Category Archives: Parallel Universes

Occupy’s Two-Year Anniversary: It’s All in the Data


Occupy Wall Street was the first major event that I wrote about on this blog. Until this day I feel fortunate for working in such close proximity to Zuccotti Park. It afforded me an opportunity to be part of an event that I believe will eventually define the coming historical era. While the original occupations fizzled out due to general disorganization and authoritarian repression, that does not mean the movement itself will not resurface at some point in some form in the future, bigger than before. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to agree with this prediction if they were in downtown Manhattan a few days ago on the second anniversary of Occupy.

Walking past Zuccotti Park at seven-thirty in the AM on that day was a depressing sight. The entire perimeter was blocked off with metal police barricades, not to mention police. They were allowing the first trickle of protesters in as I was on my way to work. Seeing 5 or 6 young protesters in the middle of the square setting up shop while dozens of officers ringed the park was a far cry from what the place looked like two years ago. Back then a sea of humanity overflowed the benches, the floors and the sidewalks while the police tenuously occupied a sliver of the curb on Broadway, helplessly looking on as people exercised all types of freedoms right in front of them. Now it was the police who overflowed the park, firmly entrenched on all four sides while protesters sheepishly trickled in between the blue uniforms.

Later in the day, as I stepped out to grab lunch, I bore witness to a tame march of protesters circling the block of Zuccotti Park. They were relatively quiet, controlled in their movements and all held up signs with exactly the same size fonts and lettering. Each sign hearkened back to many of the messages of the original protest: “Stop Stop and Frisk”, “Get Money Out of Politics”, etc. But the spontaneity, the disorganization and the general exuberance were gone. The police looked on seemingly pleased at the good behavior of the young people who quietly passed through the narrow corridor of sidewalk they had left available. As the old police cliché goes, there was truly nothing to see here.

In fact, the real spectacle was on my side of Trinity Place across the street from the park. As I loitered by the phone booths smoking a post-lunch menthol, a different sea of humanity was passing by me as well. This humanity was much nosier and much less organized than the protesters across the street. Instead of holding signs with political messages, this sea of humanity was holding cameras and maps of Manhattan. That is right: it was a sea of tourists stopping to gawk at, and snap pictures of, the puny exercise in democracy taking place across the street. Ironically, this sea of unruly tourists did not have any NYPD officers circumscribing where they could walk.

It was at that point that I realized I was watching history unfold. On the Zuccotti side of the street, you had the protesters who stood against everything Pharaoh Bloomberg’s New York City had become. On my side of the street, you had the tourists who reveled in everything Pharaoh Bloomberg’s New York City had become. My side represented the era of repression and commercialism that is on its way out. The Zuccotti side represented the era of free association and community that is yet to be born.

To the tourists who pass through downtown Manhattan, everything is a spectacle. While Trinity Church, Federal Hall and even the giant-testicled bull at the foot of Broadway are nice photo opportunities, the tourists take things much further. Most of these out-of-towners are either coming from, or trying to get to, the 9/11 Memorial. They skip lightly with their children in tow, oftentimes herded down the street by tour guides with light blue 9/11 Memorial shirts on. “Let’s keep moving. We’re almost there” these tour guides can be heard saying to their pliant charges. They usually form a bottleneck along Cedar Street outside of the Ho Yip Chinese buffet as they shuffle along. Some of them even return the death glares that one lone history teacher throws them as they pass by, although they cannot return the menthol smoke he directs into their faces.

It is always a party atmosphere along Cedar Street. The only problem is that they are going to see two giant holes in the ground where nearly 3,000 people lost their lives 12 years ago. They will snap some pictures and then come back outside where they can stop at the 9/11 Memorial gift store to pick up World Trade Center memorabilia. The entire spectacle, from the obnoxious digital cameras to the pushy tour guides to the oblivious foreigners to the cackling children, is a giant Bloombergian farce.

One cannot totally blame the tourists for what downtown Manhattan has become. Thanks to Pharaoh Bloomberg, Larry Silverstein and the bloodsucking state politicians in Albany, what should be hallowed ground and a national reminder of our shared history is instead a hokey exercise in commercialism. Compare the 9/11 Memorial to the monuments in Washington, D.C. like the Lincoln or FDR or World War II memorials. Sure, those places can have floods of tourists too. However, at the end of the day, they are public spaces. They are shared spaces. They are civic spaces. There are no gift shops around them. There is not a constant parade of tour groups being led single-file by obnoxious guides who admonish them to keep up, monopolizing the small strips of public space that exist. Visitors to these places are not asked or guilted into making “donations” to the monument. One cannot buy a mug with an image of the D-Day invasion down the block from the World War II Memorial.

Even if there were all of those things around our national monuments in D.C., it would still be more tolerable than what has become of what used to be the World Trade Center area. Lincoln was killed 148 years ago. FDR died and World War II ended 68 years ago. There is a good chance that people involved in those events are not living and working in the D.C. area anymore. On the other hand, downtown Manhattan still has many residents and workers who were there in 2001. Some of them might have even narrowly escaped with their lives. Some of them might still suffer illnesses from breathing in the acrid smoke. Some of them, including police and firefighters, might have even saved people’s lives or lost friends that day. And yet, the survivors of this national tragedy have to look on each day as downtown Manhattan turns into a circus. While Bloomberg is not totally at fault for this, it is certainly in step with the Bloomberg plan for the city.

This is what I saw on the 2nd anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. To the tourists, the Occupy protesters were a curiosity and a spectacle much like the 9/11 Memorial. They did not expect to see democracy in action when they showed up that day with their maps and their cameras. Metaphorically speaking, the three-ring circus was featuring the dancing bear but the out-of-towners got the bearded lady as a bonus as well. They oohed and aahed throughout both acts, snapping pictures the entire time.

Bloomberg can say that downtown Manhattan has bounced back. The independent eateries and souvenir shops that were around before 9/11 are certainly crammed with tourists now, many of whom have American dollars burning holes in their pockets after converting from Euros. The Freedom Tower is more or less complete, all 1776 feet of it. Yet, just like Bloomberg’s “successes” with public schools and fighting crime, it is a success on the surface only. One only has to dig an inch deep to find the rot that Bloomberg’s gild conceals.

At the end of the day, whether it is tourist dollars, test scores or crime stats, the only thing that has been accomplished under the reign of Pharaoh Bloomberg in NYC is an artful manipulation of numbers. Those numbers bear very little resemblance to reality. Tourist bucks are flowing in, yet downtown Manhattan still bears a national scar that has not been properly treated. Test scores are up (or at least they used to be), yet our students still have trouble making their way in the world after they graduate. Crime is down (or at least it used to be), yet many average New Yorkers are being robbed by a ridiculous cost of living. For the poorest New Yorkers, the NYPD has terrorized them in their own communities thanks to stop-and-frisk.

That is why when I was standing there between the Occupy protesters and the tourists, I was able to feel the tide of history wash over me. One side represented the dying Bloomberg era of optimistic data that continues to fool so many people. The other side represented the coming era of a mass awakening of what that data was always concealing.


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:




Lyndon Johnson, the last truly homespun president.

Lyndon Johnson, the last truly homespun president.

It was announced over the weekend that Robert Caro has won yet another literary award, this time for the fourth and latest volume in his majestic biography of Lyndon Johnson entitled The Passage of Power. It covers Johnson’s non-campaign in the 1960 Democratic primaries through those first heady months of his presidency. Even though I bought the book the day it came out, I did not start reading it until last week. I have had a fascination with Lyndon Johnson before I started devouring Caro’s volumes. Caro’s work has served to deepen my fascination and understanding of one of the nation’s most controversial presidents.

Being born in the post-Vietnam era, I never inherited the knee-jerk hatred that many Americans from the previous generation seem to have for him. It is a shame that the Vietnam War will follow Johnson’s legacy throughout history, even though it is a shame that Johnson brought upon himself. Scared to death of looking weak in the face of what he perceived as communist aggression, Johnson  was the president most responsible for leading the nation into the war for which the term “quagmire” seemed to be coined.

Looking at Johnson’s pre-presidential career, it seemed unlikely that a war for independence halfway around the globe would be the thing that ended up destroying him. Born in the Texas Hill Country in 1908, Lyndon’s focus had always been local. Whether local meant rural Texas, Capitol Hill or the United States of America, matters of foreign policy rarely ever drew his attention. Maybe this was the problem. He was so domestically focused that he was ill-prepared to deal with Cold War geopolitics when forced to do so as president.

His father was once an important man who had fallen from grace and died penniless. Word got around the Hill Country that Old Man Johnson was a failure.  Lyndon, by all accounts, very much resembled his father physically. For his entire life, he strove to ensure that he did not end up resembling his father in any other way. He was going to be somebody. He was going to be the President of the United States, not a failure. Ambition would be the driving force of his entire life, but it was by no means the only driving force.

The Hill Country was not only cruel to his father. It was a large pocket of rural poverty and backwardness where most people lived as they had since the 19th century. It was one of the last places in the United States to have electricity. Johnson had seen how poverty affected his neighbors. During his brief stint as a teacher of children of Mexican migrant workers, he had seen up close how poverty affected people of other races as well. He would take these experiences with him throughout the rest of his life. If he ever got the chance he was going to do something to help people in need, no matter their race.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he idolized Franklin Roosevelt. He came of age when FDR just started implementing his New Deal, the first real effort by the federal government to help people who had fallen on hard times. When the opportunity to be part of the New Deal presented itself, Johnson jumped at the chance. It was his involvement with the federal programs of the New Deal that helped him cut his political teeth. Few politicians in American History have cut their teeth so well and so successfully.

It was not only the New Deal that drew Johnson to FDR. Roosevelt was a consummate politician. More than any other president, he was able to be all things to all people. Running in his first presidential campaign in 1932, FDR promised a “New Deal for the American people”. History now shows that FDR did not really have much of an idea of what this would mean. However, to a country wracked by the worst economic crisis it had ever experienced, a “New Deal” sounded pretty good. Roosevelt was convincing because he knew what people wanted to hear. Johnson would take these lessons with him too, much like he took with him the lessons of the Texas Hill Country. It was Roosevelt after whom Johnson tried to pattern himself by using his initials LBJ. While tuning up for his abortive presidential campaign in 1960, he would tell his aides “it’s important the people start thinking of me in terms of initials: LBJ, FDR, LBJ, FDR, get it?”

It is little wonder then that FDR took a shine to LBJ. If they were peas in a pod it was because Johnson was making the effort to be so. His relationship with Franklin Roosevelt helped propel him into national elective office. He spent several years in the House of Representatives where he forged an alliance with Speaker Sam Rayburn. Rayburn would be one of the most powerful men in the United States, certainly the most powerful southern politician and the most important ally in Lyndon Johnson’s career.

LBJ spent 12 years in the House of Representatives but it was in the Senate where he forged his reputation as one of the shrewdest politicians in the United States. Shortly after he was elected, LBJ strolled into the Senate chamber after hours to look over his new work place. He muttered the words “it’s the perfect size”. As a Representative, Johnson was one of a crowd. As a Senator, he was part of an elite club. More importantly, the Senate was small enough for him to work his powers of persuasion. He could hit Senators one-on-one with the “Johnson Treatment” until he got the votes he needed.

Johnson was a tall, lanky fellow. He would always be impeccably dressed: tailored suits, hair slicked back, “LBJ” cuff links glistening in the light. That is why when he cornered a Senator, leaned his face into theirs and threatened, promised, flattered or cajoled, the Senator would usually give him what he wanted. This was the “Johnson Treatment”. Thanks in part to this tactic, Johnson would go on to be the most powerful Senator in the United States.

In a very short time he would be the Senate Majority Leader, gathering into that job powers that it had never seen before. LBJ would say “power is where power goes” and he certainly knew which people held the power. To the men of the Beltway who could do him harm (or favors), he was sickeningly obsequious.  To men and women who he did not need or who needed him, he was sickeningly rude. Stories of LBJ treating his staffers, and even his wife, with cruelty have become legendary.

Like when his wife, Lady Bird, would host parties for the Washington elite. Johnson would have no problem ordering his wife around like a maid, yelling out “Biiirrrrddd” in a high-pitched voice very much resembling a “Suey” call on a hog farm. It caused Bird a great deal of embarrassment and indignity to the point where many Washington wives pitied her.

Then there are the times when he would require staffers to take dictation while he was sitting on the toilet. He would open the door to the bathroom, lean his face out so a staffer could see him and then motion the staffer over with a “come here” motion of his index finger. All the while his face would be stone cold, letting the staffer know he was indeed serious. It was a way to test their loyalty, as well as test how far he could push his subordinates before they would push back.

Even around men of power he could be incredibly crude. At state dinners, where foreign dignitaries would dine, he would scarf down his food, let out a loud belch and leave the table all in the course of 10 minutes without saying a word. As majority leader, when his seat was in the front of the Senate chamber so that everyone could see him, he would turn to them and administer his eye drops in the most histrionic fashion possible. Or, with his back to them, he would dig out his wedgies and scratch his butt in the same dramatic way. When swapping tales of womanizing with his fellow Senators (LBJ had several extra-marital affairs), he would often brag about the size of his penis, saying things like “Old Jumbo sure got a workout last night.” He was caricature of himself on the Hill.

It is amazing that a man like this ever became president. Of course, it almost never happened thanks to his ill-conceived run at the Democratic nomination in 1960. He ended up accepting the Vice Presidential nomination when it was offered by John Kennedy, even though he disliked Jack and absolutely hated his brother Robert. However, in LBJ’s calculations, the Vice Presidency was the best road to the White House. Without it, he would have to wait another 8 years and probably run against men who had been in the national spotlight more than him. With it, he would be in the national spotlight himself and be a heartbeat away from the presidency, although nobody expected the young Jack Kennedy to die in office.

His 3 years as Vice President were probably the most miserable of his career. JFK surrounded himself with Harvard-educated men who had no use for the homespun LBJ. They gave him the unflattering nickname of “Rufus Cornpone”, made fun of him behind his back and isolated him from most of the important decisions. For his part, LBJ had no use for them. Before the election, he said that JFK was not a man’s man, which was one of the worst insults LBJ could throw at someone. He saw JFK’s inner circle in general as a bunch of spoiled brats who had everything in life handed to them.

And then the impossible happened. The young president was shot dead in Dallas. All of the sudden, Lyndon had the job he had always wanted, the job that meant he was a somebody. He had beaten the odds by becoming the first truly southern president since Zachary Taylor, and the first from the state of Texas.

The rest is history. He deftly attached himself to the dead president’s legacy by using his ample parliamentary skills to get JFK’s programs pushed through Congress. Part of this program was enacting the first substantial civil rights law in 100 years, a law that went on to become one of the crowning achievements of the entire Civil Rights movement. The biggest irony of all was that it was done by a southerner, one who never had a good reputation in liberal circles. His actions led to the biggest political realignment of the 20th century. Southerners bolted the Democratic Party for good. Minorities, liberals and other northeasterners would forever hitch their wagon to the star of the Democratic Party. Much of what we take for granted in the political world today is a direct legacy of President Lyndon Johnson.

Then, when running for election in his own right, he trounced Barry Goldwater. Sure, Goldwater was seen as a reactionary and ran one of the worst campaigns of any presidential candidate ever. But Johnson deserves credit for running a great campaign, one that included a television ad that set the standard for all future presidential campaigns:

Johnson went on to win in a landslide, the first elected president from Texas, the first elected president from the south since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

With Johnson reaching the height of his ambition, and with new elections another 4 years away, he was able to give reign to his sense of justice. He declared a War on Poverty and promised America that he would help lead them to a Great Society. Medicare and Medicaid are direct descendants of this promise. LBJ expanded the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (what would be known as “welfare”) through expanding the rights of poor people. He hired a Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, to head up a War on Poverty. Federal funds started flooding the poorest areas of the nation. The idea of community control allowed these areas to spend the money as they saw fit. Not since the New Deal had the federal government gone to such lengths to help the most downtrodden people in America.

If Johnson’s life taught him that the federal government had the ability and the duty to help the poor, it also taught him that he needed to keep the rich and powerful on his side. Johnson was a friend of big business  and big business had been lobbying the government for years to institute meaningful immigration reform. They wanted to rewrite many of the laws that had closed off the borders since the 1920s. Johnson gave them the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened America to an extent not seen since the late 1800s. Unions had been fighting this type of immigration policy for decades out of fear that it would lower wages. Business had been fighting for this policy for the same reason. The law would end up being the Rosetta Stone for the New Democratic Party, one less reliant on labor unions, more compliant with the whims of big business and anxious to brandish its liberal credits by fighting for “diversity”.

All of these things would be overshadowed by Vietnam. Johnson had lived through McCarthyism and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had seen how being “weak” on communism both destroyed political careers and led to international embarrassment for the United States. When the forces of Ho Chi Minh seemed poised to take control of Vietnam, both north and south, LBJ was determined to prevent it from happening. Using his skill at getting Congress to bend to his whim, he got them to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964) which gave him full control over the U.S. response to the Vietnam conflict. When asked by his advisors if America was able to fight a war on poverty at home on top of a war against Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, LBJ responded “we’re America, we can do it all.”

This quote, more than anything else, represents the type of optimism permeating the United States since after World War II. LBJ was expressing the common assumption at the time, one that put stock in both the righteousness and omnipotence of America’s role in the world.

And it is a shame that this quote, more than anything, signaled America’s pride before the fall. Johnson started his presidency like a house of fire, making progress on civil rights, poverty and immigration. He would end his presidency in disgrace with the country mired in Vietnam, riots in every major city and a youth culture thoroughly alienated from authority. Johnson’s presidency is the hinge between America’s golden age and America’s downfall. The quote that “we’re America, we can do it all” would be unrealistic today. Our leaders would never say this now. We are living in an age of limits.

America had been able to interfere in Korea, Berlin, Cuba and a million other places without embarrassment or losing a tremendous amount of face. Vietnam put a black eye on all of this. It made the U.S. afraid of getting involved in any large-scale conflict in the future, lest the government lose credibility and another generation be bled white. Instead, the U.S. would relegate itself to small-scale conflicts with limited aims. Or, in the case of Iraq, the U.S. would expand its aims without giving away too much to the media lest they stir up opposition at home.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Americans were still poor after the War on Poverty. Civil rights leaders were still dissatisfied after LBJ’s laws. Riots broke out in every major city during the 1960s. “Black Power” became the watchword of black leaders. Native Americans at Wounded Knee were gearing up to defend their way of life and battle centuries of mistreatment. The government was doing more than ever to help people and yet people were still unhappy. LBJ, watching the riots on TV in the Oval Office, mouthed the words “what more do these people want?” It was a question that many people would ask. A backlash started brewing which contended that poverty and racism could not be solved by the government. The next generation of leaders, represented by California Governor Ronald Reagan, gained popularity on the idea that people would have to solve their own problems through rugged individualism and the market. The nanny state that took care of its people would be dismantled after the supposed failure of the 1960s.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Before becoming president, Johnson was always sure to keep his distance from the oilmen who ran Texas. He knew that he would never get elected to the White House if voters thought the oilmen had purchased him. Yet, Johnson was a fan and a friend of big business. Moreover, he never had a good relationship with labor. Labor leaders threatened to bolt the Democratic Party when JFK chose LBJ for his ticket. Johnson would slowly lead the party away from labor and towards big business. The Immigration Act was a taste of what the Democratic Party would become in the future, what the Democratic Party is today, which is a pro-business, luke-warm-to-hostile towards labor party.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Finally, Johnson’s personal hatred for Bobby Kennedy would split the Democrats. The two men had hated each other since the day they met in the 1950s and that hatred had grown since that time. When Kennedy ran for the Democratic nomination in 1968, LBJ from behind the scenes was determined to prevent it from happening. He threw his full support behind his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, who would go on to be seen as the “establishment” candidate (even though he had a track record just as, if not more, liberal than RFK). Kennedy, through his compassion for the poor and opposition to Vietnam, was the choice of the younger generation. The Humphrey(LBJ)/RFK split would tear the Democrats apart in 1968. RFK was killed before he could officially get the party nomination. The candidate who claimed his mantle, Eugene McCarthy, was no RFK . When Humphrey was chosen at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, it led to a full-scale riot that became the symbol of the excesses of the youth movement and counterculture. Never again would young people be as involved in, or as successful at, shaping the political landscape.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

There is no telling what the world would have been like if Johnson had stayed out of Vietnam. Few presidents have possessed ambition, compassion and effectiveness as completely as LBJ. His ambition was his guide. It would be what led to his undoing, not to mention his party’s and the nation’s undoing. At the same time, if he did not have this ambition, it is doubtful he would have ever become president so he could be in a position to help right some of America’s wrongs. Maybe the U.S. would have still progressed without Johnson, although probably not as fast.

Too much, too fast, too soon, these could be the things that define Johnson’s legacy. For all of his faults, the United States has not seen a president as compassionate as him ever since. Nobody says anymore what America can do, what the government can do. Nobody says anymore “we’re America, we can do it all.” Instead, our leaders tell us what America cannot do, what the government cannot do. The Neoliberal Revolution that defined the post-LBJ era has been all about “can’t”, all about limits. Obama’s and Congress’ solution to our problems has been austerity, which is one large policy of “can’t”.

It is not at all clear that America has been better off by rejecting the policies for which LBJ stood. LBJ is a scary reminder of all that we have lost over the past 50 years.


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.




From Happy Place:

Aaaand that didn’t take long. Less than a week after a Michigan charter school announced that they’d hired Clark Arnold, a retired firearms instructor, to be the school’s armed security guard, Arnold hastily endeavored to demonstrate what a terrible mistake they’d made by leaving his (unloaded) handgun in a student restroom unattended. The school has responded by putting “additional security procedures in place,” procedures that will hopefully include, “Anyone in charge of protecting students from school shootings should refrain from giving students stuff to commit school shootings with.” The NRA hasn’t commented yet but we’re relatively certain they’ll say the students were safer with a gun lying around unattended and they think he should have left two guns.

 The argument for gun control summed up in one shockingly stupid photo
nra and tobacco



Gun control is the issue of the moment. The talking points are being presented within the usual left versus right matrix to which we’re accustomed in this country. The Fox News crowd screams about how the 2nd Amendment is a right given to us by the Founding Fathers to protect against tyrannical government. The MSNBC lot points out that less gun control means more guns, and more guns means more gun violence.

As usual, the two camps are not budging an inch. What is particularly remarkable in this debate, especially as it has played out in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, is how both sides are completely wrong. The networks have muddled the issue so much that one wonders if any of the talking heads they place in front of the cameras have ever placed their noses in a history book.

Only a sane minority have the right stance on gun control, a stance I will explain to you free of charge. With this knowledge you will be able to bludgeon your coworkers with cold logic and historical fact.

The first ten amendments to the Constitution were added by the first ever Congress. They were included to safeguard some of our rights, both as individuals and as states, lest the federal government get out of control. Collectively, these ten amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights.

So far we agree, no? So stay with me as we get to the meat and potatoes of this argument.

The Founding Fathers were profoundly shaped by their experiences as subjects of the British Empire in both good and bad ways. One of the good ways was their inheritance of British Whig sensibilities, which carried with it a belief that the individual was entitled to certain rights.

The Founding Fathers experienced first hand all of the methods a monarchy employed to subvert the rights of individuals. One of those ways was by employing a standing army. Standing armies were dangerous because they were loyal only to the crown, were totally unaccountable to the people and were always at the ready to enforce the arbitrary will of the king (or Parliament) when softer methods of coercion were exhausted.

