Freedom, Choice, and the Death of Us

“they did not stop to think they died instead”

“‘next to of course god america i,'” e.e. cummings

Over the course of a couple hours after my mother was discovered comatose, the ER doctor offered us a choice: airlift my mother to a larger hospital for surgery to remove the clot in her brain that caused her stroke or leave her comatose, each moment destroying more of her brain.

Just twelve days later, in front of my mother then in a rehabilitation facility after responding well to the high-risk surgery,  my father became unresponsive; the EMS team summoned by a 911 call were frantically trying to resuscitate my father, kept alive by his pacemaker/defibrillator. Since my father had resisted switching off the defibrillator and choosing a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order, the lead EMS responder asked me where I wanted him to be transported.

Because of the proceeding days when we all scrambled against my parents’ health insurance, my first thought was how was I to know where his insurance would cover this event (ultimately the last moments of his life).

While cycling on the local rail trail near my university and where my mother now remains in a single room—the building in which she witnessed my father’s death—a friend and I pedaled up to a road crossing where a father sat on his bicycle with a trailer attached for children to ride along.

This intersection has decorative circles of brickwork on each side of the road. As this man crossed, he steered poorly around the brickwork—the cart left wheel rolling up onto the brick, tipping the cart and his two sons over onto the side of the trail and jerking the bicycle out from under the father.

These are all complicated and difficult stories about choice and freedom in the U.S.

The U.S. is a cruel and calloused culture that values a false narrative about freedom and choice, an idealized version of freedom and choice as concepts that trump all else.

Even human dignity.

Even life.

Especially in healthcare, education, and providing social support for the poor, the guiding principle is giving people choice, believing that individual responsibility is the root cause of poor health, failing students and schools, and finding oneself in poverty.

The meritocracy and rugged individualism myths are so powerful in the U.S. that winners and losers both cling to them even when the game is revealed to be fatally rigged. As Tim Maly explains:

So there are people who can be so wrapped up in a certain worldview that even in the face of serious evidence that they have been taken in, and despite many warnings from the rest of the world, they persist. Indeed, warnings from the rest of the world seem to serve only to entrench them in their position. With some of them, it’s as if they end up making bad choices specifically to spite the people warning them.

The U.S. has instilled a tremendous amount of self-loathing, in fact, among marginalized groups (blacks, English language learners, women) who feel compelled to embrace the bitter American Dream in order to be American—even as each of them could utter as Langston Hughes wrote:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

The parent cycling with his children in tow was free to choose placing those boys in the trailer, free to choose to pedal along the trail and then to send them tumbling.

And there we must admit, parental choice is not universally a good thing, and we must also confront that anyone’s choice necessarily encroaches on the freedom of others: children routinely suffer the consequences of their parents’ choices.

The children were fine, however, but my mother and father—along with our family—have been navigating a hellscape of healthcare dictated by patient choice and freedom, jumbled with a nightmare of bureaucracy in which mandated and bounded choices are not really choices at all.

In the U.S., we celebrate the choice between a Toyota Camry and Honda Accord (essentially the same car with the free market promise of competitive prices in your local market!), but few people are afforded the freedom of not buying a car at all—and no one is allowed the freedom from sales and property taxes or freedom from insurance and liability for all that driving.

Freedom and choice are in fact a nasty shell game used to keep the masses occupied so that they do not realize only the few have some sort of economic freedom and choice because of the labor of those masses, those people drawn to the myths like moths to a flame but never allowed to survive the allure.

It’s July 4th, a patriotic orgy in the U.S. that is as shallow and materialistic as the country we celebrate.

A people truly committed to equity and our moral obligations as humans would recognize that sometimes, maybe even often, choice and freedom are not as important as insuring that no one needs to choose because essentials are collectively provided for everyone to insure the dignity of simply being a human.

No child left to the lottery draw of their parents, no sick person tossed into the meat grinder of market-based healthcare, no elderly cast into the dark well of individual responsibility.

As we wave tiny plastic flags today, swill (mostly) cheap beer while overeating from our decadent grills, let us roast in the sun and the recognition that we actually have freedom and choice—and this heartless and selfish country is what we have chosen.

For Further Reading

Why poverty is not a personal choice, but a reflection of society, Shervin Assari

‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’ by Frederick Douglass

The Illusion of Free Speech and Democracy in a Culture of Capitalist-Consumerism

All along the incredibly compressed political/ideological spectrum in the U.S., hand wringing has begun about free speech—mostly because right-wing racist academics and hate-mongering pundits-for-hire have been blocked from speaking or challenged on college campuses.

It seems to me we should pause the melodrama, then, and consider what I believe is the most important koan-type question to ponder concerning free speech: Is it OK to shout “theater” in a crowded firehouse?

Now let’s unpack this as important.

Key here is the question is a satire of the Urban-Legend reduction of free speech couched as “Is it OK to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater?”

The satire adds nuance and complexity to considering and understanding free speech since, as the current pontificating shows once again, the public debate about free speech is typically awful in its laziness and lack of context .

Ulrich Baer’s response is a rare recognition of that lack of context and laziness:

The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.

So here are a few problems with the All Voices Matter approach to demanding that colleges must protect even the most horrible speech on their campuses.

“Free speech” is a constitutional term about the role of government to protect and not impede any citizen’s right to expression. As noted above, “free speech” is not any damn body gets to say any damn thing any damn time.

If we persist in this debate without including the context of the government’s role, then we are being terribly lazy and ultimately dishonest.

Now, yes, tax-supported public universities and colleges certainly create a complicated context for the role of government in protected or limited speech—if we consider administration and faculty as agents of the government in these institutions.

What we are then arguing, I believe, is academic freedom, a much different concept.

Academics and scholars rightly call for and defend academic freedom, but it too is not license for anyone to say anything any time.

As a professor of history, one may acknowledge to students that Holocaust deniers exist, but that would come with a clear denouncing of that position. As important here is that academics and scholars take great care to represent the weight of voices along with the credibility of voices.

Holocaust deniers, academics would stress, are in a significant minority, and their scholarship is deeply flawed, therefore invalid.

For comparison, let’s return to satire and look at the media in the U.S.

Like the imbalance of Holocaust deniers to Holocaust scholars, the climate change debate is greatly skewed—the vast majority of environmental scientists verify climate change is a fact while a few (usually without credentials in the field) deny climate change, also without valid science behind their claims.

Yet, as John Oliver has shown through the power of satire to render the oversimplified complex, the mainstream media, in its ham-fisted effort at being fair and balanced, routinely have two people present “both sides” on issues such as climate change.

This standard of journalism completely misrepresents the weight of informed opinion and the significance of expertise—whose voice matters and how much that voice is amplified.

All of the current lazy bluster, then, is failing the importance of free speech and academic freedom by oversimplifying the principles, blurring the concepts, and, worst of all, completely ignoring the real threats to free speech—capitalist-consumerism.

There is no free speech in the U.S., and what academic freedom exists is small and cloistered in select classrooms, often hidden and thinly shielded from the Institutions themselves—as public and private education remains prisoner to consumerism and the all-mighty dollar.

Whose voice matters in the U.S. is determined by wealth and still governed by, mostly, white men.

Free speech ultimately is not just about who gets to speak and if, but about the platform as well as the weight behind the who and the what—and mostly that is determined by the weight of money, gender, and race.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Mark Zuckerberg.

O, wait, that’s already happened.

Cinco de Mayo 2016: A Reader

Let us hope we can resist the urge to trivialize and appropriate the wonderful history, traditions, and people of Mexico because of the silliness that is making a holiday another way to churn up crass commercialism (a redundant term). [Also, lost in the shuffle, today is the birthday of Karl Marx.]

So below, please read a gathering of important articles, somewhat loosely connected because they have crossed my path.

First, let me note that since I have relentlessly criticized edujournalism of late (and it is well deserved criticism), I start with an edujournalism unicorn—a very good piece on NAEP.

Read on:

The simple truth is that NAEP is not designed to provide causal explanations. It’s a test given every two years to a representative sample of students who happen to be in fourth, eighth, or twelfth grade that particular year. It does not follow students over time, so it’s impossible to say that a policy or practice “caused” the results….

Put together, the findings paint a picture of unequal opportunities to learn challenging content. Low-performing students spend less time explaining their reading or doing projects, and more time on test prep. Once again, these are correlations: they do not suggest that these patterns caused the low performance. But why do they exist? What can be done about them? That’s the challenge for educators and policy makers.

Clinton has been a card-carrying feminist for decades, she started her career doing advocacy for children and women, she’s famous for her UN speech about women’s rights are human rights, she’s been reliably pro-choice and so on. So if that all fits into this sort of recognition side, she’s been there, and in a more explicit, and front-and-center way than Sanders. But, on the other hand, What kind of feminism is this? Clinton embodies a certain kind of neoliberal feminism that is focused on cracking the glass ceiling, leaning in. That means removing barriers that would prevent rather privileged, highly educated women who already have a high amount of cultural and other forms of capital to rise in the hierarchies of government and business. This is a feminism whose main beneficiaries are rather privileged women, whose ability to rise in a sense relies on this huge pool of very low-paid precarious, often racialized precarious service work, which is also very feminized that provide all the care work

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

Black students will always underachieve when they are perceived as needing fixing.

The irony is that black students aren’t the ones who need fixing.

Deficit thinking corrupts the potential effectiveness of even the most competent teachers.

White folk must unlearn their negative expectations. That’s the only way we’re ever going to change the structures that really hold students back.

And now, a musical extra:

U.S. Offers Only Soft or Hard Commitments to Ravages of Consumerism

Many people have commented on the rise of Trump as the leader in the Republican quest for president—noting it is like a bad reality show or some life-imitates-art version of Idiocracy.

However, the truth of what Trump represents is much, much uglier than any of those speculations because Trump represents almost perfectly exactly who the U.S. is, and essentially always has been.

The U.S. has always bloviated on sweeping and grand ideologies about Freedom, Liberty, and so much horse manure, but the very beginnings of that were while white males owned human slaves and white females were human only in relationship to some white man.

The U.S. has always been about someone’s freedom at the expense of other people’s human dignity; and that fact remains today in 2016.

And when people say the the U.S. is a conservative nation, mostly right of center (especially in relationship to Europe and Canada), the reality of that is “conservative” is a code for a blind and nearly rabid commitment to consumerism—a consumerism grounded in Social Darwinism that breeds a lust for financial wealth regardless of the consequences to others.

Sure, Trump is profoundly unqualified to be a national leader and is spewing vile and inexcusable hatred, but the space between Trump and mainstream Republicans and Democrats is minuscule once you set aside the rhetoric.

From Trump to Cruz, a slight step back and to the side; from Cruz to Hillary, yet another slight step back and to the side. Republicans bark a hard commitment and Democrats skirt a soft commitment to the ravages of consumerism, but the consequences are the same.

Except for Sanders in the 2016 election cycle, team politics between Republicans and Democrats is splitting hairs and turning a blind eye to your candidate while eviscerating the other side’s candidate for the same behavior.

Mainstream politics in the U.S. creates the delusion of choice and keeps the public frantic so that no one notices there really is no difference because everything is about the winners maintaining their edge.

Never-ending war, mass incarceration, staggering income and wealth inequity, underfunded public institutions, refusals to acknowledge lingering racism—these are the qualities among every candidate on both sides of the so-called aisle.

The Nixon/Reagan contributions to mass incarceration of black and brown populations are nearly indistinguishable from the Clinton era gutting of the social safety net devastating the same people.

And all the while, the only thing that matters is the economy. The sacred economy doomed George W. Bush’s presidency and ushered in Obama—not any ethical matters of war or failures to secure human dignity or the lip service we give Democracy.

There could be few indignities worse than electing Trump as president of the U.S., but to be perfectly honest, Trump is in the course of the history of the country, the most perfect representative of who we are and have always been: A cartoon character spewing bromides to hide our dark and soulless greed.

And then, nearly as bad, if we elect someone from the remaining mainstream candidates, that indignity will be only slightly less than choosing Trump because what she or he represents is so close to being the same that it really doesn’t matter.

Testing the Education Market, Cashing In, and Failing Social Justice Again

On Black Friday 2014—when the U.S. officially begins the Christmas holiday season, revealing that we mostly worship consumerism (all else is mere decoration)—we are poised to be distracted once again from those things that really matter. Shopping feeding frenzies will allow Ferguson and Tamir Rice to fade away for the privileged—while those most directly impacted by racism and classism, poverty and austerity remain trapped in those realities.

History is proof that these failures have lingered, and that they fade. Listen to James Baldwin. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.

But in the narrower education reform debate, we have also allowed ourselves to be distracted, mostly by the Common Core debate itself. As I have stated more times that I care to note, that Common Core advocates have sustained the debate is both a waste of our precious time and proof that Common Core has won.

As well, we are misguided whenever we argue that Common Core uniquely is the problem—instead of recognizing that Common Core is but a current form of a continual failure in education, accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing.

With the release of Behind the Data: Testing and Assessment—A PreK-12 U.S. Education Technology Market Report*, we have yet another opportunity to confront that Common Core is the problem, not the solution, because it is the source of a powerful drain on public resources in education that are not now invested in conditions related to racial and class inequity in our public schools.

Richards and Stebbins (2014) explain:

The PreK-12 testing and assessment market segment has experienced remarkable growth over the last several years. This growth has occurred in difficult economic times during an overall PreK-12 budget and spending decline….

Participants almost universally identified four key factors affecting the recent growth of the digital testing and assessment market segment:

1) The Common Core State Standards are Changing Curricula

2) The Rollout of Common Core Assessments are Galvanizing Activity….

(Executive Summary, pp. 1, 2)

testing and assessment 57 percent

(Richards & Stebbins 2014).

So as I have argued before, Common Core advocacy is market-driven, benefiting those invested in its adoption. But we must also acknowledge that that market success is at the expense of the very students who most need our public schools.

And there is the problem—not the end of cursive, not how we teach math, not whether the standards are age-appropriate.

Common Core is a continuation of failing social justice, draining public resources from needed actions that confront directly the inexcusable inequities of our schools, inequities often reflecting the tragic inequities of our society:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012, 2 of 5)

Who will be held accountable for the cost of feeding the education market while starving our marginalized children’s hope?

Reference

Richards, J., & Stebbins, L. (2014). Behind the Data: Testing and Assessment—A PreK-12 U.S. Education Technology Market Report. Washington, D.C.: Software & Information Industry Association.

* Thanks to Schools Matter for posting, and thus, drawing my attention to the study.

Beyond Toilet Seat Etiquette

In her The Airplane Seat Theory of Education post, Nancy Flanagan asks:

When did we stop cherishing our small communities in favor of looking out for number one? When did we lose the idea that we have accomplished great things collaboratively, as a nation of small communities–the GI Bill, the Hoover Dam, the middle class–not as individual, high-profile wealth-producers?

Schools, too, are temporary communities, that function best when the folks involved understand the importance of consideration for our fellow humans, which leads to the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Within a week of my reading this, I was sitting at my sister-in-law’s, surrounded by my niece, daughter, wife, and sister-in-law as well as my niece’s two children while I held my granddaughter. In the flow of unrelated discussions, the women in the room had a quick but notable discussion of the age-old anger at men who leave the toilet seat up. The consensus of the women in the room was that such acts are essentially rude, an inconsiderate act that fails to recognize the basic human dignity of other people using the toilet differently.

I think it is fair to say that these women felt as if leaving the toilet seat up was a statement that suggested they simply don’t exist—a pretty awful feeling for a loved one to have.

Since then, I have found myself contemplating the toilet seat in a similar way to Flanagan’s consideration of the airplane seat, and I think her question deserves a fuller reply.

Community and collaboration, I think, are not concepts we have lost in the U.S., but ideals we have never really embraced. And the reason why lies with our essential materialistic consumerism linked to our embracing the rugged individual myth.

The problem with materialism, consumerism, and broadly ownership in Western and U.S cultures can best be revealed through toilet seat etiquette, but let’s start somewhere else—the car.

In the U.S. (and especially in the rural areas), we not only covet our cars, but also each person old enough in the family has his/her own car—and mass transit isn’t even an option. To have your own car in the U.S. is a teenage rite of passage—often a very public marker of class that further ostracizes young people.

Much the same can be said about iPods (and earbuds) or smartphones.

But the toilet is a different matter.

Even in our own homes, the toilet can and will be a communal possession—guests have access to the toilet as do all who live in a home.

Just as death and bodily functions level (and thus humanize) people despite their class, race, gender, or ideologies (we all die and we all must evacuate our bladders), the toilet challenges our individualistic sense of ownership—or at least it should.

“Ownership is an entirely human construct,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in “Making Peace” from her collection High Tide in Tucson, adding:

At some point people got along without it. Many theorists have addressed the question of how private property came about, and some have gone so far as to suggest this artificial notion has led us into a mess of trouble….[T]o own land, plants, other animals, more stuff than we need—that is the particular product of a human imagination.

In the beginning, humans were communal and social creatures. (p. 26)

I would add to Kingsolver’s excellent essay that this tipping point in which, as she explains, humans have come to see ownership “as a natural condition, right as rain” (p. 30) is the imbalance at the foundation of our loss of community, our honoring of individual ownership to the exclusion of communal property and thus eroding the very individual rights we claim to cherish.

The problem is one John Dewey, William James, and others have confronted in philosophical terms—the fabricated choice between the individual and the collective, an either/or in which the U.S. and most Westerners have lined up to support only the individual.

And thus, men lift toilet seats and leave them up as if no one else exists—especially and most damning, as if no women will need to use that particular toilet in a way different than he has.

Failure to honor basic toilet etiquette is simply callousness, selfishness, and a lack of self- as well as collective awareness. It is a very impersonal and undignified “Up yours,” offered in absentia.

As Kingsolver notes, we have abandoned collaboration for competition and championed “I” over “we” to the detriment of each of us as well as all of us.

Again, to Dewey—the individual/community dynamic is not a choice, but an inseparable and symbiotic relationship. To honor the individual, we must simultaneously honor the community, and to honor the community, we must not ignore the individual.

Thus, to recognize the toilet as mine (either literally as in “I bought it” or temporally as in “I am currently on it”) as well as always someone else’s is the toilet seat compact that would benefit all of humanity if we were to expand that premise to essentially everything. This, of course, is the argument Kurt Vonnegut offered over and over in the waning years of his life about the planet: It is in each of our selfish interests to treat the planet as if it belongs to everyone.

“Life is better,” ends Kingsolver, “since I abdicated the throne*. What a relief, to relinquish ownership of unownable things” (p. 33). And I am certain that if we could balance our sense of individual ownership with communal ownership, we would have a similar response because life would be better if we humans lived each moment with the simple compassion and awareness found in toilet seat etiquette that honors communal dignity while also challenging the patriarchy of lifted seats.

* Yes, “abdicated the throne….”

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins

[Originally posted at Daily Kos and Truthout, “Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins is a powerful companion to George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack.]

As a high school English teacher for nearly two decades, I came to embrace a need to offer students a wide range of lenses for interacting with and learning from many different texts, but I also learned that coming to read and re-read, to write and re-write the world is both a powerful and disorienting experience for young people. So a strategy I now use and encourage other teachers to implement is reading and discussing children’s literature, picture books, while expanding the critical lenses readers have in their toolbox.

My favorite book for this activity is Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type. This work by Doreen Cronin with art by Betsy Lewin (view a read-aloud here) presents a clever and humorous narrative about Farmer Brown and his suddenly recalcitrant cows who, having acquired a rickety typewriter, establish a strike that inspires the chickens to join and ends with the neutral ducks aiding the revolt.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type

This story is ideal for asking teachers to consider the traditional approach to text in schools, New Criticism (a focus on text in isolation and on the craft in any story, such as characterization, plot, and theme), against Feminist and Marxist criticism, for example.

One fall, while doing the activity with a young adult literature class, I came against yet a new reading of Cronin and Lewin’s work: Why the 1% always wins.

The U.S. Public Likes Farmer Brown

As we explored Click, Clack, Moo recently, the adult members of the class told me they like Farmer Brown, with one student characterizing the striking farm animals as “mean.” And here is where I felt the need to consider how this children’s book helps us all confront the Occupy Wall Street movement or the rise in antagonism toward teachers, tenure, and unions as well as why the 1% continues to own the 99%.

One important element of the story is that the cows and chickens are female workers under the authority of the male Farmer Brown. These female workers produce for the farmer and remain compliant until the cows acquire the typewriter—both a powerful tool of literacy (the cows and chickens cannot effectively strike until they gain access to language) and a representation of access to technology (readers should note that the cows and chickens produce typewritten notes that show they find an old manual typewriter unlike the cleaner type produced by Farmer Brown on an electric typewriter, a representation of the inequity of access to technology among classes).

The cows and chickens, in effect, unionize and strike. Here, members of my classes often fail to notice the unionization, but tend to side with the farmer even when we acknowledge the protest as unionizing—particularly bristling at the duck, as a neutral party, using its access to the negotiation to acquire a diving board for the duck pond.

“Closed. No milk. No eggs”

Like the 1%, Farmer Brown is incensed that the cows and chickens demand basic necessities for comfort, electric blankets, but he eventually secures a compromise, agreeing to give the barn animals the requested electric blankets for the return of the typewriter (the story ends with the obvious next step that the duck uses the typewriter to trade for the diving board).

What tends to be missed in this story is that Farmer Brown ultimately wins; in fact, the barn animals appear to be eager to abandon their one access to power, the typewriter, for mere material items—the electric blankets as comfort many would see as a basic right and the diving board as frivolous entertainment.

The 1% have the 99% right where Farmer Brown has the barn animals—mesmerized by the pursuit of materialism and entertainment. Consider the eager hordes of consumers lined up to buy the then-new iPhone 4S, released on the cusp of the passing of Steve Jobs, heralded as a genius for his contribution to our consumer culture.

Just give us our iPhones and we’ll be quiet, we’ll work longer and harder for the opportunity to buy what the 1% tells us we want.

And when the 1% and their compliant media inform us that the top 20% pays 64% of taxes, we slip back to our barns with our tails between our legs, shamed.

Instead, we should be noting that, yes, the top 20% income earners pay 64% of taxes because they make 59% of income.

We, the 99% who tend to remain silent and compliant, wait patiently for the next generation of technology to occupy our time, our lives reduced to work and amassing the ever-changing and out-dated things that become passe as the next-thing lures us further and further into our sheep lives.

Yes, if we remain eager to trade our voices for things, the 1% will always be the winners.

When we learn to treasure voice over things, however, the chickens may come home to roost.