Category Archives: Education

Amazing Grace

At this time of year, most of us educators give up all hope on humanity. Between the students who are “just starting” the final projects they had six weeks to finish and the constant stream of “So, I was looking at my grade and…” pandering bullshit, it’s impossible to not want to just run away screaming.

That’s why the email I got yesterday was one of those little flecks of light in the darkest of rooms.

A fellow media adviser is in the shit at her institution. It has a lot to do with overreaching administration, bullying assholes and a general sense that the student publication should be 95 percent fluffy PR and 5 percent Sudoku. Instead, it’s a quality publication that asks questions about shady stuff and speaks truth to power.

Therefore, obviously, the problem is the adviser, who is now under fire.

The adviser’s daughter, Grace, is 10 years old. She overheard her parents talking about all this darkness and it really bothered her. She wants to be a journalist and what she heard “hurt her feelings because writers should always be able to write.”

At the age of 10, I also loved to write, but I had no idea what a journalist was. My writing was mostly confined to banging out short stories on my mom’s old manual typewriter that she’d set up for me in the dining room. The stories were my escape and my adventure and the thought that they might be taken away never occurred to me. I can’t imagine what was going through this kid’s head when she heard terms like “prior review” and “legal issues.”

Grace loves Star Wars and she loves journalism so she sat down at the computer and built a shirt to explain that journalism matters:

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Her goal was to sell 10 shirts with about $150 in profits going directly to the Student Press Law Center, which was working on her mom’s situation. When I found myself getting killed last year, it was Frank LoMonte and his SPLC crew who waved the biggest red flags and really helped bring some clarity to the situation. If nothing else, he did scare the shit out of the student government twerps who wondered why this “organization in Virginia,” as one of them called it, was suddenly setting up camp in their rectal tract.

I bought one and immediately pimped it out to at least a dozen other people. Apparently others did the same because by the time Grace got home from school, she had sold almost 90 shirts. Her mother had to write the thank you to our group because Grace was so overwhelmed, seeing how her little idea had resonated with so many other people.

For every bad story we get, and there are a lot of them out there thanks to our governmental mandate to fuck over anyone with a pulse who doesn’t have a 850 credit score and a Black Card, we get an occasional reminder of what is good out there.

I have friends on Facebook who are terrified by the Trumpcare bill and what it will mean for their kids who have pre-existing conditions, like diabetes, cancer and crohn’s disease. I have family members who are slowly giving way to the constant march of time. I have what I can only imagine will be the worst day of my year coming up in two hours.

A T-shirt won’t solve those problems.

However, just thinking about Grace makes me smile a little bit more and telling her story gives me hope.

Because maybe if we get enough kids like Grace and we show them that society can reward them for doing the right thing, maybe we will have fewer problems later and a brighter day in the future.

(Her link is open through the weekend. If you want a cool shirt to support a great kid, feel free to click here.)

Remember the 32

I was working the newsroom this week, when my wife sent me a photo with the caption, “Who are these people?” It turned out to be a “Save the Date” card from two of my former students who found love while finishing off their degrees here.

The editor in chief of the paper poked her head over my shoulder and asked what was up.

“I just got a Save the Date card from Ashley and Isaac,” I explained.

She had a blank stare on her face.

“You were here when Isaac was the managing editor, weren’t you?”

Again, a total blank stare. It was at that point it dawned on me that although the kid I was speaking with was 22 and ready to graduate, even she wasn’t old enough to remember a kid who was practically running the newsroom two years earlier.

I often joke that I have “grad-nesia,” an illness that blurs the lines among generations of students to the point where I swear someone just graduated last year while they’ve actually been out of school for half a decade. The truth, however, is a bit more complicated, in that the institutional memory of college institutions is tiny at best. “Back in the day,” for most of my staff was about 18 months ago. “A long time ago,” was two years.

Something that happened 10 years ago? It has the same social relevance of the Tea Pot Dome Scandal or the Bull Moose Party. Even if that event shook the entire nation to its core.

Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. Student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty on campus while wounding another 17 over a three-hour time period before ending his own life. Even in that time of nascent social media, the pure insanity of the event exploded through digital channels and traditional media in a way that kept everyone in the country linked into the devastation.

I had a personal interest in that shooting, as I was pretty close with the general manager of the student newspaper out there. I also knew the editorial adviser. Our student media listserv was flying with questions and concerns for those folks. Both of them were named “Kelly” (one guy, one gal) which led to some “which one?” questions as we all tried to reach them. I finally got a hold of female Kelly and she told me she was safe, things were crazy and her staff was working, so she was probably going to be off the grid for quite some time. At that point, I was able to breathe again.

As my staff watched from safety 1,000 miles away, none of us knew what to do. Our EIC suggested we send pizza, so we did. It was a typical college-kid move, but we weren’t the only ones to think, “Hey, maybe they’re hungry.” Professional and collegiate news staffs from all over the country did similar things to the point where the staff of the Collegian had to ask, “Hey, guys, we appreciate this, but could you stop now?”

The student paper did some incredible work over that amount of time, including obituaries for each of the 32 victims of the shootings. I remember watching male Kelly give a speech on this less than a year later at a journalism convention. He explained that most of his staff was comprised of cub reporters and non-journalism folk. The university didn’t have a journalism feeder program, so this was truly an extra-curricular endeavor for most of them. If the newsroom he had was anything like some of the ones I’ve worked with, you had a handful of kids who had a passion for journalism, a group of folks who were told at one point they were good writers so they showed up to write and a bunch of students who came for the access to sporting events and concerts and to write columns about what they thought was important.

None of them was ready for this. Nor should they have been.

The thing that I remember most about Kelly’s speech was that he talked about gathering his staff and explaining how the newspaper was going to handle the situation on obituaries. The first question a kid raised is the most obvious one: “Nobody is going to want to talk to us. How are we supposed to do this?”

Kelly’s answer is one I use to this day: You might be right. People might not want to talk to you, but you don’t have the right to take that choice away from them. You approach them respectfully and you offer them the chance to speak. If they decline, you express gratitude and you leave. But don’t take away their chance because you’re afraid.

In the end, those obituaries were stocked with sources and stories that captured the essence of 32 people who never made it past April 16, 2007 and propelled the paper to a Pacemaker Award and national prominence.

I have to admit that 10 years have put this story to the back of my mind as well. The year after the Virginia Tech shooting, the Northern Illinois Shooting happened and that one struck a little closer to home. I had interviewed there for a job at one point and many years before, my grandfather had been in the police department in DeKalb, the city surrounding the university. After that, we seemed to be stockpiling shootings and disasters to the point that “Virginia Tech” became less of a euphemism than it once had been.

I also have to admit, it’s easy for things on a university campus to wash away quickly. My first year in Indiana, we had a student get shot and killed by a cop. The name of Michael McKinney was everywhere for more than a year. We covered that story from the shooting through the civil suit and there wasn’t a student alive on that campus who didn’t know that story.

Fast forward to the fifth-year anniversary of the shooting and I told my editor we needed to do the anniversary story on the McKinney shooting.

I got the same blank look my EIC gave me just this week: “Who?”

As far as most schools are concerned, the short-attention-span theater is a blessing in disguise. When horrific things happen in some cities and towns, family members still live there and those moments of pain become imbued in the fabric of the society. Events of agony live on from generation to generation. In the case of colleges, four years can wash away pretty much everyone in the student base who knew what happened. The memories fade to rumor and history.

In the case of the Virginia Tech Shooting, the students there are refusing to let the memory of those 32 people go unnoticed this year. Several cadets are asking that the new residence hall be named for Matthew LaPorte, a sophomore ROTC member who gave is own life to save countless others when the shooter broke through LaPorte’s classroom barricade. The staff of the newspaper published a special edition titled “We Remember 32,” which is complete with a set of 32 stories of the 32 people who died that day. An online version is available here as well.

It’s hard to remember and easy to forget.

But some things need, even if painful, need to be commemorated.

UW Budget Cuts: There’s always a reason…

Every two years, Wisconsin Republicans come home and see that the UW burned the roast.

Or left a mess in the kitchen…

Or didn’t buy more beer…

Or forgot to pick up the dry cleaning…

There’s always a reason that when the budget comes along, and the UW System leaders ask for money, Republicans decide instead to smack it around and then cut higher ed in the state.

Four years ago, it was the allegation that the UW had stockpiled more than $1 billion in its coffers without telling anyone.

(Of course, that wasn’t true, but it was more than enough to create fake outrage and cut nearly a quarter of a billion from the System.)

Two years ago, it was the idea of an “autonomy for cuts” trade: We cut you to the tune of 13 percent and we then let you get away from us and live your lives.

(Of course, that was never going to happen. After making the cuts, the Republicans came up with the “what’s the point of giving you freedom if you won’t do what we want you to do with it?” argument that still makes my head spin.)

This time, I honestly thought it was going to be a Canadian hip-hop artist/UW-Madison professor who would be our sacrificial lamb. Damon Sajnani wrote a course called “The Problem of Whiteness” and Republican Dave Murphy lost his mind over it and threatened the U with budget cuts if this shit wasn’t stopped. Never mind Murphy is basically Exhibits A and B for what’s wrong with Whiteness…

In the end, Scott Fitzgerald realized he couldn’t fuck over the system of his alma mater just because of one class, so he needed a better reason.

And of course he found it.

Thanks in large part to some financial shell games at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, in which a former chancellor co-mingled state money and private foundation money to burnish his legacy and make his cock swell, all of the universities in the system are now being investigated.

Never let it be said Fitzgerald missed an opportunity to do his best Scrooge impression:

 

Fitzgerald stopped short of saying the university foundations issue would affect state funding for the UW System in the next budget. “When it comes to the state budget, members and finance committee members in particular, have a straight-forward process. How much is being set aside, how much is available.”

That said, “it’s human nature when you hear about something like this… ” Fitzgerald added.

 

Actually, Scott, it’s not. It’s sub-human nature to find flaws with everything in hopes of being able to make something suffer for your own pleasure. It’s the same approach kids take when they get a magnifying glass and discover they can use it to immolate ants. It’s power and dominion over those who lack the means and the recourse to fight back.

The state contributes 17 percent of the funding the UW System gets each year and yet you get to write all the rules. Every two years, you and your ilk get all fake outraged over some perceived slight, some perceived error in judgment or some stupid issue that allows you to whip people into a frenzy before you slash education.

The reason this works is because A) the universities suck at explaining anything to people who aren’t academics (and I say this as being an academic who watches the overly academic people fall all over themselves fucking this up every single time) and B) it’s so much easier to channel rage and anger than it is to marshal common sense.

I’m quite certain the cuts will come and the U will bleed and more quality faculty will flee this state like rats of the Titanic. We will then see a period of normalization until it comes time again for Ray “Oliver Twist” Cross to approach you with his bowl in hand and meekly request:

“Please, sir… more.”

Speaking Of Aggie Jokes…

… Rick Perry is back in the news. Apparently, he has time on his hands now that he’s Trump’s Energy Secretary. He recently “wrote” an op-ed piece on a matter of supreme importance to his fellow Aggies: the Texas A&M student election. I am not making this up. I owe a debt of gratitude to Slate’s Elliot Hannon for writing about Perry’s op-ed in the Houston Chronicle.

It turns out that the Aggies elected-not a sheep-the school’s first gay student body President, Bobby Brooks who won due to a glow stick related disqualification of his main opponent whose father is a major GOP donor. Hand to God, I am not making this up.

Brooks’ win, however, came after another candidate, top vote-getter Robert McIntosh, faced accusations of voter intimidation—for which he was later cleared—and was ultimately disqualified for failing to expense glow sticks used in a campaign video of some sort. The expense violation was then appealed and adjudicated in the appropriate college forum and it was determined Brooks was the winner.

