Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Great American

I just saw a great movie: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. Pete Seeger probably means more to me than any other living singer. My wife -- then my college girlfriend -- and I went on our first date to a Pete Seeger concert. But Pete's not just a folk music hero to me; he's worshipped by many important singers who've followed him -- Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Earle just to name a few. (Earle's terrific new album, Washington Square Seranade, has a song called "Steve's Hammer for Pete").

Seeger is a man of tremendous principle. He married a Japanese woman in the 1940's when our country was throwing many Japanese-Americans in prison camps. He fought for civil rights, singing with Paul Robeson when it nearly cost him his life. He inspired many famous civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, who credits Seeger for opposing Jim Crow laws before the Movement really got underway. Pete even wrote some of the lyrics to We Shall Overcome. He fought for unions and common working men (and women since he also advocated equality among the sexes). He traveled the world and recorded world music like no one had ever done before.

For all this he was branded a Communist and banned from appearing on TV for 17 years at the height of his popularity. When the ban was finally lifted he shocked everyone by singing an anti-Vietnam War song called "The Big Muddy." Since then he sang to end apartheid in South Africa and almost single handedly cleaned up the Hudson River. He's 88 now and he gets my vote for "greatest living American." Who are your heroes?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Jena 6

An op-ed in yesterday's New York Times made my head spin. It's called "Justice in Jena" and was written by a small town lawyer named Reed Walters who is the local district attorney in the case. Briefly, he says, "I cannot overemphasize how abhorrent and stupid I find the placing of the nooses on the schoolyard was mean-spirited and deserves condemnation. But it broke no law." My first response was, "Well then we need new laws." The nooses seem like a tacit death threat to me -- especially in the south. (Hate crime legislation, he says, does not exist in Louisiana law).

But what surprised me most was Walters' main point: "The victim in this crime...has been all but forgotten." He's referring to Justin Barker -- the white boy who was attacked by the Jena 6 -- even though he "was not involved in the nooses incident." This shocked me since every tv report I saw clearly suggested he was involved and at least one suggested he was the inventor of the noose idea. Further Walters says the boy was "knocked unconscious and kicked" -- a more severe beating than other media suggested. (The tv reports I heard said he was treated for minor cuts and bruises and was not hospitalized).

Is Walters whitewashing the events? He does have access to more evidence than reporters in the case? Are the media using the story for their own agendas -- ratings, publicity? What of the protesters?

Walters ends his piece by saying, "In the final analysis I am bound to enforce the laws of Louisiana as they exist today, not as they might exist in someone's vision of a perfect world." I know this is his legal obligation, but it struck me as sad somehow. Is there any place for idealism, or is the judicial process all about compromise?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


I'm reading a novel now called Under the Glacier -- a funny book written by Iceland's greatest writer, Halldor Laxness. (No, that's not the funny part). An old woman in the novel, who lives in a VERY small town, says, "I myself have never seen anything one could call seeing. And nothing has ever happened to me" (25). She spends all her time in the kitchen making layer cakes. It's funny -- and sad at the same time -- to think that a person can live a life without experiencing anything.

Yet this kind of response is similar to what some students said when we started the Personal History assignment: "I haven't done anything" or "Nothing big has ever happened." Is it that some people think of history as an ancient subject, not a present tense activity we are creating right now? Our lives are surely part of our collective history even if they don't become a part of other people's histories. Or is it then that we are just not doing what anyone would call seeing? Writing about our lives truthfully and specifically may be our only way of learning to see and learning to see others.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Supermarket Stories

I've been reading a book called "The Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan. It's an amazing book about what we eat and where it comes from. Turns out almost everything we eat comes from corn -- and our diets are getting cornier all the time. When I saw a commercial for Kraft Cheese during a football game, I was sort of outraged by the image of cows eating grass behind the actors. That is how cattle should eat -- but it is not how Kraft cows (and most other cows eat). Instead cows are force-fed corn to fatten them up quickly, even though it causes them to get sick and requires that they be given massive antibiotic shots. I'm no vegetarian, but I was struck by the "natural story" that Kraft advances when they clearly practice factory farming. One other quick point from the book: the words "free range" (which we use to describe chicken and cattle) were hotly debated over the last decade. The watered-down compromise definition now reads "Animals have to have access to the outdoors during some part of their lives" in order to be considered free range. Not the story most of us conjure up when we buy these products at the Whole Foods.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Questions About 9/11

Yesterday was the 6th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Since the members of our class were relatively young at the time of the event, we spent some time writing questions related to the event and its immediate and long-term impact.

At first it might seem like a waste of time just to ask questions, but I am reminded of this quote by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner from Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

Once you have learned how to ask questions —- relevant and appropriate and substantial questions —- you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.

Here are just a few of the questions some of our class members posed:
  • Why exactly did it happen?
  • How is it that people can go about their days so easily like nothing happened...?
  • How would our country respond if it happened again?
  • Were there any events that occurred not too long before 9/11 that were related?

Friday, September 07, 2007

School as Business?

The new head of schools in New York City is an economist, not an educator named Roland Fryer, a founder of the American Inequality Lab. His bold new plan is to pay students -- in some low income, low performing schools -- for attending school, earning perfect scores on tests, and for taking the PSAT exams. I think this is a terrible idea and wrote an essay for NPR on the topic (I'm an occasional contributor to the show 848). The essay aired on 9/5/07. Here's a LINK if you'd care to listen.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

What's going on here?

On the continuing topic of "Secret Messages", I offer the following two photos which appeared side-by-side in the Monday, September 3rd issue of the Chicago Sun-Times. The image on the left features Dana Perino, the new White House press secretary, and on the right appears President Bush, both from their "surprise" visit to Iraq.

To add a little bit of context: remember that next week, General David Petraeus, the US Military Commander in Iraq, will be delivering a report to Congress detailing whether or not the 30,000 troop "surge" has had a positive effect on reducing the violence in that country.

What's the obvious message of these photos? What's the secret message? 

Your interpretation may depend on your political views or whether or not you supported the war from the beginning.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Another Labor Day?

Although for most of us, it's just another day off or an extended weekend, Labor Day is an excellent time to reflect on those men and women (and children!) who came before us, helped build this country, and whose lives continue to reverberate in this new century.

The people at The National Archives have designed some wonderful virtual exhibitions that pay tribute to American laborers and many others. From their website:
Imagine working in a coal mine.
Or in a steel mill.
Or at a telephone switchboard.

Work and workplaces have gone through enormous transformations between the mid 19th and late 20th centuries. You can view these changes through photographs held by the National Archives and Records Administration.

My own contribution was to download a video from their site, and make it into something new and more compelling. Although the video was completely silent, I changed the work by simply adding a soundtrack. This video now features a soundtrack by Thievery Corporation, who remixed a song from the Doors, a band popular many years ago. See the parallels?

Hopefully you'll understand this "secret" message: don't be afraid to respond to media that usually is intended to be one-way. The internet and computer technology has made it possible for anyone to become a creator and to "talk back" to media. Work such as this can be very fulfilling and meaningful. Hopefully, this small "labor of love" will encourage you to think about today as more than just "Another Labor Day".

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Secret Messages

Oftentimes, the things we see and hear convey two messages simultaneously. A critical thinker is in tune with this.

For example, if I were a person who drives a HUMMER, the obvious message is that "I drive a large SUV."

However, what is the secret message I am trying to communicate? It might be something like, "I enjoy feeling superior to others" or "I believe that driving is an act of war".

As we observe the world around us, it benefits us to observe critically, as opposed to simply accepting what we see at face value. What additional lessons can we learn from reading our history textbook or a novel like Reservation Blues?