Where the past isn’t even past.
Teachers, students and parents protest the plan to close 54 Chicago public schools. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast.)
I've been watching a lot of adolescents cry these days. First it was twelve-year-old Jasmine Murphy, on a media bus tour led by the Chicago Teachers Union to demonstrate the devastation likely to follow from Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to close fifty-four schools. She was relating how she felt when the elementary school she loved and in which she had thrived was shuttered in 2011. Then, this week, all over town, Chicago Public School bureaucrats have sat before hearings to hear public comment on each individual school set to close this coming September. In my neighborhood, Hyde Park, I joined seventy-five or so community members who sat—and, angrily, stood—in an auditorium at Kenwood Academy High School, six blocks directly east of Barack Obama's family home, to address the closing of a middle school next door known as Canter Leadership Academy. The whole thing pretty much went down like this. Picture a tough-looking black teenage boy. His name is Shane Ellis. Shane takes the microphone for his allotted two minutes. He begins listing all the schools he's attended in Chicago. He says, "Of all these schools, Canter is the only one that showed it actually cared." He relates a story about the principal telling him that given all the things he's been through in his life and with his family it's a testament to his depth of character that he can carry on at school all.
It is upon that recollection that Shane breaks down. A pal approaches, comforts him; Shane breaks down again, overcome, overwhelmed, beside himself. He can't continue. He leaves the hall, head hung low. That's how much losing his school means to him.
Imagine stories like this happening again and again and again. That was how I spent last Friday evening. An earlier hearing a week ago about the same school drew two hundred community members and was, I'm told even more passionate than this.
The question of whether a school like Canter closes down, as the school board wants, or stays open, as the community overwhelmingly desires, will provide a case study for whether the mayor's school closing plan can truly serve the city's children, parents, teachers in any sort of humane way. It also offers a window into the larger meaning of what the billionaire stats-besotted ideologues driving what our benighted political discourse insists on labeling education "reformers" have in mind for the rest of the country. By the Gradgrindian statistical reckoning of Rahm Emanuel's school board, Canter's closing is an open and shut case: it is a "Level 3" school, the system's lowest rating; if it closes, its students will be spread across two schools all the way across the neighborhood that both rate as Level 2. Which, on paper, looks like an obvious improvement. At the hearing, though, it becomes plain that absolutely none of the stakeholders involved—students, parents, staff, and assorted community members, all of whom unanimously and passionately speak against the closing—see this as an improvement. What they tell is the kind of stories statistics don't know how to register.
Diane Hamm, a theater artist and wife of a Canter teacher, who speaks third, gave an especially articulate summary as to why: a "school is a microcultural environment in itself." Canter being an especially "safe, caring, and vibrant" such environment, closing it "simply creates chaos." Her husband, she says, "has taught in many school environments that were not as supportive," including ones in neighborhoods of great privilege; Canter, by contrast, by hard work and by design, maintains a community and is maintained by a community. Another wife of a Canter teacher provides an illustration as to how: "students who've been randomly dropping by his classroom for twenty-one years because they know where he'll be." Their family runs into families of these kids while walking the family dog, shopping at Hyde Park Produce; all are embedded in "a community that transcends the school environment." This is one thing would be lost.
Here is another. There are other students who do not come from this particular neighborhood, and speak to the school's value yet more eloquently. For they come from much worse neighborhoods, their parents having busted their tails to get their kids into this safe, caring, and vibrant environment (one parent described how she risked homelessness so her kids could get educated there)—where, like Shane, they consistently thrive. The fact that a school like Canter gets a "low" rating seems a paradoxical testament to strength: it is a welcoming school—it welcomes bad students, and makes them better.
I use the word welcoming with irony: "welcoming schools" is the slyly Orwellian phrase used to describe the buildings where kids from closed schools are being shunted off to. But community, a speaker says, that precious, delicate thing, "does not transfer to a welcoming school."
Over and over, students at the hearing attest to the transformations this supposedly "failing" community has worked in their educations. "All my teachers are the best people I've met in my life," says a kid named Elizabeth Johnson, who graduated on to a college preparatory high school. She starts sobbing, then addresses the panel directly: "What type of people are you?" She names her teachers one by one—Mr. Fishbein, Mr. Papczun, Mr. Paranjape, Mr. Windsor (a wizardly math teacher who helped eighteen out of twenty students in his algebra advanced placement class last year test out of high school algebra): "They've changed my life! It's outrageous that you're going against the community and the kids and the teachers! I just don't understand."
Mr. Papczun tells of students relating to him their victimization by gangs at other schools, and how safe they feel at this one: "I think we really save these kids.... And this is going to be lost.... We are not a failing school! We are a great school!" A kid named Jose, a salutatorian and honor roll member, asks of his "better" school, "Would I be valued at that school just like Canter valued me?" (He walks back from the microphone, and Mr. Fishbein gives him a fist-bump.) A student says she never learned anything at her last school because of all the bullying (bullies aren't tolerated at Canter), and because there were forty students in her class ("And I understand that's why you want to close Canter!"—because there aren't forty students in every class). A kid named Darius testifies that he got all F's on his report card at his last school "in all the easiest subjects. But this year, as I came to Canter, it actually changed me. This year, I'm actually working on all the things that are inside me." He concludes, "We really, really love this community. We're all in this together." Can't have that.
A pastor points to a word obsessing the city's black South and West Sides these days: violence. He turns it around, and applies it to the school-closing process itself: "This act seems violent to me. Without warning. It is a violent act." He gets a large measure of applause: "The question is, have you all taken into consideration the violence of this act itself?" A charter school guidance counselor speaks up and gives his name, first and last—despite the fact, he says, "I could lose my job for being here." He says he has to be here: it's about community. A nervous student ("I'm shaking") says, "I'm from East Africa, and I'm from a community where it takes a village to raise a child. And when I got to Canter—"
She stops. Yes, she starts crying. Mr. Fishbein moves to comfort her.
She continues: "When I came here I lost the sense of a village raising me, but when I got to Canter I got the feeling of every teacher...replacing that spot.... I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Canter." She then tells the story of a fellow student, who had never been interested in art, being guided to find a gift for it within herself. "And that's all thanks to Canter.... And I can't believe they're closing this school that made me what I am today."
Now the student council vice president comforts her, and leads her back to her seat. It all would have made for dramatic video. City Hall apparently knows this all too well. Before the meeting, when a man in front of me begins setting his camera atop a tripod, a large fellow rushes forth to inform him no video recording is allowed. The man with the camera agrees to comply. I ask the security man the reason for the rule. He says it's a policy of the school board. The man with the camera continues setting it up—and the security guard dashes his way again. The cameraman assures the security man that he's setting the devise on its still-camera setting. Unsatisfied, the security guard asks him to prove it—and peers closely at the machine to make sure.
The arrogance is the most grating part. The big public meeting at school headquarters on the closings is Wednesday. That, one speaker, a social worker at Canter, thunders, is a report card pickup day. "CPS is making us choose: going to the hearing to keep our schools open, or attending report-card pickup and conversing with the parents about our children's progress. Or maybe, just maybe, you don't want community input. Why else did you double-schedule these?" She addresses her last remark at the three bureaucrats before her: "People, tell me how you've allowed this to happen." They sit, stony, unresponsive. As they told the very first speaker, when she asked how they were going to prevent the abandoned Canter building from becoming a neighborhood eyesore, driving down property values, "We're not here to answer questions, we're only here to listen to your questions and take them back to [schools CEO] Barbara Byrd-Bennett."
There are murmurs; the scene is so bizarre as to almost be Kafkaesque. "So what's the purpose?" someone asks. But they can't answer that either; once more they implacably sit, Sphinx-like. And sit, and sit, and sit—as the tenor of the meeting gets angrier and angrier ("People coming in front of you crying ... greeted with silence?"). People begin feeling more and more helpless, and citizens start murmuring about how this all will change how they plan to vote. One parent suggests of the ESL interpreter, "It seems like she should turn around and do sign language to you guys." A graduate student says he will address the note-taker instead. Though he actually addresses them—with the school system officials: "If I were in your position I would actually be worried" about the system's "inveterate failure to live up to promises"—such as the promise that another neighborhood school, Kozminski Community Academy, which is on the system's "Track E" schedule, which means it is in session in summer, would get air conditioning and never did.
"Please conclude your remarks," the bureaucrat serving as master of ceremonies, CPS deputy chief of operations Tom Terrell, intones.
He's said that over and over at each speaker's two-minute point, and seems to do so with an especially robotic flatness—an almost ostentatious flatness—precisely during the testimonies that are most impassioned. (It sounds especially unmannerly when he does so to Evan Canter, the son of the community activist after which the school is named.) The only time one of the figures on the stage, CPS "Chief of Networks" Denise Little, showed signs of life was when a witness addressed our little mayor's imperious decision-making style: "What is he, an emperor?" She giggled. It must have been be tough, carrying out this farkakta assignment; I felt for those poor bureaucrats then—felt for them having to follow the dictates of this awful, awful man. (The other figures sitting at the table were Eric Pruitt, deputy chief of elementary schools—and the area's police commander, I guess in case a distraught twelve-year old rushed the stage.)
Rahm Emanuel is supposed to be some sort of political genius. The only thing he seems good at now is manufacturing enemies. ("This is not for the children ... you think we're dumb, Emanuel?": sustained applause.) Every week new stories come out completely undermining the system's claims that the school-closing plan will make students better off. Perhaps the most stunning was an investigation by the schools watchdog publication Catalyst Chicago demonstrating that eleven percent of the students whose schools closed between 2001 and 2006 simply disappeared from the system: no one knows where or whether they continued in school at all. Then came this: Chicago Public Radio's Linda Lutton noted that the city is borrowing $329 million to upgrade the receiving schools (despite announcing last year the system was too broke to approve more than a bare-bones capital budget). "A district spokesperson confirmed CPS did not factor in debt service costs when calculating savings to be achieved by closing schools."
This bad faith (the spokesman, noted Lutton, was "authorized to speak to media but not to have reporters print his name") has been politically galvanizing. At a table at the cafe where I write this six mothers busily plot their role in the campaign to save Canter. "You don't really know how a school is until you go to it," I overheard one. Later, an employee at a charter school who hears me talking about the hearing on the phone turns around and tells me about her own work fighting for the neighborhood schools. Meanwhile, through it all, amidst the obvious political collapse in Emanuel's position in the face of all this consternation, well-informed City Hall watchers I know scratch their heads. No one can figure out what the play is. Turn the buildings over to charter schools? But CPS promised that no charters would occupy closed schools. (The system abandons its promises all the time, but this one would be particularly embarrassing to break.) One particularly shrewd Rahm-watcher I know suggests they're doing it to get more federal money; but he's not sure, precisely, how that would work.
Then there is that nagging suspicion of a meta-explanation, one that feels almost too awful to contemplate. Destroying the village in order to save it, all in order to rebuild it on a more overclass-friendly foundation, Republican-style: Since the other ones simply don't add up, you're almost left with no choice but to entertain the idea. That would be, after all, how Rahm Emanuel rolls. Consider Bruce Rauner, the local leveraged-buyout titan who mentored Rahm's move into investment banking after he left the Clinton White House and before he ran for Congress. Since 2006, he's had a charter school named after himself, "Rauner College Prep." Rauner loves charter schools, and hates the Chicago Teachers Union. Rauner recently announced an exploratory committee to run for governor of Illinois as a Republican. The morning of the Canter hearing I noticed a tweet from him: "Thrilled to have FreedomWorks President & CEO Matt Kibbe join my exploratory committee." You know, Matt Kibbe: co-author of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. You know FreedomWorks: the right-wing front group that traces its lineage to David Koch, the one that produced the fake Hillary Clinton sex tape, the one in which the Secretary of State had oral sex performed on her by a person in a panda suit.
These are the types Rahm pals around with. Kids like Shane: well, I guess they can just go to hell.
In his previous post, Rick Perlstein looks at another infuriating policy with no apparent logic: The idea that tax cuts "pay for themselves," now debunked by none other than the National Review.
Protestors rally against higher taxes in Santa Barbara, California. (Reuters/Phil McCarten, File.)
Happy Tax Day! Or maybe, instead, we should call it "Ronald Reagan Day." Consider the advertising slogan of TurboTax: "The Power to Keep What's Yours." With Ayn Rand, with our fortieth president and his fawning acolytes, the nation's best known suite of tax preparation software presumes taxation to be theft, and the very opposite of what jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (who left his residuary estate to the United States government) more accurately called it: "the price we pay for civilized society." Here in our not-so-civilized society, when it comes to taxes, Ronald Reagan has won. For example, his claim that tax cuts "pay for themselves"—i.e. unleash so much economic mojo that the government ends up receiving more revenue for the U.S Treasury when rates are cut. Even though that is actually "magical thinking," a "fantasy," and a "just-so story," and a "bedtime fairy tale Republicans tell themselves."
But don't take my word for it. I'm just a Bolshevik with a laptop. The quotes above come from a 2010 article debunking the right's "supply side" fantasies by National Review staffer Kevin D. Williamson. That piece, entitled "Goodbye Supply Side," pointed out, "There is no evidence that [George Bush's] tax cuts on net produced more revenue than the Treasury would have realized without them." And I remember thinking when I read that that this was an extraordinary piece of truth-telling—perhaps even some sort of watershed moment in the intellectual life of American conservatism. Perhaps it would inspire a brace of self-reckoning, in which the right's perfervid army of ideological hacks suddenly started questioning for the first time whether claiming black is white and up is down was intellectually or morally sustainable.
Even Rick Perlstein, at this here late date in the game, can sometimes fall prey to naive fantasies about the American right.
The article was ignored. It received a grand total of thirteen tweets. I rang up the author, Kevin Williamson—who, by the way, when he's not telling unseasonable truths to fellow conservatives about economics can spread the Orwellian horseshit just as deep and wide as any other of his benighted comrades—to ask him what effect it had. "None," he replied. Williamson then reflected upon further questioning that, well, some: Certain Republican politicians admit privately that he is correct, but "it's hard to get them to acknowledge it in public because it's become such a piece of dogma."
And so it is—still.
Mitt Romney made the claim that his tax cuts would not increase the deficit a centerpiece of his campaign. Paul Ryan's latest budget presumes the idea as a given. (Kevin, that pretty much belies your claim to me, in your attempt to exculpate your party, that "nobody who is writing budgets who says tax cuts are self-funding.") Every Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee signed a letter saying tax reform "would lead to higher tax revenues which would simultaneously address both the nation's economic and fiscal reforms.") Supply-side's pioneering bullshit artist—again belying Williamson, who told me, “if you press Arthur Laffer on this stuff I think he comes down roughly where I do"—returned to form last month to argue that a law lowering corporate tax rates should be a Democrat's wet dream and will "simultaneously achieve the Republican longstanding goal of lower tax rates"—bipartisan consensus!—because it will produce "higher government revenues" (must have scrawled the draft on a napkin...). And so on.
Reality boxes them around the ears, and still they keep scrapping: the Bush administration commissioned the Treasury Department to say whether his income tax cuts pay for themselves and Treasury came back with a report explaining that they did not; and yet Bush went a head, unperturbed, passing his income tax cut, which, yes, promptly did not pay for itself. Romney's tax claims received a staggering number of debunkings. Before all that, Williamson's article recalls, "The Congressional Budget Office did a study in 2005 of the effects of a theoretical 10 percent cut in income-tax rates. It ran a couple of different versions of the study, under different sets of economic assumptions. The conclusion the CBO came to was that the growth effects of such a tax cut could be expected to offset between 1 percent and 22 percent of the revenue loss in the first five years. In the second five years, the CBO calculated, feedback effects of tax-rate reductions might actually add 5 percent to the revenue loss—or offset as much as 32 percent of it."
Thirty-two percent is less than one hundred percent—the number required for a tax cut to "pay for itself." So how have conservatives responded? In just the way they do to the 99 percent of scientists who say man-made climate change is a civilization crisis: They say, "Well, they must be counting wrong."
Enter "dynamic scoring." An "idea" Republicans have been goofing around with since 1994, it resembles how a ten-year-old plays one-on-one up to twenty-one with his eighteen-year-old brother: the grownup spots the kid fifteen points. "Dynamic scoring" works like this: You plug numbers into budget predictions that "forecast" what you seek to prove—that tax cuts will do what tax cuts have never done, which is increase revenue. It is opposed to what the dynamists denote as "static scoring," which sounds awful—who wants to be static when you could be dynamic? It's an invented term, apparently; I couldn't find any references to it before the first "dynamic scoring" proposal appeared in 1994. Late last month, meanwhile, "dynamic scoring" was enshrined as the official policy of the United States Senate in a 3 a.m. vote engineered by Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, George W. Bush's former director of the Office of Management and Budget.
So what can you do about it, dear taxpayer? First, call and complain to the six Democratic senators—Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri—who put Portman's amendment over the top. Second: one of the things I discovered while researching this piece is that Ayn Rand has been busy on her laptop. The Wikipedia entry on "dynamic scoring" asserts the following embarrassing tautologies: "The method yields a more accurate prediction of a policy's impact on a country's fiscal balance and economic output when it can be performed accurately...Dynamic scoring is more accurate than static scoring when the econometric model correctly captures how households and firms will react to a policy change." It adds an absurd invention, beloved of conservative history-inventors: "Some trace the philosophy back to President Kennedy." Well, yes, "some" do—but hilariously, the article Wikipedia links to to support the claim actually debunks it. Meanwhile the entry does not include the customary section on "controversies." We are to belief this is simply Capital-T Truth. Orwell's 1984 had a ministry devoted to that, didn't it?
And so, Wikipedians: after you get back from the post office to mail off your return, or are done logging on to TurboTax, fix this meretricious crap. The responsible way to begin, I think, is to cite the flagship right-wing magazine admitting it's all mostly made up. Then link to the Forbes contributor who says the same. Then go to sleep satisfied, knowing you've done your bit to sustain civilization—twice in one day.
For another Reagan legacy, read Rick Perlstein's post "Duck Genitals, Bisexual Frogs and Other Right-Wing Anti-Science Inanities."
Many of today's conservatives take a page from Ronald Reagan and unfairly malign funding for various research. (AP Photo/Jim Cole.)
Conservatives manufacture outrage; such is their (anti)civic function. A favorite tactic from time immemorial has been to find "outrageous" federal outlays get and present them as stand-ins for the supposed recklessness of government spending altogether. One of Ronald Reagan's mentors was a pioneer. H.R. "Charlie" Gross had been news director of WHO in Des Moines in the 1930s when Reagan worked there as a sportscaster, back when Reagan was a New Dealer. Gross, though, was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, and the two would get into knock-down-drag-out debates over lunch. ("Somewhere around the last months of Dutch's employment at WHO," one of their colleagues remembered, "I recall thinking that maybe Gross was winning him over.") Beginning in 1949, Gross moved on from his career as an early Rush Limbaugh to a seat in Congress, where he specialized in the aforementioned activity; in 1953, for example, he went after the Navy for supposedly requiring a board of three commissioned officers to investigate whenever a pet died aboard a navy vessel. Did the Navy pay “as much attention to the death of children?” a Republican colleague chuckled appreciatively. “I doubt it,” Gross replied.
When it came Reagan's time to address the nation himself as a syndicated radio commentator in 1975, he showed how well he had learned Gross's hustle. "If you're not familiar with the term 'boondoggle,' consider the fact that our federal government recently underwrote the cost of a study dealing with Polish bisexual frogs," he intoned on one broadcast. How absurd to waste $6,000 of hard-earned taxpayer money for that! No matter that, over a year earlier, after an Idaho congressman had introduced the "scandal," newspaperman in lowly Boca Raton, Florida investigated the claim and found it a thoroughgoing cock-up: first, the money hadn't come from taxpayers but from Polish money owed the US in a balance of payments deal; second, the researcher was a pioneer in research on the genetics of plant hybrids (a rather lucrative business, should you, like Ronald Reagan, happen to like capitalism), for which these asexually reproducing amphibians, it turned out, were crucially helping in the understanding.
The point being, Ronald Reagan was not a scientist. How would he know whether supposedly ridiculous-sounding basic science research was useless? A point, in fact, which brings us right up to today, and the latest such supposed outrage being trumpeted by Republicans. There's nothing new under the wingnut sun. As Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo points out, "conservative trolling of...publicly funded scientific research is at a historic high." For instance, research on the subject of duck genitals. Listen to the Club for Growth's Steven Moore excoriate that here: Genitals!! Get it? Sex!! Sex is silly!!! (He said 'genitals'! Heh heh heh!) Never mind that the research that received the $400,000 grant, as Michael Tomasky wrote, "is rather fascinating and just self-evidently deserving of human study." So, Beutler points out, is the "study of bear DNA that John McCain mocked as [either] 'a paternity issue or criminal,' but a waste of money' either way," but which "yielded information that turned out to be valuable to the people of Montana who live and work among grizzlies"; or Eric Cantor's oh-so-clever intervention "that 'President Obama wants to raise your taxes so he can pay people $1.2 million to play World of Warcraft"—a study, in point of fact, of "how audio-visual stimulus of that kind might slow the cognitive effects of aging,” which may prove to be useful if you are, you know, aging.
Now, I wish I could pigeonhole this dubious rhetorical tradition as an exclusively right-wing sin. Unfortunately, one of its most distinguished architects was a Democrat, often one considered a liberal one. I wrote about him at length in 2009: William Proxmire, "who left public service in 1989 and died in 2005, may be best remembered—it's what I remember—for a monthly publicity stunt called the Golden Fleece Award,' bestowed upon what he would claim was the month's most wasteful and ridiculous pockets of government spending. The pundits fell in love with the notion's good-government pretensions, and for all I know the stunt did the nation some good paring the federal budget of waste, fraud, and abuse. I suspect, though, the exercise was largely a silly waste of time. One of my professors in graduate school won a Golden Fleece award. Senator Proxmire awarded it for a supposed grant to fund her "mountain climbing hobby." Actually, she's one of the nation's most distinguished anthropologists. She has never climbed a mountain in her life, but used her field work among Sherpas of Nepal to arrive at some of the most incisive theorizing extant on how societies work. Second-guessing the peer-review process of National Science Foundation grants made for nifty headlines. But it was also numbingly reactionary. According to the Wikipedia entry on Proxmire, the prizes sometimes "went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs."
I hope Democrats won't take the bait on this latest round of knuckleheaded anti-science demagoguery. I fear, though, in our austerity-besotted age when Obama's budget plan cuts more out of Social Security and Medicare in the next ten years than the Republicans', well, they just might.
Those who have really sinned understand best how lead the crusade against immorality. Or at least that's the argument that can get hedonistic Christian conservatives re-elected, Rick Perlstein writes.
Mark Sanford resigns as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain.)
Mark Sanford is back, in case you haven't heard. You know, the South Carolina governor who suddenly disappeared for weeks in June of 2009. He had told his staff, in the formulation that immediately became infamous, that he was off to "hike the Appalachian Trail," then did not answer fifteen cell phone calls from his chief of staff and neglected to contact his family on Father's Day, for he was actually in Argentina with his lover, who is now his fiancée. He then told the Associated Press he could die now, "knowing I had met my soul mate." He also admitted he had "crossed the line" with several other women during his twenty-year marriage. And then, last week, he emerged from the political, um, wilderness to win a sixteen-way primary for the Republican nomination to replace a retiring Congressman in South Carolina's 1st District, an office he held from 1995 to 2001, in a district that went Republican in 1980 and never looked back. Which is to say, contemporary politics' most flamboyant philanderer is almost certainly heading back to Congress—unless Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Stephen Colbert's sister, scores an upset—sent there as emissary of a party that has made "family values" its calling card for over a generation.
It drives us liberals and lefties to distraction: How do Republicans absorb all that hypocrisy without their heads exploding? Here I am, again, to explain: nothing new under the wingnut sun. I wrote at length about the same subject in 2007, when another conservative solon, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, hung on comfortably after revelations he was a client of a D.C. prostitute, and allegations of activities with hookers back home of the sort ordinary mortals only learn about from reading some of Dan Savage's stranger columns. Quite the "family values" dude, was David Vitter: a senator who said he didn't "believe there's any issue" more important than a Constitutional amendment to "protect the sanctity of traditional marriage," who compared the devastation of gay marriage to the Hurricanes Rita and Katrina combined, and was adjudged a "true social conservative" in 2003 by the right-wing Religious Freedom Coalition. And yet he handily won reelection from the Deep South family values voters of Louisiana, winning the Republican primary by a margin of 80 points.
I noted, too, the case of the still-thriving public profile of Newt Gingrich despite his serial infidelities, including while working to impeach Bill Clinton; Rush Limbaugh, despite getting caught with boner pills after an apparent hookerfest in the Dominican Republic, and also about the redemption of Ted Haggard—"Husband of Gayle, father of 5, author," and pastor of his own new church in his hometown of Colorado Springs, he brags on his website. That despite getting caught using meth with a male prostitute in 2006, even as he organized for Colorado's ban on same-sex marriage.
When, I asked, would conservative Christians wake up to their leaders' hypocrisy? I answered, "they will never 'wake up.'" And argued how "conservative Christianity is a culture radically different from that of secular (or even religious) liberalism, and that to understand the political meaning of events like this for its members you have to understand that culture's rules. Most importantly, you must understand its rules about sin and redemption. Which are, at heart, an argument about human nature"—a moral argument. "'True social conservatives' don't reject their sinners—because we are all sinners. They call upon them to repent. Which suggests an entirely different political dynamic than the one native to the secular (or even religious) liberal mindset."
I explained Haggard as a perfect case study:
If you believe, as Haggard does, as do all his followers, and their religious tradition going back to time immemorial, that Satan is real, forever laying siege to the faithful, forever providing us tests of our faith, forever reminding us of mankind's inherently sinful nature—well, then, the kind of leader they will most respect would be the kind of person who feels that reality most intensely, and is able to communicate it most convincingly.
In fact, that kind of person may well be a gay man. He feels, and fights, the presence of Satan daily. He may even, one day, fall to His temptations. If he does, that does not mean he is a "hypocrite." It means he is human—all too human!—according to this worldview.
He will fall on his knees and beg the Lord for forgiveness. He will gather around him spiritual leaders, and pray. He will declare, as Haggard declared, ""I am a deceiver and a liar. There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life." (Vitter's version was, "This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling.") He may, as Gingrich did, receive public absolution from a prominent minister. And after a time in the wilderness, they may return to their constituents' graces, who will bestow on them perhaps even more loyalty and affection than before.
Secular (and even religious) liberals will laugh and scoff, and call the whole sordid right-wing ritual a "free pass to sin."
And this will be a reasonable conclusion. It is true that this whole worldview contains within it a profound possibility of what economists call moral hazard—a perverse incentive built into a system that hastens the possibility of bad instead of good outcomes. (By way of example, conservatives identify welfare payments as moral hazard: if you pay people who do not work, you give them an incentive not to work). The cynical—I would certainly count Gingrich among them—can exploit it to aggrandize their power.
But I have to insist that this worldview is not inherently about whitewashing accountability. At its best, the theology of sin and redemption is real—for those to whom Satan is real—and a real spur to moral living, to community-building, to humility, to compassion, to grace. It can be a genuine and mature worldview—one that recognizes that people are both good and evil, both autonomous and compulsive, loving and hateful.
Well, sometimes; sometimes it's just a hustle. Anyway my point here is not to judge whether sinning politicians' contrition is genuine or not. My point is to note how this stuff works politically: convince your constituency you've sincerely repented, and just about any measure of electoral redemption is possible. Sin and redemption is a feature for conservative Christian voters, not a bug; as I noted, a David Vitter, declaring himself once-lost but now-found, would not, "as we would prefer, repent of his rather cruel crusade for the 'sanctity of marriage.' More likely, he'll emerge all the more effective a spokesman for it. For who would know better than someone like him just how fragile the institution of marriage truly is? Who better, indeed, than someone who has fought the devil face to face, and lost?"
And also the opposite: being seen as an unredeemed politician is a profound liability. Once, when Ralph Reed was running for lieutenant governor in Georgia, a friend who comes from a Pentecostal background and I helped an independent group write an anti-Reed TV commercial. Their original draft used a picture of Reed looking nasty and scary, and simply reviewed his various actions Christians would consider offensive, which were, of course, prodigious—not least sabotaging one Indian tribe's application for a gambling license, on behalf of his client, another Indian tribe. My Pentecostal friend suggested the following revision: feature not a scary picture of Reed but a cherubic one—Satan, in scripture, is a great deceiver, forever cloaking his presence in an inviting guise—and emphasizing, in the copy, not that Reed was a sinner (we are all sinners), but that he was unrepentant. Reportedly, the commercial was quite effective; in any event, Ralph Reed lost.
But look: here comes a curveball—a fascinating one, one I don't quite know what to make of yet.
Mark Sanford is unredeemed. Instead of leaving his mistress, returning to home and hearth, and falling on his knees to beg for forgiveness, he left his wife and proposed to his mistress. "Social conservatives" duly cast him aside: "Send a Christian to Congress," read a sign outside one local church; "We need to put a real Christian in Congress,” said another. That real Christian, the 1st District's politicized pastors insisted, was a man named Curtis Bostic, one of their own; vote for Sanford, wrote a Bostic supporter, and "you will answer for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ, should you truly have salvation in your heart, is a terrible place of, oh yes, judgment. Paul warns of the pain many will experience there."
And lo, Curtis Bostic lost.
What gives, SC social conservatives? Here are some possibilities. One is that, simply, in a sixteen-way special election, name recognition is all, and the former governor was the one who had it. Another intriguing possibility, entertained by a columnist in the Charleston alternative newspaper, is that 1st District voters are romantics—embracing the man who campaigned forthrightly by the side of the woman he loved, precisely because he refused to apologize for love—"a gutsy, almost scandalous move that somehow worked."
But here's another possibility: that Dixie Christers have heard the sin-and-redemption routine so often from their politicians that it has dulled their sensibilities altogether, so much so that it doesn't even occur to them to check whether their sinners are "repentant." That so many of their politicians break their stated principles flagrantly, and so often, their repentance so pro-forma and routine, that “sins” have ceased to signify any more.
If so, how handy for sinning conservative public figures. And how ghastly for their poor, suffering constituents. Who, after all, are never really harmed in any objective sense by the proximate crime—the sex. It's the cover-up that really screwed them. For in sending Mark Sanford back into public office, voters are not merely forgiving his lust. They are forgiving his theft from them. The State Ethics Commission's investigation against the governor, after all, centered on multiple counts of misusing state funds to visit his mistress in South America. Other abuses including using a state plane to fly off to get his hair cut.
Sex: what a handy distraction from a more uncontroversial harm—ripping people off. Consider the case of Ted Haggard. That new church he brags about on his web site? As the Colorado Springs Gazette reports, it isn't actually a church at all. It's his house—which he incorporated as a church, Haggard explains, "to keep the accounting in order" for his paid lectures. "The Haggards incur out-of-pocket expenses while on the road, so St. James is a way to be reimbursed for those costs in an orderly manner, he said."
Christian forgiveness can be a beautiful thing. It can also, it turns out, be quite a lucrative business.
Read Rick Perlstein on why the ends justify the means for conservatives when it comes to winning elections.
Poll workers in Nashville ready their stickers for election day, November 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Let's continue my series on the continuities on the American right: the stockpiling of guns for the coming apocalypse; the panic over textbooks and the passion for reckless spending cuts; the horror at the government sponsoring pre-school education—and, for today, the comfort the right harbors for minoritarianism: the conviction that conservatives are fit to rule even if they don't actually win elections. We've been reading about that and again these days in the way the Republican Party does business: the "Hastert rule" which doesn't let a measure get to the House floor if it can't win a majority of Republicans even if the majority of all House members want it; the Republican embrace of gerrymandering that guarantees Republican congressional majorities in states Obama won decidedly like Pennylvania; the Republican comfort with the disenfranchisement of Democratic constituencies that the Nation's Ari Berman has been covering so effectively these days. This comes from somewhere—from the nature of conservatism itself. It is an old, old story.
Let's start, though, with a question of first principles, one absolutely crucial to understanding the difference between liberalism and conservatism, one that goes very deep at the cognitive level. We'll be returning to it when I arrive at the crucial question of how that which liberals consider hypocrisy functions on the right. That first principle is the matter of procedure versus norms. As I wrote in a 2003 review of Eric Alterman's book What Liberal Media?
We Americans love to cite the “political spectrum” as the best way to classify ideologies. The metaphor is incorrect: it implies symmetry. But left and right today are not opposites. They are different species. It has to do with core principles. To put it abstractly, the right always has in mind a prescriptive vision of its ideal future world—a normative vision. Unlike the left (at least since Karl Marx neglected to include an actual description of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” within the 2,500 pages of Das Kapital), conservatives have always known what the world would look like after their revolution: hearth, home, church, a businessman’s republic. The dominant strain of the American left, on the other hand, certainly since the decline of the socialist left, fetishizes fairness, openness, and diversity. (Liberals have no problem with home, hearth, and church in themselves; they just see them as one viable life-style option among many.) If the stakes for liberals are fair procedures, the stakes for conservatives are last things: either humanity trends toward Grace, or it hurtles toward Armageddon.
A very important point. It has to do, too, with the almost opposite definitions liberals and conservatives affix to the word "principle." For liberals, generally speaking, honoring procedures—means—is the core of what being "principled" means. For conservatives, fighting for the right outcome—ends—even at the expense of procedural nicety, is what being "principled" means. Think of it it, allegorically, this way: imagine in Washington DC, near Capitol Hill, a little old lady is crossing a hazardous street. A fastidious liberal congressmen, proud of always acting in a principled way in all things, stops to help her across the street—even though that means he might be late for a key vote (the sacrifice of an end, in itself, confirms his principled nature). A fastidious conservative congressman, on the other hand, leaves the lady to her fate and makes the vote (because the upholding of the end, in itself, is where honor lies—and dishonor rests, in the ultimate term of derision righties reserve for each other, in being a "squish").
In short, if you're a conservative, isn't the point of an election to win, so you can bend the world to your will, no matter the means it takes to get there? Even if you don't necessarily have the majority's support?
Here are some historical illustrations. Again and again, when I was doing research in the papers of Clarence Manion, the pioneering conservative activist who was the first to try to draft Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate, I ran across references to schemes to run conservative third party candidates. One, in 1956, ran T. Coleman Andrews, Eisenhower's former commissioner of public revenue—who now considered the states' income-tax-creating Sixteenth Amendment his charge to enforce, as a "sign[ing] away the powers that were reserved to them by the Constitution as a safeguard against degeneration of the union of states into an all-powerful central government!" Another, aimed at 1960, looked to draft Arkansas's segregationist Orval Faubus.
They planned these efforts not in the expectation that they might win, but with an eye just toward getting enough support to deny the front runner the Constitutional required majority in the Electoral College. Without that majority 270 electoral votes, the election gets thrown into the House of Representatives—something a nice procedural liberal might consider a dangerously divisive Constitutional crisis, but which I found Manion and his pals considering an outcome devoutly to be wished. For that way, right-wing congressmen could sell their votes in exchange for policy concessions—and a conservative minority that knew it was right could bend the world to its will.
That sort of cleverness, of course, no longer became necessary as the idea of making the Republican Party a vehicle for the conservative movement tout court came to seem more and more viable. Such that, as the late New Right founding father Paul Weyrich once put it, "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." Which was pretty damned brazen, considering he was co-founder of an organization called the Moral Majority.
Now, of course, for over a decade now, the brazenness is institutionalized within the very vitals of one of our two political parties. You just elect yourself a Republican attorney general, and he does his level best to squeeze as many minority voters from the roles as he can force the law to allow. And a conservative state legislature, so they can gerrymander the hell out of their state, such that, as a Texas Republican congressional aid close to Tom Delay wrote in a 2003 email, "This has a real national impact that should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood." Or you lose the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election but win in the electoral college—then declare a mandate to privatize Social Security, like George Bush did.
Which only makes sense, if you're trying to save civilization from hurtling toward Armageddon. That's how conservatives think. To quote one Christian right leader, "We ought to see clearly that the end does justify the means...If the method I am using to accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method."
Why is Fox News defending disgraced Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice? Read Dave Zirin's take.
Alderman Bob Fioretti speaks in front of an condemned building along the new route schoolchildren will walk. (Rick Perlstein.)
Yesterday morning twelve-year-old Jasmine Murphy, a red fabric flower woven into her hair, stood in front of a bus full of reporters, TV news correspondents and their cameramen, Chicago Teachers Union officials and other activists, congressmen and aldermen, and told them what it was like when the school she loved was closed. "It was emotional for me. If we were struggling during class, we had tutoring .... We had our teachers' numbers. Home numbers, cell numbers, we could call them any time, no matter when it was—one o'clock in the morning—and they would help us with our work."
She pauses, and now she is crying. "I just really miss it."
When the Chicago Public Schools' former CEO Jean-Claude Brizard asked the school board to close Guggenheim Elementary in 2011 he called it one of the system's schools that are "so far gone that you cannot save them." That doesn't seem to have been Jasmine Murphy's experience: educated at Guggenheim since kindergarten, she maxed out on the state's standardized test, and was accepted for next year at a high school with a rigorous International Baccalaureat program. Brizard's claim, in fact, speaks to one of the biggest reasons so many parents here in nation's third largest city so distrust their school system: the shifting rationales for the bewildering, whiplash-inducing destabilizations it insists on visiting upon their children, at some schools literally every other year, in the name of "reform." For today, the explanation (sold to the Chicago public via TV commercials paid for by the Walton Foundation) for the biggest one-time school closing in the history of the United States—fifty-three schools—is the statistically dubious one about "underutilization" of school buildings.
The Guggenheim closing speaks to another reason people don't trust the Chicago Board of Education. Here's Jasmine, toughing it out through tears: "I live right across the street from Guggenheim, so it was easy for me to attend." That meant she was safe. Now she attends a school a considerable distance away. Her mom Sherri drives her there and back every day. "But not everyone has a ride," Sherri points out. She addresses her next remark to Mayor Emanuel—angrily: "You didn't think about safety. And you didn't think about the harm to our community." New kids from closed schools, you see, are stigmatized as stupid and harassed; this in addition to the issue of crossing gang lines I discussed here. That's one of the reasons that, Jasmine's mother observes, at her next school, her formerly voluble daughter "sat in class and didn't talk to anyone."
And at that observation, the media bus tour convened by the Chicago's Teachers Union continues on past blocks of classic Southwest Chicago bungalows, just the sort of blocks Martin Luther King led marches past in 1966 to win African-Americans the right to purchase those bungalows. (He had a rock thrown at him, and famously said, "I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”) Now the African-Americans who populate these blocks find their destabilization aided and abetted by the city, in the dismantling of their anchoring institutions. Eighty percent of the students effected by the closings are black, though only forty percent of the students in the system are black. When the bus unloads at Mahalia Jackson Elementary on 88th Street—closing; though, as a parent there points out, the school board had recently made considerable capital investments in the building to make it a model of disability access—Congressman Bobby Rush tells a circle of reporters this is "devastation of communities by design."
Another scrum forms across the street around Alderman Bob Fioretti, a leader in making school closings the first issue to truly loosen Rahm's vice-hold on the loyalty of his city council. (Fioretti got thirty-two of a possible fifty votes for a resolution demanding public hearings on the school closing plan; compare that to a more typical vote, a year and a half ago, that resolved 50-0 in favor of Emanuel's half-baked plan to lengthen Chicago's school day.) A reporter asked Fioretti how the city could not afford massive school closings, given the system's reported billion dollar deficit. Fioretti's response rammed home just how badly trust in this mayor has been breaking down. "I'm not sure the deficit is real," he said. "This is a manufactured crisis."
The budget deficit, of course, is another of those rationales for the neutron-bombing of the Chicago Public Schools; the board says the plan will save $50 million a year. But on the bus, Chicago Teachers Union staff coordinator Jackson Potter points to the $250 million surplus in the city's "TIF fund"—the pool of money that the mayor can hand out to developers in supposedly "blighted" neighborhoods (a Hyatt hotel being built on my street, which is not blighted at all, by mayoral and presidential pal Penny Pritzker, who just resigned from Rahm's school board so she can reportedly be tapped as Obama's commerce secretary got $5.2 million). And $40 million of the school budget is tied up in toxic interest rate swaps brokered by investment banks, which Potter points out that Rahm, who's had a bit of pull with investment banks in the past, has not lifted a finger to try to extricated the city from. "That alone could save these schools from their imminent destruction."
We pass a closed school, bars on its windows—ineffectual bars. The city has promised there will be no charter school expansion in emptied CPS buildings, a sop to CPS critics, but not a very satisfying one. What happens to those buildings instead? An enterprising union staffer snuck into the shell that once housed Crispus Attacks Elementary, armed with a camera. He found what looked for all the world like a crack house: graffiti, crack vials, the metal stripped away to be sold for scrap. They're supposed to try to sell these buildings. Would you buy a property like that? Would you buy a house next to one? "There's a multiplier effect in terms of adjacent property and the value of that property," a CTU official points out—and for an idea that's supposed to save a city money, this sounds pretty damned penny wise but pound foolish. Adds CTU policy researcher Kurt Hilgendorf, "There isn't really a plan to deal with any of these issues."
Our penultimate stop is a school with the pleasing name "Melody." To arrive at our last stop, we are to travel from there on foot. Our destination will be Delano Elementary, the "receiving school" for the students when the Melody building is abandoned. Although, in CPS's typically Kafkaesque manner, it's more complicated than that: Melody's students and staff will be moved to Delano's building and the Deleno students will remain, their teeachers and staff being fired; Delano will be renamed Melody, making it Delano Elementary no more—a prospect that is agonizing the neighborhood. Signs reading things like "I LOVE DELANO" adorn every nearby lamppost. That's also what someone spontaneously cries from a passing car to the tired complement as we approach the Delano/Melody grounds.
Did I mention that we were tired? Very tired. That's because me and the blow-dried local news guys have been by now walking almost a mile. That near-mile that represents the distance that some students will have to walk to get from their formerly neighborhood school to this new one. This is the city's Detroit-like West Side, not its much less (actually) blighted, bungalow-laden South Side. Block after block is strewn with glass, pocked by forlorn vacant dirt lots, dotted with crumbling abandoned buildings marked with the "X" that tells first responders to take supreme caution lest a floor collapse beneath their feet. Congressman Danny Davis, whose district this is, identifies some of the milling young men we pass as drug dealers. Says Christel Williams, a CTU organizer: "Imagine our babies, some of them as young as kindergarten having to walk throug this area." That's staggering. "It reminds me," says Congressman Rush, whose district is on the South Side, "of a Third World country."
The congressmen stand for one more press scrum beside Delano's bustling playground. Bobby Rush is asked about the mayor's claim that this all will improve education. He replies, "I don't have any reason to believe that will happen." Then reportorial eyebrows arch at what he says next: "Parents cannot afford to trust these people to make decisions about their children .... When is one instance where that trust has been fulfilled?"
Three hours earlier, at the caravan's very first stop, he had pointed out that this was April 4—the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. He recalled the issue on which he first cut his teeth as an activist in the early 1960s: the "Willis Wagons"—parking-lot trailers in which black kids were forced to attend classes because of the racist way the system apportioned students. "And here we are again—on this of all days...we should be ashamed." Back on the bus, he had led the activist contingent in singing a civil rights hymn: "I woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom...." He said, "This is a freedom bus, and we are Freedom Riders." This stuff is news: it is the most aggressive distancing between a major black elected official in Chicago and the mayor that I am aware of. For, if we are the Freedom Riders, isn't he saying that makes Rahm Emanuel the George Wallace?
[Corrected: An earlier version of this post misstated what Jasmine Murphy's mother did for a living.]
The border-patrolling Minutemen can thank CNN and the mainstream media for their oversize influence, Rick Perlstein writes in a post on a new title from Nation Books.
Lou Dobbs and CNN lavished the Minuteman border patrols with uncritical coverage, author David Neiwert shows. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File.)
One of my favorite authors about the American right has a new book out last week about the "Minuteman" border patrol nonsense of a few years ago. And I should begin with full disclosure: David Neiwert is a friend of mine. And the volume is from Nation Books, the imprint of this magazine. But trust me on this one. And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border is one of the best books you can read on one of the most crucial subjects you can study: how the toxic mindset of white supremacist, anti-government insurrectionist lunacy migrates again and again into the mainstream of American political discussion. And if that's not enough to draw you, here's a bonus: David wraps his lesson in a true crime story Joe Conason blurbs as “reminiscent of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” I couldn't tell you if that's precisely so; I've never read Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I can't tell you much about the crime story either: It's just that gripping and suspenseful, and I don't want to spoil it for you. I can, however, tell you about the debt we all to Neiwert for his work explaining the unacknowledged debt the "mainstream" right owes to the thuggish eliminationists that the mainstream would like us to think they would never have anything to do with.
He's been on the case for decades, every since he was a newspaper reporter getting inside the militia and "Patriot" movements of the 1990s (surely at great personal danger to himself). His masterpiece on the subject was a 2003 blog series, "Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism," on how Rush Limbaugh and others serve as "transmission belts" lending "an aura of mainstream legitimacy to ideas, agendas and organizations that are widely perceived otherwise as radical." Ideas, for instance, like the one that Bill Clinton was such a dangerous threat to the republic that "no hyperbole is too overblown in the campaign to depose him"—born of New World Order conspiricists, and matured in the bosom of the United States Congress.
In the case of the Minutemen, that right-wing sensation that swept the nation in 2005, he traces a lineage back to Robert DePugh and his original "Minutemen," born in 1961, who stockpiled weapons for the imminent Communist-United Nations invasion of the United States. It leads through David Duke and his revived Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s; then the early 1980s efforts to "create a white homeland in the inland Northwest," efforts which "ended in a blaze of gunfire, tear gas and smoke when FBI agents cornered [Robert] Matthews at a hideout on Whidbey Island, Washington." It continues through the "leaderless resistance" of the 1990s Christian Patriot movement—Timothy McVeigh's movement—and an offshoot of that moment which advocated border-patrolling militias.
And it ends up...in the welcoming studios of the Cable News Network.
Minutemen never actually caught many if any immigrants. What they caught, Neiwert shows, were journalists. Fox News journalists, of course; no surprise there, and not much to be done about that. (Sean Hannity hosted an entire show from the Arizona border with co-founders Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist beside him.) But it is CNN that is this book's villain as much as the brutal murderers at the center of the true-crime subplot. "Over the years," Neiwert counts, "Simcox would be featured over twenty-five times on CNN." Fifteen of those were on the notorious Lou Dobbs show—which became the transmission belt for the invented claim that thousands of immigrants were carrying leprosy. But ten of those appearances were not. CNN's news side treated the Minuteman as exactly what they claimed to be: a massive (it was tiny) movement, responsibly organized to weed out dangerous extremists (that never happened), successfully helping the Border Patrol by conscientiously calling in intelligence, a process no more threatening than—a favored Minutemen and media trope—one of those "neighborhood watch" organizations (this was before George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin). "Casey," Dobbs said, "I had the opportunity to spend a little time down there with you along the border with the Minutemen. The success is remarkable." In fact all they did was trip ground sensors and call in false alarms.
What did CNN, and many other mainstream media outlets besides, miss in their zealotry in making out Minutemen not to be zealots? Well, for example, the original 2004 Minutemen advertisement ("I invite you to join me in Tombstone, Arizona, in early spring of 2005 to protect our country from a 40-year-long invasion across our southern border with Mexico") ran on the Aryan Nations website, trumpeted as "a call for action on part of ALL ARYAN SOLDIERS." Among those gathered at the original encampment was a faction that called itself "Team 14"—a reference to the neo-Nazi fourteen-word slogan, "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." A local news crew, more enterprising than the Most Trusted Name in News, recorded what these fine patriots said when they thought the cameras were off: "It should be legal to kill illegals. Just shoot 'em on sight. That's my immigration policy recommendation. You break into my country, you die."
These are people who say things like, in the words of Chris Simcox, "The Mexican Army is driving American vehicles—but carrying Chinese weapons. I have personally seen what I can only believe to be Chinese troops." And, in the words of the founders of one of the first border militias, addressing Mexican immigrants, "You stand around your entire lives, whining about how bad things are in your dog of a nation, waiting for the dog to stick its ass under our fence and shit each one of you into our backyards." Who believe the government has begun to detain citizens with "don't tread snake bumper stickers" on their cars. And that criminal El Salvador gangs were on their way to massacre Minutemen where they stood.
Here were the sort of people who ascended the ranks as leaders: a PTSD-stricken Marine involuntarily retired from the Postal Service after "[W]hat you call a post-traumatic-stress breakdown breakdown. Now I function pretty normal. They tell me it's incurable and blah blah blah, but I function just fine in my opinion." And a woman named Shawna Ford with a criminal record as long as Wilt Chamberlain's arm, who constantly tells her comrades, "I'm the person that is willing to take it to the next level," and who endeavors to prove it by—well, I'm not going to say. That, you're going to have to read about yourself. It will have you on the edge of your seat.
Read Rick Perlstein on minority voters and why the Democrats shouldn't rest on their laurels after the last election.
Barack Obama greets young people at the College of Charleston. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast.)
I've been arguing in this series that the voting behavior of demographic voting blocs isn't stable in any truly predictable way, and may well confound confident predictions of a generation of Democratic hegemony. Seemingly stable blocs can shatter in something like an instant. Even, for example, urban blacks, which Democrats can reliably count on to vote their way at numbers upwards of 90 percent in every election. Little more than a generation ago, though, urban blacks in industrial states were considered a swing vote. Teddy White energy to the point in Making of the President 1960: Yes, a majority would vote Democrat, but the Party of Lincoln still retained the loyalty of a significant number of "Negroes" that just how many voted Republican in states like Illinois would determine—did determine, in fact—whether John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon became president. Within four short years, of course, that once-solid conventional wisdom had melted into air. It changed in a flash: A Democratic president signed a historic Civil Rights Act and the Republican presidential nominee voted against it. Lyndon Johnson told Bill Moyers "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come." There was a corollary: just as indubitably they'd delivered themselves the loyalty of blacks.
There's a moral to this story: it is what a party and its leaders do that determines the loyalty of its voters.
As much so, what determines the loyalty of voters is how well a party and its leaders tell clear, effective stories about what they do. Obama did Obamacare. And how does Obamacare pass these tests? Well, for one thing, it hasn't done that much yet. Some of the things it might do are bad (Los Angeles Times headline this past week: "Healthcare Law Could Raise Premiums 30% for Some Californians"). The main thing it does, meanwhile, establishing easy-to-use online healthcare markets ("exchanges"), still doesn't kick in for nearly a year—if that's not badly delayed: The White House, plainly not grasping the intransigent nature of the opposition whose good faith they still presume, was underprepared at how many Republican-run states would refuse to cooperate. Said one healthcare consultant, “They definitely did not envision this many federally run exchanges. It was considered a fallback. The idea was it would be mostly state run and in the event of an anomalous state that didn’t do it, the feds would step in.”
And how well have they managed to get through effective stories to the public about what they've done? Well, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll published on the third anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, 57 percent of Americans had to answer "no" to the question, "Do you feel you have enough information about the health reform law to understand how it will impact you personally, nor not?" 40 percent of the public views it unfavorably, 37 percent unfavorably, down from 46 and 40 percent upon its passage. And yet they say they would like certain specified healthcare reforms were they passed into law—88 percent like tax credits to small businesses who offer health insurance to their employees, 81 percent dig closing the Medicare donut hole, and eighty percent like the idea of health insurance exchanges—with the rub being all these things are major provisions of the law a plurality of Americans say they don't like. Is a Democratic majority inevitable? Not if they keep laying the game like this.
Let's compare all this to how Franklin Delano Roosevelt did things. While the Social Security system did not kick in right away either, people were confident about what it would do—because it was communicated so effectively. After he signed the law in 1935 he had signs hung in every post office reading, "A Monthly Check to You for the Rest of Your Life." That was the year before Roosevelt won the biggest reelection landslide in history. Then, the program really started delivering. It was one of the ways Roosevelt ensured new Democratic politicians were minted for another seventy-five years and counting.
Sometimes I like to think that the responsibility of every new generation of Democrats is to devise a a program that mints new Democrats for another seventy-five years or so. Can Obama's political legacy conceivably match that? Well, maybe. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating—and not in demographic wishful thinking.
Read Rick Perlstein on Chicago teachers organizing against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's shock doctrine.
On March 27, Chicago Teachers Union members protest a plan to close fifty-four public schools. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast.)
One thousand Chicago Public School teachers and their supporters, including this correspondent, packed Daley Plaza in forty-degree temperatures on Wednesday for a rally protesting the city’s announced plans to close 54 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools next year. One-tenth of the protesters were detained and ticketed (though police originally said they had been “arrested”) at a sit-in in front of school board headquarters a few blocks to the south. What they are protesting is genuine shock-doctrine stuff—an announcement utterly rewiring a major urban institution via public rationales swaddled in utter bad faith, handed down in a blinding flash, absent any reasonable due process. Though Mayor Emanuel is learning that the forces of grassroots democracy can shock back too. And boy, does he have it coming.
The story went down like this. Immediately following Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s defeat in the historic Chicago Teachers Union strike this past fall, the district, claiming massive underutilization of school facilities in light of an announced $1 billion budget deficit, began talking about closing perhaps 129 schools. The district CEO Jean-Claude Brizard—sacked soon after as a “distraction” to “school reform”—had once said he could only imagine closing perhaps three schools, given the paucity of schools performing better than the ones they would have shut down. Knowledgeable observers thought perhaps a dozen or two would end up getting the axe. (You can hear those details in this panel discussion from February of this year).
It took a petition signed by an overwhelming majority of the city’s fifty alderman to even win hearings on the issue. But those hearings were a disaster—“cannibalism,” as one alderman described them, “Good people pitted against each other because each one was trying to save their individual school.” A war of all against all: just the kind of atomization any self-respecting shock doctrineer wants to see among his constituency. Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president, called them a “sham” for all the effect she thinks they actually had on decision-making.
Then came Thursday, March 21, and the bombshell: the all-at-once announcement of the fifty-four schools to be shuttered. Even the aldermen who’d be responsible for managing the fallout in their wards weren’t informed in advance. And the announcement was made not by the mayor but current school CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett; Rahm, that brave, brave man, had scheduled the most important announcements of his term on a day when he was off on a Utah ski vacation with his family. “It’s a slap in the face of the citizens,” Alderman Bob Fioretti said. “He’s not here to answer any questions or stand by his head of the school system. He knows the publicity realm. He’s nowhere to be found when he needs to respond to the people.” One sign at the rally had a cartoon of Rahm in ski togs, and a mayoral quote: “I did not run for office to shirk my responsibility.” Another addressed Byrd-Bennett: “Your Conscience Is Underutilized.”
Why is this a matter of conscience? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that declining enrollment figures mean some schools should close? Some schools, perhaps—but consider this school-closing plan in its sordid specifics. When Rahm finally showed his face, sunburned from the ski trip, for a Saturday press conference (to brag about the opening of a new Walmart), he admitted, “there is a lot of anguish and I understand that and appreciate it.… But the anguish and the pain…pales compared to the anguish that comes by trapping children in schools that are not succeeding.” Which makes no sense, when you consider that many of the schools receiving new students perform at or below the levels of the schools that are being closed.
One of those closing schools is called George Manierre Elementary. Located within the boundaries of the former Cabrini-Green housing project, its students are to be sent to another Cabrini-Green school seven blocks away, Jenner Elementary, that has lower test scores. So Rahm is lying; no surprise.
He is also, cry parents at the affected schools, putting their children in far greater danger for violent crime—which perhaps is surprising, given how escalating youth violence has become his political albatross. Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ, whose education reporter Linda Lutton has done outstanding work on the story, profiled one of those parents, a woman named Karlyn Harris who volunteers at Manierre every day. They recorded her anguish after they broke the news to her: “Oh, my God, I knew it was on the list but I didn’t know it was gonna be the—bam, in my face today. Oh, wow.” A reason for her horror: gang turf. Between Manierre and Jenner, “it’s like a boundary. You step over this line, the cowboys get you, over here, it’s the Indians.” The ward’s alderman, Walter Burnett, notes the two schools have been “fighting since I was a kid.… These are lifelong grudges.” He worries that it will keep kids from going to school altogether. Which appears to be a problem district headquarters never much considered: according to a speaker at the rally, there was originally no safety plan, and the bureaucrat in charge of making it didn’t even know the names of the closing schools “until the media got to him.”
Here’s another issue of which the city has proven shockingly heedless: community. There is more to maximizing the utility of limited educational resources than measuring the capacity of school buildings and discerning whether they are 50, 75, or 100 percent full. There is also the fact that each school is an individual human institution, with its own human ecology. Keeping that community together—or at least thinking about whether each individual school is working or not working qua community—has value in itself: for the students, for the teachers (God forbid we think about their human needs), and for the larger community within which the school operates. When you close a school, you kill something: a network of trust (or distrust), a web of relationships (which might or might not be functional relationships), an environment. It is in this way that, when you listen to and read the coverage here, the school-closers and the would-be school savers talk past each other. You hear parents, teachers, and students literally moved to tears at the thought of the places they love closing. Then you hear the CPS people talking statistics.
Isn’t it possible to consider that shuttering even a school at 50 percent classroom capacity can do more harm than good? That shuttering a school at 100 percent capacity might do more good than harm? And that this good or harm might sometimes be hard to measure, but yet still valuable for all that? Beyond learning outcomes, isn’t experiencing a rich community, and having a role in building and maintaining that community, and watching adult role models build and maintain that community, a useful outcome for a young person? (See this piece for the testimony of a college-bound high school senior named Lavell Short on how his “low-performing” elementary school, which is closing, profoundly contributed to his moral development.)
Community: Manierre is across the street from the massive Marshall Field Garden Apartments complex (a privately financed experiment in moderate-income history), one reason why so many parents feel safe sending there kids there. And proximity provides another value. Here’s Harris, the volunteer at Manierre: “It’s like, when you step out of your house you’re right into this school. So it’s like you’re stepping out of your bed and you’re going into a dining room…It’s gonna tear the community down. Not only the students. It’s gonna be the parents. It’s like a mother’s kids being taken from her, that’s how I feel.”
But even this argument is granting city governments too much—because it presumes the utilitarian statistical arguments they claim to be making are intellectually legitimate. Are they? The brass have made that challenging to answer. The whole issue of measuring the capacity of school buildings, for example: it took an investigation from the Chicago Tribune to discover that the city had been pegging arguments about which schools to close on an “ideal” class size of thirty students. That ghastly vision, “little mentioned despite months of public debate,” the Trib observed, all but accusing deliberate subterfuge—that a school full of classrooms with twenty-nine kids is too “empty” to be “efficient”—“allows the mayor and school officials to drive the public debate with attention-grabbing statistics. It has enabled the Emanuel administration to declare nearly half of all elementary and high schools underused, leaving 100,000 desks empty.”
From that, however, two further statistical subterfuges emerge. A large part of what school activist here spend their energy on is “data liberation,” prying forth information locked into PDF files—to compose data sets that, once the numbers are crunched, tell stories radically different from those issued by school headquarters on LaSalle Street. Just that sort of careful statistical work from the advocacy group Apples to Apples has discovered that, in fact, that it would be more accurate to say the school closings aim at an average capacity of thirty-six students per class. A second node of statistical propaganda: note how the Trib cites “100,000 desks empty” in Chicago Public Schools. That means the Trib has effectively been conned—not to be too hard on the city’s marquee daily, because the Emanuel administration is such a skilled gang of con men. Spokesman frequently use that 100,000 figure, though sometimes they use the number 145,000. For instance, in this discussion—pay attention at at about 6:38, for this is a smoking gun—Chicago Board of Education vice president Jesse Ruiz, baldly states “we actually lost 145,000 students.”
Stunning, stunning, stunning: As even the district’s official school closing documents acknowledge, the number “145,000” refers to the number of Chicagoans between the ages of 0 and 19 the city has lost, a large number of which are not even school age, many of those who are school-aged not being CPS students. So Apples to Apples ran the numbers of students CPS has actually lost: only about 30,000, about a fifth of their mendacious claim. It’s enough to make an honest person want to scream.
Here, meanwhile, are other statistics—accurate statistics. Five schools, almost a fifth of the total, are in the Carbrini-Green ward, the 27th—a prime area for gentrification over which real estate developers salivate. (Here’s Mrs. Harris: “I think the reason they really wanna close this school here is because of the land. I don’t know how much these homes cost, over here, or condos—$200,000?”) The area is dotted with high-performing magnet schools; but of course none of the Manierre kids are being reassigned to those—they’re being assigned to a school that’s 98 percent black. Eighty percent of students affected by school closings, in fact, are black; but only 40 percent of students as a whole in the system are black. (Signs hoisted on the dais of the rally on Daley Plaza starred the faces of African-American heroes whose names adorn some of the schools being closed: writer Henry Dumas. Singer Mahalia Jackson. Eighteenth-century scientist Benjamin Banneker.)
“Everybody on the board did not look at this decision as numbers on a spreadsheet,” said Rahm at his sunburned Saturday press conference. “We looked at it and viewed it as what can we do to have every child have a high-quality education regardless of their neighborhood, regardless of their circumstances, regardless of where they live.” Yeah, right. There is a reasonable suspicion that a lot of these shuttered schools are going to be turned over to charter operators. In 2012, belying every “underutilization” claim, the school board announced plans to open 100 new charter, “turnaround” and “contract” schools over the next five years. Considering that fact, here are some other accurate statistics concerning the United Neighborhood Organization, or UNO, the city’s most prominent charter company, whose CEO, Juan Rangel, is a major supporter of Mayor Emanuel. $1.5 million: the amount a company owned by the brother of a top UNO executive, Miguel d’Escoto, got for work as the “owner’s representative” for UNO school construction. $10 million: the amount another d’Escoto brother stands to make installing windows in UNO schools. $98 million: the amount of the state grant to UNO for school construction from which this beneficence derives.
it’s about real people vs. really rich people, read another of the Daley Plaza placards—rich people like school board president David Vitale, the former CEO of the Chicago Board of Trade, vice chairman fo the DNP Select Income Fund, board member for United Continental Holdings, for which he was paid $216,688 in 2011. And Juan Rangel, about whom I stumbled across a puff piece in Hispanic Executive with the unintentionally hilarious headline “Revolutionary Chicago-based Group Refuses to ‘Act Like a Nonprofit’,” with the following unintentionally hilarious quote: “Rangel also works to combat the misconceptions surrounding nonprofits. The CEO says many young people believe nonprofits are well-intentioned, but offer little room for advancement and require taking a ‘vow of poverty.’”
You see why Chicago teachers are angry. And why they’re not going away. And why they promise more civil disobedience. “So lemme tell you what you’re gonna do,” shouted Karen Lewis at the rally. “On the first day of school, you show up at your real school! You show up at your real school! Don’t let these people take your schools.” They just might. They’ve beat Rahm before. They could beat him again.
For more on the uproar over education, read Allison Kilkenny on Chicago teachers' tactics.
Anthony Lewis reading the news of his Pulitzer Prize in 1963. (AP Photo/File.)
I’ve just learned the former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis died this morning at the age of 85. Among the ornaments to his career were two Pulitzer Prizes and two celebrated books on constitutional law. One, Gideon’s Trumpet, was about the Supreme Court case that established indigent criminal defendants’ right to an attorney, the other, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment, concerned the decision that made it difficult for targets to harass journalists by suing for libel. The Times itself focuses on how he revolutionized coverage of the Supreme Court. I’ll let others talk about that. Me, I’ll focus on a product of the kind of work I do as a historian of the 1960s and ’70s. In my research, I endeavor to assemble massive piles of the kind of arguments ordinary Americans might encounter about current events in the course of a day, the better to reconstruct how public opinion is formed and deformed. As such, it’s pretty easy for me to put together a fairly representative sample of what the most prominent media voices were saying during those years. That’s what I’ve just done now. And what I’ve found is a stunning record of Anthony Lewis’s consistent astringent vision and moral courage when it came to executive power and the national security state—a willingness ещ record the ugliest things the American state was up to, and to unflinchingly interpret them not as the exceptions of a nation that is fundamentally innocent but as part of a pattern of power-drunk arrogance. Think of Noam Chomsky on the op-ed page, several times a week.
I read him reporting, after visiting North Vietnam during Richard Nixon’s relentless bombing of the country, about American planes bombing hospitals despite the obvious red crosses painted on their roofs. He visited the hospitals; he wrote, decimating American moral arrogance and the bombing campaign’s entire raison d’être—intimidating the Communists into surrender—“It is impossible for this visitor to detect any atmosphere of fear.” In a letter to fellow columnist Stewart Alsop (quoted in this book) he described his motives for reporting uncomfortable stuff with the bark off: “I happen to believe in the sanity of our country, and the last chance to save it from the eternal damnation that the Nazis earned Germany…. If you cannot see that the mass bombing of one of the most densely populated areas on the face of the earth is a crime, then nothing can save us and we shall deserve the reputation we have earned.”
He detected in Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre firing of the special prosecutor investigating him “the smell of an attempted coup d’etat.” Two weeks after the fall of Saigon, he excoriated the parochialism of the correspondents his profession had begun sending to Vietnam a decade earlier, baffled “that the Vietnamese are not American in outlook and never would be,” who “almost all accepted the official view of the war” which “think[s] of options only in terms of their effects on the country involved.” Two months later, in a piece called “Lying in State,” he recited polling that the percentage of people who distrusted the government had risen from 22 to 62 percent in ten years. Such observations were common in those dark days. What made Lewis’s different was the forcefulness of his interpretation: that people didn’t trust government because its “officials who are caught out in crude deceptiosn so seldom pay any penalty.” He went on to sear the page with stories about former CIA director Richard Helms baldly telling one Senator that the CIA never tried to overthrow the government of Chile when the CIA had actually spent $5 million to overthrow the government of Chile, and another that there had been no CIA connection to Watergate burglars Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt after 1970 even though the CIA had supplied them their burglary equipment.
And he wrote, when America had waited hardly six months before beginning its next ill-advised (not-so-)secret foreign intervention, in the form of CIA support for a faction fighting for control of the African nation of Angola, that “what the world sees as self-inflicted wounds may look to the authors as a way of electing Gerald F. Ford and keeping Henry Kissinger in office.” He was airing his suspicions that the White House had let a secret mission leak intentionally to give them a political foundation to fight Congress’s intent to increase constitutional accountability of the security state, “painting themselves as patriots.” He concluded, “What is needed, and painfully absent now, is a strong voice in Congress to contest that definition of patriotism.”
He loved that word, “patriotism.” He loved the concept. “Nothing should make us forget that moment of shared wonder and love of country,” he wrote on the first anniversary of the civic process that led to Nixon’s resignation—emphasis added. He was, in fact, one of the articulate and eloquent defenders of a new definition of patriotism that insisting that revealing uncomfortable truths, of criticizing one’s country, of holding leaders accountable for their sins, was a higher form of loving one’s country. If you agree, and I suspect most of you do, mourn Anthony Lewis.
Will recent election wins and ongoing demographic shifts usher in a new liberal era? Not so fast, Rick Perlstein writes.