Category Archives: consumerism

MLK and “the Guaranteed Income”

“President-elect Joe Biden will seek to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of his relief bill,” reported Alina Selyukh for NPR.

Across social media, people began doing calculations of what $15/hour translates into for annual salaries, and here are a couple responses from white Christian conservatives:

McChristian, personifying the relationship between a McNugget and real chicken, seems to be aware that teachers are underpaid, but lacks any Christian compassion for other workers also being underpaid (such as minimum-wage workers often constituting the working poor and living without healthcare or retirement—or job security).

Rachel, hollow mouthpiece for the equally vapid TPUSA, doesn’t just lack compassion; she also lacks any grasp of basic facts, embodying not only the hypocrisy of the Christian conservative movement but also the complete misunderstanding of how the free market works.

Note that “[r]aising wages for fast-food workers to $15 an hour would lead to a noticeable but not substantial increase in food prices, according to a new study by Purdue University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management,” as reported by Sally French at Market Watch.

Social media, as well, was quick to point out that in areas such as DC and the San Francisco Bay, where the minimum wage is already $15 and above, Taco Bell burritos remain below $4 at the most expensive.

In the U.S., we are well beyond the point of needing to acknowledge that there is nothing Christian or honest about the conservative movement in the U.S.

And few times a year are more likely to expose that than Martin Luther King Jr. Day—when those on the Right scramble to cherry-pick one or two quotes from MLK to wave in front of their hypocrisy and lies.

The debate about the $15/hour minimum wage (as well as college debt relief and universal healthcare) is an ideal opportunity to examine the MLK that almost everyone in mainstream America chooses to ignore.

brown concrete statue during daytime
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

A couple favorite mis-uses and distortions of appropriating MLK is, first, characterizing King as a “passive radical” in order to violence-shame groups or paint a distorted “both sides” false equivalency between right-wing white nationalism and social justice advocates focusing on race and racism, and second, plastering the “content of their character” quotes everywhere to perpetuate the colorblind argument that, in fact, is itself racist.

Rare is the reference to King who strongly rejected the Vietnam War, but almost entirely absent from the public consciousness in the U.S. is King’s 1967 work, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

Here, King offers his criticism of the standard approach to eradicating poverty (approaches that persist in 2021):

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:

• lack of education restricting job opportunities;

• poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiatives;

• fragile relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measure were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

Wealth and Want

King was confronting that U.S. political will could only admit indirect ways to address poverty—despite, as King pointed out, that more whites than Black people suffered under the weight of economic inequity.

“In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else,” King noted, adding: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

Not only did King call for a guaranteed income, he asserted the essential need to be direct:

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Wealth and Want

Unlike McChristian and Rachel above, MLK as a progressive, as a Leftist (often slurred as a “communist”), understood the foundational need in a capitalist society that all people have capital:

Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life and in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he know that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.

Wealth and Want

But King was profoundly aware of the problems with “minimum” wages, arguing about the guaranteed income:

Two conditions are indispensable if we are to ensure that the guaranteed income operates as a consistently progressive measure.

• First, it must be pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income. To guarantee an income at the floor would simply perpetuate welfare standards and freeze into the society poverty conditions.

• Second, the guaranteed income must be dynamic; it must automatically increase as the total social income grows. Were it permitted to remain static under growth conditions, the recipients would suffer a relative decline. If periodic reviews disclose that the whole national income has risen, then the guaranteed income would have to be adjusted upward by the same percentage. Without these safeguards a creeping retrogression would occur, nullifying the gains of security and stability.

Wealth and Want

King makes a purely Christian argument about economic policy in a capitalist democracy that should and could center human dignity and equity over greed:

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

Wealth and Want

The Right is wrong about what it means to be Christian.

The Right is wrong about what makes democracy and capitalism work for people and not against human dignity.

And the Right over the next few days will once again be offensively wrong about MLK.

I, Marxist

It is not for the theater alone, but the theater itself would justify the moment in each class I teach when I out myself as a “communist” (pausing, then clarifying the whole communist-socialist-Marxist mess that most Americans cannot untangle).

And that comes early so that I can punctuate about once a class period a key point with “Here is the communist propaganda of the day.” Eventually, this prods laughter when at first there were silent faces, eyes down, of utter fear.

In almost all of my courses, we back up and reconsider terms such as “theory,” “hypothesis,” “belief,” “objectivity,” and of course the cursed trinity, “communist-socialist-Marxist.” What is interesting as well is that most of my students are as ill-informed about “capitalism,” “democracy,” and “republic” as they are misguided about the Red Scare.

While I remain resistant to any and all labels (see this about my born-again agnostic confession), I am, in fact, more or less a Marxist, with the caveat that the term itself and the ideologies surrounding it are contentious, at best.

I was never an Ayn Rand simpleton (excuse the redundancy), but in my early life as a would-be intellectual/academic (my teens), I was powerfully drawn to American Romanticism’s star-struck gaze on the individual—the stuff of the three-name bullshitters, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (for whom I still have some affection, by the way).

But my twenties and thirties included a great awakening that ran through John Dewey (rejecting the either/or thinking of society v. individual) and directly into Paulo Freire, a (the?) patron saint of educational Marxists.

The boy-to-man transition can be a slow one, but I eventually shrugged off my idealizing the individual and demonizing the collective (damned Society), and came to a much more nuanced understanding of the moral and ethical implications (or absence thereof) inherent in the rugged individual myth and the larger consumerism/capitalism norm of the good ol’ U.S. of A.

This transition, I realize, is part of a personal journey to an ethical way of being, and thus, I had to reject rugged individualism and capitalism (consumerism) for their amorality; I had to embrace Marxism for its moral imperative.

Of course, I realize that “moral” and “ethical” are social constructions, not some objective thing handed down by G(g)od; however, I think humans can create norms that seek ways to honor the collective and individual good.

I am still traversing along Dewey’s call to reject the either/or—despite the wealth of post-apocalyptic science/speculative fiction (that I love) grounded in the evil collective assaulting the idealized indivdual. See Winston’s head trapped in the cage under the threat of loosed rats.

Pretty damn hard to resist this warning, but it’s hokum, mostly, especially since this sort of propaganda by Randian capitalists and aimed at demonizing the government is a distortion of a more credible warning about totalitarianism, something more likely when government is corrupted by corporations (not the implied message that government is the inherently corrupt force in the universe).

Thus, my Marxism runs toward the recognition (the paradox) that if we do value individual freedom and the so-call free market (insert sarcastic cough here), the path to those ideals begins with insuring the robustness of the public good first.

Randian capitalists preach that the free market comes first, as the sacred Invisible Hand—while public institutions (gasp) are to be tolerated only and always under a skeptical gaze.

As ideologies, both of these approaches are idealistic, and possibly inherently unattainable.

I remain with the Marxist camp because it is the moral idealism against the amoral idealism of Randian capitalism.

I am willing to concede that having two or three competing pharmacies facing off across the street and corners from each other can work to depress prices—possibly more so than depending on the usually bungled bureaucracy of government to serve the people well (here, read some Kafka).

But the public good will not be served by Walgreens and Ekerd alone in terms of just what pharmaceuticals they sale; in fact, if anything, the U.S. is a horrible parable about the failure of allowing the market to drive the selling of medicine. (Consider Tamiflu, which is mostly sold to create profit for drug companies, but likely is not close to being cost effective or curative for patients).

The free market spawned Viagra and Cialis, we must consider, but cancer is left to private non-profits begging for people to be decent, and, human.

Charity.

So to stand before my students and confess “I, Marxist,” is no mere theater, although it serves that well also.

It is, in fact, an act of confessing my own moral imperative as a teacher, and a human—as flawed as all that is.

It is a defiance in the wake of all the cartoonish Red baiting that has characterized the U.S. for more than a century.

And I persist, although “I’m not sure all these people understand.”

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.

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.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The stories themselves, literally, are powerful and engaging or George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would not have endured as they have as literature people read again and again—and possibly should read again and again.

However, ultimately, 1984 is not about the future (especially since we have long since passed the future Orwell may have envisioned), and The Crucible is not about the past (although Miller built his play on the very real and troubling history of Puritan witchcraft hysteria). These works are about the complicated present of both authors’ worlds as that speaks to the enduring realities of the human condition.

All of that may seem weighty stuff to step into a look at what appears to be a children’s book, but the paragraphs above should be more than a hint that looks can be deceiving—and enlightening.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, written by George Saunders and wonderfully illustrated by Lane Smith (whose It’s a Book I cannot recommend highly enough), is a fanciful and satirical tale that proves in the end to be an allegory of scarcity and slack—a perfect companion read to Ursula K. Le Guin’s allegory of privilege, “The One’s Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Realizing that the Human Heart Is Capable

“Ever had a burr in your sock?” sets the story in motion—one sentence centered on the page over a giant question mark. It is an opening worthy of a child and all of us who cling to the wonder of childhood.

While Le Guin is often described as a science fiction writer, in her work I recognize the blurring of genres that joins science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy; it is that “other world” about which Le Guin and Margaret Atwood appear to argue, and it a stark but rich other world Saunders conjures and Lane pictures.

The story of Frip involves three houses for three families, all with children at the center. The houses are distinguished with primary colors—child-like blue, green, and red—but Lane’s artwork adds the ominous to Saunders’ seemingly simple narrative tinged with more than a bite of satire. The illustrations echo the haunting works about and for children found in Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton.

“Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea.” (p. 6) Artwork by Lane Smith

A child standing precariously close to the end of a slanted cliff over an angry ocean catches the eye on page 7 and then the crux of the story pulls you back to the text on page 6:

Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea. Frip was three tiny goat-yards into which eight times a day the children of the shacks would trudge with gapper-brushes and cloth gapper-sacks that tied at the top. After brushing the gappers off the goats, the children would walk to the cliff at the edge of town and empty their gapper-sacks into the sea. (p. 6)

Gappers, orange burr-like creatures with many eyes and the size of a baseball, come to represent throughout the story the power of the systemic inevitable: The presence of the gappers determines the lot of the families (and their goats), but most of the people in the tale remain unable to see beyond their own fixed and mostly misguided worldviews.

“A gapper’s like that, only bigger, about the size of a baseball, bright orange, with multiple eyes like the eyes of a potato.” (p. 2) Artwork by Lane Smith

When the gappers cling to the goats of all three families, there is an ironic appearance of equality among them. But when the fortune of one family shifts, the gappers fulfill their name by creating the gap:

So that night, instead of splitting into three groups, the gappers moved into one very large and impressive shrieking group directly into Capable’s yard. (p. 12)

Before this shift in how the gappers behave, of course, the three families are not equal because Capable is an only child living with her father and who has lost her mother. Capable works as all the children are expected to work (removing gappers in a daily Sisyphean nightmare of chores) and seeks to serve the needs of her grieving father, who along with his grief is a prisoner of nostalgia:

“I myself was once an exhausted child brushing off gappers. It was lovely! The best years of my life. The way they fell to the sea from our bags! And anyway, what would you do with your time if there were no gappers?” (p. 11)

This nostalgia masking an unnecessarily burdensome childhood, however, is but one ideology weighing on Capable because as soon as the other two families are relieved of gappers on their goats, those families reveal themselves to be very much like the people of Le Guin’s Omelas:

“It’s a miracle!” Mrs. Romo shouted next morning, when she came out and discovered that her yard was free of gappers. “This is wonderful! Capable, dear, you poor thing. The miracle didn’t happen to you, did it? I feel so sorry for you. God has been good to us, by taking our gappers away. Why? I can’t say. God knows what God is doing, I guess! I suppose we must somehow deserve it!” (p. 17)

Capable becomes the sacrificed child, and despite her misfortune, the relieved families read the events as their merit (and of course the ugly implication that Capable and her father deserve the burden of the gappers).

What follows from this shift in fate is the central story of Frip with Capable as our main character. The message becomes clear, and Saunders and Lane make the ride one you’ll want to visit again and again. If you are lucky, the book could become one of those read alouds requested by son or daughter, or by a classroom of children.

And while I will leave the rest of the story to you, I think it is necessary to note here that this allegory is both a cautionary tale about how we view children and childhood as well as a brilliant call to reconsider how we view education and education reform.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The U.S., like the characters (except for Capable) in Saunders’s story, is tragically blinded by a belief in cultural myths that have little basis in evidence: That we live and work in a meritocracy, that competition creates equity, that children need to be “taught a lesson” about the cold cruel world lest they become soft, and such.

As a result of these beliefs, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for children—or to be more accurate, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for other people’s children, as Capable personifies.

Here, then, I want to make the case that The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a powerful allegory of scarcity and slack as examined by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan and Shafir detail that the conditions of poverty, scarcity, so overburden people psychologically, mentally, and physically that their behavior is often misread (poor people are lazy, poor people make bad decisions, etc.). In Saunders’s story, scarcity and its burden are portrayed by the gappers, and readers witness how the coincidence of the onslaught of the gappers changes the families involved. In other words, the behavior of people is determined by the environment, and not by the inherent goodness or deficiencies of any individual.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip goes further, however, by showing that one person’s scarcity (Capable) allows other person slack: privilege is built on the back of others, and those conditions are mostly arbitrary. While Mullainathan and Shafir argue that the slack enjoyed by those living in relative privilege provides the sort of cognitive space needed to excel, Saunders speaks to more than the slack enjoyed by the two families relieved of gappers and the compounding scarcity suffered by Capable (her lot in life and the addition of the gappers):

“And the men succeeded in lifting the house and moving it very very close to the third and final house in Frip, which belonged to Sid and Carol Ronsen, who stood in their yard with looks of dismay on their nearly identical frowning faces.” (p. 23) Artwork by Lane Smith

  • Capable represents a counter-narrative to claims that impoverished children lack “grit.” As her name suggests, this child is more than capable, but the world appears determined to defeat her.
  • Capable also embodies Lisa Delpit’s confrontation of “other people’s children”—that those with privilege (slack) are willing to allow one set of standards for other people’s children (often living and learning in scarcity), standards they will not tolerate for their own.

As I stated in the opening, allegory seeks to open our eyes by diversion, creating an other world that helps us see both the flaws with our now and the enduring failures of humans to embrace our basic humanity, a failure Capable teeters on the edge of making herself but cannot:

And [Capable] soon found that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.

That is, it was fun at first, but then got gradually less fun, until it was really no fun at all. (p. 70).

In the end, it is this sort of charity, this sort of recognition of the community of humanity, a call for the kindness found in Kurt Vonnegut’s similar mix of dark humor that Saunders appears to suggest we are all capable.

Companion Reads for The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde (1891)

“The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Lisa Delpit

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit

“NPR Whitewashes ‘Grit’ Narrative” 

Competition: A Multidisciplinary Analysis, Wade B. Worthen, A. Scott Henderson, Paul R. Rasmussen and T. Lloyd Benson, Eds.