Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Workaday Anomie

So, I’m headed back to the weekday grind after our annual three-day weekend celebration of all things ‘Murica and I’m having my typical internal struggles readjusting from the insulated slack of domesticity to the raw, exposed tensions of public life in the Imperial City.

Everything is an irritating hindrance to me on these mornings: the firefighters goofing over lottery tickets as I wait behind them to buy my first cigarette of the day; the punitively exorbitant price of said cigarettes; the precarity of dodging auto traffic on my bike as I roll to the ‘L’ station; the young man, obviously homeless and troubled, who smells so bad I have to switch cars immediately; the lady playing games on her cell phone with the volume way up; the fact that I’m running late again, as usual; in sum, the typical garbage complaints that'll prompt me to vacillate between hating the world for creating these situations and blaming myself for some more or less obvious degree of complicity in them.

Each weekday morning kicks off another such round of mentally wrestling with and untangling these unwanted involvements in social dysfunction, until Friday rolls around again and I land on “Fuck it!” as the weekly provisional solution. And then I let everything else slack until next Monday morning, just trying to enjoy every minute I can with my wife and daughter before I have to go out and re-earn that modest privilege, time and time again.

I wish that I could just stay home and earn my family's bread as a writer or luthier or something autonomous, artisan and above all, home-based, and so now I write this down instead of percolating the Bad Thoughts to discharge, worthless, into the ether of Shoulda-Coulda-Woulda wishful thinking and social media.

So in the few hundred words and 15 minutes I have left on today's journey, let's talk about wishful thinking. Of all our savvy judgments about how others can manifest better success from their circumstances, or at least avert tragedies, it’s important to keep an internally clear view of the normative assumptions that (mis)inform those judgements.

Case in point: I was skimming through Reddit this morning (so there's a mistake on my part right off the bat) and came across an unfortunate story about a young man who was murdered and left his mother with over a quarter million dollars in student loan debt, which the State of New Jersey does not see fit to write down. The sad tale, as related in a Sacramento Bee article reprinted from NYT, was terrible enough in its own right, but the comments were just as exasperating. (Axiom: If you want to stay reasonably happy and sane in online discourse, never read the comments!) Indeed, it seemed that the more credit the commenters gave themselves for being rational and discerning, the more obtuse and purblind were their remarks.

For instance, several hollered “Misleading headline/clickbait!” -- never mind that the story’s particulars were every bit as depressing and systemically unjust as the copy editor’s gloss proclaimed. A handful more helpfully pointed out that since the mother had cosigned for her late son’s onerous and almost certainly insurmountable debt, that squared things just fine in their P's O.V.: because the Law is the Law and a Contract is a Contract, (in)human consequences be damned.

Also appearing: a small chorus berating the deceased as “stupid” for racking up such exorbitant debt, even by college tuition standards (“I only [sic] owed $30k when I graduated!”) -- again, assuming all other background elements were ethical & normative business-as-usual in the marketing and financing of higher ed degrees; no-siree-Bob, I didn't get taken because I got a scholarship/studied Engineering instead of Humanities/refi’d my loans and ate peanut butter for 10 years until I was debt-free/etc. How clever & enterprising, bully for you, society's "winners!"

So two things pop out as I review the general tenor of the blockheaded yes-buts that afford this sage audience the luxury of saying, Sorry, but life is unfair and that young man was a fool -- so just maybe Mom sorta deserves to live out her remaining years as a de facto debt slave, having raised a fool who not only spent more than anyone can reasonably afford on a college education but also managed to get himself killed before he could start earning anything near sufficient to redeem it.

First, all these sophomoric yokels are obviously grasping at any straw in this sorry tale that allows them to reassure themselves, “Nothing like that could ever happen to me or my family; I’m way too smart for that.” As if God, the Fates, or our nation’s all-powerful network of credit rating agencies and bill collectors give a withered fig how smart or hard-working or [insert laudable human quality] one happens to be, you stupid marks! We are nothing but numbers to them, a flock to be fleeced, and ‘there but for the grace of God’ go we all. If there is any real lesson to be gained from this unfortunate story, I think the OP’s implied point -- that we are ALL fucked by our country’s systematically predatory college financing debt-indenture racket -- easily withstands your parsimonious false moralizing. I mean, wow, if Nietzsche really thought the Christian culture of his day imbued a "slave morality" in the masses, he'd have been fucking blown away by the normalized deviance, internalized oppression, and craven boot-licking exhibited by this post-2008 American debtor class. Europeans of his day would've been rioting in the streets over such blatant and heartless depredations (some still do), while instead we proud, wise and free Americans respond with a collective shrug and say, "Meh, not my problem -- caveat emptor, dude!"

