Monday, July 28, 2008

Our "democracy"

An important essay recently arrived in our home, by way of Law Quadrangle Notes, a University of Michigan Law School publication.* The essay, “Law, economics, and torture” is the text of a talk given at the school last year by James Boyd White. White is a law professor, literary critic, scholar and philosopher who has been teaching at the school since 1983.

To me, the most interesting and relevant portion of the essay was where our crumbling democracy is discussed, in Part I: “Making the rich richer.” I believe we will look back one day and see just how much power we permitted the unelected wealthy to acquire during these years, while the time and imagination of the rest of us was kept busy with consumption, fantasies of consumption, and the required, accompanying passivity about everything else.

White says, “As the government withdraws from the regulation of the economy, as it has been doing for decades now, its place is taken by private individuals or private organizations which have immense power over the lives of all of us.” This makes me think about how democracy in my city was pushed aside, permitting a set of wealthy individuals (especially billionaire Eli Broad who inserted himself in the management of Oakland Unified in June 2002) to acquire power over my school district, and about the millionaires and billionaires who have gained control of, and have infested, public education throughout our country under the guise of “philanthropy” and “educational reform.” I am one of those who is repulsed by this phenomenon.

“The rhetoric supporting this movement speaks of government as the enemy, and the market as freedom for us all. But the power that is created by the disparity of wealth is real power and, unlike governmental power, it is not shaped or guided by law and democracy. Corporate owners and managers are not elected by the people, not subject to the constitution, not supposed – or even allowed – to be motivated by any ideal other than the acquisition of wealth and power, and usually not responsive to argument or complaint.” Do we really trust these people enough, who White describes as “a regime that has no democratic values or authority,” to hand them the reins for our journey to the future?

“The market contains no check on the drive to unlimited economic expansion, a drive that is proving to be suicidal, threatening the planet upon which everything we are and do depends.” That sounds right to me; Professor White and I must be on the same wavelength, or perhaps it's the Jungian collective unconscious at work. Of course, this mentality has gradually been emerging in others around the world.

For several months I've been calling the practitioners of consumption (nearly all of humanity) the “The Planet Cancer.” Aggressive, disseminating cancer cells consume the resources of the host and disrupt its functioning, ultimately killing the organism. Humanity, too, seems to be driven to consume the resources of our life-covered host, the earth, and we are just discovering that we are capable of disrupting its functioning. We will kill it unless our drive is controlled. Even the fishing industry is struggling to find fish for us to eat because we've already consumed so many of them. Soylent Green wafer, anyone?

White goes on to say, “The consumer dream of our culture teaches us that we have no responsibility, no capacity for action, no right to demand meaning in our work and lives, and no obligation for the welfare of others. It induces the sense of learned helplessness I referred to earlier—which is exactly the opposite of the kind of vigorous independence and competence upon which democracy depends.” If we take off the blinders and shake off our self-induced haze, the evidence of this is visible in our society everyday.

Discussing propaganda and advertising, White says, “one characteristic of both forms is that nothing is meant, everything is said for the moment, all on the assumption that the people who make up the audience have no memory and no capacity for critical thought. A world is created where thought is not possible. In neither domain—the consumer economy or the world of politics and government—are we defined as responsible participants in a world of shared life and action. Rather, we are manipulated objects of an empire.”

“…the reason we do not rebel at the immense and unfair transfer of wealth, and all that is associated with it…is that in some sense we do not believe that we really have democracy at all any more, at least in the sense in which we once thought we did.” This reminds me that not all Americans were originally woven into the fabric of American democracy in the same way that others were. With restricted autonomy, democracy is a falsehood and “learned helplessness” is produced.

White claims to retain a tiny amount of hope for our nation because he see instances of democracy still functioning at the local level (such as with school boards, when they haven't been shut down, that is). But be forewarned, most of his message is like our doctor revealing that we have a likely-to-be-terminal condition. It isn't good news, but it gives us the opportunity to take the next step.

*“Law, economics, and torture” by James Boyd White, Law Quadrangle Notes, pp. 98 – 103, The University of Michigan Law School, Summer 2008.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Caring, or not, and how much

When talking about children doing poorly in school, some people will say that their parents just don’t care about their educations. Rising to the defense of the parents, others will claim that indeed they do care, believing that it is horribly insensitive for anyone to claim that they don’t. Who is right?

Imagine you have polled American parents to ask them if they care about their children's educations. Certainly every single one will respond with great sincerity that they do. But if you happen to take an honest close look at how some of them act, you might wonder if this is really so.

Can “caring” be accurately assessed by a “yes” or “no” answer, or should caring be determined in degrees? Should we think about parent-caring as a continuum, with some parents caring more, or less, than others? If so, how would parents be sorted apart?

The problem about “caring” is that it is only a word for a feeling. It can’t be objectively evaluated in any way and can even be falsely proclaimed. When someone you love says, “I care deeply about you,” but then rarely calls you, what do you end up thinking? How does that make you feel?

It turns out that professing how much one “cares” is totally irrelevant. It is mostly the actions that count, and they are the only thing that can truly make a difference. Action IS the evidence of caring.

Many people will say they “care” about the environment, but do they translate their words into action? Do they separate their trash and recycle? How much do they try to conserve resources? Do they vote for green policies? Do they keep their neighborhood clean?

Many people will say they “care” about their health, but do they translate their words into action? Do they make good food choices more often than not? Do they walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator? Do they smoke? Do they lose weight when they know they should? Do they abuse drugs?

Many people will say they “care” about their children's educations, but do they translate their words into action? Do they attend important school meetings even though they don’t really want to go? Do they keep up-to-date with important news from the school, like keeping track of their children’s grades? If they want to watch an evening TV show, are they willing to skip it so that their children can concentrate on homework? Do they consistently place the educational needs of their children above their own immediate needs and desires?

To proclaim that one “cares” just isn’t enough when a child's future is at stake. An ongoing fixation on the well-being of one’s own children along with the willingness to sacrifice is needed. This ability is what separates parents from each other, across all income levels and cultures. Sadly, there is a widespread denial about how much work good parenting requires, and even a level of ignorance about what is involved.

An even bigger problem is that many parents simply feel hopeless about the future and have a hard time seeing the positive potential in their children. This keeps them from holding those ever-important high expectations that children happen to need so much, expectations that serve as a guiding light to which the children are constantly steered. By the way, teachers are highly criticized these days if they don't have high expectations of their students. Shouldn't every adult in the child's life be doing the same?

Unless the words are then matched with actions, saying that one “cares” is nothing but useless yakking. It is a flimsy clapper swinging inside a bell but never striking the metal -- a clapper incapable of producing a ring that is loud and clear.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Poetry: Family Album

My husband wrote this poem in the days when I was going nuts. It was early 2001 and I had just started working at The School. I was intensely affected, sometimes horrified, by what I observed during the daily routine of the school day.

Especially shocked by what the school was providing to students for lunch, I decided to conduct my own survey about their food intake. On three different days I randomly approached students to ask them about their lunches. My research wasn’t totally scientific, but it certainly gave me an idea of just how bad things were.

Three options for students existed – to bring lunch from home (18%), have the free school lunch provided by the cafeteria (14%), or buy food from either the cafeteria or the snack bar (68%). Either because of the stigma attached to getting a free school lunch, or because they preferred a different type of food, lots and lots of kids who couldn't afford to buy lunch from the snack bar would do it anyway. Of those who bought lunch from the school, two-thirds just had soda and fries (or chips) as their midday meal, day after day after day.

These were the snack bar menu choices in the spring of 2001: regular or curly fries (large and small, with or without cheese, chili or jalapenos), fried rice, pepperoni pizza, pizza pocket, hot links sandwich, hot chicken sandwich, hamburger, ham and cheese sandwich, soda (Pepsi, Wild Cherry Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Squirt, Slice, Mist, Hawaiian Punch, Root Beer, Countrytime Lemonade, Fruitworks, in 12 and 20 oz. sizes), milk (4 oz. carton), bottled water (which is good since most of the water fountains didn‘t work), king sized bags of chips (Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles, BBQ and Cheddar Ruffles, Regular and Flamin‘ Hot Cheetos, Spicier Nacho Doritos and Cool Ranch Doritos, and Santa Fe Ranch Potato Chips), four pastry items (Hostess Powdered Donettes, Hostess Cupcakes, Hostess Cinnamon Sweet Rolls, Chocolate Chip Cookies), and eight types of ice cream bars. The students I interviewed spent an average of $2.13 per day. I estimated that annually the students spend $262,160, but the real figures are kept by OUSD Food Service. All I know is that the District relied on the sales of junk food to students in order to supplement its budget.

Not being a writer at the time, but compelled to sound the alert, I ended up writing an article for my local community newspaper about what I had observed. You can find it in the August 2001 issue of the MacArthur Metro ( The national concern about child obesity hadn’t yet hit the front page, but within the next couple of years it would be on everyone’s radar.

Around this time, OUSD was considering to contract with PepsiCo for management of the vending machines in the schools. I was becoming obsessed with the dreadful food that the school was serving to all these low income kids and this looming scenario made it even worse. In my spare time I would measure out grams of granulated sugar equivalent to the sugar present in the soda sold by the school. Then I would pour the sugar into baggies and tape the baggies onto the empty cans or soda bottles.

Finding myself morphing into a lone wolf activist, I took those many baggies of sugar with me to a school board meeting and displayed them to members of the Board of Education during my three minute moment to speak. I implored to them to NOT be complicit with harming the health of Oakland's children. It seemed like a completely logical thing to do.

Then the school board voted on the proposal. Oakland Unified became one of the first school districts in California (and in the country) to ban the sale of soda in the schools.

Of course, an awful lot of sugary drinks and junk food are still sold at Bret Harte and other schools; the District needs to make the profits, see? Although the school is a long way from doing a really good job for its kids, I suppose things are a teeny tiny bit better than they used to be.

The garbage and the seagulls are another story.

by George Higgins

You photograph the cans that overflow
with half-eaten pans of pizza and seagull excrement.
Crumpled cans of Surge and Mountain Dew
and glinting bands of Frito-Lay potato chips,
the standard meal.
You took the discarded fast food bags
and measured out the grams
of sugar, fat, cholesterol on your potter’s scale,
once used for making glaze calculations.
Your project you’ve called it, the photos that you take
of smiling kids beside the rubbish they’re waiting for the District to pick up,
The children stand beside the marks scrawled on the walls:
fuck the bitches, murder, 187, 300s rule,
you label them inside a family album.
They’re like the Cobalt blues coming out of the kiln.
The thugs are running things you say.
The union can’t get around to this
for months and months you say.