Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kevin Hogan Is a Great Teacher; Mike Beaudet's a Pornographer

cross-posted from Dagblog

Twenty years ago I got my first teaching job, as one of two young English teachers hired by a little high school in greater Boston. The other new teacher was a guy named Kevin Hogan. Kevin was already a much better teacher than I was, assured while I was struggling, deft where I was stumbling, natural in the classroom in a way I wouldn't be until years later. The kids loved him. I liked and admired him. I certainly didn't feel any shame in being the second-best rookie English teacher in the building (and I was a very distant second); I was just figuring things out, and Kevin was obviously and enormously talented.

We each left that school after a couple of years, and lost touch. I eventually went to graduate school and became a college teacher. Kevin ultimately remained a high school teacher, and a coach, becoming chair of the English department at a highly regarded charter school. The last time I saw him was on his wedding day.

Over the last two days Kevin has been been publicly dragged through the mud by a scandal-monging Boston TV reporter named Mike Beaudet, who ambushed him in a parking lot during Thanksgiving week. If you want the details of the scandal, you can already find them spread humiliatingly across the internet; I'm not going to collude in Kevin's humiliation. Kevin has been suspended from his job. He is in real danger of being fired. And he will likely never find another job as a teacher. That is a sad thing, and not just for Kevin.  Teaching may be the single best thing he does for the world, and the world will be much the poorer if he leaves the classroom.

Many of Kevin's students, past and present, have rallied to support him. So have some of the parents, and many readers and viewers, who are angry at Beaudet's voyeurism and at his TV station's low journalistic standards. Setting out to ruin a person is not investigative reporting, and it's not a public service. Beaudet does not pretend that Kevin has done anything remotely illegal, or that he did the things he's being shamed for while employed at the school where he teaches now. And no one pretends that it did any harm to his students or, indeed, affected them in any way. Like most students, they didn't know anything about their high school teacher's private life. But then that private life was put on TV.

Watching Beaudet ambush Kevin is sickening. There is no goal except to confront an unsuspecting person with humiliating information, on camera. They don't need an interview to report the story. What Beaudet really wants is to make some pornography: he wants to degrade another human being on camera, inviting his viewers to take pleasure from that spectacle of degradation, and to make money from it. Like porn, Beaudet's little scene dehumanizes the person on camera, strips away his dignity and invites us to see him not as a person but as an object whose sufferings we can enjoy. But at least a pornographic movie is made with the performers' consent; Beaudet doesn't do that. He has gone out to degrade and dehumanize a person who has not agreed, someone he does not allow to say no. He's just going to violate someone on camera. If it were actual pornography, it would be illegal.

It's a very hard thing to watch done to someone you like and admire. But liking and admiring them isn't even what makes it hard; the hard part is just watching it done to someone you know. The process demands that you imagine the victim as someone not quite real, someone who makes no demands on your sympathy or your shared humanity. TV wants to turn us all into sideshow freaks and sideshow gawkers, jeering and staring. But when you see that happen to someone whom you cannot forget is an actual person, it's like a kick in the stomach.

If you must watch the clip, let me say that the Kevin I know appears only for a split second, just at the start. For the rest of the ambush, once he's realized what's happening, he can only try to escape or hide. But in the instant that Beaudet approaches him, asking something that Kevin initially doesn't understand, Kevin turns toward him slightly with a warm laugh, not because Beaudet's said anything funny but because Kevin uses the laugh to put people at ease and create rapport. He's begun doing that so fast that you could miss it. Some stranger has asked Kevin a strange question; his instinct is to draw that person into a friendly exchange, and before you notice he's already started doing it. A second or two later Kevin realizes that he's being attacked, and he shuts down. But that quick initial flash of warmth is pure Kevin; it took me back twenty years. It's what makes him so easy to like. It's what makes him so good in the classroom. That's the talent that Mike Beaudet wants to push out of the schools. That's the person he doesn't want you to see at all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Let's Not Have a Revolution

cross-posted from Dagblog

Dear Authorities:

I would like very much not to have a revolution. I know that you don't want one either. I prefer my change peaceful and democratic. You, I suspect, prefer any changes to be strictly top-down, decided upon by the existing power structure. But neither of us want lawless, spasmodic change. So please take my advice: leave the protestors the hell alone.

I know like the Occupy Protests seem like too much to you, that they're going on too long and spreading too far. There is a reason that you think this. You are completely out of your minds. You have lost all sense of perspective.

We have real problems in this country, problems that long since became unacceptable. And he have a power structure that declares even the most modest, common-sense solutions to those problems unacceptable. Limiting the pay of bankers whose banks were being propped up with tax dollars? Impossible! Raise the taxes of the super-wealthy by a small increment! Unthinkable! Use the Federal Reserve to reduce the unemployment rate, as the Federal Reserve is officially charged to do? Too radical! Fine. But don't tell us that being angry about these things is unacceptable, too. Something's got to give. And if you can't deal with peaceful protests, you're essentially demanding less peaceful protests somewhere down the line.

It's been nine percent unemployment for years now. The miracle is that the protests didn't start earlier. If you ignore the suffering of large groups of citizens over long periods of time, this is what happens. Now, it's obvious that Washington, Wall Street, and the mainstream media have no interest in taking the concerns of average Americans into account. At the moment, the big kerfuffle in Washington is a fight between the party that wants to pass some counter-productive budget cuts in the middle of a long recession and the party that wants to pass massive counter-productive budget cuts. And the hand-wringing is that the bipartisan "supercommittee" failed to reach a collegial consensus on how much to hurt the economy. That's madness.

Mass protests serve an important political function. They give the people in power a reality check. When angry people are in the street, it's time to figure out what's not working. A healthy and sane government tries to figure out the underlying problem and fix it, so that the anger diminishes. A rigid and unhealthy regime commits to ignoring those problems, and tries to shut down the protests so it can go back to ignoring them. That is an invitation for the public anger to grow, and for the public to give up on the regime. And that, bizarrely, is what we've seen in America over the last weeks. I never thought that I would see it in this country. And it is very disheartening to see this foolish and counter-productive police response to such manageable and reasonably-sized protests. The overreaction suggests that many of our ruling class are much more frightened, and much less practical, than I ever dreamed. It's amazing that they would draw the line this early.

It's shocking to find that America's current rulers are stupid enough to go to what is essentially the Hosni Mubarak playbook, especially when they just saw how that works out. It's even more disturbing to think that centrist American politicians have been looking at the Arab Spring and identifying with the dictators. That they've drawn exactly the wrong conclusion, trying to crack down harder on protests. Here's the lesson: you can't crack down hard enough, ever. Sooner or later, you have to give people what they want. If you don't, they'll get it without you.

America has survived because it's been flexible; the system has changed over time to keep from breaking down completely. We haven't had a revolution for the last two centuries because we've always managed to reform the system enough to maintain order; maybe not to reform it as much as we should have, but enough that we didn't completely break down.

This is one of those times that demand big changes, the kind that have seemed out of the question to the people in charge. But those changes have to come, one way or another. They are no longer out of the question. If the people in charge want to stay in charge, they need to do the reforming. It that seems impossible to them, sooner or later it will happen without them. It looks today like it will happen without them. My only hope is to get rid of those people through our existing political process, before something worse happens. Revolutions are messy and people get hurt. Bad decisions get made. I'd like to live the rest of my life without one. But if the voters' welfare doesn't matter any more, there's going to be a change. Resisting change with violence is the surest way to make that change violent. So, please, authorities: call off the cops, take a deep breath, and let's figure this out at the ballot box.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Cain Scrutiny

Cross-posted from
Hello, GOP primary voters. I know you're feeling upset about the new and graphic charges against Herman Cain. And I know that many of you blame white liberals, like myself, for allegedly drumming up these allegations to keep Cain from winning your nomination. But let me say on behalf of my fellow honky pinkos that this one really, really wasn't us. Because, you see, we would love for Herman Cain to win your nomination. Oh please, please, please vote for him anyway. There's no one we'd rather see run against Barack Obama in the fall. We're willing to beg here.
I won't lie to you. If Herman Cain became the nominee and then terrible and scandalous new information came out about him just before Columbus Day weekend, that probably would be us. We have no problem letting people know about ugly things your candidates have done. But what we would really never do is mess with your primaries so that your weak candidates give your strong candidates less trouble. And, brother, is Herman Cain a lousy candidate: much, much weaker than Mitt Romney, whom we probably dislike more than you do. If there's any way that you can keep Romney from getting the nomination, we'd be grateful. And we'd certainly never do anything that gets in the way of that. Go Herman!
I know that many of you have this theory that if you nominate an "American Black Conservative" then black voters will flock to the GOP and abandon Obama.  Last night, as I drove through our country trying to find Monday Night Football on AM, I heard many people discussing this theory as established fact. But sinister white liberals like me are not so worried about what will happen if Obama ever faces a black conservative at the polls because, try to follow along now, that has already happened. It was 2004. It was Alan Keyes. It was not suspenseful.
Yes, I know that you're deeply committed to not remembering anything that happened in that time period, and even more committed to not drawing obvious, common-sense conclusions from the events of those days. But liberals like me have this weird bias toward evidence. If you want to know what would happen if you tried something (such as banning handguns, or investing in railroads, or running an eccentric black conservative against Barack Obama), we suggest looking at what actually did happen when that was tried before. I know this approach sounds odd to you. Treating it as a pure thought experiment that happens to give the result you want is probably more accurate. But even so, if you want to make Mr. Keyes Herman's running mate, we'd be cool with that.
Barack Obama has lost an election to another African-American candidate. That candidate is Mr. Bobby Rush. Now, we know you don't have a huge supply of former Black Panther Party members in your candidate pool. But if you want to take a big slice of the African-American vote away from Obama, we'd suggest you find someone like Rush: someone more, and not less, outspoken about white racism than Obama is, someone more warmly disposed to old-school social welfare than Obama is, someone who is further to the traditional left than Obama is. If you have anyone like that, we'd be happy for you to nominate that person, too.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Shakespeare, Oxford, and the 1%

cross-posted from Dagblog

Last weekend, Hollywood released Anonymous, a costume drama whose promotional materials ask "Was Shakespeare a Fraud?" They're not really asking the question; the movie clearly promotes the argument that it was "really" Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who wrote the plays. The studio has also sent out course materials to schools, so that teachers can teach students to think critically about embrace the idea that Oxford wrote Shakespeare.

If you followed media coverage of the movie, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the "authorship controversy" is a lively and interesting debate. If you looked at the documentary record from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, you'd find that actually it's pretty boring. We have a large stack of historical documents that explicitly name William Shakespeare, the actor from Warwickshire, as the author of those plays and poems. No one from the time shows any doubt about this. We have lots of witnesses who identify Shakespeare, by name, as the writer. We have no witnesses who name Oxford, or Bacon, or anybody else. The math isn't hard.

Now, some Oxfordians will tell you that when a historical document from the sixteenth century says "William Shakespeare" that actually means "Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford," because "William Shakespeare" was his pseudonym. (I'm not making that up. That is a standard Oxfordian claim.) Why do they believe this? Because they really, really want to.

(I'm not going to go further into this issue, but if you wish to hear fuller arguments you might go here, here, here, or here; the comment thread in the last link features screenwriter John Orloff's angry and not-thoroughly-competent attempts to argue back. And the best book on this subject is James Shapiro's superb Contested Will.)

Why does this matter? Because ultimately, this conspiracy theory is about the desire to claim  that Shakespeare is in the 1%. Only an aristocrat, the conspiracy theorists say, someone in a tiny elite on top of the social and economic pyramid, could have created such art. The stakes here are to make William Shakespeare's works the property of the inherited elite.

The Oxfordian argument is, in short, a crasser and crazier version of a process that is going on all the time, in which the small elite of the super-wealthy are given credit for the achievements of the rest of society. Not only are they allowed to hog the fruits of everyone else's industry and ingenuity, but they demand to be given credit for that intelligence and labor as well. (See, for example, the "job creators" meme, which imagines wealth creation in a capitalist marketplace as the gracious gift of Lord Bountiful.) The claim, ultimately, is that we NEED to coddle the 1%, because that 1% creates everything good, such as the works of Shakespeare. All those middle-class actors, poets, and audience members were just obstacles to aristocratic genius.

And the Oxfordians' campaign displays a lot of the standard features that we see in pro-elitist propaganda campaigns:

There's the fake populism, that poses as an attack on the smug "elite" of university professors, although the actual point of the whole enterprise is to take credit away from William Shakespeare and give it to someone more elite. (And for the record, I'm not asking you to take my word for any of this because I have a Ph.D. I'm simply pointing out that there's a whole pile of evidence that you could check out yourself.) Part of the point, as always, is that middle-class professionals are to be attacked when they don't serve the super-elite agenda, like those greedy, lying climate scientists.

There's the false-equivalence press coverage, with the "on-the-one-hand" lead-in, which makes each "side" of any controversy sound equally plausible even when one of those sides has, basically, nothing.

There's the paranoid shifting of the burden of proof, so that questioners demand proof that there is not a conspiracy instead of offering any proof that there might be. Can you prove that when people said "William Shakespeare" they didn't mean someone else? Can you prove that George Soros isn't behind this?

And, of course, there's the character assassination. The historical William Shakespeare can't just be presented as a middle-class man of middling education. He has to be a completely illiterate and unprincipled buffoon. (It always blows my mind that these conspiracy theories portray Elizabethan actors, who typically performed six different plays a week and tended to have two or three dozen roles in their head at a time, as unable to read. How the hell would they learn their parts?) Anyone who's not in the 1% must be lazy, stupid, and so forth. Because meritocracy, of course, is for the lazy.

Because of that, the historical inaccuracy that most enraged me about Anonymous had nothing to do with Shakespeare. It had to do with the Essex Rebellion, an actual (documented) historical event that took place in 1601. The glamorous Earl of Essex, the Earl of Southampton, and a bunch of other aristos decided to have a coup against Elizabeth. They paid Shakespeare's acting company to put on his Richard II, which is about deposing an English monarch, before the balloon went up. (Emmerich's movie gets the play wrong, but never mind.) The idea was that the people of London would rally to Essex's cause.

And in Emmerich's movie, that's what happens. The common people get so moved by watching a Shakespeare play that they charge across London bridge as a mob, hoping to put the Earl of Essex on the English throne. (In Emmerich's movie Essex is secretly Elizabeth's son, as are Southampton, Oxford, and heaven knows who else. Can you prove they weren't?) And then Elizabeth's soldiers massacre them with cannon, on London Bridge.

That is a lie. No one rallied to Essex. No force was used against the citizens who rallied to Essex's side, because none of them did. Angry crowds had formed in London before, and they would again, but no one ran into the streets to fight for the right of an over-entitled aristocrat to get even more of his way. Essex was in fact counting on the public to rally behind him. They did not. His revolt was over before the afternoon was.

So whatever else you choose to believe, let's amend that historical lie. Essex, the entitled aristocrat, was not the hero, and the people of London did not see his botched revolution as heroic.

Some of the wealthy and privileged have done great things with their wealth. Others have not. But there's no need to rewrite history to suit the fantasies of the uppermost class.