Friday, June 27, 2003

Bashing bullshit laissez-faire

A while back, Tso gave me a bootleg copy of Simone. I didn't expect it to be the best movie in the world, and as a result, I put it on the bottom of my Things to Watch List (right below When Bad Stunts Happen to Jackasses and The Joy of No Sex), but there eventually came a Sunday afternoon when I had nothing going on and decided to watch it. For those ignorant of the plot, Simone deals with a movie producer's (Al Pacino) efforts to create a digital superstar. Later on in the film, people begin wising up, wondering if Simone even exists in the first place. Pacino's daughter poses such a question to her mother, who responds: "There's no proof Simone doesn't exist."

"Look at what you're saying," the daugher retorts. "Is there any proof that she does?"

I couldn't help but notice at the time that such a question mirrors the whole WMD quest currently underway in Iraq. There's no proof that there are, or ever were, weapons of mass destruction in Hussein's hands, but the position of the hawks has always been "There's no proof that there weren't, either." Stupid position, really--leaving my own war stance aside for a minute--to look for proof for a negative. Rhetorically speaking, it's a dead end. I can't prove Santa Claus doesn't exist; I can't prove that the Easter bunny isn't hiding somewhere with a basket of goodies for me next April, and I sure as shit can't prove that, to use John Proctor's words in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, there isn't "a two-headed dragon under my wife's bed." Such questions are little more than a cat chasing its tail.

But that's irrelevant. The question itself ("are there weapons?" "are there not weapons?" "should we be doing what we're doing?" "why shouldn't we be doing what we're doing?" "shouldn't all women sleep with Gregg?") reveals a bias, and, as most liberals would be only too happy to point out, everyone's got a bias.

So who do you trust?

Who do you trust to give you unbiased information when such information isn't even possible? How can you trust the media, or politicians, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to provide you with "just the facts, ma'am," when the facts themselves, carefully selected, arranged and ordered so as to prove a singular point, are no more reliable or incontestable than the tea leaves a psychic reads at the bottom of your mug?

Well gee golly gosh, I guess you can't.

Now such an admission might seem defeatist. Far from it, I say. Knowing that biases exist does not make any information thrown your way completely worthless. Nor does it excuse you from formulating opinions of your own (that's right, Cisco, I'm talking to you here).

See, just because presentations of the facts are skewed doesn't mean your own perception is. Never mind my own positions for the moment--I'm talking about having a position in the first place. Too many people today equate terms like "evidence" and "facts" with "proving my point" when really it's all about discovering the truth. If I were to come across something, evidence, a written piece, whatever, that would make me believe the war on Iraq was a good thing, I would probably find my opinion influenced. Maybe even changed. Because I'm not about proving myself right. I'm about discovering whatever truth I can.

From poet and educator Taylor Mali:
I'm writing the poem that will change the world,
and it's Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly is writing a research paper for me
about how homosexuals shouldn't be allowed
to adopt children.
I'm writing the poem that will change the world,
and it's Like Lilly Like Wilson at my office door.

She's having trouble finding sources,
which is to say, ones that back her up.
They all argue in favor of what I thought I was against.

And it took four years of college,
three years of graduate school,
and every incidental teaching experience I have ever had
to let out only,

Well, that's a real interesting problem, Lilly.
But what do you propose to do about it?
That's what I want to know.

And the eighth-grade mind is a beautiful thing;
Like a new-born baby's face, you can often see it
change before your very eyes.

I can't believe I'm saying this, Mr. Mali,
but I think I'd like to switch sides.

And I want to tell her to do more than just believe it,
but to enjoy it!
That changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn't matter what you pack
them with so long as they open
at the right time.
O God, Lilly, I want to say
you make me feel like a teacher,
and who could ask to feel more than that?
I want to say all this but manage only,
Lilly, I am like so impressed with you!

So I finally taught somebody something,
namely, how to change her mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it's going to be one eighth grader at a time.
Shifting gears for a moment, let's assume that there's value in an average opinion. Maybe just having this opinion isn't going to move mountains, but by God, you 've got it--that's why we live in America in the first place, right? To have opinions? To learn shit to shape and mold our ideologies and the person we want to be? To help mold the country into what we perceive it to be?

To change the world one eighth grader, one high school student, one person, one ideology at a time?

Is that an idealistic way to look at things?

Not remotely. You don't agree with me? You're wrong.

What is the definition of an idealist? Someone who sees only goals and not the real world? Okay, take that definition for a moment and then look at the facts (or my own rhetorically selected snippets of the big picture, if you want to be snotty):

The 2000 election has created a serious mar in the American population's perception about the weight their own votes swing. Such a mar may well result in an even lower voter turnout next term, with many citizens voicing their trepaditions in language such as "If my vote doesn't count, why bother with it in the first place?"

The war on Iraq, arguably speaking, was carried out contrary to 30-40 percent of the nation's opinion, and pretty much anathema to the entire world's opinion (minus Tony Blair, who, in the minds of the hawks, constitutes England itself). So why protest it? If it's going to happen anyway, what's the use in speaking out against it, or voicing arguments (reasonable or otherwise) as to why it should not take place?

The University of Michigan's affirmative action debacle will get a bunch of white people (not a significant percentage, I bet, but a percentage nonetheless) deciding that, if it comes between me and another qualified minority, it'll go to the minority, so I'm screwed anyway. So what's the point?

And with Rehnquist, O'Connor and Fitzgerald stepping down from the Supreme Court, only to be replaced by other conservatives (if I had to lay money down, that's what I'd envision) will result in a stronger conservative government, leading many Democrats and liberals to shake their heads and wonder what they're beating their heads against the wall for.

All of these are, more or less, seen as no-win situations through the lens of certain mindsets. Bullshit.

Bullshit bullshit bullshit.

Now why would I say that? Why would I, a pinko, peacenik, liberal subversive get the nerve to make such a statement? Are these not facts, garnered as objectively as possible? Has history not taught us that resistance in the face of an overpowering, ideologically entrenched majority rule is sometimes suicidal, usually futile?

From To Kill a Mockingbird:: "Just because we were licked two hundred years before we started fighting is no reason for us to not try now." Atticus Finch. Good night, Gregory Peck.

From The Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King: "Andy didn't say anything [in response to someone asking him whether his letters to the prison board would do any good] except to ask what would happen if a drop of water were to fall on a cinder block for a thousand years."

And my own personal favorite, from Amelia Earhart: "Courage is the price the world exacts for peace of mind."

You see, just becuase a battle may not be won is no reason to fight it. So fight it.

I don't care if it never does any good, even though history has shown us that the right numbers in the right places with the right words can change anything. Anything.

You don't agree with me? You're still wrong. And fuck objectivity and bias.

From Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States:
Student protests against the ROTC [with regards to the Vietnam War] resulted in the canceling of thsoe programs in over forty colleges and universities. In 1966, 191,749 college students enrolled in ROTC. By 1973, the number was 72,459.
From a news dispatch in Atchison, Kansas, 1886:
"At 12:45 this morning the men on guard at the Missouri Pacific roundhouse were surprised by the appearance of 35 or 40 masked men. The guards were corralled in the oil room by a detachment of the visitors who stood guard with pistols . . . while the rest of them thoroughly disabled 12 locomotives which stood in the stalls." (This strike occurred as a result of the Texas & Pacific Railroad's attempts to quash a union for workers' rights (for an eight hour day, safe working conditions, etc.). After fiery meetings, police brutality towards strikers and even the trials of avowed anarchists (see entries on the Haymarket Square riots and the Homestead act), despite a long and bloody road, workers' rights are now ensured.)
And don't tell me today's ruling on sodomy laws in Texas had nothing to do with the Rainbow Coalition's efforts, trying to promote homosexual relationships' equality with heterosexuals'.

These are just a couple of examples off the top of my head. There are numerous others, some of which are so obvious it would be insulting to bring them up (King's nonresistance protests; the women's suffrage movement; the Native Americans' tribal attempts to circumvent the use of their land by the federal government). In all cases, however, you see a group of people working in concert to change something.

For every one of these examples, there are probably ten to twenty others that failed miserably.

That, to me, does not spell a reason to give up, sink into apathy, and not put your own hand in.

You see, I may not know a lot in this world for sure, but I do know that one way to make sure you don't get what you believe is right, or don't change anything for the better, is to do nothing.

That attitude, and my unwillingness to lie down and let those in power walk over me when I perceive them to be doing so, doesn't make me an idealist.

It makes me a fucking realist.
Note: on a less serious note, if you really want to see the risks of not making your voice heard, consider the Onion's American People Ruled Unfit to Govern. Scares me a little, I tell ya.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Time magazine gave a cautious evaluation of the Philly schools that have been privatized over the past nine months. The consensus seems to be...there is no consensus. Until more results and testing is in, everyone out there in the city of Brotherly Love (among them Paul Vallas...I keep forgetting he went there) is going to run with the ball until something blows up. What really pissed me off (besides the idea that corporate America can swoop in anywhere and expect to fix anything after the shit year they've just caused for so many people--not that I'm generalizing of course) is their backlash. Specifically Chancellor Beacon Academies, which is considering a lawsuit after being dismissed by Vallas because of a lack of results (dirt on them not available in web article).

Now that's just the kind of work ethic kids are already learning, thanks to peabrained parents who want to put the onus of responsibility on anyone but their kids. The whole concept of privatization makes me see red. If it were just pouring more money into the system, I could perhaps calm down, but then I remember that money doesn't even do anything unless you've got someone in the system who knows about teaching and who knows where the money could be best spent.

I'm reminded of the grader fiasco we recently had at my school. See, because we require an extraordinary amount of writing (and I'm not trying to sound arrogant--I've ran the figures of how much writing our students do by virtually everyone I know and it's miles above everyone else's experiences, both as a student and as a teacher), the district decided way back when we'd get a budget to recruit help grading all of this. When I started teaching, I was naive enough to believe I could do it the way my professors had always done it--for content alone, fuck grammar. I still combat this mentality. I mean, if a kid has had three years of teachers shoving grammar down his/her throat, and they still don't get it, I'm not going to do much good in addition. So why not take them to task for not knowing what they're supposed to know?

Anyway, somehow the budget was magically depleted. Not because of yours truly (I was loathe to send out that much stuff), but because of (allegedly) overspending by certain teachers and misuse of the system. A big brou-haha ensued during a faculty meeting, the result of which was we were going to bully the administration for more money while continuing to disagree on how it should be divied up. Whatever.

Shortly after we were told not to overspend the budget, the district gave everyone in the building a school CD holder. For our CDs. I imagine the retail went for somewhere around ten bucks apiece, but I'll be kind and say seven. Multiply that by, say, three hundred teachers and that's $2,100. Or one grader.

I never scored very well in Monopoly, but come on!

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Back in Illinois now, thank God. One more day in the Big Apple probably would have fried my brain but good. All it took was about twenty minutes of Midwestern air circulating in my lungs to dope me up and bring me off that natural high of city living, steady alcohol and sensory excess. Better than a healthy shot of Valium, as far as I'm concerned.

It was funny to watch the old high school/college patterns develop (though in all honesty, a weekend full of them probably took ten years off my life). We would wake up eleven, twelve, one in the afternoon, and Matt would hang over the edge of his bed, staring at me lying on an inflatable mattress on the floor. "God, you look like shit" was his standard morning greeting, to which I would mumble something vaguely comprehensible. After showering (and how in hell he does it in a bathroom no bigger than my hall closet is beyond me) and dragging a razor over my face, it was over to the corner restaurant, where I had the best lox and eggs I've ever had.

"No more alcohol for a while," one of us would promise the other. "My liver is ready to jump out of my stomach and start kicking me in the ass." There would be no fuss over that particular point; we would arrange for something cultural (a museum, city tour or whatever)...and then by three o'clock we were back in the bar drinking. Hell, isn't that what they invented Bloody Marys for? When Wiggo hooked up with us (and believe me, an alcohol-amateur he is not), his amazement registered through every layer of my booze-soaked brain. Would that I could put such an accomplishment on my curriculum vita.

So I get home and find that I still have no food in the fridge, my bills still aren't paid and I still don't have all the paperwork in for that camp trip for the kiddies in July. So I had to put in about thirty minutes at the office today, after which it was straight to this month's Premiere magazine (the Top Ten Best Sex Scenes of All Time), a couple hours of NYPD Blue (in the city pan-and-scans I can now pick out three buildings besides the Empire State and Chrystler buildings that I can recognize) and a DVD (Tell Me Something--kickass review to be published). My brother's bachelor party is coming up in a few weeks; Wiggo will be back in town in two weeks. I should be thinking about curriculum and what not right now, but I figured I'd take a good week off of anything like that before straining my brain cells. Besides, after a weekend like this one, I'd probably get in more trouble trying to put lessons together than not.

Anyway, I'm thinking of looking into NYU and what it has in the way of a rhetoric program. It probably won't happen (I have no idea what their requirements are, but I know damn well how much their TAs make, and while you can live like a king on such a salary in DeKalb, similar ambitions in the City That Never Sleeps, Stops Drinking or Throwing Lustrious Entertainment Your Way fall significantly short of reality), but I can't help thinking that if other people can make it work, maybe I could qualify.

Qualify as "other people," that is. Ever notice how everything that ever looked the best or the worst to you always happens to someone else? There's my answer.

Monday, June 09, 2003

After several hours of arguing and three or four Bloody Marys, I managed to cough up another $95 to stay here another day. And if I'm drunk enough tomorrow, I may extend it another twenty four hours as well. Damn it, I'm on vacation. Time I acted like it.

Salome was phenomenal. Of course, most of the play was taken up by Pacino sitting in an armchair delivering diatribes against his wife and stepdaughter that make his rants in Glengarry Glen Ross look like an exercise in marital restraint. But it was great nonetheless. (John, if you're reading this, yes, Marissa Tomei gets topless. I couldn't get a picture for you. Sorry.)

I even saw Guy Pierce in the auditorium (this was in the Barrymore) talking on a cell phone. I would have talked to the guy, but he must have spotted a drunken fanatic fan a mile away, because he walked off the minute we made eye contact. Does that make me a psycho fan because I'm all excited about making eye contact with Pierce? It even made Pacino and Tomei's performances anticlimactic.

Anyway, we've found our old patterns quite easily. We're up in the morning hung over and billious, swearing not to drink to excess for another day...and then reneging on that promise by noon or one p.m. the same afternoon. Amidst all the drinking, though, I did manage to take in a fair amount of what the city has to offer:
The Brooklyn Bridge
The Met
The Empire State Building
Rockefeller Center
Fifth Avenue
Saint Patricks Cathedral
The New York Public Library (great bar behind it!)
Bryant Park
The Village
Times Square
Grand Central Station (another great bar, but the bartender thought I was gay and gave me a bunch of male strip club addresses, damn it)
Columbia University
Tonight, it's Little Italy with Wiggo and Toola. Then more alcohol. If I make that flight tomorrow, it'll be a miracle.

Oh, and I even got the time wrong for the return flight. Surprised, you should not be.

Saturday, June 07, 2003

Three hours until Salome. About to break out my new suit--I'll probably spill vodka all over it. God, the drinking continutes nonstop. We got in around 4 a.m. yesterday, slept for almost eight hours, woke up dishevelled and gravel-throated...then went to the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art, for the unlettered) and hit a bar on the way back. Two Black and Tans later and I feel like I've been taking vitamins and exercising for a year.

I picked up two books at the museum which, combined, make up a sort of halfassed rhetoric primer. One is a more or less illustrated history of writing; the other more of the same on philosophy. I haven't forgotten about getting those GRE scores up yet...I've just put it on hold to drink more.
In New York now, drunk, barhopping, listening to Carmen in Matt's shoebox of a New York apartment. They tell me this is what I work all year to afford--a lousy weekend in New York for the sole pleasure of listening to operas, going to Broadway plays and drinking in overcrowded, trendy, yuppified bars. Oh man, am I on vacation or what?

Almost didn't make it--almost missed the flight. I have two things to thank for making my flight on time--one is a lack of traffic on 290; the other is dumb luck.

Three vodka tonics; half a bottle of Merlot; one Bud Light and a glass of French wine. Not a bad resume for the first Friday night of my summer break.