Entries Tagged 'Texas' ↓

Sudden Jesus-ing in Fort Worth, Texas, at Berry & Cockrell

“YES, MY FRIEND-uh”

This Friday evening a group of maybe twenty folks have assembled at the corner of Berry and Cockrell to proselytize for Christianity; I happened to pass by and jump into live-blogging mode. The speakers from the group, some using English and one Spanish, have been speaking into a hand-held microphone and through a portable PA for easily an hour counting. They’re passing out pamphlets identifying themselves as The Door Christian Fellowship.

The pamphlet handed to me says, among other things, “Are your hopes and dreams unraveling? Are your finances stretched to the breaking point? We Care! and We Can Help! Join us for Life-Changing Services. Find out why Jesus Is The Answer!” It gives an address — 3011 Lackland Rd, Ft Worth, Texas — along with a phone number: (817) 377-1098.

“Douglas-uh, maybe you should move out of Texas-uh.”

They picked this particular street corner for obvious strategic reasons. It’s catty-cornered by the Texas Christian University strip, where clubs, restaurants, and the like entertain students. I don’t know if the group got a permit, or if they needed to, technically, or not. People walking or driving by have expressed various reactions — mostly happy honks and cheers, but a few jeers and some “SHUT THE F*#) UP”s.

“Can we go home yet?”

Here are some quotes from the speakers, 90+% accurate.

  • I know there’s [sic] been advances in technology. The answer is not on Facebook, my friends. The answer is not on Twitter, my friends. There is [sic] real answers in God. Before I got saved, I used to look into all those kinds of — Buddhism, and all kinds of new age stuff. But the real answer was right here: Jesus Christ.

  • On the outside, we’re dressed-up, my friend, we look like we’ve got it all together, but on the inside, my friend, you’re dying because of your sin. You wake up at night and wonder what will come tomorrow. On the inside, you cry yourself to sleep. You go from relationship to relationship because on the inside, you’re dirty. Jesus Christ will clean you. He wants to do that. The Bible says He will set you free. You can be set free from the lifestyle of drugs and alcohol. You can be set free from living for the next party, the next big thing. Jesus Christ can change who you are on the inside, my friend. Jesus can change you. He can change you, my friend, so you don’t have to end up like your parents.

  • Your parents are paying for you to go to college, probably, and you’re wasting that money tonight by getting drunk so you can sleep with someone, maybe. But you will be free for real if you cry out to Jesus Christ!

  • Maybe you’re a queer — it takes God to save you.

  • God commanded us to go forth and preach the Gospel. We go all over the city and preach Jesus Christ. We’re not here tonight because we’re trying to put something on you. I love Fuzzy’s Tacos, my friend; amen, it’s nothing against anybody, my friend. We really care about you. We don’t want to see God put you in Hell.

  • Accept Jesus before it’s too late. If you reject the perfect and living God, he will reject you for all eternity and send you to Hell.

It’s this same group (different day, different place in the same city):

They’ve just now put away their gear and dispersed. As they were packing up — I was typing this from the patio of Stay Wired! Coffeehouse and Computer Services — a guy and girl walked by, dressed up as Jedis, complete with lightsabers. Works for me.

Used without permission; please don’t go after me, buy Star Wars instead.

Creative Commons License

Sudden Jesus-ing in Fort Worth, Texas, at Berry & Cockrell by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.douglaslucas.com.

The Exuberant Quandary

After Monday’s suicide of Russell Armstrong (a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star’s estranged husband), Matt Zoller Seitz of Salon.com called reality TV “A blood sport that must change.” Seitz said:

The type of so-called reality show represented by the “Real Housewives” franchise is the soft-bellied, 21st century American TV version of a gladiatorial contest. It has no agenda except giving viewers the basest sort of entertainment: the spectacle of people doing violence to each other and suffering violence themselves. Instead of going at each other like gladiators with swords and clubs, or like boxers hurling punches, participants in this kind of unscripted show attack each other psychologically. The show’s appeal is the spectacle of emotional violence. The participants — or “cast members,” as they are revealingly labeled — suffer and bleed emotionally while we watch and guffaw. […]

Unscripted shows encourage, and sometimes cause, emotional damage. That’s the whole point of their existence — the reason they get on the air, the reason we watch and discuss them. They record intense, bizarre, sometimes ginned-up conflicts during production. They transform the participants into caricatures of themselves […]

Yesterday I asked a story editor on a long-running dating series who did not want her name used in this story if, during her years of working on these shows, she had ever heard a producer express authentic concern for a participant’s well-being as a person rather than an abstracted “character.” She laughed and said, “No. That just doesn’t happen. If anybody working on this kind of show thought that way, it would make the shows less entertaining, and that person would lose their job.”

Tonight I went to the corner grocery store to buy Wifely some Skinny Cow dessert and me some Mexican Coke. The cashier, a young woman, wore a nametag that, under her name, said:

I LOVE U :)

I thought to myself: that’s an exuberant nametag. Although people who aren’t actually in my skull insist otherwise, I do automatically, non-voluntarily think such words as “exuberant.” If that annoys you, you probably shouldn’t be reading my blog, but rather watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

No one was in the lane behind me, nor was anyone nearing the lane. For a moment I considered saying something or other to the cashier about her nametag. After all, I’ve checked out through her lane enough times for us to share mutual recognition, though just barely. I prefer to interact with a person when checking out, instead of using the self check-out lanes, because something worthwhile, interesting and unique and unpredictable, might happen during my encounter with another human being.

Then for another moment I considered not saying something about her nametag. Because by now the time for exchanging a greeting had nearly ended, she was starting to scan my Mexican Coke, she was about to ask if I’d brought my rewards card (I always lie and say I forgot; cashiers then scan theirs on my behalf, and not only do I not have to deal with signing up for one, but also I singlehandedly defeat the company’s entire research division). But the only word coming to mind during this expiring hourglass time was exuberant.