Second, I have to be wary of any inclination I might harbor to think that I’m more wise than these callous, narcissistic idiots. After all, I got taken for about $40k too, merit scholarship and all.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Ten Books

Lessee, "Ten Books That Have Shaped My Life," eh? Gonna make a quick, gut-check run of it, sans filter. Forgive any titles that seem cliche -- it's the books' fault for making me who I am!
1.) On The Road by Jack Kerouac. In retrospect, a terrible novel and even worse as a formative influence, but Dean Moriarty (nee Neal Cassady) is the epitome of the restless, American-dreaming hustler. The trick to any useful reading of OTR is to recognize that Dean is the villain and Sal is just a hollow enabler-narrator, like Gatsby's Nick or Ahab's Ishmael (see #6 below also). The rest is just kicks.

2.) [TIE] To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Two YA-targeted titles that gave me my first really rich experiences of story as emotional transportation. I don't care if you think TKAM is a maudlin fluke, or call foul on shoehorning an extra pick into a Top 10 with a tie; they're both undeniable exemplars of beautifully lyrical, moving prose.

3.) The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. There's not much I can add to what I've already said about it elsewhere, but if you want to understand where, how and why American architecture & city planning went completely off the rails -- plus some solid leads as to everything else amiss with our national way of life, from Ferguson to Iraq -- then you'd better read it. It's also really, fumingly, acidly funny. READ IT!

4.) Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford. Like everything else in Mumford's oeuvre, an epic, sweeping work of narrative social history. Charts the past, present, and still-possible (albeit increasingly dicey) future of Western industrial civilization. Originally published in 1934, I'm still encountering prescient wisdom in it even as I re-read today.

5.) The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Because cities are for people -- ALL the people! -- you Prada-shopping, car-worshiping idiots.

6.) Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. The definitive proof that dead white male Anglophone bravo literature DOES have something timeless and relevant to convey about the human condition -- if you can just table your post-modern hangups and addled attention span for long enough to actually engage with it.

7.) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson. Everybody and your mother knows all about the drug-fueled, wacky hijinks of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- because sure, why not, it's a scant 100-and-some-odd pages of fictionalized mayhem that your own youthful benders can be measured against in the game of "Lemme tell you how fucked up I got this one time." (Not to mention the faithful film adaptation starring Johnny Depp, because screw reading anyway, right?) But that's just the Intro to HST text, junior: this is the gnarly, down & dirty, inside-the-sausage-factory stuff about how a modern, major-party candidacy is actually concocted, written with the pith of a grizzled cynic and the savvy of a fast-talking horse-bettor who consistently out-sharps house and rubes alike.

8.) Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season by Matt Taibbi. A worthy redux of HST's "Boys on the Bus" bit (see #7 above). On the 2004 campaign trail with the Dems' risible patsy, John Kerry, Taibbi argues pretty convincingly that nothing about Watergate, Iran-Contra, 9/11 or any other benchmark, soul-searching moment in the dark night of the American dream has altered or reversed the hollowing out of our so-called republican democracy for a vainglorious, theatrical sham we call "election season". The bits about the quixotic Kucinich candidacy and the ugly realities of our national character (hint: we despise the weak and poor) make me want to simultaneously pump my fist in righteousness and cry for sorrow & shame. It's also a very funny book.

9.) A System of Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man's Powers by Louis Sullivan. The fact that this remarkable, nigh-magical book is out-of-print and virtually unknown, even in the studios, tells you all you really need to know about the untimely death of American architecture and handicraft.

10.) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The grown-up version of the sweet pain I felt reading my #2 picks. Watch in awe as a poet and Nobel laureate (who was banned from the U.S. until the mid-'90s for his socialist politics, natch) slowly and painstakingly constructs a fully realized, multi-generational capsule world in the fictional village of Macondo -- and then collapses it right before your eyes in the final chapter, as if it were made of magician's flash-paper. Simply stunning.

Alright then, there ya go. Who else is up for the challenge? Maybe next I'll do Ten Albums That Changed My Life ...

