Thursday, September 29, 2011
Sunday, September 25, 2011
This year, Banned Books Week runs from September 24th to October 1st. The main site is here. You'll find a map of censorship attempts, a handbook of materials (including the posters featured in this post), a list of local events by state, and social media links. This year, the big featured event is the Virtual Readout, in which participants make videos of themselves reading a passage from a favorite banned or challenged book, and then post them to this YouTube channel. (Orwell is well represented, and it's nice to see so many kids participating.)
Banned Books Week has a number of sponsors, including the American Library Association and the National Council of Teachers of English.
My archive on banned books is here. If you write a post celebrating Banned Books Week or intellectual freedom this week, write me an e-mail or leave a comment below, and I'll include it in a roundup at the bottom.
As we've covered in previous years, censorship in America generally hasn't approached the level that has existed in some other nations. However, one of the reasons for that is because of pushback against censorship attempts. Intellectual freedom is extremely important, and needs its defenders. I'm always fascinated to read the stories behind some past book bans and challenges.
Bans and Challenges
Certain titles appear almost every year on the "ten most challenged books" list, but there some new contenders this time:
The 10 most challenged titles of 2010 were:
And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: offensive language, racism, religious viewpoint, sex education, sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit
Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
Reasons: drugs, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit
The Hunger Games (series), by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group
Lush, by Natasha Friend
Reasons: drugs, sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group
What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint
Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie
Reasons: homosexuality, sexually explicit
Twilight (series), by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence, unsuited to age group
The American Library Association helpfully explains "What's the difference between a challenge and a banning?":
A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.
As I wrote last year:
These are important distinctions. There's nothing wrong with criticizing a book on aesthetic or other grounds, but it's quite another thing to try to deny other people the right to read it. Parents can choose that their child can't check out a book from the library, but they don't get to decide that for every other child, and certainly not for every other adult. For school curriculums, it can get a bit trickier, but such things as age-appropriateness are typically discussed at length. Parents (the most common objectors) have a voice, and while the specific laws and guidelines vary by state, county or school system, parental opt-outs are commonly available.
Perhaps more importantly, when a book is taught in the curriculum, it is discussed in class with students. Parents can also discuss it with their kids. The same goes for books checked out of the library - parents can discuss it with their kids, or not let their kids check a book out. Art is capable of saying more than one thing at a time, and stories often contain ambiguity and room for interpretation. These factors make literal or authoritarian-minded people uncomfortable, but they're pretty unavoidable if you study literature and poetry. It's common for English curriculums in secondary education to try to foster critical thinking skills and a tolerance for ambiguity. Parents who think of education as indoctrination - or who favor indoctrination, only the type they want – tend not to understand or like that.
I'm not dismissive of parental anxieties, but as with questions brought up by students in class, normally they can be addressed. Racial slurs in Huck Finn, The Elephant Man and Invisible Man can and are discussed in the classroom, and that's usually a better, safer place to do so. The reality is that parental discomfort generally emerges when a parent doesn't want to discuss something with their kid. Age and maturity are legitimate issues, of course, but teenagers are often more mature or informed than their parents admit. It's that same maturity, not the lack of it, that can further unnerve an anxious parent. Navigating all this is an important part of growing up for students, and a crucial part of good parenting for the parents. Challenging a book is often just a proxy for deeper issues...
Huxley and Alexie
I wanted to take a closer look at two of the challenged or banned books. First, let's consider Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. It routinely shows up on lists of great novels. Not coincidentally, it has been banned or challenged many times over the years. There doesn't seem to be detailed information yet on the 2010 challenge or ban, but in 2008 the situation was this:
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
In Baxley, Georgia, the school board banned Brave New World - along with John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Richard Wright's Native Son based on a local church minister's objection to the texts, despite parents' and teachers' approval of the book.
