Thursday, May 12, 2022

Big Oil's Right Wing Conspiracy to Stop Renewals Must End Now!

 When it rains, it pours—especially in West Virginia in the 21st century, which is increasingly being defined by the effects of global warming. Climate change plays a role in most everything.

“The Power of Big Oil”, PBS Frontline’s 3 part documentary describes what amounts to a 50 year long conspiracy by fossil fuel companies and right wing think tanks and lobbyists to sow doubt on climate science. Exxon’s scientists were fully aware that disaster loomed and warned industry leaders that the burning of fossil fuels had been impacting the climate since the advent of the industrial revolution. The tipping point has been or will soon be reach, and we are living in a world virtually on fire with melting icecaps, rising sea level, ever more damaging hurricanes, tornadoes, derechos, and the severe thunderstorms that have flooded many WV communities. 

Greenhouse gases, CO2 and methane from producing and burning fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas are the culprits. But climate change also has impacts on human populations and the movement of people around the world.

Increasingly, immigration from developing countries to western nations is being used to stoke fears that the cultures of their majority white populations are threatened. People don’t just seek to enter the US and Europe for “a better way of life,” they are escaping droughts, fires, environmental damage and wars, causing them to flee for their lives and health of their children. It is often a choice of dying at home or dying trying to cross the desert at our southern border or the Mediterranean Sea in flimsy overcrowded boats.

Scientists warn that pathogens and their carriers will find their way from the tropics to places that were previously temperate. Remember the Zika virus carried by a tropical mosquito whose habitat continues moving farther north?

Many people find themselves reluctant to bring children into a world facing these major challenges (another reason why folks will fight to preserve their right to decide when and how to have children). 

Big oil and coal want to keep the world addicted to fossil fuels. They use their wealth to fund politicians who stop legislation that tries to accelerate the transition to cleaner energy and they advertise the message that any effort to slow the use of the dirty energy that is despoiling our planet will hurt our pocketbooks. But it’s not your pocketbook they’re worried about, it’s theirs. 

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a human and environmental catastrophe. I don’t know if scientists have ever quantified the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere by the exploding missiles, bombs, and fires wars generate, but when you add the energy needed to rebuild whole cities, it has to be significant. 

This particular war may also have some positive effect, however, on efforts to reduce fossil fuel use. European countries have more than doubled efforts to replace Russian natural gas with renewables. America needs to be doing the same. New investments in fossil fuel infrastructure is a mistake. More oil and gas drilling and building new pipelines won’t add supply fast enough to help Ukraine or lower gas prices during this spike in inflation. Continuing to rely on dirty energy dooms our future; a livable future depends on clean energy. 

The real cost of fossil fuels is much higher than we pay at the pump. We pay with higher health care costs caused by pollution. We paying billions of tax dollars each year on “natural disasters” caused or made worse by a warming planet. Oil, coal, and gas producers should be paying those bills. America could lead the world to put a global price on carbon pollution. We could do it in away that protects poor and middle class Americans from the impacts of rising fossil fuel prices. Our West Virginia leadership should be advocating for these policies, not continuing to allow fossil fuel producers to pay few if any taxes and receive subsidies such as the WV Public Service Commission is allowing to keep coal burning power plants in operation.

Democrats (including Manchin) and several Republicans, passed President Biden’s infrastructure bill last year, which funds some of what’s needed to move our electric grid and transportation toward renewable energy. It’s time to pass the rest of the climate package that Senator Manchin stopped when came out against the Build Back Better package. We must work to leave our children and grandchildren a world in which when it rains, it doesn’t flood; when a forest fire starts, it doesn’t burn for months; where polar ice caps exist and our coasts are not inundated by storms and sea level rise; a world where people in developing nations can live a sustainable life and populations are not forced to become refugees of environmental disaster and war.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

WV Legislature Made Progress Destroying Public Education in 2022

Teachers in 2018: It may be time to walk out again. Certainly must VOTE!

