Key & Peele, Marshawn Lynch, and Labor: 101

One takes one’s teaching moments where one can find them.

I always start off my science writing classes with some interesting (?) and timely science news. On Friday, we were lucky enough to have the latest iteration of Key & Peele’s “East/West Bowl” series, which provided a perfect segue into Sarah Jaffe’s great article at The Week, “The Subversive Genius of Marshawn Lynch.”

Jaffe calls Lynch’s refusal to play the game at interviews an example of “work to rule.” According to Gregg Shotwell, at Socialist Viewpoint, “Work to rule is a method of slowing production by following every rule to the letter. The aim is to leverage negotiations.” And FindLaw defines it as “the practice of working to the strictest interpretation of the rules as a job action.” Lynch says as much, explicitly, in his interviews.

Knowing I had a few criminal justice majors in the class, I asked if this kind of thing sounded familiar, like, say, something in the news from a few weeks ago that, as you may recall, happened in NYC, in response to something that somebody said… Nobody seemed to know what I was talking about, so I jumped over to this article at Slate.

I wonder if they found it as amusing as I did that members of the NYPD are practicing socialists?

Another phrase that appears in Jaffe’s article is “emotional labor,” which she defines as “the work we do to manage our emotions so as to produce a desired emotional state in others.” As a fun experiment, I opened up the Science Direct database, typed in “emotional labor,” and came up with a few thousand articles, many of them from health care, which covered most of the rest of the students. But, just to be safe, I asked for a show of hands to see who worked retail, and in that way managed to include everyone else.

In conclusion, I try to stay away from left wing political discourse in the classroom, but the comedy stylings of Key & Peele are just too good to pass up.



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Stop Using the Word “Tragedy”

Photo by author

CNN has reported that the 12-year-old boy shot by Cleveland police has died. According to the report, Deputy Chief Ed Tomba of the Cleveland Division of Police called the killing a “very, very tragic situation.”

Two days ago, Mark Caudill, of the Mansfield News Journal, reported on the shooting death by police of an Ohio man, Brain Garber. Richland County Sheriff Steve Sheldon was quoted as saying, “The loss of life is always a tragedy.”

In August, the New York Times reported on the shooting death of Charles Vacca by a 9-year-old girl, after her parents took her to shoot an Uzi at a Vegas-area gun range. Here’s a quote:

We allow children to shoot, but not a fully automatic Uzi,” said Genghis Cohen, owner of an indoor shooting range, Machine Guns Vegas. He called the shooting on Monday tragic, but added, “It was completely and utterly avoidable.”

And so on and so on. I do not think this word means what they desperately want it to mean.

Here is Aristotle’s definition of “tragedy”:

A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; inappropriate and pleasurable language;…in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, “catharsis” comes from the Latin word “katharos,” meaning “pure, clear of dirt, clean, spotless; open, free; clear of shame or guilt; purified.”

To put it simply, all these uses of the word “tragedy” are bullshit. They’re a dodge. A feint. A washing-of-hands. The ultimate abuse of the passive voice.

The incident in Cleveland, like the others, was not a “tragedy.” It was a killing. Defend it how you may, but don’t lay it at the feet of the gods.

From "Life in Hell," by Matt Groening
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The Purity of Corporate School Reform

From Valerie Strauss, in an article at The Washington Post, entitled, “The quote that reveals how at least one corporate school reformer really views students”:

Here is a quote in the WOSU story from Chris Kershner, vice president of public policy and economic development for the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, that tells you pretty much what you need to know about how this corporate school reformer really views students and public schools:

“The business community is the consumer of the educational product. Students are the educational product. They are going through the education system so that they can be an attractive product for business to consume and hire as a workforce in the future.”

And there you have it.

There, indeed.

There is, to be sure, a certain beauty in the clarity of Kershner’s vision, one reminiscent of this exchange in the film, Alien:

Ash: “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

Lambert: “You admire it.”

Ash: “I admire its…purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

At least we know what we’re dealing with. And, to all the eager kids starting school tomorrow, here’s the rest of the scene:

Ash: “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies.”

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Forty Inches and Mule, Redux

In response to a racist cartoon about Ferguson at the Columbia Daily Tribune, which was brought to my attention by TBogg, from The Raw Story, I thought I’d re-post a long piece I wrote many, many years ago. As they say in Pro-Choice circles, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” -Michael

“Forty Inches and a Mule: The American Class War Goes HD”

Part One: How Many Kids = 1 Vizio?

For Christmas last year, I wanted to buy my family a flat-screen television. Nothing too extravagant: a 40” LCD to replace the aging boulder we have now. But the bank that owns my house had recently readjusted my escrow to cover an assessment by the town where I live that reflected a rise in property taxes in the state of New York which resulted in my mortgage going up 20%. So my credit card payments had fallen behind, and I was denied.

