Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Purgation and perplexity in the classroom

A PORCUPINE! ... March 21, 2011
Best assembly ever -- wild animals. We get a fox, opossum, porcupine, a red tailed hawk and great horned owl. A porcupine! How ya gonna beat that? At the end of the day. the school secretary says that there was a baby opossum outside her house once and her husband called the SPCA and they came and picked it up. I figure it might have been the one we saw today and probably grown-up opossums warn their offspring that "if you are bad and don't listen to us, you'll wind up spending your whole life going to assemblies of school children."

You get the sense that Tom Gallagher sometimes wonders whether he did something heinous in a former life that earned him a more than a decade wrangling obnoxious middle schoolers whose teachers have taken a day off. Sub: My Years Underground in America's Schools is a sort of enhanced diary of those encounters and a fascinating window on what really goes on in public schoolrooms in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a delight. I laughed out loud often. Meanwhile, almost insensibly, Gallagher's deeper concerns show through: these schools, despite most people's best intentions, are failing too many young African Americans. And closer you come to that reality, the less easy it is to imagine easy improvements.

On my second day on this job, let's get serious here for a moment. Third period has seven black kids out of a class of thirty and I have to jump start four of them. One has no book because he forgot it. I give him a hall pass to go get it from his locker, but he comes back saying it wasn't there. Another is spending his time cleaning his binder; two girls are drawing. None of this is antagonistic today, as it was with the kids I kicked out yesterday, but these are the only kids that I have to push.

This is a sort of situation that is repeated all over the place and it's the kind of thing that almost no one knows how to talk about, so they don't. For instance, I haven't even really discussed it thus far. I usually don't even keep notes about how many of the kids I throw out are white and how many are black. But if I really get to talking to someone about what being in the schools is like, I invariably tell them it seriously heightens one's awareness of the plight of black America, a topic to which I shall return frequently.

In one class a black girl with serious vision problems and special large print books complains about the Chinese kid coming up to another Chinese kid across the table from her and asking questions "in their stupid language." "At least we speak another language," the kid says. I tell them both to stifle themselves.

In sixth period the kids have to look up definitions. One of their words is "Martian," but it's not in the dictionary. I give one girl a hint that it has to do with a particular planet. She says, "Pluto?" The kid I gave a referral to is back. He's not disruptive -- other than drinking a can of soda -- which is not allowed in class, but but does no work. I wonder what you do with kids like this in the long run. I tell him he's going to spend the rest of his time in the counselor's office and learn nothing at this rate. He says, "What about when I graduate?" I don't say what's on my mind -- that when he graduates there's unfortunately an excellent chance that a bench in a police station will replace the one in the counselor's office.
At one point, kids who've been doing nothing but talk say they want to work in the hall, but when the aide indicates this is not done, I shoo them back in the classroom. One says, "We'll do our work." I tell him I doubt it, to which he replies, "You say that because I'm black." The aide upbraids him on that and he sits down and continues to noisily do nothing until the aide tells him to go to his proper seat which he refuses to do, and I send him to the counselor ...

Does this guy actually thinks he's discriminated against because he's black, or does he just say it because it gets a reaction? Actually, although I think he's wrong, I don't know that his analysis -- if it really is that -- is any more wrong than most of what goes around on the topic these days. Certainly there are people who think he won't or can't do school work because he's black, although not too many of them will say that publicly these days. And there's others who'll say that his work is poor because his school or his teachers are failing him. And I don't think they're actually on the mark either, to the extent that they think that the primary cause of black students' difficulties lies in unequal treatment or unequal expectations within the educational system. He's not being sent out because he is black, and he's not not doing his work because he's black, and yet insofar as he thinks that his race has everything to do with his relations with the educational system, he's right. ...
And I finish the day in a tranquil island of Algebra Class where a girl who asks me for help is apologetic for asking for the second time. Wow, is that a change! ... Ms. J [the regular teacher] is black, and I really wonder how she feels about the fact that her two best classes -- the Algebra classes -- have not a single black student in them, but I'm sure I'll never speak with her about it. At least I can report a measure of equality on the racial front, though -- the list of students I have ejected from class [throughout the full day] already includes black, white, Asian, and Latino.

