Wednesday, February 27, 2013

High Noon for the Economic Assassins

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 10
Matt Taibbi, Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History
and Michael Lewis, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World


Let us first acknowledge: today’s economic mess is not partisan. Tea Party agitators have a point. Many small entrepreneurs get nickel-and-dimed out of the market by petty regulations, enabled by bureaucrats with no discretion over the rules they enforce. But agitators assume the same applies equally, everywhere. It doesn't. Politicians left and right hold the door for moneyed interests, in a hogs-to-the-trough orgy that has not included schleps like us.

Matt Taibbi writes: “We live in an economy that is immensely complex and we are completely at the mercy of the small group of people who understand it—who incidentally often happen to be the same people who built these wildly complex economic systems. We have to trust these people to do the right thing, but we can't, because, well, they're scum. Which is kind of a big problem, when you think about it."

From the home mortgage bubble to the commodity run to the investment bank bailout to the health care reform cock-up, Taibbi examines the ways money has permeated all corners of public life, lifting the rock and watching the cockroaches scurry. This is an angry book for angry people, which in the wake of the TARP mess we all were. Years later, we must ask, does enough of that anger remain that politicians will fear the people?

A cadre exists on Wall Street that has gotten obscenely rich without contributing any value to the economy. Their machinations distort the value of a buck for the rest of us. While wage earners see their standard of living stagnate, a tiny few grow so rich that they call the very idea of money into question. While politicians and journalists treat those few like secular saints, only Matt Taibbi has pioneered the path of calling them the dirt they are, to their faces.

This story is not without controversy. Taibbi admits that the Rolling Stone magazine article which spawned this book drew brutal criticism. Financial journalists excoriated this outsider for calling jerks what they are, right up until the moment they joined the chorus. Taibbi's thesis (minus, perhaps, the cuss words) now represents the mainstream of American financial commentary. But still, Taibbi puts it forthrightly, without prettifying the hideous.

Disaster journalist Michael Lewis concurs: "Everywhere you turn you see Americans sacrifice their long-term interests for a short-term reward." But where he writes that, he's just spent an entire book proving how that describes the entire developed world, gulled by promises of free money and cheap prestige. Us Yanquis can clean our own house, but the world remains awash in filth left by the receding housing tide of 2008.

Lewis travels to five countries that took the biggest bath in the 2008 financial crisis. Iceland had money lying around, got into investing, and created pretty paper billionaires, but very real liabilities. Greece wanted the respectability of Eurozone membership, but not the responsibility. Ireland turned cheap bank deposits into a housing boom nobody wanted. Germans played by the rules, but their banks didn't, and left the state holding all Europe's bag.

Finally, Lewis unpacks America. For the most part, he unpacks California, which he clearly regards as a microcosm of what went wrong nationwide. Citizens want everything under the sun from the state, but refuse to pay for it. Big entities fob their liabilities onto subordinates, then plead helplessness when cities hit the wall. And time and again, we know exactly who caused the problem, but refuse to call their bluff.

Lewis describes the circular circumstances that created this mess. Though he has separate chapters for the five countries he examines, their entanglements transcend mere borders. The almost balletic movement of money on a global scale reveals that the financial folderol, America-centric though much coverage has been, makes geographically bound nation-states look creaky in light of transnational supply lines.

When everything went kaput, the megaquadzillionaires who created the problem claimed, with some justification, that if they suffered the consequences of their irresponsibility, the entire economy would burn with them. States rushed to buffer the people who bet staggering sums on lame horses. Modest operators, who trusted their bosses and elected leaders, took it on the chin. The result, as Lewis puts it: capitalism for everybody but the capitalists.

The impact from the 2008 crisis still creates shockwaves in politics and society. Yet few of us can truly comprehend what happened. Taibbi and Lewis translate that meltdown into plain English, and they demonstrate how close we now are to permitting another catastrophic crash.

Monday, February 25, 2013

If Ever O Ever A Wiz There Was

John Joseph Adams & Douglas Cohen (editors), Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond

How many fantasy authors do you suppose started writing because of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Like me, they probably reached the last page and couldn’t bear to let the story go. Or maybe they goggled at how much the book differed from the movie, and wanted to reconcile the gap. Whatever the reason, many probably started writing because Oz opened a door they never knew anyone had closed.

Esteemed editors Adams and Cohen collect several authors to put their own spin on literature’s most famous magic land, and its most famous heroine. Some of the authors are celebrities in their own right, like Orson Scott Card, Jane Yolen, and Seanan McGuire. Others are niche authors or up-and-comers, whose words say more than their names. All share an obvious enthusiasm for the classic story, and bring a range of insights with them.