Since then, I’ve been haunted by flat-screens. They show up at my house in the color supplements of the newspaper. They mock me in the store, as I saunter up the darkened aisles and they swell like my dreams, from the rustic 20” bumpkin gathering dust, to the magnificent Mitsubishi 82″ Class/1080p/120Hz/DLP HDTV, surely the Moby Dick of televisions, where, like that other whale, hosts of resentments and promises are “visibly personified and made practically assailable.” Or purchasable, anyway.

And now flat-screens are popping up in the Populist rhetoric, such as in Glenn Beck’s use of The Flat Screen Factor, an economic graphic designed to boil every economic issue down into how many 42″ plasmas can be bought with a corresponding amount of money. (The average family spends $1175 on gas each year, for instance, which would otherwise get them 1.203 plasmas.) They have also featured heavily in the fallout over the recent School Supplies Scandal here in New York. The state, in collaboration with George Soros’ Open Society Institute, a private organization, gave grants of $200 per child to families on welfare intended to help them get ready for school. The money went straight to the families. Soros was quoted as saying that his intention was to help people in need, as he had once been helped.

In execution, the program touched every nerve in the corpus populisti, like a bad game of Operation. The outcry was huge. In fact, the first I heard about it was on a news program focusing on Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, who had just appeared on Fox Business News, citing “widespread, rampant abuse,” and whose office issued a press release which reads, in part:

Instead of providing necessary property tax relief to our hard-working middle class families, politicians in Albany have decided to write a blank check to public assistance and food stamp recipients without any assurances that it will be spent on the intended purpose of back-to-school supplies . . . In fact, a significant portion of the recipients are abusing this program and purchasing luxury items such as flat-screen TVs and video gaming systems.

Now, the press release does not define “in fact” and “significant portion,” nor does it explain how $200-per-child constitutes a “blank check” unless, like so many other people, Brooks believes welfare families will keep producing babies as withdrawal slips. But no matter — stock phrases are just rabble rousers, and these work fine. More importantly, it hammers on the wedge between “us” and “them” and, in what has turned out to be a masterful linguistic flourish, it even names names.

I went to my desk to look up the actual details of the program, and Googled “new york state” and “school supplies.” A wall of commentary blocked the way. I scrolled and trolled and browsed, and finally found what I wanted at But by then I’d gone through some pretty nasty stuff:

  • “That’s why America is in the state it’s in… Sam pick pockets those of us who pursued the American dream (hard work) and hand out our cash to lazy slobs with a sense of entitlement.”
  • “I have students who recieve free lunches yet they have new clothes all the time and their parents drive escalades.”
  • “so paying for people who choose not to get healthcare in favor of big screens and SUV’s is my moral obligation?”
  • “In the early 1990s I worked for a local non-profit program which serves those with income below the poverty line. I was paid minimum wage with a B.S. degree and when I made home visits, they had more than I did in my home – and they always had their cable tv (which we were unable to afford at the time).”
  • “Now we are giving them $200 per child to buy TV’s, I-Pods, or any other luxury items not related to school supplies.”
  • “President Obama. What a joke we’ve elected to ‘rule’ our country… The hardworking Americans get shit on while everyone collecting welfare sit home w/their huge flatscreen tvs…while their ‘baby momma’ is sitting in the bedroom popping out another kid every 9 months…”
  • “I guess when you play by the rules, Drive a car that gets more than 18 mpg, pay your mortgage on time and don’t default on something you agreed to pay, You get no stimulus money. But have kids you can’t afford, buy cars that get bad gas mileage, and don’t pay your bills you get all kinds of Obama dollars.”
  • “It’s a CHOICE to “buy” an oversized flat screen TV at rent-a-center financed for 84 months at $12 per week. Its a CHOICE to go out and buy an new car, with FREE MONEY FROM OBAMA, financed with payments you can barely afford instead of getting buy with the car you have.”

This is ranting in earnest. People are furious, and understandably so: The job market is crumbling, and New York State has the highest property taxes in the nation, with Monroe County and two of its neighbors topping the list.

Still, most of this stuff is rote, as folksy as the Declaration of Independence. Familiar phrases are tossed around like baseballs on the 4th of July. Boot straps are pulled. Foxholes get dug or deepened. The American narrative continues to run its course, only now it has been freshened by some hot new consumer items and the shocking fact that the President is one of “them.” The undercurrent of hatred quickens.

All the comments made me curious about the number of flat-screens the Obamas have in the White House (which is, after all, the grandest taxpayer-supported pile in the nation). When I Googled “obama’ and “flat screen,” the very first hit was a Populist blog with the American flag making up its entire banner image and the name, Here is the reference:

After months of ragging about his constant use of teleprompters for everything Obama switched to a huge flat screen TV in order to stay on script because without something to tell him what to say he becomes a babbling baboon.

Next on the list, at the web site, was an article about a group of nurses who accidentally ran into a health care rally held by Mark Phillips, ‘conservative activist and sometime Fox News commentator.’ Phillips said this to a group of senior citizens in Nevada:

“Barack Obama wants to steal your money through taxes, just like some guy off the street wants to steal my big-screen TV.”

With our class structure suddenly turning as flat as our televisions, the president has become a mash-up between Jim Crow and John Brown. Instead of Harper’s Ferry, though, he’s raiding the superstores and trying to instigate a plasma-fueled race war.