PS: I feel terribly remiss not having anything by Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut on this list -- not to mention the ever-popular Orwell-Huxley dyad -- but that's what happens when you publish everything as a first draft, social media style. So it goes.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

May the Farce Be With You: Lucas UFO Denied Landing

[The following is a TL;DR comment from a friendly Facebook thread, edited for an open audience.] 

I've heard and get the gist of the arguments for and against the Lucas Museum, and haven’t previously gone in-depth regarding this “nontroversy” ... but two things about the spiraling foofaraw have been particularly galling me, so here’s my unsolicited amateur expert opinion:

1.) I've been really boggled by the emerging social/media narrative that has cast a public-interest org dedicated to the "open, clear, and free" lakefront as an elitist, malevolent killjoy -- contra the backroom machinations of a mayor who's spot-on central casting for "icy, profiteering A-hole who closes public schools en masse and kicks the indigent and mentally ill into the gutter," no less! That's not even hyperbole, that's just who and what Rahm Emanuel is -- a villain; a snake; a public menace. 

As a matter of political context, the narrative setup described above is just plain crazy, y’all. Indeed, this media-theater role reversal is not only counterintuitive but completely backwards, and that circumstance alone behooves a bit more careful introspection on the part of those grumbling about Friends of the Parks purportedly spoiling everyone's fun "to save a parking lot." One faction's story about what's "good for the city" is another man's boondoggle -- not to mention the incipient opportunity costs for those citizens not well-situated to benefit from the booming tourist, tech, and FIRE-sector bubbles cultivated downtown by Chicago's ruling class.  

Just think about the mental and rhetorical gymnastics required to make FOTP the bad guy in this scenario. It's completely bonkers.

2.) Those renderings ... those inexcusably vague yet unaccountably persistent, reprehensibly vapid, trying-so-hard-to-be-cutting-edge-it's-just-gauche, ugly blobitecture concept renderings … GAH! I know taste is subjective and many (if not most) people are easily gulled by this kind of fashion-forward parametric nonsense, but IMO it’s just freaking atrocious and wholly inappropriate for any site IRL; save maybe some ex-Soviet satellite backwater burg awkwardly trying to co-opt the Bilbao Effect way too late in the game.

I mean, just look at that thing. Put aside the warm fuzzy feels of your Star Wars: Original Trilogy nostalgia and Windy City boosterism for just a moment (if you possibly can) and look at the design aesthetic and building form per se. Take away the movie magic and put it on a studio presentation board from some anonymous upstart, and all the hype melts into a shapeless, colorless wad of parametric pixel-dough, topped with a circular fluorotube from a dusty old drafter's desk-lamp.

Once one sees it for what it is, prima facie, and mentally reconnects it with the patron and program, then it’s just begging for some prankster (with better photo manipulation skills than mine) to mash up with an image of Jabba the freaking Hutt, to focus all the unharnessed ridicule it rightly deserves into a scorching laser-beam of hate. I can't stand it, and yes, I might even prefer the existing parking lot instead. And anyone who rides with my careening trains of thought online knows there are few things in our built environment I hate more than a goddamned surface parking lot.

So, sorry, but No. Sharpen your pencil – a PENCIL, please – and try again, geniuses. If you want to clutter up our public lakefront with more gargantuan, private-profit tourist attractions (and let me also add that there are too damn many of those already) you’ve got to do better than this. This is just a tawdry, rube-hustling travesty masquerading as High Design. And I think we all know it. 

FULL DISCLOSURE: I say all of the above in spite of my notorious status as a die-hard, cosplaying, merch-collecting, mentally certifiable SW/LucasFilm fanboy. In any other site or building context, I would love, love, LOVE to enjoy this proposed museum’s program. (Oh, and BTW: re-purposing Gene Summers' beloved Lakeside Center complex is off-the-menu why, exactly? Duh, because every new program deserves its own brand-new "statement" building, instead of adapting an existing structure purpose-built for large, flexible programs; also we're still rich enough a city and nation that we can afford to throw away entire mega-structures ... okay, sure, it's your empire, Mr. Mayor.) So if I had an axe to grind, "common sense" would have me swinging it the other way -- but no, this is a garbage idea, and it fully deserves to be shot down, loaded onto a barge, and unceremoniously dumped somewhere far downstate, where the population's sparse and landfill space abundant.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Architecture and Democracy

In conversation with a person close to me, I was drawn into explaining some of my goals and ideals for an architectural education and what purpose it might serve. These ideas are always bubbling just beneath the surface of my every interaction. I've warned people before that I walk around with a Big Red Button on my chest with a label reading, "Push here for free lecture" -- on any of myriad intricately interconnected and idiosyncratically assembled notions I carry rattling around in my head.

This time I stumbled into the thicket of social or democratic architecture: that indigenous chimera of built form rising emergently from popular will invoked by Louis Sullivan in his feverish essays, not to mention any number of other designers and ideologues laying dubious claims to the same territory. What I seek is a "people's architecture" in the best possible sense -- though naturally the exact specifications and practice of such an ideologically loaded coinage are always culturally contingent (and best tabled here for brevity's sake).

The response: "What, you mean social housing projects?"

It would take another 3,000 superfluous words or so to contextualize, unpack and defuse this fizzing bomb of a question, so I'll stick with some liberal paraphrasing of the conversationally short answer.

By "democratic architecture," I mean the proliferation of the knowledge and means for every person to participate in the design of their own lives; that the power to build be socially, culturally, and pedagogically wedded, even down to the brass tacks of manual labor, to a meaningful free agency. In other words, that we must have some sensible capability as active and willed producers of our own preferred human environment, rather than passive consumers of someone else's predetermined version of The Good Life. Any lifestyle worth having cannot be purchased en toto; that's the same folly as attempting to buy happiness outright. Even when there's a social/market consensus that the sticker price is fair value, the experience of craft purchased through the medium of currency is a morally empty shell compared with the pride, appreciation, and multivalent profit of the spiritually invested creator of things of real utilitarian and aesthetic worth. And this is exactly why, even as U.S. society has gotten nominally richer and more technologically advanced, the old "creeping malaise" still advances unabated. If anything, the manifest unhappiness and psychic disease in American culture has advanced in perfect tandem with our unexamined extolling of "progress" as both means and end of the "highest and best" social good.

When I visit my wife's 4th grade classroom to talk to her students about architecture, I always make a point of explicitly cluing them in that the world they find themselves growing into did not take its present shape by accident or natural growth, as one would imagine the wild, slowly shifting but homeostatic biome of a prairie or forest. Unlike the worlds of animal, vegetable, and mineral, which develop according to no deliberation or thought that we'd readily identify as a plan (regardless of the coincidence that when left alone by humanity the natural world tends to function as an astonishingly sophisticated ensemble), the built environment is what it is as a result of the aggregation of so many collective-yet-individual human choices. This wall; that building; your home street; a parkway tree -- all stand where they do as a result of conscious human deliberation and investment of wealth via embedded energy and material resources. Nothing happens entirely by accident in the human habitat, and much of the underlying planning is done to reiterate and enforce certain predictable patterns of behavior deemed desirable by agency of actors powerful enough to build, according to logics for which they are eternally unaccountable after the concrete legacies of path dependence and acculturation react and resolve around their acts of potent will.

So: who can build? Who knows how? Who dares disrupt what others have wrought, or those fading, shrinking spaces in our world where nothing was wrought before, to raise an edifice in their own ideation of profitable order?

The powerful, of course. Which is to say, not the People as a whole, if we grant that a culture or spirit or popular will or collective unconscious, etc., might ever be precisely divined to indicate our manifold artifices as inhering with a natural pattern of organization -- e.g. as a form of poetry, as Sullivan so fervently and frequently proclaimed.

All of this strays from my original conversation and is circling around the point, which I will close with rather epigrammatically (to build suspense for the next irregular installment of this blog).

First, if the people are to build wisely and interact with meaningful agency in the built environment, they must all be taught the language of building, arts, and crafts with all the due seriousness now rationed solely for the dissemination of math and writing skills barely adequate to perform a menial post-industrial service job. My vision, my architectural project, has acquired inseparable integration with an educational project, rooted in manual and machine craft-work as common knowledge rather than a specialized preserve of any privileged or servant class.

Now to end it, a few postulates which will be woven throughout the work ahead, as experimentally guiding principles.

The act of building is inherently political, as it requires the dispensation of Power. 

Any educational project is a political project, since education determines the practical language and discourse of political contest, whose object is the acquisition and wielding of Power.

