Margins

Although I am sure more people have blocked me on social media, I remain aware of and concerned about two of those—both women, one black and one white.

The reason for my concern is that I would count them both members of the communities I support, ideologically and practically. Also, since I am blocked, I remain mostly uncertain of why, although with one I did have an exchange on an email forum about her perceptions of me (what I view as unwarranted assumptions).

Being blocked, I recognize however, was the result of both these women functioning in much narrower margins than I do because of my privileges of gender, race, and economics. In other words, regardless of my good intentions, regardless of whether or not I behaved in any way that warranted being blocked, these women do not have the margins to risk examining whether I am part of the toxic masculinity, toxic whiteness, or toxic affluence that threatens them moment by moment.

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much label the margins of economic privilege and disadvantage as “slack” (privilege and thus huge margins) and “scarcity” (disadvantage and thus very thin margins). I think those terms apply equally as well to gender and race.

In retrospect, I am reminded of a moment from my teaching high school English when a white boy brushed a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” from his desk when I handed them out, announcing that he wasn’t reading that “[racial slur].” The student was adamant that King was an adulterer, having a pamphlet that excoriated King; the pamphlet, if one bothered to look carefully, had been created by the KKK, which had a vibrant following in the small town just south of the high school.

The margins (scarcity) for MLK—using “adultery” as a veneer for racism—must be placed against, for example, the social slack afforded John F. Kennedy, who is allowed his claimed accomplishments despite his personal indiscretions, unlike how any small failure by MLK is used to discredit all of his work.

More recently, the US has witnessed eight years of unrelenting discrediting of Barack Obama as president through unfounded claims about his birthplace; Obama as the first black president had to be perfect or completely discredited.

Immediately succeeding Obama is Donald Trump, who survived video/audio evidence of language and attitudes toward women most people would not tolerate in children; in other words, Trump’s gender, race, and economic privilege (slack) is so powerful, he appears nearly capable of doing anything with impunity.

Trump himself declared this himself during his campaign:

This is the most vivid and gross example of the power of slack grounded in race, gender, and economic privilege.

Black Film/ White Film: More on Slack and Scarcity

Since I am a comic book advocate, having collected Marvel comics throughout the 1970s and more recently published scholarship on the intersections of race and gender in superhero comics, I have watched and listened carefully to the public responses to Black Panther, the most recent Marvel Universe film.

While I have not yet seen the film, I have followed the sputtering path of the character Black Panther since he was introduced in the 1960s; as a teenager collecting comics, I was a fan of Black Panther as well as The Falcon, who was cover-billed along with Captain America throughout much of the 1970s.

Black_Panther_Vol_1_1  Captain_America_Vol_1_117

I lacked critical discernment as a teen, but can recognize that these two characters laid a foundation for my discovering black authors and thinkers in college as I struggled to cast off the worst aspects of my upbringing in the racist and intolerant South.

Most have responded to Black Panther the film with enthusiasm and even glee, and the box office has reflected some powerfully positive messages about black films and actors. But a few have begun to unpack problems with nationalism and the white savior trope in the narrative.

Here we may be inclined to argue that the highest form of equity, the absence of racism, would require that the film receive something akin to objective analyses—not unduly criticized (veneers for racism) and not sheltered from criticism as a sort of inverse racism.

There, however, this claim is not as simple as it may seem—especially if we ground how we respond to the film in terms of slack and scarcity, in terms of the King/Kennedy inequity.

Certainly, the film cannot be above credible criticism, but in that pursuit, we must guard against the perfection bar often manifested as scarcity when applied to disadvantages associated with race, class, and gender.

White films, for example, are not called “white,” but simply films. Adam Sandler and Kevin James, for example, have long resumes of films that certainly have been allowed an incredible amount of slack—forgiven the nearly unforgivable (think Trump) for hopes of some glimmer of humor nestled among the truly cliche, offensive, and just plain lazy.

Black Panther, even in the praise, is rendered into scarcity as a black film, and by implication must carry the weight of all black films, all black actors, all black writers (although the character was spawned by white creators in a very white, often racist industry).

Since Kevin James was allowed Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, just how close to perfect does Black Panther need to be?

The truest test of equity may be that all films have the same degree of slack.

