Tag Archives: america

Every Generation Throws a Hero Up the Pop Charts

This NYTimes Magazine profile of the hipster mayor of a Rust Belt small town is really interesting.

Here was a guy in biker boots bringing the Park Slope (Aspen, Marin, Portland, Santa Fe) ethos — organic produce, art installations, an outdoor bread oven — to the disenfranchised. “What was Braddock like before we took office? Braddock was a notorious community that was steeped in violence. But as of — knock on wood — today, we are now 27 months without a homicide.” The audience began to clap and didn’t stop for a long time.

The piece ends up revealing that the mayor doesn’t have any actual political power, and the only people he’s managed to attract to the city are big-city runaways who want to live as cheaply as possible, and have little interest in contributing to the betterment of the city. In sum, it’s an indictment of the idea that bringing fixie bikes, Barcelona chairs and PhDs to downtrodden areas is a recipe for upward mobility.

James Smith, a 32-year-old Braddock native, often hangs out in the dollar-store parking lot with a group of friends. A graduate of the local high school, Smith can find only temp work, like cleaning Heinz Stadium after Steelers games. The weekly farmers’ market in Braddock is O.K., Smith says, but even if he wanted to shop there, he couldn’t afford it. Jobs and public transportation to get to them remain in short supply.

Nothing that was happening in Braddock — not the green roof on the old furniture store, not the screen printing studio run by members of a socially-conscious arts collective, not beehives, not the Shepard Fairey art installation on a nearby wall, not the Levi’s ad campaign — has changed the most essential facts of his life: he is poor and without prospects.

When I was in Taipei, I randomly came across a copy of Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology The New Journalism. Since all the pieces were written in the ’60s, most of them are accounts of hippies and other lefty counterculture types.

I was really surprised at how moronic the hippies seem, reading about them 40 years later. The overall goals of racial and gender integration, breaking oppressive social mores and letting your hair touch your collar and beyond all sound great from far away, but not every  hippie thought deeply about these ideas and their implications.

One of the stories (the totally great ‘Charlie Simpson’s Apocalype’) follows some antiwar kids in the aftermath of one of their number killing four cops with a machine gun in the middle of a Missouri town square. The ‘longhairs’ refuse to condemn their compatriot, and offer lame defenses like ‘he’s fighting the system, man!’ It’s shocking to hear a bunch of pacifists (the good guys, dammit!) defend the murder of cops and citizens in cold blood, and about halfway through the article you realize these people are idiots.

I have to admit I had a somewhat similar reaction reading the Rust Belt mayor piece. I mean, what was this chick expecting, exactly?

Morrison grew up a few towns over and moved to Braddock from Brooklyn in 2008 after learning about its progressive mayor. Morrison, who is 33, was showing me the colossal bank building she bought almost three years ago for $125,000. At the time, Morrison wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it but figured it didn’t matter. She’d come to Braddock, and the spirit of the place would move her. Not long after that, the roof sprang a massive leak.

It’s sort of reassuring that our ideological fads are just as palsied as our parents’. I feel like they deliberately didn’t warn us, just so they could watch.

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‘After All These Years, All We Are Sure of is the Insufficiency of Explanation’

That’s a line from The Virgin Suicides. I can’t remember if it’s from the book or the movie or both, but I always think of it whenever a tragedy like last week’s in Arizona strikes in the United States.

The media and politicians have spent the week since the shooting of a Congresswoman and 19 others in Tuscon doing what they do best: Engaging in unfounded speculation disguised as informed debate.

Little beyond rumor is known about the shooter. Trolling his various internet profiles and interviewing his acquaintances hasn’t yielded many concrete conclusions beyond ‘wow, what a disturbed young man’. And we already pretty much knew that from his actions.

Much of the speculation has centered on the role of ‘the political climate’ in his act. It’s no secret that political polarization and overheated rhetoric are at a perceived apogee in the US, and people like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party have been blamed for encouraging the kind of ‘give me my country back!’ rhetoric that could inspire someone to take up arms.

The problem is, there’s no evidence linking the shooter with any of this rhetoric. It doesn’t appear he listened to talk radio, attended Tea Party rallies or engaged at all with radical political rhetoric of either stripe.

It’s probably true that political figures need to tone down their rhetoric. But this particular shooting doesn’t appear to be evidence for that.

