out, the cut-outs stream by until finally we come to the familiar shape of the United States, the 25th country in line.
The ad is a textbook example of why showing beats telling. As we watch the line of different countries growing longer and longer, we can see how far from the lead the United States has gotten. We don't have to be told that our country's students have fallen behind in math and science.
ExxonMobil wants us to know that it supports a program called the National Math and Science Initiative. The NMSI is dedicated to improving science and math education in middle and high schools through the recruitment and training of more teachers in these disciplines.
It's great to see a behemoth corporation like ExxonMobil throwing its weight toward the education of our kids. Lord knows, the kids need all the help they can get. According to the NMSI, the United States led the world in high school and college graduation rates a mere 25 years ago. Now we rank 20th and 16th in those categories. To make matters worse, the NMSI estimates that only 20 percent of our current workforce possesses the skills required to fill 60 percent of available jobs in the burgeoning 21st century STEM-based (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) economy.
In a weird way, ExxonMobil's support for math and science education serves to emphasize just how dire the situation has become. Until recently, ExxonMobil has fought against scientific research demonstrating the effects of human behavior on climate change. As Steve Coll recently pointed out in a New Yorker piece on ExxonMobil's political clout, "In the nineteen-nineties and through the first Bush term, ExxonMobil funded free-market research and communications groups that attacked the emerging science documenting global warming. The Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, and other environmental and public advocacy groups exposed the corporation's investments in climate-change skeptics and accused executives of adapting science-smearing strategies similar to those employed by the tobacco industry."
ExxonMobil employs about 18,000 people. It seems that what the corporation is saying is that it would be nice if most of the folks they hire could be Americans. Nice, that is, but not necessary. Welcome to the global marketplace.
The outcry over our country's need to keep up in the fields of science and math recalls a similar moment in the late 1950s, following the launch of Sputnik, a Soviet satellite, in 1957. At that time, the U.S. was locked in cold war with the Soviet Union. Sputnik was Exhibit A that we were losing. In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which developed new ways of teaching high school physics, biology and chemistry, while also providing college scholarships for young scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
But the upgrading of K-12 education during the so-called Space Race between the Soviet Union and the US wasn't limited to math and science. Teaching of the humanities and arts were also enhanced. In fact, more students went on to receive advanced degrees in fields like English, History, and Philosophy in the '60s and '70s then at any time before or since.
This was partly due, of course, to the sheer number of school-age kids, products of the Baby Boom, who were moving through our education system. Schools at all levels were a growth industry in those days.
Numbers by themselves, though, don't tell the whole story. Americans saw the Soviet threat in both technological and cultural terms. We were not only in a space race, but a competition for the hearts and minds of people all over the world. This meant being able to convey American ideas and values as surely as the things we made. American education needed to be well rounded in both the sciences and the liberal arts in order to meet this challenge.
The irony we face today is that, at the same time corporate employers like ExxonMobil are sounding the alarm about America's erosion in the fields of science and math, the same things are being said, albeit with less fanfare, about the arts and humanities. Schools aren't eliminating their math or science courses but, in many places, classes in visual arts, music and branches of the humanities are being drummed out of the curriculum. These cuts not only diminish the educational experience for students, they risk depriving society of the next generation of designers, city planners, journalists, and teachers — those people whose jobs are involved in collecting, saving and presenting the stories that help us understand who we are and how we got here.
Life is complicated. We certainly need scientists and engineers to help us sort it out. But as DH Lawrence once wrote: "Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes water, and nobody knows what that is." Knowing what we don't know: Perhaps that's the best education of all.