published Friday, April 18th, 2014

Cook: Mirror, mirror on the wall

The Gilded Age was so terrible because it was so extreme. Like an hourglass, the measured middle was squeezed up or down. We were an either-or America: you were either fabulously rich or poor like a bowl of dust.

(Once, the Vanderbilts threw a party. They gave all their guests silver buckets and shovels and let them dig for diamonds and rubies in the dining room sandbox.)

Inequalities are canaries in the societal coal mine. The center won't hold under such conditions.

I fear that Chattanooga has become a Gilded Age city.

The latest report from Gallup-Healthways named us one of the unhealthiest cities in the nation. Thirty percent of folks told researchers they were too sick to do normal age-appropriate activities each day. More than nearly 200 other American cities, we are tired, obese and poor.

Yet, paradoxically, we are also one of the nation's most outdoor-minded cities. Athletes migrate here to climb, run, paddle and bike. Our bodies are sculpted and cardiovascularly superb. We build rock climbing walls in the heart of downtown. We grace the cover of Outside magazine.

Such dualism -- some of us sick, others beautifully fit -- is one example of a larger dichotomy.

We have orchestrated downtown with million-dollar condos and townhomes. Soon, construction begins on a $100 million riverfront pleasure of cottages and apartments.

Yet a stone's throw away, there sits a housing project that needs millions in repairs.

And our city has no homeless shelter.

We've fashioned ourselves as a tourist destination, turning our riverfront into a red carpet.

Yet a mile away, there are neighborhoods of people who say they've never gone to the riverfront. One woman told me she's never been to Coolidge Park.

We are the most Bible-minded city in America. We erect 100-foot crosses by the interstate.

Yet we have obscene poverty rates. Nearly one-third of citizens live below the poverty line, almost double the national average.

We trumpet our Gig, and work to build a tech industry that leads the nation.

Yet we have lost our industrial infrastructure and middle-class manufacturing jobs.

We have some of the most prestigious private schools in the nation, places where students glow in intellectualism and opportunities. Around here, when people ask The Question -- where'd you go to school? -- they don't mean college.

Yet our public schools are crumbling. Some of our students don't even have textbooks.

One of our communities has been named the best place to live in Tennessee.

Yet others have rates of infant mortality that rival Third World countries. More than 40 percent of our city's children are poor.

We are white.

And black.

But rarely both.

Not long ago, we were named one of the most dangerous cities in the country.

Yet that violence is located only in several ZIP codes. It affects some daily, yet others rarely.

Our councils and commissions and companies are headed by men. Nearly every election ballot is stuffed with male candidates.

Yet Chattanooga women are two-third's of our city's poor.

So what does the future hold? Will we continue to fragment and fracture, one tortured part of Chattanooga being flung like Sandra Bullock into outer space while the other only becomes more beautiful and healthy?

What is the gravity that brings us back closer to one another?

There is only one place where such healing can occur.

Our public schools.

Every day, thousands of future Chattanoogans gather in classrooms. We can teach them things that can continue our gildedness, or completely reverse it.

We need a revolution, some head-turning movement that completely blows up the status quo of school-thought. Our schools need to turn into hubs of medical care, health education and cutting-edge instruction, each precisely operating off a bold mission statement that is anything but status quo.

We need leaders who have vision and school board members who are outraged. We need commissions that are clawing to find 21st century solutions. Our principals and teachers need to drown in funding and political support.

Our fall elections -- school board, commissioners, the county mayor -- need to be centered around the importance of public schools, each politician clamouring over the other to explain how many new ideas they have.

Otherwise, nothing will stop our city from becoming more divided against itself. And cities divided cannot stand.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
nednetterville said...

Public schools are the problem because they are public, that is to say government schools. Government can't do anything right because it is a force-based (viz., violent)institution, except to conduct wars if there is a right way to do that. If it didn't rely on force and coercion to collect its taxes and enFORCE its laws it wouldn't be government as we know it, although whatever it became it would certainly be something better in every respect.

People just like you, David, have been raising the same futile hue and cry for eons, with the same results I expect to see from your wasted lamentation. Education is a product just like smartphones. If the government was in charge of making smartphones, they'd becalled dumbphones and, like the public schools, they wouldn't work. Get over your attachment to the almighty State. In the long run it will bury you and its schools will still be putrid.

April 18, 2014 at 11:50 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Nedneterville, we have likewise been hearing the "same hue and cry" from you government hating conservatives for over three decades now. Of course, conservatives have by and large always hated the very notion of a centralized government but since "government-is-the-problem" Reagan came on the scene the anti-government mantra from the right has reached shrill proportions, and you spout it in knee-jerk fashion, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

But government has indeed gotten it right a lot of the time. Look at the entirety of the Bill of Rights - all conservatives and liberals agree, for the most part, on the brilliance of it. What was that but our elected representatives (government) coming together and collectively deciding what it would take to form a more perfect union for all citizens?

Look at the Civil Rights Act. Most sane people agree that civil rights trump states' rights and our Jim Crow laws were immoral and inhumane.

Look at Social Security, a glaring success for over 70 years, liked and appreciated by most liberals and conservatives alike - except for the most biased and irrational right-wingers and libertarians who like to call it a "Ponzi scheme." It is in trouble now, yes, but it's nothing that a little tweaking won't fix. It is not in need of trashing entirely and replacing with voluntary private investments - that would be a huge mistake.

