Monday, January 31, 2011

A Brooklyn Tale

We watched A Bronx Tale on TV last night.  It made me remember something that happened about fifteen years ago and the tale I learned as back-story.

My cafe and store, Shakespeare's Sister, had been open a couple of years.  It sat on the border of the neighborhoods Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens in what used to be called "South Brooklyn" before the Gowanus Expressway split the area, leaving Red Hook alone and a little isolated by the water.  Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens were gentrifying, as Red Hook (which lacks much in the way of public transportation) would begin to do in a couple of years.  There was still a little of the old, Italian flavor left, but it was fast fading away.

One morning, I heard on the radio that a man had driven himself--in a Cadillac--to the emergency room at Methodist Hospital in nearby Park Slope.  He had six bullets in him.  The odd things were that he was wheel-chair bound and that he died on the operating table of a heart attack.

As I was sweeping the sidewalk, preparing to open, I paused to speak with the man who owned the store next door, someone who had grown up in the neighborhood and knew all the old stories.

"Sure," he said, "I knew that guy.  He ran a social club down on Hamilton Avenue under the Gowanus."

He paused, "I remember how he got paralyzed."

I leaned my broom against the gate, ready to listen.

"He and his partners were collectors for the mob.  One day, here on Court St., they had picked up this guy who was behind on the vig.  They had him between them in the Caddy--he always drove Caddys--with guns pointed at his guts from both sides.

"But they weren't paying attention to the road."  He laughed.  "They jumped the curb and hit a light pole.  The guy in the middle flew forward but the collectors, both in seat belts, stayed where they were--but both guns went off and they shot each other.

"The lucky stiff took off running and the other two were hauled off to the hospital.  The driver, the man who died last night, was paralyzed from the waste down."

"What happened to the guy who ran?  The mob ever catch up with him?"

"He'd borrowed money to open a ceramic-tile store.  I remember him pretty well, bad businessman.  Anyway, he high-tailed it to Florida where his mother lived and stayed there until the heat died down.  When he thought his debt had been forgotten, he came back to Brooklyn, the fool did."

"What happened?"

"They found him, of course.  His body ended up floating in the Gowanus."

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"The Crisis"

In 1776, Tom Paine tweeted, "These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service."  He followed it with a continuation: "shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."  A third came: "Tyranny, like hell,is not easily conquered;yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict,the more glorious the triumph."  And then a fourth, a fifth, and more.

George Washington, at his camp in New Jersey, read these, and then retweeted them to his troops, and posted them on his Facebook page.  They became an important motivation in the campaign that was about to begin with that famous crossing of the Delaware and the subsequent Battle of Trenton.

There are those who say that Twitter and Facebook aren't that important to what's going on in Egypt, what happened in Tunisia and, well before that, (unsuccessfully) in Iran.  And they are right.

But they are oh, so wrong.

A generation after Gutenberg printed his first Bibles (a point analogous to the introduction of the World Wide Web), the world had changed dramatically, though few (if any) knew what this meant:

Forty years after the invention of the press, there were printing machines in 110 cities in six different countries; 50 years after, more than eight million books had been printed, almost all of them filled with information that had previously not been available to the average person.
That's from Neil Postman, twenty years ago.  Though it might have been argued that this was simply amplification of what could have been done through manuscripts, it has proven to be something quite a bit more.  Postman saw it as even more important than the introduction of new technologies of our own age:
Nothing could be more misleading than the idea that computer technology introduced the age of information. The printing press began that age, and we have not been free of it since.
He, too, is right--but also wrong.  Wrong, perhaps, because he was speaking before the accelerated change of the past twenty years, much more dramatic even than the spread of the printing press.  We may still be in the age of information, but it is also a different age, a digital age--and we are yet too close to its inception to adequately define its extent or its impact--or even really provide it a name.

As we struggle to understand the impact oy the events around us of the technologies we introduce, we'd do well to keep in mind that it took hundreds of years for the full impact of Gutenberg to be felt on European cultures.  Yes, the spread of printing was quick (by standards of the time), but it seemed, at first, simply a new and better way to do what had been done before.

We are still waiting for the Tom Paine of our new networked communications.  But he or she will come, will crystallize a situation, will galvanize a people.  And the results, stemming as directly from the fact of our digital age as clearly as the American revolution stemmed directly from its own 'age of information,' won't be known for some time.

Yes, the printing press was no 'cause' of the American Revolution, but that doesn't mean the Revolution could have happened without it.

Just so, today.  As Matthew Ingram writes:

The real trigger for the uprisings... is simply the frustration of the oppressed Egyptian people — which is undoubtedly true. But it also seems clear that social media has played a key role in getting the word out, and in helping organizers plan their protests. In the end, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.
 How important that will prove cannot be shown right now.  But, from looking at history, I know it will be shown to have been important--extremely important.

Those who argue that social networking is not critical to what is happening around the world right now are arguing from incomplete information.  They need to wait just a bit--maybe not the hundreds of years between Gutenberg and the American Revolution (things move faster now), but at least a little while.

They will certainly be surprised.

As will we all.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Growing Stupid

With tens of thousands of new books published each year in the United States alone (not to mention other sources of information--but let's concentrate on books for this example), the information encountered by each of us dwindles towards insignificance when measured against the whole.  Even if we could read and understand one book a day, we would be reading not even 400 books a year, just one percent of what used to be the estimated number of books published in America in a year.  Even if, as Sturgeon's Law claims, 90% of everything is crud, that leaves us having examined only one-tenth of the good stuff--if we had a way of determining what's good and what's not before picking any book up.  Now add all of the other sources generating information.  The total is overwhelming, much more than any one of us can sort through.

In other words, none of us can encompass any but a very small part of just the new information presented each year--let alone that accumulated in the past.  Let alone evaluate it; let alone understand it.  We have to rely on others, or on externals, to tell us if the information we sort through is worth a serious look or not.  We have to listen to others to learn to critically examine what we are finding.  And we need time to really think about what we have found, if we are going to make any real sense of it.

We have to be educated before we even approach the information before us.

Otherwise, we end up saying things like this:

Access to information is not the same as knowledge, but we've begun to think that a Google search is as good as studying and learning... that the machines have done all of this for us.

There's even a school district in Florida that seems to think it can do away with teachers in certain instances.  And a growing number of people seem to agree.

Only a growing amount of 'stupid' will result.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo"

Jane Albritton, series editor and guiding force behind the "Peace Corps @ 50" series, tells me that the publisher is about to send the proofs of One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo off to the printer--which means that it should be in stores in March.  As usual, there are further changes I would like, but that's only a sign that I have become more and more passionate about the book as time has passed and want it as perfect as I can make it.  Jane also tells me that pre-orders from bookstores are strong, another reason for making it as good as I can.