I decided not to chicken out, to go for it.

“That’s an exuberant nametag,” I said.

Her smile wriggled as happily and confusedly as she did until she stopped to ask what “exuberant” meant. Ah-ha, I thought, a person who doesn’t become angry like so many do when someone else uses a word they don’t know, but instead has the laudable reaction of curiosity. Now it was my turn to wriggle my hand happily and confusedly, trying to pantomime the meaning of exude while telling her, “It means, like, … happiness … like …” I managed to stop stumbling and say “It means something like, ‘Shining out happiness.'”

She said, “I really like that,” and I sensed she meant it. A few moments of silent, shared satisfaction passed as she scanned my items.

Photo of Philip K. Dick by Anne Dick “I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities” — PKD

One of the commonplace remarks about reality TV is that it “isn’t real,” that it’s merely “so-called” reality TV. This supposed phoniness is alleged to cover up the “natural” way of being, the “real” way, which is usually not identified by the shows’ deriders.

As I paid for the grocery items, I nervously — as if invisible judges were watching — began to, as they say, “walk it back”: retract and qualify what I said. Anxiously I told the increasingly disappointed cashier the following nonfiction anecdote from a few days back:

I walked down an aisle at this same corner grocery store to pick up some ice cream. A middle-aged female customer was squatting down with a freezer door opened, scrutinizing the vanilla flavors. Without my saying anything, she suddenly started talking haphazardly about the proliferation of vanillas. French vanilla, old-fashioned vanilla, vanilla bean and more. “She told me to get vanilla; I wonder which she meant? There are too many!” In a bad mood, I didn’t want to talk at first; like a person wearing sunglasses indoors, I didn’t want to interact with anyone, didn’t want to engage with people. I resented her a little for introducing conversation. Then I regretted my self-absorption and told her I suspected old-fashioned vanilla would do the trick. The woman half-nodded sorta-assent, and said, as I walked away, “‘Tis a quandary.”

Walking away still, I looked back at her, and she was still squatting, not looking at me. I felt irritated that she hadn’t continued the conversation, that she’d used the word ‘quandary.’ How would she have known I knew what it meant, anyway? Now I was feeling like those who call big vocabulary pretentious. But I guess something small helped her recognize that I’m the sort of odd person who knows odd words. I still feel bad for not engaging with her, for choosing instead to cultivate my sour mood.

I explained all this to the I LOVE U :) cashier who, like I said above, appeared disappointed with me for walking-back the happy shared moment of exuberant. I was disappointed with me, too. But at least when I was driving home I thought up this blog post; I realized there was a big connection between these interactions and the reality TV issue.

At their peak the destructive emotions flaring during these reality TV shows are definitely real. (Perhaps those who decry the shows and miss this point don’t actually see much of them.) Real doesn’t imply good, doesn’t imply that the shows shouldn’t be changed. (I like Seitz’s suggestion of psychologists and better screenings; you can’t eliminate a phenomenon like reality TV; and, to pretend an underbelly doesn’t exist doesn’t help anything.)

Here’s the point. I think that in our postmodern world, people are so hungry for authentic moments of human experience that, even it means havoc or worse for the participants’ lives, they’ll take what these shows offer, if that’s all they know how to find. Because sincerely engaging with other people during the day, even through a good work of art, and sincerely emoting, is a scary risk.

Creative Commons License

The Exuberant Quandary by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.douglaslucas.com.

Glenn Greenwald at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls on Reforming US Foreign Policy

Answering audience question

Last month on a Thursday evening (10 March 2011), Glenn Greenwald (his Salon.com column; Twitter; Wikipedia; recent Awl interview) gave a talk at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls titled “Reforming U.S. Foreign Policy” (MWSU’s philosophy program and a few other people/groups you can see on the flyer sponsored the event). His mere appearance was notable since Wichita Falls and MWSU are small places (city population about 100k, university students about 6500) in the Republic of Texas, roughly 3 hours away from the Dallas – Fort Worth metroplex. These days the Republic is about as right-wing a state as it gets (2010 Texas Republican Party Platform in PDF), and Greenwald is by no means a minor commentator. A traditional way to show his prominence: he has two NYT bestselling books to his name, in 2009 Forbes ranked him the 18th Most Influential Liberal in US Media, and he’s appeared on TV news programs ranging from Democracy Now! to Rachel Maddow to Brit Hume to Colbert. Watch him defend Wikileaks and Julian Assange on CNN with this embed:

An alternate way to show Greenwald’s prominence? The law firm Hunton & Williams requested three data intelligence firms — HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies, and Berico Technologies (all connected with the US national security industry) — develop a proposal on behalf of Bank of America, which apparently fears a Wikileaks mega-leak exposing mis-doings. Part of the leaked proposal targeted Greenwald:

(The Anonymous hack leaking emails (searchable!) showing the HBGary et al. plan against Greenwald & Wikileaks also revealed HBGary has worked on “persona management” software to help the US create fake netizens as astroturf to manufacture “the illusion of consent” and “gang up” on bloggers.)

The drive from Fort Worth to MWSU was long, especially as I’d never visited the campus before, and I was teaching that day. So unfortunately I entered the auditorium about 45(?) minutes late.

From my seat near the back of the auditorium, I placed the crowd size at about 150; Greenwald later said the sponsor(s) guessed around 150-200. Many were students, taking notes like mad. Greenwald speaks very quickly, very well, and in long, complex, grammatically correct sentences — I gave up my attempt to live-tweet the event. He didn’t appear to use any notes, either, though maybe he had a bullet-point outline page on the podium or something.

Two days prior, Greenwald spoke in Santa Fe on the current political climate, so with the two Santa Fe embeds below — I haven’t found any for the MWSU Wichita Falls event — you can hear some of the same content and also get a sense of his speaking style. There’s a transcript of the Santa Fe talk here and a transcript of its Q&A here.