Look at Medicare. Like SS, it is in trouble financially, too, but that is not because of a flawed system but because of out-of-control health care costs in general - something that Medicare-for-all would alleviate.

And look at how our public school system used to be - it was an indisputable success for over 30 years. What brought it down? The conservatives' obsessive mission over the years to "starve the beast." Through less and less funding these past thirty years, due in large part to an increased funneling of funding for vouchers, our public school system has become a wasteland, with no support or way of sustaining itself.

We have an economic and educational crisis in America and we cannot wait around for entrepreneurs to build a new private school here, a new private school there, with profit being their primary motivation. We need something done TODAY to address the huge problem of children from poor and working class families not getting a decent education, and those needs can only be addressed in a collective fashion, not piecemeal, in dribs and drabs. And besides, there are many things, such as education, health care and our penal system, that should not be considered a commodity, put up for sale in the marketplace.

April 19, 2014 at 12:32 p.m.
Rickaroo said...


Without a doubt our government is corrupt now. But that corruption is not due to some inherent flaw in government itself; rather it is due to our politicians being too influenced by big money from corporations and the fat cats who are bribing them with huge payoffs and campaign contributions. The problem with our government now is that it has become an oligarchy, not the democratic republic that our forefathers envisioned. Our government needs cleaning up, not eviscerating.

To think that this nation of over 3 hundred million people of such diverse character, or even 50 individual states, could be run efficiently without a strong centralized government is nuts. The "individual freedom" that today's neo-cons like to speak of would amount to utter chaos, or at the very least, a return to the horrors of the Gilded Age of which David Cook speaks. We are very nearly seeing the horrors of that age manifest themselves before us here and now.

April 19, 2014 at 12:35 p.m.
nednetterville said...

Rickaroo, I assure you that you are more the conservative in every respect than I am. Conservatives are as addicted to government spending as progressives, only they would spend the OPM on other things. (FYI, OPM: sounds like opium, is equally addicting, stands for Other People's Money--forcibly taken.) I am a voluntaryist, which is as far from progressive and conservative as one can get.

Your comment suggests you have been persuaded by your rulers' propaganda.

@"Bill of Rights..." Like the Constitution, not worth the paper written on. Government, including the SCOTUS, honors it only in the breach. Ah, like being drafted to kill complete strangers isn't "involuntary servitude."

@"Civil Rights Act..." It was written to try, rather unsuccessfully, to counter the slavery and Jim Crow laws sanctioned by your federal government for all those many years.

@"Social Security..." A ponzi-like (except unlike Uncle Sam, Ponzi didn't force his marks to buy what he was selling) scheme whose real purpose is to make as many Americans as possible government dependents--and it's working. Dependency on booze or drugs or government benefits is a disease that robs its victims of their self-sufficiency and self-respect. Once their dependency is sufficiently advanced, their rulers can make them jump through any hoop they devise to keep the OPM flowing.

@"Medicare..." You acknowledge is flawed, but it is worse than that. It, along with other government-induced third-party payer systems have virtually destroyed what was once a fine and efficient medical profession, the best in the world, and made health care unaffordable for many and satisfactory health care unavailable to anyone. I'd call it a Ponzi scheme too, but as I pointed out, that would be unfair to Ponzi. Try to keep this axiom in mind as you evaluate those government programs dear to your heart: If they were good, the government wouldn't have to force people to pay for them by means of compulsory taxation. No one has to force you to buy the goods you obtain at the grocery store, or anything else you get that doesn't come to you from the almighty State.

April 20, 2014 at 7:24 p.m.
nednetterville said...

@"Private school(s)...profit being their primary motivation." Rickroo, what do you thing is the motive of the public-school establishment, which has taken literally trillions of $$$ by force and delivered, as you acknowledge, a putrid product. Wake up and smell the stench these government programs emit.

@"Without a doubt our government is corrupt now..." Of course it is, and the reason is its very nature. Everything government does is based on its unholy and illegitimate "authority" to use force.

"Reagan..." Hey, he is your man not mine. You are a voter, aren't you? Reagan talked a good shrink-government game, but if you look at the record of growth of government during his tenure you will see that he was just another progressive in conservative clothing. You don't like him because he spent OPM on programs (star wars, etc.) that were not to your liking. Don't try to hang Reagan on me. The only difference I see between you and Reagan is that the utterly vapid rhetoric you spout has no impact on anything, whereas Reagan's utterances could and did, like Obama's, send young Americans to their graves.

@"To think that this nation of over 3 hundred million people of such diverse character, or even 50 individual states, could be run efficiently without a strong centralized government is nuts" To think that a government officials with their insatiable desire for wealth and power can rule 300 million people is insanity gone mad. Where do you suppose your rulers derive their superior knowledge and ability to be able to manage the lives of 300 million people they don't know without screwing up catastrophically? Come on, Rickaroo, attributing such superhuman powers to the State is a form of deity worship, which Ludwig von Mises aptly dubbed Statolatry. I find such devotion to government embarrassing to witness.

April 20, 2014 at 7:24 p.m.
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