Tag Archives: #WPLongform

A risk-averse society?

This isn't treacherous, is it?A significant snowstorm this past Tuesday, followed by days of atypical sub-zero temperatures, resulted in schools being closed across the Washington metro area. In Northern Virginia, officials of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) cancelled school from Tuesday to Thursday, and delayed the start by two hours on Friday. This was welcome news for those in FCPS wanting a respite from the routine of school. But it was controversial for others, including this FCPS parent. Monday had also been a day off from school; it was the public holiday honouring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Officials in neighbouring counties reacted differently to the snow and subsequent deep freeze: further west in Loudoun County, school was cancelled for all four weekdays, reflecting the higher quantity of fallen snow there and the difficulty of clearing snow off its more rural, sometimes hilly roads. In Montgomery County to the north and Alexandria and Arlington Counties to the east, as well as in the District of Columbia itself, schools were closed for Tuesday and Wednesday, and delayed for two hours on Thursday.

Some in our county were incredulous when FCPS cancelled school the third day. A delayed start seemed a more appropriate response. The usual two-hour delay would have ensured that school goers walked to school or bus stops in daylight, not the usual darkness of January mornings, and would thus have been able to see most icy patches or other obstacles en route. Cancelling school entirely was an over-reaction—albeit a revealing one.

Sensitive to criticism of their decision on Thursday’s closure, when announcing Friday’s delayed start, FCPS officials noted, a little defensively, “FCPS’ primary concern is always student safety when making a decision about opening or delaying schools. In addition to considering information from a range of public safety sources, FCPS transportation supervisors travel the routes our buses would traverse and inspect bus stops and the pathways that will be used by walkers. When there are areas in the county that are considered unsafe or treacherous, schools are closed.”

Friday’s delayed start was not incident free. FCPS acknowledged in an email sent to parents shortly after 9 a.m. that it was “experiencing significant mechanical problems with a number of buses across the county … due to the freezing temperatures. Some of these buses will be late picking up students; some may be very late. Parents are advised to take precautions to ensure that their children are not standing outside in the cold for extended periods of time. Mechanics, transportation supervisors, and drivers are working to the best of their ability to get the buses running and on time”.

Undoubtedly there are people who will criticize FCPS for Friday’s delayed start and suggest that schools should have remained closed on Friday too. They might say that so many buses with mechanical issues due to the low temperatures prove the decision to have school, albeit delayed, unwise.

I am definitely one of those who felt resuming an as-regular-as-possible school schedule should have been attempted, with a delayed start, on the Thursday already. Certainly, it was extremely cold. One is reminded of the expression, “There’s no such thing as bad weather; there’s only bad clothing”. Most living in this region would have adequate protective clothing; winter here typically does include really chilly days, although temperatures as consistently low as they’ve been over the last days are unusual. The curious unwillingness of teenagers to wear jackets is obviously not a reason to cancel school.

The over-cautious decisions from FCPS reflect a broader tendency in U.S. society—the general widespread adoption of risk aversion policies and processes. FCPS officials are terrified of the possibility of being sued. Whether this could be for an accident involving a FCPS student falling on an icy sidewalk or pavement at a school, or, heaven forbid, being hit by a car sliding on ice, or, I hate to suggest it, a bus accident with elementary school children on board, or some other horrible scenario. FCPS officials cannot entertain the possibility of being liable. So instead hyper-conservative decisions are made.

Risk avoidance is endemic in the United States. There are signs everywhere disclaiming responsibility for this or that—or warning that use of whatever is at people’s own discretion. One is forever signing indemnity forms absolving others of any responsibility for anything. Lawyers predicate far too much behaviour in this society.

There are, of course, profound anomalies to this society-wide aversion to risk. Promiscuous gun laws in the United States are, to my mind, the most baffling contradiction to this excessive concern with safety. The ease with which guns can be purchased, plus the way in which they can be concealed and carried in everyday life, are aspects of U.S. society I struggle to understand. The presence of a firearm by definition always escalates the chance of any situation spiralling out of control and compromising people’s safety.

Life is full of freak, random events. It is impossible to control for everything. Surely school children would be better served by not being too sheltered but by being exposed to some risks and learning coping mechanisms? More exposure to adversity and less cossetting would help childrens’ coping and social skills.

