Anti-intellectualism, declining public debate, 2016 election

The Dumbing of AmericaAnti-intellectualism, declining public debate, 2016 election, all three are starting to come up as topics of discussion among my Facebook feed.  A good friend of mine who is either a Gen-Y’er or a Millennial, I’m not sure about the cutoff, practices the Internet phenomenon of curating the news on social media to stimulate discussion (and maybe to show off how much he reads, which is an admirably considerable quantity). The post in question came from a roundtable discussion held in New York City and sponsored by Basic Books about “The Future of the public intellectual.”

He prefaces the quote about our culture’s predilection toward anti-intellectualism and the newer phenomenon the “declining complexity of public debate” by saying, “This is just stuck in my mind for some reason. I don’t even recall reading the original forum discussion [from the piece in The Nation],” (Jp Pagán, Facebook):

“I’m struck by what one wag called the herd of independent minds; by the fact that what too often passes for intellectual discussion is a process of trying to suit up everybody in a team jersey so we know just who should be cheered and who booed…,”

When we’re looking around for who should get the blame for the declining complexity of public debate… [one is the] celebration of a self that views the world solely through the prism of the self, and much of the time a pretty “icky” self at that. It’s a quivering sentimental self that gets uncomfortable very quickly, because this self has to feel good about itself all the time. Such selves do not make arguments, they validate one another.”

That got me thinking about how my generation–the baby boomers– has contributed to the current state of affairs and how those things will affect the 2016 election, as well as our chances of meaningful change.

I should warn you ahead of time, being a baby boomer, I didn’t read the original article in The Nation because, being a baby boomer, everything is about me and my considerable hoard of knowledge and learning and my quest for enlightenment–yours not mine. I’m already there, deal with it.  (Now you know why I love Jacques Derrida and deconstructionism).

Having lived through most of the baby boom journey, I’m of the opinion that selfishness and entitlement are the defining characteristics of my generation. And that it, more than anything else, has added to the U.S.’s love affair with anti-intellectualism and contributed mightily to the declining public debate about which my friend Jp was talking.

We turned on and tuned out when we were young because it felt good–that and it was also fun to tell our parents fuck you. As we turned off and tuned in, we pretended we never did drugs, forgot all the kumbaya, said greed was good, and searched in vain for our inner-children.

In the process we bankrupted the S&L industry. Crashed the stock market twice. Created junk bonds and derivatives. Deregulated the banking industry to codify usurious lending practices bad enough to make the Mafia jealous. Face it, loan sharks can only break your bones or kill you. The government can go after your heirs. We spent more than we earned. Took corporate welfare to the heights. And when it all fell apart, turnselfiesed to the government to fix the problem. Oh and let’s not forget, we started two pointless wars which cost countless billions and thousands of lives. Disengaged from our civic duties we treat the government like a provider of services rather than our responsibility. And we hire lawyers for everything to prove nothing is our fault.

So I agree that it’s impossible to have fruitful discussions when our vision is focused on our selfies as opposed to pointing the lens outward and seeing the world as it is.

Buddhists have this notion of big “I” and little “I”. Both exist and require attention but when we see our big “I”, we know our job is to act compassionately and for the benefit of others.

If only things were different. I wish we held onto the best of the ideals of the sixties and early seventies. But the whole counter-culture revolution was all about me, as in . . . I’ll take whatever drugs I want because they make ME feel good.  I’ll sleep with whom I please for the same reason. I deserve to live better than my parents so I’ll treat the equity in my home like an ATM and cry when I get nothing after the final sale.

It appears to be too late for us baby boomers. It seems we cast aside the ideals of our youth and cast the standard of social justice on the field of battle.

My message to people like my friend Jp: Your generation is next in line to run the show. The question to ask yourselves as a cohort is whether you want to follow the path laid out by us or whether you have the courage and wherewithal to do better.


With guys like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and that douche bag Chris Christie on once side of the aisle and the narcissistic would be queen Hillary running for president–the Fantastic 4, I wonder whether the Gen-X and Y’ers and the Millennials can withstand the gravity from the black hole we created.

You guys are on the event horizon. Whatcha gonna do?

Blue Chameleon Blues

Inspired in part by Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”

Dawn’s finger tips of rose, along with the rest of her heavenly body, repose deep beneath a quilt woven of light and Phoebus’ traces across the sky. Above, a dark vaulted blackness leaks pin pricks of lights depicting cave drawings of her friends and relatives. Breakfast or brunch or whatever you want to call it came and went in a the flick of a young girl’s knot of curls. Dinner too. The reels on the recorder spin round and round. He inhabits the two and the four as the drummer taps those swung triplets on the high hat while punctuating them with the kick. The bass man slaps a repetitive figure like a shuttle on a loom, weaving the groove with ghost notes and swinging so hard everyone marvels at how close he gets to the next beat without falling out of time. Memories of the Blue Diner fade into his cries, “Stay on the one, on the one!” The guitar player and piano man shade the sketch purple with notes of red and blue. He taps a stomp box, raises harp and mic to his lips and threads a melody through the narrow spaces left in time and silence. The groove holds them or they hold it. No more instrument and musician. No one knows for how long. Groove, only groove.

A light flickers in the booth, She’s pours into the room like cream falling into rich black coffee. He feels the light on his lids and knows it’s Her. Smooth creamy skin and dark curls inhabit the groove. Somehow it becomes tighter and silkier all at once. The melody fills all the empty spaces to the point of bursting. To the bridge he cries, take it to the bridge. Tension builds and resolves to the groove and they stop. They hear her voice over the studio PA, when are you coming home?

Brain Chemistry

different emotions
waves of emotions
different ways of
saying the same thing?

i think not
i do not think

spider in the web?
i sure wish, she’s
in control while I am not

different emotions
waves of emotions
brain chemistry in real time

spider in the web?
maybe so. she spins
to catch the pieces
of her fractured soul.

An opinion about data driven decision making

I read a quote today attributed to W. Edwards Demming (yeah I know it’s Wikipedia, so what) which says, “Without data you’re just a person with an opinion,” to which I replied “With data, you’re just a person with an opinion on what the data means.”

That’s right. Data driven decision making obfuscates the opinions and leaves the meaning in the hands of people who almost always have an agenda and who almost always either cherry pick data or start with their answers and work backward.

But even if absolute intellectual integrity were possible, the observer effect and the unique and complicated  lenses through which each observer views the information, results in inferences rather than glimpses at absolute truth.

The policies inspired by Education research are case-in-point. If I had nickel for every time an academic or an administrator or a politician proclaimed their ideas and policies were research based, and therefore unassailable, I’d have enough to start my own school and fund it in perpetuity

Leaving aside my very dim view of the results and rigor of education research, how the hell are policy makers supposed to make sense of the research when people look at the same numbers and reach different conclusions?

Blue Plate Special

Young Dawn contemplates a fork full of cold eggs as He sits quietly in his booth. A Dylan lyric loops in his head, “There must be some way out of here.” He reaches for his third habnero infused Bloody Mary, “Said the joker to the thief.”

At once She appears in the vestibule by the front door and crosses the space in a bubble of self-possession. A baggy wool hat abruptly flops on table followed by a shower of thick-dark curls.

He contemplates her arrival and imagines the conversation,

“You stole the covers again. I got cold so I left”
She smiles imperiously.
“You do it all the time, I’m tired of it.”

“You left me,” Her voice cools the peppers’ heat as it carelessly veers to remonstrance.

He manages, “You looked so comfortable wrapped in our blankets. And I was hungry.” She doesn’t take the hint.

From the empty space behind the booth the word “Coffee” interrupts the moment. Hot black liquid spills into a white cup. She frowns, “Tea.”

The cup disappears. The cymbal clink of a stainless steel carafe lid punctuates the silence followed by the muffled tear of a tea bag. Hot clear liquid mixes with the leaves as the metallic scent of commercial tea billows upward.

“Need more time?” asks the empty space. She doesn’t bother to look at the menu, “Blue Plate Special.”She rips six packets of sugar and tips the cream.

She notes the dead soldiers strewn about his paper place mat, each grave marked with a twisted lemon slice and half-eaten a stalk of celery. She adds, “And thirsty too, apparently.”

Scovilles of doubt enflame his belly. There’s too much confusion / I can’t get no relief. She goes in for the kill. First a pout then,

“How come you didn’t wait for me?”
“I’m sorry. You looked peaceful. I didn’t want to wake you.”

The blue plate specials arrive. Two eggs over easy, hasbrowns, and toast. They tuck in. He motions for another drink. The chill of silence cools the moment.

Young Dawn stands on the sidewalk, brushes her hair from her face and hails a taxi for home.

Almost Moving In Day

The summer of 2008
seems like yesterday
Olivia sat on a chair
in the middle school
band room warming up
on her tenor saxophone
preparing to wow
the high school
band director.

Tomorrow she’s off to Hofstra
as an accomplished bassoonist
ready to wow the world.

I’m very proud
of how hard she’s worked
to arrive at this moment.

I pray she learns to find
the secret places where
life’s true blessings lie
and that she always remembers
she is strong enough
to face her challenges
and to overcome
the inevitable obstacles.

Mythologizing the Michael Brown story

In Pluto’s diary on the life of Michael Brown, you might notice one detail that’s both touching and disturbing: Mike’s graduation photograph was taken in March 2014, still many months ahead of when he would be able to graduate in August. Imagine the “why” of this fact: The grinding […]

Michael Brown’s situation was indeed unfortunate. I don’t understand what this has to do with the shooting. A friend insists this is just an interesting side note worthy of a compartmentalized discussion about academic and economic inequities and institutional racism. I think pulling these threads at this moment have the effect of adding back story to the “Michael Brown” victim-character who will inhabit the story we tell about the shooting and the social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

To be clear, I am not suggesting in any way that the lethal force applied by Daren Wilson was justified. Neither am I ignoring the structural problems of public school education or the generational inequities suffered by the African-American community.

What I am saying is when we start looking at elements not directly related to the shooting, we begin the process of mythologizing the story as opposed to asking and answering the important questions like was lethal force justified in this situation according to the current rules?

Conflation does not help, rather it makes solving the problems more complicated. A good friend complained the president of the Missouri Board of Education, Peter F. Herschend, of Bransonn, MO “lives across the state. He’s a rich, politically connected businessman who runs a state board in charge of perhaps the poorest districts in the state.”

Then he said, the “state took two incredibly poor, essentially all black districts (already paying the highest tax rate in the state), merged them (instead of merging them with other adjoining districts—richer and whiter), took away their accreditation and then—when that entitled the children to be bused to other districts—they reversed that decision, locking the kids into the local schools, but run by the state, by the rich guy with no actual education training who lives nowhere near the kids who have to share graduation gowns. Even if this is business as usual, it shouldn’t be.”

I think we all agree poverty, injustice and inequity are serious problems in our society. But let’s unpack the complaint: first and foremost the school problem is complex. Racism may play a role in the change but economics and the structure for school funding are the larger controlling factors. Leaving aside any discussion about how, the local district failed its students.

When that happens the state is supposed to take over the district, help them develop and execute a plan to fix the problems, and eventually return the district to local control.

Combining two poor black school districts and manipulating the accreditation rules to keep students in place in their local districts without a clear plan to fix the problems is cynical at best and may well be racially motivated.

Nevertheless, I suspect race took a back seat to economics. School funding relies primarily on local tax receipts. Here in Massachusetts, where I live, local tax income pays between 60% – 70% of the school’s budget. The balance is made up mostly from state funds with a sprinkling of federal money.

So the bulk of the money comes from property taxes. If the residential and commercial properties lose value and there is no growth in the district, the amount of money available to allocate to the schools dwindles and therefore the per-pupil rates and monies for facilities suffer. In an ideal world the state should increase its share but that rarely happens in practice.

In fact Brown’s school district couldn’t afford to educate the kids in place. Then it cost more per pupil to send them elsewhere. Somebody has to make up the shortfall.

De-accrediting Normandy High School in effect gave ownership of a structural problem to neighboring school districts without providing them with the resources to accommodate the influx of new students.

Neighbor school were organized to accommodate their existing student population. A large influx of new students skews the calculus in many ways. E.g. The building has x number classrooms and teachers. Building more classrooms is expensive and time-consuming. Therefore, student to teacher ratios have to change. That means students suffer and teacher contracts will have to be renegotiated.

Third, teaching in poor districts is daunting and unrewarding for most educators because of the economic and social factors preying upon students and their families. Staff recruitment and retention is a problem. How does an English teacher convince students struggling for survival that it’s important to be able to identify Epic Similes in THE ODYSSEY?

As to the board president not being an educator, that’s as it should be. Like the military, schools serve the community, not the other way around. Citizen oversight is essential to ensure a proper balance of executive functions and community values. Furthermore, most boards have professional staff and the ability to hire experts so it’s not like they make uninformed decisions.

The laws in Massachusetts contemplate this by placing a statutory firewall which prevents local school committees (i.e., boards of education) from interfering with the day-to-day operations of districts and schools. Essentially they hire and fire the superintendents and allocate funds. Of course decisions can be politically motivated but that’s the nature of our government. Good luck getting that changed.

With all of that said, Michael Brown’s killing and the resulting civil unrest are horrible. We all suffer the loss of the young man and the deficiencies in our police departments and schools.

50 Shades of Curmudgeon and the art of Facebook kibitzing

Today I posted the following status on Facebook:

I’m thinking about taking a break from discussing the issues here on FB. Apparently no one is ever wrong–except me.

That was followed by a string a of good natured jibes because my friends know I’m full of shit:

“you are soooo wrong about that”

“play George Costanza for a day ….before you type think through your thought(s) and then write the exact opposite … if you are always wrong then you will now be always be right”

Doug’s right. Besides, I had it figured out a couple weeks ago…. the problem with the rest of the world is that they are always 5 drinks behind….

Even my wife got in on the act,

“Honey,just send around happy thoughts of the day like I do! Ya know, “the crappin’ rainbows stuff… Might make you less crabby.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good conversation–especially with smart people who have different points of view.

Today’s post was a reaction to a thread from which I just extricated myself. I posed the question:

So, here’s a questions for those who side with the Palestinians because you believe the Israelis were not entitled to settle the land and create their own country. Where’s the righteous indignation as ISIS kills everyone who disagrees with them, gobbles up territory from several sovereign nations without the leave of the local inhabitants and sets about starving the Yazidis?

Mostly it was a great conversation. My friends are smart, well read, and passionate. My point was that the ISIS was engaged in a murderous land grab in which people were brutally tortured and killed over 5,000 people and yet the Hamas apologists were completely silent on the matter.

That seems hypocritical to me. That’s when my favorite amateur Aristotle cum English teacher chimed in with,

“It sounds like you’re suggesting an equivalency between ISIS and Israel.” Which then prompted a comical discussion about equivalency. (Yeah I know I’m living 50 shades of curmudgeon.)

Ari, examined the word from every possible angle and concluded

But Bob, if you’re suggesting that people who condemn Israel must also condemn ISIS, that only works if there is an equivalency. The converse would be that people who condemn ISIS should also condemn Israel.”

These conversations usually peter out after a few days so I pressed on. We bantered about who deserved the moniker hypocrite and clarified some facts.

All was well until Ari weighed in with  “true hypocrisy would be if someone took the position you described on Israel, and then stated that ISIS actually HAS the right to the land they have taken.” And, “Actually, the more common use of “hypocrisy” involves a person’s stated values not matching his actions. But in this case we’re not talking about actions, simply stated opinions.

E gads. Why didn’t I see that? There’s hypocrisy and there’s true hypocrisy. Just like an unwary swimmer, I failed to notice even though my head was pointed at the beach and it felt like I was swimming forward, I was heading feet first into a whirlpool of tortured analogies, nuances without differences, and word parsing that would, as my mother used to say, drive a saint to drink.

Upon reflection, I should have just quit. Just as with a real rip tide, the only way out is to take the ride or swim parallel to the shore. As a former Fire Island lifeguard, I would have ridden the current and body surfed in. I knew better. As a Facebook kibitzer, I put my head down and swam against the current.

Things deteriorated in slow motion. I countered with,

I really don’t have the patience to niggle over definitions. Henceforward, the horse carcass is lying on the side of the road with its skin flayed to the muscle. You are most welcomed to continue flogging.

Then we parsed the world flogging , Says Ari, “I hardly think that constitutes ‘flogging.’” Followed by,

So Bob, every despicable act you have failed to object to on Facebook is one you approve of?” And the coup de gras, “Ergo, failure to object to a despicable act does not constitute approval of the act.”

Ouch got me there.

Unfortunately, I have never developed a facility for walking away from a provocation. My big mouth has gotten me in a lot of trouble over the years. Especially when I was an elected official. So I got crankier and crankier.

He just went on and on,

My analogy is comparative, not absolute

Okay, this is falling into a familiar pattern: I say we shouldn’t be concerned with what Hamas SAYS, and you counter with an argument about what Hamas DOES. These are two different subjects, however much you may try to conflate them.

I finally lost it,

As there are thousand and one reasons why “the other guy” is the problem, it appears more suffering is required. Frankly, as long as the U.S. government does not draft my son to fight this any other war that does not involve defending our own backyards, the Palestinians and Israelis (and other country) are free to kill and torture each other for all of eternity.

Suddenly I was now apathetic, even though I posed the question, spent days reading my friends posts and links and formulating responses.

Well Bob, if you’re that apathetic, why have you gone on so long about this?

Then we tortured the words apathy and action, which apparently does not involve asking questions, reading, writing, discussing the issues with friends, and replying to their posts. There is doing and there is doing,

What you post on Facebook are only words, Bob.

To which I replied,

Case in point Aristotle.  You’re niggling over the definition of the word action and trying to make a distinction where none exists.

He finally put up the white flag.

I’ve really had enough of this discussion.

I tell my kids all the time, you don’t have to respond to every provocation. if only I listened to my own advice. It’s funny how we become our parents. They used to tell me not to smoke as they lit one cigarette with the burning end of the last. You know, do as I say, not as I do.

Maybe there’s hope for the next generation. I never smoked.

As always comments are welcomed.

Memo to blog comment spammers

No Spam Please

Attention blog comment spammers human and bots: your insipid comments have no chance of ever seeing the light of day here on It’s a Bob World, never mind convincing me or my readers to buy your bullshit knockoff products. Know I have various means at my disposal to prevent blog comment spammers from being published here. Do us both a favor and just go away. You are wasting your time and mine.

I often fantasize of developing software that creates a feedback loop to gently shock blog comment spammers when their fingers touch their keyboards; or, in my crueler moments, which deletes the data on their servers. Where’s Lizbeth Salander or Chloe O’Brien when you need them?

Ideally, the software would also remotely activate the spammer’s web cam and microphone so my readers could see them react with surprise and consternation every time they touch their keyboards and feel the gentle shocks.

To my readers, you on the other hand are cordially invited to leave comments. I know from my site analytics that there are a good number of you. It would be nice if you left feedback–regardless of your point of view.

One way conversations get lonely and beg the question if blog writer publishes his work, and no one comments, has he really published his work?

Liberal conspiracy to hijack higher education

Have you noticed that conservatives often complain about a so called liberal conspiracy to hijack higher education? One such wag recently informed me that taking over the education system was one of the Soviets’ primary goals.

When I pressed him by saying I failed to notice a liberal conspiracy when I went to college and grad school, he explained, “You fail to see the tentacles of Marxism, they are long and entwined. They are not bound by geography but by ideology. Whittaker Chambers wrote that in the ’30s the Soviets had three main objectives here in the USA: Education, Media, Government. They have succeeded in infiltrating and takeover all of those.”

Let’s hold aside the media and government for another day. Let’s even suppose the Soviet Union succeeded. Guess what? The Soviet Union no longer exists. Just ask any supporter of Ronald Regan: the commies lost the Cold War.

With the Soviet Union gone and Communism having exited the world stage, to what are these “tentacles of Marxism” attached? What sustains them? And for what purpose?

According to the aforementioned Facebook wag, they seemed to have become a self-sustaining and decentralized global entity (rather like Al Qaeda, I suppose). Evidently there is a secret international conspiracy comprised of whom? Former Soviet, Chinese, and Cuban ideologues? Apostate Westerners who long for the good old days of Stalin and Chairman Mao?

He offered as proof of their success the observation that college campuses are bastions of liberal thinking. I wonder if he has it ass backwards.

Where are these agents provocateur? How are they organized? Do they convene in grubby student apartments in college towns throughout the west? Are they gray men hiding in plain sight? Biding their time? Whispering in the ears of academia bound Ph.D. students? Are they lying in wait for the right moment in history to seize the opportunity to create a second global Communist/Socialist government? That would make for a wonderful William F. Buckley novel but otherwise strains credulity.

Maybe tolerance and compassion and liberal mindedness are the natural products of an education? After all, kids move out of their childhood homes, they meet people who are different from them and have to learn how to amicably co-exist, and they spend four years intensively acquiring knowledge and developing their minds.

Now you know why closing down universities and killing or threaten the academics are on any new repressive regime’s short list upon taking power–right after taking over the media and killing and/or jailing the officials from the previous government.

Just a thought.