Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Out of the woodwork: John Birch Society alive and confused in Maine

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Maine arm of the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 to combat communist influence in government, visited the State House in Augusta last week, calling for legislators to, well, do nothing, as it turns out.

But that's not how it started. On January 20, the local Birchers joined a nationwide effort asking state legislators to rescind longstanding legislative calls for a federal constitutional convention. At various times state legislatures have raised issues with the US Constitution by passing resolutions asking Congress for a constitutional convention to address them, such as in the early 20th century when many states called for direct election of senators, legalized in the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913.

Patricia Truman of Hallowell, who has been a JBS member since 1964 and is a longtime local-chapter leader of the society here in Maine, was unclear when asked by the Phoenix about what requests Maine has made, but she was sure she wanted lawmakers to rescind them anyway, fearing that revisiting the Constitution could result in reversal of important protections now enshrined there.

Mike Hein, a John Birch Society member and publicist who is a former spokesman for the Christian Civic League of Maine, a right-wing advocacy group, issued a statement claiming Maine has four outstanding calls for a convention. He later specified three, adding that he had "heard from others" of a fourth. First on Hein's list was Maine's 1911 call for direct election of senators, which is no longer outstanding because that request passed as the 17th Amendment in 1913. Second was a 1941 call for repeal of the 16th Amendment (which allows a federal income tax). Third on his list (with a specific Congressional Record citation of "CR 099, page 04434"), is not a new call for a convention, but rather a 1953 resolution rescinding the 1941 repeal request. Which leaves no active calls to be rescinded by Maine lawmakers.

Birchers have a long history of ill-informed beliefs about government. They considered President Dwight Eisenhower a communist, and objected to his policies; they also opposed the civil-rights movement in the 1960s on the conspiracy-theorist grounds that the movement's leaders were, or were influenced by, communists. (Conservative icons Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and William F. Buckley repudiated those claims and made clear that Birchers are on the extreme right wing of the right-wing movement.)

And that string continues. Truman claimed that during her visit to Augusta she learned of a call she said was proposed by Seth Berry, a Maine House Democrat representing Bowdoin and Bowdoinham: "He wanted our state to call for ConCon," she said. "I just know that Representative Berry does want to have the state call a ConCon," and insisted Berry's move related to the US Constitution and not the state's, she said.

But she's wrong. When reached on his cell phone, Berry said he had indeed proposed a convention, but to discuss the state constitution, saying anyone who thought otherwise "probably should have called me before they assumed that."

All you can learn: A new online program at SMCC puts you to the test

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Yes, taking classes online is the wave of the future. And you've figured out that the house always wins: Tuition for those classes is vastly more profitable for universities than the traditional in-person, in-classroom instruction.

Students live off-campus (requiring fewer dorms), don't even visit campus (less parking), are too far away to use the gym or the library (allowing smaller facilities), and only interact with faculty through computers (fewer tenure-track profs mucking around with academic freedom).

What's the benefit for students? Well, you can keep your full- or part-time job, you don't have to move, and, uh, you get to shell out basically the exact same tuition rate as the on-campus students who get all the perks you're paying for but can't have. The theory, of course, is that the piece of paper saying you earned X credits at your university is worth the same amount of money whether you attend class in person or virtually. (Yes, we know that's ridiculous, because you're not paying for the piece of paper, but the learning experience — right?)

Fortunately, Southern Maine Community College has found a middle ground: Super-extra-cheapo courses, with a basic online learning experience that won't make you poor or frustrated. At $99 for 90 days of as many courses as you can take (some will soon be available for college credit!), even if you snicker at the class notes (as I did, a few times, during a trial run), you'll still be getting your money's worth. The system is available to anyone, anywhere — no Maine residency required.

As many as 5000 different courses will be available when the system is fully up and running in the next few months, according to Julie Chase, assistant dean for professional education at SMCC. Let's not get silly; many of these "courses" might more properly be called "class sessions" — they take anywhere between 90 minutes and five hours. But still, that's a lot of options.

You can search for classes or career paths. I started by testing the system with something I know well — I searched its directory of potential careers and found "reporter," which led me to several courses it suggested I take to prepare for my career: "Foundations of Grammar," "Generating Creative and Innovative Ideas," "Writing With Intention," and "Crisp Composition" were among them. All in all, the units totaled 27.5 hours of time, if I sat through every explanatory session.

I began with "Foundations of Grammar" — a surprisingly nitpicky class that nevertheless had some grammatical errors itself (one example sentence handled a possessive in a way best described as Very Wrong: "Mr. Neal, our bookkeeper's, office is on the second floor.").

