Breathing the same air

Last July, Eric Garner was killed by police who choked him as he repeated “I can’t breathe.” He cried out 11 times, but eventually succumbed.

We didn’t need yet another example of police killing a young, unarmed black man. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and way too many more reveal a pervasive inability of some individuals, and more importantly, of our entire legal system to recognize that we all breathe the same air.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program at first seems worlds away from the racism and social injustice of America’s cities. But it too reveals racism and social injustice. It too shows how those in power use that power to oppress even admittedly innocent people. Often, the “crime” was to have a different religion, to wear different clothes, to speak a language other than English, or to be poor. The parallels are disturbing, even without considering how a favored torture technique of the CIA was waterboarding–to deprive people of air.

In the commentary regarding both of these cases I’ve been struck with how little there is about the victims as living, breathing individuals. Those who rightly argue for legal due process for the police or agents involved, talk about mistakes the victims had made, but not about them as people. Some mainstream news coverage does point out a little, that Garner was considered to be an even-tempered, good-natured presence in his community. He was the neighborhood peacemaker. He had asthma and sore feet. And yes, he had run-ins with the police before. But as one neighbor said, “His last penny was your last penny.”  (see “Friends: Man in NYC chokehold case ‘gentle giant’“). Rapidly, however, the real “Eric Garner” vanishes from the discourse as a person and becomes just a term to signal a point of disagreement between factions that seem to have little ability to understand one another.

In the last chapter of her 1902 book, Democracy and Social Ethics, Jane Addams writes about racism and corruption of a century ago, and the consequent need for political reform. Her examples draw on the glaring disparities in wealth of the Gilded Age, which are unfortunately being reproduced today.

Addams talks about the “honest absence of class consciousness” among the immigrants she worked with. That absence supported their faith in American democracy. They were taught ideals for “honorable dealing and careful living. They were told that the career of the self-made man was open to every American boy, if he worked hard and saved his money, improved his mind, and followed a steady ambition. [sic]”

Addams then recalls an anecdote from her childhood: “the village schoolmaster told his little flock, without any mitigating clauses, that Jay Gould had laid the foundation of his colossal fortune by always saving bits of string . . . as a result, every child in the village assiduously collected party-colored balls of twine.” In this way, children failed to learn that “the path which leads to riches and success, to civic prominence and honor, is the path of political corruption.” The end result was that every citizen participated in that corruption, even those who suffered from it. Her statement of this shared responsibility still holds today:

This is the penalty of a democracy,–that we are bound to move forward or retrograde together. None of us can stand aside; our feet are mired in the same soil, and our lungs breathe the same air.

The penalty that Addams describes is also the basis for making a democracy possible. Ethics cannot be limited to the individual virtues, such as honesty, courage, or duty, but must encompass social relations as well, the social ethics of her book’s title. That idea is expressed well in an essay she had written a few years earlier, called “A Modern Lear.” It’s about the railroad czar George Pullman:

Our thoughts . . .cannot be too much directed from mutual relationships and responsibilities. They will be warped, unless we look all men in the face, as if a community of interests lay between. . .To touch to vibrating response the noble fibre in each man, to pull these many fibres, fragile, impalpable and constantly breaking, as they are, into one impulse, to develop that mere impulse through its feeble and tentative stages into action, is no easy task, but lateral progress is impossible without it.

Addams knew that democracy was a hollow ideal without social ethics. So, it’s depressing to realize that the inequities of wealth, the racism, and the corruption of her day are still with us, and in some ways have become worse. Our social ethics appears piecemeal and ephemeral. At times the “mere impulse” seems nonexistent.

Can those who defend the CIA or the all-too-common official homicides imagine how they would feel if their own child, lover, or best friend were subjected to the same treatment? Could we instead see every person as a citizen who shares in a community of interests, regardless of race, religion, or official papers? What would it take to recognize the humanity in every one of us?

I’m reminded of the ending of “Salute to Life” by Pablo Casals:

Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are?

We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. And look at your body–what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cherish one another. You must work–we all must work–to make this world worthy of its children.

