Let’s say, several years ago, I killed somebody. It wasn’t a clear-cut case of murder, though, because it happened in one of those backwater states like Florida where they got wacky gun laws that make it easier for civilians to shoot minorities. Maybe I saw a black kid cutting across my lawn and so then I shot him. That’s borderline legal in Florida. Maybe, if it had gone to trial, the judge or jury would have determined I was within my rights and let me go.
But the case never went to trial, because instead of informing the authorities, I buried the kid’s body in my basement, right next to an inflatable Wal-Mart Santa and a pile of “Sweatin’ To the Oldies” memorabilia. Two years later, my wife goes down the basement and notices a severed hand sticking out beneath a my replica of Richard Simmons’ death mask. She gets scared and calls the cops, and I get arrested.
In that scenario, would my wife be a whistleblower or a traitor? Would the press coverage surrounding the incident focus mostly on me and the crime I had probably committed, or would it instead focus on my wife’s neuroses and proclivities? Would she be barely mentioned, as a witness, or instead would columnists call her a traitor hold her up as an example about how women these days just don’t respect the bounds of family?
This is basically what’s happening in the case of NSA-whistleblower Edward Snowden. He uncovered gross criminal activity. He reported it. And instead of focusing on the criminality of said activity, the press has decided to speculate on his mental state and call him a traitor. This is stupid, and it needs to stop happening.
And, please, don’t try to pick out holes in my metaphor. First off, and most importantly, PRISM is not legal. It’s not legal in the same way that murder’ generally isn’t legal, since monitoring the communications in general isn’t legal. The only way that PRISM could have been legal was if it, like murder, gained a special, court-sanctioned exemption. This couldn’t happen, because like my hypothetical murder, PRISM was kept secret, which means it was necessarily kept beyond judicial or congressional review and therefore was grossly illegal.
Second, you might complain that in my metaphor, the wife goes to the proper authorities. Snowden did no such thing, you might say, because instead of submitting his domestic spying information for proper review, he blabbed about it to a newspaper. This criticism is very dumb. You should be ashamed of yourself for making it. Where else could Snowden have gone? Should he have had filed a report with HR? Should he have called the very same authorities who were breaking the law and politely asked them reconsider their actions?
Again, PRISM is illegal. Its secretive nature is what makes it illegal. It’s not illegal because monitoring everyone’s communications is necessarily and always wrong. It’s illegal because it happened beyond the scope of review that sanctions government actions—by being conducted entirely in secret, it subverted the very foundations of legality. In the murder metaphor, the killer’s potential legal defense was rendered moot by the fact that he tried to cover up his actions and put them beyond judicial review. The same thing happened with PRISM. There was no verification, no checks or balances, just a gross over-reach of federal power conducted beyond the boundaries of normal accountability. The only way the wrongdoing could have been exposed was by leaking it to the press.
So everyone, please, stop calling Snowden a traitor, and stop focusing on him instead of on the massive crimes your government just got caught committing.
And a special note to the liberals out there who think that criticizing Snowden makes them appear Serious or Respectable: fucking stop it. You remember back in 05 and 06, when flag-draped septuagenarians would embrace George Bush at town hall meetings and pledge their support to him by giving the feds permission to tap their phones? Remember how stupid and insane those people seemed, trying so desperately to excuse the criminal actions of their bullshit president? That’s what you look like now. Like a bunch of sad, shitty morons.
You heard anything about 3d printers? They’re all the rage in the academic nerd circles, but the only mainstream press coverage they’ve gotten has been about how they could potentially be used to make guns. I say “potentially” there, instead of that they have already been used to make guns, because the news coverage has been particularly misleading in this regard. Supposedly, a gun has already been made, and plans for said gun are freely available on the google. But this “gun” was just the lower receiver of an AR-15. Anybody with access to a high school shop class could have made a better one, too, since this one was made of plastic and only fired 10 rounds a short distance before it melted. (And that’s after the guy who “printed” it had to spend several hundred dollars buying additional, factory-manufactured parts so as to turn it into a fireable gun).
The mainstream media’s imbecilic handwringing over the 3d printed gun is similar to the manner in which academic writers have grossly overreacted to 3d printing as a basic concept. All you have to do is load up your printer with raw carbon and petroleum and trace amounts of various minerals, and, voila, you’ll be able to make whatever the fuck you please. The food-a-rack-a-cylcle from the Jetsons will be real, and so grocery stores will go out of business. Likewise, all manufacturing will grind to a halt, since we’ll all have tiny little factories built right into our homes. You want a metal bedframe? Print it! A strawberry ice cream parfait? Print it!
I’m not kidding: this is what humanities people actually believe is going to happen. And they are as naïvely optimistic as the mainstream media is naively scared.
First off—I don’t know how much climate change reading you’ve done (I would advise against it, if you don’t enjoy being really scared and sad), but it’s pretty goddamn optimistic to assume that first world society is going to resemble its current form in the year 2050. Huge, densely populated swaths of Europe, Asia, and the Americas will soon become uninhabitable. And—seriously, dude—the best estimates say that the east coast will be flooded by 2075 at the latest; that’s assuming we work up the political will to begin aggressively fighting climate change, which we won’t. The worst estimates predict catastrophic change within the next decade.
This isn’t a doomsday scenario. The human race won’t get wiped out. You and I will probably be okay (our kids might not be, though). But a shitload of people will die. Most likely beyond WWII-levels. And however society gets rearranged, it won’t be according to any lofty democratic or equality-based standards. It’ll be somewhere between old-school feudalism and new-school, Chinese-style industrial slavery.
Good, forward thinking social theorists have been making this point for a while. Guys like Matthew Stoller look at massive deleveraging of America’s middle class and our country’s gigantic income inequality not as some accident of capitalism but as an intentional process. The rich are girding themselves against catastrophic social realignment. They have to hoard power because freedom is about to become exponentially more expensive, well beyond the means of people who right now are relatively fortunate.
So pardon me for not embracing a fucking printer as the harbinger of a gloriously democratic, post-capitalist future. You have to be insane to think that regular people are ever going to be given access to 3d printing technology. Democracy is trending backwards. The whole post-war American ideal, where minorities were afforded some basic rights and social mobility was somewhat of a reality? Where you could live comfortably working 40 hours a week and the state served functions other than as a mechanism of oppression? That was an historical blip. It’s gone, dead forever, and it’s never coming back. The government and our elite classes have a clear, vested interest in taking power away from people. It’s no longer a matter of wanting to preserve luxury; it’s a matter of basic survival.
To this end, I think it’s foolish to assume that 3d printing will be anything other than a tool of oppression. Other, supposedly democratizing technological breakthroughs—like cell phones, internet access, and social media—have been widely disseminated only because their use reinforces extant power structures. Your iPhone makes it easier for the government and elite classes to track and commodify you. That’s why it’s not illegal. If it posed an actual danger to power, if its promise of giving a voice to the voiceless were really true, it would have been either outright banned or priced so restrictively high that no truly voiceless person could afford it.
Likewise, the future of 3d printing is up in the air. If the gun example scares enough empowered people into thinking that 3d printing might actually change our social structure, like by arming the citizenry or destroying the financial industry, then it might get banned. If it can be shown somehow to aid in the further deleveraging of non-elites, it will be allowed to exist in a tightly regulated manner. But no way, no how, will it make society more equal or just.
God forgive me, I watched an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher’s panel included Michael Moore, a weasel-faced Goldman Sachs cheerleader, and a Pinterst-looking woman who appeared to be doing a bit. Zach Galafanakis was the episode’s special guest, because apparently he’s some kind of fucking pundit now that he appeared in The Campaign (and, he said, you wouldn’t believe it but real politics is just as goofy as his movie!)
Maher asked Galafanakis why it was that the right was so good at grass roots organizations, what with the Tea Party having so much congressional success, but then the left has hardly any grass roots support. Home for come that be?
The weird fascist Pinterset woman jumped in, saying, no no, it’s a good thing that the Democrats haven’t suffered from that kind of mass movement:
"Do you really want them to? Frankly, the primary process the Republicans have been going through has been painful, has been divisive, has been counterproductive. When conservatives are so busy trying to out conservative each other and that is the primary goal of the primary, it’s not good for the party. I think your party has been smart enough to say ‘He’s a moderate? Lets him stay there and see how he does.’ And primary for primaries sake hasn’t been good for the Republicans.”
A statement like that is just empty think tank pap. It does not deserve to be scrutinized at face value. Reading just a bit between the lines, however, we get a real answer to Maher’s question: the left doesn’t have an empowered grass roots because the party that represents them hasn’t allowed such a movement to form. Effectively, there is no left.
Now, I can’t quite get a bead on where this woman is coming from, ideologically. She’s on MSNBC, but she’s written a book about how the left has launched a war against organized religion. So far as I can tell, she’s some sort of new wave conservative emissary, probably hired by forward-thinking GOPers in order to make their brand more appealing to people who aren’t klansmen. She’s not exactly an intellectual powerhouse, but then again if she were, she probably wouldn’t be on TV.
I’m trying to dissect her image because the only way we can glean any worthwhile observations from her is to view her not as a person but as a marketing strategy. She’s a slogan for a brand. That brand is what I’ve come to regard as “beige-washed conservatism.” It’s the same pro-business Randian bullshit as regular Republicanism, but instead of relying on racism and homophobia for its selling points, it’s now dressed up in boring NPR monotone so as to make it more palatable to people under 50. Intellectualism, like everything else, is largely an affect, a vague feeling that gets triggered into existence by certain empty signifiers. The woman wears glasses. She dresses smartly and speaks in complete sentences. Golly, that must mean she’s smart.
She also tries very hard to seem like a centrist. Her opinions are timid and obsequious, which is what most people now mistake for intellectualism. The Democrat Brand is a sort of emptily elitist technocracy, a system in which the opinions of experts and the financially empowered are prized while everything said by everyone else is ignored. This is good when it comes to stuff like evolution and climate change, but bad when it comes to most matters of social import, or to fields that are as intellectually corrupt as economics. This pinterst pundit fascist woman is apparently the GOP’s attempt to appropriate the Democrat brand for their own ends, like when Wal-Mart began copying the beige color scheme of Whole Foods so as to trick people into thinking they were somehow eco-friendly.
This is the lesson that got learned by the last election: fuck the people. Do not, under any circumstances, take their concerns seriously. Back when the GOP just made bunch of noise about praying away the gay and hunting undocumented immigrants for their pelts, they did fine. But as soon as they elected people who were stupid enough to actually attempt getting any of these things done, the party became unseemly and began losing.
So that’s the new face of politics. The Democrats’ winning strategy—the strategy that embodies the popular perception of intellectualism—is to insulate government from the input of its citizens. Instead, government should be run by hacks and technocrats who are told what to do by media elites, military personnel, and financiers. The Republicans are copying this playbook, apparently, only instead of Bill Gates and Larry Summers, their cadre of elites consists of people like Bill Koch and Ted Nugent. Same shit, different flavor.
Once we come to this realization, we can see how stupid Maher’s question really was. The Tea Party/Occupy split is a false binary. Occupy was a legitimate grass roots organization, which meant it never really existed so far as our elites were concerned. The Tea Party is an astroturf project designed by FreedomWorks and funded by the Koch brothers. Occupy was treated with widespread derision. The Tea Party was a media creation that had an entire cable network. And, most fundamentally, the Tea Party is in thrall of power, while Occupy represents a legitimate (albeit small) threat to power. That’s the biggest difference between the two, and it’s why one has been actualized via congressional representation while the other has gotten the shit kicked out of them by cops.
The Tea Party was an empty marketing gimmick. It was a stunt, a make believe carnival sideshow that got a little bit out of hand. Don’t’ worry, though, because Republicans are going to make damn sure that doesn’t happen again.
According to concerned bloggers everywhere, entitlement is one of the greatest problems facing the world today. No, I’m not talking about Social Security and Medicare (we’ll get to those in a second). Instead, I’m talking about the tendency among commentators to frame complex social problems in reductive terms, blaming bad actions on the fact that the people who committed those actions felt that they were entitled to do so. This is not only a lazy line of argumentation but a privileged one, and its continued use will do more harm than good for marginalized and disadvantaged peoples.
Looking just at posts I’ve read in the last month, entitlement has been blamed for a rash of misogynist facebook humor, a decline in k-12 test scores, the unemployment epidemic among Millennials, BU’s hockey team going on a rape spree, and creepy internet “Nice Guys.” And that’s just what I remembered off the top of my head.
Now, I think Bauerline’s Millennial bashing is bullshit, and I’m just as creeped out as you are by Nice Guys and Men’s Rights Advocates, but neither of those are my main concern right now. My point is that the manner in which these groups are criticized is intellectually lazy and socially problematic. It needs to stop.
First off, rhetoric surrounding “entitlement reform” has been used to bash poor and disenfranchised people for decades. Ever since Reagan evoked his phantasmal “welfare queens,” criticizing entitlement has been little more than politically acceptable racism. Despite all his big talk about cutting entitlement, and despite gutting welfare programs that disproportionately served minorities, Reagan actually expanded government entitlement spending as it was classically defined. He is still generally remembered as having cut entitlements, however, because in the minds of most commentators “entitlements” only include government services that are conceptually linked to poor, black, or brown people. A poor single mother is said to feel “entitled” to her monthly $150 EBT credit. But no one would ever say that a rich Lockheed executive feels “entitled” to receive the billions of government dollars his company receives every year in order to make ineffective, grossly overpriced weapons the military doesn’t need.
When you criticize someone’s concerns as seeming entitled, then, you’re not criticizing their beliefs; instead, you’re marginalizing them as people. Entitlement only works rhetorically when it’s attached to people who don’t count. This is why an AIDS patient is considered entitled when the government helps pay his exorbitant hospital bills, but a health care executive would never be called entitled for reaping personal gain from a monstrously bloated and inefficient health care system.
This is where the pejorative connotations of the term get especially troubling. Entitlements originally referred to programs to which people were rightfully, well, entitled. You paid into Social Security for several decades and then you were entitled to payouts when you turned 65. Entitlements were earned. Once the term got so closely linked to the needs of minorities, however, it became mocking and dismissive. An entitlement is now the exact opposite of what it used to be, an especially unreasonable or unearned sense of deserving something or other.
This is all very stupid. Making an accusation of entitlement the end game of your criticism is just intellectually lazy. Everyone always feels entitled. Duh. If we didn’t, all of our actions would be riddled with guilt. No one except a maniac intentionally does things that she doesn’t feel she deserves to do, and simply explaining that so and so did such and such because he felt it was okay for him to isn’t an analysis. It’s just a basic description of obvious reality, and it’s only an effective criticism of someone if that someone already seems undeserving.
Liberals tend to lose arguments when they frame them in conservative terms, especially when those terms are designed specifically to mock and dismiss the concerns of marginalized groups. Merely turning around the poles won’t work. Entitlement is only a politically potent criticism when it’s applied to groups who are already vulnerable to dismissal or marginalization. That’s why my examples of the Lockeed and Healthcare executives being called entitled seem so off. It’s also why simply calling rapists entitled does nothing to combat rape culture.
The other, bigger danger of these criticisms is that they discourage people from dissent or complaint. While valid criticisms of people senses of entitlement can certainly be made, doing so sets a dangerous precedent that encourages the further dismissal of people who are already in bad shape. Sometimes it’s okay to feel entitled. A worker making minimum wage might feel logically entitled to earning more than $7.50 an hour. A citizen should feel entitled a functional infrastructure and protection against police harassment. It’s not necessarily delusional or narcissistic to want more than what you have.
I want to talk about this again. it happened over 3 years ago, but who cares? look at it!
someone knocked on my door real quick at 1 AM. I didn’t get it because I was home alone and I’m a pussy. When I left this morning, this little fellow was outside my door. That’s meat shoved in its stomach! Anyone know what this means?
Not gonna bullshit. Justin Roiland did this. I still want to beat the shit out of him for it. He is filth.
Something I’ve only read a little bit about, and I’m wondering if there’s more stuff available regarding it, is the influence of the social and behavioral sciences upon business and management theory, and how much that combined influence has seeped into liberalism.
