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A NEED FOR BETTER NARRATIVES! Social Security comes back center stage. Can our side explain how it works? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JANUARY 7, 2011

A very familiar novel concerning a very familiar novel: Should Huckleberry Finn be taught in a cleaned-up version, with its many N-words replaced? This seems like a shaky idea to us.

That said, we’ve been struck by the novelized way the pundit corps has reacted to news that one publisher hopes to do this. A string of scribes have swung into action this week, typing the world’s most familiar narrative. One such scribe is Michiko Kakutani, in today’s New York Times:

KAKUTANI (1/7/11): Efforts to sanitize classic literature have a long, undistinguished history. Everything from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” to Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” have been challenged or have suffered at the hands of uptight editors. There have even been purified versions of the Bible (all that sex and violence!). Sometimes the urge to expurgate (if not outright ban) comes from the right, evangelicals and conservatives, worried about blasphemy, profane language and sexual innuendo. Fundamentalist groups, for instance, have tried to have dictionaries banned because of definitions offered for words like hot, tail, ball and nuts.

In other cases the drive to sanitize comes from the left, eager to impose its own multicultural, feminist worldviews and worried about offending religious or ethnic groups. Michael Radford’s 2004 film version of “The Merchant of Venice” (starring Al Pacino) revised the play to elide potentially offensive material, serving up a nicer, more sympathetic Shylock and blunting tough questions about anti-Semitism. More absurdly, a British theater company in 2002 changed the title of its production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to “The Bellringer of Notre Dame.”

Whether it comes from conservatives or liberals, there is a patronizing Big Brother aspect to these literary fumigations.

Everyone can write this familiar old story—and pretty much everyone has. There’s just one problem with this narrative, which drives the bulk of Kakutani’s piece. The current attempt at fumigation doesn’t exactly come from “the right” or from “the left” (from conservatives or from liberals). It comes from someone who says the book isn’t being taught in public schools because of its many N-words. The gentleman says the book might be taught more often if this term is replaced.

Does this claim, and this proposed solution, reflect a “conservative” or a “liberal” impulse? We’d have to say that it reflects neither. But Kakutani fell to typing a familiar old tale about bowdlerization, a tale which was largely built around those familiar old polarities.

Journalists can type this tale in their sleep; this week, quite a few have. But as they’ve displayed the joy of recitation, we’ve been struck by a question which hasn’t been asked:

What’s it like to teach Huckleberry Finn in public schools these days? More specifically, how do teen-age public school students respond to all those N-words? What happens when this usage is confronted in all-black schools? In all-white schools? In schools where a few black kids may be found among a white majority? Does this create a problem for students—for black kids, let’s say? It doesn’t seem to occur to most journalists to wonder or to care. After all, these overseers possess a magic solution:

KAKUTANI: Haven’t we learned by now that removing books from the curriculum just deprives children of exposure to classic works of literature? Worse, it relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility of putting such books in context—of helping students understand that “Huckleberry Finn” actually stands as a powerful indictment of slavery (with Nigger Jim its most noble character), of using its contested language as an opportunity to explore the painful complexities of race relations in this country. To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities—whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist.

It sounds so easy when Ole Massa says it! That said, that is a very strange construction. Kakutani is concerned that children are being deprived of exposure to a classic work. But she’s more upset by something else. To her, it’s even “worse” to think that teachers are being relieved of a fundamental responsibility!

Good lord, but that’s a strange reaction! It’s bad that the kids don’t read the book. It’s even worse that those lazy proles are getting away with a fast one!

The condescension of our press elite is one of the world’s greatest wonders. Here at THE HOWLER, we’re actually curious: Does it create a problem when children are exposed to this ugly emblem of centuries of unspeakable conduct? More specifically, does it create a problem for black kids? We’re picking on Kakutani here, but we haven’t seen any writer this week who has seemed to wonder or care. Most often, they’ve done what Kakutani has done; they’ve launched a familiar old screed about bowdlerization, without stopping to wonder if an actual problem is lurking.

To us, sanitizing this famous old novel seems like a strange idea. On the other hand, Kakutani’s disinterest in the children at issue—and her contempt for their lazy prole teachers—reflects the way the upper-class press has covered most educational issues over the past many years. There has been an astonishing lack of curiosity about what really occurs in our schools. Instead, journalists defer to the lamebrain ideas of a moneyed elite (for one example, see below), especially to their incessant, deeply foolish teacher-bashing.

Fawning respect for the moneyed elite? Contempt and disdain for the under-class? Where in our tortured American history have we ever seen this one before?

The rapid return of a novel: The New York Times fawns to Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein in ways Butterfly McQueen would have refused to put on the screen. On December 26, Javier Hernandez published a long, loving piece about Klein, long-time head of the Gotham schools. It started with this pitiful glimpse at the way this universe works:

HERNANDEZ (12/26/10): Joel L. Klein invited me to breakfast last year at an Upper East Side haunt, one of those places where a bowl of yogurt goes for $23 and waiters circle the room sweeping up crumbs like pigeons at a feast.

I was covering the New York City school system at the time and thought maybe Mr. Klein, the chancellor since 2002, planned to resign and was giving a little notice. We had come to know each other via e-mail, bantering about the news media’s coverage of education, his refusal to join Twitter (“I truly do have a day job,” he said) and which A-through-F grade he would give the latest production of “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera.

It’s great to be so chummy with the people you’re assigned to cover. The real astonishment followed:

HERNANDEZ (continuing directly): But when I asked Mr. Klein about his future on that summer morning [in 2009], he said he was enjoying the job too much to leave. Instead, he wanted to talk about the city’s rising test scores, about his belief that reporters had not done enough to highlight the success of charter schools and about another favorite topic: love.

“I couldn’t survive if I didn’t have someone to go home to when I got beat up,” he said.

Back in the summer of 09, Klein “wanted to talk about the city’s rising test scores?” We have no doubt that he did, of course—but uh-oh! One summer later, the state of New York renounced those test scores, announcing that they had resulted from tests which had become artificially easy.

In a rational world, this would have been treated like what it was—a major statewide scandal. On the local level, Klein and Bloomberg had spent years boasting about those rising scores; in a rational world, they would have been grilled about why they didn’t know what was going on within the statewide program. (The warnings had been widespread, for years.) But that would be a rational world—and this is the world of the New York Times, which runs on $23 yogurt and chit-chat about favorite operas.

Early in this long, loving profile, Hernandez restores the iconic claim that Bloomberg/Klein did wonders with the city’s test scores. At no later point do readers learn that Klein had been bragging, in 2009, about the results of a statewide scam. And when Hernandez presents a series of Q-and-As, he asks no questions about this scandal, which broke just a few months ago. He did find time to ask questions like this:

You're famous for your knowledge of the best pizza places in the city. Which are your favorites?

You and your wife, Nicole K. Seligman, general counsel for Sony, have very busy careers. How have you made your marriage work?

To learn about Klein’s favorite pizza places, just consult this interview.

The novel about those test scores is back, without a word of correction or challenge! But so it goes when a billionaire mayor and his clueless or dishonest aides hand out bowls of expensive yogurt, thus earning the love of the Times.

Remember—it’s all the teachers’ fault! Bloomberg and Klein? They’ve been marvels!

Special report: New focus!

PART 4—A NEED FOR BETTER NARRATIVES (permalink): Our public discourse is a howling mess—has been so for many years. The source of this disaster is clear:

On the one hand, skillful, well-financed conservative think tanks push poll-tested disinformation into the public sphere. (The Social Security trust fund is an elaborate accounting trick—a pile of worthless IOUs! The money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it! The left hand has been borrowing from the right! By 2037, the program will be bankrupt!)

In response, the mainstream press corps flounders and flails. It proves unwilling, or unable, to deal with the massive public confusion produced by this onslaught.

Surely, liberals and progressives know how these two sectors will continue to function. If we hope for a better public discourse, it’s plainly up to us to create it. But alas! Our major progressive organs have never been up to the task of “repealing and replacing” the bogus narratives which come from the right.

With Social Security center stage once again, consider the way two (very smart) liberal bloggers framed the discussion this week. For starters, consider a fleeting construction offered by Josh Marshall:

MARSHALL (1/3/11): Obama to Cut Social Security?

Over the last month or so I've been getting emails from readers suggesting that President Obama, in an effort to meet Republicans half way on the budget front, will buy into the debt commission's call for cuts to Social Security. I've seen a few opinion columns noted to this effect. But so far I'm just not seeing any evidence to suggest this is true.

As many have noted, one key issue is that the nation's longterm debt problems—which are very real—don't really have much to do with Social Security. Social Security is currently subsidizing the rest of the budget. And further out into the future, it's just not the problem. The real and explosive problem is with health care and relatedly the political drive for tax cuts without any significant cuts on the spending side. But those are policy points. And the political calculus for a Democratic president just doesn't add up either.

In any case, I'm not saying it's impossible. I just haven't seen any convincing evidence. If you have, let me know.

Does Obama plan to “call for cuts to Social Security?” We have no idea. (There are various kinds of possible “cuts,” of course. Cuts in payments to upper-end earners would be one thing; a general rise in the retirement age would be quite another.)

As a general matter, we largely agree with Josh’s presentation. That said, we were struck by that highlighted construction. Do we really want to say that Social Security is currently “subsidizing” the rest of the budget? To our ear, it’s a short walk from that construction to a familiar, misleading claim: The money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it! This is a minor point in a short post, but we were struck by the use of that term.

The other side tests language carefully.

That very same day, we were struck by a more detailed presentation about Social Security. Digby is one of our smartest, most influential progressive bloggers. But we have no idea what point she was making in the following passage, where she discussed Pete Peterson’s position on Social Security back in 2000, when the federal budget was in surplus:

DIGBY (1/3/11): [Social Security] could have been off the table then and Peterson didn't advocate for it. Instead he kept up his incoherent fear-mongering and suggested that the surplus be used to "pay down the debt" instead of shore up the Social Security program, because the some future politician could spend the money. And we all know what happened then.

Presumably, “what happened then” includes Bush’s tax cuts. But we were puzzled by Digby’s account of Peterson’s position in 2000. In fact, Candidate Gore advocated using the Social Security surplus to “pay down the debt.” And this wasn’t presented as an alternative to “shoring up the Social Security program;” this was presented as the only way the surpluses could be used, under federal law, to accomplish that task. (The theory: By paying down debt, the government would be in a better fiscal position in future years when the boomers began to retire, with the attendant drain on federal resources.)

In our view, Marshall made a shaky word choice; on the same day, Digby’s presentation didn’t seem to make any sense at all. But then, when have major liberal and progressive organs ever created a standard response to the well-known, highly familiar assault on Social Security from the right? Many voters can recite those pseudo-conservative assaults in their sleep; the standard claims are grossly misleading, but they are skillfully constructed, fiendishly persuasive and extremely well-known. No standard narrative has ever emerged from major organs on the left. Alas! In the face of a carefully-constructed disinformation campaign, our side have basically gamboled and played. More precisely, liberal organs have gamboled and played for 25 years, producing a world in which voters hear a familiar, orderly, misleading narrative from one side—and nothing much from the other.

One side is organized—one side isn’t. This makes it hard for liberals and progressives to argue in the public square. Consider what happened on Monday night when the wastrel Chris Matthews tried to explain what will happen if the federal government fails to extend the debt ceiling this March, thereby engaging in “government default.”

Matthews spoke with Mark Meckler, of the Tea Party Patriots. Here’s how the exchange started:

MATTHEWS (1/3/11): OK. Let’s talk about something you guys don’t like and nobody in Congress likes. It’s called the debt ceiling bill. It’s one of these things that nobody pays any attention to, it’s like hanging chads. You don’t pay attention until there’s a close election.

Well, every year, the Congress has to pass what they called the debt ceiling extension, which is up about $13 trillion. They got to raise it a notch to $13.5 trillion to $14 trillion. If they don’t do it, the government defaults because the government can`t make payments beyond that amount. What will you recommend that your Tea Party votes in the House on debt ceiling extension?

MECKLER: Well, it’s not my recommendation. This is what Tea Partiers across the nation are telling us. They recommend that they vote against the raising of the debt ceiling. At some point, you said they have to raise it every time. Is there a rule somewhere that they have to raise it every time?

MATTHEWS: But what are consequences of not raising it?

MECKLER: I think the consequences are we shut down certain programs. We cut spending. We do things that every family is required to do.

What consequences would follow if “the government defaults?” Meckler painted a benign picture; we’d have to “shut down certain programs,” he said—we’d have to “cut spending.” In fact, the consequences would be vastly more severe, a fact Matthews seemed to understand. But as he continued, it was fairly clear that he couldn’t describe those consequences. This produced a type of fumbling exchange quite common to this awful program:

MATTHEWS (continuing directly): But if the government can’t make payment on its obligations, what happens next?

MECKLER: Then they cut spending. And there is money to be made from cutting spending.

MATTHEWS: You mean that night, the government’s about to default, they go around selling off properties—or how do they make that money up? They can`t raise taxes overnight.

No, I’m serious. I’m asking a serious question. What’s the next step?

MECKLER: What you’re talking about is created crisis. In other words, you say "that night," but they have known this for a long time.

The conversation went on from there. But at no point did anyone answer Matthews’ “serious question:” What would happen “if the government can’t make payment on its obligations?” (For the full transcript, click here.)

As long-time Matthews-watchers, we would guess that Matthews wanted to shoot Meckler down in this instance, but he simply wasn’t prepared—wasn’t prepared to explain the consequences of a government default. But then, would you as a liberal know where to go for a clear explanation of what would happen? What liberal or Democratic Party organ has ever created a digest of reliable information—a set of narratives which might be described as “public affairs for us dummies?”

In the new year, it’s all up to us! No one else will ever be fixing our discourse. But our side has failed quite badly at this task in the past. Mainstream journos will never create the simple, coherent, accurate narratives which can inform a disinformed public. Liberals and progressives never have.

Such a task is up to us. In this new year, we will focus on some of the ways our side fails to accomplish this lingering task.

Matthews will always flounder and flail. Why can’t progressives do better?