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Madiba wows Washington

Fully unveiled at lastA new statue of Nelson Mandela dazzled, charmed, and empowered all gathered outside the South African embassy in Washington this past overcast Saturday. Especially endearing to those present was the uncovering—thanks to wind gusts—of Mandela’s characteristic raised fist ahead of the statue’s official unveiling. Speaker after speaker remarked on how “only Nelson Mandela would unveil himself”. He was certainly that kind of leader. He saw the path forward before others did, and then brought them along.

The premature exposure of Mandela’s defiant fist was perfect for an occasion rich in symbolism. South African Ambassador to the United States Ebrahim Rasool gave the speech of the day. He delivered a rousing tribute to Mandela and an impassioned, mesmerizing exposition of how morality trumps legality. “What is legal,” he reminded, “is not always moral”. He welcomed the nearly completed renovation of the embassy. He delighted in its spiritual cleansing and purifying. From being a place in which the heinous had been defended, the embassy was now a place of promise, where the new could be combined with the best of the old. The statue of Mandela out in front underscored this fresh beginning for the embassy.

Peek-a-boo
The tribute from Zindzi Mandela, the youngest Mandela daughter, was poignant. Most Americans remember her as a feisty 25-year-old who read a letter from her still-imprisoned father to a huge rally in Soweto in 1985. She famously read, “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” She was frank at Saturday’s event too. She shared how inaccurate and hurtful much media speculation was about her 95-year-old father’s health and how he would meet His Maker in due course. She stressed that he had always seen and conducted himself as part of a collective, as a member of the African National Congress, and never as an individual. Even in divorcing her mother, Zindzi noted, her father had done this as part of a collective.

Being part of a community or collective was a constant theme. American speakers at the event included luminaries from the protests organized outside the South African embassy in the mid-1980s. There were many references to these Washington demonstrations and the accompanying frequent arrests, as well as to the divestment and disinvestment campaigns. In these efforts, U.S. pension funds were pressured to divest the stock of U.S. and foreign corporations invested in South Africa; such companies were also pressured to disinvest from South Africa. These collaborative efforts were critical. Together, they helped force a reluctant Reagan administration to adopt sanctions against South Africa. Such economic and other pressures contributed to the Nationalist government’s increasing isolation and to a general sense of crisis. Eventually, the unconditional release of political prisoners like Mandela and negotiations between the Nationalist government and the ANC brought freedom and democracy to all South Africans.

Contributors from the podium spoke often about the essential connection between black Americans’ struggle to assert their civil rights in the United States and their support for black South Africans in their struggle. Many noted that this year is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. One speaker referenced the triangle that was now formed by the statues of King on the National Mall, Mahatma Gandhi nearby at the Indian embassy, and Mandela. These three are global icons in the push for equality and social justice in diverse societies around the world.

Listening to the American activists sharing recollections of their participation in the Free South Africa Movement was also a little jarring for this South African. Sometimes I found the commentary a little myopic and ahistorical. Yes, activism in the United States helped dramatically to change the global position of the Nationalist government and contributed profoundly to its demise. But somehow—apart from the obvious stress on Mandela’s role—the contributions of ordinary black South Africans in defying the government, making its laws unworkable, increasing the costs of enforcement, and generally opposing the unjust system that dictated their lives were understated at the event. The anti-apartheid movement was far more than American elites protesting outside the South African embassy in Washington and its consulates around the United States.

The day was replete with many wonderful moments. Keynote speaker South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, broke into a struggle song about Mandela before delivering her comments. How many foreign ministers would sing an impromptu solo like that! The mood in the gathered audience (at least where I was sitting) was relaxed and happy, with many introductions and reunions taking place. The clothing of many is also worthy of comment. Gorgeous colourful beads and fabrics abounded. I also enjoyed watching a D.C. policewoman snapping photos of the activities on her cell phone in between her official duty of directing traffic. It was that kind of a joyful day! And it was a most positive affirmation of South African-U.S. bilateral relations.

Even the rain—always a blessing in Africa—waited for the ceremony’s conclusion before bringing relief to parched Washington.

Shrouded in mystery

Far beyond the Beltway

Americans are consistently concerned about their elected representatives becoming too Washington-centric. The bubble of Washington’s self-important political culture is alluring.

Leaving Washington and considering it from other vantages is always revealing. Whether viewing it from elsewhere in the United States, or from another country—as I am now, from Cape Town, South Africa—one always has a different perspective on Washington than when in it.

Washington, D.C., is a self evidently important global focal point. There are many cities in the world where momentous decisions are made that profoundly impact others, especially those living outside that city’s perimeters and indeed beyond that country’s borders. Washington and Beijing are arguably the two most powerful cities in the world at present, with the impact and influence of decisions made in these cities and then implemented beyond them being breathtaking.

On this visit to South Africa, I am mostly struck by how esoteric and inward-looking much of what is happening in Washington appears when one is well beyond “the Beltway”, the famous highway that encircles Washington. Certainly, these impressions occur too when in Washington itself. Indeed, one can then be consumed with dismay and frustration at the small-minded posturing and pettiness of much so-called debate there nowadays. As I sit in Cape Town, I am taken by the extent of the seeming triviality and purposelessness of so much of the political machinations in Washington. The antics and contortions of politicians there suggest they have lost the big picture. Their inability to address the U.S.’s challenges of the day has greatly damaged perceptions of the United States.

President Barack Obama’s recent visit to South Africa is one prism through which to view perceptions of the United States. I have intentionally asked as many local people as possible about how they viewed the president’s visit. Reactions ranged from great enthusiasm and appreciation to utter indifference and dismissal. There were of course also boisterous demonstrations against Obama’s presence from local Moslems appalled at targeted drone killings, as well as by those supporting the Palestinian cause and protesting U.S. bias toward Israel in the Middle East.

A key factor on President Obama’s visit to South Africa was the hospitalization in Pretoria of an elderly Nelson Mandela. Concern over Mandela’s health pervaded Obama’s visit. Obama recognized people’s distracted attention by mentioning Mandela at every opportunity throughout his visit and acknowledging Mandela’s profound influence on himself. Most importantly, Obama gained enormous goodwill and personal credit by backing away from possibly seeing the ailing Mandela, instead meeting privately with family members. South Africans approved wholeheartedly of this sensitivity by Obama.

Many to whom I have spoken were glad President Obama had taken the trouble to come. For those following the visit more closely, Obama’s public speeches at the University of Johannesburg ‘s Soweto branch and the next day at the University of Cape Town were well received, more notably the latter as it was less choreographed and so perceived as more sincere.

The UCT speech was noted for its focus on aspirations, ideas, and values. Obama remarked on the impossibility of predicting what was happening at that very moment—America’s first black president addressing a fully integrated audience at a South African university that had awarded an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela. Obama’s comments on the pernicious impact of corruption were particularly popular, reflecting South Africans’ dismay at increasing local corruption. His observation that government should serve its people rather than itself seemed to garner even more applause than when Obama greeted the crowd with South African salutations, including the ubiquitous “howzit”.

A Johannesburg-based friend shared an anecdote about a taxi driver she encountered who had journeyed to Soweto specifically to line the route the president’s motorcade would travel to his UJ Soweto speech. The driver was apparently enthralled by the experience. Other Johannesburg friends who were caught up in traffic snarl-ups related to the Obama visit remarked negatively on all the hardware that goes along with a presidential trip, with the word “circus” being used a few times.

While people overall appreciated that Obama, the first black American president, had come to South Africa, and recognized him as a “good guy”, others said “so what?” Many preferred instead to speak about their opposition to U.S. policies. They spoke of their dislike of U.S. surveillance methods and U.S. policies in the Middle East and the Pakistan/Afghanistan region. Others commented on the irony of Obama being so moved upon visiting Robben Island, where Mandela and other leaders from the anti-apartheid struggle were imprisoned for many years, while detainees from the war in Afghanistan are being held in Guantanamo Bay.

Obama coming to South Africa and making a couple of solid speeches certainly didn’t change the latent anti-Americanism of many South Africans. They need more than a once-in-a-blue-moon presidential visit to be convinced that the United States wants to engage seriously in Africa—and is not ceding Africa to the Chinese and Brazilians. For the United States to be more of a player here than it is, South Africans need to feel and see more commitment.

Personally, I do feel that the United States does not get the credit it should for its incredibly generous HIV/AIDS work here. Many hundreds of thousands of South Africans are alive today because of the U.S. PEPFAR Program, which began its life-sustaining donations of anti-retrovirals under President George W. Bush.

While Washington’s political sway might be diminishing in Africa, the pervasive impact of Hollywood and the U.S. music industry is amazing. The amusing, loveable minions from “Despicable Me” have, for example, achieved much attention in South Africa—wider than hapless American politicians? Reflecting clever marketing too, the minions appear in unexpected contexts here.

Is the soft power of American culture perhaps more powerful than the well-articulated thoughts of a visiting American president?

Mind the gap

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The unifying lustre of U.S. Independence Day celebrations was short lived this year. After a long weekend of flag flying, naturalization ceremonies, patriotic parades, home-grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, and fantastical firework shows, it was quickly back to the new normal of short-term thinking, special-interest legislating, and deadlock politics in the Nation’s Capital. And yet, after a fortnight of brutal political mudwrestling, there are now faint glimmers this week of a possible new modus operandi, at least in the U.S. Senate.

The most flagrant down grade was reserved for the meekest in U.S. society—those dependent on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. One in five Americans relies, in some way, on government food aid, such as food stamps or free or reduced school lunches; half of those who receive food aid are young people. These figures are stark reminders of how precarious life is for many in this wealthy but socially very unequal country.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a farm bill that provides substantial subsidies to agribusiness. To placate conservatives, the bill was stripped of its customary simultaneous provision of billions of dollars to the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Republicans say that food stamp funding will be taken up later, in subsequent legislation. But the fact remains that conservatives are fixated on addressing the spike in the size in the food stamp program. Reflecting the devastating impact of the 2008 recession, the percentage of the population using food stamps has apparently risen from 8.7 in 2007 to 15.2 in the most current data. Conservatives want to reduce this heightened dependence on government; they feel that private, perhaps church-based, organisations should rather be meeting such needs.

The food stamp exclusion came on the heels of Congressional Republicans choosing not to extend government-subsidized interest rates on student loans, thereby letting rates double. Their preference is instead for rates to reflect the market. While bipartisan efforts to produce a way forward are underway in the Senate, the uncertainty has been most debilitating for those loan-dependent students trying to plan for the imminent academic year.

The prospects for long-needed immigration reform also nosedived after Independence Day. House Speaker John Boehner said he wouldn’t place a Senate-passed bill on comprehensive immigration reform before the U.S. House of Representatives as it lacked support from a majority of Republican House members. Instead, House Republicans expect to address immigration reform in a piecemeal fashion. They plan to pass aspects of the Senate bill they endorse—such as strengthening border security, permitting more visas for high-skill immigrants, and possibly providing a solution for “Dreamers”, young people brought to the United States illegally as children who now identify exclusively as Americans. And they will likely ignore the part of the Senate bill that is anathema to them but nonnegotiable for Democrats—the “path to citizenship”, whereby 11 million illegal residents can qualify in a long, expensive, and time-consuming process to become full-fledged American citizens. Addressing immigration reform in this bite-sized way will, in all likelihood, kill the initiative for yet another cycle. And some say that is conservatives’ real goal: to deny President Obama legislative success in yet another arena that has defied reform despite successive attempts over the last decades.Happy birthday America!

The noted Congressional actions reveal a conservative strategy that is narrow, cynical, and ideological. In their purist zeal to limit the size of government, lower taxes for Americans, and reduce the budget deficit, House Republicans are hurting those in U.S. society who most depend on government. It is hard too to avoid noticing that the groups being treated so dismissively by these recent actions formed the core of the national majority that elected and then reelected Barack Obama as president: Latinos, African-Americans, young people, and (unmarried) women.

Given the reality of demographic trends, it is especially surprising that House Republicans are willing to follow a politically ruinous strategy by not addressing their “Hispanic vote problem” through all-encompassing immigration reform. Their argument that they need to ensure better turnout of their key constituency—the white working class—while also trying to attract those more inclined to vote Democratic is short sighted. This will resign the Republican Party to having voting strength in particular states, counties, and cities, but being unable to compete for national tickets. Losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections has apparently not yet hammered home the message. The recent narrowly focused actions of House Republicans will only further marginalize their party.

The disconnection between more moderate leaders of the Republican Party and zealous U.S. House of Representatives’ members should be noted. Mainstream Republicans, like many in the business community, endorse immigration reform, including the “path to citizenship”. Even former President George W. Bush came out forcefully in public recently in support of comprehensive immigration reform.

The most encouraging news of the week was the breakthrough deal in the U.S. Senate whereby seven of President Obama’s long-delayed nominations to senior positions in the executive branch will be confirmed, although two nominees will have to be fresh choices. This positive development resulted from a strategy of brinkmanship by both Senate Democrats and Republicans over the filibuster, a much-treasured tool for the minority party in the Senate. May this sorely needed compromise portend a new style in all things congressional—or at least senatorial.

In addition to starting to confirm more agreed-upon candidates for executive office, today a bipartisan group of senators also concurred on a way forward on government-subsidized student loans. Although today’s Senate proposal will have to be reconciled with the House version, agreement now appears likely on rates marginally higher than previously but lower than the market rate. This agreement will hopefully be reached before students will need to lock in loan rates for the new academic year.

Despite 237 years of independence and freedom, American democracy is still a work in progress.

A whimsical patriot

Listserving the people

Digital communication replacing the village green is such a cliché. But our neighbourhood listserv really proves the point. This is especially so for relative newbies to the area like us.

One learns all sorts of personal details about people in the neighbourhood from our local listserv, including their names and often their addresses too. One learns, for example, who has car trouble, whose child wants to take ballet lessons, who runs a landscaping design business, who needs eldercare for a relative, and who took down a big tree and subsequently offered free firewood for weeks on end. I recognize many names from the listserv by association (“her kids are the ones still chopping away at the tree carcass in their yard, providing free wood to any who want it”), but if I were queuing behind the majority of these people at a till in a nearby supermarket, I would not know them.

Our local digital community bulletin board is a remarkable resource for all in the area. Post a query to it and you are bound to get a host of responses. Need a pediatrician? A plumber? A piano teacher who is willing to come to your home? Write to the listserv asking for ideas and at least a handful of kindly neighbours will usually answer with suggestions about the best (or worst) dentist, electrician, or roofer, you name it. Digital word of mouth is so powerful. All who live in the area are able to sign up for this treasure trove of handy information. A volunteer system administrator facilitates access through referrals.

As in all human interaction, there is unstated etiquette to the listserv. The good-natured, patient manner with which repeat appeals are typically handled amazes me. Persistent requests include recommendations for pediatricians and house- cleaning or lawn-mowing services. It is incredible how often these come up—and how responses are repeatedly yet generously offered. Only once do I remember someone writing in and pointedly suggesting the archives be searched as that subject had come up too recently. The supply of and demand for childcare services also features regularly on the listserv. Helpers looking for additional hours are often from Central or Latin American countries, or they are high school or college-age children living in the area. Additionally, there are frequent anxious appeals for child minders when arrangements with sitters fall through.

There are also explicitly stated protocols. Our system administrator is strict about the listserv remaining nonpartisan and nonpolitical. A posting last year letting folk know about a D.C. march supporting gun violence prevention resulted in an admonishment. Likewise promotion of a particular candidate in a recent school board election elicited a strong rebuke. Our area reflects the partisan fracturing of U.S. society, so it is no doubt wise to keep more divisive issues from the listserv if it is to continue playing its constructive, helpful role for all. Certainly, there are many other channels for digital partisan politicking.

Everyone can agree though that child predators casing the neighbourhood are a problem. Not long ago, the listserv was awash with descriptions of strange incidents in random locations involving an older male behaving threateningly around children and young teens. His physical attributes and those of a possible partner, as well as the vehicle he/they were driving, were widely circulated, along with pleas for extra vigilance.

Another event resulting in a series of postings recently was when a child threw a water-filled balloon at a passing car. The first post was from a person connected to the car that the balloon struck. She requested all abstain from such conduct, especially as it could be unnerving for novice or elderly drivers. The next posting on the subject was a gracious mea culpa from the parents of the balloon thrower. They expressed regret at the incident, as well as noting their negligence in providing adequate supervision of the children playing with water. Subsequent entries complemented the parents for admitting their child’s role in the incident and acknowledging their own culpability. An awkward situation was thus handled and stylishly resolved—completely digitally—in front of the whole community.