Much has been written (speculation, mostly) about the influence of larger political trends upon what tomorrow’s business elites are taught at today’s business schools. The Reagan Revolution made is moral to be a cunt, and so every single businessperson has acted like a cunt since then. Clinton made it cool for self-proclaimed liberals to not only turn Mexico into a land of subsistence laborers, but to regale in the spoils of doing so. Bush the Younger injected the sub-idiotic supernatural self-certainty of evangelicism into the mix, and Obama is doing is damndest to make sure that the corporate sector becomes permanently entrenched against the constraints like “environmental regulations,” “safety concerns,” and “labor laws.”
That’s all easy enough to trace, and a great deal has been written about all of them.
Much more interesting, and maybe even more pervasive, is the extent to which sociology and psychology have been appropriated by business thinkers and then weaponized against US workers. For example, when you work at certain retail chains like Target, your manager will begin every shift by making everyone do an inspirational chant—real dehumanizing, soul-destroying shit. My guess is that there’s no way that didn’t originate during some kind of Gravity’s Rainbow-style, horrorshow experiment. It started off innocent enough—like the CIA was just trying to figure out what type of speaking voice is the most effective when you’re torturing information out of dissidents—and then, 6 decades later, it morphed into forcing all your employees to wear red and begin their day by chanting about how much they love helping people save on batteries.
More generally, isn’t it weird how much shit your average employee is willing to take these days? I realize that, historically, most folk have always been pliant when it comes to working too hard for too little. But it has to be worse now, or at least creepier. Americans are psychopathically attached to their shitty jobs. They internalize the bizarre, cruel, and uniformly illogical systems of workplace discipline and assessment. They become creepily attached to their corporation, forging conceptions of their selves into which the public and private faces of their employer bleed heavily. We discuss ourselves, even, as if we were corporate entities instead of human beings: just the other day, I heard a student talk about “enhancing his personal brand” and how he hoped working at such and such a company would allow him to absorb some of their ethos into his own. Creepy, right?
This terrifying embrace of the corporate self has made a rebirth of organized labor seem impossible. Ignoring even the legal hurdles and decadeslong deleveraging of non-elite workers, there just isn’t any will to organize. Those of us who have succeeded in whatever job consider our success proof of our manifest internal goodness… and we’ve got no reason to share our success with failures. Likewise, those who haven’t succeeded have been trained to blame only themselves, to think it selfish and disgusting to pine for a better lot. Thinking beyond the individual is discouraged; at times, it’s even regarded as a mental illness. Only the weak and deranged think about things at a societal level. Normal, healthy people accept the fact that they’ve had total control over their own lives and are 100% personally responsible for whatever shape things have taken.
Likewise, questioning the manner in which corporate logic values (or devalues) you is considered the height of derangement. Consider the execrable Who Moved My Cheese. For those of you who have never been forced to read it, the book is a condescending parable wherein two dullards live in a magic room that unseen forces sometimes fill with cheese. Eventually the cheese runs out, and after much soul searching the more industrious of the two stops complaining and feeling like the world owes him a living and goes and ventures out into the maze to find another cheese room. The other one starves, because he is selfish.
The main point of the book is that the forces behind our employment—indeed, the forces that determine whether or not we starve—are utterly beyond comprehension and are only spoken about by people who have personality disorders. Smart people, the ones who don’t starve, they just go out and react to whatever contingencies the mysterious employment forces send their way.
Who Moved My Cheese is beneath contempt, and it would be entirely beneath response were it not such a staple of business speak. Rich, powerful people think it is a work of genius, because rich, powerful people adore anything that not only excuses their largess but also manages to condescend to poor people while doing so. The book used to be given to people who were about to be fired. Now it’s a customary gift to college graduates and new employees.
The fact that such retardation could become canon is testament to the need for the sort of consciousness-raising that liberals are presently so afraid of. And I think the liberal tendency to dismiss the efficacy of class awareness (even while they wholeheartedly embrace identity politics of every other stripe) is because no one ever formulated a fake mythos of “non-violence” to attach to class issues.
What bullshit, non-violence. It doesn’t exist within capitalism. Refusing to directly interact with a violent situation is still a violent act, since you’re allowing violence to happen unencumbered. And if you believe, as you should, that certain societal realities are violent, well then there’s no way to “non-violently” deal with them. And I’m not just talking about using drones to blow up Pakistani children or America’s brutal healthcare or medieval prisons—class warfare is fucking violent. Stealing someone’s pension is violent. Taking away the jobs of people leads to a lack of healthcare, domestic abuse, suicide, assault, murder, the poor academic performance of children and the euthanization of pets. When your company labels you an inefficiency and outsources your job to a Chinese slave, that’s violent. You’ve been assaulted. And just walking away like a pussy doesn’t make it any less violent.
The reason organized labor worked was because, like the Civil Rights movement, it was violent as fuck. Unlike the Civil Rights movement (which was a wonderfully orchestrated product of a very different time), organized labor wore its violence proudly, right on its sleeve.
See, treating black people like humans only tertiarily scares racists; it mostly offends them on a visceral level. No racist is as defensive of his perceived cultural purity as a rich man is defensive of his yacht.
And so the labor movement needed to be violent. It had to not only defend its strikers against Pinkertons but also to put the fear of god into scabs and make the super rich at least a little bit afraid to walk down the street. Powerful people don’t just go and give up their power because it’s the right thing to do, see. They only give it up when they’re forced to by threat of violence or imprisonment.
But liberals all devalue organized labor now, at least partially because its violent messiness runs counter to their core sensibilities. This means many of not most liberals—even academic liberals—have never taken the time to think seriously about why the labor movement was effective, about how violence is actually often an awesome tool that does a whiz bang job of achieving goals.
So your liberals will start talking about how unions won’t work in a contemporary sense, and all their arguments miss the point because all of them are clean and logistic and in no way bloody. This is because, like conservatives, they have internalized shitty management logic. Toothless, meek, identity politics liberalism—the kind that views “opening up a conversation” as the ultimate end goal of all political action—is a product of the acceptance of sociology and psychology-influenced business speak. We used to realize the necessity of conceiving of our employment adversarially. Instead of melting our identities into that of our employer, we conceived of ourselves and our jobs as separate entities locked in a struggle for the allocation of capital. But now we’ve become pliant and timid, convinced that occasionally being given a chance to speak to management affords us just as much agency as a decent salary would. It doesn’t.
(This is an old piece that I found especially relevant in light of the recent huffy moron shitshow surrounding the offensiveness of the Oscars. The takeaway is that just because you or someone else takes offense at something doesn’t mean that something is bad.)
Twice in the last month or so, I’ve come across headlines describing how a teacher was fired for making students solve violent math problems. These headlines are fantastically intriguing, so I click on them: is this teacher doing sexy math, perhaps, making the students count the number of times he strokes himself, penalizing them for turning away even for a brief moment? Or is it more of a sick disciplinarity, like subjecting them to a number of short beatings or electric shocks and then compounding their suffering by asking them to translate their pain into a multiplication table? Of course, the articles discuss nothing so interesting. They discuss nothing even moderately troubling, actually, to those of us who aren’t paid to act like hysterical idiots. The entirety of broadcast news is paid to act in just this way, however, and so all it takes is one apoplectic oaf a parent lodging a complaint and then, bam, my yahoo session is ruined.
In both cases, the teachers committed the unforgivable mistake of using evocative imagery in crafting story problems. The first time, the teacher referred to slaves on a plantation. As in, “If three slaves pick nine bushels per hour and work for 7 hours,” etc, a declaration found offensive only to the most feeble and unimaginative of minds. I dug further, figuring the article must have left something out—like, maybe this was a statement for or against slavery, arguing that the slaves deserved their poor lot, or (more incendiary), perhaps explaining to the children how they clothes they were wearing were made by children much like themselves, children who got paid 20 cents an hour and were literally tied to their sewing machines. What an effective teaching tool that would be! Of course it would be met with stern reprimands and indignant headlines, as effective teaching always is.
But no—not at all. The teacher had merely used the word “slave,” and that upset people. Our classrooms have become so full of needless terror, so crippled by the threat of substantive discussion, that the mere use of a potentially insightful term is grounds for firing a teacher.
The latest article refers to problems even more inane, and therefore all the more perplexing and infuriating:
http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/teacher-fired-assigning-violent-math-problems-third-graders-201910368.html This teacher appeared to try and capture the interest of his students. Problem: Kids quickly grow bored of being asked to count the number of pies on a baker’s shelf, or of having to figure out the money made by that baker, assuming he earns X dollars per hour and worked Y hours. Solution: replace the mundanity of baking with the excitement of violence. Bloodless violence, of course: no grizzly details were given. Problems would say “a killer killed X number of people per day for Y days.” No wounds were described. The smell of the corpses was not evoked. Nor was any mention given to the motive for the murders, or anything potentially scary like that. All these problems did was admit to the fact that sometimes violence happens and then, like literally ever single piece of worthwhile art ever produced, used violence as a trope to try and get across another point. Even worse: some of those problems referenced pipe smoking! Another said a child died after eating marbles! What kind of a monster would expose children to such ghastly imagery?
That these teachers were dismissed doesn’t especially disturb me—every day, I read about much greater horrors taking place in public education. The really bad part is in listening to the stammering, sub-retarded, self-righteous indignity of aggrieved parties. Parents are aghast that such things could happen in a classroom. Administrators are disturbed, they mumble, beyond words. How could this happen? And in America, of all places?
And with that last item they do have a point. American culture is designed to disallow unfriendly speech. Unfriendly actions are accepted if not encouraged. But the cardinal rule of all things American, from national politics to basic employment, is to make sure you never say a single unkind word. Crossing that line puts people in the uncomfortable position of being made to think, and we simply can’t have that. Especially not in schools.
(This post is written for a broader and less specialized audience than normal, so I’ll dispense with my usual fart jokes and harsh profanities. Don’t worry—they’ll be back soon).
The “Achievement Gap” refers to a supposed gap between how American students are doing in school compared to how students in other countries are doing or how well American students used to do. There’s a “gap,” supposedly, because American students aren’t doing good enough.
You’ve heard some iteration of this, I’m sure. In my field, the teaching of reading and writing, the gap’s first big public appearance came in a Newsweek article titled “Why Johnny Can’t Write.” The article was part of the “Back of Basics” movement that cited a decline in SAT scores as proof that American kids were horrible writers. Nowadays, similar arguments come from “school reform” advocates—people who favor dismantling America’s public school infrastructure and replacing it with a system of publically funded, privately run charter schools. These are the people who bankrolled the push for No Child Left Behind, and they’ve recently begun a huge propaganda effort meant to get liberals to accept the conservative case for privatization.