Incidents like this highlight what is maybe the greatest weaknesses of the American media: There’s just too much space to fill. A tragedy of this kind has a lot of unknowns, and little new information comes out on a daily basis. Nonetheless, the TV stations have to fill up 24 hours of airtime, and the newspapers have to fill a chunk of their front page every day until public interest wanes. The only way to do this is to present nonstop speculation and rumor, which, like all gossip, impersonates fact the more it is repeated.

The days and months after the Columbine school shootings, for example, were papered with ‘debates’ on violent video games, neo-Nazis, goth culture, Marilyn Manson, and the ‘trenchcoat mafia’, all of which were blamed for the rampage.

Months and years later, though, none of these things appear to have exerted anysignificant influence on the shooters. The closest thing to an explanation we have is that the shooters were a psychopath and a manic-depressive, respectively.

Whenever a sudden tragedy strikes, I wish the media could simply release a statement saying ‘Understanding this week’s events requires a great deal of factual detail and analytical expertise. Until we can gather the information required to separate fact from fiction, we will not be publishing any information on the killer’s background, motives or influences. We will publish conclusions when they are warranted by the amount of available information.’

The media marketplace being what it is, however, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. The least we can do for now, though, is accept that information is likely to be incomplete for a long time to come. And explanation will always be insufficient.


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As if it wasn’t hard enough to be skinny nowadays:

I love the audacity of lying about something that is an objective measure.

Apparently, there used to be a law in Egypt that said if the temperature got above 40 degrees, work had to be canceled. Every time the temperature got up that high, the government just lied and said it was 39 degrees, even when it got up to 45 or more. This shows the same dictator-grade head-in-the-sanding.

This should be a lesson to all those free-marketeers out there. You want to give more societal responsibility to organizations that won’t even be honest about what an inch is? At least the communists only lie in words, not in numbers.


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Conscience Do Cost

By coincidence, I read the following two articles back to back on a plane last month:

Charles Fishman, “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know.”
Michael Pollan, “An Animal’s Place.”

The first one is about how Wal-Mart almost singlehandedly  incentivized American companies to move their production abroad. Companies making products to be sold at Wal-Mart were told over and over again by their biggest customer that they had to drop their prices. If you stick-and-carrot efficiency for long enough, pretty soon you can’t justify paying a bunch of Americans 5 bucks an hour to do something a Chinese dude will do for 1.

If Wal-Mart doesn’t like the pricing on something, says Andrew Whitman, who helped service Wal-Mart for years when he worked at General Foods and Kraft, they simply say, “At that price we no longer think it’s a good value to our shopper. Therefore, we don’t think we should carry it.”

Wal-Mart has also lulled shoppers into ignoring the difference between the price of something and the cost. Its unending focus on price underscores something that Americans are only starting to realize about globalization: Ever-cheaper prices have consequences. Says Steve Dobbins, president of thread maker Carolina Mills: “We want clean air, clear water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world–yet we aren’t willing to pay for anything manufactured under those restrictions.”

In other words, we all want to live in a country where we can all have good jobs, beautiful nature and working infrastructure. But we don’t want to pay for it.

The second article doesn’t, ostensibly, have anything to do with the first. It’s about our food production system, and how it’s making us all sick. You know the drill: Factory farms bad! Micro-bio-loca-ganic farms good!

Salatin’s chickens live like chickens; his cows, like cows; pigs, pigs. As in nature, where birds tend to follow herbivores, once Salatin’s cows have finished grazing a pasture, he moves them out and tows in his “eggmobile,” a portable chicken coop that houses several hundred laying hens–roughly the natural size of a flock.

The hens fan out over the pasture, eating the short grass and picking insect larvae out of the cowpats–all the while spreading the cow manure and eliminating the farm’s parasite problem. A diet of grubs and grass makes for exceptionally tasty eggs and contented chickens, and their nitrogenous manure feeds the pasture.

A few weeks later, the chickens move out, and the sheep come in, dining on the lush new growth, as well as on the weed species (nettles, nightshade) that the cattle and chickens won’t touch.

This is self-evidently true and wonderful. If all farms in the Western world operated like this, we’d all be healthier, not to mention less morally culpable in the kind of animal cruelty that only Wal-Mart efficiency can inspire.

But, like the 8-hour day and the minimum wage, sustainability costs. Creating a food system that prohibits inhumane practices essentially creates workers’ rights for animals.  I’d be totally fine with that, but if all the factories have been shipped overseas by rising costs in the West, why won’t the same thing happen to all the farms?

To me, this is the central dilemma of the capitalism we’ve set up for ourselves. We as citizens want our chickens to be able to live like chickens, our cows to eat grass, our pigs to have bottomless slop to slip in. But as consumers, given a choice between happy chicken breast and torture-farm chicken breast, we choose the cheaper, every time.

It’s not just farms, of course. Our decision to choose cheaper, as pointed out in the Wal-Mart article, is why our countries don’t have factories for clothing or cars or IKEA anymore either. As citizens, we want access to jobs that let us buy a house and see our kids a few nights a week. As consumers, we want the cheapest option possible, even if it means a 78-hour workweek for that dude in China.

Economic theory says the middle class was created when Henry Ford started paying $5 a day. That was a huge salary in 1914, and it instantly transformed his workers into consumers. Maybe in the  last 20 years, that transformation’s finally complete. We’re so busy celebrating the victorious consumer that we forget his victory is over the worker. And that they’re the same person.

In other words, somewhere in Flint, Michigan, right now, an unemployed autoworker is trying to choose between two pieces of chicken.


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Why the American left drags its feet on gay rights


One thing I couldn't get over when I first moved here was how politically diverse the gays are. Some of them are left wing, some of them are right wing. Some of them are racist, some of them are patronizingly inclusive. 'Jesus,' I remember saying on one of my first weekends, 'It's like being gay doesn't even mean anything.'

And it doesn't, really. Gay marriage has been legal in Denmark for 20 years, and gayness has been a political non-starter so long that politicians have to be asked about it, and then they all give pretty much the same answer. Anti-gay sentiment isn't completely banished, but you hear it come up about as much as you hear about, say, the flat tax in America. It's there, but it's not a divisive issue in many races or party manifestos.

In other words, gays have no built-in incentive to be left-wing. In America, gays are mainly limited to the blue end of the spectrum because the right wing wants to actively curtail their rights and reduce their quality of life. For gays, self-preservation trumps the economic and social issues that most other citizens vote on.

If gay marriage gets legalized in the States, after a few political aftershocks, I think a lot of gays would start to migrate rightwards. It would be slow, but in the long term gays might even be a reliable Republican voting bloc. Gays tend to be affluent, and eventually, the dimensions of self-preservation would warp to exclude Oppressed Minority and include Yuppie Wealth Preserver.

I wonder if American left wing politicians know this, and this is part of why they don't grant full civil rights to homosexuals. As long as we're second-class citizens and one of the parties is slightly better than the other, they can take us for granted. Giving us full marriage rights would effectively put both parties back at Go, and they would have to compete for our votes.

I've been wondering that this year, as the promises made during the presidential campaign haven't materialized, and as the Democrats face the loss of the majority that would have made pro-gay legislation reasonably easy to enact. It's about time we started asking whether it wasn't the opportunity that passed, but the politicians.   

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Depression is contagious


Yesterday I found a fascinating article in Psychology Today:

Epidemiologic evidence also points to the major role of contagion factors in depression. The rate and nature of depression vary dramatically from culture to culture—unlike with schizophrenia, where roughly 1 percent of the population is affected no matter the culture sampled. The World Health Organization recently declared depression the fourth leading cause of human disability and suffering and predicted that by the year 2020 it will be the second leading cause. That's not biology run amok; it reflects the social spread of the kinds of cultural values and social conditions that give rise to depression.

It's funny to think about depression-proneness as a cultural value, but this really isn't all that surprising. Having lived in four countries now, I'm endlessly amazed at how each culture collaborates to create rules and circumstances that actively prevent their citizens from finding happiness.

Long-term epidemiologic studies show that depression intensifies from one generation to the next. Today's parents represent the largest group of depression sufferers raising the fastest-growing group of depression sufferers. We are on average four times more depressed than our parents and ten times more than our grandparents.

Shit, that's dire, and I never would have expected it. You want to read that and say 'what do young people have to be depressed about?! They have it better than any previous generation!' But of course that's not the point. Depression is the telescope, not the view.

[Depression largely] comes from the ways we learn to regulate our own internal experience, which includes our explanatory style (the meaning we attach to life experiences), our cognitive style (how we think and use information), our coping style (how we manage stress and adversity) , our problem-solving style, and our relational style.