There are seventy-six essays in the book, all of them first-rate.  They cover the Peace Corps experience in Africa from its earliest days.  What pleases me most is that they don't seem like a jumbled collection of different thoughts, but something closer to a continuous narrative.  Though I had to work hard to pare things down to the point where I could fit all the stories I wanted into the volume but two (which are both long and rather too complex to withstand the type of cutting that would have been necessary--and which will both appear on the website, I hope, as will stories that have come in since we closed the volume and as will additional stories by many of the writers represented), I think the book is actually better as a result.  There is no single volume, at least not one I have seen, that encapsulates as much of the Peace Corps experience in Africa as this one does.

Because this project is not connected with Peace Corps itself, we've also had the freedom to present aspects of the experience that the organization might prefer remain in the background.  No organization, after all, likes to see its failures pointed out.  But failure is part of success, and the success of Peace Corps cannot be understood without examination of what went wrong along the way.

One of the things I've been thinking about while editing this volume is the side not seen here--the African perspective on Peace Corps.  Given limitations of space and time (not to mention money), that would not be possible in this book--which, after all, is about the experiences of the volunteers themselves.  Having finished this, however, I would love to be able to return to Africa for a year and collect stories from Africans about their experiences with Peace Corps Volunteers.  Then we'd really have a complete picture of the Peace Corps experience in Africa.

In the meantime, this book adds something to our American lore about Peace Corps, the stories like many that Americans have heard from the returned Volunteers amongst their friends and families, but stories never before collected in a single volume for a single, comprehensive picture of the experience.

The buzz about the book, so far, is good.  I hope it will be even better as people get a chance to read it.

And here I am as a Peace Corps Volunteer in northern Togo (Tambaong), working on my primary task of training farmers to use oxen for plowing, working with them on caring for the animals and the tools and--as in the picture--actually plowing the fields.  This was probably in 1989:

On a day just like this, plowing this very demonstration field, the oxen were startled by two elephants fighting in the Fosse aux lions (its boundary being off to the right from this picture, a road with woods beyond).  They panicked and ran.  I tried to keep hold of the plow, but eventually had to let go.  The blade continued to dig for a bit, creating a long, arced furrow away from the field until it lifted from the dirt and bounced behind the team until the oxen calmed and stopped, some several-hundred meters away.  I've never seen oxen run like those two did.  I don't blame them: the noise from the elephants, including the snapping of branches as they crashed into trees, was spectacular.

That elephant story is not in the book, but another, which took place within sight of this field, makes up my own contribution to the volume.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Just the Facts, Ma'am"

Joe Friday may never  have said that on Dragnet, but maybe he should, today.  

On October 17, 2004, The New York Times published a piece by Joe Suskind that contained these paragraphs with a now-infamous quote from a 'senior Bush advisor':
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
'We create our own reality.'  As the doers, we get to define what's real, and all the rest of you can do is watch and then study us.

Not only that, but the 'players' get to define history, too.

If you have a platform, all you need is passion and belief--not facts, not history--to remake the world.  Or so it is beginning to seem.  Minnesota Congressperson Michele Bachmann, speaking in Iowa (she wants to be president, so is stumping for the caucuses) the other day, makes my point (the video is an Anderson Cooper segment on CNN containing her words):


The myths that the Tea Party is promulgating about the Founding Fathers of the United States are nothing less than astonishing.  This is particularly apparent to me right now (as if it needs anything additional) because I am reading Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life, and have just finished the part on the Constitutional Convention.  The things Bachman says just ain't so.  They are what she might want to believe about the Founders, but they reflect nothing of the historical reality.

The things she says about the position of immigrants, also, just ain't so.  This country was never a level playing field for those arriving from elsewhere.  One's chances depended heavily on one's ethnic background, one's religion, and even on one's social class.

A college graduate and a lawyer, Bachmann should know better--even if one of her law degrees is from Oral Roberts University, a school most interested in its religious program.  She should understand that life isn't what we want it to be, not matter how passionately we desire it to be so, and that history and myth are two completely separate things.

That she does not understand these things isn't completely her own fault, but the fault of a society that has lost its respect for education, for learning of any kind.  We have replaced these with access to information on the Internet, believing that finding someone with the same beliefs as ours validates those beliefs.  Bachmann, by being on YouTube, now makes her words true, to a great many people.

But education isn't the same as being able to establish links or to draw a few facts from Wikipedia.  It's a mindset of inquiry built on study and experiment.  We seem to have forgotten that. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Balance Bull: The Threats Are Real

Last May, the Academic Freedom Committee (I am a member) of my union at the City University of New York (CUNY), drafted a resolution of support for Frances Fox Piven.  The resolution reads, in part:
Whereas, Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Graduate Center, has been the object of unrelenting scurrilous attacks by Glenn Beck, David Horowitz, and others on the political extreme right; and...

Whereas Professor Piven’s work, including The War at Home: The Domestic Causes and Consequences of Bush’s Militarism (2004); Why Americans Still Don’t Vote (2000); Breaking of the American Social Compact (1997); Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (1993); and Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977) has indeed influenced social policy and generations of students, scholars, and the public towards a more robust exercise of their democratic rights; and... therefore be it

Resolved, that... her courageous life as a scholar/teacher... represents the best qualities of a public intellectual.
I agree completely. And am reminded of it by a New York Times story today with the headline, "Spotlight From Glen Beck Brings a CUNY Professor Threats."

The Times story comes two days after The Nation presented an editorial online (for its February 7 print edition) beginning:
On the afternoon of January 6, Frances Fox Piven, a distinguished professor, legendary activist, writer and longtime contributor to this magazine, received an e-mail from an unknown correspondent. There was no text, just a subject line that read: DIE YOU CUNT. It was not the first piece of hateful e-mail Piven had gotten, nor would it be the last. One writer told her to "go back to Canada you dumb bitch"; another ended with this wish: "may cancer find you soon."
Now, we've all been told by the pundits, ever since Obama's Tucson speech, that more civility is needed--and that the nastiness comes from both sides.  Perhaps some of it does, but the weight of insanity and violence tilts right, as Digby points out.  What we are being given is 'Balance Bull,' an attempt to pretend to a central, steady fulcrum of sanity observing wild gyrations on both ends of the political spectrum.

Until we recognize that something is dangerously wrong here, and that it is wrong on the right, the threats and violence are going to continue.  Until we have someone with the gravitas of Joseph Welch saying "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" (he was the attorney for the U.S. Army who, with this line, effectively destroyed the career of Joe McCarthy), threats and acts of violence will continue, and will continue to be primarily from the right.  This isn't a time for saying, 'Can't we all just get along?'  This is a time for honesty and clarity.  It's time for responsibility--which includes addressing the wrong we see as well as those we unintentionally abet.