Part Two: Rather Serious Embarrassment

America has a history of looking at certain people getting their hands on proprietary items with a mixture of alarm and scorn, an impulse easily manipulated by savvy politicians and journalists. Urban rioting is an ongoing example. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots that occurred after the Rodney King verdict, for instance, crowds quickly started looting stores. According to on-the-spot reports from the Emergency Response & Research Institute,

Much looting appeared to [be] “opportunistic” in scope and origin. Entire families were seen working together to steal from stores in their own neighborhoods. Often, what was being stolen was not of any necessity, but rather luxury items such as designer gym shoes, radios, and starter jackets. Frequently, it just appeared that it was those “without” were taking from those “with,” because they could.

This kind of looting is generally posited as the real driving force behind urban unrest. After all, it’s a much easier notion to get a grip on than an abstract set of grievances that may actually be the cause. (I hear an echo of this attitude in a comment by Michele Malkin in her recent book, Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies: “In the Chicago patronage culture that made Michelle Obama, the color that matters most is neither black nor white, it is green — the color of money.”)

Going back a bit, during the 1920’s, there was a huge migration of workers from the South to the North, causing worries in both areas of the country. At the same time, thanks to companies like Sears, houses were becoming available to almost everyone, and could even be ordered from a catalogue. In 1924, the New York Times ran a letter by F. A. Werthman, Secretary of a division of the New York State Association of Real Estate Boards, wondering how to combat a concern of some new home buyers:

As a result of the great influx of negroes…some of them are purchasing homes and home sites in the very heart of the residential sections of our cities, to the great detriment of values of neighborhood properties. We seem powerless to stem such encroachment, and you can readily appreciate what a property owner can do to his street and neighborhood in the way of depreciating property values.

Sam C. Starke, Secretary of the Birmingham, AL, Real Estate Board, replied that for them “no city ordinance or State law [was needed] to prevent” such a thing, since, “It would be distinctly prejudicial to a prominent white man” to sell a home is such a way. “I can only guess,” Starke concludes, “that the purchaser under these circumstances would be running the risk of rather serious embarrassment of some sort or other.” Neither man needed to worry, though — they were in the process of creating the suburbs.

Going back even further, in the early 20th Century and the latter part of the 19th, those too poor to own houses or land could at least share in the defense of their women. Most stories of lynching involve retribution for attacks on white women in poor communities. And in the months leading up to the Civil War, fear was used to persuade the working poor in the South to oppose the abolition of slavery. James McPherson, in his book Battle Cry of Freedom, quotes one Georgia secessionist as asking non-slaveholders, “Do you love your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter?” And a Baptist clergyman from South Carolina warned that “abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.” With no other real possessions to lose, the landless poor were stoked with fear and loathing using a fever dream straight out of Birth of a Nation.

It goes back even more, to 1858, when the economic and political climates were strikingly similar to our own. According to historian Allen C. Guelzo, in his book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debate that Defined America, that year brought a recession to the state of Illinois that deflated land values and reduced the money supply of banknotes. National imports fell, religious movements rose, and talk of abolition was shaking up the old order. The town of Freeport, IL, which hosted one of the debates, was a money town, embracing “principles of small business, finance, and markets.” It also had 5 carriage makers, and Stephen Douglas knew what he was doing when he told a Freeport crowd this story about abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass:

“The last time I came here to make a speech,” he said, recalling an incident from a speaking tour in northern Illinois in 1854, “I saw a carriage…drive up” in which “a beautiful young lady was sitting on the box seat, whilst Fred. Douglas and her mother reclined inside, and the owner of the carriage acted as driver.’ Imagine: a white man and white woman playing the roles of servants, while a black abolitionist and a white woman “reclined inside.” If they liked this sort of arrangement, with “the nigger…on a social equality with your wives and daughters” or riding “in a carriage with your wife, whilst you drive the team,” then they should vote for the “Black Republicans.” This drove the crowd into a freny…

And with a lurch, we’re back in the Escalade, or in the TV room with Mark Phillips and Maggie Brooks.

Part Three: A Star is Born

Not every generation can be there at the birth of a Myth, but we seem to be lucky.

Of all the comments I read about the School Supply scandal, this one is my favorite:

  • “And didn’t I read somewhere that some of these parents were buying X boxes and other crap with their money and NOT spending it on school supplies????”

First of all, it’s comparatively humane, and despite the extra question marks, it doesn’t snap in my face like a whip. Also, it calls all the crap people are talking about, “crap,” instead of the incendiary default expression, “luxury items”. These are not luxuries, at all. They are basics, and fall squarely inside working class territory. (Some of the them are a tad outside, but that’s pretty much the point: they are something to work for.)  ”The standard of living is more than plenty of food,” wrote sociologist William T. Ogburn, in a New York Times article way back in 1929.

Most primitive people had plenty of food most of the time… The luxuries of yesterday are the necessities of today. It was not long ago that underwear was not in general use. And it has only been a few years that we have been wearing night gowns and pajamas. There was a time when the fork was unknown, and we have been using the match only about a century. Now we must all have tooth brushes.

