The “Objectively Reasonable” Shooting of #TamirRice: A Reader

“In Self Defense,” A.B. Frost, Harper’s Weekly (October 28, 1876)

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(1934) W.E.B. Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within a Nation”

The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.

For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro.  Accordingly, for the lat two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people.  Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin, The Nation (July 11, 1966)

You will note that there is not a suggestion of any kind of appeal to justice, and no suggestion of any recompense for the grave and gratuitous damage which this man has endured. His tone is simply the tone of one who has miraculously survived—he might have died; as it is, he is merely half blind. You will also note that the patch over his eye has had the effect of making him, more than ever, the target of the police. It is a dishonorable wound, not earned in a foreign jungle but in the domestic one—not that this would make any difference at all to the nevertheless insuperably patriotic policeman—and it proves that he is a “bad nigger.” (“Bad niggers,” in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed.) The police, who have certainly done their best to kill him, have also provided themselves with a pretext derisoire by filing three criminal charges against him. He is charged with beating up a schoolteacher, upsetting a fruit stand, and assaulting the (armed) police. Furthermore, he did all of these things in the space of a single city block, and simultaneously….

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

The horrifying lesson of Tamir Rice: White America will use “objectivity” to justify the murder of black children, Brittney Cooper

Last week, a group of legal experts ruled the November 2014 police shooting of 12-year old Tamir Rice “objectively reasonable.” Rice was shot as he sat in a local park, near the recreation center where he frequently played, holding a pellet gun. When officers responded to 911 calls that a “guy was sitting in the park pointing a gun at people,” they did not know that 195-pound Tamir Rice was only 12….

It is entirely unreasonable for a young boy, someone’s child, to end up dead at the hands of law enforcement when he did not objectively pose a threat. He was a child playing with a toy. In a park. That is what children do. There was nothing unreasonable about his activities. He was playing with a gun openly in an open-carry state. He was playing with his gun in a gun-driven national culture that does not think the killings of innocent college students or little children warrant more robust gun control laws.

The plot of one of our iconic American movies, “A Christmas Story,” is about a nine-year old boy wanting nothing more for Christmas than a “Red Ryder air rifle.” In the film, the adults in his life repeatedly warn Raphie, the protagonist, that he’ll “shoot his eye out,” with the weapon. Many adults who saw Tamir Rice the day he was killed warned him to be careful with his toy gun, too. The adults in Tamir Rice’s life weren’t worried that he would harm himself, but rather that the police would “reasonably” assess the 12 year old to be a dangerous criminal.

The legal murder of Tamir Rice, Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is where my own questions begin: Is our tolerance for the lethal violence of the police rooted in the fact that lethal violence in our society is relatively common? Put differently, murder in America is much more common than in other developed countries. Is this how we have made our peace with that fact? Our world is, in some real sense, more dangerous. In recognition of this, have we basically said to the police, “Do what you will?” And in the case of Stand Your Ground, has this “Do what you will” ethic even extended to the citizenry? And if that is the case, then is there a line that can be drawn from Tamir Rice to Walter Scott to Sandy Hook to Trayvon Martin?

The Paranoid Style of American Policing, Ta-Nehisi Coates

When policing is delegitimized, when it becomes an occupying force, the community suffers. The neighbor-on-neighbor violence in Chicago, and in black communities around the country, is not an optical illusion. Policing is (one) part of the solution to that violence. But if citizens don’t trust officers, then policing can’t actually work. And in Chicago, it is very hard to muster reasons for trust.

When Bettie Jones’s brother displays zero confidence in an investigation into the killing of his sister, he is not being cynical. He is shrewdly observing a government that executed a young man and sought to hide that fact from citizens. He is intelligently assessing a local government which, for two decades,ran a torture ring. What we have made of our police departments America, what we have ordered them to do, is a direct challenge to any usable definition of democracy. A state that allows its agents to kill, to beat, to tase, without any real sanction, has ceased to govern and has commenced to simply rule.

White police are killing black kids: The cops get off, because the system protects the lives it values, Brittney Cooper

Who will fight when the cops run in guns blazing without regard or care for the lives they have been called to protect and serve?

The answer is no one. No one will fight for us. And when we fight for ourselves, they kill us for that, too. When we stand up and decry injustice, our rage becomes the pretext for even more state-sanctioned violence, repression, and disenfranchisement.

We’ve said it all before. At this point, White Americans know the racial refuse of this nation is a stinking, rotting sore. But far too many of them continue to walk around acting, as the country folks of my youth would say, as if their shit don’t stink. For those of us who view Black lives as something more than the incidentally odoriferous fertilizer for white supremacy, the stench of rotting Black flesh is almost too much bear.

Most Murders Are within Same Race

Like “thug” and “disruptive students,” a much more racially charged and racist refrain is “black on black” crime.

The phrase includes race and is factual—although fatally incomplete.

As well, many of the most credible and critical voices confronting racism are apt to concede the looming problem of blacks killing blacks—such as Ta-Nehisi Coates arguing that “[w]hen policing is delegitimized, when it becomes an occupying force, the community suffers”:

It will not do to note that 99 percent of the time the police mediate conflicts without killing people anymore than it will do for a restaurant to note that 99 percent of the time rats don’t run through the dining room. Nor will it do to point out that most black citizens are killed by other black citizens [emphasis added], not police officers, anymore than it will do to point out that most American citizens are killed by other American citizens, not terrorists. If officers cannot be expected to act any better than ordinary citizens, why call them in the first place? Why invest them with any more power?