Much of what Greenwald said in Wichita Falls about foreign policy matches his article “The crux of our endless War on Terror.” From the article:

not only is our policy of endless war wildly disproprionate and counter-productive, but it provides the pretext for endless civil liberties abuses. Here is what [Obama’s Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael] Leiter boasts after being asked about the Obama administration’s targeting of U.S. citizens for assassination who have been charged with nothing: “Just to be clear, the U.S. government through the Department of Defense goes out and attempts to target and kill people, a lot of people, who haven’t been indicted.” […]

[All this] despite the fact that we have been continuously wrong in our accusations of Terrorism and have even knowingly imprisoned innocent people. […]

Leiter concedes (as has been recognized by the U.S. Government for years) that [US counter-terrorism] actions have the opposite effect of what is supposedly intended: namely, these actions are what motivate so much of the very Terrorism (especially the recent Terrorism) that is cited to justify those policies. […]

All because there are a few hundred people hiding in caves in remote tribal areas who are really, really Scary: who will get you if don’t acquiesce to endless war, the transfer of enormous amounts of money to fight those wars, and the most unlimited and unchecked government powers imaginable. And even when they come right out and say that this is all about nothing more than a few hundred people — many of whom are motivated by the very violence we’re perpetrating — it changes very little. Fear is an extremely potent motivating force, overwhelming all reason and skepticism of power. That’s why political leaders — in all eras and all places — like it and use it so much.

In this connection, note USA (combined) military spending since 2001 has been a bailout-per-year (approx $700 billion). If you froth about the bailout’s size, remember: total USA military spending, now: a bailout per year. (Progressive Libertarians, there’s your mantra!)

Since I wasn’t able to take many notes during the (high-speed!) talk, and since much of the content matched the embeds and the article above, I’ll simply bullet-point some of the notes I did manage to take. These are comments from Greenwald, paraphrased by me; any mistakes mine.

  • He referred approvingly to the Washington Post’s Top Secret America investigation. The investigation shows the national security industry in America has grown so large, has become such a huge portion of the government, that no one has really been able to successfully keep track of it and its spending.

  • Our civil rights we’re told about from childhood (due process, free speech, free press, &tc.) do make us better (in that regard) than other countries, make us free; war is the great enemy of those freedoms. The greatest violations of civil liberties pretty much occur during war. The Espionage Act, the Japanese internments, Senator McCarthy, the current NSA.

  • Some secrecy is necessary for governments, but that’s supposed to be the exception, not the rule.

  • War creates constant fear. The way to get a citizenry to agree to wage a war is to get them to fear something. FDR had a difficult time convincing Americans to enter World War Two; after the senseless World War One, there was a broad sense in America that wars should not be entered unless we’re directly under attack. What finally convinced Americans was the fear the Japanese brought about through Pearl Harbor. Fear is the pre-requisite for war. Overall, fear is an important, valuable, and important emotion. But oftentimes, fear becomes its own addiction. No matter what, whether the war in question is just or not, it puts the citizenry in fear.

  • Here’s one of his anecdotes about the current climate of fear in America. He wrote an article about Wikileaks before they’d released the Collateral Murder video — before Wikileaks was known well in the States. He initially learned of them by reading the Pentagon had in 2002 prepared a secret report declaring Wikileaks an enemy to be destroyed — ironically enough, the report was leaked to Wikileaks [This line got much laughter]. Greenwald began to suggest his readers donate to the organization. But people told him they were afraid — though Wikileaks had never been charged with or convicted of a crime. They were afraid they’d end up on “some list.” The War on Terror has made people afraid of our government, has made people believe there’s very little the government can’t do to you.

  • It’s not as if we’re going to be able to round up a finite number of terrorists with T‘s stamped on their foreheads, kill them, and then we’ll be free of fear and terror, ready to resume our civil liberties. No, now we’re in a period of perpetual war.

  • Terrorism works because terrorists decide for whatever reasons that they’re willing to blow themselves up to kill as many other people as possible, to sacrifice their lives in other ways, in order to inflict damage and send messages … What is it that leads people to this point? Well, every day the Muslim world broadcasts the damage the USA inflicts there; imagine some group / country / government striking your weddings, parties, homes, and you hear about it day and day out — that’s what makes a terrorist want to attack the USA. Yet if as an American citizen you say the solution to terrorism might be to stop bombing people, you’re often considered a terrorist yourself!

And, from the Question and Answer period, audience questions:

  • Q: What do you say when people tell you you’re Anti-American for talking in your reasonable, critical way?

    A: The ultimate patriotic duty, your obligation, is to critique the policies you think are hurting your own citizens. I don’t think there’s something inherently evil about the USA; but, the actions we’re engaging in are extremely destructive.

  • Q: Could you say something about the plight of Bradley Manning, alleged leaker to Wikileaks?

  • A: When people ask me how I manage to say things some people take as anti-American, I think about people such as Manning who are undergoing much worse than I am, and I get courage from that.

  • Q: What should an everyday citizen do to promote the kind of positions you’re advocating?

  • De-fund the wars. Talk to people about the issues. Also, the nascent grassroots alliances between Progressives and Libertarians might further the de-funding of the wars.

  • Q [by me]: Can you talk about tensions between transparency and privacy, not so much with groups such as Wikileaks where power disparities are clear-cut, but with other groups such as UniLeaks, who publishes leaks about universities … or, leaks about small businesses, medium-size businesses … [Here I wanted to mention a quote attributed to Assange in a Mother Jones article: Wikileaks “want[s] every person who’s having a dispute with their kindergarten to feel confident about sending us material.”]

  • A: This question has come up recently with people accusing Assange of hypocrisy. Public citizens with political power should be subject to transparency; ordinary private citizens should be allowed privacy. Right now our culture has completely reversed that .. that’s the dichotomy that has to be kept in line.