Back in 1975, writers blamed TV and the rock music for destroying the pure, writerly attention of our nation’s young people. Since 2000, the blame has shifted to the internet, texting, and teacher’s unions. In spite of the perceived shift of the cause of our intellectual downfall, the suggested manner of fixing the problem has remained the same: we need to raise academic standards, schools need to be more rigorous, and we need to focus more on the nitty gritty of education—fractions and grammar and whatfor—and less on the touchy feely stuff, like multiculturalism or social studies.
Reformers never articulate the reasoning behind their suggestions. They can’t, actually, since there’s no proof that shifting educational focus to more testable subjects will make our students any smarter. They can, however, pretend that crises exist, and then exploit those crises for political gain.
The “crises” generated by the different iterations of the achievement gap are all overblown, if not completely fabricated. They are for the most part political and ideological attacks meant to erode the progressive firmaments of public education. The Back to Basics movement was lead by cultural conservatives who were worried that public schools were indoctrinating students with “evil” values like feminism and race mixing. The contemporary privatization movement is lead by hard-right ideological libertarians who often have financial stakes in seeing public schools getting replaced with for-profit schools.
In each case, the “reformers” invent their crisis out of data gleaned from standardized texts. And, in each case, their use of the data is at best dishonest and at worst outright fraudulent. In order to understand exactly why this is, though, we’ll need to first a few common misunderstandings I see around standardized testing.
Misunderstanding 1: Standardized tests are an objective measurement of knowledge.
Standardized tests don’t measure something that can be objectively said to exist or not exist. It’s impossible to conclusively determine what does or does not constitute intelligence. We have general ideas, but even among experts there’s a great deal of disagreement and nearly everyone thinks that these tests shouldn’t be regarded as comprehensive measurements of someone’s intellectual ability.
Standardized tests seek to answer the following question: What does it require to be considered an intellectually competent citizen of our learned, literate society? There’s obviously a lot of variability in that question, as different people possess different types of intelligence. Sadly, even the most flexible of tests measures intelligence in a very narrow manner.
Determining someone’s intelligence goes beyond asking students which of three objects is the largest, or how many acorns we have in our pile if we combine two smaller piles, or even having them pick out Namibia on a world map. All of those questions can be answered in a manner that is objectively correct or incorrect. But what does it mean if a student can or can’t answer them? For example, I’ll bet every single American reading this essay would be able to answer those first two hypothetical questions I just asked. But what about the third? How many of you could pick Namibia out on a blank map? If you can’t, does this make you stupid, or just someone who hasn’t recently taken a geography class? If you can, does it make you a genius? Do you know it for some practical reason, or did you just memorize a map of Africa when you should have been paying attention to something else? And does it really matter if you know where the country is if you don’t know anything about it, like its political history or the names of its leaders?
This is what it means to assess competence, which is what standardized tests seek to do. A bunch of field-specific experts get together with a bunch of statisticians, and they try to determine two things: 1) Exactly what bits of knowledge need to be demonstrated or shown lacking in order to determine a student to be above or below average, respectively, and 2) a fair and consistent way of determining whether or not students can demonstrate those bits of knowledge.
Standardized tests do an okay job of both of these, but they’re not without issues:
Misunderstanding 2: The subject matter on standardized tests is value-free.
The subject matter of standardized tests—that is, the questions that get asked—are always changing. And you know how they’re changing? The questions are always getting harder. Every year, without exception, the ACT and SAT tests are rewritten to make them more difficult. A person who scored in the top 20% of the 1980 SAT test would be lucky to score in the top 40% of 2012 test.
Just from this bit of info, it should be clear that it’s unfair to look at an historical progression of test scores as proof that kids are getting dumber. Let me make this clear: if you’re 45 and your kid is 18, the odds are overwhelming that your kid would kick your ass if you both took the same standardized test. Even if you did really well on the 1985 test and she did merely okay on the 2012 test, she’d still probably beat you.
But the problems of this misunderstanding go much, much deeper. Field-specific competence isn’t judged by some unchanging, objective standard that can forever remain in place. This means that the personal values of the people who design the standards inevitably seep into those standards: their prejudices and personal preferences, cultural particularities, professional beliefs, etc, all get mixed into the test, all help determine a standard for competency.
Don’t get me wrong—this is mostly a good thing. None of us would like to have our intelligence measured by, say, 1890s standards, back when if you couldn’t recite Tennyson by heart you were considered an unemployable dullard. Likewise, it would be awfully unfair to judge a contemporary 17-year-old’s reading comprehension based on his inability to trudge through a passage of Moll Flanders, or to judge his math skills based on asking him to divide hogsheads into barrels. But, still, this means that demonstrating intelligence necessarily involves demonstrating knowledge that is subjective, specific to the time, place, and culture of the people who designed the test.
The real value of standardized tests is their, um, standardization. Ideally, they can be used compare kids from all over the country or world in a fair and consistent manner. There is so much variation in grading, after all—what gets a 4.0 GPA at one high school might only get a 3.0 at another. We need a way of ranking all students according to the same standard.
Trouble is, striving for this kind of standardization brings up a host of new problems:
Misunderstanding 3: Standardized tests work like regular, classroom tests
Back when I lived in Iowa, I met a local politician who was a fan of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I began asking him about why he approved of the program, which required k-12 teachers to give more standardized tests and judged school performance based on how well students do on those tests. From his responses, it was clear that he had no idea how standardized tests actually work. He kept likening them to a classroom exam, where a student’s grade is determined only by the percentage of questions she answers correctly.
The politician explained: “If she gets 9 right out of 10, she gets an A. If she gets 7 right, she gets a C. That’s something we can measure. If she goes up, we can say ‘that’s improvement’ and reward her teacher. If she goes down, we can say ‘woah, let’s see what the problem is here,’ and work to help her teacher. Our goal is to have all of our students get As and Bs.”
That’s not how standardized tests work, though, because standardized tests don’t give out grades. They give out rankings.
Did you ever have a teacher who graded on a curve? That’s when a student’s grade isn’t determined by how well she scored relative to a pre-set standard (90% is an A, 80% a B, etc). Instead, her score is determined based on how well she did relative to the rest of the students in her class. In a strict curve, this means that the bulk of the class will get a C no matter what, fewer students will get a B or a D, and even fewer will get an A or an F. This means that some students are guaranteed to fail, no matter what. If the class’ top students scored 100% and the three lowest-scoring students still scored a 95%, the kids who got a 95% will fail.
Such a system is obviously unfair, and so you rarely see strict curves inside classrooms. They are, however, the way that standardized testing works: if 100 gets take the test, 10 will score in the top 10% and 10 will score in the bottom 10%. There’s no way around it
This becomes a problem when politicians start demanding that every student achieves a proficient score. In Iowa, the goal was to have 80% of students score “proficient” on the test. A proficient score was one that was in the top 60%.
Get that? Politicians wanted 80% of kids to be in the top 60%. That’s literally, mathematically impossible. I am not kidding.
Misunderstanding 4: Anyone can do well on a standardized test.
You ever heard about how minorities—particularly black students—are bad at standardized tests? There was a very controversial book written about it, which basically argued that test data proved blacks to be intellectually inferior to whites. And the foundation of the book is true: minorities do perform poorly on standardized tests. But that’s not because minority students are any dumber than white kids. It’s instead due to how these tests are designed.
What I mean to say is, standardized tests are specifically designed so that minority students do poorly on them. It’s not an incidental feature of the design—it’s fully intentional. That’s one of the ways the tests are tested, actually: if too many black kids do well on a test, the test is considered invalid and it’s redesigned until the black kids do poorly.
Again, I’m not kidding. That’s how it actually works.
This is where things get a little complicated, so I’ll start off by borrowing a passage from Edward White’s Teaching and Assessing Writing. In this passage, White talks about how he noticed that, although minority students scored poorly on the multiple choice portion of a campus-wide test of English skills, they did pretty well on the essay portion. He mentioned this fact to some testing experts, who took it as evidence of the essay tests being flawed:
[The testing experts] argued that the problem test for the minorities was not the multiple-choice one, which grouped them at the bottom, but the essay, which distributed them normally along a bell curve. ‘Who scored these essays?’ one asked. When I said that trained composition faculty scored them, reliably, I saw knowing smiles exchanged. They knew that lily-livered English teachers cannot be trusted to grade minority students’ writing with the severity it deserves.” (138)
Why did the testing experts react this way? Are they a bunch of racists or something?
No, not really. This is just the way that standardized tests are validated. The people who make the ACT don’t want to happen what was described in my hypothetical example of a strict curve, where the kids who got 95% of the answers right were still ranked in the bottom of their class. If all of a sudden a disproportionate amount of students started doing really good or really poorly on a section of the ACT, that would be problematic since scores are supposed to be distributed over a fairly wide range.
This means that, year-to-year, test makers strive for consistency with last year’s scores. When testing out new tests, they therefore rewrite tests if sample test takers break too strongly from how previous groups of students did. If the scores of, say, 17-year-old white girls were to dramatically rise or fall, the test would be rewritten. Since minorities have traditionally done poorly on standardized tests, this means that, by design, they can’t begin doing well. If minority students perform well on sample tests, those tests are considered invalid and rewrote until the minority students begin doing poorly.
Remember, these tests aren’t objective measures of intelligence. They are instead rough measurements of a handful of things we take to be signs of intelligence. When these tests were first designed, it was taken a matter of fact that white students were smarter than black and brown ones, and so that assumption is reflected in the data yielded by the tests.
Although it would be unfair to call the testing experts racist, it’s clear from this example that these tests are reflective of a deeper, societal racism—a racism which was much stronger and much more unquestioned back when the tests were first introduced, and which these tests continue to prop up.
Conclusion: Suggestions for Change
I don’t think that standardized tests are necessarily evil, or that they can’t be put to good use. It is, however, very important to realize their limitations, and to not read too heavily into any results they may yield.
It’s very easy for politicians and special interest groups to use standardized tests as a cudgel, as an excuse to push through harmful “reforms” that won’t actually do anything to raise test scores, let alone to improve education.
If you see or hear someone knocking American schools, ask them what they’re basing their criticism on. More often than not, they’ll mention something about test scores, and more often than not, they’ll evince most or all of these common misunderstandings. By seeking to educate others about how standardized tests actually work, you can help stop these politically motivated reforms and work to actually improve schools.
"The sciences have done a rather better job of explaining their protocols, which enjoy high esteem in the eyes of the public as examples of hard research producing useful knowledge. [ … ] The arts and humanities, meanwhile, are broadly perceived as having lapsed into justifications of professional sensitivity or leftist politics" (95)
-Eric Gould, The University in a Corporate Culture
Gould’s book is pretty good. He makes an important point about how university mission statements are all vague and meandering. They contain many words, yes, but they don’t really say much, with lots of talk of synergy and service and engagement and being proactive while building sturdy bridges to bright futures.
It’s tempting to think that there’s nothing to be learned from this kind of empty buzzspeak, seeing as how it’s asinine. But Gould outlines some standards from the striking uniformity of these statements—if you look at one, you’ve looked at them all. Even if this buzzpeak is bereft of concrete meaning, the fact that it’s so widespread and that its virtue goes so unquestioned must speak to something. There’s a kind of magic in these vague, idiotic words. A sales magic. Like a good slogan or slick packaging, it signals that our colleges contain the kind of desirable stuff that our customers want to buy and ingest and that our benefactors are proud to throw money at. Who, after all, questions the value of synergy? What vile monster would dare defund proactivity?
But there’s a problem. The humanities have been getting short shrift when it comes to the buzzspeak’s sweet, sweet money cake. The sciences (even the fake ones, like economics) are real good at demonstrating how they help the university achieve the phantasmal, mumbling missions outlined by the buzzspeak. The humanities, conversely, mostly busies itself by enjoying the smell of its own farts. Earnest politicians ask us how we plan on engaging the community and in response we make duck lips and spout some nonsense about how Shakespeare is the light illuminating the heart of humanity. Nervous students wonder how it is that taking English classes might help them become more proactive, synergistic citizens, and in response we become angry and proceed to inform them that they and everyone they’ve ever loved are racist, fascist, sexist, homophobes, and that the only cure is in pretending to read horrible theory books.
I’m exaggerating slightly. But Gould’s book is one of many that seeks to shake humanities scholars out of their obdurate complacency. The way we validate ourselves doesn’t hold much water with how anybody outside of the humanities validates anything. Appeals to Arnoldian humanism aren’t worth jack shit now, and the only reason they ever used to be was because people were dumber back then. We need to start talking a different talk, perhaps walking a slightly different walk, if we want to keep having jobs.
Gould envisions an academy that ideally serves society and the economy and manages to value multiple types of knowledge. Right now, the types of knowledge generated by humanities research, like symbolic and cultural knowledge, aren’t considered explicitly valuable, and so that’s why we’re devalued; it’s just a matter of perception. In order to have our work valued, then, we need to persuade people into thinking that it’s valuable, either by changing rhetorical standards of valuation (fat chance) or packaging our work so that it kinda, sorta resembles the stuff that is currently valued.
This is complicated, however, by a problem that Gould articulates but never gets around to reconciling: the manner in which humanities scholarship works makes it utterly incommensurable with the godwords of contemporary corporatization. This is because the main product produced and offered by humanities scholars involves teaching. Teaching is done by teachers, meaning, effectively, that the means of the production of our “product” lies entirely with the workers. Under the logic of corporatization, there’s no way to push such a field towards efficiency or profit maximization:
“No successful corporation seeking greater profits or even stability could possibly survive with an administrative power structure like that of the university, or with workers who actually own the means of production and have life-time job security as well” (82).
The University is becoming more corporate. We can all agree to that. But where Gould and most other scholars trip up is in assuming that success within a corporate system depends only upon signaling worth in corporate terms. Like, all we have to do is convince people that our work can totally be proactive and efficient, then we’ll get the respect and security we deserve. This logic misunderstands the real, material power plays that take place behind the canonization of godwords. Efficiency—the biggest and most foundational of the corporate godwords—isn’t respected just because it looks pretty or it sounds good. The reason it’s the primary godword is because its being as much has allowed for the consolidation of political power. Think about it: what does efficiency entail? By defintion, it means paying workers as little as possible for as much work as possible. The result of this system is necessarily that rank and file laborers (and even management) see a very small return on their efforts, while the people at the very top of corpo-social pyramid get a shitload of benefits. Valuing efficiency therefore means valuing robbing most people of social and political leverage.
Gould says that ideal teaching—the kind that society will appreciate—must be presented in line with corporate values. Predictably, movements towards accomplishing Gould’s ideals have involved deleveraging classroom teachers: standardizing syllabi, offering up online lectures in lieu of centralized class time, assessing student progress through standardized means, etc. All of these things make the humanities more corporate-friendly not because they vaguely appeal to the rhetoric of efficiency, but because they make professors and instructors even more interchangeable and disposable. This isn’t a political compromise, then, nor is it just a rhetorical repackaging of our services. It’s a full-on drift towards the horrors begot by the worship of efficiency.
In business parlance, valuing efficiency denotes a process meant to enrich a tiny number of people to a pornographic degree. Regarding efficiency as the primary virtue leads one to extract as much work as possible from one’s employees while paying them as little as possible. It entails affording employees no job security whatsoever. It means the elimination of the social safety net and the possibility of retirement, as providing employees with those things makes them less pliable to the will of their employers and thereby less efficient. It means deleveraging rank and file employees by burdening them with debt, taking away all alternate prospects of employment, and keeping them compensated just enough so that they have no choice but to remain yoked to the current employer, no matter what.
Efficiency theory (which isn’t a formal thing, but stick with me) views the ideal role of government as ensuring the wealth and autonomy of the super elite. It judges the morality and righteousness of actions based on how much they benefit the super elite: an action is considered legal or criminal not based on any abstract moral standard, but on whether or not it harms or benefits the super elite. To that end, the efficacy of a college class depends on whether or not and to what degree having students take it benefits the super elite.
In short, appealing to efficiency isn’t something that can be done just by aping the rhetoric of the sciences. It’s not matter of packaging. It’s much darker. And unless we work to attack the very notion of efficiency as an a priori good we will be crushed beneath its treads. But I really doubt we’ll make a switch in time, since the humanities has abandoned class issues for a narrow focus upon identity politics.