And so the beat goes on. The kids think Gallagher looks like Jack Nicholson; some like him a little, some don't. He "yells at children professionally."

He is willing to suggest that maybe African Americans having arrived in this country involuntarily as slaves has something to do with the black kids' troubles -- but he is not on some doctrinaire riff. He's just busy trying to cope.

Can the adults learn to talk with each other more honestly about race and education? Gallagher offers plenty to chew on, entertainingly.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

As the utility of scaring people with the gay menace wanes ...

Here's a little bit more on the fearful fantasies occupying our Republican fellow citizens: Paul Waldman at the American Prospect points to a developing conflation of xenophobia and Islamophobia that he thinks may replace hating the gays as a central theater of culture war:

... a rumor recently began circulating that in many countries in Europe, Muslims have established areas where not only are non-Muslims afraid to go, but where police refuse to go and some version of Sharia law has replaced the actual laws of the country.

... away from debating about what is or isn't happening in Europe, to what might be coming to the United States. Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, an extremely influential figure among the religious right, recently warned that Dearborn, Michigan, and "parts of Minneapolis" are now ruled by Sharia law. In response, Representative Keith Ellison—one of two Muslim members of Congress, who represents Minneapolis—sent Perkins a warm and patient letter inviting him to the city, where he could see that while there are many Muslim Americans who live there, all federal, state, and local laws remain in effect.

While you might think that any whipped-up fears having to do with Muslims are about terrorism, this is as much or even more about immigration. It's an exaggerated version of what so many find disturbing when they see significant numbers of immigrants in and around their communities: that the new arrivals will make them feel like aliens in their own home. People will be speaking a different language, eating different foods, participating in a different culture, and all of it will seem strange and unsettling. ...

The good news: the right is losing on gays, and it will lose on demonizing our latest wave of immigrants, eventually. That's the story of the country.

Noted in San Francisco's Civic Center plaza on a nice fall day. We may be under siege by a wave of tech zillionaires, but as usual, the city by the bay is cheerfully living the conservatives' nightmare.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Fraidycats, the Kochs' errand boy, and Ms. Democrat

So the Republican presidential clown show had its first big meetup in Iowa this weekend and the people who make their living reporting on all these things are enjoying their first outing. Apparently Sarah Palin gave a "bizarro" speech. The rest of the aspirants competed to warm whatever it is that conservatives have in place of hearts. Mostly I intend to forgo this poisonous topic, but I'm letting myself go just this once (for a long while.)

One tidbit that might pass unnoticed deserves highlighting. John Bolton, a crackpot conservative foreign policy intellectual who was George W.'s ambassador to the U.N. (an institution he despises) apparently made quite a hit with his mantra: "it's a dangerous world." Of course it is, but probably less so for citizens of this country, surrounded as we are by two oceans and living under something like the rule of law, than for just about anyone on the planet. But it's the business of the GOP to keep our more credulous fellow citizens scared out of their wits. So prepare for lots of Big Fear.
A friend questioned me over the weekend about which of these lilliputians I think will end up running in 2016. Just for the heck of it, I'll record an early prediction here: look out for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. He's made a career of demonizing the largely Black population of Milwaukee, repeatedly elected as the county executive by white surrounding suburbs eager to quarantine the darkness in the city. As governor, he made it his main business to break Wisconsin's state employee unions and fought off a labor inspired recall campaign. He demolished a highly plausible woman opponent in the 2014 cycle.

So what if he's an unprepossessing errand boy for the Koch brothers who can't move an audience? He seems to me to have the right qualifications to survive while the rest of these clamoring idiots and self-referential assholes tear each other up. And bring on Hillary: he's already shown he's a tough guy ...

Of course I could be wrong, but I bet some of the money guys for the Reps look at Walker as plausible compromise from among the circus.
Speaking of Hillary, I'll repeat here what I always say about her. Once we elect her, I hope she proves me wrong, but I don't trust any promises she may make to move the country in the direction of greater economic equity. She's run with the wrong crowd, Wall Street and Walmart, for too long. But if she's the Democrat, we must elect her. The majority of us can't afford a president who works only for whites and the one percent. I'll even work to elect Hillary. But since I live in safely Democratic California, I glad I don't have to cast my single personal vote for her!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Overcoming and outgrowing violence

If, like me, you were introduced to New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow's Fire Shut Up in My Bones (the title comes from a phrase in the Biblical book of Jeremiah, that angry prophet), through the excerpt published in the Times magazine, you might think this was a story of coming to terms with a non-standard sexual orientation. Though Mr. Blow indeed "comes out" as bisexual in this memoir, that's only part of the story. As an old time queer myself, I appreciated viscerally the terror that a child in a gay-inhospitable environment can feel when introduced to their orientation by an unfeeling, often exploitative, older person.

But this is really a book whose center is violence, the violence of growing up poor, rural, isolated and Black, in addtion to being bisexual, in Louisiana in the 1970s and 80s. Charles Blow is a miracle -- maybe we all are, but this vital book makes a strong case that he's a particular one to whom we'd all do well to listen.

Some of the violence was at home.

The only time I ever saw a person actually shoot a gun at another, I was five years old, and it was my mother shooting at my father.

His mother had opened herself to his father after they'd broken off; evidence of his further betrayal led to the shooting. She missed, perhaps on purpose. She also refrained from blowing away one of his lover's who dared to come around when he was seeing his children.

In a family beset by betrayals, Blow was further betrayed by the older cousin who molested him, awakening sexual feelings he had no way to interpret in a place and situation in which he had no one to turn to for explanation. To be labeled "punk or "sissy" would have been to risk his life, literally. He struggled to find a safe way to be a man, in the sight of others and to himself, not always successfully.

There's not much evidence of a successful civil rights movement in this story. Gibsland, where Blow grew up, had a segregated cemetery then; in interviews about the book, he reports that it still does.

In Gibsland, our racial role playing was subtle and sophisticated. We had an unspoken understanding: we simply danced around each other, moving to a tune that everyone knew but no one sang ... I never heard or saw anything overtly unpleasant in public. That is, until the first time I was called a nigger.

... Hearing that word made me reconsider everything I thought I understood about my life. ...

I thought about how older black people tried to pass a fear of white men on to us. "If you don't act right, the police gone git you." "Police" was just a term of art for white men. Sometimes they dispensed with the euphemisms altogether and just said, "That white man is gone git you," pointing to any white man in sight. ...

I could easily have followed these racial cues: that white people were to be feared, to be kept at a distance, to be fed with a long-handled spoon. I began to internalize this fear. ... Luckily, I was saved from that fate by [his grandmother] Big Mama's relationship with a white family she worked for in Arkansas -- the Beales. ... it wasn't the working relationship that stood out and made the most difference to me as a young boy. It was what I registered then as their basic goodness to each other, their sense of sameness. My family's interactions with the Beales prevented racial fear and mistrust from taking hold. ...

Quite likely, Blow is a columnist at the Times today because he saw one humanly decent relationship between whites and blacks in his segregated youth.

Amidst all the violence Blow describes, I found most disturbing the tale of the physical hazing that he and other fraternity pledges at Grambling chose to endure to be admitted to the brotherhood. I am lucky enough to have come of age in a time and place in which the Greek system was viewed as a regressive artifact of a dying social order. (Would that we'd been right!) I've since come to understand that for some African Americans, these organizations provide support in a foreign and hostile white culture. But beating the shit out of each other seems kind of sick. He explains its rationale:

Brothers had to make pledging physically difficult so that the bond would be stronger -- the bond between individual pledges and the bond between them and us. Unspoken in it all, the subtext, was that the hazing, with its brutality and physical hardships, was supposed to connect us to ancestral suffering, providing a generational through line of punishment and perseverance, from bondage to fraternal bonding. Thus, the Brothers saw no wrong in it -- only honor and heritage ...

Blow eventually rejected the practice after having been elected president of his fraternity chapter. Blow does not explicitly address this, apparently preferring to speak of bonds within the fraternal group, but I cannot help wondering: was this violence through which young Black men sought to prove themselves yet another warped residue of our country's original sin, of slavery? That verdict is there in his language, intentionally or not. And he's a pretty darn intentional writer.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Saturday scenes and scenery: hands

We leave our mark.

Even if the surface is cold and hard.

Even scratched in the concrete -- and colored.

Hands record a moment in time.

Where the hand is art, we want our part.

All byproducts from 596 Precincts.

My congresswoman at her best

As Republicans try, again, to outlaw abortion, Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi reminds a press conference that yes -- she does know more about babies than the pope.

Friday cat blogging

This well-fed creature greeted me as I trudged a precinct in Glen Park.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Occupied minds: into a spiral of never ending violence

The Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff has offered a thoughtful response to the terrible massacres of transgressive cartoonists, random Jewish shoppers, and bystanders that is riling France and all of Europe. Boff nettled the Vatican in the 1980s and 90s with his insistence on moving theology to the side of the poor and outcast. In 1992, he resolved those conflicts by giving up his priestly functions and "promoting himself to the state of the laity." His blog post on Charlie Hebdo is reproduced in full below.

Understanding the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris

It is one thing, and it is justifiable, to be indignant over the terrorist action that killed the best French caricaturists. It was an abominable and criminal act, which no-one can support.

Trying to understand analytically why such terrorist acts occur is different. Such acts do not fall from a clear blue sky. The sky behind them is dark, comprised of tragic histories, great massacres, humiliations and discrimination, and not just from true wars, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, that sacrificed the lives of thousands upon thousands of people, or forced them into exile.

The United States and several European countries were involved in these wars. Millions of Moslems live in France, the majority in the peripheries of the cities, in precarious conditions. Many of them, although born in France, are discriminated against to the point that it appears to be true Islamophobia. After the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a mosque was sprayed with gunfire, a Moslem restaurant was set on fire, and an Islamic prayer house was also shot at.

The issue is one of overcoming the spirit of revenge, and renouncing the strategy of confronting violence with still more violence. That creates a spiral of never ending violence, that produces countless victims, most of whom are innocent. And it will never achieve peace. If you want peace, prepare the means of peace, which is the fruit of dialogue and of the respectful coexistence among all.

The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 against the United States was paradigmatic. The reaction of President Bush was to declare “endless war” against terror and to pass the “Patriot Act” that violates citizens’ fundamental rights.

What the United States and her Western allies did in Iraq and Afghanistan was a modern war with the loss of countless civilian lives. If in those countries there had only been large date palm and fig plantations, nothing like that would have occurred. But in those countries there are great oil reserves, the blood of the world system of production. Such violence left a residue of rage, hatred and a desire of revenge in many Moslems who lived in those countries and elsewhere, all over the world.

Starting from that background one can understand that the abominable Paris attack was the result of this prior violence, not a spontaneous act. Not that this justifies it.

The effect of this attack is to instill widespread fear. That is the what terrorism seeks: to occupy the minds of the people and make them prisoners of fear. The principal point of terrorism is not to occupy their territory, as Westerners did in Afghanistan and Iraq, but to occupy their minds.

Sadly, the prophesy the intellectual author of the September 11 attempts, Osama Bin Laden, made on October 8, 2001 was realized: "The United States will never again have security, never again have peace." To occupy people’s minds, to keep them emotionally destabilized, to make them distrust any foreign gesture or person, is the essential objective of terrorism.

To reach its objective of dominion of the minds, terrorism follows this strategy:

(1) the actions must be spectacular, otherwise they do no cause widespread commotion;

( 2 ) the actions, in spite of being hateful, must inspire admiration for the ingenuity involved;

( 3 ) the actions must show that they were meticulously prepared;

( 4 ) the actions must be unexpected, to give the impression of being uncontrollable;

( 5 ) the authors of the actions must remain anonymous (using masks) because when there are more suspects, the fear is greater;

( 6 ) the actions must cause lasting fear;

( 7 ) the actions must distort the perception of reality: anything that is different can produce terror. It is enough to see some poor children walking into a commercial center, and the image of a potential assailant is produced.

Let us formalize the concept of terrorism: it is any spectacular violence, done with the purpose of filling people’s minds with fear and dread. Violence itself is not important, what is important is its spectacular character, its capacity for dominating everybody’s mind. One of the most lamentable effects of terrorism was that it promoted the terrorist State that the United States is now. Noam Chomsky quotes an official of the North-American security apparatus, who confessed: "The United States is a terrorist state and we are proud of it.}

Hopefully this spirit does not predominate in the world, especially in the West. If it does, we are headed for the worst kind of encounter. Only peaceful means have the secret strength to overcome violence and war. That is the lesson of history, and the counsel of wise humans, such as the Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Francis of Assísi, and Francis of Rome.

Free translation from the Spanish by
Servicios Koinonia,

Emphasis within the article is mine.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Georgia to kill a man with a 6th grader's grasp of the world

On January 27, the state of Georgia plans to execute Warren Lee Hill for bludgeoning a cellmate to death. I wouldn't want to be locked up with this guy. He's apparently a menace, or at least he was in 1990 when he committed the crime.

But didn't the Supreme Court had decided in 2002 that, whoever else this country executes, it shouldn't kill the "mentally retarded"?

Yes, that was the decision. But that merely turns the question of who is "mentally retarded" into something to be argued in the courts. Georgia requires that a claim of intellectual disability be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt." Hill's lawyers argued that his IQ is 70; Georgia responded that it is 77. (I have discussed previously that IQ measures nothing but skill at IQ tests but this is not the ground they are arguing on.) Both sides produced "experts." The American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities weighed in for Hill; they want the condition of their constituency to be taken seriously.

The Supremes punted, failing to uphold and follow through on defining the implications of their own ruling. So Hill is scheduled to die.

We wouldn't be litigating this stuff if we just locked up dangerous people until/unless they stopped being dangerous. But that wouldn't satisfy some people's need for "closure"/revenge.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Involuntary blog break

This head cold leaves me feeling as if my nose were the size of this bear's. And my brain feels as stuffed as his is. I'm lost in enjoyable reading and will return when I am breathing (and thinking) more normally.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A holiday to remember Dr. King

Two offerings for this day. First, evidence that the schools are trying. Rather sweet. I'm reading and greatly enjoying Tom Gallagher's Sub: My Years Underground in America's Schools, so finding it hard to be sanguine about anything that comes out of what my parents called "the halls of learning."

My friends from Ferguson Action and Black Lives Matter have been disrupting the smooth functioning of everyday life to get the attention of us all. They want us to be reminded that Dr. King was a radical. He was.

It would be hard to find a sentiment more radical than this, from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, engraved on the King memorial in Washington.
Now to get there ...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Police preying on the people

A couple of Philadelphia reporters won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for what amounts to a local case study of the police misbehavior that Radley Balko explores in The Rise of the Warrior Cop. The book that came out of their investigations, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker is a terrific companion volume to Balko's, a quick read, and a reminder that shoe leather journalism can bring to life realities that sociological and analytical journalism merely describe.

A terrified police informant turned up in the city room of the Philadelphia Daily News, the city's screaming tabloid, with a story of working for a narcotics cop who sent him to set up acquaintances with drug buys -- and paid him with rental living quarters. Uh-oh ... the two women chased down this improbable tale, verifying its truth. They then started hearing that the same squad was raiding corner stores owned by immigrants, stealing merchandise, trashing their alarm systems, and dropping phony charges on the proprietors. Uh-oh ... so that's why the cops always had candy bars to pass out to street regulars from whom they wanted something. Once these stories hit the news, women began to tell them horror stories of being molested by a particular member of the narco squad who had a thing for baring and fondling the breasts of unfortunate females held in proximity to drug raids.

Unlike Balko, Ruderman and Laker make it abundantly clear that the reason these corrupt cops could get away with this behavior for years was that Philadelphia authorities neither believed nor cared about abuse of African Americans and other residents of color. The cops were white and they wouldn't have thought of trying this stuff in white communities. (The reporters were also white.)

Balko writes that J. Edgar Hoover always refused to commit his beloved F.B.I. to rooting out drug commerce.

[He] knew the issue was a loser and tended to lure law enforcement into corruption.

It would be hard to imagine a more concrete, thorough indictment of how the "War on Drugs" makes police into yet another predatory gang running wild where they can than Ruderman and Laker offer here.
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