School Safety: Slack and Scarcity as a Matter of Life and Death

While many in the US are reveling in the pop culture frenzy around Black Panther, the ugliest aspects of American culture once again expose how our on-screen violences pale against our gun culture and the ever-present threat of mass shootings, especially at the expense of students in school.

Although most mass shooters are white men, gun violence tends to prompt concerns about gangs and black-on-black crime, yet another demonstration of inequitable margins: White male mass shooters never prompt outcries about all white men (since the shooters are often framed as mentally ill) even though simply the threat of terrorism evokes blanket narratives and even policies about Muslims.

The paradox of gun violence and mass shootings in the US is that Americans have experienced increasingly less crime over the past four or so decades, even as the rate of mass shootings and gun violence remains disturbingly high when compared to other countries.

Debates about gun violence become yet more evidence of slack and scarcity linked to race.

Why has the country responded so positively to the teens speaking out after the shooting in Parkland, Florida but tended to reject or ignore the outcries from teens surrounding the all-to-frequent police shootings of young blacks, the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

Simply stated, when anything appears to encroach on the huge slack whites perceive (safety in this case), mainstream responses flair, but the margins for safety are so thin for blacks, for example, that to live in danger as a black person has become normalized beneath the implication that blacks themselves are the ones perpetuating violence.*

Whites as victims (slack), and blacks as violent (scarcity).

Taking care about whether or not we criticize Black Panther holds some important symbolic value, but in terms of how we respond to a school shootings, we are now making decisions that are life and death.

Responses to the Parkland, Florida shooting have focused on how to make schools safer—in part, to avoid the larger gun control debate that is muted by the NRA.

Arming teachers is one extreme, but in an Op-Ed for The State (Columbia, SC), Will Britt argues:

My recommendations are all achievable and avoid the most controversial ideas, so that they have a chance of happening. Still, they will require unified and emphatic parental endorsement: Install metal detectors, restrict campus and building access and connect 360-degree interior and exterior video monitoring for every public school.

This is a compelling argument to those living in the slack of race privilege, but is a red flag to those living in slack, in very thin margins.

First, Britt’s argument is solidly refuted by evidence:

Impact of Security Measures on Violence

  • There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, 8,9,10,11 and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.12
  • There has not been sufficient research to determine if the presence of metal detectors in schools reduces the risk of violent behavior among students. 13
  • Some researchers have expressed concern about the widespread use of guards, cameras, and other security technologies, given that so little is known about their effectiveness. 14,15
  • Research has found security strategies, such as the use of security guards and metal detectors, to be consistently ineffective in protecting students16 and to be associated with more incidents of school crime and disruption17 and higher levels of disorder in schools. 18
  • Evidence from a school–police partnership implemented in New York City reveals that students in these schools continue to experience higher than average problems linked directly to future criminality, compared to students in other New York City schools not involved in the partnership. 19
  • Surveillance cameras in schools may have the effect of simply moving misbehavior to places in schools or outside of schools that lack surveillance. Even more troubling, it’s possible that cameras may function as enticement to large-scale violence, such as in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter who mailed video images of himself to news outlets.20
  • Research suggests that the presence of security guards and metal detectors in schools may actually increase levels of violence in schools by strengthening the influence of youth “street” culture with its emphasis on self-protection.21

If these measures do not work, why are they compelling?

Calls for more security, research shows, in fact is more veneer for racism since extreme measures such as metal detectors and surveillance cameras are more common in high-minority schools even when discipline issues are not more pronounced.

White slack dictates that white safety must be protected at all costs; black/brown scarcity dictates that there is no margin of error for protecting against black/brown violence.

American culture is today awash in a triumphant celebration of Black Panther jammed against a national scramble to confront our daily violences in the form of guns.

Turning our schools into fortresses if not prisons, and even arming teachers, presents those with race, gender, and economic slack a much different picture (more safety) than those with race, gender, and economic scarcity (more violence).

Margins still define us, and margins left unchecked are apt to destroy us in the end.


* The mainstream media and political focus on black-on-black crime allows whites to ignore that all crime is mostly same-race since white-on-white crime rates are nearly identical to black-on-black crime rates.

Research excerpt sources:

8 Garcia, C. A. (2003). School safety technology in America: Current use and perceived effectiveness. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 14, 30-54.