After the Q&A, I spoke with Greenwald briefly to thank him for making Texas something other than a right-wing state for a few hours. He seemed a fairly normal guy, and I mean that in a good way; partly it’s a superficial comment to make, but after run-ins with more than one odd political group or wiseman or …, I tend to take a moment to measure such things as body language and whatnot. (Not that I’m any sort of sartorial genius or smooth operator myself; I bumble.)

I asked Greenwald for further comment on my question — for instance, I asked, is the dichotomy between transparency and privacy something to be hashed out over time via common law and the like? He suggested it’s more of a cultural thing, that culture is more of the prime mover in this regard. Unfortunately he and I had all of twenty seconds to talk about it, but that’s how these events go. =) As a follow-up I’d have asked about Žižek’s take on Wikileaks. Žižek says the predominant leftist model of Wikileaks sees it merely as a “radical case of ‘investigative journalism'” and sees power as “held by the bad guys at the top” rather than as “something that permeates the entire social body, determining how we work, think and consume.” I don’t agree with Žižek’s downplaying of investigative journalism, but I think he raises interesting questions, especially in light of Assange’s comment in Mother Jones indicating an interest in publishing material on more everyday organizations. In Santa Fe Greenwald said:

to me, when people raise concerns, ‘well, isn’t Wikileaks going a little too far in disclosing some things that should be secret?’ We’re so far over towards the pole of excessive secrecy that I can’t even envision the day when I’m going to start worrying about excessive disclosure. I’d like to be in that position, but we’re so far from that day. So, yes, some things should be kept secret, but that is so far away from the problem that we have, that things that should be kept secret aren’t being kept secret, when everything is being kept secret, and that’s a real threat to democracy.

I basically agree with Greenwald here (and Clay Shirky), but I believe we’d benefit from experts such as Greenwald pondering aloud the far-off day of excessive disclosure, and the current time of a wildly changing public space, even if that’s not their exact realm of expertise. (See, for instance, David Brin‘s book The Transparent Society.) Then again, as a writer who often writes science fiction, I sometimes reason from the future backwards, which isn’t always the best thing to do.

Moral philosophers should consider this: are white lies, those social niceties, justified, and does social networking and the current change in the public space change the issue? Political science people should go after Obama’s statement “I can’t conduct diplomacy on an open source.” And one way for someone with a law background to look at it might be: what happens to libel and slander laws as we, through social networking, all become more public citizens? Wikileaks is a radical and good case of investigative journalism, but it is something more also, something we’re all having trouble putting our finger on.

On Meeting the National Secretary of the Socialist Equality Party at an Event Somehow Related to Wikileaks

When I’m really excited about a book or movie, I make a point of ignoring the reviews, the jacket copy, the trailers, etc. — I prefer to experience the full-length artwork cold. Then afterward I go back and check out the peripheral stuff.

So as some sort of ‘cautious supporter at a distance’ (or whatever) of Wikileaks — and especially of journos and fiction-writers bravely discussing radical transparency, technology, civil liberties — I got excited about what at first appeared, on the Wikileaks Central website here, to be a vague “Global WikiLeaks support rally.” Anyone apparently can claim one of these things, not unlike this or that tea party or this or that libertation front meeting. I put the date, time, and place (16 Feb, 7pm, the University of Houston Main Campus University Center Room 242) on my calendar and waited a good month or so for the day to arrive. I didn’t even research the event, really, let alone its periphery.

Though it was hard to miss this headline on the event(s) webpage at the World Socialist Web Site:

Imperialist diplomacy exposed: Behind the witch-hunt of WikiLeaks.

Really? Some dudes in Houston (and elsewhere!) have discerned the one and only witch-hunt and they’re going to expose it? Ah, but being charitable as I am, and being forewarned as I am about the loose nature of de-centralized rallies/discussions, I decided just to show up, see who’d be there, what’d happen there, benefit of the doubt and all.

A day or two before driving down to Houston, I double-checked the event’s meager webpage at the World Socialist Web Site (not Wikileaks Central) and noticed a name had been slotted in as a “Speaker”: Joe Kishore. (I think I have the timeline of these webpage changes accurate from memory, but if you find any cache or archive discrepancies, please tell in the comments.)

I ripped this image of Joe Kishore off the World Socialist Web Site since they don’t believe in property

I found his Twitter username and included it in a public tweet spanning Wikileaks-related hashtags in search of other people who might be attending. Kishore responded:

I SEE YOU TOO

Not long after this exchange, the World Socialist Web Site added an additional sentence describing the Houston event: “The topic of this meeting has been changed to The Revolution in Egypt.” Maybe I’m imagining things, but it is relevant to point out that anyone can find out with two clicks on Twitter that my wife works as a television producer, and this event started as a political rally seeking attention. As for the Wikileaks Central page, they continued (and still continue) to describe the Houston meeting as a “support rally” and a “discuss[ion]”.

The day of the event, I used one of my school’s faculty restrooms to change out of my Clark Kent button-down & slacks and into a comfortable pair of blue jeans, my trusty O9 F9 T-shirt, and a hoodie-like thing with a “BLAME IT ON THE MEDIA” button in place of a flag pin. (Blame everything on the mediated nature of higher-order human consciousness!) And I got into my little hatchback and off through the Republic of Texas I went.

At about 8:00pm — missing all of the event except the last few Q&As! — I entered the room with my camera around my neck and my briefcase and, as quietly as possible so as not to distract anyone, made my way to the back of the room and took a chair. I decided photography would be rude, since I was such a late arrival, so unfortunately, no pictures here. But from memory, the demographics of the audience: about 15 students of the typical college age, late teens to early to mid-twenties, mostly non-white, males and females equally visible. I don’t think there were any professors in the room, as there sometimes are at talks. There were, however, two middle-aged white guys accompanying the National Secretary, Houston locals I think. Kishore told me later he was thirty.

