It’s 19 years since the Towers fell. If you were alive, and if you are old enough, you remember exactly where you were when you first heard the news. I had just started driving down Angell Street in Providence, Rhode Island, on my way to the Brown University Education Department, when I heard Warner Wolf on the Imus in the Morning Program trying to describe what he was seeing in Lower Manhattan --- a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers. I turned around, went home and flipped on the television to see the damage. The memory that is indelibly seared in my mind was seeing the second plane on the horizon, flying low over the Hudson River and banking left as it appeared just south of the buildings. It was a horror-movie moment. I knew where that plane was headed and couldn’t do a thing about it, watching in disbelief, in the slow-motion, suspended-time that overtakes our senses in a moment of trauma. Both Towers were in flames and we were speechless, horrified, confused, frightened. We heard about the Pentagon, about Shanksville, Pennsylvania --- would there be more and more tragedies as the day went on? Were we under a prolonged attack? We didn’t know.
9/11 is one of the markers in our collective memory. For Baby-boomers there is a list of such markers (Sputnik, JFK, MLK, RFK, Watergate, the Challenger, Oklahoma City, and then 9/11) --- as well as for the Greatest Generation (the Baby-boomer parents): the Depression, Pearl Harbor, V-E & V-J Day, McCarthy, plus the Baby-boomer list --- and now we can all add this Pandemic. For anyone born after 9/11, the Pandemic is probably their first marker --- an event they will remember throughout their lives, a touchstone. Given that we’re in the midst of this crisis, however, we lack perspective. When we look back at any of those earlier events that constitute our markers we see them through a (personal) historic lens --- each of us providing an angle or view created by personal circumstances (how old were we, where were we, who were we interacting with, etc.). Today, in the midst of this crisis, we can’t apply any perspective whatsoever --- it’s simply too soon.
Those who remember 9/11, think not only about that day but the period that followed: the uncertainty, the garbled facts slowly being put together, the conspiracy theories that emerged (the Bush Administration was behind it! Jews were behind it!) and so forth. 9/11 was a singular traumatic event --- a day that served as a rock in a pool of tragedy. 2997 people died that day --- and thousands have succumbed since from the lingering effects of the toxic rubble. As of this morning there have been 192,000+ deaths from Covid-19 and there’s no sense of an end in sight. Unlike marker events for earlier generations, the prolonged nature of this Pandemic makes it far more unsettling. That it is an “invisible enemy” only adds to our trauma --- a “once in a century” event is greater than most of us can wrap our imaginations around. Understandably so. While earlier markers for Baby-boomers were predominantly singular (Watergate being an exception --- but it was within a scope, a Constitutional framework we could grasp), this pandemic is more like our parents’ generation’s Depression --- which continued over years and years. It’s lethality was more subtle and not as dramatic.
Today is a clear, cool day --- just as that Tuesday in 2001 was. What happened, in that immediate moment, was incomprehensible. And here we are, 19 years later, facing another incomprehensible moment. We have already spent 6 months isolating, wearing masks, washing our hands incessantly, socially distancing, keeping hand sanitizer everywhere --- and there’s no clear end in sight. Schools are attempting to open, colleges are scurrying to deal with early outbreaks, the NFL started its season last night and the U.S. Open is headed into its “Finals” weekend as Major League Baseball is trying to cobble together a foreshortened “season” in hope of crowning a World Series champion. Kids are trying to make sense of a world that makes no sense and the adults they look to for help and support have no answers. As a former teacher, there’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to help your students. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for parents. Watching the Lovely Carol Marie’s children deal with the grandchildren (ages 14, 11, 9, 4.5, and 6 months) has a heartbreaking element to it, despite their best (and herculean!) efforts. Speaking to friends who are teachers (and the LCM’s daughter, of course) it is mind-boggling to consider what is required this September --- whether it’s “remote learning,” or in-school, or some “hybrid.” The lack of leadership --- starting at the Federal level but filtering all the way down through State, county, town, village, and school board levels --- has also made this crisis all the more excruciating and debilitating.
As we reflect on the 9/11 of 2001, let’s try, as best we can, to seek some perspective, considering how we can make the most of each day in these trying circumstances, and support everyone in our community. The politics of our time makes that difficult --- Covid “truthers” and “no-maskers” are a problem, but let’s err in the belief that most of our fellow citizens are well-intentioned and trying, as we are, to make the best of a horrible situation. Ultimately, things will change. By the 20th anniversary of 9/11 we can hope that we’re looking back on the worst days of the pandemic as history and we’ve got the energy that, traditionally, new school-year Septembers have always brought us. It’s not the best news I could deliver but I’m not sure what alternative to look for.
Stay safe. Wash your hands. Vote on November 3rd!
A Hazy Shade of Winter
Time, time, time
See what's become of me
While I looked around
For my possibilities
. . . . .
Hang onto your hopes my friend
That's an easy thing to say
But if your hopes should pass away
That you can build them again
(Paul Simon’s Hazy Shade of Winter:
Originally released October 1966 as a single,
then included on the 1968 Bookends album)
In the fall of 1967 I arrived in New Haven, Connecticut as a member of Yale’s Class of 1971. Yale, at the time, was still an all-male institution and was an eye-opening New World for me. Coming from a large comprehensive high school, I never knew people from prep-schools (I knew two Bay Shore guys who had gone off to Loomis and Choate, respectively, but it never really registered as to what that meant). My class was the first to actually have admitted more public school graduates than “preppies ” --- part of Yale President Kingman Brewster’s plan (along with Admissions Director Inslee Clark) to change the University from a “finishing school for prep-school boys” to a diverse, internationally prominent “world-class” university (see Geoffrey Kabaservice’s The Guardians for a detailed account).
What I discovered was that my prep-school peers had already learned about living away from home, signing up for classes, getting to the bookstore, and all the other aspects of leading an “academic life” away from home. Those first few weeks are a hazy memory now, as my classmates (which now include women --- we were Yale’s first co-educated class, another aspect of the Brewster/Clark plan) and I are filling out surveys and biographical information in preparation for our 50th Reunion in New Haven next June (pandemic notwithstanding, of course). Thinking about that reunion, I remember that, no matter where you went to high school/prep school, we all shared a very important common memory when we arrived in New Haven in September 1967: November 22, 1963. We had all lived through the assassination of John F. Kennedy and it was a touchstone for us: “Where were you when you heard about it?” That shared memory then led to other exchanges, stories about what high school was like, how you ended up at Yale, what your interests were, etc. Thinking about that, I began to consider what it will be like when the Lovely Carol Marie’s oldest grandson, Cody Baker, goes off to college in the fall of 2024 --- where he and his classmates will share their “tales of the pandemic” as part of their freshman-bonding experience.
Thinking back to the Kennedy assassination as a jumping off point, I believe it was the first in a series of events that began to shake my generation’s belief in the stability of long-standing institutions. With the Vietnam War escalating over our remaining years in high school and the assassinations of MLK and RFK during our freshman year in college, the call to action, to resistance, to change was inevitable. There was a sense that we had been sold a false bill of goods (“The American Dream,” the white picket fence, the “All Men are Created Equal” mythology) and the reaction was explosive. The political upheaval led to aftershocks we are still dealing with (when you consider how the Reagan-led Republican Party based its philosophical core on “un-doing” the legacy of the Sixties, Trump’s attempts to reverse the Obama years seems a logical extension of that Party’s evolution). Again, as I considered how all of what occurred over the years between when I started high school and when I graduated from college (1963-1971), I realized how much those years/events contributed to the adult I became and the life I lived.
I’m wondering what this pandemic’s effect will be on Cody Baker and his generation. Thinking about starting high school in the fall of 2020 and graduating from college in 2028, what will history hold in store for these young people? What we already know is that the College class of 2028 will arrive (hopefully)on campus in the fall of 2024 with their unique “tales of the pandemic.” My hope is that it will not be a deep scar but, rather, an extended “moment” of shared stories and experiences that will serve to bond the Class of ’28 in ways that are as unique as the assassinations and Vietnam War shaped the Class of 1971. Other than both situations being “notable” events from the long-range historian’s point-of-view, I think this pandemic will take a significant toll on these young people and can only hope that they will demonstrate the energy and resilience we have seen in past generations faced with pandemics, Depressions, and World Wars. Unlike my Class, where the JFK assassination was a uniquely American event, the Class of 2028 will find that all its members, no matter where on Earth they hail from, will have lived through this pandemic to greater and lesser degrees. What might that mean?
