Test Scores and Totalitarianism

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:22

    Rarely doesnews coverage break down so cleanly along easy political lines as it did whenthe dailies responded to the release of the New York state fourth-grade readingtests' miserable results last week. "Private Schools Fare Little Betteron New 4th-Grade Test," The New YorkTimes announced. "PrivateProblem: Their school test results are less than stellar, too," insistedNewsday. "Private School Failures: 56% of nonpublic pupils don'tmeet standards," blared the Daily News. And theNew York Post? "Private schools a class above in reading tests,"the Murdoch paper confidentlyproclaimed. Oh, really?But the truth is that none of these papers' coverage of the scores' releaseredounds to its credit. In the case of the three putatively "liberal"papers, it's evidence of what's by now a quasi-religious commitment to the insipiditiesof official government education. "And while the scores at private andreligious schools were higher over all," wrote the Times' AnemonaHartocollis, "dozens of individual religious schools lagged badly behindnearby public schools, including many in New York City districts where the publicschools have been derided for educational failure"-as if the fact thatparochial schools in a given district are ineffective somehow excuses that district'swretched public schools.

    Newsday,meanwhile, razzed Mayor Giuliani, first reporting on the private schools' "less-than-stellarperformance," then mentioning gratuitously that Giuliani, "who sendshis two children to private schools, has argued that parochial schools, in particular,provide a better education..."

    Then therewas the Post, in which Angela C. Allen and Susan Edelman led off by claiming:"City parochial and private school students posted a double-digit leadover their public school counterparts, scores of the fourth-grade reading examsshow."

    Well, theytechnically did, but that doesn't mean much after you read the next sentence,which points out that only "43.7 percent of parochial and private schoolstudents passed the state's tough new English Language Arts exam." Oh yes,that's really something for conservatives to brag about. But of coursethe value of parochial schools-as Newsday made clear in its gratuitousway-is a dubious article of faith among many conservatives, Giuliani famouslyamong them. (Now there's an argument for religious education: It created a meek,tolerant Christian like Rudy G.) As any kid who's attended a parochial schoolcan tell you without the help of test scores and sociological data, the schoolsare usually nightmares: underfunded holding pens for problem kids to a similarextent that public schools are. A parochial school isn't typically a seminary-it'swhere you're sent when you screw up in public school. Does there exist a Catholicout there who wasn't at some point during his childhood threatened with theprospect of getting sent to St. Teresa's School, or wherever, there to get beateninto shape by nuns and waste good learning time kneeling in the hall recitingthe Act of Contrition?

    The attentivereader, furthermore, is bound to wonder by what incredible prodigy of fate itis that New York's prestigious private schools managed to score only slightlybetter than the public dumps. Here's the answer: Except for Trinity, some ofthe best private schools in the city-Dalton, Chapin, Spence, Collegiate andothers-didn't even participate in the test. The Post's always-reliable"Page 6" pointed that out on Friday, but it's a piece of crucial informationthat the dailies downplayed in their coverage of the day before. After all,why disseminate information that might impugn the noble experiment of public education?

    SpectacularGeorge. No one ever mistook George for a great magazine, but youcan say this for it: For a couple of years it was at least appropriate for itscultural moment. Its post-partisanship; its conflation of politics with celebrityculture; its avoidance of ideology and ideas in the interests of promulgatingthe dangerous myth that politics is just good, glossy, harmless, consensualfun, even as George editor-in-chief John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reactionarybuddy in the White House slashed the welfare roles and rained murder down onthe citizens of Baghdad and Sudan; these characteristics made it arguably thequintessential publication of the Clinton era.

    After lookingat George's July issue, though, it's possible to intensify the abovecriticisms and say this: George wasn't only a glossy index of the Clintonpolitical nightmare. It's also a good place to watch the American media-politicalcomplex happily flirt with the same totalitarian tendency to estheticize politics-todeny reasoned political thought and substitute for it mind-glazing, sentimentalspectacle-that they were more inclined to complain about back when it was squareold Ronald Reagan doing it rather than one of their yuppie/boomer own.