If the new federal government of the Americans had control of a standing army, it would have been just a matter of time until it used that army in dangerous ways. At least this was the article of faith held by the Founding Fathers. All of them knew, including the general George Washington, that standing armies had no place in free republics. It is a well-known fact that one of Washington’s heroes was Cincinnatus, the Roman aristocrat who led an army that saved the Roman republic, then relinquished all of his power to return to the life of a simple Roman patrician. On at least two occasions Washington relinquished power when he could have easily continued to wield it absolutely: first when he relinquished command of the Continental Army and then when he stepped down after his second term as President.

The Founders would be damned if a standing army became part of any republic they created.

Yet, there was no ignoring geopolitical realities. The British, still hot at losing the  War for Independence, dominated both the seas with their navy and the land immediately west of the Appalachians by continuing to garrison troops there. (Despite the fact that it was American land by the terms of the Treaty of Paris.)

Spain still held sizable colonies on the American continent, including control of the Mississippi River. The Father of Waters was a valuable artery of commerce for the fledgling American republic. At any point they wished, the Spanish could cut off America’s access to it. Indeed, Spain did do this from time to time as a way to entice the western American states to join them. The prospect of unlimited access to the Mississippi did lead to serious talk of secession in states like Ohio and Kentucky.

And then there were the Native Americans. The tribes west of the Appalachians were readying themselves to defend their hunting grounds against the inevitable flood of American settlers to come. They were armed and trained by the British in this endeavor, making tribes like the Shawnee formidable, dangerous and determined opponents of the new American republic.

America was beset with enemies on all sides. There had to be a way to defend America from external enemies without falling into the trap of creating a standing army. It was a circle that was easily squared by the Founding Fathers.

The answer was a well-regulated militia. Many Founders deeply admired the Roman republic and Athenian democracy of antiquity. Athens, a tiny city-state beset with menacing neighbors like Sparta and Persia, kicked some serious butt with their version of a”well-regulated militia.” Athens’ military consisted of citizen-soldiers, men who farmed for a living but had arms at the ready in case their city-state needed to be defended. These citizen-soldiers were called hoplites and they came together to form the phalanx, the most fearsome fighting force of the ancient Mediterranean. Their tight-knit formations, the way they compensated for their lack of training by sticking together and fighting hard to defend their farms, wives, children and temples, were able to defeat the biggest, most well-supplied and professionally trained army of the era: the mighty Persians.

America, in the minds of the Founders, was in a similar boat to ancient Athens. They were a free people surrounded by tyrants who commanded massive standing armies. The answer to this was to allow the people of the free nation to keep their own arms at the ready in the event they needed to defend their homeland against attack. What they lacked in training they would make up for in  motivation. What’s more, an armed populace would obviate the need for a standing army that was a hallmark of tyranny.

Hence, the first words of the 2nd Amendment are: “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…” It was self-evident to the Founders that the militia would fight America’s wars. They believed that any war in which America found itself would be defensive since offensive wars were the pursuit of tyrants who wished to build empires. Defensive wars as a rule are easier to fight. Quite simply, there was absolutely no reason in the minds of any of the Founding Fathers for America to have a highly-trained professional military ready to strike any moment. There was absolutely every reason for America to avoid such an institution at all costs.

The 2nd Amendment was a no-brainer for the Founders. It was designed to provide for the 18th century version of the ancient Athenian hoplite: the free farmer with musket in hand.

This is where the meat of the argument ends. In all of the palaver coming over the airwaves in recent weeks about gun control, does any of this ever get mentioned? Has there been any effort by either the right or the left to truly educate the country on the meaning of the 2nd Amendment?

In many ways, the story of 19th century America is the story of the slow demise of the militia. General William Henry Harrison’s militia was unable to score a decisive defeat over the Native American force led by Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe. America lost many key land battles to the British during the War of 1812, culminating in the burning down of the President’s Mansion (later called the “White House” after the burns were painted over with the cheapest color paint available at the time). Instead, most of America’s biggest victories during the War of 1812 were won by the navy, the most professional branch of the military. Even the Battle of New Orleans, where General Andrew Jackson decimated a force of redcoats a few weeks after the Treaty of Ghent was officially signed, was won  with a hybrid force of militia and professional military. Jackson had complained throughout the war that his militia men were ill-trained cowards and lobbied vigorously to get more professionally trained men into his ranks, which is what he had at New Orleans.

But the culmination of all of these 19th century conflicts, from Tippecanoe in 1811 until the Spanish-American War in 1898, was the creation of the American standing army. The Spanish-American War was truly our first offensive intercontinental war in the name of empire. After acquiring Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean and Asia we fully instituted a standing army to keep guard over them. There was no outcry that this development effectively rendered the 2nd Amendment irrelevant. There was no outcry that it totally went against everything the Founding Fathers stood for. It was self-evident that the 20th century for America was the age of empire. Empire requires a standing army. The 2nd Amendment remained in the quaint 18th-century where it belonged.

The 2nd Amendment was buried the moment America attained an intercontinental empire. Nobody mentioned the 2nd Amendment. Nobody thought about it. Time had passed it by and nobody batted an eyelash. It was not until very recently, maybe within the past 30 to 40 years or so, that certain interests  attempted to resurrect the ghosts of the 2nd Amendment for their own myopic agendas. Namely, gun manufacturers and their lickspittles on the right

The Cold War ensured that the production of weapons, or what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”, became a major fact of everyday American life, a healthy chunk of the GDP and the lion’s share of the federal budget. It was only natural that guns designed to kill Commies, built in American factories, would somehow spill onto Main Street, USA. These guns were not the Colt .45s that made every man equal on the frontier. These guns were weapons of mass destruction, implements of modern-age warfare.

And thanks to the slick propaganda of the gun lobby, people began to honestly believe that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wanted Americans (preferably all Americans), to handle these pieces of machinery as a civic duty. I mean, it’s right there in the 2nd Amendment: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Of course, the propaganda never mentioned the responsibility of those who owned these arms to fight for their country when duty called. Of course not. According to the gun lobby, the only responsibility gun owners had was to clean their instruments of mass death and lock them away in a safe place so grandma doesn’t accidentally get her head blown off. Is this not what the Founding Fathers had in mind?

It is also not a little bit ironic that many of the same people who see the 2nd Amendment in this way vote for political candidates who send the boys and girls of the actual standing army overseas to die in imperialist war. They don yellow ribbons and have bumper stickers telling the world they “support the troops”, yet they have no problems sending those troops off to meet mechanized death.

They support only the part of the 2nd Amendment that says they can have a gun. They ignore the other part that says that having the gun requires them to fight for their country. They fully support our troops by allowing them to fulfill that responsibility for them. “I own the gun. Let someone else do the dying.” This is the real motto of most gun enthusiasts today.

This is the gun debate in America today.  It is gun nuts wrapping themselves in the 2nd Amendment without understanding one bit what it means. They quote the Founding Fathers without one iota of appreciation for the context in which they were writing and the intellectual universe they inhabited. It is liberals who are afraid of calling them out on their ignorance, lest they be accused of opposing the Bill of Rights and being “un-American”. Instead, the liberals relegate themselves to spouting sterile statistics about gun violence in other countries to justify “gun control” laws here in America, laws that merely aim to reduce gun ownership instead of eliminating it.

What is the point of citing the examples of nations that allow absolutely no gun ownership if you’re not going to call for absolutely no gun ownership?

I support your right to bear arms under one condition: the next time America is in a war, you’re the first one in line with your cache of weapons to defend the country. Only then will you be coming close to the spirit of the 2nd Amendment.

But if you want to totally fulfill the spirit of the 2nd Amendment, then you must call for the elimination of the standing army. You must call for the shuttering of every single American army, navy and air base both here and abroad. You must pull all American troops out of every foreign country: Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Japan and South Korea. You must then fire all of the men and women of the armed forced. You must want to convert the Pentagon into something else, maybe a museum or low-rent housing for the poor. You must call for the elimination of the entire defense budget.

You must then raise your hand and say “I am here with my gun ready to defend the flag I so fondly wave around and the Bill of Rights in which I so firmly believe.

Then, and only then, will I support your right to bear arms.

Yes, I am a true believer in the 2nd Amendment.

The Obama Phone and Other Nonsense

The “Obama Phone” lady is the latest viral video on the net. Here it is for those who have not seen it:

Not surprisingly, the likes of Rush Limbaugh have already jumped all over it as proof of Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment. One of my favorite comedic radio shows had one of the hosts ranting for 30 minutes about how the woman in the video represents the “entitlement” mindset common to most Obama voters. It is tough to see the planet on which these people are living.

The equation for Rush Limbaugh, the aforementioned comedy show host and the rest of their ilk seem to be the following. Obama is black. Therefore, most black people support him. In return, they believe they will get increased entitlements like welfare, food stamps, public housing and now, cell phones. The fact that black people have been slipping ever deeper into poverty since Obama’s election seems to be lost on them. In reality, Limbaugh and company are thinking in caricatures left over from the days of Reagan’s war on mythical “welfare queens”. It bears little resemblance to actual black people, whether they support Obama or not.

Obama will win this 2012 election. This is something I have said since he won in 2008 and I was not exactly going out on a limb then. This is not because Obama has done such a bang-up job, although there are plenty who seem to think so. Rather, it is because the other viable alternative, which includes not just Romney but the entire apparatus supporting him, has proven too odious and out-of-touch to be relevant to anyone but a small delusional percentage of the population. To be sure, this small delusional percentage comprises an active voting bloc. Yet, I think 2012 will prove that this bloc will no longer be able to swing elections like they did during the Bush Era. It seems the Tea Party was the last dying gasp of their influence, a swan song made possible by the infusion of money and organization from the corporate class.

It has been pointed out elsewhere that the “Obama Phone” is nothing of the sort. What the woman in the video is describing is the federal program designed to provide cell phones to low income, elderly and disabled people started in 2008 while George W. Bush was president. My mother had one of these phones. It was a no-frills, antiquated cell phone with 250 minutes a month. My uncle, who is a Vietnam veteran, also has one. Although it was a help when my mother needed to communicate with me, I bought her a Blackberry with an unlimited plan because those 250 minutes never seemed to last her more than 20 days.

Are these the “entitlements” that Rush speaks of? Is this the free ride that 47% of us expect according to Romney? If it is, the ride certainly does not go very far.

One of the other tropes trotted out to buttress the idea that Americans in the Obama Era feel more “entitled” is the fact that the food stamp rolls have increased over the past four years. Is this due to some sort of mass laziness brought about by Obama’s presence in the White House?

When people get hired at Walmart, they are also given an application for food stamps. This is because Walmart welcomes their new employees to the world of the working poor. The food stamp program is available to anyone making enough money under a very strict definition of poverty. This includes people on welfare (whose rolls have been declining in many states, thanks to Bill Clinton’s reforms) and the ever-growing number of Americans who are joining the ranks of the working poor. The new jobs that have supposedly ended the Great Recession are the types that qualify people for food stamps.

Listening to that small delusional part of the population, one would think that this country is saddled with legions of unproductive people sucking at the government’s teat. Our ingenuity and creative energy as a nation are being sapped, the thinking goes. Those who style themselves “education reformers” add the coda that “failing” public schools are graduating incompetent and uncreative workers.

And yet, the Gross Domestic Product of this nation has been increasing over the past 30 years. Even throughout the Great Recession, our GDP has been rising other than the years of the toxic assets brought about by billionaire banks. This means that the American workforce has been more productive. There is something wrong with this picture. If the workers of this country are more productive, why are people poorer? (and how are schools “failing”?)

This is the million-dollar question. The answer seems to lie somewhere within the growth experienced by the wealthiest Americans during this Great Recession. Americans are producing more wealth for the wealthy.

Occupy Wall Street was born of this state of affairs. Now that the occupations have been swept away, the small delusional sect of the population is back to pointing to the “Obama Phone” lady and the mythical caricature she represents as the crowd on the prowl for handouts. Sadly, many in that small delusional sect of the population qualify as poor as well. It is the poor blaming the poor for why they are so poor.

The crooked railroad magnate Jay Gould famously said that he could always get one half of the poor to kill off the other half. It explains why the myth of the lazy, entitled (and black) Obama supporter still has traction. It explains why the corporatists behind the Tea Party were able to find so much support. It explains why Libertarianism has been considered some sort of independent “middle way” between Democrat and Republican, rather than the deformed Neoliberal ideology it is. It explains why the Republican Party still has any support at all, and why the Democrats of today are somewhere to the political right of Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

Entitlements in this country are going to predominately one place: up. Steven Perlstein’s Washington Post article over the weekend captured it perfectly:

I am a corporate chief executive.

I am a business owner.

I am a private-equity fund manager.

I am the misunderstood superhero of American capitalism, single-handedly creating wealth and prosperity despite all the obstacles put in my way by employees, government and the media.

I am a job creator and I am entitled.

I am entitled to complain about the economy even when my stock price, my portfolio and my profits are at record levels.

I am entitled to a healthy and well-educated workforce, a modern and efficient transportation system and protection for my person and property, just as I am entitled to demonize the government workers who provide them.

This is where we stand as a nation. If you believe these criticisms are the result of “class warfare” or “envy” of “successful” people, then you also believe that we live in a “democracy” with “free enterprise” and “equal opportunity”. You probably also wanted to end the “death tax”.

What is more likely: that a woman at a political protest talking about an “Obama Phone” is holding us back as a nation, or that our nation is really an oligarchy with corporate socialism that reinforces economic castes?



Compassion?: Education Reform’s Separate and Unequal Agenda

When Michelle Rhee was asked if she had any compassion for the principal she fired on camera, she responded, “compassion?”, because she really did not know what that word meant.

“The most important civil rights battleground today is education, and, likewise, the most crucial struggle against poverty is the one fought in schools” says Nicholas Kristof in Wednesday’s piece for the New York Times. After reading this sentence, we are prepped to believe the person who wrote it is a defender of social justice. This impression is reinforced with the very next sentence: “Inner-city urban schools today echo the “separate but equal” system of the early 1950s.”

Basic progressive bromides that lead us to believe that the solutions proffered throughout the rest of the article are part of the progressive canon. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead, these are the tactics of the modern-day education “reformer”. An education reformer is a person who couches their rhetoric in progressive prose while pushing for retrograde policies. It is the reason why so many self-styled reformers are wealthy Democrats. Chiming in on the education debate allows them to brandish their progressive credentials while making apologies for the socioeconomic system that has blessed them with such great fortune.

Reformers love to cite the Brown case while totally ignoring its details. Thurgood Marshall, the esteemed NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court justice who argued Oliver and Linda Brown’s case, demonstrated to the Warren court how segregated schools reinforced notions of racial inferiority and violated the 14th Amendment. Black schools had underpaid teachers, dilapidated facilities and outdated materials when compared to their white counterparts. These were issues Marshall knew of on an intimate level. His mother was a kindergarten teacher at a black school who, by law, earned less than white teachers.

To the Warren court, as well as anyone else alive during the 1950s, it was pointing out the obvious to say that the nation’s black schools existed on a different plane than white schools, a plane of inferiority enshrined in law and tradition. The court ruled in 1954 that this state of affairs indeed violated the 14th Amendment. Historians since have pointed to the Brown case as the unofficial beginning of the civil rights movement. A year later, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama and a fiery young reverend named Martin Luther King, Jr. made his debut on the national stage.

For those of us familiar with urban public schools, we know that segregation is alive and well in all parts of the country. We also know that the solutions put forward by the reformers, represented in this case by Nicholas Kristof, have not only failed to ameliorate this segregation in any way, but have exacerbated it and promise to do so indefinitely.

