Indy Pride's Vigil for Orlando
Hundreds of members of the LGBTQ community and their supporters and allies gathered Sunday night in the Egyptian Room at Old National Centre to memorialize the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.
Many years ago, the newspaper I worked for sent me in search of Muhammad Ali.
Ali lived in those days in Berrien Springs, Michigan, a quiet, almost sleepy little town of fewer than 2,000 people about 25 miles north of South Bend, Indiana. The question the paper wanted me to answer was why perhaps the most famous person on the planet had chosen to live in such a secluded spot.
The townspeople in Berrien Springs told me charming stories about the former heavyweight champ. The best ones came from children.
They were too young, even then, to remember the days when Ali roamed and ruled both the ring and the world's stage. They saw him not as a celebrity, but as a kind of silly old uncle, the kind who came to their school to do magic tricks and make them laugh.
When Ali, body shaking, lit the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the folks in Berrien Springs didn't see the Greatest up there. They saw their neighbor. They wept the tears of friends.
A few years later, I met Ali.
It was in Washington, D.C. The American Civil Liberties Union honored him with an award.
His wife Lonnie delivered his acceptance as he stood behind her on the stage. She made a little joke about him. He pointed his finger toward his skull and twirled it – "she's coo coo" – while she rolled her eyes.
It was a well-practiced, but still charming, routine.
They left the stage after that and the crowd surged around him, the man's magnetism moving in waves through the big room. He was just a few years older than I am now, but he looked and moved like an old, old man, the Parkinson's disease that afflicted him keeping his limbs and nerves in constant agitation.
The people in the room didn't care. He was Ali, the man and fighter who "shook up the world."
As I stood before him, I couldn't help but wonder, not for the first or the last time, what it must be like to live with that kind of fame, to have one's character and contradictions both reduced and expanded into caricature.
Because Ali was such a larger-than-life presence, it could be easy to forget the human being within the myth.
The crying little boy who first wanted to learn to fight to get even with the person who stole his bicycle and the brash young man who boasted he was "too pretty" to beat. The eloquent advocate for strong families and the serial womanizer. The warrior for racial equality and justice who disparaged rival and friend Joe Frazier in the most racially charged terms. The gliding, graceful young champion, a man whose movements were as smooth as polished ice, and the trembling, prematurely old man who stood before me.
They all lived in the same skin and skull.
They all were Ali.
Muhammad Ali died Friday. He was 74.
He lived within the enveloping and perhaps smothering bubble of fame as celebrity, icon and brand name for the last 50-some years of his life.
In these hours following Ali's death, I find myself thinking about his time in Berrien Springs and the question the paper wanted me to answer: Why did such a famous man choose such an out-of-the-way place to live for so many years?
The answer, I think, was that the people there saw him as part of the landscape, another face in the town.
He could pass the time in the local stores without having to be the Champ. He could visit the local schools and be goofy with the children, doing silly little magic tricks even the youngest kids could see through.
In fact, it was a kind of magic trick that brought him to Berrien Springs. He'd lived with captivating and crushing fame for so long, through both triumph and decline, that being able to slip out from under the yoke, even for an instant, must have felt as liberating as a blessing.
That's why Muhammad Ali lived there.
It was a town where he could be a human being, not a celebrity.
It was a place where the most famous man on the planet could disappear.
This is a message to supporters of Donald Trump. I don't mean the ones who supported him months ago. Those supporters really wouldn't get this.
I am specifically talking about the supporters who once could not fathom Trump as the Republican nominee, but now are "falling in line" and "getting with the program." I am speaking directly to you. This will make perfect sense to all of you. I envision you regretfully nodding while you read this, wishing you had not become the very thing that makes today's topic even possible.
The topic is fascism in America.
Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution wrote a disturbing column titled "This is How Fascism Comes to America," published May 18 in The Washington Post. It struck a chord. It was being shared, tweeted and cited by Republicans, particularly those who see Trump for what he will truly always be.
Search for the column and read it. Twice.