Dorothy’s adulthood makes a recurring theme. Seanan McGuire presents a grown, disillusioned Dorothy, fallen from Ozma’s graces, investigating a murder in the land where nobody dies, in “Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust.” Simon R. Green’s “Dorothy Dreams” features Dorothy’s waning days in a rest home. Theodora Goss’ “Lost Girls of Oz” features Dorothy as Ozma’s military commander, preparing to invade that ancient enemy: America.

Some of these stories even skip across genres. David Farland’s cyberpunk vignette “Dead Blue” and Tad Williams’ “The Boy Detective of Oz” are both science fiction, the latter building on Oz themes in Williams’ slipstream Otherland novels. Ken Liu’s “Veiled Shanghai” retells the classic story as an allegory of China’s May 4th Movement, in which Chinese youth took a stand against European imperialism and Beijing’s feeble indecision.

May I add: Wow.

Some of the best stories remain true to Baum’s original narrative, adding to the story or presenting some other way of seeing it. The stories bookending this collection, Rae Carson & CC Finlay’s “The Great Zeppelin Heist of Oz” and Jonathan Maberry’s “The Cobbler of Oz” serve as prequels, helping explain how Oz became the powerful but confused land Dorothy first discovers. The former is primarily funny, the latter sad and touching.

Some of the most interesting suggest that something bigger is happening behind the scenes of Baum’s original novel. Rachel Swirsky’s “Beyond the Naked Eye” reveals that Dorothy’s quest was really part of a rigged reality TV show, while Dale Bailey’s “City So Bright” tells the tale of the nameless workers who keep the Emerald City looking so pretty. Both declare that, below the shiny surface, long-unspoken desires threaten to boil over into insurrection.

These stories bring an important “view from the bottom” often missed, not only in Oz, but in fantasy altogether. We easily forget that fairytale kingdoms and Neuschwanstein-esque castle confections rely on battalions of workers to oil the gears. Part of the transition to adulthood involves reconciling the romance of the top and the reality of the bottom. As such, these stories may hang closest to Baum’s original fantastic intent.

As is common in current “grown-up” literature, some of the stories run toward cynical nihilism. Jeffrey Ford’s “A Meeting In Oz” features a grown Dorothy finding that adulthood did not agree with her, locked in a staredown of mutual recrimination with a paunchy, despondent Wizard. Kat Howard’s “A Tornado of Dorothys” tells of a magic land trapped in eternal recurrence, plagued with ghosts and hungry for another Dorothy to consume.

Not to speak poorly of these stories. The most cynical generally also show the greatest depth. My favorite, Robin Wasserman’s “One Flew Over the Rainbow,” presents the famous wandering quartet as psych ward inpatients. It’s bleak and gloomy (the story owes more to Girl, Interrupted, than the implied source), but it has the book’s most humane and touching denouement. Just be warned: read too many of these stories in a day at your own peril.

Out of fifteen stories, I’d expect one anticlimactic letdown. Seldom have I been so happy to see my expectations thwarted. These authors keep the twists, insights, and unique viewpoints on a well-known story coming at us. Though sometimes inappropriate for small children, these stories build on the sense of childlike wonder that never quite goes away.

As Orson Scott Card’s “Off To See the Emperor” implies, Oz remains at hand. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Alternately smart, tragic, funny, surprising, and insightful, these stories reaffirm why Oz remains fundamental to American childhood: because it addresses us where we are, affirming that our own stories matter.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Guns, Women, and My Friend—God Rest Her

My friend Deanna was murdered this weekend.

There. I said it. After days of struggle to come to grips with what happened, I’ve put it down in black and white. I have to live with it. And now that you’ve read it, so do you.

Reporters are playing coy with some details, probably because the police are doing the same, but we know this:

When Deanna failed to report for work at Allen Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas, on Tuesday, the school sent someone to her home to investigate. They found Deanna lying face down on her bed. They also found her boyfriend—name withheld—elsewhere in the house, dead. They currently believe the boyfriend shot Deanna, then shot himself in the head. They believe this happened on Saturday, though nobody found the bodies until Tuesday.

With all the violence in the news lately, we have grown bored. The casualties in Aurora, Clackamas, and Sandy Hook meld into a faceless mass. We can’t calculate numbers, much less remember names or personalities. Murder, in some cities, has become downright ordinary; it takes body counts in the double digits to blast us out of our saggy, narcotized complacency.

But Deanna was not a statistic. This is a woman I ate dinner with, told jokes with. This woman bought me coffee. This woman came to my house and fawned over my cat. Deanna is a real person, a real part of my life—a part that is now over.

We have a real sickness in American society, one that manifests in serious, concrete ways, but which we will not address seriously because we believe doing so will violate... what? What will it violate to take serious steps to curb gun violence? Certainly, in writing the Second Amendment, the Founders did not mean we could do nothing to save my friend. They did not mean for us to stand powerless in the face of violence destroying our communities.

Advocates claim we need guns for protection. But Deanna was killed by the man who should have protected her, using the gun he should have protected her with. Advocates claim women are safer with a gun in the house. But the CDC, FBI, and Harvard’s School of Public Health agree that a positive correlation exists between firearms availability, and women’s likelihood of violent death.

Somebody reading this will say that, if her boyfriend had not had that gun, he would have used another tool to kill her. He might have stabbed her, struck her with a hammer, or beat her with his fists. I say: maybe. He certainly would have needed more effort to kill her, and would have had to do so in very close quarters. His success would have come at much greater cost. Without that gun, Deanna would have been much more likely to survive this encounter.

Wayne LaPierre of the NRA famously claimed, following Sandy Hook, that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” But as a Christian, I reject such manichean divisions. We all have good and bad within us. And I know Deanna; she would not have let that man into her house if she thought him anything less than a “good guy.”

For all the good that did her.

In the wake of recent mass shootings, many reform advocates have felt the need to qualify their statements with demonstrations of their own macho strength. Progressive pundit Ed Schultz can’t endorse regulatory reform without saying “I’m a sportsman.” Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords stressed their own gun ownership. Joe Biden suggested shooting shotgun shells into the air. It’s as though we can’t demand change without first flashing our machismo credentials.


So let me say it: I’ve never owned a gun. I’ve never knowingly permitted a firearm into my house. I do not hunt, shoot skeet, or target shoot. I’ve gone range shooting with a rented gun, once. But like nearly two-thirds of Americans, I am not a gun owner or sport shooter. I consider myself a regular guy, but will not prove it through Freudian strutting.

As a non-gun guy, I say we must change. The current debate is too narrow, driven by crinkum-crankum opinions that have not changed in decades. The demand for perfect solutions or none at all has stalled. We need to move forward, now.

Because you don’t want to join me in mourning a friend, dead by the gun that should have protected her.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In Praise Of Routine Work

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Nine
Barbara Garson, All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work


Back in my teaching days, I used to insist, as many English teachers do, that nobody is ever really too busy, tired, or overworked to occasionally read a book. Sure, people come home tired, and reading requires effort, but if we put aside vain pursuits that narcotize us, like television, we always have the strength to nurture our intellectual well-being. Typical arrogant teacher. I realized how wrong I was, in part, when I discovered Barbara Garson.

The essential argument underlying this book is that human beings want to work. We love work. Work is part of our nature. But human beings don't work with the unstoppable fervor of machines, so the people who dole out work have tried to compress us into the role of industrial robots. The modern workplace, in which laborers don’t own the product of our labors, is actually the arena for an epic cold war between labor and management—which manifests in surprising, even humorous ways.

Garson doesn't pretend to be impartial. She's outspokenly socialist, believing that the people who do jobs are best capable of judging how those jobs ought to be done. She is not looking for a free hand in the world, and she's not looking to loaf on the clock. But when work is stripped of its inherent meaning and reduced to trivial repetitive twists and pulls, this necessarily strips the workers of some of their noble humanity.

The most important lesson Garson pulls from her experience observing workers and their work is not that work exists. The standard socialist line, which Garson admits she held walking into this project, contends that work is a monolithic evil imposed on us by external forces. Why should anybody want to trade away their strength and health for a few measly dollars on the hour? Are we worth so little to ourselves that we will sell our time so cheaply?

But on the ground, Garson discovered what generations of philosophers and mushy leftist provocateurs before her already found, that jobs are not imposed on us. We work because our efforts define our spirits. When tedious jobs seem vacant of meaning, workers diligently do whatever they can, play any silly game or assume any volunteer task, to make meaning. Garson writes:
The crime of modern industry is not forcing us to work, but denying us real work. For no matter what tricks people play on themselves to make the day's work meaningful, management seems determined to remind them, "You are just tools for our use."
Garson began this book in the 1970s, and you can tell. Several of her interviewees think they're doing pretty well to be making a buck eighty-five an hour, because that's two dimes better than some of their friends. Her earliest interviewees are bulk industrial workers manufacturing light consumer goods, a field that barely exists in the U.S. these days. Factory work, I have learned, may lack meaning, but you can look at your line’s daily output and see what you accomplished.

Her final interviewees crunch computers for banks and other institutions, often supervised by software packages that count keystrokes. Such regimes measure busywork and assume it correlates with productivity. Creative office drones find intriguing ways to subvert the system, but too few are trained to understand the machines they operate. If anything, data work is even more meaningless because cube dwellers can't see their co-workers and have no idea if the next person on the line is even still alive.

Sadly, such weariness does exist that it robs people of the ability to nurture their minds. But it does not come about from slovenliness or the lack of interest. It comes because people care so much about their work, and struggle so hard to imbue meaningless toil with spiritual significance, that they have no strength left at the end of the day. The intimate struggle with impersonal forces creates the context of our lives, and consumes the energy teachers want us to use elsewhere.

If you've ever had a job so trivial that you wonder why you bother, you'll recognize that you're not alone. If you've always been on top of the heap, you'll gain a broad understanding of what it's like for the people whose shoulders you stand on. Either way, you're likely to understand why it's so important that workers link arms and stand together, what they lose when they work with blinders on, and what work could be if humanity were restored to its place of honor.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Christian Counterculture, Part Two

Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative
This review follows A Manifesto For a Christian Counterculture.
If, as I contend, Protestant churches are bleeding membership because we have softened our public expression of shared beliefs, the answer seems logical: we must reclaim our heritage of ancient creeds and confessions. This seems like a small issue, but many church traditions, particularly charismatic and evangelical, have embraced the belief that creeds are man-made documents that verge on idolatry. Seminary historian Carl Trueman disagrees.

The classic ecumenical Christian creeds were devised out of great controversy, out of the need to answer important questions in a way that accords with Scripture, but keeps us united as believers. But where Christians through the ages have seen these statements as brief introductions to our beliefs, certain emotive evangelical leaders see these as man-made documents of lesser, or no, authority. These beliefs prove hugely persuasive in some circles.

Carl Trueman comes from a conservative Protestant tradition—conservative in the sense of possessing principles founded in age-old Christian mores, not politically conservative. He counters the “No Creed but the Bible” ethos with copious use of the Bible, and the struggles of Christians in the years after the New Testament. While nobody could mistake this for light reading, his explication of Christian confession through the ages is enlightening and deep.

The belief that only the Bible can provide a creed, Trueman says, not only lacks Biblical foundation (he cites multiple Pauline passages that clearly resemble creeds), it lacks any Christian basis. Rather, he sees it as a product of worldly influence, particularly the gestalt we call “postmodernism.” In other words, churches that reject millennia of confession are privileging that which is in the world over that which is in us.

Trueman comes across as distinctly anti-modern, though that may be a somewhat narrow view. He sees current culture dominated by contradictory forces: faith in science causes us to reject the past and idealize the future, yet imposing scientific complexity causes a retreat into fuzzy emotionalism. These forces create a cultural milieu that honors the present tense, while suspending reason. This favors youth and naivete over learning and experience.

Creeds, confessions, and catechisms connect us with the Christian tradition between the Apostolic era and the present. They provide a context for our beliefs, such that we do not need to reinvent the wheel every generation, or every Sunday. They let us define and explain our beliefs without having to fumble through disparate Scriptural passages that may sprawl across hundreds of pages. In short, they give Christians a shared public vocabulary.

Additionally, creeds give individual Christians and congregations the power to redress abuses. When churches lack such public declarations, pastors and leaders can preach inconsistent, self-serving messages. They can change doctrine and deny any change. They can elevate themselves to levels of power not reserved to human authority. Creedal churches have immediate answers when that happens, and can correct or remove heterodox influences.

All churches, Trueman explains, have creeds. All churches and congregations have shared interpretations of Scripture and other influences. The difference is whether they state these beliefs aloud, in a transparent manner that invites and permits public discussion. Churches that have only an implicit creed are breeding grounds for Jonestown-style abuses. Churches which share a public confession empower individual Christians to have a voice in their life and belief.

More than once in this book, Trueman uses the word “counterculture,” making explicit what was only implicit in Craig Barnes. For Trueman, Christianity has a role in the world to counterbalance the weight of short-term, earthly views. But for Christians to form a meaningful, influential counterculture, we must first have a culture. We must have shared, public set of beliefs, which we can speak with a balance of concision and detail. Culture requires creed.

Do not undertake this book lightly. As both a pulpit minister and a university historian, Trueman’s language can at times be pretty intimidating. He uses theological terms—soteriology, docetism, eschaton—without pausing for definitions. Clearly he writes for his fellow pastors, though professionals of course don’t have a monopoly on terminology. This may not bother everybody, but even this experienced theological reader had to reach for the dictionary more than once.

Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, frequently quotes Proverbs 29:18—”Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Carl Trueman agrees, and says is applies to the church as much as a nation. So we need clear statements of what we believe, which balances detail and brevity. In other words, we need confessions, catechisms, and creeds. Trueman confidently proves why.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Gillian Philip's Bleak and Godless Fantasy

Gillian Philip, Firebrand

Headstrong Seth MacGregor, bastard scion of a great Sithe captain, and his idolized brother Conal have come into inheritance of their father’s fortress. But the Sithe queen, Kate NicNevin, has strange ambitions that extend beyond her domain. When the brothers MacGregor cross their queen, they find themselves exiled to a land more strange and savage than anything their undying eyes have ever seen: Scotland.

Gillian Philip’s first novel, published in Britain in 2010 and now making its American debut, reverses the expectations of urban fantasy. Instead of the fantastic intruding on ordinary life, the banalities of human life intrude on the Sithe (pronounced “Shee”). By changing the direction of the portal, beloved of writers like CS Lewis and Madeline L’Engle, Philip creates a fantasy world not vast and prodigious, but cramped and limiting.

Because they are long-lived, Philip’s Sithe rely on politics and trust in a way humans cannot. They have built a long-standing and elaborate system of mutual debts that keeps their people stable, if feudal. But it also keeps them completely unprepared for contact with humans, who think in what they consider short terms, and who die so easily and love so little. These Sithe are not the fae and sprites of myth, but very human, and shackled with human limits.

Philip’s otherworldly domain is at once innately Scottish and historical, and modern and transnational. Because her setting is specific, and not some ill-defined fairyland where everything is vague and equal, her words convey more power, and her ideas resonate across cultures. Her use of specific terminology of the Scottish Reformation gives her setting a concrete structure that is truly universal. It is true, as she proves, that only the completely specific is truly universal.

The story divides in three parts: in the first, we learn of the Sithe’s elaborate system of prestation, honor, and power. Queen Kate is absolutely reliant on her subjects, and does not have absolute power; but she is the lawbringer, and as such, has the power to set the tone for any discussion. The careful balance between the bold queen and the powerful MacGregors drives the novel. She is not necessarily “in charge,” in the autocratic sense, but she certainly runs the show.

In the second part, the Sithe come in contact with humans. Because the humans are riven by factions, they are vulnerable to fear. They also possess death—Philip does not share Tolkien's sentimentality regarding mortality. She sees death as a source of fear. Because humans fear death, and strangers, and anything that upsets their prior expectations, they are prone to witch hunts. And a Sithe among the people will inevitably look like a witch.

In the third, the Sithe return to their people, only to find that the structure has been upset in a fundamental way. By playing the system, Queen Kate has garnered to herself a strange new set of powers, and a bizarre new arrangement of loyalties that resemble humanity. One wonders if somehow mortality has set its fingers in the land of the Sithe. Future books will tell, but I suspect we will find that the Sithe know they are dying, their time drawing nigh.

Farah Mendelsohn notes that Western fantasy, whatever its religious motivation, owes a debt to Christian cosmology. Gillian Philip acknowledges that, somewhat, in her use of priesthood and auto-da-fé. But for her, this is nothing beautiful. In her world, when characters have an eye on something beyond this life, they lose sight of what it means to be human. Like Camus, Philip suggests that people who believe in God lose sight of their shared humanity.

One gets the feeling, reading Philip, that she may have intended this book, the beginning of her “Rebel Angels” series, as an answer back to CS Lewis. When the creatures on the far side of the wardrobe cross into our world, the result is far less magical than Lewis implies. Humans are small in her eyes, and the Sithe who encounter humanity return to their transcendent land stained with fear, torture, and the lingering taint of human ambition.

Philip creates an interesting conflict of characters, a struggle between the continuity of the past and the onrush of the future, for which an essentially deathless race is unprepared. Because the Sithe live so long, their world resists change, at least in their own eyes. But change comes inevitably. Even the deathless will face the end of what they think they know. And the change for them will not be pretty.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Gatto's School of Immeasurable Meaning

1001 Books to Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Eight
John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling


A recent Washington Post op-ed by retired schoolteacher Valerie Strauss cautions American college instructors to avoid laying blame for ill-prepared college freshmen at public school teachers’ feet. After all, the No Child Left Behind law has, for thirteen years, constrained teachers’ ability to teach, and hobbled students’ ability to learn. School reform programs are written by non-teachers. Any results that cannot be standardized aren’t followed.

While I cannot dispute the substance of Strauss’ arguments, she makes one fundamental error, tracking the origin of the problem to the 2002-03 school year. John Taylor Gatto’s classic, eminently readable Dumbing Us Down, published over a decade before NCLB became law, spotlights the exact problems Strauss treats as new: overcrowded classrooms, cash-strapped administrations, teaching for the test, and interfering busybodies micromanaging pedagogy.

Gatto achieved national prominence in 1991, at the culmination of a thirty year teaching career. While sitting as the New York City Teacher of the Year for the third straight year, and simultaneously as New York State Teacher of the Year, he published his resignation letter on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. “School is [a] church,” Gatto wrote. “I offer rituals to keep heresy at bay. I provide documentation to justify the heavenly pyramid.”

This document became the opening salvo of a career advocating that school, as practiced in America today, is essentially the opposite of education. Dumbing Us Down became Gatto’s manifesto. When critics like Valerie Strauss call us to question whether the current political climate permits schools to really do justice by their students, Gatto counters by demanding when schools have ever really served their students’ well-being.

Historically, the emphasis in theories underpinning school (as distinct from education) have always come from people outside the pedagogical establishment. “Philanthropists” like Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie subsidized rapid leaps in schooling, though their documents reveal they had little interest in producing well-rounded, inventive citizens. School was a training program to produce reliable, compliant industrial workers. By that standard, it flourished.

But such abstruse theorizing doesn’t hold Gatto’s interest very long. He’s a practical-minded man, devoted to his students as individuals, apart from their statistical valuation. And in his most anthologized essay, “The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher,” he unpacks the classroom experience as it’s actually lived by the mass of students. School, he contends, does not teach its nominal subjects; it teaches subordination, confusion, and nihilistic despair.

Working teachers, like Gatto himself, enter the field because they believe in students and want to build them up. But especially at the K-12 level, teachers have no autonomy in lesson design, are required to ramrod stacks of material into one hour a day, 180 days a year. They cannot respond to students as they are. They are held personally responsible for students’ failures, but if they demand living wages and less crowded classrooms, polemicists call them “union thugs.”

This overflows into how administrations treat teachers outside their pedagogical disciplines. One friend, a former history teacher, got shown the door when he openly protested post-Columbine rules which, he felt, treated all students as potential offenders, and school as a prison camp. This supports the heart of Gatto’s jeremiad: school doesn’t exist to teach subjects. It exists to raise docile, obedient workers, as interchangeable as the machines they will operate.

Some forms of intellectual curiosity are derided as Attention Deficit Disorder, and “corrected” by massive doses of methylphenidate, prescribed on flimsy medical grounds. This results in students robotically attached to meaningless tasks—a desirable outcome if “skillz drillz” are their own justification. Now that I work in a factory, where my job often requires me to stare fixedly at unmoving, repetitive tasks, I understand that such a regime works perfectly.

Though Gatto holds forth on school’s multitudinous problems, as who wouldn’t, he doesn’t merely beat the gong for hopelessness. He names the gap between “school” and “education,” explaining ways he helped his students evade the system. He looks back on how youth became educated in the days before compulsory schooling. And he makes suggestions for how school can become an instrument of education. His suggestions resemble the Montessori Method.

Working educators (and we who have gotten squeezed from the field) believe in school because we believe in students. Too often, school does not believe in us. If we would recapture the reasons we got into education, we must first state a credo of what education is, and why it matters. Gatto, with clear-eyed wisdom and enthusiastic vision, starts us, and our schools, on the right path.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Manifesto for the Christian Counterculture

M. Craig Barnes, Body & Soul: Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism

Today’s evangelical Protestant church has moved away from creeds and catechisms; particularly among highly emotive denominations, the “No Creed but the Bible” belief has become widespread. Craig Barnes, long-term minister and president of Princeton Theological Seminary, doesn’t buy that. And with the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism upon us, he sees the time to move that classic back into common circulation.

The Heidelberg Catechism, first published in 1563 to build ecumenical bridges in the religiously fraught Rhenish Palatinate, is now the core doctrinal statement of several Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. Its simple, scripturally fortified belief statements distill centuries of learning into 129 short declarations. And they start with this: “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

That seemingly simple, but profoundly countercultural, belief establishes the first and most enduring principle for generations of Christians. I am not my own. I do not desire my own grandeur, but strive after my Savior’s mission. I do not fear for my own downfall, but trust in my Lord that, whatever happens in the short term, all things work for good in the God who created me. Think how different that sounds from today’s “me first” society.

Barnes slowly unpacks how much revolutionary insight dwells beneath the surface of the brief but dense Heidelberg Catechism. If we believe that first principle, then the Catechism’s further statements on topics like salvation, prayer, and sacraments serve to help us distill the truth which flows forth. Though the Catechism’s straightforward language makes for insightful reading, Barnes helps translate it into contemporary circumstances.

The Bible provides the foundation upon which all Christians base their beliefs—or should. But the Bible was written for a certain people in a place and time, and that people is not us, here, now. Particularly for new Christians, catechisms allow us to recognize important parallels between passages physically separated by many pages and centuries. The Bible, though solid, is not self-obvious, Martin Luther notwithstanding.

This is emphasized by Barnes’ inclusion, in this book, of the entire Heidelberg Catechism. Not only does the Catechism unpack the entire Lord’s Prayer, Decalogue, and Apostles’ Creed; it’s also thoroughly annotated, underlining scriptural passages written centuries apart, but which work in tandem to convey important beliefs. No one should mistake this document as a replacement for the Bible, but a key to help us understand it, here and now.

The gradual disappearance of catechisms from the Protestant tradition has not led, as some fundamentalists had hoped, to increased authentic spirituality. Indeed, if you talk to your typical American white Protestants today, you’ll find them terribly unversed in their Bible and unable to explain their beliefs. Not just among the laity, either; an appalling number of pastors, active in the pulpit, know more about what TV preachers contend than what the Bible says.

As a Lutheran myself, I know Martin Luther believed anyone could read the Bible and witness the truth thereof. This belief did not stop him from writing two catechisms himself, the Small Catechism for laity and the Large Catechism for clergy. But I also know that these books, and assorted successors, scarcely merit mention in religious discussion after youth confirmation. The loss is palpable.

French sociologist Émile Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, observes that traditions which have sturdy catechisms and rigorous liturgies, maintain great fervor and suffer little apostasy. Contrast the modern Catholic church, with its millennia-old rites and fairly solid numbers, with Protestant churches. I propose that we suffer today, not from a general secularization of society, but from spongy theology and a lack of shared beliefs.

The answer to this is not more dramatic worship programs or more dynamic preaching. The Heidelberg Catechism was written to unify the Rhenish people’s beliefs, to reinforce their identity as a nation. A return to catechisms for all Christians would do more than give everybody shared references. It would help re-establish the sense of Christians, not as fellow adherents to airy-fairy beliefs, but as a culture and a people.

Because Christians are always learning to trust God more, hope more in Christ’s salvation, and live better in the Spirit’s mission, catechisms help make us better students. Simple statements of belief, foundational principles upon which to build, always give us a sturdier structure of faith. Even if this is not the catechism of your church, its ecumenical, scriptural support will help guide you into deeper understanding of yourself and your God.

Follow-up: The Christian Counterculture, Part Two

Monday, February 4, 2013

America's Clandestine Economy, Part Two

Howard Rahtz, Drugs, Crime and Violence: From Trafficking to Treatment
This review partially follows A Brief Guide to America's Clandestine Economy.
American and international drug policy, like policies on guns and immigration, tends to be driven more by emotion than reason. More than forty years after Richard Nixon declared “war on drugs,” study after study reveals that the majority of Americans consider it a failed effort. Yet elected leaders still craft policy to appease a vocal minority of moralistic outliers. Another alternative must exist.

In a dual career as a methadone counselor and ranking Cincinnati vice cop, Howard Rahtz has seen the drug war from multiple fronts. He knows how drug markets destroy neighborhoods, and how massive, high-profile busts make hardly a crease in the larger field. And he has learned one important truth about America’s underground drug economy: it’s an economy, just like the legitimate one, and needs constant transfusions of money.

Much recent drug debate has focused on what Rahtz calls “the prohibition-legalization continuum,” the attitude that we must either ban drugs or permit a libertarian carnival. Neither position makes sense to him. On the one hand, absolute prohibition has racked up massive costs, not just in money, but in lives sullied and communities divided. Rahtz uses multiple yardsticks to demonstrate that America’s drug war is ineffective, unfair, and costly.

But he doesn’t consider complete legalization the alternative. As he states, America doesn’t have a drug problem; it has a drugs problem, with different drugs having different effects on users and society. We must approach each one, as it is, instead of applying blanket bromides in which everything is good. After all, nobody who has seen a meth-head thinks that filth should be legalized.

Rahtz carefully unpacks the past and present of American drug policy. Working backward, much anti-drug rhetoric has been appallingly racist, and many illegal drugs were first banned because cassandras claimed these substances would make minorities rape white women. Hey, hit Uncle Alarmist, his disc is skipping again. These policies remain in place long after America has excoriated Jim Crow. Peter Andreas covers much of this territory in Smuggler Nation.

While keeping brown people comfortably incarcerated, American drug laws also keep criminal enterprises flush with cash. Forget the Crips and Bloods; America’s appetite for narcotics, and the massive undocumented network necessary to supply it, sustain massive money pipelines for Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Afghan Taliban. Our drug habit is also subsidizing Mexico’s ongoing civil violence, and threatens the stability of the European Union.

Rahtz explicates this in great detail, and with thorough documentation, but keeps his writing mercifully free of jargon. The facts he reveals are scary, not just because they exist, but because they exist in plain English. You don’t need a criminology background to understand just how badly the course of the drug war has gone astray, or how we’re paying consequences we should have foreseen.

Instead of doubling down or giving up, Rahtz suggests a third alternative. Though his position is much more complex, unlikely to create the kind of soundbites that fuel talk radio and TV news, he does proffer solid evidence. His suggestions recall what has worked in other nations, and how America has dealt with organized crime in the past. He makes a persuasive case that the past offers valuable lessons to the present impasse.

For starters, we need to stop treating ordinary users as criminals. Our regime based on arrest and incarceration has not produced fewer users, and makes those who want out of the life less likely to seek treatment, or even call an ambulance for an overdose victim. Nations like Portugal and Holland, which treat users as patients in need of medicine, have far fewer users and a much higher recovery rate.

Rahtz’s second, and more intricate, approach involves starving drug networks for cash. Hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, with their long supply chains and smaller markets, rely on marijuana to provide them funds and new customers. Splitting the market would dry up cash reserves, pricing cartels out of the market. Rahtz even spotlights states and nations that have begun this process, and seen street markets dwindle for want of money.

>Rahtz is no romanticist. He acknowledges that drugs exact a heavy toll, including legal drugs like booze, tobacco, and prescriptions. He does not excuse all drugs, or any drugs. But he makes a persuasive case that the cure is worse than the disease, and bolsters that with evidence from two relevant careers. He offers no magic bullets. But if we address our drug problem as it is, we increase our chances of making realistic headway.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Brief Guide to America's Clandestine Economy

Peter Andreas, Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America

In fiction, smugglers are often dashing romantic figures like Han Solo or Captain Jack Sparrow. Or they are filthy criminals trying to get drugs, white slaves, and other carrion across borders. But historian Peter Andreas suggests the reality is both more interesting and more banal than fiction: smugglers are simple entrepreneurs at the forefront of free trade. And they have been the principal architects of America’s proprietary economy.

Andreas, whose academic background encompasses the sweep of political economy, compiles a new history of America spotlighting the effects of smuggling, which he defines as unauthorized commerce. In his telling, the process of evading revenuers, border guards, and moral police has defined our nation. Though he doesn’t pretend his story is absolute, he makes a persuasive case that the contest between state and free money has helped shape America’s identity.

The French and Indian War would have ended much sooner if American colonists had obeyed laws against trading with the supremely underprepared French. (This pattern would recur in the Civil War.) When the British, incensed with this illicit behavior, cracked down on the smuggling they’d previously ignored, colonists rebelled. The American Revolution wasn’t about freedom of religion or arms; its direct motivation was the desire to trade goods with impunity.

But once Americans won their Revolution, they were forced to change their tune quickly: the generals who fought for smugglers’ rights suddenly had to defend their borders. This was especially amplified by the fact that the original Constitution banned income taxes. The state derived its greatest revenues from import duties, so the government and its citizens engaged a race to outsmart each other regarding getting valued foreign goods into the country.

Here we notice one of Andreas’ most striking themes, the recurrent reversals in America’s border trade policy. America today claims to espouse “free trade,” a buzzword that began life as a euphemism for smuggling. In the same manner, behavior once considered revolting eventually became acceptable. Selling whiskey to Indians, once barred because Natives’ lack of liquor protocol led to binge drinking, soon became an arm of American policy.

These reversals often arise out of improvisational morality. Public paranoia surrounding alcohol, drugs, and white slavery resulted in comically disproportionate responses, even if the scare (as with white slavery) was almost entirely fictional. This has often been coupled with baffled responses from public moralists, who apparently assume the population will stop drinking, toking, or paying for sex simply because the law says we should.

While private citizens have done whatever it takes to avoid paying the excise, the state has gone to remarkable lengths to prevent such avoidance. At times, such as during the Whiskey Rebellion or the War of 1812, Presidents who fought in the revolution used the military to enforce trade laws on American citizens. That continues to the present, when the Border Patrol has more armed agents than the FBI and polices the border with Predator drones.

Staunch libertarians have a history of making exceptions, sometimes strikingly large, where it concerns smuggling. Thomas Jefferson supported a weak federal government until he tried using trade to influence the Napoleonic Wars. Suddenly, he favored a strong government with fierce powers, as long as that government used those powers to support his favored policies. Compare that to small-government Republicans who favor double-barreled copyright laws.

Speaking of copyright, American enforcement in that regard has been very malleable. In the early years, America was poorly equipped for the nascent Industrial Age, and suborned explicit piracy to get ahold of new technology. By the Twentieth Century, America’s technology so dominated the world that we enforced some of history's most punitive intellectual property laws. And we’ve tried to force other countries to treat our laws as gospel.

Andreas’ earliest chapters are gripping, having the narrative tension of a pirate romance. The unexpected light he casts on canonical American heroes may make you question everything you learned in high school history. Later chapters become more statistically rich, losing the narrative quality in favor of a data dump. But even in these later chapters, Andreas conveys a sense that America has a choice, where public ethics battle private enterprise.

For students of history, Andreas presents an lucid survey of political economy. For politicians panicked over property rights, human trafficking, and drug running, Andreas puts the present in historical context. And for anyone interested in America’s protean hush-hush economy, Andreas’ fast-paced, novel-like analysis spotlights a seldom-seen corner of American identity that you will not forget once it enters your mind.
For more on a similar topic, see also America's Clandestine Economy, Part Two