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Now, Limiting Book Searches

Terry H. Schwadron

May 13, 2022

The culture wars are on fire – the goal to eliminate teachings that expose to children to issues of race, identity, sexual orientation, and a view history of our country that can make a white, male-dominant, Christian nation think again.

Each day, it seems, we have a new instructional log being thrown on the blaze by Republican state officials.

This week it was legislation targeting library searches for school assignments.

Proposed legislation in several states identifies online library databases and library management technology to remove and block student access to material that is obscene, pornographic, sexually exploitative of children or “harmful to minors.”  The bills are similar and already have been enacted in Utah and Tennessee and about to become law in Oklahoma. A bill in Nebraska requires that parents be able to view all content their children can view online, reports The Washington Post.

Apart from the obvious problem of identifying exactly what books we’re talking about, this is an attack on the basics of doing any kind of research – hardly the stuff for kindergartners and first graders. Among other things, these databases offer access to otherwise subscription news or magazine articles.

Let’s skip that parents always can get engaged in their students’ homework or can work out rules for students to talk about what they are reading with parents. The idea that  Americans think we need a law to patrol student research for books to possibly read speaks volumes by itself.

The fact is that it is hard enough to get students to read or do research altogether.

But can we consider that these culture campaigns are going much further and broader than concern about students’ mental health or hunger, about valuing teaching, or about the ever-present dangers of drugs and guns.

Imagine if the same effort were turned towards support of tutoring, encouraging science education or supporting the arts in school.

The Attack on Schools

We’re hearing loads of reports that conservatives are running for their local school boards, motivated by what they see as offensive policies about requiring covid masks when the disease numbers jump or combatting any evidence of “critical race theory” notions that are not taught in the schools.

As one who has tutored students in Harlem and the Bronx, I can report first-hand that the problems facing our new readers are not about race and identity. They are about recognizing phonics and forming words and sentences in coherent thoughts, they are about building confidence in beginning readers. Just a note to rampaging MAGA protesters – the school tutoring programs welcome parental involvement.

American schools issued at least 1,310 book bans in the last five months of 2021, including “Who is Barack Obama?” and “Muffin Wars,” according to the Pen America index of school book bans. It has increased since then.

During that same period from August to December, roughly 28,170 children were inside a school when bullets were fired, according to The Washington Post database on school shootings. The New England Journal of Medicine declared last week that gun violence is the top killer of kids in our nation. The homicides of children by firearm rose more than 30 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to the journal.

In a country where we have legal same-sex marriage and protection of sexual orientation (for now, at least), one must wonder what the relative dangers of reading a book that has a gay character is as compared with drug deaths or gun violence that is as real as illiteracy.

In an article in The Atlantic, author Tim Alberta outlines the force of those within evangelical circles who have become fixated on marrying the goals of church life with literal political goals for the country. 

The Companies and the Law

So far, library database companies including ProQuest, Gale, EBSCO Information Services and Follett School Solutions have said they are tracking the spate of legislation but have no plans to make major changes to their services. In March, Follett announced, then rescinded a possible feature to allow parents to track and limit what their children check out from the library. The company met backlash on social media.

The conservative politicians pushing the legislation argue that more controls are needed to repel an epidemic of sexual content, including pornographic material, that students are viewing through online school databases.

Educators and librarians say the new note that there are federal child protection and Internet privacy laws that already require database companies to ensure that their materials are age appropriate. Database company leaders said in statements and interviews that they are careful to provide only content that is meant for K-12 students.

So, we have something else going on here, all part of an angry feelings chain that includes a full variety of anti-institutional attitudes. The “populist” outlook driving MAGA is one that decries scientists, educators and independent thinkers as elitists trying to run and ruin their lives. The real purpose of these anti-book search laws seems bent on justifying efforts to remove books that MAGA dislikes for positive mentions of gay or transgender lifestyles or for negative mentions of institutional racism.

What is odd is that these book limits started about kindergartners and now extend to university teaching.