I don't know if the 2010 ban was this same one extended, or a similar one. You can read long and eloquent defenses of Brave New World and the other books from back in 2007-2008 here, but I wanted to excerpt parts of them. This section comes from an appeal to the local Board of Education:
All three books are highly acclaimed, seminal works of American fiction and have long been used for instruction in schools across the country. If these books are deemed “unsuitable,” the same could be said of a vast body of important literature, including works by Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, and Twain, contemporary books such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Beloved, and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout the State of Georgia. As these examples suggest, any attempt "to eliminate everything that is objectionable...will leave public schools in shreds. Nothing but educational confusion and a discrediting of the public school system can result...." McCollum v. Board of Educ. (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring). Indeed, the school district puts all students at an educational disadvantage, and puts college-bound students at a particular disadvantage, by not introducing them to literature of this sort in high school.
The task of selecting readings for the curriculum properly belongs to professional educators. Parents may be equipped to make choices for their own children, and religious leaders may be equipped to make recommendations to their congregants, but, no matter how well-intentioned, they simply are not equipped to make decisions that address the needs of the entire student body. Without questioning the sincerity of those who object to the books, their views are not shared by all, and they have no right to impose those views on others or to demand that the educational program reflect their personal preferences.
The head of the school's English Department, Mary Ann Ellis, penned an op-ed over the matter:
On November 19, 2007, the Appling County School Board set a dangerous precedent by removing books from the classroom. The board betrayed not only me and the English Department, but our students and their parents as well.
Back in June, a local minister challenged two classics—Of Mice and Men and Native Son—which have been taught here for decades; my husband read them back in the sixties. The complaint of profanity spurred heated debate before the school board, which told the minister that board procedure required a formal written complaint.
For three weeks after the formal complaint came, two committees of twenty respected educators read (a key word here) these two books, discussed them, and found them appropriate for high school students. Nonetheless, when the minister returned to the board, its members ignored the recommendation of the committees and voted unanimously to take the books out of the classroom.
Suddenly and insidiously, into the controversy came another book, Brave New World. This classic had been added to the list in a daytime meeting while I and most people were working. A deluge of calls came from parents.
“How did Brave New World get on their list? I want my child to study this book,” the parents said.
“If I give permission, it’ll be fine, right?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ll go ask.”
On November 5, I approached the board for clarification and was told I could teach any of the books if I had 100 per cent parental permission. Back at school, my senior college preparatory class, many of which are already eighteen--old enough to fight for this country, to get into R rated movies, etc.--prepared to read Brave New World. They brought me parental permission forms and enthusiasm. Before we actually started reading the book, the ministers struck again, and on November 19, this same board took away the parents’ rights to decide for their children. They summarily dismissed the fact that one hundred per cent of the parents said, “Yes.” The school board said, “No.”
When the discussions first began, the ministers unwaveringly insisted that parents be given more responsibility, more input. Now a mere six months later and on the advice of two ministers who have not read the books and who have no children in school, the board has usurped parental authority
No longer can Appling County college prep students study in the classroom these three classics which appear on national exams such as the Advanced Placement Exam and the SAT. These classics are no longer available to our Honors English students or even to our most advanced students, the AP British Literature Class. Already our students leave home at a disadvantage because so few advanced classes are available to them in this small rural area; the board just saddled them with another handicap.
Granted, the students can still check out the books, but without help, most of them cannot understand the multiple levels of meaning. These books require good teaching to help the students discover their underlying meanings and to prepare them to apply that skill to other books. The students need my expertise, which the board forbade me to give. Ironically enough, I was hired for that very expertise, which has served my students well for the last twenty-three years...
There's more, but that's really an appalling situation. Parents have every right to raise concerns, but how do outside parties have standing to do so? Why should any Board of Education ignore teachers (sadly too common) but also the parents as well? It seems to be a case of painfully bad judgment, but also abuse of power. It demontrates a lack of understanding of what teachers do and a lack of respect for their expertise. It also shows that "Banned Books Week" is hardly some abstract or irrelevant concept.
Here's the second author I wanted to discuss:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
In 2008, school officials in Crook County, OR, removed the book from ninth grade English classes at Crook County High School after one parent complained about a passage that discussed masturbation. The Kids Right to Read Project sent a letter to the Crook County superintendent and the school board, offering resources and support to school officials who objected to the book's removal. The superintendent removed the book in violation of district policy, but a committee review board voted to reinstate it. While the book was returned to the library, it was suspended from classroom use while the superintendent, school board, and a committee reviewed the district's policy on instructional materials.
In April 2010, the Stockton (MO) School District voted to ban the book after a parent protested its use in high school English classes. The District says it voted to ban the book due to violence, language and some sexual content.
Alexie's own site lists the many awards the book has won, as well as this description:
In his first book for young adults, bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author's own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by acclaimed artist Ellen Forney, that reflect the character's art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.
I haven't read this particular Alexie book yet, but I'm quite fond of his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, it's a collection of interconnected short stories. A character that might be a minor player in one story may be the central player in another. As it happens, during my brief teaching stints, I used two of its short stories in class. And as it happens, a parent raised concerns about one of them.
I'll back up for a moment to discuss pedagogy. (In this instance, I was teaching at a private high school, so I had more leeway than some teachers.) This may come as a shock to some people, but many teenagers are not the most, um, diligent students. This doesn't mean they're necessarily bad kids, but they've got a great deal going on. Many are battling a cocktail of hormones (and sometimes medications, prescribed or otherwise), they're testing boundaries, they're trying out identities and what it means to be a young adult, and they're usually more intrigued or tormented over their social lives or lack thereof than anything going on in class. In their eyes at least, their lives can be dramatic and chaotic. Many are capable of depth and insight that would shock a number of adults, and they can connect powerfully, deeply and personally with certain works of art. They can make the classroom a lively, wonderful and impressive place. However, it can be a battle to get them to that state, to win and keep their attention.
Winning that attention sometimes requires an "by any means necessary" approach. The trick is often to meet students where they are – then take them someplace else. For instance, show a cool film clip for an opening activity, have students discuss its dynamics and theme, and then discuss how it connects to last night's Shakespeare reading, which suddenly doesn't feel quite so foreign. Many older teenagers try to adopt an air of studied disaffection and worldly cynicism, and in some areas, the teen culture dictates that school or even learning itself just ain't cool. However, it is possible to get teenagers to show passion and enjoy themselves in the classroom. Provocative material helps (age-appropriate, of course). I had a colleague who routinely used "A Modest Proposal" in classes, and would occasionally get students who were appalled because they took it seriously. The piece always lead to lively discussions. Introductory material the students connect with also helps, and anything perceived to be somewhat risqué or forbidden (such as a banned or challenged book) can seem adult and enticing. Now, obviously, educators have to pick age-appropriate material, but teachers have always discussed such matters. In any case, when it comes to teenagers, teachers may fare better selling a classic through its scandalous rep than its position in the canon. (Hey, if it gets them to actually read the book and remember some of it later, it's energy well spent.)
In my case, I taught one Alexie story to 12th graders. It was the start of the year, and the other section teacher and I wanted to grab the students' attention, so we picked three well-written, diverse and somewhat provocative short stories. The kids wound up having a very strong (positive) reaction to the Alexie piece, "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation." (It's still my personal favorite from the book.)
In the other instance, I was teaching a summer session with no-credit classes at the same school. The idea was really just to engage the kids (by any means necessary). A fair number of them in this case were coming out of rehab programs, had had substance abuse problems, or other behavioral issues in the past. We wanted them to get back into the habit of being students again, or, in many cases, teaching them how to be students in the first place. I used another story by Alexie, recommended by my department head. This one was about reconnecting with tradition and finding yourself, and the kids (grades 9-12 in this case) responded strongly to this one, too. The thing is, it takes place on the Spokane Indian Reservation, it depicts drug use and the resulting visions, and it doesn't explicitly say that drugs are bad. Later on, the department head fielded a concern by a parent, who thought the story encouraged drug use, and was thus inappropriate. When the department head told me this, I apologized if I'd caused any trouble, but he was actually rather enthused over the incident. When this father had raised his concern, the department head pulled his copy of the book off the shelf, showed it to the dad, and explained its context more. Oddly enough, this man had actually done some work with reservations, but hadn't heard of Alexie. In any case, they wound up having a decent discussion.