The nonsense violent-tinged hate has to stop.  The Piven attacks, nothing new, were highlighted in a story published in the PSC Clarion in May of last year:
The attacks on Professor Piven are in the tradition of the long and distressing history of anti-intellectualism in America and the “paranoid style” in American politics, which often surfaces in response to rapid social and economic change and struggles for social justice.
Though that does not excuse them.

The Times reports that, in response to the threats:
a liberal nonprofit group, the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote to the chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes, on Thursday to ask him to put a stop to Mr. Beck’s “false accusations” about Ms. Piven.

“Mr. Beck is putting Professor Piven in actual physical danger of a violent response,” the group wrote.

Fox News disagrees. Joel Cheatwood, a senior vice president, said Friday that Mr. Beck would not be ordered to stop talking about Ms. Piven on television. He said Mr. Beck had quoted her accurately and had never threatened her.

“ ‘The Glenn Beck Program,’ probably above and beyond any on television, has denounced violence repeatedly,” Mr. Cheatwood said.
Uh huh.  And there's a bridge in downtown Brooklyn you might want to buy:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Peace Corps Legacy

The death of Sargent Shriver reminds me once more of what government can do, when its people rise above parsimony and act as though they believe in themselves, their country, and the world. For thousands of us Americans, Peace Corps was defining, bringing us out of the narrow confines of home and into the large and often dangerous world--teaching us. We may have helped a few others along the way, but the greatest impact of Peace Corps has always been on us, the Volunteers, and on the country we returned home to.

The expansiveness, the open arms of the vision--this is something we've nearly lost over the past thirty years. Something we've nearly lost as a country, that is. Fortunately, Jimmy Carter continues to promote it, as does Peace Corps itself, struggling along into its fiftieth year. But, then, it always did have to struggle.

Peace Corps has never been easy--for the Volunteers, for the in-country staff, or for its administrators in DC or its supporters on Capitol Hill. Sometimes it has looked as though it would just say 'to hell with it' and lie down and die. But it continues, and gives hope to an idea of the world as an interconnected, interdependent place filled with beauty and mystery among the failures and horrors that dominate our media visions. A world of possibility and growth.

All of this has been reinforced for me over the past year or so, as I have worked to help produce the first volume in Jane Albritton's 50th Anniversary set of collected essays by Peace Corps Volunteers. It's called One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo and is being published by Travelers' Tales/Solas House, with me as the volume editor.

Together, the essays present as good a picture as I've ever seen of the Peace Corps experience in Africa. The writers are brilliant and thoughtful... and observant. If either Africa, the American experience in Africa, or Peace Corps interest you, keep an eye out for the book. I hope I will be able to conduct a few readings from it in New York City bookstores in the spring, and will announce any here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Great Space Debate

Two spaces after a period, or one? Is that the question?
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outraged typographers,
Or to delete spaces against our typing traditions,
And by opposing end them? To type: to delete;
No more; and by doing so to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That finger is heir to, 'tis a convention
Devoutly to be wish'd. To type, to compose;
To space: perchance to delete: ay, there's the rub;
For in that space or lack what dreams may come
When we have written our immortal prose,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his spaces make
After a bare full-stop?

Writing in Slate, Farhad Manjoo argues that only a philistine would place two spaces after a period. Then Megan McArdle, in The Atlantic, quoting heavily from Tom Lee's blog Manifest Destiny, comes down hard on the other side.

And the world of Twitter is agog.

Back in the early sixties, when I was learning to set type by hand, I was taught to use an en space after a period. This provided slightly more space between sentences than that between words (generally divided by a 3-em space... one-third of an em space, a square). Spacing changed, of course, during the process of justifying the line, but the rule of thumb was that you could get away with more space after a period than between words. The trick was to keep the spacing in each line visually congruous with all of the other lines.

From a printer's point of view, the Great Space Debate is stupid: space is fluid, simply one of the tools available for creating a pleasing page. The amount of space anywhere is variable--which is why a job case contained even 4- and 5-em spaces, and hair spaces made of brass and copper.

Though, in the heat of the moment, at the height of our passion, we argue about this with strident voice and valorous heart, "Someday we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny." Or so Bruce Springsteen says.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Rain and Water and Mystery

It had rained on Brooklyn, a week or two of incessant wet. Such constant precipitation might have been expected of Somerset Maugham's South Seas—but not of the brownstones, apartment buildings, Victorians, semi-attached, and bungalows one finds down Bedford or Nostrand through Bed-Sty, Crown Heights, Midwood, Marine Park, and Sheepshead Bay. Normally, a storm came and went, always passing through, never making itself at home.

But this one had stayed. Day after day of downpour then drizzle then downpour again.

A friend, Diane Tolles, who looked disturbingly like Joan Crawford in her role as Maugham's Sophie Thompson in Rain, called several times during the second week of it. She wanted my advice: Water was leaking into her kitchen, down both walls; drips were beginning to appear in her bedroom and living room.

“Why don't you call your landlord?”

“That's just it. I can't. I don't want him coming into my apartment.”

“Why not?”

“I've hardly unpacked since I moved in. The place is a mess.”

“But you've been there six months!”

“Well... ”

Diane was what once was called a pack rat, now a disposophobiac. She'd lost her last apartment because the landlord had claimed her stacks and stacks of old newspapers and magazines were a fire hazard—and had proved it in court. Other than that, she was a stylish and pleasant woman in her 40s with a penchant for exotic silk scarves.

“ you have any idea what's going on?”

“Diane, it's raining. When it rains, water gets in.”

She called again a few days after the rain had stopped. Water, she told me, was still dripping down her walls.

“Can you go up on my roof for me and see what the problem is?”

“I guess so, but I don't know what the problem could be.” I hesitated. “Diane, is there an apartment above yours?” The idea that water was dripping when it was dry out perplexed me.

“No. The building has only one floor in my part. The rest of it has two, one half a flight up from me, one half a flight down.”

“Easy to get to the roof?”


About nine the next evening, I rang the bell at the entrance to her building. She met me there, ushering me quickly past the door to her apartment and up onto the roof.

The roof we emerged onto was that of the other part of the building. A short metal ladder with a top that rounded over the ledge peeked up from her own roof. I walked to it and looked down.

“Uh, I think I see what the problem is.”

She stopped beside me and looked down, too. “Yes, I guess so.”

“But I don't think I can fix it right now.”

But you can fix it, right?”

Below us, on her roof, was close to three feet of water, almost to the top of the waist-high walls on the other three sides. The drain, wherever it was, must have clogged. It was probably a three or four inch pipe, so I couldn't imagine that the clog was in the pipe itself. But, looking around at the roof in the dim light reflected from the street, I couldn't tell where it was.

“Look, I've a pair of fireman's boots, waders, back at my place. I really don't want to go down there without them.”