Thinking about what more months of “remote learning” might mean for our nation’s 14 year-olds (as well as all our other schoolchildren, of course) is a daunting task. Having been a high school teacher for over 40 years, I often told “civilians” all that people really remember from high school are the social and athletic events --- proms, football games, drama and music productions, etc. If you ask someone what they remember from high school, it is highly unlikely they will ever say, “Oh, man, my sophomore year Geometry Class was amazing!” or “I’ll never forget 11th grade AP U.S. History!” What is the Class of 2028 going to remember about their freshman year --- and what will the long-term effects of that be? We’ve already watched one class go through “virtual” proms and graduations (and it ain’t pretty) --- illustrating how people will try to make the best of a bad situation --- but what will this mean to those kids, like Cody Baker, who were hoping to go to their new school and make some new friends, meet some new (and, hopefully, inspiring) teachers, play on school or intramural sports teams, participate in Band or Orchestra or the Drama or Musical Productions?
Kids are wonderfully resilient but this challenge will surely test the mettle of all of us. How do we, the caring adults in the community, buoy these young people? This pandemic is tough on everyone but, sitting here as a retired 71 year-old, my life has not been radically altered --- I miss seeing friends, going out to dinner or the Diner, and heading into New York City for live theater or music productions --- but none of that compares to losing those first few months of Freshman Year in high school! Recognizing that high school is not always the greatest experience for every student, and recognizing that, in retrospect, very few of us remember much about high school (who clearly remembers their high school graduation?), I still can’t help but feel that this Pandemic will be more than a “simple” story these students will share with their new classmates during Freshman orientation in 2024. It is not natural for young people to be isolated for this long (we are seeing how there is a “cavalier” indifference to warnings about face masks, congregating, etc. by teens and people in their 20’s) --- there is a natural inclination to socialize, to take risks, to “test” things. But this virus is unforgiving and, in good conscience, we cannot and should not allow our young people to put themselves in dangerous situations (like schools and classrooms). Nonetheless, we can never anticipate the unintended consequences of any decision we make and we will only know, as the years go on, what the long-term impact of this pandemic will be on those young people who are starting high school this year. I would only advise that we try to be as understanding and supportive as we can be while simultaneously doing all we can to keep them safe.
Thanks for reading. Wear a mask. Wash your hands.
Norway and Our Bitter Pill
Monday morning, August 3rd. Listening to NPR around 7:30 a.m. and one of the commentators says, “We, as a nation, are going to have to take the bitter pill if we want to get control of this virus.” Elaborating, the “bitter pill” was straightforward: wear masks, social distance, and close many businesses that have been re-opened too soon. At the heart of it was a simple plea --- we must all engage in national sacrifice for the greater good. If we could follow some simple rules (mask, distance, wash hands, close congregate assembly spaces) we could probably get a handle on the virus in 6 to 8 weeks. Think about that. Imagine if we had had National Leadership starting in March, when STATES were first closing (ordered by their Governors). There probably wouldn’t be controversy about opening schools or about slowly reopening our economy.
The Lovely Carol Marie recently received a missive from a relative in Norway, who proudly cited how that country’s sense of national commitment to a common purpose has put them in a position to resume somewhat “normal” life. Curious as to how that happened (and recognizing that Norway, of course, is a much smaller and much more homogeneous nation) I did some research and think it’s worth reading this article by Ann Jones in The Nation, dated May 8, 2020. It sums up why, on August 3rd, we are still in the quagmire of this pandemic. Here’s the link.
In addition, here is the blog-post (written by an American ex-pat living in Norway) that the Lovely Carol Marie shared with me. It’s worth reading and reflecting on as we head into an autumn that demands we protect our election and vote Trump, McConnell, Graham, and the rest of them out of office.
Here’s the post.
One Word Spared Norway From COVID-19 Disaster
And what other countries can learn from its example
July 20, 2020
I’ve been an American expat in Norway for over eighteen years. And, I have to say, never have I been more relieved to be stuck in my adopted country.
It seems that back home, a select group of individuals has grossly misinterpreted the promises of the American Dream and what it means to possess personal liberties.
You know who I’m referring to; the people in the viral videos you see screaming at and spitting on store clerks when asked to put on a mask. The same people who believe being asked to be considerate of other people’s health is an affront to their freedom.
It’s not hard to believe that there might be a correlation between that me-first attitude and the rising number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S as record highs are reached every single day.
Meanwhile, in Norway, things have been moving towards the direction of everyday normalcy for a while now.
And it’s a privilege that I don’t take for granted as I watch my home country from afar struggle to keep its shit together.
With a low number of confirmed cases and COVID-19 related deaths, Norway has managed to achieve what many countries around the world are still striving towards, keeping their people safe.
Just take a look at Norway’s neighboring country and “big brother”, Sweden. Sweden has become the social pariah of Scandinavia as its high percentage of cases and deaths make it difficult to want to welcome them with open arms. For the first time in modern history, Swedes are barred from crossing over the border to their neighbors in the west.
So, what exactly has Norway done to avoid catastrophe and get things back on track? What makes it different from its neighbors, the U.S., or even the rest of the world?
The answer lies in a concept that isn’t exactly unique to Norway but is all the same born from its cultural heritage.
It only took one word to rally the Norwegian people together.
I would reckon that most people have heard of the Amish “barn raising”, where Amish communities have an all/hands-on-deck approach to raising new barns in a short period of time.
Few would recognize the word dugnad if it were brought up in casual conversation, though. It’s a concept that is untranslatable but plenty explainable.
Dugnad (pronounced doog-nahd); a Norwegian cultural tradition where community members work together towards a common goal, for the greater good for all.
Dugnad derives itself from the Old Norse word dugnaðr, which means “help” or “good deed.” It can be traced back to as early as the Viking Age, where villagers would work shoulder to shoulder to their bring ships on to land from the sea after excursions.
And in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was used by rural farming communities to prepare for harsh winters, disease, and other hardships in order to survive together. Everyone had skin in the game; therefore, everyone needed to help out.
The tradition continued into the 20th century as the labor movement gained traction, where social-democratic ideals that valued equality, justice, and a collective “we can do this together” spirit further cemented dugnad into Norwegian cultural DNA.
Ask any Norwegian off the street what “dugnad” means today, and they’ll tell you that it’s usually met with eye rolls and sighs from most people, and optimistic enthusiasm from the Leslie Knope-types with clipboards and binders.
It’s used to gather neighbors in apartment buildings or suburban neighborhoods to rake up leaves in the fall and get ready for winter. Little league soccer teams use it to organize fundraising efforts between parents and athletes by selling hotdogs at games, or Costco sized toilet paper packs door-to-door.
Dugnad is not a one-person job. It’s something done in collaboration with others to create a better life for everyone in the community. And though it can be a pain in the butt to rake leaves with your neighbors on your day off, a sense of civic duty supersedes any annoyance one may hold. It is the Norwegian way, after all: bite your teeth together and get what needs to be done, done.
March 12th, the day Norwegians were called for a national dugnad.
March 12th has now gone down in Norwegian history books as the day that everything changed.
It’s up there with April 9th, 1940, the day when the Nazis made their way up the Oslo fjord starting a five-year-long occupation; or July 22nd, 2011, when a far-right extremist committed an act of terrorism against a government building and a camp for Labor party youth.
But just like those two other turning points in Norwegian history, the people chose to stand together in their fight against this new invisible enemy.
Only hours before the first official COVID-19 death on Norwegian soil, Prime Minister Erna Solberg took the podium on national television. She reminded Norwegians around the country the importance of bearing hardships together as a people:
“It has now become absolutely crucial that all of the country’s citizens and residents participate in a national dugnad to slow down the spread. We are doing this in solidarity with the elderly, chronically ill, and others that are especially vulnerable in developing this serious disease. We have to protect ourselves in order to protect others. We will stand together through this period in time- not with hugs and handshakes- but by keeping our distance from one another. It will require a lot from each and every one of us. We need to care about one another and help each other the best we can. We have gotten ourselves through tough times before- I am absolutely certain that we will achieve this once again.”
Daily life came to an immediate halt as schools, offices, gyms, nursing homes, bars, restaurants, and all other public places nationwide were closed with a few hours' notice. The weeks following were wrought with fear as Europe became the epicenter of the pandemic. News from devastated Italy and Spain sent chills down people’s spines. Avoiding a similar situation to Italy and Spain became Norway’s number one priority.
Whole industries shut down, and unemployment reached an all-time high with jobless numbers not seen since WWII. The world-renowned welfare system of Norway was put on the spot while it churned out unemployment support to those in need with unprecedented pressure.
Companies, organizations, and cultural institutions were propped up by billion-dollar bailouts as the government tapped into the trillion-dollar commonwealth fund.
People were sacrificing their daily lives and losing out on a lot by participating in the national dugnad. Yet, even while facing hardship not seen since the war, Norwegians stayed a steady course as they all did their part with minimal complaint. The definition of a modern dugnad quickly became synonymous with staying indoors at home, instead of raking leaves with neighbors.
