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NEED SOME NEW ATTITUDES! After watching True Grit, we wondered about some of our tribe’s attitudes: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JANUARY 6, 2011

Misery is for rich kids: In this morning’s New York Times, a report describes the way Gotham’s top private schools “counsel” struggling children to leave. We were struck by this account of one fourth-grader’s miseries:

NIR (1/6/11): When [name withheld]’s son William started to slip at the Collegiate School, the standard-bearer of all-boys education on the Upper West Side, the school plied him with extra help. But the fast-paced classes nonetheless became frustrating and demoralizing. He was removed in the fourth grade.

“The school just sat down with us and said, ‘You know, he seems really miserable, and we feel like we’d already given him one-on-one,’ ” Ms. [name withheld] said. He ended up at the Summit School in Queens and is now in high school, getting good grades at the Smith School on the Upper West Side, two of a small number of alternative schools that cater to children with learning or emotional troubles who have not succeeded at other schools.

To keep their children in the schools, some parents pile on tutors or turn to intensive programs like the one at Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, whose five-week, four-hours-a-day afterschool reading course costs $11,500. Parents “know that the child is struggling,” said Jennifer Egan, the director of the Lindamood-Bell center in New York City, but do all they can to stay in their chosen schools. “It feels like a defeat to some people.”

Though sometimes effective, the litany of tutors can overwhelm an already stressed child. “There’s a point where it’s destructive,” said Carla Howard Horowitz, an educational evaluator, who helps guide students in this betwixt state.

It’s very painful for young children to find themselves in such situations. (It would also be painful for adults.) That said, we don’t think we’ve ever seen a journalist describe the misery of low-income kids who may be years below traditional grade level in some public school. Those children suffer and cry; they too become “frustrated and demoralized,” “really miserable.” Typically, they have nowhere to turn.

We’re always amazed when people propose the standard solution of the past several decades—when they say we need to adopt “higher standards,” whatever that could possibly mean in this type of circumstance.

Question: Would you have Nolan Ryan pitch batting practice to a little league team? What would happen if you did? Would it help if you told the crying kids that they should just suck it up? If you told them you had decided to hold them to “higher standards?”

We read today about a suffering child. (Good news: He’s now doing better.) But millions of other kids suffer this way, and they have nowhere to turn. We don’t read accounts of their suffering because they don’t go to Collegiate.

“Higher standards” didn’t work for William, grade 4. Why should this sweet-sounding bromide work for the nation’s poor kids?

Special report: New focus!

PART 3—NEED SOME NEW ATTITUDES (permalink): The American discourse is a wreck—but journalists don’t like to say so. Consider yesterday’s New York Times, in which Matt Bai discussed the extent of the GOP’s post-election mandate.

In the following passage, Bai discussed the public’s apparent view of current budget problems. Bai described a survey of public opinion—and the euphemism was general:

BAI (1/5/11): In a Pew poll from December, 70 percent of voters said they saw the federal deficit as a major problem that needed to be addressed now—a powerful show of support for the Tea Party argument. But sizable majorities of voters were against, say, revoking the home interest mortgage deduction, or adding any new taxes, or raising the Social Security retirement age, or scaling back federal financing for education or road building.

In other words, while voters endorsed the Tea Party ideal of a radically more parsimonious federal government, they haven’t yet gotten their heads around the excruciating choices it entails—or even the relatively easy ones. And that’s not really much of a mandate, when you think about it.

Alas! We the people don’t know squat from squadoodle about the federal budget—and this has been true for a very long time. (More precisely, we don’t have the slightest idea how the government’s money gets spent.) But Bai found a pleasant way to describe this long-standing problem. According to Bai, we the people “haven’t yet gotten [our] heads around the excruciating choices” involved in this area.

Such formulations protect the reader’s sense of self-worth—and disguise the groaning ignorance routinely displayed by us the clueless people.

When we the people don’t know squadoodle, we’re susceptible to every bogus sales pitch from every snake oil salesman. One example: It’s easy to tell us that the Social Security trust fund is just “an elaborate accounting trick” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/31/10)—that “the money isn’t there, we’ve already spent it.” If liberals and progressives hope to create a less ludicrous discourse, we have to find ways to approach the wider public—to clue voters in about our most basic issues.

As we noted yesterday, it all comes down to us:

Alas! The mainstream press corps tends toward inept; meanwhile, powerful pseudo-conservative factions spread persuasive disinformation. (By the year 2037, Social Security will be bankrupt!) Given this unfortunate setting, if we want to have a saner discourse, it all comes down to progressives and liberals. But do we sometimes let our attitudes get in the way of our possible outreach? Let’s consider three different ways we may imaginably do so:

Apparent contempt for religion: On Monday, we went to see “True Grit,” the Coen siblings’ latest. Overall, we’d give the film a good solid B, though it did pay off for us in the end. It especially scored as the credits rolled, when the brothers play a version of an old hymn as sung by Arkansas native Iris DeMent.

To hear the version played at the end of the film, click here. (Fuller version, with lyrics, below.) On YouTube, a range of commenters described their reactions to the Coens’ use of this hymn, reactions which corresponded to ours. This feller quoted an earlier comment, then seconded its emotion:

YOUTUBE COMMENT: “True Grit could not have ended without this song.” Wholehearted agreement here. Not a religious man either, but it brought me to tears and elevated the whole experience of the film.

We have no religious or cosmological views ourselves, beyond long-standing fascination with popularizers’ inability to explain Einstein. But for us, the use of this hymn at the end also “elevated the whole experience of the film.” We stayed to listen as the audience stampeded out, then waited to see who the singer was—an experience described by several YouTube commenters.

Why did that hymn elevate a film which lacks explicit religious context? You’re asking a very good question! At any rate, we came home and fired up the Dell—and instantly hit this post by Digby, a post which ridicules a religion-based answer given by Candidate Bush in 1999. (Bush was responding to a semi-dumb question during a Republican debate.)

On balance, we very much like Digby’s work. She has been our personal “first read” for years, though we think her instincts on race are often wrong and can be quite self-defeating. But after seeing that hymn-driven film, we were struck by Digby’s post. Question: In a nation of religious belief, might we liberals defeat ourselves—drive large chunks of the public away—when we sneer in such ways?

Self-flattering racial narrative: In Saturday’s New York Times, Bob Herbert offered this column about Gladys and Jamie Scott, two sisters whose life sentences “for their alleged role in a robbery in 1993” were recently suspended by Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. Did the Scotts commit the crime for which they were convicted? Were their life sentences unjust? Was the sentencing driven by race? For the fullest account of the case we have seen, we’d cite this lengthy cover story from the Jackson Free Press, an alternative weekly. Of Herbert’s column, we’d only say this—it’s almost clownishly selective in its factual presentations. In the process, Herbert constructs a pleasing morality tale concerning race, the kind of tale with which we liberals tend to self-entertain and self-flatter.

Barbour has been a favorite target of late, stemming from some reported remarks in this Weekly Standard profile. We’ll only say this: Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve been discouraged in the last year by the liberal world’s gross hypocrisy concerning matters of race. In the real world, we seem to do very little about real racial concerns. But we love to flatter ourselves in the tired old ways Herbert’s column permits.

Question: In the wider political context, is this instinct perhaps self-defeating? Do these instincts undermine the possibility that we might salvage the broken American discourse?

Brain food: At our worst, we play the ultimate tribal card; we talk about the other tribe’s brains, which of course don’t function correctly. This recent piece in Salon was just tragically foolish. But Olbermann picked it up and ran (while name-dropping Colin Firth), until John Dean at last told him this:

DEAN (1/3/11): [N]ot knowing an amygdala if it was sitting on my head—and one is sitting in my head—I thought I’d talk to somebody who actually knew something about this. So I called the man whose, I drew on his work greatly when writing "Conservatives Without Conscience," Robert Altmeyer, who at the time was up at the University of Manitoba. And I drew his attention to this study to see for his reaction.

He said, “You know, John, I have some troubles with this.” He said, first the—there are some real basic problems with the way the amygdala works. He described to me what I thought was important. It’s the wiring in it and it doesn’t really much depend upon the size, but rather the way the wiring, if you will, fires and makes the system operate.

The other thing is the sample is very small.

Having entertained his audience throughout the show with this matter, Olbermann finally let Dean explain the view of someone who knows what he’s talking about. In these ways, we liberals tend to heighten our sense of tribal superiority. But does this serve long-term interests?

Alas! We live in a broken political world—a world in which the top one percent are waging war on the lower 99. Will our political discourse ever make sense? Can the 99 ever unite in the face of this war? If so, it’s largely up to us liberals to create those new understandings. Question: When we self-entertain, and feed our own furies, do we possibly make it less likely that we can reach out to those who aren’t in our tribe? If we want to build a new political world, might we need some new attitudes?

Let’s be candid: The cake has been baked. In truth, we liberals will never win this war, in part for the reasons we have described. But as this year proceeds, we will ignore this obvious fact, focusing on the ways we may be defeating our own best efforts. Tomorrow, it’s back to Social Security, as we ask a new question: Along with a new attitude, might we liberals also need improved information organs?

Tomorrow: We still can’t explain it. Why not?

A longer listen: For DeMent’s fuller treatment of that hymn, just click here. For full lyrics, click this.

In this report, the New York Times wonders why “True Grit” is resonating with the public after being semi-dissed by smart-pants film critics. (No Golden Globe nominations, for instance.) Additional question: Why did the Coens build their score around that old hymn?

We think you’re asking a very good question. Our answer: We don’t rightly know.