“Will it take you long to get them?”

“No.” Less than an hour, it turned out. She let me in again, and again stood guard against unauthorized entry to her apartment. I climbed the stairs, slipped out of my shoes and into the boots, and handed her the shoes.

Once I was wading on the roof, I was able to determine the slope, telling me which side the drain had to be on. I kicked along the wall on the low side, hoping to dislodge the clog or otherwise locate the drain.

After a time, I did find it, and quickly got it clear. A roar from below told me that water was cascading down into the street. I stayed where I was, clearing away debris that tried to clog it up again, listening to the sound from below.

From the distance, I heard sirens. They approached, stopping below the building. Diane whispered to me from above, on the higher roof. “Aaron, we've got to leave. Hurry.”

Perplexed, I climbed up just as the last of the water was gliding towards the drain. She shoved my shoes at me. I changed, carrying the boots down into the building and turning towards the entrance.

“No,” she said, “this way.” And led me to a back entrance. “Don't let anyone see those boots.”

My car was close by, so that wasn't a problem. Boots stowed, she led me around to the front of the building where a crowd had gathered, people talking to the firemen whose truck was pulsing red light up and down the block.

“The water was coming from there,” one resident pointed to a locked driveway gate at the side of Diane's building, “just flooding, but now it has stopped.” Perplexed, but with a good grasp of the obvious. “It must have been a burst water line, but how did it stop?”

Diane and I walked quietly by. She invited me for coffee in a shop a few blocks away.

Groups and the Web

Much of what we assume today about groups on the Internet appears to ignore the realities of group dynamics in physical situations. Though there can be value in crowds (or in Internet 'clouds'), the opposite can also be true. Mobs can turn nasty on the Internet, just as elsewhere, and they do so. And groups even find ways of justifying their behavior—something perhaps a little more important on the Web, where everything anyone “does” has a permanent record. Much of the time, such justification is based on the putative 'rogue' behavior of the other, behavior that makes the rogue a threat to the group, obviating whatever protections for the individual the group had established for those within it.

The English religious philosopher James Martineau long ago described the mindset of such situations, a mindset leading to willingness to lie, and to do other things otherwise considered themselves law-breaking for the protection of the group:

On the area of every human society, and mixed with its throngs, there are always some who are thus in it, but not of it, who are there, not to serve it, but to prey upon it, to use its order for the impunity of disorder, and wrest its rights into opportunities of wrong. Assassins, robbers, enemies with arms in their hands, madmen, are beyond the pale; and the same principle applies to those who try to turn the postulate of speech to the defeat of its own ends, and through its fidelity compel it to play the traitor. Such persons, we surely may say, can no more claim the benefit of ‘the common understanding,’ than could a spy who, by stealing the password eludes the sentry’s vigilances and makes his notes of the disposition of the lines, expect to be treated as a comrade, if he is found out. The immunity and protection of the camp are not for him; he has nothing in reserve but a short shrift and a high gallows. If, then, there are persons to whom, on this principle, we are not bound to tell the truth, it is not that the intuitive rule of veracity is broken down by the admission of exceptions: we have not put these people into the rule, and then taken them out again: they have never been within its scope at all; for its defined range was that of a social organism, in which indeed they may be present, but to which they do not belong. (Types of Ethical Theory, 242)

Martineau, of course, fails to explore the crucial question of who gets to decide just who is beyond the pale, who does not belong—or even why, really. The spy is too facile an example, and is rarely the one targeted.

What Martineau describes is, for many of us, the great weakness of democracy, the possibility of it becoming mob rule ('the tyranny of the majority'), for it can forget the rule of law in favor of common assumption and determination. The Internet shows symptoms of such attitudes, where a group can rile itself up against outsiders and, figuratively, ride them out of town on a rail.

On the liberal blog Daily Kos (one of my favorite political blogs), people who have attained 'trusted user' status can 'hide rate' the comments of others, leading to the disappearance of those comments. Though this may provide for a certain amount of order and may even be necessary, it really goes against the grain of democracy. The problem is that the 'troll' (as the unpopular commenter is called) has not accepted the precepts of the group and is acting more like Martineau's spy. The 'law' of the website is brutal and swift—and 'democratic' only in the most mob-oriented sense. At the same time, the 'justice' is almost meaningless. The impact on the life of the 'troll' is nil; there are plenty of other places to post.

The political scholar Sheldon Wolin points out that, for effective democracy to exist, a three-part underpinning needs to be in place, things that are not necessary conditions for participation in discussion on the Web (it is not, after all, an actual structured democracy of any sort):

While the principle of popular participation in decision making is fundamental to democracy… thoughtful participation is dependent upon certain commonplaces: first, the availability of knowledge in the form of reliable factual information and, second, a political culture that values and supports the honest effort to reach judgments aimed at promoting as far as possible the best interests of the whole society. There is a third principle, intellectual integrity. One aspect of it is the responsibility of those who, as teachers, publicists, researchers, and scientists, practice truth telling as their vocations. It is not a vocation to which many pundits, talk show hosts, for-sale journalists, and think tank residents are committed. (Democracy, Incorporated, 262)

Wolin's idea of public responsibility, in its absolutes, contrasts sharply with what Martineau presents, for Wolin leaves no room for the outsider exception and focuses on responsibility within the group. Martineau, in describing group dynamics, exposes the dirty little secret (not so secret, really) that groups exclude. The 'frontier justice' of the Wild West, while sometimes defended as necessary in perilous times, often takes advantage of the desire to exclude at the expense of justice and even of democracy. The Internet, unfortunately, has not (and probably cannot, given its universal nature) taken to heart Wolin's 'commonplaces.' Nor has it found ways of dealing with the deliberately disruptive.

To make matters worse, a different sort of view of the world that has also become quite influential in shaping how we view the Internet, an expemptionalist view of the relationship between human beings and the world. Edward Wilson, biologist and environmentalist, describes it:

In this conception, our species exists apart from the natural world and holds dominion over it. We are exempt from the iron laws of ecology that bind other species. Few limits on human expansion exist that our special status and ingenuity cannot overcome.(Consilience, 278)

Here again, we see something that extends to the Web as well, which we sometimes see as a playground we act upon but that doesn't, in return, act upon us, that removes us, also, from responsibility for our actions 'there.' We believe, somehow, that, if it has no impact on us, it has no impact on anyone. This makes the renegade more bold and more effective, for there is little on the Web to rein him or her in. There is little individual responsibility and little group action that has more than the smallest meaning.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Creating, Communicating, and Selling

Kembrew McLeod, a communications professor at the University of Iowa and the media activist who once registered the phrase 'freedom of expression' as a trademark, describes, in his book Freedom of expression®: resistance and repression in the age of intellectual property, how a piece of Intellectual Property changes when it goes public, doing so through one of his own experiences:

I’ve had my own work, a documentary, excerpted and shown in a context that made me squirm, but I didn’t prevent it from happening. After all, I had already put it out into the world. Perhaps if someone took unpublished excerpts from my diary I would have objected, but works that have already been published are quite a different matter, both legally and ethically. (169)

Of course, the creator has complete power over an unpublished work but, once it is offered by the creator to the public (or used in a fashion affecting the public), the situation changes. McLeod lost some control over his work, clearly, but he still might have had legal recourse, should he have chosen to use it. His phrase, 'I didn't prevent it,' shows awareness of this possibility, and points to the fact that he, himself, sees 'ownership' in a greater framework of sharing, no matter the consequence to his own rights, and is not willing to see it as simply a means of protecting.

