Words, words, words...

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Choosing Choice: The Great School Voucher Deception

Posted By on Thu, Apr 25, 2019 at 1:25 PM

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Except for conversations about a woman's right to control her physical destiny, "choice" is a popular word among Conservative politicians and policy makers. For the businessman, it's a near synonym for freedom, and something Rhetoric professors might call a "god word," with high propagandistic value. "Choice," is the banner word on The Beacon Center of Tennessee's page advocating for Educational Savings Accounts, like Governor Bill Lee's re-branded and Tennessee House of Representatives-approved school voucher program. In a similar vein, fear of losing the ability to "choose healthcare providers" is key to most narratives opposing anything approaching universal healthcare coverage, just as it was when the same Beacon Center took credit for defeating medicaid expansion in Tennessee.

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"While stopping the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare was a necessary first step, it is still our responsibility as Tennesseans to find affordable healthcare solutions for our most vulnerable neighbors," Beacon CEO Justin Owen told media. Instead of Medicaid access, Beacon supported  "right-to-try" legislation, allowing terminally ill patients access to choose certain unapproved FDA treatments. A Trump-backed Federal "right to try" bill was signed into law in 2018. As noted in The Atlantic, the catchy name and promise of personal autonomy disguised a decreased ability for people who aren't medical experts to determine if treatments were effective or safe. 

If you don't know The Beacon Center of Tennessee, previously called The Tennessee Center for Policy Research, they self-describe as "an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research and educational institute." They're the group that "exposed" former Vice President Al Gore's energy use as part of an effort to counter "climate change alarmism." They're also affiliated with a right-wing cut-and-paste legislation web called the State Policy Network. It's one of those places where movements to preserve and expand "choice" by way of free market insurance and publicly subsidized private schools are born. Tennessee's decision not to expand medicaid didn't make anybody more free, it put families at risk. Around 71,000 children were left without coverage. Now that Tennessee has moved a step closer toward embracing Education Savings Accounts (aka vouchers), another "choice"-forward initiative from the sewer of America's policy factories, it's important to understand how the word is paradoxical and may not always mean what it seems to mean.

Fred Hirsch, a former professor of International Studies at the University of Warwick, wrote about the limits of choice. In his book The Social Limits of Growth, he showed how choice can't be made available to everyone, no matter how clever we get with technology. This is particularly true in regard to superlatives; the best doctor, for example, or the best teachers. This sounds elitist at first, but means and privilege only mitigate the effects of scarcity, they can't erase the fact of it. Hirsch calls these troublesome things "positional goods," and Barry Schwartz, the  Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, expanded on the concept in The Paradox of Choice: How the Culture of Abundance Robs us of Satisfaction.

"We might all agree that everyone would be better off if there were less positional competition," Hirsch wrote, swimming against conventional wisdom that competition is good in every case. "It's stressful, it's wasteful, and it distorts people's lives."

"Parents wanting only the best for their child encourage her to study hard so she can get into a good college. But everyone is doing that. So the parents push harder. But so does everybody else. So they send their child to after-school enrichment programs and educational summer camps. And so does everyone else. So now they borrow money to switch to private school. Again others follow."

Sometimes the supply of positional goods just runs out — There are only so many spots in the best teacher's classroom. Value also decreases as the result of overcrowding. Schwartz illustrates his point with a metaphor made for sports fans:

"It's like being in a crowded football stadium, watching the crucial play. A spectator several rows in front stands up to get a better view and a chain reaction follows. Soon everyone is standing just to be able to see as well as before. Everyone is on their feet rather than sitting, but no one's position has improved."
 Those not standing, by reason of choice or inability, might as well be somewhere else, Schwartz concludes. They aren't in the game.

Whatever you choose to call them, voucher systems aren't a new idea. The University of Chicago's Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman wrote about the role of government in education in 1955, and choice advocates have been inspired by his arguments ever since. He determined that government should fund schooling. It should not run schools. Friedman advocated vouchers as a means of increasing freedom through choice in the marketplace.

Educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch related this history in her data-laden 2010 mea culpa, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. While working on national education policy for President George H. W. Bush, Ravitch had gotten caught up in choice mania, but came to regret it. Advocates of voucher systems and charter schools, "were certain choice would produce higher achievement," and "reduce the rising tide of mediocrity," she wrote. The collected data told a conflicting story. After reviewing the 20-year history of a voucher program in Milwaukee, Ravitch determined "there was no evidence of dramatic improvement for the neediest students or the public schools they left behind." As with the football stadium metaphor, everybody moved, but nobody's position really improved.

"Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king," Ravitch wrote, taking on presumptions that choice and competition are necessarily a public good. "But the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program."

Schwartz concludes that the scramble for positional goods creates what's commonly called "the rat race." That's expressed here as "the burden of locating suitable schools" in a sea of "buyer beware." That parents cannot "take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program" isn't a failure of teachers or public school systems or the communities where public schools are located. It's an enduring expression of political and economic will backed by an unwarranted faith in market-based solutions.

"When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable," Schwartz wrote in The Paradox of Choice.
"As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point choice no longer liberates, but debilitates." 
That's the problem with punishing and stigmatizing needy schools and pumping public education money into private markets. Or, as Ravitch put it, "With so much money aligned against the neighborhood public school and against education as a profession, public education itself is placed at risk."

That absolutely seems to be the goal. 

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Friday, June 29, 2018

Forcing Cards — How to Identify Divisive Internet Propaganda Before Sharing

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2018 at 3:58 PM

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We’ve all seen magicians manipulate cards in ways that make them appear to have astonishing gifts and the power to know things no ordinary mortal could possibly know. But all they really know is how to force a card — to present you with a choice that's no real choice at all, all the while letting you believe you’re the clever little monkey queering the illusionist's game via the exertion of  free will. Our sense of self-determination is what gives the trick its tension and makes it fun. But there's also usually cautionary lesson or two embedded in the trickster's marvels.

Good propaganda is like a card trick. It appeals to the vanities of self-awareness and control. Good propaganda campaigns are like a Vegas act, replete with sexy assistants, ordinary misdirection, and lots of good old fashioned bait and switch. Great campaigns play all sides to the user’s advantage.

Internet memes create a spectacular opportunity for card forcing, and for injecting divisive, peer-to-peer-spreading viruses into our daily political dialogues. These memes won't look like propaganda, what would be the point? The worst will look like every right-thinking person’s heart’s desire or some piece of apparently unassailable conventional wisdom. It will also be framed in a way that ensures a healthy mix of reflexive consensus and bitter rejection. I noticed an elegant and completely insidious meme making its way around Facebook this week and thought it would make a great study example. I thought I'd share it with the aim of developing better conversations, and maybe a good set of questions for determining whether or not the content we’re sharing online will have a positive or negative impact.

Here's the meme:

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While making a number of valid-seeming points, the ultimate message here is one of uncritical surrender to... well... whatever. There's also a healthy serving of Trumpian, “Get over it,” tacked on at the end. But to what or whom exactly are we all supposed to be surrendering and submitting? What kinds of imperfections are we supposed to start getting over in advance of discovery? Who’s going to have to wait (again!) for a place at the table? Which children will we open our hearts to and which ones will our drones open up on? Does the former hinge on a corrupt bargain requiring the latter? The decisions we make at the polls aren’t light ones. They should never be myopic, reactionary, or strictly self-serving. And whether you’re a Hill shill or a Bernie bro, finger-wagging at voters charged with the confusing task of group self-determination is always a poor community-building strategy.

I’m sure a lot of Trump-fatigued people can’t see a thing wrong with this meme — That’s what makes it genius. Whether it was developed by a Russian troll farm, or by a DNC troll farm doing the Russian troll farms' work for them, or by some doof on the internet doing work the DNC might otherwise do for the Russians, whoever created this black and white text-only marvel deserves all the rubles. With almost zero actual content, it has the magical ability to start fights and make people who agree about current POTUS being a nightmare, yell mean things at one another before they even have a candidate to back. That’s a tell if I’ve ever seen one.

Here’s a list of questions that might help us  separate constructive content from memes that make ol' Vlad Putin dance the merengue. I'm not a propaganda expert, so I know this is not a perfect list. Corrections, suggestions, and contributions are all welcome. My objective here isn't to be right — I'm not invested in that at all. Instead of competing for that distinction, how about we start some critical thinking about critical thinking, and how the content we share actually functions on the internet versus how we feel about it? 

1. Can any part of the meme’s overall content be reasonably interpreted, “fall in line or else”?

If so — and that’s completely evident in our sample — chances are good that the message you are about to share is divisive propaganda using fear and longstanding grudges to motivate. It’s the kind of meme that results in people who need to be in active negotiation with one another typing, “PIGFUCKER,” in all caps at 2 a.m. instead.
Of course, there’s truth at the core of this message: When people don’t unite they tend to lose. That attractive and real fact is like a wad of top shelf peanut butter in the mousetrap of political discourse.

2. Is the message specific or vague? Also, is it active or reactive?

So you’re thinking about sharing a message you agree with. But is it addressing actual candidates, policy proposals, and goals, or is it making vague but nevertheless scary boogie-men? As we move closer to the midterm elections and to 2020, propaganda will personalize and get more specific, honing in on a handful of broad hot-button issues designed to provoke emotional and tribal response rather than critical analysis. But the most corrosive messages are sometimes the ones that keep us agitated, prevent old fissures from healing, and keep us squabbling over the past instead of plotting a course for the future. Our sample meme is exactly that kind of meme. When I shared it on Facebook with a cautionary message, people were arguing Bernie versus Hillary in a matter of seconds while trying to defend against my one and only point that this is purely divisive rhetoric with no tangible social value. Ralph Nader’s name made an appearance within the first hour, along with a few of the the usual odes to compromise and pragmatism that might also be reasonably translated, “Give up.” Absent any real objectives that might be debated or fine tuned, or named candidates with records and platforms to be parsed, vague memes create a perfect black mirror and purely reactionary environment. The latter of which is essential to herding.

3. Does the meme appeal to emotion or intellect?

We’ve all been exposed to some emotionally charged imagery lately. Mass shootings, children being separated from their families — it’s served up daily alongside a sampler platter of daily outrages. Emotional appeals aren’t intrinsically bad, but when a stated aim is to subvert rather than answer or engage critical analysis, chances are you might want to step back and take a second look.

4. Inclusive or alienating?

If your awesome meme’s goal is to recruit voters who must stand together to defeat a monstrously evil candidate that a good third of the country will enthusiastically support based entirely on racism and pissing off liberals, you probably want to build a big, strong coalition that includes a lot of the folks who didn’t, and still probably wouldn’t, vote for [insert your favorite 2016 here], regardless of your feelings for said candidate, their feelings about Trump, or any number of grievances regarding dirty politics, rigged systems, Russian trolls, or any other extenuating circumstance. Re-fighting this long lost campaign or even thinking about recreating it actually or by proxy in 2020, is insane by definition.

Our sample meme truthfully addresses the fact that no candidate will be perfect or pure, which is an obvious statement but with no evident value — like the attractive verities Shakespeare wrote about when he noted that, “Oftentimes, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray us in deepest consequence.”

It’s been said that folks who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it, and it sounds really good. But maybe that old axiom's not complete. Folks who don’t let go of history get stuck fighting the same battles with the same eventual results. But the topsy-turvy looking glass result of 2016 presidential election is drifting further into the past and and there are real opportunities to learn from past mistakes and not fall for the same tricks. When you're up against homogeneity, the most inclusive messaging is always going to be the most desirable. If the message demands unity but offers no unifying principle beyond "or else," beware.

That's all I've got. Now it's your turn. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

The "T" Word: A Memphis Collective Looks at Black Masculinity, Nomenclature

Posted By on Fri, Jun 15, 2018 at 4:34 PM

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In the time honored spirit of the answer song, the mixed-media art exhibition "Thug" was organized to converse with a past exhibit called "Fiber,"  a deep dive into black femininity. "Thug" organizers wanted to give black male artists from diverse backgrounds an opportunity explore the range and role of masculinity in black culture. Curator and photographer Ziggy Mack says The Collective's exhibit showcases experience.

"It looks at black masculinity and how society views it," Mack says. "And it also looks at sexuality within black masculinity.

"In black culture you see this kind of appropriation happen multiple times," Mack says, setting up context for the show's title. "Post-slavery as a people we'd taken the word boy and turned it on its head substituting the word man. Like, 'Hey man! How you doing my man!' That was a response to black men being called boy. And there's the N-word, a more controversial word. But another word we appropriated like taking lemons and making lemonade."

Thug, a similar appropriation, was re-appropriated in white culture where it's become a deracialized stand in for less socially permissible slurs. 

"The collective and I used it because we thought it would make people ask, 'What's this about?" Mack says. "And we used it to turn it on its head again. To turn it into something else. To build a body of art around the word and black masculinity."
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