Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Silly Season Upon Us?

Update: Yes, I was wrong about Weiner, and owe McCain an apology.  So, here it is: Robert Stacy McCain, you were right and I was wrong.  I will leave this post here just to remind myself that I can be just as wrong as anyone.

The supposed "scandal" related to Representative Anthony Weiner's Twitter account is allowing this rather outspoken congressperson's many enemies to try to give legs to something that fell apart almost as soon as it was attempted.  This is where our politics has returned, to its low point in the early days of the Republic when the purpose was to trash, not to convince.

No one was fooled by this silly attempt to tar Weiner, not even his political enemies.  Yet they are still trying to use it to tarnish his reputation.

Robert Stacy McCain, writing in The American Spectator, works very hard today to turn the malicious hoax into a scandal, but can't manage it without undercutting himself in his second paragraph, where he writes:
That Tweet (as Twitter messages are called) was potentially visible to the more than 40,000 people who follow Weiner's Twitter feed, including his political enemies, who immediately interpreted this shocking message as evidence that the liberal Democrat was up to online hanky-panky.
Nobody is going to send a sexually suggestive picture to 40,000 people in the hopes of seducing a specific one of them.  Weiner says his account was hacked--well, something certainly happened, and that something clearly did not originate with him.  Even were he a sexual predator, he would not have sent out that photo that way (plus--which McCain fails to mention--the picture did not come from the device Weiner uses).

McCain stokes the flames of his "scandal" by hinting that Weiner uses his Twitter account to communicate with potential sex mates:
 While Weiner is followed by tens of thousands of Twitter users, he follows fewer than 200 accounts himself, among which... [are] a number of young women of no particular political interest. Which may be significant, considering that Twitter DMs can only be sent between users who are mutually following each other's feeds.
Oh, please.

The kicker is that McCain is willing to accept Andrew Breitbart, he of constant attempt at manipulating the news media by presenting doctored stories, as a legitimate journalist.  He even quotes Breitbart:
"We are simply reporting the facts."
This isn't a scandal any more than Breitbart is a journalist.

Or, if it is a scandal, the scandal lies in the fact that people like Breitbart (and his henchman James O'Keefe) can so easily fool so many into taking nonsense seriously.

Monday, May 30, 2011

"All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter"

That's from The Lord of the Rings.  But it may also be a warning for those who believe that gold will protect them in 'the coming collapse.'

Someone named Lowell Nelson of a libertarian organization called "Campaign for Liberty" is quoted in today's The New York Times as saying:
we here in Utah ought to be able to establish a monetary system that would survive a crash if and when that happens.
He, and all of those others hoarding gold and silver against hard times make the assumption that gold and silver have intrinsic value, that there will be demand for the metals, no matter what happens.

What they don't seem to understand is that, just like paper currency, gold and silver (as currency) act as markers, as stand-ins for the value of something else, as a convenient way of representing wealth, not really as the wealth itself.  The value of gold and silver is societal, established through mutual need, not intrinsic.

Real wealth produces something, expanding one's possessions.  It works for its owner.  A cow does that.  Arable land does that.  So does a coal mine or an oil well.

If Nelson really wants to survive a crash, he might want to stockpile the devices of sustainability.  Passive-solar panels, for example.  Or stockpile the materials for making glass, and the necessary equipment--while learning how to use it.  Or seeds, if they can be stored adequately.  These are the things that really glitter.

Better still, work to avoid the crash but helping strengthen the social fabric and the networks that we have used to support each other and to create our wealth as a whole...

Oops.  I forgot: Nelson is a libertarian.  He did it all by himself.  He doesn't need the support of society, of a trade system, for example, represented by gold, a marker whose value is the result of common agreement...

Oops.  Not quite a libertarian concept, that.

Maybe he'd better spend a little time re-examining his beliefs.  Either that, or get rid of his gold.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lies, Damned Lies, and Ourselves

The interlocking stories of Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe, right-wing agitators who came to prominence during the first years of Obama's presidency, show how a little expertise with the Web along with video editing can be used effectively when regard for truth is cast aside.  They also show how the intoxication of power (or the perception of having power through the ability to destroy) allows one to wield it without any indication of understanding of  broader contexts or even of the implications of the actions. The two manipulate  for ends no broader than those of a frog whose world is limited to the fast-moving and vulnerable.  They have no idea how much, also, that they illustrate the maxim (#119) of François de la Rochefoucauld, “We spend so much time deceiving others that we end by deceiving ourselves.

Breitbart is trying it again this weekend (Update: Breitbart had this one right--and the screenshots I mention were not doctored), attacking a U.S. Congressman through what are apparently doctored screenshots.  So, I thought I respond by posting this, a piece I wrote for inclusion in another essay, but that I didn't use.  Maybe it can provide a recap of the background leading to this current nonsense.

Though Breitbart had been a prominent political activist for some time, his first big splash came when he featured a “report” by O'Keefe and partner Hannah Giles for the launch of his biggovernment.com. The report, which seemed to show employees of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) giving business advice to a prostitute and her pimp (on things like evading taxes and managing child prostitution), helped destroy ACORN, though the tapes were later determined to have been highly and selectively edited to show ACORN in the worst possible light. Most famously, O'Keefe was shown on the street dressed in an imaginative get-up suggestive of an African-American street hustler from a 1970s blaxploitation movie (though O'Keefe is white)—a costume he would wear on television to promote his story—though he actually visited ACORN offices in much more standard garb.

Writing in The Columbia Journalism Review in the immediate aftermath, Alexandra Fenwick connected this staged event to the then-recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and video clips that had immediately appeared on various cable and broadcast channels—discussed by Mark Bowden in the then-current issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Fenwick writes, “The videos weren’t unearthed by enterprising journalists at Fox News or CNN. And they weren’t broken by CBS or ABC, either—although all four aired the incendiary clips, almost simultaneously. In fact, the videos were dug up by two conservative bloggers to serve a singular political purpose: sink Sotomayor.” But Bowden made a distinction between the tapes of Sotomayor and their sources. He tacitly accepted the value of the tapes and discounted the motivation of those who produced them and offered them to the public: “What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery. The very smart and capable young men (more on them in a moment) who actually dug up and initially posted the Sotomayor clips both originally described themselves to me as part-time, or aspiring, journalists.” Bowden, however, showed his own lack of understanding of the systems we operate within today by falling into the trap of accepting the validity of video in a way he never would of print—of of the dangers of a multimedia information milieu where print, rather than anchoring the verification process, becomes only one of a panoply of possible sources of information and verification. He was unable to see beyond the confines of an older system.  He couldn't see the con--which is exactly what the likes of Breitbart and O'Keefe count on.

This belief in the visual as proof is itself an old problem, admittedly, compounded by the vagaries of memory that anyone ever involved with eye-witness accounts of auto accidents can certainly understand. What we see, and what we remember seeing, is also selective in ways beyond those analogous to the selective sensitivities of a frog, though we do continue to be certain of our memories. When video becomes involved, something of the same reliance on limited senses that a frog must accept follows: we saw the tape (or the picture, or the screenshot), and therefore accept its veracity—and it a way we never would, with the written word, which now falls within, rather than at the edges of, our understanding.

There's a certain irony, here. One of the hallmarks of literacy culture has been a reliance on the truth of the written word. 'If it's in the newspaper,' many have felt, and some continue to feel, 'it must be true.' 'I read it in a book,' therefore, it can be relied upon as fact. At the same time, we have learned enough about the process of writing—and the manner of fiction—to realize that words can be manipulated to make things look true even though they are not. 'Seeing is believing,' however, has not yet reached that same level of doubt.  Breitbart and O'Keefe know this, and make it the center of their political scams.

The success of the ACORN “exposee” led Breitbart and O'Keefe to attempt others of a similar nature, with varying success. One, an excerpt from a speech given by Shirley Sherrod, an official with the United States Department of Agriculture, led to her forced resignation and a subsequent apologetic telephone call from the White House once it was shown that the clip completely misrepresented the point that Sherrod had been trying to make.

In the meantime, O'Keefe had managed to get himself arrested, having attempted to enter the offices of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu disguised as a telephone repairperson. U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr., in referring the case back to a magistrate, wrote, “Deception is alleged to have been used by the defendants to achieve their purposes which in and of itself is unconscionable. Perceived righteousness of a cause does not justify nefarious and potentially dangerous actions.”

Since then, the adventures of O'Keefe and Breitbart have continued, Breitbart trying to destroy the lives of a couple of college professors in Missouri and to taint Congressman Anthony Weiner with sex allegations while O'Keefe has taken on New Jersey teachers and National Public Radio as well as making a fool of himself trying to entrap a CNN anchor in a sex scam.

This continuing travesty isn't completely the fault of Breitbart and O'Keefe, however.  All of us, as de Rochefoucault might have gone on to claim, deceive ourselves... and any good con's success  rests on the willingness of the victim to be fooled.  As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer:
The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients.
Breitbart and O'Keefe are playing to their own choir of believers, of those who already believe the worst of liberals, progressives, and the rest of the left.  So, though we will (and should) rejoice as Breitbart and O'Keefe start their inevitable slide into ignominy,  the problem they represent will not have been resolved.  That won't happen until the hatred, the desire to believe the worst, is somehow dissipated.

And that won't happen until we on the left start working to understand the right, listening to them, not making fun of them, and not (not right away, at least) trying to convince them of their errors.  Then we can start helping them lead themselves to understand the truths of the world--from Obama's birth to the nature of our reliance, as a culture, on our governments and the social networks they provide.

Breitbart and O'Keefe are nothing but opportunists.  As such, they aren't really the enemy.

In fact, there is no enemy, just people like us, but who fool themselves even more than we do.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

When A Dollar's Not a Dollar

Gail Collins tells David Brooks, "You’re famous for your sanity," but famous with whom?  And for what examples of sanity?  OK, unlike that other conservative intellectual poseur, Newt Gingrich, Brooks is not cast as a 'bomb thrower,' but the distinction makes him sane?


Earlier in The Times "The Conversation" column where Collins makes her comment, Brooks says:
The average American, earning the median salary, pays about $150,000 into Medicare over the course of their career. They get back somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,00 to $450,000 in benefits. Their grandchildren are involuntarily footing a huge portion of that gap.
Gee!  Presto!  Don't watch what I am doing, just go to the "bottom line."  If Brooks is sane, he knows what he is doing here, and that it is extremely deceitful--dishonest, actually.

When I started working in 1967, the minimum wage was $1.25 an hour.  Today, I make a great deal more than that, but that dollar-and-a-quarter was also much more than it is today.  When we'd go for coffee, the older members of the crew would complain that the price had doubled: from a nickel to a dime.  The point is, that $150,000 I will have contributed to Medicare is actually quite a bit more than $150,000, were I contributing it today.

Not only has there been inflation, but the compound interest on my contribution over the past 44 years would have well over doubled the total by now.  As I am not through working, not by any means (I hope to go for at least another decade), it is likely that I will have contributed the equivalent of that $450,000 of Brooks by the time I stop.

And then there's the question of "average" and "median."  When people think of "average," they generally think of the "mean," not the "median."  The median, with as many people above as below, is quite a bit different from the mean, which is determined, in this case, by the total number of people divided into the total amount earned.  Any time someone says "average" and then switches to "median," someone is trying to hide something, for that person certainly understands that, popularly, "average" indicates "mean."

It may be that we need additional funding for Medicare, but that's easily found: tax the wealthy.  They can afford to help subsidize societal stability--in fact, doing so is in their best interest.

If Medicare reform is needed (and it probably is), we can do that, too.  But the question needs to be kept distinct from the question of funding.  And reform should not entail reduction in service.  We need that service if we are going to maintain our status as the greatest country in the world.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Press Release on One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo

City Tech’s Aaron Barlow Marks 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps With New Book Focused on Volunteers’ Experiences in Africa

Brooklyn, NY -- May 18, 2011 -- The Peace Corps is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and Aaron Barlow, assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology (City Tech), is providing the perfect gift. He has edited One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories, Volume One-Africa (Travelers' Tales/Solas House, $18.95), a hand-picked collection of 76 essays by Peace Corps volunteers from 31 countries in Africa.

Although not an official publication of the Peace Corps, the book is the first of its kind to provide an overview of 50 years of Peace Corps service. The book just took the silver award for travel essays in the 2011 Independent Publisher (IP) Book Awards. The "IPPY" Awards, launched in 1996, are designed to bring increased recognition to “the deserving but often unsung titles published by independent authors and publishers,” the organization’s website proclaims.

The title of Barlow’s book, One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, is based on a proverb in Ewe, one of the languages spoken in Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and Togo. The meaning is universal: “Many hands make light work,” “There is strength in unity” or “It takes a village.” In Africa, trying to hunt a water buffalo, which may be even more dangerous than a lion or elephant, takes more than one individual.

Professor Barlow, who has been teaching at City Tech since 2006, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo from 1988 through 1990. The book is a labor of love; as a senior Fulbright lecturer in American studies, he taught in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, before moving to Tambaong in rural northern Togo to help villagers learn to farm with ox-drawn ploughs.

“Wanting to know more about the wider culture, I got to know Peace Corps volunteers, allowing them to stay in my house in the city so that I could stay with them in their villages,” explains Professor Barlow. “I became more interested in what they were doing and learning, especially in relation to rural African cultures.”

The Marine Park, Brooklyn resident contributed his own essay to the book. "Elephant Morning" describes his near-fatal and puzzling encounter with an elephant bent on destroying his radio and camera equipment. Other stories in the collection range from amusing to wrenching, presenting a diverse spectrum of volunteers’ experiences, much like the stories many Americans have heard from friends and family members returning from Peace Corps service.

“Your Parents Visited You in Africa?” was written by a young woman volunteering in Ethiopia, who saw another volunteer killed by a car. Back home in the U.S., she realized she was glad that her parents had not visited her during her stay in Africa. Says Professor Barlow, “This story encapsulates so much of the Peace Corps experience -- the emotional distance from families who will never understand the experience, and the sudden death that is always a disquieting potential.” In contrast, Thor Hanson's "Bury My Shorts at Chamborro Gorge" is a humorous take on the intestinal problems that are part of life as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“Together, these stories present a picture as true to the Peace Corps experience in Africa as I could make it,” says Professor Barlow. “I did it because of what my own experience means to me.”

The three subsequent volumes in the series, which will be published over the next few months, are: Gather the Fruit One by One, Volume Two-The Americas (Ed. Barnie and Pat Alter), A Small Key Opens Big Doors, Volume Three-The Heart of Eurasia (Ed. Jay Chen), and Even the Smallest Crab Has Teeth, Volume Four-Asia and the Pacific (Ed. Jane Albritton).

Professor Barlow is also the author of The Rise of the Blogosphere, The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, and Technology, and last year’s Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes. He already is thinking of editing another book – a collection of stories written by Africans about their experiences with Peace Corps volunteers.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Along Came Newt

Newt Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler writes
But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead those who won’t be intimated by the political elite and are ready to take on the challenges America faces.
Along Came Newt
(with sincerest apologies to Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and the members of the Coasters)

I plopped down in my easy chair and turned on Channel 3
A bad gunslinger called Bawdy Bill was chasin' our free country
He trapped her up on Capital Hill and said with an evil laugh,
"If you don't give me all of your cash
I'll saw you all in half!"
And then he grabbed her (and then)
He taxed her up (and then)
He turned up the welfare state (and then, and then...!)

[Chorus:]
And then along came Newt
Plump, rolly Newt
Bomb-throwin' Newt
Fast-talkin' Newt
Along came small, mean, cranky Newt.

Commercial came on, so I got up to get myself a snack
You should've seen what was goin' on by the time that I got back
Down in the old revenue lines, the people was havin' fits
Bad Barack said, "Give me the money you got
And we'll see how sharia fits!"
And then he grabbed us (and then)
He tied us up (and then)
He took away our health-care rights (and then, and then...!)

[Chorus]
I got so bugged I turned it off and turned on another show
But there was the same old shoot-'em-up and the same old rodeo
Barack was tryin' to stuff our cash in a burlap sack
He said, "If you don't let me tax you to death
I'm gonna throw you on the railroad tracks!"
And then he grabbed us (and then)
He tied us up (and then)
He threw us on the railroad tracks (and then)
A train started comin' (and then, and then...!)

[Chorus]

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dreaming Bob Dylan

When I read this, I had to laugh:
Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them.
Made me remember this:
Well, lookit here buddy
You want to be like me
Pull out your six-shooter
And rob every bank you can see
Tell the judge I said it was all right
Yes!
Advice from the fount... well, you never know!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Gingrich Delusion

The irony of Newt Gingrich's run for President doesn't lie in the fact that he has about as much chance of success as Donald Trump (that is, none at all), but that he continues to justify himself through an undergraduate--even adolescent--view of history.  That he styles himself an intellectual and sports a PhD in history makes this rich.

Gingrich mistakes pattern for truth, and misunderstands "pattern" itself as applied to intellectual studies.  A pattern of any sort exists in part because we notice it.  That is, it is part of us as much as it is part of whatever we are studying.  As we are subjective beings and have contributed to the pattern, we had best be suspicious of any claims of its objectivity; we had best remove from our minds the possibility of full objectivity for the pattern.

Also, a pattern is not predictive unless it can be tested and the test reproduced--something not possible with history (the scientific method gets its name for a reason).  Identification of pattern can be useful to study in the humanities, but that utility is limited.  Any real historian--any real intellectual, for that matter--knows this.

Matt Bai, writing in The New York Times, observes that "Gingrich is a devotee of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who meditated on the concept of 'departure and return' — the idea that great leaders have to leave (or be banished from) their kingdoms before they can better themselves and return as conquering heroes."  This may have been the pattern for some--apparently Gingrich points to Charles de Gaulle and Ronald Reagan as exemplars--but it is not the pattern for all.  In fact, there is no pattern (or, perhaps, multiple patterns) for the evolution of great leaders.  Some grasp for the chance, some have it thrust on them; some work to develop the skills, others seem to come by them naturally.  Some seem to achieve through a steady progress, others by happenstance. 

Unlike a real historian, who constantly tries to pare away her own or his own biases through study, Gingrich attempts to use knowledge of the facts of  history and the patterns he perceives in them for personal justification.  His motivations have never been intellectual but political and personal.  That's why he has never been taken seriously as an historian. 

It is also one more reason why he will never be president: He has let belief and desire trump knowledge, has placed a pattern of his own creation over the realities of the past.  Though he has been quite successful over the past thirty years, he remains a naive and immature man--not someone who can craft a successful campaign for the White House.

He'll not likely prove a great leader anywhere but in his own mind.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hidden Peace Corps

Please don't get me wrong: I love Peace Corps.  I think it provides something to the Volunteers and to the world--and to the United States, specifically--that little else ever can.

But that doesn't mean it is perfect.  Far from it.

In addition, like almost any organization, Peace Corps has spent time trying to protect its image that could better be spent in trying the improve Peace Corps itself. 

The penchant to focus on the positive is one reason that series editor Jane Albritton wanted to keep the four-book series that the book I edited, One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, is a part of at a slight remove from official Peace Corps.  She wanted, and I agree completely, to be able to approach the entire experience with honesty.  As a result, our books provide what I believe is a much more complete picture of the Peace Corps experience than will be found in anything directly connected with the organization itself.

It's completely understandable that Peace Corps wants to keep its public image pure.  When I was a Volunteer, we often spoke of 'Mama Peace Corps,' for it also tried its best to keep us from harm--something impossible when many of us (including me) lived days away from the Peace Corps office.  We hated the rules imposed on us, but these, too, were understandable.  Many Volunteers do live in dangerous situations and participate in dangerous activities.

Where, it seems, Peace Corps has fallen down is in responding to certain types of incidents experienced by Volunteers--especially sexual attack and rape.  Perhaps the organization has let the pendulum move too far towards protecting its image instead of first protecting its Volunteers.  I don't know what happened, but something clearly did--something clearly stopped working, leaving the Volunteers unsupported, an experience that should be alien to that of the Volunteer.

No matter how much it might want to, Peace Corps can't hide the fact that bad things do happen to Volunteers.  Though the experience is sometimes joked about as a two-year vacation, it is nothing like that, but is often quite rough.  Finding that Peace Corps has attempted to sweep under the rug at least one aspect of real and severe violence against Volunteers is disturbing.

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams says, according to the Times article linked to above, that "the agency must modernize its procedures to 'make sure that we provide compassionate care' to crime victims."  He's absolutely right.  And I hope that happens now.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Discussing Education... Can We, Please?

In her latest post on her Education Week blog "Bridging Differences," Diane Ravitch writes:
I worry about the one-sided treatment of education issues... in the national media. The corporate reformers seem shocked when anyone questions their narrative. They see no downside to their dogmatic belief in closing schools and firing principals and teachers, nor to their dogmatic faith that higher test scores are the goal of education. They accuse critics of "defending the status quo," even though it is they who are the status quo, the champions of get-tough accountability. They don't understand that they might be wrong, that their critics deserve a hearing, and that disagreement is healthy. ...

For many years, I kept a clipping in my wallet, something that [Robert Maynard] Hutchins said. It was the last line of his obituary in
The New York Times (May 16, 1977). He said: "The only political dogma in America is that discussion leads to progress, that every man is entitled to his own opinions, and that we have to learn to live with those whose opinions differ from our own. After all, they may turn out to be right."
Those of us trying to protect and improve American education, but who are attempting this outside of the juggernaut of the new education establishment (dominated by those corporate reformers Ravitch refers to, catered to even by Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) end up constantly battling people who never even try to listen to points diverging from their own.  When I post on education (here, or on Daily Kos or ePluribus Media), I am often beset by people who deliberately mistake my opposition to the current mania for standardized testing as a disdain for standards and evaluation.  Or by people who insist that the problems with education stem from unions and from protection of "bad" teachers demanded by unions.  Or by people who tell me that "our" schools are worse now than they've ever been.

The "discussion" that ensues is no discussion at all, but a diversion.  Such people have already made their decisions about education, and are going to move forward, come hell or high water.  They just want me, and those like me, out of the way.

I wish they'd stop for awhile and talk.  If they insist on sticking to what I think are relatively peripheral issues, I'd like for them to explain to me just how test scores relate to real success of education in people's lives.  I'd like for them to show me, and not just through anecdotes, the "bad" teachers hiding behind union protection.  I'd like them to present an honest comparison between schools now and, say, fifty years ago (just after the end of the segregation era), showing exactly how American schools, taken as a whole, have regressed.

I'd like the chance to respond, to take them back to John Dewey's  "My Pedagogic Creed" and ask if he was, in some fundamental way, wrong in what he wrote there.  If he was not wrong, and life is not simply a factory, then why (I'd like to ask) are we making schools factory-like, with measurable products and results the goals rather than recognizing, with Dewey, "that to set up any end outside of education, as furnishing its goal and standard, is to deprive the educational process of much of its meaning and tends to make us rely upon false and external stimuli in dealing with the child."

If we start having real discussions (and move our conversations on education away from profit-motivated corporate movements--but that's tangential, here), maybe we really can improve our schools.  

If we don't, we won't.  And that, I fear, is just what the people Ravitch is talking about, who I am talking about, really want.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Tony Kushner, Honorary Degrees, and CUNY

Writing in The Times, Stanley Fish concludes about the flap over the Trustees of the City University of New York's refusal to confirm the decision of John Jay College to give playwright Tony Kushner an honorary doctorate that:
this is not an academic, a moral, a philosophical or an educational moment; it is a moment of ceremony and self-presentation.
Well, not exactly.

Ceremony and self-presentation both contain within them moral, philosophical, and educational assumptions and even possibilities.

I can't quite figure out Fish's agenda, why he thinks this is, as he calls it, 'much ado about nothing.'

Any time a university starts to determine honorary degrees based on politics, something is out of order.  Of course, something is out of order in most universities, for politics do determine many honorary degrees (I wonder how many Bill Clinton has received), but there are times when the use of politics to block a degree is particularly egregious--and the Kushner incident is clearly one of these, as CUNY has belatedly recognized (the executive committee of the trustees will likely over-ride the denial tonight).

Fish is right, however, that this is not a question of academic freedom, but that doesn't make this incident any less important or potentially instructive.

Clyde Haberman, also writing in The Times notes that Kushner:
was to be honored as a giant of the American theater, they said; instead, he was punished because his politics did not meet the standards set by one trustee.
This is an extremely important point, and one that our academic institutions need to keep in mind: they are supposed to be expansive, not restrictive--something board chairman Benno Schmidt seems to have recognized, though a little belatedly.  The question may not be one of academic freedom, but it is certainly one of the place and responsibility of academic institutions in society--and as examples to the rest of us.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo Award

Series editor Jane Albritton just informed me that One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo has won the silver medal in the travel essay category of the 2011 Independent Book Publishers Awards.

Congratulations to all who contributed!


Prague 1968: Memory #4

This is the fourth piece in a series that will, I hope, cover the entire year of 1968 through my own experiences.  In this segment, I recount how I finally made it over the Czech/German border, a couple of weeks before the arrival of the Russian troops who displaced the power of the Dubcek regime.  I hope I am, finally, beginning to discover how to make at least a little personal sense of that most peculiar incident in that most peculiar year, and I hope I am doing it for others in these "memories."  The first piece can be found here.  The second here, the third here.

We waited, there on the bench, and waited.  After a time, I began to imagine that this fellow was right, that the Czechs were searching the entire area before letting us go.

We talked.  I smoked the last of those Russian cigarettes.  My companion refused to share in them--a non-smoker.  Not only that, but he was a Republican, a supporter of George Romney.  Though he knew that Nixon would likely win the nomination, he wanted to be listening.  Said we could, on Armed Forces Radio.  

"You have a radio?"

"Yes.  I listen to it all the time."  He pulled a small transistor receiver out of his coat pocket.  "I would turn it on now, but I don't want to insult the Czechs with our politics."

"I doubt it would bother them.  Turn it on."

He did.  It was already tuned to the American network.  A lot of noise and speeches.  He listened, rapt.  I didn't.  There was no way I was going to support the Republican candidate, or even the likely Democratic one, Hubert Humphrey.  My family had lived in Thailand a few years before, during the time of the first major escalation of American involvement in Vietnam, LBJ's 'Christmas bomdings.'  My school had doubled in size from an influx of American dependents pulled out soon after.  I'd learned a lot about the war and, even as an eighth-grader, had turned completely against it--and against the administration that included Humphrey as Vice President.

Instead of listening with him, I deliberately pulled the second of the two books I'd traded for from my pack.  Erich Fromm's The Sane Society.  I liked what I found there, so was quickly immersed--or pretended to be.

Looking back, I love the image: Two young Americans, one neat, combed, and looking like he could have come from any of the last decades, and the other in ragged jeans with hair heading down his back, part of a new (and fleeting) American phenomenon, sitting at a border station in country struggling against a communist ideology which, coupled with a Russian nationalism, had already failed them, one of them listening with keen attention to the self-congratulations of a political system itself under siege, the other seeking an alternative vision out of a book instead of in what he was seeing around him, both of them under serious eventual threat from the Selective Service System and the war it enabled.  Both of them, therefore, much more attentive to politics than they would have been a decade earlier or than they probably were, a decade later.


We sat there a long time.  As long as we were still, we were ignored.  If we got up and walked around, uniformed eyes followed us.


Were this not a blog post, where some bow to brevity is necessary, I would write in detail about that waiting, about the exhaustion brought on by hectic movement and hectic sitting, about the fear that lay close under the surface in each of us, sitting so close to the salvation on the other side of the border, yet so far from attaining it.  I would write about the resilience and stupidity of being sixteen, about the protection it throws around one's mind and the fears that, also, it packs in.   All of that, as Eliot might put it, and so much more.


As it is, I'll just say that they finally let us go, of course.


It must have been about four in the morning.  No light of dawn in the east, but it couldn't have been far away.


Suddenly, a man walked to us, our passports carelessly help to his side in one hand.  He tossed them at us: "Go."  He turned away.  Startled, we hardly knew what to do, but did manage to get to our feet and hustle towards Germany.


At the painted line marking the division of the countries, my companion stopped.  I turned and looked at him from the other side, puzzled and wanting to hurry away.  He stepped over the line with an exaggerated stride, bent down, kissed the ground and, as he was standing again, shouted, "Frei!"


The German border guards looked up, startled.  The Czechs just ignored him.


It wasn't hard to find the train station in the little German town nestled there against the border--but it was locked.  As we sat down outside to wait, light was beginning to appear in the east, and a man walked towards us from a side street.


He nodded to us, took out a key, and unlocked the station.  Shedding his coat, we saw he wore a railroad uniform.  Asking us a question once we were inside, he quickly learned, from our fuddled attempts at German, that we were Americans.


"So, where're you going?"  He asked in perfect English.  We looked at him in surprise.  "Oh, I spent a couple of years in your country, during the war."


After selling us tickets to Nuremburg--the train would appear shortly, he said--he sat with us in the waiting room and told us his story.  A low-level SS soldier, he'd been captured by the Americans in North Africa (I think he said) and had spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in South Carolina.  He told us stories about the camp and how much he'd enjoyed it, actually, until the train came.


When it did, my companion switched on his radio once more.  The balloting had just begun, and he wanted to listen.  In the train car, however, there was no reception to speak of.  He even tried holding the radio out the window, but could get nothing.


When we arrived in Nuremburg, he immediately switched it on again, almost before we'd stepped to the platform.  Nixon had just reached his magic number; he would be the Republican candidate that fall.


We split up, there at the station.  Me in search of the local youth hostel, he--well, I don't know where.


The hostel was closed.  German hostels were resolute in keeping 'guests' out during the day, believing they should be seeing the sights.  I would have to wait until evening to shower and to sleep.  So, I wandered around a bit, looking for others with long hair and backpacks.


The two I found were an Italian and an Englishman.  We pooled our ready cash and bought a liter bottle of vodka or gin (I don't remember which) and a small bottle of Canada Dry mixer (and I can't tell you why I remember the brand).  Sitting in the open park at the center of Nuremburg's castle, we proceeded to get plastered.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Prague, 1968: Memory #3


This is the third piece in a series that will, I hope, cover the entire year of 1968 through my own experiences.  In it, I recount how I finally made it to the Czech/German border, a couple of weeks before the arrival of the Russian troops who displaced the power of the Dubcek regime.  I hope I am, finally, beginning to discover how to make at least a little personal sense of that most peculiar incident in that most peculiar year, and I hope I am doing it for others in these "memories."  The first piece can be found here.  The second here.

Most of the traffic on the road, German plates and all, was headed into Cheb and away from the border. So, I walked, as usual. And walked. Later, I learned it was just a little less than twelve kilometers along that road from Cheb to Germany. I don't think I walked far enough to dry off, but I don't remember the wet after reaching the road—so I could have.
At any rate, I did walk for at least an hour. I had no watch, but I know I covered a great deal of ground, moving along the side of the road as it eased its way from the lights around the town through fields and then into woods. They were dark woods... well, any unknown woods would be, at night. And they brought back the fears of the afternoon on the train, when I'd imagined I was disappearing towards the Soviet Union. Now, the trees were getting bigger as I shrank.
For some reason, I imagine that the landscape got a little hillier as it grew more forested. Could be. Certainly, I tried to keep as far from the tarmac as I could, away from the lights coming towards me and out of the path of any coming from behind—not that there were any. A child of the times, I imagined the border through the movies I'd seen, not through my own experience, thinking of places like Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, then only a few years old anyhow, and of barbed wire and desperate attempts to escape. I brought images to my head of people mown down a few steps from freedom. Now, I couldn't help repeating to myself, it was I on the wrong side of the fence.
Over-dramatic? Certainly. But try to walk at night towards the border in an unknown land overshadowed by another hostile to your own. There's no stopping the images, though I don't think I was quite afraid, simply extremely worried. At sixteen, fear is tempered by ignorance and inexperience. I could move forward under the protection of both.
At one point, though, I did experience fear, extreme fear. Loud noises came suddenly from off to the right and slightly ahead. Out from the woods sprang a dog as big as a lion pulling a giant carrying a rifle the size of a log. The soldier yelled at me; I froze. Everyone shrank as they neared, and the dog sniffed at me cautiously. I stayed still.
The soldier demanded something, I didn't know what, but he quickly made clear through gestures that he wanted my papers. I handed over my passport, hand shaking. He glanced through it. Slowly, I reached for the last two of those Russian cigarettes and offered him one. He took it. After a false start (my hands would not hold still), I struck a match successfully and lighted both.
A sound from behind us had us both turning, a loud engine nearing from around the last turn. We watched as a tractor, of all things, neared. The soldier signaled it to stop, spoke with the driver, and motioned for me to climb up behind him. I did. The diesel chugged faster, and we were off.
The driver pulled to a stop at a barrier that could have served for a set for any number of the adventure and war movies so popular then. A phonebooth with an armed man in it under a streetlight and a barrier across the road—a car should have come crashing through, careening down the road towards escape. Instead, all there was was this tractor dropping me off and then circling back the way it had come. I waved. I hadn't realized the driver had gone out of his way for me.
Ahead, perhaps one hundred meters up a slow incline, were lights and cars, lots of activity. For the first time since I'd been told I had to be out of the country by midnight, I thought it might actually happen, for that had to be the border itself.
The uniformed man in the booth gave me an odd look once he'd recognized my passport as American—or so I imagined. At any rate, immediately after looking at it, he picked up his phone and started speaking. The speaking turned to arguing, then yelling. Finally, he seemed to win, uttering a final word into the instrument then slamming it into its receiver. He turned to me, motioned me around the barrier, and pointed up towards the border. I started walking.
This border station, on the Czech side, seemed like nothing so much as a hyper-active gas station. Though there were few cars—none that I could see, at least—heading towards Germany, they were backed up the other direction. People, I assumed, making a vacation in the country so newly accessible to the West. I walked to the first uniformed person I saw and handed over my passport. He took it and started to walk away. “Wait,” I called. He stopped and turned partially towards me. Apparently he spoke a few words of English. “Where can I change money?” He shrugged and called over his shoulder as he walked away, “Keep. Souvenir.”
After that, no one would talk to me. I sat down on a bench outside the main office where people were milling about, going in and out with papers, directions—I don't know.
After an hour or so, I got up and approached someone in uniform, afraid I'd been forgotten. “When will I get my passport back? When can I leave?”
“Wait.” He dismissed me. I returned to my seat.
Though I had no watch, I was sure it was now after midnight, but that didn't bother me: I'd made it to the border. Cars were progressing through, no problem. Even one or two leaving the country. No problem. But for me, it was 'wait.' I waited.
Eventually, I got up to stretch my legs, wandering to the other side of the office then back. It was getting chilly, so I stepped inside where it was warmer.
A young man in there was trying, in German as bad as mine, to exchange money with a couple clearly headed into the country. They were looking at him, a little perplexed. Having recognized right away that he had to be another American, I said, “Keep it. They'll let you take it out. They told me to.”
The instant I spoke, all activity stopped.
No one continued stamping documents. No car trunk, open for inspection was closed. No door, half open, shut. Every official had turned into a statue—except for one thing: All of their eyes were now focused on the two of us.
He looked at me. The German couple slunk away. “Two Americans, here? They must not like that.” He hardly whispered. “Come. Let's sit down.” He led me back outside and to a bench exactly like the one I'd been sitting on before. Slowly, the guards started working again. Their eyes, however, never left us for long.
“I saw you before,” he said, “but didn't realize you are an American.”
“Why are they watching us?”
“I don't know. I've been here since six o'clock, and they ignored me completely after taking my passport.”
“They've been ignoring me, too.”
“Until now.” He grimaced. “I wish they'd just let us go!”
“How did you get here? Do you have a car?” I knew he didn't for, like me, he had a backpack. But I asked anyway. How else could he have gotten here?
“I walked for Cheb.”
“You what?”
“You heard me, I walked. I didn't realize how far it was, but it didn't take more than a couple of hours.”
“Thing is, well, so did I. Well, part way. Got a ride, finally, on a tractor.”
He grabbed my arm, suddenly excited. At that, all activity once more ceased. He looked around, let go, and leaned back into the bench until things got going again.
“You know what I think?”
“No.”
“Look, two young Americans, about military age, walk up to a border station, no town with ten klicks... and this is an area where the Russians claim to have found caches of American arms.”
“Shit.” A little preposterous, I though, but scary. “I hope you're wrong!”
“I'm not, I tell you! I'll bet they're searching the whole area, the Czechs are, making sure they find anything before the Russians do!”
“Oh, come on. I doubt that.”
“Then why are they keeping us here? Why not simply let us go?”
I shook my head, unable to answer.

Next, I promise to get myself into Germany (and Nixon nominated as the Republican presidential candidate along the way to Nuremburg).

Sunday, May 01, 2011

But Why Do We Bash Teachers?

Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari, in an otherwise excellent op-ed in today's New York Times, ignore one important question: Why do we, as Americans, so loathe our teachers?

Eggers and Calegari are right: we can turn around our schools, and can do so by renewing our faith in teachers, in providing them better and better training and real support in the schools, and by paying them adequately.

That we don't, that we blame our teachers for the 'failures' of our educational system, is tantamount, Eggers and Calegari say, to blaming the soldiers for the loss of a war:

No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.
   And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.
Yes.  Exactly.  So, let's stop blaming the teachers, give them pay and support, and improve our schools!

Except it's not so simple.

Our war is a war on education, and on teachers.  We don't see them as our army, but as our enemy.  If you destroy the enemy ground soldiers, you destroy the enemy: The planners cannot complete their plans without the grunts.  The leaders cannot lead without the followers.  As the planners, the leaders, are safely bunkered way behind the lines, it's much easier to take out the infantry, the teachers.

The question that must be addressed before the country will be willing to back its teachers is why do we hate education so much?  Why do we see it in such loathsome light?  No taxpayers willingly give money to support the very people seen as fighting to destroy them or their values--hell, that was one of the causes of the American revolution!

What has happened to the image of the teacher in American society stems directly from callous political calculations that began in the 1960s in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.  Conservative activists saw that they could take advantage of two trends for their own successes at the voting booth.  One was (and is) dissatisfaction with the new protections for American minorities.  This is seen most starkly in resistance to busing and in the rise of alternative private schools and the home-schooling movement.  Seeing the public schools as becoming the possession of minorities, many white Americans decided to opt out of the system--but they could not opt out of paying for it.  The other was (and is) the foundational mindset that have grown so strong in America since the Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century.  American education, growing out the Enlightenment empiricist traditions, tends to gainsay that mindset.  Evolution, and its teaching, has proven the central issue of this conflict.

Vilifying public education, then, proved an easy tool towards prominence within the American right.  David Horowitz has made it into a means of becoming rather well-to-do, for the target is big and broad, and has little ability to fight back effectively (education was not built as an army--something Horowitz, who equates politics to war, understands quite well).  The "problem" with American education is simply a creation of political activists, for the solution, as Eggers and Calegari point out, is simple... is conveniently ignored, for those activists don't really want the problem to go away.

Fighting for better teacher salaries will never be enough.  We who hold to the real American traditions, ones that do spring from the Enlightenment and that were expressed by our Founding Fathers in our Constitution and other writing of the time, need to start fighting for those traditions more aggressively.  Part of that struggle will lie in effectively pointing out some of the facts that we've politely elided, these past few decades... facts like the continuing racism of a great part of American society, facts like the paucity of the intellectual base in many of the religious movements in America.

Yes, we will offend people by bringing these up.  But it is the threat of offense that often has been used as a weapon against us, keeping us from addressing these quite real problems.

We don't need to fight with mean spirit or with anger, or to destroy the other.  Lord knows, it's possible to believe in God and in evolution.  Ours shouldn't be a battle aimed at laying waste, but one of conversion.  We've forgotten the lessons of King and Gandhi, allowing attention to be turned from them by laughter, and  by derision of their naivete, distracting us from techniques that even those who oppose us know work.

When more of us have confidence enough in our own beliefs--not a foundational confidence, but one based on experience and experimental results--and stop simply reacting to the attacks of the conservative activists, we can start moving our society in a positive direction.

In a direction that will allow us to provide the support that our teachers need, the support that, as Eggers and Calegari point out, is the only thing that will ultimately improve our educational system.

Not to mention our country as a whole.