29 June 2007

Don't confuse these Supremes with that smooth Mo-Town Sound.

If you had any doubt to President Bush's lasting legacy on the United States, all you need to do is look at the decisions this Supreme Court has laid down in the last few days. Post columnist Eugene Robinson gets it dead right with a strongly worded condemnation of their school discrimination decision as a "turn back the clock" movement:
George W. Bush's packing the court with conservatives is likely to prove one of the more enduring aspects of his unfortunate legacy. Bush appointees Roberts and Samuel Alito have joined Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in a solid, four-justice bloc that can be reliably counted on, pretty much whatever the issue, to vote for turning back the clock.

Absolutely. And we will have these updated versions of segregationists on the Supreme Court, deciding cases of incredible importance, for decades. It's not as if Brown v. Board will be overturned; the new segregationists are far too savvy to re-install a legal system of racial discrimination, especially since it's bad for business. To me, that's where it gets interesting, because it will perhaps finally get us to look at class in this country as a significant category.

For years (for lifetimes even) researchers in the social sciences and humanities (yes, fellow MLA convention-goers, I'm talking to you) have understood the importance of including class in analyses of discrimination, immigration, racism, inclusion, exclusion, etc. However, too many in the US still believe that we are a "classless society," perhaps because we don't have a titled aristocracy, or perhaps because it's not hard to point to individuals who started in one class and ended in another.

Rather than "white" or "Black" neighborhoods, or to take the case of the anti-immigration folks interviewed in the Post this morning we could say "American" or "Mexican" neighborhoods, we should really start looking at poor v. wealthy neighborhoods as the prime factor driving school resegregation, because school funding generally relies upon the local tax base (and the donation power of the parents, which only adds to the inequalities).

This recommendation is not news, by the way, to anyone within education or sociology circles. In fact, this analysis was readily available when I was taking ed courses back in the late 80's. However, education experts aren't generally in charge of leading systemic school policy, politicians are, and it's unpalatable -- radical even -- to talk about endemic sustained inequalities in American society. Furthermore, if you look around DC these days, you realize that having any sort of education background more or less excludes you from taking part in the "grand revitalization" of Mayor Fenty. In fact, I'd be more qualified in his eyes to run a school system if I spent ten years cleaning the squishee machine at Kwik-E Mart than if I had taught for ten years.

But maybe, just maybe, in light of this court's regressive stance, wider populations in the US will recognize the persistent concentration of capital in smaller and smaller communities and individuals as the root of the problem. But probably not.

27 June 2007

The joy of used books.

I generally don't mind buying used books. In fact, one of the greatest joys in life (my life anyway) is to browse for hours through a good used book store. It's something that happens less and less now that I have small children, who tend not to understand these delights, but every now and then I get into a bookstore and find what I want.

About four or six months ago I bought a copy of Russell Banks's Continental Drift used. It sat on my shelf awaiting my attention and last weekend I started to give it some. I read about seventy pages over the course of a few days (I don't get enough time to read), and I was reading in bed when out of the pages dropped a little slip of paper that I assumed the previous owner used as a bookmark. It fluttered down on my sheet and I picked it up.

The previous owner had bookmarked his/her book with the backing strip to Dr. Scholl's Corn Remover (or Reducer) pads. And a few pads were still attached to the backing strip. Now I've bookmarked with many things in my literary life, from ATM receipts to paper towels to actual real bookmarks, but I've never used some sort of medicinal supply to do such, and certainly not something related to my nasty feet. But I suppose they were right at hand when needed.

25 June 2007

Satan plans to bring him in as an outside consultant to "professionalize" eternal damnation.

So on the heels of Dick Cheney trying to claim that his office, the office of the Vice President, isn't actually really you know for certain a complete and real part of the executive branch of government (seriously: can you believe that? Talk about an absolute misuse of poststructural uncertainties of language), the Post publishes this series indicating that Cheney not only appears to be part of the executive branch, but also seems to be directing it. Remember all those jokes about Bush being a ventriloquist's dummy on Cheney's lap? The more apparently true they are, the less funny they become. We have a situation in which the Vice President drives policy and the President -- who at one point claimed he was "the decider" -- abdicates responsibility in the face of Cheney's snarl. "I'm the decider, see, and what I've decided is that Dick here calls the shots. If you need me for a signature or something, I'll just be passed out on that sofa over there."

Think in terms of lives ended, villages destroyed, and nations destabilized (don't even factor in millions made for multinationals controlled either by the individual or his friends), and try to come up with another living person who is in fact more evil in his actions than this man. While I'm certain that some people, given the chance, would exercise power more brutally than Cheney has done, Cheney understands that to keep power and wealth intact he must act with some restraint. However, more and more he's leaving that restraint behind, arguing forcefully for an Imperial Presidency in which the highest law of the land is not the Constitution, but the President's will, and in which the government is not ultimately answerable to the people of this nation.

In general, it's true that history is written by the victors, and so Cheney has been more or less protected as a functionary of the most powerful nation on Earth, a nation that routinely blocks criticism of its own human rights abuses in the same international bodies that it attempts to use to pass judgement on other regimes. However, how would Cheney's forceful advocacy of torture look through the histories told by the tortured? While the Post pussyfoot's around Cheney's criminal activities, it's not too hard to read between the lines:
No longer was the vice president focused on procedural rights, such as access to lawyers and courts. The subject now was more elemental: How much suffering could
U.S. personnel inflict on an enemy to make him talk? Cheney's lawyer feared that future prosecutors, with motives "difficult to predict," might bring criminal charges against interrogators or Bush administration officials.

In other words, Cheney advocated a limited definition of torture, one that insisted on redefining several activities and misreading the Geneva Conventions, while at the same time he looked for ways to protect those he would order to commit war crimes from investigations into their proposed war crimes. Except that he's concerned about circumventing or rewriting the laws to "legitimize" his psychopathic policies, Cheney proves himself worthy of the select company of torturers like Pinochet and Hussein, both dictators who enjoyed healthy support, both moral and material, from administrations in which Cheney served.

The question for those in the United States with a conscience is "how do we bring a murderous thug, even a homegrown one who prefers a three piece suit, to justice?"

22 June 2007

A single spark can start a prairie fire...

It's been a long struggle (mainly because I couldn't find reading time), but I finally put another book behind me. Back in the heady days of late April, I picked up Dan Berger's Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. My interest had been piqued by a Russell Banks novel I'd had read, The Darling, and the book looked damn good, having come out only a year ago.

It's a valuable book, but it never captivated me, mainly because it seemed that Berger kept coming back to the same phrasing to discuss the events. For instance, I'd read that Weather used Osawatamie to communicate with the aboveground movement and then about fifteen or so pages later I'd read that Weather used Osawatamie to communicate with the aboveground. The book is very well-researched, though, and it's not as if Berger simply repeats himself, because he clearly moves through the various twists and turns of the Weathermen, from their inception as part of SDS, to their move underground, to their subsequent dissolution, and finally to their legacy.

I'd have liked to have seen more of their actions seen in the context of their cultural milieu. Berger does a great job of setting out what Weather hoped to accomplish with their bombings and their communiques, but he gives very short shrift to discussing how their actions were seen by those outside the movement. For instance, during the SDS split, it would be interesting to get some Progessive Labor perspectives, especially since they come off as villains. And how exactly were Weather's actions during the 1970's perceived in the mainstream press, in less radical Left organizations, etc. (some attention is given to one or two figures from the Black Panthers or the Black Liberation Army, but again that gets back to my repetition critique: it seems the same figures are used over and over to talk about outside influences/influencing).

So the book didn't grab me and compel me to read it; it's still a great contribution to a growing field of literature on the 1960's and 1970's Left, and Berger also finishes strongly by linking the Weather Underground to a new generation of activists and issues, most notably the prison industrial complex in the United States.

21 June 2007

I don't get it. Really, I don't.

I find religion to be about as useful as an umbrella in a monsoon, but I do understand the quest for ultimate meaning, especially when you can find none in your own life. The whole burning of witches in Salem, the burning of non-Christians during the Inquisition, and so forth are ridiculous events, horrific in their happening yet made laughable by the course of time and the (general) acceptance that such episodes were the result of unenlightened zealots. Nowadays (if we can speak of the last forty years as nowadays), we in the West tend to limit ourselves to destroying objects in the name of religion: the burning of Beatles record in the U.S. of A., picketing films like The Last Temptation of Christ, etc.

However, just how seriously in the grip of mass delusion some people are was brought home to me this week by the recent bestowing of Knighthood upon author, yes, author, Salman Rushdie. Rushdie is probably one of the more important writers in English in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and I would imagine that in centuries hence, if anyone indeed continues to study literature, his books will be central to an understanding of the after-effects of colonialism, the effects of globalized societies, and the disjointedness of postmodern life (that is, if life in the future doesn't become even more disjointed).

Unfortunately, also included in any studies of the author's work will have to be consideration of the extraordinary conditions under which he has lived since the publication of The Satanic Verses way back in 1988 and the ensuing fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 that called for the death not only of Rushdie, but also of anyone involved in the publication of the book, if that person was aware of its contents (as a result, one translator has been killed and others attacked). Really medieval bullshit, but that was almost twenty years ago, and Rushdie continues to publish and you'd think the leaders of Islam would have more weighty matters to attend to, what with Palestinians going at one another and that whole Sunni-Shiite split and all, but apparently passing death sentences on authors, upholding death sentences on authors, and getting all stirred up about books (in a bad way) is really central to the religion (I'd chalk it up just to the power-lust of Khomeini, except the fatwa has only been reinforced by succeeding generations every time it comes up...).

Well, screw that. Christianity has some rabid nutcases (see that freak from Topeka, Fred Phelps), but they're generally ostracized outside their small splinter groups; they certainly don't have the mass support to run countries or even get near running countries (and let's be honest: as stupid as Bush is, even he distanced himself from cuckoo Pat Robertson's call to assassinate Venezuela's Hugo Chavez).

All I have to say is that any religion that can't stomach competing explorations of its most hallowed figures (see for instance The Last Temptation of Christ) bases itself more on ignorance than enlightenment, and I don't really have time for that.

Knickers in a twist over someone's work of fiction? Get over yourself.

19 June 2007

The concept of the "liberal press" should die a hard death...

Sometimes it's hard to fathom what the Post's columnists are thinking. As a lot, they're pretty poor, especially with Robert "Mad Dog" Novak and Charles "Raving Lunatic" Krauthammer chiming in (George Will actually comes off as a voice of reason among those mouth-frothers, and that's a tough feat to accomplish) from the nasty vindictive Right. Since the Post refuses to carry any actual Leftist voices to counter the constant stream of invective from that trio, we are stuck with a collection of middling "liberals" like Richard Cohen to display what seems a caricature of liberal thought: spotty, soft, and pointless.

Cohen's latest foray into politics is a curious affair. He all but exonerates Scooter Libby because he's a "previously obscure government official," which is an odd way to describe the Vice President's Chief of Staff, especially in an administration in which the VP seems to be a driving force in administration policy. But it's Richard Cohen: it doesn't have to make sense.

Cohen's basic premise is that Libby really isn't a bad guy; he just got caught lying to a grand jury, and really since his prosecution and imprisonment won't stop the war, then there's no point in pursuing him. And then he tries to spin the investigation into some sort of assault on freedom of the press and civil liberties:
As Fitzgerald worked his wonders, threatening jail and going after government gossips with splendid pluck, many opponents of the Iraq war cheered. They thought -- if "thought" can be used in this context -- that if the thread was pulled on who had leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to Robert D. Novak, the effort to snooker an entire nation into war would unravel and this would show . . . who knows? Something. For some odd reason, the same people who were so appalled about government snooping, the USA Patriot Act and other such threats to civil liberties cheered as the special prosecutor weed-whacked the press, jailed a reporter and now will send a previously obscure government official to prison for 30 months.

How sad. How very very sad. Is it even possible to conflate issues of the Patriot Act with long-standing legal procedures, including the jailing of journalists for failure to reveal their sources? Miller went to jail over the time-honored tradition of journalists refusing to give up their sources, and for that she should be honored (although for nothing else: her war-drum reports and parroting of administration falsehoods in the lead up to the Iraq War pretty much ruined her reputation), but it's hardly a new thing that the government tries to get the information and the journalist refuses to turn it over. Cohen is like Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski trying to equate everything to Vietnam.

Cohen sums up his article by joining the "Pardon Libby" chorus, an ensemble made up initially of the most rabid right-wing shits available, the ones who would have pardoned William Calley and still won't admit that Nixon was a criminal. Now apparently anyone can join. Sure, I think it's sad that Fitzgerald didn't go after Rove or Cheney, but given the limitations and stonewalling from this administration, we should be thankful that he caught any fish at all. Libby was not an "obscure government official" as Cohen would have it, but rather an integral part of BushCo's plotting against the United States and attempts to undermine civil liberties (Cohen seems to forget that the press intimidation really took place on the other side of the coin, with Plame's name being leaked as retaliation for Joe Wilson's newspaper column critiquing the case for the Iraq boondoggle).

And while it would be nice is some of his superiors also traded their tailored suits for prison jumpsuits to keep him company, as far as Libby goes, 30 months isn't long enough.

18 June 2007

First Times.

Over the weekend I saw The Tempest at the Folger. It was the first time I've ever been to the Folger Theatre, although I have wandered through the tourist area of the Folger before, and while I knew the theatre was a re-creation of an Elizabethan theatre, I was amazed at how small it was: 250 seats in all. You'd think that would mean there wasn't a bad seat in the house, but apparently a few people on the sides felt their views were obstructed by the thick supporting columns that separated the main orchestra seating from the side orchestra areas. However, our view was fine.

Of course, one difference between the Folger's stage and a real Elizabethan theater, aside from climate control, is that the Folger incorporates a sophisticated sound and light show into their productions, which in my opinion often overwhelmed the small space. I'm not a big fan of music in the theater, because I feel it's a shortcut to conjuring drama, so maybe I'm making too much of it, but seriously I felt it was intrusive.

While I'm talking about things I didn't like, I might as well talk about the way the director chose to present Ariel. He stuck the actress behind a circular translucent screen elevated above and behind the center of the stage. This severely limited my attachment to the character and my interest in her plight as an imprisoned spirit. Yes, you saw more clearly that she was imprisoned, but most people are clever enough to figure out from the dialogue and the interaction between Prospero and Ariel that the spirit is in servitude and not happy about it. No need to hit us over the head with it, especially if the tactic ends up recreating the imprisonment of the character by limiting the actor to facial expressions and singing.

The rest of the production was very very good. Prospero came across as both kind and manipulative, and his ability to turn from happiness to rage hinted at controlling and slightly unhinged possibilities; the character is so interesting because he tells us early on that he lost his worldy status as a result of a too intense love of his studies, which I like to interpret as the dangers all scholars face when they abdicate social responsibility for the realm of "pure" research. One of the more interesting changes was turning Caliban his plotters into one character: rather than encountering Trinculo and Stehano, Caliban finds a bottle that Gonzalo has left behind and gets himself drunk and creates his co-consipirators out of the bottle and his hand. It's an exhaustive role for the actor, who must now play three parts, even if all are filtered through the main role of Caliban. I have to say the cast was very solid: the King of Naples was aloof, Gonzalo was both a blowhard and a noble soul, Antonio was dapper and conniving (really the actor displayed his cold grasping and final shame extremely well in what really was a small role), Miranda was innocent without being cloying, etc.

If you want to see it, well too late. The run ended yesterday.

As for other firsts, the first night of Fort Reno is tonight at, well, Fort Reno.

12 June 2007

Credentials? I don't need no stinking credentials.

"Hi. I've never had any administrative experience of any sort in a school system, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night."

The Sell-Out

This morning Mayor Adrian Fenty unceremoniously dismissed DCPS Superintendent Clifford Janey and installed Michelle Rhee, whose classroom experience consists of three years teaching and whose administration experience consists of . . . well, nothing.

Much like we appoint absolute no-nothings to run major corporations and bring in total outsiders to perform surgery to escape the "medical industry establishment," Fenty has taken the bold move of placing a person whose major credential is that she runs a boutique teaching program that's the darling of the right-wing.

Rhee's New Teacher Project trains teachers for urban school districts, and that's a good thing. However, the other side of that coin is that Rhee's non-profit produces studies that blame teachers unions for making "it difficult for systems to get rid of poor teachers." This canard, one of the key talking points from libertarian and other elitist anti-education groups, functions on the notion that unions run the schools. If only it were so. For better or worse, administrators run the schools and are responsible for keeping poor teachers in the classroom: a diligent administrator who does his or her job supplies bad teachers with bad reviews and documents problems. Unions protect teachers -- good or bad -- who have good performance reviews. Unions ensure that due process is followed, even if under the Bush regime the notion of due process and rule of law are seen as "quaint notions."

As I have one child in the system and will soon have another, I hope Rhee succeeds, or at least doesn't do any more harm than has already been done. However, Janey should not be forgotten so easily. He implemented a much more rigorous curriculum and system of standardized testing, and as expected, scores dipped because everything became suddenly more difficult (which by the way is why the Post's series this week should be taken with a grain of salt: it relies heavily on test data from the previous year, a year in which the curriculum and tests changed: it was all new to the teachers and the students).

But I get ahead of myself. For those who think Fenty has brought in a breath of fresh air to the system, think again. It doesn't take long to watch the strands of the web appear:

*Kaya Henderson, the newly appointed deputy chancellor, once worked for Rhee at New Teacher Project and is currently on the board of EdBuild.
*EdBuild, most recently profiled by Colbert King, has received a 57.6 million dollar contract from the now more or less defunct Board of Education.
*Former Board of Education member Julie Mikuta left the board and shortly thereafter joined EdBuild, a "non-profit" whose sole purpose was to funnel DC's funds for school modernization into its well-connected founders' pockets.
*EdBuild's first president, Neil Albert, became the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development under Fenty.

What a tangled web we weave...

As for Rhee herself, consider this interesting quote that finishes up the Washington Post article:
"I'm not a career superintendent," Rhee said. "We see the harm that comes when people come in and in 2 1/2 years they're off to the next job after making 4 percent gains. I only took this job because I believe I can do it over the long haul."

In my limited understanding of English, I usually associate someone who does a job for the "long haul" with someone who does that for a "career," but I suppose that's the Old Speak, and then there's the curious notion that she seems to be blaming Janey for leaving so soon (his tenure coincidentally has only been 2.5 years), when it's pretty clear he was staying up until Fenty showed him the door.

I'm willing to bet that Fenty's shadow education agenda includes quick sell offs of valuable and irreplaceable school property to reap windfalls for connected local developers.

08 June 2007

Ticketmaster = Teh Evil

It's not like this tidbit is breaking news, but Ticketmaster is a grand example of the evils of monopoly power in any industry. I was browsing about for DC United tickets, and I discovered that you have to buy them through this criminal outfit (unless of course you can still buy them at the stadium in person), and it's true that pretty much any ticket you want to buy online for a major sporting event or concert goes through the abyss of shit known as Ticketmaster.

I remember the heady days when banks were trying out their new found power to charge you to take out your own money from ATMs, when fees were something like $1. Sounds quaint, right? At least the little competition that remains in the banking industry keeps those institutions from charging five or ten bucks a pop. With Ticketmaster, with no discernible competition or regulation in sight, you will find yourself being levied a "convenience charge" that would make a loanshark blush with shame.

For instance, I looked at the cheap seats for DC United. The published price is $18. Sure you're in the corner so pretty much you have a great view of the ass of the player taking the corner kick, but little else. Ticket-Disaster tacks a $4.65 charge on that ticket. Without getting too technical, that's roughly a 25% surcharge for the ticket. In what way is that convenient?

If you're an oldster as I am you remember Pearl Jam's ill-fated attempt to thwart the ticketbroker monopoly, and you'd be hard pressed to argue that their quixotic attempt didn't contribute to their descent from one of the more powerful bands of the 1990's to has-beens.

"I fought the law, and the law won."

FU, ticketmaster, FU.

06 June 2007

Failing the test.

I'm certain the Bush faithful and the enemies of liberal education will be hooting and hollering over this study showing that test scores have improved under No Child Left Behind. However, it really shouldn't come as a surprise that a law that considers education to consist of two subjects (math and reading) measurable simply by standardized testing and enforces a draconian system of punishment for schools unable to meet the limiting standards would have such results: after all, central administration, principals, and teachers all understand that their schools' fates rise and fall based upon two tests in the spring. So out with enrichment activities and silly subjects like social studies and science (although only temporarily: science will be tested soon under NCLB guidelines), and in with more teaching to the test.

It is in fact the absolute worst concept of education ever devised: the notion that the education process can be summarized by any standardized test. At a time when universities are beginning to re-examine, re-prioritize, or simply rid themselves of SAT scores because it has become abundantly clear how flawed those assessments are, it seems counterintuitive that the Department of Education should be so enamored of standardized testing.

And then you realize how truly limited the BushCo institution is. For them, the world is divided into black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, and nothing is ever complicated, nuanced, or conflicted. Since everyone's given the same test, the theory goes, then the results are valid across all populations. Hmph. Isn't it pretty to think so?, as someone once wrote. It'd be nice and simple to be able to measure a school so easily. Unfortunately, those of us who operate in the real world understand that schools are not created equal and do not compete on level playing fields. Schools in which 70% of the students receive free or reduced lunch, in which a large percentage of the parents work two jobs and/or don't speak English as their primary language, and in which must devote significant chunks of their budget to security concerns are simply not playing with the same ball that wealthy, established, suburban school districts play with.

We should recognize this difference and take it into account. I for one believe that my son is better served in his current school, with all its faults, than he would be in one of the outlying schools or private schools in which diversity -- economic, racial, social -- is not lived but is rather a vaguely understood concept. However, they don't test that under NCLB. They don't insist that public schools in wealthy neighborhoods reach benchmarks on economic diversity so their students can understand that not everyone receives a car when he or she reaches the age of 16.

People might object to such a requirement as "social engineering." They'd be right, but they'd also be incorrect not to recognize the current testing regime as another form of social engineering that is producing its own "successes" inevitably in its structure.

03 June 2007

Plan your summer evenings accordingly.

The Fort Reno schedule is up. If you've never been to Fort Reno, you need to get there. It's an entirely laid back scene appropriate for all ages, from little babies on up. Dogs, too. Many people choose to make a picnic dinner of it, spread out a blanket, and enjoy the evening.

You can, too.

Maryland Tags.

It's amazing no one was killed in this incident.

01 June 2007

Displaced Desires

Anyone familiar with the debacle and corporate welfare giveaway that is the new baseball stadium would remember the story of the enterprising entrepreneurs who would be forced to relocate when the new stadium ate up their business locations: the strip clubs and sex shops etc.

Much hand-wringing occurred over the plight of these businesses that had managed to survive in the barren rock and debris around buzzard point, and by much I generally mean that a little lip service was given to how sad it was that these businesses were pretty much zoned out of any other place in the city (a far cry indeed from the early 1990's, when 14th Street still contained the remnants of a sleazy "adult entertainment" center) and would tut tut have to shutter their doors forever.

Then Ward One Councilmember Jim Graham came to the rescue with a bill that would allow these businesses to relocate to "commercial manufacturing zones," which he claims are located throughout the city, but for some reason Ward 5 has become the preferred proposed relocation site for these businesses.

This discrepancy between Graham's claim that these businesses could relocate throughout the city and the media attention on Ward 5 got me interested in what other locations these fine establishments might seek to inhabit. One thing I found was that not far from my house and directly across from the future Harris Teeter in Adams Morgan was one such zone, which surprised me, since the entire C-M-2 zone there is occupied by two story townhouses. I'm wondering what sort of commercial potential I might have purchasing one of those overpriced two up-two downs and turning it into a sex emporium. I might have some luck with the overflow from the Harris Teeter, but then again those places are so small I'm not sure I could do the volume I needed...

The best quote from the Post coverage comes from Kwame Brown, who like an athlete, has taken to referring to himself in the third person: "Kwame Brown does not want nudie bars next to residential homes."

I don't know. Does anyone know why Ward 5 seems to be the focus in this tale of displacement?