The issue is not the fact of black on black crime, but that crime and homicide are overwhelmingly within race:

murders intraracial
U.S. Department of Justice: Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008 (November 2011). 

Crime and homicides are the result of familiarity and proximity. Our families, our social circles, our neighborhoods, and our communities are far more dangerous to each of us than any stranger or any unfamiliar territory. And as long as familiarity and proximity remain mostly segregated, our crimes and murders are likely to remain within the same race.

To utter “black on black” crime in order to claim a causal relationship between race and crime is dishonest. Race in crime is a marker, not a cause agent, especially not a cause agent unique to any race.

Confronting Privilege in the New Year: “when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice”

A former student and current wonderful early-career teacher texted me yesterday because someone had shared with her the inane “I’m not going to apologize for my white privilege” article that is all the rage among white privilege deniers.

Nearly as disturbing as the pervasive and corrosive influence of racism is the reality that the more whites are confronted with evidence of white privilege and racism, the more likely whites are to cling to their denial. Research from 2015 confirms:

What happens when people are faced with evidence that their group benefits from privilege? We suggest such evidence will be threatening and that people will claim hardships to manage this threat. These claims of hardship allow individuals to deny that they personally benefit from privilege, while still accepting that group-level inequity exists. Experiments 1a and 1b show that Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.

Throughout 2015, I have been cataloguing the overwhelming evidence of white privilege and racism, but I am discouraged about both the abundance of that evidence and the ineffectiveness of presenting it to those clinging fervently to their white denial.

Humans are drawn to patterns, both the recognition of patterns and the creation of patterns. Maybe anthropologists and sociologists would argue that in part that attraction is about survival and comfort. I suspect this pattern fetish in humans is also at the root of seeking out others like us (see any school lunch room where students are allowed to sit where they please), and I fear it is also the foundation for the very worst of humans—our racism, sexism, classism, and seething anger at the Other.

This is not some historical low point of human history—U.S. slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese internment—but a seemingly credible point of debate among presidential hopefuls and their supporters who are calling from banning Muslims from U.S. soil.

And as the hashtags have continued to increase (#BlackLivesMatter, #TamirRice, and then too, too many to list) so has the backlash, the denial—just as the research above confirms.

We stand at the cusp of one of our greatest pattern urges, the arbitrary designating of the passing of time. Soon a new year will be upon the West (yes, even the calendar is a force of privilege, a way to mask subjectivity as objective, universal), and at least one voice has suggested there is hope: “I believe – I hope – that a great rewriting is slowly, surely underway,” writes Laurie Penny.

Penny’s examination of the latest Star Wars film offers a much more detailed and powerful investigation than my own look at The Martian, but we do tread similar ground; notably Penny explains:

The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.

I struggle to share Penny’s optimism—because of the horrifying specter of the unfathomable nastiness in both our presidential politics and our pop culture, both of which expose the “white interpretive horizon.”

Yet, I think Penny makes a powerful observation that may be the key to believing change is upon us:

Let’s not get carried away here. These stories and retellings are still exceptions. Women are still paid less, respected less and promoted less at almost every level of every creative industry. For every Jessica Jones there’s a Daredevil, whose female characters exist solely to get rescued, provide the protagonists with some pneumatic exposition, or both. For every Orphan Black there’s Mr Robot and Narcos and you know, sometimes I wonder if perhaps I watch too much television. The point is that what we have right now isn’t equality yet. It’s nothing like equality. But it’s still enough to enrage the old guard because when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice. [emphasis added]

White privilege is an iceberg; very little is visible above the surface, and for those of us with that privilege, it is ours to interrogate what lies beneath in order to understand and dismantle it.

“I came to explore the wreck,” explains the speaker of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

As Penny explains when unpacking “[t]he rage that white men have been expressing, loudly, violently”:

Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, it becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.

Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.

Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.

This is our wreck, a story of a people blinded by the myth of meritocracy while steering the ship headlong into the iceberg we pretend isn’t there.

We must write better stories, fictional and real. A new year is arbitrary, yes, but it serves us well to listen to the refrain “the time is always now.”

See Also

What to do when you’re not the hero any more, Laurie Penny

On Nerd Entitlement, Laurie Penny

Hello from the same side, Robin James

The horrifying lesson of Tamir Rice: White America will use “objectivity” to justify the murder of black children, Brittney Cooper

Confronting Privilege to Teach about Privilege

Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology

Responsibilities of Privilege: Bearing Witness, pt. 2

White Denial

High Cost of White Denial (Updated)

 

UPDATED: The Martian: Allegory of Whose Lives Matter

[Spoiler Alert: This post begins at the end of Andy Weir’s The Martian. Those who have not read the novel or watched the film are duly warned. Also, profanity.]

UPDATE: In the wake of the Brock Turner rape case and verdict—in which the judge and Turner’s father are more concerned about Turner than his victim—I am moved to suggest that the examination of The Martian below serves as a powerful allegory for rape culture in the U.S. as a subset of how white male lives matter above everyone else’s. As well, this novel speaks to the Baylor University scandal.

