Wednesday, August 12, 2020

What happens now?

What will happen in post-Trump America under Joe Biden?  All we know for sure is that Biden's personality is starkly different from Donald Trump's. (Note: This essay does not consider Biden's running mate, Kamala Harris, because the focus is Biden's long national history).  We know enough to hope for certain outcomes.  Biden will not be the open troublemaker his opponent has been.  Trump created his base when he called Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "drug dealers."  Biden will return us to the diplomatic past, when marginalized people were marginalized amidst showers of money and smiles, rather than the gratifying insults many crave.  

But aside from a return to courtesy, what will come of the grand objectives embraced by Biden's Democratic Party?  What will Biden do in the face of growing income inequality?  Racial tensions?   Increasingly open corruption in government?  Deterioration of foreign relations? 

We can project how President Biden will address these issues by reviewing how he and his party addressed them in the eight years of the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president.

Economic policy, race relations and corruption were definitively addressed by the Obama administration in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2009 "Great Recession."  Democrats, including Biden and Obama (as well as both Clintons) enabled the collapse by backing financial rules that permitted expansion of debt which, when enhanced with deceptive sales practices, made bankers rich while undermining mortgage holders.  Biden supported paying off the bankers who caused and then profited from the collapse, instead of charging them with fraud and sending them to prison, while he supported sending thousands of black men to long prison terms for using crack.  Regarding economic and racial policy, Biden will likely be a passive Trump.
In foreign policy, over eight years the Obama administration authorized an estimated 540 drone strikes all over the Middle East and Africa that killed thousands of civilians and laid the groundwork for much current hatred of the US.  None of these strikes was in the service of a declared war.
There are examples of Democratic malfeasance in public education, a sector that is solidly in the Democratic camp.  The Obama administration promoted the Common Core Standards, strong-arming school districts nationwide into adopting them.  Common Core was an $11 billion coup for publishers, but it was not needed in many states, such as California.  The rush to throw out California's previous world-class standards and implement Common Core, at a cost to the state of $1.5 billion, destroyed the testing baseline and thus the validity of California's standardized testing for at least four years, and earned an additional fortune for publishing and testing companies that were paid to clean-up and cover-up the mess they had created.

The Democrats haven't had to worry about maintaining a virtuous image, however.  They are much better than the GOP at appearing squeaky clean, partly because their deceit tends to be less hindered by ideology than Republican deceit. 

Democrats receive their biggest assist in image control from the media.  Try finding a newspaper in California that reported the Common Core fiasco.   The same selective reporting has obtained in foreign policy.  On January 20, 2009, the day of Obama's first inaugural address, a U.S. drone strike hit an Afghan wedding party, killing the bride and groom and 40 family members, not a militant among them.  The story earned one paragraph on the bottom of page 12 in the Los Angeles Times, which never reported on it again.  Obama did not mention the strike in his speech or ever, and continued with his own strikes, killing more civilians than Bush had.  Each strike was duly reported somewhere in the depths of the L.A. Times, while on the front page Obama might be dedicating an elementary school.  

In addition to media support, Democrats enjoyed a free ride when the GOP embraced the Tea Party, a minority faction representing the extreme right wing of the GOP and comprising much of Trump's current base.  The Tea Party maintained that evil people live near oceans, that they are hedonists and that God hates them.  The Tea Party standard bearer was former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, one of whose pronouncements was: "Contraception turns sex into mere pleasure."  The evil people who live near oceans (and some lakes) don't like ideas like that because people who live near oceans are hedonists who think pleasure is good.  The Democrats, who represent people who live near oceans, had merely to compare themselves to the Tea Party/GOP to appear both squeaky clean and hedonistic.
Let's not forget Trump himself, whose outsized egregious behaviour created a foil enabling the uninspiring Biden to slip into the presidency.  If Trump evolves into a shadowy underworld figure who can be blamed for things, the benefit to Biden and his party will be ongoing.
So the question, "What happens after Trump?" cannot be answered just by saying, "President Biden happens after Trump," because President Biden will, in many ways, be a continuation of President Trump.  The main differences will be in direction of money and avoidance of inflammatory rhetoric.  The beneficiaries will include people who live near oceans, which I can't complain about since I live near an ocean, and it will be a relief to hear less inflammatory language, but what else will be different?  Will the Democratic party be up to the task of figuring out this moment in history?  Or will we need new parties to tackle things in different ways?

