Saturday, December 25, 2004

Homemade X-mas Card

We’re having a nice Christmas here. Santa Claus is still a big, big deal in our house, and thankfully the girls asked for presents that weren‘t too extravagant or hard to find. So parents and kids are all pretty satisfied. No snow, which takes some explaining (my youngest has been brainwashed by the TV specials to think that a white Christmas is automatic), but it’s quite cold outside, so a couple of the presents (a Razor scooter, for one) won’t get tried out until tomorrow.

One odd thing--my friends the Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by. These guys first knocked on our door one Saturday over two years ago, and for better or worse I was polite and attentive to them. (I don’t agree with what they preach, but I respect their dedication, if for no other reason than having been a field canvasser at one time myself.) They’ve stopped by regularly ever since then, one Saturday a month or so, just for a couple of minutes, to give me a little magazine and a short Bible lesson. You wonder how productive it is for these folks going around knocking on doors on Christmas Day, in the freezing cold. But Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate Christmas like most churches to begin with, so maybe that‘s part of the point.

One of the girls got the Crayola crayons 120-color set. Crayon color technology has almost doubled in a generation. I wonder if there is some corollary to Moore’s Law that accounts for this. Anyhow, I whiled away some time today looking at the colors and the names Crayola assigns to them. Most of the great ones from my childhood are still there: Cornflower and Periwinkle and Bittersweet. The new colors, I give mixed reviews. Crayola does do some innovative things in the way of fluorescents. But some of these colors, frankly, are mostly hype and not much character. Entrants like Shocking Pink and Outrageous Orange and Unmellow Yellow--it’s obvious what’s going on there, right? Just adding a clever or trendy modifier to the same old color. There are some cheap sentimental nature/ecology allusions. There’s a Rain Forest Green, a Mountain Meadow. There’s a color called Outer Space. There are colors called Manatee and Timberwolf. Also, there are some nods to cultural Americana (Denim, Tumbleweed, Purple Mountain’s Majesty, Wild Blue Yonder), some of which verge on nationalism or militarism. Navy Blue is a cliché by now rather than a military tribute, but there is a Cadet Blue and, most striking, a Purple Heart.

Obviously, the eight or ten basic colors are a given, but it’s interesting how much editorializing goes on in The Big Box. The Crayola Company of Easton, Pennsylvania, is one of the unacknowledged legislators of our mental universe. They’re at least as important as any museum or school in fundamentally shaping American children’s imaginations and use of senses. Kvetching aside, the company fulfills this role fairly responsibly. Foods and flowers represent the membrane between the wild and the domestic, the natural and the artificial. Like many children’s songs and stories, Crayola dwells quite a bit on the table and the garden. Granny Smith Apple. Asparagus. Macaroni and Cheese. Orchid. Wisteria. Inch Worm. Robin’s Egg Blue.

I thought of commenting on this story about the soul-negating tyranny of "Season's Greetings" (there is a Raleigh connection after all, and isn't it my function on the WWW to blog about national news stories that originate in my geographical area? Isn't it? Hello?) but I won't. 'Tis the season for peace on earth, good will to ALL men, and I think the angel was including big fat crybabies in that injunction.

Monday, December 20, 2004

"Caryan" Brotherhood; or, Getting Medieval

So this Christian school got exposed for employing materials in the classroom that defended Southern slavery. (It was reported in the Raleigh News & Observer, but I’ll include this link because it will last longer.)

I never heard of Cary Christian School before, despite its being not more than 15 miles from my house. When I first heard this story, I thought there might be mitigating circumstances here. Parents in Cary regularly have gripes about the county public schools, and some of those gripes are reasonable. Cary’s population is booming at an unbelievable rate, they can’t build schools fast enough to keep up, so every year there are problems with overcrowding and children being involuntarily re-assigned to different schools to shift the population load.

This could fairly be described as “busing,” so use your imagination as to some of the Cary parents’ gripes that are less savory.

Where parents are chronically unhappy, private and charter schools will sprout up at a rapid rate. I have heard and read stories about disorganization at some of these new schools—inexperienced teachers, half-baked curricula, and so on—and I wondered if adopting a pro-slavery pamphlet might have been an honest mistake. In other words, I started out looking to give the Cary Christian School some benefit of the doubt, and perhaps learn that the story wasn’t as bad as it first sounded.

The lesson, as always: I’m an idiot. On closer examination, the story is just as bad as, maybe a little creepier than, it first sounded. Cary Christian School is a freaky scary fundamentalist place. When the bad publicity hit, the school did pull the offending pamphlet from use, but the statement currently on their website doesn’t seem very contrite about the whole thing.

My notion of Cary is that it’s full of technology workers. I guess it’s quite possible to have a narrow-minded troglodytic worldview and at the same time have the skills to build routers for Cisco Systems. Anyway, I feel there IS a line somewhere between, on one hand, religious families with legitimate concerns about the quality and climate of their public schools, and on the other hand, xenophobic bigot assholes. This was my initial interest in this story. Well, it turns out the school falls squarely into asshole territory, but I became morbidly interested in the creepy ideology this school subscribes to.

In its statement about the slavery hub-bub, the school uses Biblical arguments, some of which Jefferson Davis would recognize. Funny thing about Saint Paul, he was really clear that slave trading was wrong, but much iffier on the subject of slave ownership per se. If you’re a pedantic literalist who refuses to let your mind be tainted by any hint of historical interpretation, this is a problem. So their statement is rather sophistical (“the logic of the Great Commission requires the eventual death of slavery”) and in the end, it seems that slavery loses on a technicality. But CCS’s reading of the Civil War is that, like all revolutionary approaches to social change, it was unnecessary. (The Holy Spirit works like yeast through a loaf, it never manifests itself violently.) Exactly how slavery would have ended without a war is never addressed. But it matters little. Apparently, the reason it is important for our kids to study arguments for and against slavery, is as intellectual calisthenics, a warm-up for the really important social struggles of our time: against abortion and homosexuality.

Cary Christian School is a leading member of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools. The ACCS is based in Idaho (I can’t resist reporting this factoid), and its website is a family-sized Planters sampler of mixed wingnuttery. It is slick and erudite and hair-raising all at the same time. Here is an excerpt from one of its position papers:

[A]s Christians, we reject the follies of ancient paganism, while seeking to appreciate what God gave them through common grace. As classical Protestants we affirm that the Protestant Reformation was a glorious recovery of the truth of the gospel, and was not an unfortunate mistake. As medievalists, we affirm that the soul-destroying Enlightenment was an unfortunate mistake. As private educators, we affirm that the growth of government education in America cannot be understood apart from the war and its aftermath that established a centralized state in our nation.

I assume that last sentence refers to the Civil War and Reconstruction. So to sum up, Catholics are bad, the Enlightenment was a big mistake, and government schools are linked to the sinister tyrannical after-effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction. (By the way, these guys are relentlessly consistent in referring to public schools as government schools. Newt Gingrich would be proud. Hell, Goebbels would be proud.)

Clicking around these sites for the ACCS and its member schools, you find something for every prejudice. Sure, there’s rhetoric to appeal to the freaky Randy Weaver style Christianist true believer, but the schools also push the buttons of the less extremely conservative parents—run of the mill curmudgeons with their knee-jerk complaints about the public schools. The emphasis on a classical curriculum connotes a tried-and-true Eurocentric approach—a rejection of multiculturalism and trendiness. Whole-language is out; rote memorization of grammar and spelling is in. Centralization and bureaucracy are out; parents-as-customers are in. There are codes of conduct and codes of dress that enforce civility, unity, and respect for authority. Cellphones and iPods are banned from school grounds.

Something else I find intriguing is that one of the foundational texts of this “classical education” movement is “The Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy L. Sayers. I think of the late Ms. Sayers as a sweet English lady who wrote whodunits. It turns out she’s a more interesting figure than I realized: a vicar’s daughter, a scholar of theology and the classics, an early feminist of sorts, an associate of T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. She was a serious critic of modernism: her horror of Freudian thought shines through particularly in this lecture. But I’ve got to think Sayers is doing subterranean somersaults at the way these Idaho spuds are using her. She champions the classical trivium in education (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) as a tool of free intellectual inquiry. But by linking her trivium with Biblical literalism, the ACCS beats Sayers’s plowshare into a sword.

The ACCS opposes school vouchers: a devil's bargain, they believe. That government money is like crack cocaine, and before you know it you'll be allowing all kinds of infernal things, like mandatory buggery in the hallways. The ACCS is also an ally of the home-schooling movement, which I posted about once before. Homeschoolers are not the isolated screwballs I’d once thought they were. Every new thing I discover about their networking and coordination worries me, including this little tidbit: "we homeschool because we don't want our kids to be socially bonded to their peer group. We want to keep the hearts of our children where they ought to be, with their parents, until it is time for them to marry and leave home."

[UPDATE: Sorry, the Cary Christian School took down their position statement about the Biblical view of antebellum slavery. Fortunately, I have my hard copy! If you're curious, let me know.]

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Now Playing

How did I get to my age without ever hearing this album in its entirety? Another shameful gap in my education... Anyway, what a great song "Stray Cat Blues" is. "Jig-Saw Puzzle" shows a marked Bob Dylan influence, but still manages to be a Stones song. I tend to feel that when Mick Jagger sings country, he's laughing AT us, not WITH us, but "Dear Doctor" is genuinely funny.

I set myself up for ridicule when I try to interest my kids in my CDs, but I did score a success with the Ramones: the girls like it, and I get a surreal chuckle when I hear my four-year-old singing along with "Blitzkrieg Bop." (She has a new pair of black boots that look like Doc Martens, and I tell her that the Ramones are just right for her to dance to in her "punk rock boots.") I feel okay about my kids hearing "Beat on the Brat" or "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" because they're pretty absurd, and if the girls ask, I can explain that it's a joke.

On "Stray Cat Blues," however, Jagger is not joking. I'm a bit uncomfortable playing that song for my kids, the oldest of whom is almost 11. Not that there's anything wrong with a grown man wanting to bed a 15-year-old girl (or two), necessarily...

Monday, December 13, 2004

Steroids in Baseball

Though I don’t agree with all his conclusions or lack of them, Skip Bayless helpfully connects some dots here. As others have pointed out, on the list of public scandals, baseball players using steroids should rank way below the leaking of grand jury testimony by federal prosecutors. But Bayless reminds me of something I’d forgotten: Herr President cited steroid abuse as one of the nation’s leading ills in his last State of the Union address. And he wants to be able to say Mission Accomplished somehow. It looks unlikely that Bush’s Justice Department will manage to nail any scalps to the courtroom wall (quel surprise), so a “victory” in the court of public opinion, by way of a politically motivated press leak or two, will have to suffice. Right-wing scolds could hardly invent a better scapegoat on this issue than Barry Bonds: an unpopular player in that blue state Sodom & Gomorrah, San Francisco. Jason Giambi, overpaid free-agent bust for the New York Yankees, is almost as good for the part.

Slate used the occasion of the recent Bonds/Giambi disclosures to republish this Charlie Pierce article, a timely reminder that in the past, drug scandals in sports have had some really bad ramifications for American public policy and constitutional law.

I realize that with sports we are talking about the private, and not the public, sphere, but we have allowed the job of abridging our rights to be subcontracted in so many directions these days that the government hardly has to bother itself with doing so anymore, and a lot of that has its roots in the days after Len Bias died. [Bias’s death from cocaine overdose contributed to the war-on-drugs mood and legislative excesses of the 80s.] Consider, for example, Pottawatomie County v. Earls, in which the Supreme Court decided last year, by the predictable 5-to-4 margin, that high-school students could be tested for drugs if they decided to participate in virtually any extracurricular activity.

The case concerned a girl named Lindsay Earls, who’d refused a school-mandated drug test. Lindsay Earls wanted to join the choir.

Pierce also makes the very salient point that much of what Bonds and Giambi are alleged to have done wasn’t illegal at the time, neither in the eyes of the government nor of major league baseball.

I don’t have a whole lot to add. I really had no faith in Bonds’s or Giambi’s innocence even before the recent revelations; the circumstantial evidence is pretty overwhelming. It bothers me, I admit, especially in the case of Bonds, who has broken or will break some of baseball’s most cherished records. But it's an aesthetic objection, and a wee bit of an irrational hang-up on my part.

There's a colorful tradition of stretching the rules in baseball, including throwing a spitball and corking a bat. The spitball, of course, was legal for many years, and when baseball finally outlawed it, they grandfathered the active practitioners. Today, when you can just about about calculate the value (at ten of thousands of dollars) of every double off the wall that could be juiced into a home run over the wall with a little help from a syringe--why would any fan be surprised?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Blogstorms and Bumper Stickers

This Peter Beinart article in The New Republic has been thoroughly masticated by my elders and betters in Blogtopia. So I'll try to keep this somewhat brief. (heh -- we'll see)

Beinart's piece is thought-provoking, and it outlines the Democrats' dilemma in a useful way. Hence all the hubbub in Democratic circles. And some of his criticisms of the Kerry campaign on foreign policy are on target. For instance, while I think Kerry was right to oppose the $87 billion of additional funding for the Iraq occupation, it was a mistake to justify that vote in isolationist terms (e.g., why build firehouses in Baghdad but not in New York). Kerry should have cited the poor progress of the Iraq occupation, and Bush's refusal to pay for the war by rolling back tax cuts--to seriously re-align his administration's priorities. There IS a way for the Democrats to extend their core principles (such as human rights and the rule of law) into the realm of foreign policy and anti-terrorism. Beinart mentions the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps: examples of Democratic initiatives that have used economic developments (carrots) in tandem with military power (sticks) and have achieved positive results. And congruent with this approach, there was room for Kerry to attack Bush from the right on his conduct of the anti-terror campaign: Why didn't we finish the job in Tora Bora? Why do we tolerate embarrassing distractions such as Halliburton and Ahmad Chalabi? Abu Ghraib -- WTF? Kerry could've hammered Bush much harder on grounds of incompetence and less than total commitment, and affirmed traditional Democratic values at the same time.

It being The New Republic, though, naturally some things in the article grated on me. Beinart writes, "Had Kerry aggressively championed a national mobilization to win the war on terror, he wouldn't have been the Democratic nominee." That's exactly wrong, as fellow TNR writer Noam Scheiber establishes here. (If anything, Kerry missed an opportunity to reach toward the center-right.) Another thing that got my goat was that Beinart implies that the right has undergone "a historical re-education," significantly adapting its worldview to the new post-9/11 reality. Where's the new thinking? The outline of the Iraq invasion and Middle East "democracy promotion" has been on paper for 10 years or more, and the 9/11 attacks were no lesson at all, but an opportunity. 9/11 energized the right, and it gave them great fuel for propaganda and fear-mongering. But the right has less insight into the causes of Islamist terrorism, and in fact are more implicated in the conditions that cause it, than we are. They have no answers, just tough talk. And fewer scruples about demagoguing and using US troops as political pawns.

Bumper-sticker semiotics is one of my favorite hobbies. On the way to the coffee shop this morning I saw a car festooned with Bush/Cheney stickers, and with the familiar support-our-troops yellow ribbon decal-—and beside it, something that shocked me: a black ribbon that had the letters POW-MIA on it. What the fuck is anybody doing with a POW sticker in late 2004? It's just to feed somebody's persecution complex. It’s ain’t rational. It’s animal.

The country is still absolutely reeling from September 11th: left and right, in different ways. We will be nowhere close to a consensus on what 9/11 meant for decades, if ever. It’s like Vietnam in that sense. In fact, what Beinart writes comparing exit poll data between Dems and Reps and between '00 and '04, is mostly meaningless. 9/11 messed with our heads profoundly enough that our common language is shaken, and what "Iraq" means to people across the political spectrum is hardly worth comparing.

What most people mean by national security is really national pride. Liberals can talk until we’re blue in the face about how the Iraq war is counterproductive against terrorism, and most people aren’t even listening. The whole point of Iraq is animal vengeance—-who cares that it’s misdirected-—and getting our national mojo back. And the GOP is infinitely better at tapping animal instincts than we are. And I don't envy them in that respect.