“GOP Gov. Snyder’s office says Detroit school kids have no right to literacy”: an opportunity to develop media literacy

The post title comes from an article a friend of mine posted on my Facebook feed, alarmed and asking what I thought of this situation.
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Photograph by Herbert Russell

Below is my response…

It’s a very interesting proposition. Checked out the story on the CBS website and this is what was included:

“The lawsuit says the schools are in ‘slum-like conditions’ and ‘functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy.’ The case, filed in federal court, directly accuses Gov. Rick Snyder, the state school board and others of violating the civil rights of low-income students.”

A couple of missing connections:

1) Schools in Detroit (and Philadelphia and Chicago and other struggling school districts) have suffered from a lack of funding which is connected both to housing issues as well as to the direct connection of federal funding to school performance, which has been in part due to the way that some states have interpreted the Common Core (see http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/common-core-state-standards/). Obscured with this kind of commentary is the connection between federal funds and testing/school performance, which also drives decision-making on teacher retention, and the fact that schools continue to be financed by property taxes. Those tax revenues in Detroit have fallen significantly over the last decade or more, due in part to the Great Recession as well as other economic issues germane to Detroit, all of which has contributed to the struggles of that school system.

2) The accusation that Governor Snyder — who has indeed been taken to task for mismanagement and shady dealings with the public school system in Michigan — explicitly believes that students should not have a right to literacy is not accurate. Here’s another story whose header reads, “Literacy Not A Right For Detroit School Kids According To State” (http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2016/11/21/literacy-not-a-right-for-detroit-school-kids-says-state/) but which doesn’t include any specific comment that Snyder actually made about this.

I’m concerned that this is sensationalistic reporting rather than a deeper exploration of the complex questions in play. I would say that negligence is definitely a part of this, but saying that Snyder was attacking the civil rights of poor and the illiterate children of Detroit is an exaggeration. This is attack-the-individual thinking which has characterized “reporting” of late and keeps us from working on bigger and more complicated problems.

A final point: We as Americans are stuck in the democratic paradox (see my discussion of this in a previous post), which allows liberalism — freedom to pursue your own way of doing things, freedom not to be responsible for other people, etc. — to coexist with democracy. How can we support the participation of all Americans in our civic spaces when we prioritize the education of some over others through inequitable economic policies and “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” thinking?

I don’t think my friend liked my response. It’s been three hours, which is like an eternity in FB world.

Sign of the times?  

Another picture from the environs of New York…I took this one on the subway, as you can see from the orange seats and metallic wall and handrails. The New York Post splashed quippy signs like this all over the train I was on, though this one in particular caught my eye:

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Known for telling stories in brute, black-and-white ways (sometimes quite literally, as I wrote about in another post recently) supporting a conservative and often nationalistic viewpoint, the Post barks out its allegiance to the world here: “We make money off of you for not thinking.” It screams “down with background knowledge, down with introspection, down with reflection!” It tells the reader that too much depth is dull, and more than the minimum time spent on learning anything is, well, a waste.

You may be right that the American public is less resistant to lengthy writings about thoughtful things, New York Post, but we’re not dead in the head yet. And your weakness is that you, too, depend on the consumer to sustain yourself. Without us, you are nothing but a rag barking in the wind. We are still readers and thinkers beyond your word count and your belief that you tell us what’s important and what’s dull. And maybe we’ll look back down at our novels and our Kindles and take some more time to define what stories we want to learn about, and how they should be told.

Country of origin, country of destination

I didn’t post yesterday, though I’m not going to count it as a missed day for my writing commitment (365 days starting October 1, 2014); I still wrote for my finals, as I have two papers left to go. Almost there…

Media literacy is an interesting topic that I’ve written about before and would love to study in the future. This week at CUNY I saw a simple, incisive sign that in little space spoke in important ways:

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I interpret this to be a commentary on immigration. People who leave their countries do so often times because their lives or those of their loved ones are at risk; in countries like Honduras and Mexico, this is not so much a metaphor as a sad fact. For those who are not living under the shadow of an axe, there are still dark forces like prejudice and economic disadvantage that squeezes out dignity and freedom like a vise; this is true in Palestine and Kurdistan. Hence their problematic relationship with their country of origin.

These newcomers move to a new home – a place like the U.S., for example – in the hope of finding a way to build a better life for their family. Yet they are often stereotyped and demonized for bringing crime to their new communities or stealing jobs from native-born workers (both of which are untrue). Because prejudice is easily spread about strangers from a strange land who speak, look, eat, and think differently, society’s ills are cast onto their shoulders. They are easy targets for conservative officials that need a unified enemy to focus on, especially when homegrown problems trouble the country’s constituents; they are a useful distraction to draw fire away from poor decision-making and corruption at the highest levels of leadership. Thus the complicated and difficult details of their new life in their country of destination.

Simple, beautiful, tragic, effective. All in a little cartoon.

Dehumanization through torture: victim, interrogator, nation…and reader

Dehumanization is a topic on many journalists’, pundits’, academics’, and bloggers’ lips of late. It’s applicable, unfortunately, to a wide variety of current situations – the discussion about the treatment of Black men by police forces across the United States, the swath cut across western Africa by the Ebola epidemic, even the overuse of standardized testing in public schools (of course to a much lesser degree) – and brings the reader face to face not only with the sufferings of his or her fellow human being, but also with our own capacity to feel pain, either as victims or those watching.

We may ask ourselves: how does torture dehumanize the individual? In today’s shocking report about widespread and widely concealed tortures that took place in CIA prisons all over the world, we have learned of new ways to torture a human being into prostration, humiliation, total degradation to the point of becoming animal (some inmates looked “like a dog,” according to witnesses). There is total removal of control of self, including even one’s ability to refuse food in protest (and what the CIA interrogators did as a result is yours to read about), and normal human social, cultural, and physical boundaries are obliterated. Basic rights to food, rest, mental calm, and sense of safety are called into question, constituting the psychological forms of torture concomitant with the physical ones in the case of these awful, undercover prisons.

How do these acts, in turn, dehumanize the torturer? In the case of the places examined in the report, the interrogators had been instructed to get information from suspected terrorists, which provided the no-holds-barred excuse that predominated in the earler stages of the interrogations. But the information obtained, according to the committee which reviewed the reports from the CIA and others investigating these prisons, could have been “obtained through other means.” Which means that the humanity each interrogator ostensibly has within him or her was consulted, and then rejected, in favor of…what? Power games? The opportunity for acting vengefully and with impunity toward suspected terrorists? The freedom to sexually abuse and destroy the health and dignity of over 200 men? I suppose one could plead that they were following orders, or that they had succumbed to groupthink and were not thinking rationally…but this is a tough line to toe.

Okay, bad men found. Case closed…or is it? I would suggest that we as a nation, also, are becoming increasingly comfortable with the dehumanization of others through such gruesome and sensationalistic media representation. The way I first heard about this report was through the following headline: The Most Gruesome Moments in the CIA ‘Torture Report’. I felt like I was reading about a new TV show, in the vein of The Walking Dead or American Horror Story. The first line of the story, written in The Daily Beast, went like this:

The Senate Intelligence Committee is finally releasing its review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs. And it is brutal. Here are some of the most gruesome moments of detainee abuse from a summary of the report, obtained by The Daily Beast…

Great. A well-organized, section-heading-ed story that prioritizes the particularly brutal parts of the torture for me in an easily readable form.

What is the goal of writing like this? Was the story of any of the detainees told, beyond his torture? If we really value human life, freedom, and dignity, shouldn’t we consider that regardless of whether or not these men were involved in terrorism, not a single one deserved to be treated this way? And such treatment shouldn’t be a spectacle for us all to gawk at in obscene, morbid curiosity. Truly seeing these men as human beings, we would act to change it…not see it as another, pornographic form of entertainment. And the media has a role in this, as do we: one feeds another in a frightful ouroboros of supply and demand.

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To drive the point home, consider that this story rests just below another document of human suffering: the story of the kidnapping of Yazidi girls by ISIS in Syria. After the introductory backstory, the following lead-in appears:

Below—courtesy of the Washington, D.C.-based the Middle East Media Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that monitors extremism—are some highlights of the ISIS rules governing the enslavement of women and how slaves should be treated.

Highlights, indeed. I felt less human reading that story, more like a media-consuming beast who could see humans writhing, burning, dying miles away as nothing more than a slight rise in the pulse before sipping my wine. I don’t know what the answer is to finding anew one’s sense of humanity among such profane images of the worst we can do to each other, but it might mean considering that the media’s version of the story can contribute to the very dehumanization process it purports to decry.

Media and versions of stories: “good guy vs. black guy”

Before you read this, ask yourself: What would each of the two people mentioned in the title of this post look like.

It’s meant to be tricky because the second of the two terms, “Asian,” is considered a fairly standard term for a person with lineage from Asia (actually, Asian-American might be a better way to put it), while the first seems by comparison less racialized. Thinking about it, what race could a person described as a “thug” actually be? (For that matter, what gender?) Interesting to think that there are certain terms that carry both race and gender in them. (That, incidentally, could be a homework assignment for anyone reading this; I am not about to make a list).

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I take both terms from a story in the New York Post, the cheapest conservative rag sold in the city that I know of (I think it’s still $1, whereas the fancy, semi-liberal New York Times is over $3). Alongside a page-high photo of a glamorous and scantily-clad blonde I’d never heard of before, the headline “PUSH CAME TO SHOVE” Subway Killer ‘Struck’ Before” caught my eye. The first line read, “The career thug who this week allegedly pushed an Asian dad to his death in front of a Bronx subway train shoved another man – also Asian – to a Village station platform 10 days earlier…”. Malevolent, possibly racist (we guess that the Post is trying to string together a narrative here), hunting for his next victims underground, and certainly Black, the accused man, Kevin Darden was depicted as striking again, almost a force of nature to be feared by subway goers – that is, Asian(-American) subway goers – all over New York.

It’s all about the way you tell the story, or rather, the version – conservative, demonizing of Black people and people with disabilities (see below) – of the story you tell. In the end of the article, the Post describes Darden’s mother’s apparently relieved reaction: “’I’m glad they got him off the streets and I’m glad he’s not dead,’ the mom, Berlin Joyce Jones, told The Post. She claimed he has long had mental illness.” (emphasis added)

Something about that word choice cinched up the story for me; I found myself for a split second doubting whether the killer had ever suffered from any disability, or whether, since we were sure he was a “thug” already from the very beginning of this story (which detailed all the damning evidence against him), his mother was just defending him as mothers are supposed to do. She claimed…yeah, she probably also claimed he would never hurt a fly.

Even the term “mental illness” is problematic and old-fashioned, especially according to the disability community, who might argue that a disability is not a sickness, but rather a different way of being. But in The Post’s broad stroke (sledgehammer?) version of the story, he was a thug, and maybe sick…though his mom was probably making it up anyway. Painting a good-guy-versus-black-guy story probably sells more papers.

Mixed messages and media literacy

On my trip home from New York, I read some, napped some, looked out the window some. Actually, before I got on the bus, this billboard on the west side of Manhattan caught my eye:

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Turns out this is advertising for RT.com, a Russian-language news media source. The billboard is bold and controversial, and I found it intriguing…until I went online and saw Putin’s face front and center, with a linked page with the heading, “‘Economic isolation breach of intl law’: Top 5 takeaways from Putin ahead of G20.” Now, I’m not going to argue that the way Putin is portrayed in the West is completely accurate and lacks any geopolitical strategy, but I’m not a fan of the man and his politics, not to mention his government’s influence on the Russian media.

Moving along…

My bus ride, as uneventful as it normally is (someone had thrown up in the bathroom on the bus, the bus driver and the woman sitting next to me were arguing loudly in Haitain Creole the whole way — pretty standard stuff), was capped by a visual coming in to Boston:

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Now I saw this at night, but the message rang clear enough: “Guns have stopping power. Fortunately, so does your vote” said the sign (this image was taken from the Boston Globe) as it advocates gun control and “counts” the number of deaths since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School almost two years ago. Certainly intriguing, powerful. But just prior to seeing the sign, I read an article in Truthout called “Rich People Rule: Struggles Lie Ahead,” which argued that the American political system, where we prize the right to vote as citizens, has moved dangerously far away from democracy (perhaps, instead, into a new phase of pseudo-democracy):

Unless the moneyed interests happen to align with the public, politicians always voted against the interests of the citizens.

Interpreted through that lens (which is grounded in academic research, by the way, as it was based on a study published in the American Political Science Association earlier this year), I found the sign sad and ironic. Does the public want to get rid of guns? Perhaps, depending on where you live and how you see the right to own, carry, purchase, and fire a gun. However, this is hardly the point. Those who influence government action, increasingly, are the wealthy and powerfully connected special interest groups like the NRA and other conservative right-wing voices that favor small government over other considerations; my vote, according to the study cited in Truthout, actually counts less than a rich person’s does in the democratic machinations of the U.S. legislative process. I don’t mean to say, then, that the sign was misleading; rather, the conviction of its creators was founded on a notion of our government’s actions being tempered and supported by the majoritarian voice…which is simply not true.

Media literacy is always good to hone as a critical skill, yet it’s so tempting just to go with the colors, the simplicity, the impact. I guess it’s good to remember that we’re not newborns in a crib, reaching up to the baubles around us with dazzled eyes, but to pull back and review, read, and look for the reveal.