Theater of the Grotesque

January 30, 2008

The State of the Union is not good:

 

  • The United States pours  $720 million a day into the furnace of war in Iraq — — that’s enough to pay for 12,000 new teachers or 35,000 scholarships to four-year colleges or the construction of 84 new elementary schools every day.

 

  • As the only economically advanced country on earth that fails to guarantee health care to its citizens, the United States has created a system controlled by massive for-profit insurance corporations and giant pharmaceuticals, simultaneously delivering the best medical interventions possible to the fortunate few and a descending level of care down the economic ladder, impoverishing middle income people who have the misfortune of falling ill and leaving millions with no insurance at all and little access to the most basic care — a system where getting a joint replacement is the expected standard for some, while dying from an abscessed tooth is a routine possibility for others, a system that can transplant a heart but doesn’t have a heart.

 

  • The income gap between white and black families is greater now than it was 40 years ago, and the gap between the richest and the poorest Americans is huge and accelerating.

 

  • Mass incarceration — over 2.1 million of our fellow citizens are caged in America — and widespread disenfranchisement have become normalized and expected in this country.  For example, a third of black men living in Alabama are disenfranchised and civically dead because of a drug conviction.

 

 

The picture is grim: Empire resurrected in the name of a renewed and powerful jingoistic nationalism; war without end; identification of opaque and ill-defined enemies as a unifying cause; unprecedented and unapologetic military expansion and militarism of the entire society; white supremacy essentially intact and unyielding; the entangling of religion with government; the shredding of constitutional rights, the casual disregard for human rights, and the systemic hollowing out of democracy; corporate power unchecked and the ideology of the market promoted as the only true expression of democracy; fraudulent elections; a steady drumbeat of public secrets — obvious lies issued by the powerful, like “we don’t torture,” whose purpose is both future deniability as well as evidence of power’s ability to have its way regardless of law or popular will; disdain for the arts and for intellectual life; the creation of popular movements based on bigotry, intolerance and the threat of violence, and the scapegoating of certain targeted and vulnerable groups.  On a world scale dislocations and imbalances are endemic: 1% of the world’s richest people own 40% of the wealth while 50% of the world’s population controls only 10%. This is a recipe for continued violence and war and ongoing disaster, and while it may not be the whole story, it is without a doubt a bright thread that is both recognizable and knowable.

 

Now let’s take a trip through the looking glass to the upside down world of George Bush.  In an address that sounded as if it had been crafted in some dark cubicle in the cellar of the Heritage Foundation, President Bush delivered a faith-based, fact-free speech rich in reactionary ideology but completely disconnected from the world we live in.  The economy is fundamentally sound, we were told, peace is at hand, democracy is on the march, we’re the greatest country on earth.  I was reminded of the legendary I. F. Stone’s fundamental principle as a reporter: assume that all governments lie most of the time.  If you start there, you are at least forewarned as you struggle to get your bearings and figure out what’s actually going on.

 

But most of us don’t start there.  We are too trusting, too credulous, too easily seduced into discussions set up with so that the conclusions are inevitable.  Take the “war on terror.”  The term is a metaphor constructed in the aftermath of the terrible crimes of September 11, but it wasn’t an inevitable choice.  A different metaphor — a criminal justice metaphor, say – might have led to a different conclusion; after all if there’s a killing in Chicago, the cops question witnesses, gather evidence, pursue leads, focus energy and activity on finding the perpetrator.  Perhaps the “war on terror” like “the war on poverty” or the “war on drugs” appealed simply because the rhetoric seems to stand for an all-out effort or a serious undertaking.  But here the metaphor is brought to life through full-scale military invasions in Afghanistan to Iraq.  The metaphoric bind is this: “the war on terror” can’t be won because it’s being fought against a tactic, perhaps a state of mind; the real wars in real countries are hard to stop because “the war on terror” is ongoing — it’s a war that is everywhere and nowhere at once, a war whose conclusion no one can describe with any confidence.  As soon as we begin to discuss “the war on terror” we are trapped in a lie.

