Archive for December, 2014

Authoritarianism, Liberty, and the Currency of Violence

Americans (like me) who spent the evening at Christmas parties away from news feeds and headlines will be horrified to wake this morning and learn of the assassination of two New York police officers.

Given the recent debates over police violence and the furor over the deaths of unarmed men Eric Garner and Michael Brown, it likely wouldn’t have been long before some started speculating about the motivation of these murders, so it should be completely unsurprising to learn that the killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, apparently made threats via social media linking his imminent attack to police killings believed by many to be racially tinged.

Some in the right wing will now undoubtedly move to blame the protesters taking to the streets after grand juries declined to indict officers for any crime related to the deaths of Garner and Brown, just as they have been blamed for the actions of rioters in Ferguson via social media and in the conservative echo chamber of Fox News. While this sort of rationale would have also shut down the Civil Rights movement generations ago because of the Race Riots of 1964, this act of barbarism should still lead all of us to reflect on the limits and effectiveness of righteous anger.

Anger can motivate human beings toward progress, but we should always be wary of it and its potential to move us far outside of what is righteous. It is, after all, righteous anger that motivates terrorists as well. They, too, feel wronged. The suicide bomber in Pakistan whose brother was killed by American drones is entitled to his anger, but not to his violence.

This latest strike against law enforcement officers harkens back to the terroristic killings of Jerad and Amanda Miller, who assassinated two Las Vegas police officers and an armed civilian who tried to intervene when they occupied a Walmart to raid its ammo supply.

Few in the media called those crimes terrorism, but their thinking was definitely political, as it would seem was Brinkley’s, which means they intended to use violence to pay back some entity or ideology for its perceived crimes against some ideal or principle held dear to the terrorist. For the Millers, the slaying of police officers was payment for the excesses of big government. For Brinkley, presumably, these killings were payment for police killings of unarmed black men.

In all these cases, violence was the currency that the killers used to send some message, to terrorize others. What is notable, though, is that the Millers’ attack and this recent assassination are directed specifically at police, at the arbiters of state-sanctioned violence.

Many, again on the right, who rightly denounce such savage killings by terrorists, are nonetheless likely to champion the use of violence by those state-sanctioned agents, whether it be using the military abroad, torturing enemies of the state, or simply shooting first in police confrontations.

There’s another interesting, if peculiar, example of terroristic threats in the media right now that is actually somewhat instructive in examining the philosophies and beliefs beneath this paradox of right wing thought about violence.

Recently, Sony pictures caved to terrorist threats from North Korea and pulled its comedy The Interview which featured two bumbling reporters being tasked by the CIA to assassinate Korean head of state Kim Jong Un.

North Korea has been a peculiar paradox itself. In popular American imagination it is both punchline and boogeyman. Recent Hollywood films like White House Down and Red Dawn have positioned North Korean forces improbably sieging American territory directly. These films, though, elicited no death threats from the North Korean regime or its army of cyberwarriors who hacked Sony over The Interview.

It would seem North Korea has no problem being cast as a violent, conquering regime, but cannot stand being the butt of a rather tasteless joke.

The American right behaved predictably to this debacle, with one conservative politician saying, “Any theater that would show this, any TV station that would show this, is acting irresponsibly. It would be a disgrace for it to be shown anywhere.”

Or rather, that’s what Representative Peter King said in 2006 about a movie depicting the assassination of George Bush. The conservative outcry over that little-known 2006 movie Death of a President contrasts with their bombastic rhetoric about the craven behavior of Sony. In 2006, a movie depicting violence against an American leader was irresponsible and should not be shown because it could elicit violence. In 2014, a movie depicting violence against a North Korean leader is cherished free expression and North Korea should pay for their threats.

There’s a contradiction here, and I believe it is actually the same contradiction we see in the right’s attitude toward state violence.

Most talking heads on the right side of the aisle in American politics espouse a deep commitment to “freedom” in their rhetoric. Most would point to the freedoms protected by the constitution as the bedrock of their political philosophies, but paradoxes such as their reactions to free speech contrary to their own views and their positions on violence by or against the state reveal that their commitment to “freedom” is tenuous.

What freedom, after all, could be more precious or more essential than the freedom to one’s own life. The freedom from violence is arguably the foremost, ab initio, of the essential freedoms.

Yet that is a freedom that the right is often content–in not “intent”–for the state to deny others. It is especially curious considering the right’s concomitant attachment to “individual liberty” as a political value. Frequently progressives are lampooned by the right wing as pinko commies bent on taking away individual liberty. During the protracted Obamacare fight, some right wingers likened its imposition of health care as an affront to liberty unrivaled since, believe it or not, the Holocaust.

Yet these same proponents of individual liberty often support the government’s use of the same currency the terrorists truck in: violence.

The news has been full lately with examples of the state or its representatives using this currency. Beyond the protests under the racially suspect deaths of Garner and Brown, we have also been treated to an inventory of the CIA’s sins in interrogating prisoners. Advocates of such torture like Dick Cheney evoke the melodrama of Hollywood to justify these actions, arguing that against a ticking time bomb, ignoring human decency can save lives. (Never mind that no such ticking time bomb moment has occurred or that Hollywood has delved into this sort of thing already.) This spurious logic could be used to justify all manner of criminal acts. I know for a fact that the actions of plutocratic tycoons like the Koch brothers are likely to lead to the deaths of thousands, if not millions in the future through their despoilment of the environment. Would I not be justified in torturing or killing them to make them stop? The logic is the same, the only difference is the time scale.

Except, of course, I am not the state.

It is the premise of Liberalism, the historical ideology from which all modern democratic thought descends, that government exists only to safeguard the rights of those who form it. The state, therefore, serves us as individuals.

Yet, there is another point of view, the authoritarian view that individuals owe allegiance and deference to the state. It is the thinking evident when Kim Jong Un’s hackers threaten Sony pictures over a stupid comedy or when American conservatives cast aside free speech because someone says something objectionable to them.

Authoritarians imbue the state with added power to do what individuals are not permitted. We see this evident in the defenses of Darren Wilson on the right. Anyone who says, “Well, he should have listened to the cop,” or “He shouldn’t have resisted arrest by arguing with the police,” when accounting for the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner is extolling authoritarian thinking, pure and simple. In this worldview, the officers were the hands of the state, imbued with its authority. Questioning them is questioning the state’s authority, a grievous offense indeed.

Another example of how this manifests in America is the death penalty. The United States–supposed bastion of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”–recently stood with such paragons of respect for human rights as China and Iran in voting “no” against a United Nations moratorium on the use of capital punishment.

Yet again it bears pointing out the obvious: there can be no greater affront to the liberty of a human being than the state taking his or her life. By what right does the collective gain permission to do what no individual is authorized to do? Many on the right claim to be individualists–insisting that individual rights are the foundation of their political philosophies, yet they believe that the state, the collectivist representation of our separate individual wills, should retain this ability, the ability to murder us?

It is yet another revealing example demonstrating that the true strain of thought that guides the core of the right wing in this country is authoritarianism, not individualism.

The minority voice in that right wing comes from libertarians (though any that cannot follow their beliefs to the logical conclusion of rejecting the death penalty should be suspected of merely being pawns of the larger plutocratic agenda) who do embrace individualism, but do so by embracing a mythologized parody of 18th century Enlightenment thinking so absolutist that it would cripple any attempts at using government to further progress or human rights–something the Founders did, in fact, care about.

All of which leads us to the thorny question of what to do about the way violence is used as currency in our society. The right wing solutions are anything but. The absurdist Wild West thinking of the Open Carry wingnuts and the cagey paranoia of the ticking time bomb extremists and killer cop apologists are obviously blights to be overcome, but so too is reactionary violence–the cop killers and terrorists.

Eye for an eye thinking leads only to the perpetuation of violence, a cycle of savagery that we see played out in the tragic murders of these two NYPD officers. They were killed because they were symbols, and there can be no equivocation or rationalization that might open a crack of justification for such an act. This man’s murder of these two police officers was every bit as wrong as any other homicide.

But unlike the killings of Eric Garner or Michael Brown, the state was in no way complicit in these deaths, and we already have laws vouchsafing protections against murder by individuals.

These deaths, then, do not compel us to reform any practices of the state, they require no introspection or analysis of public policy. They are simple crimes.

The Garner and Brown cases, though, were not simple cases. They are entangled in larger questions of justice that we must come to terms with, just as the CIA torture report must drive us toward more carefully constructed guidelines for how our intelligence and military should comport themselves.

It is our responsibility to grow as a society by refining the strictures placed on individuals who act on the state’s behalf, whether that be through repudiating inhumane practices or by promoting more community-oriented cultures within police forces.

The guiding principle of all these endeavors must be a commitment to the true bedrock principle of our republic, which is not authoritarianism, but liberty. Truly promoting freedom involves us in the messy work of listening to each other and striving for change, something the authoritarian wing of the American political establishment has proven incapable of doing time and time again.

What they lack is something we must all be mindful of. Individualism does not lead inevitably to liberty, after all. One person fully cognizant of his own rights and his own needs does not create a just society. It is only through recognition of each other’s humanity that we admit the need for freedom, the imperative of liberty in political culture.

That recognition requires fostering empathy, the deepest level of that bedrock beneath human civilization. War, murder, torture, and even censorship are all affronts to that empathy–all attempts by individuals or the state to impose their will on others, instead of acknowledging their own rights to pursue their own happiness, to speak their own consciences, to do as they will.

The Drumbeat of the Educational “Reformers”

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I avoided reading the recent Time magazine article “Rotten Apples” by Haley Sweetland Edwards because I figured it would just make me angry.

It caught up with me, though, at a dentist’s office today as I waited for my daughter to have her braces tightened. I can’t say I was wrong about my reaction.

When published, with its dramatic cover photo of a gavel coming down toward a defenseless Red Delicious, the article ignited almost as much controversy as the legal decision it focused on.

That decision, Vergara v. California was the first success in a campaign waged by Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch, now tied in the popular imagination to the broader changes in education and the controversial Common Core movement. Welch used a PR firm and a team of lawyers to go after the current bugaboo in educational reform circles: Teachers themselves.

Based on recent research extolling teacher quality as the most powerful force in educational outcomes, a whole wave of new “reformers” is putting teachers in the metaphorical crosshairs. All too often, though, the conversations have not focused on helping teachers develop their talents and better master the minefield of the modern American classroom, but on how to get rid of bad teachers.

The problem, according to Welch, is tenure.

The data that Welch and his supporters use, of course, isn’t quite as conclusive as they would like people to believe. Teacher quality has a powerful effect, but that effect has not been found to be all powerful. A really good teacher vs. an awful one will still only swing outcomes in the neighborhood of 10% for students.

It’s not insignificant, of course, and the appeal to these “reformers” is that teacher quality—unlike socioeconomic disparity or other deeply rooted social factors that also have tremendous impact on educational performance—seems manageable.

These business leaders and market thinkers, in a stunning feat of sadly daft small-mindedness, have proposed purging low performing teachers (defined by the narrow rubric of student test performance, no less) as a simple solution to the problem of teacher quality.

This, obviously, has not gone without comment from teacher unions and other representatives of the profession. When the California ruling declaring teacher tenure unconstitutional came down, teachers’ groups immediately prepared for the next round in the court battle.

Welch says of the upcoming appeal of the Vergara decision, “I’m willing to fight that battle as long as I have to fight that battle.”

But what he and the other anti-tenure crusaders haven’t thought to ask is whether winning that battle will have any impact on the outcome of the war.

Teacher tenure was secured as a protection against arbitrary and politically motivated firings, a move to protect teachers as stalwart fixtures in culture’s self-propagation. One can imagine a wealth of theoretical reasons pro and con for the practice of granting tenure, but the practical reality must be acknowledged.

Yes, there are lousy teachers out there.

As a long-time teacher in Texas, I have known and been frustrated by the presence of many bad teachers over the years. This would seem to provide begrudging support for Welch’s argument, were it not for one simple fact.

Texas has no tenure system.

The Lone Star State’s example proves that Welch’s magic bullet to fix education will surely fail. In a profession that burns out more than half of new teachers within five years, having to keep bad teachers isn’t the problem—it’s keeping any teachers at all.

Conditions for teachers have grown progressively worse during the two decades that business-spirited “reformers” have held sway over the effort to “fix” our national school system. The nation’s schools have been locked in a constant feedback loop of constantly shifting testing standards constantly uncovering educational deficits, with well-paid corporations providing the damning evidence by scanning the Rorschach patterns in scantron bubbles with all the insight of tea leaf readings.

Despite more than a decade of testing-über-alles in the nation’s schools thanks to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the movers and shakers of the data-driven instruction movement have precious little data to trumpet. It turns out that making schools obsess over state tests can improve state test scores, but nothing else.

Measures of academic excellence that correlate with real-world success like the SAT haven’t budged an inch, despite their superficial similarities to the bubble-riddled state exams.

The results people aren’t getting results, and yet those same people believe that they’ve found the scapegoat.

Well before the Vergara decision, teachers have been pushed for greater and greater “accountability,” a buzzword that has translated to more paperwork and more scrutiny for teachers. Educators across the nation—and particularly here in Texas—have been pushed for results through reviews, excruciating data analysis sessions, and trainings focused on assessment, assessment, assessment. Meanwhile, the Great Recession left budgets slashed, ratcheting up the pressure on teachers by forcing them to preside over larger classroom populations with less systemic support.

The turnover rate among new teachers entering this hostile climate is unsurprising and it’s the fatal flaw in Welch’s battleplan. Studies have found that teacher quality is also something that can be developed throughout a teacher’s career. Very few prodigies launch into the classroom and are immediately effective as practitioners. The evidence suggests that experience is vital, but even more interesting, it also shows that teachers can get better just by being assigned to better schools. Firing bad teachers might seem like a way to improve the environment in schools and hence reinforce this effect, but it would likely only lead to the revolving door for beginning teachers spinning even faster.

In short, Welch may get rid of the bad teachers, but where does he expect to find the good teachers to take their places?

To do that, we need an honest exploration of what makes for a good teacher.

That is where the wrongheadedness of Welch’s approach really reveals itself.

Time’s article characterizes the movement spearheaded by these Silicon Valley 1%’ers and the broader business-backed “reform” movement so entangled with for-profit educational firms like Pearson as, “built on private-sector management strategies.” The truth goes much deeper, though. These education “reformers,” from the common core folks to the NCLB backers a decade ago, all share one dismal trait in common: their view of education is entirely framed in economic terms.

One of the pieces of evidence brought into the Vergara case was a finding from a Harvard/Columbia study that found that bad teachers could affect a student’s lifetime income to the tune of $250,000.

Yet, these market thinkers never bother to consider what market incentives exist for teachers. The worsening bureaucratic realities for teachers under the Common Core and the testing movement are only part of the problem. With low standards, low pay, and withering social status, teaching lacks the very market value that the “reformers” use to appraise their impact on students.

Other nations—Finland, most notably—have successfully reformed their education systems without the help of wealthy moguls’ input. Professionalizing the teaching field and investing in teacher quality through education and incentives instead of taking a scythe to the existing workforce can pay more dividends than the results-oriented “reformers” have been able to accomplish with their push for accountability through testing.

For that, though, we must surrender their entire paradigm.

Education, after all, is not and should not be simply about economics. Children are not products to be brought up to code (though that is the chilling implication of the rhetoric and methodology of the “reformers”). The education system these standards-driven ideologues have designed is a sad parody of the Jeffersonian ideal which suffused the Founders’ vision for America, and it subtracts from the dignity of all the human beings caught up in its increasingly labyrinthine accountability machine.

If we infused fresh life into our education system by training and trusting a new generation of teachers vested in a humanistic and holistic approach to improving the minds and lives of our young people, then we might find that even some of the undesirable teachers Welch wants to expunge might rise to the occasion.

We can certainly afford to find out, since all the other changes under the business-minded “reformers” have already failed.

Star Trek Into Darkness is not a “Truther” Movie

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Hello, all.

I haven’t been posting much lately because I’ve been hard at (pretending to) work on my current novel.

In the course of distracting myself from said novel, I’ve continued surfing the web as usual (wherein “usual” is equivalent to using 97% of the time I should be allocating to actual writing).

And I’ve come across something in the geekosphere that I simply must address.

Now, this is going to seem like a kind of silly post, but you probably guessed that from the “Star Trek” in the title. I have, however, noted before two very important things about me and Star Trek: 1) it matters to me, and 2) I think Into Darkness was actually pretty damned good.

Some others (with much, much, much wider readerships), though, have advanced a theory that Star Trek Into Darkness is actually a validation of 9/11 Truther conspiracy theories.

Well, when Cracked said it, I bit my tongue. But now that I just spotted the accusation again, I have to–HAVE TO–weigh in.

So, according to 9/11 Truthers, the September 11th attacks were an inside job, allowed to happen to further America’s imperialistic appetites in the Middle East.

Alright. That’s sick and crazy. (Never explain with vast conspiracies, what simple human hubris can account for.)

In Star Trek Into Darkness, the Enterprise and her valiant crew are nearly sacrificed to cover up the escape of a “terrorist” and to allow a crazed Starfleet admiral to realize his own militaristic goals for the otherwise peaceable Federation.

I can see how someone could get confused there, but here’s what Matt Goldberg over at Collider and the fine folks at Cracked are missing:

The first f’ing movie.

None of the events in Star Trek Into Darkness are a parallel for 9/11. The event that is a parallel for 9/11 was the senseless destruction of the entire planet Vulcan in the previous movie. That was not an inside job, but the act of a vengeful, irrational, genocidal maniac.

The movie is not validating the Truthers who think 9/11 is an inside job, it’s denouncing the hawks who cynically exploited 9/11 to advance a completely different agenda in the run up to war in Iraq.

The movie is an allegory denouncing the excesses of the War on Terror, with clear jabs at drone warfare and WMDs.

I certainly hope that settles that.

Now…what was I supposed to be doing again?