For example, Kristof enthusiastically worships at the altar of value added. This is the idea that students should be tested several times a year so their scores can be used to hold teachers “accountable”. To make his point, Kristof cites the “Gold Standard Study” that makes the case for value added assessments. This was the study released earlier this year which “proved” that “bad teachers” in early grades could lead students to fail later in life, whether it means getting pregnant or dropping out of school. This “Gold Standard Study” has never been peer reviewed. It was funded by the reformer juggernaut Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its logical inconsistencies, obvious anti-teacher bias and junk science were ravaged from pillar to post, even while the New York Times was mindlessly repeating its findings. Even by the mushy standards of objectivity in the world of the social sciences, this “Gold Standard Study” has never passed muster.

What would have Thurgood Marshall argued in front of the Warren court? The crux of his case was that one set of standards applied to white schools and a totally different one applied to black schools. Kristof does exactly that. While the children and teachers of minority schools must submit to testing based upon junk science that has never been properly defended, justified or argued, the children and teachers of the Chicago Lab School, Sidwell Friends, Dalton and other schools for the rich do not have to deal with this at all. The motto for Sidwell Friends, the D.C.-area school attended by the Obama girls, is “let the light shine out from all”. The motto for everyone else’s schools is “pass these exams or suffer the consequences”. A rigorous curriculum of critical thinking, creativity and free expression for the wealthy. A narrow curriculum of bubble-in exams and endless factoids for everyone else.

It was not just the junk of value added over which Chicago teachers went out on strike. As Matt Farmer said in this great speech in front of the CTU, the reformers have aimed to get rid of art and music from public schools while reserving those programs for their own children. The new Common Core Standards, to which the schools of the reformers’ children will never be held, aims to squeeze out literary analysis and creative writing in favor of informational texts. In short, wealthy children will be free to develop and indulge the most abstract reaches of their minds. They will continue to be inspired to think creatively and see big pictures. Everyone else’s children will get the drudgery of standardized exams, the minutiae of factoids and the compartmentalized thinking that comes with a narrowed curriculum.

One group of children are educated to lead. Another group of children are educated to respond to prompts. This is the reformer agenda. While using the rhetoric of civil rights and the imagery of Brown vs. Board of Education, the reformers push policies that will enshrine segregation and inequality in law.

Perhaps the most revealing part of Kristof’s piece is when he says “some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be accountable until poverty is solved.” He says this while acknowledging “it’s true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty. Southern states without strong teachers’ unions have schools at least as lousy as those in union states.” He understates the case by saying non-union schools are at least “as lousy” as unionized ones, since non-unionized states have the lousiest school systems in the nation. South Carolina and Mississippi come to mind.  Yet, it is rare for a reformer to admit that poverty plays any role in a child’s education. After all, there are “no excuses” for filling in the wrong bubbles.

Again, let us take a look at what Kristof is actually saying when he writes that poverty is the biggest deciding factor in schooling. Poverty can mean many things in the concrete, including a child not having a home to stay in, malnourishment or undernourishment, sickness, lack of positive male role models, gangs, violence, dysfunctional family life, the list goes on. There are actual physical and psychological impacts poverty has on students, children that could be as young as five years old.   They can come to class everyday with their stomachs growling or feeling weak. They could have walked through gang territory to get to school or to get home, exposing them to all types of destructive behaviors or psychological trauma along the way. They could have been beaten by their parents the night before, or been in the next room while their parents did drugs. More often than not, it is a case of a parent neglecting them by failing to ask about their day or sitting them in front of the television all night as a way to avoid interaction. This is what poverty means in the concrete, no matter how much reformers like Kristof try to make it an abstract sideshow.

When I was in high school, my best friend was shot and stabbed right in front of me. He spent weeks in the hospital where he almost died. During that time, what did he or I care about school or the upcoming exam? It did not matter in the least. Growing up in my poor neighborhood, I went to the homes of friends where the television was on 24/7 and the parents were barely around. There was no dinner on the table and, oftentimes, there was no table. In this situation, what does testing matter? What did holding our teachers “accountable” matter? It would have had no impact or bearing over our lives.

What the reformers are saying when they want to hold teachers “accountable” is that they wish to hold teachers accountable for all of these circumstances, circumstances over which teachers have absolutely no control. They want to allow society to continue to damage our children, to make them physically and psychologically sick, and then lay the entire blame at the teachers’ doorsteps. They want to continue to push people off welfare rolls, off-shore jobs, cut back on the most basic social services, air mindless garbage through the media and then turn around to the teachers and say “you fix it”. This is what accountability means to Kristof and the reformers. These are the implications of their policies.

Kristof at least mentions poverty, but he still shrugs it off in the end. Every columnist and billionaire reformer does that because, to them, poverty is not real. They can only approach poverty in the abstract, as a curiosity, as a statistic, because they are so far removed from its actual meaning. This does not mean a dictionary meaning but a three-dimensional meaning, one that is felt in the flesh and lived in real time. They are billionaires, pundits and opinion-givers. They sit in their air-conditioned offices and luxurious homes while their bank accounts get larger without them even noticing or doing anything. They want for nothing. It is all too easy for them to say poverty is not an excuse, to brush it off as a non-issue, to treat it as an abstraction because that is exactly what it is to them. That is all it can ever be to them.

In reality, poverty actually means something. So does education. When my friend was in the hospital, I bought him Gza’s Liquid Swords album, which we had been anticipating for a long time. Classmates of ours brought in artwork they made to put up in his hospital room. I started reading poetry and philosophy as a way to get a handle on life and look for solace. These things: music, art, poetry, abstract thought, are the things the reformers want to deny the poor children of the United States today. These are the things that got us as poor children through trying moments and made us aspire to great things. They might be great for wealthy children, but they are necessary for children of the poor. These are the things that help people understand their role and purpose in this world, and the ones that bring us beauty in times of darkness. The fact that the reformers want to totally eliminate this for children of the poor and leave them nothing but facts, tests, bubbles and computers is tantamount to child abuse. It is a civil rights travesty, no matter how hard reformers try to pass themselves off as new-age civil rights crusaders.

This is why the teachers of Chicago were striking. Anyone who has never lived in urban poverty, or who lacks basic human compassion or empathy, can never understand the destruction education reform means for our school system. These qualities, compassion and empathy, are what the reformers lack. Through their horrid educational programs, they want to turn our children into microcosms of themselves.

On Occupy’s One Year Anniversary, The CTU Carries The Torch

I miss Occupy Wall Street. Even though it only lasted a few months, I have stories from there that I will remember forever.

My favorite thing to do was to head to Liberty Square after work, make a quick cardboard sign and stand on Broadway holding it. Making signs was a skill. The lettering had to be large enough for people to read but small enough to fit the point you were trying to make. I would always choose a smallish piece of cardboard in order to not block out anyone else’s sign. I got good enough where I could make a good point in a short sentence, sometimes even using statistics. I would never use slogans or clichés. The point being made had to be authentic and original.

I would head to Broadway with my sign and find a nice spot in the line of sign-holders. There was a healthy amount of foot and car traffic on Broadway that increased as the Occupy movement gained steam. It was a great feeling when a passer-by would lock eyeballs on my sign, read it and shake their heads in agreement. Sometimes they would come talk to me, either to ask a question or give me a compliment. All types of reporters threw me questions and there are still Youtube videos up made by independent journalists that contain interviews with me. Occasionally, students of mine would pass by and it became known around my school that I was going to the Occupy protests. The students were all very supportive, making it one of the best teachable moments of my career.

Of course, not everybody came to Occupy in support. There would be the occasional Wall Street guy or random angry person that would pass by and call us “communists” or “losers”. There were people who fancied themselves little Glenn Becks or Sean Hannitys who would walk down the line of sign holders trying to start debates. I would crave their attention. It did not take much. I would just stand there, staring straight in front of me and, boom, I was face to face with a street pundit who was going to put me in my place.

One of these guys was a self-professed libertarian, as most of these smart-alecks were. His debating style was not so much a give-and-take discussion as it was a yelling of libertarian clichés ad nauseam. He thought he had disposed of all the people in the line pretty easily, so he was real confident by the time he got to me. Unfortunately for him, I was all-too-familiar with libertarian talking points and knew exactly what he was going to say before he said it. He did not dispose of me quite as easily as he expected. Instead, he stayed there next to me yelling his point, the same sentences, over and over. A crowd started to gather, mostly passers-by who thought there was a fist fight brewing. I was completely calm knowing I would never get into a fist fight over a silly political debate. The circle grew with every moment. They were in rapt attention of the discussion going on. His point, as is the point of most libertarians, is that the government does not do anything right. For good measure, he called me a “union bum” because I was a teacher. For every one of his clichés, I calmly retorted a counterpoint. I asked him why he was so quick to yield power to his corporate masters, why he believed everything should be commodified and asked him if there would ever be a Hoover Dam, a subway system, public education or a highway system if the forces of profit were given the reigns of society. My point to him was that there were things that are necessary for the greater good, and just happen not to be profitable, so the government has a duty to step in and provide them. I ended by saying, “this sidewalk you’re standing on, you’re using it to voice your free speech and it was built and maintained by government. Why are you using this government sidewalk if you hate government so much?”

He walked away. He did not even go to the next protestor, he just left the vicinity. Many in the crowd of onlookers shook my hand and others offered their opinion on why the other guy was an idiot. One guy came up to me, well dressed with a foreign accent, and he said “you know, I agree with you. I have been out of a job for over a year and that guy just thinks it is so easy to find work.” He was really unsure of himself. I realized then that, although many in the crowd were relatively informed, there were others like him who were on the fence. For some of them, this might have been one of the only real political debates they have seen. I felt as if I had swayed a few minds to my way of thinking in that moment.

Those were my greatest moments at Occupy. Sure, connecting with people who shared my concerns on the dark path our nation treads is great. But being able to get those people who have never really thought about the way our country is headed  over to my side was so much better. What happened in those little moments at Occupy mirrored what was happening around the country. The movement was making people face the stark reality that our system needs change. People are suffering because the system is rigged to favor the well-to-do. A new vigor and honesty was injected into the public debate, one the media could not even ignore despite their best efforts to do so. This was Occupy’s greatest accomplishment.

Ever since the evictions, Occupy has never been able to regain the influence it had in those heady days of autumn 2011. Occupy’s one-year anniversary is coming up and events at Liberty Square are being planned. As we look upon the nation today, there is one glimmer of hope that Occupy’s spirit is still alive.

You have guessed it, it is in Chicago. The marches filling the streets of the Windy City are reminiscent of when Broadway was stacked for a mile with protestors. In both cases, the media totally underreport the numbers to portray it as some sort of fringe movement. The fight for better education in Chicago reminds me of the high and honest ideals people supported at Occupy. The exasperation over corporatism, privatization, commodification and political corruption define both movements. More importantly, they have forced the corporate media to discuss issues they would rather ignore. They have forced the media to do the job they are supposed to do, which is to inform and educate.

For example. the mainstream media usually portrays teacher evaluations based on test scores as a sensible measure. They merely parrot the billionaire privatizers. When they mention the concerns of teachers over these measures at all, they portray it as teachers resisting “accountability” and reinforce the notion that teachers oppose “improvements” to the education system. However, as the strike drags on, more and more op-ed pieces and media reports are forced to present more thoughtful analysis of the testing issue. Pieces are being written now that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. As time goes on, hopefully the issues of class size, teacher experience and childhood poverty will also be examined in greater detail.

And just like at Occupy, the media has done their best to not discuss these issues. With the Occupiers, it was all about how they did not know what they wanted, had no demands and were looking for handouts. As time went on, that myth was being exploded and the media had no choice but to mention the words “poverty” and “corporatism”. With the CTU, it is about how the teachers are striking for “more money” and “better benefits”. Yet, according to even Rahmbo himself, those issues are pretty much settled. The media has had no choice but to start to mention the impacts of testing and class size. I read a few editorials today that even mention how Rahm’s own children attend classes of 18 students, leading to the notion of how the privatization movement is creating a two-tiered education system: one for the wealthy and one for everyone else.

The CTU us shining a light on issues that the media has traditionally ignored. Just like with Occupy, these are issues that make the corporate masters who control the media uncomfortable. Just like with Occupy, the movement has gathered so much momentum that the media now has no choice but to grudgingly mention these issues. That in and of itself is a victory.

What I think of is all the people who have never thought of education before, or who have allowed the media to frame the education debate for them, having that moment of clarity where the truth finally clicks.. I saw it so many times at Liberty Square and I am excited to think that it is starting to happen now in the crusade to save public education.

Follow the Silver Lining…. and the Money

“Every cloud has a silver lining”….. although empirical evidence has yet to bear this out.

Yesterday I mentioned that I might need to find a new place to live. These fears have come true after a most unpleasant meeting with the management of my apartment complex. They want me out now and threatened my career. This complex is apparently for “poor” people and I am just way too rich as a NYC public school teacher to live here. Yet, all of the new tenants moving in are NYU students paying six-figure tuition. Does this make any sense at all to anyone? Those who know anything about New York housing laws are encouraged to contact me at

Yet, there is a silver lining. A real estate agent I met years ago who survived a similar cancer to which my beloved mother succumbed said she has a nice, reasonably-priced studio with my name on it. My cat and I do not require much space and her studios are usually large.  This looks like my next residence when all is said and done. This will certainly mean some quiet days on the blog, but I will do as much as I can here. Once a day is still my goal, no matter what is happening on my end.

That is because, for me, it is all about keeping it going in the face of adversity. This apartment experience has been a nightmare, but some very good people have stepped up to help me. A silver lining can be found anywhere, which brings me to the issue of the day.

The Daily News has been a frequent target of criticism from outspoken NYC teachers, me included. I am sure we will all have a reason to quibble with them in the future as well. Over the summer I had a long breakfast with Ben Chapman, the Daily News reporter who has written some articles with which I have taken issue. We ended things on a handshake and I give him credit for coming out to meet me. Over the past few days, the Daily News has written some good articles exposing the unseemly financial machinations at the DOE. First, it was Bloomberg’s showcase schools getting a disproportionate amount of funding while every other school starves. Two days ago, it was the financial rat hole of Joel Klein’s pet project known as School of One.

Norm over at Ed Notes has already written a good piece about it, with some of the usual inside tidbits only he can provide. Leonie over at the NYC Public School Parents blog also had a great piece about it here.

School of One was pushed by Joel Klein towards the end of his chancellorship of NYC schools. It is an online math program originally provided by Wireless Generation, the company where Klein went to work after his tenure as chancellor was over. Wireless Gen won a juicy DOE contract for providing the service. Of course, no investigation into the obvious conflict of interest was ever conducted. Even if there was an investigation that turned something up, Klein would have probably gotten a measly $4,000 fine a la John O’Mahoney.  See, the way it works is that the faux DOE investigators and arbitrators only terminate teachers, usually for things like spilling milk in the cafeteria. On the other hand, Tweedies like O’Mahoney get $4,000 fines for nepotism, harassment, abuse of power and gross financial malfeasance. It makes perfect sense in North Korea Bloombergland.

Since its inception in 2009, School of One has eaten up $9 million. Time magazine heralded it as one of the best inventions of that year. This was representative of the general knee-jerk worship surrounding its advent, something helped along by a nice DOE propaganda campaign. Apparently, technological sycophantism is not just for Khan Academy supporters anymore. Rather than the “flipped classroom” of the Khan Academy, SO1 uses something called “blended learning”, a mix of scripted online curriculum and small-group instruction. The computer was meant to provide the individual support required for struggling students, something a flesh and blood teacher in a class of 30 students cannot do. I will repeat that. The computer, an inanimate box, was meant to provide the individual support struggling students need.

The $9 million was spent to “educate” approximately 1,700 students in all, although last year only 800 students were enrolled in SO1. According to my advanced scientific calculations, that is a little less than $5,300 per student for a math course. Compare this to a middle school math teacher making, let us say, $210,000 over three years for educating five classes of 25 students each during that same time. That comes out to exactly $560 per student, nearly 10 times less than Klein’s pet project. So, one thing SO1 is not is cost effective.

However, if there is bang for the buck, $5,300 per student is a small price to pay. I would say that our children’s math education is worth at least that, and much more. The Daily News paints a picture of inconsistent results, although they point out it was generally negative. Seemingly to save some precious DOE face, one principal was quoted in the article as saying that SO1 was responsible for the “phenomenal growth” in the 8th grade math exam scores at his school. What was this phenomenal growth? A 5% increase in the pass rate, measured against a city-wide increase of 3%. Wow. That is phenomenal, $9 million dollars-worth of phenomenal. Hopefully that principal gets a cushy desk job at Tweed for his public Klein worship.

While the Daily News is right in pointing out the massive waste involved in SO1, they do not go nearly far enough to describe just how massive the waste is. For that, one would have to read Leonie Haimson’s detailed article. The Daily News explains that two of the three schools that used SO1 saw their scores slip over the three year period. Leonie goes into who these schools are: IS 228 in Brooklyn and IS 339 in the Bronx. IS 228 is in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn. There is a multiethnic mix of students from the neighborhood, as well a population attracted from out of the neighborhood. Therefore, it is safe to assume that some students there struggle in math and some do not. This school, according to Leonie, saw their math scores dip a little. IS 339, on the other hand, is on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, an overwhelmingly poor and minority area. This school saw a huge dip in their math scores.

To complete the picture, the only school that did not dip was MS 131. That is a school with which I am very familiar, seeing as how it is located in one of my favorite neighborhoods and I end up teaching many of their graduates as high-schoolers. It is the Sun Yat-sen school in Chinatown, a well performing school whose students, as I see first-hand, are mostly well-prepared and motivated. Math scores would have probably risen at Sun Yat-sen with or without SO1. It is just like that AP math teacher from my Brooklyn Tech days who did not teach a lick of math and still his students scored 4s and 5s on the AP exam. Sun Yat-sen kids are Sun Yat-sen kids and Tech kids are Tech kids. What that means is that they will succeed either with the help of a great teacher or despite the presence of an awful teacher, whether that teacher is made of flesh or circuits. To top it all off, the principal of Sun Yat-sen dropped the SO1 program after the first year. Therefore, the only gain SO1 could point to is for one isolated year with a group of students generally non-representative of the general student body of NYC.

Is this the future of math education, as Time magazine and other technological lickspittles told us it was?

We should hope not for, bear in mind, School of One was meant to provide individual attention to struggling students. That was the entire justification for the DOE spending 10 times the amount of money on software and a pile of circuits than they would have spent on a few veteran math teachers who know the subject and how to motivate students. Most damning of all, Leonie quotes the original NYU study that prompted the Daily News article in the first place to pull out this tidbit:

Students who came to SO1 with low prior performance were exposed to approximately twice as many below-grade-level skills, compared to those who came with higher performance levels from prior grades. … However, these students mastered less than 15 percent of the skillsto which they were exposed (as measured by SO1’s daily assessments), compared to approximately 85 percent mastery for students who entered with higher prior performance.

These results fly in the face of the DOE’s I3 application, which said it should be awarded extra points because it would provide special benefits for struggling students.

Italics are Leonie Haimson’s words.

Could Bloomberg, Klein, Time Magazine and the Sal Khan ilk of education “reformers” who kneel before the pixelated image all have been wrong? Could this $9 million blended learning program not really be the future of math education? Yes.

The only problem is, this is not a just a $9 million program. It is a $46 million dollar program because, this year, the DOE is bringing SO1 into more schools, four to be exact. Yes, a program that not only does not work, but does the total opposite that its sycophants claimed it would do, is being foisted upon more struggling students around the city.

As Norm points out at Ed Notes, one of those schools is IS49SI, the school of Francesco Portelos, a dynamic STEM teacher whom I recently had the pleasure of meeting that was recently rubber roomed for daring to question his principal as to the whereabouts of school funds at SLT meetings, even though that is exactly why SLT meetings exist in the first place. Essentially, they lose Portelos and gain a completely useless system for 10 times the price. Looks like he was onto something when he smelled misappropriation of funds in the air, which is exactly why he was rubber roomed after all, it would seem.

This is a whopper of a story for many reasons: the fact that struggling students are knowingly being hurt with destructive “learning” programs foisted upon them by those who, around 10 years ago, promised to be held accountable for the education of NYC students; the conflicts of interest not only with Joel Klein-Wireless Gen, but with SO1’s new provider, New Classrooms, headed by a man named Joel Rose who also worked at Tweed. This is an incestuous hornet’s nest of corruption.

The biggest tragedy of all, in my mind, is what the DOE could have done with $46 million if it cared one iota about actually educating students. First, Bloomberg could have plowed that money into the schools he is starving of funds like a North Korean countryside just so he can fatten up his Pyongyang showcase schools with cash. The DOE could have hired tons more teachers, providing one of the only proven education reforms out there: lowering class sizes. Just think of it, use $46 million dollars to hire new teachers and put the veteran ATR teachers back to work teaching their subject areas and, not only do you have lower class sizes, but you have the second proven education reform: experienced teachers.

As the financial debauchery that is School of One illustrates, the “achievement gap” could have been taken care of decades ago by ponying up the money to keep on veteran teachers (not harass them out of the system) while lowering class sizes. Time and time again, the DOE and large urban school districts across the nation prove that pulling in education dollars is easy in both boom times and lean times. In NYC, there is not only $46 million for SO1, but $83 million for ARIS and hundreds of millions for charters (including untold millions into the pockets of corrupt charter school CEOs).

And these are just the huge fish. What about the explosion of DOE management jobs out of Tweed, where everyone makes six figures and up? What about the explosion of principal jobs and other administrators due to the Bloomberg/Klein/Gates small schools initiative, where buildings that used to have 7 principals at most now have 15? What about the expansion of Richard Condon’s office with burned out NYPD and suburban detectives who now regularly harass, intimidate and frame teachers under investigation? What about the expansion of 3020a arbitrators who get paid $1,800 a day plus expenses, hired so Bloomberg could ostensibly clear out the rubber rooms that were such an embarrassment to him?

There is no financial crisis in education. The money is flowing more than ever. The only problem is it is not flowing to students at all.

One of the most common comments I read on the internet during education debates is how people are of sick of teachers crying for “more funding”. They look at the budgets and see them more bloated than ever and ask how teachers can want more. Teachers are not crying for more funding. They are crying for the funding that is already there, already in the system, to reach the students. Getting rid of programs like School of One and ARIS, getting rid of the entire Tweed building, getting rid of small schools and the Leadership Academy administrators that misrule them, getting rid of the phony kangaroo court for teachers and putting all of those hundreds of millions of dollars into a big city pot so that every school can implement the two real reforms (smaller class sizes and veteran teachers) proven to work, would whip this school system into shape in a matter of weeks. The achievement gap would be narrowed in five years. Most of all, none of it would cost more money. It would cost not one red cent to the taxpayer at all.

We should hear no more from the mayor, chancellor, media or uninformed public about how there is a “recession” and everyone needs to tighten their belts, especially the students and teachers in struggling schools. None of the people profiting from the Bloomberg regime are tightening their belts. What we need to do is smash open the piggy bank that is the educational 1% and allow real reform to rain down upon us unfettered. That is all it will take and will cost no taxpayer a single dime,

So, I suppose these are my silver linings. There is no budget crisis, just a crisis in budgeting, The Daily News did not go nearly far enough into the disaster that is School of One, but they went some ways in.

Finally, today is when we start what we love to do for the year: teach. For the minutes and hours that we are in front of our classrooms, we can at least put the odious corruption of Bloomberg out of our minds and show the “reformers” how it is really done.