 

Or take health care: if the controlling metaphor is that health care is a product much like a television set, then our current system makes some sense — it taps into deeply held cultural beliefs about individual responsibility and choice and cost.  But if the analogy shifts, if health care begins to be discussed more and more widely as a universal human right, like the right to an education or to public safety, then other deeply held beliefs — about fairness and shared community responsibility — move to the front.

 

President Bush styles himself the education president, and touts his attachment to standards and accountability, to trusting students to learn, to empowering parents to make choices, and to introducing market metaphors in the discussion of public schools.  Here again he has proven himself the master of the metaphoric battle — enter his framing of the discussion about standards and accountability and feel the ground shift, the slippery slope toward privatization just ahead — but his efforts have been a catastrophe for students and families and teachers in schools.  His overall grade is an “F.”

 

A basic tenet of democracy, as W.E.B DuBois argued, is that the ultimate authority on any individual’s hurt or desire is the individual himself or herself.  Education in a democracy demands equity, access, and an acknowledgment of the humanity of each person.  The job of schools is to stimulate latent interests, desires, and dreams that cause people to question, to challenge, to criticize, and to act.  Obedience and conformity are enemies of democracy; initiative and courage are its hallmarks.

 

The right wing attack on public education has taken many forms: an unhealthy obsession with standardized tests as a measure of intelligence and accomplishment; the elevation of zero tolerance as a cultural weapon used to sort students into winners and losers; and the widespread use of the market metaphor to judge school effectiveness.  This campaign never raises the issue of fair funding, of equal access, of generous pay for teachers, of rebuilding dilapidated schools, of encouraging students to ask their own questions in pursuit of their own goals.  It’s a campaign aimed at destroying public schools.

 

The State of the Union address was a theater of the grotesque; a long line of marionettes on a string, jerked periodically from their seats, heads bobbing, faces twisted into perverse smiles, hands clapping, while the Marine chant – hoo-AH, hoo-AH– pierced the air.  It was mesmerizing.  The death march on display.


Narrative Push/Narrative Pull

January 19, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words words words words. Weird words common words, fragile words and sturdy words, empty words and blah blah blah, imaginary real life, falling filing failing hiding, straight words queer words, plagiarism ecstasy clichéd agony, word games mind storms, music rhythm blossoms thorns.

 

You, you, you, you. Coffee coffee tea tea. Turn away go pee. Sit down ease in, tremble, panic, sweat, begin. Rub forehead stretch hand stand up begin again. Face the paper, face the screen, bleed a little, breathe steam. Relax flex smile frown, search a word wall up and down. At last at last, surprise find, secret pearl round a grain of mind.

 

Writing:

 

  • You: A singular intelligence and unique mind—the one and only only only one who will ever trod this earth—falling in love just so with this person in this way, suffering suffering suffering like no other. No one else will have these particular babies and not other babies, lose this mother and this father rather than another mother and father, get this scar and that one and not another, experience this ecstasy in this place with this person instead of all the other ecstasies that might have been with all the others, take on that one project and build that exact thing over there, mess everything up over here, pick up this stone on that road, choose and choose and choose and choose. You can choose to not write, choose a strategic silence as a powerful expression, a kind of resistance of stillness, choose to speak without words using brush and body to shout the ineffable. No one else can do what you can do because quite simply no one else is or ever will be just this right now you. But if you want to write you must find words and you must do work. You must.
  • Words: They’re waiting to be breathed into life—to be mustered up in military formation and marched dutifully in black rows onto white fields, or to be piled into incendiary heaps, anarchist bombs and unruly explosions spreading fire and chaos on the page and then running off in all directions. It depends. It depends on what you want your words to do. Do you write to change things, to make a difference, to expose injustice, to fight the power? You decide.
  • Work: The trick is to develop the discipline of the desk, to commit yourself to words on the page in a principled and predictable way. Every day is good—say from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., or from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.—or three times a week, or all day Saturday. That’s it—not perfect prose nor a sudden visit from some magical muse nor publishable pieces, but a writing routine. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. You must show up, you must nurture the habit of writing, you must put your words on the page. It’s labor. With words on the page you can rework rethink reorganize and edit and edit and edit, but without words, you are left with good intentions, grand plans, big hopes—in other words, not much.

 

 

So get to work.