Not to mention TVs and gaming systems. We call these things luxuries because we like to think they are, and the anger over welfare families having such “luxuries” as electronic toys and clothes not scavenged from a Goodwill box says more about our own frustrations than anything else.

The people who are buying yachts, Upper West Side addresses, and Bugatti Veyrons—i.e. the real luxury items—are strangely silent on this issue. To them, “$200″ is an abstraction. To the rest of us, it’s something we can almost smell, something to pay the electric bill and the car loan with, or toss to the bank when it calls about the mortgage. The thought of someone else getting their hands on those two crisp Franklins, or that modest 40″ LCD we can’t have, is maddening.

The above comment also starts with the tell-tale words, “Didn’t I read somewhere…” This vague anxiety, of “them” stealing “our” televisions and hanging them on the walls of Section 8 bedrooms, signals the birth of a Myth: an honest-to-goodness Urban Myth. (Never mind Sasquatch; this is the real deal.) Certainly, it’s based on a kernel of truth. All myths are. There is no doubt in my mind that some New Yorkers saw the school supply money in their bank accounts and immediately bought flat-screens. But it’s gone beyond that, deeper, somehow, into the place where fear, hope, freedom, and other such amorphous ideas take possession of things—electronics, greenbacks, human bodies—and turn them into metaphors, actors in the stories through which we live our lives.

George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, studies the way metaphors shape and express thought. In the book Whose Freedom?, he writes that they are used continuously and unconsciously, structuring our thinking into “deep frames,” which define how we see the world and “characterize moral and political principles that are so deep they are part of [our] very identity.” They are so systemic, that any “fact” or piece of evidence we take in either gets drawn into the frame or, if it contradicts the frame, it becomes a non-reality. There are also “surface frames,” particular words and images that are our normal modes of expression. We use them constantly in our language, at once revealing and reinforcing that which lies beneath. In an argument, whoever controls the surface frames, controls the ideas.

Flat-screens act as surface frames. As bits of plastic and metal, they are a new species—along with X Box’s, iPods, and cell phones—in the genus, trophidiae. They hang on the wall like antlers, or the way iron nails were driven into the front doors of 17th Century houses. As storytellers, they provide visual narratives that deliver our myths and provide us with communal identity. (The title sequence of Amazing Stories, Stephen Spielberg’s television series from the 1980’s, showed a tribe of Neanderthals telling stories around a fire, which gradually morphed into a TV set.)

In times of economic hardship and social change, they offer still more. “In the post-9/11 era,” writes Joe Abelson, vice president of displays for consumer electronics advisers, iSuppli,

a new phrase entered the lexicon: ‘cocooning,’ a trend among fear-struck citizens to avoid travel and remain in the safety of their homes. Amid the current economic downturn, a new wave of cocooning has hit, with recession-wary U.S. consumers eschewing travel, staying home and watching their televisions. However, they still are finding enough money to buy new flat-panel sets that offer superior pictures and larger sizes. (When Times Get Tough, the Tough Watch Television)

Holing up in a cave or going down a burrow is about as deep as framing gets. Combine that with ideas about freedom and success, and it’s easy to see why, as Lakoff says, “Deep framing is where the action is.”

Deep framing also helps to explain the persistence of stories like these:

  • Snapple features a slave ship on its lable and is owned by the KKK.
  • Maya Angelou wrote a poem saying Timberland is owned by the KKK, and the Timberland Tree represents lynching.
  • Tommy Hilfiger has said he does not want black people wearing his clothes. Liz Claiborne also said the same thing on Oprah.
  • Church’s Fried Chicken contains a chemical that makes black men sterile.
  • Frederic Rouzaud, the managing director of the winery that makes Cristal Champagne (a favorite of rap stars), said that he would be “delighted” if rappers bought another brand, instead.

When I brought these Myths up in one of my classes, most of the students laughed (a few merely nodded their heads). Their only response was that whoever believes these things must be “crazy.” The Urban Legends web site,, called the stories “slander,” and said, “These are common rumor types, and such tales should be dismissed as gossip not even worth the effort of repeating.” Yet a Legend is not a Myth, and it’s not so easy to dismiss the fact that these stories are indeed repeated over, and over, and over again.

A Youtube video that showed Geraldo Rivera interviewing people about these stories (since deleted) focused on a group of well-dressed professionals in an attempt to highlight their bizarre nature. When confronted with evidence that Liz Claiborne never said anything about black people wearing her clothes, and that Oprah had transcripts to prove it, one woman told Geraldo she still believed it had been said at one time or another. “You must understand,” she told him, simply, “We are used to the idea of other people owning things.” And is it so hard to believe that some deep frames have been built differently than others when, for over 150 years, ownership has been used as both a wall and a badge? Or when there were such things as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment? Or when the the story about Cristal Champagne is actually true?