Similarly, in 1994, I offered my doctoral dissertation to a website dedicated to the work of its subject, the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick. A few years later, someone in Spain emailed me, asking permission to translate one chapter and publish it in a journal (Valis #10) there, permission that was granted. Some years later, I received an email from another person in Spain asking if I knew my entire dissertation had been translated and published as a book. I did not. After some exploration, I found that my permission had been somehow expanded, and without further consultation with me. I did finally manage to track down the highly embarrassed publisher and get a couple of free copies of the book, but I never asked for recompense or that publication be halted. Like McLeod, I probably had more recourse in law but, again like McLeod, I did not choose to pursue it. After all, the incident had worked in my favor, for it had led to a certain reputation in Spain, a good story, and even an invitation to contribute to a volume by another Spanish publisher.

In addition, I had believed, since first allowing my work to be posted on the Internet, that by offering the dissertation on the Web I was relinquishing a certain sense of ownership over it anyway; whatever happened after was beyond my control, so I might as well just sit back and watch. I had never expected money from the dissertation anyway, and was pleased that it gained readers rather than languishing forgotten, the fate of most dissertations.

Eventually, recognizing that no American publisher was likely to touch the dissertation, I added the chapter I had given that other Spanish publication and subtracted one that had appeared long ago in a book on Blade Runner (the film of one of Phil Dick's books), and published the thing myself. The book had changed from the dissertation I wrote in the 1980s, and not just because of the added and deleted chapters. Its nature was now different; expectations for it could never be the same.

The work was my creation, and I could have retained it as a possession, but I wanted it read, wanted to share it with the world. Though the website where I initially posted the dissertation has changed, and no longer offers such things, I suspect the dissertation can still be found, if one searches diligently. The book? Well, I offer it for sale, but would never go after anyone who offered an online version for free.

My most popular book, The Rise of the Blogosphere, can be found online for free and downloaded. I don't mind that, either (though my publisher probably does). I've rarely written simply for money, generally wanting the conversation more than the income. Why, then, don't I self-publish all of my books? For the simple reason that my publisher specializes in producing books that libraries, particularly college libraries, will want to own. I would not find this book in some thousand libraries if I published it myself.

I got an email today from someone who took issue with my post yesterday on David Brooks. I didn't see much room for discussion, given what he wrote, so didn't engage except briefly, which annoyed my correspondent. He wrote: “You're full of fun contradictions.... My favorite is that you took the topic of free, democratized, easily published social media and are selling it in book form for $50.” He seems to feel that subject and venue should be conflated (morally, at least), but that's not what interests me. What does is his clear feeling that selling my work is somehow unethical in the new age.

In a way, he's right. But he's also wrong. One presents work in different venues at different times and for different reasons. With Praeger Publishers, my work gets exposure it could not find otherwise. Plus, it is subject to an expensive editorial process as well as good printing and binding. Praeger also puts effort into promoting the books, bringing them to the attention of acquisition librarians. Selling the books makes all that possible.

Through publication with Praeger, also, I am able to advance my own career, for Praeger is an established academic publisher of long standing. I'd like to see other venues count for as much, but the digital age is young and that has yet to come (I'm working on helping that happen).

I've another book I published myself, one based on the letters my grandfather sent home during World War I that includes military documents I found in the National Archives, articles I gleaned from local papers in his Ohio hometown, and numerous other documents I dug up here and there. As history is not my field, as I did this out of love, I published it myself—and primarily for my family. I do offer it for sale to others, but see no harm in that: it took years or work, after all. Here again, though, if someone wanted to present it for download, I would not object.

It takes work to write a book, or to create anything else known today as Intellectual Property. As a result, there's a sense of ownership as we offer what we have created to the world—as we release at least a part of it from our control and ownership. The type of control retained really should be determined by the creator, from tight copyright vigilance to complete release into the commons. No creator should be criticized for the choices they make—and I say that even though I recognize that our acts of creation themselves aren't even ours alone, but are taken from myriad acts in the past.

Why should the creator have such control? Because the creator needs to have confidence that they can retain the control that helps them through the process of creation—which is an awful lot of work. The creator is sustained by dreams, and needs to have some idea that she or he can control the avenues to their realization.

It's as simple as that--though the questions of ownership implied are, of course, extremely complex and quickly evolving as we move further into the digital future.

Personally, I want as many different possibilities for publication and for profit as I can find. And I use many. I blog (which is free). I write book chapters that gain me no more than a free copy. I write articles I get paid for and others I don't. I publish books myself that return very little in the way of money. And my professional academic publisher pays me a royalty on the works of mine it publishes.

There's a breadth to publishing in the digital age that augers wonderful things for the future--though restrictive copyright does constrain things (especially with so-called "orphan works," but that's another story). I love that I have been able to participate in some of the expanded possibilities of the past decade, and I hope that I will be able to continue to do so.

I also hope that we will, one day, develop models that don't put so much of the onus for supporting creators on end-users... but that, for the moment, is little more than a pipe dream.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

David Brooks's Anosognosia

In his column today, David Brooks diagnoses Jared Lee Loughner:

He appeared to have a poor sense of his own illness (part of a condition known as anosognosia). He had increasingly frequent run-ins with the police. In short, the evidence before us suggests that Loughner was locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it.

Maybe so... but, Mr. Brooks, maybe you do, too... 'have a poor sense' of your own 'illness,' that is.

Parading oneself constantly as above the fray, as the adult in the room, as one of the few (in this case, you group yourself with Howard Kurtz, James Fallows, and Jonathan Chait) who really understands... this is nothing if not a sign that you, too, suffer from the divisive political illness of our time.

Claiming that:

contemporary punditry lives in the world of superficial tactics and interests. It is unprepared when an event opens the door to a deeper realm of disorder, cruelty and horror.

you assume that you, yourself, could never be considered superficial, could never be called 'unprepared.' But you are. You just try to hide your disease under a cloak of reference—to a psychiatrist, in this case. But that does not change the fact: you are taking advantage of the Tucson killings for your own political advantage as much as anyone else.

To make your point, you twist things, even in this article, talking about 'suppressed evidence,' for example:

the early coverage and commentary of the Tucson massacre suppressed this evidence.

Your choice of words belies your pretense to 'objectivity': there was no suppression, and you know it. There was, instead, lack of information... and shock.

You claim:

The Huffington Post erupted

what is it, Mount Vesuvius?

After listing a few who have commented that the killings have arrived within a milieu of unparalleled violent rhetoric, you claim that Keith Olbermann, Markos Moulitsas and others are arguing that the killings are the fault of 'political actors.' You write:

These accusations... are extremely grave.... They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.

'Vicious charges'? With those words, rather than encouraging the type of debate and discussion you claim to want, you cut it off, characterizing what others have said unfairly and simplistically.

Trying to divert discussion from the great cultural problem that Giffords' shooting exemplifies (whether or not the shooter acted out of direct political motive, he and his action are still part of it), you write that:

We have a news media that is psychologically ill informed but politically inflamed, so it naturally leans toward political explanations.

Yet you, David Brooks, are part of that same news media, and suffer from that same illness—though your own anosognosia doesn't allow you to see it.

Update: Want to see how a real adult responds? Look at the column next to yours today, the one by Bob Herbert.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Will Hochman, a fine scholar and poet, has an offering on Inside Higher Ed today, a response to another poem published on the same venue last week.

As I am, for my age, new (or newly returned) to academia (I am only in my seventh year of full-time teaching in the US but will turn 60 this year), Hochman's poem struck me forcefully. It did so especially since, for all the problems, for all the having to learn to deal with bureaucracy and bureaucratic mind-set (I ran my own business for years before going into this new field), I love the teaching that I do and the scholarship I aspire to.

Though it may sound silly and naive in our grasping, cynical age, I have found a calling, and spend my days trying to discover new ways that will allow me to live up to its demands. Though I am sometimes desperately unhappy and frustrated, I would not give up on what I am attempting. The rewards and satisfactions, even along the way, are proving too great.

Hochman confirms for me that I am not the only one.

With slight trepidation, then, I clicked on the link to the poem that inspired Hochman's, this one by someone not willing to give a name to their authority.

Hochman ends with the line:

I am the academy.

Anonymous begins with the line:

Because the failures of a flawed system are not my personal failures.

Hochman understands that his profession stems from himself. There's no one to blame for failure, not even each other, but each of us ourselves personally and only. That's the essence of professionalism.

Anonymous shoulders nothing but her or his rejection of an "academia" clearly not good enough. That's the essence of egoism.

It seems to me that Hochman is right to stay in academia and Anonymous to leave. It takes a strong ego to recognize the failings around one and within one but to continue to try and to improve. It takes real self-confidence to negotiate all the anger (one's own, and that of others) and to still return to the situation to try to find ways to improve. It takes stability and assurance to recognize that, though there are always others to blame, each of us must look, ultimately and only, to ourselves (as Jimmy Buffett sings, "It's my own damned fault"). Throwing the blame for one's own frustration onto others shows, to me, a lack of the real "stuff" of a professional. Lacking "stuff," or even finding oneself "burned out," one should leave.

I'm hoping I can teach for the rest of my life, or until physically unable to continue. As Hochman says:

Because knowledge is never ending and life is short, I do not waste time on self-pity

That's the essence of Hochman's quite real professional success. I hope I can emulate it.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

It's the Movement, Stupid

Like many, my television has been on almost constantly since yesterday afternoon, and Twitter is my constant companion (often giving me information more quickly than TV, and certainly pointing me to more varied and even more sophisticated viewpoints). My thoughts go out to the families of all of the victims, particularly of those who have died and of Congresswoman Giffords, whose fate remains unknown.

Surprising myself, while watching and reading, I have also been writing. In connection with work on my book Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children, I have been looking once more into Eric Hoffer's The True Believer. There, I found the following:

In pre-Hitler Germany it was often a tossup whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis. In the overcrowded pale of Carist Russia the simmering Jewish population was ripe both for revolution and Zionism.

Jared Lee Loughner is just such a 'restless youth,' and it makes no sense to throw blame on either right or left for his action.

The blame should go on all movements of 'true belief,' for it is the yearning for belief, for certainty, that attracts the Loughners.

Today, there are few such movements associated with the American left... but that doesn't mean there haven't been or won't be. Yes, it is the right, today, that is 'full of passionate intensity' (to steal from Yeats), but the dangers of the mass movement have no particular political bent.

But that doesn't mean there's no room for blame: The fault, if fault there be, of contemporary American conservative politicians lies in their coddling of mass movements founded on 'true belief'--going back as far as the John Birch Society. From the Moonies to the Tea Party, the Republicans have greeted them with open arms.

The Democrats, at least, look askance at such groups, distancing themselves from them as eagerly as the Republicans have embraced them.

That is the heart of the problem, as it pertains to American politics.

The Republicans, confident they can control the lunatics, try to make use of them as far as they can, believing that the 'true believers' will never take them over. And, in the current instance, they may be right: the Tea Party, now that it has been effectively used, is being cast aside.

But the Republicans play with fire, as the shooting in Tucson shows. Letting groups such as the Tea Party or other fringe elements within the party rile people up can have serious consequences.

"Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" Henry II (if he said this at all) may have been speaking rhetorically, not really wanting Thomas a Becket dead. But Becket died. The king, intentionally or not, was responsible.

The Republicans, with their rhetoric playing to 'true believer' audiences from the Tea Party to the successors of the Posse Comitas, are just as responsible for this attack as Henry II was for Becket.

Loughner's specific political beliefs aren't the question here. What's significant is that the right has fomented an atmosphere that encourages those such as he. The right abets movements of the sort that produces Loughners, something the left has not done for a long, long time.

On a final note: Having read a bit of what Loughner posted online, I was struck by another passage in Hoffer, one that also seems a description of Loughner:

Patriotism, racial solidarity, and even the preaching of revolution find a more ready response among people who see limitless opportunities spread out before them than among those who move within the fixed limits of a familiar, orderly and predictable pattern of existence.

It's sixty years since The True Believer first appeared. It's appalling how little we've learned, since.

Update:Paul Krugman makes a similar point to mine, and much better than I do.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Major John André and The Grand Illusion

Reading the chapter “The Traitor” in Ron Chernow's new Washington: A Life, I came across this, in a discussion of the fate of Major John André (the British spy caught with papers given him by Benedict Arnold):

In the eighteenth century soldiers often identified with their social peers on the other side of the conflict because they subscribed to the same code of class honor. André's youth and gallantry touched the imagination of Washington's officers. [Alexander] Hamilton visited André several times at the tavern in Tappan, New York, where he was held captive and left breathless with admiration. “To an excellent understanding, well improved by education and travel, [André] united a peculiar elegance of mind and manners and the advantage of a pleasing person,” he attested. (385)

All I could think of was Jean Renoir's seminal war movie, La grande illusion of 1937. It is about a war a century and a third more recent, but Chernow's description evoked memories of the discussion between the French Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and his German captor Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) about the destruction of just the sort of grand illusion that André and Hamilton bought into.