I really only heard two or three audience questions. With one, a young woman asked about similar events elsewhere in the Middle East, and I was thinking, that’s what Twitter’s for, not really paying attention, as I was jacking-in to Twitter myself, tethering with my iPhone. Also I seem to remember a young man sitting across the aisle from me rising, shaking his head as if thinking this National Socialist Secretary Dude is kind of legit but also kind of wack, and then hastening out of the room, despite Kishore’s call for him to buy a pamphlet or sign up for an email list or something. But again, I don’t remember this all too clearly. I’d just driven about 5 hours and sat down and jacked-in, surrounded by an in-progress discussion.

Kishore asked if there were any more questions, and I asked what his Socialist Equality Party’s take was on the Pirate Party that has had some success in Sweden and is (sorta) beginning to appear in the USA, as well as for his party’s take on reform-minded alliances between progressive groups and libertarian groups, which is drawing the attention of some Wikileaks supporters &tc.?

Well, Kishore replied, incremental reform is window-dressing, coalition-building is white-washing, because we the people need revolution, one undergirded by a no-compromise socialist cultural movement; pamphlets on sale in the back would explain further.

Meeting adjourned, he said.

The American Student Loan Racket“; at least this image is aligned left

I didn’t quite believe my ears. Revolution? Huh? Seriously, you think you are going to sell that in the ballot box to Americans with food in their stomachs and roofs over their heads, today, right now? That’s your political platform? If you’re really working in politics, you’re not a revolutionary, you’re a reformer. No wonder the Socialist Equality Party achieves only 0.000000000001% of the vote (if that) with their contradictions.

I stayed for a while as the ~15 students trickled out, talking with National Secretary Kishore and his two friends, er, comrades. (So at this point everyone in the room is male and thoroughly bourgeois.) I gave the Socialist Equality Party $2 in cash to get a pamphlet (pictured left) that attacks the student loan industry, as a dark-humor gag gift for Wifely Kate; hopefully that $2 doesn’t count as material support for anything illegal. (It did strike me as goofy that the pamphlets weren’t free, but I decided not to ask.)

I questioned the three guys on their Trostsky-ite philosophy, and they “refudiated” my points each in their own way. Kishore spoke in quotes, often picking up pamphlets to find them, and sometimes ducked aside enigmatically for cell phone communiques. One of the other two just stared at me silently with those all-seeing/sightless eyes I know too well from having interacted with Scientologists (a tiny bit) and with Ayn Rand-ers (way too much). The third seemed very, very nervous, fidgeting, trying to figure out which world he belonged to. Eventually — I forget on whose suggestion — we decided to go to a nearby sports bar to continue talking. Again, I try to be charitable and support everyone’s right to be weird, you know? And, having mentioned this event to so many others beforehand, I felt a writer’s duty to plumb its depths.

Leaving the main of the campus, I started asking the 5 W’s and 1 H: Who What When Where Why and How. That was when the bad vibes I was getting began crescendo-ing; like I said, I can be overly generous and charitable when interpreting others’ behavior. I asked how they got ahold of the room. The very, very nervous man said this was their second time at the University of Houston, and so far, the school hadn’t been ruffled by their Socialist Equality Party name — he seemed to imply, darkly, that such problems were not uncommon in the capitalist United States. (I saw Steve Best, a self-appointed spokesperson for the Animal Liberation Front, give a talk at Texas Christian University; I don’t think the Socialist Equality Party has much to worry about on this room issue besides paying any pertinent bills.) These three guys only mentioned their first names when they introduced themselves. You know, creepy stuff like that. But I pushed forward in the conversation, circling in on the logical flaws of, you know, burning the entire world to the ground and starting from zero.

Like, “You support democratic decision-making, but since as you say that requires an educated populace, how are you going to teach a bunch of people with infrastructure in collapse?” Kishore: “You can educate people in a hurry.” And I should have said, “Yeah, when you have all the bananas and education means agreeing with you.” This was the place where we parted ways.

When I returned home, I finally got to googling some of the event’s periphery:

Not a good sign.

Joe Kishore of the Socialist Equality Party apparently shares the chairperson title with David North, and plenty of stops on the Intertubes, such as this LJ post, this Usenet thread, and this blog post allege David North = David W. Green, rich CEO of a capitalist publishing operation, Grand River Printing & Imaging. They assert David W. Green is making money of these pamphlets and expected donations from members, using Joe Kishore as his (un?)witting mouthpiece. Maybe those posts are wrong. Like the XFiles TV show says, “The Truth Is Out There” — but I’m too disgusted to look for it.

Three things remain. One, when I was deeply involved in the most hardcore of the Ayn Rand groups as a teenager, somebody else inadvertently sparked my getting out of it by means of pranking one of our online meetings with humor, and then, when I messaged him directly to say “Help,” he talked with me — selflessly — for hours, assuring me I’d still find friends once I got out of that twisted group, to which he too used to belong. So I feel an obligation to post this in case any of those three guys (or their associates) are looking for some words to help them find their way out. (Though I do not wish to communicate with the three I met personally.)

And second, it’s all so easy to assume your in-groups are normal, and your out-groups are somehow wrongly weird. You don’t need Foucault or Wittgenstein to see the problem here, you just need courage. Pick your most cherished affiliation — religious, political, whatever. Question yourself about it, in writing maybe. Eventually you’ll learn that human beings fashion narratives to survive; they need story-lines to manage their surroundings. Narratives edit out other possibilities (“this is the story, not that”); they provide absolutes for a while, even for centuries, and you must use them to function. But everything in reality is in flux, so narratives are always deficient. Flexibility with narratives is a life skill essential to writers, and to anyone who doesn’t want to remain locked on their own island, surrounded by a wall, screaming at the world and its groups to get off their lawn as the number of people who will stay beside them declines and declines.

And third: this, I think, is why so few Americans actually participate in local politics, where their actions can make an enormous difference, and escape to national or global politics, where it’s easy to point fingers at situations you *actually* know very little about. It’s so easy to refuse the challenge of interacting with compassion and empathy to understand one another in person, learn from one another’s partisan divides, … and to instead riff on stereotypes about how so many of “those people” over on the other side of the world are, you know, weird. That’s the easy way out, the easy way to become anchored to a nice safe island that has nothing on it.