    Thus theJuly George, which features starlet Salma Hayek on its cover, sexed-upin a red cowboy hat and a red-white-and-blue halter top. Inside the magazine,Hayek poses as a temptress Statue of Liberty; in another photograph, she wearstight red Capri pants, and straddles a giant red Fourth of July rocket. Obviouslythe text that accompanies the photographs-a straightforward celebrity puff pieceabout Hayek that discusses her Hollywood success in the context of Hispanic-American achievement-is inoffensive, stripped of all contention and ideology, bloodlesslysummarizing both sides of even the most controversial issues. "Lately,Proposition 187-passed by 59 percent of Californians in 1994 under former governorPete Wilson-has been yet another cultural dividing wedge," the piece blandlyreads. "Prop 187 denies illegal immigrants the right to public school educationand eliminates non-emergency health and welfare services... Although Prop 187was declared unconstitutional last year in federal court, Democratic governorGray Davis was indecisive on the ruling, and it is now in mediation in a courtof appeals."

    But politics,to be healthy, shouldn't be uncontroversial. Quite the opposite: A healthy polityis one in which citizens spend significant amounts of time yelling at each other.Don't tell that to the folks at George, though, who feel free to confusepolitics with the process of jacking off to Salma Hayek. And why not? Not everybodyagrees about welfare, immigration or the defense budget. But everybody masturbates.What's to argue about?

    True, it'squite a distance from Salma Hayek vamping in George to the synchronizedstormtrooper shovel brigades in The Triumph of the Will. It's such adistance, in fact, that to mention the two in the same sentence seems ridiculous.But the distance from Salma Hayek in George to, say, thousands of Democratsgetting off on the coercive spectacle of "The Man From Hope" at the1992 Democratic convention is a short one. And the difference between "TheMan From Hope" and The Triumph of the Will is one of degree, notof kind.

    Let's turnnow to a feature in the current George entitled "The Best LittleMayor in America," which epitomizes some of George's worst tendencies.The piece, by Lisa DePaulo, is about Nibs Loughney, the mayor of Dunmore, PA,an economically depressed small town near Scranton. But the glory of it, DePaulomakes clear, is that Nibs is a quintessential regular small-town kind of guy:a jeans-and-white-sneakers fellow who's hitched to his high school sweetheart,who thrills the locals when he moonlights behind the local bar in an Elvis costumeand who-when he's not performing his mayoral chores-pulls down a middle-classsalary working for the state lottery. All of this allows DePaulo (an endnotetells us she's actually a Dunmore native, and attended high school with Nibs)to write about Loughney with great condescension:

    "[Loughney]instinctively understands that the pride of Dunmoreans can never be underestimated.His predecessor, Mayor Domnick, started the Dunmore Festival, which is morecommonly known as the Sausage and Peppers Festival because that's all anyoneserves. But Nibs went one better. Under the Loughney regime, Dunmore now hasa tradition called the Buck Drop. A cop named Anthony Cali who also owns Tiffany's,the diner at the Dunmore Corners, came to Nibs with 'a brilliant idea,' saysthe mayor. 'He felt we didn't have anything on New Year's, you know? Like NewYork does.' Cali's idea was to get one of those bucks that light up-'like thekind you put on your lawn at Christmas'-and drop it 50 feet from a crane inthe middle of the Dunmore Corners at midnight on New Year's Eve. 'Like New York,only it's a deer...'

    "TheBuck Drop has become almost as popular as the Annual Mayor Loughney Golf Tournament,at which 70 or 80 of Nibs' closest constituents gather on a golf course wherekegs of beer are planted at every third hole. One of Dunmore's garbagemen isin charge of driving a golf cart, to which a 50-gallon drum full of more beerin cans is strapped, to be tossed to the participants.

    "Basicmunicipal services."

    Those arenot basic municipal services in any town a member of the New York mediacommunity would care to live in. A police force and ambulance service are basicmunicipal services. A garbageman wheeling around in a golf cart with a 50-gallonbarrel of beer strapped to it is a "basic municipal service" onlyamong the most irredeemably picturesque of the lower middle class.

    But onward."In Dunmore," DePaulo writes later in the article, "there aretwo local heroes who rival the mayor in stature. One is Miss Buck. She's theyoung woman elected every year by the Dunmore senior class to represent themon the football field, wearing a football helmet with real dear antlers gluedto the top and covered in silver sequins... The other Dunmore dignitary is Louis'Uncle Louie' DeNaples, owner of the town's two biggest businesses (and employers),the landfill and the 'Auto Recycling Center.' This is where wrecked cars fromall over the East Coast are brought to be stripped for parts..."

    God lovethose middle Americans, going crazy for their baton twirlers and their good-guymayor and the fat guy who runs the landfill.

    But what,you're entitled to ask, exactly makes Nibs the "best little mayor"in America? And here's where George stops merely being condescendingand becomes politically unsettling.

    First, Loughney'sthe "best" of mayors because he's esthetically perfect for the role.He drinks beer. He's been known to drop a moon out of a car window. He's hungout, in his time, with guys called Homer, Bliff, Koogles, Monk and Dirt. Hesays "ya" instead of "you." He's a mere 17 years older thanhis first child. He's got thick arms and a big, square, meaty head. He's ideal:the ideal lummox chief executive for a lummox town far, far away from John-John'sTribeca. George is enamored of Loughney not because he transcends therole of a small-town meathead, but because, unthreateningly, he doesn't. Loughney'sa fluffy domesticated animal for the delectation of George's post-partisanmedia-political mandarins.

    Just asimportantly, George implies, Loughney seems to be entitled tothe job because he wants and enjoys it. See if the following passage doesn'tremind you of someone you know: "Nibs had wanted to be mayor of Dunmoresince he was a freckle-faced kid with orange hair, lobbing baseballs throughthe strained-glass windows of St. Mary's Church and mooning the neighbors...

    "'Ijust loved the way,' Nibs says, 'that when the mayor of Dunmore walked intoa room, people respected him.'"

    This isn'tto imply that Nibs Loughney is, on his level, as reactionary and destructivea politician as is Bill Clinton-or even as is Hillary Clinton, whose run fora New York Senate seat is purely an expression of selfish will. Loughney mightvery well be a great guy and good enough mayor. The point, rather, is that Georgeis inclined to redefine politics in a reactionary, and by now if we're luckyoutdated, Clintonite way: as an exercise in ego-fascist boomer gratificationand self-fulfillment.

    How longcan George carry on in an era in which Clintonism's in retreat? In whichthe selfishness and dishonesty and reaction of Clintonism will, in the nearfuture at least, be confined to Sen. Clinton's New York, and in which even Clinton'sown vice president is distancing himself from the White House and ashamedlyreturning to his former decency? A piece in the June 27 New York Postonline edition reported that Kennedy's looking "for more support to boostthe magazine to around 600,000 circulation during next year's Presidential electionyear, which he expects to be watershed for the magazine's advertising."

    Which means,realistically, that George might be around for a while. That's fine.It will continue to help pay bills for Ann Coulter and a handful of others,but people will pay it even less attention than they have. In any meaningfulsense it will have washed away in the same deluge that will sweep away the restof Clintonism's mendacities and cruelties and ideological apparatuses.

    Rich(ardGoldstein). I've always considered Frank Rich's opinions a good barometer ofwhat the New York cognoscenti are thinking at any given moment. But given hispreoccupation with violence against gays and with gay rights in general, I wonder:Do most middle-aged smart-set New Yorkers really consider gay rightsas central to the nation's political life as Rich seems to consider them? Ina "Journal" piece on Saturday's New York Times op-ed page,Rich discusses what he calls the "homophilic explosion of '99" that'smanifested itself in such developments as the gay James Hormel's appointmentto the Luxembourg ambassadorship, the gay content in the new South Parkmovie and the mainstream GOP's new eschewal of gay-baiting. Oh yeah-and SpikeLee's Summer of Sam censures gay-bashing vigilantes.

    I'm gladsuch expressions of tolerance, if that's what they are, are occurring. But arethose developments truly evidence that we're experiencing some fundamental shiftin the way most Americans view homosexuality? Rich is in danger of becoming the new Richard Goldstein, an hysteric who finds implications for gays in everyhiccup of political and popular culture. Is it possible that none of what Richis talking about really means much at all, and that the lives of gay Americansin the aftermath of, say, the South Park film will go on much as they'vegone on before? The AAN Beat Twin CitiesIncident. Listen to the following thumbsucking about an upcoming area Bob Dylan/PaulSimon show, from the Stern Publishing-owned Minneapolis City Pages: "Thetwo most dominant and durable singer-songwriters of the boomer generation havelittle in common but an extraordinary way with words. Simon's popcraft is aswell honed as any Brill Building lifer's, with a range that encompasses everythingfrom the gooey 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters' to the whimsical 'Me and JulioDown by the Schoolyard,' not to mention his inspired appropriations of gospel,reggae, and South African township jive song forms. Dylan is a son of the talkin'blues who evolved into an instinctual spouter of poetic word associations, wenton to flip for Jesus, and finally came back full circle to venerable blues coversand blunt appraisals of his own mortality. Few would have pegged either of theseguys for professional vocalists when they got started, but they're making newmusic that's far more compelling than the Stones, McCartney, Lou Reed, and NeilYoung put together." First ofall, that homeless guy in the 14th St. F-train tunnel with his unplugged electricguitar makes more compelling music these days than the Stones, McCartney, Reedand Young put together. Second, Dylan and Simon-who were both born in 1941-aretoo old to be baby boomers. (And hey, did you know that Dylan used to be knownfor "poetic word associations"? Or that Simon appropriated "townshipjive"?)

    Now comparethat piece with occasional NYPress contributor Phillip Guichard's moreintelligent Dylan/Simon preview in Seattle's The Stranger, one of theAssociation of Alternative Newsweeklies' best papers:

    "ABob Dylan concert is a zombie show that requires self-deception from both theaudience and the artist. While the audience pretends the wrinkled man with thescratchy nasal voice up on stage is the Bob Dylan they love, Dylan himself pretendsthat he's still the guy who wrote all those songs all those years ago. A certainamount of mood-altering refreshment aids both parties."

    That's thefirst paragraph. Here's the last: "As for Paul Simon, that whole 'too smartfor the hippies but too disenfranchised for the mainstream' alienated intellectualact looks really naive in retrospect. Still, he wrote some good melodies...andit's said he puts on a good live show. He and Dylan are rumored to be performinga duet... How exciting."

    Down inthe Hole. We received an e-mail solicitation last week for a syndicatedfeature that's so bad that it's bound to become extremely popular with alternativepapers, most of whom never met a syndicated feature-Tom Tomorrow, "RedMeat," Matt Groening, Rob Brezsny-they didn't take to like a hound to abone.

    "Hi,my name's Bill Childs," the e-mail read, "and I'm a Senior Writerand Head Marketing Scumbot for a website we call HoleCity...

    "Oursis a site where cultural guano gets flushed. From tv to sports, from moviesto news, we take on the biggest cultural stampedes of the week, put our spinon them, and leave our followers laughing. Think of HoleCity as an unholy alliancebetween Dennis Miller, Entertainment Weekly and 'The Incredible Mr. Limpet.'We're too cool."

    Right. Ichecked out some of HoleCity's incisive pop-cultural criticism. A bit aboutthe Super Bowl opined that "the big commercial winner was, unsurprisingly,Budweiser, whose lizard-assassinating-frogs bit was genuinely hysterical."

    I like Budweiser'slizards too, but what's this "hysterical" stuff? Elsewhere the HoleCityboys offer a mastery of irony as to make Swift himself blush: "The SuperBowl usually blows; America tunes in for the high-rent, big-budget commercials.Ever since 1984, when Apple ate IBM's shorts with that hammer-throwin' productionnumber, we've all been on the lookout for the big winners: the innovators, thesatirists, the heart-tuggers.

    "Or,contrarily, we watch the Pepsi commercials."

    Ho ho. Butback to Childs' letter, which continues: "Anyway, I'm writing because inthe past few weeks, we've successfully procured spots in a few local or regionalentertainment weeklies like yours, and we think some of our features might bea good fit for your paper. Basically, I'm whoring syndication: for [a] littledough, we think we could add something to your paper."

    Get a loadof that tone of fratboy stand-up-comic knowingness. Then Childs moves in forthe kill: "The Hartford Advocate, Atlanta's Creative Loafing, and the ChicoNews & Review are three papers who presently pick up our TVHole feature(which, on a weekly basis, sticks it to the tubefolks you love to hate). FromSportsHole to NewsHole, from MovieHole to FiveHole (our Top Five list wouldmake Letterman blush...), we've got something we think you'll like."

    If the ChicoNews & Review does it, why shouldn't we?