THE ROOT

Posted in Rants on February 27th, 2017 by Ed

The appointment of a person who knows literally nothing about the profession as Secretary of Education reignited interest in our deeply flawed educational system. During her confirmation hearings, this was perhaps the best commentary I saw on an internet that overflowed with them.

The most basic problem with the educational system (K-12 only; colleges have a different set of issues) is that it is increasingly expected to show improvement in a society in which so many of the measurable things affecting educational outcomes are getting worse. When you have students who are basically on their own before the age of ten, or move eight times in three years, or live in violent and impoverished homes, or go days at a time without seeing their substance-abusing parent, or spend evenings trying to decide whether to call the cops because that man is beating up Mom again but you don't want to be taken away into a foster home so what should you do, or have reached adolescence without once seeing an adult set an alarm clock to wake up and go to work, very little in terms of policy is going to matter. Give 'em vouchers, send them to charter schools, public schools, Catholic schools, whatever you want; those kids are not going to succeed. Teachers are expected to extract good test scores from students who are absent 50% of the time or don't have an adult to reliably feed and shelter them.

Teachers are equipped, at their best and in the best environments, to be teachers. They are not prepared to be psychologists, social workers, parents, guardians, and miracle workers. Certainly not every public school draws from a population of students as poor and disadvantaged as what I described here. But it's hardly rare. Increasingly – and vouchers will serve only to worsen this problem – public school systems are a grease trap for the students no other school would take. The kid didn't do well enough on tests for a charter or magnet school, and whatever adult supervisor is responsible for him or her can't shell out for private school. Public schools, in essence, are expected to show constant and near-miraculous improvement with a student population from which the best and most well-supported students have already been plucked out.

So, when people ponder the solutions to the problems of education in this country, feel free to cut off anyone who starts ranting about teacher salaries, classroom sizes, No Child Left Behind, or any other education-specific issue. The problem is poverty. The solution is to mitigate poverty and the other social problems that flow from it. We don't want to face that reality because we don't like doing things that are hard; we want to maintain a delusion that there is some magic policy that will get our schools to start churning out great, well educated students. It does not exist. Teachers and schools have only so much contact with students and no power to solve or even push back meaningfully against the growing pile of problems many of these kids face outside of school. A good teacher will always get the most out of his or her students, and our elected officials will never recognize that many of them are doing exactly that – they are getting the most out of students who have everything stacked against them in life. The unfortunate reality is that sometimes "the most" a teacher can produce with a given child is not much.

We have to stop considering the problems of our schools in a vacuum. Throw all the money you want at schools or enforce whatever "teacher accountability" BS the Koch think tanks are pushing this month – none of that will make a lick of difference in the outcomes of students in communities that are both literally and figuratively falling apart.

NPF: UPON FURTHER REVIEW

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 24th, 2017 by Ed

We aren't at our most observant during childhood and adolescence. And even when we do notice some things that are objectionable, we're likely to think they're funny because we're immature and stupid. Hey, white kids raised by and among white people who casually interject racism into 90% of their conversations are not very likely to listen to a song and think, "Hmm, I find this language Problematic" or "This movie unfairly stereotypes ethnic groups." Maybe I'm projecting and you were Super Woke as a child. I wasn't. I guess you're a better person than me.

Recently I had two experiences with media that I remember from when I was much younger, both of which I remember enjoying quite a bit when they were new. And now, as a 38 year old adult I find myself kind of amazed at how fucked up they seem. First, I pulled up Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to stream as a background movie while grading exams. I probably haven't seen it in 30 years. I distinctly remember my mom driving me and my sister to my dad's office to pick him up at work, after which we went straight to the theater to see it on its opening day. I must have been less than 8 years old, and I remember loving it. Try watching it now as an adult; tell me you can enjoy it even a little given 1) how totally and stunningly Kate Capshaw is able to act, even a little, and 2) how kind of jaw-droppingly racist it is. I mean. It's hard to expect sensitive treatment of non-Western cultures in action-adventure movies of the present (let alone decades ago) but…come on. There's a limit. I can overlook a sass-quipping Asian sidekick (that actor, it turns out, has had a very successful career in film in non-acting roles) or having a Non Specifically Ethnic Villain, but it's as if the people who made this movie took a lengthy checklist of stereotypes about Indians and Asians and made sure not to miss any of them. Christ.

Second – and this one is more recent, but hear me out – was having DMX "Where the Hood At" pop up on a shuffle. This track (from 2003) came out in my early adulthood, at the point where I should have known better, but if you know anything at all about rap you understand that you're not listening to DMX to listen to his lyrics. He has one of the smallest vocabularies in hip-hop. And that's OK, because, "in last place: DMX. But this shouldn't undermine an artist whose raw energy and honesty were the most memorable qualities of his music." OK. But try listening to "Where the Hood At." Holy balls the first verse of that song is the most brazenly homophobic thing in existence. Most people probably don't even know it's there, because the entire point of DMX (and that track) is to turn it up real loud and yell WHERE THE HOOD WHERE THE HOOD WHERE THE HOOD ATTTTT with a large group of similarly enthusiastic people. Even devoted fans probably don't know the rest of the words to the song. But….damn. You've been warned.

What are some of your favorite examples of shit you thought was awesome and now do a hard cringe at?

PERMISSION SLIP

Posted in Rants on February 22nd, 2017 by Ed

Pay attention the next time you are on foot at an intersection waiting to cross with a group of other pedestrians.

Everyone stands restlessly looking at the orange hand of the "Don't Walk" sign. It's like they want to cross – there's no cross traffic preventing it – but some kind of social surface tension keeps the waiting pedestrians stuck to one another and to the curb. Is this light ever going to change? Finally whichever person is most impatient will start walking. Then, despite the "Don't Walk" signal that had them frozen in place a moment earlier, everyone follows him or her.

Psychologists and sociologists call this a permission effect, or describe the first individual to violate the (in this case minor, obviously) social taboo the "permission giver." Everyone wants to cross, since there's no effective reason not to. The "Don't Walk" sign is intended to keep the flow of traffic moving and to prevent pedestrians from getting hit; since there is no traffic, ignoring the sign will have no practical effect on anyone. But we know it's illegal anyway, and we know that we're supposed to obey signals like red lights and crossing signs regardless of whether they matter in our specific context. Then as soon as we see someone else throw caution to the wind, all those thoughts go out the window and we refocus on, "Well if he's gonna cross, I guess it's OK for all of us to cross."

It doesn't make any logical sense, but if you watch an intersection for a few minutes you'll observe this over and over. Everyone hesitates, one person transgresses, and everyone else follows. Clockwork.

Despite the pained, contorted efforts of old white men to explain how nothing that happens anywhere in the United States has anything to do with racism, anti-semitism, gay-bashing, misogyny, or anything else that has seen a resurgence in the political arena since 2015, we see evidence all around us, every day, that human beings are more likely to do something after they see someone else do it. This is neither a new nor an especially contentious finding. People, particularly more impressionable people like kids and the poorly educated, are more likely to say and do racist things after they watch someone else say and do racist things and – importantly – suffer no consequences. Steve Bannon rode a brief online career of rebranding anti-semitism for the digital age of journalism into the White House; other people will try to follow his lead. Success breeds imitation. As sure as the next few years will produce thousands of bad Chance the Rapper imitators, the internet will spawn a million wannabe Steve Bannons.

When we see racist or anti-semitic graffiti (or see Jewish property vandalized) the people making excuses for it may be right in a technical sense – a lot of it is probably the product of stupid kids, because vandalism tends to come from teenage boys. But the content of the vandalism is not a coincidence. It's a result of watching other people engage in a kind of social transgression (which teenage boys love, because it gets a rise out of people and brings them attention) without consequences. If they thought they would get arrested or go to prison for spraying swastikas on things, it would happen rarely. Now that they see that they can do it without consequences – or even with the potential of benefiting from it – there's no real reason not to do it. If the President says it, other people will naturally follow suit. If powerful people express ideas that were only recently frowned upon without any negative repercussions, others are going to follow their lead. It's not rocket science, but it's amazing the lengths to which people will go to deny it.

"NEVER AGAIN", DEPENDING ON WHAT IT WAS

Posted in Rants on February 20th, 2017 by Ed

This week in one of my courses we're doing Maus. It was something I added to the syllabus at the last minute, after the election in November and before the January deadlines for book orders. I felt that, under present circumstances, it would be…fitting.

Everyone knows about the Holocaust. If you managed to miss it in school, you couldn't help but encounter it in literal thousands of books, movies, TV shows, comics, video games, and more. The question of what we can learn from it is often reduced – not surprisingly – to the simplest, narrowest possible lessons. For all the talk in the United States of World War II (the topic that dwarfs all others in our media, both fiction and non-fiction) and our nation's heroic role in bringing the Nazi menace to a halt, Americans seem to lack a grasp of lessons from the Holocaust beyond "Don't vote for guys with toothbrush mustaches" and "The people waving American flags are good; bad guys have swastikas." In other words, we learn it as a lesson that applies to others but not to ourselves. We could never be the bad guys, because we are the good guys. If nobody's being gassed and thrown in ovens, we're not like the Nazis. QED.

The lesson a sentient being takes away from the Holocaust, and one that this book does an unusually good job of illustrating, is that organized evil unfolds slowly in complex societies. It develops in stages. The Nazis didn't come to power, wake up the next morning, and announce to the country, "Time to kill all the Jews." Like the master propagandists and populists they were, they took a more gradual (and ultimately, for their purposes, more effective) approach. Start with rhetoric separating Real Germans from The Other. Encourage by example stigmatizing The Other. Normalize verbal abuse, prejudice, and petty mistreatment. Ramp up to abusive acts of a more serious nature. Start passing laws – again, small ones initially – to institutionalize separate and unequal treatment. Explicitly legalize violence against the person and property of The Other. Eject Them from positions of social and economic power, to be replaced with Real citizens. Begin physically segregating Them under the pretense of public safety, necessity (especially wartime necessity), or for Their own good. Direct citizens to focus their anger for any privations – economic, military, or social – the nation faces on The Other. Turn a blind eye to public outbreaks of vandalism, assault, and even the occasional dead body. Dehumanize; compare Them to insects, viruses, animals, and so on. By this point the dumber, more obedient, authoritarian-follower types who make up the bottom third of the population will be more than happy to don a uniform and get a paycheck for rounding up and policing the internal "threat."

At this point you're not yet engaged in state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing, but you're certainly within hailing distance of it. You can see it without binoculars. The public as a whole is unlikely to accept that final step, which is why you've carefully segregated the public as a whole from it. You've condensed and defined The Problem, and you've put the borderline intellects and sadists – the kind of people who know how to follow an order, and what how – in charge of carrying out the gruesome parts. Voila. Just say when, Mein Fuhrer. By this point it is too late; having condoned and made excuses for the first 49 steps of the process, any part of the population that wakes up now will find itself powerless to stop Step 50.

That's what people don't get – that a valid analogy can be made to Nazi Germany without extermination camps bellowing human ash into the sky. "Don't be so dramatic" and "You're exaggerating" are appropriate responses if we focus only on the "Final Solution" and ignore the 100 steps that led to it. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and societies never go from placid to monstrous acts of evil overnight. Getting ordinary people to condone genocide, fostering the banality of evil, requires the careful laying of groundwork. It begins with normalizing social deviance toward an Other that is responsible for every aspect of your life that leaves you dissatisfied. It begins when a population is conditioned to read a news story about one of Them being gunned down by someone in a uniform and to react not with human empathy but with satisfaction. It begins when people become convinced that there are Good People like themselves and Bad People like everyone who looks, thinks, or acts differently than themselves. It begins when the oppression of a minority to satisfy the histrionics of a majority (rule of law be damned because I want to feel safe at any cost) is not only tolerated by the political process but becomes one of the products it is most eager to deliver.

Every crime against humanity has humble beginnings. And the kind of people who want to perpetrate them know that they don't grow like weeds. They have to be nurtured, slowly, until the process is so far along that no group, individual, or institution in society can stop it.

UNRELIABLE WITNESS

Posted in Rants on February 19th, 2017 by Ed

For the past three days – Friday through Sunday – the high temperatures (F) here in Chicago have been 65, 70, and 62. It has been spring, essentially. Those numbers might make people in the South want to grab the parka; here they had me and most of the city heading outside in shorts and t-shirts. It was great. It was also, of course, totally bizarre. February is the traditional month for weather that makes you want to drink bleach in Chicago. February is the month during high school in which we could count on a cancellation or two per year because the pipes were frozen. February in Chicago is gray, cold, windy, and miserable. I'm convinced that the term "blustery" was invented by someone standing outside here in February.

Since the winter has been warm as a whole, this weekend alarmed more than a few people. It's great, but…what gives? For giggles, I spent 15 minutes finding old National Weather Service data for Chicago in February dating back to 1990. The year is arbitrary and represents the limit of how much I cared to continue looking up older years. For each year I plotted the highest and lowest temps recorded in February as well as the monthly mean temp. Here's a quick chart followed by a table showing the same data:

This oddly warm weather is definitely on the upper end of normal for the past three decades, but it's hardly unusual. The 2017 data, as the table shows, are almost identical to, for example, 1999. Compared to more recent very cold years like 2014 and 2015, this year is bizarrely warm. It's not the only unusually warm February to be found in the recent past, though.

The point is not that "Climate change is fake, man!" Mountains of data demonstrate that it is a well-supported phenomenon. My point is that our memories are extremely unreliable when it comes to remembering ephemeral things like this. I was alive in 1999 (obviously) and I have zero recollection of that warm winter. None. In my mind, what is happening right now is exceptional because February, as I and most people in this area think, is the bone-chilling cold month. It's the peak of winter misery. When we think things like, "Man, the weather is never like this in February!" we're relying on our perception of something we don't actually remember. Nobody actually remembers the weather, save perhaps some kind of Rain Man-esque savant.

In short, our anecdotal evidence for or against changes in climate are not only irrelevant, but also very likely to be imaginary anyway. It is interesting for me to see just how wrong my recollection was, even as someone who generally pays attention to these things. It's a good reminder to stop giving credence to our own impressions and instead to stick to the actual data.

NPF: IT WAS A SIMPLER TIME

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 16th, 2017 by Ed

No Politics Friday has taken a beating since I moved to Chicago. It made my commute pretty exhausting and by the time I reach the front door on Thursday evenings I rarely have the energy to get a Friday post ready. That said, I'm working on carving out the time. Like this week, for example. This week I carved out the time.

On April 3, 1956 a woman who identified herself as Julia Chase sneaked away from a public tour of the White House. Having joined the tour group alone, without any companion who might notice her absence, nobody knew to look for her or sound an alarm. She made her presence known by spending nearly five hours sneaking around the building starting fires. To recap, then, a 53 year old woman spent half a day committing minor arson around the White House. Here is the front page of the next day's Chicago Tribune to prove it.

It's not just amazing that this happened. What really blows the modern mind is the response.

The woman…was taken into custody by government guards after the fifth fire and was sent to DC General Hospital for observation…Hagerty said the woman appeared to be 'not quite lucid.' She told police she did not know where she had come from…She explained that she 'had a lot of trash and wanted to burn it.'

The story continues to explain that she was released from the hospital into the custody of her family. And White House public visitation continued as normal for the day.

When older people refer to "simpler times" my first reaction is to gag on the sentimentality for a time period in which society was as staggeringly unequal and unjust as it was in the early post-War era. My second reaction is to remember this story and think, I bet it was pretty nice to live in something short of a state of constant fear that encourages law enforcement to overreact without restraint to anything perceived as a threat.

Shit. This got Political. Well, at least it's a Friday post. That's a start.

POKING THE REGIME CHANGE SPECIALIST BEAR

Posted in Rants on February 14th, 2017 by Ed

Our current President is a thoroughly impulsive and stupid man. This is recognized even among his admirers, even if they use different language to describe the same attributes. And he strikes me as the kind of person who does not fully recognize how poor some of his decisions are until they are literally blowing up in his face. He throws hand grenades for fun; as long as they land somewhere else, it's hilarious and awesome. When one bounces off a wall and comes to rest at his feet, only then does he stop to consider that maybe throwing hand grenades around is not very smart.

And then he blames someone else, right before it explodes.

No matter how slow people like this may be to learn from their mistakes, as a 70 year-old adult I have to imagine that some small part of him is second guessing that decision to launch a frontal assault on America's tangled and massive web of intelligence agencies before he even took office. You might think that a person with as much baggage and as many closet-skeletons as this guy would think twice before provoking the professionals who specialize in lurking around in the darkness, uncovering one's past, and you know, toppling elected officials. Don't let the fact that they didn't get the exploding cigar into Castro's hands fool you. They're pretty good at this.

With Tuesday's late revelations that the campaign team had extensive contact with Russian intelligence throughout 2016, it is clear that the Flynn debacle is only the tip of an iceberg that is likely to end up on top of the White House. Two quotes from Paul Manafort (the campaign staffer who raised eyebrows because of his previous work in Russia and the Ukraine and ties to people in the FSB and around Putin) suggest a key shift among people in the President's orbit from "Push the alternative facts on the cuck media!" to "Cut a deal, turn state's evidence, and stay out of prison".

Mr. Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the accounts of the American officials in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “This is absurd,” he said. “I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today.”

When a person in the world of government and politics begins including the term "knowingly" in his or her speech, that person is already well into the process of preparing to tell this story in a courtroom.

Mr. Manafort added, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”

Good luck with that line in court, kiddo! "The undercover cop didn't tell me she was a prostitute, and she really looked like a prostitute! So I'm off the hook, right?"

Maybe I'm projecting or being optimistic, but this week – Can you believe it's only week four? – has a very distinct Coming Unraveled feeling to it. The flow of leaks is turning into a tsunami. No one in the administration is swaggering around and trying to project a juvenile idea of dominant confidence. They all look and sound like they're a split second away from turning on one another, and like more than one or two hushed conversations to the effect of, "How much trouble are we in here?" have taken place. Obviously neither you nor I are in the White House to know for certain, but the tone and atmosphere around the one-two punch of the Flynn debacle and these new Russia revelations feels different. Maybe it will dissipate and we will return to Bullying Bravado normal. Or maybe the man who never thinks about the potential consequences before speaking or acting is beginning to wonder if making enemies of the people most likely to be able to reduce him to a smoldering crater in the Earth was a wise thing to do.

REMINDER: YOU ARE NOT COOL ENOUGH

Posted in Quick Hits on February 13th, 2017 by Ed

The "Everything is Terrible All the Time shirts are back in stock. Here's your big chance to finally be cool.

Canvas brand, screenprinted (no print on demand BS), no text on the reverse side, women's v-neck and men's/unisex crew neck available. Simple. Black. Bleak. Let everyone know how you feel. Let everyone know your favorite blog. Canvas sizing guides for unisex and women's v-neck shirts. Won't fall apart or fade after one wash. Black hides tears, too.

eitatt

Please use the correct order button, Domestic or International. Anything outside of the U.S., even Canada, must use the International button.


Domestic Orders (USA)





International Orders




They go quickly. Don't be left out!

DANGERS OF FACTION

Posted in Rants on February 12th, 2017 by Ed

Somewhere in your long-term memory there is a filing cabinet for things you learned in high school. If you flip to the Constitution and government folder, you have something on Federalist #10. At the very least it's one of those things anyone raised in the American educational system has seen before.

The Federalist Papers, a three-man public relations effort intended to sell highly skeptical state legislatures on the newly unveiled Constitution, range from deeply profound to tediously pedantic. The tenth installment, by James Madison, speaks to the dangers of Factions. Factions as he described them would be very familiar to us today, because he was describing political parties and interest groups. While the people who created the Constitution deeply distrusted parties and saw no role for them in the system (scour the Constitution and you'll find not even an oblique reference to them) they of course formed almost immediately upon adoption of the Constitution. They formed because nothing in the system forbade them, because people in a political system naturally ally themselves with the like-minded, and because they performed some useful functions like nominating candidates (eventually).

Madison believed that any faction, or group more interested in advancing its own agenda rather than high-mindedly doing what is best for the country, was a danger to the system. Ultimately – long story short – he reassures the reader that through pluralism (the opportunity for many competing voices to participate at many points in the process) the dangers of factions could be mitigated. He also points out correctly that the system of checks and balances would function as a limit on any one group's ability to control political outcomes. Impeachment, for example, was seen in the early days as an important check on the Executive, and anyone who wrote the Constitution would be shocked to come back to life today and find out how rarely we have actually had to use it.

Since Trump won there has been a lot of debate about whether institutions will save us or, more pertinently, whether our institutions can withstand the test of a true demagogue who hasn't the slightest interest in anything other than rule by fiat. Presented with this scenario, Madison and pals would tell us that Congress was given the divided power to impeach – the House to accuse and the Senate to try – to deal with such a person. In that sense, our system is fully prepared to deal with a Trump and the people who created the Constitution could be credited with remarkable foresight.

The problem, however, in practice is not that the Constitution has no provision for dealing with an autocrat-demagogue president. It does. It has a legislature empowered to remove him. What the Constitution does not have, and its authors did not foresee, is a provision for having a House that would watch a demagogue president, shrug half-heartedly, and say, "Whatever, let's use him for political cover." The problem is not that our system cannot control the president – it is that our system was not designed to handle a Congress that has no interest in trying to control the president. The Constitution's authors assumed, wrongly in the current situation, that members of Congress would not want a power-mad lunatic in the presidency. They assumed that elected officials might care a little bit about the country and any long term damage such an individual could inflict. As full of foresight and clever power-sharing arrangements as it may be, our core legal document offers nothing to protect the country or the system as a whole when the people given the responsibility of protecting it are members of a party so thoroughly rotten to its core that it is willing to abandon any pretense of principle if they see an opportunity to derive some benefit from the elevation of a wannabe dictator into the White House.

We can only guess what they would say in response to our current dilemma were they alive to see it, but it's safe to say that of all the ways in which our system could fail this one would not be high on their list of fears. Time has proven Madison largely correct in his prediction that the evils of self interest and factionalism could be reduced to acceptable levels by the nature of the system. There's no telling how strong the safeguards are, though, and they may not be sufficient to deal with a majority party this craven.

MOVE QUIETLY

Posted in Rants on February 8th, 2017 by Ed

While the Donald the Unready throws enough tantrums to keep everyone variously entertained and horrified, House Republicans are introducing one regressive piece of legislation after another. Most will go nowhere. Some will add to the pile of problems we have to fix down the road. One target that is moving into focus is their decades-long dream of cutting Social Security. FreedomWorks (Remember them? 2010 was fun!) is starting to spam the usual suspect publications with disingenuous op-eds, which is a safe sign that a bill (like the one mentioned in the link) is more a question of "when" rather than "if."

George Carlin was right – They want your fuckin' retirement money, and they want it bad. This really is the final boss of Reagan-era conservative politics. It's the only thing that has been a true third rail for them; no matter how hard they've tried to weasel-word their way into making cuts while claiming that they're not making cuts, people over 50 vote and they scream bloody murder anytime someone tries to touch their benefit. The only way to fix the long-term potential issues with the system without cutting benefits is to lift the cap on the payroll tax, currently set at $117,000. Since tax increases are not even a thing that exists for Republicans, this allows them to claim with a straight face that there is "no choice" but to cut benefits.

This is not a difficult problem to fix. Lift the cap and the dire prophecies of shortfalls disappear. Something tells me that the people earning over $117,000 per year, with the dozens of other loopholes available to reduce their tax burden, will find a way to survive without this one. Since that obvious solution is a non-starter because Freedom and benefit cuts are a political death trap given how senior voters will react, expect Congress to do what is politically expedient and use Trump for cover. They'll grandfather everyone currently over 55 – they do love that "born before 1960" phrase in all of their "fixes" – into the current benefit levels and then ream everyone younger than 55.

To me, Social Security is a strange issue. I have strong feelings about the politics of the issue and the way the system is run, but I also take it as a given that I'll never see a dime of it. I'm 38, or approximately halfway to the point at which I could derive any benefits from Social Security. And since the late 1990s when conservatives first began beating the drum to replace it with the lotto of the stock market, I knew there was no chance that the system as we know it today would survive (at that time) 40-50 years of these people trying to F with it. Like every other part of the government that Baby Boomers grew up with, they've realized that the most profitable course of action is to benefit from it for their entire lives and then dismantle it for future generations to give themselves (another) tax cut.