On Twitter

June 15, 2017

I read yesterday that Donald Trump blocked Stephen King on Twitter.  J.K. Rowling immediately stepped up and said she’d be happy to send S.K. Trump’s tweets so he could remain in the loop.  This is all mildly amusing, if you don’t think too hard about it.  If you do stop to think about it, however, you realize that the Leader of the Free World, of a country that prides itself on freedom of speech, is deliberately and purposefully blocking his own communication to people he fears will disagree with him.  Stephen King is only one of many dissidents who have been blocked from reading Trump’s tweets.  You might say that it’s only social media, that it’s Trump’s right to block individuals–I mean, I certainly have that capability on my own Twitter account–but I am not a public figure tasked with representing those I might choose to block.  Since Trump has made Twitter his primary means of communication with the American public–these reactionary, staccato, 140 character temper-tantrums designed to incite ire and deflect blame and responsibility–it should be alarming that he feels he is entitled to narrow his audience to those who won’t call him out and challenge the veracity of his missives.  He both works for us and is supposed to represent all of his constituents, not just those who nod and smile at his antics.  If we don’t recognize that his entitled view of narrowing the scope of available communication on Twitter as a microcosm of the broader intent to choke out opposing viewpoints in other areas of government, we are burying our heads in the sand.

I Like My Dystopia in Fictional Form, Thank You

April 17, 2017

My favorite genre of literature is dystopian fiction.  Authors create worlds that could be, cautionary tales to warn us away from pitfalls in our present that are driving us forward on a perilous trajectory.  We have not listened, my friends, and now we find our fictional futures colliding frighteningly with our unstable present.  In the words of the prescient authors past and present:

THE NEW STATE OF THINGS

“Sound bytes. Catch phrases. Sales pitches. Words. All lexical legitimizing. ‘A rose by any other name…’ he said. In the end it’s all propaganda.” –J.A. Willoughby, The Promised Land

“…dead to all things but greed and a desire to rule over others.” –Arun D. Ellis, Corpalism

This is a game show to Trump, and has been from the beginning.  He thrives on catch phrases, lives in generalities.  He has eschewed daily briefings because they don’t interest him; he has announced his bafflement at the complex issues he is responsible for when he is made to sit down and listen to the minutiae of the policies he must address.  (Who knew healthcare was so complex?  Everybody. Literally everybody except you.)  He couldn’t even be bothered to be sure about which country he bombed, as a matter of fact, in a show of power.  Did he think about potential consequences? Did he consider the complex political landscape he was walking into? (Not to mention the fact that he had recently declared that Syria needed to attend to their own problems without our interference.)  I mean, who could guess that foreign policy and diplomacy and acts of war could be so complex? Literally everybody, save one, apparently.  Honestly, it’s much more fun to just think about how impressive that giant explosion will be, and damn the consequences!  Desire to rule over others here means a show of force and might, but no real desire for governance for and with the people.

 

“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.” ― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

There have already been little bends and fissures in the laws in place, including healthcare, LGBT rights, and immigration, not to mention some pretty major reversals of previously hard-won policies.  We’ve lost all semblance of “checks and balances” with a Republican president, and a Republican majority in the House and Senate, as well as a conservative majority sitting on the Supreme Court. (Gorsuch, by the way, was confirmed after the rules were changed to go “nuclear” so that only a majority vote was necessary.  This, just shortly after a highly contentious confirmation hearing for the Education Secretary, DeVos, narrowly passed with a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Pence.)  So despite dragging their feet for months on a confirmation hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court pick, all it took to get the Republican nominee in was changing the rules to suit their plan.  Those in power are making changes to keep themselves in power indefinitely, closing up avenues to challenge that power.  This should be very frightening indeed.  If we continue to sit back and watch it unfold without raising our voices, soon there will be no place at all for our voices.  Once power is lost, it becomes that much more difficult to regain.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”— George Orwell, 1984

Trump’s heightened paranoia of his media coverage has become slightly ominous and threatening.  If he gets to ultimately decide which media is “real” (Fox News, Breitbart) and which media is “fake” (every other media outlet), he is effectively proclaiming that his truth, his reality, is the only one that matters. One of the hallmarks of our democracy is our multiplicity of viewpoints and our access to free press—that is, press that is not forcibly controlled by our government in order to narrowly define and disseminate state approved sound-bytes and propaganda.  Continuing to foster a hostile stance against free press and using the office of the president to attack any news source that dares to question or hold him accountable for his actions or his words is merely laying the groundwork for the hostile takeover of public information.

 

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

“He hadn’t realized that the ordinary little things that happened, the ones that took place between the big events while waiting for something more exciting to happen – they were the most important, after all.” ― Helen Smith, The Miracle Inspector

“There was protest…There were those who knew. Who saw what was coming. But their voices were mere whispers in a crowd of roaring discontent. The surrender of freedom came in subtle stages, not with an explosive arrival.” –Bard Constantine, Silent Empire

We have spent years languishing in complacency as a society.  We have the most abysmal voter turnout in democratic nations.  We do not seek out active roles in our own governance; we do not educate ourselves about the issues that regulate our world.  We give over—we have given over—our power to others who seem more invested and interested, and we go on about our lives, confident that things will work out.  And mostly, until now, they have.  There were some small things, and even some slightly bigger things, in the running of our country, that I might have disagreed with here and there.  On the whole, though, I was satisfied, and my life didn’t alter significantly when a new law was passed or a new representative hung his name plate on his office in the House.  And we got too comfortable.  I got too comfortable.  By the time I realized it was time to call the fire department, the whole house was engulfed.  In hindsight, I smelled the smoke; I felt a little warm.  I didn’t, however, gather the neighbors and sound the alarm before it got out of control.  Hindsight does not help us—and here we are.

Months after the election, Trump himself is the one who can’t seem to let the election and opposition to his rule go.  He also seems to think any protest–then and now– is “paid for” by…who knows? How is it possible that he can’t fathom people coming together of their own volition to express dissatisfaction? His narcissism makes it impossible for him to see dissent, and the people with whom he surrounds himself provide a protective bubble to engender that viewpoint.

CONSEQUENCES

 “When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”—Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

“I never thought it would get this bad. I never thought the Reestablishment would take things so far. They’re incinerating culture, the beauty of diversity. The new citizens of our world will be reduced to nothing but numbers, easily interchangeable, easily removable, easily destroyed for disobedience. We have lost our humanity.” ―Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me

We have lost funding to Planned Parenthood, and the government continues to dismantle healthcare that will deny coverage to millions if they are successful.  Funding for schools, arts, and social programs are all on the chopping block in favor of funneling unimaginable dollars into an already massive military budget, because that’s what Trump believes equates to power—force and might, not humanity and culture.  This is the path he has chosen for us, but I refuse to be reduced to a number.  I will continue to fight for the beauty of diversity and the humanity that is in us all. This is what I choose.

“For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realise that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.” –George Orwell, 1984

My bias may be showing here, but this is where the importance of education comes in, both formal and informal.  We have to ensure that the populace has the security of a humane life and has access to education to become critical thinkers and consumers of information in our world, so that we are not beholden only to the information the Man Behind the Curtain wants to show us, but rather that we are all able to discern and evaluate and assess on our own.  We need to right the ship of power once again so that the people are the captain and the president is the one following their commands, rather than the other way around.  Our President and our elected officials are our crew; we cannot abdicate our responsibility in telling him how we want to sail the ship.  As of now, we have a mutiny afoot, and we have to wrest control back before we lose it altogether.  An ignorant populace breeds fear, contempt, and hostility; an educated one recognizes that gain for each is a gain for all and seeks to uplift and help one another for the greater good.  A “leader” who is more interested in maintaining power than in his constituents will do all in his power to foster the former and not the latter.

