Tuesday, September 29, 2015


My wife and I spent two weeks this summer on a tour of Spanish museums, wherein an insightful art professor led twenty-six retired, worldly and under- employed people to places of their dreams.  I could write about the art in the cities we visited- Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Granada, Valencia and Barcelona- or the hotels or the heat (we arrived during a historic August heat wave), but those things are well covered elsewhere.  What I want to write about is the photo-aggression committed by tourists, both American and otherwise. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not self-righteous about it.  I took my Droid, with its swift camera, and shot one or two photos per museum.  So I know the feeling people who love travel have, the feeling that you want to share something of what you’ve seen, to bring a bit of it back with you (and of course the more crass feeling of, “Look, this is where I went and you didn’t”).   Such feelings used to be expressed in journals and letters, but now, as the spoken word is increasingly demoted to short text expressions- these even freed from the syntax of sentences (“Las Meninas, OMG!”)- the photographic image is the way we enhance our memories.

Fine, but how interesting can your memories be to others if they include every picture and sculpture you see?  That’s right, I said “every.”   The goal of our group (who were otherwise congenial and insightful- and I hope they’ll forgive me for this one little critique!) and of groups all around us from many countries, appeared to be to photograph each and every piece of art, along with its descriptive plaque.  Indeed, as soon as we exited the bus, an advance squad would fan out to snap the exterior of the museum, catching every column, every angle and perspective, fighting for space with young couples holding out sticks like fishing poles with narcissism as bait.  Some of the men, as they rushed the museum gates, appeared to have worked as soccer refs, coming to sudden halts before a piece, devices held out front, ready to inform the eye and make the call, knees slightly bent for speed in moving on to the next call.

Indeed, the invasion of the image-snatchers broke free of museum walls.  Any element of the environment with potential to be interesting, which was pretty much everything, was subject to photography: lampposts, signs in windows, graffiti, bad reproductions of Vermeer in restaurants, man-hole covers, and, of course, each other.

How do tourists represent their countries when they commit photo-aggression?  I learned, from the beautiful paintings of Joaquin Sorolla- who is making a well-deserved comeback- of the arresting custom at Spanish beaches of permitting young boys to swim nude [Aside: if you've never heard of Sorolla, it's because Picasso and the international art mafia snuffed him out in the 40's. He was a hundred times the artist Picasso was].  The scene I beheld at one such beach on the way to Salvador Dali’s house in Port Lligat was beguiling, and no tourist could be faulted for taking brief note of the glory of youth in a real-life Sorolla.  That’s brief note.  As I pondered whether to take off my shoes and wander over the stones to the gently lapping Mediterranean, a nude boy of about four walked past me with his mother.   Reasonably, a quick glance and an internal cultural note should have done it.  But, you guessed it, several people from a nearby group spotted a Kodak moment and whipped out their devices, no permission to photograph having been requested or received.  I wondered what the reaction would be on one of L.A.’s beaches if a group of Japanese tourists, cameras upraised, approached family groups to photograph the children.   Maybe the Inuit were right that having your picture taken steals your soul.  Though I'm sure tourists are not trying to steal souls.

But if not for stealing souls, what’s it for, this compulsive creation of images?  If you were the first person on Mars, you would certainly want to record everything you saw.  Here on earth, though, we have amply recorded everything.  I found no work of art too obscure or counter-culture that I could not find its reproduction on my cell phone, for free.  Archeologist of the future will love our age, which they might call, “The Age of Record Keeping.” 

Maybe there’s some psychological need at work.  Marshall McLuhan posited in the ‘60s that “the medium is the message,” meaning that the medium impacts the message and modifies it.  Perhaps we feel that works of art need to be processed through a mechanical medium, in addition to the medium of our minds, in order to be modern, or post-modern, or something.  If that’s what people think, well, they’re just plain wrong. 

But, you might counter, what’s so bad about taking pictures of great art in a museum setting if that’s what people want to do? 

For starters, museum photo-aggression robs everyone in its space of the contemplative and peaceful state of mind required to appreciate art.  How peaceful can you be when you have to be two feet from a painting before you can see it because, from further away, your view is obstructed by multiple hands raised high, positioning devices as if at a Stones reunion.  When at last you're close enough to see the painting, it doesn’t help that, while you’re finally viewing, say, Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” which you’ve waited your whole life to see, a chorus of whir/whir/click/click attends you, along with multiple red dots that move across the surface of the painting like targeting lights from snipers trying to kill art itself.

I saw the same behavior last summer on another museum tour of the Netherlands, Belgium and London (the only relief I found, in London, was in the Tate Gallery’s almost empty William Blake room, where I learned that no one cares about Blake anymore).  It’s a puzzle to me why so many great European art museums tolerate unbridled photography, particularly in Spain, where museum staff are as alert as the TSA.  That alertness to respect for the art of their country, though it can be off-putting at first, is ultimately beneficial to the viewer.  In the Prado in Madrid, for instance, museum staff constantly monitor noise levels, emitting a harsh “Shh!” when decibels exceed a certain point (usually a welcome service). Yet the only museum I visited that forbade photography was the Picasso in Barcelona- figures!  Why do most museums permit unrestricted camera use, which causes at least as much distraction as noise? 