So on Feb 16 2011, did the Socialist Equality Party take over a de-centralized pro-Wikileaks rally in order to gain followers and money? Yes, just like we all go to de-centralized places in order to profit in various ways. The difference is that, from what I can tell, people in the Socialist Equality Party are interested in cold hard private-property cash, and they’re lying about it. Even down to David North’s very name. Then again, I wasn’t there for the whole thing. None of us ever are.

Clinical Schoolteaching, Early Observations, Behavior Management

As you might have heard, I’m working as a clinical schoolteacher — basically, doing three months of unpaid student-teaching en route to earning my full teaching certificate — as mentioned in an earlier post. The gig’s at an elementary school in the Fort Worth Independent School District, in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. Many of these children, for instance, go home and spend hours and hours alone while their parent(s) work multiple jobs, and the children often lack proper clothing or supplies such as glasses.

But one student still thought to get me, in addition to my coordinating teacher, a Valentine’s present:

For me! (Pic = Public Domain; attribution & linkage = nice)

My observations so far largely fit with what I’ve observed as a substitute teacher, a role in which I often substituted for an aide, and for the same teacher across several days. So, as a substitute I did watch regular teachers teach.

They’re mean to students. Often.

According to the fantastic instruction FWISD’s Substitute Academy gave me on behavior management (I call it “crowd control”) — and this jives with my personal experience — administering sarcasm destroys your credibility and your relationships with students more than anything else. Sarcasm’s really nothing more than a way for teachers to vent their frustration and scare students — a losing strategy, in the long run, since students lose much of their respect for downright mean teachers and don’t learn as well. There’s no need to be a Tiger Mother.

For example, teachers will yell at students for not following worksheet directions, when it’s clear the students often don’t understand the directions because, say, they can’t read them without glasses, or they’re interpreting the unfamiliar words in a novel way, or the terrible textbooks’ directions are ambiguous in the first place. And this anger when they come to the teachers asking for help with the directions!

Of course, in disciplining children, there’s no reason to coddle and give ribbons for every good deed, either. But there’s nothing wrong with treating children with kindness, telling them thank you, praising them for succeeding at what is actually difficult for them — following directions, focusing, getting an answer correct, and so on. Telling a student “Good” never killed anyone, and an encouraging, welcoming classroom community helps students learn; yet, so often I hear teachers mock students and then support their offensive behavior with a chest-pounding, macho, “toughness” credo. Yeah right. Maybe you’re just a jerk, or maybe you just don’t know what you’re doing.

Way over on the other hand, though, it sure is easy for me to spend a week or two in a new community — the school — and pass judgment, especially when I’m not under the strain regular teachers are. (Teaching to the high-stakes tests, for instance.) Kind of like committing a cross-cultural drive-by. And, I don’t want these schoolteaching blog posts to turn into passive-aggressive attacks on my co-workers, you know? But I’m calling it as I see it, and when the time seems appropriate, I’ll mention my concerns to my superiors. I do defer to their chain of command, perhaps too frequently; but, when you’re the low man on the totem pole, brazenly passing judgment isn’t always the best thing to do — especially when my superiors have years of experience that might inform their actions in ways I don’t understand yet.

Of course I don’t really believe any of that… Though I do believe this: in assessing the public school system, you can’t point fingers at any one problem (especially just because it might be politically popular to rag on that problem). The errors are system-wide; everything from underfed, hungry students to funding problems to malevolent teachers to absent parents to … You can’t single out any one thing, and you can’t ignore the good work that’s being done, either.

But I’m furious at the way teachers write off students’ misbehavior (or just problematic behavior) as due to some sort of intrinsic “badness” of the children that the teachers act like they’re incapable of addressing. I’m not really furious at the teachers, but at a culture-wide reluctance to adopt a philosophy such as Pragmatism, where one doesn’t opine about metaphysical ethical essences, but just takes the most practical assumption. Assuming at-risk students are intrinsically bad might be practical if you don’t want to stick your neck out, or if you don’t want to make the extra effort, but it’s not practical if you want to help people. And children are people. After all, adults are often just as immature as they are.

And what about gathering the courage to ditch the paint-by-numbers worksheets and make your own material, material that’d be relevant to the students and help them understand and care about their work? In class we read this long story about settlers’ candle-making. These children have no idea what the “mold” is that settlers used to create candles. There were too many paragraphs for the story also. Why not write two or three paragraphs about the snow days, answering some questions you overheard the students ask about the weather? When it’s not busywork, and when the material is relevant to the students’ lives, discipline problems often disappear.

21st Century Schoolteaching (via Our Man in Tirana)

As to that student who needs glasses (see earlier post). Some questioning, and my own experience, indicates the delay in getting glasses to students is a persistent and district-wide problem. If my questioning about the glasses supply chain turned up correct answers, a corporation called Essilor is the contractor responsible for getting glasses to students, as the students are entitled to receive under various federal legislation (if I recall correctly). The contractor apparently operates under a (state? federal?) grant, which means they have an obligation to do their work (i.e. it’s not charity), and that grant might specify a timeline for delivering the glasses. Also, the grant should be publicly available; via Twitter or email, I’ll ask organizations such as ProPublica how to track down the grants, and if I have to, I’ll file an entire FOIA.

Don’t mess with my students.

Clinical Teaching Day 1; Rumination on Roles

My first day as a clinical teacher went very well. Except: I’m exhausted!

Right now the coordinating teacher and I are together in the same classroom throughout the day. She’s running the reins, and I’m just observing, sitting at the side. Eventually I’ll be able to lead some activities. I’ve done that before when I’ve substituted for the same groups of students across a continuous week or so, but this would be more serious, especially as it’s long-term.

The day began quite early; my alarms blasted off at about 4:30am. I showered & got ready, and Wifely Kate cooked breakfast:

iPhone pic by me, public domain for you. Food by Kate!

How awesome is that? The coffee was ready and everything. I was able to write fiction for about an hour and fifteen minutes — quickly revising (line-editing) an older, completed story so I can re-submit it; didn’t quite finish, since I’m having to fact-check some details — and then I headed to campus, the lunch Kate packed me in tow. At noon-ish I discovered she’d left a note in my lunchbox. The note talked about how proud she is of me. I got teary-eyed!

The coordinating teacher uses a Promothean ActivBoard (I’m not sure if the link points to the exact same model) in some very effective ways. For one portion of the classes, she shows multiple-choice math questions on the ‘Board, then the students record their answers using controllers — all students have one on their desks. The coordinating teacher shows the results on the ‘Board — as a bar graph; looks like something off Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — and uses them not just to motivate the class (the students love the video game-y vibe), but also to hone in on the students’ misunderstandings of the material in order to explain it again. Good real-time assessment.

Weirdly, one of the few TV shows I really like

The ‘Board can even export the collected data, so at a later time, we can analyze the answer statistics more precisely to spot recurring troubles. Totally something out of a Tim O’Reilly project.

Since I was mostly only observing — catching up to speed on this campus’s schedule, rules, etc. — I focused on watching one student at a time. (I’ve blogged before about developing observation skills. As for characterization, can a writer quickly notice in real-life what makes another person absolutely unique?) I noticed a boy whom I think might need glasses. Squinting, tilting his head to see better, putting his face inches from his paper. There’s a school program to address vision issues, but I’m not sure how prompt it is. Watching how in need and at risk students are can be upsetting. I’ve seen it before, substituting.

This particular student is enthusiastic, often raising and waving his hand even before the teacher asks another question. His enthusiasm hasn’t been disruptive. He seems to be a bit in his own world — smiling to himself, thinking his own thoughts. Good kid.

After leaving the campus, I went to Stay Wired! Coffeehouse and Computer Service for two hours, where I’m helping out as a computer tech. After my two hours were up, I informally sat in on a meeting for Democrat Cathy Hirt‘s campaign for the Fort Worth mayor position. There, upon being asked, I talked a little about my experiences and observations working for the local public school system.

I have to confess I’m bewildered about the relationships between my roles as a writer, teacher, newbie activist, blogger, and tweep (Twitter person). For example, working as an activist differs from volunteering for a political campaign (as I did for Bill White), from working for one in an official capacity, from blogging reportage or opinion about it, from incorporating observations of a campaign into a fiction project, etc. It’s a bit unnerving when you’re sitting there with a few people talking local politics and you’re trying to figure out which hat you’re wearing, so to speak. I have no real idea how to resolve these mini-conflicts, and there’s no one right answer.

The convention for blogs to be frequently updated conflicts with my personal preference for long-form or at least mucho-revised writing; and, when I’ve tried to blog long-form writing in the past, it’s often come off as too complex (Latinate, twisted syntax…) and hasn’t been revised well enough — a bad compromise between careful long-form writing and a quick blog post. Really, if you’re blogging long-form pieces, you’re essentially writing e-books. Since I consider myself a non-commercial writer (i.e. my goal isn’t profit; that possibility is a fringe benefit; I don’t mean that I consider myself highbrow — I try not to think in those terms), I’m not against the idea of eventually releasing more of my creative writing (fiction and otherwise) under Creative Commons licenses, but I sense that right now, I still need the bigger bullhorns and reputation-build of established venues (i.e. magazines, publishing houses).

Vika covers Metallica’s Orion

The increasing online success of vkgoeswild (Vika Yermolyeva) has been a bit of an eye-opener for me. I thought she was cool before she joined forces with Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione (Hipster cultural capital snobby-stupid FTW! =p). Vika supports herself by receiving online tips and selling customized transcriptions online. Other artists and bloggers have figured out similar business models (search through Boing Boing for many examples and discussions). But for creative writing, I just don’t excel at the very short, very quickly written form, which seems to be necessary to any feasible online business model I can actually think up for right now.

Besides, I love teaching!

William Gibson Austin Book Tour Stop

William Gibson came to Austin Wednesday, 15 September 2010, and it was very, very cool. The occasion was his new book, Zero History. I talk about my trip down there in my preceding blog post.

I think the chapter he read from was titled Zero History

The Reading Portion

The Gibson event was, like all Gaul, divided into three parts: a reading (pictured above), a Q&A session (pictured below), and signings (pictured way below). There were maybe 75 people there, some with phones and laptops in constant use during the event, which seemed to me fittingly Gibson-esque.

He knows the answers

The Q&A Portion

Notes from the Q&A, things Gibson said. Everything in quotation marks is pretty darn close to what he said; stuff without quotation marks is my paraphrase. Any mistakes are mine, of course.

  • “In the 20th century I seemed to be a futurist writing about the 21st century; in the 21st century I seem to be some sort of naturalist with a science fiction toolkit.”

  • “When you get to the real future, it doesn’t have any capital F; it’s just ‘today.'”

  • He has “trouble with villains.” He said, “As a grown-up, I sort of don’t believe in villainy in the same way I might have done as when I was younger and as our folk culture encourages us to. The bad guys in my books tend to have way too much money and time on their hands, and in my early, sort of further-future fiction, they tended to live way too long, which gave them even more time on their hands […] The real antagonist in all my work is the way the world is — and that’s what undoes the good guys and the bad guys in these books […] and the way people are, or the way I see the world or I see people as being.”

  • I asked Gibson about Wikileaks, and he said he doesn’t have a position on the organization; he said he needs to think about it in more detail. I encouraged him to blog on the subject. :-p (A lot of people are curious as to what he thinks on the issue.)

