Jul 29

A Personal Reaction to Hillary Clinton’s Speech

Hillary ClintonFrank asked me to write about how I feel now that Hillary Clinton is at last the first woman to head a major party presidential ticket. I don’t know exactly how to express it but I will try.

I am a woman who served in elected office. When I see Hillary Clinton, I don’t just see a woman who I have looked up to for over a decade, I see myself. I see someone who has had to fight against unreasoning prejudice because of the gender we both were born with. I see someone who has had to fight past people who don’t think much of you — who think you don’t have what it takes.

I was very young when I won my first office and I had to prove myself again and again. And I had to do it in various capacities. I had to prove myself to the other judges. To the lawyers I worked with. To the public. I did that by doing what Hillary always does: I put my head down and I got to work. I wasn’t and am not perfect. But I eventually won the respect of my colleagues and the people who came before me.

Personal Connection

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was shortly after my re-election. A lawyer who I greatly admired was having a hearing on some issue and thought I had lost. He asked me when I was going to leave office. The prosecutor hissed, “She won you dummy!” The lawyer responded, “You what? You won?!” He continued, “Judge Rogers, when I come in your courtroom I have to take off the jester’s hat I generally use for this level. I put on my lawyer’s hat, because when I come in here I know you will be at least as prepared as I am. In addition to that, you treat my clients with fairness and respect. I appreciate all of this.”

From Seneca Falls to tonight, from the fact that women were once little more than property to the woman who stood on that stage in suffragist white, the night was about all of us little girls who became women watching Clinton’s career and seeing in her ourselves.

Hillary Clinton is like me — only at a far higher level. She knows the rules, the law, the cases, the studies. She makes the effort to not just hear what we have to say, she makes an effort to find out more information and to do something about it. I trust her absolutely to implement the progressive platform that we Democrats put together. (For the record: I expect us all to send her a Congress to help!)

Hillary Clinton’s Long Battle

Like me she has known the joys of winning a hard fought race and the joy of re-election. She has also known the bitterness of defeat. While she probably cried before she had to say she conceded to President Obama, she picked herself up and kept going. She knows what it is like to be called some pretty awful names to her face. To have to smile even when you are being insulted directly. And she can still find common ground with those determined to dehumanize her. She is way, way, way more gracious then I ever could be.

Her speech last night was absolutely brilliant. But it was simply seeing her walk out on that stage that brought tears to my eyes. From Seneca Falls to tonight, from the fact that women were once little more (and often nothing more) than property to the woman who stood on that stage in suffragist white, the night was about all of us little girls who became women watching Clinton’s career and seeing in her ourselves. The women who came before her who suffered, starved, and bled to ensure that one day, one of their descendants would be able to walk into the Oval Office as Madam President.

I am sure others will more eloquently state what this means for themselves and other women. For me though, it is about seeing myself in my President in a way I never could before.

Thank you Hillary Clinton. From the bottom of my heart. #ImWithHer

Jul 28

The X-Files And Conspiracy Irresponsibility

The X-FilesThe sci-fi geeks among you are probably aware that The X-Files returned recently, for a limited-miniseries run on Fox. I loathe the current sequel trend, but not on general principle. It’s because the sequels tend to be enormously lazy cash grabs. It’s perfectly fine to redo or add to existing material, if you have something worth adding. (The first few seasons of Sherlock are true to the original in spirit, and well-liked by Holmes nerds even though the stories differ wildly from Doyle’s originals.)

Like many people, I enjoyed The X-Files when it first aired in 1993. Its leads, as FBI agents investigating UFOs, Bigfoot, and such, played their encounters with monsters so dryly they seemed more like accountants than law enforcement. Or: DMV meets Dracula. While the show’s hints of an overarching, the sinister plot to cover up “The Truth” about UFOs was fun, suggesting that kooks everywhere were right all along. Although this had been stolen from, and done better in, Close Encounters, it was enjoyable transposed into scary-show format.

X-Files Loses Its Spark

Also like many people, I drifted away as the Sinister Plot became more labyrinthine. It lost its air of spooky silliness and drifted into a tedious mix of pretension and sloppiness. The show’s creator, Chris Carter, seemed not to realize he was pulling together bits from earlier popular successes (Twilight Zone, Close Encounters) and believed viewers tuned in for his “vision.”

“If the conspiracy is really as powerful as Mulder thinks it is, only collective action can change it. Only some version of democracy can stand up against it.” —James Surowiecki

The Sinister Plot got away from poking (not entirely harmless) fun at UFO and Bigfoot conspiracy buffs (at times, the show’s depiction of such could be downright mean-spirited). And it moved into much more irresponsible territory. In addition to covering up Roswell, and lying about abductions, the Bad Guys also assassinated JFK. And Dr King. Seriously. That’s really reprehensible.

(The episode where this is revealed mentions actual historical facts about Hoover’s attempts to smear King, and how hard-right elements considered him a communist threat. Maybe in Carter’s mind this information justified working such a tragedy into his monster serial. If so, Carter’s mind is unhinged.)

Giving X-Files Another Try

But, I have high admiration for Gillian Anderson as a performer, and some nostalgia over seeing her recreate the role which started her fine career. Plus, I like miniseries. American TV shows tend to have seasons which are way too long (cable has begun figuring this out.) So, I thought I’d give it a try.

Oh, boy.

Our FBI agents and now retired from the UFO biz. They had a kid who’d been genetically altered with alien DNA, whom they had to give up and never see again for the kid’s own safety or something. They are contacted by a Glenn Beck type, who wants their input on a big story he’s planning to break. They’re hesitant, being good liberals, but the Beck fellow knows his UFO lore, so maybe he’s not entirely an opportunistic TV liar.

Turns out Beck has an honest-to-God alien spaceship (or working copy, anyway), stashed in a hangar. Why? Oh, herein lies a tale. Brace yourselves. This is Scientology, Story of Xenu-worthy stuff.

When we started exploding A-bombs, it attracted the notice of space aliens, who came to save us from destroying ourselves. But the Big Mean Earth Bad Guys kept shooting down alien ships and learning from their technology. They built replicas of those ships to abduct people and perform genetic experiments involving, again, alien DNA. Also, stories of alien abduction helped distract the public from these Mean Bad Guys’ master scheme, which involves environmental devastation, obesity, consumerism run amok, sparking wars, and blowing up skyscrapers. This is all to justify the buildup of a surveillance/police state which will finally be unleashed after the next manufactured catastrophe to take over the world. Starting with America. Bwahahaha!

Where to start with this? Wouldn’t any aliens who mastered FTL travel to stop us from using atomic warfare realize we were pretty violent primates and, I dunno, keep their ships from being shot down? But the illogic isn’t worth going into.

The Same Old Thing — But Newer

What I do find bizarre is how this equates both right-wing fantasies (the Beck type moans about gun confiscation), left-wing reality talking points (global warming, the military/industrial/security complex), and conspiracy stuff (JFK again, UFOs, the World Trade Center), mashing them into a giant pile of equal Woes Upon Ours.

And I guarantee you, as usual, our FBI heroes will never be able to solve. One more layer upon one more layer to uncover… The Beck character is shut down. The Great Truth can never be revealed. “They” won’t allow it.

What the hell does Chris Carter think he’s doing with The X-Files? Making some profound statement about our troubled times? I suspect he’s a reasonably left-leaning guy with a very large bank account from his overpaid cinematic work, who thinks he’s providing “fun entertainment” with “a little meaning to it.” I suspect this because this is what Hollywood types with slightly leftist sympathies who enjoy their comfortable lifestyles very often say they think. You know, the new Star Wars has an anti-Mean War message! In there somewhere. Amidst all the explosions.

Collective Action and Conspiracy

As to the annoying persistence in our culture of how people with marginalized positions believe “if only I could make people understand this one truth, they’d realize I’m totally right,” let me refer you to almost every chat thread on the internet. (Not here! We’re quite civil when we disagree. Mostly…) Or The Atlantic review of The X-Files from 1997 by James Surowiecki, from which I take this fine quote: “If the conspiracy is really as powerful as Mulder thinks it is, only collective action can change it. Only some version of democracy can stand up against it.”

Exactly. And by turning real fears, genuine abuses of power, into plot material for a monster show, Chris Carter mocks the very notion of democracy. He says, in effect, “It’s all just another form of entertainment… but that’s OK, since it has a little meaning to it.” So, too, did Indiana Jones defeating the Nazis.

Star Trek and Doctor Who have more bite. And Terry Pratchett would eat this weak social commentary for breakfast.

But I still love Gillian Anderson.

Jul 27

USA Freedom Kids vs the Übermensch

USA Freedom KidsYou have probably heard about the USA Freedom Kids and the dispute that they are having with Donald Trump. In case you haven’t, the USA Freedom Kids is a group made up of five rather white girls who dress up in the red, white, and blue and sing (or lip-sync) very up-beat songs about how great America is. They performed at one event for Donald Trump. They wanted $2,500, but the campaign offered them instead a table where they could sell their music and related junk. Except that the campaign didn’t even do that.

That should have been enough, right? I mean, when a client doesn’t pay me, that’s the end of our relationship. But later, the Trump campaign offered for the five dears to come and perform again for a big event where they would get lots of media attention. The manager of USA Freedom Kinds, Jeff Popick, is a Trump supporter and thus gullible. You know the old saying: fool me once, please give me another opportunity to fool me again! So the group paid their own way to go to the second event, where they weren’t even allowed to perform.

USA Freedom Kids Sue

Now Popick is suing Trump and isn’t certain whether he will be voting for Trump in November. You know the old saying: fool me twice and I still might vote for you for president because I’m a total idiot.

None of this will matter for the Trump campaign, of course. As I noted yesterday, people just want to vote for an authoritarian. The USA Freedom Kids really are from another time. Don’t get me wrong: they scream authoritarianism. But it’s a more subtle kind that apparently can only be heard by people who know a bit of history. You know: roughly 10% of the country.

In a battle between a horrible strongman who has nothing to offer but chest pounding and five little girls singing a “modern” version of “Over There,” the strongman wins. That’s one of the the most important things about authoritarianism is that it is a kind of death cult — the death of the individual. This is why libertarians are so silly: they focus on theoretical threats to liberty while allowing the rise of real threats. If Donald Trump becomes president, it will be because libertarians and “reasonable” Republicans have defined the centrist Democratic Party as something akin to Stalin.

Nothing New for Trump

But this story of Donald Trump not paying the USA Freedom Kids is typical of him. Trump doesn’t think he should have to pay for anything just like Kim Jong-un. And the people are fine with that. Trump is literally the Übermensch: he defines his own moral universe. Sure, America loves the pathetic “patriotic” girls, but only so long as they know their place. They don’t define their own moral universe. None of us do; only Donald Trump.

Donald Trump isn’t expected to pay his bills and he doesn’t. And this is the man that Americans want for their president.

I’m terrified.

Jul 26

Convention Compare: A-List vs C-List Speakers

Brian Beutler: Convention SpeechSenator Cory Booker’s pre-primetime speech was the first to overpower the Sanders holdouts. Michelle Obama’s, by universal acclaim, will join the pantheon of great convention addresses. And Sanders himself spoke well past the 11 pm network TV cutoff point, in part because the delegates of both candidates interrupted his remarks with standing ovations over and over again. The range of talent on display was such that the keynote address, by Senator Elizabeth Warren — one of Hillary Clinton’s most effective surrogates and a trusted figure among Sanders supporters — largely disappeared behind the others. And it was a good speech, too.

In a different climate, clustering so many big draws into one night, when they could have been spread out more evenly, would have been an error. But in this case it was a matter of necessity. The coming three days will feature headline speeches by Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic VP nominee Tim Kaine, Barack Obama, and Hillary herself. Packing the lineup on Monday night was simply a matter of necessity…

Clinton’s convention lineup wasn’t designed to contrast with Trump’s brigade of C-list celebrities and agitators, though it did do that. It was instead meant to serve as a demonstration that Clinton is widely respected in the Democratic Party, which is much less divided than a handful of Sanders delegates would have you believe. Where Trump insists to the public that Republicans are unified, Clinton and her supporters showed that they are.

—Brian Beutler
The Democrats Just Showed Republicans How It’s Done

Jul 26

The Authoritarian Vote

Donald Trump: AuthoritarianAmericans love a good authoritarian!

Last night, I spoke to my father about the presidential campaign. He indicated that he was going to vote for Trump. He didn’t say it explicitly, but I got the idea. It really isn’t about Trump, of course. It is about Hillary Clinton. She just can’t be trusted! Or something. I asked him to name something that she had lied about. He said, “Benghazi.” I asked for clarification. He mentioned the stand down order that stopped the military from rescuing the people at the embassy. The fact that this assertion has been refuted by three different Republican investigations means nothing.

I gave him information about this, but it doesn’t matter. The truth is that since 1992, the right wing has been piling so much garbage on Hillary Clinton that now people like my father simply have a generalized notion that she is not trustworthy. Where there’s smoke, there must be fire. Somewhere. If 25 years of investigations have not turned anything up, it just means that we haven’t looked thoroughly enough.

The Lying Double Standard

On the other hand, Trump has been caught lying again and again and again. But apparently, while smoke implies fire, actual fire does not. Or rather, actual lying does not matter because we know about it. Having a general idea that there might be lying causes conservatives to obsess about it the way they might a clever magic trick. Trump’s obviousness makes him immune.

Hillary ClintonOf course, it doesn’t matter. If it weren’t this, it would be something else that made Hillary Clinton unacceptable. The truth is that Trump is the man that many conservatives have been waiting their whole lives to vote for. As I watched some of the DNC last night, I was struck by how soft it appeared to be. It was totally lacking in the one thing that the RNC had in abundance: authoritarian chest pounding.

Americans Want an Authoritarian

There are a lot of Americans who want nothing more than a tough guy as president. And sad to say, my father is one of them. There is nothing to discuss. My father, for example, thinks the economy is terrible and that it is the Democrats’ fault. He mentioned that our infrastructure is crumbling. There is much truth in all of this. But the reason for it is the Republicans. And voting for an authoritarian is not going to fix it.

My father has a certain fondness for Bernie Sanders. This is probably more because he isn’t Hillary Clinton than anything else. Yet he asked how Sanders was planning to pay for his plan for free college. I told him how and we had a nice discussion of financial transaction taxes. He approves of them — at least until Charles Krauthammer tells him not to. But I was struck by the fact that my father is not interested in how Donald Trump is going to pay for his hugely regressive tax cut. That’s the great thing about authoritarians: all you have to do is put your trust in them and all will be well.

Things Look Bad at the Moment

After seeing the most recent polls that have Trump tied or leading Clinton, talking to my father was helpful. How is it that Trump could even be close in this election, much less potentially winning? Well, there you are! Elections are not about ideas. They are about gut feelings. They are about a country desperate for any authoritarian who comes along and tells them he is the one weird trick for national happiness.

I find it exhausting. It really makes me wonder why I follow politics and why I write about it. Over the last six months, I’ve thought a lot about Leonard Peikoff’s book, The Ominous Parallels. It’s filled with a lot of Randian nonsense, of course. But the truth is that Americans really do have a profound attraction toward strongmen. And there isn’t much the rest of us can do about it.

This is not fun.

Jul 25

Ian Millhiser and the FADA

Ian Millhiser - FADAThough the bill’s title, the “First Amendment Defense Act” [FADA], suggests that it would preserve values enshrined in the First Amendment, nothing in that amendment permits religion to be used as a shield for discrimination, and the Supreme Court has consistently rejected claims to the contrary.

Maurice Bessinger was a bigot who owned a chain of barbecue restaurants in South Carolina. He believed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with its ban on whites-only lunch counters, “contravenes the will of God,” and he brought a lawsuit seeking a religious exemption from this law. The Supreme Court disagreed in Newman v Piggie Park, ruling unanimously that Bessinger’s claim was “patently frivolous.”

Similarly, when Fremont Christian School claimed a right to give inferior compensation to many of its women employees because of its religious belief that “in any marriage, the husband is the head of the household and is required to provide for that household,” a federal appeals court rejected the school’s request for an exemption from anti-discrimination law.

Additionally, in a case that is strikingly similar to the kind of benefits FADA would give to religious objectors who engage in discrimination, Bob Jones University claimed that it should continue to receive tax subsidies despite its religiously motivated policy that “students who date outside of their own race will be expelled.” The Supreme Court rejected this claim as well, explaining that “the Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education.”

FADA would authorize a different kind of discrimination — primarily anti-LGBT discrimination as opposed to race or gender discrimination — but the overarching principle remains the same. The First Amendment simply does not give religious objectors a license to violate civil rights laws.

—Ian Millhiser
Congress’ Response To Orlando Shooting Is To Try To Legalize Discrimination

Jul 25

Creation as a Spiritual Act

Pillars of Creation - NASAAfter some wait, I got Carmine Rocco Linsalata’s Smollett’s Hoax. It it an academic treatise from the 1950s by a professor at Stanford. And it is about — What else?! — something that most people would think incredibly minor: an 18th century translation of Don Quixote, which was actually just a rewrite of an earlier translation. But I’m not here to discuss the book. (That will come later!) I’m here to talk about creation for its own sake.

As I was reading through the book, I was taken by a sidetrack that Linsalata made into The Works of Alexander Pope. It was related to what he was writing about, but a minor point. And in that capacity, he had read a 600 page book. He must have read many other such books that he never found a use for. And I find that so inspiring. Why am I reading all that Pope? Oh, it’s just part of my work. Now go away!

Slowing Down

I’ve always seen myself as the human equivalent of a terrier: smart and hyper. But as I’ve gotten older, how I long for the leisure of working slowly — just letting the thoughts accumulate — taking whatever course is necessary for the creation process. What a glorious luxury that is in this time where we always know what we are going to produce: a commodity.

If Linsalata were working today, his book would likely have been quite different. The story he has to tell is quite sensational. But he would have written it rather differently. He would not have assumed, as he did in 1956, that his readers would be fluent in English, French, and Spanish. And I haven’t finished the book; he’ll probably get to Latin and Greek soon enough. Clearly, he was writing only for intimates — and total freaks like me who will take the time to work out the other languages. (Thank Google!) But mostly, he was just writing for himself — for the pure pleasure of the creation itself.

A Forgotten Act of Creation

It’s interesting because a couple of days ago, I moved my office/living-quarters/life. And I came upon a play I had written, “MP3.” I had no memory of writing it. I remember thinking about doing it. The basic idea is that a dog is angry at his owner for using MP3s. You see, a big part of MP3 compression is the removal of stuff humans can’t hear. But dogs hear well. So MP3s would sound terrible to them. I had thought of it as a 5 minute play to be part of a collection of plays. But no, there it was, all neatly typed — about a half hour running time.

As I read through it, I was struck by how idiosyncratic it was. It made me laugh, of course. (I find myself hilarious. Really!) It is clearly something I wrote just for myself, however. Creation for creation’s sake.

In it, the dog recites a poem he wrote. The owner doesn’t understand it. The dog replies:

I thought it was very clear, but maybe you have to be a dog. I sent it to those pricks at Exquisite Corpse. Laura Rosenthal gave me a No Mas! And if I ever run into that pretentious Romanian no-talent Andrei Codrescu, I’m gonna bite him in a place he probably has nothing to bite.

My Bizarre Mind

So let’s see: a puppet ranting about getting turned down from an old poetry magazine, with reference to two little-known poets and a dick joke thrown in. But if that isn’t bad enough, it gets more and more crazy throughout. There’s a sequence on the wooing of women with a Shakespeare parody. Then, there is a mini rock concert. Then, the chorus begins a technical interview with Dr Knowitall — son of Mr Knowitall. (“My first name is ‘Doctor,’ just as my father’s first name was ‘Mister’.”) But the actors are informed that he is actually doing the wrong character — it should be Dr Whoopee (son of Mr Whoopee). A long discussion of cartoons follows, but eventually, Dr Knowitall (who turns out only to have read a Wikipedia page on MP3s that he didn’t understand) interviews the chorus who explains MP3s.

I can’t imagine that an audience would know what to make of it. It is utter chaos. The material jumps from high culture to science to low culture and back. The only thing that would be clear is the Abbott and Costello style word play throughout it. But why shouldn’t I write something just for me — creation for the pure pleasure of it? It is ultimately a spiritual question. After we pay the rent and buy the groceries, what are we to do? It is creation or spiritual death. And that may explain why I find such a religious country as the US to be so lacking in spirituality.

Jul 24

Digby on Clinton’s VP Pick: Tim Kaine

Digby on Tim Kaine for VPTim Kaine has a somewhat centrist history on banking and trade which is worrisome to progressives for whom these issues are their litmus tests. So, in these particulars, Kaine isn’t a particularly progressive choice.

But he’s very good on war, civil liberties, gun proliferation, criminal justice, healthcare, civil rights, and immigration among other things. The fact that he speaks perfect Spanish, which he learned serving in Honduras, is meaningful to Latinos.

Clinton is trying to run as an experienced, competent, rational, decent mainstream leader of a team of experienced, competent, rational, decent mainstream public servant in contrast to Donald Trump: the con artist who wants to blow up the world. I don’t know that policy is even the point, but to the extent it is, they are running under the most progressive platform in history (thank you Bernie), which just shows how far the coalition has come since the day Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman, one of the most depressing days of my life.