Plus, one must wonder what these students do with Google, or what happens when they spend time with video games, or why there are so many reports about the ill effects of bullying and shaming through social media.

The positive here is to welcome interest from MAGA politicians to the world of education, especially for younger children. There is plenty of room for them to help, guide or even set limits for their own children.

But let’s not substitute one view of the world as a mandated guide for us all.

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More Blame than Solve

Terry H. Schwadron

May 12, 2022

It’s bad enough that the medical authorities are warning that covid is massing for another round of heavy disease, hospitalizations and deaths this fall and winter.

But then Fox Business Network host Maria Bartiromo had to suggest that White House covid warnings infections are part of a Democratic plot to boost the party’s chances in the November midterms.

Why isn’t disease bad enough without sprinkling it with partisan political seasoning?

The nation is fully upset and divided over the apparent Supreme Court conservative majority decision to throw precedent out the window to overturn 50 years of the right to legal abortion.

Then Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) comes along and insisted that the Democrats have gone ‘to the extreme left’ on abortion by objecting, by sponsoring protests outside justices’ homes, by insisting that the Senate vote to codify what has been federal law.

Again, how is any of this made better – for any point of view – by insisting that the leak was partisan, that protest is only the result of partisanship, by making adherence to court precedents a factor of partisan politics? Why can’t we encourage public protest – and call for people to avoid justices’ private homes or firebombing an opponent’s regional headquarters? On the other hand, why is a chalk drawing outside a home of a senator a reason to call the police?

You could recognize the same thing under way in talking about a possibly pending deal to stop Iran’s nuclear development, how to hasten and strengthen help to Ukraine’s defense against invading Russians, or what to do about rising prices for gas and food that clearly have a variety of global economic echoes.

Owning Their Own Side’s Problems

Hey, progressives and Democrats lay blame at the feet of their foes as well, but just not with the continuous blast from conservatives and Republicans on such a full breadth of topics.

Democrats also manage to drop partisanship enough to notice that inflation is on a gallop, covid continues to elude the public health net, and that immigration problems at the border remains an unsolvable set of issues.

Despite some exceptions, the Republicans manage to persuade themselves that despite the building evidence, Donald Trump had little responsibility for bringing about the Jan. 6 riots. As tell-all books continue to emerge about the four years of a Trump White House, Trump’s legacy reflected terrible, inconsistent, egotistical promotion campaign that proved regularly dangerous rather than a paradigm for governance.

You just would never know it from listening to Republican leaders, who seem ready to join in his run to return to the White House.

Whether it is Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) announcing psychologist-like that Joe Biden is “incoherent, incapacitated and confused”because they disagree about economic policy, or Rep. Kevin McCarthy insisting that Biden’s leadership in stoking allied military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine is “inadequate,” the disagreements over policy have continued to turn personal and ugly.

None of it helps either the situations under review or our feelings as voters about whether the people we elected to solve problems can do anything besides find blame.

It feels as if our daily news report ought to come with references in how things could be better rather than by what comes across as an arbitrary game of political tag over who is best to blame.

The Senate Vote

Yesterday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer brought a losing proposition to the Senate to write the holdings of Roe v. Wade into federal law before the Supreme Court’s final decision can emerge.  Knowing that he lacked the votes either to pass the bill or to waive filibuster rules to allow a bill to pass with 51 votes, Schumer’ saw few good outcomes ahead.

Schumer’s only hope seemed to be to pin public embarrassment on Republican senators who think stripping a constitutional right is no big deal. It’s about the midterm elections as much as it is about abortion rights.

Republicans seemed insistent on ignoring 50 years of public opinion on abortion. They will attempt to paint the “radical” idea of endorsing legal abortion as if it is a new idea that flies in the face of religion and that promotes vast numbers of late-term operations to end the lives of viable fetuses. They too are not interested in morality, but about winning.

That is not supported by data that finds economic and personal health factors massively more central to the question surrounding abortions.

The fact is that abortion is legal today – and will continue to be legal in half the country even after a court decision that overturns its legal, nationwide status. The further fact is that abortion will continue whether legal or not, as it has for centuries, and that what is at issue in abortion is whether it will be recognized and treated as a health issue for women.

Sticking partisan pins in those who are anti-abortion or pro-choice will do absolutely nothing towards making this country more moral, more respectable or more safe. The decision on abortion always comes down to the individual, not the state government, not the federal government, and certainly not to politicians who seem to thrive only on blame.

Being pro-life should mean addressing more inclusive health care, particularly for women and infants, not moving to having women who abort, or their doctors and nurses prosecuted.

Forcing a useless vote seemed a futile protest. Forcing Schumer to schedule a vote by ignoring the public protest for a need to protect individual rights is worse.

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The Biden Inflation Pitch

Terry H. Schwadron

May 11, 2022

If Americans are voting this year based on their pocketbooks, the stubbornness of high prices and inflation will dictate an angry rejection of Democrats.

If the very same voters think that replacing a slim Democratic congressional majority with a Republican group, they should look closer because there’s no indication that result will follow.

The factors driving high prices for gas, food and manufactured goods that is outpacing any wage growth over the last year are basically non-partisan. Yes, you can choose to blame Joe Biden’s energy policies for a piece of gas, which hit record highs yesterday, but far less than the global effects we still see from fouled supply lines bequeathed us by continuing covid problems, a war in Europe, various outbreaks of corporate greed, and, of course, on our own consumer insistence that goods and services should not be costly.

Biden took to his podium on Tuesday in what appears to be a futile attempt to persuade that his plan to lower specific costs will make things easier for the average U.S. family. Between what Congress won’t pass, however, and the breadth of bad economic effects we measure ceaselessly, taken together these are programs that will hit at the edges to make things more palatable and not a solution to inflation. In fact, see this pitch from Biden as his version of politicking with not much of a target.

The real levers for inflation control have fallen to the Federal Reserve, whose moves in the last weeks to raise basic borrowing rates towards a long-term balancing of prices and wages has spawned its own problems of volatile financial markets. Throw in various state attempts to make things look better in time for November elections with gas tax holidays and the like, and you see a pastiche of attempts that will fall short of a fix.

Meanwhile, Americans are freaking out over U.S. price hikes that are running at 8.5% year over year while we see inflation running at two, three or six times worse in other countries, including Argentina.

Inflation Turns Political

Network news runs almost daily interviews with the guy at the gas pump ruing high prices, as if that suggests what to do about a global energy market that operates independently of any White House policy.  Instead, it becomes a political story about dissatisfaction with the Biden administration.

Here’s what the White House has to say for itself: “The United States is in a stronger economic position than any other major advanced economy in the world. At the same time, inflation is too high and is putting a strain on working families. The President’s top economic priority is tackling inflation and reducing costs for American families.”

Republicans say simply that had Biden not stopped the Keystone Pipeline project carrying Canadian oil to the Gulf for export globally and had expanded fossil fuel drilling, we’d be in better shape. Both are doubtful, given even a cursory look at the data. Drilling takes years, and even the biggest oil companies are looking to invest in solar and wind energies.

Indeed, Republicans seem without substantial plans for the economy outside of an 11-point outline from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who wants to cut Social Security, Medicare and tax people currently not earning enough to pay taxes – an outline that even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has rejected.

Meanwhile, experts and economists seem to agree that the U.S. economy fundamentals are in good order, with 500,000 new jobs on average being added, unemployment low, a still-successful financial market and investments towards record growth standards. But prices remain high, either because “consumers have too much money,” which sounds like a joke, or because Biden moves too much covid aid into the systems during a pandemic that prompted lockdowns. Bloomberg News notes that Biden’s intervention comes as skyrocketing prices leave Americans increasingly pessimistic about their finances despite strong job growth.

The standard truths here suggest that it will take time to work through this period. American politics does not allow for time for problem-solving and relies instead on emotion. The emotion this year is anger. Shouldn’t we be asking for answers rather than targeting anger?

The Biden Plan

Here’s the Biden plan. You can judge whether it addresses the fundamental issues.

–Gas prices. In addition to releasing strategic oil reserves over six months, Biden has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to allow use of E15 gasoline that uses 15% ethanol to be sold to expand Americans’ access to an affordable fuel supply amid the surge in gas prices. Biden also wants Congress to make companies pay fees on idled wells and non-producing acres of federal lands, and he wants Congress to pass “clean energy and vehicle tax credits and investments” to reduce U.S. dependence on “reckless autocrats like Putin.”

–Drug prices. Biden wants Congress to lower prescription drug and health care costs by addressing a glitch in the Affordable Care Act affecting a tax credit and to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, capping insulin costs, penalizing drug companies that raise prices faster than inflation. Congress has shown limited interest.

Food. Biden wants resources to helping American farmers to boost food production and to crack down on illegal price fixing and enforce the antitrust laws in the meat and poultry processing industries.

–Supply chains. Biden asks us to look kindly on the efforts to wed efforts by business, labor, federal and state governments to address supply chain bottlenecks at ports, add truck drivers, challenge unfair practices by global shipping companies. It is hard to see the progress that White House claims make.

–Childcare. Biden has been asking Congress to invest in ameliorating the cost of childcare and long-term care, saving families thousands of dollars per year. There has been little congressional action,

Housing. The president wants a recalcitrant Congress to invest in building more than 1 million affordable homes, including through a set of tax credits that have received bipartisan support.

All these take time. Not mentioned: dropping international tariffs created by the Donald Trump administration that have done little but add cost to a range of goods. That actually is something Biden could do. What is apparent is how little control the president, any president, has over prices without significant and long-term policies.

Public anger towards Biden may feel good, but hardly solves anything.

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Selling Data to ICE

Terry H. Schwadron

May 10, 2022

Over two decades, it became obvious that data – information about consumers, companies, purchases, likes and such – was a valuable commercial resource.

The biggest tech companies have used the collection of that data to target advertising or messaging, selling the lists that huge commercial databases amass. Law enforcement took notice and has gotten in on harvesting information from these databases as well.

A sense of abridging personal privacy is one of the reasons for public ire and congressional attention for the Facebooks and Twitters of the world.

Last week, one of those companies, Toronto-based Thompson Reuters agreed in a negotiation with a Canadian trade union that it will review contracts used to track U.S. migrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Indeed, the company said it would re-assess “the human rights impacts of our investigative and research solutions” as part of broader company-wide review.

Thompson Reuters owns not only the Reuters news agency but a data-mining company called Clear, among others, that collects and sells personal data to all purchasers, including governments and law enforcement agencies. Still, the company said it had no intention of severing ties with government agencies, though the contract with ICE has expired.

The company self-assessment came after a sustained push by the British Columbia General Employees’ Union, representing 80,000 public workers, to use its role as a company shareholder to seek the analysis of human rights risks of government contracts.

A company spokesman acknowledged that “all companies should consider potential human rights risks related to their operations.”

The ICE Case

Last year, The Washington Post reported that public records show ICE officers had been using the private database with hundreds of millions of phone, water, electricity and other utility records while pursuing immigration violations. The force of the reporting was that ICE’s use of the private database illustrated how government agencies have exploited commercial sources to access information they are not authorized to compile on their own.

ICE has not said anything about the company review, but after the first article, a national utility group agreed to stop providing data to Clear.

It also highlights how real-world surveillance efforts are being fueled by information people may never have expected would land in the hands of law enforcement.

How exactly ICE has used the personal information to track migrants remains secret, though addresses, phones and photos seem obvious choices to confirm identity.

Thompson Reuters acknowledges that its databases are used by authorized police, government and corporate agencies to “catch bad actors, keep communities safe and investigate crimes, such as money laundering, human trafficking, and drug and weapons smuggling.”

The union has cited civil rights activists’ concerns that Clear had helped ICE detain immigrants and separate families not accused of any crime. About 20 percent of company shareholders and a majority of independent shareholders voted last summer for the human rights review.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill last year to limit government purchase of sensitive personal data on private citizens that would not otherwise be authorized to collect.

ICE has bought personal information on Americans from other data brokers, including Equifax and LexisNexis. In some “sanctuary cities” there are policies designed to limit the information that police can share with federal immigration authorities.

Broader Decisions

Undoubtedly, the Thomson Reuters announcement would help boost protests, as that called No Tech for ICE, seeking to stop efforts to surveil, raid and deport migrants.

But the union involved argues a yet wider set of ethical concerns about unrestrained sharing of personal information.

The Thompson Reuters move comes as companies large and small are re-thinking corporate responsibilities in society, from the contentious decision at Disney to speak out publicly against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law to the myriad small companies now re-considering how and whether they or their employees should be part of Twitter feeds as it moves to eliminate review for sharing misinformation.

And among governmental entities, there have been database challenges as well. Just last week a New York court halted the use of a state DNA database for cracking cold criminal cases because state lawmakers never approved the practice. The database provided law enforcement agencies with leads to close biological relatives of people who have left traces of genetic material at a crime scene.

What has been strictly private and individual has become available for public or law enforcement review. The role of companies who engage in collecting and selling data is in the crosshairs, as we have seen in the discussions of attempts to regulate the public posting sites for misinformation or even libel.

Companies are suddenly faced with the prospects of having to take public positions on treatments and time off for employees required to travel out of state for a legal abortion. Texas and other states are now incenting lawsuits against anyone who helps in arranging or transporting to abortion sites – and now trying to extend that control beyond state borders. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to imagine tracking emails, posts, messages and specific addresses for customers of mailed abortion pills, for example.

Other companies, like Hobby Lobby, proudly tie the religious beliefs of its management to how it runs its employee policies.

Running throughout this discussion is the preservation of individual information as private. How much is being shared directly with employers and technology companies, and how much is being shared indirectly with advertisers or law enforcement? All of it is happening without individual knowledge or control over who can see purchases, posts or opinions.

The Thompson Reuters example seems a window into much larger issues of privacy and rights of citizens and would-be citizens alike.

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Fears About What’s Next

Terry H. Schwadron

May 9, 2022

Now that we have seen the reasoning behind the apparent reversal of abortion rights, the expectation is that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority is about to run the table overturning hard-won protections for same-sex marriage, civil rights, transgender policies, even contraceptives.

Indeed, based on the abortion draft decision, we can anticipate further challenges. But what may be more noteworthy right now is a spreading fear – and some initial actions — that may prove to be as harmful to an America redefining its divided self. It is a palpable fear to many who see an ascendent political right leaning as leaving basic human dignities and inclusion at stake.

Breezing over all the headlines and social media posts, it is as if an emboldened conservative court majority is on campaign footing to seek out one target after another.

That is not exactly right: However radical this conservative swing proves to be, the court itself sits passively in wait of cases that are brought to its attention.

The practical reality is more that the court’s willingness to blow away precedent over abortion is being read as encouragement for those on the right to use the court’s now-activated majority to achieve a boatful of previously unattainable political goals basically built around a combination of supremacy of religion over other rights, limits on federal power and hands-off policies regarding social problems.

News outlets have shown gleeful anti-abortionists already looking ahead to reversing decisions supporting same-sex marriage and further loosening gun-carry laws.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) already is eyeing bringing a court challenge to overturn an 1982 decision requiring that Texas educate migrant children. Louisiana is moving ahead even of any abortion ruling to consider prosecuting women who abort for homicide.

Transgender people and gays are bracing for this court majority to accept cases that undercut their protections, reports NPR. The leak investigation is prompting questions about going after journalists who received the leak and the site that published them.

Added to pending challenges about what books we can read to satisfy this conservative viewpoint on acceptable lifestyle, what new ant-gay warnings we are being told we need place on children’s television, among others, this draft decision ignoring precedent is launching an avalanche of possible attacks on previous decisions of all sorts.

Little of the abortion fight is calm or reasoned. We can expect that hate, ill-feelings, societal frustrations and the backlash and protest that such expression necessitates will blossom in the next weeks and months. We’re hearing of new trucker protests at the same time as new abortion rights mobilizations, and connections all over the place to the November elections.

You can’t expect to take away what are perceived individual rights without expecting sustained and contradictory protests – this weekend including outside churches and the homes of the court justices.

Not believable

Despite a passing attempt in his draft opinion to separate abortion from other decisions affecting social rights, Justice Samuel Alito has set off a wildfire of fear about overturning of rights and the dominance of a partisan conservative group that now finds itself with a narrow majority on the court.

Frankly, the language of the opinion suggesting that the court would not make a precedent of overturning other rights and precedents is less than believable. Alito sought to distinguish abortion from other rights because it, unlike the others, destroys what the Roe ruling called “potential life.”

If the reasoning in the draft opinion holds until the court’s expected release in June, it could threaten other rights that Americans take for granted in their personal lives, say a passel of legal experts.

Abortion is one of several topics covered by what are called “substantive” due process liberties, including contraception in 1965, interracial marriage in 1967 and same-sex marriage in 2015. Though None are mentioned in the Constitution, they were linked by the court to personal privacy and equality. Conservative critics say the substantive due process principle improperly lets unelected justices make policy choices better left to legislators.

Alito said that substantive due process rights must be “deeply rooted” in U.S. history and tradition, insisting that abortion does not. In truth, women have aborted over centuries, just not legally or in the healthiest manner.  

Not helping are the constant reminders that as nominees to the court, these same justices now voting to overturn Roe either misled senators, lied outright about their intentions or acted as political actors to get through their hearings.

Justice Clarence Thomas intoned this week that the leak made him believe that institutions are under attack and shouldn’t be bullied by public opinion – rather than acknowledging the damage to the institution by by the participation of his wife in efforts to overthrow the government. The disrespect he mentions is exactly how Americans feel to have the abortion rug pulled out from beneath them, with more to come.

Reaping Unclarity

Even the abortion issue alone will generate necessarily generate more challenge material. The draft opinion is silent about limits of abortion laws by states, and Republican-led legislatures are in such a hurry to bar abortions that questions persist about the exceptional cases of incest and rape victims, mailed abortion pills and women’s other health concerns.

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell broadly hinted that a November election win for Senate Republicans could result in a nationwide ban on abortion rather than the patchwork of state laws that is supposed to result from the Supreme Court decision.

Companies are scrambling to figure out what can and cannot be covered under health policies, including transportation for workers to states that will continue to offer legal abortion. The repeal of Roe is likely to make it more difficult for women in the military to find access to the procedure safely and legally, potentially endangering military readiness of units, noted the military press.  The issue of abortion pills delivered through the mails is being recognized as a messy, unaddressed subset of problems in which some states want to control distribution even outside their boundaries.

If the reasoning in the draft opinion holds until the court’s expected release in June, it could threaten other rights that Americans take for granted in their personal lives, say a passel of legal experts.

Alito’s opinion leaves it to lawmakers to decide. As we will see this week, the split U.S. Senate cannot decide on codifying what has been U.S. law and practice for 50 years; neither side has the votes to win the day entirely. And so, the contentious issue will go to the states, which also will split almost evenly over the same partisan political lines as the Senate.

We’re left wondering what it means to be an American, what values are represented. If we’re all to be only Texan or Californians, Louisianans or New Yorkers, what does it mean legally to work for a company that does business nationally or internationally? What does it mean to individual rights when one is transferred to a military base in a red state?

The fears here are about whether there is any limit to overturn individual rights. That is something every politician and court justice ought to be made to answer.

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