I wonder if Bobby is aware of this chestnut with lyrics by the great Johnny Mercer:

Now that we’ve dealt with glow-worms, it’s time for an excerpt from Perry’s magisterially stupid article. I wonder if he had one of DOE’s nuclear scientists write it for him. Those eggheads are bound to be disturbed by GLOW STICK GATE. There could be nuclear radiation involved:

As Texas’ first Aggie governor and as someone who was twice elected Yell Leader of Texas A&M University, I am deeply troubled by the recent conduct of A&M’s administration and Student Government Association (SGA) during the Aggie student-body president elections for 2017-2018

<SNIP>

Every Aggie ought to ask themselves: How would they act and feel if the victim was different? … Would the administration and the student body have allowed the first gay student body president to be voided for using charity glow sticks? … We all know that the administration, the SGA and student body would not have permitted such a thing to happen. The outcome would have been different if the victim was different… Election Commissioner Rachel Keathley must explain why she chose to overturn a fairly won election and disqualify thousands of votes on the basis of anonymous complaints and flimsy technicalities. Chief Justice Shelby James must explain why she treated these cases as annoyances rather than with respect… Robert McIntosh was not treated the same as his competitors.

That’s right, y’all. Rick Perry still fears gay cooties, which have now infected his alma mater. Methinks, like many other right-wing homophobes, Ricky baby doth protest too much. I particularly enjoyed the detail about his being elected twice as Aggie Yell Leader. Rah fucking rah. Sis-boom fucking bah.

I wasn’t able to find a decent picture of Perry armed with his megaphone but here’s one of former Governor Oops with school mascot Reveille:

I think we all know who was the brains of that outfit…

In addition to his time as Aggie Yell Leader, Perry did a stint on Dancing With The Stars. I didn’t see it but this animated GIF looks rather Yell Leaderish to me:

I, for one, am glad that the Insult Comedian has brought school spirit back to the Federal government. Dubya was a cheerleader at Yale and now we have the dancin’ Energy Secretary. Nobody’s going to accuse this bozo of being low energy…

There *is* one good thig I can say about Perry’s nutty op-ed. I don’t think he lies in it. That’s a major accomplishment for a member of the lyingest administration ever.

Seeds of Hope

The young woman sitting next to me scrunched up her face as she looked at a resume I would have killed for at her age. She had three internships, including one at a major media outlet and a second at a center for investigative journalism. She was the editor of her paper and had earned honors and awards along the way. Still, she had that look.

“I just hope I get a job,” she said. “It’s rough out there…”

I half smiled as I shook my head and told her, “You’re going to be fine. You have a ton of great experience. We just need to rearrange a few things to put the emphasis on the best stuff first…”

I suggested moving a few things around, emphasizing professional experience and pushing her college work down. We talked about her social media presence and if it would be something that would showcase her journalism or if it fit the “I ate a hot dog today. It was good.” motif. I told her I knew her boss and that he didn’t hire crappy people, so that should help her feel better about herself and that she should ask if he would be a reference for her.

In the end, she seemed to feel better and thanked me for my time.

“You’ll be fine,” I told her again, emphasizing each word. “You’ll be just fine.”

I’ve spent the last two weekends working with student journalist at a variety of conventions, which is one of the best things I do in life. Last week, it was Minnesota’s best of the Midwest convention while this week, we convened for a pro/college hybrid for the best journalism the state has to offer.

Being around people “like me” is usually a comfort to most humans, in that we enjoy social gatherings that emphasize shared, learned behavior. Even more, we tend to understand each other better when we have chewed some of the same dirt. As Eddie Murphy once remarked about marriage, “Find the perfect person for you. I’m not saying they’re perfect. Find someone just as fucked up as you are in the same way and settle down.”

Still, this convention was one I had dreaded for a number of reasons. First, I’m running the board of the college group, which means I need to show up, dress sharp and schmooze with people, all things that don’t really thrill me. Second, it’s like Bill Buckner walking back into Shea Stadium for me in many ways.

The people I know there knew the much younger version of me: The one who fucked up a lot. The one who bordered on arrogance and then swung to a complete lack of self-esteem. The one who was probably the annoying kid they wished would learn to calm down a little more and not be so excited over every police scanner call. It’s painful thinking back about that “me” and it’s even more difficult realizing how long ago that was.

The kid I helped work through her resume was someone I probably would have never dealt with back then. She worked at the Badger Herald. I’m from the Daily Cardinal. Capulet and Montague don’t have shit on that turf war. However, as I talked with her a bit, it dawned on me she wasn’t even born when I was a college journalist. The dislike I have for her institution remains, but for some reason, it wasn’t as hard as I would have once thought it to be when I helped her plan out Life 2.0.

Later that day, I walked through the exhibit hall, and I ran across a guy I worked with back when I was a night-desk reporter. Andy now runs that center for investigative journalism at which this kid was interning. When he noticed me, he stopped what he was doing to say hi and prepared to introduce me to the folks gathered around him.

One of the people who turned around was another former newspaper staff who remembered me and gave me a huge hug. It turns out Pat had retired from the paper during one of the rounds of “downsizing” efforts and was now teaching at a small, private college and advising the paper. I told her, “We need to get you onto our board…” before explaining what it is I was doing and what our college group was all about.

She had this look on her face, and I couldn’t really figure it out. It was half amazement and half pride.

“Yeah,” Andy chimed in. “He’s all grown up now…”

I laughed. He just smiled.

He remembered how excited I was the time he offered to buy me a six-pack of beer if I’d take some mundane assignment he’d been given. Andy was happy he could go on his vacation without worry. I was thrilled: You mean I’ll get some extra hours, mileage money, a story in the paper AND BEER? Holy shit!

I didn’t know if Pat remembered the time she and I were working on a Sunday together and two stories had rolled in: Racist literature was found in a news rack at a grocery store and major vandalism had hit the area Walgreens. She was coming in later and I had half of each story and I hoped she’d let me keep one. When she arrived, she told me, “Take them both. I’m working on something else.” It was like a day of free ice cream. I can still remember thinking to myself, “Wow. I’ve got TWO STORIES in the paper today. This is unbelievable.”

Back then, moments like those were the world to me. For them, it was just another day of work.

After I left Andy’s booth, I wandered over to the walls of poster board that contained the award-winning work of journalists throughout the state. Not more than a minute of browsing went by before something grabbed me: A column with a familiar face staring back at me. The hair was more professionally cut, the cheeks a bit fuller but I knew the half-grimace that stared back at me.

One of my former students: First place for local sports column.

I backed up and started from the very first board, carefully examining each byline.

Second Place: Environmental writing

Third Place: Business coverage

First Place: Local education coverage

Third Place: Feature Writing

More and more of the names came back to me. Scared kids, wondering if they’d ever get an internship. Wondering if they’d get a job. Wondering if they’d be any good.

Professional journalists, all. Award-winners to boot.

My eyes settled on the last panel where the college winners were and found one bittersweet moment:

First place, News/news features.

The kid who wrote it was my editor during last year’s run of crushing misery. She stuck with me through thick and thin, knowing her life would be so much easier if she just asked me to quit. Instead, she hunkered down and dealt with the pounding, just like I had. In the end, though, she couldn’t take it anymore.

She dropped out of school, refusing to return for her senior year. She moved on to the tech school last semester, where she hopes to earn a degree that will let her work as a nursing assistant. She never wants to be in journalism again.

She wrote a personal experience feature story on Project Semicolon, a movement that started in 2013 after founder Amy Bleuel lost her father to suicide. Bleuel also struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, so she looked for a way to communicate that struggle to others in hopes of shedding light on these mental illness issues. The non-profit organization uses the semi-colon as a symbol of how you are the author of your life and authors choose how to end a sentence. The semi-colon says, “I’m pausing here, but I will choose to continue.” Many people who back the movement get a tattoo of a semi-colon as a way of reinforcing this belief.

Katie’s piece wove her own struggles into the broader story of Project Semi-Colon, which was started only about an hour’s drive from here. The narrative thread was her decision to get the tattoo and to share that moment with her mother.

I could feel the tears welling up as I started to read the story, so I just moved on and took a breath.

A great moment. A great kid. The one I couldn’t save.

My career choice often leaves me with mixed emotions. I think back to the most stinging comment people make about educators: “Those who can’t do, teach.” There are days I think maybe they’re right. Could I have stuck with journalism for 22 years and done more and better things than I did? Maybe I’m that tragic tale of wasted youth, the human vessel of lost potential I now try to drag out of other people as some sort of penance for my own transgressions…

Then there are days like yesterday, where I see how the kids who once pondered their own inadequacies are tearing it up at various publications in places they want to be. I see it in every “noun-verb” attribution they use and how I pounded that into them. I see it in their commitment to fairness and accuracy. I see it when they email me to ask, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me, but I was a student of yours and you really helped me out a ton… I’m looking for an intern and I was hoping you had one of your kids to help me fill the slot…”

Those days, I see myself as a good farmer: I take those little seeds and put them in the best soil I have, tend them the best I can and then watch them grow to fruition. I help make sure the seedlings get what they need to survive. I realize how important this is now more than ever, in a field littered with cutbacks, high stress and public malice toward the profession.

Maybe that’s a good way to look at this.

I sow some of these seeds of hope for journalism.

And sometimes, it’s important to step back and enjoy the garden.

Journalism: A shitty job in a nuclear winter

One of my former students became a science reporter a few years out of school and once found himself on a trip to Chernobyl. A group of researchers were collecting stool samples from people who lived adjacent to the old Russian nuclear reactor, trying to see if they were suffering from any radioactive poisoning nearly three decades after the meltdown.

He sent me a post card from the area with a final line I still love:

“Journalism. It’s a shitty job but somebody has to do it.”

I thought about him and that trip today when I was trying to read anything in my social media feed that wasn’t about Trump’s press conference. When all I was left with was if Steve Kerr was going to play Russell Westbrook alongside his four Warriors in the All-Star Game and Draymond Green clarifying his “slave-owner mentality” statements, I gave up.

Trump’s hour-plus screed was a brick of uncut alternative facts, packaged in a wrapper of vulgar abuse and denigration. The word “rambling” might be overused at this point and I don’t think it goes far enough. It was like he took every topic of interest or a point of pride he has, wrote them on bingo balls and then had the machine spit them out to determine the order of his talking points.

The biggest problem came when he started taking questions from the press, one of his favorite targets of abuse. A reporter from Ami Magazine, a conservative orthodox Jewish publication, offered Trump the olive branch he was desperately seeking, a pass on personal anti-Semitism. However, as Jake Turx tried to ask Trump to explain how he planned to fight this problem, Trump just stepped all over himself, assuming Turx was calling him anti-Semitic and then told him to sit down and shut up.

When a reporter refuted Trump’s claim that his 306 (actually 304) electoral votes was the most since Ronald Reagan, he dodged with “I meant Republican victory.” He then was told Bush 41 had way more, which led Trump to blame his staff for the information.

Perhaps the worst moment is the one most people are noting: Trump’s clash with April Ryan, a long-time member of the White House press corps. Ryan, who is African-American, asked about Trump’s plans to improve urban areas that he often referred to as terrible hell holes and wondered if he’d reach out to the CBC and Hispanic caucus in congress. Trump seemed unaware of what CBC stood for, but upon learning it stood for Congressional Black Caucus, asked Ryan if she’d set up the meeting for him.

“Do you want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours?” Trump asked her in what could only be described as a confrontational tone.

At this point, I had two thoughts:

  • Based on his “you all know each other, right?” approach, I was amazed Trump didn’t start off with, “Hey, I loved you in ‘Hidden Figures!’ What’s your question?”
  • If you believe that Sean Spicer isn’t getting fired, buy stock in Orbitz. This guy is going to put a dent in our national supply by Saturday.

This press conference, naturally, scared the living shit out of me as a citizen, but my one saving grace is that I can turn off the TV or ignore the news. The journalists who have to work in this environment are like the people at Chernobyl in 1986, going shirtless and using some Windex to clean up the mess.

Journalism has always been a shitty job and it takes a weird breed of person to do it. If you don’t believe me, you should have been in our student newspaper’s newsroom this week. Conversations regarding a dead squirrel, double entendres about a professor “coming” and whether Meatloaf’s “I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that)” was about anal were among the most acceptable for public consumption.