A previous “digital confession” to the community is also noteworthy. This was the incident, described in a previous blog, where a neighbor accidently locked himself out of his own home and was then “caught” breaking in. The embarrassed neighbor explained to the listserv what had happened and then apologized for the disruptions and inconvenience due to all the police activity.

The listserv really does enhance people’s ability to look out for one another. It is useful for evaluating how widespread a power outage might be during their too-frequent occurrence due to bad storms. Thanks to the ubiquity of smart phones, even during power failures, one can quickly learn their extent and coordinate calls for technical assistance. The listserv is also a tool for obtaining assessments of driving conditions during severe weather. Folk working, say, in downtown Washington can write in after a storm to ask about area road conditions.

The listserv is so much more than finding a highly recommended local orthodontist, giving away outgrown children’s toys, or flogging no-longer-needed baseball mitts. It really does foster good neighbourliness. An entry from a couple of years ago that touched me was from the desperate mother of a two month old who screamed every time he ate. The empathetic, idea-laden responses from the community were quite moving. I have no doubt that one of the reactions, or a combination of them, resolved the situation for the mother and her baby. We never heard back from her to know.

The area listserv is an incredibly effective way to help one another in the digital age. It is a microcosm of the global village.

“How am I doin’?”

Americans are obsessed with performance measures and evaluation. Giving and receiving feedback is a vital component of today’s competitive, meritocratic America. It is, of course, also essential in a services-oriented economy. The quality of an experience with a company, at a restaurant, or in a shop is critical to the success of that enterprise. All hope for a positive, affirming experience—especially one that is then commended to others.

In some countries, concern about the quality of an experience or engagement is nonexistent. In others, like Japan, excellence is assumed. In the United States, concern about performance is persistent.

A simple verbal exchange with a cashier at a shop often results in the person, for example, mentioning their name, circling a website or phone number printed at the bottom of the receipt, and requesting that one connects with that site or calls the number to volunteer information about one’s experience that day. This person would also note that a discount or some other kind of financial incentive would be made available if one did this.

Interaction with cashiers or others in retail that result in this patterned behaviour can make one cynical. People here are hyper aware of being perceived as friendly, even though it is obvious when interaction is disingenuous “sales speak”. I always cringe at the rhetorical, pro forma “Did you find everything you were looking for today?” or “Do you need help out to your car?”

When we moved to Washington nearly three years ago, acquiring a car was an early necessity. A visit to a dealership that carried the car in which we were interested turned out to be rather efficient. The car salesman appeared incredibly happy at the quick, seemingly effortless sale. Upon our leaving, he noted we would be asked later about our experience with him and he hoped our response would be favourable. A couple of weeks later, we received two requests for an evaluation of our experience. One was a phone call, the other a written survey, and I responded to both. I was amazed when the salesman called not once, but twice, to check whether I had responded. He was desperate to get his commission or bonus.

An experience last weekend partly motivated this blog post. I needed to make an airline reservation, was unable to get the job done through the airline’s website, and hence called the company’s toll-free customer service number. The usual long series of automated questions had to be answered, the last of which was whether I would be willing to answer a customer survey after speaking to an agent. I heartlessly answered “no”. And then waited for an agent to come on the call. And waited. And waited. After fifty minutes of holding, I put down the phone in utter disgust. A couple of days later, I endured the whole rigmarole again, only this time I answered that I would be willing to respond to a survey. Guess what: an agent answered my call within eight minutes! Was this a coincidence? I don’t think so.

The American education system also reflects this obsession with evaluation. Indeed, many complain that the testing craze has gone too far. It’s “SOL” time now for many school-going children across America. These “standards of learning” tests assess core competencies and are fundamental to all evaluations of students, teachers, and schools. How well students do in these subject-based, state-wide tests has a significant bearing on teacher evaluations. Student performance in these tests also affects states’ assessment of schools. The federal government too considers these test outcomes in rewarding schools and states with federal money as part of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative.

Belief in key performance indicators (KPI), feedback loops, and accountability permeates American society. Compensation is then based on the data.

Wall Street is the epitome and distorted extreme of this data-driven society, where quarterly reviews and results are the only name of the game.

The ultimate assessment tool in American culture is, of course, its electoral system, while the Constitution itself enshrines a balance of power between government functions.

Overall, the performance-driven and results-oriented culture of America is invigorating—even if the constant requests for assessment can be irritating and draining. The compulsion here to quantify so much interaction is also of concern though. Sometimes there seems too much emphasis on quantifying and meeting targets, as apposed to the quality and depth of encounters. One could also ask whether the right things are being quantified. And isn’t the system too often being gamed? Are the unaware and uneducated able to participate?

And yet a results-based culture is probably “the worst form for [society] except for all the others that have been tried”—with apologies to Winston Churchill.

Go take a hike

Potomac Overlook Regional ParkPotomac Overlook Regional Park is soul food for this African. Walking in the park’s forests gives a smidgeon of the sensation of being in untrammeled nature and away from it all—despite being in a densely populated area close to the heartbeat of one of the world’s most powerful cities. I try to go there as often as possible, and always emerge refreshed and energized. I’ve blogged about it previously: it’s one of the places where observing deer is exhilarating rather than exasperating. Seeing them there transforms us humans from beleaguered gardeners into awestruck visitors. Park woodlands are where deer belong.

Apart from wildlife and the trees, the other appealing aspect of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is the gradient. I enjoy the way the forests slope down to the Potomac River. So it was perhaps inevitable that someone would hatch a plan to develop the park’s forested bluffs along the Potomac into a commercial zip line venture.

The suggested plans also included “expansion of the park entrance and additional parking, construction of a new amphitheater/stage area, an urban agriculture plot, a youth group camping area, and improvements to the birds of prey shelter”.

Having two thrill-loving teenagers and having experienced myself the pleasure of such canopy tours—in South Africa’s Magaliesberg—I’m not averse to zip lining. It’s great fun! However, the notion of developing so dramatically one of the remaining, relatively untouched woodlands in the metro area is simply horrifying. Washington residents, human and animal alike, need a place such as Potomac Overlook Regional Park to help stay sane. The idea of tampering with it reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s “pav[ing] paradise to put up a parking lot”.

Happily, many in the community were similarly appalled at the idea of changing so many aspects of this treasure of a park.

A meeting on March 19, this past Tuesday, in a church hall adjoining the park was overflowing with indignant, vocal, and very organized park lovers. They had flooded the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority with emails, letters, and phone calls since the NVRPA authorized “planning and implantation” of the projects at a November 15, 2012 meeting and then presented revised plans at a February 26, 2013 public meeting.

At the outset of Tuesday’s meeting, NVRPA officials announced that they rescinded their November 15, 2012 authorization to plan and implement the projects. They admitted to “eating a big slice of humble pie”, and noted the “force of the community” and the “power of public opinion”. Using a buzz phrase that the Obama administration has contributed to Washington lexicon, they promised to “hit reset”.

It is a remarkable turnaround and a breath of fresh air to hear officials admitting to miscalculation and error. Oh that all public officials or managers were so responsive to those whose interests they ostensibly serve.

In their campaign to get NVRPA board members to change their mind, the activist park users reminded all that the NVRPA itself had declared “the mission of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is to provide a protected woodland sanctuary, in order to preserve environmental quality and species diversity; to provide environmental and cultural education, stressing the relationship between all living organisms and to provide a natural setting in which to enjoy low impact recreational activities and physical exercise.”

Beware any entity that tries to implement a measure in a community such as this that doesn’t have broad-based support. In a fair generalization, many Washington area residents are over-educated, overachieving, incredibly determined people who know how to organize and get their opinion across. Don’t mess with them, or cross them. A well-informed and highly opinionated citizenry lives here.

As usual, the source of the problem was a search for revenue. Potomac Overlook Regional Park, the largest park in Arlington County, is clearly not a moneymaking enterprise. Indeed, it is documented to be one of the revenue drains for the NVRPA, although it is not the biggest money loser among the parks.

NVRPA officials acknowledged it was a mistake to pursue turning such a nature education park into a revenue stream without better community outreach and engaging earlier with the public.

The furor around Potomac Overlook Regional Park is an instructive example of the weight that public opinion should be play in policymaking. Policymakers ignore the views of those they serve at their peril. If only this type of pragmatic, consensual politics could be practiced at the federal and state level as well as it was this past week in Arlington County.

But it is not enough to merely solicit public opinion. Government officials must also listen to that public opinion and react accordingly. Public officials’ contrite apologies can be even more refreshing than a walk in the woods.