I'm sorry my story isn't more dramatic. But I suppose that's part of the point. When concerns exist, these sorts of discussions can, do, and should go on all the time, without someone taking the drastic step of challenging or banning a book, and thus denying others that chance to read and discuss it in class. In my experience, teachers often know more about what's going in students' lives than the students' parents do. Many parental anxieties stem from adults' extreme discomfort in discussing certain topics with their teens (sex and drugs being the most prominent). I'm sympathetic, especially when parents try to work through this. That said, when a good teacher is at the helm, tough and personal issues can be discussed in a productive and more safe manner in the classroom. Merely telling kids to "just say no" to sex and drugs tends to be laughably ineffective, especially with kids who have been drinking, having sex, or may be full-blown recovering addicts. It's more productive to invite them to reflect on their choices and their consequences. Again – meet them where they are, and then maybe you take them someplace else.
Neither teaching nor parenting is easy to do well. I want to stress that this particular father had every right to raise his concerns, silly or wise though they may have been. And he was heard out. It's much better he went that route than some other one. In Oregon, Alexie's work was banned because of a passage about masturbation -- a subject the overwhelming majority of teenagers are well acquainted with. Ultimately, good teaching and parenting has to involve preparing teenagers to deal with the world rather than denying to them that it exists. Reading a good book is a joy that should not be denied anybody, and reading some works, particularly in the case of students tackling difficult or complex ones, can be a much richer, more meaningful experience in a good classroom. (Interested parents can even sit in.)
Once again, if you write a post celebrating Banned Books Week or intellectual freedom this week, write me an e-mail or leave a comment below, and I'll link it here. Thanks, and happy reading!
Banned Books Week Roundup
Mister Tristan is giving away a book (The God Delusion) to celebrate Banned Books Week. Head over and tell him why you deserve it.
Blue Gal promotes Banned Books Week at Crooks and Liars.
Wonkette contributes "Banned Books Week Is the Wingnut Cue to Panic Over Gay Penguin Sex."
The ACLU examines "Protecting Internet Access in Public Schools."
Donna D. at Buzzfeed looks at "17 Banned Books You Read As A Child."
Thers at Whiskey Fire has an interesting take.
Scholastic puts together a slideshow of titles they distribute that have been challenged or banned.
Over at P3, nothsine is doing a series of posts for Banned Books Week with a local angle (in the case, Oregon). Check out the great Kurt Vonnegut quotation in the first post, then scroll through the rest. (The "newer post" link is at the bottom.)
Mental Floss details the surprising complaints against six books.
The Daily Mail (UK) highlights some bizarre bans and challenges in Texas.
Will Unwound offers his final thoughts on Banned Books Week.
The National Coalition Against Censorship posts readout videos from the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Nathan at RainTown Press has a post giving valuable perspective on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which he deems a great pick for eighth-graders. (RainTown has some other Banned Books Week posts up, too.)
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
This is a great line I've seen a couple of times, but it's sadly timely tonight with the execution of Troy Davis (in Georgia).
It's somewhat similar to the line currently posted above on my blog, from Jon Stewart: "Bad jokes and gay marriage are destroying this country. But torture can save it."
There are times we should ask ourselves, and certainly press others - what exactly are your values? What are their consequences? (And what if the power dynamics were reversed, and you were on the receiving end of your world view?)
Hat tip to Sojourner.
Monday, September 19, 2011
In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, I thought I'd use the English-to-Pirate translator on an infamous rant from one of Wall Street's scurvyiest dogs. If the original was satire, it was satire that National Review and other corporate conservatives sincerely endorsed:
We be Wall Street. It’s our job t' make doubloons. Whether it’s a commodity, stock, bond, or some hypothetical piece o' fake paper, it don’t matter. We would trade baseball cards if it were profitable. I didn’t hear America complainin' when t' market was roarin' t' 14,000 and everyone’s 401k doubled every 3 years. Just like gamblin', it's not a problem until you lose. I’ve never heard o' anyone goin' t' Gamblers Anonymous because they won too much in Vegas.
Well now t' market crapped out, & even though it has come aft somewhat, t' government and t' average Joes be still lookin' for a scapegoat. God knows thar has t' be one for everythin'. Well, here we are.
Go ahead and continue t' take us down, but you’re only goin' t' hurt yourselves. What’s goin' t' happen when we can’t find jobs on t' Street anymore? Guess what: We’re goin' t' take yours. We get up at 5am & work till 10pm or later. We’re used t' not gettin' up t' pee when we have a position. We don’t take an hour or more for a lunch break. We don’t demand a union. We don’t retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill, and when t' only thin' port t' eat be on your what crawled out o' t' bung hole plates, we’ll eat that.
For years teachers and other unionized labor have had us fooled. We were too busy workin' t' notice. Do you really think that we be incapable o' teachin' 3rd graders and doin' landscapin'? We’re goin' t' take your cushy jobs with tenure and 4 months off a year and whine just like you that we be so-o-o-o underpaid for buildin' t' youth o' America. Say I'm shovin' off t' your overtime and double time and a half. I’ll be hittin' grounders t' t' high school baseball team for $5k extra a summer, thank you very much, matey.
So now that we’re goin' t' be makin' $85k a year without upside, Joe Mainstreet be goin' t' have his revenge, starboard? Wrong! Guess what: we’re goin' t' stop buyin' t' new 80k ship, we aren’t goin' t' leave t' 35 percent tip at our business what crawled out o' t' bung holes anymore. No more free rides on our dinghies. We’re goin' t' landscape our own aft yards, wash our ships with a garden hose in our docks. Our doubloons was your doubloons. You spent it. When our doubloons dries up, so does yours.
T' difference is, you lived off o' it, we rejoiced in it. T' Obama administration and t' Democratic National Committee might get their way and knock us off t' top o' t' pyramid, but it’s really goin' t' hurt like hell for them when our fat asses land directly on t' middle class o' America and knock them t' t' bottom.
We aren’t dinosaurs. We be smarter and more vicious than that, and we be goin' t' survive. T' question is, now that Obama & his administration be makin' Joe Mainstreet our grub…will he? and will they?
Somehow, turning it into pirate actually makes it less ridiculous.
(Although pirates remain more sympathetic and honorable...)
Thursday, September 08, 2011
Monday, September 05, 2011
Since it's Labor Day, it's a good time to revisit some labor history, both from the last century (the Great Depression and the New Deal) and more recent times (the battle in Wisconsin and other states, and the lackluster discussion of jobs in Washington). Here's a roundup of sorts.
A new book is out on labor icon Joe Hill. New evidence strongly suggests that he was innocent of the murder charges brought against him and was unjustly executed.
PBS' American Experience has a series of episodes on the 1930s, including an excellent one on The Civilian Conservation Corps you can watch online. I wish the New Deal was better remembered, understood, and emulated.
Mike Lux, who occasionally blogs at Crooks and Liars these days, wrote a book published in 2009 titled The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be.
Over at Hullabaloo, Dennis Hartley has put together a list of the Top Ten Labor Films. It's a good list, with further discussion in the comments. I'm particularly fond of John Sayles' Matewan, and Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning docs, Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream. (There are a few mentioned in the list and in comments I still need to see.)
Jill has posted labor songs at Brilliant at Breakfast, and links a list of Ten things you can thank labor unions for:
1. The creation of the middle class in America
2. Employer sponsored health insurance
3. Your pension
4. Forty hour work weeks
5. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
6. Paid sick leave
7. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
8. Workers’ Compensation
9. Vacation leave
10. Child labor laws
At Balloon Juice, DougJ has set up a Labor Day Music Thread. Also at BJ, Anne Laurie quotes Harold Meyerson's " The fallacy of post-industrial prosperity," E.J. Dionne's "The Last Labor Day?" and an old line attributed to robber baron Jay Gould: "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."
Kevin Drum offers "My Jobs Plan: A Trillion Dollars For Infrastructure" (H/T Ursus.)
To the Point's show today was "Labor Day, Unemployment and Obama's Jobs Plan."
It bears taking a closer look at the New Deal and similar policies, and their misguided or disingenuous critics. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933, and his policies proved far more effective at combating the Great Depression than those of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. FDR's New Deal was extremely successful at reducing unemployment, most notably by creating infrastructure projects, which in turn stimulated economic growth. FDR wasn't perfect, and his biggest mistake economically was probably bowing to pressure about deficits and cutting back on the New Deal in 1937. There are quite a few articles about this, but David Woolner's piece "The history lesson Obama has ignored" is a good summary. (Salon covers labor and economic issues pretty well.) Roughly speaking, the New Deal was extremely helpful but insufficient (FDR resisted going further); full recovery wasn't achieved until higher WWII spending kicked in. Paul Krugman has explained these dynamics countless times, and that non-military spending can accomplish the same thing. Christina Romer and Krugman recently explained this once again.
Despite – and because – of the success of these policies, there are people who oppose them, for ideological and/or political reasons. Gene Lyons explained the Republican Party's political angle well in his June piece, "How to sabotage a recovery":
Balance the budget during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression? Should Obama repeat Franklin D. Roosevelt's bad mistake of 1937, when "budget hawks" prevailed, very nearly stifling the New Deal?
That's certainly what the GOP wants. Whether leading Republicans actually believe that returning to the economic practices of the 1920s would be good for the nation is hard to say. Some may be pretending.
The House's freshman contingent appears sincerely misguided. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asks sarcastically if what Tea Partyers want is a low-tax, limited government haven of conservative religious values like ... Pakistan.
Not really. What most have in mind is something more like the Deep South of the 1950s -- an imagined paradise with comfortable "aristocrats," a timid middle class, and beaten-down peasants at each other's throats.
Pretty much, although this ideal isn't always conscious, and certainly isn't sold honestly to the American people as a whole - it's just understood by conservatives as "the way things should be."
Conservative think tanks have long attacked the New Deal and similar programs, and hackery on the subject can pay well. Historian Eric Rauschway, who's written quite a bit on the Great Depression and the New Deal, has often debunked the false claims of New Deal foes, particularly Amity Shlaes. Basically, Shlaes and other conservatives pretend that government jobs don't count as jobs, which would come as a shock to the many families and communities who have prospered because of them. In this 2007 piece, Rauschway critiques Shlaes and Grover Norquist. He followed this up in 2008 with a series of posts, "(Very) short reading list: unemployment in the 1930s," "Stop lying about Roosevelt’s record," and "When is it lying?" (Megan McArdle shows up in this series, and you'll be shocked to learn she attacked the New Deal and was wrong yet again.) Brad Delong and Rauschway have also fact-checked Lee Ohanian, who bizarrely claims that "Herbert Hoover's pro-labor stance helped cause the Great Depression."
Returning to the present day, Steve Benen recently wrote a good series of posts political opposition to successful economic policies. "'Republicans are Listening'? To Whom?" points out that Republicans are trying to slash regulations yet again, even though business owners are not seeking this and some welcome new regulations. In "A recipe for failure," Benen examines our screwed-up political landscape, and how Republican obstructionism (or sabotage) helps them:
Arguably one of the most dramatic Democratic dilemmas of 2011 and 2012 is overcoming the realization that Republicans are getting their way on economic policy and then denying any responsibility for the results. Indeed, it’s a rather extraordinary con: GOP officials see much of their agenda implemented, then see it fail, and then blame Obama when their policies don’t work.
Under ideal circumstances, the president would come up with an economic plan and execute it. If the agenda succeeded, he’d get the credit. If it faltered, Republicans would call him on it. Voters could evaluate the results and decide whether to keep the president around or go back to GOP economic policies.
Yeah, a functioning republic would be nice, huh? Benen looks at some Jared Bernstein charts in "What works?":
Put away the spin, the polls, the talking points, and the ideological axes to grind, and we’re left with a pretty simple truth: things were getting worse, then the stimulus started, then they got better. This isn’t even controversial; it’s as plain as day.
Bernstein added, “I know — this ain’t about the evidence. But I will never accept that condition and neither should anyone else. That’s the way societies decline and I’d kind of like to avoid that.”
Agreed. If, as [David] Leonhardt put it, the only meaningful question is, “What works?” then the answer matters for those who care about the consequences — and everyone should care about the consequences.
Now, under the Republican worldview, the results highlighted in Bernstein’s charts should be impossible. Democrats spent a lot of money, imposed their preferred regulations, prevented public-sector layoffs at the state and local level, and added a lot of money to the federal budget deficit.
And yet, almost immediately, the economy grew and the job market got significantly better.
I imagine some conservatives will look at this and say, “Well, yeah, but it didn’t last and now we’re slipping backwards.” That’s true, but it only reinforces the left’s argument — the stimulus made things better, but as the funding faded, so too did the economy. Common sense, again, should tell us do more of what worked, and in this case, fairly aggressive public investments expanded the economy and created jobs.
Ergo, if we now want to expand the economy and create jobs, we know what to do because we already know what works.
It’s not theoretical or some abstract idea — we know what we tried and saw what made a difference. Likewise, here we are in 2011 trying conservative austerity ideas, and we see that they’re not working.
So here’s a radical idea: why not go with the most effective policies again?
Alas, basic competence and practicality are viewed as radical by conservatives. It's not that the New Deal or the more modest 2009 stimulus didn't or don't work; it's just that conservatives don't support them, for ideological and political reasons. Sadly, the Republican Party as a whole has no interest in responsible governance, and this has been the case for some time now. Some conservatives actively seek to destroy a functioning government, through starve-the-beast and other measures. It's important to remember that for conservatives, the evidence often just doesn't matter, and the "epistemic closure" and the right-wing echo chamber of falsehoods are features, not bugs. Conservatives didn't read Amity Shlaes' work and become convinced she was right – and then somehow surprisingly miss all the fact-checking that debunked her false claims about the New Deal and the efficacy of jobs programs. Shlaes simply told conservatives what they wanted to hear, and what some of them actually believe (perhaps winning some converts along the way). She didn't offer them greater knowledge or understanding of the New Deal; she offered them lies as ammunition for their preferred policies.
Overwhelmingly, movement conservatives just don't care about the people Lance Mannion described in his 2009 piece, "The Invisibles":
I'm getting used to the fact that in the minds of Republicans, working people whose paychecks come from the local, state, or federal government don't exist. Their jobs don't count as jobs and the money they earn and spend on food, clothing, rent or a mortgage, and to pay taxes doesn't work its way into the economy as a whole but vanishes into the ether, its existence proved only by red ink in the budgets and higher taxes Republicans have to pay.
This is how Right Wing agitprop minister and pseudo-historian Amity Shlaes is able to argue that the New Deal didn't reduced unemployment. She counts government workers as unemployed---until 1942; government workers who wear uniforms and carry rifles belong to a special category of government workers who somehow don't count as government workers.
This is how the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, is able to claim that the government never created a job, despite the paychecks he has collected from government and despite the fact his job is to help lots of Republicans get government jobs.
This is how Senator John Ensign can blithely suggest that his home state of Nevada can cut services without the workers who provide those services losing their jobs. Those workers don't exist to him as people. They're just bloat.
And it's not only people whose checks are signed by a government employee who are invisible. People whose companies depend on the contracts they have with the government, people who build and repair roads and schools and dams and canals and levees and ports, people who sell things for money from cashed government paychecks, and fix roofs and serve meals and wash cars and deliver flowers and pick up trash for money from cashed government paychecks---they're all invisible too.
Exactly, and it's crucial that everybody doesn't play along and buy into this irresponsible and cruel mindset. NPR is running a story called "Bumps on the Road Back to Work" today. It's part of an ongoing series on unemployment, and does a good job of showing the lives of some of those "invisibles." To combat all the bad economic policies, plutocracy and callousness out there, it's important to remind people of history, to point out the facts on effective policies, and to direct attention to the very, real present-day struggles of many Americans. Things don't have to be this way. (Plus, don't forget the arts.)