 

***

 

“How is it,” Edward Said asks, “that the premises on which Western support for Israel is based are still maintained even though the reality, the facts, cannot possibly bear these premises out?” In a notable 1984 essay, “Permission to Narrate” Said attempts to answer his own complex question: “facts,” he writes, “do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustained, and circulate them.”

 

He’s right, of course. Think, for example, of newspaper headlines you’ve seen that, while the facts and the content may be upsetting, are nonetheless instantly absorbed because they fit easily into a script already written, that is, they conform to a socially accepted narrative: “Toddler Left Unattended in Southside Apartment Bitten by Rat;” “Eight City High Schools Labeled Failing;” “Two Teens Charged in Playground Shooting.”

 

The facts in each of these situations are supported by a familiar and, therefore, comfortable story. The story adsorbs the facts, sustains them, and circulates them repeatedly, far and wide. It often seems as if the stories are already written, resting comfortably in the back of a computer somewhere, awaiting only this or that predictable fact as authenticating detail, at which point they explode instantly onto the front pages.

 

Imagine the disequilibrium that would accompany a headline that organized the same facts in the service of a different narrative: Failure of City to Eradicate Vermin Claims Another Victim; City Bureaucracy Delays Childcare Benefit, Unattended Boy Sustains Rat Bite; Easy Access to Assault Weapons Puts Guns in Kids’ Hands.

 

Or think of the site of ritualized hyper-narratives in conflict: the courtroom. From car accident to corporate looting, from criminal case to child custody dispute, the struggle is always a fight to fit the available facts for judge and jury into a credible narrative that serves a specific outcome.

 

In a trial I observed years ago a large group of Irish Americans and recent Irish immigrants, all known supporters of the Irish Republican Army, had been charged in federal court in Brooklyn with accumulating weapons to send to the IRA in support of their fight with the British. The prosecution contended that the political beliefs of the defendants along with their avowed support for the IRA motivated them to conspire and to break a number of federal statutes.

 

The defense told a different story: the defendants, they maintained, were part of a long and proud tradition of anti-colonial struggle against imperialist powers like Great Britain, a tradition that embraced the founding of the United States itself. Further, there was no criminal intent, since the defendants were convinced that they were acting in concert with US policy and as adjuncts to a known federal agency.

 

It happened that the defendants in the case were acquitted. The defense apparently had an insight the prosecution missed entirely—they worked systematically to put an audience in the jury box that would be receptive to their particular narrative. The facts were only in minor dispute; the larger argument was over whose narrative was believable.

 

The defense succeeded in selecting a jury that was overwhelmingly recent immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, from Central and South America. The trial took place at the height of the Malvinas crisis, an ugly war that almost went nuclear between Great Britain and Argentina. The crisis didn’t register with most Americans, but it was the top story in Latin American newspapers where the undisputed bad guy was Great Britain. For these jurors at this time a narrative of independence from the evil empire was easy to hear, completely acceptable to believe.

 

Here’s a different, perhaps more familiar courtroom story, a parable really. But it’s true enough and it happened in April, 1989. Our own boys were 12, 9 and 8 at the time, and they’d cut their teeth on the swings, slides and sandboxes of Central Park playgrounds, jogging around the reservoir, celebrating birthday picnics at the carousel, awestruck watching West Indian cricket matches.

 

When the body of a 28-year-old jogger, a white investment banker, was found raped, bludgeoned, and in a coma in the underbrush of Central Park, the telling became, like the river of terrible crimes before it, an international news story with epic legal and policy consequences.

 

Five children were arrested and charged with assault and attempted murder and gang rape within 24 hours. The immediate language of the media was unequivocal and it resonated: “packs of bloodthirsty teens from the tenements, bursting with boredom and rage, roam the streets, getting kicks from an evening of ultra violence.” The liberal Pete Hamill wrote, “They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference, and ignorance. They were coming from a land of no fathers… They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor…And driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teaming with the violent images of the streets and the movies, they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.”

 

Under interrogation, the youth confessed on videotape. Almost immediately, all five repudiated their confessions. They were tried and convicted of rape, sodomy, sexual abuse, riot, and assault, and sent to prison. The victim testified that she had no memory of the attack. There was no forensic evidence linking any of them to the assault. All there was were the videotaped confessions. And the familiar story.

 

But the narrative was strong. It was black and white, male and female, Wall Street and Harlem, law-abiding adults and barbaric youth, heroic woman versus feral beasts, the establishment versus Black teens, order versus terror, human versus animal, thoughtful versus mindless. It was open and shut. Each young man served six to 12 years in prison.

 

And now the problem: all five were innocent. The perpetrator confessed 13 years after the fact, and, after some painful re-examination, the prosecution admitted error. But the narrative, the false story, had done its work.

 

***

 

Every narrative is, of course, necessarily incomplete, each a kind of distortion. Reality is always messier, always more complicated, always more idiosyncratic than any particular story can honestly contain. A single insistent narrative by its nature lies.

 

Perhaps that’s why courtrooms are ultimately dissatisfying—sometimes profoundly, often mildly so: one of the narratives must triumph over the other. And in newsrooms, too, there seems to be little room for nuance, none at all for two contradictory narratives existing side-by-side. And perhaps that’s what makes classrooms at their best such infinitely wondrous places: not only are all master narratives and triumphalist stories—as well as all manner of orthodoxy—challenged and laid low, but whatever emerges as the new truth is then questioned, reflected upon, seen as inadequate in itself. Classrooms can be sites of curiosity, investigation, skepticism and agnosticism, narratives in play.

 

Whenever a single narrative takes on the authority of truth—that is, when it puffs itself up to a size and density that overshadows every alternative possibility—it becomes like a magnetic hole in space, consuming all available energy and light, sucking the air out of every room. Such is the status of the story told inside the US regarding Israel/Palestine.

 

The dominant narrative has transformed only slightly over half a century, its broad outline essentially intact: the site of origin for Judaism and the Jewish people is the historic land that lies from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, from Dan to Beersheeba; exiled for millennia the Jews collectively have longed to return to that specific place; the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, in which some six million Jews were rounded up and slaughtered, energized modern Zionism and catalyzed within the international community vigorous support for the creation of a Jewish state; the state of Israel, founded on the site of origin, is a spunky little beacon of liberalism, democracy, and human rights within a sea of autocratic dictatorships.

 

This narrative ignores certain inconvenient facts, chiefly the actuality of the Palestinian people on that same land, a people whose very existence was initially denied in the narrative broadcast to the West: “Israel is a land without people for a people without land”—this represents the rhetorical erasure of an entire swath of humankind. This kind of statement may be compelling to some, but it is also, importantly, verifiable or falsifiable—that is, its truth or falsity can be discovered. But the verifiability was never of much interest, since it became more important to insist on the historical rights of Jews to the land, and to render inadmissible any talk of native inhabitants, any narrative of Palestinian life. This sentiment had endless variations, the most persistent, that the Israelis found nothing but a primitive backward place, and that upon that rock a modern state was created—the soundbite: “They made the desert bloom.”

 

When the existence of the Palestinians became undeniable, when they failed to comply and exit easily, they were transformed into an obstacle to progress and peace, rubble to be removed. The dominant available images prescribe a particularly parochial set of options: a barricaded and insulated rejectionist leadership; pitiful masses suffering in teeming refugee camps or squalid, quarantined communities; and, most prominent of all, terrorist suicide bombers, fanatical malevolent creatures, bereft of normal human motivation and well beyond our comprehension.

 

The recurrent American story—dominant, habitual, profoundly functional—is similarly a tale of democracy and freedom, of forward motion, perpetual improvement and never-ending progress. That story, told and retold in official and scholarly and popular venues over and over and over again, echoes in our consciousness until it achieves the exalted status of common sense, a truth beyond doubt: America is the greatest country on earth; land of the free home of the brave; God bless America.

 

The Puritans provided one of the most durable symbols of the American experiment, a symbol that is as resilient and resonant today as it ever was: America was to be a city on a hill—an exalted place, chosen by God—whose inhabitants, themselves a chosen people, would engage in an errand into the wilderness, their task to shine their countenance upon the darkened world and thereby to enlighten it.