What other countries stand to learn from Norway.
The official shutdown phase lasted nearly two months, with multiple briefings a week and encouragement from the government to keep up the conjoined efforts across the population.
And from May on, things started to resemble the normalcy of pre-COVID times as the shutdown was cautiously lifted bit by bit.
Families and friends were reunited. Gym rats returned to their treadmills. Bars welcomed their faithful patrons back for a round of celebratory drinks. Even the younger kids at elementary schools had the opportunity to return to school for the last few weeks of the academic year.
All because of the collective mobilized effort of 5+ million people.
So, when I saw President Trump’s tweet about Norway and its opened schools, I didn’t know whether to cry or to laugh. As someone who both participated in and witnessed the unified endeavor in Norway, it was almost insulting as it dismissed the hard work that Norwegians put in to get to the point of reopening society.
I can’t help but wonder how differently the present situation in my home country would be, had we had a similar traditional concept such as dugnad in place.
Would we be leading the world in fighting the virus instead of fighting each other over the usages of masks? How could dugnad affect other areas that we struggle in, such as racial and social justice, corruption in both the public and private sectors, and the current political divisiveness across the country?
What the United States and the rest of the world stand to learn from Norway when it comes to handling this global pandemic is this: when a community comes together under the pretense of creating a better reality for themselves and their neighbors, great things happen. And in this case, great things = saved lives.
And while things are not completely back to normal, and COVID-19 is still very much a looming threat worldwide, Norway included; the collective effort of the Norwegian people is admirable. It has not only its people and leadership to thank for succeeding in avoiding COVID-19 disaster in the initial shutdown, but its historical collectivist mindset where equality and civic engagement is encouraged and valued. It may have taken only one word to rally the Norwegian people in the fight against the pandemic, but it took a deep appreciation of community to implement it.
Thanks for reading. Stay safe.
Our Medieval Executive
Back in the late 1990’s and early aughts of this century I was teaching at Brown University. Amid those ivy-covered walls there were often debates about “modernism” vs. “postmodernism.” Modernism, by definition, is “a style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms,” whereas “postmodernism” is defined as “a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of ‘art’.” All of that is very heady, of course, and is the type of debate one expects to find confined to the groves of academe. I bring it up here because, while trying to make sense of the bizarre historical moment we find ourselves in, I realized that concepts like “modernism” or “postmodernism” couldn’t be further from what we witness on a daily basis, where we are subjected to observing the flailing of what I can only describe as a failing medieval monarch. As such, Donald J. Trump has no awareness of “modernism” or “postmodernism.” In fact, I believe he qualifies as a pre-Gutenberg, pre-literate being, at best.
If we consider the evolution of Western Civilization, the distinct dividing line between the “Modern” world and earlier history is defined by the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment (also known as The Age of Reason). The Medieval Period, or Middle Ages, preceded that break in Western history --- and that is where we find Donald J. Trump firmly situated. The Scientific Revolution, a period where the flat-Earth conspiracy theory was finally dismissed, along with the equally incorrect notion of Geocentrism (everything revolves around the Earth) ushered in an “Age of Discovery” and the Protestant Reformation. Gutenberg’s printing press and movable type expanded the middle class, promoting vernacular language over elitist Latin, another step into the world of modernity. None of that progress has ever entered Donald Trump’s world. Like our Medieval forbears, Trump is a believer in superstition, conspiracy theories, and magical thinking (aka – “religion” --- in the Middle Ages, an extremely corrupt Roman Catholic Church held Europe and its population hostage to Papal whims and rigid doctrine). Like Middle Ages monarchs, he believes in a variation of their theory of regal divinity --- Trump believes in his “Divine White” of superiority over everyone.
Like a Middle Ages Monarch, Trump has his own version of the “Crusades,” singling out Muslim populations for exclusion (if not elimination!) and has instituted his own variant of an Inquisition, with his suppression of migrants (particularly children) along our Southern border. None of what he does is based on any tenet developed during the Age of Reason/the Enlightenment. Trump, in fact, has shown a stunning ignorance of the philosophy that created our founding documents and principles and he has, quite clearly, never read a page of the Bible. Trump’s basic impulse for authoritarianism is one of his most recognizable Medieval traits, in fact.
Examining Trump’s (lack of) response to the Coronavirus pandemic, as with his conspiracy-theory notions about Climate Change, illustrates not only an ignorance of science but a lack of understanding or respect for the critical aspects of the discipline. In Bill Barr he has not only found his “Roy Cohn” but, in the context of what we’re examining, his Cardinal Richelieu (I know, he’s a Renaissance/post-Renaissance figure but it’s such a great parallel!). From my perspective, Bill Barr has distinguished himself as America’s Iago. But I digress. What we see in Donald Trump is a man who is not only learning-disabled and intellectually stunted, but also trapped in a mindset that is 600 years old and totally inappropriate for the world of 2020.
Just as Medieval monarchs did not know how to deal with the Plague in mid-1300’s Europe, Trump has shown an equal inability to grasp what is going on regarding the pandemic. Worse, we can absolve those Medieval Monarchs because the Scientific Revolution had not yet occurred and they had no idea how those rats and fleas were infecting their populations. Trump, on the other hand, willfully chooses to not only ignore the science but to actively rail against it. Like numerous Monarchs throughout history, Trump’s belief that he is the center of the universe and all must revolve around him, only puts his inadequacies in high relief.
I don’t think this analysis makes any difference in our assessments of Trump --- whether it is the Peter Principle, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, or his apparent similarity to Medieval monarchs --- we are stuck with him, a man “promoted” above his level of competence who is too ignorant to know how ignorant he is and who acts like a ruler from the 14th century, before science or Reason began to hold sway with Western thinkers. Our only recourse is to make sure that people vote on November 3rd (if not sooner!) and we not only remove Trump from office but also dismiss his sycophantic House of Lords in the U.S. Senate. As citizens who believe in Science and understand the Enlightenment, it is the least we can do.
Our Dunning-Kruger President
Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough reveals quite a bit about the reasons for our “president’s” numerous pathologies (I’m basing this on interviews and reviews, I have yet to read it). Ms. Trump is not only the “president’s” niece, but also a clinical psychologist, giving her critique some gravitas. An earlier BLAST noted how our current Chief Executive is a prime example of the Peter Principle and has been promoted at least one level above his competence --- but that’s a theory based on studies of business and is not concerned with psychology. Mary Trump’s book has opened a door that allows us to peek into the why Donald Trump is who he is psychologically and there is, of course, much made about his relationship with his father (Freud is cheering this on, no doubt). What I would like to focus on is another psychological study, one that hasn’t been given enough attention, in my opinion, particularly because it so clearly applies to this Commander-in-Tweet.
According to Wikipedia: In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.
It does not take a keen critical intellect to see how the current occupant of the White House seems the perfect embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Examine the phrase “people with low ability . . . .overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. People who are intelligent and competent do not need to tell people, over and over again, that they are, indeed, intelligent (“a very stable genius”) or even competent (“I have the best words”). Many of my closest friends are lifelong educators and we all believe --- and Mary Trump states this in her book --- that Donald Trump has undiagnosed learning disabilities. If, in fact, he is such a “stable genius” why are his high school and college transcripts “off limits?” Trump lacks metacognition --- “awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes (Google dictionary).” Within that deficit, his Dunning-Kruger tendencies are amplified. Again, from Wikipedia:
In 2011, Dunning wrote about his observations that people with substantial, measurable deficits in their knowledge or expertise lack the ability to recognize those deficits and, therefore, despite potentially making error after error, tend to think they are performing competently when they are not: "In short, those who are incompetent, for lack of a better term, should have little insight into their incompetence—an assertion that has come to be known as the Dunning–Kruger effect" (bold, mine)
Watching Trump’s miserable attempt at leadership during this coronavirus pandemic --- making error after error --- perfectly illustrates how he is the embodiment of Dunning-Kruger. In much the same way, Trump’s followers, his devoted “base” also seem to be Dunning-Kruger characters themselves. In August of 2018, Psychology Today published an article written by Bobby Azarian, Ph.D. entitled:
The Dunning-Kruger Effect May Help Explain Trump's Support
A new study suggests some people grossly overestimate their political knowledge.
Rather than summarizing that article, I’ll simply provide some of the most striking quotes from it here.
A new study published in the journal Political Psychology carried out by the political scientist Ian Anson at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, not only found that the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to politics, but it also appears to be exacerbated when partisan identities are made more salient. In other words, those who score low on political knowledge tend to overestimate their expertise even more when greater emphasis is placed on political affiliation.
In order to have a large and representative sample of subjects, Dr. Anson administered online surveys to over 2,600 Americans. The first survey was designed to assess political knowledge, while the second was used to examine how confident they were in their knowledge. Questions quizzed participants on topics like names of cabinet members, the length of term limits for members of Congress, and the names of programs that the U.S. government spends the least on.
As predicted, the results showed that those who scored low on political knowledge were also the ones who overestimated their level of knowledge. But that wasn’t all. When participants were given cues that made them engage in partisan thought, the Dunning-Kruger effect was made even stronger. This occurred with both Republicans and Democrats, but only in those who scored low on political knowledge to begin with.
While the results of Anson’s study suggest that being uninformed leads to overconfidence across the political spectrum, studies have shown that Democrats now tend to be more educated than Republicans, possibly making the latter more vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger effect. In fact, a Pew Research Center poll released in March of this year found that 54 percent of college graduates identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic, compared to 39 percent who identified or leaned Republican.
This effect may help explain why certain Trump supporters seem to be so easily tricked into believing proven falsehoods when the President delivers what have become known as “alternative facts,” often using language designed to activate partisan identities. Because they lack knowledge but are confident that they do not, they may be less likely than others to actually fact-check the claims that the President makes.
This speculation is supported by evidence from empirical studies. In 2016, an experiment found that 45 percent of Republicans believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels,” and a 2015 study similarly found that 54 percent of Republican primary voters believed then-president Barack Obama to be a Muslim.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is particularly worrisome when considering issues that pose existential threats, like global warming. A 2017 study conducted at the University of New Hampshire, for instance, found that only 25 percent of self-described Trump supporters believed that human activities contribute to climate change—although 97 percent of scientists who study climate change agree that they do.
While this probably confirms what many of us already believe, it is a bit frightening to see an actual study that affirms that belief. Trump, with support from conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and disinformation-mongers like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, feeds off of, and feeds his “base” with, pathological lying while blowing racist dog-whistles. It is surprising, really, that we have not heard more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect during the last three and a half years. We are watching a Peter Principle President who is also the embodiment of “illusory superiority” who believes he is operating competently. It is time for journalists, for those in the media, to demand Trump provide answers when he bloviates about “many people are saying” and “I’ve heard” and “a friend of mine”. WHO are these “many people?” WHERE did he “hear” the bullshit he promulgates? WHAT’s the NAME of this “friend” he’s telling the story about?
I don’t doubt that in Donald Trump’s addled Dunning-Kruger mind he does hear things and believes “people are saying” things and many of his imaginary friends are doing and saying the things he claims --- the point being this is all part of Trump’s addled mind! He is learning disabled. He cannot read. He lacks metacognition. He lacks empathy and compassion. He cannot conceive of any situation in which he is not the center of everything. And he cares only for material gain. He is shallow, callow, ignorant, and selfish --- yet believes he is a “stable genius.” Trump and many of his followers are classic examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect --- and it is time we call them out.
(On a lighter note, here are a couple of links from the Ig Noble Awards –to their Incompetence Opera with a special recognition of the Peter Principle and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Here are the links:
"The Dunning–Kruger Song", from The Incompetence Opera. YouTube.com. ImprobableResearch. 15 January 2018. Retrieved 18 January2018.
The Incompetence Opera. YouTube.com. ImprobableResearch. 29 December 2017. Retrieved 18 January 2018.)
PLEASE NOTE: This BLAST owes a huge "Thank You" to the Lovely Carol Marie, who introduced me to the Dunning-Kruger Effect!
Thanks for reading. Stay safe. Wear your mask. Wash your hands.
The Peter Principle Presidency
In 1969 Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull published a book they believed was a satire of business practices entitled The Peter Principle. The “principle” is a management concept that posits: people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their "level of incompetence.” (Wikipedia) Laurence Peter’s research indicated “employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.” (Wikipedia) In our current political situation we definitely have a President (and Cabinet) who have clearly risen about their “levels of competence.” Most notably, in the current situation, the President was not someone “promoted” because he had been successful in his previous endeavors --- quite the contrary, in fact (as I will elucidate below). No, what happened in 2015-2016 is that a Celebrity who had no discernible competence at anything beyond self-promotion, managed to use his fictitious persona as a “successful businessman,” as defined by the television program The Apprentice, to convince enough Americans to cast votes for him, delivering an Electoral College (but not popular vote) victory. What we are now witnessing on a daily basis during this coronavirus pandemic and economic disaster is exactly how incompetent Donald J. Trump is. He is a living embodiment of The Peter Principle.
Let’s consider Trump’s record as a “businessman.” Despite Tony Horowitz’s authoring The Art of the Deal and creating the illusion that Donald Trump was a brilliant, wheeling-dealing businessman, all the evidence --- all the facts --- show us otherwise. Here’s a list of @realDonaldTrump’s business “acumen.” There are quite a few “one and done” companies on the list --- that is, they only lasted one or two years and then disappeared, never making a cent for Trump and often losing money.
Trump Steaks – 1 year (2007) If any reader actually ate one of these, please let me know.
GoTrump.com – 1 year (2006) – Travel search engine (remember Orbitz? Expedia? Travelocity?) With no expertise in this arena, Trump, of course, failed within a year.
Trump Airlines – 1989-1993 – formerly the Eastern Shuttle. Trump took the successful NY to Washington and NY to Boston shuttle flight franchise (originally started by PanAm) and, within four years ran it out of business.
Trump Vodka – 2006-2011 – Again, I’d love to hear from anyone who ever drank a shot of this spirit.
Trump Mortgage – 2006-2007 (1.5 years) -remember the bubble bursting in 2007? Trump showed his keen eye for business here, getting into the mortgage business just as the industry was going belly-up.
Trump: the Game – Monopoly knockoff – 1989 - 1 year – trying to capitalize on the success of the “The Art of the Deal,” Trump, as usual, overestimated his own popularity, believing people would flock to a game with his name on it.
Trump Magazine – 2007 – 1 to 2 years – I recommend you Google this monstrosity, just to see how deluded the entire Trump Klan is! Believing, somehow, people would buy a magazine all about “them Trumps” is another testament to the sheer, uncontrolled egoism.
Trump University – 2005-2011 – Still paying people off for fraud! This scam is well documented and has become a national punchline.
Trump Ice (H2O) 2004 – less than one year – this was “spring water” that, again, I’d like to hear from anyone who ever even saw a bottle of this!
The New Jersey Generals – USFL – 1984-1985 – His mismanagement of his franchise, and insistence that the USFL try to merge with the NFL (who wanted no part of it) led to Trump being blamed for the demise of the entire league. A colossal shit-show.
Tour de Trump – 1989 – 2 years – An American “Tour de France “bike race, only “Trumpier.”
Trump on the Ocean (Jones Beach catering hall) – 2012 – 2 months…This never even opened!
The Trump Network – 2009 – 2 years almost – Vitamin-selling QVC format “network.” Ever watch it? Ever even hear of it?
Trumped! Talk Radio show ….supposedly lasted 4 years …but not trace of it anywhere! There is one promo tape on SoundCloud or some such thing.
Trump New Media – 1998 – Video on Demand and High Speed internet: Never got off the ground because, shock of shocks, none of the Trumps have any expertise in VOD or high speed internet.
Trump Casinos - by 2014 had filed for bankruptcy FOUR times. In protecting himself from personal bankruptcy, Trump made numerous “questionable” deals with banks (Deutsche Bank, for example).
Despite this track record, Mark Burnett, the British television producer (Survivor) saw the opportunity in 2004 to use Trump’s notoriety (Trump would never let himself not be on Page Six as much as possible) and turn it into a successful reality show, The Apprentice. While Trump did have a handful of “successes” (Wollman Rink, The Grand Hyatt, and, of course, Trump Tower) that propelled The Art of the Deal to the top of the best-seller list, those successes were few, far between, and in the distant past when Burnett created The Apprentice and, in the process, invented the mythic Donald Trump who is now our Peter Principle President.
Given the scale of the crisis we are now facing, even a mildly competent President --- a Jimmy Carter, a Gerald Ford, maybe even a W. Bush --- would understand that grand Federal action is needed to help all the citizens of our nation. Nothing short of the kind of bold action like FDR’s New Deal is needed to cope with the combined crises of coronavirus, economic disaster, and racial strife. Federal health mandates, federal “stimulus” (relief) programs, and Federal social justice legislation could be enacted to save lives (regarding health and economics and racial strife). But only a leader who was, at the very least, competent would initiate action to move in those directions.
We, of course, are saddled with our Peter Principle President --- a man who is not even minimally competent to do anything other than promote his own fantasy image of himself and divide the American citizenry against one another --- at a time when we need National Unity. He will, as Adam Schiff warned us in his Impeachment summary, continue to lie and cheat. As Schiff noted: “You can't trust this president to do the right thing. Not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can't. He will not change and you know it." And so now we must live with our Peter Principle President, a man incapable of leading this nation during these dire times.
Back to School?
My entire life revolved around school. Starting in the fall of 1954, at age 5, I went off to school in September and happily spent my time there until June. Summers were fun, of course, but I always looked forward to getting back to school, to seeing my friends, to playing sports, to learning new things, meeting new teachers and kids. Becoming a teacher kept me tied to that calendar --- I had simply switched desk sizes. Sixty years of my life operated on that September to June clock, as it does for most families --- who look forward to “special” summer vacations, or sending their kids off to camp during this time of year. But now, in July of 2020, we are faced with the prospect of not adhering to our age-old schedule; we are faced with our reliable apple-cart being overturned quite dramatically. We got a taste of it this spring, of course, when schools shuttered and “virtual learning”/home-schooling became our national norm. But August/September looms --- the time of year when schools in the United States, historically, “opened.” The debate now rages about what we should do? Is it safe to re-open? Can we devise some kind of “modified” schedule to re-open “safely?” The President and Secretary of Education are demanding that schools re-open. I think about what it would be like to a teacher right now (the Lovely Carol Marie’s daughter is one) and have to stare down the barrel of Covid-19 and school. While I have opinions on the subject, one of my former Bronxville High School students (Joanna Lara Zuppardi) posted the following on Facebook and I think it’s well worth a read (with my editorializing in italic/bold inserts).
By Joe Morice (daughters in 8th & 10th grade in Fairfax County, VA)
To our fellow FCPS families, this is it gang, 5 days until the 2 days in school vs. 100% virtual decision. Let’s talk it out, in my traditional TL/DR form (Too Long/Didn’t Read.)
Like all of you, I’ve seen my feed become a flood of anxiety and faux expertise. You’ll get no presumption of expertise here. This is how I am looking at and considering this issue and the positions people have taken in my feed and in the hundred or so FCPS discussion groups that have popped up. The lead comments in quotes are taken directly from my feed and those boards. Sometimes I try to rationalize them. Sometimes I’m just punching back at the void.
Full disclosure, we initially chose the 2 days option and are now having serious reservations. As I consider the positions and arguments I see in my feed, these are where my mind goes. Of note, when I started working on this piece at 12:19 PM today the COVID death tally in the United States stood at 133,420.
“My kids want to go back to school.”
I challenge that position. I believe what the kids desire is more abstract. I believe what they want is a return to normalcy. They want their idea of yesterday. And yesterday isn’t on the menu. (I think this is right on the money!)
“I want my child in school so they can socialize.”
This was the principle reason for our 2 days decision. As I think more on it though, what do we think ‘social’ will look like? There aren’t going to be any lunch table groups, any lockers, any recess games, any study halls, any sitting next to friends, any talking to people in the hallway, any dances. All of that is off the menu. So, when we say that we want the kids to benefit from the social experience, what are we deluding ourselves into thinking in-building socialization will actually look like in the Fall? (I am concerned about the idea that some schools are considering engaging in sports. Having gone to some Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball games in the past few weeks, sports --- particularly high-contact sports like football --- seem an invitation to a super-spreader event. Either way, as Morice notes “socialization” will be a highly perverted version of what we generally consider “socialization” in school.)
“My kid is going to be left behind.”
Left behind who? The entire country is grappling with the same issue, leaving all children in the same quagmire. Who exactly would they be behind? I believe the rhetorical answer to that is “They’ll be behind where they should be,” to which I’ll counter that “where they should be” is a fictional goal post that we as a society have taken as gospel because it maps to standardized tests which are used to grade schools and counties as they chase funding. (Again, I agree with Morice. We’re all struggling with this and need to forget about the usual “standards” of what we each --- individually, for the most part --- think “standards” and “grade-level” are. These are highly-suspect categories to begin with. Let’s simply agree to assess where kids are once we get back to something resembling “normal” and then figure out where we need to go --- we're all handicapped, in varying degrees, by this situation and teachers are excellent at adapting to new situations.)
“Classrooms are safe.”
At the current distancing guidelines from FCPS middle and high schools would have no more than 12 people (teachers + students) in a classroom (I acknowledge this number may change as FCPS considers the Commonwealth’s 3 ft with a mask vs. 6 ft position, noting that FCPS is all mask regardless of the distance). For the purpose of this discussion we’ll say classes run 45 minutes.
I posed the following question to 40 people today, representing professional and management roles in corporations, government agencies, and military commands: “Would your company or command have a 12 person, 45 minute meeting in a conference room?”
100% of them said "no," they would not. These are some of their answers:
“No. Until further notice we are on Zoom.”
“(Our company) doesn’t allow us in (company space).”
“Oh hell no.”
“No, absolutely not.”
“Is there a percentage lower than zero?”
“Something of that size would be virtual.”
We do not even consider putting our office employees into the same situation we are contemplating putting our children into. And let’s drive this point home: there are instances here when commanding officers will not put soldiers, ACTUAL SOLDIERS, into the kind of indoor environment we’re contemplating for our children. For me this is as close to a ‘kill shot’ argument as there is in this entire debate. How do we work from home because buildings with recycled air are not safe, because we don’t trust other people to not spread the virus, and then with the same breath send our children into buildings? (There’s nothing I could add here that would be more powerful than this argument!)
“Children only die .0016 of the time.”
First, conceding we’re an increasingly morally bankrupt society --- when did we start talking about children’s lives, or anyone’s lives, like this? This is how the villain in movies talks about mortality, usually 10-15 minutes before the good guy kills him. If you’re in this camp, and I acknowledge that many, many people are, I’m asking you to consider that number from a slightly different angle.
FCPS has 189,000 children. .0016 of that is 302. 302 dead children are the Calvary Hill you’re erecting your argument on. So, let’s agree to do this: stop presenting this as a data point. If this is your argument, I challenge you to have courage equal to your conviction. Go ahead, plant a flag on the internet and say, “Only 302 children will die.” No one will. That’s the kind action on social media that gets you fired from your job. And I trust our social media enclave isn’t so careless and irresponsible with life that it would even, for even a millisecond, enter any of your minds to make such an argument.
Considered another way: You’re presented with a bag with 189,000 $1 bills. You’re told that in the bag are 302 random bills, they look and feel just like all the others, but each one of those bills will kill you. Do you take the money out of the bag?
Same argument, applied to the 12,487 teachers in FCPS (per Wikipedia), using the ‘children’s multiplier’ of .0016 (all of us understanding the adult mortality rate is higher). That’s 20 teachers. That’s the number you’re talking about. It’s very easy to sit behind a keyboard and diminish and dismiss the risk you’re advocating other people assume. Take a breath and think about that.
If you want to advocate for 2 days a week, look, I’m looking for someone to convince me. But please, for the love of God, drop things like this from your argument. Because the people I know who’ve said things like this, I know they’re better people than this. They’re good people under incredible stress who let things slip out as their frustration boils over. So, please do the right thing and move on from this, because one potential outcome is that one day, you’re going to have to stand in front of St. Peter and answer for this, and that’s not going to be conversation you enjoy. (Again, this is the most compelling argument that can be made.)
“Hardly any kids get COVID.”
(Deep sigh) Yes, that is statistically true as of this writing. But it is a cherry-picked argument because you’re leaving out an important piece.
One can reasonably argue that, due to the school closures in March, children have had the least EXPOSURE to COVID. In other words, closing schools was the one pandemic mitigation action we took that worked. There can be no discussion of the rate of diagnosis within children without also acknowledging they were among our fastest and most quarantined people. Put another way, you cannot cite the effect without acknowledging the cause. (Recent statistics from Florida show a 31% infection rate among children. Enough said!)
“The flu kills more people every year.”
(Deep sigh). First of all, no, it doesn’t. Per the CDC, United States flu deaths average 20,000 annually. COVID, when I start writing here today, has killed 133,420 in six months.
And when you mention the flu, do you mean the disease that, if you’re suspected of having it, everyone, literally everyone in the country tells you stay the f- away from other people? You mean the one where parents are pretty sure their kids have it but send them to school anyway because they have a meeting that day, the one that every year causes massive f-ing outbreaks in schools because schools are petri dishes and it causes kids to miss weeks of school and leaves them out of sports and band for a month? That one? Because you’re right - the flu kills people every year. It does, but you’re ignoring the why. It’s because there are people who are a--holes who don’t care about infecting other people. In that regard it’s a perfect comparison to COVID. (And this brings us back to the real problem we have: under the guise of “individual freedom” and other re-election bullshit, the Trump Administrations has failed to take Federal Action necessary to at least slow, if not stop, the spread of this virus. By making mask-wearing a political issue, we are, quite literally, killing people. Civic responsibility and public health are NOT political issues!)
“Almost everyone recovers.”
You’re confusing “release from the hospital” and “no longer infected” with “recovered.” I’m fortunate to only know two people who have had COVID. One my age and one my dad’s age. The one my age described it as “absolute hell” and although no longer infected cannot breathe right. The one my dad’s age was in the hospital for 13 weeks, had to have a trach ring put in because she could no longer be on a ventilator, and upon finally getting home and being faced with incalculable time in rehab told my mother, “I wish I had died
While I’m making every effort to reach objectivity, on this particular point, you don’t know what the f- you’re talking about. .”(This is a very important point. DO NOT CONFUSE “released from the hospital" with “recovered.” There are long-term effects of this virus and we are just learning how serious those are.)
“If people get sick, they get sick.”
First, you mistyped. What you intended to say was “If OTHER people get sick, they get sick.” And shame on you. (Agree. Too many people still believe they are invulnerable --- and not just young people. Again, in the past week, I’ve seen people being very cavalier about social distancing at kids baseball games, I’ve –twice --- seen young guys playing 3-on-3 shirts/skins basketball on outdoor courts. Everyone thinks “someone else” will get it, and that’s okay with them. Civic Responsibility means worrying about your neighbor, not just your family!)
“I’m not going to live my life in fear.”
You already live your life in fear. For your health, your family’s health, your job, your retirement, terrorists, extremists, one political party or the other being in power, the new neighbors, an unexpected home repair, the next sunrise. What you meant to say was, “I’m not prepared to add ANOTHER fear,” and I’ve got news for you: that ship has sailed. It’s too late. There are two kinds of people, and only two: those that admit they’re afraid, and those that are lying to themselves about it.
As to the fear argument, fear is the reason you wait up when your kids stay out late, it’s the reason you tell your kids not to dive in the shallow water, to look both ways before crossing the road. Fear is the respect for the wide world that we teach our children. Except in this instance, for reasons no one has been able to explain to me yet. (I would add that it’s the reason we snap on seat belts, it’s the reason you get flu and other vaccine shots, etc.)
“FCPS leadership sucks.”
I will summarize my view of the School Board thusly: if the 12 of you aren’t getting into a room together because it represents a risk, don’t tell me it’s OK for our kids. I understand your arguments, that we need the 2 days option for parents who can’t work from home, kids who don’t have internet or computer access, kids who needs meals from the school system, kids who need extra support to learn, and most tragically for kids who are at greater risk of abuse by being home. All very serious, all very real issues, all heartbreaking. No argument.
But you must first lead by example. Because you’re failing when it comes to optics. All your meetings are online. What our children see is all of you on a Zoom telling them it’s OK for them to be exactly where you aren’t. I understand you’re not PR people, but you really should think about hiring some. (Who can argue with his point here?)
“I talked it over with my kids.”
Let’s put aside for a moment the concept of adults effectively deferring this decision to children, the same children who will continue to stuff things into a full trash can rather than change it out. Yes, those hygienic children.
Listen, my 15 year old daughter wants a sport car, which she’s not getting next year because it would be dangerous to her and to others. Those kinds of decisions are our job. We step in and decide as parents, we don’t let them expose themselves to risks because they’re still-developing and screen-addicted brains narrow their understanding of cause and effect.
We as parents and adults serve to make difficult decisions. Sometimes those are in the form of lessons, where we try to steer kids towards the right answer and are willing to let them make a mistake in the hopes of teaching better decision-making the next time around. This is not one of those moments. The stakes are too high for that. This is a “the adults are talking” moment. Kids are not mature enough for this moment. That is not an attack on your child. It is a broad statement about all children. It is true of your children and it was true when we were children. We need to be doing that thinking here, and “Johnny wants to see Bobby at school” cannot be the prevailing element in the equation. (Again, I couldn’t put it better.)
“The teachers need to do their job.”
How is it that the same society which abruptly shifted to virtual students only three months ago, and offered glowing endorsements of teachers stating, “we finally understand how difficult your job is,” has now shifted to “screw you, do your job.” There are myriad problems with that position but for the purposes of this piece let’s simply go with, “You’re not looking for a teacher, you’re looking for the babysitter you feel your property tax payment entitles you to.”(AMEN!)
“Teachers have a greater chance of being killed by a car than they do of dying from COVID.”
(Eye roll) Per the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the U.S. see approximately 36,000 auto fatalities a year. Again, there have been 133,420 COVID deaths in the United States through 12:09 July 10, 2020. So no, they do not have a great chance of being killed in a car accident.
And, if you want to take the actual environment into consideration, the odds of a teacher being killed in a car accident in their classroom, you know, the environment we’re actually talking about, that’s right around 0%. (On the money.)
“If the grocery store workers can be onsite what are the teachers afraid of?”
(Deep breath) A grocery store worker, who absolutely risks exposure, has either six feet of space or a plexiglass shield between them and individual adult customers who can grasp their own mortality, whose transactions can be completed in moments, in a 40,000 SF space.
A teacher is with 11 ‘customers’ who have not an inkling what mortality is, for 45 minutes, in a 675 SF space, six times a day.
Just stop. (Please.)
“Teachers are choosing remote because they don’t want to work.”
(Deep breaths) Many teachers are opting to be remote. That is not a vacation. They’re requesting to do their job at a safer site. Just like many, many people who work in buildings with recycled air have done. And likely the building you’re not going into has a newer and better serviced air system than our schools.
Of greater interest to me is the number of teachers choosing the 100% virtual option for their children. The people who spend the most time in the buildings are the same ones electing not to send their children into those buildings. That’s something I pay attention to. (I would add that it is MUCH HARDER teaching virtually than in a classroom setting! The planning, the extra time for those students with special needs --- or simply the kids who “don’t get it” the first time around --- creates MORE work for teachers! I have watched the Lovely Carol Marie’s daughter deal with demanding parents --- who seem to be MORE demanding in the virtual world --- and it is no picnic. Trust me, teaching from home would NEVER be ANY teachers “first option.” It’s about public safety.)
“I wasn’t prepared to be a parent 24/7” and “I just need a break.”
I truly, deeply respect that honesty. Truth be told, both arguments have crossed my mind. Pre-COVID, I routinely worked from home 1 – 2 days a week. The solace was nice. When I was in the office, I had an actual office, a room with a door I could close, where I could focus. During the quarantine that hasn’t always been the case. I’ve been frustrated, I’ve been short, I’ve gone to just take a drive and get the hell away for a moment and been disgusted when one of the kids sees me and asks me to come for a ride, robbing me of those minutes of silence. You want to hear silence. I get it. I really, really do.
Here’s another version of that, admittedly extreme. What if one of our kids becomes one of the 302? What’s that silence going to sound like? What if you have one of those matted frames where you add the kid’s school picture every year? What if you don’t get to finish the pictures? (If that last part doesn’t bring a parent up short, I don’t know what will.)
“What does your gut tell you to do?”
Shawn and I have talked ad infinitum about all of these and other points. Two days ago, at mid-discussion I said, “Stop, right now, gut answer, what is it,” and we both said, “virtual.”
A lot of the arguments I hear people making for the 2 days sound like we’re trying to talk ourselves into ignoring our instincts, they are almost exclusively, “We’re doing 2 days, but…”. There’s a fantastic book by Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear, which I’ll minimize for you thusly: your gut instinct is a hardwired part of your brain and you should listen to it. In the introduction he talks about elevators, and how, of all living things, humans are the only ones that would voluntarily get into a soundproof steel box with a potential predator just so they could skip a flight of stairs.
I keep thinking that the 2 days option is the soundproof steel box. I welcome, damn, beg, anyone to convince me otherwise. (Again, well said.)
At the time I started writing at 12:09 PM, 133,420 Americans had died from COVID. Upon completing this draft at 7:04 PM, that number rose to 133,940.
520 Americans died of COVID while I was working on this. In seven hours.
The length of a school day.
Well, there’s the best long-form essay about opening school I have seen. If you think it makes sense, please pass it on, share it. In closing, I have to thank my dear friend and former band-mate, Bill Legenza, for encouraging me to write a BLAST about school re-opening. He has been watching his wife (and another band-mate, as well as former colleague at Blackstone Academy), Carolyn Sheehan, struggle with these issues as they consider opening Blackstone in the fall. Good luck with that.
And, finally, let’s ask our President if Barron is going to go to a D.C. public school in September --- or if Jared and Ivanka’s children will be going back to school in the fall. If he’s so hot on opening public schools, how about setting the example and sending his kid and grandkids back to the public schools he’s demanding re-open in September.
How Many of “us”
are Asymptomatic Racists?
In an interview with D.L. Hughley over the weekend, the comedian, author, and activist discussed his bout with Covid-19. He noted that he was asymptomatic and it took a positive test result for him to realize he had the disease. Clever, as he is, Hughley made the leap from the pandemic to the sustained protests following George Floyd’s murder --- noting that he believed a lot of White people were asymptomatic racists and would, in fact, “test positive” if there was a test. I think Hughley is on to something. I have written about race quite a bit on this Blog, particularly about issues like white privilege, removal of Confederate statues, and systemic racism. Hughley’s observations about asymptomatic racism struck a highly responsive chord in my white privileged consciousness.
Part of my self-image--- to this day --- has been constructed around the notion that I am some kind of Social Justice “warrior.” Starting high school in the fall of 1963, on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I was very supportive of the Civil Rights movement --- to the point of working for the NAACP (by way of the local Methodist minister) to register (Black) voters across Long Island. I was unaware of the notion of “white privilege” in those years --- although I did recognize that it was pretty great to be a blue-eyed White kid named “Johnson.” My awareness of White and Male privilege slowly crept into my consciousness as I became a more mature thinker and as experiences broadened my worldview. Involvement in politics at Yale and in New Haven between 1967 and 1971 certainly helped move my thinking. Regarding Male privilege, I got my come-uppance during my Junior year at Yale, when the school co-educated. One of my Bay Shore High classmates (Laura Steel) transferred in from the University of Michigan --- and I realized that if I had applied to a co-educated Yale in the fall of 1966 --- and if Laura had, too --- I probably would never have gotten in!
Since I was also deeply involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, was an avid supporter of Muhammad Ali’s draft resistance, and an organizer in the protests supporting the Black Panthers (particularly Bobby Seale) in New Haven that Spring, my awareness of my White privilege expanded. Certainly my friendship with members of the Black Student Alliance (particularly Kurt Schmoke, my Yale football and lacrosse teammate and a natural leader/teacher) began opening my eyes to the depth of systemic racism all around us. In much the same way, while working for the Yale Council on Community Affairs that summer, I was assisting a Black community leader cataloguing resources for the newly-proposed New Haven High School-in-the-Community. One evening, after work, Freddy said he was going to take us out to dinner (there were three of us --- young, white, naïve, “dedicated”). We headed up to “the Hill” (one of the two New Haven ghettoes) and followed Freddy into a Bar & Grill. Upon entering, the place fell silent. All the patrons were Black folks and seeing three white kids walking in must have been quite a sight for them. My reaction, based on my asymptomatic racism, was a literal gut-wrench – a flutter, a sinking, a fear. Once the crowd saw we were with Freddy, they descended upon us, glad-handing, back-patting, and “you don’t have to pay for anything if you’re Freddy’s friend.” What struck me at that moment was, “Oh, my God, is this how Black people feel every day as they walk into all-White environments?” It was revelatory and definitely speaks to Hughley’s notion of asymptomatic racism.
As I began “Humanities” teaching in a nice, White New York City suburb in 1973, I did so with the notion that I would (at least try to) raise awareness among my students, who were privileged in much the way I was. Equipped with my background in African-American history & literature (Yale had created the first Af-Am Department in the nation in 1968), as well as having read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (raising my awareness of Native American history), I did my best to introduce my students to “alternative” narratives of United States history and literature --- as I would throughout my teaching career. There was an element of “changing the tire on a car going 60 miles an hour” to all of this, as I was still learning, thinking, and reflecting on my own development --- as a teacher and a citizen. I distinctly remember playing a vinyl copy of Richard Pryor’s “That N*g*er’s Crazy” album to my AP U.S. History class in the fall of 1978, making them swear they wouldn’t tell anyone we listened to the “x-rated” content (offensive language). With only a handful of African-American students at our school, Pryor presented my class with a point of view they might not otherwise be aware of.
In 1984 I left Westchester and moved to Boston, where I worked at another suburban high school --- although this one was larger (1600 students) and a bit more “diverse” (though still overwhelmingly White). I was teaching in the English Department and was able to introduce my students to some of the ideas and writing I had learned from Michael Cooke, the Jamaican Yale Professor I spent the summer of 1983 working with in New Haven (a National Endowment of the Humanities Seminar program). By 1987 I was back in New York, living on the Upper West Side and teaching in Bronxville, another very White Westchester suburb. Working with the Coalition of Essential Schools now, I was more and more focused on the idea of equity and continued “crusading” at Bronxville, while also working with the Children’s Aid Society in NYC, particularly with kids at a welfare hotel --- which led to the connection to my “adopted” God son, Antoine Robinson --- an experience that definitely opened my eyes to the severity of the inequity around us.
Nonetheless, I would say I was still exhibiting asymptomatic racism, as I’m pretty sure there was a level of “White Savior” being played out in my mind/actions. Not that I was ill-intentioned, but I believe I was still unconsciously accepting assumptions about “white superiority.” It was also at this time I began working closely with Linda Darling-Hammond at Columbia Teachers College and that clearly contributed to my growth as an “ally” in the equity struggle. By 1994 I was headed to Providence, Rhode Island, to begin teaching in Brown University’s Education Department which accelerated my development as a better, more conscious thinker about diversity and equity.
In my years at Brown I was determined to help make the Teacher Preparation Program as diverse as possible and actively recruited students of color, hoping not only to create a more diverse national teaching force, but also recognizing I always had a lot to learn from all of my students. I was determined to make sure my Education 101 course (The Craft of Teaching) also focused on Equity in Education and its reading list featured texts that spoke not only to the crucial issues facing (particularly urban) education but also our own situation at Brown. It was during these years that Brown, as a University, had to face its own history --- the Brown family had made a fortune supplying ships that imported slaves and owning mills that produced the rough-hewn cloth for slave attire. I served as a consultant to the University Committee working on Justice and Reconciliation, whose work, for better or worse, continues to this day.
All of this proved to be a prelude for my final years of teaching in the heart of New York City. After a dismal first year working in a madhouse of a school on the Lower East Side, I moved to the Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction (UASDC) on West 50th Street. With a classic “minority majority” population, I found myself confronted daily with my own privilege and the challenge of making education meaningful to my students. Often referring to myself as “the old, fat White guy” (always getting a laugh from my students), I emphasized to them that our society was skewed against them and our watchword became: “You can play into their hands or beat them at their own game.” My students liked that notion and, to this day, I am extremely gratified seeing their accomplishments on Facebook.
I won’t claim that I’ve overcome my asymptomatic racism but I will say that I think I’m always trying to recognize where I might be testing positive --- and rectify the situation. When White people try to deny their privilege or point out what they think are “incorrect” or “unfair” complaints/demands by people of color, I simply ask them to consider one question: “Would you be a Black person in this country?” To me, the answer (for a White person) is obvious --- and I believe that if you answer “Yes” you are either a liar or a fool. To not come to grips with our asymptomatic racism means we can’t really tackle the problem of systemic racism and I honestly believe most White people want to do the right thing (thanks, Spike Lee). That means admitting we live in a society which privileges one group over another, it means we recognize our privilege, and it means we probe the possibilities of our own asymptomatic racism, every day.
Reframing vs. Rewriting
In the wake of our 244th Independence Day, amid an epic global pandemic as well as the most significant social protests in half a century, it is a good time to step back to reflect on what’s going on and think about it critically. In doing that, we must wrestle with the truth of our history, which is inextricably woven into a fabric of wiping out indigenous people and taking their land which was then developed into a productive, wealth-producing asset through the slave-labor of (initially) Africans brought to our shores through forced immigration. The white colonists of both the northern and southern English settlements, under the auspices of the British crown (the French, Dutch, and Portuguese were also involved in the colonization of North and South America, of course) drove out or eliminated the indigenous population and built a massive, powerful Empire on the backs of oppressed peoples (Black, Red, Yellow, and Brown!). Whether it was African slave labor of the South, the Northern factory wage-slaves, the Chinese railroad laborers, or the Latinx farm workers that (still) produce the food supply feeding the Empire, the wealth reaped by White men allowed those same White men to write the narrative not only of Independence Day but of United States history --- the historical narrative of White Supremacy that Donald Trump is flailing to “save” and “protect.”
We do not need to re-write our history, we simply need to re-frame it and tell it truthfully (I highly recommend reading the New York Times’s brilliant 1619 Project as one place to start). Removing statues of Confederate soldiers and Christopher Columbus (the first White person to wipe out thousands of indigenous North American people) are simply a first step in re-framing the story of our country. Re-locating these statues in museums, with proper explanations of who they were and what they did, would serve a valuable educational purpose in presenting a more accurate version of United States history. It’s equally important to educate people about the “Lost Cause” narrative that Trump ascribes to, a faulty explanation about the Civil War first promoted in Edward Pollard’s 1866 book (of the same name) and used as justification for not only erecting Confederate statues (and incorporating the Confederate battle flag in Southern State flags) but also for creating the Jim Crow South starting in the nineteenth century.
“The Lost Cause” narrative, if you are not familiar or aware, is this:
The Lost Cause portrayed the South as more adherent to Christian values than the allegedly greedy North. It portrayed slavery as more benevolent than cruel, alleging that it taught Christianity and "civilization." Stories of happy slaves were often used as propaganda in an effort to defend slavery; the United Daughters of the Confederacy had a "Faithful Slave Memorial Committee," and erected the Heyward Shepherd monument in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. These stories would be used to explain slavery to Northerners. Many times they also portrayed slave owners being kind to their slaves. In explaining Confederate defeat, the Lost Cause says that the main factor was not qualitative inferiority in leadership or fighting ability but the massive quantitative superiority of the Yankee industrial machine. At the peak of troop strength in 1863, Union soldiers outnumbered Confederate soldiers by over two to one, and financially the Union had three times the bank deposits of the Confederacy. (wiki)
According to the “Lost Cause,” the Southern States were likened to the British Colonies, fighting a war against “Northern Aggression.” A tyrannical Federal authority(read: Northern, strong centralized government) was attempting to wipe out the “states-rights” loving Southern States. The Lost Cause danced around the issue of slavery being central to the Southern rebellion and it presented the Confederates as noble warriors and not really different from their Norther (white) “brethren” they battled against. By the turn of the 20th Century, the “Lost Cause” narrative had succeeded in reinforcing white supremacy in the North and South. Woodrow Wilson’s screening The Birth of a Nation, a film that promoted not only “The Lost Cause” philosophy but, worse, presented the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and saviors of White, Christian culture only added to the White narrative (as did Wilson’s re-segregating Federal agencies). As noted in Wikipedia:
the film portrays African-Americans (many of whom are played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive toward white women. The film presents the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic force necessary to preserve American values and a white supremacist social order. . . The film has been acknowledged as an inspiration for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, which took place only a few months after its release.
If you look critically at 20th Century United States history you can see how the system of protecting white power and privilege --- through Jim Crow laws, housing statutes, segregated schooling, and a wide variety of exclusionary practices against not only Black people but also Brown, Red, and Yellow people, perpetuated the United States that we live in today.
Donald Trump, as we know, appeals to White grievance and the bizarre sense that, somehow, it is White people who are “under attack,” and it is White (Christian) “culture” which needs to be saved from “barbarians at the gates.” And there is certainly an audience for his prejudice. White privilege-deniers, climate-change deniers, pandemic-deniers are all on Trump’s bandwagon. Ever since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued White people (South and North) created a myth of violent, criminal Blacks (and Brown/Red/Yellow people) --- often resulting in law-enforcement treating those populations as a “natural” criminal class, using disproportionate force against those people (at three times the rate of force used against White people). It is only with the advent of smartphone video that White people have begun to see what was often sloughed off as “complaining” by people-of-color --- police (and vigilante) violence against those people of color. Even with this preponderance of video evidence it has taken the election of a Black Man followed by the election of a White Supremacist to bring the Race kettle to a boil in this country. And what that boiling kettle requires is an honest re-framing of how we look at our history --- not a “re-writing.” Recognizing that the original writing was a biased version, a slanted version, a version that clearly privileged one group over all others --- and portrayed those others as “less than” in subtle and sometimes blatant ways --- is the starting place for White people. People of Color know the version(s) of United States history that we White folks have ignored --- consciously or unconsciously, knowingly or unknowingly. It’s not about Guilt and Blame (Trump’s tools). It’s about honesty and open-mindedness, about clarification and understanding. It’s about a willingness to live up to the “Mission Statement” that was declared on July 4, 1776. Where do we stand on that notion that “all men are created equal?” A critical re-framing of United States history may well be a positive first step in getting there.
I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, when Labor Unions not only had power in this country but also, generally, had respect . Times change, history changes things. In 2020 “organized labor” is almost extinct --- with the exception of several still-powerful unions: the United Auto Workers, AFSCME (Federal, State, County, Municipal workers), the Teachers Union (NEA/UFT) and police unions/”benevolent associations.” These groups have retained political power because they have a national network that can not only muster financial $upport for candidates but can also mobilize hundreds and thousands of “boots on the ground” volunteers to help elect people. What I want to examine here are the similarities between the Teachers Union (which I am intimately familiar with) and the Police Union (writ large, as Police are locally or regionally organized and there isn’t one overarching hierarchy calling the shots). In particular, both organizations tend to place protecting their members above the public interest.
Let’s first look at the NEA/UFT, the AFL-CIO affiliates who count over 3 million teachers in their membership (about 76% of teachers, nationally). In my 42 years as an educator, about half of that time was as a member of the New York State/City United Teachers union (the United Federation of Teachers/UFT). Organized by Albert Shanker in 1960, the UFT’s stated goals were: Dignity and respect. Professionalism and due process. Competitive wages and benefits. (UFT website – uft.org) By the time I became a professional teacher in 1973, the UFT had gained significant political power in New York City & State, “protecting” members from unfair labor practices and ensuring them of fair wages and benefits! That’s great, of course, particularly if you’re a 24 year old starting out but there’s a downside to being organized as a labor union and that became more apparent to me as my career progressed.
Unlike doctors and lawyers, who organized professionally as “associations” and certified their members by creating a national board examination, thereby regulating and controlling their profession, teachers organized as a labor union, meaning its members would be certified by the State and, thereby were no different than any other labor union: carpenters, plumbers, electricians, et al. Labor unions, as we know, are focused on wages, hours, working conditions, and benefits --- a natural result of having worked for predatory capitalist owners/management, particularly starting in the late 19th century. The problem for teachers, though, is not that they do not deserve to be treated fairly and with respect (as professionals)but by not organizing professionally, like doctors and lawyers, they are not seen or treated as professionals but as laborers. The larger problem this introduces --- and I saw this more than once --- is that clearly deficient or blatantly incompetent people are protected by the Teachers Union. And this is where the comparison to police unions/associations intersects with teachers. The protection of union members supersedes the public good --- period.
When I worked as a Teacher-educator at Brown (and Yale) University for 13 years I actively counseled people out of the profession because it was clear they should not be certified to teach children. Similarly, when the Lovely Carol Marie worked as a school administrator (Vice-Principal), she would do whatever she could to, at the very least, minimize the interactions poor or incompetent teachers had with students. Early in my career I watched David Schein, my first principal, do the same thing at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School --- setting up situations where poor or incompetent teachers would do minimal damage to the growth and progress of young people. The point here is that the public good has been entrusted to teachers and, professionally, we, as teachers, need to ensure that those who are not competent, those who might damage the educational growth or progress of students, need to be removed from the profession. However, because there is a need for thousands and thousands of teachers, and because “the State” certifies teachers the same way it certifies plumbers and electricians, the quality control needed to ensure the legitimacy of the profession (what the Law Boards and Med Boards provide for lawyers and doctors) is not in the hands of professional teachers. This leads to the larger problem of the Teacher Union operating like a labor union and only protecting its members (rather than protecting the professionalism of teaching) and policing itself so that those members who are deficient receive assistance and those who are incompetent are “encouraged” to move on to another line of work.
And that’s where Teacher Unions and Police Organizations intersect. If you have seen or heard Patrick Lynch, the President of the 25,000 member Police Benevolent Association of New York City, you know that his only purpose is to protect his members --- even at the cost of public safety, social justice, and equity. Lynch’s defense of the officers in the Eric Garner murder, his attack on Teacher Union President Michael Mulgrew for supporting the end of stop-and-frisk, and his current stand against the repeal of “50a,” the New York law that keeps police personnel records sealed, not allowing the public to know if there have been (repeated/numerous) incidents of violence against civilians, illustrates how the police union refuses to police itself --- just like the Teachers Union.
Until the organizations that protect their members over the good of the public, we will not be able to work with these groups in productive ways. As much as I was a committed member of NYSUT (New York State United Teachers) during my years as a classroom teachers, I actively worked at trying to reform my profession, raising questions about how we were monitoring our profession. Needless to say, this often fell on deaf ears --- just as it does with Police Unions/Associations/Organizations. The we/they, us/them mentality that exists between these organizations and not only their “management” (School Boards, City Councils, et al) but also, and most importantly, their constituents, is damaging to all of us and needs reform. That does not mean “defunding” but re-allocation of resources. Teachers and Police have been asked to assume too many roles in our complex society. Issues regarding mental & physical health, housing and welfare, and a raft of other social issues have fallen into the lap of teachers and police. It is incumbent upon political leaders to not only provide adequate preparation of teachers and police but to also create more equitable work responsibilities for these professions That is the conversation we needed to have over the past 50 years and it is certainly the conversation we need to have right now.
Stay home, Wash your hands. Stay safe.