The not-so-secret secret key to this type of class is that success is defined by the score you get on the tests. If you like, you can start each class with a pre-test, which, as it turns out, is the same as the post-test.
If you pass enough on the pre-test, you are considered to have completed the course, and can move on to the next. (Yes, you can click through the class slides anyway, but why?) If you haven't passed, it'll tell you what parts you need to work on.

I found it easiest not to suffer through the boring 1980s-style graphics and dull questions (read aloud, if you wish, by a horribly bored voice-over actor probably wishing she could take a class to start a new career). Instead, I just kept taking the tests, focusing on the parts I did the worst on. (Okay, I had to take a couple parts of the grammar test a couple times. But seriously, the level of obscurity of some of this stuff was ridiculous. You try: Please identify how many verbs in this paragraph are in the past progressive case. Your answer is wrong too.)

Eventually, though, I was able to game the system. The courses I took (which also included ones on InDesign and a class about something called "Six Sigma") seemed to have two sets of questions for each section of the test, so taking the test three times guaranteed familiar questions. Couple that with the facts that 1) the test shows you the correct answer for each question before moving on, and 2) you can take the test as many times as you like with no penalty, and you're on Easy Street.

Paying decent attention while taking and retaking the test (multiple-choice questions, with more than one answer allowed at times) allowed me to "pass" a good number of courses without ever enduring a single "lecture" session. It took a lot less time, too.

However, I wouldn't consider myself proficient in InDesign as a result; the test only taught me about three things, none of which is particularly useful. (The most practical item on the test was how to insert a new layer into a document, rename it, and make it the bottom layer.)

And of course I played the averages; in the Six Sigma class, I lucked out and scored well on certain parts of the test just by reading carefully and guessing. When choosing which portions of the test to retake, I skipped the things I bombed completely and homed in on the topics I had a fighting chance at passing. The system looks for an overall average, and you pass or fail based on that.

That's an obvious flaw, because I passed the introductory Six Sigma class without knowing what a "kaizen event" is, or even, quite frankly, getting a clear explanation of what Six Sigma is in the first place.

Still, if your boss suggests you learn something, check out the course list at If there's something there that could help, maybe your employer will shell out the $99 for you to learn. The system remembers your progress, and you can even print a certificate of completion to prove the company's money was well spent.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Out of the Governor's Mouth: LePage’s black friend is not his son, and other ‘kiss my butt’ fallout

Published in the Portland Phoenix; co-written with Shay Stewart-Bouley

About two weeks into his term, Governor Paul LePage has gone local as a follow-up to his telling President Obama "to go to hell," setting off a national media firestorm with an off-the-cuff remark literally telling the Maine NAACP "to kiss my butt." Seems the foot-in-mouth disease he suffers from wasn't limited to the gubernatorial campaign.

It started when the NAACP extended an invitation to LePage to attend various Martin Luther King Day events in the state, the most prominent being the Bangor chapter's breakfast held Monday, January 17, and the NAACP's annual dinner in Portland (actually held Sunday night). LePage declined to attend any of the events, despite the fact that Maine governors for the past 30 years have been in attendance, along with other state dignitaries of all political stripes.

As has been reported extensively from here to Washington to San Diego and beyond, LePage dismissed the equality-for-all NAACP as a "special interest" he would not "be held hostage by." The governor, a 62-year-old white man, went on to suggest that a 25-year-old Jamaican man would be better equipped to talk to the NAACP than the governor himself, saying, "My son happens to be black," and offering to send him to talk to the civil-rights group.

But a few elements went missing in the national narrative — and even went undercovered in the Maine media.
First, LEPAGE DOES NOT HAVE A BLACK SON. As Maine Public Broadcasting Network's Susan Sharon reported, 25-year-old Devon Raymond, who is not a US citizen but rather a Jamaican national, has never been formally adopted by LePage, though the governor and his wife are helping Raymond pay for college and have invited the man to family gatherings for several years.

Second, while some commentators have suggested that LePage's comments are attractive to his base (even while being repugnant to the majority of Americans), even some of the CONSERVATIVES AT THE CONSERVATIVE-BEACON ASMAINEGOES ONLINE FORUMS HAVE EXPRESSED CONCERNS about LePage's lack of tact and his inclinations to create controversy rather than progress.

Third, LEPAGE ALSO DIDN'T SAY HE WAS SNUBBING THE NAACP IN FAVOR OF THE MLK BREAKFAST HOSTED IN WATERVILLE by Spectrum Generations (a non-profit elder-services agency) and the local Rotary Club, which he did attend; announcement of that might have defused the controversy — except his appearance wasn't on the governor's schedule until after the brouhaha erupted.

And fourth, on Saturday, LEPAGE SPOKE AT MAINE RIGHT TO LIFE'S "HANDS AROUND THE CAPITOL" RALLY. No word on whether he exempts them from the "special interest" label or if they were holding him "hostage" — as he claimed the NAACP tried to.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Press releases: Stenographers

Published in the Portland Phoenix

"Stenographers" is an inflammatory word to use to describe journalists, but it's the only accurate way to respond to news coverage of Paul LePage's inauguration as governor.

Not five minutes into his term, LePage uttered a verifiable untruth. And all three of the state's major daily newspapers quoted him without noting that it was false. It wasn't some throwaway line, but rather a description of the Maine Constitution, which was central to LePage's campaign (along with the US Constitution), and which he has promised will be a touchstone of his governorship.

Here's what LePage said: "The word 'people' appears in the Maine Constitution 49 times. You cannot find a single mention of the words, 'politics,' 'Republican,' 'Democrat,' 'Green,' or 'independent' in 37 pages of preambles, articles, and sections of our state constitution."

The Portland Press Herald, the Lewiston Sun Journal, and the Bangor Daily News quoted that line completely (and accurately) in their reports about the inauguration. And to read those articles, you would believe LePage is right. He's not.

Fact-checking that claim was as easy as it gets, even for lazy journalists who are (or feel) chained to their desks. As I watched the live online stream (from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network), all it took was a quick Google search; the full text of the Maine Constitution appeared on my screen, a PDF from the state's own Web site.

And yes, LePage was right about the number of times the word "people" appears, and about the first four items on his list of absent words: "politics," "Republican," "Democrat," and "Green" are not in the Maine Constitution.

But "independent" is, three times: in the Preamble ("We the people of Maine . . . do agree to form ourselves into a free and independent State"); in Article I, Section 1 ("All people are born equally free and independent"); and in Article IV, Section 1 ("the people reserve to themselves power to propose laws and to enact or reject the same at the polls independent of the Legislature").

LePage's context was about political affiliation, but of course someone who is politically "independent" is by definition unaffiliated. If LePage were being careful with his words, he might have chosen "unenrolled," the technical term for someone who is a registered voter in Maine but who is not listed as a member of any political party. That word indeed does not appear in the Maine Constitution.

Instead, Maine's new governor chose to claim that a very important word, which appears in three very important places in the Maine Constitution, was not there at all. And the state's three major newspapers didn't even bother to determine whether his claim was accurate — despite the complete ease and simplicity of doing so.

I've warned the Maine media before about laziness when it comes to government scrutiny (most recently in "Brave The New World," November 19, 2010). LePage will be making more complex statements over the next four years, and many of those claims will be far harder to assess for veracity than a simple statement in an inaugural address. While LePage's inauguration may have set the tone for his administration, let's hope that the media's coverage of that event is not the harbinger of its performance as his term continues.

• One other note: the PORTLAND PRESS HERALD'S ADVERTISING DONATION TO THE PRO-MAYOR CAMPAIGN THROUGH THE PORTLAND REGIONAL CHAMBER was explained to me by chamber CEO Godfrey Wood in very simple terms. "We have a sponsorship agreement" with the Press Herald, in which the paper donates advertising space to the chamber, he said. "They asked if we wanted additional ad space for this (the pro-mayoral campaign) and we said, 'Yes.'" Whether that places the Press Herald in violation of Maine campaign-finance disclosure laws or not is presently in question, but the mechanism by which the Press Herald indicated its support for an elected mayor in Portland is not.

Starting points: A critical reading of LePage’s inaugural address

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Governor Paul LePage's inaugural address was fairly short, and was filled with rhetoric much like that from his campaign. On our blog ( we broke the news about his first misleading statement told while in office (see how the media handled that here). He said some other interesting stuff too.

WHAT HE SAID "Our programs have to be focused on Maine residents." WHAT WE LEARN New arrivals to Maine (whether US citizens, refugees, or immigrants documented or otherwise) may not have access to public programs that can help them get a good start in their new lives.

WHAT HE SAID In holding up a single mother and nursing student as an example of how Mainers can use social programs to better their lives, he described the woman as having, "like me, Jennifer has escaped some very tough times." WHAT WE LEARN His prepared remarks worded that as "like me, Jennifer has escaped domestic violence." While that is a key part of his campaign's homeless-to-governor story, he chose to sidestep a politically charged term.

WHAT HE SAID "I do not care about editorials, opinion polls, or the next election." WHAT WE LEARN While he may be declaring his independence from the political and journalistic whirlwind, it will be fascinating to see whether he cites supportive editorials and polls in promoting his programs, simply dismissing opinions he does not like, or whether he indeed operates independent of all outside opinions — even those supporting him.

WHAT HE SAID "At the end of my term, I will be ready to stand accountable for the jobs that we create, for the prosperity that we bring to our state." WHAT WE LEARN Given that his influence in job creation is based on the indirect results of policy decisions (and only directly by hiring more people into state government), LePage is really hoping the global recession ends soon. On that, we can all agree.