I implore museums to ban the use of cameras.  Sales of postcards and prints would dramatically increase at the gift shop.  Let’s put the A back in Art!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Recommended blog: Harry the Human

I recommend Harry the Human's blog at http://harrythehuman.harrythehumanpoliticalthoughtsfrombeyondthepale.com/.
Harry the Human had a following on Haight St. in San Francisco in the late '60s.  His talks at incense-infused coffee shops were popular, and crowds often spilled into the street.  Harry disappeared for several years on personal adventures, returning to California only recently.  I am one of the few people he talks to now, even though, when I lived in the Haight, I never wanted to go to his lectures and never did.  One reason was that Harry claimed to be telepathic.  I found, though, that he's an interesting guy, and that he's willing to let me take the telepathy claim as metaphoric, even if it isn't. Harry continues to call himself a "hippie," which, he says, is not short for "aging hippie," that the term stands for something born in the fifties and sixties that is blossoming today in a variety of forms.  Of course, Harry is aging regardless.  I am excited about Harry's new blog and wish him the best!  Doug Lasken

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Donald Trump, millennials, and political disarray

Published in the Los Angeles Daily News at http://www.dailynews.com/opinion/20150828/donald-trump-millennials-and-the-problem-with-political-disarray-guest-commentary

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Why I quit politics

"Why I quit politics" is reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse: http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_12/clash/lasken.html

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it. I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, the year I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board. I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V. I talked to the newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent was the incumbent, well connected in Democratic circles through his political family, fast with facts and figures, thinner and younger than I.

From the start I had dumb luck. Most importantly, the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, declined to make an endorsement in our race, although they had supported the incumbent in his first campaign. I would have been dead in the water against them.

I also had luck in packaging. I was a classroom teacher, and this turned out to be a greatly saleable ballot label against my opponent's "Board member" (Political operatives have learned about this, and will scrounge deeply to find any past connection between the classroom and their candidates).

I stumbled into a lucky situation with a political sign company. The first company I approached, a major one in L.A., had been stiffed by a series of candidates and was reluctant to commit to me. My father had loaned me two thousand dollars for my campaign, and I blurted out that I would pay this up front in the form of a cashier's check. Within two days hundreds of signs saying "Keep Askin' for Lasken" were all over the turf in contention (so called Region 5, the western edge of the city running north from Westchester to Chatsworth). Compounding this beginner's luck was what I found to be a striking naivety in seemingly sophisticated people. For instance, a school administrator, a follower of news and an activist in neighborhood politics, said in reference to the signs that she had no idea I had so much "support."

My timing with the issues was lucky. The opinion in the San Fernando Valley was almost entirely for breaking up the giant L.A. school district (second largest in the country after New York's), and the west San Fernando Valley, the part in Region 5, was the most intensely pro-breakup. The incumbent was not in a position to support breakup, and I had supported it for years.

The issue of bilingual education worked in my favor. Though I supported California's efforts to help non-English speaking children with native language support, I was opposed to the withholding of English language instruction until higher grades. This played well with voters, anticipating the landslide passage five years later of Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support. Newspaper editors, most particularly Jack Miles at the L.A. Times, liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of articles on bilingual education; several appeared during the campaign.

One week before the election I got a call from a pro-choice organization. They had been planning to send thousands of mailers in support of the incumbent because he had paid them a sizable fee and, of course, was pro-choice. I had only evinced the latter virtue. It happened that someone in the incumbent's campaign had angered them, and they had decided to support me in the mailer for free.

Topping off my luck, I won a raffle that placed my name first among the seven candidates. The effect of " 1. Doug Lasken-Teacher" was hard to beat as product placement.

The result of my luck: I received 36,000 votes, coming in second behind the incumbent's 50,000 ( turnout was large in this election because of the Riordan-Wu race). Had I taken 1% more of his vote, we would have been in a run-off. The day after the election the L.A. Times referred to "...newcomer Doug Lasken's surprising showing."

I remember standing at a newsstand off Hollywood Boulevard at 6:00a.m. reading, with trembling hands, the Times' hopeful obituary of me. Something sank inside me. The Doors '"This is the End" comes to mind. I knew I would not "capitalize" on my dumb luck, but I did not know why. I did not know why I had, at that moment, quit politics.

Well, perhaps what I didn't know was how to say it. I'm going to try to say it now: Politicians can't say "I don't know."

Politicians, in fact, can't say much at all of what they think. Well "Duh",you say. Yes, but when you're in a political situation where you're setting yourself up as the person who knows what's best, who has an answer to complex problems, there's a certain poignancy that comes with the knowledge that you're constructing a facade, a veil of words that sounds right, while the much vaunted human cortex watches as from the end of a long tunnel.

The above mental state was produced by certain types of questions, such as, "How would you increase test scores?" There is familiar boilerplate to deal with such questions: "Every student must receive quality instruction...We must have accountability and standards... Education must be our number one priority...", etc. Not that there is anything incorrect in such sentiments, but if they contained any important policy ideas we would be experiencing a much larger number of high scoring children. I did my best to sling a few slogans, and I used the English language instruction and breakup issues with some effect, but my brain was uncomfortable, my speech somewhat hesitant, and this perhaps cost me the 1% and the runoff.

Delving deeper into my uncooperative mind, I found something truly scary. It's not just that I wasn't in a position to say what I really thought about raising test scores. My hands hover now above the keyboard, waiting for a sign. No sign comes. Some muse has got me this far, but at the crucial moment she stands silent.

What the hell, here goes. Well you see, the thing is... I didn't really know how to raise test scores. I did believe that breaking up the district might improve efficiency, and that teaching English would improve English skills, but I wasn't completely sure test scores would go up significantly as a result. After all, when we talk about raising test scores we're not just talking about a few numbers going up; we're talking about real improvement in children's intellectual abilities. How do you get fifth graders in large numbers to know their times-tables, and remember them into secondary school? How do you get secondary students in large numbers to read books, really read them, from beginning to end? Why would a few corrective policy changes produce such profound educational outcomes?

Hindsight has justified the hesitation I felt during my campaign. Proposition 227 reinstated English instruction. A well funded "Standards" movement took hold in California and in much of the rest of the country, accompanied by millions of dollars in new textbooks and teacher training. There has been math reform, with renewed emphasis on basics. These reforms have helped a lot of kids, but they have not "raised test scores" in the real sense. In other words, although there have been small jumps in scores, there is no systemic, widespread change in our students. If you walk into a California classroom at random you are unlikely to find kids who can read well, or want to read, or who do math with the facility you find in Asia. Nor will you find this two years from now, or four years from now. It's not happening and it's not going to happen.

Why not? Because the discussion is political, and therefore incomplete. Standards are important, and logical instruction is important. But those are the easy parts.

Back to the reporter asking me how I would raise test scores. Let's say a cosmic force had ordered me to tell the truth. What would I have said? I might have stammered, "Well... I'm not sure." The reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it. If he was polite, though, there would be a pause, and then I would begin to think. This in itself, the sight of a politician lost in thought while the world waits, is anathema to a successful image. But if the cosmic force could get everyone to wait a bit, I could have given a decent answer. The discussion might have gone something like this:

Me: Well, we have a fundamental disconnect between our media based culture and the school setting. Virtually every kid is taught by the media to gaze at colored images which ridicule schools and teachers. We have nothing effective to counter this. We have not figured out a modern motivation for students. The U.S.is one of the few countries in the world that has ruled out physical pain as an educational tool (Singapore, much admired by math reformers, achieves the highest secondary math scores in the world partly by beating underachievers with bamboo canes). We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in the report card grade, but because of grade inflation, rampant from kindergarten through graduate school, and the glorification in the media of school failure, grades alone have become a weak motivator for all but a few students.

Reporter: So you advocate beating our students?

Me: Of course not.

Reporter: Then what do you advocate?

Me: We've forgotten economic incentive.

Reporter: For teenagers?

Me: Yes. Our surplus based society has extended childhood, resulting in dependence on parents at later ages, but teenagers are in their physical and intellectual prime, and will remain so into their twenties. They are designed to create and work, but the automation that gave us our surplus has resulted in a more seriously underemployed society than we like to admit. There are over 100,000 gang members in L.A., but there are not 100,000 jobs for them, not even menial ones. The standard curriculum in high school does not relate directly to visible jobs. Perhaps shop and computer classes do, but the thousands of jobs it would take to rationalize that curriculum do not exist. Honors students, the handful of clever kids who know how they will work the system, put up with non job-related curricula because they see a path to employment based on grades and general literacy, but they too have to wait. It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market. The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: So...you would propose.....?

Me: Well, somehow we need to have an economy that can absorb many more teenagers and people in their early twenties, and a school system that clearly feeds into this economy. But our technology, automation, may have made this impossible.

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

Me ( after very long pause): I don't know.

End of dialogue, and career. Even an answer like, " We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over two hundred years of industrial revolution, with a completely new, rationally organized economy", impractical as it might be as a campaign position, would be better than "I don't know." Anything is better than "I don't know."

It might seem strange to an extraterrestrial visitor from an advanced civilization that we have no place in our public discourse for "I don't know", since we so often, clearly, don't know, but it's basic human psychology at work. Management theorists have shown that leaders get approval for making decisions, for being decisive, regardless of the results (advice routinely followed by politicians). This is understandable given the human condition. We really don't know what we are supposed to do on this earth, or even if we are supposed to do something. If our leaders admitted this in public, society at large might collapse in terror. Still though, it can be something of a hindrance to problem solving to maintain at all times that soothing platitudes are solutions.

So after a refreshing brush with the fast lane, I returned, sober but wiser, to the classroom, where I find I can say "I don't know" a lot,to students, to parents, to my colleagues, and they don't seem to mind. Hey wait a minute, these people vote, or will vote...Hmmm.

[For more Lasken's Log, see archive upper right of this page, starting April 2, "Tales from the front"]