Community school in Yeniceköy

Yeniceköy primary school

Yeniceköy primary school

The Multipurpose class, which I wrote about earlier, is in a small urban setting, but it has a sister class in the village of Yeniceköy, about 24 miles away. I had met the class for the first time when the class and I both visited the village. The school there was inaugurating a wonderful new early childhood space; their sister class students clearly approved.

The primary school in Yeniceköy has only 14 children in a multigrade classroom (grades 1 to 4). This structure was once common throughout much of the world, but is less and less so today. There is a tendency to see efficiency in ever larger schools. Many point out that one can offer more specialized classes, computers, better facilities, address special needs, etc. in the larger school. The larger school enables a greater focus on teaching only measurable skills, the unfortunate trend of the day.

Parents

Parents

However, much is lost in the move to larger, more impersonal schools. The challenge of teaching multiple ages seems daunting, but it’s less so when you realize that children of exactly the same age also vary greatly in terms of ability, interests, and learning styles. Moreover, children may learn even more as they become teachers of others.

The small school is not always a community school, but it has the possibility to become so. Writing in the journal, Progressive Education in 1933 about the Arthurdale, WV school, Elsie Ripley Clapp says,

The school is, therefore an experiment in democratic living…It is influential because it belongs to its people. They share its ideas and ideals and its work. It takes from them as it gives to them. There are no bounds so far as I can see to what it could accomplish in social reconstruction if it had enough wisdom and insight and devotion and energy.

New preschool space

New preschool space

Yeniceköy seems to be a community school. Parents have an involvement with the school and the learning there, which is rare in consolidated schools. Learning activities and village life are connected. It will be interesting to watch how the school develops. There is a wealth of energy and good will going into it, not limited to the preschool space alone. At the same time, larger societal pressures and values may push the school in other directions.

As Clapp showed in the Arthurdale community, the school can become a social center, a means for coordinating shared interests and skills to benefit the entire community. In her case, local Appalachian culture operated through the school to support self-identity and understanding. The community school then becomes, in John Dewey’s terms, the starting point for democratic life.

The Frontiers of Democracy, almost

The Social Frontier was a radical journal, which saw the school as an agent of social change. It was published at Teachers College for six years, starting in 1934. After that it was sponsored by the Progressive Education Association and changed its title to Frontiers of Democracy. The final issue was published in 1943.

The writers and editors for Social Frontier / Frontiers of Democracy (SF/FD) were dedicated to creating a more open society, one in which democratic participation was not simply a slogan, but a living reality. That meant expanding educational opportunities, increasing access, developing critical, socially-engaged citizens (where “citizen” means any resident), and involving all in what Dewey called the process of authority.

I’m sure the SF/FD writers would be pleased to know that the Teachers College Record and the Gottesman Libraries are “re-releasing the journal both because of its historical importance and because of its continued relevance to educators today.” The collection has been digitized and presented on a well-designed web page.

SF/FD writers would applaud the recognition of its continuing value. They would quickly understand the web as a new means for increasing access and accomplishing more of the democratic mission that they had undertaken. They would envision that teachers, parents, administrators, politicians, and the ordinary citizen as well, would certainly have some means for convenient access.

Along with that they would of course recognize the need to recover costs and to value the labor required to publish and distribute texts. But it’s hard to imagine that they would be pleased to know that the very journal they had established “to lead educators in the building of an enlightened America” (Harold Rugg) is effectively off limits to most of the people they hoped to reach, despite the new technological affordances.

How many individuals will choose to subscribe to TCRecord simply in order to access SF/FD? Even people at other universities willing to pay the appropriate costs, and current subscribers to TCRecord, are excluded since the institutional subscription does not include SF/FD. In the midst of information overload, the apparently modest terms can be off-putting: “The introductory rate of $20 is available for a limited time…Your membership will automatically renew every 365 days…No refunds are offered for early cancellation.” I suspect that at best many will decide to look at the print version if and when it’s available to them, and resign themselves to being unable to share any findings more widely with the very audience that the journal envisions.

Rugg’s books and the progressive education movement in general suffered from rightwing attacks through the late 1930’s into the McCarthy era. Today the movement suffers more from indifference and a lack of understanding of the issues involved. A paywall for a relatively obscure journal that ceased publication over 70 years ago does little to help. I assume that TC or TCRecord has full copyright, but it’s worth noting that the journal was sponsored for half its life by the Progressive Education Association (as Frontiers of Democracy), and as such only in part by TC.

In the final issue, Rugg says, “Our treasured American way of life is in great danger, not only from menacing fascists and false patrioteers, but primarily because our people, standing baffled and bewildered on the threshold of abundance are unable to bring about such a life.” Much the same could be said today; it’s a pity that the opportunity to further dialogue on these issues has been lost. As too often happens, a good project with a noble purpose undermines its own agenda, for apparently petty reasons.

Tromboncini strombazzaree

The tromboncini have welcomed August with a fanfare. And now, they’re threatening to take over.

Invasion of the squash

Invasion of the squash

Thanks to starter plants from Daniel Dejean, we now have vines encroaching on our house.

Vines attacking house

Vines attacking house

But the fruits of the plant are delicious, tastier than zuchinni. They’re huge, enough to feed the army we’ll need to defend the house against the vines.

Squash love

Squash love

As Daniel says, and illustrates, it’s the “hit of the summer.”

Tromboncino and tomato

Tromboncino and tomato

The hit of the summer

The hit of the summer

Squash fashion, by Daniel Dejean

Squash fashion, by Daniel Dejean

Trombones become harps, by Daniel Dejean

Trombones become harps, by Daniel Dejean

Tromboncinerang

Tromboncinerang

Tromboncino forest

Tromboncino forest

Is resistance futile?

Is resistance futile?

Citizen Science in Wellfleet

Herring River estuary

Herring River estuary

The current habitat for communication between science and the public is dysfunctional. One need only look at the “debates” about climate change or disease prevention to see the problem.

Scientific findings are regularly misrepresented and sensationalized in the mass and social media. Even when well presented, those findings are ignored or distorted, attacked through faulty arguments, or tied to unsupported inferences. At its best, current science/public dialogue tends to be one-way, with the occasional enlightening article, book, or video, followed by public commentary. This rarely serves to deepen  understanding, much less lead to enhanced inquiry.

State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference 

Wellfleet marina

Wellfleet marina, note osprey nest, upper left

The 10th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference held yesterday at the Wellfleet Elementary School represents an alternative to that typical dysfunctional science/public relationship. One refreshing note was an effort by scientists to explain not only the results, but also the assumptions, methods, and theories behind them. People asked about the selection of factors to study, or about habitat assessment in tidal river versus bay sites, not to discredit a finding, but to understand more about how results were achieved. The conference was itself a small data point for the case that ordinary citizens can engage in science-based discussions, given enough time and well-crafted presentations, displays, videos, and other materials.

Poster session

Poster session

You can see from the schedule that there was a wide variety of presentations and posters. There was talk about dolphin mass strandings, bathymetry, auditory evoked potential, sentinel species, estuaries, cross-shore sediment transport, salt marsh backup, turtle gardens, terrapin clutches, brumation, eutrophication, cultching, winter/spring blooms, quahog seed, anoxic shellfish, temperature-dependent sex determination, anthropogenic effects, and many other topics related to the diverse ecosystems of the Outer Cape.

There were some good videos from the Friends of Herring River and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Brian Sharp complemented the latter with a talk and a tour of the IFAW van used for marine mammal rescues. This was especially salient given the mass strandings of dolphins in Wellfleet Bay in the early part of the year.

Mayo Beach, with groin

Mayo Beach, with groin

These presentations emphasized the interconnectedness of ecosystems, with humans as an integral part. Mark Borrelli from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies talked about how groins and revetments prevent local beach erosion, e.g., to protect a house, but shift the erosion elsewhere. Thus, they are simply “erosion relocation structures.” Sarah Martinez from the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary presented a poster on the consequences for horseshoe crabs of their use as bait for conch and eels. Moreover, the revetments that relocate beach erosion also disturb the spawning, much of which occurs above the high tide mark.Vincent Malkoski from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries spoke about the data on horseshoe crab fisheries. These findings have led to harvesting closures for five days around the new and full moons in May and June to allow lunar spawning. Diane Murphy from the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant spoke on the relation between oyster and clam growth and the wide variety of habitats they find in Cape Cod Bay.

Avoiding Either/Or Thinking 

Fishing boats

Fishing boats

One consequence of creating the forum in this way was that discussions avoided the either/or kind of thinking often expressed in mainstream media. For example, although most of the participants shared deep commitments to preserving natural environments and generally opposed rampant development, I heard statements such as “you can’t say that dredging is always bad or good; the decision is about choices and values.” There would then be productive dialogue that critiqued human-made alterations of the shoreline, estuaries, ponds, and so on, but acknowledged values others might hold for commerce, recreation, or housing. Zero-based planning  is no longer an option in the Wellfleet area: Every change today, even one that seeks to undo earlier construction, interacts with a myriad of alterations over centuries and can have unintended consequences for the environment.

Interactive map

Interactive map

Multilogue

Through Q/A, posters, and ample time for informal discussion, the conference fostered one to many, many to one, and many to many conversations among participants including scientists in the same and other disciplines, students, and general public. There was an interactive map on which people could write their hopes and concerns and peg them to a geographic spot. The map activity will be continued at the library to solicit input from those who did not attend the conference. I saw numerous examples of scientists taking seriously the concerns or knowledge of the public.

This was perhaps enhanced by the fact that many of the projects involve direct citizen science participation , e.g., the river herring count, the horseshoe crab spawning assessment, terrapin sightings, and the dolphin rescues. Others involve coordination with local activist organizations, such as the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.

Some were of special relevance to those involved in commerce, such as oyster farmers. Jessica Smith and Barbara Brennessel from Wheaton College had an interesting poster on a study of genetic diversity among hatchery versus reef oysters, showing, as one might expect, a greater diversity for the reef oysters. This provides indirect support for seeding oyster beds with pelagic, rather than hatchery, veligers. Some oyster farmers still collect these wild larvae for seeing their beds, despite the method being considered slower, difficult, and old-fashioned. A quahog farmer of 30 years was able to add comments about changes over three decades that was missing from most of the shorter-term scientific studies.

Sustainability

IFAW van

IFAW van

Perhaps a meeting like this requires a supportive habitat such as Wellfleet in order to thrive, just as the terrapins, horseshoe crabs, eels, dolphins, ospreys, and other creatures do. Would it fail to survive elsewhere?

Richard Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix that no organism can survive without a supportive environment, but also that no living environment exists without organisms. In this case, the conference organism succeeds because of the town environment, but also shapes it to become more supportive of exactly the kind of discussion heard today.

The conference was well-organized with good snacks, including clam chowder. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the special beauty of Wellfleet, but also sadness about what we’ve done to destroy this, and so much else of the natural world. The fact that a conference such as this is so rare punctuates that sadness. How much did you hear from political candidates or mass media this year about protecting the environment we all live in and depend upon?

Small but good things are worth preserving. I hope to make the conference an annual event.

The New Jim Crow

US incarceration timeline

US incarceration timeline

In his now classic analysis of the criminal justice system (The Crime of Punishment, 1966), Karl Menninger wrote, “I suspect that all the crimes committed by all the jailed criminals do not equal in total social damage that of the crimes committed against them.” That was at a time when the number of people in the US who were in jail or prison amounted to around 300,000. Today, that number is well over two million. The US has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, well ahead of the #2 jailer, Russia, or that of many regimes considered to be dictatorships, police states, backward regimes, failed states, or otherwise democracy-challenged.