'Power' is control over resources. Any political program or ideological proposition of "empowerment" that does not fundamentally reckon with this material fact is simply wishful thinking.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Reasons Why This Poli-Sci Major Can't (Won't) Discuss "Politics" with You

Everybody likes list-articles ("listicles"), right? How about one that still qualifies for TL;DR status? No? Special bonus for loyal readers: pick one from the list you either don't get or would like to see elaborated and I'll spoil what little humor there is by expanding it into its own post.
  1. You think political thought comes in exactly two flavors: Red and Blue. Any criticism leveled against a person or idea identified with Team Red reflexively reveals a card-carrying member of Team Blue, and vice versa.
  2. Intractable social problem? "There's an app for that!"
  3. You're a left-leaning voter who's excited about Hillary's candidacy because having a woman [née African-American] president is all the proof you need that America is still on the road toward Progress -- as opposed to, say, an actually progressive agenda, which is just too far-fetched to be a "serious" idea.
  4. You're a right-leaning voter who's not excited about any of the 2016 Republican candidates at all, but you'll vote for one anyway because fuck the Blue Team.
  5. You can't envision a scenario where Bernie Sanders actually pushes Hillary further right: e.g. because "socialism" per se is such a poison pill in U.S. political culture that her optimal strategy will be to get as far away as possible from any intimation of it within the party. (This is what comes of identifying as "progressive" because you've ceded even "liberal" as a dirty word in the popular narrative frame. Great job holding the line there, Chamberlain.)
  6. You haven't the faintest real notion what "liberal" and "conservative" even mean, either historically or in contemporary context. Bonus factoid: Drug and alcohol Prohibition, Nazi eugenics, and cultural prejudice against rail transit all originated in the Progressive movement. You're welcome.
  7. Sanders, God bless him, will never have a snowball's chance in hell of winning the Democratic nomination. This is about the only thing you do know.
  8. You still blame Nader for Gore's "loss" in 2000, not the fact that the latter was so signally uninspiring as a candidate that he lost his home state. And let us not even speak of Kerry -- or Romney, if Team Red's your flavor -- ever again.
  9. You think Rand Paul might have a real shot in 2016 if people would just look at his positions Objectively. (Tangentially related: If I mention that I'm into architecture, you immediately ask if I've ever read The Fountainhead, since it was so inspiring to you that you figure it must be on every young architect's list of inspirations. Sorry, no, I've only read Anthem and Atlas Shrugged, and the latter was more fucking reprehensible than the former in direct proportion to comparative page-count -- which is a terribly wordy way of saying that Ayn Rand has a terribly wordy way of being obtusely wrong about politics and everything that truly matters in life.)
  10. You think reading Marx, for any reason at all, turns readers into Communist Soviet pod people, while having Ayn Rand pulp novels bulk-dumped into public schools will magically generate job-creators. (Seriously everyone, stop pushing Ayn Rand on gullible kids, it's every bit as harmful as marketing tobacco to them.) The last non-fiction work you read yourself was either a thinkpiece read on a device made by Chinese job-havers, or else appeared on a syllabus, years ago.
  11. You think the first step to resolving America's deep-seated racial tensions must be for young black men to pull up their pants and stop being all gosh-darned angry and rock-throw-y over some imagined slight inflicted by society's dominant demographic group; i.e. You.
  12. You sympathize 100% with the Occupy movement (could probably use a little Jubilee yourself on the debt front) but never went to a camp, march, or meeting because you "don't do protests."
  13. You still think non-violent public protests significantly impact policy formation.
  14. You identify as feminist -- when pressed, which is never -- and watch The Bachelor(ette) with your girlfriends because yay, sisterhood!
  15. You diligently "check privilege" on people not in your own identity group who earn a measly five figures, or even less, per year, while oligarchs eat both your and said micro-aggressor's lunches before you even get up in the morning. So you don't understand the difference between "empowerment" and Power -- that is, between lip-service to self-esteem on one hand, and the control and allocation of resources on the other, which is the domain of politics proper.
  16. You've posted a "legal" content/privacy rights reservation declaration as a Facebook status.
  17. You'll readily agree that the most preeminently practical solution to unaccountable police violence is just to deploy better surveillance technology, i.e. body cams. So in other words, surveying the alarming post-9/11 proliferation of state and civil militarization, your choice ameliorative for a fraught street-level condition is to mandate an order for two million wearable cop cameras nation-wide and say, "Take that, military-industrial-security Establishment!"
  18. You often forget, or never realized, that entertainment is not ad-supported media's product -- you are.
  19. You think you're well-informed because you follow The News.
  20. You're far too sophisticated to fall for propaganda and enjoy verbally deconstructing the ads and entertainment aimed at LCD lumpenprole audiences. You love Apple's design aesthetic and shed actual tears over the death of Steve Jobs.
  21. When poor sourcing was exposed in Brokaw's "Bush AWOL" and/or Mike Daisey's "Apple-FoxConn" stories, you leaned back and thought, "Well, that settles that then."
  22. You either don't remember or never knew what Iran-Contra was, but figure since it's not 9/11 it must have been settled just fine too.
  23. You think that current levels of wealth inequality in the U.S. are just fine -- a good thing, really! -- because: a) rule by billionaire hegemons proves the validity of meritocratic, free-market competition; and b) their existence provides exemplary incentive for the poor to become successful.
  24.  You think electric cars and solar panels will save the extant American way of life, with no more negative environmental externalities or uncomfortable sacrifices, ever. Also, self-driving cars are the new flying cars, which are also maybe a still-viable thing in The Future.
  25. You think using mass transit is a great  idea -- for other people.
  26. You vote religiously because your biennial endorsement of Team Coke or Team Pepsi does make a difference, dammit. Your devout reverence for Election Day brooks no cognitive dissonance in the fact that this most sacred of democratic rituals takes place on a workday. You tut-tut about low electoral turnout, every time.
  27. You abhor voting because your vote doesn't make a difference -- and you, along with the rest of the ~60% of other eligible electoral no-shows, make this conclusion a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every time.
  28. You're black (and/or "liberal") and voted for Barack Obama or Rahm Emanuel the second time around. You don't vote at all if there's not a black-identified candidate in the race.
  29. Same goes for all other identity-based electoral segments: you prioritize "visible representation" over actual representation. Elite theory be damned, you'll back the candidate you'd feel most comfortable chatting over drinks with, never mind their policy positions or track record. You're a fan instead of a constituent because you don't know the difference.
  30. Similarly, you don't feel the least bit put off by referrals to the public as "consumers" rather than "citizens".
  31. You have a serious emotional investment in professional sports. Go Team [franchise brand name]!
  32. You can talk for an  hour about why Obamacare is either a socialistic perversion of the American Way or Actually the Best Thing to Happen to the Poor & Uninsured Ever, but you can't name your own Congressional representative. The sausage is full of sawdust and your animus is entirely reserved for the brand pitchman or his heel opponent, not the slaughterhouse or the butcher.
  33. You never attribute to human incompetence that which can be misconstrued as partisan malice. The Other Side is 100% demonically evil bad guys who are out to get you personally and destroy America into the bargain -- not well-meaning and generally decent but bumbling and feckless idiots like yourself.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Ed-Blogging My Way to Unpopularity

