Sunday, May 31, 2015

Memories of Activist Old Days

I am one of those baby boomers who came of intellectual age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Civil Rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the New Left, the New Right, the Beatles, LBJ, Nixon, illegal incursions into Cambodia and Laos, and Kent State were among my teachers.

I became opposed to the war in Vietnam sometime in 1968 if memory serves while I was a student at T.W. Browne Junior High School in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas. In retrospect I must place the blame on my friend at the time, probably my only friend outside of my family, John Cirillo, and the fact that I listened regularly to groups like The Beatles and Credence Clearwater Revival all of whom made me think about things, including the Vietnam War, critically and morally. Soon I was wearing black armbands to school to protest the war and trying to organise walk outs in opposition to the war all, to some extent, to the consternation of my parents.

My opposition to the war in Vietnam made me ask questions about why I thought the way that I did. I had been brought up to believe that America and particularly Texas were the best of all possible worlds and that any wars they fought were done to protect the liberty and freedom of all Americans and Texans. As I learned about the reality behind the Vietnam War and as I learned more and more about real American and Texas history this naive and very manichean form of brainwashing no longer had a hold on the way I thought and the way I perceived the world. By the time I got to college the ideological scales had fallen from my eyes and I become more and more interested in pacifism and in the Christian pacifist sects, groups like the Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, and the Anapabtists, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren. I started to hang out with Quakers particularly of the FGC variety. I liked their activism. I liked their pacifism. I liked their silent meetings. I liked the role they had played in social movements such as the women's rights movement, the Indian rights movement, abolition, and opposition to wars. I liked the role women played in Quaker meetings.

But while I liked and admired the Quakers a great deal I never became a Quaker. As I read more and more of Christian social ethicists like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Howard Yoder I became more and more convinced that Quaker worldly activism and pacifism was too naive and simplistic. Thanks to what I saw happen after the Sixties, the powers that be pushed back and pushed back hard marginalising its critics, and thanks to the many writings of Niebuhr I came to have a healthy skepticism that human perfection was possible and that humans could create "heaven on earth".

Niebuhr's focus on human fallibility seemed to me to dovetail with the Schleitheim Confession's skepticism that"the World" could be turned into the "beloved community", the community of peace and agape, that so many activists hoped for. Despite this skepticism I kept coming back to Quakers, however, for some reason, their persistence and courage, perhaps.

In the 1990s I was living in Provo, Utah and teaching, studying, and doing research at Brigham Young University. In 1992 I and five Mormon friends decided to go down to the Quaker Lenten Weekend at the Nuclear Test Site in Mercury, Nevada about 45 minutes northwest of Las Vegas. While we were in Vegas preparing for our protest the six of us sheltered in a Black Catholic church in downtown Las Vegas along with others of various faiths and non-faiths who had come to Vegas that weekend to protest underground nuclear weapons testing at the Nuclear Test Site. A Catholic Worker fed us some of the best food I have ever eaten. The Quaker business meeting we held the morning before our protest--or was it the day before, my memory is hazy--was one of the best I have ever experienced. The female clerk was one of the best Quaker clerks I have ever seen in action. In forty-five minutes we had decided to allow those who felt called to physically occupy the test site, decided not to allow those sixteen and under to trespass in protest, and decided a host of other things which I can no longer recall. It was breathtaking to watch and even more breathtaking to be a part of.

I was sure while I was sitting in business meeting that I would not be among those who would break the law and trespass at the nuclear test site. When I arrived at the test site I felt the same way. I learned afterwards that the five other people I had come with felt the same. While sitting in silent Quaker worship on the other side of the fence from the test site and with Mercury, Nevada, the city that those engaged in nuclear weapons testing and Nevada used to live and which is now a ghost town for obvious reasons, I felt that I had to engage in civil disobedience. My friends felt similarly. Within thirty or forty minutes we were all criminals. Eventually we were arrested, segregated by gender--the first gender segregation we had experienced the entire weekend--and placed in pens out in the Nevada desert. Within an hour or so we were released.

Little did I know that the most powerful part of going to the desert to protest was still to come. I had met Diana Lee Hirschi at the Salt Lake Friends Meeting which I used to visit periodically when I lived in Provo and knew she had been involved in the protests against nuclear weapons testing. After we were released Diana and a member of the Shoshone Tribe who had given us permission to enter the test site--the Shoshone claim it as theirs--took me and my five Mormon friends to the Peace Encampment across the highway from the test site. They had been its founders and had lived at the Peace Encampment for a time protesting the bombing and the environmental destruction the bombs caused in the Nevada desert. The experience of having the two of them show us around the Peace Encampment and telling of its history was incredibly moving and by the time they took us to a circle of stones underneath which were laminated pictures of downwinders from St. George, Utah, who had become ill and in some cases died from radioactivity, the whole experience had become emotionally draining.

Coming back to Provo after having such experiences seemed bizarre if not surreal. The six of us felt like we were no in the world or of it. We spent the next several weeks seeking out and being with each another. We made tie-die t-shirts. We talked about how the things of the world, romance, celebrity worship, the weather, whatever, seemed silly, petty, and irrelevant. We talked about our experiences to classes full of students at BYU. We talked about doing a Mormon weekend at the test site the next year.

And that is what we did. We spent the next year planning what would become the Mormon Peace Gathering during the Lenten season at the Nevada Test Site. More than 100 Mormons and me, a "Gentile in Zion", came to Las Vegas, stayed at the same Black Catholic Church we had the year before, and protested against nuclear weapons testing once again in the Nevada desert. But it just wasn't the same for me as it was the year before.

Since that magical Quaker weekend in Nevada the world has slapped back. Friends became acquaintances and then distant memories. Being hit time after time by reality turned me more and more cynical and made me more and more misanthropic. And that is where I am today dear readers. I Ron. I cynic. I misanthrope. I tired of and bored by the world I live in. What is a cynic to do?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Life in the Pissant Swamp: The I Don't Understand League

So school is over but student queries and whinging aren't. Yet. Yesterday I got an email from one of the students in my US History from 1877 to today class. He tells me that he or she did the extra credit option for the class but that he or she didn't receive credit for it. Extra credit, by the way, was due the 30th of April, 20 days ago. You think the student would have noticed earlier.

Anyhoo, I responded to the email the student sent telling him the reason he or she didn't get credit for any extra credit is because there is no extra credit assignment from him in Blackboard that I can grade. In other words, the student appears not to have turned in an extra credit assignment.

This being college the tale doesn't end there, however. The student has written me back now twice asking me why he or she did not receive credit for extra credit. I have twice responded twice that I cannot grade or give credit to work that was not turned in and is not there. But this time I also told him or her something that should be obvious. If he or she thinks he or she turned in extra credit on Blackboard then he or she should contact the IT Department on campus to inquire about it.

I patiently await the next session of the Surreal Life of the Pissant Swamp. If only Paris and Nicole were here to add a bit of sub surreal sophomoric humour into the mix.

Woe is Me: A Target Kiada Tale

School was on break so I thought I would drive out to BJ's off Central Avenue in Albany, New York and get some petrol and then check out Target. I am always on the look out for DVD sales and Target occasionally some of the best in the Capital District. It was a windy day, either the 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th of March. I don't remember the date precisely but I do remember how windy it was. Then it was off to work my shift at Honest Weight.

So I get some petrol at BJ's, check out the DVD bins at BJ's, and then head to Target for another DVD adventure. I drove in the back way behind the store. Then I turned left at the first entrance and parked near David's Bridal to avoid the car, cart, and people congestion that inevitably makes the area near Targets door crowded. I have long assumed it is safer for my car.

When I come out of Target and walk east toward my car I begin to see something against it. It is one of those plastic red and grey Target carts that I thought, that I hoped, my car would be safe from. I can see as I get closer to my car that the cart is still there because it is being held in place by the mirror on the passenger side of the automobile. Murphy's Law, or was it perhaps someone who didn't corral the cart, strikes again?

I moved the cart out of the way and then checked out the car as best as I could. It was hared to tell if anything had been done to it. It was winter, a harsh one even for upstate, NY. The car was dirty thanks to the dirt and salt that is put down on the road and is splashed on to your car by other vehicles pass by turning it into a block of moving dirt and salt grime. I thought perhaps I felt a slight dent but I had gloves on and the combination of limited sun and darkness did not help me see what I was looking at.

Thinking that there was nothing I could, New York, I thought was a no fault insurance state, I went to work at Honest Weight. A few weeks later a couple of people at Honest Weight told me I should contact Target. I did. I gave the information to one of the day manager, a female, on shift. She said a Target employee who deals with issues of cart versus car crashes would look at the videotape taken the day I parked my car near David's Bridal, the same place, apparently, Target employees park.

It is now May and I have heard nothing from Target. Needless to say I am not happy. And while I realise I should not have left before contacting Target, the videotape information should back up my story. So should the fact that now the car has been washed and one can clearly see the indentation the cart left along with a revealing stream of grey left by the Target cart when it smashed into my automobile.

I guess my only option now is to think about taking legal action against Target and getting hold of the videotapes before they wipe them. Yes?

Postscript
It is now October and despite Target claiming they lost how to contact me, despite the MOD I talked to at Target saying she said she would watch the tapes of the days I gave her and get back to me but never got back to me, and despite getting the usual Kafka meets Alice in Wonderland runaround I finally heard from target on 22 September. Not surprisingly they, in the form of Kyle Ewert, Claims Associate, denied my claim. To compound the Kafkaesque and Alice in Wonderland nature of the whole affair Ewert had the wrong claim date despite me giving him a specific range of dates and times--9, 10, 11, or 12 March between 12 noon and 4 pm. It looks like contacting the Attorney General and going to court may be my only option to deal with the noticeable bump and grey line on my car caused by a Target cart. One thing I do know for sure is that I will never set foot in a Target again.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Some of the Films in My Life...

Every week, it seems, you find another one of those top ten lists appearing in the media. I have said many times that I don't like top ten, top twenty, top fifty, or top one hundred lists of the greatest books ever written, the greatest films ever made, the greatest television programmes ever produced, or the sexiest men and women in the world, the worst offenders in the genre. I have not read every book written. I have not seen every film made. I have not seen every television program ever produced. I have not seen every man and woman in the world. Nor has I suspect any one else out there not even the venerable film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum who has watched hundreds and hundreds of movies. As a result any list of top this or top that must be tentative. That those who manufacture them aren't as tentative as they should be about their lists is simply yet another indication of how arrogant, narcissistic, and ignorance is bliss humans are.

Something else the inveterate creators of top this or that lists forget is how we humans change our minds almost on a daily basis and how circumstances around us and within us affect us on a daily basis. I may have a top ten list one day, see another movie on another day, and subtract a film from my top ten list replacing it with one I just watched. I may see a film that critics have raved about, find the critical consensus problematic, and question whether the film should be in anyones top ten list. Then I might watch it again, find it one of the best films I have ever seen and wonder what I was thinking before. Some time later I might continue to see it as a great film but not number it amongst my favourite films. This was, by the way, exactly the experience I had with John Ford's The Searchers. Expectations, among other things, can impact how we watch and judge a film.

Now don't get me wrong, I have had a pretty consistent list of my favourite films since the 1980s and I have seen very little in the way of cinema in the preceding years that has changed my mind about the favourite films at the top of my list. At the summit of my top film list are three films: Jacques Rivette's comédie fantastique Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating), François Truffaut's tale of bohemian love and loss, Jules et Jim, and Dušan Makavejev's truly radical and absolutely hilarious montage film of Wilhelm Reich, orgone boxes, Jugolslavian devotees of Reich and orgone boxes, frigid Soviets, orgasmic Americans who mistake machismo for sex, and sex as true Communist liberation, W.R. - Misterije organizma (WR: Mysteries of the Organism), a film I first saw at an Institute of Sex Research film festival in the Indiana University Memorial Union in Bloomington in the early 1980s if memory serves. Recently, thanks to a Second Run DVD, I have added a new film to my very favourite films list, Jaromil Jireš's surrealistic coming of age tale of a young girl becoming a young woman, Valerie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders). Needless to say this list probably says more about me and, in the process, raises questions among many of you out there about my cinematic sanity. I would like to think, however, that my list raises questions about any notion of a transcendental set of films as inherently brilliant since, I suspect, few others would list the same films I do among their top four list. That said Rosenbaum and David Thomson rate, like me, Celine et Julie as one of their favourite films.

Below these four films, my Mount Rushmore of the cinema, I would put several other films though this list is far more dynamic than that which includes my four titans. I love--one can't seem to get away from Kaelian or Barthesian metaphors when talking about cinema can one--Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window, The Lady Vanishes, and perhaps most of all Notorious. I love Howard Hawk's To Have or To Have Not and His Girl Friday. I love John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. I love Ingmar Bergman's Persona. I love Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, Magnificent Ambersons, and most of all, Touch of Evil. I love Casablanca.

I am sure there is a world of cinema just waiting for me to love out there. I am sure if film preservation practises were better, film studios, after all, have generally always been money centred on maximizing profits and this situation is even worse today even in places with a strong sense of cultural heritage like France, there would be even more films for me to possibly love. For today, however, this list will have to do.

The Chronology of Banality: An Honest Weight Bureaucratic and Moral Tale

"Hello, hurrah, there's a price to pay to the Eton Rifles", Eton Rifles, The Jam, 1979

I have heard from a source at Honest Weight that one Board member claims that I turned in a Board application but withdrew it. Here, for accuracies sake, is the chronology of the application. I turned in my application on the 28th of March. Applications were originally due the 27th of March but Board member Ned Depew told me the application deadline had been extended. It was to him I gave my application.

On the 29th I head from Morgaen Hansen, Honest Weight Membership Coordinator, and then Erin Shaw, member of the Board, Secretary of the Board, and, along with Karen Roth, coordinator of applications for the four Board positions open at Honest Weight (a "perceived conflict of interest", a phrase that has become a favourite of some management and some of the Board, perhaps since Shaw was running for the Board herself?), that there was a problem with the application. I was not, they said a member, therefore I couldn't run for the Board. I responded that since I had not received a cheque refunding my membership I was still, at least in my opinion, a member. I was given the application back by Shaw and told by her that I could resubmit it and run if I had my membership in order by the 31st of March.

I received the refund cheque from Honest Weight on the 30th. I put it into my application packet and turned my application in at the front desk on the 30th. This is when Frye and Kuchera intercepted it, with aid from someone or someones, I suspect, from the back and called me to the back to try to bully me into withdrawing it. Frye, as I reported earlier, had a change of heart and decided to bring my case to the Board suggesting, by doing, this, that he and Kuchera were working on their own behest and/or on the behest of powerful others.

The Board then made a decision to reject my application without even inviting me to appear on the 7th of April, a few days before Board elections. Depew said it was because I wasn't a member on the 28th and that Shaw had made a mistake when she told me I had to have membership in order on the 31st. Again, my argument is that since I was not refunded my membership share fee and the cheque had been returned to Honest Weight on the 30th I still was a member.

Regardless, it is clear that I was punished by the Board by being not allowed to run for mistakes I did not make. This and the Board's choice to choose to ignore the mote in their own eye, the fact that two of their members did not give me the correct information, and to stake out a legalistic bureaucratic position in a supposedly cooperative setting--Karen Roth had offered a more cooperative and humane approach when she notified me by email saying she didn't see why, given that members of the Board had made mistakes in the information they provided me, they couldn't make an exception in my case and let me run--reveals to me and should reveal to others anyone with quite clearly that certain members of the Board and, I suspect, certain members of the management team, didn't want me to run and were looking for any which way they could to stop me from participating in Honest Weight style "democracy". This, reveals, a lot, in my opinion, about the "character" of at least some members of the Board and a lot about the current "character" of Honest Weight, a corporation is a "person" after all or so many modern western legal systems tell us.

I have once again put in a request for a refund of my share payment. I no longer want to be a member of a bureaucracy with such a "character". No bourgeois smiley face in the face of the bourgeois kick in the gut displays of power for me. I am interested in how long it will take to get my refund this time since I put a sentence on the "Share Refund Request Form" that in my book I am a member until I cash the refund cheque. At this moment I cannot see anything on the horizon that would make me rejoin Honest Weight in the future (if I am not "fired" for "insubordination first I intend to continue working at Honest Weight until I to return to Texas in 2016 or 2017 after I have my retirement fully vested with the state of New York) given that I am choosy about the "characters" I keep. I am certainly not going to run for the Board for as the Schleitheim confession of 1529, one of the founding manifestos of Anabaptism counsels, be careful who you yoke yourself to. Now I realise that not everyone on the Board or at Honest Weight are complicit to the same degree in the banality I have spoken about before, a banality I think is so evident at the Corpop not to mention across the globe. Some don't know what happened. Some actively participated in what happened. Some, participants or not, presumably agreed with what happened. Some, participants or not, did not agree with what happened. Some may even respond to the inequalities of power at the Corpop these actions of the powers that be reveal. Others simply chose or choose to look the other way.

Life in the Pissant Swamp: The Curious Incident of Syllabus Anxiety...

It happens every semester. I get a healthy number of emails during the course of the semester and particularly at the end of the term asking me questions that have already been answered in the syllabi for my classes.

J.M.Slattery, and J.F. Carlson define the college syllabus as a "contract between faculty members and their students, designed to answer students' questions about a course, as well as inform them about what will happen should they fail to meet course expectations." This is, I suppose, a decent enough definition but today's syllabi are more than that. My syllabi, for instance, contain the standard information about me, about when my office hours are, about where my office hours are held, about what time my office hours are, about what time the class meets, about the objectives for the class--these became a mania in lower and higher education in the 1970s--detailed information about class assignments, detailed information about what students are expected to read weekly in preparation for class meetings, a detailed class calendar, and detailed information on the total number of points students can earn in my classes and detailed information on how to compute letter grades from total number grades. The syllabus has become more than this since the 1970s when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington, however. When I was a student the syllabus was mostly about the educational aspects of the class. Today faculty are required to put information in syllabi about options for students with disabilities and information on where to meet should an emergency occur during class time. Additionally, since todays students have become devotees of that Ancient Greek philosophical school of sophistry one has to specify how many paragraphs students must write for their assigned papers. It is not good enough to tell them to write enough to do the assignment because, in my ethnographic experience, many students simply want to put in the minimum effort possible in order to get a passing grade on a paper for the course. One has to spell everything out in the language of syllabic legalese

The situation regarding students and books these days, by the way, is very similar to that of students and papers. Once upon a time when I taught the second course in the chronological sequence of European History I gave students the option to read any work of European fiction after the Enlightenment they wanted to. I naively thought they would choose a book they really wanted to read. To my surprise, however, during one term in which I taught this course virtually every one of my students decided to read George Orwell's Animal Farm. I soon discovered the reason why. It was not because they had long wanted to read Orwell's famous book. It was not because they had to read it. It was not because they had an interest in 20th century autocracy. They read it, I learned, because it was the shortest book on my extensive book option list. Speaking of students and books when I was a student I had two courses during my first semester that required me to read thirteen books for each course. I loved it because reading books was for me what the intellectual life was, at least in part, about. Today it is almost impossible to assign students more than a book or two a term and even then few students crack a book unless they have to.

Given that the syllabus is a contract between professor and student (a fact that makes common student notions that syllabi can be changed in the middle of a term rather bizarre), given that the syllabus contains information about the class that is essential to a successful prosecution of the course, and given that I make every student do an assignment in the first few weeks of each term affirming that they have read the syllabus, in the legalistic atmosphere of the contemporary university one has to, one has to hypothesise about why students keep asking questions that are already answered in my syllabi. This year I decided to count up how many students asked me questions in the days after the final exam that were answered clearly in the syllabus. The result was fascinating. This term 5 students or 7% of my two US History 2 class asked me questions at the end of the term that were already answered answered in the syllabus (7% of the two classes). Two students or 3% of the two classes asked me what the total points for the class were despite the clear indication of what the total points for the class were in the syllabus (110, A=93). One of the students who wrote asking this question still didn't get it after I sent a copy of the grade breakdown from my syllabus to him or her and told him or her that extra credit was extra credit. This is just further proof that people create a reality that has little connection to realty and they won't give it up even when they are staring that reality in the face. Fascinating, Captain.

A charitable explanation for the ritualistic practise of students writing to ask me questions that have already been answered in the syllabus would be that some students are lazy. I learned about contemporary slacker student culture when I asked one of my classes why students are wearing slippers to class these days. I assumed it was because it was part of some trend probably started by some Hollywood star or some pop music celebrity. One of my students, however, said unequivocally that it was because her generation was lazy. This explanation, by the way, is consistent with the evidence of the tendency of some students to put assignments in the wrong place or in the wrong format on Blackboard and the unfortunate tendency of some students not to go to IT with Blackboard or computer problems. A more concerning and alarming explanation might be that students have problems comprehending what is written in syllabi these days. This hypothesis perhaps raises a whole host of questions including the unfortunate tendency in secondary schools these days to teach for the test. Or perhaps students are driven simply by fear and anxiety. Regardless of the reason, I find syllabus anxiety disorder truly remarkable and frankly rather frightening.

Friday, May 15, 2015

You Dropped a Bomb on Me: The CBC, William Shatner, and Violent Laughing in the Canadian Rockies

One of my most vivid memories is hearing a CBC radio show on Shatner's and Nimoy's musical legacies as my then friend Lea Dainielsen and me were coming out of the mountains of Alberta and BC. Lea and I were spending our August and September exploring the American and Canadian Rockies from the Snake River to Grand Teton, from Yellowstone to Glacier (my and Lea's favourite), from Elk Island to Jasper and Banff, from Yoho to Kootenay. It was one of the funniest things I ever heard. When the commentator played the full version of Shatner's overwrought adaptation of the Beatles "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", both Lea and I lost it. We laughed so hard that we both thought I was going to crash my '77 Camaro. Thankfully--though many of you might disagree here--I didn't.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Pharmacy Tale: The Walgreen's and CVS Kiada

There has been this faith for some time in the Western world that the stuff of the Western world, our mass capitalist economic bureaucracies, our mass nationalist political bureaucracies, our mass "superior" cultural forms, our mass science and technology (she blinded me), and our economic and political zeal to bring our kind of economics, politics, and culture to the rest of the world, would bring order, stability, liberty, freedom, peace, prosperity and happiness (this almost sounds like a Vulcan greeting) to everyone around the world. The corporate capitalists who brought "order" to the "chaos" of Gilded Age America through rationality and science argued that they were making the world a better place. They certainly made the world a better place for them thanks to the monopolies and cartels they created through horizontal and vertical integration which allowed them to make millions thanks to economies of scale. The Progressives who brought "order" to the political "chaos" of America after 1900 thought they were making the world a better place. They certainly made the world a more profitable place, broadly defined, for them and their corporate capitalist allies. For captains of industry and Progressive politicians corporate worlds were and still are the best of all possible worlds.

But has the "order" corporate types brought to our increasingly global political, economic, and cultural worlds created the best of all possible worlds? I want to address that question through a story that really happened to me.

Recently, well since November, I have had sinus and throat problems. Just when it seemed I was getting better, less throat pain, less stuffiness, things seemed to get worse again. In April my sinus problems began to affect an asthma I have had since I was twelve. This asthma has, at various times in my life, incapacitated and hospitalised me on a number of occasions. Since the invention of Advair and Singulair, however, my asthma has been largely controlled. Only when I get bronchial or sinus problems is there a danger that my asthma may be so severe that I have to return to the hospital. This is what happened in April. In response I was given a fourth and fifth dose of antibiotics and a dose of prednisone by my doctor to stop this from happening.

All of this is a long introduction to what I want to talk about: the trials and tribulations of getting prescriptions filled in an age of supposedly efficient and effective rational bureaucracies. I have been getting my prescriptions filled at a Walgreen's near my home for the last several years. It has proven to be a difficult odyssey for a number of reasons. First, I get my medications in three month doses and it is not easy to coordinate my prescriptions medications for asthma (Advair, Singulair) and the osteoporosis I developed because of steroids I have used (cortisone, prednisone, Advair) for my asthma since I was twelve. Invariably, Walgreen's sends me refill notices for one of my medications several weeks before they send me refill notices for the others. And just when I think I have it figured out how I can get my medicines all at once, zing, I don't. Machines, it seems, have an advantage over men, automatic refill dates.

Getting emergency medications is no easier and may be even more difficult than getting regular prescription medicines. Recently, as I noted, I was given prednisone by my doctor to try to deal with asthma problems I was having. Since doctors, by and large, don't give you a paper prescription anymore since it is all done with the latest of corporate technology, the Internet, I had my second prescription for prednisone sent to the Walgreen's I have been using. When I went to get this med, I also had to pick up an antibiotic, I was told in classic paternalistic fashion I couldn't get the prednisone because I still had some prednisone left from a previous prescription. Fair point, I suppose, but I am a sixty year old adult who has always been a responsible user of prescription medicines. Anyway, I was told I could pick up the prednisone on Sunday. I specifically asked the attendant if the prescription would automatically be filled and was told yes it would.

So several days later I go to Walgreen's to pick up the prednisone and guess what, contrary to what I was told earlier, the prescription had not been automatically filled. I wasn't, by the way, surprised. I fully expected that this would be the case. I know how "efficient" bureaucracies work thanks to a lifetime of experience. Anyway, I told them to transfer the prescription to the brand spanking new CVS in Glenmont near where I was doing laundry. I walked over to CVS after I put my clothes in the dryer and guess what, the prescription, they told me, was still being worked on. They told me it would be available in ten minutes. After finishing my laundry I returned to CVS some twenty or thirty minutes later and guess what, the prescription was still being worked on. Ten minutes and it would be ready I was told.

I didn't wait. I have a life that includes three jobs, one of which requires extensive preparation time. And here is where I can sum up: bureaucratic time doesn't work on my time or your time. It works on their time, bureaucratic time. We can either conform to their time and their culture or...be cast out??? Welcome to the iron cage. Welcome to the world bureaucratic corporations have created. Welcome to utopia. I hope you like it.

Addendum: I discovered while trying to pick up my prescription at the Lincoln Pharmacy near my house on Thursday that the morons at CVS, the same idiots who said ten minutes, ten minutes more, over an hour and a half period about when my prescription would be ready, filled my prescription despite my telling them not to. Because of this these morons inhibited me from getting my emergency prescription, a prescription I very much needed, from Lincoln Pharmacy. As I told on Facebook should this negatively impact my healtht I will sue them.

On another bureaucratic note let me point out that when I called the Empire Plan about this kafkaesque nightmare it took me three calls on a pay as you go phone to get past their voice recognition, or should I say, lack of voice recognition system. Technology hasn't made bureaucracies more efficient. It has made them more frustrating.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Life in the Pissant Swamp: The Case of the Inveterate Slacker

So it's another day in the Pissant Swamp neighbourhood and I have received yet another fascinating and revealing letter from one of my students this semester. One of my students has emailed to ask me to send him or her a link to the website I created to give students access to my class lecture notes.

I actually type up all of my lecture notes along with links to primary source material and suggested readings and put them on my website so students can peruse them and use them as study guides for the midterm and final examinations. I don't have to do this, of course, and it takes me hours and hours to do it, but I have typically done it as an additional service for my students to aid them in passing this class. I tell students about this website on the very first day of class, in this case in late January, access these notes everyday in class giving the students a frequent essay in their importance, and tell students to make use of them in studying for the class and its examinations.

So am I surprised that I get a request for the address of my website two days before the final exam? The answer to that question is a resounding no. After fifteen years of teaching in the Pissant Swamp I am no longer surprised by the actions and behaviours of students that seem to suggest a lack of concern about their education and make one wonder why some students want to even be in ivy halls of academe in the first place. I am resigned to getting requests like this and others of a similar nature each and every semester. Still the fact that they occur again and again bore me.

Still it makes me wonder about several other things about students. Was this student in class when I announced where this website was? Answer: I don't know. Did this student come to class regularly? Answer: I think not. Did this student lose the address to my website? Answer: Perhaps. If so why did he or she wait until two days before the exam to contact me about it? Answer: I don't know. You would think given the importance of these notes the student would have contacted me earlier if he or she did lose the address. Is this student typical of college students in that he or she waits till the last moment to do schoolwork? Answer: Indubitably. Why do students typically wait until the last moment to do the schoolwork on which their grades and hence their college careers depend?...

Friday, May 8, 2015

Life in the Pissant Swamp: The Case of the Why Did I Get the Grade I Got League

It's the end of the semester again and it is time for one of those inevitable rituals of life in the Pissant Swamp, students complaining about their grades. Recently, a student emailed me whinging about his or her grade. I did well on all the components of this class save one, the student wrote me. My response to students who email me this response again and again about their grade performance is almost always the same, your grade is the result of you not doing well in one of the five components of this class.

A little background. In all my undergraduate classes, as my syllabus makes crystal clear, I have five grade components, four papers or two papers and two examinations, and participation. Each of these five components are worth 20 points or 20% each again as the syllabus makes clear. By participation I mean not only participation in class, I also mean participation via email, participation by coming to my office to talk to me about what we saw or heard in class, participation by pop quizzes--I give several per term--and participation, and participation through extra-credit, which I provide opportunities for students to do each and every semester. I engage, in other words, in a healthy dose of grade welfare or grade inflation, something I have never had students complain to me about, by the way.

Now I understand that students do have other things that factor into their school lives. So do faculty particularly adjunct faculty who put in 10 hour days Sunday through Monday for little pay and sometimes no benefits. I know these broader contexts affect their work. At some point, however, students have to take responsibility for the choices they make and the choices they don't make within these contextual boundaries.

Speaking of syllabi, at some point, dear readers, I will have to tell you about one of the most interesting of my cases in the Pissant Swamp, the Case of the Syllabus Anxiety League.

Life in the Pissant Swamp: The Curious Case of the Blackboard Disorder League

Another mystery in the Pissant Swamp is why, every term, a few students have trouble using Blackboard. Blackboard is an online service that allows faculty to put syllabi and assignments online and to grade all assignments online. On the plus side since faculty can put up other grades in Blackboard, students can get their grades as they mount in real time. And students are nothing if not anxious about grades.

One of the downsides to using Blackboard, and there are a few, is that minority of students don't seem to be able to navigate its moderately labyrinthian structure. I put all my assignments for my classes in the content folder of Blackboard. I ask students, and tell them this explicitly in my syllabus, to copy and paste their assignments into the "write submission" box, the big word processing looking box on their left, in Blackboard's assignment drop box. Despite this and despite urging students to go to IT in class and in my syllabus for help if they are having problems doing this--virtually none of them take this advice--a few students still make errors. Instead of putting their assignments in "write submission" they put them in "comments", which are, of course for "comments", or simply "attach" their papers, something I note in the syllabus I do not allow given the problems of compatibility between word processing programmes.

Every so often I wonder why students make these mistakes. Is it haste? Does haste make grade waste? Is it a lack of patience? Do these students not take the time to read the instructions and/or not take the time to look over the Blackboard assignment drop page? Is it an I don't care attitude? Is it laziness? Is it all of the above? I am not sure. Perhaps one of these days I will ask those who make these mistakes why they made them.

Life in the Pissant Swamp: The Case of the What Time is the Final Exam League

Just when I thought life couldn't get any more surreal in the passant swamp it goes and gets weirder.

Today I gave my first final examination of the spring term. At Catskill College, just like at most other college and universities I am familiar with across the US, our final exam schedule is different from our normal term schedule. Todays exam was for my 12 noon US History, 1877-today, class. Our final exam was scheduled for 11:00 as my syllabus, as the calendar I put up in Blackboard, and as the Catskill College Academic Schedule available online at anytime, from anyplace, assuming the system is up and the page is not down, note. One student, who arrived more than an hour late for the exam, however, apparently didn't get the message despite the redundancy and ease of access to the final exam information schedule. I assume he or she mistakenly thought that the exam was given at the same time the class met during the term--he came around noon--or that he did not look at the syllabus, Blackboard, or the school academic schedule, or, if he or she did, that he or she did not look at it carefully and closely.

But are these hypotheses really accurate? Inquiring minds want to know. Recently I have been forced to rethink my understanding of student behavior. The reason is something one of my students told me last semester when I asked why students were wearing slippers to class these days. I initially hypothesised that perhaps some Hollywood or music celebrity had made wearing slippers outside popular, cool, rad. What my student told me initially surprised me but made so much sense afterwards as I thought about it. We wear slippers to class, he or she told me, because we are lazy. Does that explain all this surreal and real student behaviour that sometimes often pops up in the passant swamp now and again? Inquiring minds really do want to know.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Life in the Pissant Swamp: The Strange Case of High Maths Anxiety

Life gets curiouser and curiouser in the passant swamp each and every year I remain within it. One of the most curious of the academic curiousers is what I want to call high maths anxiety. If one were less charitable, I suppose, one could call it maths illiteracy.

First a bit of background about grades in my classes. In all my classes I use a simple and standard old grading technique. There are a total of one hundred points in my classes. There are usually five assignments in my classes so each assignment is worth twenty points. This should make it easy for students to calculate percentages but it sometimes doesn't. Often times at the end of courses I engage in grade welfare or grade inflation giving students extra points because if I didn't some of the students would have a difficult time climbing out of the lower reaches of the grading scale. The reasons for student low performance, by the way, are relatively easy to understand. Some students don't come to class or participate in class, participation is worth twenty percent of their grade, so they lose twenty points or twenty percent of their grade for the course right off the bat. Many of these same students don't make use of discussion alternatives I provide them and note in my syllabus such as coming to office to talk to me about what went on in class on a given day or emailing me what they want to discuss about the class on a given day. The only students who do these are generally the ones who are already going to get A's and B's.

Speaking of student problems some students typically have other non-math related problems in my classes as well. Some students, for example, lose points on their papers or examinations for a variety of reasons. Some don't put their papers in the correct place in Blackboard though I give them two free opportunities to get it right in the early days of the class, though I tell them in the syllabus how it is done--some students presumably don't read the syllabus or don't read it carefully though I make them do an assignment which affirms that they have indeed read it--some students simply don't take the time to make sure they have done it correctly raising questions about student effort, while some simply refuse to go to the IT room to get help getting their assignments in the right place, again raising questions about student effort. I do, by and large, only engage in free point grade welfare or grade inflation if students have made an effort and if students haven't made more than one mistake on Blackboard or turned in papers late during the course of the term.

The other grade welfare thing I often do is to give students the opportunity to do extra credit. I allow students the opportunity to earn twenty points of extra credit in the class. It is this extra credit and its contribution to math anxiety that I want to talk about in the rest of this blog because for some reason it causes some students problems. So anyway, I get this email from a student today who claims that his/her extra credit assignment is lowering his/her grade. I wrote back and asked the student to do several things. I asked her to go to the syllabus for the class, to write down how many total points there are in our class, to write down the number of points, according to the syllabus, he/she has to have in order to get a A- or an A, to go to Blackboard and to look at how many points he/she has now, to calculate what letter grade that would that be according to the syllabus, to write down how many points he/she had to earn on the final exam to get a A- or an A, and then to send all this information to me.

I can only hypothesise about what is going on here. Either the student is adding twenty extra credit points in to the total number of points for the class and the points needed for an A or he/she--it should only, of course, be added to the total number of points that can be earned in the class--or is failing to note that one assignment worth twenty points still remains for him/her to take. What the student should be doing, of course, is be aware of the fact that when you add 20 extra point to the total 100 points in the class--you add it to the numerator and not, obviously, the denominator--you get 120/100. I find it incredible that college age students seem not to be able to figure out this simple equation. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that some students think that the total points per class game has suddenly changed at the end of the semester and instead of what it says in the syllabus, which is regarded as a contract between the teacher and the student, that there are a 100 total points in the class, there are suddenly 120 total points in the class. Whatever the thought process all of this is problematic and makes one wonder about how people think these days and why they "think" the ways that they do.

Problematic thinking particularly when it comes to maths, by the way, is not something that I have not seen before at modern academic institutions I have taught at since the 1980s. I had a few students at SUNY Aardvark during my dismal years there who did not know that twenty of a hundred was twenty percent. They didn't read the syllabus or read it carefully either since they claimed not to have seen the grade breakdown for the class. Needless to say my grade breakdown was clearly present in my syllabus. Hey, perhaps I need to write another essay about Syllabus Anxiety.

Addendum: Another student has written me and asked me the same question the student I focus on in this blog did. Once again I have to wonder, what part of extra in extra credit do these students not comprehend and why are some of them able to accurately take data from my syllabus, which notes and has noted since late January that there are a total 100 points in the course and generalise it to their grade? I find this absolutely remarkable and I find it very revealing about the contemporary state of critical thinking or lack thereof in America. How is it that some students seem not to have the critical thinking skills necessary to figure out a simple math problem that even I, a math moron, can make sense of, like this? RIP, Liberal Arts.

Monday, May 4, 2015

When Libertarians Overgeneralise and Simplify

Since the 1950s Libertarianism and its variants have gone more and more mainstream in the US. There are a number of reasons for this including, most importantly, the realignment of the political parties in America. From the 1960s to the 1980s Democrat promotion of civil rights drove a wedge in that party eventually driving White Supremicist Dixiecrats and their heirs and the John Birch Society, that society that once damned Republican Eisenhower, a commie dupe, and other ideologies of its ilk, into the Republican Party. Over time the Republican Party that had once had a strong federalist and progressivist wings became more and more the party of states rights, libertarianism, and White men.

Now don't get me wrong, I have some sympathy with some libertarian critiquess of modern America and the modern world, critiques libertarians share with leftists including Marxists. Here is where I agree with many Libertarians and their fellow travelers. Clearly, as the evidence has shown for hundreds if not thousands of years and still shows today across the Modern West, the police power of the state, broadly defined, is used against minorities (ethnic, racial, and ideological, i.e., dissidents) and the poor. This is clearly why so many Black men, unarmed Black men in many cases, are being shot by one of the police arms of the state, the police. When it comes to minorities one of the functions of the police apparatus is to keep these in order regardless of how it does it. The poor numbered among the dominant group (Whites in the US) generally imbibe the fiction that the actions of the police powers are always legitimate and that what they do, even when they are killing unarmed people (speaking of the killings of the unarmed today marks the 45th anniversary of the murders of two men and two women by National Guardsmen at Kent State University). They, in other words, blame those being brutalised for their own brutalisation. The police, of course, know they can get away with murder because so many buy into this legitimate ideology and, of course, because of the presence of racism and prejudice amongst the dominant group.

Here is where I disagree with many Libertarians and their fellow travelers. Beyond the police function to maintain "order", i.e., to maintain those in power in power and to keep minorities, ethnic and ideological, down, the police do engage in other more understandable and reasonable activities. So too do nation-states. Nation-states build roads, pick up the garbage, build schools, and institute safety nets for those in need. The problem with the libertarian conceptualism of nations and states is that it is too Manichean, too binary, too liberty and freedom good, governments which are all the same, bad. Instead of this Manicheanism conception of the state one has to conceptualise governments as lying on a continuum. At one end of the continuum are autocratic regimes who nakedly use police power and police violence for their own benefit. At the other end are elected authorities who are much less autocratic and tyrranical than those at the other end of the continuum and who do serve the public good if imperfectly. Humans are, after all, imperfect. There is, in other words, a difference between Nazi German, the Stalin era USSR, and the governments of Denmark and the US just as their are differences between the states of Denmark and the USA.

What I find particularly humourous about libertarian political culture in modern America is that so many of those libertarians and their fellow travelers who are part of the dominant group economically and politically and culturally scream about how poor, poor pitful them they are being tyrranised by the evil state. But when those who are really being tyrannised (minorities in particular) by the state are being brutalised they seem to disappear along with their critique of government abuse of power into the woodwork. These libertarians, in other words, seem to be using libertarism less as a critique of state power and its abuse of that power against minority others than as a cover for their own narcissitic pursuit of monies and wealth. Libertarianism, then, seems less an ideology of critique than a cover for narcissists and their self centred pursuit of wealth, power, and the ability to do whatever they want to do despite the consequences and the impact of what it does to others in the broader overlapping communities in which libertarians live and act.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Death of the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number America

I have recently observed a couple of things that I think say so much about the American journey from the New Deal today. The first is a PBS News Hour report on the outbreak of HIV and AIDS in the rural American town of Austin in Scott County in Southern Indiana. The second is the campaign waged by many of America’s right wing Republican governors against minorities, unions, and universities. And while these two phenomena seem like very different phenomena entirely they both have at their roots the exact same thing, they are products of the revolt of the rich against the regulations of banks and the economy and the safety nets put in place by the New Deal between the 1930s and 1970s.

In the wake of the Great Depression of 1929, a Depression that clearly showed the hollowness of laissez faire liberal rhetoric that the market was the best mechanism to bring prosperity to all, social liberalism or progressivism, a liberalism that put in place governmental mechanisms to make the inevitable booms of corporate capitalism less boomy and the inevitable busts that accompanied the inevitable booms of corporate capitalism, thanks primarily to manipulations of the market by insiders, less devastating and which used mechanisms from the insurance world to create social safety nets for those most hurt by the inevitable busts of capitalism. Between the New Deal and Richard Nixon, in other words, the United States, thanks to social or progressive liberalism, saw solid and less dangerous economic growth, the growth of the middle class, and the expansion of a safety net for those most vulnerable to the vicissitudes of economic growth, all things which benefitted or potentially benefitted everone living in the US. Then the oil crisis came leaving inflation and stagnation in its wake. It, along with other factors, the war in Vietnam and the culture war which divided America over civil rights and Vietnam, for instance, sent America into economic, political, and cultural convulsions and allowed the anti-New Deal forces the opportunity they had long been waiting for, namely the opportunity to destroy the consensus that emerged after World War II among the so-called greatest generation that social liberalism, while it may not be perfect, was the best mechanism to provide the greatest goods to the greatest number of Americans.

So what does all of this have to do with Austin, Indiana? Thanks to deindustrialisation all across the US but particularly in the “rust belt” of the American Northeast and Midwest in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, industries that once provided good paying and good benefit jobs to America’s rural and urban residents, first went South, places with right to work laws, lower wages, and hence greater profits for capitalists, and to the areas of the world with even lower low labour costs than the South, devastating places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, upstate New York, and rural Indiana in the process. Add to this a tax revolt which decreased the tax rate particularly on those most able to contribute to the coffers of governments that used tax monies to build highways, build national parks, build public hospitals, expand lower and higher public education, and to aid those in poverty, all things again that benefitted or potentially benefitted all living in America, the rich and wealthy, and you get a situation like you have in Austin, Indiana where jobs, particularly good paying jobs with excellent benefits, are few. With little in the way of economic opportunity and with a much smaller safety net, many, just as they have done throughout history, turned to other activities to make a living. In the case of Austin those other activities are the sale of illegal drugs and the sale of bodies, prostitution.

What is so interesting to me about the situation in Austin is the response of some of its citizens to this economic and political decline and what it has wrought in their community. Some in Austin, in a variation on the culture wars, blame those forced into drug deals and prostitution for their own predicaments. Many in Austin, in other words, put the blame not on the real factors causing a rise in poverty and HIV/AIDS in Austin, economic decline and a rich people’s movement which blames economic decline on high taxes, both ludicrous notions that keep hidden the real reason of reasons for economic decline, deindustrialization, globalism, and a revolt against taxes driven by a desire to increase profits and wealth. By 2011 taxes were at their lowest for Americans. Something these paragons of neo-puritanical “virtue” in Scott County miss is the obvious, in actuality Austin’s drug dealers and prostitutes who have limited incomes and therefore limited abilities to move to where the jobs are, jobs that are low paying and low benefit jobs in retail and fast food anyway, and since they don’t have access to monies government entities used to provide in order to facilitate mobility, are acting rational. They are doing what laissez faire man and woman say they should be doing, namely looking after number one, themselves. All hail the culture of narcissism.

The moral condemnation of such rational economic activity by others in the ever shrinking middle class is itself yet another example of morality in the service of the rich. Instead of blaming those really responsible for economic decline and the decline of public services, rich people who have benefitted financially from deinsustrialisation, globalisation, and the tax revolt, you blame its victims. This, of course, allows the one-percent to continue to enrich themselves while blaming governments, governments which, by the way, help enrich the one percent, for the devastation all of these forces have left in their wake.

This rhetoric of blaming the victims is also at the heart of another thing I have recently found interesting, the attack on minorities, unions, and teachers in several states in the United States. Unions, of course, were defanged in parts of the US long before the oil crisis of the 1970s. One of the New Deal things Dixiecrats, Southern White supremicist state’s rights Democrats, revolted against was giving working Americans the right to unionise, an important factor that aided the growth of unions in the World War II and post World War II period not to mention the growth of a middle class which consumed the products of corporate America and stimulated, in the process, American economic growth. Ironically, in other words, social insurance liberalism saved capitalism so its capitalists could live and fignt another day. During the Truman years Dixiecrats and their conservative Northern Republican allies managed to pass legislation which limited the right of working people to unionise particularly in the South thanks to right to work laws, right to work laws, which like the anti-abortion rhetoric of the 1970s and after, used the discourse and rhetoric of “freedom of choice” against those who finally had the freedom to choice to join an organisation which actually did benefit their lives economically and practically for with union victories came better working conditions, better working hours, and better benefits.

Though there seemed to be a consensus among most Americans that the measures put in place by the New Deal and its heirs, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and even Nixon, countercultural movements like the John Birch Society, with its rabid anti-communism which claimed that even “Ike” was a commie dupe, and America’s businessmen, who blamed the American state for regulating and paperworking them to death. In the rhetoric of this counterculture the state, all states, even those who successfully fought communism in the name of American capitalism itself, became evil tyrannical forces who coerced monies out of its citizenry. With the end of the Cold War the rhetoric of anti-communism was turned on those who the Birchers and many business leaders blamed for the expansion of the American state, liberals. Ironically, those demonising liberals were liberals themselves, laissez-faire liberals who had no problems taking wealthfare from the US government, and it was New Deal liberal Democrats who fought the Nazis and fought to contain communism. All of these facts were elided in the demonology of the right who turned Nazis, commies, those who were hated by Nazis, and liberals, those who fought both Nazism and communism, into strange bedfellows.

Thanks to the economic downturn spurred, at least in large part, by American support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War in the early 1970s, OPEC, the oil producing nations many of whom were Arab and Muslim, responded to Western support for Israel by raising oil prices, the counterculture of the post-WWII period, has increasingly gone mainstream. The Republican Party, once a Northern party, used dissatisfaction with the Democrats push from Truman to LBJ for civil rights, a push they had to be pushed screaming into, to turn the South, that bastion of state’s rights (leave our Jim Crow alone you evil federal government and activist courts), the bastion of Christian evangelicalism and fundamentalism, Republican.

Thanks to party realignment the increasingly dixiefornicated Republican Party has been able to dixiefy places like Wisconsin thanks to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who has ties to one of the rich peoples movements that has been at the forefront of the tax revolt, the two self proclaimed libertarian Koch Brothers, David and Charles, whose father was involved with the John Birch Society. In the name of the need to deal with a governmental debt created, ironically, by the tax revolt, Walker has gone after elements of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin who oppose what Walker is doing in the name of his rich patrons and benefactors. First, he went after minorities who tend to vote Democrat by passing restrictive voting rights laws. Then he went after public employee unions who tend to vote Democrat and who, thanks to unionisation, have bucked the trends of lower wages and less benefits for workers. Now he is going after universities, whose faculty tend to vote Democrat, by promising to slash and burn their budgets, something that will, in the long run if it continues, destroy the very thing, the public higher education in the US, that helps the middle class and even the poor in some instances, improve their economic lot. That many can’t see what Walker and others, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Sam Brownback in Kansas, are up to, they are acting to promote their own naked political and economic agendas and ambitions and that of their puppet masters, is a testament to how culture creates reality or how culture creates fake realities. Many of those most hurt by these Republican power grabs and actions to promote the interests of the already economically and politically powerful, actually support the very policies that are hurting them, that are proletarianising and lumpen proletarianising them.

Here are a few numbers that give you a glimpse into the reborn greatest good for the fewest number of Americans America. I take them from a variety of sources including David Harrell, Edwin Gaustad, John Boles, Sally Griffith, Randall Miller, and Randall Woods, Unto a Good Land: A History of the American People (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), Scott Shane, “The Opiate of Exceptionalism”, in the New York Times, Ed Vulliamy, "The Rebellion in Baltimore is an Upraising Against Austerity Claims Academic" in the Guardian>, and John Komlos, "Income inequality begins at Birth and These are the Stats that Prove It".

Let's begin with the data on poverty. In the 1960s 20% of Americans lived below the poverty line. After the Great Society’s War on Poverty, poverty declined to 15%. America's elderly and particularly its White elderly benefitted most from the War on Poverty with its expansion of social security and its creation of Medicare. In the 1980s and 1990s 35 million Americans lived below the poverty line. Those living below the poverty line rose from 13% to 13.5% between 1980 and 1990. Poverty hit Blacks and Hispanics worse than it did Whites. By 2001 30% of Blacks and 30% of Hispanics lived below the poverty line. 13.9% of African American families earn less than $20,000 dollars a year only 5.5% of Whites earn less than $20,000 dollars a year. In Baltimore, a city hit hard by white flight, deindustrialisation, globalisation, and tax decreases, 12 percent of African American families have total incomes less than $10,000 dollars compared to 4 percent of whites. The federal poverty rate for a family of four in the continental US is $24,250 dollars. Poverty hit female headed families even more. In the 45.1% of female-headed families fell below the poverty line. 40% of never married mothers were long term welfare recipients compared to 14% of divorced mothers. The homeless rate, perhaps the ultimate measure of poverty, rose from 280,000 to 500,000 over the course of the early 2000s. Homelessness is particularly a problem in America’s urban areas.

Income disparity between America's rich and poor increased in the years after the "Reagan revolution". During the 1980s and 1990s income disparity rose in the US while the poverty rate was at its highest rate since 1993 with 46 million Americans living below the federal poverty line, The top 1% of Americans, however, doubled their share of the national income. In 1995 the richest 5% of Americans accounted for 20% of the national income. Between 2013 and 2015 the wealth of the 14 richest Americans grew by $157 billion dollars according to the Bloomberg Millionaires Index. That is more than the total wealth of 128 million other Americans. The poorest 40% accounted for 15% of the nation’s income. Income disparity was and is even worse when you look at the poor and particularly poor minorities. Currently 20% of America's 15 million African American households have no wealth whatsoever, just debt.

Finally, I want to look at recent statistics which allow us to compare greatest good for the fewest number America to other modern Western nations. In a sample of 13 wealthy countries the US ranks highest in inequality and lowest in intergenerational earnings mobility. Wealth in the US, in other words, isn’t earned fresh in each new generation by latter day Horatio Agers it is passed down, preserved, and expanded through tax laws that favour the rich and powerful and the continuous transmission of social and cultural capital. Of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th in the child poverty edging out only Romania. The US comes in at number 28 in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool. At the other end of the scale the US ranks 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education degree. In terms of infant mortality the United States ranks lower than 48 other countries and territories. In terms of social mobility the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility. Before the institution of the Affordable Care Act the World Health Organisation ranked the US health care system number 37 right below Costa Rica and right above Slovenia thanks, in part, to the fact that millions of poor Americans couldn't obtain health care through their workplace and afford health insurance given its cost as a result. The US is number one in locking its citizens up with an incarceration rate far higher than that of the likes of Russia, Cuba, Iran or China. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2010 an African-American male born in 2001 had a 32% chance of going to jail during his lifetime, compared with 17% of Latino males, and 6% of whites. While African-Americans make up 13% of the US population and 14% of drug users, but comprise 37% of those arrested for drug-related offences, account for 57% of people in state prisons for drug offences, are 33% more likely than whites to be detained while facing a criminal trial, and in 2009 were 21% more likely than whites to receive mandatory minimum sentences and 20% more likely than whites to be imprisoned for drug offences. In 2009, two-thirds of life sentences were given to non-whites. In 2010, the US Sentencing Commission found that African-Americans received 10% longer sentences than whites for the same crimes. In New York City, 80% of people stopped by police are black or Latino, and 85% of those stopped are searched, compared with 8% of whites. The US leads the world in obesity, a reflection of inequalities in access to high quality food, easily outpacing second-place Mexico and with nearly 10 times the rate of Japan. The US is number one in energy use per person, with double the consumption of Germany, a measure of rich big business driven wastefulness in America. The US, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is number one in total defence spending, a measure of where much of America's decreasing taxes go, at $739.3 billion dollars compared to $89.8 billion for China and $52.7 billion for Russia.

Welcome to the America by and for the one percent. Welcome to an America in which rich people and their rich people’s movements with their mantra of poor, poor pitiful us who pay way too much in taxes (by the way, taxes in the US are far lower than most Western European nations whose people, despite higher taxes, seem to be, if surveys are to be believed, happier than most Americans), and the governments they now own and control, proletarianise, lumpen proletarianise, and segregate, by class and race, the rest of America. Welcome to an America where even once countercultural institutions like coops increasingly mimic the very corporate organisations they once did not want to be. Coops coopted. I hope you enjoy it.

Friday, May 1, 2015

How Culture Creates Reality: Ideology Versus Reality at Honest Weight

As many of you who read my blog know, I have interests in social theory, in comparative studies, in history, in social movements, and in the social and cultural construction of identity, community, and reality. These interests have been at the centre of my every waking moment and sometimes even in my dreams regardless of whether I was a student or whether I was working as an employee in some corporation somewhere. My life has been and will continue to be an intellectual life. The intellectual life is the only life, in my opinion, that really is worth living.

As someone interested in comparative studies and in the social and cultural construction of reality one of my favourite things to observe regardless of where I am is how humans behave and act. In the rest of this paper I want to explore how humans think and why they think the way that they do. I want to focus on an aspect of human behaviour at the place I work, Honest Weight Food Corporation. How humans at Honest Weight think and why they think the way that they do, by the way, is not peculiar or singular to Honest Weight. Human behaviour at Honest Weight is simply a microcosm of human behaviour generally in the United States and in the Western world.

In order to explore how humans think and why they think the way that they do I want to focus on one particular controversy at Honest Weight, whether staff members who are elected to the Board, one of the two most powerful centres at the Corporation, should be able to evaluate the Corporations management team of three, something done annually at the Corporation. Some working members and staff members of Honest Weight, the only ones who can run for the Board and the only ones who can vote for candidates for the Board, think that staff members, those who are paid workers at Honest Weight, on the Board should recuse, should absent themselves from evaluating the management team, the other power centre at the Corporation. Those who hold this position, and there are a significant number of working staff members who do hold this ideological position, usually have an argument that goes something like this. Since the management team makes significant decisions about the store, some of which might anger staff members, any staff member who is elected to the Board should recuse him or her self because there is a potential for him or her to abuse his or her position as a Board member and punish members of the management team for the decisions they made.

This position seems on the surface to be quite reasonable. I want to explore objections I and others have made to this argument, however. In the process of doing this I want to interrogate, excavate, and deconstruct the ideological assumptions at the heart of the argument that staff members should not be involved in the yearly evaluations of the management team.

The claim that there is a potential, perceived, or real conflict of interest in staff members of the Board evaluating the management team is grounded, in some instances, in the assumption that management are involved in the evaluation of staff. The problem with this argument is that the management team are not generally involved in the evaluation of staff either directly or indirectly. Front end or cashier staff, for instance, are evaluated by the head of the front end. Stock or grocery staff are evaluated by the head of grocery. As far as I know management is not involved in these evaluations whatsoever. If anyone has any empirical evidence to the contrary I would love to hear it. By the way, the broader ideological assumptions undergirding the notion that evaluation should be done by those higher in the status or class hierarchy is that those higher in the status or class hierarchy are simply more compentent at evaluation because they are higher in the class and status hierarchy.

Another claim, though this one more covertly and secretly, made by those who think Board staff members should recuse themselves from evaluating the management team is that staff Board members are simply not capable of evaluating the management team. This argument is grounded in the assumption that some people, usually those with a professional and bureaucratic background, have evaluation competencies that most staff workers, who don’t have professional backgrounds, simply do not. The empirical problem with this argument is that we have staff members at Honest Weight who do have professional backgrounds. The staff member of the Board who was recently excluded from evaluating the management team, for instance, has a professional background. By the way, this notion that some people have competencies that others don’t are grounded in ideological assumptions—some might call them fetishisations or universalisations—that some classes and that some status groups are superior to others.

There is one insurmountable empirical fact that undermines the arguments of those who claim that staff Board members should not be involved in the evaluation of management. And that is the fact that staff Board members have been involved in the evaluation of management previously. To my knowledge the issue of perceived or real conflict of interest was not raised by other Board members or the management team at the time about the fact that a staff Board member was involved in the evaluation of management. According to sources I have talked to the staff Board member who was at the centre of the recent controversy at the Corporation over whether staff Board members should evaluate management and who was excluded from evaluating the management team during the last management evaluation was part of an evaluation of the management team several years ago. That evaluation which, according to sources, involved the evaluation of data about the health of the store, involved observations of and interviews with the management team, and involved interviews with department heads who worked closely with the managers, was apparently quite professionally done. The controversial staff Board member, by the way, was only one of the evaluators, putting the lie to any notion that one staff Board member can bring down the entire management team. Other Board members involved in the process of evaluation, after all, can and do act as a check and balance on other Board member evaluators. Not one member of the management team, by the way, was fired as a result of this extensive evaluation conducted, in part, by a staff Board member.

Interestingly, the hours put into the evaluation of the management team during that evaluation several years ago was considerably more extensive than the nine hours of evaluation each of three Board members received from their three Board evaluators in 2015, perhaps one of the reasons some Board members are refusing to revive the practise. How such an evaluation, since at least a couple of the Board members on the evaluation team work other jobs during the day, could be anywhere near as professional or competent as the one mentioned above is beyond me. It is also beyond me how the management team could actually believe--though again I know people can make themselves believe almost anything--that the Board member under suspicion had any conflict of interest whatsover.

What is so interesting, at least to me, about a significant segment of the human population is that they don’t really care about empirical facts. When I pointed out to several Honest Weight members that a staff Board member was involved, in the past, in a successful and professional evaluation of the management team, I was generally met first with silence and then with the cliched “we just disagree” and "I understand your point of view" mantras. Absolutely no attempt was made to engage with and offer counterevidence to the empirical points I had made, something that even a moderately knowledgable intellectual knows is essential in intellectual disputation. The moral of this story? Most people create their own ideological realities and when they are challenged with real empirical evidence they simply ignore the points being made and restate their position in a way that seems like they are reading a catechism of how to speak "I understand your feelings" bureaucratese. Reality, in other words, when it conflicts with ideology, is simply ignored. And that, dear readers, is a far too common human behavioural trait. Don’t believe me? Listen to what comes out of the mouths of Michele Bachman or the members of the Wesboro Baptist Church.