Monday, June 27, 2005


If there is one mantra that leftists love to repeat, it is that their ideas are more "nuanced" than those of conservatives. Consequently, so goes the refrain, they face more daunting communication challenges than folks whose thoughts are so simplistic they can be placed on a bumper sticker--with room to spare.

This communication gap--call it the White Left’s Burden--explains why smarter-than-thous find it so hard to garner a majority of votes in this unsophisticated country. Most folks, it appears, lack the gray matter required to grasp their finely tuned arguments. This gap also explains why the national Democrat Party can only enact its legislative agenda via the least democratic branch of the government--the federal judiciary.

Take as an example that famous declaration, "I actually did vote for the 87 billion before I voted against it." It takes a New England preppy who graduated in the bottom third of his college class to fathom the complexity of that assertion. Dimwitted NASCAR-types would simply chalk up an about-face of this sort to the common political desire to have your cake and eat it too.

It also takes more acumen than middle America can muster to understand Howard Dean’s recent comments about "evil" Republicans--"white Christian(s)" who don’t care if children go to bed hungry and who’ve "never worked an honest day in their lives." A professional deconstructionist might be needed to explain to the hoi polloi whether the two senators from Massachusetts fall inside or outside the last of those artfully articulated demographic categories. This tutor might also explain how it is really the Republicans who are poisoning political discourse. (I suspect the words "dialectical," "post-modern," and "grinch" would be employed frequently during this pedagogical session.)

More recently the party of nuance has taken to employing terms like "theocracy" to describe the efforts of religiously-motivated Americans to resist aggressive secularization of the public square. Typical of such "crusades" (or are they "jihads"?) are unsuccessful campaigns to allow public high schools to engage in traditions of minimal piety that have been in place for a century or more.

One can sympathize with cognitive hair-splitters who are now burdened with the job of explaining to simpletons why a minuscule cross on the seal of Los Angeles County constitutes an "establishment of religion"--a task further complicated by the "living document" judicial philosophy that makes all appeals to the Constitution’s text either superfluous or mendacious. Fortunately for these brainiacs, most Americans already believe that the phrase "separation of church and state" is actually in the Constitution-- probably in the section where, simultaneously, senate filibusters are made inviolate and the Constitution infinitely elastic.

The piece de resistance of nuanced discourse has to be Senator Dick Durbin’s recent use of the terms "Nazis," "Soviet gulags," and "Pol Pot" in conjunction with his condemnation of abuses at the Guantanamo detention facility. Only a mind working at warp speed can appreciate the refinement reflected in this three-pronged allusion. An untrained ear might think Senator Durbin was comparing the penal practices of Hitler, Stalin, and the Cambodian tyrant to those employed at GTMO.

Au contraire! The senior senator from Illinois was in no way linking the actions of American military personnel at Guantanamo with the aforementioned regimes. Unfortunately, I’m unequipped to explain this faux comparison that juxtaposes genocidal regimes with the alleged discomforts endured by terrorists at Guantanamo. (Curiously, the word "alleged" seems to be missing from Senator Durbin’s vocabulary.) All I can say is that hinterland Neanderthals tend to hear his statement as an imprudent assertion that will give aid and comfort to linguistically-challenged enemies.

Maybe Ted Turner can explain Durbin’s comparison--or that guy whose definition of the word "is" varies to suit the exigencies of his legal situation. In the meantime we simple- minded, uncaring, luxury-sated, theocratic fascists will have to do the best we can, thesaurus in hand, to master the complexities of sophisticated political discourse.

Friday, June 17, 2005


When is less, more? Answer: When it’s a California textbook. Just ask Assembly member Jackie Goldberg--sponsor of AB 756, the bill to ban the state from purchasing texts longer than 200 pages.

Honestly, folks, this is no joke. And not only does the former Compton teacher want new textbooks for California schools to be limited to 200 pages, her assembly colleagues actually agree with her.

By a vote of 42-26 the lower house in Sacramento recently went on record supporting the novel idea that fewer pages equals greater achievement. Never mind that no study establishing a "small is beautiful" correlation can be produced by supporters of the legislation or that an arbitrary numerical quota seems plain stupid. The important thing is that Goldberg and company have an idea about which they feel warm and fuzzy. And that, apparently, is all it takes for whacky educational policy to pass muster in the Assembly.

One can hardly imagine the amount of media scorn that would befall a Republican legislator who proposed a minimalist limit to textbook pagination. "Dumb and Dumber" jokes would flow from late night comics like vintage wine:

*"Did you hear that Assemblyman Yahoo wants all California texts to be shorter than 200 pages? --And to require no more than four crayons per page."

*"When asked what part of U.S. History should be deleted to keep within the 200-page limit, Rep. Yahoo replied, ‘How about the Constitution?’"