The kids do this for almost no money, which will get them ready for a career in a field where cutting positions and salaries is an annual ritual. They talk to people who don’t want to talk to them about things everyone wants to know but no one who knows is willing to disclose. (A student told me an administrator offered him about a three-minute “No Comment” on a topic we had been covering. My first response, “Did you record it so we can use it as a quote?” The answer, of course, was “yes.”)

Abuse in this field is common. I’ve been called scum, an asshole, a weasel, a vulture and worse. One lady told me my mother didn’t raise me right. I’m sure there are worse ones that I’ve just blacked out of my memory. It got so bad that I used to have a recorder attached to my phone so I could record the abuse. That way, when the person on the other end became sweet as pie to my boss and accused me of random shit, I could just play him the tape.

The thing that amazes me about all of this is that we keep having more and more kids entering this field with the idea that each one of them probably has (at the very least) one Cousin Carl who believes everything not on Breitbart is fake news. Many of the kids I teach come from the Rural Red areas of the state where family members at Thanksgiving ask things like why they aren’t earning an “honest living” like “Gene the Retard” down the way who sells dachshunds out of his trailer.

One kid who recently changed majors to journalism sat with me after I mentioned that a long time ago, when I was changing from pre-law to something or other, Dad told me I needed to find a field where I could get a job.

“As long as you aren’t majoring in English or something else stupid like that, I don’t care,” he said. “You just need to be able to get a job.” (Incidentally, English was going to be my major right up to that moment…)

The kid’s dad had said something similar when he made the change to journalism and he wondered what was out there for him. I explained about the various ways the skills he picked up in journalism would make him a fine hire for a ton of great jobs. He relaxed and then asked, “Can you tell my dad that? He runs his own business and he thinks this is a stupid move.”

Of course it’s a stupid move, if you enjoy low-stress jobs with good benefits and career security. It’s also a stupid move if you enjoy being liked and you don’t want your illusion shattered when it comes to thinking the best of people. It’s a really stupid move for 1,001 other reasons that undercut sanity and longevity. Still, the kid felt like he found the right major, so like a moth to a flame, he decided to stick with it.

I was glad for that and I’m looking for more just like him because we need those guys and gals to fill in the ranks of reporters, editors and other journalists who push back every day against the tide of bullshit. Talking to kids who want to be the next reporter to be told, “Sit down! You’re fake news” really energizes me and makes me want to get them ready to go in the corner and fight for the puck. That’s why this weekend finds me at a journalism convention in Minnesota where kids from a lot of small-college Midwestern schools will show up and learn how to write, report, dig, challenge and fight better.

Best of all? The person running the convention told me the number of attendees this year is higher than it has been for the past several mid-winter conferences.

And, like any other decent journalist, I’ll make sure to check it out before I believe it.

Dear CMU Republicans, Hitler was never fucking funny.

Oh for fuck’s sake:

A Central Michigan University registered student organization apologized via social media late Wednesday night after an anti-Semitic Valentine’s Day card apparently handed out by a member of the group sparked anger among students and community members.
The Valentine features a photo of Adolph Hitler on the front and the words, “My love 4 u burns like 6,000 Jews,” and is signed “XOXO, Courtney.”

I’m waiting for Sean Duffy to find the “good things” that came out of this whole Holocaust deal, now that it’s clear we can always find a silver lining in whatever stupid shit people on your team do.

A rally against hate came out after this hit the fan at CMU, and it’s good that people get loud enough to let assholes know that this kind of behavior isn’t acceptable. That said, who the fuck thought this was a good idea in the first place? Someone actively went about building this stupid valentine and made sure to place multiple copies into the bags of students who were getting them. And of course, I’m sure, they thought it was hysterical because, hey, nobody THEY know ever got shoved in an oven or gassed in a shower. I mean, can’t we all get past this?

When I was in fifth grade, we had a Holocaust speaker and I will never forget some of the stories he told us about death and hopelessness. I can still see his gnarled, age-spotted hands in my mind’s eye as he pointed to the ceiling during a story of how he watched a man hang himself from the rafters with a belt and did nothing to stop him. It was survival, he explained, and we didn’t have the luxury of worrying about people we knew but for whom we had no direct responsibility.

He came back and spoke to us one more time a few years later. During that time, there were many people who still could speak but chose not to. People who hid their tattoos and spoke about such things only in hushed tones or drunken despair. As the years went by, however, there were fewer and fewer people who could speak from a first-person perspective on what had happened.

When I wrote for the local paper, I met a woman who escaped from Germany before the Holocaust. She married a man later who survived Bergen-Belsen and she told me the horrors he experienced. Until the day he died, he slept motionless, with his arms crossed, because that’s how he was forced to sleep in the camps.

At each institution I taught, whenever a speaker on this topic visited, I actively encouraged my students to attend. I explained that it would be horrifying and painful, but that it was something that they MUST experience in life if they are to understand basic human decency and dignity. To understand how those places existed and took so much from so many for such a stupid fucking reason was to understand the dark side of humankind.

I have to admit, I’m sure I said and did a lot of shit stupid things when I was that age. I’m sure I didn’t sidestep every gay joke or correct every negative stereotype associated with race or gender. I’m positive that I am fortunate as hell that social media didn’t exist back then, or else, God alone knows what might have come rolling out today about me. However, stupid though I was, I knew there were very clearly some things that were way the fuck out of bounds.

Hitler is NOT a meme or the ace in the hole you drop when you want to win an argument. He was the central gear in a movement that showed us how deep the rabbit hole really is and how dark night can be. He is not a colloquialism.

Neither is rape, as in “That math test totally raped me.”

Neither is gay,  as in “He’s so gay over his new truck.”

Neither are a dozen other terms that take life-altering events and turns them into euphemisms for casual conversation.

The thing that makes it easier for us to course-correct some of these fuckups is to have actual, live examples of those things that show up in everyone’s faces and say, “Really? The math test slipped something in your drink, took you to an apartment and told you to relax as it ripped off your clothes and forced itself into you repeatedly as you were too incapacitated to move, scream or fight, leaving you with a lifetime of physical, mental and emotional scars? It did all that?”

Unfortunately, we keep losing those people who can explain what life was like living six inches from death for years at a time because of the whims of a madman. And because time erodes direct contact and immediate understanding, we get the Hitler Valentine and someone who thinks it’s fucking funny.

Malaka Of The Week: Betsy DeVos

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Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are going out of business later this year. I’m one of those who is sorry that they’re going, but once they put the elephants out to pasture it was over. The good news is that there’s another circus going on right now: the Trump misadministration confirmation hearings. The Senate is learning first hand that the Insult Comedian is surrounding himself with clowns and unqualified mediocrities. There is at least one animal act: HELP committee hearings on the nomination of a billionaire biblebanger from the state of Michigan. And that is why Betsy DeVos is malaka of the week.

Betsy DeVos is a voucherizing, privatizing enemy of public education. She’s hoping to bring the same chaos to the nation’s schools that she’s brought to the Wolverine State. Malaka DeVos has strong opinions but seems to have precious little knowledge to support her views. She’s ignorant but proud; as she proved under questioning from Democratic Senators. A few examples follow courtesy of Margaret Hartmann of NYMAG.com:

Privatizing Public Schools

Senator Patty Murray asked DeVos if she would promise not to privatize public schools or cut funding from public education. DeVos said, “Not all schools are working for the students,” and she hopes to work with Murray to find ways to “empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them.”

“I take that as not be willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education,” Murray responded.

DeVos wants to slap a voucher on everything, which is privatization by stealth. Public education makes the droogs uppity, after all.

Education Policy

When Senator Al Franken asked DeVos to give her opinion on whether schools should be judged by students’ proficiency or growth, DeVos seemed unfamiliar with the terms. Franken explained that the question of which metric should be used in federal education policy has been a subject of debate for years. “It surprises me you don’t know this issue,” Franken said.

I bet Al was tempted to call her a big fat idiot but only two of those things are true: big and idiot. Now that I think of it, Malaka DeVos has a fat wallet and *is* a fathead. I wonder if she knows who Fats Waller or Minnesota Fats were. Probably not. That’s not on the test and everything must be on the test.

Speaking of teaching the test, my favorite “testy moment” came when DeVos was asked about firearms in schools:

Guns in Schools

DeVos told Senator Christopher Murphy — who represents Newtown, Connecticut — that she thinks the issue of whether guns should be allowed in schools “is best left to locales and states to decide.” Referencing an earlier remark from Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi about a school in his state that is threatened by bear attacks, DeVos said, “There’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

Potential grizzlies? Why does one need to shoot potential grizzlies? I think that guns in schools are a terrible idea even if you’re obliged to shoot real grizzlies. They do, however, get rather ornery when they’re drinking beer like the ones pictured in the Snap Wyatt sideshow banner at the top of the post. A drunk bear is a frightening sight to behold, much like the Insult Comedian as he tweets out lies.

This is another example of how the right is DeVosed (divorced) from reality on this issue, but one would hope they’d have a better reason than roving critters. Perhaps the states need to register the pestiferous animals they want to keep away from their schools with guns. Florida has a gator problem, Arizona has a rattlesnake problem, and Michigan apparently has a polecat problem since they let a wealthy stinker like Betsy DeVos meddle with their education system.

The incoming administration is full of rich dilettantes who think they know best because they have money. Betsy DeVos isn’t the only one who has brought the circus to Washington City but, other than the nutria pelt Trump wears atop his head, she’s the only animal act in town. And that is why Betsy DeVos is malaka of the week.

I’ll give Randy Newman the last word. I wonder if the Trumpers have tried to hire the act below for the inauguration?

 

 

Career suicide by chicken

A kid in my writing class today made a running list of all of the random references I made to pop culture, history and other weird shit in an attempt to illustrate my points and for examples. The list was two pages long after a four-hour lecture on interviewing and quotes and included references to “Airport ’77,” Rosa Parks, Roberto Clemente, “The Poseidon Adventure,” Jim Jones (not that one) and John Wayne.

Somewhere in the middle of all of that, I was outlining a story about the time I had to interview the mayor about a report regarding his affirmative action director and how she was acquitted of allegations that she did something illegal/unethical. The mayor announced his findings at an NAACP fundraising dinner, which our paper didn’t attend because we probably didn’t figure anything important was going to happen. Politicians go to these things all the time and do the “proud, happy and thrilled” speeches, so there’s not much news there.

The point of the whole story was that I was having to play catch up on an important story and I thought I had prepared for the interview with a lot of great questions. That said, when I called the guy at 11 p.m., woke him up and had him snarling at me, I ended up blowing the interview because I used too many closed-ended questions and he wasn’t doing much elaboration to help me out.

The problem came in for me because I referred to the event as being part of the “rubber-chicken dinner circuit,” which apparently didn’t translate. After class, I was talking about the idea of a “rubber-chicken dinner” thing and such with a couple kids. At that point, the kid who was writing all of my “Doc-isms” told me I said “fried chicken,” which now has me trying to figure out how to best write a suicide note and a resignation letter at the same time.

I’ve written about race, culture and a dozen other things on this blog over the years and one of the things I’ve often noted was how the discussions always dance on a razor’s edge. I’ve also said that I’ve been known to fuck up a lot when it comes to everything, so that doesn’t make things any easier talking about topics that are often raw nerves and sensitive wounds.

This one, however, hit me from left field and I started to realize there’s no real way to discuss it. Think about all the shit people say when something like this happens:

I have many black friends…”

I’m not a racist…”

Anyone who knows me knows that…”

This obviously wasn’t the intention…”

Or, of course, there’s the Yahoo! Finance explanation: “Spelling error.”

If you spend enough time in my field, you find yourself going through something, in which you wonder if everything you ever worked for is going to go down the shitter. You worry about becoming that tragic tale of how something could have gone so wrong as to cost you everything. It’s like you’re waiting for the second half of the VH1’s “Behind the Music” that comes after “The band was on top of the world…” After the commercial, shit’s going to happen, someone is getting fired, there’s a coke addiction or something…”

In the case of professors, it’s the fear of some kid with rich parents who are pissed about a B- you couldn’t fully document, a living prequel to “Fatal Attraction” or taking a swing and a miss like this.

The minute this kid said “fried chicken” I felt like my soul had been ripped out and I couldn’t breathe or swallow. Some people get fired for less while others retain their jobs despite worse things. It always seems like a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes.

I don’t know what to say or how to say it, but it’s like I want to run through the streets just screaming, “I’M SORRY!” until the cold fucking kills me. That’s the best answer I have for dealing with it, which is obviously no answer at all.

So I wrote this and I left it here because usually writing about something on this blog usually helps me figure something out. Sorry for the dump job.

Doc.

The Problem of Whiteness meets the Problem with the Witless

It seems that Rep. David Murphy, who chairs the state’s committee on colleges and universities despite never having graduated from one, came out swinging against a course titled “The Problem of Whiteness.” This class is taught at UW-Madison, is an elective and is taught by professor Damon Sajnani, who has a Ph.D. in African-American studies from Northwestern. Murphy found the class – an elective, mind you – to be so disturbing he called for the entire UW System’s funding request to be yanked unless the class was cancelled:

 Murphy, who is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, said he and his staff looked at “The Problem of Whiteness” course description for the spring semester, as well as the background of its teacher, Assistant Professor Damon Sajnani. He concluded: “We are adding to the polarization of the races in our state.”

 

SNIP

 

Murphy said he had been “trying to talk up” to fellow lawmakers increased funding for the UW System in the next state budget but was now having doubts.

“If UW-Madison stands with this professor,” Murphy wrote, “I don’t know how the university can expect the taxpayers to stand with UW-Madison.”

 

This is the textbook definition of bullying and a shakedown. The university system contains 26 campuses, 180,000 students, 40,000 faculty and contributes nearly $6 billion annually to the state and Murphy wants to hold it hostage over ONE COURSE. He has also demanded that Sajnani be “dismissed.” Keep in mind, he never took the course, never read the texts associated with the course and never received a complaint about the course. He just basically decided to screw with the university because he can. We’re about a millimeter away from Murphy saying, “Nice budget you gots here… Shame if somethin’ were to happen to it…”

 

Murphy didn’t stop with just this one course, however, noting that he was going to have his staff check into ALL classes at UW-Madison to make sure “they’re legit.”

Asked what he and his staff would be looking for in courses, Murphy said they would not need to look at disciplines like chemistry or business, but “we’ll be looking at the humanities. I realize college is a place to discuss ideas that aren’t necessarily everybody’s idea of how things ought to be, but I want to make sure there’s legitimate education going on.”

 

This would be hysterical if it Murphy didn’t have actual power over state resources. Let’s review a few things:

  1. Murphy never graduated from college. He couldn’t even finish a degree at UW-Fox Valley, a two-year school in the system. He spent his life in agri-business and as a real estate guy. How, exactly, would he know if the courses were “legit” or not? What level of expertise does he bring to the table that would indicate his life and educational experience will allow him to sniff out all these potentially illegitimate courses? That would be like me walking around the surgical wing at the Mayo Clinic and checking up on all those brain surgeries to make sure they’re being done right.
  2. The professor he attacked at this point is an international scholar. Sajnani hails from Canada, where he not only received a bachelor’s and master’s degree, but he also is an accomplished member of the hip-hop community. For all the shit legislators give people about not getting “real world” experience in an area of interest, this guy has walked the walk in various aspects of life. His Ph.D. comes from Northwestern and he’s been a fellow at Harvard based on his research. So exactly how would he be unqualified a) teach this course and b) contribute to this university?
  3. Does Murphy realize he just backed the state into a corner with his stupidity? Let’s say for the sake of argument, the state wants to fund some, but not all of this UW System request. Anyone with a good PR person (read: anyone but Murphy) would immediately pounce on this and say, “Look, we got cut because Dave Murphy is trying to undermine academic freedom at our flagship university!” Regardless of how often he denies it, the case can be made that he threatened the budget if the course wasn’t cut, the U has not (and will not) cut the course and now the budget got cut.

 

This isn’t the first time the state has threatened the system’s budget. A few years back it was Steve Nass, who holds two degrees from UW-Whitewater and somehow thinks he made it in life despite that, took on the system over courses. He and several other Republicans killed a budget request when it created an overblown shit fit about an alleged $1 billion systemwide surplus.

Usually what happens is, the regents ask for money for faculty raises or improved facilities and the Republicans find something to get outraged about. It’s not a case of actual outrage, but they do a good job of making people really upset about these greedy, liberal (probably all gay drug using) professors in their ivory towers who don’t understand reality. Thus, they cut the budget, hold it out as a pride point and continue to divide the state between the “haves” and “have nots,” all as they do very little for either group.

Doctor makes “monkey face” comment about Michelle Obama. Outraged? Yes. Shocked? Nope.

In the days after the presidential election, people have tried to parse the reasons for the rise of Trump and how racism will awaken from the dark, like it’s the Force or something.

The current narrative has gone in one of two directions, both of which seem to land on the same group: Rural, uneducated white people. In one version of this, it was an economic/culture issue that led rural whites to see Trump as a savior. This is something Trump has been playing up in Indiana this week, where he courageously threw money at Carrier to only lose some U.S. manufacturing jobs. In short, it’s about the work and the country mouse/city mouse divide.

The second version is racism, although it pretty much lands on the same basic group: Rural, uneducated white people. This narrative pushes out the concept that Trump tapped into that vein of racism that flows through the heartland like melted butter and stoked fears of Muslims, Mexicans and African-Americans. It was these simple-minded rubes who turned out in droves to “Make America Great Again” in hopes of getting back to that simpler time when all you needed to know about minorities is how many fifths of a person they counted for.

The stats bear out a lot of both of those elements, although more of the first than the second. Of course, the main problem is that you don’t get to take your alleged job creator without his side order of racism, something many people overlooked in their race to the bottom.

The second problem is that when it comes to racism, sexism and other “isms,” it’s not as simple as population density or if you’ve ever seen a building taller than three stories before.

Dr. Michelle Herren, an anesthesiologist and University of Colorado professor, came under fire this week for posting racist comments about Michelle Obama. Herren called the First Lady a “monkey face” said she spoke in “poor ebonic English.” Naturally, she followed that up with “There! I feel better and am still not racist!!! Just calling it like it is!”

I don’t know what was supposed to convince readers more that she wasn’t racist, the heavy use of exclamation points or the “calling it like it is” thing. The person who turned her in to Denver Health and the board of regents said she was shocked and outraged by Herren’s comments. Herren is now on a leave of some kind until the hospital can figure out what to do with her/the fervor dies down and she can slink back to work.

The media reporting on this has listed her title, her salary ($363,000 a year) and her education, in what I’m assuming is a way to let people know, “Wow, look at this! This really SMART and RICH lady is even saying shit like this.”

I was outraged as well to see comments like this, but shocked? Not a chance.

I’m uncertain as to what people think makes someone who has a medical degree less of an asshole on any front. I guess we could hope that people with higher levels of finance and education are more likely to become cultured and worldly, thus giving them a better perspective on race and class.

A few recent media pieces have demonstrated that, no matter who you are or where you are, racism lives among us. John Oliver’s look at gentrified schools shows that these dividing lines in the North were given a pass when the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Trevor Noah and Tomi Lahren went at it this week about racism and Trump. Although the media notes that Noah “owns” her or whatever, if you watch the whole interview, he really didn’t. It reminded me of the Hagler-Leonard fight in which you saw Hagler punching hard, but for some reason, Leonard kept holding his own on the scorecards. (She’s got a college degree from UNLV, which obviously isn’t the reason she’s such a YouTube star. She might be the first woman a Republican jerked off to on a computer without turning the sound down.)

Christopher Caldwell’s piece on what I’d like to call the Control-Alt-Delete-Right showcases the spectrum of education and nuance in this scary-as-shit movement:

There are many such groups, varying along a spectrum of couth and intellect. Mr. Spencer, who dropped out of a doctoral program at Duke and worked, briefly, as an editor for The American Conservative, has his own online review, Radix Journal. The eloquent Yale-educated author Jared Taylor, who hosts the American Renaissance website and magazine, was at the conference, too. Kevin MacDonald, a retired psychology professor whose trilogy on Jewish influence is a touchstone for the movement, also came.

None of this excuses the bigger picture of people who spray paint swastikas on kids’ lockers or do the “hail Trump” salute. However, there’s enough shitty behavior to cover the people with Stars N Bars bumper stickers on their rusty truck and those who take a Lexus to the hospital, but won’t take an elevator with a black orderly.

Or as my father, a man with a tech-school degree, was fond of saying: “Educated doesn’t necessarily mean smart.”

Don’t Talk to Me About Bubbles

I’m going to tell you a story and I swear every single word is true.

I work downtown in Chicago at least two days a week and on at least one of those days I eat lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant right near my office.

This place is owned by a Vietnamese family.

On the menu, which is on the wall, they advertise that some of the food is halal.

They serve Chilean wine.

Yesterday, when I was there, the older and younger cooks were yelling at each other in Spanish over what kind of music they were going to play in the dining room.

The younger cook won. Biggie. Big Poppa.

I’ve read a lot in the past week about how I live in a “liberal bubble.” How I don’t understand the world outside, the concerns of others, different from myself. How I need to do everything from “get out more” to “just move to a red state” to “talk to more people.”

Do you know how often I would LOVE to live in a bubble? When my upstairs neighbors are yelling about the Cubs game or a guy is trying to sell me video games on the street corner or the entire train car is engaged in ignoring-down someone who should really be getting mental health services or even another drink somewhere. (Nobody wants to call the cops, because we don’t want to hurt this guy further.) Do you know how often I think to myself, I’m tired of working this hard to live here?

There is no isolation here. No shield from difference. No ignoring the “other.” I can throw a rock from my house and hit four drug dealers and so can everyone else in my neighborhood.

It’s all in your face, all the time, everything that has led us where we are: Poverty. Inequality. A lack of help. An education system that is broken by racism and meanness about money. Gloriousness. Music. Food. History. Something new to learn every single second. Art in museums and on street corners, books stuffed to the rafters in the libraries.

And people. People people people.

I was at a wedding once in a small town in Kansas and the mother of the bride cornered me in the bathroom and talked about how lucky she was to live where she lived. There was, she said, no real community in the big city.

My next-door neighbor had called the week previous, in hysterics. She was hyperventilating and for a moment I thought something had happened to her son.

There was a dead mouse in her kitchen. She wanted my husband to come get it.

Same neighbor, the week Kick was born, left homemade chili and a supportive note at my front door. The woman who used to live upstairs pet-sat the ferrets and I walked her dog. Mr. A travels for work for weeks at a time and I’m never worried; there are half a dozen people in my building who’d come if I called. There are half a dozen people on the street at any given time: safety in numbers.

Kick was baptized at the church down the block. I’m an inconsistent attendee, but they welcomed us as if I parked in those pews full time. They extended their hands to our new, fragile little family and they blessed us, and I felt it in a way I’ve never felt faith before.

They have a food drive the first weekend of every month. People pile bags of food and envelopes of cash on the altar to feed the hungry.

I understand my way of life isn’t for everybody. Like I said, sometimes I’m not sure it’s for me and mine, not always. But the values that make it worth living are those in every community, large and small, across this country, values the “white working class,” the “small town America,” the “heartland,” instilled in me: Generosity, connection, joy. A profound sense of place, of knowing. A love of God, and of difference. A constant reaching out, over and over and over, in the face of every rebuff, knowing that we are more together than we are apart. Values that were so cruelly betrayed last week.

Don’t tell me I live in a bubble. Don’t tell me I don’t experience difference. It’s at the next desk in my office, talking about teaching kids to read. It’s my Iranian downstairs neighbors playing country music; you really haven’t lived until you’ve heard an elderly Persian woman yelling enthusiastically along with Kenny Chesney.

(And not for nothing, but some of us live in “bubbles” because we couldn’t get work in our red states of origin. I’ve read a lot of commentary in the past week about shallow liberals who just want to eat ethnic food to show off. For some people it’s about eating, period.)

This “bubble” is the wide world, the same one everyone lives in. We are all as isolated as we want to be. If you have three neighbors and you know them, good. If you have three thousand and you know as many of them as you can, good.

Nobody lives in a bubble, not unless they want to.

A.

Where “Goddammit you fuckin’ guys” got us…

“You’re listening to me but you’re not understanding me.”
“No I’m disagreeing with you. That doesn’t mean that I’m listening to you or understanding what you’re saying. I’m doing all three at the same time.
– West Wing, In This White House

 

If we are going to get anywhere in this post, we need to start with a few basic understandings:

  • I do not like Donald Trump as a person, a candidate, a businessman, a leader or a human.
  • I voted for Hillary Clinton and it would be a cold day in Hell before I ever vote for Trump.
  • Anything said from this point forward should not be in any way construed as support, excuses, justification or approval for Trump or any action he has ever taken, including, but not limited to his sexist rants, his racist comments, his proclivities for sexual assault, his borderline-incest fascination with his daughter, his financial horrors or his moral compass.
  • Anything said from this point forward should not be construed as support, excuses, justification or approval for anyone who voted for him.

 

I spent the past few days trying to wrap my head around this election outcome and I figured out that I can’t. That bothers me because a) I’m an intellectual so I like knowing things and b) I’m a tinkerer, so I like solving problems.

Everyone who has written every concern about Donald J. Trump and the potential he has to fuck up every single institution in this country and turn us into Wolfenstein: The New Order is right. As far as journalism goes, these people have done everything perfectly in terms of explaining the Who, What, When, Where and How. What I’m trying to dig into is the “Why” aspect of this.

The problem with looking at “Why” is that it can be interpreted as agreement with or justification for choices.

I will be doing neither.

That said, if you don’t understand why something broke, you can’t figure out how to fix it. If you don’t take a look at the underlying aspects of something, you won’t understand its nature. Since most of the analysis has tried to look at the rural vote, I’m going to spend a lot of time picking at that.

And just like we would tell people who spent the last 19 months chanting “Lock Her Up,” we can’t get by with slogans or bumper-sticker answers.

This is going to hurt.

 

“I’m sure that’s important but I don’t want to tell some 8-year-old kid he has to sleep in the street because we want people to feel better about their car. Do you want to tell him that?”
– Dave

 

John Scalzi did a fantastic post titled, “The Cinemax Theory of Racism.” In it, he explains the fact that even people who say, “I’m not racist, but I voted for Trump” were essentially aiding and abetting racism anyway. The analogy is outlined here, but here’s the short-course version of it:

 

You want HBO, but the cable company says you can’t get it without buying Cinemax as well. You decide to purchase HBO and then you’re upset when people say you are also a Cinemax subscriber.

You can make all the arguments you want that you don’t plan to watch Cinemax, that you didn’t want Cinemax and that you have no love for Cinemax, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re a Cinemax subscriber.

Same deal with Trump: You may have bought him for the supposed economic policies and Making Greatness for Beloved State of America, but you also are a racism subscriber.

 

He’s right in both the analogy and the outcome: People who bought Trump have to live with being called out for it, no matter how unpleasant the word “racist” is to them. I wouldn’t like being called a lot of “ists” out there either. However, in looking at the rural vote that came out for Trump, it might be more instructive to try a second analogy along those same lines:

 

You are trapped on an island for 10 days with no outside help or system of support. On this island is a single bird that is the only source of sustenance that will allow you to survive.

Unfortunately for you, this is a rare bird, a one-of-a-kind, and by killing and eating it, you will be causing the extinction of this species and will be helping to destroy an ecosystem.

So, you eat the bird and live.

For the rest of time after your rescue, people tell you that you destroyed the environment.

But I was just trying to survive, you say.

The others say back, Uh huh… but you killed off a species. You destroyed an ecosystem.

But I didn’t have a choice, you say.

The others say back, I understand you feel that way, but you still eliminated the animal from our world and we’ll never see it again. Our world will never be the same again.

But it was do this or die, you say.

The others say back, well, you still made that choice. You better own it.

 

This is rural America. They feel isolated from the broader whole. They feel desperate to survive. They are trying to weigh out an immediate, real need against what they perceive to be an ethereal broader consequence. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that starvation is going to trump higher-order thinking every day of the week.
I see three basic reasons for this:

  • Loss of local media: You can make the argument that the people in rural America get their information from Fox News and that assholes like Bill O’Reilly and Rudy Giuliani have fed them lies, distortions and false narratives. However the problem isn’t in what the national media is feeding them, but rather what local media isn’t anymore.
    Local newspapers are dying as paper costs more, journalism people don’t want to go out there and education is being shredded. You see buyouts, consolidation and other things that are eliminating newspapers throughout the rural areas. Those that remain are understaffed and overworked, leading to “easy” coverage on things like school plays and local parades.
    When local media in these towns meant something, people there learned from “people like them” what was going on with the local government, the school district and other similar things. They found out where their money was going and they could read about how things were in their area. That was all stuff they could get behind and at least understand: “My money will build a new school or buy a new fire truck. My kids can get a better education and my home won’t burn to the ground.”
    Now, these places get grouped into a larger “metro market” and get whatever Gannett paper is out there. None of the local news matters to them and the national news sucks, what little there is of it. So they turn to Fox or whatever Facebook feed their friends find interesting and, bam, you get a sense that nothing good is happening out there.
  • Realistic Conflict Theory and intergroup relations: Both analogies above (as well as thousands of others) create a dichotomy: You get X or Y. You buy the whole meal, no substitutions. In a broader view of this, it basically becomes a function of Realistic Conflict Theory: If you and I want the same cookie and either I get it or you get it, one of us is going to get something and the other isn’t. Trump did a brilliant job (and I hope to God that’s the last time I ever use the words “Trump” and “brilliant” in the same sentence…) of putting this out there for the voters who live in the rural areas. Kathy Cramer’s work on the rural people of Wisconsin makes this clear: People in the smaller towns and villages all over this state feel like all the good stuff goes to the Madisons and Milwaukees of the state while they get shit on. Can you make that argument? Absolutely. Is it perfect? Not at all. However, when you paint an “us versus them” picture, people will always close ranks with the “us folks” and research for generations has demonstrated that perfectly.
  • The lack of broader privilege: When we discuss privilege at the broader level, we talk about things like “white privilege” or “male privilege” and I’m not discounting or dismissing either of those. However, here’s an example of what I’m talking about:On a ballot a few elections ago, there was a referendum to raise property taxes locally for repairs and additions to the local high school. My child doesn’t attend the local school. None of her friends attend the local school. Nobody I know teaches or works at the local school.
    I voted for it anyway.
    My way of thinking was not about the $10 a year per thousand dollars of assessed value or whatever meant to my pocketbook. I saw value in the project, knew it would help people and just said yes. That’s a privilege I possess that a lot of people don’t.

    I would never cast my grandmothers into the “basket of deplorables,” but I know for sure they voted against helping schools, improving the library, paving some streets and a dozen other things that would have benefitted their small cities. They were fucking destitute, living on a tiny fraction of what I spend on car parts and furniture for the year.
    Every time I vote, I look at my vote in two ways: “How does it help me personally/my close family network?” And “How does this impact the bigger picture?” If I’m lucky, there’s a lot of overlap between the two and the vote is easy. In some cases, the Venn Diagram doesn’t really provide a lot of AB crossover, so I have to think about what I should do. I have that privilege. I can say, “Sure, Hillary might fuck me over a little here and there, but I can’t put a racist, sexist, homophobic asshole in charge of a hot dog cart, let alone the goddamned country.”
    Not everyone can look past immediate self-interest and buy the bigger picture.
    And Trump found a lot of those people.

 

 

“Don’t press your luck, funny man. And stop thinking everyone between Fifth Avenue and the Hollywood Bowl just stepped barefoot out of the cast of ‘Hee Haw.’ Tell your friends about it.”
– Studio 60, Nevada Day, Part II

 

Kathy Cramer has done some incredible work in Wisconsin as a political scientist, digging into the rural communities throughout the state and doing something that most of the pollsters and data crunchers don’t: She talked to people.

Researchers will argue that they talk to people all the time. So will journalists. Here’s the problem: They tend to parachute in, ask a bunch of questions, get some answers that support their ideas and evac out.

Cramer kept going back and going back and going back. She was like the Jane Goodall of the farming community in places that have fewer people than my high school.

This interview with her is spellbinding in so many ways, but the part that sticks with me right away is this quote:

“People felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.”

Most of the talking heads spent the 48 hours after the election trying to parse one issue: Was this racism or classism? If you were on the Left, it was usually racism. If you were on the Right, it was usually classism.

Cramer’s research says it’s probably neither, but more of tribalism.

City Mouse versus Country Mouse.

Cramer talked at length about how her naiveté allowed her to start her work because had she known of the chasm of this divide, she probably would have been too scared to go to these places. Even as a white, Midwestern woman, she said there was a sense of “other” that emerged when she explained what she was doing and why:

They’re asking questions like, how often do I teach, what am I doing driving around the state Wisconsin when I’m supposed to be working full time in Madison, like, what kind of a job is that, right?

It’s not just resentment toward people of color. It’s resentment toward elites, city people. …

Part of where that comes from is just the overarching story that we tell ourselves in the U.S. One of the key stories in our political culture has been the American Dream — the sense that if you work hard, you will get ahead.

Well, holy cow, the people I encountered seem to me to be working extremely hard. I’m with them when they’re getting their coffee before they start their workday at 5:30 a.m. I can see the fatigue in their eyes. And I think the notion that they are not getting what they deserve, it comes from them feeling like they’re struggling. They feel like they’re doing what they were told they needed to do to get ahead. And somehow it’s not enough.

Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult.

I’m doing what I was told I should do in order to be a good American and get ahead, but I’m not getting what I was told I would get.

 

At one point, I was forced to calculate how many hours a day I “worked” as part of my job here at the U. Counting the newspaper, night-time grading, emails to kids off hours and other things like that, it came to something like 60-65 hours per week. Maybe it was a little more or less, but that was what I was coming up with for a month worth of counting.

Here’s the thing: I wouldn’t trade that for anything the people I live near do, no matter what.

I get to wear what I want to work. I can’t remember the last time I had to wear a uniform.

I can eat or pee whenever I feel like it. I don’t need to ask permission or have someone approve it.

I don’t have to punch in or punch out. As long as the work gets done, nobody gives a shit.

The biggest thing, though, is that I don’t come home dirty. Some days I feel mentally shot or brain dead, but I can sit on the couch right away without hearing, “Change your pants before you sit on the good sofa!”

When I worked in the garage, Mom used to make me strip in the yard and march my clothes down to the basement every day. They had to run my clothes through the wash without anyone else’s and we had to run an extra rinse cycle before we did the next load, for fear of damaging the rest of the laundry. I can’t tell you how many days I scarfed down my night meal in the kitchen in my skivvies and socks with clean hands, dirty arms and a naked torso.

When I go into the Kwik Trip in town for gas or a snack on the way to work, I see a lot of people I know do the same thing. The guys with dirt-caked boots, grease-stained Dickies and a worn-out baseball cap. The difference is, this is their life, not a summer job.

The other difference? I probably make three or four times what those guys make and the only surgery I’ve had to endure because of it was bilateral carpal tunnel.

I have friends with fused necks, fake knees and mangled fingers, courtesy of a life on a farm or in a garage.

This election, they came out for the promise of a better personal experience, even as those of us who make our livings on keyboards and televisions told them that Trump wasn’t their guy.

The Country Mouse roared.

 

 

“Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
– Gene Krantz, Apollo 13

 

I had a chance to sit down Thursday with one of the most insightful and emotionally worldly students I ever taught. She ticks almost all the boxes of things Trump has pissed on this election: She’s black, she’s gay, she’s from a large city, she’s been poor, she has relied on government assistance and she “doesn’t know her place.”

She is my fucking hero. She’s also on the verge of a mental breakdown.

We talked about all sorts of things today in hopes of getting her untracked as she comes ever closer to a December graduation.

Things got better for her at the end of the talk and so I said this:

“I want to ask you a question because you have a better sense of the world than I could ever hope to. If you don’t want to answer it, don’t. And don’t worry about it ever coming up again, but I need to know something if you can tell it to me.”

“Go ahead,” she said, not even flinching for a second.

“OK.” Deep breath. “In your lifetime, have you ever dealt with a straight-up moment or attack from an “ist?”

“Yes. Many times.”

“So here’s the question: How does that compare to how you felt Tuesday watching the election results?”

“A thousand times worse.”

That was exactly how I felt, a sense of betrayal. A sense that I thought I knew all these people who ended up perpetrating the one unforgivable sin.

The truth is, we didn’t.

The reason she felt worse, she told me, was because that old-fashioned, straight-up racism was at least honest. When you saw the guy with the Confederate Flag belt buckle, the “Go back to Africa” shirt and the words “White Power” tattooed down the backs of his arms, you knew that guy was an asshole. You could pick him out, and you stayed away from him. You had no expectations.

This election, we looked at people who we thought were “good people” and found out they cast a vote for someone who embodies everything that guy with the belt buckle displays.

Trump wasn’t a con in that regard. He didn’t hide it. It wasn’t like a JFK-like rumor about Marilyn Monroe or Angie Dickenson.

He told you he was going to grab your pussy before those Mexican rapists got to it.

No ambiguity there.

As Cramer noted, these people weren’t “hoodwinked” into a vote they didn’t understand.

So that’s the problem. How do we solve it?

No fucking clue.

That said, here are a few thoughts to consider before 2020:

 

  • The thing that hurt my student and me (and probably a lot of you) is that these people who voted for Trump were always here. They lived among us. It wasn’t like Trump took a container ship some place and imported 50 million voters from Asshole-istan and took over the country. These people shop with you, eat with you and work with you. Your kids go to the same schools (I found that out when the mother of one of my kid’s friends turned up on a Ron Johnson commercial, bitching about Feingold and Obama.) and you probably wave to each other when you pass on the road.
    They’re not going anywhere. We just figured there weren’t as many of them out there as there turned out to be.
    Let’s assume for a minute that Hillary Clinton was right when she made her “basket of deplorables” comment: Half of Trump voters are racists, sexists, homophobes and other horrible, vile things. That leaves us with slightly more than 30 million Trump voters outside that basket.
    What do we want to do with them?
    If the answer is, “Get out the vote next time” that’s akin to seeing a leak in the ceiling and fixing it by using a bigger bucket to catch the drips. Trying to get more of “us” to vote to counteract the surge in “them” doesn’t solve the “they’re here” problem.
  • For all the talk about pulling rural knuckle-draggers out of East Shithole-ville, we need to consider the converse. No, I’m not talking about learning the words to “Deutschland erwache” or getting fitted for a white sheet. It’s that kind of thought process that put us in this mess in the first place.
    Barbara Ehrenreich touched on this concept in her book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” when she went to work for $7 an hour to see what poverty was like. Linda Tirado took this a step further in “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America,” as she actually lived the life Ehrenreich visited. However, in both cases, you were looking at survival in larger metro areas.
    What’s it like hauling lumber, milking cows, running the town’s only diner or teaching in its only school? How many people out there have never met a person of color, a gay person or any of the other things Trump is shit-talking? I have a hard time believing anyone on the New York Times editorial board goes home smelling like pig shit at the end of the day or waking up unable to move their right arm. It’s easy to say, “You should come to my way of life” if you have never experienced someone else’s.
  • Vilifying and castigating people have never, ever led to improvements. When someone tells me I’m bad or stupid, the next thought in my head isn’t usually, “Hey, this guy might be on to something! Let’s listen more closely!” Instead it’s “Fuck you and everyone who looks like you.” I have no idea how best to reach people before the next time we have to play, “Let’s Save the Republic,” but I do know what is happening now sure isn’t it. Telling people “We know better” or “Your way is the wrong way” got us here. It’s that self-assured smugness we all hate in Trump and fans of the New York Yankees. We might be right that we know better or that one way is better than the other. That said, that’s not the answer. We have gotten into a pattern that isn’t helping us connect: We wait for our turn to speak. We don’t listen.

Now, we have to at least consider lending our ears.

 

The Kids are Alright, Part 2000

Hello there, teenagers! Do you know how often you think about The S-E-X? And how you are like animals with the sexing all the time? 

According to Click2Houston, an administrator at Clements High School in Fort Bend County, Texas, was addressing an auditorium full of upperclassmen and trying to get them to dress more conservatively. But rather than say, “Dress more conservatively. Bare stomachs are not appropriate for school,” he tried to use humor. It came out like this:

“Ladies, I know you’ve been working on your abs since the Olympics, right? But your shirts can’t be up here. It’s gotta cover the whole gut. Ladies, I blame you all for boys’ low grades because of tight clothing,” he said.

Ugh. Can’t he just sit backwards in a chair or grow a ponytail or something? It’d be pathetic, but less so than attempting to get through to the kids with a ham-fisted attempt at humor that was just an overt display of sexism. Male and female students alike report being offended by the remarks. The men did not appreciate the implication that they are academic magpies incapable of remembering the quadratic equation if they see a woman’s belly button. The women did not appreciate being told their bodies were responsible for the test scores of other students.

 

Seriously, we are finally getting to a generation that has enough of its shit together to push back on this constant, ridiculous harangue that men are animals and women are fucking zookeepers, and I’m supposed to be mad they all use Instagram or whatever it is that we’re mad at kids today about?

I am impatient with dress codes because they’re almost always used to police girls and distract girls from learning, but also because the message is that there is no more important issue for high schoolers than how they look.

Not whether they’re homeless because their dad or mom just lost a job, not whether their school is a burned-out shell in a bombed-out town, not whether their parents are on drugs or not around or abusive. How they dress. That’s what we’ve decided to make a federal fucking case about. That’s the hill we’re all going to die on.

Those kids are damn right it’s not fair to the boys OR the girls.

A.

 

Keep it short.

No

In honor of Daniel Victor’s simple answer in his NYT tech column, here are my five-words-or-less responses to a shit ton of stuff going on in the world:

 

Brock Turner was released from jail after three months from jail. CNN asks: Did race affect the Stanford Rape Case?

Yes.

 

Stanford has decided to ban hard alcohol at campus parties in the wake of the Turner scandal. How effective will this be in stemming the tide of bad behavior and situations involving sexual assault?

Beer.

 

Media outlets have announced the debate moderators for the presidential debates: NBC’s Lester Holt, CNN’s Anderson Cooper/ABC’s Martha Raddatz and Fox News’ Chris Wallace. Given the spectrum of voices, the “one-on-one” style approach and his promise to be “more presidential” will this lead to a fair and civilized debate from Donald Trump?

Ask Hugh Hewitt.

 

A prominent Latino surrogate for Donald Trump announced Thursday he had officially withdrawn his support from the Republican presidential nominee, saying he was “misled” because Trump said this week he was going to deport illegals. 

How?

 

School districts throughout the state are facing massive teacher shortages and can’t find people who can teach specialties or meet special needs of some students. To what can we attribute this gap and how can we fix it?

Act 10. Repeal it.

 

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers refused to stand for the National Anthem, something he has done in the past. What does this say about him as a person and our country?

Free speech. Use it.

 

What about the people, including former athletes, who have taken him to task for this?

Consider the source.

 

What about the police officer in Philly with a Nazi-style tattoo across his arm, who was working at a protest march? Does this guy have the right espouse his beliefs in this fashion as a representative of the city and the police force dedicated to protecting it? How do you explain this?

  1. Wear sleeves.
  2. Not on duty.
  3. This

 

 

 

Tripping Triggers on College Campuses

As colleges across the country come back to life after a three-month slumber, the issue of who has the right to do what and when and where has once again trumped almost every other issue.

Perhaps the college gaining the most attention is the University of Chicago, which welcomed its freshmen this week with the typewritten version of Cher’s famous scene in Moonstruck. The letter explained that students should not expect “trigger warnings” in classes or “safe spaces” on the campus, in large part because the university embraces freedom of expression and isn’t into this whole coddling thing.

Seconds after that note became public, many faculty members and members of the general publicly applauded this effort to tell millennials to get their shit together and suck it up. Other faculty and many trauma advocates saw this as an offensive display of tone deafness by people in power.

It’s unclear to what degree this flat-out statement will lead to negative consequences or how it will impact the university throughout the year. However, the university’s attempt to inform its students came across in a John Wayne-like fashion. And much like a John Wayne movie, this statement had little nuance, sought to pound its point into the ground and people either loved it or they hated it.

In reading through the letter and through various other pieces written about this generation and the college environment, I find myself going back to my days researching media convergence: You would have 10 people researching “convergence” only to find that none of them were defining it the same way and everyone told the other people they were wrong in their approach.

Start with the idea of trigger warnings. Conceptually, they are meant to provide people who have suffered traumatic experiences with the ability to be aware of potentially triggering content so they can either avoid it or prepare themselves to deal with the circumstances. A good way to think about this is to think about what happens to some military personnel who come home from active war zones. For some of these folks, loud noises, like violent video games or fireworks, can short circuit their minds and drop them back into the war environment. Thus, they react in a way that is harmful or socially problematic without being able to stop themselves. One of my former students married a man who had PTSD and he could never be around during hunting season. The sounds of the guns would have him acting out violently toward her or anyone nearby. Thus, they kept him away from guns and away from the noises during the season.

In triggering situations, victims of trauma are unable to control their reactions and the triggers can cause them serious harm. A good friend once wrote about a traumatic experience involving her former partner’s death and how that trauma still impacts her to this day. Thus, when a professor in her grad program said something about how students would probably “rather slit your throat than do this assignment,” it literally triggered a horrifying response in her. She was violently ill, riddled with crippling anxiety and unable to function. I doubt the professor knew or thought about that before saying it, nor would he have likely said it if he knew the backstory on one of his students. The point, however, is that when we talk about “triggers” and “trauma” and “trigger warnings,” this is what they are materially about.

What the U of C letter is actually talking isn’t trigger warnings, but instead the idea of self-censorship out of fear of things people don’t like to hear or things that people find offensive. For quite some time, people have been noticing that colleges seem to be less and less about the free marketplace of ideas and more and more about “Oh, shit, we’re gonna get sued!” Comedians have noted they need to censor their work on campus. Speakers have been cancelled because of everything from religious objections to failing to “speak for the entire community” of some group. The specter of appearing insensitive has led to what some people have called the “wussification” of this generation. In an attempt to draw a line in the sand on this issue, that’s where the U of C went off the rails and lumped in everything anyone would ever call “icky” and stuck it under the umbrella of trigger warnings.

I agree with U of C on the idea of keeping things that are unpleasant or that have the ability to challenge a student’s worldview in play. Just because you don’t like something, it doesn’t follow that you can’t actually handle dealing with it. In talking about it, for the people who just don’t like certain things, discussions can breed understanding and potential growth. That’s not the same as triggers or trigger warnings.

Here’s an example of the distinction I’m trying to draw: I do not like talking about rape or thinking about it. That said, I have not been a victim of sexual assault of any stripe and despite my dislike of the topic, I can, in fact, have a discussion about it in hopes of improving how I see things and how I can be a better ally to victims.

There are people for whom the mention of a rape or any reference to sexual assault takes them all the way back to a traumatic experience and that literally breaks them. They can’t help it, there’s no way of stopping it and when it comes at them from left field, it renders them helpless and wounded. Their reactions are involuntary and are often unpredictable.

Furthermore, U of C isn’t banning trigger warnings or opening Pandora’s box of topics for their professors. Professors can choose to issue trigger warnings as they see fit and in most cases, professors who have classes with the potential to trigger students know when things are likely to cause pain. In my editing class, for example, I do an ethics assignment that has students weigh perspectives over a set of photos that showed a deadly car crash. The photos are real and at least one of them is extremely graphic. I post the assignment with a “read me first” note that explains what is going to be in the photos. I tell students if they have a reason they cannot view these or do this assignment to get ahold of me so that we can figure out a different assignment. I have had students contact me, telling me that they lost a family member in a car crash or that they have a friend who committed suicide in this way and that they don’t think they can handle the images. We worked around it and managed to create a decent substitute assignment.

Professors can do this if they see fit at the U of C. They just aren’t expected to or forced to. Kind of an important distinction.

That said, the lack of trigger-warning enforcement doesn’t mean professors can just be assholes. Just because I don’t have to issue a trigger warning about discussing sexual assault, it doesn’t follow that I could start with, “So, which of you ladies have gotten the old ‘I bet she meant yes’ treatment and how did that feel?” Levels of human dignity and decency still apply in the classroom and unless you are so socially inept that you make Rainman look like James Bond, you should be able to figure that out.

I get why the U of C thing is creating this dichotomy of rage: People often take shit way too far and thus the exemplars of those extremes are all we see. For every kid who has survived a traumatic experience and yet finds a way to persist in day-to-day life, amid all sorts of tripwires, there a dozen examples of people getting pissed off for things that make the mainstream folks want to scream.

The microaggressions outlined in this article include the famous “where are you from?” question, which some find offensive. The underlying assumption is that for certain groups, there’s an insinuation that the question presupposes them to be “not real Americans.” Truth be told, I ask every kid in everyone of my classes that question because in many cases, they’re from this state and I probably know someone from their hometown. I have yet to have a kid stand up and yell at me, “Oh, so I’m Asian, I must be from China or something? Why don’t you ask me where my fucking wok is you racist asshole!” The worst it ever gets is when I get kids from North and West high schools in my class and they still carry those rivalry grudges.

The “macroagression” exemplars are also things that make the mainstream scream. I had a colleague tell me once that a student noted, “I can’t call you doctor because you’re a woman.” OK, then… Guess that Ph.D. was a waste…

Professors who tell people that Hitler was an OK dude, people who talk about rape like it’s part of a regular night on the town or faculty who treat their students like sex toys deserve a swift kick in the ass.

However, it’s not being sexist if I don’t refer to that opening in the middle of the road as a “personal sewer ingress” instead of calling it a “manhole.

That’s not a trigger and that doesn’t need a warning and that’s something everyone involved in this discussion needs to learn pretty damned fast.

Otherwise, we will be harming the most vulnerable students and acquiescing to the most idiotic ones.

UW to Scott Walker: They call them cuts because they hurt and make you bleed

Last night was a first for me in my time at my current university: I got an email from a parent.

In all of my previous stops, parental “engagement” ranged from the somewhat common to the fairly frequent. I had received calls from parents who wanted to protest a grade, argue about the amount of work I was assigning their precious snowflake or make sure that I knew the child was REALLY sick and needed to be excused from class. In some cases, the calls were polite and helpful while others smacked of entitlement. (In one case, I was told, “The family lawyer will be in touch” regarding a grade. And people wonder where the kids get the attitude from…)

This time, however, it was a mom who wanted to set up a meeting with me and her son. I knew the kid and I hadn’t had him in class in quite some time, so I knew it wasn’t a grade issue. Even more, I’m not in the kid’s area of study, so it wasn’t about something I could do for the kid.

However, the kid adopted me as a “de facto adviser” and apparently that was the concern:

I would like to schedule an appointment with you to make sure (KID) is on the right path to graduate this May.  I know he is registered for the fall semester; however, (ONE OF OUR COURSES) apparently got cancelled…

The class was one of five that we had listed and had to axe due to a series of last-minute budget cuts. By the time we got notice of the need for cuts, the class was full and had a waiting list. However, since it wasn’t required for any of our majors, it had to go.

This wasn’t the only kid to email me this summer and ask about the possibility of graduating on time. A student athlete was concerned about finishing up this year and was looking to load up on discipline-specific courses. She mentioned a couple classes she wanted, both of which had been cut.

I had to break the news to her about the cuts and also nudge her toward an unpleasant truth:

You’re going to be stuck here a while. And it’s not getting any better any time soon.

This is the dark side of populism, especially when it comes to funding higher education.

Gov. Scott Walker recently announced plans to extend his “historic tuition freeze” for another biennium, making it six years since tuition has increased at schools in the UW system.

Walker also noted in his declaration that the schools should not expect any state money to offset the freeze or to cope with previous cuts that have begun to damage the system in an irreparable fashion. During the previous budget debate, System President Ray Cross sought a $95 million increase in funds and was rewarded with a $250 million cut. That swing of more than one-third of a billion dollars led to faculty leaving for other states, losses in program options, increases in class sizes and diminished course offerings. This was also after a budget that froze tuition and provided nothing but cuts.

The idea of “live with what you have” isn’t going to get any easier at the UW schools either, if Walker goes through with his plan to prevent the System from borrowing money to repair its buildings and infrastructure.

Things like tuition freezes, belt tightening and tax cuts all sound good in theory until you start to feel the pain associated with those decisions.

I hate to be the one to break it to Governor Deadeyes and the “decent, hard-working people of this state,” but a) stuff tends to cost money and b) when you make bad decisions you have to live with the ramifications. This is like those credit cards where you get zero-percent-interest offers, low monthly payments and a host of other things that Montel Williams promises you in a 2 a.m. infomercial. You get stuff that sounds great at the time, but it leads to serious consequences down the road, including compound interest, burgeoning debt and a long, painful process to get out of trouble.

The system could survive one round of cuts or one round of freezes, but once you go beyond that, you start to see real problems emerge. Departments across our campuses are told to “churn” positions instead of hiring replacement faculty. Classes that aren’t mandatory for graduation are cut. More kids get shoved into rooms, giving them access to the class, but not the quality of experience they deserve.

Graduations get delayed, student loans continue to build and the entire process becomes self-defeating.

This whole concept of “standing up for working people” sounds great in campaign ads and stump speeches, but that’s because people don’t think about it in practical terms. Like it or not, there are things we spend money on because they have to be done.

The mechanic doesn’t say he stood up against the demands of the automobile when the oil change light went on. “I pushed the reset button and told the car, ‘You have to learn to live within your means.’”

The farmer doesn’t skip the fertilizer and demand that the soil provide more and increase its yield. “In these hard times, the earth can’t expect that I will keep plowing resources into it and receiving the same output.”

The homeowner doesn’t yell at the leaking roof, “Instead of patching you up with some new shingles, I’ll be removing several sections of shingles and expect that you’ll leak less.”

Education is no less of a resource than those and other items that we knowingly invest in because we understand we can’t live without them. When we fail to invest in support and repair, we create a weaker system that will continue to crumble and cost more in the long run.

The mechanic knows without proper maintenance, that engine is going to seize up and cease to function.

The farmer knows that failing to augment and replenish the fields will lead to lower yields and damaged land.

The homeowner knows that a leaky roof will eventually destroy the remainder of the structure.

And yet, our governor and legislature seems bent on proving the opposite to be true in order to appeal to the basest part of our society.

Willful ignorance presented under the guise of austerity serves no one in this state.

We need to learn that before it’s too late.

You Got Served

We were sitting at the kitchen table on Day Two of the “My-Wife-Can’t-Breathe-Because-Humidity-And-Heat-Kill-Asthmatics” Festival, when she broke into a cussing, coughing fit.

“That asshole! What a fucking dick!”

It takes a lot for her to get to that level, as opposed to me, who you could easily see yelling, “Hurry the fuck up! It’s fucking cold out here!” during a eulogy.

The asshole-dick in question was a coworker of hers at the local nursing/retirement home. The fellow CNA/RA had called in sick four minutes before his shift, sending the rest of the crew into understaffed crisis mode. Making this worse, he wasn’t really entirely sick, as he was in Milwaukee with some friends and didn’t know until four minutes before his shift that he couldn’t really make it back on time.

For some perspective, it’s a 100-mile drive. Unless he had Cliff Secord’s backpack or Montgomery Scott’s ability for trans-warp beaming, there was no way he was coming in and he knew it.

This is the same douchewad who called in sick last year, forcing overtime on all the rest of the people who were left to play catch up. In between answering call lights, handing out medication and rushing through laundry, someone got an alert on their phone that he had posted a photo.

There he was, right in the middle of Country USA, bragging about the concert he was seeing.

I don’t think that I’m reaching too far in noting that this guy is not an anomaly. In fact, people acting like assholes has become such a common part of American culture, the Choose Life campaign put out this fantastic ad for organ donation, hitting exactly the proper nerve.

Service itself can be both a noble thing and a degrading thing. We talk about people who give themselves to a “life of service” as being noble and benevolent. Conversely, we talk about “servers” sometimes like something befell them that ranks between crabs and whatever the hell came flying out of the Holy Grail in this Indiana Jones flick. Even more, nobody seems to be hiding their disdain anymore for working in an industry of service.

I had to take The Midget to the mall to buy a birthday gift for one of her friends. We are now at that imperceivable pivot in life where gifts have gone from Target or Toys ‘R’ Us to Justice and Wet Seal and any other store that plays boyband music and looks like an army of bedazzlers threw up on its content.

And yes, in case you were wondering, it is killing me…

We picked out a few items and headed to the front of the store, which had all of about six people in it. No one was there to check anyone out.

After five minutes, a young lady (figure 18-20 years old) walks out of the back, sees us and then turns around and goes back into the back. I figure she’s going to get the check out person.

Five more minutes, no one. Five more minutes and my kid loudly notes:

“Maybe they’d do better if they had a bell up here we could ring.”

Just about the time I’m ready to walk out of the store, another young lady sees us from the other side of the store, exhales a big sigh and walks over to ring us up. She doesn’t look at us and then mutters something that I think was the total.

“Slide or chip for the card?” I ask.

She looks up at me with that look that teens give adults in hopes of inspiring homicidal tendencies, complete with the eyeroll and the incongruous shoulder shrug.

“Whatever, I guess.”

Come on, kid. Give giving a shit a shot. Even in the horrifically shitty movie “Waiting,” we got at least the false face of happiness before a secreted backroom allowed for full-on Chuckie Mode.

We paid and left at which point my daughter takes my hand and says, “You were very patient.” I love my child.

A bit later I swung by a video-game store and picked out a used game for her and one for me. At the counter is the guy checking people out talking with a couple of older guys (read: 45 or just looking like that due to spending way too much time in mom’s basement eating Hot Pockets) about how “totally mod-able” a game is. Neither of the guys is buying anything.

We’re waiting at the check out register and he sees us and goes back to talking. The Midget, sensing danger, puts her game back and says, “We can go.”

Uh. No. We’re getting these games.

I did the math and figure out how much they were including tax and I put the money on the counter in hopes of drawing him in, much in the way Wile E. Coyote would pour roadrunner seed under a rope-hung anvil. He sees the money, could stop for six second shooting the shit with these guys and literally move three feet to his left to complete the transaction.

Nope.

Finally after about seven minutes (we started a timer after the first blow-off), we just picked up our money and took off, leaving the game cases on the counter where he could see them. What’s more, he didn’t even break stride in his conversation as we walked out right in front of him.

Not every experience I had with food or folks or fun has been a case of shitty attitudes and generally poor work outcomes, but when I mentioned it to a few friends, I found that I’m not alone in noticing this.

My brother-in-law used to tell me stories of how the people he would hire to work at the shoe store he managed would hide in the warehouse part to avoid dealing with customers. Others would always say, “I’m not doing that! That’s not my job!” to almost anything, ranging from stocking shoes to running a register.

My wife regaled me with stories about her coworkers at various call centers who would put themselves “on a call” so they couldn’t be bothered and then play games on their phones. They would also loudly announce, “It’s MY TURN for lunch!” ignoring the fact that a) it wasn’t and b) they just got back from a bathroom break and a smoke break.