WHAT DO WE DO NOW?

“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

“There’s a big difference between being numb to something and being immune to it.”
― Michael Monroe, Afterlife

“Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no need of change.”—H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

It’s tough in today’s world to be disaffected, to be ignorant, but some people still work at it.  We simply can’t afford it.  Being numb to what is going on doesn’t mean we won’t feel the consequences, and they are likely to get much, much worse before they get better.  It’s now several months in, and some are weary of the continued calls to contact your representatives, or to get out for the mid-year elections, or to continue to write and speak your mind.  They’re counting on that.  They want us to become accustomed to the new normal, to sink into acceptance.  We’ve done that for too long, and the stakes are far too high.  The battle will be won with perseverance and persistence, not force.

“We can’t be confined to one way of thinking, and that terrifies our leaders. It means we can’t be controlled. And it means that no matter what they do, we will always cause trouble for them.” –Veronica Roth, Divergent

“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

 “There has to be beauty left in the world, Julia,” said Kiyu. “Otherwise we have nothing.”
― Erica Lindquist, Whisperworld

We can’t be controlled.  We can’t wait for the revolution and the resistance to come from somewhere else.  It has to begin with us; it must continue with us.  That, after all, is the beauty left in the world—us.  The individual.  The humanity in us all.

Metaphor

March 23, 2017

 

At the risk of being too simplistic, I can only wrap my brain around the new Federal Budget proposal in terms of the environment in which I spend my time.  The proposal includes a massive boost to military and Homeland Security, while cutting huge percentages of domestic programs.  If we drop that Federal Budget scenario down to a microcosm—say a public high school–here’s what it would look like:  We’d have state of the art camera security and a strong police presence around the perimeter of the school in order to protect the students from harmful outsiders.  There would also be a highly visible police presence within the campus, in order to vet each student to ensure that they fit the correct profile of students we want to educate within our walls.  Drones would be enlisted to fly over the campus periodically to make sure all students adhered to appropriate conduct codes, and to ensure that no one on the outside attempts to scale the heavily fortified wall surrounding the compound. God forbid we should want to educate those who didn’t start their education here.

Inside the classroom however, the children share meager materials—

They’ll be sitting on the floors, because there aren’t enough desks.

They’ll be sharing texts, because there is no funding to ensure each child has a book.

More kids than we thought will have books today, though, since several students are home sick, not having the ability to access health care.

Several students are unable to focus on lessons, because they struggle with mental health issues for which there is no assistance—or their parents do.

Students break for lunch at noon.  If they weren’t fortunate enough to bring their own lunches from home, they will be going without. They should have known better than to be born into a family without sufficient means to provide them lunch.

Don’t worry about afternoon music classes; there aren’t any.  Those go by the wayside when funding for NEA becomes obsolete.  Ditto for field trips to the local museums.

Programs to assist students who need additional help in acquiring English language skills, or students who are struggling and falling behind in reading and math?  Good luck.  Perhaps those students should try NOT having another language as their primary language, or perhaps they should just try not to have learning disabilities.  Again, they should have had the foresight to be born into families with better resources.

Yes, unless born to privilege, in our little school the kids will lack resources.  They’ll be hungry, and in need.  Access to the most basic of needs will be limited; access to culture and art non-existent.  Not to worry, though—no harm will come to them from the world outside the school house doors.  Probably.  On the inside, however, they’re on their own.

 

Back into the Fray

March 22, 2017

 

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a post.  I feel I’ve been in survival mode, politically speaking—dodging bullets raining down left and right.  Each morning brings a fresh barrage of nerve-wracking, dangerous revelations out of the White House.  Russian ties, blatant racism, nepotism, and misogyny. An endless stream of infantile “Presidential” tweets directing hostility and rancor at the media and begging desperately for respect, credibility, and adoration that he has no idea how to garner from the public.  Legislation designed to gut education, health care, and programs that care for our most vulnerable populations.  An endless parade of appointees who not only DON’T “drain the swamp”, but instead own the swamp and have every intention of erecting a gilt palace and unpacking the finery and the good silver for a good long stay.

It’s tempting to keep dodging the bullets, ducking for cover.  It would be easier to turn a blind eye to the news.  It’s hard to know even where to jump in the fray or which battle cry to raise.  The fray, however, rages on; the easier way doesn’t win victories.  We must battle on.

Betsy DeVos and the Question of School Choice

February 12, 2017

It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that a president with no political experience saw no issue with appointing an Education Secretary who has absolutely no experience with public education.  Despite that lack of experience, and after a bitter battle in the confirmation hearings this week, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the head of our educational system in the United States.

I have a great many concerns about this, as her appointment will directly affect my students and me.  Never mind that her confirmation came after she and her family made great contributions to many of the senators who voted on her behalf, which means she essentially funded her own nomination.  Never mind that in the hearings, she was unable to respond to the simplest of education policy questions, such as the distinction between growth and proficiency.  Never mind her stance against Common Core—a whole issue in its own right, worthy of deeper discussion in a later post.  Never mind that she has never ‘walked a mile’, let alone a step, in the shoes of hard-working educators all over the country.

There are a lot of issues, but one of the biggest ones is her staunch advocacy of School Choice.  School Choice sounds great, and in theory, it’s meant to level the playing field.  It’s meant to make underperforming schools ‘step up to the plate’ and to allow underprivileged students access to better schools than those in their own backyard, often in the form of charter or voucher schools.  Parents ought to have a say in where their kids go to school, and should be able to send their kids to the best schools, even if that’s not the one in their neighborhood.  In theory—a great idea.  In reality, not so much.  School Choice, and what that looks like on paper, doesn’t play out in reality. From a position of privilege, perhaps that’s difficult to see, but then again if the one has never walked a mile in those shoes, the inherent design flaws are not immediately evident.

Students can still be denied access to private or voucher schools, so “School Choice” can translate into options for those who have additional monies, and those who are academically advanced and therefore desirable to selective schools who want to boost their academic ratings, but that does not mean that those schools have to accept students who might lower their school’s test scores—it’s bad for publicity, which is often what drives high performing and moneyed students there to begin with.  Of course, those students already have those choices now.  School Choice, here, doesn’t so easily open new doors to those who don’t fit into those categories—the ones School Choice is supposed to lift up and bolster.  The economics of School Choice factor in another way as well.  If every student has $12,000 federal dollars which can follow them to the school of their choice, and the private schools charge in excess of that, only those with additional money can foot the bill—just as is the case now.  Factor in additional transportation charges on top of that, to travel to schools outside the neighborhood schools, plus books, supplies, and uniforms, and you have yet again an equation that closes School Choice to the ones who could most benefit from it.  Those students will be left in the local neighborhood schools, now bereft of the federal dollars which could improve and sustain the improvement to the free public education to which all students should be entitled.  If those schools are to be improved so that access to a good education is, in fact, available to all of our children, pulling federal funding out of those schools cripples their ability to make those improvements, effectively widening the divide instead of leveling the playing field.

One of the most troubling issues is that funding following the students means that federal tax dollars will pay for religious schools, since according to the Department of Education, some 76% of private schools have some religious affiliation.  This is a basic violation of the separation of Church and State.  Parents should certainly be able to teach their kids their own religious and spiritual foundation, but taxpayer dollars should not be required to fund those choices.  Setting aside even that fundamental argument, there is the issue of oversight within private schools, which are not beholden to the same degree of transparency as public schools. Private schools, religious and otherwise, do not have to follow the same standards of professional credentialing or curriculum, and are not held to the same testing standards as public schools.  This makes it difficult to even tell if sending our tax dollars to those private/voucher schools is an economically sound move that accomplishes the intended outcome of raising our students’ academic performance nationally.  I know a great many private school teachers, and many of them are hard-working, dedicated, intelligent individuals.  There are certainly high-performing private schools—of that there is no doubt.  I don’t want this to devolve into an us-vs.-them argument, because I believe that there are great things going on in some of the private and charter schools.  What I do expect, however, is the kind of accountability with our tax dollars for ALL schools that won’t happen if Betsy DeVos’ track record at the state level bears out at the national level.

On Betsy DeVos’ own website, she says “I am committed to transforming our education system into the best in the world. However, out of respect for the United States Senate, it is most appropriate for me to defer expounding on specifics until they begin their confirmation process.”  She’s been confirmed now, and so far I have yet to hear the specifics, other than devaluing the work of public educators and expounding on the dubious benefits of School Choice.  If she is, in fact committed to transforming our education system, I want to see transformation that takes into account some of the real issues facing the students that walk through the public education system daily.  I want assurance that the perceived ‘fix’ for our schools isn’t the Pied Piper waltzing out of our public schools and trailing along with her promises of fattened coffers without oversight for only those who have the ability to catch the train and follow.

Instead, meet with teachers.  Meet with students where they are.  Use those funds to build up public schools and bring them up to speed with the needs we face in today’s society—all schools, not just select ones.  Invest in building business partnerships within communities, to bridge theoretical education with practical application.  Invest in the kinds of technologies that kids need in order to thrive and succeed in today’s society.  Invest in technical and vocational training that help our kids understand complex tasks of the work force of today.  Invest in mentorships that promote engagement in education.  Invest in the creative and critical thinking that encourages our students to begin thinking about and solving social issues today, and even those issues that haven’t surfaced yet.  Invest in an arts education where students can find a voice for their passions, the expressions of their souls. Invest in a humanities education that recognizes our students are not numbers, not inanimate products of a business, but humans who struggle with poverty, depression, teen suicide, violence, financial uncertainty, abuse, language barriers, disabilities, discrimination, and yes, even the real possibility for some of our students of deportation for them or their family members.  Take all that money out of the public schools and send it to private schools, and those problems still exist, and in even heavier concentrations in those neighborhood schools.  Don’t send our students off scrambling in search of a promise of a better education; give them a better education where they are.

A high-functioning, prosperous democracy depends on an educated populace.  It would benefit all of us to make sure all of our children have a strong education.  I hope Betsy DeVos goes to school—our public schools—to learn what good teachers are doing day after day, because it’s going to take a real education in order for her to positively effect change for all the children of our nation.  I hope she’s ready for it.

 

Some resources and additional reading:

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/11/5-things-to-know-about-betsy-devos-trumps-pick-for-education-secretary/508661/

https://www.au.org/church-state/february-2011-church-state/featured/10-reasons-why-private-school-vouchers-should-be

http://www.betsydevos.com/q-a/

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/news/a52934/who-is-betsy-devos-education-secretary-policies/

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/parents-already-face-tough-school-choice-they-want-simplicity-2017-02-07?siteid=yhoof2&yptr=yahoo

http://www.nea.org/home/19133.htm

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/why-betsy-devos-riling-education-advocates-n716491

http://www.scarymommy.com/what-outraged-parents-can-do-to-defend-public-education-after-the-confirmation-of-betsy-devos/?utm_source=FB

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/12/08/a-sobering-look-at-what-betsy-devos-did-to-education-in-michigan-and-what-she-might-do-as-secretary-of-education/?utm_term=.369acce1cf28

In a U.S.-Mexican Trade War, No One Wins

In the first week of his presidency, we have seen Donald Trump move forward on some of his campaign promises through withdrawal from the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) and ordering the construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. These actions seek to posture his administration as tough on the international stage and putting America’s needs first. However, what happens when other nations refuse to bend to Trump’s will, as Mexico refuses to finance the wall? Sean Spicer, Trump’s Press Secretary, stated that the administration was considering a 20% tax on Mexican imports in order to finance the wall.[i] The logic behind the tax is simple: higher prices for Mexican imports should drive down American demand for such products and harm the Mexican economy.

 

The rationale behind this tax stems from a single assumption that appears to guide most of Trump’s decision-making:

 

  • America, as the world’s largest economy and super power, can withstand and outlast any other country or economy in a trade war

 

Through this assumption, Trump hopes that a 20% import tax would cripple the Mexican economy into submission and believes that the American economy can survive any sort of economic retaliation from Mexico. He is most likely correct. America would most likely outlast Mexico in a trade war, but outlasting Mexico does not mean that America wins. An import tax mostly falls on the consumer, and this tax would be regressive, meaning that the burden falls heavier on lower-income households. The result: many working class Americans—those who swung heavily towards Trump this election—will be feeling the most acute pain in their wallets. As Senator Lindsey Graham said on twitter, “any policy proposal that drives up the costs of Corona, tequila, or Margaritas is a big-time bad idea. Mucho Sad.” Mucho sad, indeed, Senator Graham.

[i] http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/26/politics/donald-trump-mexico-import-tax-border-wall/

And the Award Goes To…

January 9, 2017

On Sunday night at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep was given the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award and gave what quickly became a polarizing acceptance speech.  In her speech, she exhorted everyone to hold those in power to account on this monumental eve of the changing of the guards in the United States.  She used her spotlight to call attention to our duty and responsibility to question and speak out where we see injustice and to expect our leaders to comport themselves with dignity and compassion.  In part, she said,

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing.  Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

The polarizing aspect of this speech is appalling to me.  I find it difficult to take exception to the idea that we should expect the powerful to use their powers for the benefit of all, rather than to use that power to bully others.  There is a flurry of conversation, however, about the fact that those ‘Hollywood types’ have no business politicizing an entertainment forum; they should just, in essence, ‘shut up and just do their jobs’.  How is it, by virtue of their chosen profession, there are people who seem to have decided that they are not entitled to their opinions?  That they are not entitled to share their opinions?  I am not a politician; I am not a legal analyst or a foreign or domestic policy expert.  I have never held a public office, and yet I am an intelligent, knowledgeable individual with valid opinions and insight.  The stakes are high, and my life, and the lives of all Americans, will be impacted by decisions and actions of our President-elect.  Therefore, my opinion matters.  My voice matters.  Why is it that someone like Meryl Streep, or even Jimmy Fallon, Golden Globes host, isn’t entitled to share their opinions as well?  Streep has a career as an actress; it’s not her sole identity.  It’s not the only thing about which she should be allowed to speak.  She is a citizen, just like you, just like me.  She happens to have a very public forum in which to share her opinions and to use her power—the power of access to audience—to speak to and for those who don’t have that privilege.  She is, in fact, modeling exactly what she wishes to see in the leader of her country:  to use her power to model the way in which power should be used in order to benefit others who don’t have a voice.  She did so with grace and clarity, without resorting to name-calling.  Trump, on the other hand, took to Twitter, which is apparently his primary means of communication, to call Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” who is a “Hillary flunky who lost big”.

Streep’s speech was a bold one, because as she was exercising her First Amendment right of free speech, she knew that she was risking losing fans who did not agree with her politics—movie goers who have the right to spend their hard-earned cash at the box office and to speak with their dollars.  She knew that she risked alienating those who did not agree with her views—and she did it anyway.  We HAVE to be willing to put ourselves on the line and speak up for what we believe in, lest our silence be taken for tacit agreement.  So as our President-elect is pushing forward confirmation hearings on a slate of appointed officials who have not yet completed the standard ethics review process, and as Senator Paul Ryan is pushing to defund Planned Parenthood, effectively limiting access to reproductive health and cancer screenings for people who are historically underserved and underrepresented, it is our responsibility to speak out, call our government representatives, and to use our forums no matter how big or small, to continue to hold our government to account.