Tag Archives: George Carlin

I Swear: On “Grit,” Adult Hypocrisy, and Privilege

I’m gonna cuss on the mic tonight.
“Rockin’ the Suburbs,” Ben Folds

My parents taught me that if you swear, it’s a sign of a poor vocabulary.
If I expect my players to be disciplined, then I have to be, too.
Dean Smith

Few things have been more important to me than discovering George Carlin during my teens years in the 1970s. Soon to follow was Richard Pryor.

Profanity and the art of crafting humor are easily the foundations for my life of words as avid reader and writer.

And yes, I swear.

But in both Carlin and Pryor I learned something far more important than how to swear in ways that gained me credibility among my peers (despite my frail nerdom); I had the curtain pulled back on adult authority—the hypocrisy of the “do as I say, not as I do” adult world.

Carlin and Pryor were my first critical teachers.

I grew up in a rural Southern town and school system where adults demanded children respect authority and tradition while behaving in ways that were inexcusable—racial slurs, profanity, drinking, smoking, you name it.

This was particularly pronounced among the coaches in the public schools.

Years after I graduated, I returned to that school to teach. A sophomore came into my class one day, stunned that the head football coach/athletic director/assistant principal had just given the student demerits for swearing—and had yelled profanities at the student during the issuing of those demerits.

So as I have noted before about Coach K and my fandom for Duke University basketball, I have a great deal of trouble with the berating, profane coach demanding character and discipline from his/her players—often children, teens, and young adults.

And we live in a world still where a coach launches into a profane tirade to reprimand his player for lacking class and a white, privileged male moralizes cluelessly, perched not on his own morality but his privilege (see Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s Poor People Don’t Need Better Social Norms. They Need Better Social Policies).

When Dean Smith recently passed away, the coverage did highlight Smith’s unique convictions as a coach—including that he did not use profanity, but also that he led a social activist life that was often ignored.

But let’s be clear that Smith’s convictions are about not just talking the talk, but walking the walk: “If I expect my players to be disciplined, then I have to be, too.”

So when I came across a profile of Angela Duckworth, who is the central person in the “grit” phenomenon mostly aimed at impoverished and minority children, I had the same reaction to some details as I have when Coach K screams profanities on the sidelines, when the Vanderbilt coach lost it, and when the privileged make moral demands of the impoverished—and as I noted above, my problem is not the profanity, but the hypocrisy.

Early in the profile of Duckworth, we learn:

Assistant Professor of Psychology Angela Duckworth Gr’06 has another explanation. Before she entered graduate school at Penn in 2002 she spent five years teaching math and science in poor urban neighborhoods across the United States. In that time she concluded that the failure of students to acquire basic skills was not attributable to the difficulty of the material, or to a lack of intelligence, or indeed to any of the factors mentioned above. Her intuition told her that the real problem was character [emphasis added].

“Grit” research claims that some people are successful and others are not because of something like resiliency, which is a subset of the larger character issue.

However, later in the profile, we also discover:

Duckworth jokes that the job-hopping she did in her twenties was a case study in “how not to be gritty,” but it seems more a function of the intensity and dynamism of her personality. In the course of reporting this article I heard colleagues call Duckworth the most extroverted person, the quickest learner, and the fastest thinker (and talker) they’d ever met.

On the day I visited she had a half-dozen bubble gum containers on her desk, suggesting an atmosphere of restless activity and a need to replenish the saliva that’s lost through such rapid-fire speech. She also uses expletives in a way that might impress even high-powered cursers like Rahm Emanuel. In the course of a 90-minute conversation she called a principal she knew “an asshole,” described the opinion of a leading education foundation as “fucking idiotic,” and did a spot-on impression of a teenager with attitude when explaining the challenge of conducting experiments with adolescents: “When you pay adults they always work harder but sometimes in schools when I’ve done experiments with monetary incentives there’s this like adolescent ‘fuck you’ response. They’ll be like ‘Oh, you really want me to do well on this test? Fuck you, I’m going to do exactly the opposite.’”

So when I Tweeted this, I found out that others immediately assumed I was concerned about Duckworth’s profanity.

Again, I swear. Quite a lot.

But the issue with the above is that I see in Duckworth more evidence of what William Deresiewicz confronts in Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League and his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life:

Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege [emphasis added], heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

Privilege and success are dangerous combinations:

Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocraticthe development of expertiseand everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms [emphasis added].

Such as identifying, measuring, and labeling children by their “grit”? A technocratic view of the world that ignores inequity, privilege?

And thus, I fear that the “grit” narrative as a veneer for privilege is part of the problem noted by Deresiewicz: “This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”

There is an arrogance, a self-righteousness, a contempt for others—carried by the flippancy of profanity—that make me convinced that, yes, “grit” is a veneer for privilege, a way to reduce marginalized people through a deficit view.

To be pointed, I am deeply concerned about the racism and classism beneath those embracing and endorsing “grit”—and Duckworth’s mockery of adolescents suggests a lack of awareness that reinforces my concern.

The formula: I worked hard and succeeded. You are struggling so it must be you aren’t working hard enough!

So the missionary zeal bothers me:

For Duckworth, however, the challenge of her research question is part of its appeal. She spent the first decade of her professional life unsure of how to apply her abundant talent. Now she no longer has any doubts. “I have complete conviction that this is an incredibly important scientific question,” she says. “If we can figure out the science of behavior and behavior change, if we can figure out what is motivation and how to motivate people, what is frustration and how do we manage it, what is temptation and why do people succumb to it—that to me would be akin to the semiconductor.”

The facts refuting that formula bother me even more: Educational attainment (a clear marker for effort) is often significantly trumped by race and class.

If we accept that “grit” includes “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (such as achieving more education), I find the above details about Duckworth more evidence of the adult hypocrisy I experienced while growing up. Is her cavalier attitude and profanity any different than the attitude she is condemning among teens?

So my concerns are not personal, or personal attacks—because Duckworth is certainly not alone in her good intentions behind “grit” research or practices.

And my concerns are grounded in Paul Gorski’s scholarship in which he shares his own self-reflection, as have I, as I continue to do. Gorski explains:

Unfortunately, my experience and a growing body of scholarship on intercultural education and related fields (such as multicultural education, intercultural communication, anti-bias education, and so on) reveal a troubling trend: despite overwhelmingly good intentions, most of what passes for intercultural education practice, particularly in the US, accentuates rather than undermines existing social and political hierarchies (Aikman 1997; Diaz-Rico 1998; Gorski 2006; Hidalgo, Chávez-Chávez, and Ramage 1996; Jackson 2003; Lustig 1997; Nieto 2000, 1995; Schick and St. Denis 2005; Sleeter 1991; Ulichny 1996). (p. 516)

Further, I remain guided in my criticism of “grit” by Gorski’s questions:

The questions are plenty: do we advocate and practice intercultural education so long as it does not disturb the existing sociopolitical order?; so long as it does not require us to problematize our own privilege?; so long as we can celebrate diversity, meanwhile excusing ourselves from the messy work of social reconstruction?

Can we practice an intercultural education that does not insist first and foremost on social reconstruction for equity and justice without rendering ourselves complicit to existing inequity and injustice? In other words, if we are not battling explicitly against the prevailing social order with intercultural education, are we not, by inaction, supporting it?

Such questions cannot be answered through a simple review of teaching and learning theory or an assessment of educational programs. Instead, they oblige all of us who would call ourselves intercultural educators to re-examine the philosophies, motivations, and world views that underlie our consciousnesses and work. Because the most destructive thing we can do is to disenfranchise people in the name of intercultural education. (p. 516)

I am not, then, being a petty prude. (Want to listen to my CAKE or Ben Folds/Five mix CDs?)

I am not stooping to ad hominem, and this has nothing to do with who I like or dislike (as I don’t know Duckworth, and the other key “grit” advocates). I suspect, actually, they are good and decent people dedicated to doing the right thing.

This is about the hypocrisy of adult demands aided by the technocratic use of “grit” as a veneer for privilege.

I remain convinced that the appeal of the “grit” narrative is mostly a failure to do what Gorski notes above: “Such questions…oblige all of us who would call ourselves intercultural educators to re-examine the philosophies, motivations, and world views that underlie our consciousnesses and work.”

So when an award-winning researcher tells me poor and minority children simply lack “grit” or a New York Times pundit explains the moral shortcomings of the poor, I hear Ben Folds singing, “Let me tell y’all what it’s like/ Being male, middle class and white/ It’s a bitch”—except Folds in his profanity is being satirical and his work is mostly harmless entertainment.


My Redneck Past: A Brief Memoir of Two’s

If you’re afraid they might discover your redneck past
There are a hundred ways to cover your redneck past

“Your Redneck Past,” Ben Folds Five

My maternal grandfather’s given name was Harold, but he went by “Slick.” As his first grandchild, however, I christened him “Tu-Daddy”—a child’s twisting of “two,” as in my second father.

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

But “two” also captures the two enduring images I have of him: (1) Harold/Slick lost his little finger on his left hand in the machinery of the yarn dyeing mill where he worked in the hills of North Carolina [see note below], and (2) virtually every time I saw him, Harold/Slick was barefoot—typically, sitting outside in nothing except a pair of cut-off jeans, silent and alone.

TuDaddy 1
Harold Sowers (Tu-Daddy) collecting beer cans at Myrtle Beach, where he spent winters helping run a hotel.

My name is also connected with “two” because I am a second, named after my paternal grandfather, Paul Lee Thomas, who people in my second hometown of Woodruff, SC, knew only as Tommy. And it was in second grade when my teacher, Mrs. Townsend, sent me into the hallway for arguing with her about my name.

When she took the first role (everyone in Woodruff knew everyone), Mrs. Townsend informed me that I was a junior, named after my father she stated with the assurance of a teacher, but I explained, “No, ma’am, I am named after my grandfather. I am a second.”

school picts x2
Me, childhood pictures, school picture on the right.

As was the case in my home, in school, children did not argue or correct adults so to the hall I went—although I was right, and she was wrong.

I was already petrified of Mrs. Townsend, a small woman, because I knew her husband, Corporal Townsend, a highway patrolman, whom I had met at my grandfather’s gas station that sat in the middle of town—the sign prominently stating, “Tommy’s 76.”

The yarn mills in the hills of North Carolina to the mill villages of Upstate South Carolina, then, are the fertile soil of my redneck past—working class families sometimes disrupted by alcoholism on one side and mostly living their lives with little or minimal formal education.

My mother finished one year of college (after attending 7 high schools because her family constantly moved), and my father graduated junior college (by then already with a full set of false teeth, having lost all his in high school).

Rose, my mother.

My father as an adult worked in machine shops, quality control, most of my childhood, and often came home with black grease under his fingernails and in the lines of his hands.

Keith, my father.

Even after retiring, my father worked in a machine shop part-time, under the weight of manual labor that taxed his arthritic shoulders (he depended on the kindness of his co-workers who often lifted parts for him).

This working-class upbringing that began for 6 or 7 years in Enoree, SC (nothing more than cross roads at the edge of the Enoree River) and then in Woodruff just to the north (a mill town with a wide main street that if you stood on one end you could see the other and the two stop lights along the way), however, was one of privilege as it was also nearly idyllic because my parents worked relentlessly to provide for my sister and me far above our working-class means.

Keith, Rose, Paul, and Eydie Thomas— the family.

The fruits of that work ethic in the 1960s and 1970s by working-class white families benefitted from a racial privilege in the South that working-class and working-poor families in the twenty-first century do not experience—primarily because of the shifts in racial demographics in how class has evolved in my lifetime.

However, my working-class background was real in the sense that my upbringing and eventual (and unusual for my family) series of college degrees resulting in a doctorate (all from state schools) have left me still extremely uncomfortable with affluence and imprinted on me a Southern drawl that many people continue to hold against me.

I am frequently accused of being ungrammatical when I talk (when I have not been), and I have even had students say directly to my face that I don’t sound smart—even though they know I am smart.

When students enter my university office, typically their first comment is—after scanning the entire wall of shelved books that loom over the small space—”Have you read all those books?” That seems unfathomable to these mostly affluent young people who do not suspect that this wall of books represents a very real self-defense mechanism of a permanent redneck.

You are damned right, I do not say, I have read all these books. Instead, I smile, explaining, “Of course, and there are this many more in my library at home.”

Formality, dressing up, fine dining, ceremony—all the trappings of upper-middle- and upper-class normality make me incredibly anxious, still—despite all my formal and informal education, however.

I am the embodiment of a powerful lesson about life: You can leave your redneck past behind, but you cannot erase your redneck past.

My formative years of junior and then high school included my uncle, aunts, and mother introducing me to The Firesign Theatre, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin. Concurrent with those revelations, I was wrestling with my desire to be an athlete.

By the age of ten, I had moved with my family from downtown Woodruff to the golf course just outside of town—itself a contradiction as a very redneck country club, including its racially segregating policies (blacks were not allow to join).

Redneck past 1
Young redneck golfer, me, sleeveless no less.

I fluctuated, then, between two vastly different athletic worlds as I worked at being a golfer and a basketball player—a very white world coming against a very black world.

I lived on a golf course that excluded blacks, and in my home town, blacks literally lived across the tracks in a neighborhood called Pine Ridge.

In tenth grade, I was the only white player on a 13-person junior varsity basketball team. At that time, I was sitting often in my room listening to Carlin and Pryor comedy albums over and over—perfecting their routines and crafting my own dexterity with the power of profanity.

The gift of swearing (possibly my first defense mechanism to mask my crippling low self-esteem), of course, transferred seamlessly from the basketball court onto the golf course, but basketball courts and golf courses could have easily in the 1970s been two different planets.

Those two different planets, though, were better schools than the school I attended, where I made As and Bs, mostly floundering on the bench of the school basketball teams.

My working-class, redneck upbringing had two important features (“two” again): my world was mostly a racist one, and the language I grew up in and with was deeply engrained with what people consider non-standard grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

All of that collided, of course, with the education I was receiving from vinyl 33 1/3 albums that taught me lessons about race, class, and language that I was certainly not hearing in my home, community, or school.

After finishing my undergraduate degree, I returned to Woodruff to teach English (of all things) at the high school where I had graduated just five years before. My students were from Cross Anchor (even smaller then Enoree), Enoree, and Woodruff—the people and places of my early life.

Throughout nearly two decades teaching there, racial tensions remained, and most of my students reflected back at me my tangled history with the English language. We often laughed in those high school classrooms—my students and I. We often laughed at ourselves.

When I read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying aloud to my Advanced Placement students, we smiled, we laughed.

When I told them about the local news coverage of a tornado, and the person interviewed saying on air, “I knowed it, I seen it coming, it blowed the trailer off the cinder blocks,” we smiled, we laughed.

Many of the redneck white males I taught reminded me of my two grandfathers—slow moving, suspicious of everyone, and nearly silent.

A less funny joke of those years was that Woodruff was still 1957—frozen in time.

A few days ago, my Saturday cycling group took a course that rolled south of Spartanburg (the “city” of my childhood) into Enoree. When I told my friends I had grown up there, most were shocked; typically, I tell everyone I am from Woodruff.

Enoree that Saturday morning looked almost as it had when I was a child—except the mills are all dead, abandoned, just as they are throughout the back streets of Woodruff and all across the Upstate of SC.

I imagine people see poverty and my redneck past when they see Enoree or even Woodruff for the first time, but I certainly don’t.

I see a richness of memories—things I have overcome, things I carry with me still.

I imagine people hear a redneck when I talk aloud, despite my best effort to leave all that behind with book learning (I think of Huck Finn being berated by his abusive father).

These two places of my childhood were gifts, like my parents, precious gifts.

I often think of Tu-Daddy sitting alone, barefoot, turning a deep brown in the summer sun he adored.

Tu-Daddy walking the beach at Myrtle Beach, SC; no shirt, no shoes, and his cap.

Most of my childhood, he and my grandmother (people knew her as “Deed,” but we called her “Granny”) lived on a road named the same as their family name, “Sowers.”

A few acres were all that remained of a vast stretch of land once owned by their family before my grandfather.

Harold/ Slick—shirt, shoes, no socks, and smoking on the front porch.

I have watched as the world has pulled away from my working-class family. The poor, the working poor, and the working class have become sources of derision (not the friendly laughing at ourselves of my high school classes)—for their financial poverty, for their so-called poverty of language.

Like the two worlds of the golf course and the basketball court of my youth, two worlds have materialized around me as I have buried myself in books as a great escape from my redneck past.

And in the end, I am still that second grader, banished to the hall, embarrassed and frustrated because even when I am right, I feel inadequate, powerless.

I am the second, I think in a whisper, I am the second.


The story of how Tu-Daddy lost the little finger appears to be a jumbled family legend. Several of us (an aunt and a cousin along with me) agree with the version I have in this post—that he lost the finger at work—but my uncle says Tu-Daddy lost the finger working on a running car engine. There seems to have been a serious hand accident at work as well, but the exact details of the lost little finger have a life of their own.

Banned in the U.S.A.

When students come to my university office for the first time, they typically utter, “You have a lot of books,” followed by noting the clutter.

For those students, they cannot see the lineage I can now recognize: Go, Dog. Go!, Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, 7000 Marvel comic books, Arthur C. Clarke, and then that day in my high school sophomore English teacher’s classroom during break.

In the mid- and late-1970s, I was a so-called good student, making mostly As and some Bs, but I considered myself solidly a math and science student, planning upon graduation to major in physics in college. Sitting in my English teacher’s room during breaks, we would talk. On one occasion when I was a tenth grader, Mr. Harrill began recommending that I read real literature, and not the science fiction (SF) I was consuming at high rates.

Since he knew my parents and what they allowed me to read, he nudged me toward D.H. Lawrence—and thus my transition to literary fiction began.

During those same formative years in my teens, my mother and her family had introduced me to The Firesign Theatre, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor.

It was books and comedians, then, who have been and continue to be banned that who I am was built on—the reason I have an office packed with books (and even more on shelves at home, and even more stacked here and there waiting to be read since I buy at a rate with which I cannot keep pace) and write every day.

So during Banned Book Week 2014, I am compelled to recall some of my experiences with books being challenged during my 18 years as a public high school English teacher in rural South Carolina.

Likely my first experience came relatively early in my career when I taught American literature to advanced sophomores tracking into Advanced Placement. I was deeply into John Gardner and learning to write myself so I assigned Gardner’s Grendel.

This was a powerful learning experience because it combined a young and idealistic teacher, bright and excited students, the power of a few angry parents, and the essentially conservative nature of public school administration.

Several years later, when I was English department chair, we revisited our required reading list, seeking ways to add female and minority authors to the Old White Male canon. We did add Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, to be taught primarily by our African American female teacher in the department.

The first time we assigned Hurston’s classic, a challenge was submitted by a parent, a parent who was a leader of a local KKK chapter. It wasn’t difficult to see through the challenge to the ugliness driving the complaint, but nonetheless, this challenge also exposed the power of parents despite their lack of credibility in traditional schooling.

And my final example of the threat of censorship while I was teaching remains the most troubling since the school’s own librarian considered challenging my use of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in my AP Literature course for seniors, a course her child was scheduled to take the next year. Again, the concerns were being raised by the librarian, who argued with me that the work wasn’t literature despite her own library shelves holding several books of criticism addressing The Color Purple as just as credible as the so-called classics (again, mostly authored by Old White Men).

Censorship to shield children. Censorship as a weapon of racism. Censorship as a conservative ideal.

I must add here that censorship is even more insidious and pervasive in our public schools in the form of self-censorship—teachers seeking works that will not cause complaints and avoiding works that may be controversial.

So banned in the U.S.A. remains powerful often in forms that are mostly invisible, mostly part of the norm feared by Ray Bradbury and dramatized in his Fahrenheit 451.

In the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451, several of Bradbury’s essays (and a brilliant introduction by Neil Gaiman) are included, one of which notes: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches” (p. 209).

Like Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut and Sherman Alexie have confronted the power of censorship as well as the misguided desire of a free people to ban not just books, but ideas.


Vonnegut’s letter to those who sought to ban his work explains:

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

Alexie’s powerful Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood builds to his personal defense of books:

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

As a lover of books, as a writer, and as a life-long teacher, I am indebted to my childhood and teenage freedom to read, to listen to, and to consider ideas other than the ones endorsed by my home, my community, and my school.

George Carlin and Richard Pryor talked about the world in ways that my parents, my peers, and my community never did; they both praised Muhammad Ali with language both profane and poetic as was fitting for their comedy and for Ali’s own bravado against an inequitable world to which he would not bend a knee—a quality admirable and shared among Ali, Carlin, and Pryor.

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” Franz Kafka wrote in his Letter to Oskar Pollak 1904.

Books are sacred because ideas are sacred, or must be if a people truly seeks to be free. Talking about Fahrenheit 451 in 1993, Bradbury said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Banning books has no place in a free society, but each time we remain passive, allowing a book to be silenced, we are “running about with lit matches.”

Preserving access to all books for all people, especially children, is at the core of our humanity because the only dangerous idea is the one not allowed.

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez are back with  the long-awaited Sin City sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. The films are both based on Miller’s graphic novels—with the graphic novels and films sharing distinct visual impacts on readers and viewers.

So it is fitting that the first released poster for the second film is visually provocative:

Eva Green in the Sin City poster banned by the MPAA. Photograph: Troublemaker Studios

As an unapologetic comic book and film nerd, I must admit that the first things I noticed about this poster were the gun, immediately, as well as the visual similarities (and differences) with the first film (the red nail polish and lipstick, her green eyes, the glistening diamond). In fact, the poster made me wonder if this film will maintain the striking mostly black-and-white look of the first.

But not the Motion Picture Association of America, as reported at The Guardian:

A poster for the upcoming Sin City sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, has been banned by the Motion Picture Association of America for depicting its star, Eva Green, in a state of relative undress.

Green appears in the poster wearing a revealing thin gown – to use the powerfully erotic words of the censor board, the poster was banned “for nudity — curve of under breast and dark nipple/areola circle visible through sheer gown.”

It’s a fittingly controversial image for a film whose first installment became notorious for its ultraviolence.

Other than giving Scout Willis more fodder for her “free the nipple” campaign, this censoring of a film poster captures once again the baffling Puritanical streak in the U.S. that exists beside something between a dull ambivalence toward and a brutal bloodlust for violence—represented in our near fetish for guns.

There is brilliant and nuanced routine by George Carlin I first heard on his albums Class Clown and Occupation: Foole. As part of his classic seven words you can’t say on television (including the censoring of the word “tit,” which Carlin finds outrageous), Carlin muses about replacing the word “kill” with the word “f***” in memorable lines like “OK, Sheriff, we’re going to kill you now, but we’re going to kill you slow,” “Kill the ump,” or “You better watch out, Bob, you’re going to kill that engine”:

And here we are forty-odd years later in the U.S.—where no one ever has been killed by a nipple/areola, but where school and mass shootings are more common than in any other so-called civilized country—censoring film posters while states have moved since the Sandy Hook school shooting to relax, not restrict, gun ownership.

Perhaps there was a time when all other nations looked up to the U.S., wanted to be the U.S., maybe. But increasingly we are a people to be laughed at, not with because we are wont to have both our guns and the female nipple concealed.

If the U.S. were a Carlin comedy album, it’d have to be Nation: Fooles.

UPDATE 1: Appears Rihanna has failed to understand the right to a concealed weapon (and she has already been banned by Instagram!):

UPDATE 2: As I note here, “Apparently Eva Green’s thinly-veiled nipples are not only more dangerous than the gun she is holding in the new Sin City sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, poster, but also more offensive than Jackman’s nipples (despite the violence and extended sequences of a topless Jackman, the film is rated PG-13 “for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language”).”

The Wolverine (2013)

UPDATE 3: Appears GQ offers a series of shots that sort of prove the point. Can you figure out what is taboo?

UPDATE 4: Bosom Baddies

Celebrities, Thank You, But…

My formative years, thanks to my mother, included George Carlin, The Firesign Theater, and Richard Pryor.

I am convinced a powerful line from Carlin to Kurt Vonnegut remains the most important foundation of who I am outside of the people directly in my life. So I am offering here first my indebtedness to comedians, including my much more recent affinity for Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK—all of whom fill in some smaller way the void left by Carlin as comedians who are smart, funny, and offensive in the most brilliant ways.

And now that Louis CK has joined the ranks of Matt Damon and Jon Stewart among “celebrities teachers love,” I feel compelled to make a point that cannot be stressed enough: To celebrities weighing in on the education reform debate, I say, “Thank you, but…”

And before I explore the “but,” let me pose a key context for that: Davis Guggenheim.

With An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Guggenheim was the darling of the Left and scourge of the Right for his treatise on climate change.

With Waiting for “Superman” (2010), Guggenheim was the darling of the Right and scourge of the Left for his treatise on education reform.

The inconvenient truth about that Guggenheim contradiction?

Both versions are essentially celebrity visions about important and complex topics that already have very real detailed bodies of research and commentary from the experts within those fields—detailed bodies of research and commentary that are essentially ignored or misunderstood and misrepresented by the media, political leaders, and the public.

Now there is Louis CK and the Common Core, spurring points and counterpoints about whether or not Louis CK has any valid points himself.

There has always been an odd and easily missed streak of kindness, an awareness of the child’s perspective in Louis CK’s comedy, well beneath his profanity and anger. If his foray into riffing on education reform triggers any consideration in the U.S. about the need to increase our cultural kindness and respect for children, then I am on that Louis CK bandwagon. [See the video snippet here as an excellent example of where Louis CK is right on the money about “education should be welcoming.”]

Now I must turn to the “but.”

But Louis CK—as with Damon and Stewart—ultimately slides into the Guggenheim problem. While I agree that essentially Louis CK is onto many of the key failures of the entire Common Core problem as a key element in the broader education reform agenda—including the central premise that Common Core and the related high-stakes testing are inseparable in the debate—I fear that the clamoring to champion and acknowledge Louis CK’s criticism is more evidence that teachers, education researchers, and public school advocates simply have voices, expertise, and experience that do not matter on their own merit.

How must time and energy now is going to debate and cover whether or not Louis CK is accurate in his Common Core rants? I would argue, those debates are more distractions, just as debating the quality of Common Core is a distraction.

Celebrities, thank you, but your weighing in on education reform—while funny—is more entertainment that crowds out time better spent on the real world of teaching and learning in a country that really doesn’t care—not about children (if they are “other people’s children”), not about workers, not about people trapped in poverty, not about the mass incarceration of people of color, and certainly not about education.

I suppose it is better we spend our time laughing to avoid crying, but again, I am certain that education as a profession needs to be acknowledged and taken seriously on its own merit and not because a celebrity makes the same case educators have been making as professionals and not entertainers.

Ali: “You must listen to me”


James Baldwin declared in his No Name in the Street:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433) [1]

George Carlin opened one of his best routines singing Muhammad Ali’s name as part of his album Class Clown (“Muhammad Ali – America the Beautiful”), explaining about Ali’s exile for refusing to fight in Vietnam:

He said, “No, that’s where I draw the line. I’ll beat ’em up, but I don’t want to kill ’em.” And the government said, “Well, if you won’t kill people, we won’t let you beat ’em up.”


From March 1967 to October 1970, Muhammad Ali lived in America the Beautiful, not as a free man, but as the embodiment of Baldwin’s declaration in 1972. Ali as African American and Black Muslim was trapped between the rule of law and his own code of ethics—which he explained as alternatives:

I have two alternatives: either go to jail or go to the army. But I would like to say that there is another alternative: and that alternative is justice.

This Ali in a suit and tie behind a microphone, glancing down to read from his prepared statement, stood in stark contrast to the Ali draped in a towel and swarmed in the boxing ring where he declared, “I shook up the world!”


John Carlos and Tommy Smith stood, fists raised at the Summer Olympics:


Ali sat for an interview:

Black people actually’ve been in jail for 400 years, we’ve been here in America….They can’t believe that I’m this strong. They thought they would weaken me and put fear in me by threatening to go to jail and taking my earning power. And they won’t let me work in America…


My colleague, Scott Henderson, and I are currently editing a volume on James Baldwin, and during the review of the draft chapters for the collection, I began to see ads for a film about Muhammad Ali produced by HBO, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. The ads called to me in the same way I am always moved when I hear Carlin singing Ali’s name: “Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, it’s a nice musical name, Muhammad Ali.”

So I found myself watching the HBO film, at first not yet clear if it was a documentary (my hope) or a fictional film; I was certain I wasn’t interested in watching someone portray Ali. I wanted Ali.

And there he was, Muhammad Ali, archival footage to open the film, and then, despite the film focusing on the Supreme Court and the all-white crew of young men working at the Court, Ali appears throughout the story again and again. The real Ali—each time I could not stop myself from smiling at his bravado and his ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee outside the boxing ring.

But there is a subtext to this film focusing on the Supreme Court dominated by old white men. There is a subtext in 2013 about why now—why now is Ali’s fight with the government about his refusal to fight in Vietnam being recognized and validated?

Ali, once again, is pushed to the background in the HBO film, a work that becomes in many ways a layered narrative of privilegewhite privilege and male privilege.

Some of those layers can be found in the book that provides the basis for HBO’s film.

Some of those layers can be found in the documentary that doesn’t appear to share the privileged status of an HBO production: The Trials of Muhammad Ali.


Privilege is a closed space.

That space is behind a wall that provides the privileged their perch of authority as well as a walling out those Others.

Ali, Carlos, Smith, and Malcolm X lived outside the wall, and still remain under the gaze of privilege—to be acknowledged and explained when the time is right, when those with privilege see fit.

Ali remains mostly cartoon in America, reduced to his athletic bravado (“I am the Greatest!”) in the same way Martin Luther King, Jr. is tolerated as a passive radical, but not as the voice of protest and action that complimented Ali’s anti-war convictions:

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.


Carter Godwin Woodson confronted The Mis-education of the Negro:

[T]he educational system as it has developed both in Europe and America [is] an antiquated process which does not hit the mark even in the case of the needs of the white man himself….The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker people….The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race. (pp. 4-5) [2]


Baldwin asked, “Who is the nigger?”:


And then Baldwin wrote in The Nation:

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….

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it.

Privilege is a spider’s web.

Where is the space for Ali to speak for Ali? When will that space exist, and how?

I agree with Carlin that there is music in Ali’s name, but the song remains bittersweet—too hard to swallow in 2013.

I cannot disentangle the web of history that remains attached to all of us, regardless of how hard we try to pull the invisible strings from our faces, our clothes, and our skin.

That web we cannot free ourselves from is privilege—and privilege demands only two alternatives.

But as Ali explained, there is a third alternative and “that alternative is justice.”

It is time, we must listen to Ali.

[1] Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America. Originally published in 1972, No Name in the Street.

[2] Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.


For Further Viewing and Reading

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism

James Baldwin (Aug. 2, 1924 – Dec. 1, 1987)

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

What Would James Baldwin Do (Say, Write)?

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin (1966)

Knocked the Hell Out by ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’, David Zirin

The Trials of Muhammad Ali 

Obama’s Failed Hope and Change: “Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant”

Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner* challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):

The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”

because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.

The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….

It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)

About three decades later, I joined the majority of voters in the U.S., electing the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, however, I voted for Barack Obama primarily because I believed his election was an important symbolic moment for the U.S.; I did not buy his message of hope and change (although I was hopeful), and I was skeptical that the Democratic establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas assume the mantle of U.S. President.

As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered, Obama is no progressive—much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policy is yet more doubling down on the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda is committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel 1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011)

And despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to hope and change by Obama and his administration.

A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan masks a neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is the exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:

National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

  • Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
  • It’s proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
  • Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.”

Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:

Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own….

The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is inexcusable against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.

Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and endorses twice “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.”

More than 30 years ago, Gardner argues:

The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers. (p. 99)

With Obama’s failed education agenda before us as part of three decades of failed accountability policies, Gardner seems prophetic.

And despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), I must side with George Carlin:

But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever,  ever be fixed.

It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….

They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests.

I fear this isn’t simply biting social satire. I fear that this isn’t easily discounted as cynicism. I fear that Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

* “Amber (Get) Waves (Your) of (Plastic) Grain (Uncle Same)” in On Writers and Writing, John Gardner (1994)