9 Addington, L. A. (2009). Cops and cameras: Public school security as a policy response to Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1424-1446.

10 Borum, R., Cornell, D. G., Modzeleski, W., & Jimerson, S. R. (2010). What can be done about school shootings? A review of the evidence. Educational Researcher, 39, 27-37.

11 Casella, R. (2006). Selling us the fortress: The promotion of techno-security equipment in schools. New York: Routledge.

12 Addington, L. A. (2009). Cops and cameras: Public school security as a policy response to Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1424-1446.

13 Hankin, A., Hertz, M., & Simon, T. (2011). Impacts of metal detector use in schools: Insights from 15 years of research. Journal of School Health, 81, 100-106.

14 Birkland, T. A., & Lawrence, R. G. (2009). Media framing and policy change after Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1405-1425.

15 Green, M. B. (2005). Reducing violence and aggression in schools. Trauma, Violence and Abuse, 6, 236-253.

16 Schreck, C. J., & Miller, J. M., & Gibson, C. L. (2003). Trouble in the school yard: A study of the risk factors of victimization at school. Crime & Delinquency, 49, 460-484.

17 Nickerson, A. B., & Martens, M. R. (2008). School violence: Associations with control, security/enforcement, educational/therapeutic approaches, and demographic factors. School Psychology Review, 37, 228-243.

18 Mayer, M. J., & Leaone, P. E. (1999). A structural analysis of school violence and disruption: Implications for creating safer schools. Education and Treatment of Children, 22, 333-356.

19 Brady, K. P., Balmer, S., & Phenix, D. (2007). School-police partnership effectiveness in urban schools: An analysis of New York City’s Impact Schools Initiative. Education and Urban Society, 39, 455-478.

20 Warnick, B. R. (2007). Surveillance cameras in schools: An ethical analysis. Harvard Educational Review, 77, 317- 343.

21 Phaneuf, S. W. (2009). Security in schools: Its effect on students. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.

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Well, It’s Complicated: How to Stop Living by What You Think and Start Living by What You Know

Along with being Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, Steven Pinker is identified on Wikipedia as a  cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. All pretty impressive and even fairly broad in terms of his areas of expertise.

Pinker provides a few photos on his web page, just in case you need one.

I have used Pinker’s work in linguistics for many years, especially as I teach future English teachers and try to combat prescriptive approaches to grammar, mechanics, and usage.

Among my colleagues and friends in linguistics and English, however, we are apt to use Pinker’s theories of language—framing language as biological and building on the work of Noam Chomsky—as a point of debate. In other words, even though Pinker is regarded as a leading figure in his primary field, many credible arguments remain about his claims.

Consider, then, this review of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now:

Steven Pinker is at it again. Several years ago, the Harvard-based cognitive psychologist took time off regular duties to offer some gratuitous advice to humanities scholars about how to “fix” their discipline….

The Enlightenment may seem an ambitious topic for a cognitive psychologist to take up from scratch. Numerous historians have dedicated entire careers to it, and there remains a considerable diversity of opinion about what it was and what its impact has been. But from this and previous work we get intimations of why Pinker thinks he is the person for the job. Historians have laboured under the misapprehension that the key figures of the Enlightenment were mostly philosophers of one stripe or another. Pinker has made the anachronistic determination that, in fact, they were all really scientists – indeed, “cognitive neuroscientists” and “evolutionary psychologists.”

In short, he thinks that they are people like him and that he is thus possessed of privileged insights into their thought denied to mere historians. The latter must resort to careful reading and fraught interpretation in lieu of being able directly to channel what Enlightenment thinkers really thought.

Despite his recognized brilliance and accomplishments, Pinker—like a cognitive scientist and psychologist writing entire books on teaching reading—has fallen victim to reaching beyond ones area of expertise and treating an entire field as if those experts do not exist. Further, as the review unpacks, Pinker appears to suffer from a narcissism that spurs projection: I am great, therefore, let me find myself in the greatness that has come before me.

Pinker, then, represents a serious problem that confronts all of us: How to stop living by what you think and start living by what you know.

From the White House to the New York Times Opinion page to friends on Facebook, we are under constant assault by stuff people think are facts, although too often they are ultimately false.

