Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Playin' The Dozens With Bridgeport's Children

[NOTE:  Today's post was written as a letter to the editor of our local (Bridgeport, CT) newspaper.  As I've indicated on previous blogs, the charter school industry in the U.S. is a flagrant attempt by the U.S. oligarchy to privatize public education, using public funds to run privately controlled schools.  The scheme violates the historical principles of U.S. public education, re-establishes segregation and generally undermines local and state democratic processes.  Most of operatives of the scheme have never been responsible for the learning that takes place in a classroom.  This is a neo-liberal charade hiding behind the mask of bringing light to "the person sitting in darkness," to borrow Mark Twain's phrase.  To understand its true nature go here.]

African-American social customs were developed long before any slaves set foot on the auction blocks in Charleston and Savannah.  In fact many of the customs were finely tuned during the “middle passage” aboard the diseased and penal ravaged slave ships.

The history of these social customs is as much a part of core American culture as any of our cherished documents.  But don’t look for any of these core customs in the Common Core State Standards, because they mostly represent qualitative standards, not quantitative standards.  Most are about surviving as a community, not about races to separate a few winners to the exclusion of all others.
Playin’ the dozens, aka “snaps” and “battles”, evolved from slavery as a way of laughing in the face of danger and death, a way of putting down (humorously disrespecting) those  who, in their actions, disrespect the community, the liars, the phonies, and the cheaters.  It disallows a person to think too highly of himself within his community.  Clear examples have been shown in various forms of popular culture—in films like Barbarshop and 8 Mile, in TV shows like House of Payne, and in thousands of different rap songs.  In each case the snap calls out a person who has negatively disrespected the community.

The phrase derives from a custom enforced by the slave owner and overseers just prior to the auction.  Those slaves who had succumbed to the various diseases and punishments during the passage and were thus a less desirable commodity were grouped typically into bargain-priced blocs, called “the dirty dozen,” and auctioned as a single sale.  Playin’ the dozens singles out the cheats and liars, those slaves currying favor from the masters and overseers, and shows them to be lower than “the dozens,” making them feel as humiliated as those destitute “bargains.”  (For an introduction to this custom see Percelay, Ivey and Dweck, Snaps, foreword by Quincy Jones, 1994.)

Why and how is this relevant to Bridgeport’s children?  The charter school enterprise is a latter day representative of the slave system, a dominant group’s exploitation of a powerless, passive group.  The Bridgeport municipality is a faux democracy, and, as with the slave system, everyone knows how it actually works, openly sacrificing the many for the benefit of a few.  So far the implementation and increase of charter schools in Bridgeport (many more than any other Connecticut municipality) has relied on the cooperation of a few strategically placed masters and overseers (party bosses, ward healers and administrations, the Malloys, the Finches, the Testos) and a highly functioning cabal of African American “religious” leaders and “house slaves” (the Rev. Moales and his ilk and the Steve Perrys). 
This kind of structure is almost identical to the slave system: It couldn’t have worked without political corruption and the willing cooperation of acquiescent members of the ruling class and groveling members of the slave community.  And in the matter of the charter school system, the majority of Bridgeport’s children are becoming the cast off “dozens.”

The statistics of the charter system are self-evident.  The charters evolve according to how they want to be, not according to serving the learning needs of the community.  They assure their cohesion by casting aside huge bundles of children who do not fit their model of the kind of learners who will help the charters prosper, just like the “dozens” were cast aside.  Moreover, and especially, the charters do not concern themselves with the plight of those cast off bundles.  Just as with those “dozens” at the slave auction, they will be tossed somewhere, anywhere, to some out-of-sight, out-of-mind place, to be under-served and over-worked.

If you think this is an exaggeration, ask yourself these questions:  What happens to the children who do not fit the desired group profile allowed to enter the charter school, or are disposed of for want of sufficient learning ability or prescribed proper behavior?  Are they returned to the so-called “horrors” of those so-called “bad or failing schools” and forced to languish in anonymous destitution?

The charter school enterprise has created a playin’-the-dozens model with the populations of Connecticut’s cities.  They claim to know what is best for those citizens.  It is an anachronistic, out of place system, just like slavery was.  And even though it’s an old and corrupt system, it’s hiding in plain sight.  Now is the time for all Connecticut citizens to call out and shun the chicanery of these exploiters, put them in the place they are putting those children.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Patriotism and Nationalism, Very Different

You've probably noticed that "immigration reform" [btw, have you noticed how reform has morphed to mean unconditional improvement?] comes to a boil every now and then as we drift around trying to get ourselves on some constructive course of governance.  And the key line in every politician's media book is "we are a nation of immigrants."  Well, yes, except for those few remaining people who were here when a few Europeans decided that this land mass ought to reflect something vaguely Eurocentric and not at all aboriginal.