Quick hit on this post by Diane Ravitchfrom a Facebook comment that got so long I realized it was almost an essay. 
Other writers have said
and from what I've seen as a math tutor and husband to a CPS classroom teacher, I concur that one of the biggest problems with Common Core and its associated "assessments" (irony quotes because the instruments & implementation are so flawed that it's arguable they're not effectively measuring anything) is that it was built "from the top down."
In political terms, of course, it's the idea of a federally mandated national curriculum: an illegal, unconstitutional power play that's been advanced and defended with the specious argument that the states must "voluntarily" adopt the standards (in much the same way they "voluntarily" raised the legal drinking age to 21, 
for example, when threatened with a shutoff of federal highway funding if they didn't).
The second piece is that the standards and assessments themselves are derived *NOT* from a core "basic skills" approach, i.e. building up from kindergarten onward based on education research of child cognitive development, but rather by setting the bar for an "adequate" high school graduate skill level from a best-case, exceptionally gifted, college-bound scenario; and then projecting backward to previous grade levels from there. So the metrics for learning "at level" were pushed up one or two grade levels for every grade to "catch up" lower-achieving students with the career-and-college-ready golden boys and girls (who IRL have innumerable advantages outside the classroom that account for high achievement regardless of whatever newfangled texts & tests Pearson et alia sell to their school district customer/hostages this year). The obvious pedagogical and statistical problems with this approach were just steamrolled with so much paternalistic bluster about "demanding excellence, no excuses," etc.
regarding students who in many cases struggle for daily security & survival, mind you, and don't have mental capacity to spare for bootstrapping ahead two entire grade levels, let alone thinking realistically about college. 
So in practice, it works out like this: 1) Move the goalposts so that "excellent" is now "average" and formerly "average" is considered "failing" (even down to bumping up percentages required for class A's and B's to 93% and 87% respectively and so on); 2) Administer assessments devised with a similarly opaque, unaccountable process to students who roll their eyes at bubble tests because they're now seeing one practically every week (Teacher/admin: "It's serious this time!" Student: "So what? You've been crying wolf about taking these tests 'seriously' for so long that now it's just background noise, like mom's nagging to clean my room."); 3) When the majority of students predictably "fail" these rigged and poorly written assessments, use the resulting "data" to condemn students, teachers, and schools to punishment, firings, turnovers and/or closures; 4) PROFIT!
for charters, publishers, and miscellaneous ed-industry entrepreneurs benefiting from this application of disaster capitalism to the public school system.
Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Who else is thinking that homeschooling looks pretty attractive these days?

[Grand, sweeping tip o' the hat to veteran teacher and education blogger Peter Greene at Curmudgucation, whom I leaned on pretty heavily for links above.]

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Don't Matter If You Do": How A Specious Tradition Suppresses the U.S. Labor Vote

Today is a mid-term election day, with many U.S Congressional seats and some key local offices (including governor of Illinois) up for grabs. There's been a lot of buzz about the likelihood that Democrats will finally lose control of the Senate, which would be just desserts considering their feckless Clinton-era abandonment of the party's New Deal economic principles for the sake of large-scale corporate donor money, not to mention the absurd triangulating goal of out-hawking the revengeful right on issues like crime and foreign policy. The complaint about there being no substantial difference between the two major parties is cliched but nonetheless true; all those so-called liberals only got so mad at Nader in 2000 because, deep down, they know he's goddamn right. I could go on at length about how the major parties' fundraising and candidate vetting processes insure that a supposedly "polarized" electoral polity is represented by two narrow slices of bandwidth that are, for most practical purposes, a hair's breadth apart, in contrast to the diverse array of intelligent ideas that are somehow time and again excluded from mainstream national dialogue. But that's not my main complaint today.

The real reason that I won't be voting today -- the same reason that most of you won't either -- is that I work on Tuesdays, and every election day is on a Tuesday, because that's just the way it's done. For all the perennial pundit and activist hand-wringing over low voter turnout, especially in mid-terms, or on the rise of state voter ID laws blatantly intended to disenfranchise socioeconomically marginal voters, no one on the national scene has put any emphasis or effort into making Election Day a national holiday. The deafening silence around this simple, obvious ameliorative for some of our democratic woes tells me how un-serious all these concerned parties are about really reforming the system to be more responsive, inclusive and, well, democratic. As I pithily put it on Facebook this week, the significance of my vote (or any other working stiff's) is inversely proportional to the number of suckers out there who think that holding national elections on a workday is just fine because ... tradition? Let me break it down for you.

Imagine you're a single mother working a shitty service job for one of those big, profitable corporations that our system of political economy currently works so well for. Election day is coming up and (let's stretch things just a bit so we can give our protagonist some real motivation) there's a viable candidate on the ballot who strongly supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour -- a real, substantive economic policy change that would benefit you, tangibly and personally. But before you punch that ballot for the would-be Rep. Quixote, there's a major obstacle to overcome: Terry the Manager has scheduled you to work from 8 am to 4 pm this Tuesday. (That's 8 hours minus your half-hour lunch break off the clock for a net of 7.5, because shaving that half-hour off your paycheck is not only a reminder that, unlike white-collar employees who may enjoy flex-time privileges and a paid hour lunch, you're not entitled to compensation for any minute that you're not actually on-task. It also helps maintain the useful fiction that you're a part-time worker even though you're spending an 8-hour day in one of your two workplaces, which means neither employer has to offer you any retirement or health benefits, Obamacare notwithstanding.) The polling places open at 6 am and close at 7 pm, which would ostensibly provide ample windows of opportunity to make it to your polling place at the beginning or end of your workday, but there are a couple of complications. For one thing, your polling place is determined by the precinct location of your home, not your workplace, so you have to schedule that stop around your commute -- let's say 45 minutes across town by bus, conservatively -- not just around your punch-in and -out times. In addition, you have kids who need to be woken up, fed breakfast, dropped off and picked up from school, and then fed dinner again before it gets so late they're hanging around the neighbor's house all evening begging for a dinner invitation, making her wonder if she should call DCFS on your negligent ass this time. Thus, your employer pays for your time from 8 to 4 (minus that all-important and strictly regimented half-hour lunch break, of course) but the actual portion of your day required to maintain your work routine is more like 12 hours. And because you're not the only person around who has to put off voting until the evening after work, you know the line at the polling station is going to be very long during that last hour from 6 to 7 pm; long enough that you'll be standing outside in the November cold for most of it, provided you even decide to go at all.

Do you:
A.) Ask Terry for part or all of the day off so you can exercise your right to vote, even though he has multiple, *technically* legal means at his disposal to underhandedly punish you for hindering the store's daily operation or, at the very least, inconveniencing him by demanding a late-notice schedule change?
B.) Try to squeeze the additional round-trip to the polling place into your lunch (half-)hour, knowing full well that you'll be late to return and thus reprimanded -- or even fired -- for certain?
C.) Give up whatever little time you typically had to rest in the evening to wait in line and hope the election judges don't just close the doors on the last people left in line at 7 pm sharp?
D.) Enlist the help of a friend, family member, or neighbor to alter your routine and take parenting duty off your hands long enough for you to vote right before or after work?
E.) Say "Fuck it" and skip voting altogether because it's too much of a pain in the ass to actually exercise the right and duty you're supposedly guaranteed by the laws of the land?

Now, by this point most readers who aren't confined to routines as soul-crushing and restrictive as this poor, hypothetical woman's will already have chimed in with a half-dozen variations of "You Just Need To ...", which is the privileged person's converse to the "Yes, But ..." game. In the original "Why Don't You/Yes But" transactional analysis game, one person suggests reasonable solutions to a problem (e.g. in this instance: early or absentee voting; more proactive scheduling; etc.) and the other, neurotic individual shoots them down one by one because they're actually determined to hold onto the problem instead of enacting any solutions. The forms of verbal exchange are externally identical in each case, but in the former, the person offering the advice is actually the deficient party, because they lack the experience or empathy that would inform them that their proposed solutions are not as easy and reasonable as they seem. The "Yes But" paradigm is rooted in the advisee's inability to acknowledge actual solutions; "You Just Need To," on the other hand, is rooted in the adviser's inability to acknowledge the actual problem -- in this case, a form of systemic injustice whereby everyone has the same nominal right to vote, but only certain classes of people are given enough practical freedom to easily exercise it.

This is where we talk about some of the "hidden" truths revealed by Barbara Ehrenreich's marvelous book, Nickel and Dimed. The irony-quotes around the word hidden are there because she learned many things that are beyond obvious to millions of America's working poor, but few people from that class are able to detail the contours of their experiences in any medium read by the professional-managerial-pundit class, i.e. the people who set the agenda for public policy discourse. So it took Ehrenreich's whimsical and rather unscientific "experiment," working for a year in three different minimum wage jobs, for her and many of her readers to realize, among other things, that millions of Americans can and do work hard every day of their lives with no hope of security, prosperity or comfort, let alone advancement. The most pertinent revelation, though, was that if anything the working classes' most scarce resource was not just money, but time: specifically, time for forethought; time to plan every move of their routines in advance -- commutes, sack lunches, bank deposits, bill payments, everything -- so as to minimize the possibility of incurring missed shifts, late charges, convenience fees, or fines for minor infractions, any of which would be a mere inconvenience for the less impecunious, but potentially disastrous for a household existing on the economic edge. In short, the investment of time and energy necessary to not only research candidates and issues on the ballot, but also to make arrangements to vote without risking incidental economic penalties, is simply not worth it for voters who are already conditioned to assume that their opinions don't matter in the spheres of politics and policy formation. And although I have enough class and political consciousness to know better, in many off-year elections I've been forced to derive the same conclusion myself. (It doesn't help that the biggest office on my ballot this cycle, the Illinois governorship, presents such a piss-poor choice between Dumb and Evil that I'd rather shoot myself than vote for either candidate.)

So here's the deal, candidates, pundits, and would-be reformers: If you're really so worried about the health of our democratic institutions, then defer the uphill battles against Citizens United, crooked voting machines, vote fraud, third party exclusion, and/or voter disenfranchisement, and let working people cast a truly free vote instead of having to beg indulgences from indifferent employers for it. If you really care about the labor vote, simply give everyone the day off for elections, stand back, and watch electoral turnout skyrocket. Once working-class men and women are given the practical freedom to flex their nominal franchise, appropriately representative policy changes will inevitably follow.

Make Election Day a national holiday! Anything else is just another round of "Yes But."