Teachers (and anyone who cares about public education in WV), listen up! In one case, four minutes was all that stood between you this legislative session and the unreasonable demands of Republican lawmakers. I’m talking about their so-called “Anti-Racism Act” (SB 498–it passed, but too late to become law). But they managed to pass at least two other disturbing education bills or resolutions. SB 704, which passed and is headed to the governor for signing, requires teachers to make all course materials available by the first day of class for parents/guardians to preview. They can demand that you “demonstrate how the supplementary instructional material relates to the content standards...” If you fail to do so in a manner that satisfies, they can file a complaint to your Superintendent, which, if not “resolved,” goes to the state Superintendent. You could get in trouble, for example if you introduced something from a current newspaper that hadn’t been made available for parents to preview by the first day of class! So current events are now not acceptable? What about the internet?
The “Anti-Racism Act” claimed to prevent teachers/schools from requiring students or employees to “state or believe in the superiority of one race or biological sex over another.” It states students/employees can’t be obligated to feel guilt or in any way responsible for what a member of their race or biological sex did in the past. But, for example, if you introduced the fact that white plantation owners enslaved blacks and sometimes beat or lynched them, and a child goes home and says their teacher made them feel “discomfort” or guilt, that parent can file a complaint against you with your principal that can end up on the Superintendent’s desk.
How should a teacher respond if a student or a colleague said, “If poor people of color just worked harder, they would be equal economically and socially to other (white) Americans?” I would want to point out that many are already working 2 and 3 jobs and that bias or discrimination may prevent advancement in some cases. But the Anti-Racism bill would have made it illegal for you to explain that the concepts of “meritocracy” or “a hard work ethic” are sometimes, to paraphrase the bill’s language, used by racists and sexists to deny that discrimination oppresses another group. Confused yet? If I were still teaching, I’d be afraid to even bring up or respond to a student on the topic of racism or sexism. I guess that’s the point.
It should not need to be stated that not every person of color is or was disadvantaged by discriminatory systems that existed and may still exist: slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, immigration laws, bank loan and credit policy, unfair policiing, etc. It also goes without saying that not every white person was or is directly advantaged by those systems. But most white Americans, even in West Virginia, had or have access to better schools, nicer neighborhoods, higher paying jobs, the ability to elect those in government who would improve their roads, etc. Of course those advantages shouldn’t leave children with any sense of guilt and doesn’t make them responsible for the problems such inequities have created in our society. That’s common sense–something sorely lacking in the minds of many at the Capitol.
Incompetence saved teachers this time. SB 498, the “Anti-Racism Act” was passed four minutes after midnight on the last night of the session, so it will not become law….yet.
But do you think they’ll stop trying to make it or something like it law?
WV Republicans also passed a Constitutional amendment for the November ballot that would take control of school curriculum and policies out of the hands of professionals and citizen boards. “Decisions affecting daily classroom life would be placed in the hands of a partisan Legislature,” the WV Board of Education declared in a letter opposing the Constitutional amendment.
Teachers and school staff, supported by the public, stood 55 counties strong in unity for affordable health care and better pay for all public employees in 2018. Now all West Virginians need to stand strong and vote out the legislators responsible for bad legislation this session.
Help organize voters to vote down the Constitutional amendment that gives the legislature final authority for all public education policies and curriculum while letting homeschools and “learning pods” of unlimited size free to ignore all state board educational policies and curriculum.
Teachers and service personnel, if you haven’t joined WVEA, AFT-WV, or WVSSPA it’s time to do so, because you will need the protection of professional organizations. They can represent you in hearings and investigations if angry, close minded parents influenced by right wing media make unfounded complaints. You should be allowed to teach in a way that will inspire students to work for a more equitable and fair West Virginia. If you are forced to avoid tough subjects and good teachers continue leaving the profession, young people will continue moving out of state to live in places where all people are treated with respect under the law.
Paul Epstein is a retired elementary school teacher and musician living in Charleston

Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Women Who had Abortions before Roe v. Wade

This is an article from the NY Times published on Sunday, Jan 23, 2022 that appeared on their website a couple days earlier. It is from the digital edition and may have been shortened in print. I am married to Rita Ray. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Let Teachers Teach History (not propaganda)

As some members of our legislature introduce legislation to prevent WV teachers from honestly teaching American history because they worry it is “divisive” or that white students will be ashamed of the facts of our American history, it’s worth reviewing what those facts are.