Now, how do we explain the deep frames that shore up the nightmares of the Populists? Would the words “crazy” and “slanderous” apply? Every day at the college where I teach, I see people waiting patiently for the bus back to downtown. One of my students, who had to withdraw after the first semester, lived in a studio apartment and owned a small radio. The grandmother of a high schooler that I tutored struggled for funding in order to send him to a high school where he might actually graduate, and on his birthday she bought him a new cell phone. (Yikes.) What do these folks think about all the flat-screens they’re supposed to be finagling?

Hopefully, they’ll understand that a large segment of the American population is just used to the idea of certain people stealing things.

We are all more or less prisoners of our metaphors, and the impulses that pull us toward larger and larger screen sizes are the same ones that feed our hatred for real human beings. On the one hand, the crystallization of the popular ideal of freedom: self-sufficiency, hard work, limited government, and the right to acquire and keep property. On the other, the grotesque embodiment of its opposite: dependence, sloth, taxation and home invasions. It’s little wonder that sexy, mid-level consumer items drive the debates. Just slap words like “flat-screens” and “welfare cheats” onto the deep frames, plop them into a narrative of fear, and you have yourself a Myth. Do it consciously, and you have yourself a political party.

So was I angry when I couldn’t buy a flat-screen last year? Yep. Also frustrated, embarrassed, and a little depressed. Watching my family open the package would have made me feel like a hunter bringing home a grizzly, and hanging that pelt on the wall would really be saying something — to them, to the world, and to someone who would gladly work several jobs to provide for his loved ones. If there were jobs. That’s a lot of weight to hang on a television, especially when measured diagonally.

Yet I try not to channel my anger into a shiny black frame, and bite-sized numbers like “40″ and “200″ don’t get me worked up. Here are some that do:

  • In 2008, the graduation rate in the Rochester City School District was 52%. This is considered a success, and when it’s compared to the 37% who graduated in 2006, I suppose it is. (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)
  • 872 Rochester students were arrested in school during the 2008-2009 school year, compared to 414 the year before. (City Newspaper)
  • Of the 15 adults I had at a class in the city last Spring, 6 were unable to open Microsoft Word, 2 weren’t sure how to turn on the computer, and 1 couldn’t find the space bar.

This is where the real crime lies, not with a “significant portion” of “them” buying toys with “my” money because they “won’t” get jobs, but with an ingrained, ongoing denial of the most basic requisites for enjoying the life of work in the first place. It’s a crime against the people involved, a crime against the future of America, and a crime against humanity.

I doubt, though, that these numbers will ever get the sustained attention that’s lavished on flat-screens. For one thing, they’re complicated, and have—de facto and de jure—been adding up for centuries. But at the end of the day they’re just vague and amorphous, and lack the mythic heft of the story about the Vizio, the Pair of Bootstraps, and the Welfare Queen with a Walmart gift card.

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Look Before You “Like”

I finally “disliked” something on Facebook. It wasn’t very difficult, technically speaking, but it was kind of hard to finally hit the button.

A good friend of mine had “liked” an article by Chad Bird, at Flying Scroll, called, “Please Don’t Say These Six Things at My Funeral.” Being a language cynic, I found the idea amusing, so I “liked” it, as well.

Eventually, though, I surfed over to the primary source, only to find this:

4. We are not here to mourn Chad’s death, but to celebrate his life. So-called “Celebrations of Life” (which I have written against in “The Tragic Death of the Funeral”) do a disservice to the mourners for they deny or euphemize death. The gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause. Whatever the apparent reason for my decease may be—a sickness, accident, or old age—the real reason is because I was conceived and born in sin, and I built atop that sinful nature a mountain’s worth of actual sins.

My sister’s son recently killed himself, at the age of 20. He was a beautiful person, a light to all who knew him, a transcendent soul. His only sister was married this week, without the presence of her brother. My children loved him dearly, and rightfully so.

Just after my nephew’s death, his life was celebrated before several hundred of those whose lives he had touched. The assertion that such a celebration was some kind of farce, and that his death came from a sinful nature, and that, moreover, he had compounded that sin throughout his short but inspirational life, is odious to me beyond all possibility of comprehension or acceptance.

Every so often, at sacred moments, I find myself drawn back to the faith in which I was born and baptized, and then I come across someone like Chad Bird, and am repulsed again.

BTW: “The Tragic Death of the Funeral” is a distasteful blend of politics and misanthropy. It appears at The Federalist, which is not my favorite web site. Its tone of righteous cruelty makes it a perfect fit there.

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The Otter Conflation, Part Two

A while ago, I wrote about a particular non sequitur that was popularized by Tim Matheson’s famous courtroom speech in Animal House. I called it the Otter Conflation. (One YouTube video of the speech calls it, more simply, “The Otter Defense.”) It’s a kind of straw man argument, in which the defense takes an accusation against a specific instance, and attempts to transfer it, without any intermediate steps, to the entire class of things that the specific instance falls into.

The example I used at the time was a letter from DeVry, Inc., trying to defend the abuses of for-profit colleges (emphasis added):

Over the past two years, Washington has been ground zero in a prolonged and contentious conversation about private-sector higher education. Investigations and hearings by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions into questionable practices at a handful of private-sector institutions have been the talk of the town when it comes to higher education. Frustration directed at higher education is understandable.

It gives you vertigo just reading it. Anyway, the Conflation is back, this time in one of the responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article at the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” The response is by Rachel Lu, at The Federalist, who writes,

[Coates] takes us on an extended tour of black history, with the goal of establishing three things. First, racism was a very, very bad thing which did grave injustice to large numbers of black Americans. Second, America’s current prosperity was to a great extent made possible by slavery and other forms of exploitation. Third, black Americans today are struggling in a myriad of ways, and this is a fairly direct consequence of the injustices they have suffered.

This is a fair summary of Coates’ research. Lu even agrees–grudgingly–with part of his historical argument:

Progressives don’t deserve to be given a pass for their ill-conceived policies, but it’s still valuable for conservatives to remember that racism is still relevant to the economic and cultural struggles of black Americans today.

And it’s still relevant to the economic and cultural situation of white Americans today, too, but Lu explicitly rejects that part of the argument. How? Cue the Conflation:

First and most importantly, it’s just not the case that thriving democracies require a foundation in slavery and oppression.

This may very well be true in some instances–Switzerland, maybe–but it’s a complete dodge. Coates writes about the U.S., not “thriving democracies” as a genus. Lu then compounds the error by writing:

In fact, comparing the economic and political fortunes of countries or regions that relied heavily on slavery (such as Brazil) to regions that didn’t (such as Great Britain or the American north), one could quite plausibly make the argument that slavery is economically disadvantageous over the longer term.

Actually, England profited quite nicely from slavery. Liverpool, for instance, grew rich from it. According to the web site for the International Slavery Museum,

Liverpool was a major slaving port and its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the 18th century. The town and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth from the trade which laid the foundations for the port’s future growth.

English merchants also grew wealthy from their sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean, while textile mills in England and other “thriving democracies” in Europe were so dependent on cotton from American slave states that the Confederacy tried to leverage its economic influence to gain international support in the Civil War. And later, of course, England would use slavery and oppression in places like China, India, and large swathes of Africa.

I’m not sure what Lu means by the “American north.” If it’s the Union, then she’s wrong again. According to James McPherson, in his book Battle Cry of Freedom,

The states that grew cotton kept less than 5 percent of it at home for manufacture into cloth. They exported 70 percent of it abroad and the remainder to northern mills, where the value added by manufacture equaled the price that raw cotton brought the South…Some 15 or 20 percent of the price of raw cotton went to “factors”…Most of these factors represented northern or British companies.

If one is going to use rhetorical sleight of hand to distract attention, one should at least get the history right.

In the Animal House speech, most of the fun was watching Otter pull off his massive act of bullshitting, when he, everyone else in the room, and everyone in the audience, knew that almost all the charges against Delta House were, in fact, correct.

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Prisons Bring the Green, In More Ways Than One

Once upon a time, I believed that using inmates from Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility to build an ice palace for the town of Saranac Lake, NY, represented the most egregious example of the modern carceral state carrying on the work of American slavery.

After reading a letter I recently found at The CCA 360, the propaganda blog of the Corrections Corporation of America, I have to say I was wrong.

Here’s the back story: A few years ago, CNBC ran a critique of America’s prison industry, which paid special attention to for-profit companies like CCA. In response, Mayor Pro Tem Bill Smith and City Manager Tom Weil, of California City, CA, sent a letter to CNBC defending the city’s contract with CCA to operate its hometown prison, which specializes in illegal immigrants. The letter presented the “positive benefits” that the city has received. (Are there such things as “negative benefits”?) The usual economic benefits are touted, but there are others that disclose why our current prison system–especially when conducted for profit–is pretty much a slaver’s game.

For example, according to the letter, when CCA first won the contract to run the prison in 1999, one benefit was that it “limited several social issues from occurring with California City. Families of the prisoners did not move close to those incarcerated due to their illegal community status.”

The destruction of families is one of the more insidious effects of incarceration, an issue which I’ve seen first hand, and one explored by, among others, Professor Teresa A. Miller, of the University of Buffalo. (See her remarkable Vimeo video, “Gant Family Visit Scene.” Unfortunately, the couple profiled in this video has since divorced.) And The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about slavery’s destruction of the family in his March 26 article, “The Meaning of ‘Totalitarian’.”

But let it not be said that the officials of California City are unsympathetic to family integrity. Later in the letter, Smith and Weil write that, when the initial contract with CCA ended, and the prisoners were dispersed to other facilities,

CCA families were now being torn apart due to reassignments and the home market demise.

In another example from the letter that will ring a bell with anyone familiar with the history of Emancipation:

Finally, our citizenry knew when the prisoners completed their sentence that there was no fear of them released within the community. Instead, their status assured them a bus trip out of the country.

When the masters can no longer benefit from your servitude, it’s time to go! Liberia was the preferred location in the 19th Century, although Lincoln was also open to recolonizing freed slaves in Central and South America, which at least is close enough to Mexico for our current crop of undesirables to feel at home.

Here are the final two reasons that, according to the letter, the end of the CCA contract threatened disaster to California City, and called for immediate action. First:

The City searching for relief from this downward spiral elected to partner with CCA in order to save a once vibrant prison from becoming a vacant shell.

Think about that phrase for a second: “a once vibrant prison.” The Free Dictionary defines “vibrant” as “Pulsing or throbbing with energy or activity…Vigorous, lively and vital.” For anyone who has actually seen the inside of one of these places, a more ignorant and perverted collection of words is almost impossible to imagine.

But here’s where Bill Smith and Tom Weil truly entered new territory, and made me rethink my former opinion on the connection between incarceration and slavery. According to their letter, CCA had to be invited to stay because:

Effluent from the prison that once provided recycled water for the City’s golf course was starting to dry up.

“Effluent” can be read as “sewage.”

If the mayor and the city manager of California City are championing the use of inmates’ bodies so that they–and the employees of CCA–can increase their leisure time, they’re a lot closer to slave owners than I originally thought.

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Andrew Brenner, of the Ohio House of Representatives, and vice-chair of the Ohio House Education Committee, has had an epiphany of sorts. It appears that he was digging around in Wikipedia and found out that American public education is, well, public.

For most people, that would probably not come as much of a surprise. But Rep. Brenner’s response is:

Before you even get to the text of his post, which is titled, “Public education in America is socialism, what is the solution?,” you have to scroll by an ominous jpeg of the Hammer & Sickle that’s so large it takes up around 25% of the screen real estate. Actually, he could have started off with this image, instead…

Betsy Ross Flag, in use 1777-1795

…since it was in 1789 that conservative favorite Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to his legal mentor, George Whyte:

Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.

Jefferson left a class of people out, but Brenner has it covered:

So how do we improve our education system so students learn the basics, and learn how to think? The only long-run solution is to move to a more privatized system.

Just kidding. Saw that one coming a mile away.

We must move to a system…where the parents and students have the ultimate say, not state and federal legislators, not unions, not government bureaucrats. In a free market system parents and students are free to go where the product and results are better.

Until all the private schools take up residence in the affluent suburbs, that is, since that’s where they will go when they realize that poor, inner city kids are bringing their scores down and hurting business. And, presumably, since parents and students are free to choose schools, the schools will also be free to say “no.”

The free-market system works for cars, furniture, housing, restaurants, and to a lesser degree higher education, so why can’t it work for our primary education system?

Sort of like this?:

Brenner ends his post with:

Privatize everything and the results will speak for themselves.

If American history is any guide, they certainly will.

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Posted in For Profit Schools, History, Opinion, Politics | 15,990 Comments

Majestic Equality

“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” -Anatole France

President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative has drawn the usual cries of “tyranny” from the “hands off” faction, e.g., Jennifer Rubin and Roger Klegg. Rubin worries about all the excluded White kids, while Klegg argues that there is “no ‘compelling’ interest” for the program to exist. (Although there is evidence that suggests otherwise.)

All other things being equal, the argument for racial blindness by the government is hard to condemn. But where was this argument three centuries ago, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were encoding slavery into the Constitution? Or during the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law? Or Dred Scott? Or Presidential Reconstruction? Or redlining?

Or, for that matter, Plessy v. Ferguson, when Judge Henry Billings Brown wrote, in the Decision that entrenched “separate but equal,”

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

We’ve had three centuries of Federal involvement in racial matters. Most of it went to create and reinforce the status quo. The rest is currently under attack, from the Voting Rights Act, to Civil Rights legislation. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 13th Amendment appearing in the cross hairs next.

Roger Klegg and Jennifer Rubin are clearly enjoying their role as barn-door closers. Meanwhile, they and their peers are firmly astride the escaped horse.

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Andrew Cuomo is Right about College in Prison

Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times


According to CBS, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants New York to start providing college classes to inmates in 10 state prisons. All issues of civility and compassion aside, the evidence in favor of such a move is overwhelming. Here is a fragment of a paper I’ve been working on which presents evidence in support of Cuomo’s proposal. (It’s in MLA format, so there are no hyperlinks. Sorry!)

“Community College Classes for New York Prison Inmates: Why They Make Sense for Everyone”

First of all, offering classes to eligible inmates makes good financial sense. A three credit class at my community college costs $420 for New York residents, and the total yearly cost is estimated to be $8,750, a price which includes such variables as “Personal,” “Board,” and “Transportation” (“College Costs”). Meanwhile, according to a 2009 article in The New York Times, “The annual cost to keep someone in prison varies by state, and the type of institution, but the typical cost cited by states is about $35,000, said Peggy Burke of the Center for Effective Public Policy, a nonprofit group that works with local governments on criminal justice matters” (Steinhauer 1). Also, the 2007-2008 Base Level State Tax Request for all SUNY community colleges was just over $425 million (“Budget Request” 53), whereas the Executive Budget for criminal justice and related programs for that same time period was nearly $4 billion (“Keeping New York Safe”).

The Attica program is fully in line with the state’s effort to save money in this area. As stated on New York’s Division of the Budget web site,

New York’s prison population is falling and recidivism rates have improved. The key challenge for our State is to preserve these trends, and to do so in a fiscally responsible manner. We must look carefully at our current use of resources, and whether we can invest them in a more efficient and targeted manner to improve on these results. (“Keeping New York Safe”)

According to the same site, over 28,000 inmates were scheduled to be released back into the general population during the following year. If the goal is to keep these people out of prison, and help them become contributing members of society, then the Attica program is exactly the efficient and targeted use of resources that the state is looking for. The cost benefit to all New Yorkers seems clear.

But does prison education really affect recidivism? The available research shows that it does. An article by James S. Vacca in The Journal of Correctional Education, titled “Educated Prisoners Are Less Likely to Return to Prison,” provides numerous examples of the success of prisoner education. A study done in Oklahoma, for example, showed that “25% of the inmates who received vocational training in prison returned to prison following their release. This was compared to a 77% recidivism rate for the general population.” In Ohio, the rate was 18% for those who were in college programs, compared with 40% for those who were not. And in Canada, “inmates who completed at least two college courses had 50 percent lower recidivism rate than the norm.”

Another article, by Dr. John Garmon, president of Vista Community College in Berkeley, CA, reports on a study by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which found that “inmates who take college classes while in prison are four times more likely to stay out of trouble when they are released,” and that “7.7 percent of those who took college courses returned to prison, compared to 29.9 percent of those who did not.”

While it’s no surprise that people with a degree are better able to find work, and thus have a better chance of staying out of prison, the low recidivism rates might also reflect a high level of motivation among inmates who seek out education. A New York Department of Correctional Services report, entitled “Follow-Up Study of Offenders Who Earned High School Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs) While Incarcerated in DOCS,” shows some interesting statistics in this regard. Of those who entered and left incarceration with no high school degree, 38% returned within three years; of those who already had such a degree when they were incarcerated, 36.5% returned;  and among those who earned a GED while incarcerated, the rate falls to 31.2% (Kim 3). The conclusion of the report states:

The finding of this study is consistent with previous research on correctional education. Among inmates first released from NYS DOCS in 2005 due to parole releases, conditional releases, or maximum expirations of sentence, those who earned a GED while incarcerated returned to custody at a significantly lower rate than offenders who did not earn a GED or those who earned a degree before admission. This finding was consistent across gender and age. (Kim 2)

Another study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and reported in the Journal of Correctional Education, found that “prisoners with a GED scored higher in reading skills than persons in the general population with the equivalent education” (Harlow 1). According to the article, when asked to explain the findings,

78% of faculty responses related to student motivation and commitment…The student responses closely tracked those from the faculty survey with 53% of students reporting. They indicated that differences in performance were due to high levels of motivation and commitment and fewer distractions (33%)… Finally, when asked why they enrolled in college courses, inmates noted career goals (92%), self satisfaction (84%), intellectual stimulation (74%), and post release employment (65%) as the top four reasons for participation, reasons which suggest that the prison students were highly motivated. (Harlow 3)

While teachers are always on the lookout for evidence of motivation among students, and thus may be more likely to fondly remember those who show interest, the inmate responses prove that, in this case, the teachers’ optimism is justified.

These studies also suggest something else. Far from merely offering a diversion from everyday prison life, college courses help correct a glaring deficit in the lives of many of the inmates, a deficit that has led directly to their incarceration—namely, a failed education. A 2010 DOCS study found that 95.7% of inmates aged 16-18 years needed educational programs. Of these, 68.5% were Black, and 77.2% were Hispanic (Kellam 5). Among women of this age group, the number rose to 100% (Kellam 10).

Works Cited

“Budget Request 2007-2008.” The State University of New York, 2007. PDF file. 29 Nov. 2010.

“College Costs.” Genesee Community College. Genesee Community College, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Garmon, John. “Higher education for prisoners will lower rates for taxpayers.” BNET. CBS Interactive, 17 Jan. 2002. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Harlow, Caroline Wolf, et al. “GED holders in prison read better than those in the household population: Why?” BNET. CBS Interactive, March 2010. Web. 28 Nov. 2010.

“Keeping New York Safe.” Division of the Budget. New York State, 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Kellam, Leslie. “Targeted Programs: An Analysis of the Impact of Prison Program Participation on Community Success.” State of New York Department of Correctional Services, Sept. 2007. PDF file. 29 Nov. 2010.

Kim, Ryang Hui. “Follow-Up Study of Offenders who Earned High School Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs) While Incarcerated in DOCS.” State of New York Department of Correctional Services, Sept. 2010. PDF file. 29 Nov. 2010.

Steinhauer, Jennifer. “To Cut Costs, States Relax Prison Policies.” The New York Times. 24 March 2009. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Vacca, James S. “Educated Prisoners Are Less Likely to Return to Prison.” BNET. CBS Interactive, Dec. 2004. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

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Posted in Opinion, Prison Program | Tagged , , , | 18,065 Comments