Friday, December 16, 2016

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 mayoral 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 three 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.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Updates from Harry the Human

Regular readers will be familiar with my friend Harry the Human and his eccentric comrade, Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster (http://harrythehuman.harrythehumanpoliticalthoughtsfrombeyondthepale.com/).  Robert was abducted last week by fellow gilas who are in a psychic war with humanity.  Tune in to my discussion of Robert, Harry and current events with Dr. Cheryl Lubin on her show, In Our Times at http://latalkradio.com/sites/default/files/audio/Cheryl-120616.mp3).

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Report from the AIPAC Policy Conference

My wife and I attended the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., over three days starting Sunday, March 20.   The purpose of AIPAC is to promote the American/Israeli alliance.  All the major presidential candidates spoke (except Bernie Sanders, who was invited but declined): Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, along with notables like Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

The first day was devoted to breakout sessions.  I went to one on the Syrian civil war and one on autistic people working for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

The panel of Middle-East experts in the Syrian discussion delivered thorough accounts of the current maze of allies and enemies, a fractured picture of all against all, that "all" including us.  Such chaos can be a useful cover for organized policy that is not as chaotic as it looks, so when the audience was invited to ask questions, I asked, "Three years ago, when President Obama first made moves to intervene in Syria, after Syrian leader Assad's use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians, the mail to the White House and Congress ran four-to-one against intervention, and the idea was dropped. With the subsequent ISIS attacks on the U.S. and Europe, that opposition has dissipated.  Would it be fair to say that ISIS has maneuvered the U.S. into involvement in the Syrian civil war?"

The panel deflected the question with unrelated facts and figures, but several nearby audience members said, "Good question!" which I like to think justified the enhanced carbon footprint of my L.A. flight.

My wife and I attended a session about the IDF's Roim Rachok ("Looking beyond the horizon") unitwhich employs autistic people to study military surveillance photos. With their enhanced abilities to discern patterns that "normal" people might miss, the autistic soldiers of Roim Rachok make significant contributions.  It was an especially interesting subject for my wife and me because my brother-in-law, Steven (featured in the recent documentary Autism in Love) is autistic.  His uneasy fit with the surrounding culture is striking, as it is with most autistic people, but his talents might be coveted by many: a photographic memory, a mind so quick that the concepts and perspectives behind conventional human language become a pointless burden.  Steven has worked for many years in a factory putting mechanical parts together, the model of a dependable employee, and has derived satisfaction and relief from the daily routine, but we wished he could have found something like Roim Rachok that treated his talents as intellectual human assets.  Autistic author Donna Williams describes autistics as "a people in search of a culture."  These days that might describe us all; why not work together and build a new culture?

Sunday night we heard Vice President Biden.  As with the other speakers, Biden's impact was much more forceful, at least to me, in person than the impact from his sound bites over the years.  He is a compelling and skilled speaker, which I hadn't known.  He projects a paternal image that's almost impossible to resist.  I have to admit a frustration over liking people in person that I have grumbled about after years of seeing them on TV.  After the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Biden gave a speech in which the jingoistic parts, where he shouted and crowed about the death, were widely reported.  It was aimed at an audience that might have believed the assassination would solve any problems, as if it would stop history from unfolding (like the assassination of Hitler might have done).  It's clear now that bin Laden was just another replaceable figurehead for the masses who hate America.  The new figureheads are now in place.  I was displeased by Joe Biden then, but watching him now I was seduced by his fatherly sincerity, by the bravery of his response to family tragedy, maybe by a need to think something positive about a leader.  It was a confusing sensation.

The first event Monday morning, and the payoff for waiting in the long security lines outside in the D.C. chill at the Verizon Center (inside of which was one open vendor, Dunkin' Donuts, with a twenty minute line for lukewarm coffee) was Hillary Clinton's speech.

She wore a red jacket, which, my wife pointed out, matched the red in the American flag graphics inserted around Clinton's face on immense jumbotrons suspended above the stage.  Speakers faced 360 degrees of audience.  The circular stage revolved slowly so no part of the audience saw only the speaker's back.  The screens gave the impression that the giant beaming face of a deity was gazing directly into your eyes.

The crowd of 18,700 filled the stadium up the steep sections, with most of the young people in the cheap seats on top.  From our seats about midway up, Clinton was a red and blond dot beneath her face on the giant screens.  Like all the speakers, she had mastered the talking points: the importance to the U.S. of Israel's security; the many trips the speaker has taken to Israel; the technological prowess of Israel (there was much emphasis on Israeli water technology); Israel's status as a democracy surrounded by dictatorships.  Her speech became interesting when she attacked Trump, which she did by implication when she talked about bullies and people who say they support something, like Israel, but impulsively change their minds later.  These lines received a rowdy and prolonged standing ovation.  Quite a bit of love and support was beamed at Clinton, and at the end it almost seemed that she was crying.  I would understand if she were.  How many people could withstand the ego-busting roller coaster she's on?  Once again, as with Biden, I was chagrined to find that in person, after years of fulminating at her sound bites, like a sucker, I liked her.  No wonder candidates speak in person.

I'm skipping ahead to Trump's speech that evening, because the contrast with Clinton's speech was illuminating.  Trump is not skilled, at least for me, at being likable.  His strategy is to target people with specific positions.  He creates widespread support with a shotgun approach in which he addresses as many demographics in the electorate as he can, from left to right, saying at least one thing each group desperately wants to hear but is not hearing from the other candidates, who appear timid and beholden compared to him.  He targeted me when he talked about the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq, which killed five thousand American troops and up to 500,000 Iraqis without securing a single foreign policy objective- unless our objective has been chaos and danger.  No other Republican candidate than Trump will press Hillary Clinton on her vote for the Iraq War, in spite of the ocean of Democratic votes such criticism would garner, just as no other Democratic candidate than Sanders (a Democrat since 2015) will press a Republican on Bush's Iraq invasion.  It's what we used to call a "gentleman's agreement," Trump and Sanders being the two non-gentlemen. 

Trump had clearly studied Middle-East history for his AIPAC speech, as there were numerous references to dates and events (though, as Cruz mockingly pointed out later, Trump slipped when he stated that "Palestine was created in 1948").  All of the talking points were covered.  The interesting parts came when he attacked Clinton by name ("Hillary would be a disaster!") and then President Obama ("It's Obama's last term, yay!"), both of which received prolonged standing ovations which appeared to match in force the standing ovation Clinton had received that morning when she attacked Trump.  Many people, including us, felt severe cognitive dissonance.  Was the whole place cheering both sides?

Some of the explanation came from our nephew, who was up in the cheap seats, which were not well lit or visible from our area.  He said that everyone in the under-40 seats cheered when Clinton attacked Trump, but that when Trump attacked Clinton and Obama, no one stood or cheered; it was totally silent as people were stunned by the cheering below.  I talked later to a woman who said her 18-year-old son started crying at the cheers when Trump attacked Clinton.

AIPAC leadership was concerned by the situation, by the idea that AIPAC members (older ones) might alienate the powerful people that Jews believe they need to be on their side, and they made statements asking all attendees to avoid encouraging ad hominem and defaming attacks, but the problem goes beyond the AIPAC conference.  There is a generational fracture already at work to accompany the other fractures splitting humanity around the world: men vs. women; race vs. race; religion vs. religion; nation vs. nation, economic class vs. economic class, not to mention human beings vs. the rest of life on earth.  The crazy quilt of warring tribes in Syria matches the pattern.

Are humanity's divisions real?  Or are we manipulated into divisiveness by the One Percent so they can control us better?  Is it true, as I often hear, that secret forces have molded American society so that groups are isolated from each other and disenfranchised?  When I work with Millennials, of course there is a generation gap.  There is a teenage world.  There is a different world for people who just turned 70.  You don't have to make up that gap; it's there, but for many people it's not that difficult to communicate across the realms, to find levels where young and old share the common, human perspective.  But then, of course, each side reads the trash on the other.  The young read that their teachers' retirement pensions and health benefits are sucking the lifeblood out of the system, so that when the young reach retirement age there will be nothing left for them.  The old read how lazy and stupid the young have become, that no one reads The Mayor of Casterbridge anymore or learns cursive, and all anyone can do is press buttons on video game controls.  Where do the slanders come from?  I read them all the time in mainstream media.  It's enough to push a guy into conspiracy theory.  

Ohio Governor Kasich, whose claim to moderation comes from his stodgy demeanor rather than policy, stood out poorly against the other candidates- polished speakers all, who barely looked at the teleprompter or their notes and gave the strong illusion (probably at times not an illusion) that they were speaking extemporaneously. Kasich read entirely from his notes, making eye contact with the audience less than a novice high school debater would.  The effect was disastrous, and commented upon by many.  

Ted Cruz said that, while Trump would "renegotiate" the Iran Deal (strongly opposed by AIPAC), he, Cruz, would "rip it to shreds," continuing the kind of useless semantic trop that characterizes this and all of our political campaigns.  But Cruz, to my shock, after I'd reviled his sound bites for months, did the same magic on my hostility as Biden and Clinton had. Maybe it was the prolonged cheer when he referred to "the whole megilla," three days before Purim. OMG, I even liked Ted Cruz!  Briefly.  These guys are good. 

Paul Ryan was poised and likable as well.  He is the most presentable public official associated with what was formerly called the Tea Party.  His trick has been to position himself as a budget expert and not say too many crazy things.  It's understandable that he did not want to be House Speaker.  His recent resistance to cuts in Planned Parenthood funding created his first serious division with the far right.  Now there's no one left but Trump.  GOP, look what you've done.

The Tuesday morning of our departure we and everyone else read about the attacks in Brussels.  One of the speakers we had listened to was from Belgium.  He told how his grandparents had run for their lives from Ukraine; his father had fled Germany, and he had thought that, in Belgium, he would be the first in his line to live his life in one place.  Now he was not sure.  We thought of him Tuesday morning.  AIPAC concentrates on what is called the "existential threat" to Israel (the definition of "existential" apparently having morphed to "relating to existence" from its former "relating to the meaning of existence"), which is presented as a subset of the existential threat to America.  I hope we don't forget that when existential threats approach, it's important to have a quality existence, so you have the will and energy to prolong it.

I also want to mention what a beautiful and wonderful city Washington, D.C. is (the central part, that is, where tourists visit), with  gorgeous old structures everywhere, artfully integrated with the new (refreshing for people from L.A., where things aren't so much integrated as jumbled).  We'd seen the unforgettable Smithsonians in the past; this time we saw the Newseum and the Spy Museum, both outstanding.  What an advantage to be the seat of empire!  Los Angeles, why can't we do that? With more than the movie industry, I mean.  Washington D.C., watch out!





Saturday, January 09, 2016

Richard Nixon: Bad actor or bad actor?


I came home from school recently laughing about a kid on my debate team whose response, each time his spar opponent made a claim, was: "Honestly, I don't understand what my opponent is saying."  One of the things coaches have to teach students is how to dissemble.  

There's an important life lesson in the need to dissemble, whether in a game or in life.  We claim that we loathe liars, but in fact we expect people to lie, and lie well.  Take President Richard Nixon, for example.  Why is he the poster-child for bad president?  In policy, he wasn't much different from his predecessors or successors, of either party.  He waged war on about the same level of barbarity as they did. His opening to China is hailed by everyone as a good thing.  His economic moves were not the worst or the best.  How does his record merit particular scorn?

Yes, Nixon had an enemies list and supervised a break-in at the Watergate Hotel to get dirt on his Democratic rivals, but this pales in contrast to the National Security Administration's Obama-sanctioned ability to read at will everyone's private correspondence.  Imagine this speech from Richard Nixon:

"My fellow Americans, tonight I am proposing a new department of the federal government, the National Security Administration, whose job will be to monitor every electronic communication of every American, no warrant or other evidence of probable cause or due process required.  Only in this way can we keep America safe."

Anyone who was of age during Nixon's term as president knows exactly what would have happened had he said such words: Riots in the streets.

Yet this hypothetical speech is exactly what President Obama said repeatedly- in so many words- after the Snowden story broke.  Why is the nation so calm?  Because Obama is a good liar. If he says something keeps the nation safe, people believe him.  Nixon looked and sounded like a liar, so words that already carried significant negative weight fell through the floor when he said them. 

It's ironic that Nixon did acting and debate in school, because he must have known the basics of melodramatic presentation: 

A person who is telling the truth will look you straight in the eye, speak clearly and give you a smile that fills you with warmth, and a truly villainous liar will do the same.  

The melodramatic liar, while looking you in the eyes briefly, will frequently glance to the right or left- looking "shifty," like a schemer whose machinations might creep up on you.  Liars sweat profusely and appear uncomfortable.

Nixon played the melodramatic liar, with shifty eyes, bumbling with words as if he were juggling so many stories he couldn't keep them straight.  When he debated John F. Kennedy on black-and-white TV, his "five o'clock shadow" looked like a gangster's. His upper lip and brow sweated under the hot lights and he had to continuously mop them with a handkerchief. One of his nervous slips was: "We have to get rid of the farmer...er, the subsidies...."  Kennedy was suave and confident throughout.  He did not appear to sweat.

Nixon was a skilled and successful speaker in his youth and early career.  What happened to him later? He faced a tough transition in life from a background of blue-collar religious zealotry to the academic and industrial elites.  Something about that transition may have scared him, perhaps a conflict between rebellion and a desire to assimilate, and it may be that this pressure ruined his acting.

Whatever the cause, Nixon sounded like a liar, so the actual words he said didn't really matter- they were lies, while Kennedy sounded like he was telling the truth, and his words didn't matter, and they were deemed truth.

Thus derives our everlasting scorn of Richard Nixon, who played Snidely Whiplash to the American electorate, tying the widow to the railroad tracks.  Barak Obama is trying to play the guy who unties her.  He's got the acting down tight; now he'd better hurry up and untie her.

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