In some cases, sharing and then living by misinformation are mostly just annoying, but the gun debate represents how this tension has real life-and-death consequences—too often for children, who have almost no political power.

For example, we must consider how fearmongering has kept the US focused on only one type of the slippery-slope argument—gun control = all guns will be taken away—while forcing us to live in another unexpressed slippery-slope reality—gun culture = inordinate mass shootings and perpetual gun violence.

My primary areas of expertise—in terms of my educational background, teaching experiences, and scholarship—are literacy, poverty, and race, the latter two mostly as related to education; although, much of that expertise has come from intense study built on my formal degrees. Since mass shootings have been all-too-common in schools, I have spent some of my scholarly and public work addressing gun control—recognizing that I, like Pinker, am stepping outside my field in some respects.

The shooting in Parkland, Florida has spurred another round of my public work calling for evidence-based approaches to ending our self-defeating gun culture in the US.

Debating gun control for me is doubly dangerous because it is outside my field and I am very passionate about the topic.

Since I engage in the gun debate on social media, I have been confronted by some very frustrating pro-gun or anti-gun control arguments that simply are not credible: pointing a finger at mental illness, arguing that gangs and black-on-black crime explain the gun violence problem in the U.S., imposing the mainstream slippery-slope argument that gun control means taking away all guns from everyone, refusing to acknowledge international comparisons that highlight the unique problems with guns and gun violence in the US, invoking the lack of God in school or society, blaming violence on violent pop culture (movies, video games, music), etc.

Although I am aware that evidence is not as effective as I would hope when debating topics with people who are more committed to what they think (and believe) than to what they know, I work diligently (and like a scholar, seeking bodies of research) to find the argument and evidence that will help others move to informed positions.

I want to share here just one part of that journey recently for me, a moment when I really could have made a serious mistake if I hadn’t checked myself when I had an idea, checked myself by realizing, well, it’s complicated.

Most arguments about violence are lazy and rushed, typically overstating the amount and threat of violence in the now of the debate, lacking as many debates do some historical context (a real go-to for me).

To combat the “violence today” arguments (violent pop culture, gangs, black-on-black crime, lack of God), I considered making a Wild West analogy, which on its surface seemed very compelling and obvious in terms of how violent I assumed the Wild West to have been.

The irony about how badly Hollywood misrepresents the Wild West is that characters popularized by Clint Eastwood may in fact give us insight into the tragic relationship between guns and toxic masculinity.

Until I checked myself with “well, it’s complicated.”

Luckily, I first did a quick google search and found a 2014 article by Glenn Kessler on Rick Santorum bumbling, yep, a Wild West analogy:

The Hollywood version of the Wild West is at the core of this exchange on Face the Nation, so perhaps it’s time for a history lesson. One-time presidential candidate Rick Santorum asserted that gun crimes were low back then because people had the right to carry guns. But he actually has the story backward.

The Wild West as a matter of history doesn’t square with the Wild West of Hollywood:

“Carrying of guns within the city limits of a frontier town was generally prohibited. Laws barring people from carrying weapons were commonplace, from Dodge City to Tombstone,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA’s School of Law and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “When Dodge City residents first formed their municipal government, one of the very first laws enacted was a ban on concealed carry. The ban was soon after expanded to open carry, too. The Hollywood image of the gunslinger marching through town with two Colts on his hips is just that — a Hollywood image, created for its dramatic effect.”

Gun control, I discovered, goes back to the so-called Founding Fathers, in fact, as historian Saul Cornell explains:

I have been researching and writing about the history of gun regulation and the Second Amendment for the past two decades. When I began this research, most people assumed that regulation was a relatively recent phenomenon, something associated with the rise of big government in the modern era. Actually, while the founding generation certainly esteemed the idea of an armed population, they were also ardent supporters of gun regulations.

And just how violent the Wild West was, it turns out, is much like the debates my colleagues and I have about Pinker’s linguistics; it’s complicated, as Kessler explains in the Santorum article:

…“Gun homicides were far more rare than Americans have been led to believe,” [UCLA School of Law professor, Winkler] said. “Most frontier towns had fewer than two homicides a year during the heyday of the Old West. Yet that is not inconsistent with Roth’s research. The homicide rate was high in these towns because the population was very small. Even one murder in a town with only a few dozen residents leads to a high homicide rate. These towns were violent, but not nearly as violent as some imagine.”

In other words, no matter how one looks at the research, Santorum has his history incorrect. People did not walk around town carrying guns—but the homicide rate was unusually high.

When we take our time and consider the history of gun violence and gun control, we discover, well, it’s complicated.

What I discovered is not a new or powerful analogy* (thanks to Santorum’s very public bumbling), but a way to check ourselves when we are not sure if we are debating or living by what we think instead of what we know.

The amount of guns and access to guns in the U.S. are essential elements in why the U.S. sits below average for crime rates but is a extreme outlier in gun homicides and violence (see #2 here).

But even with those facts, well, it’s complicated, as Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober, both sociologists, explain:

A great deal of commentary attempts to tie mass shootings to a single issue. Often, that seems like the easiest way to make sense of atrocities. That’s why we get sound bites that lean on mental health (when shooters are white), terrorist ties and affiliations (when shooters are brown), gang violence and “urban decay” (when shooters are black), bullying (when it happens in a school), and overwork (when it happens in a workplace).

The truth cannot be boiled down to any single issue. As sociologists, we can look to the bigger picture, point out patterns, and identify common denominators. Our research suggests that gun control is, indeed, an important piece of the problem. But in order to understand the factors behind America’s mass shootings, it is also critical to consider the relationship between masculinity and violence.

And thus:

Scholars who study masculinity and mass shootings have consistently drawn attention to the fact that mass shootings are not only a uniquely American social problem; they are a problem with American menWe’ve argued before that there are two questions that require explanation related to gender and mass shootings. First, why is it that men commit virtually all mass shootings? And second, why do American men commit mass shootings more than men anywhere else in the world?

Adding to this, Jennifer Wright explains:

In many of these mass shootings, the desire to kill seems to be driven by a catastrophic sense of male entitlement. In some cases, the perpetrators seemed to feel that if people did not give them precisely what they wanted, then those people did not deserve to live. The only just world, in their minds, was a world they were the center of….

A great many mass murderers have a history of domestic violence. They range from Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub shooting, whose ex-wife claimed he took her paychecks, forbade her from leaving the house and beat her if she did not live up to what he perceived as being her duties; to Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood Clinic and had been accused of domestic violence by two of his three ex-wives.

With a historical, and checked, perspective, and a bit more care than most public and political debate allow, then, we can begin to construct a vivid and accurate picture of why the U.S. suffers so much gun violence and so many mass shootings.

And while, well, it’s complicated, we can safely say that the amount of guns, access to guns, a climate of toxic masculinity, and identifiable behaviors such as domestic violence provide a nearly complete puzzle that can provide a context for not only a productive debate, but also actions that a free people can take in the name of human safety.

The gun debate itself is complicated, but that sits against the simple fact that children slaughtered at school or dozens mowed down at an outdoor concert is not complicated but inexcusable in a free society.

The gun debate and innocent lives implore us to stop living by what we think and start living by what we know.


See Also

More Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows

* Why Gun Control Backers Love To Talk About Duck Hunting

Changing the Odds So No Child Has to Overcome Them

There are several challenging, and therefore uncomfortable, scenes in Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007); however, when I show this documentary in my courses, few students recognize those scenes as either challenging or uncomfortable.

At one point, several black men from the Little Rock, Arkansas community are gathered outside the school, and they speak directly about the need for blacks to take care of their own, clean up their own communities. These men directly mention the damage of black-on-black crime (which is about the same as white-on-white crime, although the latter is almost never mentioned).

Throughout the documentary, as well, a number of black students confront how hard they work and how some of their fellow black students simply do not try—echoing a rugged individualism and personal responsibility narrative that a white teacher/coach and her white golf team members express.

I use these scenes as teachable moments about the negative impact of respectability politics on marginalized groups:

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.

…Today’s politics of respectability, however, commands blacks left behind in post–civil rights America to “lift up thyself.” Moreover, the ideology of respectability, like most other strategies for black progress articulated within the spaces where blacks discussed the best courses of action for black freedom, once lurked for the most part beneath the gaze of white America. But now that black elites are part of the mainstream elite in media, entertainment, politics, and the academy, respectability talk operates within the official sphere, shaping the opinions, debates, and policy perspectives on what should—and should not—be done on the behalf of the black poor.

Respectability politics works in conjunction with seemingly innocuous narratives (rugged individualism, lifting yourself by your bootstraps, personal responsibility) to keep the accusatory gaze on individuals and away from systemic inequity. In other words, political and economic elites are more secure if the majority of people believe all success and failure are primarily determined by individual traits and not by privilege and disadvantage beyond most people’s control.

This semester that discussion has coincided with Laura Ingraham attempting to publicly shame LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” a not-so-clever self-promotion for one of Ingraham’s vapid books.

Along with Kevin Durant’s heated response, James (see video in the link above) stressed, “We will definitely not shut up and dribble.”

Watching James, however, and listening carefully present us with the dangers of his “defeating the odds” motivation (listen to about minutes 1:50-2:15), his own powerful and impressive rise to being King James.

I am not criticizing James, however, and fully support his response, refusing to shut up and dribble.

But a message that suggests anyone can or should be able to achieve what an outlier, James, has achieved is ultimately harmful, speaking through and to the most corrosive aspects of respectability politics.

This call to teach children to beat the odds, in fact, is shared all along the political spectrum from right to left.

The ultimate flaw in a beat-the-odds mentality is, again, that it suggests success and failure lie mostly or solely in the individual, a matter of choice and effort—like having “grit,” a growth mindset, or a positive attitude (all ways to fix inadequate children).

This is a terrible message for children especially since success and failure are mostly determined by systemic forces—except for rare outliers—and the message allows those with the power to change the odds to escape accountability.

LeBron James, I believe, is right about his importance as a role model, as a stellar example of what black success looks like despite the odds being unfairly against him in the form of racism and economic inequity.

And as long as we as a society choose to ignore the odds, choose to allow racism, sexism, and classism to exist, I suppose we should find humane and supportive ways to encourage children to work so that a few of them may hit the life lottery and beat the odds.

But to be blunt, that’s a pretty shitty cop-out for the adults who could, in fact, change the odds so that no child has to overcome them.

It is ultimately a heartless and ugly thing to see children as lacking the drive to beat odds that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

It is political cowardice and public negligence to remain fatalistic about the odds as we watch those odds destroy the hopes and dreams of our children.

If anyone should shut up, that would be Ingraham and her entire cadre of right-wing know-nothings who shovel the very worst narratives that help guarantee those odds will remain in their favor.

And as we listen to James instead, let’s resist demanding that he or any so-called racial minorities somehow erase racism and then begin to demand that those who benefit the most from the odds use those privileges to dismantle those odds.

That, I know, is a powerful ask, but it is one that certainly holds more credence than asking children to be superhuman because we have James dribbling across our flatscreen TVs.

Resisting Resistance to Gun Control in the U.S.

My foundations of education class and I discussed the Parkland, Florida shooting a few days after the tragedy. My students tended to echo some of the most common and least credible arguments about the issue of mass shootings and gun violence. However, they were both willing to share and then eager to discuss and look at evidence.

One student, for example, noted that he is a hunter and gun control makes him uncomfortable. Others mentioned mental illness and made analogies such as access to alcohol.

So during the discussion we reached some key points I think are valuable to avoid the effort by the NRA and politicians to derail a reasonable discussion and real action:

  • Other countries have mental illness, and the US sits about in the middle of comparable countries in terms of crime rates (we are not an extreme country in terms of crime). But the US is an extreme outlier in terms of fatal crime and gun violence.
  • Other countries with almost no mass shootings and very little gun violence have people who hunt and people who have handguns in their home to protect their personal property. Making a country more safe with gun control is not about taking away all guns. That is a straw man argument.
  • The US is an extreme outlier in police fatally shooting and killing citizens (see the US compared to Germany for example). Our gun culture impacts every aspect of our society, even law enforcement.
  • Gun possession does in fact make people less safe, and the mostly wild-west approach to guns in the US is the biggest part of the gun violence problem.
  • Monitoring dangerous products is common in many aspects of our culture. That monitoring and care are not about taking away freedom, and we must keep in mind that freedom is not license. In other words, human freedom includes accountability for that freedom.
  • That people under 21 can buy assault-style weapons but not alcohol, or marijuana, is a serious commentary on a people with priorities out of line.
  • The best way to protect children in schools and US citizens in their daily lives is to end our gun culture—not to increase security; that is addressing the symptoms and refusing to cure the disease.

The larger point here is that everyone lives with irrational and uninformed beliefs, often living in ways that contradict what we embrace as our foundational ideals as individuals and as a society.

In order to check those contradictions, we must step back and begin again with evidence. I tend to be more cynical than even skeptical, but this discussion with my students confronted me with possibility that people can and will listen even in contexts that are difficult.

As I urged my students, I want no one to take the claims above as fact simply because I posted them here. The key is to study, investigate, explore our own assumptions and biases. And thus, start with some of these links below that reinforce the points above:

Guns Kill People. Gun Advocacy Is Complicit.

Americans like to promote ourselves as the land of the free and home of the brave.

These are lies.

Bald-faced and ugly lies—especially the part about being brave.

The truth is America is the land of the delusional and home of the careless.

Two powerful and corrosive lies we live by involve guns.

The first-level lie about guns is the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.

Our founding documents and ideals certainly were grounded in needs that no longer exist. Owning guns to form militias and to protect private property, as well as the need to hunt for food, was essential to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in at least the first century, or more, of the U.S.A.

But a standing army and what many would call a militarized police force have rendered that need moot; in fact, owning guns has now made us less safe. The U.S. crime rate is below average compared internationally, but our lethal crime rate is an extreme outlier (see data here):

The second-level lie is that the NRA is a champion of the Second Amendment.

The truth is that the NRA uses the Second Amendment as a smoke screen for being a shill for gun manufacturers. The NRA works for crass commercialism, the worst of capitalism—not for democracy or freedom.

But as the election of Trump has proven beyond a doubt: America is the land of lies, a people prone to making grand claims and living lives that completely contradict those stated ideals.

When lead in paint was discovered as being harmful to children, lead was banned in paint.

Examples such as these are common in the U.S.—except when a gun is involved.

The Parkland, Florida school shooting involved a legally purchased assault-style rifle, and the shooter was able to buy the weapon although not old enough to buy alcohol.

Beer is regulated more aggressively than guns in the U.S. And marijuana, which is far safer than alcohol, remains illegal in most of the country.

So the simple fact is that America is not the home of the brave, but a cowardly country with cowardly political leadership.

Guns kill people. Gun advocacy is complicit.

Ah, Love: A Reader

Snow, Mary Ruefle

The Cinnamon Peeler, Michael Ondaatje

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in], e.e. cummings

[love is more thicker than forget], e.e. cummings

Twenty-One Love Poems [(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)], Adrienne Rich

Twenty-One Love Poems [Poem II], Adrienne Rich

Variations On The Word Love, Margaret Atwood

Wild Nights—Wild Nights! (249), Emily Dickinson

Knee Song, Anne Sexton

Parting, Jorge Luis Borges

Guilt, Desire, and Love, James Baldwin

Pyramid Scheme, Hera Lindsay Bird

This Is Just to Say, William Carlos Williams

Be Mine, R.E.M.

Lucky You, The National

Gospel, The National

City Middle, The National

You said “I think I’m like Tennessee Williams”
I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn’t kick in
I think I’m like Tennessee Williams
I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn’t kick in

NPR Fails Journalism and Education (Again)

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the unexpected win by Donald Trump, “fake news” has become a rallying cry for many, including Trump and even mainstream media.

Struggling to survive, for example, The New York Times launched an aggressive campaign for subscribers by setting the incredibly low bar of not being fake news. Like the NYT, NPR sits among the much maligned mainstream media also discounted as “liberal media.”

But here is the most disturbing fact of all: Mainstream media may in fact not be fake news, and there is abundant evidence they are not agents of progressivism or liberalism either; however, as can be witnessed on the NYT’s Op-Ed page almost daily, the truth is that mainstream media is:

Case in point: Claudio Sanchez’s The Gap Between The Science On Kids And Reading, And How It Is Taught for NPR* with the lede paragraph announcing:

Mark Seidenberg is not the first researcher to reach the stunning conclusion that only a third of the nation’s schoolchildren read at grade level. The reasons are numerous, but one that Seidenberg cites over and over again is this: The way kids are taught to read in school is disconnected from the latest research, namely how language and speech actually develop in a child’s brain.

Problem 1: The piece immediately bows to NAEP data because, as has become common, everyone including politicians, the media, and the public simply accepts that test scores are accurate reflections of learning. This assumption fails because high-stakes testing mostly reflects two things: (1) the socio-economic status of the students, their families, and their communities (not learning, not student quality, not teacher quality, not school quality), and (2) a reduced and inauthentic version of the so-called skill (such as reading) we claim to be measuring.

Standardized testing of reading is, to be blunt, horrible—both in terms of how it ruins reading for children and how it is actually one of the key sources for the problem Seidenberg misdiagnoses.

Problem 2: “Seidenberg is a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In his latest book, Language at the Speed of Sight, he points out that the “science of reading” can be a difficult concept for educators to grasp.”

Seidenberg joins a long and disturbing tradition of know-it-alls from outside education (typically from psychology, economics, or political science) who, like Columbus, discover a field and weigh in as if that field’s scholars and practitioners never existed; just recall the NYT itself ogling in awe at Daniel Willingham’s book on reading.

Problem 3: Seidenberg claims: “I’ve reviewed the science of reading and documented how little impact it has had on educational practice, and I think this is bad.”

One of the most significant failures of journalism and scholars in one field leaping into another field is the lack of historical and practical understanding of the field. What if I told you that Lou LaBrant, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and a prominent scholar and practitioner in literacy from the 1920s until the 1970s, wrote in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

The great irony of Seidenberg’s claims is that he stumbled onto a valid premise, but in his rush to know everything, he has badly jumbled the explanation.

Problem 4: Seidenberg also joins a long list of people who have no credible understanding of the field of literacy and mangle definitions in order to have something to argue about. Here, Seidenberg simply doesn’t know the field, as he demonstrates: “The political solution was called ‘balanced literacy,’ which called on teachers to use the best of both approaches. But it left it up to teachers who had been trained to dismiss phonics and brush off the science.”

In fact, once again, he initially is onto something and then falls flat. Balanced literacy, like its cousin whole language, fully embraces phonics instruction, but recognizes that professional educators must know each student in order to balance what instruction any student needs in order to become an eager and proficient independent reader; for example:

Problem 5: Along with the arrogance of their non-education fields, Seidenberg and Willingham represent an ugly dynamic whereby men suggest (or even directly claim) that an entire field simply isn’t capable of handling the science of their own profession—and since the field of literacy is mostly women, this problem smacks of mansplaining.

So let’s end with the valid problem Seidenberg thinks he has discovered—the gap between the research on teaching reading and how reading is taught in schools.

I can offer two related better explanations.

First, I taught high school English for 18 years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the foundational decades of the current education reform accountability era. Since 2002, I have been a teacher educator, primarily working with future teachers of English.

As a teacher educator, my candidates share with me a fact of moving from teacher education courses into the real world of teaching that Seidenberg and NPR may find interesting; it goes something like this: “Dr. Thomas, I agree with all the things you taught us about teaching reading and writing, but I am not allowed to do any of that at my school.”

“Not allowed”? Hmmm. Let’s investigate that.

Applebee and Langer conducted several expansive studies of how writing is taught in secondary schools, and their 2013 volume Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms included one incredibly powerful finding: Teachers of English know more than ever about the science and research on teaching writing, but those teachers revealed to Applebee and Langer that the expectations of standards and high-stakes testing prevented them from implementing that best practice.

In other words, that gap between research and practice can easily be traced to the negative impact of accountability—not to shoddy education programs, not to literacy teachers who are unable to grasp the heady science of teaching reading.

Mainstream media share with fields such as psychology (economics and political science as well) a not-so-subtle disrespect for education as a field and K-12 teachers. NPR’s article and Seidenberg’s research are condescending and incomplete because of that lack of respect.

As a educator, I must stress that their eagerness to wag their fingers at teachers and teacher education programs may be distracting us from their own shoddiness, especially dumpster fires like mainstream media that can see no better goal for themselves than not being fake news.

Yes, fake news is a problem, but lazy, irresponsible journalism may be a much bigger threat to our democracy and our schools.


See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

* The “again” in the title refers in part to the Twitter exchange I had with an NPR journalist (at the time) and the problem with journalists claiming objectivity or neutrality: