Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Marion Nestle and Malden Newsheim: Why Calories Count

Shop Indie Bookstores

I tried so hard to like this book, that I tried very hard to read this book. Disappointingly, I couldn't read it, I didn't like it, and I can't recommend it. In fact, I'm surprised that University of California Press, publishers of "Weighing In," which I loved, would also publish "Why Calories Count." As far as I can tell, the books, while not entirely contradictory, seem to take on the idea of food politics and come out with entirely different answers. Obesity, Guthman says, has to do with a whole bunch of systemic problems having to do with capitalism, racism, etc. Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim take a scientific approach and then repeat the old standbys (well, I get this part from skimming, because I really *could not* read this whole book): portions are bigger, sugar is everywhere, etc.

"Why Calories Count" reads like an educated person's self-help book: here is how to understand calories, in exquisite detail, almost good enough to feel like you're a scientist. Here is some history of science. Here is the politics of it in just enough progressive voice to make you feel righteous indignation. And now, here's what you can do to keep your body healthy, but not in such a way that you feel like you're reading an airport-style-weight-loss-manual. It's really that bad. The authors use a lot of vernacular and "we" speech even when discussing physics that is so complicated I'm pretty sure they don't understand it. The writing is terrible. I made it to page 60 and stopped. Blugh.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Glenn Greenwald: With Liberty and Justice for Some

Shop Indie Bookstores
Glenn Greenwald knows that we all know that the criminal justice system is broken, and that if you have money, it's a lot easier to get out of fines, avoid jail time, get lower sentences, etc. He knows that it's basically common knowledge that, while crack (more common in "urban" areas) and cocaine (a rich person's drug) are same/same, they carry sentences that are heavily weighted in the rich person's favor. "With Liberty and Justice for Some" argues that there's something Even Bigger, although Greenwald doesn't dispute that these more well known things are bad- they're bad.  What Greenwald explains is that the fundamental basis of the United States is the "rule of law": a law that is immune to inequality, universal, and nonnegotiable. Historically, inequality might be okay (well, would be okay), as long as it stemmed from the rule of law. Per Greenwald,
Adams and the other founders viewed the preeminence of law over individuals- all individuals- as the only protection against the tyranny that American colonists had launched a revolution to abolish. For that reason, American political liberty was always inextricably bound to the notion that law reigns supreme.
So what happened between then and now to make it so that political, financial and media elites became above the law? Why are the American people convinced that prosecuting and holding accountable certain offenders- presidents, corporate leaders, etc- would be too "disruptive, distracting, and unjust?" Since when do we buy this? One word: Nixon. (My take, not Greenwald's, but the book is longer than my post is going to be.) Or maybe two words: Presidential Pardon. When Nixon and his partners committed a whole bunch of pretty egregious crimes, everyone knew. And then Gerald Ford pardoned him and Nixon and his buddies were free from worry that they would be held to the same standards of law as everyone else. And so it started.

Some themes came up when Ford explained the pardon: He had to stop the "tragedy" that was Watergate, and start "looking forward." Nixon wouldn't actually "enjoy equal treatment" under the law- trying him in court would be excessively "cruel" (yes he really said that), expensive, long, and polarizing for the country. Oh, and it would hurt the credibility of the United States. (Note: Greenwald points out that both Nixon and Ford's actions would be cause for US condemnation in any other country.) Ford's conscience just wouldn't let him do anything else except pardon Nixon, i.e.: put him above the law.

And so it began. Note Obama's campaign promises to "restore the rule of law," and his seeming interest in bringing Bush et al to justice. As soon as he was elected, however, he took up Ford's vernacular while "blocking and suppressing all investigations of the Bush administration:" he wanted to look "forward as opposed to looking backwards," and wanted to make sure that people at the CIA (!!!) feel comfortable in their jobs. Really, the man wanted peace in the intelligence agency, or to put them above the law. The media backed Obama up on this: a Time magazine reporter worried that if Obama pursued investigations into torture, there might be a "rebellion in the clandestine service," since they might have had "to behave extra-legally for the greater good of the nation." So, you know, don't take the President's word for it: The CIA had to break the law, and it would be really wrong to take a look at that. (Actually, it wouldn't. Greenwald conveniently includes part of the Geneva Convention Against Torture, conveniently signed by Reagan, which says terrorism isn't a good enough reason for torture, nor is an order from your boss. Further, presidents can't decide not to investigate: "the United States is legally required to investigate allegations of torture," whether we shouldn't look backwards, whether the media is concerned, or whether it would break precednent or not. Stand up to Bush, dammit!)

Conveniently, this precedent (which is not unique to Ford and Obama), means that each President is free of investigation by his successor. Do the crime, not the time, it says, in a completely bi-partisan way. Suddenly our two-party system doesn't seem so democratic, just a way of slowing down government and spending lots of money every two years. And this is only the beginning: Greenwald convincingly (and disgustingly) implicates corporate bigwigs (no surprise) and media in this, as well. He lays out the revolving door between corporate CEOs/board members/lobbyists and government players, which is quite lawless, but don't worry, none of them will suffer a cruel day behind bars. That would be wrong. I'll leave the corporate and media stuff for this talk by Greenwald, but really, the book should get us doing something. It helps explain Occupy, a little, maybe, but more, it is an issue I think needs to be addressed by President Obama. The rule of law should come back, or he should lose our votes.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Lisa Deplit: "Multiplication is for White People"

Shop Indie Bookstores
We are bombarded with statistics about how African American children drop out of school at higher rates than white kids, and score worse on standardized tests, and end up in "failing" schools more often. We are told this stuff so much that, like it or not, believe it or not, we start to believe it. Whether we are white or black, progressive or conservative, we believe it. Don't think you believe it? Read this and ask yourself honestly if you're surprised.
In 1956, French researcher Marcelle Geber, under a research grant from the United Nations Children's Fund, traveled to Africa in order to study the effects of malnutrition on infant and child development. Geber concentrated on Kenya and Uganda, where she made a momentous discovery: despite the expectation that malnutrition would cause lower rates of infant development, the developmental rate of native Ugandan infants was so much higher than the established norm that these babies were able to outperform European children twice or three times their age.
Geber found, in her words, the most precocious and advanced infants ever observed anywhere in the world. She saw four-day-old infant who smiled continuously. She published photographs of a forty-eight-hour-old child bolt upright, supported only by his forearms, head in perfect balance, and eyes focused.... The Ugandan infants were months head of children of European descent n any intelligence scale utilized. Geber showed infants between six and seven months old a toy, then walked across the room and put the toy into a tall toy box. The African children would leap up, walk quietly across the room, reach into the basket, and retrieve the toy... the test shows that "object permanency" had occurred in the child's developing mind- the first great shift of logical processing.
 Lisa Delpit explains that she introduces this and other studies "because what we need to know at a very deep level is that African American children do not come into this world at a deficit." And it's hard to remember this, given that society tells us that black kids can't learn, or won't learn, or come from a "culture of poverty" or are just inferior to white kids (not to mention adults).  This leads to a vicious cycle in eduction: when we assume that African American students are intrinsically inferior white students, "Our tendency is to teach less, to teach down, to teach for remediation. Without having any intention of discriminating, we can do harm to children who are viewed within a stereotype of 'less than...'"

Delpit's short and sweet book is full of convincing (if you know someone who needs convincing) studies and anecdotes about what's wrong with how we teach African American students, and remarkable solutions. Delpit doesn't pretend that any of this will be easy, but she chides readers in the manner of her model "warm demander" that a better way is possible. The solutions in themselves aren't radical, except that the way most districts and teachers are educating students is so profoundly uninspiring that the model examples seem deeply (in a good way) unusual. Curricular content, for example, may have to change. (I'm realizing, as I write, that I'm only addressing things that Delpit addresses in Chapter 1: This book is so good, and so thorough on concepts of racial disparity in education, that this as far as I'm going to get).  Curriculum, Delpit says, "is doomed to failure," if it "does not connect in positive ways to the culture young people bring to school." So whereas white middle class kids- (Chapter 3 popping up here) might come to school knowing their letters and numbers because their parents consider this "basic skills" for a child under 5. Delpit reminds us that these children might not have skills that others have, but aren't as valued in school: "how to clean up spilled paint, tie their shoes, prepare meals, and comfort a crying sibling." These kids have knowledge, but it's not the "right" knowledge, and for schools to teach effectively, *all knowledge must be valued.

I can't do this book justice in a short write-up. I've been struggling to get this one out, because it's so full of knowledge for a lay person like me. What's broken in the schools is so much more than "teaching to the test"- though that's certainly broken- and reading Delpit's book makes you believe that the problem is not just a lack of resources (though clearly that's a problem, too), it's a lack of imagination. The way we see kids, specifically black kids, is so backwards that throwing money at the problem won't fix things. We almost need a reboot, or at least an attitude adjustment. At the very least, we need to read this book.