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Defining "democracy"

Americans are taught in elementary school that the word "democracy" comes from ancient Greek and meant "rule by the people."  The Greeks are said to have "invented" democracy around the 6th Century B.C., the implication being that 200,000 years of possible human self-management prior to the Greeks was negligible, that there was no democracy until there was the word "democracy."

One bit of information that is sometimes missing from school textbooks- but that students often pick up on their own- is that for the ancient Greeks, "the people" referred to wealthy, slave-owning men, as it did for their successors the Romans.  

Students learn that the age of the Greek and Roman empires (called the classical age, from Latin 
classisclass, as in, upper class) was followed in Europe by the Dark Age, which lasted about a thousand years.  Textbooks suggest that Dark Age people didn't know anything; they just made things up and believed them no matter how stupid or crazy they were (imagine that!).  There was no "democracy."  People were ruled by monarchs- kings and queens- who were members of the "aristocracy," from ancient Greek meaning "rule by the best people" (aristos, best + kratia, power).  There were also religious leaders such as the Pope, who represented rule by God.  Many monarchs tried to cover both ends by claiming that, in addition to being the best people, they had been appointed by God.  

In the 14th Century, towards the end of the Dark Age, the Black Plague killed an estimated 25 million people throughout Eurasia and North Africa- about a third of the population- leading to a major shift in human ambition.  Many people were dissatisfied with monarchy and/or religious rule after these failed to protect against the plague.  The institutions had also notably failed, over centuries, to turn human life into an interesting and gratifying experience.  This became important in the late 18th Century to a group called the Romantics, who imagined that life used to offer more than a desperate quest to not be a slave.  In contrast to the Enlightenment (see below), which valued rationality (from Latin reri, to countas in counting money), Romantics believed our ancient life was primarily emotional.  My vintage textbook describes Romanticism as "a reaction against the order and restraint of classicism," which is ironic because "Romanticism" derives from "Rome." 

The Dark Age concluded with an explosion of light and darkness called the Industrial Revolution, in which humanity decided that it could not survive without continually evolving machines.  People from every background, sensing that humans could fight back against obstinate nature, developed science (from Latin, 
scire: to know) into a well-funded, politically supported organized collection of data on every aspect of everything.  Thus armed, many people raced to invent a variety of machines that could do human work using steam and electricity.  

The machines increased human power so much that the human role started to change from doing work to tending machines that do work.  The owners of the machines- who were usually not members of the aristocracy and so could not rule- became rich, sometimes gaining near absolute power over the workers who tended the machines.  These owners started to feel like their abilities to move earth and dominate people qualified them to be among "the best," with attendant perks.  It was the machine owners who resurrected the ancient Greek idea of "democracy," which they found afforded them the quickest route to power.

There were people who did not want the machines and their owners to take over society and culture.  In the early 19th Century, a group of English textile workers called "Luddites" (after a mythical character named Ned Lud) believed that machines were in competition for their jobs, so in response they destroyed the machines.  Their movement lasted four years, until they were all either killed or imprisoned.  In current usage a "Luddite" is a person who opposes industrialization generally.  If you call someone a "Luddite," the implication is that this person is living on another planet. 

At the same time that industrialization was forcing a transition from serfdom to urban "wage slavery" (or actual slavery), the philosophers of the age started thinking about classical Greece and Rome, about how the ancient aristocracies were able to lord it over everyone not just with the sword and the wage, but with intellectual output.  Suddenly everything about the classical world was cool: rectangular buildings surrounded by columns; state endorsed theater that probed the human soul; democracy, where rich men could run things on behalf of women, wage-slaves and slaves.  The PR department for this movement came up with the term "renaissance," meaning "rebirth."  Thus Shakespeare, a Renaissance playwright, was patronized by the royal court even though his plays laid out the mental pathologies of kings and queens, an elevation and acceptance of theater not seen since classical times.  At least for playgoers, there was a rebirth.  For everyone else, life was the same slog.

Another PR coup was the term "Enlightenment," the idea that all the stupidity of the human race through the Dark Age had been replaced by a great understanding of things.  For instance, we finally understood the self-evident goodness of allowing people to make as much money as possible doing whatever it takes to make it.

Not many people talk any more about the Enlightenment or the Renaissance as ongoing processes, but we continue to refer to "democracy" and expect it to be practiced in America, with or without clarification of its meaning.  

The subject is personal for me.   I am a semi-retired elementary and high school teacher, currently working as a debate coach.  On March 16, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) closed its schools in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  Since then, I and my colleagues have met with students via Zoom.  Like many teachers, I've found the online experience both surprisingly useful and severely limited.  Because online learning is promising yet deficient, politics should not touch it.  The political process requires that one side be right, the other wrong, and it will reshape any issue into that format, to the detriment of solutions.

In late summer, for instance, President Trump and the nation's teachers unions engaged in an entirely political argument about how to reopen schools for fall semester.  Trump and then education secretary Betsy Devos announced in a news conference that, because research shows that in-person instruction is superior to online, it is imperative that all schools physically reopen in the fall, and that online instruction be minimized.

Teachers unions responded with an opposing narrative: Teachers are first responders, directly at risk of contracting the coronavirus from students, who can also catch it from teachers.  Teachers need to be protected in the school setting, and online learning should be used until a safe working environment is assured.

There is strong evidence for each side in this controversy, in fact each side is right. That is the recipe for most of our useless political struggles, and the reason they tend to degenerate into noise.  

Should we expect the decisions about reopening schools to be democratic?  That seems unrealistic.  People won't have an opportunity to vote for representatives based on their positions on reopening.  Those decisions will be made by experts who are able to convince officials that one way of reopening is less likely to result in litigation than another.  

Most societal decisions are made this way, undemocratically, though it can be argued that such processes are democratic.  Socrates and Plato criticized democracy for serving special interests.  In this sense, Trump's special interest has been to please his base, which has been trained to hate teachers unions and public education in general.  The unions' special interest is to convince their rank and file that they are being protected.  

In the minds of most people, however, democracy requires that every adult affected by an issue have the ability to vote on that issue.

How about me, an individual teacher?  Given that there will be no voting, what's my role in deciding how schools will reopen?  Apparently my role is to sit at my computer and read about what other people decide about reopening schools, then do what they decide [On 8/23/20, LAUSD announced a virtual reopening for fall semester.  Members of the teachers union- United Teachers of Los Angeles- subsequently voted on rules governing virtual work, but not on the question of virtual vs in-school instruction].  

I'm not necessarily complaining about the process, but it would clarify our political conversations if we stopped describing official decision-making as "democratic" when it does not entail voting, especially as we face future foundational challenges in education and beyond.  We're about to reinvent human society from the inside out, incorporating Artificial Intelligence and bioengineering to create humankind 2.0.  Almost none of the decisions involved will be made by voting, so the process should not be termed democratic.  

Since many of our critical rulings are made by experts, we might label ourselves a technocracy- a society run by technocrats (i.e., 
members of a technically skilled elite, Webster), though there is a negative connotation to "technocrat," suggesting a bureaucratic coldness.  That could change with some decent technocrats.

All that matters in the end is whether the human race will be able to figure itself out before self-destructing.  We won't be able to unless we have meaningful language, in which words essential to our society, like "democracy," are clearly defined.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Where did Harry the Human's Hong Kong readers go?

My altered-ego Harry the Human reports that his sizable readership in Hong Kong and China vanished last week after Beijing imposed a new "security law" that prohibits Hong Kong residents from public dissent, or support of it.  People are afraid to be caught reading Harry, although he isn't exactly a dissenter- he's more a free- thinker.  Hong Kong's youth are not supposed to embrace Western style free-thinking any more.  Let's hope the West continues to embrace it.  
Read Harry the Human at

Friday, May 22, 2020

Thoughts for Hong Kong's youth w/ P.S. on George Floyd

Note: This essay was ready to post yesterday, Memorial Day, but when I watched the news and saw ceremonies honoring lost soldiers, and the justified fury of those who feel their loss is being mocked, I changed my mind and did not post it, because it's easy to misconstrue my use of language and think I'm mocking things that I'm not.   But since yesterday it has been nagging at me, that there is nothing in this piece which, if you pay attention to it, should offend a Vietnam War veteran or a person who thinks the U.S. needs a strong military.  The language is inflammatory only because it's honest and reports things that happened.  I feel now that a one day respite in honor of Memorial Day is sufficient to show respect, which I want to show.  After all, I consider myself, in one sense, a Vietnam War vet.  We all are.  

The youth of Hong Kong were subdued this winter because of the pandemic, but embers smoldering within them are blazing anew.  As I watch them on TV, charging through the streets, I remember the year I felt that way.  

It was 1968, when I switched colleges, lost my student deferment (later reinstated) and received a draft notice.  The idea, in essence, was that I was to report for an army physical, preparatory to being shipped to Vietnam to kill "gooks."  For young people who wonder why we protested, that's why.  

On the date indicated, I showed up at a bleak army facility in Oakland along with hundreds of other young men.  There were many more than could fit in the building, so we stood in line outside.  Stern men in their 30's, in khaki uniforms, hands clasped behind their backs, monitored the line, glaring at us and barking insults and orders in what I took to be preliminary moves to grind our identities down to nothing.  I knew this was sanctioned pedagogy from middle school PE and from Jack Webb in The DI, and had been dreading it.  In a move to preserve my identity, I brought a paperback of Bertrand Russell's Power to the physical and read it ostentatiously in line.  One of the stern men shouted at me, "What the hell is that!"  

Inside the building we were told to take off all our clothes except our underwear.  We trudged through long snaking lines, stopping at a variety of stations while unsmiling male doctors prodded and tested.  Over the years many doctors have squeezed my scrotum and stuck their fingers up my ass, but the experiences that day delivered particular dread.  A little kid would have cried.  In fact there was explicit emphasis during the physical on renouncing our need for mothers.  More uniformed men, like those outside, repeatedly reminded us that our "mommies" were not with us (periodically they called us "girls," the idea being, perhaps, that girls are more likely to need their mommies than boys).  The moment came back to me 17 years later when the Whittier Narrows Earthquake struck Southern California.  The room of the kindergarten class I was teaching shook violently.  There were several rough boys in my class- bullies and disruptors.  After the shaking, they were the only ones crying and, yes, calling for their mommies.  

Part of the Army process was a written "intelligence" test, on which I checked a box that said, "I do not think I should be a member of the U.S. armed forces."  The test, as I recall, was mostly about car repair.  One question asked what a carburetor does.  I was pleased because I remembered from driver's ed that a carburetor mixes gas and air.  Later in the process I was shunted to an army shrink.  He asked why I didn't think I should be in the military.  I responded, "I don't like taking orders from unintelligent people."  He scoffed, "You're so intelligent?  You failed the intelligence test!"  

Looking back, I think my words to the army shrink were the closest I came to actual protest.  Did my protest shorten the war?  I don't think so.

Along the line of naked, humiliated boys and young men the authoritative older men continued to glare, daring us to exist.  The message from these men was, at least in my mind: Do you want to be loved ever again?  It's not going to happen unless you become a real man.  A real man will go into battle and become tight with the men in his group.  His group will try to kill people in other groups, who are bad, and protect their own group, who are good.  Real women will love you only if you stand out in such a circle of men.  There is no love beyond this, other than from your mommy.

That was quite a message to absorb during the Vietnam War.  My father received similar messages as a naval officer in World War II, but that war pitted America against powerful industrial nations that had in mind destroying or at least subjugating our culture.  In most ethical systems, it's ok to kill people who are trying to kill you.

But the Vietnam War was waged against an agrarian country that had not attacked us and never would.  Vietnam had been a French colony that France could not hold on to.  French President Charles de Gaulle told U.S. President John Kennedy that France would not join NATO unless the U.S. took up the fight against Vietnamese anti-colonialists.  Kennedy complied (though only Republicans are ever blamed).  The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which a U.S. warship in Vietnamese waters reported that a Vietnamese ship had fired a torpedo at it, triggered the years of invasion and bombing.  It later came to light that the U.S. ship had detected, not a torpedo, but its own propellor.

The war was not fought for national security, but to test new weapons, make a fortune for defense industries, and stimulate the economy.  The war was also a jobs program for young men who did not realize- because society had not taught them- that they had evolved from hunter-gatherers who roamed the world and interacted physically with it.  The lack of physicality in modern life had driven them half-mad with repressed energies, and they were easy pickings for promises of tribal physicality.

A fire did burn within me then.  On the day I watched rocks thrown through windows at San Francisco State, the world seemed to turn upside down.  I felt an involuntary thrill, as if at last the authorities of the world would somehow sense my existence (although I wasn't sure what breaking windows was supposed to communicate to them).  That excited state was followed the next day by a recognition of powerlessness and futility, when California Governor Ronald Reagan used the campus violence to turn much of the public against this group of vandals and ne'er-do-wells, already labeled hippies by the media, a term that did not suggest serious political import.  

I had direct indication that the Governor's strategy worked.  My grandmother had two old lady friends in San Francisco, and she arranged for me to have dinner with them.  At dinner, the old ladies opined that the protestors should be shot.  

Here's the paradox: Often when aggrieved groups have had enough of objectionable policy and resort to public protest, that is exactly what the policy makers expect and prepare for.  When I marched against the Vietnam War in the Bay Area, I and thousands of people around me shared a feeling of power, of voice.  But it was illusory.  It was a set-up.  The pro-war factions knew they could handle protest as long as the old ladies were against it.  The slaughter in Vietnam continued for five more years, and didn't stop until we lost the war.  

In 1973, President Richard Nixon ended the draft, which allowed Vietnam type wars - that is, fake wars- to continue and proliferate, becoming the norm.  Protest ended the draft.  Protest did nothing to end the wars.

Fast forward to today.  The Chinese government has announced new security measures for Hong Kong that it knows will be inflammatory and unacceptable to the young people who protested last year.  

This is my message to Hong Kong's youth:  Your opponent is expecting you to be outraged and to protest.  You are supposed to.  But the timing has not been chosen by you.  Your opponent has chosen the timing.

I will let the conclusion to this observation go undetermined.  As a comfortable older guy, hiding out in what might be the last months of a middle class bubble, watching Netflix and floating through zoom sessions without any threat that I will ever again be forced to stand naked and humiliated while malign forces squeeze my scrotum and violate my prostate, where do I get off telling people who are facing a malign threat not to protest?

Nevertheless,  I do advise Hong Kong's youth that If you want an element of surprise, don't protest.  Do something else.  What that something else might be, you will have to discover.

Postscript, 5/29/20:  The people who are protesting in Minnesota and around the U.S. in response to the police killing of George Floyd face the same problem as the youth of Hong Kong.  Although non-destructive protest can be necessary to show the world that there is a problem,  when protesters in Minneapolis destroyed businesses, they destroyed a wide swath of sympathy, as did the Hong Kong protesters when they attacked public transit stations.  Those protests were impractical for another reason: If you want to win, you should narrow down your enemy to who it really is.  The Minneapolis businesses and Hong Kong commuters are not the enemy.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Is China an enemy?

This question has been trending in America for a while, but it gained strength in April, 2020 when U.S. news networks and online platforms asked in unison: "Did the coronavirus escape from a Chinese lab near Wuhan?"  There was no particular evidence that it had, but the announcements triggered the start of then President Trump's race against challenger Joe Biden for the "Who's Toughest on China" title.  Now President Biden will need to be both Good Cop and Bad Cop.

This essay recounts my own decades-long quest to determine if China is an enemy.

I've been thinking about China since I discovered it in 1953, at the age of seven, when my family, newly arrived in Los Angeles from North Dakota, went to Chan's Chinese Restaurant on the Sunset Strip near Laurel Canyon.  I was fascinated by the plastic dragon molds on the walls and ceilings and by crunchy "noodles" that you could float in the egg drop soup.  I liked chop suey because you could slurp it up.  Fortune cookies were a winner.  

My dad introduced us to the owner, Kyle Luke, a Chinese born American actor who played Charlie Chan's "Number One Son" in the popular movie series (later criticized as promoting stereotypes).  As the oldest of three brothers, I wondered what a "number one son" was.  

The public schools I attended had almost no Asian kids, so Chan's remained my foundational experience until 1966, when I enrolled at San Francisco State College (now California State University at San Francisco).  I made several Chinese friends, went with them to San Francisco's Chinatown frequently, and learned that chop suey is Cantonese for "left-overs" (it was concocted for unworldly gold miners).  

My best friend was a Chinese fellow who used the English given name David.  His family had lived in Hanoi until they fled from Ho Chi Minh's regime to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), and later to the U.S..   I met David one day in French class, when we were seated next to each other.  He asked me to help him with something he hadn't heard in the lecture.  He was taking notes on a strange typewriter with giant keys.  The typewriter wrote braille notes because David had gone blind from retinal cancer when he was a toddler. 

We went to the cafeteria after class and I learned a lot about David.  When he was a little boy in North Vietnam an aunt told him that because he was blind he would need to weave baskets and sell them on the street.  David was a mathematics major.  He did most of it in his head.  Several years after I met him he received a Phd in math from UC Berkeley and was later hired by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

My friendship with David grew rapidly because we each needed a friend.  I walked all over San Francisco with him.  He was proficient with his cane, but I often held his arm or he held mine.  Once we were walking in the Mission District and people in a car laughed and shouted at us, "They're really out tonight!"  David understood the intent and scoffed.  He said he hated homosexuality and then asked me if I was a homosexual.  I said, "No," and then he said that if I had said, "Yes," he would never have spoken to me again.  Girls adored David.  He used to ask me to come on his dates to tell him how attractive the girl was.  

I got to know David's mom, who worked as a translator, and his sister, who attended Sacramento State.  I would go shopping with them in Chinatown and be entranced by smells (ginger in particular).  David took me to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Washington Street, up from Grant, called Sam Woh, which was still in business the last time I visited a few years ago.  David's family spoke Mandarin, but David liked Cantonese food, especially a specialty soup at Sam Woh called now nham fun, a broth of fatty beef chunks and wide "fun" noodles miraculously flavored with herbs unknown to my Campbell's soup infused childhood.  I quickly became addicted to now nham fun and came to Sam Woh on my own at least once a week to get it.  The dining room was on a crowded second floor, with steam from the downstairs kitchen wafting up.  One time my table was next to the restroom.  A waiter came stumbling out, appearing drunk.  A minute later he brought me my bowl of now nham fun, his thumb sunk a half inch into the soup.  Such was my addiction that I ate the soup anyway, though I didn't go back for a long time (thirty years).

As noted, the purpose of this reminiscence is to help me develop a picture of China so I can decide if China is an enemy.  To recap: Wonderful soup with thumb in it; awesome brains.  

Partly because of my friendship with David and his family, I changed my major from English to Mandarin, which I studied for two years at San Francisco State, doing well or poorly, depending how you look at it.  Mandarin grammar was easier than English or French.  I was good at pronunciation.  Professor Lee, who called me La Xiansheng (roughly "Mr. Lasken") praised me for mastering the four tones.  He was not so taken with the pronunciation of students who were native Cantonese speakers (the majority in Chinatown) who had trouble adapting from Cantonese pronunciation.  

The Cantonese students did not have trouble with the Chinese characters, which they already knew because they are common across dialects, but the characters were my undoing.  Chinese kids begin in kindergarten to learn the world's biggest alphabet- a different character almost for each word, though there are interesting combinations.  For instance, the character for "I" is comprised of the symbol for self and the symbol for a sword.  Professor Lee told us this represents the internal conflict of the self.  Nice, but you need to know about 8,000 separate characters to read a Chinese newspaper.  We had to learn 10 characters a week.  I would pass the Friday quiz but forget all ten characters the following week.

I persisted and worked hard because Professor Lee seemed wise, and I liked his praise.  He told this story in Mandarin and helped us translate it:

The Buddha walked into a town and encountered two men having a heated argument.  He approached them and one of the men said, "Oh great, Buddha, please help us solve this argument!"

"Yes, Buddha, tell us which of us is correct.  I say the sun appears flatter before it sets because it melts as it approaches the horizon."

"But I say," said the other man, "that the sun appears flatter at sunset because it is pressing against the earth.  Great Buddha, which of us is right?"

The Buddha thought for a long time, and finally said, "I don't know."

One day Professor Lee discussed psychoanalysis in America.  My ears perked up because I still corresponded with my high school shrink.  Professor Lee said, "In China, we don't need therapy.  We just work!"  I wasn't sure what to make of that.  I'm still not.

Professor Lee was open in his derision of mainland China.  He was from Taiwan, having arrived there as a fleeing supporter of Chiang Kai-shek.  Chiang had been a revolutionary in terms of Sun Yat-sen's earlier revolution, but he was a counter-revolutionary in terms of Mao's revolution.  I learned that the entire department was run by people with Professor Lee's background.  For some reason that bothered me.  I liked the idea of revolution at the time.  I still like the idea, but not the thing itself.  Revolution is too messy and self-righteous.  I was also turned off by the constant hawking in Berkeley of Mao's "Little Red Book," one of whose maxims is, "The heavens are in chaos and all is well," a sentiment that is reassuring only in the abstract.

S.F. State's Chinese Department used the "audio-visual" method of language instruction, a feel-good approach I knew from high school French, which turned out to work well if you were in France and someone asked you where your aunt's pen was (La plume de ma tante est sur la table), and although, thanks to David, I can, if the need arises, still say, Wo bu-shr iga da mow-gwey (I am not a foreign devil) I knew the audio-visual method would never bring me fluency.  I heard about an effective Mandarin immersion program offered by the CIA which could lead to patriotic duties not necessarily limited to spying.  A few years later, newly married and looking for a career, I went to a CIA office on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. to apply for the immersion program.  The agent asked me questions about myself.  When it came out that my wife was born in Romania, the interview ended.  Here's the conversation:

Agent: The CIA does not hire people whose families are from communist countries.

Me: But my wife and her family fled communism.   You could not find more anti-communist people than my in-laws.

The agent smiled and looked at me like he was thinking, "You see every type in this job!"  

Back to San Francisco State, one day my Chaucer professor rushed into class and asked if we had heard about protests at U.C. Berkeley against the Vietnam War and injustice generally.  He was excited about a young man named Mario Savio who made philosophical anti-war speeches.  Savio warned that universities- extensions of the military/industrial complex- are factories, and students are products.  Unless they wake up, he said, graduates will emerge with no agency or self-awareness beyond their functions as tools in the corporate world.  

David, on the other hand, believed that the university represented strength of mind and purpose- his determination not to sell baskets on the street.

Secondary protests broke out at State.  I stood with a crowd watching rocks crash through the windows of the administration building.  As noted in the essay above, along with an involuntary rush of excitement, I felt despair at the unlikelihood that these acts would produce better American foreign policy.  If they ever did, you couldn't tell.

David and I agreed that breaking school windows was futile and misguided, but we disagreed on protest per se, which David opposed in all cases.  He said that protest destroys a society because it creates disorder.  We argued about that.  I had recently marched with my parents down Market Street to protest the Vietnam War, so I was not comfortable opposing all protest.  David hated the North Vietnamese regime so he was equally unforgiving towards protesters who did not break windows.

China's response to the American invasion was a clever lack of response.  Although the Chinese press denounced U.S. actions, there was no intervention from the Chinese military even when Hanoi, the capital of their ally, two hundred miles from the Chinese border, was bombed.  In retrospect it's clear that the Chinese game was chess, which makes calculated, often understated moves to produce future results, while the American game was poker, where you bomb and bluff for immediate benefit.  The winner in this particular instance was chess.  We may perhaps see in the upcoming relationship between President Biden and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping that America has learned some chess and China has learned some poker.

Back to the question of whether China is an enemy: the word  "enemy" is from Latin "inimicus," not a friend.  The question becomes, can you play chess or poker with a friend?  

David and I transferred at the same time to U.C. Berkeley, where I continued to major in Mandarin.  The turmoil was continuing.  One night I was on Telegraph Avenue when large crowds came running down the street smelling of tear gas.  David hated the protesters.  He said the entire math department hated them.

These recollections do not, I know, add up to any conclusions about China.  I'm just trying to create a backdrop.

Certainly there's rivalry with the rest of the world in China, which calls itself Jung-gwo, Middle Country, meaning that China is the center of the world.  Early Chinese maps show a massive China flanked by a tiny India and a dwarfed Russia that ends in a scrawny Europe.  

In the 19th century America held an exhibition in Beijing to showcase the light bulb, recently invented in America and beginning to light up American cities.  Chinese newspapers scoffed at the "stupid idea" and reported that Chinese visitors laughed at it.

China is very much in the running as far as inventions go, having invented gunpowder and paper among many other staples of the West.

Rivalry in innovation could easily result in China becoming an enemy.  On the other hand, good luck finding a country that isn't obsessed with its standing in the world and constantly angling for advantage.  An enemy may merely be a country that's good at it.

I never had a chance to see how my friendship with David would progress because he died of cancer a few years after college.  

I didn't have another close Chinese friend after him, but as a public school teacher I've had many Chinese students.  They tend to be smart.  Is that a racist, outrageous thing to say?  I've wondered that since one of my Chinese students wrote an essay criticizing Western stereotypes that depict Asians as good in math.  I commented to her that the world's highest secondary math scores are recorded in Singapore by ethnic Chinese students (though beatings with bamboo canes for underachievers apparently factor in).  My student said, "Using a stereotype shows bias whether the stereotype is true or not," an intelligent response that reaffirmed my bias that Chinese students tend to be smart.

I haven't been to China except for six hours in the Beijing airport waiting for a connecting flight home from a teaching job in South Korea.  This was while the MERS infection was spreading.  In a taste of things to come, stern medics wearing face masks pointed remote thermometers at passengers as we got off the plane from South Korea.  It was unnerving to be a suspected pathogen smuggler.  The airport terminal was one gigantic room big enough to park space shuttles in, hermetically sealed from a China that seemed hypothetical.

Ok, enough with the temps perdu.   Let's move on to science fiction, namely the 1982 movie Blade Runner, from the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, about Los Angeles in 2019, when intelligent robots rebel against humans.   The scenes of L.A. feature giant images on the sides of buildings of beautiful Chinese women speaking Chinese, and there are numerous Chinese roles.  Minus the robot revolution that didn't happen last year, the story was spot on.  Los Angeles is increasingly a hub of the world, maybe even destined (if D.C. doesn't get its act together) to become a city-state.  California's governor Gavin Newsom already refers to California as a "nation state" (even though it's not).  Some kind of international role is coming to the region.  A large section of downtown Los Angeles is owned by Chinese investors, who also underwrite much of Hollywood.  No one objects because the ideology of Los Angeles is capitalism.  Money is the language and the only enemy is someone who costs you money.

Again, none of the musings in this essay constitute a basis for a view of China as either an enemy or friend.  I aim only to create a foundation for further exploration.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Why I quit politics

Reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse:

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it.  I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, when 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 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 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 with 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, told me, 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 Los Angeles Unified 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 state Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support.  Newspaper editors (in particular L.A. Times opinion editor Jack Miles, author of "God, a Biography") liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine, New York Times and others on bilingual education.  The pieces in the L.A. Times 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 for 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 higher scores; 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 a meaningful 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.  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: 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.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The strife below

The Emperor of Japan looked from his mountaintop at the strife below and wrote this poem.

Quietly a leaf seeks

a vanishing sun.

At the shore

water rushes...

I said too much!

My words pile up like

beached whales.

Oh, to be succinct 


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