 (de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein)

André ended up hanged as a spy, over the opposition of many of Washington's young officers, who believed he should be afforded the dignity of a firing squad. De Boeldieu died atop a building, shot while he diverted attention from the escape of two other French prisoners—the type of 'honorable' death that a soldier of André's sort would aspire to, must he die.

One of the reasons The Grand Illusion remains such an important movie is that it contains an abundance of allusions, of discussions, of culture. Of tragedy and humor. Of human failure and foolishness. Oh human dignity and honor. It brings to life the nuance of existence, allowing viewers to plumb depths of being they might otherwise assume are just shallow puddles.

In a way, Chernow's book is doing something similar for me, so the fact that it brought the film to my mind is not surprising. Though I am only halfway through, I am seeing the times of George Washington with a greater sense of the people (at least, of the people in leadership roles) than I would have thought possible—even more so than in Chernow's earlier Alexander Hamilton.

To me, connections like this one, or connections between what we see or read and our own lives or lives we have observed, are the heart making the arts real and alive.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

What's in a Word, an Author? A Creator?

The New York Times, in its "Room for Debate" series, has a "discussion" on the deletion of the words "nigger" and "injun" in a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, replacing them with "slave" and "Indian."  The question The Times asks, "Is there never any justification for altering a classic?" seems rather jejune: we alter classics all the time.  Not only that, it avoids the question, just what is a classic anyway (though one of the discussants does say that the book is just as well not read).

Each time we use Van Gogh's "Starry Night" for a screen-saver, we are altering it.  When Michael Steele says his favorite book is War and Peace then misquotes (as though they come from Tolstoy) the first lines of A Tale of Two Cities, he has altered two classics.

One of my favorite alterations of a classic is Marcel Duchamp's, of a postcard of the Mona Lisa.  An alteration of an alteration:

What's important here is that Duchamp never claimed his changed postcard as the Mona Lisa.

Sure.  Change Huck Finn all you want--after all, it is in the public domain.

Just don't call it Mark Twain's Huck Finn.  Follow Duchamp's example.

In this case, make it The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Alan Gribben, the man who suggested the changes.

As to whether or not one should use the unsavory words themselves, see that Times discussion and decide for yourself.

As to what's a classic... well, the World Series is sometimes called the "fall classic," and that's classics enough for me.

Update: For a good discussion of the implications of the change, check out this post on Daily Kos.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Swan Song of N. Leroy Gingrich

May the ghost of T. S. Eliot forgive me.

Let us go then, you and I,
Before Right politics passes both of us by
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain Washington streets,
The lobbyists' retreats
And chicken dinners in one-night swank hotels
And taking time for whatever sells
Lobbyists that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
Oh, do not ask, ``Why is it? '
Let's take the money and make our visit.

In the room, that Palin comes and goes
Talking at everyone, ya know.

The yellow foe in the White House brings me pains
The yellow foe who sits and smiles and gives me pains
Licks his tongue and smiles so elitely of an evening.
Lingers in his office and stands tall, he claims.
Lets fall off his back the attacks from his enemies.
Slips by the terrorists, makes the nation cheap,
And losing on that grand November night,
Spurred the Senate and the House, and made me weep.

And indeed there will be time
To beat the yellow cur with our tea-party street,
Making sure he feels their imagined pains;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to beat the faces that I meet;
There will be time to lie and to create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a donation on your plate;
Time for me and time for me.
And time yet for a hundred new decisions,
And for cynical visions and revisions,
Before taking back the White House—for me.

In the room, that Palin comes and goes
Talking at everyone, ya know.

And indeed there will be time
To pander, ``Do I care?'' and, ``Do I care?''
Time to turn back and ascend the stair,
With no bald spot in the middle of my hair--
[They'll not say: ``How his hair is growing thin!'']
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--
[They won't say: ``But how his arms and legs are thin!'']
Do I care
I deserve the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and campaigns which nothing will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the fights in small backrooms,
I have measured out my life with others' tombs;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So shouldn't I presume?

And I have known the ayes already, known them all--
The ayes that back me with a formulated phrase,
And when foes are formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When they are pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of their days and ways?
And shouldn't I presume?

And I have known three wives already, known them all--
And aides that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Aides that lie along a table, wrapped only in a shawl.
And shouldn't I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Shall I boast, I have paraded through narrow streets
Watched by crowds that rise from the hype
Of wealthy men in shirt-sleeves, lying through their windows? . . .

I'm glad I'm not a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And the populace, the voters, sleep so peacefully!
Soothed by right-wingers,
Asleep. . . lied to . . . by paid-off singers,
Stretched on the floor, here below you and me.
Should I, after Sarah and Tim and Mitt,
Have the strength to grab it and make the hit?
But though I've never wept nor fasted, wept nor prayed,
Though I'll see Mike's head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am the prophet--and here's my great matter;
I once saw the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And, coming back, I'm not afraid.

And it would have been worth it, after all,
After caucuses, the primaries, the C,
Among the delegates, among some talk of me and me,
It would have been worth while,
To have added to the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the competition to a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: `` I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all''--
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: ``That's the way to win it all.
That is it, go for all.''

And it would have been worth it, after all,
It would have been worth while,
After the conventions and campaigns and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teaching, after the skirts that trail along the floor--
And this, and so much more?--
It is possible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
It would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow, or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
``That's the way to win it all,
That is just what I meant, get all.''

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am a successful lord, one that will do
All to make progress, will tell a lie or two,
Be above the prince; no doubt, made tool,
Presidential, K Street cash to use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At no time, indeed, seen as ridiculous--
Never, at times, the Fool.

I grow bold . . . I grow bold . . .
The money in my trousers is rolled.

Shall I pat an aide's behind? She seems such peach?
I shall wear a president's blazer, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the lobbyists singing, each to each.

I do now think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them waving cash wads on the waves
Combing their white hair over bald spots in the back
When their whim blows donations white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the banks
By donors wreathed with checkbooks red and brown
Till human voters wake us, and we drown.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Adding Value?

OK, I'm confused. All these people keep talking about 'value added' as a means of rating teachers. If a teacher is shown to improve student test scores more than the average teacher does, there is added value in that teacher's classroom. I'll buy that, though with reservations. Implied is the notion that there's real value in raising scores on standardized tests, something I'm not sure of (performance on such tests generally only indicates how well one will perform on that test—not always how much one knows or has learned). What I don't understand is what the people so excited about 'value added' plan on doing with their 'information.'

All I see (and the fault may be in my vision, I admit) is a desire to use 'value added' to get rid of bad teachers and replace them with good ones.

What I don't see is where the good ones are supposed to come from.

At least, I don't see the 'value added' people talking about renewed emphasis on teacher training, on mentoring, or on other programs that can produce good teachers—and improve the 'bad' ones. It's as though they assume there are plenty of good teachers waiting in the wings. Sure, they point to things like Michelle Rhee's New Teacher Project and Teach for America, but what do these things do? Do they really train teachers, or do they assume that teaching is something anyone can just do, given a little bit of preparation?

The latter, it seems to me.

The New Teacher Project claims, “We specialize in developing alternate route teachers by leveraging their existing content expertise and life experiences while grounding them in rigorous, standards-based instructional practices.” To me, that reads, “We bypass teacher training with the excuse that knowledge in a field and having lived a few years is sufficient when concentration is on teaching to the test.”

That's not what we need.

Diane Ravitch tweeted yesterday, “Can't improve education if teachers have less education and less experience.” She's absolutely right.

Yes, there are times, when situations are dire, when no trained teachers are available, when alternatives need to be used. They are not, however, adequate as replacements for careful and considered training over time—on-the-job training will never really be enough (and I say that as one who had to learn on-the-job). Teaching requires study, and that is best done before one begins teaching.

Compound that with the fact that our teachers are leaving the field almost as soon as they enter it, for the most part, few making it their career. Most are leaving within the first five years.

If you are not making teaching your career, but expect you might be leaving the field as soon as something else comes along, you won't be putting into it the kind of effort that makes a good teacher.

The real 'value added' in education will only come through teacher education and teacher experience, with a support system encouraging both the learning (continuing even after initial teacher training) and the staying.

Which is why I am confused. Why are we talking about 'value added' in terms of students, when what we really should be focusing on is adding value to teachers—through providing better training and the support that will encourage them to stay in the field.

It must be, then, that the 'value added' people are actually interested in something else....

Which is why I am confused. What, exactly, could their real agenda be?

Certainly, it is not improved education.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Now, That's Entertainment!

Last week, I took my nephew to see The Flying Karamazov Brothers. My wife chose it and hustled us out the door; I did not know what to expect.

One thing I gnaw at is the concept “entertainer” (bear with me as I back up). Looking at early talkies, I see that sound films were a resounding success in part because there was a stock of entertainers available—vaudevillians whose venues had already shrunk because of the (also resounding) success of movies as a whole. These vaudevillians weren't just dancers, or singers, or comedians, or tragedians, though their skills generally encompassed one or more: their primary art lay in the interaction between those on stage and those in the audience. They knew how to keep people amused.

And that is an art, as much an art as that of the novelist or sculptor.

Last night, Turner Classic Movies ran a number of Marx Brothers films back-to-back, including Animal Crackers. Soon after Groucho's Captain Spaulding appears, he performs a series of body motions—very funny and extremely graceful—that clearly had been created in front of a mirror and perfected before audiences. Having toured the Vaudeville circuit ad nauseam before moving to Broadway (their shows there providing the material for their early movies), the brothers had long since turned farce to art. Harpo didn't just play at the harp, but played it, often calling professional concert harpist Mildred Dilling on the telephone for advice. The harp was just one aspect of a theatrical whole—an entertainment whole—but Harpo took it seriously. Just as he and his brothers did with every little piece of their act.

Settled into our seats, staring at stacks of cardboard boxes almost completely covering the stage, my nephew and I opened our copies of Playbill. I turned to the “Program Note,” which said it was by Paul Magid, “Director/Founder.” As I read, I perked up:

From the beginning... I have felt that what we were doing was a theatrical experiment. I had started by acting in Shakespearan plays and it was through his example (theatre guy, funny guy, serious guy, guy who does whatever it takes guy) that I formed the idea of the “Theatre of Everything.”... It has often been said that theatre is the queen of all the arts as it encompasses architecture, music, dance, poetry, acting, fashion, painting, pandering.

Ah! Someone who understands that performing is an art, an art encompassing quite a number of other arts, but an art in and of itself! This should be good, thought I.

And it was. Magid, as Dmitri, leads a team of four Karamazovs who take the art of juggling and incorporate it into the art of performing—also including in the entertainment the arts of comedy and music. Their skills in juggling and in music (Mark Ettinger, who plays Alexi, has quite the musical career, as do some of the others in the company), however great they may be, take second place to their broader art as entertainers. Unlike tap-dancer Savion Glover who, last time I saw him (just last year) actually tapped with his back to the audience at times, and pointed to his feet to draw audience attention to them to the exclusion of everything else, the Karamazovs understand that performing, at its best, includes everything on stage, and not just a particular skill or art. Glover is a brilliant artist—as a tap dancer. Magid and his troop are also brilliant artists, but (though they may be brilliant jugglers and musicians and comedians) their real art is entertainment.

Fred Astaire changed dance, first on Broadway and then in the movies, not so much because he was the best possible dancer but because he understood that his dancing worked best when incorporated into something that made use of the entire stage—and of the entire performer. Dance remained an important part of what he was doing, but only a part.

Sometimes, as Glover does, when we think of “art,” we want to strip “entertainment” away from it, concentrating on the thing in itself, on the particular skill. We even reach the point where we look down on the greater whole, especially if it includes entertainment. Salvador Dali still brings slight pursed lips to connoisseur faces, for he encapsulated his visual art in entertainment; Liberace, even had he been a better pianist than he was (and he was no slouch), would never be considered a 'serious' artist—he was too much the entertainer. Stephen King, perhaps the greatest novelist in English since Charles Dickens, is not much studied—he's too much the storyteller, the entertainer.

We've really got it backwards. Instead of seeing entertainment as the lowest art, we should consider it the highest. After all, the entertainer has to do everything the 'artiste' does, but more. A real artist of entertainment has to be master of at least two skills, entertainment and something to build it around. Most of the best of entertainers have at least passing familiarity with even more.

An entertainer isn't a ham masking slight skills with buffoonery but is someone who first focuses on making the audience pay attention and enjoy, wrapping that around another substantial skill and talent (be that juggling, or dancing, or musical virtuosity).

Magid should be better known than he is. He doesn't even have his own entry on Wikipedia (though the Flying Karamazov Brothers company does). Like Groucho (to whom there's a sly tribute in the act), like Astaire, he understands what it means to entertain. Like them, he does it well.

My nephew and I left the Minetta Lane Theatre completely satisfied, I nearing sixty, he approaching eleven. Entertainers who can reach us both are not simply doing their job, but are showing real art.