Planes, Trains and Buses–The Rest of the Story

Maybe I’m just not cut out for travel.

Some of you will remember my blog detailing the wild and woolly start of our trip to the West Coast–the mad dash to catch the plane, the belated realization that we’d left our car at the airport but we were returning by train…

That was NOTHING compared to the return.

My husband has long wanted to take a train trip across the Western U.S. We are big train buffs, and whenever we are in Europe or Asia, trains are our primary means of travel. Almost without fail, those trains have been modern, immaculate, fast and reliable.

Amtrak, unfortunately, cannot claim to be any of those things.

We boarded in Emeryville (just outside San Francisco) on Friday morning for a trip that was scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 3 pm Sunday. We had made (nonrefundable) reservations on a Megabus to Indianapolis for 6:00 p.m.–giving us three hours. Plenty of time.

Our first disappointment was the “top of the line” sleeper; not only were the cars 40+ years old and tired, but the design of the sleeper was baffling—when the lower bed was out, there was no room to walk and no way to use the washbasin. The upper bunk was much higher than necessary—nice for the person on the bottom, but making it impossible for the person on top to sit up. There were none of the clever storage solutions we’ve found on European trains—virtually no place to put even the most common items–and the tiny bathroom/shower left a lot to be desired.

And there was no Wifi. Fortunately, my techie son had explained how to tether our phones to our devices, but we burned through our data plan and then some.

As we went across the country, the scenery was magnificent, and the other passengers we met were interesting and pleasant. (I should note that the train appeared full–people really like trains!) But we steadily lost time; due to the condition of track, there were many places where the train had to slow down.

As we entered Nebraska  it became obvious we’d be well behind schedule. Before we even reached Omaha we were three hours late, so we made new Megabus reservations for six p.m.(couldn’t change the existing ones, thanks to that company’s requirement that changes be made five days in advance). (Did I mention that these tickets are non-refundable?)

Then we got to Omaha, where we were told that storms in Iowa the day before had washed out rail, and we were being re-routed onto a freight line’s track. Despite the fact that Amtrak obviously knew about this problem well before we left Emeryville–and well before they allowed other passengers to board in Denver without informing them of the problem–this was the first time anyone mentioned the fact that the previous day’s train was still stranded in Iowa.

The new route involved waiting for a new crew; we sat in Omaha for six hours. Although  announcements were few and far between–and, in our car, thanks to an antiquated PA system, basically inaudible–we were finally told that the estimated time of arrival in Chicago would be somewhere between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m. Monday. Yesterday.

Another nonrefundable ticket purchase from Megabus, this time playing it safe: 6:00 a.m. And given the schedule, no sleep.

The train finally arrived at Chicago’s Union Station. At 6:02 a.m. We waited 40 minutes for the checked luggage to appear (and when it did, it had evidently been dragged through a large pile of dirt.) No one was working in the baggage claim area, so there was no one to ask about the reason for the delay-or the dirt.

Our final non-refundable Megabus tickets got us on the 9:30 a.m. bus to Indianapolis.

The bus ride was uneventful until we hit the bridge repairs on I65, which brought traffic on that incredibly busy interstate to a virtual halt for over a half-hour. By which time, I was ready to throw myself off the damn bridge and end it all.

We finally got home at 2:30 in the afternoon. Dirty, sweaty, tempers frayed. We’d had no sleep and nothing to eat since Sunday afternoon. Amazingly, we’re still married….

So what have I learned, other than I’m an old broad who should just stay home and tend my (nonexistent) garden?

One of my father’s favorite sayings was: things worth doing are worth doing right. Other countries seem to get this; in the U.S., however, lawmakers seem averse to the concept of infrastructure maintenance. Our bridges are dangerously substandard, our rail beds deteriorating, our trains far past their prime. But rather than fixing our embarrassing rail system, Congress continues to degrade its ability to provide service by cutting Amtrak’s budget.

We sure seem to have plenty of money for weapons, though.

 

 

The Real American Religion?

Sightings is a twice-weekly publication of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. One of the newsletters is written by noted religion scholar Martin Marty; the second is an essay by another religion scholar. They are always thought-provoking, but I was especially struck by a recent contribution by one Bruce Rittenhouse:

My own research on consumerism supports the conclusion that the reason Americans remain attached to a consumeristic form of life is because it performs the religious function of providing them with an answer to the existential problem of meaning.

In my research, I defined consumerism as a form of life that sacrifices other consciously-valued goods in order to maximize the consumption of economic goods, despite the fact that this consumption exceeds any objective measure of need.

Rittenhouse offers a variety of research findings to bolster his contention that even the most economically challenged U.S. households prioritize consumption over savings, and he identifies the role that consumerism plays in the American psyche. He notes–accurately–that “economic goods are never simply objects of use.” Consumption becomes consumerism when the intent is to procure “social recognition,” when it is the way in which the consumer signals his or her “personal significance in a community,” allowing the consumer to “transcend personal mortality.”

In other words, in the absence of a different source of meaning, owning stuff serves that purpose– the consumerist lifestyle is “psychologically essential to the person who uses it to secure his or her personal significance.”

Rittenhouse’s conclusion is grim:

So long as American culture fails to provide a ground of personal meaning that calls for self-sacrifice for the common good and for future generations, the United States will remain unable to meet its current economic, demographic, and environmental challenges.

If Rittenhouse is right–and there is a depressing amount of evidence supporting his thesis–we have a very big problem, because the health of the American economy rests on our ability to generate consumption. One of the most persuasive arguments for raising the minimum wage is that consumption requires disposable income.

A change in the culture of consumerism won’t come without considerable economic upheaval. Assuming it comes at all.

Who’s Talking?

Among the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court at the conclusion of this term was a little-noted one addressing the question whether states that sell specialty license plates can refuse to issue plates with controversial images like the Confederate flag. The ruling itself is less consequential (at least, in my view) that the opportunity if affords for a much-needed lesson in Constitutional analysis.

The First Amendment prohibits government from censoring the speech of its citizens. In the case before the Court, the Sons of Confederate Veterans claimed that Texas’ refusal to issue plates bearing a Confederate flag constituted such censorship.  But the Court could not analyze that claim until it decided what lawyers call a “preliminary” question: who is speaking through that state-issued license plate–the driver or the state?

Justice Steven Breyer, writing for the court’s majority, said that Texas’ program “constitutes government speech” and that the state was “entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design.” Just as the state could not force drivers to espouse a particular message, he said, drivers could not force a state to espouse theirs.

I think the Court got this one right. But it’s amazing how many people don’t understand the importance of determining who’s talking for First Amendment purposes.

Several years ago, plaintiffs sued Indiana’s General Assembly over legislative prayers claimed to violate the Establishment Clause. (The Courts have long allowed what we might term “de minimus” legislative prayers, so long as they are  brief and inclusive; many scholars–including this one–disagree with that admitted exception to the Establishment Clause, but it is what it is.) In Indiana, the prayers had gotten much longer and much more specifically Christian–one pastor, invited to the Speaker’s podium, had led the room in a rousing rendition of “Take a little walk with Jesus.” The District Court ruled that the practice violated the Establishment Clause and must stop, and all hell broke loose, with protestors complaining that religion had been censored.

It hadn’t.

I got several calls from local media, with breathless questions about a group of aggrieved pastors praying together at the back of the chamber–wasn’t that a violation of the Court’s order?

No, it wasn’t.

When a clergyman is invited to pray from the Speaker’s podium, as an official part of the legislative session, that prayer becomes state speech. The Establishment Clause prohibits government from endorsing or sponsoring religion. When individuals gather to pray, the Free Exercise Clause protects them against government interference.

Who is talking, who is praying, who is making the decision–makes all the difference.

The Bill of Rights only restrains government. That makes it pretty important to identify when government has acted.

 

 

 

An Unexpected Reaction

I had very little doubt that the Court would rule in favor of marriage equality; I was more nervous about the politics of the Obamacare ruling. (I say the politics, because the legal case was so flimsy a non-political court would never have accepted the case).

Every constitutional scholar who had weighed in on the marriage case anticipated yesterday’s result. It wasn’t just compelled by (recent) precedents, but by those “facts on the ground” that even isolated Justices cannot avoid taking into account–with 70% of Americans living in states with marriage equality, a contrary ruling would have invited chaos.

And yet I really wasn’t prepared for the emotions I felt as I read Facebook posts and emails from so many friends and relatives, listened to the powerful speech by President Obama, saw major companies add rainbows to their ads …and just let it sink in. Like many others, I teared up a lot.

I probably can’t fully understand the emotions of my LGBT friends and family members, although I share their elation. But what I really don’t understand are the mean-spirited, vicious homophobes who went crazy (okay, crazier) when the decision was handed down.

I understand principled disagreement. I understand (okay, maybe not) adherence to rigid religious beliefs that label other people (it’s always other people) sinners. But the venom, the threats of civil disobedience, the seething hatred….the Bobby Jindals, the Mike Huckabees, the “Christian” pastors refusing to obey the rule of law, all spewing raw animus–that, I find incomprehensible.

There are lots of ways to “slice and dice” humanity. I would suggest that the last couple of weeks have shown us two very basic kinds of people: those who hate and those who don’t. Those who gun down innocent people in a church because their skin is a different color (and those who support them by setting fire to other black churches, by donating via kickstarter to their legal defense, or defiantly waving their own Confederate flags)–and decent human beings who are able to see themselves as part of a wider community that includes the “other.”

I don’t think I’m overstating the case when I say that America is engaged right now in an existential conflict between those decent human beings and the small-minded, self-serving and morally deformed forces waging an increasingly frantic war on the poor, on women, on African-Americans, on gays…on all of us who refuse to recognize their right to continued privilege.

Yesterday was a glorious repudiation of those people. But we still have a lot of work to do.

 

 

Misunderstanding Tenure

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker seems to be engaged on a vendetta against higher education.

Walker has cited Wisconsin’s (very real) fiscal woes as justification for slashing  $250 million dollars from the University of Wisconsin’s budget; however, Time Magazine reports that he has proposed forking over that same amount– $250 million in taxpayer money– to help construct a new arena for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, who have threatened to relocate if the city doesn’t build them a new home by 2017.

Walker previously tried to change the mission statement of the University from a search for truth to “meeting the state’s workforce needs.” He retreated after that effort created a firestorm within the state, but now he has launched an entirely gratuitous attack on tenure.

There is immense public misunderstanding of tenure. Tenure is not “job security,” as it is often portrayed; as Josh Marshall recently wrote at Talking Points Memo, 

Tenure is among other things in place to protect scholars from the patronage and political demands of the moment and incentivize independent scholarship free of ideological, market or political pressures. That is 100% true. And by and large it is a good system – especially when understood in the larger context of academic life.

Tenured professors are protected from dismissals based upon the expression of  unpopular viewpoints. We are not protected against dismissals for poor work performance. (My own school has a post-tenure review process that defines performance expectations and expressly permits sanctions–including termination–for continued failure to meet those expectations.)

In a very real sense, however, the actual operation of the tenure system is beside the point. As Marshall notes,

The crown jewel of the Wisconsin university system is the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It is one of the top research universities in the country and the world. With this move, you will basically kiss that jewel goodbye. To me this is the more salient reality than whether you think academic tenure is a good thing or not in itself.

If this happens, over time, the professors who can will leave. And as the top flight scholars and researchers depart, so will the reputation of the institution. So will graduate students who want to study with them, the best undergrads, money that flows to prestigious scholarship. Don’t get me wrong. Not in a day or a year or even several years. But it will. If you don’t get this, you don’t understand the economy and incentive structure of university life.

If Walker’s attacks on a storied academic institution are successful, the University will be hard pressed to “meet the workforce needs of the state,” let alone engage in a search for truth.