See also: Wealthy Teen Nearly Experiences Consequence and College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed (when parody is true and thus less funny).


As I was reading Andy Weir’s The Martian, I had an increasingly uneasy feeling—but not the one I assume Weir intended.

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Weir’s novel gained popularity when made into a film starring Matt Damon.

The uneasiness came in part from my realization that I did not like the main character marooned on Mars, Mark Watney, growing to complete dislike when near the end as Watney is nerd-whining, he hopes that if he survives, his notoriety will finally snare him plenty of women.

But the greater part of the uneasiness came from not worrying about Watney’s suvival—or moving methodically from each intricately detailed disaster and then to the miraculous Watney solution (science!)—but from stepping back from the novel’s premise into the real world to ask, How much money do we spend to make clear whose lives matter in the U.S.?

And then the novel ends with a final log entry from Watney, an entry that confirms my uneasiness:

The cost of my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?

Well, okay. I know the answer to that. Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for century. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true. (pp. 368-369)

This motif of how much a society will spend to save a life has also been applied to Matt Damon, star of the film; it costs $200 billion to save him in The Martian and $1 trillion in all his movies. Appears in Hollywood, this is a bit of a joke.

Weir’s novel is mostly compelling for the quick read and science, but Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain does some of the same techniques, and much better. All in all, Weir’s novel is an interesting idea not fully formed as art—somewhat because of a lack of craft, but mostly because it appears Weir, Watney (and all the characters), and the intended audience suffer from a complete lack of critical awareness—punctuated by Watney’s hokey claim about our “basic human instinct to help each other out.”

The big problem with The Martian is what Robin James calls the “white interpretive horizon”; in the novel/film, that means Watney embodies all that is glorious about the Great White Male. What Watney represents is the vapid Ayn Rand rugged individual myth that is as thin a veil of white privilege as the rigged tarp ripped free when Watney launches away from Mars. And with a significant edit, we must confront that our “basic human instinct” is to help those who look like us—but not other people’s children.

The “white interpretive horizon” is so entrenched in popular culture that films such as Gravity contort the female lead into, well, the Great White Male. And of course, Hollywood can turn anyone into a hero (as long as he is white).

James builds to this conclusion, highlighting, I think, the essential failure of The Martian:

Both Trump’s conservativism and “Hello”’s liberalism expect everyone in the universe, and the universe itself, to reflect their interpretive horizon back to them because this horizon is “natural”; other horizons are disgusting or hilariously awful. This is no mere naturalistic fallacy, which assumes that natural means good. Shaped by the lived experience of white people and whiteness, these horizons are themselves white. Both fandoms treat whiteness as the natural foundation of their respective communities, and this common white supremacy is what makes liberal “Hello” fandom as dangerous as reactionary Trump fandom. We need to disrupt neoliberal white supremacist interpretive horizons in the same way #BlackLivesMatter interrupt Trump rallies.

Writing a year ago about the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice by a police officer, Charles Blow admits:

An extended video released last week of the shooting death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland appears to show an unconscionable level of human depravity on the part of the officer who shot him, a stunning disregard for the value of his life and a callousness toward the people who loved him.

And thus: “His black life didn’t seem to matter. But it does.”

As I finished The Martian, the Tamir Rice narrative continued, darker but just as predictable as the Watney story. Kirtsen West Savali reported:

Today, a grand jury in Cleveland, Ohio does what this system does. They put an exclamation point on the statement that black lives don’t matter. That black children do not matter. That being young, black and free is a crime punishable immediately by death.

For over a year, there has been a chorus of people demanding some semblance of justice for 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s family, without daring to acknowledge that impossible hope that flickers each time another black person falls victim to state-sanctioned terror.

Let’s set aside the thought experiment of a Great White Male marooned on Mars for a moment. I simply do not doubt we’d spend billions to save that astronaut as it plays out in the fictional world.

Instead, let’s try another thought experiment.

How much money are we willing to commit to saving one black male in any city across the U.S.?

But this isn’t even a thought experiment. We have already spoken.

The U.S. spends billions and billions to wage war, drop bombs from drones killing men, women, and children who are simply victims of geographical proximity (and are overwhelmingly brown and “not Christian”).

All the while the political and public will resists increasing minimum wage, welfare, or any use of funds that would prove that black and brown lives matter right here on our own fertile soil.

Blow ended his piece with: “The world must be made to acknowledge that Tamir Rice’s life mattered.”

And more, I’d argue—to prove lives matter by preventing the seemingly inevitable lives cut down literally by bullets but figuratively because Watney’s claim about our basic instinct is the stuff of the “white interpretive horizon”; in other words, bullshit.

See Also

What to do when you’re not the hero any more, Laurie Penny

The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.

UPDATED: Mainstream Media in (Perpetual) Crisis: More Education Meat Grinder

UPDATE: Note Holly Yettick’s One Small Droplet: News Media Coverage of Peer-Reviewed and University-Based Education Research and Academic Expertise; see abstract:

Most members of the American public will never read this article. Instead, they will obtain much of their information about education from the news media. Yet little academic research has examined the type or quality of education research and expertise they will find there. Through the lens of gatekeeping theory, this mixed-methods study aims to address that gap by examining the prevalence of news media citations of evidence that has undergone the quality-control measure of peer review and expertise associated with academics generally required to have expertise in their fields. Results suggest that, unlike science or medical journalists, education writers virtually never cite peer-reviewed research. Nor do they use the American Educational Research Association as a resource. Academic experts are also underrepresented in news media coverage, especially when compared to government officials [bold aded]. Barriers between the news media and academia include structural differences between research on education and the medical or life sciences as well as journalists’ lack of knowledge of the definition and value of peer review and tendency to apply and misapply news values to social science research and expertise.

“‘Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college’”: This spells doom for the U.S. economy, or to be more accurate, this spelled doom for the U.S. economy.

Except it didn’t, of course, as it is a quote in a 1947 issue of Time from John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education (analogous to today’s Secretary of Education) in the mid-1940s.

Jump forward to 26 December 2015 and The New York TimesAs Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short. Motoko Rich, as in the Time article, builds her case on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as Susan Ohanian confronts:

Here’s a front page. above-the-fold New York Times non-story that’s a perfect depiction of damning schools every-which-way. Schools with low graduation rates are depicted as failures; improve graduation rates, and then the diplomas they’re handing out are judged to have no meaning. And the Times gives the departing Secretary of Education star billing on this issue.

Quotation of the Day
The goal is not just high school graduation. The goal is being truly college and career ready.

–ARNE DUNCAN, the departing secretary of
education, on the United States 82 percent graduation rate in 2013-14, the highest on record.–New York Times, Dec. 27, 2015

Along with the meat grinder of incessantly new high-stakes accountability standards and testing over the past thirty-plus years, U.S. public education has been demonized since the mid-1900s and relentlessly framed within crisis discourse by the mainstream media for a century.

Rich’s cover piece spends an inordinate amount of energy to twist public schools into that crisis image while making no effort to investigate or challenge Duncan (a life-long appointee with no expertise in education and no credibility as a leader in education) or to unpack the stale platitudes and unsubstantiated claims about education reaching back at least to the Time article.

Duncan and Rich share, in fact, no experience or education in teaching as well as the disproportionate power of their voices in the field despite that lack of expertise.

On the other hand, I taught public high school English in rural South Carolina (not far from the school Rich highlights), have been an educator in SC over 30 years total, have a doctorate in education that emphasized the history of the field, and now am a teacher educator at a university just a couple miles from the school in Rich’s piece (I know teachers there, and have had several teacher candidates placed there for field work). As well, I taught journalism and was the faculty sponsor of the school newspaper, and have been a professional writer for about the same amount of time as I have been teaching, including writing and publishing a good deal of journalism (mostly about education).

This is not, however, an attack on Duncan or Rich—because they are not unique but typical of the mismatch of high-level voice with a lack of expertise.

Mainstream media appear fatally wed to only one version of the U.S. public education story: crisis.

And thus, journalists reach out to the same know-nothings (political leaders, political appointees, think-tank talking heads) and reproduce the same stories over and over and over [1].

Here, then, let me offer a few keys to moving beyond the reductive crisis-meme-as-education-journalism:

  • Public education has never been and is not now in crisis. “Crisis” is the wrong metaphor for entrenched patterns that have existed over a century. A jet plane crash landing into the Hudson River is a crisis; public education suffers under forces far more complicated than a crisis.
  • Metrics such as highs-takes test scores and graduation rates have always and currently tell us more about the conditions of children’s lives than to what degree public schools are effective.
  • Short-hand terms such as “college and career ready” and “grade-level reading” are little more than hokum; they are the inadequate verbal versions of the metrics noted above.
  • The nebulous relationship between the quality of education in the U.S. and the fragility of the U.S. economy simply has never existed. Throughout the past century, no one has ever found any direct or clear positive correlation between measures of educational quality in the U.S. and the strength of the U.S. economy.
  • Yes, racial and class segregation is on the rise in the U.S., and so-called majority-minority schools as well as high-poverty schools are quickly becoming the norm of public education. While demographics of race and class remain strongly correlated with the metrics we use to label schools as failing, the problem lies in the data (high-stakes tests remain race, class, and gender biased), not necessarily the students, teachers, or administrators.
  • However, historically and currently, public education’s great failures are two-fold: (1) public schools reflect the staggering social inequities of the U.S. culture, and (2) public schools too often perpetuate those same inequities (for example, tracking and disciplinary policies).

The mainstream media’s meat grinder of crisis-only reporting on public education achieves some extremely powerful and corrosive consequences.

First, the public remains grossly misinformed about public schools as a foundational institution in a democracy.

Next, that misleading and inaccurate crisis narrative fuels the political myopia behind remaining within the same education policy paradigm that has never addressed the real problems and never achieved the promises attached to each new policy (see from NCLB to ESSA).

And finally, this fact remains: Political and public will in the U.S. has failed public education; it has not failed us.

Mainstream media remain trapped in the education crisis narrative, I think, because neither the media nor the collective political/public consciousness is willing to confront some really ugly truths beneath the cultural commitment to the powerful and flawed rugged individual mythology in the U.S.: America is a classist, racist, and sexist society.

We are committed to allowing privilege beget privilege and to pretending that fruits of privilege are the result of effort and merit.

