Saturday, October 1, 2011

How to Not Make a Difference for Poor Children

Today I will reprise a theme derived from my former career as a teacher of English rhetoric.

I have read that Aristotle invented logic because he tired of hearing invalid arguments made in the public assemblies in Athens.

I have in mind a fairly obscure blogger whom I am not going to name because he doesn't deserve more attention than that he's currently not getting. I have no reason to draw attention to ideas that are deservedly being ignored; instead, I want to draw attention to a style of argumentation that needs to be expunged from the public discourse to the greatest extent possible under our present conditions of open communications under what still resemble democratic governing institutions.

The blogger I am thinking of has been accused of actually stalking and harassing some of my friends in a way bordering on the illegal, but I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and therefore will assume that his objections to some of the political strategies and ends of the educational reform movement are sincere. I will only concentrate on style here, not substance or personal motivation. Therefore I will quote from a specimen of the vicious rhetoric employed, only changing proper names so as to spare his victims from further embarrassment; then, resurrecting my English teacher editorial skills, I will rewrite the paragraph in a manner I think ethical and possibly persuasive; and then I will close with a brief comment.  

There's a lot of ugliness to choose from in the latest blog post published, but I suppose I might as well start with the beginning, to illustrate how relentlessly assaulted the reader of such diatribes is made to feel right from the beginning. (Again, I am changing names so as to protect the victims of this train of insults from further injury, and so as to leave the investigation of any truths behind the claims being made for some other venue.)

"The scoundrels, scandal-mongers, and assorted criminals at the so-called Solidarity Insurrection have been very active lately. Meeting with other astroturf groups on a statewide privatization bus tour. Hosting meetings with their ideological counterparts of the extreme right-wing Midwestern Institute. Lying to Father Smith. Covering up the fact that their Executive Director, that foppish millionaire from Mount John Paul — Joe Houston, was illegally lobbying the New York City Board of Education. They've even taken to smearing actual grass-roots parent organizations like Guardians Throughout the United States in high profile venues like ABC's Miseducation Nation.

With all the poverty pimping and privatization pushing they've been up to, I wondered if" and so on. 


There is much to analyze in these eight lines (which turned brown when I copied them into my blogger program, and I left them such, as reminiscent of the material they amount to), but I will only highlight the writer's diction, in particular his dependence upon personal insult and his choice of predictably harsh, ugly, but also mechanical, stereotyped, imaginationless verbs. The focus is immediately placed on the human beings, whom the writer hardly knows, of the organization he opposes, rather than on their ideas or policy positions: we are told they are "scoundrels, scandal-mongers, and assorted criminals", all without evidence or even identifying the scandals they are selling or the crimes they are committing, unless trying to improve the lives of underprivileged children be one. If this were printed in a traditional publication, the publisher might be indicted for libel, but in the shadowy world of the blogosphere, cowards can use their avatars to publish all manner of defamation. Similarly, he starts off the description of the organization's activities with "meeting" and " hosting", but these apparently don't sound bad enough, so he moves on to "lying", "covering up", "illegally lobbying" and "smearing", before descending into the cheap, mechanical alliteration, probably borrowed, his only attempt at a stylistic flourish, of "poverty pimping and privatization pushing". There is no evidence presented in the text to support any of these accusations of nefarious activities--the writer depends instead on links to his own previous, similar, evidenceless, unread mud-fests on his own blog (there is precious little independent support for any of these accusations)--and the main question that arises is, Why wouldn't a sane reader with better ways to spend time not flee this site in horror?

Now let's return to the assumption (hard to believe at this point, but I've looked around at other things he's written, and some of his positions are actually ones I agree with) that this individual means well, even if his political indoctrination has led him into adopting some of the most unpopular and democratically ineffective tactics ever devised. Let's assume that he really wants to help poor children have a chance at getting an education equal to that of wealthier people, and believes that a unified, traditional public school system is the best way to achieve this. He could simply say so, without all of the personal invective that gets in the way of this message. He could reasonably comment on current affairs like public school choice, charter schools, or parental empowerment, supporting some initiatives and opposing others, without depicting his opponents as the minions of evil forces from whom the world needs to be saved.

With this in mind, I'll attempt a rewrite. 

"The organizers at the so-called Solidarity Insurrection have been very active lately. Meeting with other supposed grassroots groups on a statewide bus tour promoting the division of our public school system, hosting meetings with the conservative Midwestern Institute, prevaricating in Father Smith, and covering up the fact that their Executive Director, that millionaire from Mount John Paul, Joe Houston, was reprimanded for lobbying the New York City Board of Education, they've even taken to questioning the funding of  actual grass-roots parent organizations like Guardians Throughout the United States in high profile venues like ABC's Education Nation.

With all the privatization promotion they've been up to, I wondered if  and so on. This paragraph is still hostile to Solidarity Insurrection, but by my reducing or removing the extremes in the rhetoric, the writer sounds possibly credible, and readers may continue to the end of the piece. 


In my experience of public education controversy, I have come to believe that people on all sides of the debates show up to voice opinions in their free time because they care about the futures of the next generation; and even when people advocate policies I sincerely think are short-sighted or likely to prove ineffective, I do not forget this, and do not allow my own soul to descend to the depths where I become some fighting spirit determined to pull others down into the muck I inhabit. All education bloggers should take this same vow. 

Or some can continue as they are, and watch their blogs sink into the depths, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.

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