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Print view: Jon Stewart asked some very good questions. Why does this task fall to him?
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IN PRAISE OF JON STEWART’S MOTHER! Jon Stewart asked some very good questions. Why does this task fall to him? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 15, 2011

Ron Schiller and Dr. King: Should NPR have fired Ron Schiller? We have no real idea.

In a highly tribalized political culture, any publicly-funded news service will likely find itself under attack. Such news orgs will often respond in politicized ways. In this instance, the situation has been clouded by NPR’s nuanced discussion of Schiller’s remarks. Execs have denounced the things Schiller said, without specifying which of his comments they mean.

Which remarks is NPR outraged about? Execs keep failing to say.

Beyond that, the picture has been clouded by the “heavily edited” nature of Schiller’s remarks. (We quote Lindsay Beyerstein; click here.) Schiller was taped by agents of James O’Keefe, a deeply broken-souled fellow whose work is grossly unreliable. Did the excerpts posted by O’Keefe fairly represent the various things Schiller actually said? Many liberals have cited an analysis by Glenn Beck’s web site, The Blaze, which criticized O’Keefe for selective editing. Selectively editing themselves, these liberals have tended to ignore a second point—the Beck site criticized aspects of O’Keefe’s editing, but generally concluded that O’Keefe really did make the statements with which he’s been charged.

In her post, Beyerstein hammers mainstream journalists for posting O’Keefe’s excerpts without first watching the whole two-hour tape. Beyerstein makes a very good point—even as she picks and chooses what to discuss from the full tape, which she says she has watched.

We haven’t watched the two-hour tape, though we have watched the longer excerpts posted at Beck’s site. We tend to agree with that site’s finding—the longer excerpts suggest that O’Keefe did some funky editing, but they also suggest that Schiller really did, on balance, make the statements for which he’s been criticized. But let’s forget what Schiller actually said. Instead, let’s discuss the way many liberals have reacted to two of his comments.

Schiller’s remarks about racism: At one point, Schiller dropped the R-bomb during his luncheon performance. Yesterday, Kevin Drum summarized the matter like this:

DRUM (3/14/11): I've already defended former NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller's right to tell a prospective donor that he thinks tea partiers are motivated by racism and xenophobia. Schiller isn't a reporter and, right or wrong, his view is a fairly widely held one. There's nothing beyond the pale about expressing it.

Obviously, Schiller has “the right” to make the statement in question. We were struck by the casual way Kevin defended Schiller’s remark, as he understood it. According to Kevin, Schiller told a prospective donor “that he thinks tea partiers are motivated by racism.” According to Kevin, this view “is a fairly widely held one. There's nothing beyond the pale about expressing it.”

Because Kevin is so bright and so precise, we were disappointed by his comment. Does Schiller think all tea partiers are so motivated? Is it most tea partiers? Is it only some? We’re amazed that Kevin doesn’t see the difference between these statements—that he doesn’t seem to see a problem with the failure to be more precise in making such a serious charge. Is there really “nothing beyond the pale” about such a sweeping remark? When even Kevin adopts this stance, we see the way the white liberal world has granted itself the right to denounce the whole wide world as a bunch of racists—everyone but us.

Other liberals have taken a different tack; they have cleaned up Schiller’s comment for him. In this post, Digby quotes from the Beck analysis, then ends up saying this:

DIGBY (3/11/11): I would have argued before this that Schiller's views about the Tea Party were no reason for firing him and that there is plenty of evidence to back up his impressions. There most certainly is a racist element in the Tea Party, just as there has always been a racist element in the far right. They are the same.

Of course, Schiller didn’t say that “there is a racist element in the Tea Party.” In this way, Digby seems to downplay Schiller’s remarks for him.

Schiller didn’t know he was being taped. We have no idea what he would have said in public. But white liberals love accusing The Others of being racists. This is amazingly bad politics, and when such sweeping claims are made, such claims are amazingly dumb.

Schiller’s remarks about the uneducated: Liberals have barely noted Schiller’s remarks about the “uneducated,” although these remarks have gotten great play among conservatives. In this post, NPR’s ombudsman said that Schiller “seemed to be saying that conservatives, by and large, are uneducated.” We’re not entirely sure that’s accurate, but this is part of what Schiller said: "To me, this is representative of the thing that I guess I'm most disturbed by and disappointed by in this country which is that the educated, so-called elite in this country is too small a percentage of the population. So you have this very large uneducated part of the population that carries these ideas. It's much more about anti-intellectual than it is political."

Good God. Statements like that are amazingly stupid, but they do come naturally to many liberals. Perhaps for that reason, liberals have tended to ignore this chunk of Schiller’s remarks. Politically, liberals murder themselves when they indulge themselves in such thinking. By the way: Do you recall how Dr. King viewed the unwashed of the world?

DR. KING (2/4/68): Everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve.

You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.

You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.

That was the view of the greatest achiever of the last century.

Dr. King didn’t spend a lot of time taking a census of who was “uneducated.” Schiller may be a very nice person; in our experience, most people are. But the general attitude he expressed is deadly to progressive interests. Many white liberals just don’t seem to know that.

Can we talk? We the people rarely know what the heck we’re talking about. We fail every public information survey; for ourselves, we think progressives should find ways to point that fact out. But we liberals are extremely dumb too, especially when we fail to see why political people can’t allow themselves to think in the way suggested by Schiller’s remarks.

We liberals! We love to say that The Others are racists. We love to say that The Others are dumb. In this way, we drive wedges between the great unwashed—we split the 99 percent in half

In the process, the oligarchs win—though we get to feel very special.

Special report: He was the son of a teacher, man!

PART 1—IN PRAISE OF JON STEWART’S MOTHER (permalink): Jon Stewart was the son of a teacher, man!

The teacher in question is Jon Stewart’s mother. On March 3, he praised her devotion to that profession on the Daily Show; he praised the devotion he’d seen her display as he was growing up. He also discussed the state of the public school wars with Diane Ravitch, an education historian.

Ravitch is author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. At present, she’s a hero to many teachers. She became a hero when she flipped her position on No Child Left Behind, the program she had worked to promote as a Bush official.

(Not that there was necessarily anything wrong with that!)

On this occasion, Stewart did something we liberals rarely do. He conducted an intelligent discussion, however brief, about the state of the public schools! We liberals quit on such topics decades ago. Such topics are virtually never discussed on our One True Liberal Channel, to cite one current example.

We thought Stewart did a good job on this occasion. He asked some good, intelligent questions; he made some excellent observations. To watch the full segment, click here. But first, let’s discuss why we tend to find Ravitch’s work frustrating.

Stewart was breaking all the rules, discussing the state of the public schools. Why, he even asked about low-income schools, where so many black and Hispanic kids go! But despite her current hero status, we often find Ravitch’s logic lacking, her facts just a bit cherry-picked. So it seemed on this occasion, when she quickly recited a standard story, praising the success of the Finns.

It’s not as though schools in the 90s were great, Stewart suggested to his guest. So what would be the right way to fix our public schools, “or is it just too complicated?” This was one of Stewart’s first questions. In reply, Ravitch said this:

RAVITCH (3/3/11): Well, we can look for instance at Finland. Finland is the number-one nation in the world on the international tests. In Finland, they never give standardized tests at all. They focus on having really terrific teachers, they prepare them well, they give them lots of support and then the teachers make up the tests and they use the tests to see which children need help.

“Everybody points to Finland,” Stewart correctly said. Ravitch continued to do so:

RAVITCH: But Finland is not privatizing its schools, it’s not opening charter schools, 100 percent teacher unionized. So Finland is an example of—here’s a country that has been incredibly successful. The poverty rate there is less than 3 percent for children. In this country, it’s twenty percent and growing.

D’oh! Ravitch had started in standard fashion, robotically praising Finland’s success. Finland “has been incredibly successful,” she said. “Finland is the number-one nation in the world on the international tests.” But then, she dropped the poverty bomb, noting Finland’s low poverty rate as compared to ours.

D’oh! If Finland has such a low poverty rate, why should anyone be surprised if they get good results in their schools? Stewart instantly noticed this problem; he asked why our teachers have “come under such fire,” given the challenges caused by our high rate of poverty. And d’oh! Ravitch now seemed to reverse herself, in a way which also seemed perhaps a bit fact-challenged:

RAVITCH: Well Jon, I’ve been traveling this past year since my book came out and I’ve gone to about 80 or 90 different places all over the country and the one thing I’ve learned is that teachers across America are demoralized. They’re demoralized because we’ve had a public rhetoric for the last few years saying that if test scores are low it’s the teachers fault. And that’s ridiculous, because in our low-poverty schools our scores are beyond Finland’s. Our low-poverty schools do incredibly well and it’s only where we have intense poverty and racial isolation, in places like Detroit, Washington DC and Baltimore—and wherever you find poverty and racial isolation, you’ll find low test scores because kids are hungry, they’re homeless, they’re sick, not getting any medical care. Those things matter.

For the record, most low-income kids aren’t homeless or sick, but they still tend to do less well in school than their middle-class peers. Does it help when our educational heroes put their thumbs on the scale in such ways?

That question asked, let’s return to Ravitch’s thoughts about Finland:

First, Ravitch praised Finland’s “incredible success,” suggesting that we can learn from the Finns. But then, in her very next comment, she said that our public schools outscore those in Finland, except where poverty intrudes. As far as we know, that claim is inaccurate—but it was Ravitch’s semi-puzzling logic which grabbed us at this point. If our low-poverty schools outscore those in Finland, why should we “look for instance at Finland” for the keys to success? Why shouldn’t they look at us?

We didn’t think Ravitch’s presentation made much sense, except as propaganda. (The Finns have teachers unions!) We also suspect that her factual claim was inaccurate. (Our middle-class schools outscore Finland’s!) But so it tends to go on the rare occasions when public school issues get raised at all—except as part of the drumbeat of propaganda designed to denigrate American teachers and their infernal unions.

Did Ravitch bungle? We’d be inclined to say yes, though she went on to make some good points. But you’ll never see such bungles on MSNBC. That liberal channel doesn’t waste its time on public schools, or on the low-income kids who attend them. As far as our One True Channel is concerned, those low-income kids can go fly.

Later, Stewart offered a rumination you’ll rarely see in the career liberal world. “That has been the thing that is the most mind-blowing for me,” he told Ravitch, “to see people blaming the avarice of teachers, or the idea that they only work nine months a year. God forbid you do the job of a teacher for a year—it will blow your mind!” Stewart went on to praise his mother—to note how hard he’d seen her work during his formative years.

Jon Stewart raised some good points with Ravitch—but the conversation lasted seven minutes. But so it has gone in the past many years as the liberal world has walked away from the nation’s teachers, and from the deserving kids who go to our low-income schools. The One True Channel doesn’t stoop to discuss such topics, even when the parent company is conducting a week-long assault on the nation’s teachers. This week, we’ll look at some of the ways progressive interests get dissed and ignored in the process.

Jon Stewart praised teacher—and he asked some good questions. But why does this task fall to him?

Tomorrow: Why does it fall to the New York Post?
Thursday: Ravitch takes on the billionaires
Friday—part 4: Two more sons of teachers