Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Bell Tolls

It's a Start

I could hear it in his voice, the angst was palpable. My son called to tell me that he had just registered his son in kindergarden. He is in the midst of a book launch, otherwise happy as he could be. This brought him down. "Nothing has changed." "Same concrete block building, same drab colors, same florescent lighting, and that same authoritarian voice instructing us that we had to take this event seriously, brought it all back home." He and millions of others are beginning the process of handing their children off to the state. My grandson is about to be segregated from people not his age. He is about to enter the company of 20-30 other children and told to be quiet. He will be told to suppress his natural curiosity about his sexual identity. He will be fed horrible things at lunch. He will be introduced to the first phases of a curriculum guaranteed to dull and deaden the natural process of his acquisition of knowledge.

He is being conditioned to become a productive citizen, able to "compete" in the world's race for power and wealth. In the process he will be bullied, insulted, and graded. He will learn to compete against his fellow students. He will pass or fail.

What's the problem? We all went through it. We survived. We did OK. These arguments for the system are the best we can do. Or we can point to the failure of all previous attempts at reform. Or suggest there are no alternatives. Or, when alternatives do pop up i.e. home schooling or charter schools, we see to it that they are state certified. The issue isn't that some of us survive the system. The issue is what would we be if we grew in a truly supportive system that placed students needs first? Who might we have become? Super teachers write on this subject. Here is one you might want to consider.
One of the cruelest events in this mean season is the annual public humiliation of parents waiting, camping, suffering whatever it takes, to get their child placed in one or another magnet school. And for most of those who fail to get their child in the "better" school? They passively accept their fate as second class citizens. Tax paying citizens, paying for schools their children can't attend. An argument against the value of magnet schools was posted by a teacher in the NYT recently.

The more fundamental questions that are rarely asked or discussed would challenge the entire enterprise. Coming out of WW2 scholars questioned the role of public education in the formulation of mind sets that could create such horrors.
We might ask the same of our current reality. We could begin questioning a system of world organization that has half of the occupants of the planet living in poverty. I believe that it is just such an awareness that motivates most parents to try to secure an edge for their children in what they perceive of as a cruel world.

Times are tough and getting tougher for college students. As the protests begin it is evident that students have accepted the efficacy of their educational institutions. It is more access that they are demanding. Not alternatives.

When students struck Columbia U. in 1968, I and others offered an alternative in the form of what became the University of the Street. A qualified success it did however lead to the establishment of The Open University in America. A short term version of the same process, the matching of students and teachers and letting them run is taking place now. By the time persons reach their majority they can and do create alternatives. It is with the children that we are so frightened. What if we are wrong? Will this decrease their chances to get into Yale? How will they be socialized?

I inhaled Ivan Illich. This radical (ultimately defrocked) priest authored Deschooling Society in 1974. His ideas are summarized here.

He called for "convivial education". A system very similar to the processes of an open university available to everyone. Young and older. His ideas continue to be discussed. An excerpt from the above; "The importance of convivial institutions is recognized in the sustaining of community - but social capital, because it is also linked to economic advancement, can be easily co-opted in the service of non-convivial activities (as the involvement of the World Bank in promoting the notion may suggest)".

He is also criticized for not being more specific about how we might implement alternatives.

Imagine. A group of say 10 parents decides to pull up to 20 students from the system. These same parents advertise for a pair of "teachers" who are going to become the primary guides in this newly formed learning community. In today's employment environment it should be easy to find qualified and willing candidates. The parents raise 100K. The parents acquire access to space throughout their community. They pool their resources: computers, books, AV equipment, tools, work sites for situational learning, food, vehicles, Parents are asked to participate to the extent they are comfortable. One fear the parents are going to have is that couldn't agree on what the knowledge base for their children might look like. They must come up with a set of objectives that governs them all. They must seize control of this process. They must take responsibility. There is no way around it. When they assemble their working document then they contract with the guides. The group meets regularly. They fine tune. They grow. Now imagine thousands of similar groups. They have 6 months to get organized before they hand over their kids.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A House For All Seasons

Our shelter system thrives on instability. Developers, builders, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and bankers profit when the market for shelter is in churn. For those too young to remember there was once a process called "block busting".

Move a black family into a stable white middle class neighborhood, excite fear that property values are going to be adversely affected, and watch the neighborhood change its complexion. The opportunity that arises for persons of less sophistication to now move up and out of the ghetto sets the stage for a sub-prime housing debacle. Lenders prey on people desperate to own a piece of the American dream.

The system requires demand. Natural disasters are pre-conditions for renewed housing demand. As are relaxed immigration standards for persons of means, or relocation programs on the part of employers. Nothing was as beneficial to the building industry as divorce. During the turbulent years in the later half of the 20th century new home formations generated by divorce drove the industry.

Looking to externalities to describe contributing factors of our housing crisis will not lessen the impact of cultural shifts regarding our shelter. In fact, when was the last time anyone referred to housing as shelter? We have commodified shelter. Housing is now an investment. The fact that at any given time a house is calculated as either a good or bad investment points up the cultural shift away from shelter as a necessity, to housing as something that is to be traded.

The idea of house as a tradable commodity is built into the modern system of shelter supply. We promote "starter" homes without giving a second thought to the implications of the process the buyer commits to once having "started".

As long as the industry could suggest that the buying and selling of housing was a good investment, then trading up was a positive social behavior. Up had many connotations. Up might mean bigger, showier, the trophy house. Up might mean our family is growing and we need a bigger house. Up might mean near to or within a neighborhood that has status. Here's a fun forum re. Beverly Hills as an example.

No matter what the motivation, the move occasions the loss of fundamental family values: The wrenching of the kids from school, the abandoning of friends, shifting of commerce from one set of stores to another, and most importantly the atomization of the family.

The re- release of the film Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) is heralded as contemporary in the VSL announcement:
With its rerelease on DVD (available 2/23), Make Way for Tomorrow has another chance to be appreciated. The film’s Depression-era plot couldn’t be more timely: An elderly couple must move in with their children after losing their home to the bank. Separated and out of place, these grandparents not only disrupt the lives of their children and grandchildren—they’re miserable themselves.
The reuniting of the family in the above scenario is portrayed as a negative.

Like so many facets of the new economy that have blown up, the housing bubble burst could be a precursor to a reexamined set of premises. What if we explored the millennium old tradition of multi-generational dwelling, not as a burden that one has to escape but rather a support network that can be trusted. I remember the first time I heard the phrase "home place". My auto mechanic in the Shenandoah Valley and I were becoming friendlier and he wanted to cement the relationship with a long pull of brew on the porch of his home place up in the hills. Five generations had been born and raised there and it was never to be sold. It served as a home base in tough times. Family could settle in and await the next opportunity without going homeless or uprooting.

Circumstances are creating similar situations for people who thought they had "outgrown" extended family. Boomerang adults are moving back in with mom and pop, children are assuming responsibility for the senior care of their parents, and grandparents are becoming day care providers. These are not negative practices. The key to the success of these activities is not to stigmatize them. Not to allow the media or the industrial housing barons to determine what is right for us. Some enlightened professionals can see the writing on the wall, but have yet to come up with solutions. We needn't wait for them.

I have addressed the possibilities of granny flats in this space.

That is but one form of housing modification that would work. It turns out that larger, higher end housing stock is suffering a slower recovery and is probably headed for steeper price adjustments. This could be the exact moment to pool resources and buy the homestead, a "forever house". The housing would have to be modified. Modifications to an overbuilt suburban McMansion might include child proofing, sound proofing, increasing accessibility, creating privacy zones, and reconfiguring common spaces to pool resources like computing power or entertainment centers.

I don't think the highest hurdle to such reconfigurations is physical. I think that a great many of us are victims of cool. We would rather die then live in a suburban setting. If we are going to create sustainable, stable futures for ourselves we are going to have to get smart about space, money, and a restored set of family values. Richard Florida isn't going to write a book suggesting creative types should live in a suburb, but the Coastal Conservation League may provide an example of context. They propose retrofitting existing suburbs into livable places. Theirs is but one example of planners trying to save what's left of the landscape by building up what already exists on the grid. Now its up to designers and builders to retrofit the individual house on that grid to make it livable.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Class War

These images and the accompanying stories pushed me over the top.

I have watched the nightly exhibition of meanness, racism, and insularity, on the part of the world's news teams portraying starving Haitians grasping for what might be their only chance for life. News people find examples of what can be characterized as struggling and "looting" and in so doing paint a picture implying this behavior is somehow endemic. They will sleep peacefully in the airport camps protected by armed soldiers.

The irony Of Clinton/Bush rallying the world to give to their charity to relieve the plight of the Haitian people cannot go unmentioned. Poor Haitians were the very people that Clinton had detained under freeways in Miami, while enforcing special rules that denied them refugee status in the 90's. Or irony turns to tragedy when you realize that Bush and his CIA organized the overthrow of the "populist" Aristede.

Clinton will be there when the dust settles. He will assist in the development of sweat shops and call it reconstruction. He will be there when contractors get wealthy rebuilding Port au Prince.

I remember when Clinton, reformed welfare and drove moms out of their houses into a low wage work force to satisfy the demands of a constituency that has been led to believe that their relative poverty is somehow related to a "welfare queen" driving a Cadillac.

In "What's the Matter With Kansas" Thomas Frank wondered how it was that middle class people from the heartland could be so distracted as to support politicians and their policies that weren't in their self interest. The BBC ran a recent column on the subject.

Marginally middle class people are given the straw dogs of illegal immigration, gay marriage, and a thick file of terrors they are to be afraid of. When they act up at town hall meetings or tea bag rallies you can hear the implicit classism expressing itself in their arguments against health reform. What a fabulous trick of manipulation. A rich lobbyist can get a modest middle American to vote against a set of reforms designed to assist him, by emphasizing that the cost of such reform is related to the extension of health services to the poor.

No people do a better job of ignoring their own self interests then Afro-Americans. It has to be the height of cynicism that has Russell Simmons, a man who sold the images and underwrote the scores for music that celebrated a gangsta lifestyle, promoted values enhanced by 'bling", degraded women, and became rich, now promoting "The Hip Hop Action Network." Russell Simmons exhorts us to be green in advertising promotions. We changed the world he argues, he will do it again. He wants to teach money management skills to people who don't have any money. He wants to sell them a Rush Card. There is still an ounce of flesh to be rendered.

There is a long tradition of identifying with one's oppressors. A particularly mean spirited program is a state sponsored lottery. Watch these games grow as state after state falls into arrears and attempts to balance their budgets on the backs of the poor who buy these tickets. If you examine the underlying structure of the lottery concept it is the perfect weapon in the war on the poor. Not only does it make them poorer, it validates the concept of extreme wealth. The only problem with extreme wealth is that I don't have it and if I can get lucky, well then I too can enjoy the bling.

A positive consequence of hip-hop, and R and B long before, was to break the cycle of humiliation masked in the so called tradition of politeness. No longer would one keep grievances quiet, suffering silently, while nodding respectfully to the holders of the stick. I believe the civil rights movement was enhanced, not by the troubadours of folk music, but by kick ass rock and rollers who crossed over and fused the races in common purpose.

We need a comparable set of tunes to underscore another movement. A social stigma is now being attached to class speech. No matter how egregious the abuse, one is not allowed to characterize corporate behavior as a war on the poor. Enron can freeze out Californians, banks can throw people out of their homes, pension funds can be raided, and jobs moved off shore, but woe be to the individual that points up these abuses or suggest there is a better way.

Just a glimpse of the reactionary voices that decry what they characterize as the rise of communism. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) argues we are running out of rich people.

No leftist could do as much damage in discrediting capitalism as the modern robber baron. He is so secure in his understanding of the nature of the passivity of his victims, that he can collect on his side bets (that people will be unable to finance their mortgages) leave people homeless, and earn a bonus to boot. When homeless women got it together enough to get on the bus and stand in the driveways of the bankers' Greenwich mansions and protest their behavior the press gave them short shrift. Who would have guessed they would become the theme of a fashion show.

What about the images from Milan fashion week were so alarming? There were no poor in the hall to humiliate. The rich show goer is party to the perpetual benign neglect that is the enabler of all the wars. Nothing new there. It is not that one insensitive fashion designer created this show.

I am alarmed by the "kids" who agreed to "model" these behaviors. These young models are not going to act up or out in defense of the homeless they personify. Blind to the possibility that their fates are financially insecure, lulled into a false sense of security by association with the rich and famous, they callously become the expression of disregard and coldness to the poor they objectify.

We need a value revolution and it may bud in the mind of Raj Patal. His new book, The Value of Nothing is highlighted in the following video: