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CHECK OUT THESE EUROPEANS

I think it is healthy to take a break from all of the depressing anti-teacher ed reform babble to share in something (sort of) positive.

Last year I encouraged everyone to watch Ross Kemp’s documentaries. He has ventured into some of the most dangerous and grittiest places in the world. Even though he has come face-to-face with some unsavory people, he never judges and his documentaries always come off as fair and sympathetic. Here is one he did about street gangs in St. Louis:

In a similar vein, British journalist Louis Theroux covers the dangerous, strange and bizarre. Like Ross Kemp, he suspends his judgments and tries to portray the people he meets in a sympathetic light. He also has an innocent manner of questioning that gets to the bottom of things for his viewers.

Here is my favorite Louis Theroux documentary about a Miami jail. Most of the men in this jail have not been convicted of a crime (after all, it is jail, not prison), yet many have been languishing behind bars for years. Both parts really bring home the horrendous conditions in our penal system and how it does nothing but steep people even further in criminal culture:

Also, check out his San Quentin piece which is on Youtube divided into several parts.

On a totally different note, Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger is in the tradition of Gonzo journalism (a la Hunter Thompson). He tells a story while playing a part in the story. Both of his films can be found on Netflix.

His first film was called The Red Chapel. Mads creates a fake comedy troupe called The Red Chapel. He is the fictional leader of the troupe, which consists of two Danish-Korean performers: Simon and Jacob. Jacob is a paraplegic and self-described “spastic”. Their mission is nothing less than to perform a totally unfunny stage variety show in North Korea.

When they first get to the DPRK, Simon and Jacob rehearse their awful sketch in front of their government minders. These minders then censor and edit every last bit of the performance to make it “suitable” for a DPRK audience. Their ultimate performance, shown towards the end of the movie, is not nearly as important as their journey getting there.

It has long been rumored that handicapped people in the DPRK are sent off to prison camps. The government is keen on using Jacob for propaganda purposes as a way to show the world these rumors are false. Ms. Park, their official guide, smothers Jacob with a scary amount of affection. This has led some critics to accuse Mads Brugger of allowing an evil government to play him and Jacob, so to speak. While these criticisms are understandable, Mads and the crew are able to get away with some very subversive things, things that no other sanitized DPRK documentary has ever shown.

The most powerful scene is during the “peace day” celebrations which is, ironically, the anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Jacob and Mads are in Pyongyang around thousands upon thousands of participants all chanting in unison. The only person not chanting is Jacob. While Mads goes along with the celebration, Jacob staunchly refuses to participate, even speaking against it when the crowd went silent so that EVERYONE in the area could hear it. This is not as dangerous as it sounds since, according to Brugger, the Koreans cannot understand Danish, especially “spastic Danish”, as Brugger says.

They are then forced to march with the crowd. When Mads is not pushing Jacob in his wheelchair fast enough, one of their government minders literally push them into the crowd forcing them to keep up so they can get on camera. Who is playing who in this movie? See if you can find all of the instances where Mads, Jacob and Simon poke fun at one of the most monstrous dictatorships that ever existed right to its face. Warning: an attention span might be required.

Brugger’s next documentary is even more bizarre, if that can be believed. It is called The Ambassador. This time he travels to the Central African Republic in search of blood diamonds. In order to do this he needs access to the highest levels of the CAR’s government. For Brugger, this means getting himself appointed a diplomat. He purchases phony diplomatic credentials in Europe that certify him as a consul in CAR representing Liberia. Yes, this very white and very European man was able to finagle fake documentation that made him a member of the Liberian diplomatic corps in Africa.

The cast of characters in this film is too long to describe here. Perhaps the most bizarre character of all is Mads himself, who plays his role as an intrigue-seeking diplomat to the hilt. His character is so over-the-top that it is a wonder that he is able to get away with so much in such a dangerous place. Yes, as some of the critics have pointed out, Brugger sometimes gives himself over to stereotypes about   Africans being “childlike”, “corrupt” and/or “dishonest”. However, it is not at all clear that he was not doing it totally on purpose as part of his gaudy character.

There are so many lessons to be learned from this movie, not the least of which is the legacy of European imperialism in Africa. One of the more fascinating characters is a Frenchman named Guy-Jean Le Foll Yamande, the head of state security in the CAR. According to Yamande, he had his French citizenship revoked due to “mercenary activities”. In his conversation with Mads, he describes many of the ways the French continue to ransack the resources of the CAR while keeping the country mired in poverty. As Yamande put it, when you want to stop someone from running, you put a “stone in their shoe”. France is the “stone in the shoe” of the CAR. Did his privileged knowledge and position lead to his murder, which is mentioned towards the end of the movie?

Does Mads ever get his hands on the blood diamonds? Watch this movie and find out. It is really a fascinating, bizarre and sad look into the problems faced by many  central African nations today. If you do not have Netflix, I believe the movie is also split into parts on Youtube.

Both of Brugger’s movies obviously put himself and the people around him in serious danger. The threat of a brutal death or some other horrible fate hangs over both documentaries like a pall. He has an admirable amount of guts, if you want to call putting yourself in constant danger in a foreign country “guts”.

Happy viewing. I hope some of you are able to find the time to watch these great filmmakers. You will not be disappointed.

P.S. – here is Brugger’s Danish television miniseries/documentary called Danes for Bush, a comical look at some of George W. Bush’s most ardent supporters in the U.S. It is not as refined as his two movies but it does have its value. Do not be put off by the Danish speaking in the first part, most of the series is in English:

http://www.dr.dk/Bonanza/serie/Unge_og_satire/Danes_for_bush.htm

 

 

WIKIPEDIA IS NO PLACE FOR OPEN DISCUSSION

Prove your arrogance and stupidity by wearing a shirt that shows which economic religion you follow.

Prove your arrogance and stupidity by wearing a shirt that shows which economic religion you follow.

Those of you mired in the teaching world may or may not be familiar with the so-called “Austrian School” of economics. Turgidly, the “Austrian School” holds that markets are perfect and the government should stay out of them so that they can work their magic. There is tremendous, if not total, overlap between Austrian economics and libertarianism. Ron Paul is an adherent of the Austrian School, as he and his followers constantly like to remind us.

You can get a quick introduction to the Austrian School by visiting its Wikipedia page which, apparently, has been locked in an internecine editing conflict. The conflict involves a criticism of the Austrian School by Paul Krugman which used to show up on the page. Certain libertarian acolytes have been taking down the Krugman part because they say it misrepresents Austrian economics. Others say that Krugman is a well-respected economist whose criticism should be included. Wikipedia has prevented the article from being edited for the rest of the month.

For my part, I do not see why Krugman’s criticism cannot be left up there. If the Austrian folks think his argument is a straw man, then they can always include a rejoinder from another economist demonstrating how. This would assume rational dialogue and open debate is also part of the Austrian School. Unfortunately, Austrian economics has become a fundamentalism to many of its followers and they live in a constant state of jihad.

There are Wikipedia pages about heroes of mine, like Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault (my avatar), that contain criticisms that I think are unfair. Never did I think of editing them out of existence. This is probably because Wikipedia is one very limited source of information. Those of us familiar with the ideas of these thinkers encountered them through the books they wrote. We have probably also read many books written by others that attempt to elaborate on these ideas and the criticisms they have faced. Therefore, when I read the Wikipedia pages of my intellectual heroes, I am already largely familiar with everything on the page. It is not a shock or an affront to read something negative about them.

This seems to be the crux of the entire Austrian School Wikipedia fiasco. It is a philosophy nay, an ideology, that has gained many converts in this age of the internet. People like Ron Paul have become heroes in cyberspace. His stances on issues like imperialist war, the War on Drugs and government surveillance appeal to a young crowd naturally and rightfully mistrustful of the system. On top of that, a generation of half-digested internet documentaries and websites convey many libertarian ideas in easily consumable sound bites and slogans. Someone who is honestly looking for news from a non-mainstream source cannot help but encounter these things, especially since many of them are the first, second, third and fourth entries that come up on Google searches.

Unfortunately, the whole anti-government tenor of the Austrian School is intellectually untenable. It posits that rules of the free market are immutably written on the face of nature, that a free market is the “natural” state of human society and that the existence of any imperfections in the market is the result of government interference. It is a system of beliefs that are not falsifiable. How does one “prove” that a “free market” is “natural”? This is such a loaded statement that it does not pass the giggle test. The Austrian folks take this as an article of faith, thereby betraying the spirit of economics as a social science. What sets science apart from most other fields is the fact that its conclusions are falsifiable through observation and analysis.

The great economist Joe Stiglitz called such people “free market fundamentalists”. He was referring to economists but the label can be easily applied to the laymen who consider themselves adherents of the Austrian School. Its tone of anti-authoritarianism appeals to people who mistrust the system. It just so happens that the internet attracts these types of people.

For my part, I have had many discussions with libertarians both at Occupy and in my salad days as an internet troll. When I ask what they would do with things like education, police, transportation, energy and other big government programs, their answer is always a simplistic “hands off” ideology for the government. For them, the role of government should be to merely hang back and enforce private contracts. When I would then ask them what happens if a monopoly starts to develop which is anathema to the free market, the answer either is “it won’t happen” or “there should be laws in place to prevent such things”. The first response is hokum with no basis in reality or history, another belief that is not falsifiable. The second response starts a slippery slope where every free market eventuality can be corrected with laws. In that case, free markets need the very same government that Austrian types blame as the cause for all of the free market’s ills.

What I have found is that people who believe this type of stuff fall into one of two categories. They can be wealthy people who have embraced an extreme “small government” idea that amounts to a bunch of self-serving nonsense. Or, more frequently, they are people with a simplistic, individualistic view of society who believe that everyone has full control of their destiny at all times. It is the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” crowd. They are the people who watch a video of starving children in Africa and ask “why don’t they just move to where the food is?” or “serves them right for being lazy”. They are the people who think that the fact they can go camping in the woods for a weekend means they are “self-sufficient”, the meaning of that term apparently being totally lost on them. They are the people who believe that over 100 million unemployed Americans are just being lazy. They are the Ayn Rand fans and other assorted lickspittles of the wealthy.

It is no surprise that the page on Austrian economics is being purged of every criticism by its acolytes. To them, the internet is everything. Anything that is worth knowing about the world comes from cheesy documentaries and simplistic slogans delivered in pixels. The one idea that they have latched onto must be the correct idea, despite the fact they have not bothered to expose themselves to any other ideas. They are allergic to books, especially works of history since they tend to have a “liberal bias” or are a product of the filthy system. It is like the child who learns something at school and cannot wait to share it with everyone they know, assuming that they are the only ones privy to this awesome knowledge.

Despite what the Austrian folks think, they are not the guardians of knowledge and truth. Another person’s rejection of their beliefs does not automatically make that person an idiot. The world contains a vast array of ideas and perspectives. Knowing one theory about one discipline does not make you an expert on anything.

A Wikipedia page is not an indoctrination tool where every word has to follow the party line. It is supposed to contain a range of ideas associated with a subject, including criticism of that subject. This might not comport with the dogmatic, fundamentalist world in which they live but, after all, we do still live in the United States.

Although if the free market fundamentalists, Neoliberals and austerity hawks keep having their way, then I might not be living here for much longer.

 

Thursday Picture Roundup

It’s definitely an espresso morning.

Mother’s Day Potpourri

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you mothers out there. A special happy Mother’s Day wish to all of you mothers who are raising, or have raised, your children on your own.

I come from a single parent home where my mother had to both bring home the bacon and fry it up. My biggest regret is not appreciating how hard it was for her to work that double shift of wage-earning and child-rearing for so many years. She did it all on her own without help from anybody, least of all her ungrateful son.  It took me until adulthood to begin to understand how much effort she had put into me and the household.

My mother has been very ill lately, which is one of the major reasons for the tail-off of activity on this blog. I am thankful to at least have her around for Mother’s Day 2012.

Here are a few mother tributes to which I listened as a youth growing up in the big city. Not all of the lyrics apply to me or my mother, obviously, but they capture the struggles of single parenthood and boys learning about manhood without a father figure :

Dear Mama by Tupac

Guess Who by Goodie Mob (Cee-Lo’s old group before he started making crappy music)

On a lighter note, I used to stay up late to watch Uptown Comedy Club just so I could see the “Yo Mama” battles. Since these videos are mostly ripped from VHS tapes from the 1990s, you might need to turn up the volume:

Enjoy

Help Overturn the Citizens United Decision….

by signing this petition in support of the Saving American Democracy Amendment.  Sign Here

Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court decision in a case called Citizens United vs. FEC.

The Saving American Democracy Amendment states that:

  • Corporations are not persons with constitutional rights equal to real people.
  • Corporations are subject to regulation by the people.
  • Corporations may not make campaign contributions or any election expenditures.
  • Congress and states have the power to regulate campaign finances.

Versatile Blogger Award

The rules for the Versatile Blog Awards are:

  • Nominate 15 fellow bloggers.
  • Inform the bloggers of their nomination.
  • Share 7 random things about yourself.
  • Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  • Add the Versatile Blog Award picture on your blog post.

Thank you Four Blue Hills for nominating me for the Versatile Blogger Award. It is a tremendous honor for such a young blog.

My 15 nominations, in no particular order:

Four Blue Hills

Fred Klonsky’s Blog

Grass Roots Education Movement

The Activists

Transparent Christina

Michelle Tiedje

Cubie’s Blog

Progress in GP

The Ed Buzz

DFER Watch

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub

Teachable Moments

Two Writing Teachers

Magical Mystical Teacher

GF Brandenburg’s Blog

… And my 7 random things:

1. I was a C student in high school and an A student in college

2. I used to be a bouncer at night when I started my teaching career

3. I lost over 100 lbs on two separate occasions

4. I became a Yankee’s fan when they were horrible

5. I have never left the United States

6. I still watch professional wrestling as a guilty pleasure

7. I coach my school’s boys’ basketball team

Thank you again Four Blue Hills for your nomination.