—Heather Digby Parton
So, Tim Kaine

Jul 24

American Gothic and the Meaning of Art

American GothicMany of you know my special weakness. Because of my intellectual pride, I cannot stop myself from clicking on a link such as, 7 Pop Culture Classics That Don’t Mean What You Think. Is that so? Well, I’ll just have to see. And, of course, in my effort to show how knowledgeable I am, I am just like all the other fish who got hooked.

I wouldn’t have clicked on this link, because I don’t know much about pop culture. But it went along an image of American Gothic. And since I went slightly crazy about the painter Grant Wood for a couple of weeks, I kinda doubted that the article would surprise me. But I was kind of confused as to what anyone was supposed to think that American Gothic meant.

On Wood’s birthday two years ago, I wrote:

He is best known for the painting American Gothic. I think it is a remarkable painting just because of its composition. Thematically, no one seems to really agree about it. Some have claimed that it is satire about American repression, and others think it is a celebration of American hard work. I side more with the satire crowd. Wood, of course, was satirizing nothing.

My point was, as I have made many times before, that artists don’t define the meaning of their works — those who experience them do. And look at this Google Images search of Wood’s work. Does it seem like Wood was doing anything other than bringing together a few different American artistic trends and creating something all his own? Not to me.

I Never Knew!

So what is it that I didn’t know? “The American Gothic Painting Is Mocking Farmers.” But even the writer can’t hold onto that claim. After explaining how it is all about mocking farmers, the article says:

On the other hand, Grant Wood was a born-and-bred Iowan who, prior to painting American Gothic, spent more than six years studying art in Europe. That’s enough time to make anyone nostalgic for their childhood home, even if that home was a desolate hellscape. So, although Wood eventually poked fun at it, it’s not hard to imagine that, during his travels, he developed a loving appreciation for his people’s fortitude.

This gets back to this idea that the artist decides what the work means. This is one of the reasons that I’m not all that interested in American Gothic. It’s been so parodied that it is really hard to get past other people’s ideas about it and see it with fresh eyes. It’s easier to see his other work, and that’s where I see more clearly what he was doing. The fact that the artist would have gotten tired of this one painting and mocked it, is not surprising.

The Artist Does Not Know All

But the article is filled with this kind of “artist knows all” nonsense. There’s a Pearl Jam song that means whatever because the writer said so in an interview. Well, that’s fine. But I know with my own work that what I say it means changes over time. Apparently, Tolkien didn’t like people thinking Lord of the Rings was a World War II allegory. Okay. I think it is kind of silly myself. But who cares? I’d still be interested in reading a thoughtful discussion of the subject.

Moving on, you’ll learn Uncle Tom isn’t a coward, which you would only have thought if you took the book entirely out of context. You’ll also learn that “‘The Road Not Taken’ Is Robert Frost Making Fun Of His Friend.” This is based upon something Frost once said. Except that he said other things at different times. But again, who cares? “The Road Not Taken” is much like American Gothic in being so soiled by others’ opinions that I can’t really find any meaning in it because there is too much meaning piled on top of it.

Meaning Is Not Static

I love dealing with the meaning of artistic works. One of my articles, The Meaning of Marlene on the Wall, is one of my most popular articles. In it, I provide a detailed meaning of the song. But it is my meaning — based on a close analysis of the song. It isn’t the final word on the subject.

And how awful it would be if it were! I was talking to a (very open-minded) Christian friend of mine the other day about how heaven could never be a place where all the secrets of the universe were explained. That, in fact, would be hell. It’s the questions that make life interesting. Ultimately, American Gothic is just a bunch of oil paint applied to beaverboard. It’s meaning transcends that, of course. But it also transcends what any given person or group thinks it means.

Two years ago, I wrote that I tended to see the painting as satire. Today, I don’t really see it that way. I see the painting as kind of sad — two people living the Schopenhauerian dream: getting through today so they can get through tomorrow. But as usual, that says more about me than it does the painting.


For the record, the painting is staged. The man is Grant Wood’s dentist, who was in his early 60s at the time and lived into his 80s. And the woman is Wood’s sister, who was about 30 and lived to be 91 years old. She died three years after I got on the internet.

Jul 23

Poetry: Pieces of a Man

Pieces of a ManJagged jigsaw pieces
Tossed about the room,
I saw my grandma sweeping
With her old straw broom.
But she didn’t know what she was doing.
She could hardly understand,
That she was really sweeping up
Pieces of a man.

I saw my daddy meet the mailman.
And I heard the mailman say,
“Now don’t you take this letter to hard now Jimmy,
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man.

I saw the thunder and heard the lightning,
And felt the burden of his shame.
And for some unknown reason,
He never turned my way!

Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room.
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom.
But they don’t know what they are doing.
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man.

I saw him go to pieces!
I saw him go to pieces!
He was always such a good man!
He was always such a strong, strong man!
Yeah, I saw him go to pieces.
I saw him go to pieces.

—Gil Scott-Heron
Pieces of a Man

Jul 23

“Education Reform” and the Destruction of Meaning

The Face of Education ReformErik Loomis wrote an article a while back, The Rheeist Scam Goes Global. It’s about Michelle Rhee and the whole “education reform” movement. But I was taken by the cartoon he used, which showed men building a charter school by taking away materials from a close-by public school. I have always thought of “education reform” in terms of intent: the destruction of teacher unions. But until I looked at the cartoon (which is not making this point), I had never really thought about what will be the result of “education reform.”

I think we should be clear about those leading the “education reform” movement. As Deep Throat says in All the President’s Men, “These are not very bright guys.” They know they want to destroy unions. They know they want to turn education into some kind of a factory process. But after that, it’s all faith. It’s like the old Sidney Harris cartoon where the second step in a proof is, “Then a miracle occurs.” That’s the “education reform” movement all over. Step 1: destroy education as we know it. Step 2: then a miracle occurs. Step 3: all people grow up well educated and healthy.

What “Education Reform” Working Would Mean

But let’s give all these reformers the benefit of the doubt. They will change education into employment skills training. And we don’t end up with Idiocracy (which is a tedious film). We end up with something that looks more like the B F Skinner dystopia. It would be like Modern Times but with everyone content doing their jobs because that’s all they would know. The search for meaning would be obsolete because everyone would know the meaning of their lives: to make the owners of Walmart rich.

But none of that would be so bad if it weren’t for the total disregard for everything educational outside what is useful for IBM and Apple.

It made me think of Babe: Pig in the City. More specifically: the most poignant scene in the film. It is when Babe and company free all the animals from the “jail.” Thelonius, the old orangutan, insists upon dressing before they leave, even though time is a factor. He has found a meaning in his life — and he’s too old to change. (He gets the best ending in the film, handing clothespins to Herself.) And I imagine myself that way at 80.

I suppose that all people feel this way to some extent as they grow older. But in general, things change for the better. “Education reform” is moving us in a rather worse direction — ignorantly, but quite deliberately. And for the most base of motives. I mean, who do you think is paying Jonathan Chait’s wife to “reform” education? It’s a bunch of super rich conservatives and neoliberals. How proud they must all be: destroying the very concept of childhood so that Microsoft and Facebook will have a well-trained workforce. It keeps wages down too!

Trivial Meaning

But none of that would be so bad if it weren’t for the total disregard for everything educational outside what is useful for IBM and Apple. You could force children to learn Scratch and still give them time to escape in literature and music and mud pie creation. Instead, what I see is 6 hours of school and 3 hours of mind-numbing homework. No time for novel reading, because reading is meant for technical manuals.

It isn’t like the meaning I find in life is perfect. It is distinctly imperfect and incomplete. But at least I know it is worth the search. I don’t like the idea of being my own version of Thelonius — stupidly looking for meaning when the product of decades of “education reform” has trained society to get with the program and sing the company song.

Jul 22

Cure Income Inequality: Income Mobility! Not So Fast!

Income MobilityAgainst a rising chorus of concern about increasing income inequality, some economists are pushing back, suggesting that it is not income inequality we should be concerned with but rather income mobility. Income mobility describes the ability of individuals to move up and down the income ladder over some period of time. As long as mobility is healthy, they argue, society can remain egalitarian in the face of inequality, because the poor can move up and the rich down.

Intuitively, some observers assume that higher income inequality should be correlated with decreased income mobility as the rich build a bigger lead on the rest of society. But there is little consensus about whether and how income mobility has changed. What little research does exist is inconsistent with regards to findings, methods, and data sources. Equitable Growth grantees Michael D Carr and Emily E Wiemers at the University of Massachusetts-Boston used a new dataset to revisit the measurement of earnings mobility, the part of income that comes from work. Their results suggest that lifetime earnings mobility has declined in recent years.

—Austin Clemens
New Analysis Shows It Is More Difficult for Workers to Move up the Income Ladder

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