In a piece originally published in and recently updated for TomDispatch, “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American UndercasteMichelle Alexander writes,

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow

If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

I just finished reading her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010), which piles on the stunning and depressing statistics. But the book does much more than to amplify a sorry state of affairs that most of us know about, but rarely talk about. Several points came through strongly for me:

  • Through actual case stories, the book shows what these numbers mean for the felons for life, their families, their communities, and our democracy. In many cases the people so labeled are innocent, coerced into a plea bargain, or at most convicted of a minor crime.
  • Those who subsequently become subject to legalized second-class citizenship are disproportionately African American. Large numbers are convicted of drug crimes, even while their White counterparts are bigger users and sellers of drugs.
  • The mechanism by which this happens is a maze of laws and court rulings, which have severely compromised civil rights for all of us, even though their impact is primarily on people of color. One more item was added to the maze this week, when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that correctional officials may without cause, strip-search a person arrested for the most minor offense. Albert W. Florence was strip-searched twice after being wrongly detained over a traffic fine. Florence said at the time, “It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man. It made me feel not better than an animal.”
  • The interlocking system including bias, laws, police procedures, courts, prison industry jobs and profits, has created a shameful justice system, far worse than the one lamented by Menninger.
Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander

Alexander says that she had several specific audiences in mind for the book. One is “people who care deeply about racial justice, but who for any number of reasons do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration. In other words, I’m writing this book for people like me, the person I was 10 years ago.” Another was for people “lacked the facts and data to back up their claims” about how the criminal justice system was operating as a third mode of racial caste making (following first slavery, then Jim Crow). I felt I fit in both of those camps, and fortunately not in the third, that of people trapped in the system.

Following her work on an ACLU racial justice project, Alexander says “I had come to suspect that I was wrong about the criminal justice system. It was not just another institution infected with racial bias but rather a different beast entirely…Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Coming to appreciate that system in a deeper way makes the book powerful for me. It doesn’t in any way try to excuse crime, or to lay the blame for it on lack of employment, poor education, or inadequate housing, as many liberals might do. Nor does it link the injustice of the system to individual bias per se. Furthermore, it debunks accounts of individual responsibility, moral failure, or familial inadequacy as some conservatives might propose. Instead, it shows how the system operates, how it developed and grew, and why it will be so hard to change. Yes, better Supreme Court justices matter, but they won’t dismantle the system. Affirmative action is helpful, but it’s far from a solution. All of those explanations for crime and incarceration matter, too, but they’re not the central narrative.

The book is disturbing, and depressing at times. It cannot be said to end on a happy note, but in the last section, “All of Us or None,” there is at least a vision of what could make a difference. Alexander calls for a conversation on race in which “us” means “all of us,” or as Martin Luther King said, that a shift was needed from civil rights (interpreted simply as rights for those who are dispossesed) to human rights.

This means, among other things that

Whites should demonstrate that their silence in the drug war cannot be bought by tacit assurances that their sons and daughters will not be rounded up en masse and locked away. Whites should prove their commitment to dismantling not only mass incarceration, but all of the structures of racial inequality that guarantee for whites the resilience of white privilege. (p. 244)

The book closes with an excerpt from James Baldwins’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. That entire letter is worth reading and re-reading many times, but I’ll just end here with a small excerpt from that excerpt:

this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…It is the innocence which constitutes the crime…They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it…those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality…And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.  For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

A house concert with RUNA

Moving to Wellfleet, I wondered whether I’d be trading cultural life for nature. With the National Seashore, ocean and bayside beaches, 17 ponds in Wellfleet alone, walking and biking trails, forest and dunes, I was prepared to make that trade, assuming that we’d seek out music, art, and so on, in Boston or other places. But the reality has been the opposite. Yes, the natural world feels especially close at hand, but cultural events seem more, not less accessible.

I do miss the human diversity of the university or the large city, but there’s been more on that score than I expected. In terms of public events, we’ve been to many galleries and art shows, enjoyed the Saturday Tea and Music concerts in the Wellfleet Public Library, book talks, and just saw the Blind Boys of Alabama in the recently renovated Provincetown Town Hall.

About a week ago we attended a wonderful house concert by RUNA, a Celtic music group. They’re an international ensemble comprising vocalist Shannon Lambert-Ryan, guitarist Fionán de Barra, percussionist Cheryl Prashker, and fiddler Tomoko Omura. They play both traditional and more contemporary Celtic songs and instrumental pieces from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the US.

The performances were excellent. I especially enjoyed the traditional songs, but some of the more recently composed ones, too. The video here is not from the concert we attended, but we did hear Fionnghuala there.