    Gibson did say “when [Wikileaks] announced and hinted about the link [to the Afghan War Collateral Murder video], I thought, ‘ahh, here it comes, I could have done with this not happening for a few more years.'” I take that last not as a commentary on Wikileaks content, but rather — since Gibson has mentioned the inevitability of radical transparency or at least something approximating it — a remark meaning Wikileaks and any similar organizations are going to be such game-changers that we and the world at large will have to seriously and quite stressfully adapt. Here’s my post about Wikileaks.

  • In the course of praising the movie Inception, he said: “If you’ve been doing your job right and doing it long enough, you digest all your influences. So when you’re younger there’s like lumps of gristle in your work and it’s not attractive and you realize you should have airbrushed those lumps a bit before you put [the early work] out.”

  • His debut novel Neuromancer doesn’t make it obvious, but he thought of that one as set in approximately 2035.

  • One great question someone asked was: Overall, do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? Gibson replied, “Actually I think I’m quite optimistic. People said Neuromancer was oh, this grim dystopian vision of large cities with poor people dealing drugs, where could this have come from, this young man’s imagination is too much! [laughter]

    “I think today, there’s any number of people in, for instance, Africa, who would migrate to the Sprawl [the above-mentioned fictional setting in Neuromancer] in an instant, and they’d be way better off. The Sprawl looked dystopian if you were really, really better off […] When I wrote Neuromancer, any rational, well-informed individual knew the world could end at any second [due to nuclear holocaust]. [For understanding the] second half of the 20th century, the great historical secret: people my age grew up knowing the world could end at any minute. It wasn’t a conspiracy theory; it almost did [end] a few times, and nobody knew. There was a Russian radar operator / missle man who didn’t launch [missles] when he saw the American bombers coming, and they were coming accidently. Those are the real nodal points [of history]. [The bombers] got called back, and they’d gotten past the point where the guy was supposed to push the button, and the guy was on the phone with the Kremlin saying there was something wrong, ‘I don’t want to shoot.’ I hope this guy got a medal. Everybody should give that man a medal.

    “Coming from a world with that stuff going on I thought I was pretty optimistic to write about a world with people in it! In Neuromancer the big corproations decided nuclear war was bad for business anyway.”

His hand must have gotten tired

The Signing Portion

During the signing portion of the event, I got four books signed, two (Spook Country and Zero History) for me, one (Pattern Recognition) for Wifely, and one (Idoru) for a friend. I was near the back of the at-least-fifty-something-people line, so when I got to the table, I didn’t want to pester him with any additional questions. :) Instead, I blabbled a bit about Wifely and the friend for whom he was signing — I got the books autographed to our Twitter user names, by the way. If I could go back in time, I’d have just said: “I feel like I’m supposed to be saying something, but I’m really happy, so I’m just going to stand here and beam.” Yeah, it was totally worth the drive from DFW to Austin and back (each trip in the same day!). The event definitely made my week.

Traveling through the Republic of Texas toward the Future

Today I drove down the center of The Republic of Texas (from my headquarters in Fort Worth) to Austin to see William Gibson’s forthcoming appearance tonight at one big Barnes & Noble, the Arboretum one.

Newsweek poll says 52% of Republicans probably or definitely believe President Obama wishes to impose Islamic law

Welcome to the Republic of Texas, Gibson! :S

I stopped by the Czechoslovakian embassy to the Republic, got two kolaches (strawberry & blueberry) and a Reuben, then checked out the communiques:

L to R: Got Beer?; How Are You; Give Me A Kiss For Beer

Dispatches from Czech Diplomats

Now that I’m here, I’m gonna get some work done while I wait, or maybe just socialize (speaking of the billboard above). If any of y’all out there in Twitter cyberspace are also in here in meatspace, or otherwise want to participate, hashtag this event #AustinGD!

Top center of the building!

Some guy supposed to show up for a wedding?

Bill White Volunteer All Right

Yesterday, partly in a quest to be more sociable — and partly in a quest to save (improve?) the universe — I volunteered, phonebanking, for Democrat Bill White‘s campaign (Twitter; Twitter) for the Texas governor’s office.

Some bullet-points about Bill White:

  • The Houston area led the nation in job growth during Bill White’s years in office. It added more jobs than 37 states combined.

  • Houston voters returned him to office as Mayor with overwhelming re-election margins of 91% and 86%.

  • Bill White’s parents were schoolteachers, and he calls “education the most important business of state government.” He pledges to work toward increasing public education’s share of the state budget and toward making two- and four-year colleges more affordable.

  • He helped Houston free up an additional $80 million for parks and $40 million for libraries.

His main opponent, incumbent governor Rick Perry:

  • Perry opposes consensual oral or anal sex between anyone, gay or straight, as does the 2010 Republican Party of Texas; both want those acts to be illegal.

  • In 2009, with Texas unemployment at 8%, Perry expressed disbelief when others said Texas was in a recession. Earlier, that January, in the middle of Texas-record job losses, Perry turned down half a billion in federal stimulus funds targeted toward unemployment benefits for Texans.

  • Perry-appointed chairperson for the current Texas State Board of Education, Gail Lowe, removed Thomas Jefferson from the curriculum standards’ list of world philosophers, making space instead for 16th-century theologian John Calvin (among others); according to Max Weber and more, much Calvinism, if not Calvin, considered great success in money-making to be a sign that a person is one of the elect going to heaven.

  • Sarah Palin is endorsing Rick Perry’s gubernatorial run. The two appeared together at the Super Sunday with Sarah! event along with Ted Nugent, where Perry said: “Sarah Palin was a great person to put on the [Republican Presidential] ticket.”

I had a lot of fun phonebanking. Most of the time I was just leaving answering machine messages or marking numbers as disconnected (“or no longer in service”); when I did get a person on the phone, most all of them were very polite, even the Perry supporters. I got the hang of it quick, and definitely talked a few people into yard signs or text-message updates or whatnot. ;-) If you’re able to volunteer, I bet you’ll get the hang of it quick, too. Find out how to volunteer for Bill White!

My Headquarters

My Personal Station (via John Smith)