My summary of it is that the presumptive GOP nominee has no allegiance to the party or its platform, and since the party didn't embrace him when he thought he needed them, he never will. That's one problem. But here is another one. Kagan writes: "His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger."
Most Americans will agree that the primary force behind Trump's campaign is the angry voter. Adding that element to his complete lack of ideology, and we now have the two main ingredients for a fascist regime in this country. Kagan is not the originator of this theory, and Trump is not the original subject of it.
The word "fascism" derives from fasces, the Roman symbol of collectivism and power: a tied bundle of rods with a protruding ax. We all know that fascism is bad, but if asked to explain what it means, most of us can't. There are reasons for that, starting with its near eradication from the planet with the end of World War II.
Umberto Eco wrote in his famous 1995 essay, "Ur Fascism" ("Eternal Fascism"): "Italian fascism was certainly a dictatorship, but it was not totally totalitarian, not because of its mildness but rather because of the philosophical weakness of its ideology. Contrary to common opinion, fascism in Italy had no special philosophy." Eco was an Italian novelist, philosopher and semiotician. Semiotics is the study of meaning-making, and is closely related to linguistics.
In his essay, Eco listed 14 traits that a fascist exhibits. In an eerie way, this list accurately describes Donald Trump. The inspiration of the essay was based on the dictator that defined the governing style from Eco's homeland and early childhood, Benito Mussolini.
And we all know how Mussolini's reign ended. Well, maybe all of us don't know, but I am betting most of the Republicans who vowed to oppose Donald Trump with all of their might earlier this year do.
Ironically, the fundamental difference between Mussolini and the more infamous Adolph Hitler is that even Hitler had a policy platform.
Like Mussolini, Donald Trump has no platform.
The strength of a fascist regime comes from the middle class, its support of the leader and then its blind reliance on that leader for illogical solutions to obvious problems. And for the first time in modern times, there are large numbers of Americans willingly signing up for that program. The worst part about it is that the people I am writing to this week are Americans who know better.
Is it really more important to these Republicans to be victorious for their party regardless of the peril that victory might bring to our nation? This peril was clearly recognized here by them just a short time ago. The candidate has not changed one iota since the nomination deck was cleared a few weeks ago, but somehow otherwise smart people have decided that they can now magically tolerate him.
Kagan's timely and contextual column is spot on. I am glad he published it and even happier so many people around the country are reading it. Eco warned us in a far more comprehensive manner more than 20 years ago of the same thing.
I have written before that there are worse things in the world than losing an election. Losing a nation's soul is certainly one of them.
There has been much recent media attention paid to the National School Lunch Program. President Truman signed the program into law in 1946. The program subsidizes paid, free and reduced cost meals in public and private schools across the country.
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is the part of the program receiving the most attention and has been misconstrued. Congress included CEP in the 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization package with bipartisan support. CEP allows school districts that are located in high poverty areas to offer free meals to all students without requiring individual eligibility determinations. This provision, strongly supported by school administrators, reduces administrative effort and cost. As a result, CEP improves student achievement and behavior — things that we can all agree are important to ensuring our students' success.
The media and members of Congress have described incorrectly the participation threshold for CEP. For the first time in the 2015-16 school year, schools and districts were eligible if 40 percent of students were "directly certified." This means students were automatically enrolled for free meals because the student's household was already certified for SNAP, Head Start, TANF, or the student was homeless or in foster care.
This does not mean that a school with "only" 40 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch can participate in CEP, as has been reported.
Income eligibility for free and reduced lunch is broader than is eligibility for SNAP, Head Start and TANF. Thus, at schools with 40 to 60 percent of directly certified students, there is a much larger percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Also, data shows that many eligible students are missed when schools must individually certify students.
In the Lafayette School Corporation, where five schools meet the 40 percent threshold for students directly certified for free lunch, the actual rate of free and reduced lunch eligibility ranges from 65 to 82 percent.