There is no crisis in education, but our democracy is being held hostage by incompetent politicians and a compliant mainstream media—all of which, ironically, would be served well by the sort of universal public education envisioned by the tarnished founding fathers’ idealistic (and hypocritical) rhetoric [2].

[1] See Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence, Joel R. Malin and Christopher Lubienski; The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?, Holly Yettick; The Media and Educational Research: What We Know vs. What the Public Hears, Alex Molnar

[2] See Thomas Jefferson’s argument for a democracy embracing education:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. ([1817], pp. 275-276)

The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)

To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university.  (p. 275)

By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)

The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)

Daredevil and Marvel Rising at Netflix

Real life origin stories have a way of being underwhelming when compared to the superhero universes of comic books—and real life origins remain relatively fixed although tellings and retellings always shade those realities differently.

My transition from childhood into adulthood is easy to pinpoint, and with the bite of a radioactive spider or an appropriate dousing in a transformative chemical, the summer between my 8th and 9th grades could have led to my wearing a different sort of lycra outfit, one donned to save the world (or at least the female of my affection).

Being diagnosed with scoliosis and having to wear a back brace from 9th through 12th grades, however, did not transform me into a superhero; it mostly hyper-exaggerated the already intense insecurities I felt as a scrawny young man wishing above all else to be a great athlete.

But the scoliosis diagnosis did lead to superheroes, specifically Marvel comics, as I began to collect and draw from the books I hoarded.

Fast forward four decades and the world has suddenly and shockingly joined me and countless nerds who didn’t need CGI and films to marvel at the alternate universes of masked superheroes. While the film explosion around comic book superheroes certainly was a significant turning point in the status of the graphic medium, I believe the rise of Marvel at Netflix is a far more compelling and promising adaptation.

Both the Daredevil and Jessica Jones series at Netflix have the time and space—serialization—to bring the most compelling aspects of comic books to viewers (something about TV series you find in HBO, Showtime, and other original programming that, I believe, is more powerful than Hollywood blockbuster film sequels).

So here is my nerd-confession about comic book superheroes: my favorite character has always been Daredevil (although I was profoundly shaped by the Spider-Man mythos as many who found themselves in the cult of Marvel experienced). As a result, for many years, my drawing of Daredevil hung in my parents’ living room:

Dardevil.jpg

Since I am still in advancing age struggling with the brave new world of series dumps and binge watching, I came to Daredevil (Netflix) a bit backwards after watching Jessica Jones.

Netflix’s Marvel Universe

Two 13-episode series may be an inadequate sample set, but I want first to note some patterns I have noticed watching Daredevil and Jessica Jones—sort of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

First, Netflix is offering a very muted superhero universe, not like the Stan Lee campiness but more as if Netflix is a bit embarrassed these shows are pulled from comic books. In Jessica Jones, that approach makes some sense, especially drawing as it does from Alias, but in Daredevil, the tiptoeing hurts a remarkable superhero narrative.

We wait, for example, all 13 episodes for Daredevil in his signature uniform and even the moniker “Daredevil” (and still no “Kingpin“). And the uniform? Falls short, I am afraid.

Next, just as the creative team behind a run on a comic book superhero significantly impacts the quality of the work, the Netflix series depend on the actors playing the roles as well as the writing and directing.

While the casting in Jessica Jones is stellar, I never felt drawn to the Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) or Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) actors, but I think the female roles are by far the best—Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple. Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk (Kingpin) proves far more compelling than the main leads of Murdock and Nelson, also.

And while part of my preference for Daredevil overlaps with a similar preference for Batman, I am increasingly disturbed by the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale influence on all superhero adaptations to small and large screens: the relentless darkness and, worst of all, the Batman voice. Murdock/Daredevil and Fisk (Kingpin) have fallen prey to the Batman voice, and thus, the series has a flatness of tone that deteriorates the overall effect of the real gravity of the themes of justice driving the Daredevil mythos.

And here is the real weakness of the Netflix version of the Marvel universe—the Matt/Foggy characterizations and friendship. The way they are portrayed suffers from arrested development; I simply don’t care about them the way I did in the comic book of my youth.

Matt and Foggy appear to be mostly connected by their sophomoric objectification of women: Gosh, Foggy states far too often, how does a blind guy always know when women are hot? And that is neither satiric nor appealing, notably since Jessica Jones has made some efforts to rise about the historical failures of comic books in terms of gender portrayal.

Viewers and Daredevil deserve better.

Why Daredevil?

The very best part of the Netflx Daredevil is the series brings to a wider audience (and allows me to reconsider) the essential elements of what makes Daredevil an under-appreciated but powerful superhero narrative.

Matt Murdock’s origin story, his place (Hell’s Kitchen), Murdock’s profession as a lawyer, and the brilliant device of the blind superhero (justice is blind, right?)—these are what make Daredevil my favorite superhero. But in the end it is the possibility of Daredevil that compels me.

The Daredevil of my youth, and then later, included Black Widow and Elektra. Daredevil also experienced the complex touches of Frank Miller (both an important and a deeply problematic comic book creator) as well as writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev. Maleev’s artwork, for me, is a pinnacle of the Daredevil I want to see.

2-outwky8
Artwork by Alex Maleev.

So I am willing to be patient because, as we have witnessed in the utter failure of bringing Daredevil to Hollywood, superheroes are allowed many reincarnations, even within an otherwise seamless existence.

Netflix need not reboot Daredevil, but would be wise to resurrect Daredevil from the best pages of the comic book itself.

As Season 1 ended, Matt and Karen hold hands, and the eerie image of Fisk in prison signal a perfect tension between light and dark, hope and certain doom.

Netflix must continue to mine that justice is blind but keep in mind the audience is neither deaf, dumb, nor blind.

For Further Reading

Daredevil: The Man without Fear (Critical Survey of Graphic Novels), P. L. Thomas

Elektra Lives Again (Critical Survey of Graphic Novel), P.L. Thomas

Review – ‘Daredevil’ Is One Of Marvels Greatest Achievements, Mark Hughes

12 Must-Read Daredevil Stories, Evan Narcisse

Daredevil: manwithoutfear.com

Comic Books and Graphic Novels: Challenging Genres, P.L. Thomas

Mirrors

11 December 2015—two days before my mother’s 74th birthday—I am sitting in the recovery bay of Spartanburg Regional Heart Center with my nephew and looking at my father swimming back to us through the sedatives from having his pacemaker battery replaced.

My father will be 77 next month, and I, 55 a few days before. My nephew turns 33 in March. We have been discussing this oddity of symmetry among our ages lately.

As I watch my father, I realize I have been doing this recently every time I pass a mirror. It is the gaze of an aging man watching aging men.

My father wakes quickly, it seems, and is restless, even profane, demanding water and making as if he can stand to leave.

Soon after the technician explains the new pacemaker to all of us—he talks loudly and slowly to my father in a way that makes me very uncomfortable—the nurse comes in and allows my nephew and me to help my father dress.

Even without sedation, my father struggles now to lift himself out of chairs. He can barely reach his feet to put on his socks and shoes. His breathing is labored, and years have brought him to this: “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

Days later, my father admits that he wanted me there because he didn’t think he would live through the procedure, although his doctor informed us after the replacement that the pacemaker has been remarkably therapeutic for my father’s heart, adding that the real problem is my father’s lack of exercise and being overweight—again, too much “world.”

23 December 2015—I have been sick for over a week, even going to the doctor (maybe the first time in over two years). One consequence of my puniness has been my inability to keep up with all my hair removal obligations: I shave my head, face, and legs (a serious cyclist for over 30 years) as well as groom a greying Van Dyke beard (yes, cliché for a man with a shaved head, I know, but forgive me my vanities).

That morning I can no longer tolerate the scraggly beard so I find myself standing in front of the mirror to trim it when I see my uncle Buddy and my grandfather Slick (who I dubbed Tu-Daddy).

tu-and-me
Tu-Daddy holding me as a small child—oddly, with shoes and a shirt on.

After trimming, I post a comment about this seeing on Facebook and tag my uncle Buddy and aunt Patsy. Buddy, who will turn 66 in February (more arbitrary symmetry of ages), replies by posting a picture of Slick from 1970, when he was about the age I am now.

Slick 1970
Slick c. 1970 at about 55 with his Van Dyke and ever cool in shades.

This moment on social media becomes another mirror for an aging man to gaze at aging men.

PT boat
“How can anybody know/How they got to be this way?”

Like Slick in 1970, I am now a grandfather and a father, one who must face mirrors every day—the literal mirrors on walls around me and also the many faces of the ones I love.

No amount of shaving can reveal anything I do not already know. No amount of trimming the Van Dyke can deny the greying hair.

I too am of this “world” like my father, the years mooring me to the places of my life and slowing me incrementally.

Under the brakes of aging and the compulsion to gaze, there is again Wordsworth: “We have given our hearts away,” and I hear what a younger man cannot—even as my senses slowly fade.

For Further Reading

The World Is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth

[my father moved through dooms of love], e.e. cummings

Do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas

Those Winter Sundays, Robert Hayden

Eating Together, Li-Young Lee

The Gift, Li-Young Lee

The Hospital Window, James Dickey

Education Pendulum? No, Meat Grinder

The irony of apt analogy is that when a comparison works it becomes overused, and thus, tossed eventually like so much waste in the cliché bin.

In education, possibly the most enduring metaphor is the education pendulum that represents the swings in educational policy since at least the beginning of the twentieth century.

However, the education pendulum metaphor represents the analogy that is enduring while also being horribly misleading; its power comes from the political and public misconceptions about education, in fact.

The education pendulum suggests relatively wide swings along a fixed continuum, one that implies an ideological left and right.

From historical examinations of education—such as Kliebard and Callahan—the evidence is overwhelming that U.S. public education committed in the first decades of the 1900s to efficiency and core knowledge, and schools have been governed within those ideologies (traditional, conservative) unto this day.

Progressivism, associated with John Dewey and vilified at mid-twentieth century, has only held weight in academia, but as Alfie Kohn carefully details, progressivism has never garnered any real value in official educational policy. Even when inklings of progressivism (such as whole language) have occurred, we have been left with “progressive in name only”; for example, when whole language was the official reading policy of California, the system failed whole language, but whole language did not fail students.