*"Yahoo’s other ideas for education include miniaturized desks, shorter teachers, 20 x 20 classrooms, and lower IQs."


Goldberg’s defense of her proposal is almost as funny. The world, she observes, has changed significantly in the last few decades, yet we’re still using big, bulky books to teach our kids. She also says that today’s workplace demands more than the ability to read page 435 on some manual and that a more "dynamic...learning process" is required.

Can anyone in class, I wonder, define the term "non sequitur"? Or was that Latinism on page 201? More specifically, one might reply to Goldberg’s "weighty" arguments as follows: 1) Some people continue to wear pants that cover their rumps despite the fact that the world has changed. 2) The ability to read page 435 of a manual is not a sufficient skill for success, but it is necessary.

Excessive jokes aside, the philosophical basis for Goldberg’s legislation is the ubiquitous educational emphasis on "process." According to this school of thought, information itself isn’t nearly as important as learning how to learn. Thus, for Goldberg, essential data can be crammed into 200 pages--no matter what the subject. Internet references in limit-exempt appendices will then provide the dynamism that compensates for this textual downsizing.

In practice, process-education has tended to produce students too uninformed to know what puzzles they should be unraveling on the information superhighway. And it has had this effect because "learning skills" or the "love of learning" are virtually impossible to nurture in students who don’t know much about anything in particular. Superficiality begets couch-potatoes, not dedicated researchers.

A more constructive approach to California’s educational woes would involve loosening the death-grip of interest groups like the CTA on education policy, providing more flexibility to charter schools, and even revisiting the hated concept of vouchers. In a competitive educational environment, pedagogical idiocies like the above would not be met with silence by state employees whose very jobs rest on their effectiveness.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


Big brother has nothing on the cultural demigods that permeate American life. The fact that many businesses now afflict patrons with loud, grating, hippity-rap music is a testament to the power wielded by media mavens. At popular restaurants these piped-in projections are often so intrusive, conversation becomes impossible. Indeed, the din feeds on itself as hearing-impaired diners who passively accept this aural assault shout across the table like hikers communicating over a vast chasm.

Almost everywhere--airports, auto repair centers, high school basketball games, barber shops--electronic devices broadcast sound waves crafted by virtual conductors who, for the last four decades, have decimated civility and murdered vocal restraint. (Does anyone whisper anymore? And if the technique were employed, could listeners decipher the words?)

Not even the nationwide bookseller near me is exempt from this pervasive tribute to the deities of distraction. Occasionally, refined selections--like sheltered eddies by a raging river--interrupt the persistent percussive pounding. But even this "background" music is too loud. And the respite is brief. The dissonance commences again--punctuated by extended cell-phone conversations involving parties whose anvils and stirrups have doubtless been damaged by prior abuse.

If one has the misfortune of sitting within fifty feet of this store’s juvenile section, the high-pitched screams of unrestrained brats will be added to the mix. A menagerie of wild beasts don’t create the cacophony generated by these homo non-sapiens romping through an establishment once devoted to intellectual reflection. When even bookstores become purveyors of mind-numbing clamor, you know you’re in trouble.

What once would have raised howls of protest, is now meekly endured by milquetoasts too cowed to glare in unison at clueless parents or to inform the manager that his "music" is irritating and offensive. Instead, customers dutifully genuflect toward the Huns who shroud our sensibilities with emotional smog. These SNL, MTV, Leno-Letterman barbarians no longer pound at the gate. Rather, they own the portal key--the means of communication.

Incessant noise, crude humor, and shallow sensuality fills our public space--flooding into the street from boxes that blare similar messages in private homes. It is a fitting backdrop for lives devoid of depth--for nose-pierced pop-cultural clones, mall-rat rebels, and 9-to-5 commuters engrossed in the permutations of celebrity justice.

Amid this raucous decadence, tolerance is a one-way street. Principled individuals are asked to defer to the sensibilities of those who find the word "Christmas" offensive. On the other hand, when crude, insulting, and noxious material is broadcast in public, these same individuals are expected to "be open" to the expression of "alternate perspectives". In such a society, being a good sport is synonymous with moral cowardice. After all, only those with a conscience (or those with hearing intact) are obliged to leave their "hangups" at home.

Mel Brooks, as the 2000-year-old man, once made this reply to Carl Reiner’s question about the secret to planetary peace: "If everyone in the world ... would play ... a violin, we would be bigger and better than Mantovani." The effect of filling our ears (and souls) with virulent electronic emissions has had the opposite result--producing a culture where reflection, tranquility, and considerateness are increasingly rare.

This debilitating trend will only be reversed when Americans summon the courage to demand decorum in public. Each intervention creates momentum toward a decent society and makes it more likely that frustrated fence-sitters will also take up the challenge of calling brutishness exactly what it is.

The project starts with you.