That means something highly radical:  We as a nation of immigrants are an anthropological oddity.  We are a people without embedded ethnicity, and that means were are a people with virtually no ethnic memory.  We are occasionally patriotic, of course, which means merely that we celebrate the United States of America (even though most of us have no idea what that means beyond words like "freedom," "liberty" and "democracy"), a concept that is mostly an ideation, actually more like a phantasm, clearly out there compared to what we really care about—money and things.

So we have a kind of murky notion of what patriotism is supposed to be—love of country, wave the flag, tie a ribbon on something, pledge allegiance as a formality, slap on a bumper sticker, and gorge and shop on patriotic holidays.

But for all those reasons, unfortunately, we do not understand nationalism.  In fact, I would wager that most Americans consider the word "nationalism" to be at least negative and probably threatening.   I had stopped thinking about this distinction after giving up trying to explain it to Americans who didn't
care. But now this Ukraine/Russia thing pops up and media people and politicians deride Putin and praise the "freedom seekers" who are mostly in Kiev.  The freedom seekers seem to think they want to be aligned with the West, especially with the EU, assuming that they will meld neatly into that mash up of modernity and go on to prosperity just as all migrants to the West do.

Ahem, well, maybe they ought to discuss that notion with the chastened Muslims who thought the EU would provide them with a comforting sanctuary from the horrors wrought by their more radical, medievalist brethren in Central Asia.   One of the reasons Angela Merkel proceeds so cautiously in her approach to resolving this Ukraine/Russia kerfuffle is that she is keenly aware of the push-pull of nationalism between and among the nations of the Continent and Asia and just so sees that much of it derives from very long histories—compared to immature America—and not merely political expediency. In fact, based on some recent stirrings in Germany, I'd say that most Germans are very much concerned about even the whiff of radical nationalism.  And it's in this concept that I think American decision makers and especially the information media ilk are misreading Putin's understanding of the affairs of state in Russia, the EU and especially Ukraine.

Putin's mind represents the strong nationalism of Russia; that is, he knows how the people identify with the integrity of the Russian soul, the individual's association with the land.  We Americans have difficulty conceiving of this, because we don't have it.  We have patriotism.  We honor American exceptionalism (without knowing what it is), we honor its opportunity, and we honor its rewards for exploitation.  But we don't honor its soul because we don't know what it is, we don't recognize our relation to the land.  I can't help thinking of the beat poets and novelists who traveled America, East to West seeking America, and when they got to the Pacific they felt that America had eluded them.

Putin apparently understands this distinction between nationalism and patriotism.  Moreover, he is using it to motivate the Russian people, whatever country they might reside in.  And he is using it to toy with the thinking of American politicians and pundits.

Maybe the most honest thought that George Bush offered throughout his eight years was his utterance as he stood on the World Trade Center's pile of rubble, amid the throes of pain, sorrow and panic that rippled through America—his sincere advice was that America should go shopping.  Is it fair to say that in that moment at that site he was appealing to Americans' understanding of their nationalism?  This is not a cynical conjecture.   Try an experiment with your American friends and family.  Ask them what the soul of America is.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Mute Anxiety

For all the words spoken and written about education “reform” and all the bloviating about teacher benchmarks and evaluations, very little is said about what and how teachers feel.  And part of the reason for this is that teachers keep their most important feelings about what they do to themselves.  They will share these feelings sometimes with intimates and occasionally with colleagues…but only sometimes and occasionally.  The crisis for teachers is that they never, ever know their actual effectiveness, never know on a daily basis how what they say and do affects the individual minds in their care.  And this is why they express such outrage at the thought that this phenomenon can be quantified from test results or even professional observations.  This is the mute anxiety that no one without years of classroom experience knows.

I have a souvenir, a T-shirt tacked on the wall above my workspace.  It was a gift from some of the media studies majors in my department, each one signing some good wishes and thanks on my retirement.  Most are pretty much what one would expect, but a particular note haunts me even today as I look up at it.  It haunts me because I can never know what the student meant.  It reawakens in me the very uncertainty I’m trying to explain.  She wrote:

Thank you for your wonderful insights and inspiring lessons.  I’ll miss you terribly!”

First, let me explain this student.  She came to media studies, a bachelor-of-arts program, as someone, new to higher education, who was not certain of degree initials.  For her, it was college, and the major seemed like it might be interesting.  In other words, she was not goal/degree focused; she was interested in learning something, preferably something that would engage her interests.  I think what accounts for the enthusiasm of her farewell was that she had never before realized that learning could be engaging, challenging and interesting.  I was initially impressed by her eagerness, then by her diligence and finally by her originality.  She developed from being very vague about what learning meant to a person for whom learning was critical.

Scan that paragraph.  What in it could be quantified?  What could be benchmarked?  What did I say or do that was so “insightful” so “inspiring” for that person?  What about those two words would have meaning inside some Common Core rubric?  I don’t know, nor could any evaluation.  Only one person could know, and if she had not told me, I would never have known.

An unarticulated, seldom acknowledged experience of the person responsible for the learning in a classroom is the sense of guilt that comes from a feeling of inadequacy.  Simply stated it says, “I don’t know what’s wrong.  I’m trying everything I know, but she’s not getting it.  I don’t know what to do.” This is the feeling that comes from classroom teaching over a long period of time.  It expresses the feeling that the person responsible for the learning that’s going on is the person who has been assigned to the learning environment of that classroom.  No matter what other dynamics might be going on among that particular cohort of presumed learners, no matter what the test results show, the person “in charge” feels a sense of inadequacy, because someone in the room “didn’t get it.”  This is the ongoing anxiety of the teacher in the kindergarten classroom through the mentor in the graduate school seminar.

The tragedy of this is that some teachers eventually weary of the anxiety and fall into the abyss of routine, the very routine that the quantifiers are recommending as the salvation of our education “system,” the reform of America’s “failed” education system—whatever that means.  These teachers who release themselves to routine are the wounded in the classroom ranks.  Some of them—too many of them—are shunned, perhaps even mocked by their colleagues, thus emphasizing how ultimately lonely the task is.  And critics and so-called revolutionaries within the reform movement have been doing their best to sustain this feeling of desperate isolation. 

So this, then, is what might be called the tragic paradox of the classroom teacher.  She or he knows that only one professional person can actually experience what is happening in the classroom.  And a certain amount of pride attaches to that.   But coincidentally that pride becomes the source of the anxiety attached to the uncertainty of whether or not each mind in the process has been inspired to learn not only that much but also to learn much more.

Nothing in what I have learned about the pedagogy behind the Common Core Standards or Race To The Top (that winner-take-all wrapped in Social Darwinism phrase) even begins to entertain the notion that this paradox exists.  Moreover, the local puppet masters who manage these programs represent an entirely new managerial class in American education, a class that gears education as a business enterprise, codified in their titles CEO, CFO, etc.   An approach to education as a business enterprise will discourage learning while it creates loyal, uncritical androids.  It assures the common, while it provides no time for and disparages the exceptional.  Just like in a factory.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


[Note:  This post is a re-posting from my alternate blog, posted in 2008.  I've been reviewing my posts lately to see if I can mine something useful.  I think this post has currency now, because so many of us seem so susceptible to the unreliability of those who seem to be truth-speakers.]

For reasons essentially irrelevant, I recently looked into the roles of those belonging to covens…as in witches.  Disclaimer:  I know almost nothing about the spiritual workings of covens or the wiccan culture.  My interest was drawn to the role of the scribe, which I suspect involves more than being a simple recorder, communicator or archive tender.

The scribe is the coven’s communicator…record keeper.  Now as I see it, this makes the scribe perhaps the most important person in the coven.  This person selects the language, which determines the coven’s meaning to the outside world.  Scribes render the coven and its experiences in language selected by them directed to concentric worlds from nearest to farthest.  As one scholar has put it, if we read their texts, we experience their “use of contextual commentary and evaluative adjectives or adverbs which suggest [their] attitudes and values…and reflect the pragmatic context.”

This makes the scribe a very powerful person—a person who determines truth.  Think here of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the onerous task they faced as evangelicals of a gospel promising eternal life based on faith in an eternal truth.  Their “good news” was as much about them and the way they wanted the truth to be known as it was about the hero of their stories…perhaps more so.

But I don’t really want to discuss the various permutations of Christian or Wicca faith.  I’d be happy to do that some other time.  Right now, this idea of scribes rendering the truth of spiritual or corporeal experience raises a point I used to emphasize in my creative writing classes.  I’d refer to James Joyce’s comment that to create stories, one must first live a deliberate life.  Then, armed with the stuff of living, step back, alone, and become the creator-god of whatever story you wish to make.  It’s a little like playing the old video games, SimLife and SimCity.  You create an environment, arrange life forms in it and have them interact according to a history and a plot, i.e,, conflict, rising action, resolution and denouement. 

Some stories are for the entertainment value of the drama.  And some are for the purpose of making some general point about human existence and how it can be improved and/or made less painful (e.g., the gospels and the scribe recordings).  What I’ve learned in my frustrations at trying to be a creator is that the scribe/evangelical must have a compelling story and a reasonable plot (whether comedy or tragedy).  Think of how much the gospellers had to leave out in order to make a compelling story.  Think of how the wiccan scribes must focus on the viability and future of the coven to engage the believers.

History is actually merely good and often not so good story telling.  A historiography professor I knew began each class by telling the students that all history is fiction; one picks and chooses among the varieties depending on what one wants to believe.  We live through daily facts and periodically along the way we create a self-satisfying truth from those facts. The rest disappears through the sieves of our minds.

BTW:  One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead boys went out to fight. Back to back, they faced each other, and with their swords they shot each other. A deaf policeman, hearing the noise, came to the rescue of the two dead boys. If you don't believe this lie is true, ask the blind man; he saw it too.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Almost Time To Pick Up A Brick?

In his very insightful presentation at "the Festival of Dangerous Ideas", David Simon (creator of The Wire and Treme) asked the question, "Are we all in this together, or are we all not?"  He spent his presentation and his Q&A time listing the ways that the course our society began 30 years ago is approaching a tipping point.  The presidencies, the legislatures and the judicial system over that period of time have created a socio-economic regime that moves forward because it makes a whole strata of human beings (between 10% and 15% of Americans) worth less—that is, they are no longer relevant to the profit metric.  How do they respond to that?  They become entrepreneurs in the most available economy to their circumstances—the illegal drug industry.   And those in the profit metric class use public funds to develop a for profit penal system to punish those entrepreneurs.

As Simon points out (here), this is a form of capitalism that its originators could not have foreseen.  He sees it as the most dangerous threat to our democracy in contemporary life.  He says this, because this form of atomizing greed is a downward pressure which squeezes to the point where people will think, separately and gradually together,  this is enough.  This is not a society.  This is not the social compact that I learned we live under.  And this is the point where Simon suggests, people will pick up the brick. But he sincerely wishes that this does not happen.

That it might happen is becoming clearer in real time.  Those who rule the workings of our society, those for whom greed and accumulation form the standards of life, have been quite satisfied to rule the universe quietly, refusing even to acknowledge the hardships in their wakes.  But recently they have been taking some umbrage at those who criticize their ways of life and doing business.  Tom Perkins compared people targeting the one-percenters to the Nazis targeting the Jews.  Meanwhile, Sam Zell, in defense of Perkins, claimed that the one-percenters "are being pummeled" by their critics.  Apparently not known as a master of understatement, Zell continued, "The problem is that the world and this country should not talk about envy of the 1 percent. It should talk about emulating the 1 percent. The 1 percent work harder. The 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society."  (See his interview here.)  This is precisely the disparateness in perspective that Simon sees as the impending danger.  It's not simply, as Hemingway said, that the wealthy are different from us because they have more money.  The difference is that the oligarchs and plutocrats think they are a uniques species, evolved to be in charge.  And as the middle class has begun to see that their prospects have been dimming and that the downward pressure has begun stagnating their lives, we become increasingly aware that we are not all together in this.

A clear and specific rebuke of this attitude appeared yesterday in a blog post rendered as an open letter to Sam Zell.  The author, in much the same spirit and dismay as David Simon, delineated that Zell's comments indicated both a delusional and dangerous perspective of American life.   I have been feeling this way for quite a while now.  When a people sense and see that the role of government no longer has relevance in their lives, they will react.   Most of us forget that the colonists were not always opposed to being under the aegis of the British Crown and Parliament.  Not until they had been subjected to "a long train of abuses and usurpations" did the colonists (and even then not all of them) decide that the social compact had been broken, and the time had come to get rid of the usurpers.

Have Americans been experiencing another gradual usurpation of their rights and laws?  Some people think so.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Willful Cognitive Dissonance: Melville's America

This is a long one, but I think it will be informative.
I have become increasingly aware of an American character trait that has always been lurking just below the surface of our daily lives but which now seems to be driving our daily lives.  Back in my days in the lecture hall and seminar room, I would emphasize this as a theme in many of the famous (and infamous?) American writers, such as Twain, Melville, Nathanael West, and Ralph Ellison, to name a few.  This trait, which the vast majority of us have virtually no consciousness of, leads us increasingly into situations that eventually mystify us:  We ask ourselves how could we possibly have arrived at this terrible situation?  How could things have gone so horribly wrong?
I listed the fiction writers above, because I came across the following citation in an article by Chris Hedges, which set me reviewing what I had taught and how terribly relevant it all is today:
“But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.”
[From Moby Dick, uttered by Ishmael, the sub rosa narrator and sole survivor of the tragedy-laden whaling ship. (emphasis added)]
Hedges goes on and gives great detail, discussing the analogies between the ship’s destiny and America’s destiny, emphasizing Melville’s prescient and tragic vision of America and the American character (more on that in Melville later).   And Hedges offers his insight into the why or reason for such a tragic character trait.  He says we are “consumed by a mania for hope.”  [Read the complete analysis and projection here.]

And this led me to cognitive dissonance.  Dictionaries and other sources generally agree on the meaning of this phrase, and I’ll be using the one that is most clearly relevant to my post; i.e., cognitive dissonance (cd) is “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.” (Merriam-Webster online)  What Melville and Hedges and I are looking at is what happens in the American mind after the cd has occurred.  The individual makes a decision rooted in American culture.  Hedges’ “mania for hope” evolves from our beliefs in progress and our assumption of the essential Rousseauian tenet of human goodness.  
That is, we believe human destiny progresses upward toward the improvement or betterment of the human condition and does so because we believe human effort is generally constructive in the long view, preserving the pristine goodness of human beings.  Many historians of American intellectual history maintain that this cultural attitude began before any Europeans even set sail to exploit the vast resources of the “new” world.   Hope was engrained in their imaginations.  The New World was a New Eden, the second chance, the ultimate restoration of grace.  The “opportunity” mantra that courses through our contemporary political rhetoric assumes this ideal.  And it also masks the actualities that provide the suffering that result from this self-imposed blindness.
One of the great ironies surrounding Moby Dick is Ishmael’s rationale for shipping out in the first place, playing the self-pitying role associated with his nom de plume.  This person has had enough of life’s actualities, feels “a damp drizzly November in [his] soul…bringing up the rear of every funeral” and thus he is drawn to the sea so that “meditation and water [can be] wedded.”  To assert a denial of life’s circumstance by grasping at the promise of an uncomplicated life at sea, Ishmael casts himself out from the strife of society with the hope of resuscitating his soul.  He has selected hope, the remaining fury in Pandora’s box, and pre-destined himself to chaos. 
Melville is consistent in this perspective.  Many of his narrators (all males) have come to the point in their lives and account a retrospective to a critical moment when they made a decision they felt would create a greater good, a rippling positive effect on their lives and, importantly, on the lives of those around them.  And they learn from it that they were terribly wrong.  They want to do good and thereby be good.  But they do not, and they are not.  And the reason is their determined belief that the things they see are true, that their hope for the human condition makes the world what they want to believe it is.
I will not take more space to go through all the accounts here, but I do recommend specific works.  One of the best is his lesser-known Benito Cereno, the story of Capt. Delano’s self-duping when faced by a “crew” of scrupulously “well behaved” slaves, who in fact are slaves who have overtaken the captain and crew, their captors.  One of my favorites is the short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the story of “a safe man” who practices safe law (wills and such) but who allows his office to be run by his employees’ personal needs and cannot understand why one of them simply will not do as he’s told.  The lawyer goes to extraordinary lengths to make Bartleby see the error of his ways, but Bartleby sees only the futility of the manic striving on Wall Street and that this law office is “non-preferable.”   He is the hopelessness that the lawyer will not comprehend.  And the most obviously contemptuous of humanity’s willful cognitive dissonance is Melville’s The Confidence Man, all about the various scams worked on and accepted by the people aboard the Fidele, moving down the Mississippi, scams mostly masking as charities or get rich quick schemes, appealing to the heartfelt emotions about humanity and the beneficence of hope among the suckers.
Because he was popularly known and read because of his famous novels about the exotic experiences of sea life, especially in the South Seas, it is ironic how those experiences drew him to reach these conclusions, this disconsolate vision of humanity, especially American humanity, as it progressed ever “forward” under the aegis of the hope and vigor contained in the life of the industrial revolution.  With this in mind and partly out of curiosity about what his view of the U.S. Civil War would be, I decided to read his collection of poems, Battle-Pieces, all about that "irrepressible conflict."  And there again, even long before The Confidence Man, he sees nothing but what another writer called “the vanity of human wishes.”  At the end of a central poem, “Conflict of Convictions,” in which he summarizes the attitudes on both sides, he writes:




America seems to continue to embrace and subsume the attitude that Melville saw as essentially devastating.  We have it in recent slogans.  From “Keep hope alive!” to “The Audacity of Hope” we seem to be rushing, “going forward” headlong with our “mania for hope” into the dire straits of cognitive dissonance.