The only way to make the education pendulum analogy work is to envision the swing as minuscule, barely ticking back and forth along a technocratic continuum. Consider, for example, the pendulum swinging back and forth in fruitless pursuit of better tests between the SAT and ACT or between any state’s old high-stakes test and the new high-stakes test.

Here, then, in my home state of South Carolina, as I have documented before, educators in the state have been informed that due to the passing of new federal legislation, ESSA, State Superintendent of Education Molly M. Spearman has announced:

Under ESSA, states no longer have to tie educator evaluation to student growth as formerly required under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). South Carolina has already begun to implement an educator evaluation system, ADEPT for teachers and PADEPP for principals, that is partially tied to student learning objectives (SLOs). Student growth will continue to play a role in educator evaluation but it will not be tied to the results of high stakes testing.

As part of Superintendent Spearman’s proposal, the South Carolina Department of Education will be conducting focus groups to determine additional details surrounding educator evaluation and a thoughtful implementation timeline. Changes must be approved by the State Board of Education (SBE).

SC is not alone, but I think we are a powerful cautionary tale for the nation. SC dove into state-based accountability early and deep. The state has changed standards about 8 times in thirty years—changes that forced different tests; different training for teachers; different evaluation systems for schools, administrators, and teachers; and (not surprisingly) the exact same pronouncements about SC education—failure.

If we turn to literature, Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” or Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” for example, we can approach more closely the appropriate analogy for education, but here, and with over a hundred years of public education in view, I offer that we are suffering under an education meat grinder—one that destroys education but creates political and financial profit for those turning the churn.

There simply are no right standards, no better tests, and no legislation poised to be the saviors of U.S. public education.

To remain there, as we most certainly have with ESSA, is to acquiesce once again to the education meat grinder—or if you must, the education pendulum of the Poe variety.

01

Should We Marvel at a Woman Ex-Superhero?

“It was money that drove me to the naked girl business,” writes Molly Crabapple, adding:

I got my first regular gigs working as an artist’s model. For ten dollars an hour, I shivered before roomfuls of university students. Poses started at thirty seconds, and by the end, we stayed frozen for twenty minutes at a time. Posing had all the fascination of sitting on a cross-country bus ride with no book….Professionalism meant objectification—not the sexy kind, but the kind that turns you into an object, like a chair.

Crabapple is today a professional artist, a real woman—both like and unlike, I would argue, Jessica Jones, a fictional character given a wider popularity now that she has been drawn from the world of comic books into the Netflix universe.

Crabapple and Jones offer narratives about the world and lives of women—not a complete picture, but a vivid and disturbing one.

I have recently finished the first Netflix season of Jessica Jones and was compelled to include the importance of the series in a chapter I just submitted on comic books and race. I am unable to extricate from each other that popular media represents race and gender as well as sexuality in normative ways that reflect the very worst of U.S. culture while mostly skirting the opportunity to confront and even change the violences suffered by so-called minority populations.

Meredith J.C. Warren explains about efforts to uncover how the historical Jesus looked:

It is no surprise that many contemporary depictions of Jesus show him as representing what is upheld by Western standards of “normative” (that is, culturally imposed and valued) male beauty….

Our images of Jesus, then, say more about us as a society than about his historical appearance.

Religious narratives serve to maintain those norms, just as popular media function.

Yet for black and brown children, the stories they read rarely include them. Walter Dean Myers recalled his own journey to being a beloved black novelist for teens:

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

Myers found James Baldwin, he noted, concluding: “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

“Literature’s job is not to protect young people from the ugly world,” argues Daniel José Older; “it is to arm them with a language to describe difficult truths they already know.” For Older, today, the question is “Do black children’s lives matter if nobody writes about them?”

And here I come back to the very real lived experiences of Crabapple and the fictional world of Jones.

As Emily Nussbaum somewhat reluctantly admits, “[I]n the world of Marvel Comics, a female antihero—a female anything—is a step forward. But a rape survivor, struggling with P.T.S.D., is a genuine leap.”

The superhero genre of comic books in the U.S. has a long history of objectifying women with roots in jingoism and racism. And as the ascension of Sam Wilson/Falcon to the new black Captain America and the lingering sexualizing of Wonder Woman reveal, superhero comic books have yet to shake off much of that dim past.

Should we, then, marvel at Jessica Jones as a woman ex-superhero?

The Netflix series opens by being fairly true to Alias, the graphic series; however, the Netflix adaptation mutes the superhero elements. Focusing on this version is important because the Internet series is reaching a wider audience than the original graphic version.

Jones’s story—a woman with super powers who gives up her superhero gig after horrific trauma at the behest of super-villain Kilgrave to become a private investigator—proves to be a “step forward” after all in terms of both gender and race.

The very complicated and sexually charged relationship between Jones and Luke Cage may be one of the best elements of the adaptation for both the quality of the dialogue and character development as well as the rare depiction of sex between white Jones and black Cage.

But it is the connection between Jones and Kilgrave, running the entire 13 episodes of the first season, that highlights the power of this series to confront the objectification experienced by Crabapple.

Kilgrave is the hyper-embodiment of misogyny, paternalism, and the male gaze; his victims must do whatever he demands when they are breathing the same air, and for Kilgrave, his singular obsession is Jones, who before the action of the series he has controlled, abused, and nearly destroyed.

Many other characters have suffered in ways similar to Jones—often gruesome and the result of Kilgrave’s amoral whims.

Pop culture doesn’t have to be perfect to be good, and Jessica Jones is very often good. But that good is very disturbing.

Jones and Kilgrave are exaggerations of the conditions women must endure under the privilege of men—but those exaggerations are not as extreme as we would like to pretend.

If you doubt this, read Crabapple recounting a dehumanizing video shoot: “Two hundred dollars to writhe around in a bikini for a heavy metal video. While a grip poured live crickets on my tits.”

Jessica Jones holds promise, but as Myers lamented: “There is work to be done.”

Please note the substantive counterarguments by @SonofBaldwin in the Tweets below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Don’t Belong Here: My Otherness, My Privilege

I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself, and myself only.

James Baldwin

As I hurtle toward the midpoint of my 50s, I am more acutely aware of the intersection of my redneck past and anxiety.

Wrestling with debilitating and relentless anxiety is, I realize, a journey; there is no finish line where anxiety is left behind.

And there is only a tortured peace in knowing and having the compassion of those who understand because those who understand, we must recognize, share the same prison.

Anxiety, for me, is the tension between who we are in our bones as that contrasts with the expectations of whatever cultural or subcultural norms in which we exist.

This brings me once again to my redneck past.

Born, having grown up, and living as well as working in the South for almost 55 years, I am simultaneously a white, heterosexual man of the South and in many ways an outsider in that same homeland.

In my late teens and early 20s, mostly during the formative years of college, I had to confront who I was in my bones that did not match the racism and fervent, evangelical religiosity of South Carolina.

When I opened my mouth then, when I open my mouth now and utter the same words I write almost daily, anyone within ear shot has the same recognition that my dear friend and brief mentor Joe Kincheloe had the first time we spoke on the phone, “Why, you are from the South aren’t you”—in a drawl that sounded very much like home to me.

Joe passed away far too young in 2008, and we co-authored a book in 2006 as part of his limitless kindness as an academic who had struggled to find his place in academia—where from the South to the Midwest and then the Northeast (before fleeing to Canada), Joe confessed to me that he was routinely marginalized for his Southernness, notably his drawl that I share.

Joe and I share something else that is very important—an Otherness beneath the powerful veneer of our tremendous privileges of race, gender, sexuality, and academic proclivities.

I am not completely sure of how this happened for Joe, but I know that coming to recognize and understand my Otherness began to build in me the humility I needed to avoid falling victim to my privilege—to avoid believing that my accomplishments were more the result of unique effort or qualities in me than my unwarranted privilege.

Like battling anxiety, however, that is a journey, not a destination.

Especially in high school, I found myself nearly physically repelled by organized religion—drawn again by my bones to George Carlin and later Kurt Vonnegut for their artful deconstructing of moral and ethical ways of being that transcend religiosity or even claims of a Higher Power.

I was being told (and still am being told) in the South that without accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I was a sinner destined for hell—living morally and ethically simply wasn’t enough. The baseball bat of dogma batters basic human decency, you see.

These formative years built my lifelong repulsion for hypocrisy and judgment, coercion—both in my own ways of being and in the behavior of others (especially those in power).

My lingering drawl tells people without doubt I am a Southerner, but since at least my teen years, I have been a stranger in that homeland.

And then in 2002, I moved from teaching English in my hometown’s high school to a university less than an hour away.

Unlike my high school students, however, my college students were occasionally not from the South.

In one of those first years, a student who claimed I was her favorite professor told me during a conference in my office, “I know you are smart, but you don’t sound smart.”

And that resonates with me still, when I hear myself teaching in a blur of passion about that day’s discussion turn a one-syllable word into two. I find myself now stopping and confessing how my redneck self just slipped out of my mouth. It has become a self-deprecating joke, one that elicits laughter, but is yet more veneer to cover my anxiety, my low self-esteem born out of that relentless anxiety.

I know I am smart, but I don’t sound smart.

It’s a journey.

I left teaching high school where I was a badgered non-believer and evolving Marxist to find myself a working-class academic in a selective liberal arts university where otherwise enlightened souls trample on that redneck past.

I don’t belong here—this is my internal monologue on repeat, a not-so-soothing soundtrack beneath the other perpetual internal dialogue with myself that is anxiety (I narrate tales of impending doom endlessly to myself).

As I was recently talking with a rare wonderful who understands (remember the tortured peace of that understanding), I shared about my old-man coming to understand that we must not sacrifice the good at the alter of the perfect.

On my journey, I am trying very hard to honor those I love by being my genuine Self, although that still creates bitter anxiety within the cultural and subcultural norms in which I live and breath.

I don’t belong here (I think, hearing two syllables in “here”), but it is the only here I have. And it doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.

And seeing, embracing that good is a rare antidote to the prison of anxiety.

Part of that good for me has been taking the path of recognizing my otherness that has saved me from the callousness of privilege.

I am lucky for the people in my life who see and love the genuine me, but in a perfect world, Joe would still be here so we could talk about this unselfconsciously and laughing.

Joe Kincheloe passed away December 19, 2008.

For Further Reading

With Drawl, Laura Relyea

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison