Category Archives: Polemics

The Honeybee: Oversimplification and Unnecessary Drama

Nevada City, California

This piece wraps up my coverage of the 2012 Wild and Scenic Film Festival.

Last weekend at Wild and Scenic, a drama named BEE made its world premiere. (I don’t know why the filmmakers capitalized the title as if it were an acronym–it does not appear to be.) The film festival does not display “documentary” in its moniker, and I applaud the choice to explore different genres of film that deal with environmental issues. The issues must be dealt with responsibly, though. Unfortunately, this is not the case with BEE.

Let’s look a moment at the four main characters in BEE. We have the reluctant, unfriendly daughter, an entomologist at UC Davis, who comes to help her angry father understand why his bees died. In order to get to the truth, she lies to the next door neighbor (while she secretly sleeps with his son, the sheriff). This next door neighbor has been lying and poisoning the dad’s bees. She heroically takes the shotgun away from her dad before he kills the neighbor. Then the father steals someone else’s bees since his died. The sheriff tells his lover that her chronic lying is a problem, but she is fatalistic about her habit. Now–there is nothing wrong with a dark drama; nothing wrong with a drama full of characters who lie, cheat, and attempt to maim and kill other creatures. But how, exactly, does a film with such protaganists inspire environmental activism? BEE left me wondering.

That is the least of the film’s three offenses however. More serious is the creative license it takes with cultural integrity. In the film, the Caucasian beekeeper (the dad) steals bees from a Russian family since his Mexican next door neighbor killed the American’s bees with pesticide. The younger protagonists–the sheriff and the entomologist–discuss how this is called “musical bees”. Stealing bees when yours die, she says, is a cultural norm. When asked about this during the Q and A, filmmaker Raphael Hitzke reported that such bee-stealing was practiced and accepted in Russia and Ukraine. (I was unable to substantiate this through my research.) Hitzke went on to say that he “thought it would be fun” to have an American steal bees from a Russian because of this. Fun, perhaps, and there is nothing wrong with fun. But erroneous threads such as these, even in fiction, manipulate and mislead the audience.

When writing fiction that stems from fact, the writer owes it to both subject and  readers to put material in its proper context, both culturally and factually. Let’s look at Toni Morrison, American author and Nobel prize winner, and her crafting of Beloved. Morrison spent years turning the real-life Margaret Garner into Sethe, the story’s heroine. She pulled her out of hard, documented facts, not out of thin air or whimsy. When asked why she made Beloved a work of fiction rather than simply documenting Margaret Garner’s life, Morrison said that she believed fiction was the more powerful genre for bringing home the atrocities of slavery to her readers. “Some things,” she says, “only artists can do. Only artists can do. And it’s our job.” It is our job–and when we have a political or environmental agenda around our story, it’s also our job to maintain the cultural and factual integrity of what we are writing about.

Still, there is an even larger problem with BEE, and that is its oversimplification of the mystery that is Colony Collapse Disorder. The film was selected to screen because of this focus,and yet it dangerously encourages the emotionally based misinformation that permeates the issue. In BEE, the entomologist tells the next door neighbor that all he has to do to avoid killing her dad’s bees is to spray pesticide at night. Imagine for a moment if the solution were that simple. As I outlined in a piece from last year’s festival (“Bee Summit: Experts Discuss the Honeybee’s Dilemma”), there are four complicated factors thought to be causing CCD. Only one of them relates directly to the spraying of pesticides, and the specific pesticide, rather than the time of day it is sprayed, is the relevant issue. Since the daughter in BEE is an expert, this oversimplicity is particularly seductive. Even though it is a work of fiction, the film’s viewers see the entomologist as an expert and take her theory to heart.

Recently an article in Grist (“Honeybee problem nearing a critical point”: http://grist.org/food/2012-01-13-honey-bees-problem-nearing-a-critical-point/) claimed that there was new evidence linking the pesticide clothianidin to Colony Collapse disorder. This is old news (see “Bee Summit”) with a new twist. Clothianidin, part of a family of pesticides called neonicotinoids, is not usually directly sprayed on plants but rather used to treat their seeds before planting. “Evidence already pointed to the presence of neonic-contaminated pollen as a factor in CCD” the article states. I checked in with renowned bee scientist and local bee keeper Randy Oliver. “There is no such evidence!” He explains, “In fact, every scientific study that has looked into this has exonerated the neonics. Dr. Jim Frazier reported exactly that at the national conventions these past two weeks.” Rather than simplify the problem or demonizing agricultural practices, Oliver advocates a scientific approach to deciphering CCD. “The problem that occurs when environmentalists take extreme or unsupported positions is that it discounts their credibility to the regulators,” he says, “Better to stick to specific, documented issues.” Oliver continues to dialogue with Bayer and Monsanto about those issues, and he believes that beekeepers are making progress.

Such progress is hindered, though, when a film such as BEE dumbs down the concept of CCD to be a matter of spraying a pesticide (which pesticide?) at a certain time of day. Such oversimplifications, once a part of our belief systems, lead us to divisive conversations and polarized communities. Although any filmmaker has a right to make a film that does this, environmental film festivals have a responsibility to screen material that has accurate scientific information. People believe what they see, particularly at an environmental film festival where almost every single film is in documentary format. Films that further the festival’s mission should honor cultural and social integrity by portraying situations that inspire activism rather than cynicism, honesty rather than deceit, and critical thinking rather than reactionary response to random propaganda.

During the Q and A after the 20 minute film, an audience member asked Raphael Hitzke what he was going to direct next. A feature length thriller, he said, on the same subject. This idea is full of potential. Let’s hope Hitzke does his homework next time and portrays the subject accurately. Let’s hope also he gives us characters with integrity and intelligence. That would inspire activism, indeed.

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Filed under Farming, Polemics, Sustainability, Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival

Thwarting Our Best Intentions: A Polemic

It has been a typical couple weeks on Facebook in the land of leftie politics.  Whether I am visiting the group for Save The Scenic Santa Ritas down in Abbey Country, or reading a post from a local food activist here in Nevada City, or perusing the many leftie slogans that litter my news feed, it is pretty much the same. People who care fervently about their causes are driving potential supporters away with their rudeness and their inaccurate and objectifying language.  After ten years of covering left-wing politics as a reporter, this doesn’t surprise me.  There is a reason why our frequent refrain in the newsroom was “fucking lefties!”  There is a reason why it is a cliché that the left forms firing squads in a circle. But what somehow surprised me about what I’ve witnessed on Facebook these past weeks is that the people spouting their venom and lies—spouting them in the hopes of prosthelytizing —know they are venom and lies but don’t care.

First, let’s go to Abbey Country, where Arizonans have been engaged in a feisty debate for months now. A Canadian company doing business as Rosemont Copper Mine wishes to build and operate a mine in what is known as The Scenic Santa Rita Mountains. Thousands of birders, hikers, wine enthusiasts, and other tourists visit these mountains each year and strongly oppose the project.  There is also a great deal of support for the mine, especially with Arizona’s unemployment rate finally catching up with the rest of the nation’s. With publication of the DEIS delayed more than once, the state has been in limbo. Now that the document has been published, public hearings are being held and there may soon be some actual movement.  It’s very much the same story line as Nevada County, gold, and Emgold.

Every few weeks I visit the group page Save the Scenic Santa Ritas on Facebook. When I went there late October, I observed a conversation between two women, we’ll call them Katey and Amber.  Katey was speaking passionately against the mine; I don’t know what her role is with the organization Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, but she posted with authority and obviously a great deal of knowledge. Amber popped in to the group having just been to an informational meeting sponsored by Rosemont Copper; she had follow-up questions.

As typical with Facebook, I saw the end of the conversation first, in which Amber sarcastically thanked Katey for her rudeness, since it had helped win Amber over to the side of the mine’s developers.  Having been to one of those informational meetings at Rosemont, I can see how Amber’s decision might have been made easier. The spokespeople at the meetings are very nice, quite calm and yet passionate, plus they had out free beverages and chips.   Treating people well is a great way to seduce them; Rosemont gets that but Katey doesn’t seem to.  As I skimmed through their conversation, I was stunned by Katey’s rude tone and dismissive approach to Amber’s questions.  Amber and I tried to tell her not to be so rude.  “A little honey with your vinegar?”  I wrote hopefully, only to also be chastised that Katey doesn’t have time for oversensitive people because it was a “fight” so she had to fight.  (I regret I cannot quote Katey more specifically, because she or someone on her behalf went back and removed every single one of her comments from the conversation. I attempted to contact her to follow up, but not only her posts but apparently her profile have disappeared from Facebook.)

In the rhetorical nightmare that embodies the flaccid ineffectuality of left wing politics, Katey has hit the jackpot.  Meanwhile, Rosemont Copper Mine has a new supporter. Amber is a small business owner in Tucson, so I imagine that she already has a sign up in her shop window supporting the mine.  Has Katey won the “fight”?  Hopefully the gorgeous Santa Ritas have wiser spokespeople in their camp—or else it will be Rosemont Copper Mine in Abbey Country.  More jobs, less tourism, American copper sold to China to make more cheap shit we’ll buy at Walmart.  Katey does not see that she is actually fighting for the enemy.  Perhaps she’ll get a thank you card from Rosemont Copper.

(And we need to remember that Katey, Amber, or both women could be on Rosemont’s payroll. Corporations regularly hire shills to infiltrate and affect grass roots groups, and given Rosemont’s manipulative television spots, I wouldn’t be surprised.  I have no evidence of this; I am merely saying it is possible. If either woman were to be on their payroll, I’m sure that the company feels its money is well spent.)

The Scenic Santa Ritas. I took this photo standing in the exact spot of the proposed mine.

Meanwhile, in Nevada City last October, I attended a dinner-and-a-movie fundraiser for a local farm defense fund.  The event was at The Willo, which impressed me, because it’s not a typical leftie venue.  It’s a venerable old roadhouse famous for its steaks and affordable cocktails. And eat steaks and drink cocktails we did, before we watched the film Farmaggedon, which offers vivid evidence and video footage of the USDA raids on artisanal and organic farmers across the country.  In the film, the footage of these raids is frightening to say the least. Machine guns and children in the same room, people’s yogurt, chickens, grains, sheep, confiscated before their tearful eyes. The raids are violent, the technology and firearms ratcheted up to the point of absurdity.  Before the film began, a spokesman for the farm defense fund gave a speech, as is customary at such events. He said there had just been a raid in Placer County, and that soon they expected equally dramatic events in Nevada County. As we listened to him, we were all sobered by the reality that USDA tanks and guns could soon be rolling down Cement Hill Road and Highway 174. It seemed far-fetched, hyperbolic–until we saw the film.

A couple weeks later, about the end of the month, a farm activist posted on Facebook: a food swap organization shut down in eastern Nevada County, in the town of Truckee. The farm activist, let’s call her Sheila, announced the incident with screaming caps on both Facebook and email:  RAID in Nevada County.  I checked in on Facebook with the group who’d organized the food swap, Tahoe Slow Food, and saw that the spokeswoman for the group was already putting out that fire.  “I would like to clarify,” she said,  “There was no raid!”  She went on to explain the relatively polite exchange between the group and the health department, and said they hoped to resolve things with further conversations.  (Not as exciting as a raid, I know.)  I went to Sheila and said, “Look, no raid.”  Her response: “a minor difference to me. Swapping food is still illegal.”

Most people, particularly food consumers who are not activists, would see more than a minor difference between an armed USDA raid and a quiet conversation between health department officials and a slow food group. Those people, who can’t quite grock that the USDA raids are even real, will brand Sheila’s hyperbole as hysteria and say something like this:  “Those left wing nuts. Talking all this shit about raids when there aren’t any. We can’t believe a word they say. Go Monsanto!  Go Walmart!”  Sheila joins Katey in getting a warm, fuzzy, thank-you note from her enemy. The more misinformation is out there, the less mobilized the public will be to engage in causes that are central to their lives.  But, like Katey, Sheila can’t see beyond her strident view to the larger rhetorical concern.

I had been thinking about Katey and Sheila, about the frustrating reality that so many people with profound ideas about the future are marginalizing not only themselves but also the very causes they dedicate their lives to. Incidents such as the two I’ve described are as commonplace as they are polarizing.  Why is this, I’ve been wondering. Meanwhile, on Facebook, I began noticing a trend developing—a trend that began about the same time the Occupy movement went viral.  People began creating and sharing slogans and testimonials through photographs.  One stream of these photos is dedicated to the 99%, one person at a time telling his or her story about their fall from the middle class.  These, at least, have some text and explanation for why they are saying what they are saying.  Less so the slogans, which encapsulate complex social dynamics into dangerously simplistic ideas.  For example: “I have nothing against God, it’s his fan club I can’t stand.”  These slogans seem to make people happy; I think that’s because it does feel good to have one’s philosophies and ideas wrapped nicely and placed beneath the Christmas tree for others to “ooo” and “ah” over. These slogans are as dangerous to the left as are the rash actions of Katey and Sheila. The absurd generalization that God’s “fan club” can be lumped into one demographic is insulting not to the faithful but to the intellectual capacity of the left.

It is easy to fall through the trap door into the soft, pillowy comfort of smugness. Back in 2003 when I was a reporter I remember asking Jeremy Skahill, who’d just returned from months in Iraq, how the Iraqis felt about Americans.  Skahill was as nice as he could be when he told me how ridiculous my question was: “There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, each with his or her own opinion,” he reminded me. When we do as I tried, and attempt to reduce the complexity of a nation into a pat, sentence-long encapsulation, we oversimplify.  When we oversimplify complex issues, we polarize our audience.  “Where is tolerance?” a Christian I know and love wrote on Facebook.  “Why are there so many posts about how evil we are?”  The creator of the “fan club” slogan wasn’t picturing my friend, a hard-working, home-schooling, fair and open minded woman who happens to get strength from a different place than he does. He was objectifying her, oversimplifying the dilemma of organized religion and the harm done on its behalf, and in the process creating more hate and angst. He was, in essence, sabotaging his mission just as completely as Katey and Sheila sabotaged theirs.

Creating animosity, misinformation, and polarization are all ineffective, counterproductive ways out of the mess we are in.  There are mountain ranges to be stewarded, wholesome foods to be protected, and individual choices to be honored. Only when the left begins to treat others with the respect it demands for itself can it truly help the 99% it claims to care about.  Offering faux compassion to a massive body of people is meaningless; we need to care for and respect each individual that contributes to that statistic.  Furthermore, we need to make a commitment as individuals to go beyond the slogans, to challenge the hyperbole, to demand honesty and integrity in our daily conversations. If we can’t do that, how do we seriously think we change an entire planet for the better?

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Filed under Abbey Country, Community, Essays, Farming, Mining, Polemics, politics, Sustainability

Drunk Drivers

This week four women I know and love–three of them teens–were hit by a drunk driver while driving home.  One teen was life flighted.  All will, thankfully, be okay.  The sad event reminded me of the essay here, which I wrote over fifteen years ago.  Two years after the events described below, my son and I were rear ended by yet another drunk driver.  I was injured, Forrest was miraculously okay. I will ask you now, very personally: please don’t drink and drive.  Go get your booze, drive home sober, and then whoop it up.  It’s not a difficult choice.  And if I see you trying to get in a car after you’ve been drinking, you’d better watch out.  I won’t be very nice. 

Drunk Drivers

I’m standing in the pediatric ICU at UC Med Center.  I’m holding the hand of my ten year old nephew.  His hand is lifeless, the nurse tells me, because they gave him a paralyzing drug to keep him still.  Common practice with a brain injury, she says.  “So it’ll be a couple days before we know if there’s damage?” I ask.  “Oh, there is damage,” she says, “we just don’t know how much, or if it’s reversible.”  I’m grasping for hope with what feel like talons.  “So, we might need to teach him things again?  He might not remember things?  His brain might not work that way?”  “It could be more basic,” she says, “like his brain could not remember how to make his heart pump, how to make him breathe.”

I look at the ventilator pumping air into his lungs, the two tubes going into his partially shaved head.  One is to gauge the inner cranial pressure, I’ve learned.  One is to drain liquid off to relieve the pressure.  The last 24 hours have been a crash course in how to treat brain injuries.  The doctor, he says, has only seen two worse brain injuries in his career.  “C’mon, kid,” I say, “Fight.”  “It’s not a matter of him fighting,” the nurse says, “it’s simply a matter of how much his brain will swell.”

It was the night before, the night it happened.  He was just riding in the car with his mom.  She was going into town.  She was on her side of the road.  She heard the screeching of the tires, but  those curvy Nevada County roads can be unforgiving.  There was no shoulder, only a bank.  She had no where to go but straight into the car.

The man driving was having a good time.  He was wasted on beer, out joyriding.  He was not hurt on impact.  He got out of the car.  “Help me,” my sister-in-law called to him.  “My son is trapped.  My son won’t wake up.” The drunk guy just ran away.

I had another brother once, too.  He was just going through a green light on his motorcycle when a drunk lady ran the light at the intersection.  Killed instantly, they told me.  Never felt a thing.  I was six.  I wrote him a note and asked my mom for a helium balloon, so I could send it to him.  My family has felt sad ever since.  My nephew is named after that dead brother.  His parents wanted the name to go on, at least.

For forty eight hours I watch the inner cranial pressure on my nephew’s read out climb and climb.  I watch his pupils become fixed and dilated.  I watch his mother, face bruised from the impact of the steering wheel, sob over him, beg God to save her baby.

I think of the times I’ve driven after a drink or two.  Not going very far, I think.  I’ll be extra careful.  I’ll drive slow.  I think of the time a few weeks ago I tried to talk a girlfriend out of driving.  I argued, but I didn’t take her keys away.  Didn’t want to get her mad, after all.  Didn’t want to push the issue too far.

I go in the conference room with the neurosurgeon and my brother and sister-in-law.  They tell us my nephew is brain dead.  We sign the papers for organ donation.  My brother goes to tell my niece, the boy’s twelve year old big sister and best friend, that her brother won’t wake up.  I go hold my nephew’s hand for a little longer.  From now on, I tell him, I’m gonna be militant.  From now on I’ll yank those keys away.  I’ll just picture the ventilator, the fixed and dilated pupils, the readings of the inner cranial pressure. I’ll remember the un-erasable double sadness of my family.  “Get out of your car!” I’ll say.  “You’re not driving.”  I won’t worry about getting anyone mad.  From now on it’ll be easy.

1995

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Filed under Community, Essays, Polemics, politics

Cultural Honesty: A Polemic

“In every culture in decline, the watchful ones among the slaves know that all that is genuine will be scorned or conned or cast away.” Joni Mitchell

Recently, this blurb has been circulating Facebook: “As a child I saw Tarzan almost naked, Cinderella arrived home after midnight, Pinocchio told lies, Aladdin was a thief, Batman drove over 200 miles an hour, Snow White lived in a house with 7 men, Popeye smoked a pipe and had tattoos, Pac Man ran around to digital music while eating pills that enhanced his performance, and Shaggy and Scooby were mystery solving hippies that always had the munchies. The fault is not mine! If you had this childhood and loved it, repost.”

I got a good chuckle out of this.  In the days that followed my reading it, one line kept echoing in my head.  Pinocchio told lies.  Pinocchio told lies.  Like most people I know, I was raised with the ninth commandment in mind.  Yet I’ve grown so used to people—or more likely institutions–lying to me that I take it for granted.  Maybe God should have used simpler language with that commandment.

Take for instance  my sons’ schools.  Two different middle schools, both with good reputations.  One is more alternative; one is more traditional.  Like most schools I’ve visited over thirty years of parenting, volunteering, and teaching, most of the faculty and staff care deeply about their students. Yet both schools lie to the parents.  In the midst of a domestic war on education, I can’t help but wonder if more parents would rise to defend the institutions if the institutions respected parent and child by practicing the virtue of honesty.  (For more on the war on education, see my earlier polemic “Mourning the War on Education” at https://lightcapfarm.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/mourning-the-war-on-education/.)

The schools lie about different things. One lies about volunteering, changing the very essence of the word to include the connotation mandatory.  Volunteering for school fundraisers is mandatory. Meetings in the evening are mandatory.  Some parents I know put the word in quotes when they use it.  A public school can’t force parents to help, and it can’t single handedly change the definition of a time honored word that means people choose to come help, either for a given project or on an ongoing basis. If I’m choosing to do it, it can’t be mandatory.  This language is somewhat simpler than the ninth commandment, but parents are already confused about the true meaning of volunteer. Recently the school even told parents what they could and could not wear when they volunteered, and that rankled some of them. Personally, I prefer to volunteer for people and institutions that do not lie to me.  (That’s why I don’t volunteer at the community radio station any more.)

The other school is one of many that lies about vaccines, telling parents they are mandatory.  (There’s that word again.) Vaccinations are mandatory in some states, but in Cali parents still have some rights in regards to their children, and one of those is called a personal exemption in the case of vaccines.  No matter where you stand on the vaccine issue, the law is in place that gives parents this right. With the recent alarm about the rise in whooping cough cases, California health departments and most public schools are lying to parents, saying their children are required to get the vaccine and not mentioning the waiver.

Currently AB 499 sits on Jerry Brown’s desk.  If he signs it, my 12 year old and thousands of others in Cali will be able to get injections of Gardasil without parental consent.  The senators and congressfolk who passed the bill didn’t seem to mind that this means that children would be lying to their parents.  After all, the parents might not be good parents; they probably lie, too, or else they might just be clueless.  So the state steps in and manages the lying for the students and the parents.  (If you want more information about Gardasil, one source is the page “Seriously Concerned about Gardasil” on Facebook. )

Many evenings at the farm Mr. Lightcap and I indulge in passionate political discussion.  We can’t seem to help it. A recent focus of our Green-Libertarian frettings and musings could be summed up with one rhetorical question: When should the state step in and manage its people?  We watched Warren Jeffs pick up his child bride to French kiss her.  We thought, hmmmm. Is that a good time for the state to step in?  Wasn’t Jeffs lying to her and the whole community by saying that pedophilia was a normal part of worshipping their god?  Who if not the state should step in? Where does being unconventional intersect with being deviant, and who defines these things for a culture?

Perhaps in this era of cultural decline and economic malaise the meaning of the word volunteer is actually changing to include the meaning of the word mandatory. Personally I’ll dig my heels in on that one, because I like the old meaning of the word.  And perhaps the state needs to step in and force sometimes lethal injections on children because the parents are so incredibly misguided.  In that case, they need to change the law and follow due process. Perhaps AB 499 is a back door to making those changes.

Last night I went to see the San Francisco Mime Troupe for the 7th year in a row. Every year their theme and show is different, but every year it somehow involves how the government and corporations are lying to us.  Last night, with their play “2012 The Musical,” they delved into the greasy world of the green-washed nonprofit, wisely warning their viewers that any institution—any institution—with “Inc.” in the back of its name should be watched with hawk-like eyes.  Having been lied to and manipulated by both profit and non profit corporations alike, I can’t help but start tapping my foot to the old Smokey Robinson tune: “I second that emotion.”

When I was a kid I had a recording of someone reading The Emperor’s New Clothes.  It came with a book, and I’d sit there for hours rereading and relistening.  I couldn’t believe it got so bad that the king was actually walking down the street naked. Why didn’t anyone speak up before the little kid did?  These days, voices like the kid’s  and the Mime Troupe’s are few and far between, voices that dare call the emperor naked and ask for systemic change, voices that dare ask our elected employees to be honest with us, voices that dare ask for truth and not lies in advertising. What will it take, how bad will it get before we all dig our heels in and tell our schools, our government, and our corporations: Enough!  I don’t know to what extent I’ll find the courage.  But I think I can manage the tiny clear voice I remember on the phonograph:  “Mama, he doesn’t have any clothes on. Mama, why isn’t anyone saying anything? “

Misusing words and circumventing laws are two things that hurt my heart.  But the dishonesty the system has us swimming in makes my soul ache.  “Maybe that’s what souls are for,” John Trudell writes, “to take the hurt the heart can’t take.” I hope the next time I have the courage to speak truth in a clear, tiny voice that one of you will speak up with me.  If we all speak together, our voice will not be tiny, and our message will be crystal clear.  I’ll hold out some hope for that for a while yet.

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Filed under Education, Essays, Polemics, politics, Uncategorized

Mourning the War on Education

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through” –David Bowie

For a few weeks now, in response to the union crisis in the Midwest, a video has been circulating around Facebook and You Tube. The video showcases teacher Taylor Mali, who is on a rant about the lack of respect given teachers in our society.  He’s right, of course. Unfortunately his very message helps convey why there is a pervasive “war on education” in this nation. [You’ll find a link to the video at the end of this essay.]

Taylor Mali says some things that are right on the mark. He makes a comment about how people say, “those who can, do, those who can’t,  teach”, which is one of the most ridiculous clichés ever known to man.  Basically, it encapsulates the “either/or” thinking of our society, a paradigm that has caused us many decades of misery. Back when I was in college I confided to a mentor in my family that I wanted to be a teacher.  He fed me that same line and shamed me for my desire.  I took it to heart for a few years, going in a completely different direction with my studies so as to avoid the “loser profession”.  (Ironic that my mentor was sitting in my mother’s house eating my mother’s food—all paid for with her teacher’s salary.)

I still ended up being a teacher, nonetheless. It happened when the California Poets in the Schools, particularly Chris Olander and Will Staple, befriended me.  Chris took me with him to Downieville to show me the ropes.  For the first time in my life I stood in front of a group of children and taught them.  The looks on their faces and the lights in their eyes hooked me instantly.  I realized then that teaching is alchemy, a sacred transfer of valuable goods from one generation to the next.  Teaching is doing, a very powerful kind of doing.

So, Master’s degree in hand, I headed to UC Davis to get an elementary education teaching credential.  At that time the program at Davis had national recognition.  (Since then it’s morphed into an ESL program, and I don’t know much about it.)  But back in the day we were taught by two great professors of education: Dave Wampler and Maryann Gatheral.  There were only 40 of us, applicants accepted from across the county through a competitive process.  On the first day Wampler told us to listen carefully and get ready to write something down.  “This is the most important thing you’ll learn all year!” he said.  We sat, pens poised, adrenaline pumping.  On the board he wrote:

Never tree a child.

I thought of Wampler and his mandate while I listened to Taylor Mali.  In his angry performance-poet voice, he says things like, “I make a C+ feel like a Congressional medal of honor,” and “I make an A- feel like a slap on the face.”  Why on earth would a teacher want to do either of those things?  In my world, a C+ is called “conference time” and an A- is hard earned, no head games attached. As if his academics weren’t torturous enough, Mali also supervises a study hall where, he brags, “No! you can’t work in groups!” and “No! You can’t ask a question! Put your hand down!”  Here Mali reveals the fact that he knows little about education, lots about training and control.  True, he also says he gets kids to question. Believe me, kids don’t feel free to question when they are immersed in an atmosphere of behavioral control.  And denying them use of the bathroom is not the best way to create a climate of academic freedom.

At UC Davis, they told us that only 3% of us would remain in the traditional classroom in ten years; the other 97% would be administrators or be teaching at the college level.  I am in the latter category, teaching both at a community college and a private university. At the college level what are the two things we try to coax our students to do?  Work in groups. Ask good questions. Our job is made harder by pseudo-educators like Mali who have intimidated students into acquiescence by their demands for control and subservience.  Taylor Mali’s goal—and I take this from his own words—is to control and manipulate his students into behaving the way he wants them to.  He mentions as well that he delights in manipulating parents, deliberately calling to interrupt their dinner and fill them with fear about what their kid had done at school that day.

A few days ago Mr. Lightcap and I were playing one of our favorite after dinner games, flipping between MSNBC and FOX to see what news was deemed worthy of reporting that day. On MSNBC the tag read: “War on Education.”  On Fox: “War on Education.”   As a teacher for over twenty years, I took this to heart.  I thought again of Taylor Mali, and how teachers like him had helped strengthen the cavernous divide between educators and the rest of society. I’d probably want to declare war on education too if I’d been denied use of the bathroom and been forced into silence and compliance out of fear.  (Come to think of it, it sounds a lot like elementary school,  and I’m still recovering from what a batch of bad nuns did to my psyche. )

Before I went to UC Davis to get my credential, I looked at a few other programs.  Most of them had extensive classroom management courses designed to teach behavior modification and other means of effectively controlling students.  Gatheral and Wampler taught us that the only effective way to manage a classroom is through good curriculum.  Bad behavior = boredom. The last education program I visited sported a sign on the desk that said, “What part of NO don’t you understand?”  I went from there to UC Davis where a sign on the window said, “Ask me, I might.”  As my hundreds and hundreds of former students will tell you, I’m the latter kind of teacher.  Having subbed or taught every grade from kindergarten through high school, I can also  tell you I’ve heard every excuse and con known to a teacher.  “Why did you let her go to the bathroom?”  I remember one girl asking.  “She’s faking.”   “Well,” I said, looking down at her skeptical face, “I’d rather be conned by 100 students that tell even one student ‘no’ when she really had to go. “  Mystified, she walked away.

My favorite memory is of subbing for a class of third graders: “We didn’t we say the pledge of allegiance!” they chorused.  “What does allegiance mean?” I asked. Thirty shrugs.  “Well, instead of reciting it,  let’s learn what it means.”  Dead silence as I headed for the dictionary.  Once they learned what allegiance meant I asked them if it was a good idea to promise something when they didn’t know what it meant.  Grave shakes of little heads.   Children do not appreciate being treed.

Being educated isn’t about memorizing, behaving a certain way,  or jumping through any sort of hoop.  Being educated is about seeing the hoops for what they are and learning how to navigate them.  In my years of teaching, I’ve increasingly seen training subvert education.  I’ve seen flocks of parents (including myself) choose home schooling or alternative education over the mainstream experience.  I did this because I did not want my children to be trained or controlled.  I did not want them to be in an environment where their integrity was constantly questioned and their questions seldom honored.  Tucked away at every school–public and private, near and far–there are dedicated teachers who truly believe in educating their students. They are consistently outnumbered by flashy trainers who manipulate students into busy-working themselves through the school day.

Often when I begin teaching a course I have students write about their best and their worst school experiences. Inevitably, these young adults remember the different feelings they experienced when teachers honored them versus controlled them. These feelings stay with them and become part of how they view education, how much respect they pay to  the idea of education in our culture.  When they’ve been taught by people like Taylor Mali, they are anxious to kick some teacher ass.  I can’t blame them. I would be too—in fact I once was. Teachers won’t be respected until they respect their students as whole, complicated people, and respect students’ families as sacred houses that hold those whole, complicated people. Hopefully the next time Mali calls a student’s home at dinner time just to intimidate the parents, the mom or dad on the other end of the phone will stand up to his bullying and and tell him his career change is appropriate: he’s hot and funny enough, and seems to be transitioning from teacher to comedian/poet.  Now he can finally  “do” and not just “teach”. More importantly, he’ll stop treeing children.

Here’s a link to Taylor Mali performing his piece “What Teachers Make”:

Taylor Mali What Teacher\’s Make

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Filed under Education, Essays, Polemics, politics

Surplus? Deficit? Facts? Spin?

February 22, 2011

Nevada City

“I’m a woman, not a corporation.”  Alice DiMecele

I thought of DiMecele today as I tried to find out the actual source of Rachel Maddow’s claim that Wisconsin started the year with a huge surplus.  Jeff Ackerman’s editorial this morning in my home town paper The Union(http://www.theunion.com/article/20110222/NEWS/110229945/1066&ParentProfile=1053) stated that Wisconsin faced a burdensome deficit, much like my dear Cali. I sent notes to both Ackerman and to Maddow about where they got their facts. After a fair amount of dead-end searches, someone on Maddow’s FB site kindly sent me the information. Thanks to her,  I finally found the publication that the quote is based upon–the actual memo.  I have marked with bold text and asterisksthe passage that Maddow and other progressives are now widely quoting .

“State of Wisconsin

FROM: Legislative Fiscal Bureau

One East Main, Suite 301 • Madison, WI 53703 Email: Fiscal.Bureau@legis.wisconsin.gov Telephone: (608) 266-3847 • Fax: (608) 267-6873

TO: Representative Robin Vos, Assembly Chair Senator Alberta Darling, Senate Chair Joint Committee on Finance State Capitol

Madison, WI 53702

Dear Representative Vos and Senator Darling:

Robert Wm. Lang, Director

January 31, 2011

Annually, this office prepares general fund revenue and expenditure projections for the Legislature prior to commencement of legislative deliberations on the state’s budget.

In the odd-numbered years, our report includes estimated revenues and expenditures for the current fiscal year and tax collection projections for each year of the next biennium. This report presents the conclusions of our analysis.

Comparison with the Administration’s November 19/December 27, 2010, Reports General Fund Tax Collection Projections

On November 19, 2010, the Departments of Administration and Revenue submitted a report to the Governor, newly-elected Governor, and Legislature that identified revenue projections for the 2010-11 fiscal year and the 2011-13 biennium. That report, required by statute, identifies the magnitude of state agency biennial budget requests and presents a projection of general fund tax collections.

On December 27, 2010, the administration modified the November 19 report and presented a reestimate of general fund tax collections for 2010-11 and the two years of the 2011-13 biennium.

Our analysis indicates that for the three-year period, aggregate, general fund tax collections will be $202.8 million lower than those reflected in the November/December reports. More than half of the lower estimate ($117.2 million) is due to the impact of Special Session Senate Bill 2 (health savings accounts), Assembly Bill 3 (tax deductions/credits for relocated businesses), and Assembly Bill 7 (tax exclusion for new employees).Compared with the administration’s reports, tax collections are projected to be $12.9 million lower in 2010-11, $139.7 million lower in 2011-12, and $50.2 million lower in 2012-13.

2010-11 General Fund Condition Statement

Based upon the November/December reports, the administration’s general fund condition statement for 2010-11 reflects a gross ending balance (June 30, 2011) of $67.4 million and a net balance (after consideration of the $65.0 million required statutory balance) of $2.4 million.

**Our analysis indicates a general fund gross balance of $121.4 million and a net balance of $56.4 million. This is $54.0 million above that of the administration’s reports. The 2010-11 general fund condition statement is shown in Table 1.“** [For a complete copy of the memo, please email me at lightcapfarm@gmail.com. It is 16 pages long.]

However, there have been two subsequent memos from this nonpartisan office. The second memo is dated 2/14/11 and Lang is again its author. I have again marked where the surplus figure changes, seemingly due to legislation that occurred in the two week period in between memos.

“On January 31, 2011, this office released general fund tax collection and expenditure estimates for 2010-11 as well as tax collection estimates for the 2011-13 biennium. That report projected a net, general fund closing balance of $56.4 million for the 2010-11 fiscal year. In addition, the January 31 report identified a number of 2010-11 appropriation shortfalls.

**Under Special Session SB 11 and Special Session AB ___ (LRB 1426/1), the estimated 2010-11 net, general fund balance is $42.8 million.**

Following this introduction is a table of contents, 2010-11 general fund condition statement, and a list of the general fund fiscal effects for 2010-11. The document then summarizes each of the items of the bills and provides fiscal effects, if any, for 2010-11 and 2011-13.

The bills address the shortfalls indicated in the January 31 report with the exception of the projected $3.5 million shortfall in the private bar appropriation of the State Public Defender. In addition, the general fund condition statements of the bills do not reflect payment to Minnesota under the Minnesota/Wisconsin income tax reciprocity program or consideration of the yet-to-be determined repayment to the Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund.”

And again on 2/17/11,  another memo from Lang. I have again marked the change in surplus estimate:

“This document summarizes the provisions of the Joint Finance version of January 2011 Special Session Senate Bill 11 and its companion, January 2011 Special Session Assembly Bill 11.

On January 31, 2011, this office released general fund tax collection and expenditure estimates for 2010-11 as well as tax collection estimates for the 2011-13 biennium. That report projected a net, general fund closing balance of $56.4 million for the 2010-11 fiscal year. In addition, the January 31 report identified a number of 2010-11 appropriation shortfalls.

**Under the Joint Finance version of SS SB 11 and SS AB 11, the estimated 2010-11 net, general fund balance is $0.1 million, which includes the effect of a Joint Finance provision that would increase funding for medical assistance by $42.7 million GPR in 2010-11, in order to garner additional federal matching funds that will reduce GPR spending by $49.9 million in 2011-12.

The bills address the shortfalls indicated in the January 31 report with the exception of the projected $3.5 million shortfall in the private bar appropriation of the State Public Defender. In addition, the general fund condition statements of the bills do not reflect payment to Minnesota under the Minnesota/Wisconsin income tax reciprocity program or consideration of the yet-to-be determined repayment to the Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund.”**

Two things seems clear to me: 1) the state did begin the year with a surplus, although it may bet that pre-existing commitments may have encroached on that figure. As usual people seem to be getting paid to play Fun With Numbers.  2) Maddow and other progressives are quoting the $54 million surplus as if it’s a simple fact, and at the same time they are claiming the issue is partisan, not budgetary. These memos seem to add a shade or two of gray to that assumption.  There can be no bipartisan compromise on any issue if each side sees only black and white. It is the media’s job to give us the grays.

Jeff Ackerman responded to my request about his source with this statement: “I’m sure that will be one of those he said/she said issues. I’m also certain you could get two accountants to come to two different conclusions on the state of Wisconsin’s finances.”  This reminds me of the progressive food activist Will Winter who recently visited Grass Valley for the Sustainable Food Conference, which The Union helped  sponsor. Winter said that if you gave him $100,000 and some data, he could come up with any result you wanted. Having said that, it would be helpful if conservatives like Ackerman and others who are publicizing this supposed deficit could come up with some facts to back it up.  I didn’t come across them today in my searching, but I’ll keep looking. If you are reading this and you have a direct source–not a media source such as Maddow or Fox, but a primary source from which they get their information, please comment here or email me right away at lightcapfarm@gmail.com.

Is this is a union issue?  A budgetary issue? A partisan play for control? We need facts in order to determine the answers. Nothing like facts to quell hysteria. Meanwhile, it’s vital that we keep debating these issues–and debating them with the civility that democracy deserves.

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Let’s Stop Whining: A Polemic

by Carolyn Crane

Pima County, Arizona

Last Saturday, I found myself on the old Thurber Ranch outside Sonoita, Arizona, listening to a presentation about a proposed open pit copper mine. The site-coordinator, Dennis Fischer, gave an excellent presentation.  He is truly a wealth of information, and he carries that knowledge around with him in his head.  He referred to study after study, named fact after fact supporting his project.  The studies he mentioned were conducted by the University of Arizona, Tucson.  Rosemont Copper, he said with some pride, has forked over $4 million for studies so far. I raised my hand, and he nodded to me.  “Have any studies been conducted that were not paid for by Rosemont Copper?” I ventured.  He looked a little bewildered by the question at first, but then perked right up.  “One, a fifteen thousand dollar study by Pima County,” he said.  “If I were you I’d believe our four million dollars worth of studies.”

Back in 1980, a 17 year old freshman on the San Francisco State campus, I asked another question of an older student near me in the old cinderblock HLL building where the liberal arts students met.  “Why are some buildings so new, and some buildings so old?” I asked her.  “Honey, “ she said, “Wake up. The science buildings are new because corporations fund their construction, and then fund the experiments and studies that happen inside.”  To be honest, her answer confused me.  A little over twenty years later, in the same town, I listened to Dr. Vandana Shiva address a capacity crowd.  She lamented over the corporate control of our seed, among other things.  Then, she told us there was another grave danger that we as U.S. citizens thought little about: the fact that we had handed over our public universities to corporate influence and funding.  She spoke of Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a biology professor at neighboring UC Berkeley, who continued to fight this trend as well as the corporate domination of our seed.  I ventured over the bridge and met Dr. Chapela at a construction site on campus where he was protesting with his students.  Their complaint: the building being constructed was financed with corporate dollars, as would be the studies conducted within.  In The Future of Food, a film by Debra Koons Garcia, Dr. Chapela shows us the modest studies he conducts with the relative pennies he gathers from the public sector, and how limited non-corporate biological research is in the 21st century.

A few weeks ago I attended a food and farm conference in northern California. Dr. Will Winters, a veterinarian and natural food activist, joked that if you gave him $100,000 to conduct a study, he could come up with whatever conclusion the donor wished. Indeed, statistics can be manipulated every which way; we learn this in the critical thinking class I teach. Mr. Fischer from Rosemont Copper seemed unaware of this, proud of his company’s bought-and-paid-for research, and proud of the fact that they were putting at least one graduate student through school.  Maybe he is naïve, or maybe he thought we were.  Or maybe he’s like most U.S. citizens and doesn’t think it matters. The thing is, though, corporate influence over and control of U.S. universities isn’t Mr. Fischer’s fault.  It’s ours.

The official opposition to Rosemont Copper is a Tucson-based non-profit corporation called Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. Recently, on its group page on Facebook, an opponent of the mine was bemoaning the fact that Rosemont Copper is owned by a publicly-traded Canadian corporation, Augusta Resource.  He was asking how Arizona could sanction a copper mine to a foreign corporation.  I wrote back with a three word answer:  World Trade Organization.  Just because it’s happening “doesn’t make it right,” he countered.  That’s true.  Conversely, just because it isn’t right doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.  Thanks to WTO policies, corporations now have more legal rights than countries, let alone counties and towns, and the most powerful financial engines in the world are corporate rather than national economies. This transfer of power accelerated in 1944 with the signing of the Bretton-Woods agreement that created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Corporations now control the information that passes through our universities, our access to seed, and in many cases our books and antiquities, as our libraries and museums are increasingly privatized. Corporations control our food supply, our power supply, our money, and even our prisons.

In The Matrix, an agent tells Morpheus that humans are not mammals as we believe we are, but actually a virus that has destroyed the earth.  I’m not quite dark enough to agree with him, but I do believe we created that virus, and that virus is the corporation.  Along with our immediate ancestors, we are the Drs. Frankenstein, and corporate personhood is our monster. In this brave new world we’ve created, consumerism is our soma. As our nation recovered from World War Two, our citizens lined up for their daily doses in supermarkets and malls, glad for the convenience and ease the corporations gave us. Before we knew it we were slaves to that system, and we still are today. Few knew way back then that our comfort came at the expense of those in the global south; blissed out, the average U.S. citizen didn’t ask questions.

Today, we have only to look at Tunisia and Egypt to see how possible it is for citizens to demand systemic change. What ingredients need be present?  To me, the formula seems to be that about half the country must have nothing left to lose. Here in the United States, I’m not sure how far we are from that.  Since the corporations now have almost all of the money, they make our soma in China so we can still afford it.  Their slick promoter, the Chief of State, promises us change if we will only continue to have faith in the corporate state.

Toward the end of the Rosemont Copper tour, we traveled  to the site of the mine, and we stood in the center of what would be the open pit, its floor two thousand feet below us.  On the way back, one passenger asked Mr. Fischer, “Will this be on the ballot?”   “This is not a popularity contest,” Mr. Fischer responded emphatically, even repeating the sentence.  “We are making sure all our “I”s are dotted and our “T”s are crossed.”  He was highly confident that the corporation’s perseverance and bankroll along with Pima County’s economic desperation would result in the mine moving forward.

When its citizens don’t take it seriously, democracy does indeed become a sick sideshow, today a blockbuster movie financed by the same corporations though the conduit of the lobbyist and the safeguard of the superdelegate. What should be considered an important public referendum on an irrevocable environmental act is marginalized to “a popularity contest”.  Fischer said that with the help of its buddies at University of Arizona, Rosemont Copper is already moving the agave plant from the mining site, legally required of them because the plant feeds the endangered Lesser Long-Nosed Bat. Save the Scenic Santa Ritas and Pima County seem committed to fighting to the end with the meager resources available to them. As the economy in south eastern Arizona gets weaker and weaker, the public looks more favorably on the $900 million dollars Rosemont Copper will bring to the area.

Several years ago, I met with Maude Barlow in Canada to discuss the WTO, corporate domination, and the environment.  She quoted fellow Canadian David Suzuki and referred to his metaphor about the lily pads on the pond.  They multiply exponentially, she explained, and a pond only half covered one day can be completely choked the next, no longer able to sustain life.  That was the state of the global environment, she said.  It’s hard to say if this is true, since we’ve by-and-large lost our independent scientific research. In the years since I met with her, clearly more lily pads have accumulated on the pond.  In any case, mining projects of any kind can’t help the fragile state of our environment. Most people don’t care, just as long as they get their soma.

In 2010, the country saw an important shift: for the first time in our history, more dams were removed than built.  Why?  Because independent science, funded mostly by nonprofits such as SRYCL (in my home town) have proven that not only are the fishes suffering by not being able to swim upstream and spawn as they once did, but the actual health of other native animals and of the land itself are being impacted by the fishes’ absence. The dams are also coming down because government agencies don’t have the money to repair or maintain what they once constructed. A mine seems to me to be analogous to a dam, something man-made that wildlife needs to adjust to, a structure whose presence holds hidden, long-term ramifications.

I live where the foothills meet the Sierra, and not far above us the forest has been clear-cut by a corporation called SPI. Every weekday each summer we watch the 18-wheelers haul timber down our road, often at break neck speed.  Their habitat destroyed, deer, mountain lions, and black bears encroach on residential neighborhoods. Deer are hit daily by motorists and moved to the side of the road to feed the buzzards. Still, no significant movement has been organized to tell SPI they’ve destroyed enough habitat and made enough money. One brave friend of mine started clocking their trucks with a speed gun and reporting the offenders to the corporate office in town.  A few citizen meetings were held.  But each and every resident did not camp out on the road and tell SPI once and for all: No!  With the lily pads filling the pond, this may be the level of action required. We don’t take the necessary steps to destroy the monster we’ve created simply because only a few of us see things this way.  Most of us are in a survival mode of a more superficial nature: holding down enough work and buying enough things to continue the life style that has forged our identity as Americans.

I don’t yet have a final position on the Rosemont Mine.  First I need to do more research, get my hands on what are apparently several independent studies, although Mr. Fischer only knew of one. I need to check facts and logic. (My feelings about environmental protection probably won’t be Arizona’s, either.  Just today the Tucson Daily Star reported that Republican Senator Sylvia Allen has taken on the EPA, saying that Arizona shouldn’t waste its money protecting its citizens from the bogus threat of global warning and high levels of carbon dioxide emissions [http://azstarnet.com/news/science/environment/article_52343bbc-4bbc-5002-bef6-a24fd248b600.html].) Arizona citizens may want this mine, which is supposed to be the most eco-savvy mine every constructed in the state.  Much more on that later.

But one thing I know now is how the scenic Santa Ritas got in this mess, and why they will probably end up—along with the Lesser Long-Nosed Bat and other wildlife—being less important than jobs and profits.   We as U.S. citizens sold them out to the virus we created. So please, let’s stop whining. We did this.  We only have ourselves, our complacency, and our addiction to consumerism to blame.

The scenic Santa Ritas. This is the view from the center of the projected pit.

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Filed under Abbey Country, Essays, Mining, Polemics, Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival