Saturday, October 27, 2012

John Marsh: Class Dismissed

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People are speaking up about why education might not be the answer to every problem, and maybe, just maybe, that not every person needs to go to college. Professor X felt he couldn't tell his personal story without hiding behind a nom de plume, but took the stance last year that maybe not every American needed to go to college. College is expensive and leaves individuals saddled with debt forever, many of whom aren't even qualified for what American colleges purport to teach. The "college premium"- some college, a two year degree, or bachelor's degree required- was helping no one, since many of these jobs didn't actually need degrees at all, and students and institutions were going (back) to school unnecessarily. He asked for a change in the discussion: do we really need to send Americans to school? Is college really college if it's remedial at its very core? Who is college serving?

I enjoyed "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" and the questions it raised, while wondering why Professor X couldn't tell us his name or answer his own questions with possible solutions. The book was powerful enough, because thinking new thoughts on education in a climate where *everyone* agrees that *everyone* needs to go to college is kind of groundbreaking.  But John Marsh has done even better in "Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality." This book is all of the things, while slightly different in focus, is all of the things that I missed in "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower": analytical, evidence-based, and proposes solutions (even if author John Marsh feels these solutions are unlikely to happen soon.)  Where Professor X argues that perhaps education is not for every individual, John Marsh argues that education is perhaps not the answer to every individual problem: "I conclude that education bears far too much of the burden of our hopes for economic justice, and, moreover, that we ask education to accomplish things it simply cannot accomplish."

There's probably a joke in here somewhere, but Marsh reminds us that the only thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on is that everyone needs an education, and that education can get people, generally, out of poverty, and change the dire situation of our country. Marsh quotes Bush saying that inequality in the US is growing, and that "The reason is clear. We have an economy that increasingly rewards education and skills because of that education," and Obama has been pushing all kinds of education programs, specifically saying that this will "Provid[e] greater pathways for students to enter into and succeed in higher education is in the interest of all Americans, and is critical to developing a highly educated, highly skilled economy and workforce that will attract business and lead to lower unemployment" (from the White House website.) But Marsh argues, convincingly and with the stats to back it up, that this isn't the case. Education is great, but it doesn't solve inequality. The argument that education leads to the end of inequality is backwards: "Only by first decreasing inequality and poverty might we then improve edcuational outcomes," he writes.

Education is the best possible Trojan horse. All politicians and lay people can agree that education is wonderful. What's not to like? Even people who don't like poor people or people of color can agree that education is a good thing. It's a problem that Americans don't get educated, a problem that maybe even the government has some responsiblity to fix (the degree depends on your political views). But poverty and inequality? That's an individual problem, one that no one really wants to deal with, or talk about, or tackle. If education can solve everything, then it's much easier to deal with education.  Marsh traces the history of how education became the only way Americans felt they could have "opportunity," and then reminds us that just because you are have a college education does not mean that there is a job for you. Education does not produce jobs. Further, the socioeconomic and racial position you are born into is the key determining factor of where you will end up: education may provide a few individuals an opportunity to move up in their economic position, but not very many individuals. So talking about education, and uplifting is an easy out: Get a degree, you might make it! Well, you might, but you might not. Only much bigger solutions than an individual poor person going to school will help poverty in the US, and really, dealing with inequality is the major solution. Education as it stands is currently increasing US inequality.

It's a big idea to swallow, but it's hard to walk away from "Class Dismissed" without believing it, or at least some of it. Marsh knows the steps in the right direction will be hard, and unlikely. President Obama's initiatives are powerful and have popular support. Who doesn't want opportunity for themselves or their child? Strong labor, in the form of unions, is on the way out, and Marsh knows it, but argues that it is one key to lessening economic inequality. A tax revolution would help, too, and even Obama is campaigning on lowering taxes on the middle class. The chances of a "tax revolution" are also slim (note that in the 1940s and 1950s taxes on the top brackets were in the high 80 and 90 percents).  Marsh is not anti-education. His point is rather that
We ought to acknowledge the limited but nevertheless real role education plays in providing individual economic opportunity and may play in generating national economic growth. At the same time, we should seek to make education more of an end in itself and less of a means toward some other en, whether that something else is opportunity, economic security, or national prosperity. Above all, we need to do a better job of securing hte right to a good education, but in doing so we must keep in mind that individuals have more economic rights, and perhaps more important economic rights, than the right to a good education.
 This book is a must read for those interested in education or inequality. It's eye-opening and thought-provoking. Marsh is an English professor and makes even the dullest of statistics and graphs (and there are plenty) readable. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jim Haskins: Power to the People

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It's embarrassing to admit how little I know about the Black Panthers. I live in Oakland, was raised by liberals at liberal private schools, and, if prodded, might have been able to name Huey Newton. I read "The Autobiography of Malcom X" in high school, and probably that was as close as we came to learning about anything less politically correct than Dr Martin Luther King. My education was whitewashed: I got the Booker T. Washington version, all dreams and peace, no guns and infighting. In the politically correct version, civil rights were won, cops didn't die, and there were no drug addicted leaders who went to prison and came out power hungry.  But it didn't all go down like that, and in erasing the Black Panthers and sanitizing the version of the fight for Civil Rights that kids are getting, or cleaning up local history, we're losing a lot.

I think I started my hunt for a book on the Black Panthers after reading about the Party's trip to Sacramento and the Capitol building with their guns when they went to make their statement about the right to bear arms. It's hard to find a good book about the Black Panthers. There are several books by former Party members, but it's hard to know which to pick: the Party split up fairly quickly, and partially due to infighting- even I know that- so any book by a particular member is going to be skewed in that way. There are lots of books about black history or civil rights history or race that include pieces about the Panthers. But I ended up with "Power to the People: The Rise and Fall of the Black Panther Party," by Jim Haskins, even though it was written for young adults, and as far as I can tell, it's one of the few overviews out there. It's a good read, especially for novices like me.

Jim Haskins highlights the very Oakland-ness of the Black Panthers: from the very beginning acknowledging that the Party would have turned out different if Huey Newton had stayed home. He didn't stay home, though, and the Oakland that the Panthers developed in is very recognizable to me: alive with people determined to make a difference, seething with hatred for police, and a government both well-meaning and disastrously incompetent. It became more and more obvious reading "Power to the People" that history really does repeat itself, and that we fail to learn from our mistakes. For example, in 1969, after shootouts between the Panthers and the police, Haskins writes that the Party "would cease to exist altogether if it persisted in challenging the authorities by carrying guns and 'patrolling the pigs.'" From jail, Huey Newton ordered a change in tactics, and the Party moved to some of the other things they were famous for: education, food security, etc. This is very telling: the Panthers were falling apart, leaders were in jail, and nothing was working, so they switched tactics. Certainly, some factions were displeased, but it was an important moment in the Party history. I think about the antagonistic relationship between Occupy Oakland and wonder what could be learned on all sides from this moment, and when the baiting will stop. In the late 1970s, near the end of the movement, violence and financial fraud finished the Panthers off (some names are familiar to Oakland-ers), and even this history is still revealing: funds being siphoned from one place to another, including the use of city contracts, nepotism in hiring practices, and playing politics with the police department.

The Black Panther Party is part of national history, and Oakland history. City Center was made possible by negotiated with (first time) Governor Jerry Brown and the Panthers. Black voter registration, education, and political participation was revolutionized in Oakland and beyond. Erasing it is both racist and historically untenable. For now, "Power to the People" is an accessible step in the remembering direction.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Robert Elias: The Empire Strikes Out

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If you haven't noticed a pattern, I have: baseball and politics take up a large portion of my life. Maybe politics isn't the best way to describe it- perhaps "the system" is a better way, or "the big picture." The idea that nothing exists in a vacuum, including my favorite things- baseball, photography, dogs. I like to take things too far, or at least to the lengths that I think they should be taken, which means way past first glance. Which is why I was eager to pick up "The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold US Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad." If ever a title could sell a girl on a book, this was it. I've always suspected baseball of being intimately connected with nationalism, and here is Robert Elias demonstrating the actual links between the two.

Sadly, I was disappointed. The truth is, Elias did just what I was hoping he would do: discussed baseball and imperialism, baseball and masculinity, baseball and nationalism. But he also wrote a pretty boring book. Although some people might think that baseball and nationalism are intrinsically boring subjects, they don't have to be. And maybe I'm not being fair: Elias has probably written a very interesting history book, but I'm not really a fan of history, and was expecting something else. Three-quarters of Elias' book is devoted to the history America's use of baseball in spreading The Word, and it really reads like a history book: "then the army took baseball here, and after that they did the same thing in this country and the country responded like this and the other country responded like that." Every possible historical reference to baseball and imperialsim, or baseball in the context of US foreign policy is in this book.

On the other hand, I feel like handing this book to everyone who thinks that baseball is "just a game." As a small child, my dad sat through the national anthem- I can't quite remember when he started standing, or when I started feeling uncomfortable sitting along with him, but there was something to this: why is it somehow necessary to stand up for the US (literally) at a baseball game? Robert Elias knows the answer to this: turns out not only was "The Star Spangled Banner" not the official anthem until 1916, in 1918, the anthem was played at a World Series game where wounded WWI soldiers were honored. It was a big hit, partially due to the dramatic performance of the Cubs and Red Sox players who "snapped to attention and faced the flag flying over center field." Players were required to train for war- MLB and the government worked hand and hand- and the spectacle got fans singing along. After that, the anthem, and signing along, became much more common at ballgames, and at the anthem's Congressional ratification in 1931, "its public familiarity at baseball games was given most of the credit." Baseball and America, well, they just go together, and it's by design. 

Taking this a little further, and starting with this example, baseball and war go together. "The Star Spangled Banner," sung at the beginning of every baseball game, is martial to its very core:
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Elias talks about the war built into baseball: "The batting team pursues a constant war of maneuver." He sees batters as attempting to get the ball by the enemies, who in turn are trying to try to keep their troops in position. If it sounds like a stretch, only even in 1889, near the beginning of the prevalence of the sport in the US sportswriter Henry Chadwick was using these terms in his book, "How to Play Base Ball." From then on, baseball was used in foreign policy: the US brought it along on imperial missions to help pacify and convert the conquered, and the US sought to convert people to baseball in order to prove the US dominance in the sport. This, of course, makes themacinator squeamish: baseball appeals to the pacifist, nonviolent streak in me. I love the balletic, noncontact nature of baseball, especially compared to the modern American sport, football. But, if I'm consistent with my previous thoughts about baseball being an arena (war metaphor anyone?) for Americans to work/play out their stuff, then baseball as an area for playing out war games makes sense, too.

Elias also weaves in the story of baseball's exploitative labor practices, in terms of how they fit into the history of foreign policy. He's not quite as strong on this, but it's not the main focus of the book. He traces the integration of baseball, and how, as the Negro Leagues were absorbed/disbanded, MLB needed somewhere else to find cheap labor. Fortunately for MLB, all of their advance work in nation-building paid off, especially in the Carribbean and certain Central American cultures: where baseball had taken hold, cheap labor in the form of potential athletic prowess was easy to come by. He touches on the current exploitative practices in baseball academies, which I didn't know about, that are deeply concerning: this is something to look into further.

Lastly, my boyfriend made a stunning, and unwelcome guest appearance in "The Empire Strikes Out." Describing modern shows of nationalism, Elias describes how Major League teams have trotted out support for the Armed Forces since the (new) war in Iraq. Back in 2005, when Barry Zito was still on the A's, he founded the "Strikeouts for Troops" program, along with MLB's endorsement. For each regular season strikeout (you've probably heard the commercials), the pitchers donated $100 for every strikeout to funds for war-wounded troops. (As of the publishing of the book, the program was still going on with Zito at the Giants.) Elias continues to talk about this program in the context of the conservative foundation that handles the funds: the Freedom Alliance. Among the players asked to tour US naval bases by the Freedom Alliance? Joe Blanton.

Baseball is a complicated game. It's got all kinds of numbers and statistics and emotions and other things. And it's inseparable from its fans, the money involved, or its history. "The Empire Strikes Out" is weak, but a necessary read for true students of the game.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


As far as I can tell, the number One Hundred and Sixty-Two has exactly no significance to anyone except baseball fans. One hundred and sixty-two is perhaps the most important number to baseball fans- one laden with meaning- the magical number of games in a season. Non-baseball fans are quick to say that the season is too long, that it lasts forever, that they can barely sit through one game, let alone 162. Non-baseball fans just don't understand the magic of 162.

This year the A's sucked. Last year the A's sucked. The year before that the A's sucked. One hundred and sixty-two games was a lot of games- but I wouldn't have traded them for anything. I've written a little about this in 2009 and 2011: addiction to baseball is not just about joy, it's also about suffering. The suffering, the bitching and moaning that friends of baseball fans know so well, is all part of the package, of the fun. We get away from real life by living baseball. And then the 162 games are over, and we have to deal with real life, and that is really tough.  At least we had that magical season.

But sometimes something amazing happens during those 162 games: a rookie turns into a superstar. A trade works out. Or the crappiest team in baseball somehow is in contention when the season is halfway over. And that crappy teams happens to be YOUR crappy team- your Oakland Athletics. That's what happened this year, and to make a long (162 games long) story short, it all came down, improbably, to that last game of the year. Somehow my roommate had the prescience to know this was going to happen, and bought us amazing tickets. The A's had to do things that there was no way that they could do to win their division, and they did them. And I. Was. There.

I was born in Oakland to a baseball fanatic. I've been going to games since I can remember, and had partial season tickets since I can remember. I remember attending the 1990 World Series with my grandfather, in the back row in the second to last section of Right Field. But I don't remember any game more exciting than Game 162 of 2012.  In the 4th inning, the A's were down 5-1. In baseball, this can be a huge deficit, especially in a "pitcher's park" like the coliseum. The A's were about to go down in the bottom of the 4th, and I was about to leave to go to the bathroom when Josh Hamilton, one of baseball's pretty boys dropped the most routine of pop-ups. After that, it was over. The A's couldn't help themselves- they had to win, and the fans had the best time, EVER. I stood up for 3 straight hours, I'm pretty sure. We had fight in spite of Lew Woolf refusing to open the tarps. We had fun even though I'm pretty sure Lew Woolf didn't want us to, even though he wanted to A's to lose so that MLB and everyone else would let them move to San Jose. We had fun because the A's had fun. So I give you some of game 162. Feel the Coliseum rocking. Savor 162.

Crowd begins to anticipate a sweep, and a division title.

Grant Balfour, the mad Aussie, madly puts away the Rangers.

crowd goes wild
The Crowd Goes Wild!

The A's take a victory lap.

Division Champions
Division Champions, baby.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Fiction? Why Yes!

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Occasionally themacinator reads fiction. It's not easy to review fiction, so I have a backlog of three books, and I'll sum them up all together here.  First was "The O'Briens," by Peter Behrens. This is Behrens' most recent book, the sequel to "The Law of Dreams," which I just read. It worked just fine to read the books backwards, because they work equally well as stand-alones. Saga-like, "The O'Briens" is the story of a few generations (I've forgotten now) of Irish immigrants and their families in Quebec and the United States as they succeed and almost-succeed. Not surprisingly for the book that came before, "The Law of Dreams" is the story of a previous generation, in Ireland, during the famine. Presumably it's the story of the male predecessor, as he goes through a series of lady friends, and ends up traveling to Quebec with a woman who one assumes becomes the matriarch of the O'Brien clan.  The first book, which I read second, is the better book, if slightly more fantastical.  Both books are easy, fast reads, sometimes welcome for a serious reader like yours truly. One has to wonder, though: why are so many books about Ireland and Irish immigrants? What makes this story so fascinating? (I have no answers.)

The third book, and the best by far, was Thomas Mallon's "Watergate." This book came highly recommended by THB, who a) is also not a huge fiction reader, b) knows his history, and c) lived through Watergate. He liked it, so this is a ringing endorsement, and "Watergate" really was fabulous. Literally my only complaint was that the four page cast of character list at the start of the book wasn't somehow repeated throughout the book. Readable, informative, humanizing- it's really good. Okay, I guess I have another minor complaint: I don't know if it's true or not. I mean, I don't have THB's qualifications: I don't know my history, especially my Watergate history, and I didn't live through it. I had never heard of one of the main characters in the book, Fred LaRue, so I don't know if Mallon's account via LaRue was particularly credible. On the other hand, I'm not sure it mattered. If you like fiction, and like sort of scandalous historical fiction, this is a great read.