Imagine a world in which Christopher Columbus discovered America and the Europeans who followed were welcomed by Native Americans who, fed them, sold them land, and in a few rare instances fought against Europe’s and later America’s eventual colonization of the continent, generally living peacefully together with help from missionaries to learn agriculture and give up their former life of struggle to survive in a vast wilderness. 

Imagine the Africans were brought to America in a mercantile exchange by brave and heroic sea captains outfitted by wealthy traders on multiple continents leading the United States to grow powerful on sea and land. Sugar from Caribbean plantations was shipped to New England where rum was made and shipped to Africa to trade for Africans who were enslaved to produce cotton. Imagine those Africans were happy in the New World, fed and housed by kindly white plantation owners and loved like members of the family. They were encouraged to attend church every Sunday to learn about God’s plan and intention—for the superior white race to use the wealth that was being created to build cities, transportation networks, and new technologies to achieve their “Manifest Destiny” of domination over North America.

Sadly, this is the “history” of the United States that was taught with few exceptions through the 1960’s and in some areas and some schools is still taught today. It is the whitewashed version of history that mobs of angry parents are demanding to have back in their schools.  Parents who are afraid their children can’t handle the truth and will feel distressed if they realize that their ancestors enslaved others and built the wealth and privilege they now enjoy over centuries. These parents are encouraged and sometimes funded and led by right wing dark money PACS and think tanks. They are trying to make schools into political hot button issues to affect upcoming elections using false claims that “critical race theory,” a theory studied by university scholars, is being used in public K-12 schools to shame white children. Oh, and that wearing masks or requiring vaccinations is impinging on their freedom to die of a deadly disease or be allowed to freely spread it.

Time for a little fact checking. Most Native Americans tried to get along with European colonists and wanted to trade with them, but the history of their treatment by the English, Spanish, and Americans is one of brutality, having their lands encroached upon and stolen, constant breaking of treaties, spread of deadly diseases, and efforts to simply wipe them out resulting in the death of as much as 90% of the indigenous population in a couple hundred years.

Captured and enslaved Africans were cruelly separated from their homelands, tribes and families and literally sold to the highest bidder and often worked to death and punished with beatings, whippings, or lynched if they dared to attempt escape or openly resist. Our Constitution protected the enslavement of black human beings and granted political power to southern states where their so-called human property could be counted as 3/5ths of a person to give them more seats in Congress and protect the “peculiar institution” of slavery, as it was known. 

In the imaginary history of our right wing fellow citizens, any residual effects of slavery on the lives of African Americans that lingered after the Civil War were magically completely dispelled by the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the 1960’s. Of course that’s a fantasy, and there are countless examples from around the country of discrimination remaining in place in schools, workplaces, and housing; not to mention acts of violence including lynching by white citizens against blacks. Discrimination, brutality and even murder of blacks by police are well documented right into the present.

I did my best in elementary school classrooms in Clendenin and Charleston from 1987-2012 to help students reckon with the truth of our history while also exposing them to the many aspects of America that rightfully fill us with pride. In my experience, it was not the white students who were most affected emotionally by learning about some of the darker periods of our history—generally they wanted to know why inequality continues into the present day and what could be done to solve it. It was the black students who were the most affected, as some for the first time learned how badly their ancestors were treated and wondered why even today, as they no doubt heard from their families or witnessed themselves, they continue to face discrimination because of the color of their skin.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

No, Democrats are not socialists

 No, Democrats are not socialists and are not trying to turn America into a socialist or communist country like Cuba, Venezuela, China or the former Soviet Union.

Countries like that not only own and control almost all business and industry, but their political systems consist of one party, making them authoritarian governments, not democracies.

Democrats, like Republicans, believe that capitalism makes for a better economic system because private ownership of business and industry unleashes competition and allows individuals to profit from their labor. Democrats and Republicans disagree about how much business and industry should be taxed and regulated and how much government should be involved in helping those who need help, not on whether our government should own business and industry.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, Republicans and many Democrats railed against communism, an ideology that encouraged revolution. Many European countries had (and still have) socialist political parties that lobbied for more “social welfare,” in the form of free health care, higher education and, sometimes, child care or other social programs. We had programs that people referred to as social welfare in the United States, as well, to support poor families with food stamps and cash assistance, although, under Ronald Reagan, many of them were discontinued or began to require recipients to work or go to school to get assistance.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were all called socialist programs by many Republicans when they were passed.

Bill Clinton tried to pass universal health care, but advertising campaigns funded by the health insurance industry and some doctors’ groups called it socialism and defeated it, because it would have put most health insurance companies out of business. Barack Obama managed to pass the Affordable Care Act, in part, by allowing private insurance companies to continue to manage payment for health care, making the “socialist” label harder to deploy. Turns out that Americans agree that profit should not be the motivating factor when their lives and health are at stake.

Is President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which includes the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the jobs and “human infrastructure” bill, an example of socialism? No. It’s a perfect example of the Democratic Party’s long-term effort to make taxation more fair by increasing taxes on the richest among us, which includes hedge funds and corporations that, over time, have been rewarded by Republican tax breaks.

The money collected will be used to rebuild roads and bridges and help working families in a variety of ways, including lowering the cost of child care, prescription drugs and higher education.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has objected to the overall price tag, suggesting that increasing taxes might slow the economy. He has specifically objected to spending money for incentives to transition to clean energy. Manchin knows that the free market — capitalism — has been killing coal jobs for decades. First, it was because of mechanization and, more recently, competition from cheaper sources of energy, like natural gas. Solar and wind are getting even cheaper. Manchin is making a grave mistake by not factoring in the cost of continuing as we are: more floods, extreme weather, fires, droughts, extinctions, rising sea levels, etc.

Like Gov. Jim Justice and his hand-picked Public Service Commission, which recently stuck West Virginians with higher electricity bills for the next 20 years simply to keep coal-burning power plants running, Manchin suggests that quickly transitioning to clean energy is too progressive, or even socialist. It’s not. Transitioning as soon as possible to clean energy is sanity. It is insane not to.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Trump and his Supporters are Anti-American

As an elementary school teacher for 25 years, I’m pretty good at breaking down complicated ideas into smaller simpler ideas, and I’d like to think that I have some ability to help people think “critically,” which doesn’t mean to criticize things, but to weigh facts and evidence and analyze ideas to come to the most logical conclusion possible. My wife will tell me that this paragraph is condescending, that readers of the Gazette-Mail, at least those who read this section, are mostly smart or educated people. 

But my purpose isn’t to change minds, my purpose is, if you agree with me, to help, explain these ideas to someone who doesn’t in a way that might at least leave them open to considering the ideas.

My conclusion follows: Donald Trump and the Republican Party, at least those who support him, are anti-American.

What logic and evidence do I use to come to this conclusion? 

America is a democracy. Democracy depends on free and fair elections. Donald Trump does not believe in free and fair elections and has been working to undermine them for years. When he ran against Hillary Clinton, he cast suspicion on the upcoming election beforehand, refusing to say whether he would accept the results if he lost. After he won the election by a narrow margin in a few states, giving him a majority in the electoral college, but losing the popular vote by almost 3 million votes (2%), he claimed that he had actually won the popular vote except for non-citizens who had voted in large numbers—a fabrication.

Since his drubbing by Joe Biden in 2020, he has perpetrated what has come to be called “The Big Lie,” that Biden won because of voter fraud, an outrageous claim given all the recounts and all the law suits claiming voter “irregularities” that were thrown out by outraged judges, some appointed by Trump himself (his lawyers were careful not to claim “fraud” in court, because they’d be guilty of perjury).

The Big Lie is now the platform of the Republican Party. Because of it, Republicans in state legislatures have been passing laws to give themselves more control over elections and prevent Democrats from voting in the numbers they did in 2020. 

The United States of America is the world’s first modern democracy (okay, “representative democracy”, or republic), and undermining democracy in America is anti-American. Trump is undermining democracy, and the Republican Party, at least those who support Donald Trump, are therefore anti-American. If you’re Republican, settle down…but denounce him and the Big Lie and call on elected Republicans to do the same if you don’t want to be considered anti-American.

How is it even possible for Donald Trump and Republicans to refute this argument? It isn’t, so, once again, as an elementary school teacher, I recognize tactic #1 of every child desperate to avoid punishment—deny, and blame someone else for what you are guilty of, saying, “I’m rubber, you’re glue, everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” 

They call Democrats anti-American “Socialists.” Refuting that lie will be the topic of another essay.

Paul Epstein is a retired teacher and active musician living in Charleston

This appeared (with a couple small changes) in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Oct. 13, 2021

Wolverton, Kercheval Good Analysts not Problem Solvers

Lee Wolverton and Hoppy Kercheval both were given space in the Saturday, September 25 Charleston Gazette-Mail to give their points of view. Wolverton, a publisher and executive editor of HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail and other WV newspapers, brings a formidable intellect, vocabulary, and knowledge of history to his writing that I suspect would leave a majority of West Virginians scratching their heads. Kercheval brings an everyman sensibility to his analyses of issues and appeals to what he considers the common sense of most West Virginians.

Both, are relatively conservative in their ideology, but neither is a fan of the current crop of Republicans who either chase after or cower under Donald Trump’s leadership of the Republican Party. Both, to my relief, give deference to facts and science and decry such conspiracy theories and false narratives as claims that the 2020 elections were stolen from Trump and rife with fraud, that Covid-19 is merely a flu or that the vaccines or mask wearing are either useless or harmful. 

But neither is immune to making what, to me, are either naive or fatuous (silly and pointless) conclusions.

Wolverton on Saturday spent most of his column lecturing on the history of the phrase “band of brothers.” He threw in a couple paragraphs on Lincoln’s words about a house divided (he wants us to know Lincoln got it from the Bible), and goes on to conclude that in order to solve our problems as a nation, we have to (my interpretation) follow the plea of Rodney King, who in 1992 pleaded, “Why can’t we all just get along?” during a particularly contentious period. Wolverton’s solution? A careful dodge. All we need to do is agree to some basic facts, “rallying around points in which all reasonable people can agree.” And “there’s the rub” as Shakespeare reminds us, but Wolverton ignores. 

When 40% of voters willfully decide to ignore facts and reason, to dismiss science and anyone who writes like Wolverton as elitist (you’ve got to admit, Mr. Wolverton, you fit that description), his solution is nothing short of naive.

Meanwhile Kercheval shows a good command of the facts that have made immigration such an insoluble problem in our country for at least 50 years by acknowledging that “what makes for good politics makes for lousy policies,” or in this case, outdated policy. In the opinion of Democrats like myself, Republicans don’t want to solve the problem because preventing solutions keeps their base angry, and angry people tend to vote in greater numbers. In the view of Republicans, Democrats won’t enforce the existing laws (not true) and want open borders (also false), or among the more extreme and racist of them, want people of color to come here and “replace us” (umm, Nazi ideology?).

But then Kercheval throws out his argument and suggests Biden could solve the whole problem by simply inviting politicians of all stripes to the border, show them the mess of problems and they’d immediately have an “a ha” moment and go back to Washington to solve it. I have one thing to say, Hoppy, “A ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”

Paul Epstein is a retired teacher living and playing music in Charleston

This appeared in the September 27, 2001 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail