I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, September 1, 2014

Sinatra, Carlin, Inequality, Education, and America: Happy Labor Day

Frank Sinatra held his fair share of self-contradictions. For a guy who espoused such working-class sentiments, his endorsement of Ronald Reagan was more than a little incongruous. And JFK, the one politician Sinatra really went to bat for, was such a neo-lib that he would have felt right at home in the Obama White House.

That said, Sinatra had his truly progressive moments: Boing Boing reminds us of his infamous 1963 interview with Playboy, as good a document as any of both the man's philosophy and the zeitgeist of cold war America.

I thought this passage in particular would be good for Labor Day:
Playboy: On a practical level, how would you combat Communist expansion into areas such as Cuba, Laos and the emerging African nations? 

Sinatra: It strikes me as being so ridiculously simple: Stop worrying about communism; just get rid of the conditions that nurture it. Sidestepping Marxian philosophy and dialectical vagaries, I think that communism can fester only wherever and whenever it is encouraged to breed -- not just by the Communists themselves, but by depressed social and economic conditions: and we can always count on the Communists to exploit those conditions. Poverty is probably the greatest asset the Communists have. Wherever it exists, anyplace in the world, you have a potential Communist breeding ground. It figures that if a man is frustrated in a material sense, his family hungry, he suffers, he broods and he becomes susceptible to the blandishments of any ideology that promises to take him off the hook. 

Playboy: Do you share with the American Right Wing an equal concern about the susceptibility of our own country to Communist designs? 

Sinatra: Well, if you're talking about that poor, beaten, dehumanized, discriminated-against guy in some blighted Tobacco Road down in the South, he's certainly in the market for offers of self-improvement. But you can't make me believe that a machinist in Detroit, ending a 40-hour week, climbing into his '63 Chevy, driving to a steak barbecue behind his $25,000 home in a tree-lined subdivision, about to begin a weekend with his well-fed, well-clothed family, is going to trade what he's got for a Party card. In America -- except for tiny pockets of privation which still persist -- Khrushchev has as much chance of succeeding as he has of making 100 straight passes at the crap table. 

Playboy: In combating Communist expansion into underdeveloped areas here and abroad, what can we do except to offer massive material aid and guidance of the kind we've been providing since the end of World War II? 

Sinatra: I don't know. I'm no economist. I don't pretend to have much background in political science. But this much I know: Attending rallies sponsored by 110-percent anti-Communist cultists or donning white sheets and riding with the Klan -- the one that's spelled with a "K" -- isn't the answer. All I know is that a nation with our standard of living, with our Social Security system, TVA, farm parity, health plans and unemployment insurance can afford to address itself to the cancers of starvation, substandard housing, educational voids and second-class citizenship that still exist in many backsliding areas of our own country. When we've cleaned up these blemishes, then we can go out with a clean conscience to see where else in the world we can help. Hunger is inexcusable in a world where grain rots in silos and butter turns rancid while being held for favorable commodity indices. 
That was more than 50 years ago, and what has happened since? We've actually gone backwards: a 40-year slump in which the working American has seen his or her wages and benefits decrease, while nearly all of the productivity gains in this country have gone to the very, very wealthiest among us.

It's incredible that 50 years ago this country seriously entertained the notion that if we didn't divvy up our gains, we would become susceptible to a Communist takeover. Any similar sort of urgency these days has pretty much evaporated. Yes, there are jitters whenever protests like Occupy Wall Street or the rallies around Michael Brown's killing pop up... but America's plutocrats seem quite sure that these things will eventually peter out, and we'll all go back to our Panera bread and digital circuses by and by.

One of the central theses of this blog is that the education "reform" project is largely a distraction designed to keep America's eyes off our predestined inequity. An entire industry has sprung up, using education policy to conflate the issues of social mobility and inequity, to support the tenets of reforminess. The pundit class, largely not our best-and-brightest, has so little historical perspective and so little command of basics in mathematics and logic that they eat this conflation up like it's ice cream.

Fortunately, even with the abetting of our digital mandarins, education reform is imploding under the weight of its own illogic. But you know what? It's possible it really doesn't matter anyway.

It's possible we've become such an idiocracy that we don't even need to hear excuses made for a system that is so obviously corrupt and unfair. It's possible that many people are simply willing to watch their lives and the lives of their children become smaller and meaner and harder just because they've been conditioned to accept such things.

Which brings us to the true threat of a progressive education: the only hope the American middle class has at this point is for our nation to foster enough critical thinkers who can see through the blizzard of crap that large swaths of our feckless media spew at us daily. Teachers have the power to cultivate such thinkers -- and that may well be why some short-sighted plutocrats are spending large amounts of money to de-professionalize us, and why they are pushing to make our teaching increasingly standardized. Divergent thinking is being replaced by "close reading," which is great for the ruling classes, because they get to determine what exactly is being read closely.

I really have no informed opinion on the content of the Common Core: some of it seems developmentally inappropriate, but I'll be the first to admit I'm not the guy to make that judgement (would that others had enough sense of their own abilities to do the same). What concerns me far more, however, was that it was not brought together through a transparent, democratic process. Determining what the children of this nation read and learn has become an exercise in partisan privilege.

No one really had to make a case for Common Core before the American people; it's almost as if the folks behind it felt that putting a thin democratic patina around the project would be enough to shake off any doubts and allow the thing to be rammed through. Same with test-based teacher evaluation and charter school proliferation and gutting teacher tenure all the other reformy policies we've had to endure. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has basically used threats to get states to do what he wants. Has he so little faith in his policies that he doesn't think he can persuade people in an open forum that those policies are worth pursuing?

It's a great irony to me that the folks who want to push all this reformy stuff say they only want to raise the standards of rigor in our schools, yet they seem incapable of making a logical case for what they want against the rigorous critiques of those of us who doubt them. If their poorly reasoned arguments are the model for how they want our schools to teach, critical and progressive pedagogy is doomed.

And maybe that's the whole point.

Anyway, Happy Labor Day -- enjoy the day off. But when tomorrow comes around, my fellow teachers, parents, and critical thinkers, let's get back to the task at hand. It's up to us to save America.

Right, George?

They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying -- lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want -- they want MORE for themselves and less for everybody else. But I'll tell you what they don't want. They DON'T want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that, that doesn't help them. That's against their interests. That's right. They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting ****** by system that threw them overboard 30 ******' years ago. They don't want that. You know what they want? They want OBEDIENT WORKERS. OBEDIENT WORKERS. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly ******** jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime, and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. 

Happy Labor Day!

ADDING: It just doesn't feel right to end this post without a little music from the Chairman himself:

You just can't deny excellence, no matter the field. He was the best at what he did, hands down.
Sinatra: You know, I'd love to visit Russia, and sometime later, China, too. I figure the more I know about them and the more they know about me, the better chance we have of living in the same world in peace. I don't intend to go there with a mission, to sell the American way of life: I'm not equipped to get into that kind of discussion about government. But I'd love to go and show them American music. I'd take Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald with me and we'd do what we do best. We'd wail up a storm with real American jazz so that their kids could see what kind of music our kids go for, because I'm sure that kids are the same all over the world. I'm betting that they'd dig us. And that's got to create some kind of good will, and man, a little good will is something we could use right now. All it takes is good will and a smile to breach that language barrier. When the Moiseyev Dancers were in Los Angeles. Eddie and Liz Fisher gave a party for them, and although I couldn't speak a word of Russian, I got along fine. I just said, "Hello, baby" to the dancers and they shouted, "Allo, babee" back at me. We had a ball. 

Playboy: Frank, you've expressed some negative views on human nature in the course of this conversation. Yet one gets the impression that -- despite the bigotry, hypocrisy, stupidity, cruelty and fear you've talked about -- you feel there are still some grounds for hope about the destiny of homo sapiens. Is that right? 

Sinatra: Absolutely. I'm never cynical, never without optimism about the future. The history of mankind proves that at some point the people have their innings, and I think we're about to come up to bat now. I think we can make it if we live and let live. And love one another -- I mean really love. If you don't know the guy on the other side of the world, love him anyway because he's just like you. He has the same dreams, the same hopes and fears. It's one world, pal. We're all neighbors. But didn't somebody once go up onto a mountain long ago and say the same thing to the world? 

Two geniuses. I could listen to that all day.


laMissy said...

Frank was a pretty articulate guy for someone who, according to Wikipedia, "left high school without graduating, having attended only 47 days before being expelled because of his rowdy conduct." Or maybe Playboy edited his words a bit?

Thanks for a great post!

Michael Fiorillo said...

Thanks for the great post, and for including Frank singing "The Lady Is a Tramp" with Ella, one of my favorites.

Sinatra was a political progressive for years before turning conservative. He was an early opponent of the Hollywood blacklist - something that almost cost him his career - and was closely associated with the Popular Front-type political progressivism of the WWII and immediate post WWII years.

Check out this wonderful time capsule of a potential America that was was effectively destroyed by the Red Scare: Sinatra appearing in Albert Maltz's (one of the Hollywood Ten) "The House I Live In."

The lyrics to the song, which was also beautifully sung by Paul Robeson, were written by "Lewis Allan" (aka Abel Meeropol), the NYC public school teacher who also wrote "Strange Fruit" and adopted the Rosenberg children - they took his last name as their own - after they were orphaned by the US government's execution of their parents.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhPwtnGvig (or Google "Sinatra,the house I live in")