All of these are acquired through socialization forces in the family.[…] Every time a child asks, "Why, Mommy?" or "Why, Daddy?" the explanation provided invariably embodies a particular style of thinking and attributions of causality. […]

"Why didn't Uncle Bob come to the picnic, Mom?" There's a world of difference between "He must be mad at me" and " I don't know, the next time we talk to Uncle Bob let's ask him." There are also the kinds of attributions that reflect a permanently negative perspective: "Mom, I tried to do this and couldn't, would you help me do it?" "No, you'll never be able to do it, it's too hard."

There's a cultural component to this phenomenon, too. Think of how a British person is expected to react to a job loss, for example, compared to how an Italian or a German or an American is expected to react. Think of the support structures built into those societies. Our cultures, to an extent I think we don't realize, are built into our explanations of routine experiences. 

Studies show that such a pattern in interpreting experience is established early in life. In one study, children 8 years old were asked how they would respond if they were out shopping with their mother in a crowded department store 30 miles from home and suddenly found themselves separated from their parent. The anxious children generated scary scenarios of never seeing their parents again and being adopted into families of strangers. But the nonanxious kids said they'd simply go to the store manager and ask that an announcement be made on the public address system. In short, free of inner emotional turmoil, they could focus on and think their way through to solving the problem.

In other words, you shouldn't be telling your kids 'be good' or 'treat others how you want to be treated.' You should be saying 'chill the fuck out' and 'handle your shit'.

Another important element of socialization that operates in families (and other groups) is whether emotions can be expressed or not, what kinds of emotions can be expressed, and to what degree. Children learn quickly from the affective displays within a family or community what will be tolerated and what will not. Many families, for example, prohibit expressions of anger and so teach their children to suppress the emotion. Being devalued with no means of expression modeled, anger can too easily become explosive, a common theme in depressed relationships.

This is another cultural component. I'm consistently amazed at the marathons of emotionally bereft conversations that seem to take place in Danish and British families. Americans, who endlessly focus-group every molecule of their emotional experience, are amazed at how skilled northern Europeans are at inhibiting this impulse. We all learned these strategies somewhere.

It is possible to make people less susceptible to depression by teaching children social and cognitive skills. But there's growing evidence that social skills are deteriorating and that people are less available and less deliberate about building quality relationships. Studies show that young people are becoming more impulsive, more aggressive, more narcissistic, more self-absorbed. The more self-absorbed people are, the more negative feedback they absorb from others, the worse they feel, and the less skilled they are in building relationships.

I'm really skeptical of this. In what way are we 'less available' than we were before we had free, instant, constant communication? The fact that we're less deliberate about building relationships doesn't necessarily mean we have fewer, or that our social skills are deteriorating. Maybe it just means we have access to a much wider range of acquaintances, and we don't have to be as deliberate. 

I could be totally wrong about this. But everything in that paragraph sounds like it's just recycling the conventional wisdom.

Nonetheless, this article makes me wish governments would be a bit more ambitious in experimenting with 'soft' social engineering. We know more about the human experience, and human happiness, now than at any previous time in history. We know that the social structures our traditions have built around us, like our obsession with class-based behavior norms, or our systematic abandonment of our elderly, are making us all less happy and less productive.

Our cultures have changed drastically in the last 50 years, for the better and for the worse. It would be nice to begin a discussion of where we want this to lead, and how our cultures can build values that help us cope with each other in an emotionally sustainable way. Otherwise, we're all just that kid in the grocery store, waiting for our foster parents to rescue us.

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‘Hopefully my blend of politics and stink was too much for them’


Me and my brother were talking on IM the other day

J: dude

jury duty

hella weird

Mike: are you going?

just pretend to be hella racist in the selection. They'll delete you

J: i went the other way

hella skeptical that cops could not be prejudiced against the black guy

hella like i never had good experiences with cops

Mike: oh nice. You get rejected?

J: hopefully

Mike: makes you question the whole system. Who the fuck would actually go in for this?

J: then one guy pointed out there were no blacks on the jury group or the jury waiting area

yeah it was deeply depressing

i would call it the airport of justice

a similar randomness to the humanity

Mike: It's funny how rarely you come across a genuine cross-section of your own country.

J: very true, notary publics and construction site managers, and insurance actuaries, and real estate agents i counted 3

Mike: no way. They have time in the daytime, I guess, things being what they are.

J: defense attourney was a schmoozer with a masonic ring

Mike: hahaha, seriously?

J: you kind of have to go, everyone was begging off

and i just went with hard core civil rights bullshit

Mike: I imagine him with a fu manchu, somewhow

J: almost

Mike: I always wonder if people are competing over various kinds of unsuitability. Like ‘I’m the alcoholic!’ ‘I’m the authoritarian!’ Not everyone can play the racist/hippie card.

J: no gays i think                               

a few asians

no one under 27,28

lots of baby boomers

black guy in a suit, but little orange jail slippers

Mike: That and the DMV, man, that's the only genuine pie-slice of american life you ever get.

J: scarily delicious

Mike: They were probably like 'some dude there was a graphic designer. The fuck is that?!'

J: dude, and i was ripe as a motherfucker

Mike: what, like you smelled like self-employment?

J: sitting in close confines, and i had gotten up early, had a drink with friends the night before… yeah, and had a shirt i had worn maybe too many half days over the weekend

wasnt proud of that

Mike: Way to represent the college-educated there, bro

J: for realz dog

Mike:  So you find out, what, tomorrow, if you're in it for the long haul of justice?

J: yeah

i really dont want to decide on this guys future… i mean, he's fine, the cop he assaulted is fine…

in my world we just hug and make up

going to go smelling proper tomorrow… i really hate those few times a year i blow it and go somewhere crowded while musty

but yeah, hopefully my blend of politics and stink was too much for them

Mike: there's probably a metaphor for life somewhere in there

J:  it felt that way

Is it blasphemous to say that we probably shouldn't have jury duty anymore? Surely there are more efficient ways to ensure the unprejudiced meting out of justice than combining a random group of people's preconceptions and legal ignorance.

If this methodology is so watertight, why don't we use it for other bodies, like corporate boards and the House of Representatives? Jury duty is the only place in American life where the principle of random representation is given any credibility. Well, that and American Idol.

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Nasty, brutish and Detroit

This is a really great 'full catastrophe' piece about Detroit, one of America's most robust and baffling tragedies:

The troubles of Detroit are well-publicized. Its economy is in free fall, people are streaming for the exits, it has the worst racial polarization and city-suburb divide in America, its government is feckless and corrupt (though I should hasten to add that new Mayor Bing seems like a basically good guy and we ought to give him a chance), and its civic boosters, even ones that are extremely knowledgeable, refuse to acknowledge the depth of the problems, instead ginning up stats and anecdotes to prove all is not so bad.


This is from Guernica:

There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.


OK, so that's the bad and the ugly. What's the good?

It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.

[…] In many cities where strong city government still functions effectively, citizens are tied down by an array of regulations and permits that are actually enforced in most cases. Much of the South Side of Chicago has Detroit like characteristics, but the techniques of renewal in Detroit won’t work because they are likely against code and would be shut down the minute someone complained.

Just as one quick example, my corner ice cream stand dared to put out a few chairs for patrons to sit on while enjoying a frozen treat on a hot day. The city cited them for not having a license. So they took them away and put up a “bring your own chair” sign. The city then cited them for that too. You can’t do anything in Chicago without a Byzantine array of licenses, permits, and inspections.

In central Indianapolis, which is in desperate need of investment, where the city can’t fill the potholes in the street, etc., the minute a few yuppies buy houses in an area and fix them up, they immediately petition for a historic district, a request that has never been refused. […]

In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it.


This reminds me, strangely enough, of my trip to Italy last year. I attended a fundraiser organized by my buddy Giacomo for earthquake victims in Abruzzo. Their idea was to raise a bunch of money, fill a van with sandwiches and sound equipment, and drive down to Abruzzo and throw a dance party. The night I was there we raised like 2,000 euro, and the next week, they did their Movable Techno Feast.

It struck me that weekend how similar America and Italy are. We know that the government isn't going to do anything for us, so we take some of the responsibility. Everyone I talked to at the Abruzzo fundraiser had a 'if not us, who?' kind of attitude, the same one you found in a lot of America after Katrina and 9/11. You can't count on the government for everything (or, quite possibly, anything), so you do it yourself. This goes from small gestures to huge movements, from sponsoring a bell-ringing santa to endowing a college fund.

There's a kind of vitality and independence there that I really like. One of the symptoms of growing up in a well-functioning social democracy (Denmark, Switzerland, etc) seems to be the ebbing of this 'let's make this happen fellas!' drive. Government will take care of you. You're hit by a bus and you keep your job, your home, your car, your kids. A friend of mine here in Copenhagen gets a monthly stipend from the government for being allergic to wheat. Because gluten-free food is more expensive. We roll our eyes at this, but there's a logic to it.

It's sort of sad to think that a generation or two of well-functioning government and social harmony might just neuter Americans of everything we like about them. It's also sad to think of the profound price we pay for our individualism. I'd trade some of that DIY urban renewal in Detroit for a government that actually addressed its failures and their impacts on the individuals picking up their trailings.

For now, though, I just keep reading great articles about the people doing their best to salvage a city out of Detroit, and cross my fingers that no one with any authority notices them.

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Segregated education in America

Somehow I managed to find a cafe on Crown St. here in Sydney with a toddler-sized stack of mid-decade Harper's magazines. I spent pretty much the whole evening there, and the most striking article I read (the only one, actually, that I finished. Harper's is interminable) was this one on the new realities of the American education system.

In Chicago, by the academic year 2002-2003, 87 percent of public-school enrollment was black or Hispanic; less than 10 percent of children in the schools were white. In Washington, D.C., 94 percent of children were black or Hispanic; less than 5 percent were white. In St. Louis, 82 percent of the student population were black or Hispanic; in Philadelphia and Cleveland, 79 percent; in Los Angeles, 84 percent, in Detroit, 96 percent; in Baltimore, 89 percent. In New York City, nearly three quarters of the students were black or Hispanic.
The school board of another district, this one in New York State, referred to "the diversity" of its student population and "the rich variations of ethnic backgrounds." But when I looked at the racial numbers that the district had reported to the state, I learned that there were 2,800 black and Hispanic children in the system, 1 Asian child, and 3 whites. Words, in these cases, cease to have real meaning; or, rather, they mean the opposite of what they say.

This is actually pretty wise, and kind of funny. You never hear anyone call a group of people 'diverse' if it's, like, Swedes mixing with Belgians.

Then you get to what this is really about:

The dollars on both sides of the equation have increased since then, but the discrepancies between them have remained. The present per-pupil spending level in the New York City schools is $11,700, which may be compared with a per-pupil spending level in excess of $22,000 in the well-to-do suburban district of Manhasset, Long Island. The present New York City level is, indeed, almost exactly what Manhasset spent per pupil eighteen years ago, in 1987, when that sum of money bought a great deal more in services and salaries than it can buy today. In dollars adjusted for inflation, New York City has not yet caught up to where its wealthiest suburbs were a quarter-century ago. 


In another elementary school, which had been built to hold 1,000 children hut was packed to bursting with some 1,500, the principal poured out his feelings to me in a room in which a plastic garbage hag had been attached somehow to cover part of the collapsing ceiling. "This," he told me, pointing to the garbage bag, then gesturing around him at the other indications of decay and disrepair one sees in ghetto schools much like it elsewhere, "would not happen to white children."

I usually roll my eyes at that sort of thing, just because I don't think the government of the U.S., or really any country, is particularly racist. They un-care about all poor people equally, my argument usually goes. But man, it's hard to argue with this shit:

A tall black student, for example, told me that she hoped to be a social worker or a doctor but was programmed into "Sewing Class" this year. She also had to take another course, called "Life Skills," which she told me was a very basic course—"a retarded class," to use her words—that "teaches things like the six continents," which she said she'd learned in elementary school.

When I asked her why she had to take these courses, she replied that she'd been told they were required, which as I later learned was not exactly so. What was required was that high school students take two courses in an area of study called "The Technical Arts," and which the Los Angeles Board of Education terms "Applied Technology."

At schools that served the middle class or upper-middle class, this requirement was likely to be met by courses that had academic substance and, perhaps, some relevance to college preparation. At Beverly Hills High School, for example, the technical-arts requirement could be fulfilled by taking subjects like residential architecture, the designing of commercial structures, broadcast journalism, advanced computer graphics, a sophisticated course in furniture design, carving and sculpture, or an honors course in engineering research and design. At Fremont High, in contrast, this requirement was far more often met by courses that were basically vocational and also obviously keyed to low-paying levels of employment.

Mireya, for example, who had plans to go to college, told me that she had to take a sewing class last year and now was told she'd been assigned to take a class in hair-dressing.

Fucking hair-dressing, dude.

Two things occurred to me while I was reading this, probably not the two things that were supposed to.

1. This would make a fantastic TV show.
Where the fuck is Hollywood on this? If you read the whole article, there's so much drama here waiting to be mined. Quantitative test scores! Beleaguered principals! Newbie teachers! Kids struggling against the system!

I'm not talking the kind where the magic white lady reforms the puffy-jacketed academic ruffians through Hamlet and a personal-growth arc ('No… they were teaching me'.). Why is 'The Wire' the only artistic work to genuinely confront this issue in the last decade?

2. Why am I reading about this in Harper's?
All of these cities, presumably, have a newspaper. Harper's cites a number of quantitative indicators (enrollment, budgets, dropout rates) that should have raised red flags in any newsroom with a pulse. Dude from Harper's strolls into these schools, chats with the kids, leaves and writes it up. Journalists: You live in these cities. Where the fuck are you?

Overall, the whole thing just made me think of my University of London's professor's old catchphrase, 'You can blame people for their choices, but you can't blame them for their options.' Maybe the American version should be 'Don't talk shit on hairdressers. It's better than being a seamstress.' 

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Fort Hood: The tip without the iceberg

I really appreciated this column by James Fallows on the Fort Hood shooting:

In the saturation coverage right after the events, the "expert" talking heads are compelled to offer theories about the causes and consequences. In the following days and weeks, newspapers and magazine will have their theories too. Looking back, we can see that all such efforts are futile. The shootings never mean anything. Forty years later, what did the Charles Whitman massacre "mean"? A decade later, do we "know" anything about Columbine? There is chaos and evil in life. Some people go crazy. In America, they do so with guns; in many countries, with knives; in Japan, sometimes poison.

We know the emptiness of these events in retrospect, though we suppress that knowledge when the violence erupts as it is doing now. The cable-news platoons tonight are offering all their theories and thought-drops. They've got to fill time. I wish they could stop. As the Vietnam-era saying went, Don't mean nothing.

This doesn't mean that these sorts of things can't be prevented or minimized, of course. That's why we have things like law enforcement and social services.

We're supposed to think that this particular man-made natural disaster is more 'relevant' due to the fact that the shooter was Muslim:

I am not arguing, of course, that American Muslims, as a whole, are violently unhappy with America (I've argued the opposite, in fact). But I do think that elite makers of opinion in this country try very hard to ignore the larger meaning of violent acts when they happen to be perpetrated by Muslims. Here's a simple test: If Nidal Malik Hasan had been a devout Christian with pronounced anti-abortion views, and had he attacked, say, a Planned Parenthood office, would his religion have been considered relevant as we tried to understand the motivation and meaning of the attack? Of course. Elite opinion makers do not, as a rule, try to protect Christians and Christian belief from investigation and criticism. Quite the opposite. It would be useful to apply the same standards of inquiry and criticism to all religions.

Other than this shooting being rather poorly timed, given the political context, I don't see his point.

Here's another Atlantic blogger:

If we grant that Hasan was motivated by religion, what does that actually tell us? What is there  beyond the fact that people will, at times, interpret religion as a justification to commit heinous acts?

Jeff asks what we'd say if a devout Christian had attacked Planned Parenthood. Fair enough–we have a pretty good corollary in George Tiller. I could be wrong, but I don't recall a lot of "media elites" trying to divine what Tiller's death said about Christianity, itself. Again, beyond the fact that some wacko interpreted Christianity to mean he had the right to shoot people, what else would there be to say?

That's really my issue. What is the big "thing" that we should be seeing, in this case? What are those elite blinders preventing us from seeing?

This, in better expression, has always been my issue with 9/11 and the 'Clash of Civilizations' it's supposed to symbolize.

Religion motivates people to do really awful things. So do politics, race, sex, money and World of Warcraft. If a group of militant left-handed people flew planes into buildings tomorrow, that wouldn't symbolize some sort of dominant hand-based Clap of Civilizations. It's just be a bunch of crazy-ass people doing crazy-ass shit.

I'm not saying that 9/11 or Fort Hood shouldn't be investigated, or that we can't take any lessons from them. But the real issue for us to confront is, how do we prevent crazy-ass people from taking out their crazy-ass shit out on the rest of us, regardless of their motivation? I know we all hate the term 'War on Terror' now cuz it's gotten us into sandy, mismanaged wars, but it's is actually an accurate name for what the West needs to wage, as long as you accept that terror is a methodology, not a belief.

If we think our cities are at risk of earthquakes, we retrofit our buildings and devise systems for predicting them before they happen and repairing the damage after. Fort Hood and 9/11 don't symbolize a Muslim threat to Christianity any more than Columbine symbolizes the trenchcoat's threat to the T-shirt. 

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