 

The project of a blessed people bearing civilization and progress and truth offers a ready justification for anything—conquest, theft and mayhem, mass murder: we come in peace, we are messages of God, we embody a greater good. Opposition must be the Devils handiwork.

 

Beyond political calculation and opportunism, military advantage and strategic aims, imperial dreams and desires, this foundational symbol goes some way toward explaining many misadventures, including the bullheaded and single-minded support the US offers Israel today. That nation, too, was built by a determined band of self-proclaimed chosen people who suffered and survived, arose phoenix-like to create their plucky little democracy in the midst of hostile and threatening and notably darker skinned neighbors. Perpetual but righteous war would become the necessary order of the day for the forces of goodness. And so it is.

 

***

 

The dominant narrative in contemporary school reform is once again focused on exclusion and disadvantage, race and class, black and white. “Across the US,” the National Governor’s Association declared in 2005, “a gap in academic achievement persists between minority and disadvantaged students and their white counterparts.” This is the commonly referenced and popularly understood “racial achievement gap,” and it drives education policy at every level. Interestingly, whether heartfelt or self-satisfied, the narrative never mentions the monster in the room: white supremacy

 

It’s true, of course, that standardized test scores reveal a difference between Black-and-white test-takers: 26 points in one area of comparison, 20 points in another, 23 in a third.

 

But the significance of those differences is wildly disputed. Some argue, as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein did in their popular and incendiary book The Bell Curve, that genetic differences account for the gap, and there’s little that can be done to lift up the poor inferior Black folks. An alternate theory, popular since the 1960s, holds that Black people are not inherently inferior to whites, but merely culturally deprived, and that fixing the massive pathologies in the family and community will require social engineering on a grand scale.

 

Each of these explanations has a large and devoted following, the first, while difficult for many whites to endorse publicly, carries the reflected power of eugenics and the certainty that what they’ve always secretly suspected, that whites are indeed superior beings, is true; the second has the advantage of pretending to give a bit more than a pig’s eye for the well-being of Black people while disturbing none of the pillars of white privilege. Either theory can live comfortably beneath the obsessive focus on the achievement gap.

 

Gloria Ladson-Billings upends all of this with an elegant reversal: there is no achievement gap, she argues, but actually a glancing reflection of something deeper and more profound—America has a profound education debt. The educational inequities that began with the annihilation of native peoples and the enslavement of Africans, the conquest of the continent and the importation of both free labor and serfs, transformed into apartheid education, something anemic, inferior, inadequate, and oppressive. Over decades and centuries the debt has accumulated and is passed from generation to generation, and it continues to grow and pile up. Chicago serves 86% Black and Latino students and spends around $8,000 per pupil per year while a few miles away Highland Park, 90% white, spends $17,000. This is emblematic of what’s going on in every community in America.

 

Ladson-Billings imagines what could be done if the political powers took the achievement gap seriously: immediate reassignment of the best teachers in the country to schools for poor children of color, guaranteed places for those students at state and regional colleges and universities, smaller classes, smaller schools, a Marshall Plan-type effort to rebuild infrastructure. Ladson-Billings argues that the US owes a moral debt to African-Americans, a dept that `reflects the disparity between what we know is right and what we actually do.

 

***

In “Why I Write,” George Orwell gives four reasons why all writers, including himself, write: One: “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood… Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.” It’s impossible to deny: there’s a peculiar pleasure in showing off, in disproving doubters, in expressing oneself.

 

Two: “Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”

 

Three: “Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

 

Four: “Political purpose—using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

 

Orwell elaborates: “I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.”

 

The Spanish Civil War “turned the scale” and for Orwell, “thereafter I knew where I stood.”

 

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism,” he writes. What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention.”

 

Of art and politics, combining the aesthetic and the political, Orwell says, “I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly,” and concludes, “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generality.”

 

In 1984 Orwell provides an unrelenting vision of the totalitarian impulses and powers around him. Neither Winston’s intelligence and memory of things past, nor Julia’s effort to escape through her own individuality and sexuality are a threat to Big Brother—both are short lived, quickly detected, and easily crushed. In fact, the only hope Orwell projects is the prole woman humming a tune in the courtyard outside the room where Winston and Julia rendezvous: “people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world. If there was hope it lay in the proles.”

 

Otherwise Oceania, the multinational political entity ruled by Big Brother abounds with doublethink: “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength,” as well as the Ministry of Peace which wages war, the Ministry of Truth which propagates lies, and Ministry of Love, where torture is carried out.

 

In the Foreword to a recent edition of 1984 Thomas Pynchon wrote: “His anger, let us go so far as to say, was precious to him. He had lived his way into it—in Burma and Paris and London and on the road to Wigan Pier, and in Spain, being shot at and eventually wounded by fascists—he had invested blood, pain, and hard labor to earn his anger and was as attached to it as any capitalist to his capital. It may be an affliction to writers more than others, this fear of getting comfortable, of being bought off.”

 

But at the same time Pynchon writes that 1984 is not just an angry diatribe against where the world is inevitably going: “It is not difficult to imagine that Orwell in 1984 was imagining a future for his son’s generation, a world he was not so much wishing upon them as warning against. He was impatient with predictions of the inevitable, he remained confident in the ability of ordinary people to change anything, if they would.”

 

***

Educational research, a post-World War II invention chasing federal dollars, has grown to monstrous proportions, and yet I’m hard-pressed to say what good has come of any of it. Grants are funded, projects launched, dissertations written, careers made, but for all that, not much has been accomplished for children. Academic writing is mostly dry and boring, so deadly you risk suffocating just reading the stuff. When it cloaks itself in self-referencing dogma—so smug and so sure, so proud of its ironclad conclusions—I want to throw open the window either to jump or to breathe the free air.

 

In fact, the language of pseudo-science that has come to dominate the discourse about schools has led to a hollowing out of our consciousness of what actually occurs in classrooms, the intellectual and ethical core of what really goes on. In the “scientific” narrative, teachers and students are reduced to an S-R relationship, standardized tests—simpleminded, deceptive, and fatally flawed—rule supreme, and everyone is asked to genuflect in front of the phrase, “the research says.” All of this becomes a bludgeon to beat educators and children and families into submission.

 

Narrative inquiry can be a useful corrective to all this, for it posits storytelling and story listening as important ways to understand and improve classroom life. It suits the noisy, idiosyncratic, complex, multilayered, dynamic reality of schools and classrooms. It can fit itself to that reality rather than hammering the natural messiness into a convenient if choked and clotted frame.

 

Narrative begins with something to say—content precedes form. You must have something to say, something you want to say, something of burning importance that only you can say. You don’t have to think that you’re better than others, or to compare yourself to John Dewey or Toni Morrison, but you do have to believe that the message you want to send is of vital importance and that you must, therefore, muster the confidence to do the work. You must nourish your own awareness, your engagement, your curiosity, and you must harness all of it with dedication and discipline.

 

The hallmark of writing in the first person is intimacy. But that intimacy can trap a writer into a defensive crouch, into airing grievances or self-justification. Annie Dillard argues that while personal essay is an art, it’s not a martial art, and that the personal pronoun can be the subject of the verb—I see this, I did that—but not the object of the verb—I discuss me, I quote me, I describe me. The goal of the writing is to set up a relationship, a dialog based on both identification and difference, harmony and disharmony. The assumption is that there is a unity in human experience, that within each of us is the human condition. But in narrative the universal is revealed through the specific, the general through the particular, the essence through the unique, and necessity is revealed through contingency.

 

Narrative writers strive for a personal signature, but must be aware that the struggle for honesty is constant. The mind works in contradiction, and honesty requires the writer to reveal disputes with herself on the page. Human beings are incorrigibly self-deceiving and self-justifying, and in order to create a reliable narrator readers need to see a writer interrogating her own ignorance, investigating what she doesn’t know, searching for and writing into contradictions—rather than running away from them with easy conclusions—as they appear.

 

Creating a credible narrator is the first and most difficult assignment. Honesty, yes, and also boldness, the strength to claim your position on the page, to resist undermining your own authority by constantly referencing others or refusing to take a stand on issues of real importance. Authority is established when a writer knows when to show and not tell—when to provide an instance or an anecdote or a detail that brings a scene or a person to life—and just as important, when to synthesize, generalize, and sum up. Writing is not a skill separate from thinking, and there’s nothing more interesting, engaging, and, yes, dangerous than an intelligent mind thinking out loud. That’s something shot through with discovery and surprise—a writer must free herself from dogma and self-righteousness, and she must conduct basic research on herself, anti-systemic, experimental, often accidental. She searches for understanding on the page, an investigation of something out there, but, perhaps more important, of something in here, a struggle to make sense—and the reader must actually see the struggle. It’s a journey, not by a tourist, but by a pilgrim.

 

The writer can never make causal claims and can never generalize—and this can be painfully difficult given the dominant narrative in education—but beyond that, she is free to theorize, to speculate, to wonder, and to advocate. Paradoxically, the inability to generalize and the necessity to stay close to the ground allows the writer to make gigantic existential claims. To do this well, she must continually stay in the middle of things, the concrete and the real, and at the same time remain up in the air, contingent and unfinished.

 

The Chicago writer David Mamet told an interviewer that he believed that you’re only a writer when you write the last line—before that you’re a failed writer—and that after you write that last line, you’re an ex-writer. Mostly we aspire to write, and reaching toward something mysterious and elusive is where the work actually lives. So we’re mostly aspiring and failed writers, and, as for me, I’m an ex-writer now.

 


CHILD SOLDIERS…by Therese Quinn, Erica Meiners, Bill Ayers

January 9, 2008

 

In 2001 Chicago’s Mayor, Richard M. Daley commented on an article in the online journal, Education Next, by then-Mayor of Oakland, California, Jerry Brown. Brown’s essay offered a rationale for the public military academies he was promoting for Oakland. In his letter to the editor, Daley congratulated Brown’s efforts and explained his own reasons for creating military schools in Chicago:

 

We started these academies because of the success of our Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) program, the nation’s largest. JROTC provides students with the order and discipline that is too often lacking at home. It teaches them time management, responsibility, goal setting, and teamwork, and it builds leadership and self-confidence.

 

Today, Chicago has the most militarized public school system in the nation, with Cadet Corps for students in middle-school, over 10,000 students participating in JROTC programs, over 1,000 students enrolled in one of the five, soon-to-be six autonomous military high schools, and hundreds more attending one of the nine military high schools that are called “schools within a school.” Chicago now has a Marine Military Academy, a Naval Academy, and three army high schools. When an air force high school opens next year, Chicago will be the only city in the nation to have academies representing all  branches of the military. And Chicago is not the only city moving in this direction: the public school systems of other urban centers with largely Black and immigrant low income students , including Philadelphia, Atlanta and Oakland, are being similarly re-formed—and deformed— through partnerships with the Department of the Defense.

 

As military recruiters nationwide fall short of their enlistment goals— a trend spanning a  decade— and as the number of African Americans enlistees (once a reliable and now an increasingly reluctant source of personnel)  has dropped by 41% over the last several years,  the Department of the Defense has partnered with the Department of Education and city governments, to both sell its “brand” to young people and to secure positions of power over the lives of the most vulnerable youth. The federal No Child Left Behind Act is particularly aggressive, providing unprecedented military access to campuses and requiring schools to provide personal student information to the Army. In many schools  JROTC programs replace physical education courses, recruiters assist in coaching athletic teams, and the military is provided space to offer kids a place to hang out and have a snack after school. Iin Chicago’s  Senn High School, which serves a working class immigrant population—last year its students hailed from over 60 countries—was forced, against the express wishes of the school and local community, to cede a wing of its building to a public military school.

 

          Every citizen should oppose the presence of the military in our public schools. Here are four reasons why:

1. Public education is a civilian, not a military, system.

 Public education in a democracy aims to broadly prepare youth for full participation in civil society so that they can make informed decisions about their lives and the future of society as a whole. The Department of the Defense has a dramatically more constrained  goal in our schools: influencing students to “choose” a military career. The military requires submissiveness and lock-step acquiescence to authority, while a broad education for democratic living emphasizes curiosity, skepticism, diversity of opinion, investigation, initiative, courage to take an unpopular stand, and more. This distinction—of a civilian, not a militarized, public education system—is one for which earlier generations fought.   

During WW I, national debates took place over whether or not to include “military training” in secondary schools.  Dr. James Mackenzie, a school director, argued, in a remarkably resonant piece  published in the New York Times in 1916: “If American boys lack discipline, by all means, let us supply it, but not through a training whose avowed aim is human slaughter.” In 1917 a report issued by the Department of the Interior pointed out that “in no country in the world do educators regard military instruction in the schools as a successful substitute for the well-established systems of physical training and character building.” And in 1945 high school students in New York held public discussions about “universal military training” in schools, where some, an article noted, expressed “fears that universal military training would indicate to the world that we had a ‘chip on our shoulders.’”

 

2. Military programs and schools are selectively targeted.

  Professor Pauline Lipman of the University of Illinois at Chicago has documented that Chicago’s public military academies, along with other schools offering limited educational choices, are located overwhelmingly  in low income communities of color, while schools with rich curriculums including magnet schools, regional gifted centers, classical schools, IB programs and college prep schools are placed in whiter, wealthier communities, and in gentrifying areas. In other words, it’s no accident that Senn High School was forced to house a military school, while a nearby selective admission high school was not. This is a Defense Department strategy—target schools where students are squeezed out of the most robust opportunities, given fewer options, and  perceived, then, as more likely to enlist; recruit the most susceptible  intensively, with false promises and tactics that include bribes,  gifts, home visits, mailings, harassment,  free video games promoting the glories of war and offering chances to “kill,” and more. Indeed, the Defense Department spends as much as $2.6 billion each year on recruiting.

 

3.  Military schools and programs promote obedience and conformity.

 Mayor Daley’s  claim that “[military programs] provide… students with the order and discipline that is too often lacking at home” taps into and fuels racialized perceptions and fears of unruly black and brown families and youth. They must be controlled., regulated, and made docile for their own good and for ours. An authentic commitment to the futures of these kids would involve, for a start, offering exactly what the most privileged youngsters have: art education, including dance, music instruction, theater and performance, and the visual arts,  sports and physical education, clubs and games, after-school opportunities, science and math labs, lower teacher-student ratios, smaller schools, and more. . Instead, to take one important example, a recent study by the Illinois Arts Council reports that in the city of Chicago, arts programs are distributed in the same way as the other rich educational offerings —white, wealthy communities have them, while low income communities of color have few or none.

 A 16 year old student attending the naval academy in Chicago said in an interview in the Chicago Tribune: “When people see that we went to a military school, they know we’re obedient, we follow directions, we’re disciplined.”  She understood and accurately described the qualities her school aims to develop—unquestioning  rule-following.

 

4. Military schools and programs promote and practice discrimination.

 

              Although the Chicago Board of Education, City of Chicago, Cook County, and the State of Illinois all prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, the United States Military condones discrimination against lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men. Promoters of these schools and programs are willfully ignoring the fact that queer students attending these schools can’t access military college benefits or employment possibilities, and that queer teachers can’t be hired to serve as JROTC instructors in these schools. This double standard should not be tolerated. Following the courageous examples of San Francisco and Portland, Chicago should refuse to do business with organizations that discriminate against its citizens.

Military schools and programs  depend on logics of racism, conquest,  misogyny and homophobia. Military schools need unruly youth of color to turn into soldiers, and they need queers and girls as the shaming contrasts against which those soldiers will be created. In other words, soldiers aren’t sissies and they aren’t pussies, either. These disparagements are used as behavior regulators in military settings. Military public schools are a problem, not simply because  “don’t ask don’t tell” policies restrict the access of queers to full participation in the military, but because these schools require the active, systematic, and visible disparagement and destruction of queerness and queer lives. We reject the idea that queers should organize for access to the military that depends on our revilement for its existence, rather than for the right to privacy, the right to public life, and the right to life free from militarism.

 

We live in a city awash in the randomly, tragically spilled blood of our children. We live, all of us, in a violent nation that is regularly spilling the blood of other children, elsewhere. It sickens us to think of students marching and growing comfortable with guns.


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