Last week the House Committee on Education & Workforce passed a new reauthorization package that not only significantly restricts CEP participation but would also severely limit the ability of school staff to reach out to families who may be eligible for free and reduced price lunches, and it would increase the amount of verification paperwork (and associated administrative costs) schools will need to perform. These new provisions (introduced by U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind)) will prevent eligible, hungry Hoosier children from accessing school meals. Is this really what we want for our kids?
By eliminating the administrative costs associated with determining individual student's eligibility, managing payments, and monitoring lunch accounts, it is simply more cost effective to serve all students. Under this bill, many schools with a high rate of children living in poverty would be ineligible to participate in CEP.
Child hunger is a serious problem in Indiana and should be given serious regard. Schools are places that our children go to be nourished — intellectually, emotionally and physically. School meals are a vital part of that equation.
The plan U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, (R-Indiana), has devised to cut back free and subsidized meals for poor school children reminds me of an old and cruel joke.
The joke goes like this.
A scientist who wanted to prove a point started experimenting with a frog. The scientist cut off one of the frog's legs and yelled, "Jump!"
The frog jumped.
The scientist made a note.
The scientist lopped off another leg and yelled again. Once more, the frog jumped.
The scientist made another note.
Another leg came off. Somehow the frog jumped. Another note.
The scientist took off the last leg and yelled, "Jump!" The frog just sat there.
The scientist wrote down his conclusion:
"The frog no longer can hear."RELATED: No Free Lunch in Indiana
Rokita's plan to cut back on meals for poor kids springs from two impulses.
The first is a desire to attack the federal government's debt. Rokita says his approach could produce $300 million in savings.
The second comes from the ongoing campaign to "reform" education – largely by playing financial games with the ways we fund schools by redirecting taxpayer dollars to private or religious schools.
We'll deal with this second impulse first.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about our education wars is that most of the research now indicates how truly pointless they are.
While we argue and argue and argue about vouchers and charters and other questions that increasingly matter only to rabid partisans, entrenched ideologues and the increasing number of self-proclaimed education experts who live on fat tax-funded contracts, the research shows us something else.
The ways we can make the greatest gains in educational performance – and, down the line, in increased productivity – among our young people involve two things.
The first is starting the educational process earlier when young brains are ready to soak up knowledge at a phenomenal rate. The opportunity costs for not aggressively funding and establishing strong preschool programs are staggering.
The second is that we need to limit as much as we can the adverse childhood experiences – abuse, neglect, divorce of parents, poverty and, yes, hunger – that delay intellectual, emotional and psychological development. The costs of not dealing with those issues also are crushing, both in terms of lost productivity and human tragedy.
But both of these solutions would call for a greater, rather than a smaller, public investment in education.
That brings us to the concern about the debt, about which Rokita and other conservatives do a great deal of public hand-wringing.
The federal debt stands at roughly $19 trillion now. Between $13 trillion and $14 trillion of that debt wouldn't exist if Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush had balanced budgets when they were in office.
They didn't because doing so would have required them either to raise taxes, particularly on the wealthy, or cut back on military spending and adventurism. Either option would have required asking some sacrifice or self-discipline from the well-heeled. That was not appealing.
Conservatives, it seems, do believe in free lunches – just not for poor kids.
The issue with the debt is less the size of it than what we get in return for spending the borrowed funds. Some of the greatest periods of economic growth – the period after World War II, for example – have occurred when the ratio of our federal debt to our gross domestic growth was at its greatest.
The reason is that we spent a great deal of that money educating people through the GI Bill and creating a federal transportation system that made growth possible. We reap the benefits of that public investment to this day.
Perhaps it is because he understood this fundamental truth that an obscure Republican by the name of Abraham Lincoln began his political career by calling for massive government investment in improvements that would make it easier for what he called the common people to build better lives for themselves.
Perhaps that is also why the bipartisan National Governors Association, the School Nutrition Association and just about everyone who is not a Republican member of Congress has come out in opposition to Rokita's bill.
It didn't matter.
The bill moved out of committee on a partisan vote.
It appears that it's not just frogs with no legs who have trouble hearing.