Test Scores and Totalitarianism

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:23

    Rarely does news coverage break down so cleanly along easy political lines as it did when the dailies responded to the release of the New York state fourth-grade reading tests' miserable results last week. "Private Schools Fare Little Better on New 4th-Grade Test," The New YorkTimes announced. "Private Problem: Their school test results are less than stellar, too," insisted Newsday. "Private School Failures: 56% of nonpublic pupils don't meet standards," blared the Daily News. And the New York Post? "Private schools a class above in reading tests," the Murdoch paper confidently proclaimed.

    Oh, really? But the truth is that none of these papers' coverage of the scores' release redounds to its credit. In the case of the three putatively "liberal" papers, it's evidence of what's by now a quasi-religious commitment to the insipidities of official government education. "And while the scores at private and religious schools were higher over all," wrote the Times' Anemona Hartocollis, "dozens of individual religious schools lagged badly behind nearby public schools, including many in New York City districts where the public schools have been derided for educational failure"?as if the fact that parochial schools in a given district are ineffective somehow excuses that district's wretched public schools.

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

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

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

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

    Spectacular George. No one ever mistook George for a great magazine, but you can say this for it: For a couple of years it was at least appropriate for its cultural moment. Its post-partisanship; its conflation of politics with celebrity culture; its avoidance of ideology and ideas in the interests of promulgating the dangerous myth that politics is just good, glossy, harmless, consensual fun, even as George editor-in-chief John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reactionary buddy in the White House slashed the welfare roles and rained murder down on the citizens of Baghdad and Sudan; these characteristics made it arguably the quintessential publication of the Clinton era.

    After looking at George's July issue, though, it's possible to intensify the above criticisms and say this: George wasn't only a glossy index of the Clinton political nightmare. It's also a good place to watch the American media-political complex happily flirt with the same totalitarian tendency to estheticize politics?to deny reasoned political thought and substitute for it mind-glazing, sentimental spectacle?that they were more inclined to complain about back when it was square old Ronald Reagan doing it rather than one of their yuppie/boomer own.

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

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

    True, it's quite a distance from Salma Hayek vamping in George to the synchronized stormtrooper shovel brigades in The Triumph of the Will. It's such a distance, in fact, that to mention the two in the same sentence seems ridiculous. But the distance from Salma Hayek in George to, say, thousands of Democrats getting off on the coercive spectacle of "The Man From Hope" at the 1992 Democratic convention is a short one. And the difference between "The Man From Hope" and The Triumph of the Will is one of degree, not of kind.

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

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

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

    "Basic municipal services."

    Those are not basic municipal services in any town a member of the New York media community would care to live in. A police force and ambulance service are basic municipal services. A garbageman wheeling around in a golf cart with a 50-gallon barrel of beer strapped to it is a "basic municipal service" only among the most irredeemably picturesque of the lower middle class.

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

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

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

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

    Just as importantly, George implies, Loughney seems to be entitled to the job because he wants and enjoys it. See if the following passage doesn't remind you of someone you know: "Nibs had wanted to be mayor of Dunmore since he was a freckle-faced kid with orange hair, lobbing baseballs through the strained-glass windows of St. Mary's Church and mooning the neighbors...

    "'I just loved the way,' Nibs says, 'that when the mayor of Dunmore walked into a room, people respected him.'"

    This isn't to imply that Nibs Loughney is, on his level, as reactionary and destructive a politician as is Bill Clinton?or even as is Hillary Clinton, whose run for a New York Senate seat is purely an expression of selfish will. Loughney might very well be a great guy and good enough mayor. The point, rather, is that George is inclined to redefine politics in a reactionary, and by now if we're lucky outdated, Clintonite way: as an exercise in ego-fascist boomer gratification and self-fulfillment.

    How long can George carry on in an era in which Clintonism's in retreat? In which the selfishness and dishonesty and reaction of Clintonism will, in the near future at least, be confined to Sen. Clinton's New York, and in which even Clinton's own vice president is distancing himself from the White House and ashamedly returning to his former decency? A piece in the June 27 New York Post online edition reported that Kennedy's looking "for more support to boost the magazine to around 600,000 circulation during next year's Presidential election year, which he expects to be watershed for the magazine's advertising."

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

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

    I'm glad such expressions of tolerance, if that's what they are, are occurring. But are those developments truly evidence that we're experiencing some fundamental shift in the way most Americans view homosexuality? Rich is in danger of becoming the new Richard Goldstein, an hysteric who finds implications for gays in every hiccup of political and popular culture. Is it possible that none of what Rich is talking about really means much at all, and that the lives of gay Americans in the aftermath of, say, the South Park film will go on much as they've gone on before? The AAN Beat Twin Cities Incident. Listen to the following thumbsucking about an upcoming area Bob Dylan/Paul Simon show, from the Stern Publishing-owned Minneapolis City Pages: "The two most dominant and durable singer-songwriters of the boomer generation have little in common but an extraordinary way with words. Simon's popcraft is as well honed as any Brill Building lifer's, with a range that encompasses everything from the gooey 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters' to the whimsical 'Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,' not to mention his inspired appropriations of gospel, reggae, and South African township jive song forms. Dylan is a son of the talkin' blues who evolved into an instinctual spouter of poetic word associations, went on to flip for Jesus, and finally came back full circle to venerable blues covers and blunt appraisals of his own mortality. Few would have pegged either of these guys for professional vocalists when they got started, but they're making new music that's far more compelling than the Stones, McCartney, Lou Reed, and Neil Young put together."

    First of all, that homeless guy in the 14th St. F-train tunnel with his unplugged electric guitar makes more compelling music these days than the Stones, McCartney, Reed and Young put together. Second, Dylan and Simon?who were both born in 1941?are too old to be baby boomers. (And hey, did you know that Dylan used to be known for "poetic word associations"? Or that Simon appropriated "township jive"?)

    Now compare that piece with occasional NYPress contributor Phillip Guichard's more intelligent Dylan/Simon preview in Seattle's The Stranger, one of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' best papers:

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

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

    Down in the Hole. We received an e-mail solicitation last week for a syndicated feature that's so bad that it's bound to become extremely popular with alternative papers, most of whom never met a syndicated feature?Tom Tomorrow, "Red Meat," Matt Groening, Rob Brezsny?they didn't take to like a hound to a bone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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