America’s Increasingly Mementoesque Gun Conversation

Last year, after the tragic shooting of Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords, there were a lot of conversations worth having. There was the conversation about how the increasingly divisive martial rhetoric of the conservatives–and in particular, the Tea Party, may have made the tragedy an inevitability. There was the conversation about what responsibilities the political parties have to try to defuse the more radical fringes of their movements. And there was the conversation about how Arizona’s lax gun laws might have contributed to the problem.

Unfortunately for the country as a whole, we couldn’t really have that conversation. Because every time anyone tries to have that conversation, conservatives and libertarians stick their fingers in their ears and shout “LA LA LA GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE LA LA LA THE SOLUTION IS MORE GUNS LA LA LA!” And because those chickenhawk conservatives and libertarians are in the pockets of the NRA and the gun lobby, and because the liberals have no spines especially when it comes to gun control, no one ever tries to have the conversation anyway.

It might seem like a strawman argument to say that conservatives think “more guns” is the solution to gun violence, but every time one of these tragedies happens, some asshole comes out and says “this wouldn’t have happened if someone in the crowd had a concealed weapon!”1 Because conservatives live in a fantasy world where carrying a gun makes you a cool-headed sharpshooting superhero, capable in a moment of precisely evaluating a situation that would have anyone else pissing their pants, drawing a bead on the bad guy, and taking him down in a single shot, then probably saying something clever and manly right before the credits roll. This is the same ridiculous fantasy world in which torture is a reliable way of producing information and trickle-down economics works.

Which is why I was so interested in this article in the wake of the Tucson shooting. See, there was someone at the event with a firearm. Joe Zamudio rushed over from a nearby drug store and, gun at the ready, nearly shot an innocent man who’d taken the gun from the actual shooter. If he had been a little more trigger-happy, a little less cautious and thoughtful, one hero would have shot another, and Zamudio might have been mistaken for a second gunman.

So we have here a clear-cut situation where carrying a concealed weapon at the scene of a tragedy didn’t prevent the tragedy (in fact, the gunman was taken down mostly by unarmed people, unless you count the folding chair as “armed”). Not only that, but the guy carrying the weapon explains that it would have only made things worse. In the end, having a firearm didn’t make anyone a hero–there were heroes with and without guns–and discharging that firearm would have resulted in more innocent people being injured or killed. Any lingering belief I had in that conservative myth of the Civilian Hero Who Shoots Back was well and truly shattered.

Then, earlier this year, that myth took another blow when would-be civilian hero George Zimmerman followed unarmed youth Trayvon Martin, ignoring the warnings of police, and indefensibly shot him to death. Zimmerman’s history marks him as a wannabe vigilante, leading a Neighborhood Watch and frequently calling the police to report suspicious individuals. Zimmerman’s tale punches further holes in the myth of the Hero With a Gun, because it’s a textbook case of someone mistaking their own fear and prejudice (whether toward Martin’s race or his attire) for evidence of someone else’s criminality. Zimmerman lacked the plot-granted rightness that belongs to the hero vigilantes of fiction, but retained their dogged certainty and lack of faith in the law to do the right thing. As a result, he killed an unarmed teenager, whose crime (at most) was defending himself against an armed stalker. The Martin case shows us that owning a gun and carrying a gun does not grant a person magic insight into the level of danger presented by individuals, nor does it give them the abilities or authority of trained law enforcement officers. Owning a gun does not make a person better able to sort out good from evil, does not make its owner a virtuous hero.

But if the Gun-Toting Vigilante is in luck, they might just live in a state whose laws treat Gun-Toting Vigilantes like automatic heroes, where you can “stand your ground” if you so much as feel threatened (whether or not that feeling is justified) and kill the source of that threatening feeling. And, in the eyes of the law, go on as if no crime has occurred. It’s interesting; if we trust Zimmerman’s story, then the law seems to be that it’s okay to shoot someone if they make you feel threatened, but it’s not okay to assault them. Or maybe it’s just the might of a firearm makes right.

While we were still having the Trayvon Martin conversation, a similar incident occurred2, with even less pundit-exploitable gray area. 13-year-old Darius Simmons was moving garbage cans outside his house when his 75-year-old neighbor John Spooner confronted him with a handgun and accused him of committing a theft that he couldn’t have possibly been involved with. Spooner shot Simmons in the chest while his mother was watching. When the police arrived, they treated Simmons and his family as if they were the criminals, despite Spooner having apparently premeditated the crime.

The myth of the Gun-Toting Vigilante Hero takes another blow, as it becomes obvious that not only does a gun grant magic insight into other people’s guilt, but it doesn’t even grant self-insight. There’s no way for the gun owner to know if their certainty and belief in their own virtuousness is accurate or delusional. In other words, there’s no way for the gun-owner to know if they’re the hero vigilante, or just a murderous asshole.

And so we come to the recent3 shooting in Aurora, CO, which by virtue of occurring at a screening of a Batman film, throws these myths of heroic vigilantes into the spotlight. The shooter in this case, James Holmes, apparently planned the attack for months. He came armed with canisters of tear gas, a 12-gauge shotgun, a Glock pistol, and a .223 Smith & Wesson M&P semi-automatic loaded with armor-piercing bullets in a high-capacity magazine. He was wearing body armor and a gas mask. He’d booby-trapped his apartment with bombs. And it looks, for all intents and purposes, that this guy didn’t want to be the courageous gun-toting hero vigilante, but a straight-up supervillain. Seventy people were shot. Twelve died.

Colorado is a concealed carry state, but there are no reports that I can find of anyone in the audience pulling a gun on Holmes. It’s certainly possible that no one else in that theater was armed. It’s also possible that someone was armed, but realized that additional gunfire wouldn’t help–because of the tear gas, because of the dark theater, because of the body armor, because of the crowd trying to get away. It’s also possible that someone was armed and just wanted to get out alive.

But no one stood up in that darkened theater and, squinting through the tear gas, drew a bead and fired a single shot at the weak spot in the shooter’s armor, taking him down. No one even (as in the Giffords shooting) rushed him to tackle him to the ground. Where was our Vigilante Hero?

Where he belonged: in the fictional film playing on the screen.

The worst part of all this is how easily it could have been ameliorated, if not prevented entirely, if our country had sensible gun laws. We accept, as a nation, that you can’t buy certain kinds of weapons. If I went searching online for places to purchase nuclear warheads, I think I’d have the Department of Homeland Security on my back pretty quickly. We accept, as a nation, truly ridiculous extremes of security theater at airports, submitting ourselves to X-Ray scanners and randomish searches and taking our shoes off and not carrying certain amounts of liquid, because some very small number of people have or might use those types of things to kill.

Remind me: how many shoe bombers have there been versus gun-toting killers?

We accept, as a nation, that because pseudoephedrine can be used to make methamphetamines, there should be limits on who can purchase it and how much they can purchase in a given time period. We accept that places selling pseudoephedrine must keep careful records on the names and addresses of people buying it, and that any suspicious activity be reported.

In 2009, all drug use (of which methamphetamine use is a subset) caused 37,485 deaths. Firearms caused 31,228.

There’s a major difference, of course, between guns and pseudoephedrine. Used as intended, pseudoephedrine can clear up congested sinuses without making one drowsy. Used as intended, guns can wound or kill. Using guns to wound or kill is not off-label use. It is the purpose of the device. The wounding or killing may be in service of some greater good (defending innocents, hunting for food). But a “greater good” was not served in all 31,228 cases in 2009. There was no “greater good” served by George Zimmerman or James Holmes or John Spooner. And unless you live in Kashmir or dine exclusively on utahraptors, there’s no “greater good” served by owning a semi-automatic assault weapon.

Can anyone give me a good reason why we can’t regulate guns at least as heavily as we do cough medicine? The best I’ve ever heard is “but the Second Amendment!” Take a look at the Second Amendment, kids:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The word “regulated” is right there. “Well regulated,” in fact. Was James Holmes part of a well-regulated militia? Does letting George Zimmerman or John Spooner carry guns contribute positively to “the security of a free state”? How many more shootings will it take before we realize that maybe, just maybe, it’s time to give the NRA the finger and start working on more rational gun policy?

I know the response. It’s the response that Louie Gohmert gave: If someone in the theater had a gun, they could have taken the Aurora shooter down. Nevermind how many blows to the chin the Gun-Toting Vigilante Hero Myth has taken in the past few years. Nevermind the specific circumstances of the Aurora shooting that made it highly unlikely for anyone, gun-toting or not, to have taken Holmes down. Conservatives cling to their myths while real people die.

The other response is that determined criminals will always find a way to get their hands on weaponry. I suspect that’s a bit facile (I wouldn’t know where to start looking for, say, enriched uranium or sarin gas, even if I had the desire to use such things), but yes, determined criminals would almost certainly find a way to obtain guns.

And if that were monitored like pseudoephedrine is monitored, like terrorists trying to purchase WMDs are monitored, the lone nut stocking up on assault weapons would trigger law enforcement alarms as surely as the secret cabals trying to obtain grenade launchers or bomb bridges. And, moreover, the police would have a crime to hold the criminal on, namely possession of (too many/concealed/the wrong kind of) firearms. It wouldn’t be “oh, you killed someone, but we can’t charge you with anything because you said you felt threatened.”

It’s true, the determined criminal will get his or her hands on firearms if they want them badly enough. But there’s a big difference between “I can get this if I want it bad enough and save up enough to buy it on a black market” and “I can get this with a quick trip to the gun show/sporting goods store/Wal-Mart.” A determined meth producer is going to get their hands on tons of Sudafed, but we still keep it locked up and scan their licenses if they try to buy it.

And, as one last blow to the Mythical Hero Who Shot Back, James Holmes takes that craftiness a step further. Not only will determined criminals get weapons if they want them bad enough, they’ll also choose to attack places (like a no-guns-allowed theater in a concealed-carry state) where people won’t have guns. They’ll armor up and throw gas bombs so that, even if someone did have a gun, it wouldn’t do any good.

It’s time to put away childish things, like readings of a Constitution that omit the uncomfortable bits and fairy tales of gallant heroes with perfect apprehension of chaotic situations. It’s time that we close the Big Book of Conservative Myths and turn our attention to saving real lives in the real world. It’s time that we stopped waiting for Batman or John McClane or Dirty Harry, and started working on making a safer reality.


1. Following the Giffords shooting, one of those assholes was Arizona state representative Jack Harper (Republican, of course), who said “When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim.”

2. Sadly, I imagine that many such similar incidents occurred, but this is the one I read about at the time.

3. Since I started writing this post, the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin also occurred. So far, it looks like the shooter puts another few holes in that Conservative Hero Myth, namely that the hero of one story (say, the White Supremacist narrative about taking back the country for white folks) might be the villain of another (say, the American story of one peaceful nation coming together out of many diverse races, ethnicities, religions, and so forth).

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The Indictment of Brian Dunning

I figured I’d write a quick post on this, since I haven’t seen much of anyone talking about it around the skeptical blogosphere. In case you missed it, Brian Dunning, of the Skeptoid podcast and Skepticblog, has been indicted for wire fraud, and potentially faces some huge fines and jail time as a result of it. The full text of Dunning’s indictment is here, and it sounds pretty damning. Innocent until proven guilty, of course, but I have a hard time believing that these kinds of charges could be filed without some pretty solid evidence to back them up. Then again, until this weekend I thought “cookie stuffing” was what I did with E.L. Fudges and my belly this past week, so take it with a grain of salt.

So, why should I blog about this? Obviously I don’t think that Dunning’s alleged crimes invalidate his arguments against homeopathy or conspiracy theories. The claims stand on their own, and so forth. But I do think it’s important to keep a clean house. If I call out fraudsters and charlatans like Kevin Trudeau and Andrew Wakefield, but give Brian Dunning a free pass because I subscribe to his podcast, then I’m treading quite close to hypocrisy. And I think it behooves the skeptical community to do the same. We’re a fairly small group with only a few media-prominent members; when one of them is (allegedly) committing fraud or making sexist remarks or spreading disinformation, then it’s our responsibility to call them out first. Again, it’s largely a matter of hypocrisy–if we’re going to criticize liberal Christians for giving a free pass to Rick Warren or Pat Robertson, then we shouldn’t be giving out free passes either.

There’s also an element of outrage-tinged schadenfreude. I like Skeptoid as a podcast, but there’s no denying that the same stripe of foot-in-mouth libertarian-themed stupidity runs through Dunning’s works as runs through Penn and Teller’s. His early “new bill of rights” episode was an unfunny screed, and more recently his episode on DDT–which earned him justified criticism from just about everyone–provided a serious hit to his credibility. Not to mention the way his run-ins with sexism and serious gadfly syndrome (an example) have made him look like a giant douchebag.

The outrage, however, comes from knowing that I enjoyed Skeptoid enough to do the $4/month donation for several months, finally caving to Dunning’s frequent postscript pleas for money. The donation requests were interesting, since Skeptoid once billed itself as “the only podcast that does not accept donations or sponsors,” which led gradually to ‘it’s easy to donate at 99 cents an episode,’ to the more recent “if 2% of Skeptoid listeners donated 99 cents per episode, I could do it full time.” If I’d known that Dunning’s company had made $5.3 million over the span of a year or so, possibly through wildly illegal and unethical practices, then I highly doubt I’d be sending him that donation. I don’t feel too bad about it–I keep buying seasons of “Bullshit,” even if each one has an episode or two that I have no desire to watch–but it’s still kind of bullshit to beg for money when most podcasters do it for free, and when you’re making even a fraction of that kind of bank at your real job. It makes me feel worse that I gave into his begging, but haven’t donated to other (better) podcasts like the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe or the Non-Prophets.

If I were to do some armchair psychoanalysis, I’d say that the problem with being a libertarian (or having some apparent libertarian leanings, since Dunning denies the label) skeptic is that, as a skeptic, you’re aware of lots of ways to fool people and scam them out of money, and as a libertarian, you don’t think you have any responsibility to keep those people from being scammed. I certainly don’t think it’s that simple, especially since it looks like the real victim here is eBay (and other affiliates, but they aren’t the ones being directly scammed, just stolen from by proxy), but I suspect that libertarian political leanings probably have the same kind of effect on moral behavior that they have on skepticism. And their effect on skepticism often seems to be to force logic, reason, and evidence into a subordinate position to political ideology.

In any case, watch this story. I certainly hope that this gets as much attention from the skeptical blogosphere as Bill Maher’s anti-medicine woo-woo or Randi’s global warming misinformation. It’s important that we call out our own luminaries, lest we foster an environment where unreason and corruption can grow unabated.

On Educational Reform

I don’t like to talk about work on this blog1. Despite everything, I like to maintain a modicum of anonymity, especially with respect to my career. But I’ve had some recent conversations that touch on it, and I feel like venting a little. So, without much detail, I’ll say that I’m currently employed as an educator. Most of what I’m going to say in this post is off-the-cuff and anecdotal, so take it with a serious grain of salt and do the research for yourself–and feel free to let me know if I’ve gotten anything wrong (but also feel obligated to direct me to a primary source).

So, I had a recent conversation with a good friend about education reform, largely based around the claims of the film “Waiting for Superman.” I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m inclined to skepticism–not just because of who I am, but also because of the counterclaims and responses that paint it as a kind of anti-union propaganda piece, the “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” of public schools. This Washington Post piece isn’t exactly the point-by-point rebuttal I’d like to see, but it echoes the sorts of responses I’ve heard from the unions and others.

So let’s start with the basics: there needs to be reform at nearly every level of the process. Let’s start with one of my favorite topics in this conversation: teacher education. My own experience is still fairly recent, and while anecdotal, I feel like it’s fairly representative. One of the biggest problems is just attracting people into the field; teaching is not exactly the most presitgious or well-paid of careers. Education programs often go beyond the average four-year college plan, including at least one semester of full-time student teaching. Student teachers still incur tuition costs, but do not get paid for their time in the classroom, rarely get reimbursed for any travel costs, and often are discouraged or outright prohibited from holding outside jobs. That means a full four to six months of mounting debt before they can even begin looking for a teaching job. Not the most attractive of propositions, I assure you. All of the significant incentives–tenure, insurance, stability–only happen well after the novice teacher has been hired and established. Consequently, it’s hard to attract people to education if that wasn’t their goal all along.

Most teacher candidates go into education from the start. On one hand, this means that their entire college experience is supplemented with educational philosophy and psychology courses, and they’re on-track to become educators as soon as they graduate. On the other hand, this means that they often don’t get the same rigorous, in-depth examination of their subject area as a non-education major in the same field. Education courseloads are not major-plus-education, they are education-plus-subject-area. This presents a number of problems; some might be attracted to education as an option because they don’t want to do the in-depth work required by the advanced courses in the subject major. On the other hand, the people who end up teaching lack some of that in-depth knowledge, and while they may never be expected to teach a class on those topics, a more thorough understanding of any topic is important to being able to teach it accurately and correct students’ misconceptions and answer questions.

This is especially problematic when we’re talking about elementary school teachers. At least in some education programs (and I would suspect it’s a majority), elementary school and even some middle school teachers get only a minimum of education in science or math. It’s been my experience that many non-science or non-math teachers exhibit the same distaste and disdain for those subjects as non-science and non-math majors did and do, and consequently science education at the elementary level is often cursory or nonexistent. While students may do some reading or occasional experiments, rarely is there any education on the actual process of science. Math is much the same, teaching skills devoid of conceptual context. I’ve been in districts where entire elementary schools had eliminated science as a subject because no one was trained or particularly interested in it. This problem will rear its head again shortly.

My own path was different; I went to college on a typical four-year career-oriented track, but decided mid-way to go into education. Naturally, it was too late to start up an education major, so instead I went through all the four-year extensive training in my subject areas, then did my education training in graduate school. I think this gives me a leg up when it comes to some of the more arcane and advanced questions I get from students, and it certainly gave me a leg up on the pay scale to come into the field with my Master’s degree. Unfortunately, it also drove me further into debt, kept me in a dwindling program that was tied up in the academic bureaucracy of three different departments (four, in my case) so that no one knew what my requirements were or could communicate them to anyone else, and made me radioactive to various low-budget districts who won’t hire a first-year teacher with a Master’s, due to the pay requirements. Six-point-five years of college and plenty of knowledge earned me a degree that made me too risky a candidate for many underfunded schools. The economic side of the system, in at least some cases, is designed to penalize highly-trained candidates. This is a problem.

The economic problem is a major one, and if that Washington Post article is accurate, it’s a problem that Waiting for Superman largely ignores. That seems strange, since it was a recurring theme in just about every semi-popular text that I read in my education courses; it’s not as though economic disparity is some arcane issue that no one’s explored. I can’t speak for every state, but in my state the schools are funded primarily by local property taxes. I can understand the reasons for this, but the unfortunate consequence is that this perpetuates and furthers the economic divide between the rich and poor; wealthy neighborhoods tend to have schools that are better-funded, have better equipment, have more opportunities for electives and extracurriculars, and can lure top teachers away from smaller, poorer schools. On the other side of things, I have a hard time believing that anyone could be ignorant of all the schools who have cut music and art programs, sports and extracurriculars, and have even been unable to buy textbooks or equipment due to funding problems.

NCLB and related programs have exacerbated that matter by imposing various–often draconian–regulations on which schools get additional help and what metrics are used to measure student ability and growth. I know that my teacher education classes explored a wide variety of different pedagogical styles, techniques, and methods, designed to stimulate students with different strengths and different levels of ability; it didn’t teach me what the requirements of the ACT were and how to teach students to pass standardized tests. I didn’t go to college to be a test preparation tutor, and the more that schools move toward that, the more you’ll see qualified, passionate teachers leaving the profession.

The more you’ll also see qualified, passionate teachers forced out of the profession as schools cut any programs that are not explicitly tested on the common standardized tests. Music programs, art programs, and foreign languages are typically the first to go. In many cases, it seems the only reason that Physical Education remains is because it’s typically mandated by law. Whole subjects of teachers are being cut out of the industry as the number of available jobs in their fields dwindles. The teachers whose subjects and programs remain experience increased pressure to align their curricula with the expectations of the standardized tests, which generally means a very tight focus on a very small set of skills. The ACT doesn’t require you to have read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, it doesn’t require you to know who wrote the Declaration of Independence or what the Magna Carta was, it doesn’t require you to know Avogadro’s Number or how to balance a chemical equation. The ACT is designed to measure a certain set of reasoning, verbal, and mathematical skills, and all the other things that go into a high school education–from hands-on experiments to basic cultural literacy–can be allowed to fall by the wayside. If they’re not on the test, then they’re a lower priority.

Which, unfortunately for everyone, goes against all the research that says students perform better when they can make connections between disparate fields of knowledge, and are more likely to graduate the more invested they are in the school, through courses they enjoy and extracurricular activities. Cutting out the electives and extracurriculars that students enjoy cuts down on their interest and cuts into their performance. Restricting teachers to the skills-based topics covered by standardized tests cuts down on their interest and cuts into performance. No one excels when no one is motivated to excel.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the matter of tenure and the unions. Again, teaching is not the most prestigious or high-paying of careers. It involves, especially early on, considerable education and a time commitment that well exceeds the typical 40-hour work week, much of it unpaid. Contrary to what many think, the teaching doesn’t end at 3:00, and grading papers is no small task when you have over a hundred students and have to plan lessons for the following days on top of it. The longer you teach, the more you build up a set of assignments and techniques and things that you can go back to without re-inventing the wheel each year, but novice teachers only have those kinds of archives in the form of what their colleagues have accumulated. The problem with this is that it stifles innovation; when it’s 9:00 at night and I have to be up at 5 to get ready and be at the school on-time for a staff meeting, and I have to choose between using a decade-old worksheet that may not represent the best modern research practices, a textbook-designed worksheet that may not reflect the emphases I have in my particular classroom, or a tailor-made assignment that I take time to put together on my own (with my knowledge of educational research but lack of expertise in crafting assessments), circumstances are often going to necessitate taking the easier options. Circumstances especially dictate those shortcut methods when, in the last few months of the year, when students have checked out mentally (and in many cases physically, what with the increase in field trips and family vacations) the novice teacher receives notice that they will not be hired back for the following school year. April, May, and June become a juggling act, where the novice teacher must continue their commitment to cover a certain amount of material and keep consistently grading to maintain the fidelity of the students’ scores, while also rewriting their résumés, submitting applications, and arranging interviews–with administrators at other schools, whose goals are to complete hirings before their own current school years end, and who are only available for interviews during school hours on school days. The faint glimmer at the end of this whole process is that, if you get hired by a school district, perform well for your periodic evaluations, and are not let go due to budget- or enrollment-related issues–for two to five years (more in some places)–then you don’t have to go through that juggling act again. You can settle down, put down roots, and have insurance during the summer months. That’s tenure.

“Ah,” you might say, “what about bad teachers? Doesn’t tenure make it so hard to fire a bad teacher that some districts refuse to even begin the process, preferring to just wait until they retire?”

Yes, it does. The union-negotiated contracts and tenure process make it difficult to fire teachers, even really terrible ones. This graphic from the Chicago Tribune demonstrates a typical process, and how it can take 2-5 years to remove a tenured teacher. Obviously, the process differs from district to district, but I suspect this is fairly typical. After all, it took over two years and nearly a million dollars for Mount Vernon, Ohio, to fire John Freshwater, who openly taught creationism in his public school science class, proselytized to his students, had been the subject of complaints by other teachers for eleven years, defied orders from the administration to stop teaching creationism for two years, and branded a student with a Tesla coil. Obviously, there’s something wrong with that system.

Except. Except that for every John Freshwater there’s a Dover School Board, full of elected ideologues with no educational background, who want to force teachers to promote their agenda. For every John Freshwater, there’s a Christine Comer, forced out of an educational position because the administration disagrees with their beliefs or legal conduct. The reason it’s hard to fire bad teachers is because the tenure system and the unions ensure that teachers have fair representation and an appeals process as a defense against ideologically- or personally-motivated administrations or school boards, against false accusations and unconstitutional mandates, and against biased people with personal vendettas. It’s hard to fire a veteran teacher for the same reason that it’s hard to execute a murder suspect. When those protections are taken away, you end up killing a lot of innocent people. Without those protections, administrations are free to staff schools with sycophants and the curriculum is decided by the non-expert school board; without those protections, any student can hold every teacher hostage with the threat of crying ‘rape’ or ‘assault,’ potentially ending a career on a whim, even if the teacher is acquitted. The appeals process protects bad teachers because it also protects good teachers, just as due process under the law protects the guilty because it also protects the innocent.

The system could certainly be more streamlined in many cases. Take, for instance, the Rubber Room situation in New York City, where teachers who were under investigation for a variety of reasons, ranging from the spurious to the serious, were removed from the classroom during the hearing process, but still required by contract to show up, and the districts were still required to pay them in full. It was an unfortunate confluence of protections for both the teachers and the students that worked out poorly for everyone. The trick for unions and districts is to strike a balance between protecting students from bad teachers and protecting teachers from bad students, bad administrations, and bad school boards. That’s a difficult balance to strike, and it differs from district to district.

The hope in any iteration of this process is that bad teachers will be rooted out before they get to the tenure stage. Novice teachers, as I mentioned above, go through a trial period before receiving tenure, and that can take between two and five years (or possibly more) depending on the district. Teachers who don’t make the cut–whether it’s because of performance or because of other issues–get pink slipped and sent back into the job pool. Teachers who survive all the cuts over that whole term are potentially retained for life.

This process creates a couple of problems, to be sure. For one, a teacher’s ability can vary greatly over their lifetime; they may get considerably better with experience, they may burn out and check out, and hell, they may do both at different times. Tenure is a gamble that a school district takes based on a few years of rookie performance. Not that there aren’t checks on that matter; teachers typically have to meet certain requirements of continuing education and periodic evaluations over the course of their tenure. It’s still not easy to fire them, but the schools typically have some recourse.

The other problem is what the process does to the pool of available teachers. My friend who inspired this rant directed me to this podcast, where an economist and education expert suggests that a solution would be to fire the bottom 5-8% of teachers and replace them with teachers of average ability. There are problems with this plan, not least of which is that it’s based around data from students’ improvements on standardized tests–which are not an accurate measurement of anything except how good the teacher is at tutoring students on test preparation. I’d be curious to see how this plan could be implemented regarding teachers whose subjects aren’t tested by the standardized tests–like Spanish class, or Shop class, or most Social Studies classes. The bigger problem, though, is the matter of replacing those 5-8% of teachers. Let’s ignore the point that this is a nationwide survey, and so those bottom 5-8% of teachers might themselves be more heavily concentrated in completely different states than the more average and above-average teachers, and saying “if only we moved teachers from New York to Mississippi” is not feasible. The teachers who are mobile, who are available for new jobs and new hires are almost entirely (by definition) made of teachers who are newly graduated and thus unexperienced, experienced teachers who have not (for whatever reason) been granted tenure by another district, and experienced teachers who have been fired from a tenured position.

In other words, if you fire those 5-8% of bottom teachers, you have to take a gamble on the job pool of untested teachers and failed teachers. I can’t entirely fault districts for going with a “better the devil you know” approach even if they had a fairly easy time of firing those poorly-performing teachers.

Which is where the Hanushek plan makes the same basic mistake as just about any plan I’ve ever seen for an education reform panacea: its proposed solution ignores the complexities of reality. As I said, I haven’t seen “Waiting for Superman,” but my experience and the responses lead me to believe that it makes the same errors–and does so less out of ignorance than out of ideological reasons and a desire to promote propaganda. The truth is that there is no one culprit in the production of bad teachers and bad schools, but a tangled mess of problems in higher education, problems in the management of schools, problems of funding and budgeting, problems in the negotiation of contracts, problems in the turnover of administrations, problems in the measurement of student achievement, problems of priorities, and a further list of problems that would make even Jay-Z blush. Proposing any one school type as a solution or any one group as the villain is, at best, completely myopic, and at worst, profoundly dishonest. The only solution to education reform must be a comprehensive plan that addresses the problems at every level, from teacher education to tenure and everywhere in between, and recognizes that different places have different unique problems and needs. And that’s not a plan that can be expressed in a slick two-hour movie.


1. If recent history is any indication, I don’t like to talk about anything on this blog.

My name is Matt Foley and I am a motivational speaker!

I used to live in this county. I moved before I could vote.

You know, maybe Howard Dean should have screamed more.

Now, I guess I just have to content myself with living in a state with one jailed governor and another awaiting a retrial who’s trying to recoup his court fees by doing autographs at comic conventions.

Quotes to ponder on the anniversary of September 11th, 2001

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they stopped coming altogether,
and everything was awesome for everyone.

Except for the Commies, but fuck them.

–Martin Niemöller


They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, are really just being prudent. I mean, what kind of idiot doesn’t want as much security as possible?

–Benjamin Franklin


Give me liberty, but not those other guys.

–Attributed to Patrick Henry


Don’t tread on me. Instead, let’s all tread on those people over there.

–Christopher Gadsden


Unless you’ve got something to offer, stay the hell out.

–Inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty


The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of religious minorities and politicians with whom we disagree.

–Thomas Jefferson


Religion and government are like chocolate and peanut butter, and thus are even better the more they are mixed together.

–James Madison


I disapprove of what you say, and so I will do everything I can to stop you from saying it.

–Evelyn Beatrice Hall


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, except when it would be in bad taste; or abridging the freedom of popular speech, or of the corporate press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to scream at government officials and make thinly-veiled death threats unless they kowtow to unreasonable demands.

–First Amendment to the United States Constitution


When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross, and dangling a set of Truck Nutz.

–Attributed to Sinclair Lewis.

Sarah Palin is Fucking Retarded

I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid, riding in the car with my parents, they were almost always listening to talk radio. And talk radio, as you probably know, is almost always conservative. My dad listened to Rush Limbaugh, which didn’t leave much of an impression on me (I remember the theme song and some parodies, and a bit about how left-handed people were breastfed too much, which I later realized must have actually been about left-wingers). I rode with my mom more frequently, so I remember more of the frequent shows. One, the only one I ever actually enjoyed, was Dr. Dean Edell’s show. He’s an actual medical doctor who talks straight and gives good advice and is generally awesome. The other was Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

I listened to a lot of Dr. Laura as a kid. I remember all of the “I am my kid’s mom/dad” calls; I remember all her advice that sometimes seemed reasonable and spot-on and other times seemed ridiculous and reality-challenged. I know that she’s a doctor of physiology, not anything relevant to giving advice, she’s not much of a fan of “shacking up” or divorce (some irony there) or gay people, she generally sides against men (unless she thinks the woman in a situation is somehow impure) and that she’s generally pretty prudish and puritanical for someone who has some topless pictures floating around. Finding the letter to Dr. Laura that circulated around the Internet several years back and was adapted into a West Wing scene was a major step in getting over my homophobia (and, frankly, my religion, since prior to that my main use for the Bible was condemning homosexuality).

So, when Dr. Laura had her latest bigoted flame-out recently, I can’t say I was either surprised or disappointed. In fact, the only potentially surprising thing is that this particular instance was racism instead of homophobia.

For those who have somehow avoided the latest non-story in the news cycle, here’s the scoop: On August 10th, Schlessinger took a call from a black woman named Jade who was offended by racially insensitive comments made by her white husband’s family, which her husband remained silent about. Here’s the full call:
http://cloudfront.mediamatters.org/static/flash/player.swf
So, Schlessinger’s immediate reaction was to suggest that Jade was just being hypersensitive, so she asked for an example. The caller said they had a neighbor who comes over and says things like “how do you black people like doin’ this” and so forth. Schlessinger immediately says that she doesn’t think such comments are racist.

Let me pause here and suggest that “you people” is probably the most bigotry-infused phrase in the English language. It suggests that the person you’re talking to is not an individual, but a member of some larger collective who are all the same–as the rest of this neighbor’s relayed comment suggests he thinks. “You black people” don’t all like the same things or do things the same way, because they’re individuals. The whole edifice of bigotry is built on treating people like they’re not individual people.

Schlessinger continues, suggesting that a lot of black people voted for Barack Obama just because he was half-black, not because of his politics (Dear Dr. Laura: without contradicting yourself, please explain how Obama defeated Alan Keyes in his 2004 Senate race). “It was a black thing. You gotta know that. That’s not a surprise.” She then proceeded to make a “white men can’t jump” joke regarding her black bodyguard, and the caller asked “what about the n-word?” Schlessinger then says that “black guys use the word all the time.” And then Schlessinger, who is not a black guy, says it three times. She trots out the usual racist faux-confusion regarding the word: “I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.”

No, it’s not very confusing. The “n-word” has a lot of baggage, because for so long it was used by white people to disparage black people. It’s a symbol of black oppression. The movement among blacks to use the word themselves has been a reclaiming of that symbol, a way of demonstrating that the word doesn’t have the power to keep them down, that they can rob it of its oppressive connotations. But we are not yet to the point where a white person can throw it around without invoking those negative connotations. White people still have a privileged position, and racism–institutional, personal, casual, and political–still affects blacks. When that’s no longer the case, maybe the term will become harmless enough that white people can just throw it around.

Moreover, that some black people use the word does not suggest that all black people are comfortable with the word being used. Making that assumption is, once again, seeing black people as some kind of hive mind where they all think the same because they all have similar amounts of melanin in their skin. Which is racism.

After a commercial break, Schlessinger continues talking over Jade in order to trot out her false equivalency canard, complain about how racism should be over because we elected a black guy, and to accuse Jade of having a chip on her shoulder. After saying the n-word four more times, she then complains that she can’t finish a sentence, something she’s failed to allow her caller to do repeatedly–note that she hasn’t addressed the original fucking question yet at all, she’s just used the caller as a springboard to complain about how black people can’t just sit down and shut up and be happy that they got one of their own into the White House.

Ah, yes, Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where a black guy is President, and that’ll be enough.”

Schlessinger then tells Jade not to take her out of context, not to “NAACP” her (whatever the fuck that means), and hangs up. She then says “if you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.”

She then goes off on how, if you belong to a minority, people are going to ask you what that minority thinks about things. Being a woman who converted to Judaism, I would think that Schlessinger would have some kind of handle on the problem with that kind of thinking, but about the closest she comes to understanding it is “Of course there isn’t a one-think per se. But in general there’s ‘think.'” Okay, perhaps that’s true with, say, a religion, which has doctrines and dogmas that everyone is supposed to believe–not all Catholics will share the same position on any given issue, but there may indeed be an “official Catholic position” on that issue–but it’s not even slightly true when you’re talking about race or gender or other inborn traits. There is no black dogma. There is no doctrine of womanhood. There is no reason to expect that all, or even a majority, of people in non-religious minorities will think the same thing about any topic. And the assumption that they would is bigotry.

Schlessinger proceeds to say the n-word four more times, then attempts to excuse it by saying that it’s okay because she didn’t call anyone that. She was just using the word as a word, nothing wrong with that at all. I can think of a particular k-word and c-word that I might throw around, and I’m sure someone like Laura Schlessinger would have absolutely no problem with that.

Her rant meanders on into conspiracy mongering and more complaining about how Obama’s election should mean that all black people need to shut up about racism, not in so many words.

So, Schlessinger took a bunch of flak for her remarks and gave a typical notpology the next day. As they did in 2000 after her homophobic screeds, some people suggested boycotting her sponsors, and specifically called for the sponsors to demonstrate whether or not they endorsed her statements. At least one, General Motors, dropped her show in the aftermath. Schlessinger then announced on Larry King’s show a few days later that she was going to quit radio. Her reason?

SCHLESSINGER: The reason is: I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind, and in my heart, what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent, and attack affiliates and attack sponsors.

[…]

SCHLESSINGER: You know, when I started in radio, if you said something somebody didn’t agree with and they didn’t like, they argued with you. Now, they try to silence you. They try to wipe out your ability to earn a living and to have your job. They go after affiliates. They send threats to sponsors.

KING: That’s their right, too.

SCHLESSINGER: Yes, but I don’t hatch the right to say what I need to say. My First Amendment rights have been usurped by angry, hateful groups who don’t want to debate. They want to eliminate.

Ah, yes, her First Amendment rights have been violated, so she’s going to quit. I’m a big fan of the First Amendment, and that’s why I know what it says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Also, certain people are entitled to a national radio talk show, and the people have no right to hold those people accountable for their speech.” Those Founding Fathers, always looking ahead.

The First Amendment is pretty damn clear on how it applies. It’s very straightforward, and yet conservatives in particular seem to have a lot of trouble understanding what it means. It says that government isn’t allowed to make laws impinging on free speech. Nowhere in this debacle has government done anything. Schlessinger’s rights remain intact. What she wants, and what she can’t have, is for her speech rights to trump other people’s speech rights. She wants to be able to speak without consequence, but the beautiful brilliance of the First Amendment is that it guarantees everyone the same right to speak freely. Moreover, it gives everyone the right to assemble and speak freely, including speaking to the sponsors of radio talk shows. Schlessinger is entitled to speak her mind; what she is not entitled to is a platform from which to do that. She has that platform only so long as her sponsors continue paying for it. If the sponsors decide that she’s no longer profitable, whether it’s because she’s become irrelevant or because her association with them is bad PR, then it’s well within their right to stop giving her money. And the sponsors wouldn’t know she was bad PR if the public wasn’t relating their bad feelings to them.

So, what Schlessinger really has a problem with is free speech, free assembly, and the free market. Why do conservatives hate our freedoms?

But honestly, I never would have commented on this idiocy if noted Constitutional scholar Sarah Palin hadn’t chimed in:
I tried reading her Facebook essay, but I just couldn't do it.
Volumes could be written about the insensitive idiocy it’d take to use the words “reload” and “shackles” in the context of white-on-black racism. But I’m going to ignore that to hit on the Constitutional point. Activists trying to hold Schlessinger responsible for what she says are not “Constitutional obstructionists,” and at no point in this did Schlessinger’s First Amendment rights cease “2exist.” In fact, given how much exposure she’s had because of this, she’s been able to exercise those rights more often and to a wider audience than she has in about a decade.

Keep in mind that this woman was the Governor of a state for a short time, and was fairly close to being Vice President of the United States. And she doesn’t understand the most basic points of the First Amendment.

But the real irony is in her obvious hypocrisy. After a tiff with David Letterman over some jokes that she found “offensive” and “contribut[ing] to some of the problems we have in society,” she took umbrage with Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. See, Rahm called the plans of a group of liberals “fucking retarded,” and Palin’s youngest son has Down Syndrome. She said that Emanuel’s remarks were “unacceptable” and “heartbreaking” and called for the President to “eliminate” him (presumably by firing, and not firing squad). In fact, in the full quote, Palin even draws a parallel to another kind of situation that we would find appalling:

Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the “N-word” or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking.

Yes, surely if a public figure as famous as a one-time Illinois Congressman and White House Chief of Staff, someone with the combined fame of Danny Davis and Evelyn Lieberman, used the “N-word,” we would all be terribly appalled! Why, we’d probably even ask for them to be fired!

Or not. Instead we’d defend them, call them “powerful” and “effective,” and chastize those who criticize them and call for their termination. Clearly, former Governor Palin’s views have changed on the subject, and that’s understandable. We all change our minds now and again. So I’m sure, Mrs. Palin being a person of consistent, steadfast values, that she would have no problem with people throwing around those terms which she once found “appalling.”

So throw off the shackles, America, and show just how powerful and effective you are in defying the Constitutional obstructionists in our mollycoddled society. Say it loud and proud, knowing that the former Governor of Alaska supports your Constitutionally-secured right to say that Sarah Palin is fucking retarded!

Oh for the love of Pete, America.

Dear America (or at least the American Newsmedia),

Can you please stop acting like a particularly brain-damaged hyperactive dog?

Seriously, there are real things happening in the world. There are real concerns that deserve to be reported. A sizable portion of Pakistan is underwater. Russia has been on fire for weeks, and now in addition to facing concerns about nuclear plant safety and radioactive material left over from Chernobyl, they’re also facing major storms. Whooping cough is making a resurgence in the United States, and has killed several people already. The Taliban recently stoned a couple to death for adultery. Google and Verizon are working on a deal that may have serious implications for net neutrality. The ban on gay marriage was overturned in California.

But the American newsmedia doesn’t seem to care about those kinds of things, because some Muslims want to build a community center in the same general neighborhood where some other Muslims knocked down a couple of buildings nine years ago. This non-story results from the usual set of demagogues, fearmongers, and asshats, pissing and moaning that some non-Christians would dare have the sheer unadulterated chutzpah to think they could exercise their First Amendment rights and legally purchase a real estate property for private use! I guess it’s because they’re doing it in within a three-block radius of where something particularly nasty happened due to people of the same general religious faith almost a decade ago. It’s the same reason that those same people go into a tizzy whenever a Christian church opens up within a few blocks of an abortion clinic, or when a Japanese restaurant opens in Hawai’i.

Oh, they don’t? But wouldn’t that make them terrible hypocrites?

Oh.

Seriously, America. You’re outraged over a couple of liberal Muslim immigrants from allied nations (one-half of the couple behind the community center is from Kuwait. You know, the country we protected from Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War) building the Muslim equivalent of a YMCA (called “Park51”) in the general vicinity of the Twin Towers. People are saying it’s “in bad taste.” And yet, you seem to be just fine with the strip club, Off-Track Betting place, and Hookah Bar in the same radius. Are you telling me that the strip club is in good taste? That Off-Track Betting is in good taste? That tobacco hasn’t killed large numbers of New Yorkers in the recent past? You’re being stupid, America.

There are so many ways in which this attitude is wrong that I scarcely know where to begin. Let’s start with that popular conservative meme that New Yorkers are out-of-touch elitists, not “real Americans,” an idea that, just a few short weeks ago, was exemplified in the confirmation hearings over Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. It’s nice to see the same people who use “New York” as a slur care so much about real estate dealings in lower Manhattan. Perhaps those people would like to purchase or lease some of the empty buildings in the area, to improve the local economy and contribute something to the area. You know, the way the Park51 folks are.

There’s the matter of Islam, which is a pretty diverse religion. Even some skeptics and atheists are falling into this little trap, in part because we tend to be an American or European bunch, and are not as familiar with Islam as we are with Christianity. Yes, sure, the couple behind Park51 believe in the same religion with the same holy book and the same basic tenets as the people who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But keeping them from opening this place because of the actions of some of their fellow Muslims is like barring Fred Clark and John Loftus from opening up a YMCA near the Centennial Olympic Park. Blaming and discriminating against individual Muslims because of something that different individual Muslims did, because they share a religion (even if their actual beliefs are very dissimilar) is plain old bigotry. It’s no more valid than the idiots who try to tar all atheists with the reputations of Stalin and Pol Pot.

Sure, you could argue that moderate and liberal Muslims legitimize the radicals and conservatives, even if they don’t share the same politics. I make the same argument regarding Christians. That’s a reason to argue forcefully against the beliefs and tenets of Islam, and to not give moderates and liberals a free pass for being less crazy than the radicals; what it’s not is a reason to discriminate against them on the basis of their religion. I’ll argue against Barry Lynn about religion if it’s appropriate, but I’m not going to tell him he can’t open up his own business because some other Christian killed people nearby once. That’s unfair, unreasonable, and un-American.

There are people who see this as a potential rallying point for the same kinds of radical Muslims who conducted the attacks in the first place. I fail to see the relevance. First, I think the radicals would be just as scornful of the westernized liberal folks behind Park51 as they are against the rest of us western infidels–potentially moreso, because they’re defying conservative Islam while still professing to be Muslims. You see the same in Christian circles; liberal Christians and Catholics and so forth are fallen backsliders and false prophets, pretending to preach the faith while actually doing the Devil’s work or overly concerning themselves with “this world.” But let’s say that Osama calls up the next meeting of al-Qaeda and says “Oh, right, a new Muslim community center went up near the place where the Twin Towers fell. So our conquest of the West proceeds apace; next, we’ll be looking into getting Quran verses on the bottom of In-N-Out Burger cups.” Who gives a damn? I would think the bigger victory would be that they blew up the damn World Trade Center, and that we still haven’t fixed it. The victory would be that the people of the Great Satan have revealed their anti-Muslim bias by trying to make Muslims into second-class citizens and loudly proclaiming the infidel Christian basis of their nation and laws and motivations. I hardly think that treating Muslims like everyone else could look bad for us.

I can’t even get behind the idea of a ban as an atheist. Yeah, yeah, I’m generally against religion, and I think worship buildings are a general waste of real estate. I think churches and mosques and temples ought to be taxed unless they can show a clear benefit to society, the same way that other non-profit organizations do. But looking at the actual plans for this building, I think it would easily meet those criteria: it’s a community center dedicated to the arts, classes, and fitness, with a prayer room for Muslims. I wonder if the nearby St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church has so much as a stationary bike, let alone a swimming pool. I’m all for religious buildings that actually serve a secular good–I’d prefer they were secular buildings, but I’ll take what I can get–and Park51 looks like just that kind of place.

And so the news cycle turns on another day of this shit, with reporters bothering the President wondering what he thinks about this terrible example of the free market in action. It’s another reason that I could never be President; while Obama has given a measured response couched in Constitutional terms, my response would be more along the lines of “Jesus H. Christ, don’t you people have better things to worry about?”

And the worst part is that they do. There’s still a whole bunch of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the job market is still complete shit, a crowd of Juggalos attacked Tila Tequila, and so on and so forth. But the Republicans are constantly trying to keep people hateful and fearful and distracted and outraged–it’s the only way they can get elected, since they don’t actually do anything–and their drummed-up scandals are like shiny things to the infants of the mainstream media. And the Democrats, being as they have evolved beyond the need for a spine, are happy to oblige and try to engage the idiots and the imbeciles in conversation as if they were saying reasonable, important things. Meanwhile, real concerns go unanswered and real news goes unreported. Because Republicans think Americans are stupid, Democrats think that’s a reasonable position even though they disagree, and Americans will obligingly prove the Republicans right.

So America, please stop being idiots. Let’s all take our collective Adderall and focus on real concerns, rather than letting the right-wing hate machine and the left-wing acquiescence machine distract us with shiny things and butterflies. I promise, we’ll all be better for it. You, me, and New Yorkers who like to swim.

Sincerely,
Tom