The Party’s Over

“Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king. That’s why I did this: to protect you from yourselves. –Sideshow Bob, “Sideshow Bob Roberts”

(This is the third installment of my political corruption series, and the last. For now.)

Let’s be clear (If you read my stuff, it’s probably already clear): I am a lifelong Democrat. I am the child of two lifelong Democrats: my parents voted for John F. Kennedy, for William McGovern, for Walter Mondale, for Michael Dukakis; I voted for Clinton, for Gore, for Kerry, and for Barack Obama, twice. I don’t understand why people can vote Republican: the wealthy, for whom it makes personal sense, have to be callous, I feel, in order to refuse to maintain the social safety net for those less fortunate than they, or unbelievably greedy in order to agree to destroy the regulatory state so that they can make even more money at the expense of our very world; the poor and middle class are voting for social causes, not for personal gain (Unless they believe in trickle-down economics, but in that case they are deluded), but I see two problems with that: first, they are on the wrong side of most social issues – anti-choice, anti-equality, xenophobic, and parochial – and their candidates don’t ever deliver on their promises. So if you’re wealthy, how can you stand to vote Republican? And if you’re not, why would you ever think to vote Republican?

I read an excellent book by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas, in which Frank examines how Kansas, his home state and, through the 1800’s and early 1900’s, one of the most radical and progressive states, became so very staunchly, unflaggingly, self-destructively conservative. What happened was that Republican candidates around the early 90’s started pushing a pro-life agenda as the only issue that mattered – you know, the usual “40,000,000 murders,” “Culture of life” stuff – and when elected, every Republican proceeded to lower taxes, kill social services, remove regulations on business, make sweetheart deals with corporations, and basically ruin life for the average person; and then go back to election yelling “We have to end the scourge of abortion!” Which got them re-elected, into majority after majority — and yet they continued to fail to do anything about abortion, simply pushing their pro-business agenda on the state to its steadily growing detriment. But the pro-life agenda, whipped into a frenzy every new election cycle, was so compelling that nothing else seemed to matter to the voters, who kept voting Republican until it put their state where it is now – essentially hollowed out, unable to provide even the most basic elements we expect of our governments, like schools – not that Kansas schools teach anything other than creationism and abstinence, according to the campaign promises of the Republican candidates.

That’s how I see Republicans: selfish, deluded, misguided, and absurdly optimistic– or, less kindly, willfully blind to the fact that their politicians don’t ever deliver on the things they promise that won their constituents’ votes: on the national scene, we still have Obamacare, we are still giving foreign aid to dozens of other countries, our veterans are still dying on the streets, abortion is still legal, gay marriage is now legal as well, and there still isn’t a wall between the US and Mexico. So why would anyone vote Republican?

Here’s the thing, though: why do I continue to vote Democratic? It was Clinton who ended the Glass-Steagall Act, which, more than anything else, precipitated the economic crash that happened ten years later, under George Bush but not – I repeat, not — because of him. It was Bush’s fault that our government wasn’t in a better position to help after the crash, because he gave away Clinton’s surplus in tax breaks and war spending; but the crash was because of the Democrats. Democrats who I voted for. And of all of my other causes, the most important to me is the reduction of violence and misery, and the improvement of equal opportunity for everyone; the largest obstacle to all of that is income inequality. Which Democrats conveniently ignore, not wishing to appear – gasp – Socialist. (I know, I know – Bernie Sanders. But he’s also pro-gun.) We have Obamacare, but without the public option, it is more of a burden than anything useful; my costs for health care are still going up, every year, while my wages are going down: I make less now than I did ten years ago. Unions are still dying, and women still don’t make the same wages that men do, and Guantanamo is still open and still incarcerating prisoners of war who have never been to trial, and guns remain unregulated, and schools remain unfunded, and everyone is still driving Hummers while we drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

So who’s really the fool, here?

I think the answer’s pretty obvious: we all are. We have all been sold a bill of goods that doesn’t match what the grinning faces behind the counter are putting into our baskets.

This is the last form of political corruption I want to write about, and that I think I have a solution for: this one is the corruption of the entire system, through partisanship and self-serving deception. This political corruption is the two-party system.

I would love to go back now to when the two-party system made sense and worked well for Americans; but in all honesty, the two-party system has always been about helping itself. Having a clearly defined and well-known political party makes it easier for candidates affiliated with that party to get elected: the party label offers a certain legitimacy, and even loyalty, in that people often vote the “straight ticket,” picking the candidates affiliated with their party without knowing anything about them. The party also offers a political apparatus that makes it easier to get heard and therefore elected; you need staff, you need volunteers, you need access to media and to debates and the like, you need a platform that people can hear and understand and support. The political party that exists before and beyond one’s own candidacy offers all of that; unless you’re a billionaire loon like H. Ross Perot, bless his wrinkly, big-eared heart, you wouldn’t want to form your own party just for your candidacy, and you almost certainly couldn’t afford to. So political parties are useful, and they aren’t going away – more’s the pity; because by far the easiest solution here is just to ban them entirely. But then it would be too hard for anyone not an incumbent to mount a national political campaign, or even a serious state-wide one, and that would not be any better, as those in power – who already have political staff, legitimacy, and access to media – would get re-elected even more often than they do now. So okay, we’ll keep political parties.

Now, if that party represents a certain set of values that the voter supports, then well and good: but because there are only two parties with any real legitimacy in this country, those two parties become too large and unwieldy, their umbrellas too wide and encompassing such extremes, that voting for the party doesn’t really mean supporting one’s specific causes: is this Republican candidate an evangelical Christian who wants to put the Ten Commandments on the American flag and mandate both creationism and prayer in schools? Or is he a Libertarian seeking the end of the income tax and government reduced to only two services, international commerce and the military? Is this Democrat in favor of a path to citizenship, but also supports private prisons, or is she looking to legalize marijuana and strengthen the Second Amendment at the same time? We can’t tell based on party affiliation.

Now, the two-party system theoretically serves the middle: because the two parties have to have such broad appeal, they tend towards the center. And thirty or forty years ago, I think that was probably true: but it isn’t now. And before that – say, eighty or a hundred years ago – it also wasn’t true. Way back when it was formed, the Republican party was single-mindedly abolitionist, which was an extreme (albeit correct) position; the Democratic party, in response, was for decades staunchly segregationist and pro-states’-rights. Also not moderate positions. Today, we have one party – I’ll let the reader guess which one – that has discovered that it can motivate its base through extreme and inflexible positions on social issues; in other words, the more extreme and zealous and inflammatory the party gets, the more votes they turn out. The entire party is moving away from the center, and at the same time, becoming more successful, because of it. More successful, that is, at winning elections: they are certainly not more successful at governing, a profession they seem to have cast aside in favor of demogoguery. Meanwhile, the opposition party is trying to maintain its foothold in the middle; but as the other party keeps going farther and farther to one side, the middle drags in that direction – and rather than hold their ground and make the extremists come back, the moderate party is moving with them, and thus also becoming less moderate: while surrendering entirely the side of the political spectrum they were supposed to be watching. I feel like, any minute now, the Democrats are going to turn around and see that a Republican has captured their flag while they were all on the other side, trying to keep an eye on the Republican team – who were having a dance party around their own flag, completely ignoring the Democrats and the entire game, but subtly distracting their whole team so that no one was left to play defense. And somehow, Vince Lombardi was behind it all. Or Ronald Reagan.

The two-party system is also supposed to provide stability: because the parties are predictable, and centrist, and inclusive, and effectively share the electorate, they are forced to compromise, which isn’t terribly hard because their positions aren’t far apart, and so they can respect and agree with each other on most things; any one politician also realizes that his opposition is not going away, and so he has to work with them. Except our parties aren’t providing that, either: instead we get hatred and bile and petty partisanship that blocks everything useful, even stuff that shouldn’t ever be a question, like raising the debt ceiling, or providing for the 9/11 First Responders. Honestly, any government that can’t give those guys health care and a pension that would choke a horse is no kind of government at all.

So that’s what we have: no kind of government at all. The parties have lost their way: rather than improving our democracy, they are hurting it; because their goal is no longer to represent the will of the people, but rather to maintain and expand the power of their party. As long as their party wins, nothing else matters. Politics is become a team sport. The propagandists (You know – the cheerleaders. Though I can’t think of anyone on this Earth who looks less like a cheerleader than Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove.) have taken over, and they have realized that they don’t need to steer their parties towards what the people want; they can make the tail wag the dog, and the party can tell the people what they want. As long as they say they are in favor of what the people are in favor of – this side will ban abortion, that side will close Guantanamo and ensure that women make equal pay for equal work – they don’t actually have to do those things in order to maintain power. And as long as the person says they are a Democrat or a Republican, that’s a win, even if they don’t actually act like it: and so the Republican party will support Donald Trump if he wins the nomination, and the Democratic party will support Bernie Sanders, even though he is a Socialist independent.

I don’t even have to argue that the political system is broken: the race for President – which has already been going on for a full year – will likely come down to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Bernie Sanders will likely not be in the running. (And I have to say: in that scenario, I almost wish that Ted Cruz would win, so that Mitch McConnell could stand up in the Senate and say that his first goal is to ensure that Ted Cruz is a one-term president. I want to see how well Mr. Cruz can do when he can’t blame things on Obama. Although of course he’d keep blaming Obama for everything, anyway.) If the system worked, then Sanders would run as a Socialist, Trump as the head of the shiny new Trump-Solid-Gold Party, Hillary Clinton as a Democrat, Ted Cruz as a member of the Inquisition, and probably Marco Rubio as the Republican. And then we’d have a race, by God. You’d have two actual centrists, Rubio and Clinton, one on the left in Sanders, one on the far right in Cruz, and Trump off on a tangent, somewhere far out in Nutsville.

So how do we change things to achieve that glorious outcome in the future? Well, there are a couple of ways. The first thing is we can bring back the Fairness Doctrine, which required opposing viewpoints to be presented on any television station that aired political views; that, with a certain minimum percentage of votes – say, 5% of the popular vote in any one election cycle – required to gain status as an opposing viewpoint, would allow alternate parties to gain media access, publicity, and a voice in the system. That would be the best thing: allow parties a chance to gain their own foothold, and stop this nonsense where everyone other than a Democrat or Republican is a “third-party candidate,” which is seen almost universally as a wasted vote.

We could also eliminate the one-winner-takes-all election system, and the single-representative system with it. Depending on whether we want more representatives in Congress, it could look like this: the Congress members from a certain state would all run in one general election, with up to as many candidates as there are seats from each party – so in a state with ten Congress seats, there would be ten Republicans, ten Democrats, ten Socialists, etc. – and the popular vote would be divided by percentage. So if 50% of the state voted Republican, 30% Democrat and 20% Socialist, then the state would get five Republican congresspeople, three Democrats, and two Socialists; you could either have the parties choose their reps by caucus, or have a run-off within the party for which candidates get the slots. Alternately, you could run the same system but with multiple candidates from the various parties winning a single “seat,” that is made up of several actual members; though that would greatly increase the number of Congresspeople, and still allow for districts to be gerrymandered. I like the state-by-state bloc voting, personally.

And one other thing is critical: term limits. It is absurd that we don’t already have these in Congress when we have them almost everywhere else, including the Presidency. I’d suggest about a decade for each seat: four two-year terms in Congress, two six-year terms in the Senate. Maximum twenty years in the legislature. And anyone currently past that is out at the next election.

All of us are unhappy with the partisan politics. I have seen this meme several times of late, and I expect to see it even more between now and November.

Screw  the Demopublicrats

We need to fix the system, because the people who are breaking it aren’t going to turn around and fix it, and breaking it even further is not going to magically bring it back around to a good place. Too be specific: Donald Trump will not make America great again. No Republican and no Democrat will.

We the people can. We will. We just have to do it. Now, please.

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How do you shut a revolving door?

ANSWER: With a door-stop made of JUSTICE!

(This is the second in a series about politics that’s looking like it will be three essays long. Once again, if you’re not interested – no, you know what? You should all read this. And share it so that other people can read it too. Because – damn.)

And speaking of corruption in politics . . . two words: regulatory capture.

Two more words: revolving door.

And the final five: Lobbying in the United States.

You know that there’s a real problem when the corruption has become so common, and so tightly bound into the fabric of government, that there is a Wikipedia article about it. There are three, actually, which I’d suggest as reading – they are all linked above. And it is amazing that this is such a common and accepted situation that the articles talk about recent events, about people whose names we know – this isn’t the Teapot Dome scandal, or the robber barons of centuries past; this is Eric Holder, who left after six years as Attorney General to return to his partnership position at a law firm that represents Wall Street banks (Now you understand why no bankers have been prosecuted for the financial collapse?); this is Deepwater Horizon and the oil companies that got new permits to drill in the Gulf of Mexico only weeks after the worst ecological disaster in history; this is the very internet I am using, and SOPA, et al. This is our world, us, right now.

Regulatory capture is when a government regulatory body – like the FCC, or the SEC, or the Department of the Interior or Agriculture – is controlled by the industry it is intended to regulate. The fox not only gets into the henhouse, he puts on a red comb and declares himself the rooster. Then he puts in place a new Hen Resources policy whereby every hen must have a one-on-one meeting with the new CER(F) [Chief Executive Rooster (Fox)], out back in the woods, at night; and the hens have to bathe in barbecue sauce beforehand.

Think I’m exaggerating? Allow me to quote from the Wikipedia article on this subject:

Commodity Futures Trading Commission

In October 2010, George H. Painter, one of the two Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) administrative law judges, retired, and in the process requested that his cases not be assigned to the other judge, Bruce C. Levine.Painter wrote, “On Judge Levine’s first week on the job, nearly twenty years ago, he came into my office and stated that he had promised Wendy Gramm, then Chairwoman of the Commission, that we would never rule in a complainant’s favor,” Painter wrote. “A review of his rulings will confirm that he fulfilled his vow.” In further explaining his request, he wrote, “Judge Levine, in the cynical guise of enforcing the rules, forces pro se complainants to run a hostile procedural gauntlet until they lose hope, and either withdraw their complaint or settle for a pittance, regardless of the merits of the case.” Gramm, wife of former Senator Phil Gramm, was accused of helping Goldman Sachs, Enron and other large firms gain influence over the commodity markets. After leaving the CFTC, Wendy Gramm joined the board of Enron.

 

That’s right: the wife of a senator running a regulatory agency, corrupting a judge, and then taking a seat on the board of the company she was supposed to be regulating. There are more examples, too. Many. How about this one:

Federal Aviation Administration

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a dual-mandate both to promote aviation and to regulate its safety. A report by the Department of Transportation that found FAA managers had allowed Southwest Airlines to fly 46 airplanes in 2006 and 2007 that were overdue for safety inspections, ignoring concerns raised by inspectors. Audits of other airlines resulted in two airlines grounding hundreds of planes, causing thousands of flight cancellations. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee investigated the matter after two FAA whistleblowers, inspectors Charalambe “Bobby” Boutris and Douglas E. Peters, contacted them. Boutris said he attempted to ground Southwest after finding cracks in the fuselage, but was prevented by supervisors he said were friendly with the airline. The committee subsequently held hearings in April 2008. James Oberstar, former chairman of the committee said its investigation uncovered a pattern of regulatory abuse and widespread regulatory lapses, allowing 117 aircraft to be operated commercially although not in compliance with FAA safety rules. Oberstar said there was a “culture of coziness” between senior FAA officials and the airlines and “a systematic breakdown” in the FAA’s culture that resulted in “malfeasance, bordering on corruption.”

 

So glad I flew Southwest when I traveled this past Christmas. Or maybe you’re concerned with nuclear power? Here, this is a peach:

The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] has given a license to “every single reactor requesting one”, according to Greenpeace USA nuclear policy analyst Jim Riccio to refer to the agency approval process as a “rubber stamp”. In Vermont, ten days after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that damaged Japan’s Daiichi plant in Fukushima, the NRC approved a 20-year extension for the license of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, although the Vermont state legislature had voted overwhelmingly to deny such an extension. The Vermont plant uses the same GE Mark 1 reactor design as the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The plant had been found to be leaking radioactive materials through a network of underground pipes, which Entergy, the company running the plant, had denied under oath even existed. Representative Tony Klein, who chaired the Vermont House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said that when he asked the NRC about the pipes at a hearing in 2009, the NRC didn’t know about their existence, much less that they were leaking. On March 17, 2011, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a study critical of the NRC’s 2010 performance as a regulator. The UCS said that through the years, it had found the NRC’s enforcement of safety rules has not been “timely, consistent, or effective” and it cited 14 “near-misses” at U.S. plants in 2010 alone. Tyson Slocum, an energy expert at Public Citizen said the nuclear industry has “embedded itself in the political establishment” through “reliable friends from George Bush to Barack Obama”, that the government “has really just become cheerleaders for the industry.”

 

There’s more, too. And again, let me note: this is from a Wikipedia article. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, anything like whistle blowing or investigative journalism; this is common knowledge, stuff that is all over the news, all over the web. I got to all of this with exactly two clicks: one from my Google search to Wikipedia, and one from my first article (on “revolving door”) to the link that said “See also: regulatory capture.” These examples I have cited are just a few from the section headed “United States Examples.” (If it makes you feel better, there is also one Canadian example, two Japanese examples, and one international example. To balance the twenty-plus American examples. USA! USA!)

And speaking of the revolving door: this is the name we apply to the practice of private professionals becoming government officials, generally with power over those same industries that employed them prior to election or appointment, and government officials becoming private professionals in the industries they oversaw. This is the kind of thing where members of Congress block a bill regulating, say, Wall Street, and then leave office to get a lucrative job as an advisor on Wall Street. The most famous example is probably Dick Cheney, who “left” Halliburton to become Vice President (Got a “severance” package of $20 million, too) and then spent much of his vice presidency creating new business opportunities for Halliburton (the company builds oil fields and refineries), particularly in Iraq. But there are others: Dick (Two corrupt men named Dick? COINCIDENCE?!?) Gephardt, who was a Congressman (And a Democrat, lest anyone think I am bashing on the GOP, or everyone named Dick.) for years, is now a lobbyist; the FCC commissioner who approved the NBC/Comcast merger left the FCC four months later for a position at Comcast; the use of bovine growth hormone was approved by three employees of the Food and Drug Administration with ties to Monsanto.

Again, not investigative journalism: I Googled “Government officials from the industries they regulate” and clicked on the first link, which was to the “revolving door” article on Wikipedia.

It shocks me, to some extent, to think that anyone believes it a good idea to hire government regulators with ties to the industries they are supposed to regulate. But I get it: those people understand the industry, have ties and connections to the corporations involved; they could be very good at administering the people’s interests. And, to some extent, the interests of the industries need to be protected from heavy-handed government intervention; if they put me in charge, for instance, I’d just eliminate half a dozen major corporations entirely, which would, I guess, be bad for the economy.

Though considering what those same corporations did to the economy, and how much it affected me personally, I’m kind of willing to make that sacrifice. Then again: even if I crushed Halliburton and Monsanto and Enron and Goldman-Sachs and Exxon-Mobil and Wal-Mart beneath the heel of my jackboot, I know perfectly well that other companies would simply rise up and take their place. The lobbyists wouldn’t even be replaced: they’d just change a number in their speed-dial.

But I do get the need for a voice from the industry in the regulatory agencies. In my own small world, I think it is always best (and only rarely true) that school administrators be former teachers, with more than a couple of years of experience, in subjects more demanding than P.E. Those people understand what teachers go through, understand that the ever-increasing burden of unnecessary and even counter-productive requirements – for testing, for accountability, for record-keeping, for committee membership and meeting after meeting after meeting – is what keeps teachers from actually doing our job. It’s funny to say that government intervention is the biggest problem facing teachers in schools, but it’s true.

On the other hand: my motive for doing my job is not profit. I want to do my job well. I want administrators who understand my job not because I want their approval of my new untested pharmaceutical to go straight to market, sacrificing public safety in order to increase my bottom line; I want understanding administrators so that I can teach To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet. And my influence over those administrators, those government officials who regulate my industry, is based on exactly one thing: my status as a citizen and a teacher. That status allows me to, maybe, get a chance to speak my mind on this issue, provided I go through the efforts to put myself in front of those officials. I can, perhaps, use my eloquence, what I have of it; my reputation, if people actually like what I do; and even my soapbox, this here blog. What I can’t use is billions of dollars and a quid-pro-quo offer of a position after retirement.

Though that’s a great image. Hey, Congress, I got a deal for you: you eliminate the requirements for standardized testing in public schools, and I’ll hook you up with a position as a Teacher’s Aide in a special needs classroom. Or I can try to swing a spot as a fill-in janitor. Huh? Huh? Tempting! Tell you what: I’ll sweeten the deal with, say, $20. Which is about all I could afford in bribes. Hang on, let me see if I can do a DonorsChoose . . .

Now the question is, what do we do about this? We can’t simply ban lobbying, as tempting as that is; citizens have the right to “free speech” (Sarcastoquotes brought to you by the Citizens United decision: claiming that money is speech from sea to shining sea, and conveniently forgetting that most speech can not be used by the audience/recipients to buy yachts, and that this somewhat changes the equation. [Imagine how many readers I could get if you could trade my words for yachts?!? I would sleep on a keyboard so that when I rolled over I could make $50 from whatever words I randomly typed.]) and the right to petition their government for redress of grievances; again, my personal prejudices aside, corporations have the right to have their interests represented by the government that seeks to regulate them.

But the difference is: the companies don’t need to have their employees hired by the regulators. That is not part of “petitioning the government.” When I wanted to argue against the decisions of my local school board, I didn’t get myself appointed to that school board; I went to a public meeting and spoke in front of them. (Guess what? It didn’t work. Well, it kind of worked: they grew to fear me. The last time I spoke at a school board meeting in Oregon, they pushed me to the end of the line, allowing every other person with an opinion to speak before me. Which just gave me the headlining spot. But you know what else? It didn’t work: they didn’t change the policy.) They are welcome to speak to the regulators, they can even “speak” to them using money and hired lobbyists. There is an argument made in the Lobbying article on Wikipedia which claims that the solution to the problem is to increase lobbying competition: to have more non-profits, more public interest groups work the lobbying system as well, to balance the private corporations; I can see the value in that.

But we need to close the revolving door. The regulators should not be hired from the industries they regulate. It may make their jobs harder if they don’t have ties to the industries, don’t have those handy insider contacts; good. Jobs should be hard. That’s why we get paid to do them. I can see industry people as advisors, as resources, as witnesses testifying in front of committees; not as the ones holding the gavel, the ones actually in charge. You might ask your kids what they want for dinner, but you don’t let them cook it. You can poll inmates in a prison as to what improvements they would like to see, but you don’t let them make the decisions: “I’d like to see the bars and fences and walls removed, and all inmates put on the honor system.” As ridiculous as this is, this is what we’re doing with Monsanto and Halliburton and Wall Street.

At the same time, it is absurd that government officials can leave office and then go to work for those companies they “regulated” while in office. Direct bribes are already illegal, and I have already argued against the use of campaign funds as indirect bribes. So the next step in ending corruption should be this; and in this case, it’s a pretty simple law, and it’s a law that could be passed, I think, with our current legislators – the majority of whom are not part of corruption quite this brazen. I may not like most of the people in office, but they’re not Dick Cheney. (Did you know that the EPA can’t regulate fracking because of the “Halliburton loophole,” a clause added to a 2005 energy bill by Dick freaking Cheney when he was Vice President? Suddenly I feel like he shot me in the face. Or rather, the entire country.) If we the people apply a modicum of pressure to our elected officials, we may be able to get a simple delay put in place: a government official cannot work for an industry that benefited materially from that official’s votes or committee membership for a period of ______ years after leaving office. Let’s say five. After five years out of office, the official’s ties and contacts would be out of date and useless; and five years out of office and working at a normal human’s job is too long a delay: I don’t think most people would accept the offer of a lucrative job as a bribe if they had to wait five years to cash in. Not even the corrupt ones.

So here’s what we do: agitate for this law. There are already laws in place regarding the connections between lobbyists and officials, and ex-officials turned lobbyists, and lobbyists turned regulators; even Dick Cheney had to “retire” before he could be “elected.” (This latter set of Sarcastoquotes brought to you by the Supreme Court decision to end the recount in Florida, which handed an election actually won by Al Gore and Joe Lieberman over to Bush and Cheney, who actually lost. And so did the country.) All we need to add is a law mandating a delay between leaving office and becoming a lobbyist or consultant. Then we set up a committee (or give the responsibility to an agency already in place, like the FBI or the Federal Election Commission) to oversee what federal officials do after they leave office, correlate that with their votes for or against any industry that subsequently hires them, and bring charges if they break the waiting period.

And oh yes: the people on that committee can’t be lobbyists.

Citizens: Unite!

(I’m going to do a few posts on politics and money. So if that annoys you, come back in a week or so.)

Donald Trump is not the problem.

(He’s a problem, as you can see from this article about a man who live-Twittered a Trump rally. But the problem of Donald Trump is self-correcting: the Twitters make it clear that the audience is small, and almost entirely white, angry, and incoherent. People with that voting base do not win Presidential elections, witness Newt Gingrich, Pat Robertson, David Duke, and of course, H. Ross Perot, the other angry, incoherent billionaire who ran for President. Trump will, eventually, go away.)

The problem is money. And the first thing we need to do, before we worry about getting rid of this politician or that politician, before we worry about legislation on this issue or that issue – the first thing we need to do, right now, is separate money from politics.

There’s no way to separate them completely, of course. We live in a capitalist society, and money is in everything. Money can buy everything (Other than love.), and so money can represent, can serve as a stand-in, for everything – which means that, on some abstract level, money is everything. Government is largely powered by its ability to control money: through taxation, through regulation, through allocation. Politicians have to be able to spend money, in quantities that are inconceivably vast. I have found myself lately unimpressed by “billions.” I hear that this industry earns profits of $3 billion a year, $5 billion a year, and I always think, “Is that it?” It’s because I pay attention to politics, where the numbers are hundreds of times, thousands of times greater than that. Trillions impress me. Politicians have to spend trillions, and take in trillions, every year. Politicians also have to get paid, and while I sort of like the Founding Fathers’ system of part-time legislators who had to have full-time jobs because they didn’t get a salary for government office, I do know that politics today are much larger and more complicated than 200 years ago, and so I think it should be a full-time job. Therefore they need to get paid.

Maybe less than they do now, though. President Obama made a comment in the State of the Union about how the only people who have been able to keep the same job for thirty years and build up a good retirement were in the Chamber. And they laughed. And I thought, “That’s not a fucking joke, you asshats.” Forgive the rancor, but as someone who has not been able to keep the same job even for fifteen years, and who has a retirement account balance of “We’re still hoping to save something someday,” I find the President’s comment telling. Almost makes me want to go into politics.

But that’s just it: people want to go into politics for personal gain. Because politics is a profitable industry. Of course it is: politics is about power, the wielding of power over hundreds of millions of people, in nearly all aspects of their lives; and money is transferable. Those two facts make some corruption inevitable. Of course people are going to offer money in exchange for favors – meaning the application of power – and of course politicians are going to take money in exchange for favors. But as the people who are manipulated for that money, but don’t get any of that money, it is incumbent on us to try to limit that process, to protect ourselves from being shut out of control over our own lives. We can’t eliminate it: power corrupts, and money is the tool of corruption, and in a capitalist society with a government of any kind, there will be corruption.

There should be less of it, though.

So where do we start?

Fortunately, the most obvious form of corruption, the direct peddling of influence, is already illegal. I suppose, if we believe it still happens too often, that we could strengthen the law enforcement system that investigates this – the FBI, I believe. But I don’t think the issue is a weak FBI. I think it is a weak media. But I’ll come back to that.

The first issue is the second most obvious form of corruption: campaign contributions. These are limited to spending for re-election, and thus are not simple profit for the politicians who take them – but since money buys elections in this country, because money buys advertising and publicity, and advertising and publicity are more reliable ways to get one’s name into the voters’ heads than the media is, campaign contributions are a way to buy the politician’s influence through offering a chance for the politician to retain and expand that influence. It’s sort of an interesting loop, because the money is buying the application of power through the offer of more power; so it’s a power-for-power deal.

But it’s still corrupt. And it’s actually a really, really simple fix, though admittedly not easy to put in place, because the people who want the system to continue as-is are the ones who currently have the money and the power, and therefore the control.

The fix is this: we make it illegal to spend money in a political campaign.

I’m not the first to think of this; several other countries have political finance laws that limit spending in various ways: the UK doesn’t allow television advertising; France and Germany don’t allow contributions from corporations or unions or government bodies; Australia limits the length of campaigns to six weeks. (Wikipedia) It is only in the U.S. that a Presidential campaign can cost $2 billion, as the race between Obama and Romney did in 2012. (Those billions impress me.) Because our system is the most ridiculous, I would call for the most definite limits: limits on overall spending, limits on campaign contributions (I’d like to see that limit be “$0,” but I’ll take something small like $100 and no contributions from organizations.), a complete ban on buying television and radio advertising. Restrictive? Yes. Now let’s talk about why it is needed, and justified, despite being restrictive.

First, let’s point out that the Citizens United decision was incorrect: while spending may be considered free speech – I just argued that money is in some way everything, so I can’t now say that it isn’t speech, as much as I would like to – the Court’s decision ignored the idea that buying political ads in support of a candidate could be a path to corruption because it can buy political access and a more generous consideration from that candidate; they took direct quid pro quo as their only definition of corruption. This is absurd. When someone gives me a gift, I think of them more kindly afterward. When someone gives me a gift and asks me to think kindly of their cause, I will spend more time thinking about that cause, in addition to thinking kindly about the person who gave me the gift and brought the cause too my attention. When that gift is a million dollars, which allows me to keep my lucrative job for another two to six years, I am going to be especially generous to that cause and the side of the giver, in the hopes that I will get another similar gift later on. And that’s corruption: it’s the purchase of influence, if not actual quid pro quo purchases of votes, and it locks those without millions of dollars to spend out of the equation: but not out of the consequences of the decision. This is why we have right to limit this “speech” – because its free exercise limits our own freedoms, and your rights stop where mine begin.

Along with that, the idea that money may be considered a form of speech doesn’t mean that we are free to speak in any way we like: if the “speech” is something like, “Hey, Doug Ducey [Governor of Arizona, for those who don’t already know the Deuce], we’ll give you millions of dollars to run your campaign, in exchange for you representing the interests of large corporations over the needs of your citizens. Love, the Koch brothers,” then we should not consider that speech free. You might as well tell Hired Goons, Inc., that its standard, “Hey, nice blog you got there. Be a shame if something was to happen to it…” sales pitch was protected free speech, or a conversation between terrorists planning a bombing is First-Amendment-sanctioned free assembly.

You can’t use the First Amendment to protect your ability to do harm to others. Even if your ostensible intention is to help yourself.

If we limit campaign contributions to $100 per person or so, then candidates could still be supported by individuals; and if corporations wanted to support candidates with more than a personal contribution, they could use their ability to gather together many individuals – the whole idea of “incorporation,” taking several separate pieces and forming one “body” from them – and convince them that this candidate was better for the corporation’s collective interests than that candidate. You know, political campaigning. The way unions used to do it, before they got lazy and then corrupt themselves. (Don’t get me wrong: I support unions wholeheartedly. But the disconnect between union leadership and its members has led to the same problems that such distance between head and base always creates: members who are not represented by the body they expect to represent them. Though in the case of unions, it’s not because of campaign contributions and monetary corruption so much, but rather because of inertia and apathy on the part of the majority of the workers. Says the former local union leader. Anyway: different topic.) A CEO with 10,000 employees could, even without threats or coercion, help to swing a $1,000,000 campaign contribution. Even without corruption, that’s power. But it’s the right kind of power: because an elected official should listen to the wishes of 10,000 of his or her constituents. And please, let’s not assume that a CEO just naturally represents the wishes of his or her employees; do you think the Waltons speak for the political will of the nation’s Wal-Mart greeters? Neither do I. But the Waltons do have an easy audience in those workers, and they could try to convince them to support the same political causes and candidates. You, know, legally. With actual free speech.

If we limit campaign spending, we will achieve something even more important than limiting campaign contributions; because with the current system of limited personal contributions (Though the current cap is much higher than I would like it to be) and unlimited spending, all that happens is: Trump and Ted Cruz. Trump can swing an election because he can pay for it himself, and outspend any normal opponent; I am using Cruz here to represent politicians who stop doing their actual jobs in order to spend all of their time soliciting campaign contributions, and who are little more than empty shells echoing the sound of the ocean – in this case, whatever is the absurdity most likely to please the people who continue to give him money. If he can raise enough of a “war chest” (And isn’t it indicative of the trouble in this scenario that we use that phrase? Really? The funding used to conquer a people – or maybe the tribute extracted from the conquered. That’s swell, America. Why don’t we ever pay attention to our own words?) then he can win an election; but it takes a huge amount of work, and an even huger amount of bullshit, to raise that much money, and so that’s what we get: politicians who are full of shit, and who spend no time doing anything other than fundraising. So what we do is put a cap on the amount that can be spent on a campaign, with larger caps for larger offices, and/or larger numbers of voters in the campaign. We should also make TV advertising for politics either illegal, or free for all recognized candidates on an equal-time basis. Advertising is the largest expense by far (Though there are others – travel and staff payroll are two expenses I can’t really quibble with; I think it’s good for politicians to get on a bus and travel through the country and meet the people they want to represent. I think it’s good that voters get to hear speeches from their would-be representatives, in person. And I think politicians need good aides and assistants, since I doubt anyone could fully grasp all of the issues a politician will be expected to deal with.), and if we limit that, then the rest of campaign spending could be counted in realistic numbers – millions or tens of millions, rather than hundreds of millions and even billions. You could raise millions in $100-increments if there were enough constitutents pulling for you. At the least, you could pay for your bus and your staff, and sandwiches for everyone.

Now, I’d like there to be only public funding of elections; if we raised a small tax, we could put some millions of dollars aside for elections, and pay for all campaigns without any personal influence at all; but there are ways for that to be corrupted, as well, and so it may not be a necessary step. Still: I think we should reach the point where we agree that money as free speech should be severely curtailed, and political campaigns are a good place to start.

So okay, Humphrey – how do we achieve all of this? It took years for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill to become law, and even then it was first watered down and then overturned by Citizens United. The people who make the laws are the very ones you’re looking to limit. So what’s the plan?

But lucky for us, we do still live in a democracy, and there are still ways that the will of the people can override even the most intransigent resistance from the current political and economic powers. One of the ways – the best way, because it can’t be changed by anything but the will of the people – is a Constitutional Amendment. And I would argue that this problem is so widespread, and so pervasive through different levels of government, and so damaging to our national interest, that a Constitutional Amendment is called for. That Amendment could set limits on donations, on spending, on advertising; even if they were basic, it could be enough to swing politics back to what it should be: public service, rather than private enterprise.

Let’s show the government, and those who corrupt it, what citizens united can really do. So that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not vanish from this Earth.

No Sale

This week started with professional development: an inservice for the teachers in my charter district, designed to help us improve our ability to teach students by using assessment results (read: “test scores”) to inform our instruction – data-driven instruction was the eduspeak buzzterm used.

But though we teachers made up the majority of the audience, we weren’t actually the target demographic. You could tell from the handouts, and the PowerPoint presentation. Because one of the slides looked like this:

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Now, I’m generally pretty forgiving about typos, honestly. I’ve been a writer for a long time, and I have made my share of mistakes; I like to think that those mistakes do not represent my intelligence nor my writing ability, and I like to think that my audience doesn’t think less of me for them. In pursuit of that ideal, I try not to freak out about other people’s mistakes.

But come on. Tranining? When you’re going to present to a room full of teachers? Who are, generally speaking, the nitpickiest, judgmentalest, eye-rollingest crowd (Other than our students, of course.) that you will ever speak in front of? And to make matters worse, that wasn’t the only typo. Names used in examples changed – Courtney became Cortney, Redick became Riddick. (And because teachers are never allowed to make the filthy jokes that come to our minds as often as anyone else’s – you wouldn’t believe how hard it is for me to hold back the “Yo mama” type responses that constantly flash through my brain while I am talking to my students, not to mention the That’s what she said cracks I think up all the time – the name Redick, pronounced Re-Dick, was the source of many suppressed giggles at my table. Yeah, that’s right – we’re goddamn professionals. Just like your mom.), and Buddy left to find a new “hoe.” (Also the source of some giggles.) Most bothersome for me personally was this first question about Macbeth:

Fruitless, indeed.

Fruitless, indeed.

You’d think it was all the typos in the quotation, wouldn’t you? Nope. (But also, yup.) See, the four options given in our handout for the first question there – “What does it mean that Macbeth has a ‘fruitless crown’?” – were something like A) He will be an unsuccessful ruler, B) He will die soon, C) The country will not thrive under him, D) He will not have the crown for long. My problem? NONE OF THOSE OPTIONS IS THE CORRECT ANSWER. The “fruitless crown” is a reference to Macbeth’s vision, which predicts that his children (“No sin of mine” in a lovely Freudian slip that I wish Macbeth actually used) will not follow him on the throne, that the crown will revert to Banquo’s descendants, and go down through Banquo’s line (Which, supposedly, Shakespeare included as a bit of flattery for the new king, James I, who was descended from the historical Banquo and would have enjoyed seeing his family revealed as the legitimate rulers of Scotland) rather than Macbeth’s line. That’s why his crown will be “fruitless,” because he will have no fruit – you know, “Be fruitful and multiply,” which is from some famous book or other – to pass the crown on to. And though I know this because I know the play, it is also pretty damned apparent from the quotation they used in the question itself – though apparently, not apparent enough to the two dudes who came to teach all the English teachers how to teach English, and the math teachers how to teach math.

But you see, this failure to prepare their presentation in such a way that it might actually please teachers – it didn’t matter. Because while we were the bulk of the audience, we were not the actual target demographic.

Because teachers aren’t in charge of the money. We can’t order repeat presentations, or follow-up conferences; we can’t order books or computer programs or mailing lists produced by those yutzes who couldn’t even spell “training” or format fractions correctly (One of the other questions featured two answers that looked like this: 512/3. Because they couldn’t make their program say 51⅔. Which took me about a minute and a half to figure out, even though I’ve never done it before.). Administrators do that. Administrators control the purse strings at schools, and so this presentation, like most that I have seen, was largely a sales pitch aimed at administrators.

And it hit the mark. After the presentation Monday, the teachers at my school will be setting aside some of our planning time in order to implement the proposals outlined in the sales pitch – which also included a rather transparent statement to the effect that a school that wants to foster this culture of data-driven instruction needs to do it over a long period of time, and will need guidance of some sort (“LIKE MAYBE TWO GUYS WHO MAKE A LIVING OFF OF THIS IDEA, AND WHO ARE AVAILABLE AS CONSULTANTS” screamed the subtext). We will also have a new committee to suggest protocols so that can let the data drive our instruction more readily. The committee idea is amusing (and exasperating) particularly because my admin’s proposed name for it, the “Good to Great” committee, came from Monday’s presentation – but it came from the “case study” that was used to start the discussion, in which a principal tried to implement a data-driven culture, and did it wrong. Did everything wrong. Failed to get the teachers to agree, had to use threats to force the issue, didn’t actually use the suggestions from those few teachers who were involved, did most of the work herself, and got mediocre results because of all this. Apparently my admin saw this as inspiring, and so we will be emulating – that. Though not the part where she paid her teachers to create curriculum over the summer, instead of taking away some of their work time during the school year. I intend to imitate the teacher in that case study who complained about putting test prep into her curriculum in place of her “friendship unit.” Because I can’t give up my Friendship Unit. (That’s what she said.) The committee is also amusing (and exasperating) because on Wednesday, my admin, when proposing the committee, asked for volunteers; by Friday there had been only one volunteer. So the request was repeated. I can’t believe the administration thinks that teachers will volunteer for a committee like this. I really can’t believe that one of us actually did.

My point with all of this is that marketing and sales is a very different kettle of fish from education. Salesmen tailor their pitch towards their one specific goal – sales. Everything serves that, and anything that doesn’t serve that is wasted effort. So time spent on correcting your typos and bad answer-options is wasted time: because correct grammar doesn’t sell presentations. Catchy slogans and fun graphics sell presentations. Clips from the Brad Pitt movie Moneyball, in which a single hardass administrator – played by Brad Pitt, whom some people also find to be attractive – saves a poor and poorly run organization simply through the strength and clarity of his vision: those sell presentations. These guys sold presentations, and the system that goes with them. They made their quota.

Education, on the other hand, has as its goal the improvement of the entire society, and all of the people in it. We can argue about what would best do that – I’d argue that it would be lots of books and reading, where other people might think computers had a role (Probably it’s both) – but that is the goal: improvement of society as a whole. Because of that, educators strive to reach their entire audience. I don’t agree with the actual proposals in the No Child Left Behind law, but it’s hard to argue with the name, or the moral that name represents. Education is the clearest path to equality and equal opportunity for all people; it is the great leveler of an unbalanced society. Though I don’t believe that all of my students learn everything I teach, my goal is always to teach every single one of them as much as I possibly can. This is why education goes on for so many years, and has so many different forms and systems: because that is the best way to reach the maximum number of people with the maximum amount of information. Sales pitches are short and simple, and repeated ad nauseam: because you don’t need to reach every person listening. You just need to reach enough to sell your product. You just need to reach your target audience. That’s it.

And yet despite these fundamental differences, somehow the consumer model has crept into educational philosophy over the last thirty years or so. Now we seem to be under the impression that our schools are commercial endeavors: that we are selling a product, rather than providing a service necessary to the proper functioning of our society, and therefore our goal should be to please our customers – rather than to do what is best for everyone. This detracts from the effectiveness of education, because it leads to resources going to make schools more shiny, rather than more effective: we buy new computers rather than new books, and new sports equipment rather than lab equipment; because those are the things that impress our customers. We listen to complaints from our customers, and adjust our practices to please them, rather than doing what is most likely to achieve our goals and improve our society. And so when someone objects to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we remove the book from our curriculum. Not because the book harms our society: simply because our clients don’t like it. We are reaching the point now where books are vanishing entirely from the curriculum: because our students find them too long and boring and hard to focus on; and therefore they are removed. Because anything that doesn’t help sell the product is wasted effort.

But education is not sales. What is the product we are selling, exactly? It isn’t education. Is it attendance? Conformity? Diplomas? Great expanses of time reduced to pleasant emptiness, without effort, without stress? What?

Just as important: who are we selling it to? This is a question that I don’t think anyone has a definite answer for. Sometimes schools cater to the desires of students – my school has a dress code, for example, which three years ago was extremely strict: uniform polo shirts in school colors, khaki pants or skirts, and black shoes. That was all that was allowed. Now, students are still required to wear a uniform shirt – but they may also wear shirts that come from an extracurricular program connected to the school, so if a club or a sports team makes t-shirts for its members, that t-shirt becomes acceptable under the dress code. And now students can wear jackets over their shirts, as well, and shorts, and black pants of any style, and blue jeans, and any shoes they wish. And they get free dress days as rewards for good behavior, and for high test scores, and for good grades, and on their birthdays. The dress code has grown so relaxed simply because the students don’t like it, and fight against it, and the school doesn’t want to fight them.

After all, they’re our customers. Right?

But they’re not: because the students don’t make the decision about where they go to school. Their parents do. And so the school bends over backwards to please the parents. Teachers are expected to make time to meet with parents regardless of what else we have to do. Any dispute – over grades, over policies – is inevitably decided in favor of the parents. We had one parent complain about the weight of a child’s bookbag, and now all teachers are required to list and coordinate with each other the materials and supplies they ask students to carry, so they don’t have to carry too much weight. We had one parent complain about too many big projects being due at the same time, and now we have to coordinate our schedules with each other so that we stagger our due dates. Doesn’t matter that teachers complained – several teachers, several times, in both instances – that these things are a waste of time, that any student who has a problem with too much weight or too many projects due at once could come talk to a teacher individually and have the problem immediately solved; the parent complaints made the decision. Because they’re the customers.

I would argue that the reason for the push towards greater accountability and readily interpreted data – test scores and letter grades, rather than the old style report cards that described one’s “social skills” as “satisfactory” – is largely so that parents can decide if this school is a “good” one for their children to attend. My school, because it is part of a charter program, represents one of several options that parents in the area can choose; so we have open houses that try to draw new students to attend our school. At those open houses, we talk about the school’s past performance in easily digestible chunks: these are the test scores of our students; this is the total dollar value of the scholarships won by our students; this is the percentage of our students who go on to higher education (in these readily-marketable areas). But we don’t talk about what students actually study, what they learn, what they do. The parents do not meet and get to know the teachers, see if we are competent, see if we are personable. That would be wasted time and wasted effort: affable, erudite teachers don’t sell schools. Test scores do. And the various promises of constant and detailed communication, about every facet of school, to parents: we have all of our assignments online, and all of our teachers available through e-mail, and an auto-dialer that calls all of the parents with any school news (Remember when we used to get up early and watch the news to see if there was a snow day? Not any more.), and an online database of behavior that sends parents e-mails whenever their child is punished or rewarded, by any teacher, for any reason. Those sell the school, because parents want to know how their child is doing; and so those are the priority. But nobody asks how long I’ve been teaching, or how much education I have, what experience, what knowledge. Nobody cares. That doesn’t sell the school to the parents, and so it doesn’t matter. Thus, my performance evaluation is largely based on the test scores earned by my students. And also on the results of a survey given to parents and students about how much they enjoy my class, and how well I communicate with parents.

Oh yes – and the open houses feature a PowerPoint presentation. With many slogans and graphics. No clip from Moneyball, though. We should work on that.

When the goal of the organization becomes sales, then inevitably, the resources are dedicated to identifying what will sell and who will buy, and then providing that product to that consumer. Everything else falls away. Capitalist endeavors have only one purpose, no matter how our politicians crow about capitalism being the engine of innovation and the key to a perfect society: that one purpose is profit. Maybe Bill Gates uses his profits to benefit society; but that isn’t why he built and ran Microsoft.

Education is not a product. Students are not consumers nor customers of education; nor are parents; nor is society. Education builds society, it is not consumed by anyone. Teachers are not salespeople. Schools cannot be effectively run like a business. The presentation I saw on Monday is the antithesis of good education: there was nothing in it that could benefit anyone other than the two guys who were selling it and hoping to make money from it; indeed, there were a number of things in it that were essentially harmful. Money was spent on that presentation that was not spent on materials or staff or facilities. The teachers who were required to attend lost time that could have been spent preparing actual education for actual students: we could have been making our society better, instead of being tranined. And my brain was, I think, actually damaged by reading sentences like this:

Screenshot (4)

I don’t buy it.

Grateful

(Note: this was mostly written Monday.)

Yesterday I was feeling down. All right, I admit it: I was feeling pissy. I have to go back to work today, after a two-week vacation, part of which was spent visiting my father’s family in San Diego. And as an introvert, I do mean “spent:” it costs me energy and will to go a-visitin’, to put on my happy face first thing in the morning (because I was staying with my aunt and uncle, who are lovely people – but unfortunately early risers, at least my uncle, who was up with or before me every morning) and then keep it there all day, even when I am enjoying myself, as I did on this trip. But the days after a trip like that are precious layers of rest in which I can wrap myself, like armor, against the day I have to go back to being around people (No, my wife and pets don’t count: being with them is restful, as I do not ever have to put on an appearance or affect. And I am supremely grateful that that should be so.). And today’s the day, so yesterday was my last day of resting: hence, pissy. My rest-armor still feels thin.

Plus, today isn’t going to be a good day of work. I frequently enjoy my job, more frequently don’t mind it too much, and sometimes can’t stand it: today is going to be one of those last. My current employer takes the first day of the new semester as a chance for professional development, which they do like the corporation they are: all of the employees at the various sites all have to converge at a single school – luckily, it’s mine; half of the schools are in Phoenix, and those poor bastards have to start their morning with a three-hour commute in order to get in on this little hootenanny – and we start with a motivational speech from our CEO, a polished politician who has probably never taught a day in his life; then a team-building exercise generally involving random groups (for the last two I have been grouped with my boss, who’s a nice guy, but – yikes!) and competition and office supplies: we have built wind-driven vehicles out of pencils and paper and aluminum cans; we have had to open sealed envelopes and break apart chains of paper clips using nothing but a single pencil per team member. Then we will have “breakout sessions,” which are individual seminars on teaching methods, none of which I will ever, ever use. Then a “networking lunch,” and yes, it actually says that on the schedule of events; followed by another “breakout session” and then a final group discussion of the importance of what we do, especially what we have done here today, and the granting of awards which I will never win (My data is insufficiently polished.). It is a complete waste of time. Part of me is happy that I don’t have students to deal with – but more of me realizes that dealing with students is actually what I do, and I do it well and it is better that it be done; therefore any day that is spent without students, and also not spent on preparing for students, is wasted time. Today will be wasted time. I suppose it’s possible that I will find something useful in one of these meetings, but in fifteen years of being professionally developed, that has rarely been true; I’m not holding out much hope for today.

And the last thing is this: I’m dreading Tuesday, too – the return of students. Not because I don’t like my students; I do, most of the time, and some of them all of the time. Not because it’s going to be a terribly hard day of teaching: we’ll mostly go over old work and start orienting ourselves for the new semester, which is more big picture stuff, less actual sifting through the ash for things that survived the fire (Because that’s what I do: the searing heat of modern life has destroyed much of the literature I would have taught fifty years ago, made it impossible for young people today to read and appreciate and gain from, along with the understanding of the importance of the skills centered around that literature, namely reading and writing and thinking.); I’m dreading Tuesday because of grades. Two and a half weeks ago, I gave my students final exams, and collected final projects, and then I did the thing I hate most about teaching: I assigned grades. I passed a final judgment on them, categorized and evaluated them – emphasis on the “value,” in our current view of school as a churn that brings the cream to the top and curdles what’s left, a process in which grades are the vital element, the stick that I thrust up and down and swirl around through them, beating them until they convert from liquid to solid and start turning sour. And now I will have to see them again. I know several of them are going to be upset, generally because that 90% slipped down to an 89%, and their letter went from A to B. And they’re going to want to know why. Oh, I’ll be able to tell them; but it will be upsetting for them to know how they failed to achieve their goal of straight As, to know that they couldn’t quite or didn’t quite muster enough wherewithal to accomplish their best result. They will feel defeated and futile. They will also blame me, though they may not say it, and it will strain our working relationship. And as for me, I will be unable to convince them that grades are meaningless, that nobody should pay attention to them ever, least of all the students who get them. I wish I could convince them of that. I do try. But then, because it is my job, I have to make myself a hypocrite, by assigning grades, by placing them into arbitrary categories which have actual consequences in their real lives, and I have to try to do that in a logical manner, as contradictory as that sounds. Then I have to face them with the result, and admit that I am not right when I say that grades don’t matter. Even though I should be.

So yeah, not a good week ahead of me. And it made my mood go black and jagged Sunday afternoon – despite the fact that I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens earlier on Sunday, and it was awesome. But work, and grades, and breakouts that are a lot more like imprisonings.

But then two things happened last night. One was this: Toni and I watched an episode of Inside Man, a show created by and starring Morgan Spurlock, our favorite documentary filmmaker – Supersize Me quite literally changed our lives, and we’ve watched everything he’s done since then – about immigration. And in the show, Spurlock tries to go into the lives of people involved in a particular issue; in this case, he went and picked oranges with the migrant workers, visited their homes, met their families.

I saw people who work ten hours or more a day, hauling 90-pound bags of oranges up and down 20-foot ladders that aren’t really propped on anything, just sort of leaned against a tree’s leafy boughs and then driven down by the picker’s weight until, hopefully, a branch catches and holds it; they dump these bags into enormous tubs which must hold a half a ton of oranges: a tub for which they are paid 95 cents. On a good day they fill ten tubs – which takes ten-plus bags of oranges per tub — and make a little more than minimum wage. A family of six, with two working parents, lived on around $25,000 a year – and that’s without any social services, as they are illegal immigrants and therefore have no access to health care or food stamps or any other government programs that require a social security card, which they can’t get. The father of the family had open-heart surgery last year, and was back in the orange groves six weeks later, because he doesn’t get disability or sick leave or unemployment, and now he had a hospital bill to pay along with feeding his family. Hey: at least they pay taxes.

And I realized: my god, my job is easy. Well, okay – no, it isn’t; it requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and preparation and dedication and patience and energy to do it, and even more to do it well, which I think I do. But it certainly isn’t back-breaking. It won’t cripple me before I’m fifty, as farm labor will. I won’t say I make a decent living, because I don’t think what I’m paid is decent; but it isn’t obscene, which is what I would call farm labor wages in this day and age. I don’t live my life in fear of being discovered, because any discovery by authorities – anything, a traffic stop, an accident, any official report of any kind – would lead to jail and deportation.

It made my crappy Monday seem a whole lot less onerous. Still unpleasant, but no more than that.

The second thing that happened was this: my mother called and told me that my uncle is seriously ill. Maybe dying. And it’s a cliché, but – how can you not think of the good things in your life when you hear that someone else is about to lose everything? Okay: I have a job that drives me crazy, and a vocation on top of that that frequently leaves me feeling frustrated and insignificant; but I’m not dying. I have years and decades ahead of me to solve the problems that face me now. And even if I never solve them, I have a lovely and pleasant life: I have a wife who is my soulmate, who is my apotheosis of beauty and of kindness, and who makes me laugh all the time; I have pets that love me unconditionally; I live in a beautiful city, where the sun shines almost every day, on rocks inscribed with poems. I have all of my senses, and I can hear music and see art and taste coffee and smell perfume and feel my new warm socks on my feet. I have all of this, and I’m mad because – what? Because I’m going to be bored? People who don’t understand what I do will presume to teach me how to do it better? Because I can’t sit at home for several hours, as I’ve been able to do for most of the past two weeks?

So rather than coming on here and ranting about the irritations and frustrations of teaching, and of working for a corporation with corporate-style management, and of the state of education today (And let me break the narrative thread here and say: it’s Tuesday now, since I didn’t get this piece finished yesterday morning, and after a full day of professional development on Data-Driven Instruction, Toni and I watched the next episode of Inside Man: which was about education. So believe me when I say I have some ranting to do.), I would like to say this: I am grateful. I don’t want to say thankful, as most of the things I have that make me happy are not due to another person’s actions, and of course I believe in neither God nor fate; though I will say I am thankful for those people who did influence me: I am thankful to Stephen King and John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe and Piers Anthony, Robert Frost and William Shakespeare and James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf and all the rest, for writing and publishing their work; I am thankful to Rocco MacDougall and Nick Roberts for teaching what their hearts and minds told them to teach; I am thankful to my parents for raising me to be a thinking person and a compassionate person; I am thankful most of all to Toni for asking me if I wanted gum, and for actually coming when I invited her to my vampire-themed LARPing session: most people would not have done so. I am very thankful that she did.

But beyond that, I am, if not thankful, grateful: a word that comes from gratus, the Latin for “pleasing.” I am pleased: pleased with who I am, and where I am, and what I am. The life around me fills me with pleasure, today, and yesterday, and tomorrow. Life is good, and I have it still.

Now let’s get to work.

Nightglory

Nightglory

by Mathew Babaoye

I liked this book. I just wish I could have liked it more.

There is a lot to like. The concept is good: it is about a supernatural Lady, the Queen of Night, and her struggle to consolidate her control over her world. She struggles with her subjects, with her responsibilities, with her power, and with herself; it’s a story with a lot of interest, a lot of conflict, a lot of places it could go. I like the writing style: short sentences, short paragraphs, breaks where there shouldn’t be breaks; it makes the reader consider the words more carefully, makes us notice what’s being said. There’s an element of the epic in the writing, in the way certain phrases – her blue-black hair and black dress; the old hard-bitten gold carpet in her throne room – are repeated, almost Homeric. And the name, of course, is brilliant: Goldenslaughter. I still don’t know: are the last two syllables “slaughter” – or “laughter?” I love that ambiguity, as much as I love both possibilities.

But the potential is not quite realized. The writing style is interesting, but the mechanical mastery is insufficient to allow the style to really flow; there are flaws in the writing, in the editing, that make the reader question what is intentional, what just a mistake, and that means the moments when you notice what the prose is doing, when you see it start to dance – you don’t know if it’s only stumbling. The epic phrases are too few, and too often repeated; they start to seem dull, rather than classical. The storyline gets lost in the mystery: the story begins with Goldenslaughter already having conquered her realm, gained the loyalty of her subjects, and then lost that loyalty through an attempt to gain total mastery of the Power that keeps her on the throne. Coming in to the middle of the plot can work, but there has to be a careful process of backbuilding, through flashbacks and the like, so that the audience can gain a complete understanding of how the story got to where it is; this book doesn’t do that. The best way I can put it is that the book makes the reader work too hard to understand what’s going on, rather than the writer doing all of the heavy lifting for the audience. Here: an example. There is a scene in the early going when Goldenslaughter confers with the Lady of Elements, who has had a prophetic dream; that dream gives hints of what will happen to Goldenslaughter. By the end of the book, that dream comes true, and after that happens, Goldenslaughter and the Lady mention that earlier discussion, and the warning that the Lady offered to her Queen, which the Queen did not heed. This is all fine: except the poetic language the two use in the first discussion is too abstract, and I for one had no idea what the Lady was talking about until the later scene when Goldenslaughter refers to it. So the foreshadowing of the prophecy was lost on me, as were all of the hints of what Goldenslaughter meant to do and why it would be challenging and dangerous.

The end of the book is the best part: the final climax is well-done, with a good battle scene and a really fine resolution to the central conflict, when Goldenslaughter makes her choice about who and what she is. I just couldn’t really follow most of the book leading up to that, even though I enjoyed reading it.