A friend told me that while ordering at a “casual eating” restaurant, a counter worker asked, “Do you really need that?” about an order item because the person didn’t know how to ring it up and didn’t want to ask for help.

To quote everyone who now seems determined to quote Vince Lombardi: What the hell is going on?

The United States has seen a serious shift in its economic base from manufacturing and agriculture to service-based jobs. In most cases, we aren’t making things any more. We’re serving those things to other people.

According to federal statistics, somewhere around 40 percent of those service-based jobs are in retail, leisure/hospitality and healthcare/social assistance. In short, those are things where you actually have to SERVE other people’s needs, as opposed to things like financial activities or federal government jobs where your contact with other bipeds is variable at best.

I get that not every job is a dream job and that not every 20-year-old has a passion for politely explaining rampaging anger-moms why it is that all the Elsa dresses are sold out, even though her kid really, really wants one. We have always had people who were shitty to others, didn’t like work or just thought the world was soooo harrrrddddd… However, this crop seems to be a bumper one and it’s not exactly clear as to why.

The easy explanation: Damned Millennials and their iPhones.
Generation Gaps emerge when you least expect them, as it’s not the old “Depression Era” grandparents against the “Gen X” slackers any more. It’s actually more like siblings separated by a couple years: “When I was your age, Mom never let me do that!” The younger managers are now saddled with being responsible and all of those “silly rules” that kept customers happy and upset them as rank-and-file employees now make total sense. As they now serve as “enforcers,” they see even less-interested people in this “me, me, me” generation that has been given everything and allowed to do whatever as being a collection of shitheads for not playing by the rules.

The answer is probably half right and half wrong. Researchers and journalists have made some good hay turning this idea of millennial slacker vs. millennial brilliance over and over again. In many ways, it reminds me of the oat-bran studies of the 1990s, where every five minutes, you learned that oat bran was either going to make you healthy as a horse or dead as horsemeat.

Sure, people do better in many cases when they have skin in the game (to quote one article) and people who LIKE what they are doing tend to do better at it. This isn’t a revelation of this new generation but rather common sense. However, it’s also worth noting that not every millennial has “critical thinking skills” as noted in this article, but rather just that sense of being right, no matter what.

The more complicated explanation: Consolidation and corporate ownership.
I worked a few “Joe Jobs” in my earlier years and two of them were for what I would call “small-business owners.” One guy had a hotdog-selling business at a number of local fairs around the area and another guy owned a gas station with a garage attached to it. Truth be told, neither of them was my favorite manager of people, but they both got a lot of stuff done and it was pretty clear why.

Every dollar that came in was furthering their own needs. Every lost sale was an actual cost to them.

That’s why we had rules on how many hotdogs we had to have on hand at any given time and how we couldn’t waste certain amounts of stuff. If lines got too long, people walked away and that was money out of his pocket.

That’s also why we had a full-service pump, where the elderly ladies of the area (and the local big-wig bar owner who drove a 1979 Lincoln Towncar the size of the USS Wisconsin) would frequent. Whatever we were doing in the garage, we had to drop and run out to the pump and fill their tank, wash their windows, top off their oil and check their tires. When we were all too backed up to do any of this, my boss would actually go out there and do it himself. The reason? The gas at that pump came at a $.50-per-gallon premium. Same fuel, more money.

Sure, it’s also why one year we had to use brake cleaner to remove a yellow tint off of Christmas lights so they were white. The boss bought the yellow ones because they were a dime a string cheaper and he could expense the brake cleaner more easily than Christmas lights. It’s also why we always had a list of jobs that we had to complete when we weren’t engulfed in hotdog-seeking masses of humanity. He was actually paying us so he wanted work from us.

Still, there was that sense of “I’m paying you to work, not slack” and that ran through the whole organization. We weren’t always thrilled, but when the guy said “I’m paying you” it was true. His wife (or in one case his girlfriend) did the books and cut the checks. It wasn’t some nebulous corporate office and I wasn’t being managed by some random schmoe who showed up six months before I did.

The possibly awkward answer: Fear and Desperation.
When I graduated from college, my greatest fear was that I wouldn’t have a job and I’d have to move back in with my parents. Now, this is so common, it has become its own thing: The Boomerang Generation.

(SIDE NOTE: Of all the things in this article, the one that got me was this line:

Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) of these 25- to 34-year-olds say they don’t currently have enough money to lead the kind of life they want…”

Yeah? No shit?)

Maybe it was working for those “owner-operator bosses” that made me fearful of getting fired. Maybe I was one of the few who bought into the line about being a bad employee or bad student ending up “on your permanent record.” (Mine, of course, now is about 1.2 million pounds, I’m sure) Maybe it was what my mother-in-law told me when I was fussing over some minor thing I was trying to fix on the car:

“You don’t know how to not care about doing a good job.”

Part of that, I’m sure, is pride in my work, but the other part was fear and desperation. I was hardwired into a world of afterschool specials and VH1’s Behind the Music: You have a chance to succeed, you’re doing well, you fuck up just thiiiiiiss much and BAM, you’re fucked forever. A tragic tale of wasted youth.

You think I’m kidding? Check out these things I was forced to watch as a kid:

And those are just the ones I can remember…

Fear and desperation means saying “Yes sir” a lot more than “Fuck you.”

Today, I think we have a dichotomous split between the Boomerangs and Martin Seligman’s Dogs which pretty much minimizes that sense of fear and desperation

For the Boomerangers, there is no fear and desperation. They can go home, eat out of mom’s fridge and join dad’s cell-phone plan. You think you can scare them into fear over losing an $8.50-an-hour job at Wiener Hut? I have a relative who is 35 and lives in his mom’s basement because he can. He has a truck, a Camaro and a Harley. Plus, he gets all the best seats for all the best concerts. I think he’d be more afraid of leaving that situation than getting into it.

On the other hand, fear and desperation can make you totally numb to it. In “Hand to Mouth,” Linda Tirado explains in grimacing detail how it is that people in “Bootstrap America” can just flat-line and not give a fuck about anything, even when they are the most desperate people out there. Her explanations are a perfect parallel to Seligman’s experiments on dogs that helped found the theory of Learned Helplessness. In the experiments, the dogs were given random shocks from the floor of a cage. In one case, the dog could push a button and escape the shocks, while in the other case, the dog just had to sit there and take it. Then, both dogs were put into cages with escape options. The dog who had learned to push the button immediately did so and escaped. The all-shocks dog just laid down and took it until the shocking was over. It didn’t even try to escape.

I have no idea if any of these answers are even remotely close and I think all this writing has done is make things as clear as mud for me in psycho-analyzing the Counter Help Generation.

However, a few things ARE clear: We’re not making stuff any more, we are serving stuff a lot and we need to be really good at it if we want to survive as individuals and as a culture.

Your Country Didn’t Go Anywhere. It’s Here. It’s Right Here.

I am getting tired of describing the divide as city [government] mouse vs. country [individualist] mouse here: 

Think of America as a set of stories. Not as a set of policies. Not as a set of ideals, even. But as a set of stories we tell about ourselves and who we want to be.

This, I think, is where my fellow progressives fall down. We can argue until we are blue in the face about what the data proves, or what the facts say, and we will usually be right. But what we offer isn’t a mythology of the self. What we offer is a collection of figures meant to add up to an identity, and that never works.

The place I come from has a story of itself that is centuries old. It has a series of traditions and beliefs that barely waver. Many of those beliefs can hurt and destroy. But some of them are still beautiful ideals. My little town still comes together to bear up its own who have fallen ill, will raise funds to make sure they can be well, or at least comfortable as they wait for the inevitable.

If you say we should have a social safety net to do that, I would agree with you, but the social safety net doesn’t have a name. You didn’t graduate from high school with it. You can’t name all of its kids. We are still social animals, and kindness still goes best with smiles and casseroles, not paperwork.

I find this profoundly reductive.

We can be kind to each other individually, or in small towns, but if you do it on a large scale it becomes anonymously bureaucratic and paperworky and cold? That’s all a social safety net IS, that casserole-and-kindness impulse writ large enough to encompass everyone, instead of just the people you know at church.

Instead of talking about how liberals don’t pay enough lip service to part of America, perhaps we should say that nobody in America is paying enough attention to America at all. Because this — “My little town still comes together to bear up its own who have fallen ill, will raise funds to make sure they can be well, or at least comfortable as they wait for the inevitable.” — is America.

This is government, by any other name.

That’s it. That’s all it is. Your town comes together to bear up its own who have fallen ill. Your community has decided to take care of its own. All government says is that the circle is wider. Your “own” is everybody you see and lots of people you don’t.

Look, we all break off the world in little pieces because loving it all is so expansive that we have to call it God, and that’s not some kind of flaw. I care about my neighbors more than I do about yours. That’s a human impulse.

The entire reason we have government is contained in that impulse. If I care about my circle and you care about yours, we end up with a bunch of vicious little gated communities suspicious of one another, unable to step outside our boundaries when the times demand.

Oh boy do the times ever demand we examine our boundaries. Wars, guns, poverty even in widespread abundance, violence on the part of the state towards its citizens and no way to check it, the ability of one man with a weapon to inflict harm on dozens at peaceful protests — this is a time when we are all retreating to our circles. We are all thinking we should just take care of our own small towns.

But we don’t WANT to limit ourselves. We WANT to take casseroles to everybody. If we know about an injustice we want to correct it. Ninety percent of our anger and our frustration right now is based on thinking ourselves powerless. We hear our own cynicism — gun control will never pass, the state will never be held to account, terrorists will never stop killing — and it exhausts us even as we utter it.

Our “leaders” for the past 30 years have specialized in telling us our problems are too big to solve, and giving us wonderful excuses not to give a shit. We can’t give anyone food stamps because some asshole found a way to use them for vodka on time. We can’t build decent schools and pay teachers fairly because my cousin’s girlfriend’s uncle knew a teacher that couldn’t be fired and anyway it’s the parenting. We can’t support cures for diseases or health care for anyone because it’s all too expensive and have you seen your tax bill lately?

And we can’t care about unarmed black people being shot dead by police over loose cigarettes or jaywalking or headlights, because there are too many of them, or one of them was rude, or we don’t really know the facts, or all lives matter, or by God if we let ourselves be hurt by this we will never stop hurting so close your eyes up tight.

We stay in our houses and we stay scared and we stay alone and we tell ourselves this is how it has to be, and we talk talk talk talk talk about how divided we are. We describe the canyon that separates us and we wish there was a bridge.

There is.

It’s called government. It’s called the goddamn system we built before some of us figured “system” could be used as a pejorative, it’s called the way we come together to make decisions about all of us, city mice and country mice alike. The thing we blame for creating the divide is the only thing that we have to heal it and instead of mocking it as inferior to a church social hour maybe we start using it.

Maybe we see how many people we can take casseroles to, if we pool our money. That’s taxes.

Maybe we decide to lift up the widow and the orphan, our own, and who and how and when. That’s elections.

Maybe we build roads and run wires and send our music out into the cosmos, and maybe we pull people from the floodwaters and try to put the fires out. That’s our national budget and our national debt and I don’t just mean the financial kinds.

Maybe we reach out over and over and over, and maybe our hand gets slapped back sometimes, and maybe some people figure out that they can make money by pitting the helpers against one another, and maybe instead of letting them get away with it we tell them to fuck themselves and keep doing the work anyway.

Maybe we let ourselves get taken advantage of. Many a small town benefit has raised funds for the less than perfect. Maybe we get braver, and stop acting like we need a perfect beautiful story in order to risk loving one another. Maybe we remember this is what we’ve been all along, writ large in the New Deal and unemployment and Social Security.

My little town still comes together to bear up its own who have fallen ill, will raise funds to make sure they can be well, or at least comfortable as they wait for the inevitable.

The social safety net doesn’t have a name? You didn’t go to school with it? You don’t know its kids?

For God’s sake, that’s America. That’s its name. That’s what we’ve called it all along.

A.