May 8th, 2019

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I’ve been back in the classroom for the last few months, substitute teaching in a few districts in East Portland. It’s been an eye-opening experience to say the least. I knew things were bad, but what I’ve seen over the last couple of months has genuinely shocked me at every turn. The bottom line is this: Despite the best efforts of amazing and dedicated educators throughout the state, public education in Oregon is collapsing. That is not hyperbole. This state is in the middle of an emergency, and the people who govern us are either actively aiding and abetting that emergency or pretending it doesn’t exist.

At all grade levels, classes of more than 30 students are not just an occasional problem – they are the norm. Classes over 40 students are not uncommon, nor has it been uncommon for me to work for a teacher who has over 200 students in their classroom over the course of the day. In this situation, it is literally impossible for teachers to give students the individual attention that they need. This is starting at the earliest grade levels, and the effects are compounding. Ask a teacher of any grade and they will tell you that students are coming to them each year with less knowledge, fewer skills, and more social problems than ever before. As someone who is deeply skeptical of anyone who walk around complaining about “kids these days,” I am here to tell you: They are not making this up. These students have been corralled through this deeply inadequate system year after year, with higher and higher expectations foisted upon them at every turn. These kids aren’t dumb! Amidst all of this chaos, they are starting to call it for what it is: Complete bullshit. They are acting out, they are acting up. You would too if you were them.

In the face of all of this, in the midst of a supposed economic recovery, school districts across the state are cutting staff, cutting services, farming out substitute teaching, bus driving, and other vital services to private companies, and otherwise doing a disservice to students who have already been pushed to the brink over the past three decades. Next year will be worse than this year, and the year after worse than that. When we hit the next recession? Forget about it. It’s game over.

For the last couple months of the school year, I’ve been teaching 6th grade Science at a great middle school with great teachers in a tough district. All of my classes have over 30 students in them – these are 6th graders, mind you. On my first day, each of my classes involved students chasing each other, desks flipping over, food being thrown, even a student who vomited – on purpose – in order to cause chaos and force me to clear the room. In classes of that size, not knowing names and with a general rebellion on my hands, I was un-moored from everything I’ve ever learned about what it means to be a teacher. I was just weathering the storm, watching the clock. It was an incredibly demoralizing experience.

Since then, things have calmed down, but it’s still hard. From the beginning, it’s been clear that my number one goal is to manage student bodies – with that many 12 year-olds in a room, you literally have no choice in the matter. Get them in their seat, keep them in their seat, keep their hands off of each other, make sure no one is leaving while my back is turned, make sure no one is using the sink in the back, make sure no one is on their phone. The students have been telling the principal that I’m really strict, which is the last thing I thought anyone would ever say about me – but it’s a matter of absolute necessity under these circumstances. I’ve become THAT teacher, the one I hated in school, the one with arbitrary rules, the one who doesn’t have time for the students who are falling behind, the one who snaps at students who ask a question at the wrong time. As for student learning, it HAS to be secondary to managing bodies. Without the latter, the former would never happen. It’s not a great position to be in.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a difficult job because these kids are awful humans, or because their parents are bad at parenting. We’ve put them in a literally impossible position. It’s already objectively insane to ask 12-year olds to sit at a desk, inside, and focus on learning for six hours a day; limited to a total of 30 minutes for recess and lunch combined. To do so with 34 of their peers, with little to no individual support is the most ludicrous thing I can possibly imagine. And that’s what they’ve been dealing with since they started school! Of COURSE they are acting out. Of COURSE they are chomping at the bit to get out of their seats, all day. Of COURSE they are crying out for attention in the sea of bodies we are forcing them to swim in all day. Of COURSE they’re going to expend some of their excess energy in insane ways any time a substitute teacher they’ve never met comes into the room and tells them what to do. Any 12 year-old would be doing the same thing – I know for a fact that I would have.

I’m finishing out the school year for another teacher, who was finishing out the school year for another teacher – making me the third teacher that these students have had this year. At least once a day a student asks me “are you going to quit too?” But I’m coming in with fresh legs, seeing other teachers who have been worn down by this broken system over the course of the year. I bonded immediately with them because we are all suffering through a kind of mutual trauma each day. We’ve been placed in an impossible position, communing with hundreds of students who are in an equally impossible position, being asked to get them up to speed even though almost all of them are already several grade-levels behind because of the system we are asking them to navigate, because of the impossible circumstances that they have somehow endured thus far. The teachers around me are amazing, and they’ve been enduring this collapse far longer than I have, seeing the change in students year after year, dealing with larger classes year after year, having their jobs hanging in the balance every time a new round of cuts come around. And yet there they stay, weathering the storm.

The worst thing about witnessing all of this is knowing full well that it hasn’t happened by accident. Politics in Oregon are notoriously constrained by archaic Republican measures put in place in the 80s and 90s designed to make it nearly impossible to for the government to do anything productive – super-majorities are required to raise taxes, which can subsequently be referred to the ballot for a popular vote. If the state raises more money in a given year than they anticipated, that extra money is sent back to the taxpayers, preventing good accounting from actually taking place. Property tax increases have been capped each year, meaning revenue will literally never keep up with demand. To add to this slow bleed, the state has saddled local districts and municipalities with the the burden of paying for a pension program that they put in place, forcing school districts to pay ever-increasing costs for current retirees at the expense of current services. In short, schools are being bled dry from every angle, and its the students and teachers who are suffering. I cannot emphasize this enough: This has always been the goal: to destroy public education and push parents who have the means into private, for-profit schools. We are seeing the plan work exactly as it was intended to.

Republicans are more than happy with this situation – they’ll cry about PERS reform with the full knowledge that every penny owed to current retirees will be paid while they’re busy dismantling benefits for future employees. For Democrats – who have been poisoned by corporate cash and a desire to “compromise” with people who believe in things that are actively evil – the last few years has been a perfect situation for them: They’ve been able to win elections while fervently pretending that they have their hands tied behind their backs. They’ve been able to engage in their preferred mode of governing – tweaking around the edges, rearranging the deck chairs, allowing the water to slowly come to a boil as they dither on and on as their corporate backers prefer. Their motto has always been “We’d love to help you, but we can’t, ” the electoral equivalent of calling a customer service number and having a machine tell you that your call is important. On the surface, they’ll tell you that they believe in the “politics of the possible,” which is a fancy way of saying that they don’t ever want to mention any kind of vision that they can’t guarantee will pass in the next 30 days. This means that they have developed no long-term plans, no platform, no theory of governing. They have no vision, they have no beliefs, and they fundamentally think things are actually pretty good. Governor Kate Brown is the perfect embodiment of this ethos – the Governor who backed her way into office by throwing her predecessor under the bus and has subsequently governed with a distinct lack of vision for four years,garnering no accomplishments and doing absolutely nothing of note during her time in office. She’s the perfect Democrat – one who believes in the status quo, who doesn’t want to put her neck on the line, who probably couldn’t even tell you why she wanted to be Governor in the first place if you asked.

Then the unexpected happened: Last November, Democrats in Oregon encountered their nightmare scenario, winning super-majorities in both chambers and the governorship – enough power to permanently break the logjam and undo the damage that Republicans wrought back in the 80s and 90s. Having never developed a plan for this scenario, having never intended to actually represent their voters, this newfound power has been a real hot potato for them. This entire legislative session they’ve been trying to run out the clock, passing things like statewide rent control that seem great at first, but turn out to be nothing-burgers or even actively bad upon further scrutiny. They’re all just biding their time until the next election, hoping that Republicans can win enough seats to unburden them from the responsibility of having to govern. It’s clear now that they’ve always preferred the artificial constraints imposed upon them by previous Republican legislatures, and they’re anxious to be back in a place where those things can be a catch-all excuse for their persistent moral failures.

Despite their hatred of governing, Democrats did recognize that they had to do SOMETHING about school funding during this legislative session. With super-majorities, they needed only to keep their own counsel and come up with a plan that served their constituents and mobilized their base, right? So of course, the first thing they decided to do was seek the input of… Republicans (?) to craft a new funding package for schools. Once they finished that, they earned some big-time corporate sponsorships. (??????) After that, they entered new negotiations with Oregon Business and Industry. (?????????) At each of these stages, the bill was watered down further and made more complicated. At each stage it became more difficult to understand what any of the authors of the bill were actually trying to accomplish. With each compromise, Democrats earned brownie points and little else. And just in case there was any doubt about whose side they were actually on, our erstwhile Governor simultaneously introduced a plan to literally cut teacher salaries to help deal with pension costs – a move designed to further curry favor with corporate interests.

The result of all of this is a bill called the Student Success Act, which is literally impossible to understand, whose benefits cannot be explained and likely won’t even be seen for several years anyways. The money might provide some relief somewhere down the road, but no one can really explain how or when. In terms of mobilizing any kind of political energy, it seems to be designed to do the opposite. The state Teacher’s Union seems to have gotten behind it, and I’m getting all kinds of ads on Twitter and Facebook from shadowy groups who seem to support it, but it’s clear that it doesn’t do anything to fix the IMMEDIATE problems that EVERY educator is facing in their classroom RIGHT NOW. And if you need a two-day conference to explain how it *might* help in the future, you probably fucked up your bill.

But hey, at least after ALL of that time spent compromising, seeking input from the other side, giving up the farm for Republican and Corporate buy-in, Democrats won’t have to worry about any opposition, right? HA. Actually, the totally predictable has happened: Republicans are bringing out the big guns: Going all fire and brimstone against the bill that has been watered down ostensibly to garner their support. They’re shutting down the state Senate in order to get MORE concessions from Democrats. And those Corporate interests who promised to remain “neutral” on the bill in exchange for even more concessions? I’ll bet you good money they’ll still organize enough signatures to get the measure referred to the ballot even if it does pass. And when this arcane bill – this magical gear-box filled with so many compromises that no one can actually sum it up in any kind of convincing way – is put before the voters, it will be attacked relentlessly as a “sales tax” and will fail because it’s ALWAYS easier for the enemies of complicated legislation to define that legislation than it is for the proponents. Oregon has some recent history with this. We should know better.

So. I’m walking out tomorrow. I’ll be marching with the rest of Portland’s teachers on the waterfront, joining my peers while knowing full well that powers that be are busy attempting to funnel that enormous energy for change into something that’s pallatable to the very people who seek to destroy us and what we do. Knowing full well that the next election cycle will probably bring me yet another choice between a Republican who is actively against me and a Democrat who pretends they can’t do anything to help me. Knowing full well that things will probably get worse before they get better. I’ll march because I don’t know what else to do.

What Does Kate Brown Actually Believe In?

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I can’t claim to be an ardent follower of Oregon state politics. I have however been following the Oregon Governor’s race with an increasing level of interest, because it seems like there’s an increasingly real chance that Kate Brown could be unseated by her Republican opponent, a man whose skin is made up of approximately 40% earlobe tissue and whose eyes have been replaced by LITERAL BEADS -a man whose campaign platform is based almost exclusively on eviscerating the state’s public pension program and gutting regulations on corporations. His name is Knute Buehler, and he sucks.

So why would Oregon, a blue state whose US Senators are two of the most reliably liberal in the nation, elect a man like Buehler over an incumbent Democrat? What is it about Kate Brown’s plan for her second term that has made voters consider putting someone else in the Governor’s mansion? Wait… actually, what IS Kate Brown’s plan? She’ll have the mandate of a second-term governor, and there’s a real possibility of a blue wave that is could boost Democratic numbers in the state legislature too. Surely she must have an ambitious agenda that will drive people to the polls, right? Actually, here’s what her campaign website: says:

  • Going forward, Kate will continue helping small businesses across Oregon thrive by cutting red tape.
  • Kate will continue to stand with working families by supporting policies that help give opportunities to all Oregonians.
  • Our state is at the forefront of a supply chain for an emerging technology, and we can leverage this opportunity to grow our a robust and globally connected, statewide economy.
  • Just as families have to keep to a budget to make ends meet, so does state government.
  • She convened a Task Force to review and propose options for making up to $5 billion in payments toward PERS costs. Made up of a diverse group of stakeholders, this group is considering the most cost-effective methods to save money while still remaining committed to our Oregon values.
  • Kate will continue to protect the progress that we have made to make reproductive healthcare accessible in Oregon.
  • Kate will continue to fight for the resources necessary to make sure every student enters school ready to learn, and stays engaged and on track throughout their education.

Two things jump out at me while reading through these. First, it’s clear that she’s not planning on DOING anything during her second term – she’s committed to keeping the lights on and that’s about it. Second, there’s not a single promise that she’s made that couldn’t be just as easily made by a Republican. That’s not because she’s going to implement Republican policies, mind you – it’s because all of her promises are so vague that they could be made by anyone, for any reason. A Republican could just as easily promise you that they’ll “stand up for working families” by voting to end Oregon’s status as a sanctuary state, for instance.  Knute could promise to “fight for the resources necessary” for Oregon students by destroying the state’s public employee pension plan and “re-investing” the money in schools, as he has actually proposed. He could promise to “help small businesses” by cutting the minimum wage. These phrases are meaningless, designed deliberately in a way that avoids taking genuine policy positions or creating a vision for the future.

Listen, I know that Oregon is a uniquely tough state to govern. When Republicans had some level of power in the 80s, they ensured that any Democratic Legislature would have one hand tied behind their back for the foreseeable future by requiring a 2/3 vote in the legislature for any kind of tax increase. The funding model that existed at that point was messy, and remains so, because no one has had the numbers to change it. That makes it hard for ANY Governor to promise ambitious new initiatives that would cost any kind of real money. So the state Democratic party has taken the most extremely Democrat position possible: “We can’t do anything about this right now, so why even mention that we might want to in the future?” So we’re left with an incredibly boring, technocratic, anti-aspirational gubernatorial campaign that inspires nobody and could very well propel a man who will do an incredible amount of damage into the Governor’s mansion. It’s the exact kind of campaign that Hillary Clinton ran against Donald Trump, and those results speak for themselves.

If Kate Brown loses to Knute Buehler, it won’t be because he’s a good candidate. It’ll be because people are struggling across the board and she promised to deliver them nothing to alleviate their suffering. It’ll be because she thought she could coast to a second term without making any policy commitments. It’ll be because she failed to offer a positive vision of a real future where the government can actually help people. It’ll be because she Doesn’t. Actually. Believe. In. Anything. And there’s a real possibility that we’ll all be worse off because of it.

(In case anyone is wondering, I’m still going to fucking vote for her)

Fix Yourself

From the beginning of my time in the Real World™, I’ve been consistently shocked at the extent to which self help culture permeates every aspect of American life. From my days working in a grocery store to my days working in the classroom, from grade school to grad school, I’ve had it hammered into me that the world that exists a rung above me is fixed and unmoveable. I’ve been told that the decisions made above my station in life are what they are, and nothing that results from those decisions can be changed or fixed. I’ve learned, over and over again, that what I CAN fix is my attitude, my outlook.

Every time I think I’ve escaped the self-help bubble, I turn a corner to see it rearing its ugly head again. Over time, I’ve come to understand that this an integral part of how our society shifts responsibility for our collective problems to the individuals who are least responsible for them. Our energy for change is always directed inward and downward instead of outward and upward. It’s the grease that keeps this machine running.

I have to admit here that I have, in the past, directed a great deal of judgment at the people who gravitate towards self help culture. I’ve always found it odd that people can approach this kind of stuff – which is ultimately so repetitive and so limiting – and find some sort of revelatory value in it each time. There’s clearly a religious element in the whole venture, and at my worst moments you can always find me sneering at anything that even vaguely smells of religion.

But even moreso than the ritual of it all- the spiritual incantations, the meditative mindfulness, the practiced reactions to the world around us – there’s a fundamental faith in the rationality of the world around us. In this world, credit scores are an act of God and police are rational arbiters of all that is right and good in the world. In this world, anyone who works hard enough can become rich, and anyone who has sufficient belief in themselves can navigate the incomprehensible maze that our society has set up for them and somehow come out on the other end with their dignity intact. The fact that the mechanisms of this world punish people for failure to navigate its intricacies through depriving them of food, housing, and healthcare is an immutable fact of life. These mechanisms are a result of natural law in the same way that the rising and setting of the sun is. To maintain this faith, a person almost has to engage in religious rituals. A person has to assume that any problems they encounter are a result of their own personal defects.

Of course, the reality of our country’s economic structure isn’t exactly easy to stomach. The reality is that wealth and comfort are primarily reserved to those who are born into it, regardless of the effort they put in. The reality is that people who possess the worst character traits are are often ushered into positions of power through systems that are designed to limit opportunities for people of conscience. The reality is that with every day that passes, a person born into limited means is less likely to escape their social station than a person born the day before. And things have been heading inexorably in that direction – albeit at varying speeds – for the entirety of my life and that of millions of others. There simply aren’t many people who have the social and economic foundation built under them to function regularly in their daily lives with that knowledge and understanding.

So at the end of the day, people who are chasing self-help culture – the ones who go to the workshops, buy the books, and practice the rituals – are channeling their energy in the only way our society allows. And that pursuit is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. They are trying to tackle an impossible task – to change the very wiring of their brain and rid themselves of the nagging doubt about the world around them. Not only is that a tough mountain to climb, it’s the only one that they can see in front of them. And good for them for trying to conquer it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I agree with our society’s incessant need to shift responsibility from institutions to individuals. Self-help purveyors have their share of hucksters, ambulance-chasers, and those who profiteer off of human suffering – but what religion doesn’t? These purveyors are chasing what capitalism demands that all of us chase- a growth market. They’re selling, selling, selling to an audience that is only growing larger every day. And it makes sense that it’s a growth market. Right now, the expectations that we are placing on individuals to succeed are greater than ever in a world where there are objectively fewer opportunities to succeed than ever before. It makes sense, in this world, that people gravitate towards a philosophy that asks them to direct their energy inward instead of outward. It makes sense that people are yearning to maintain their faith in the world around them even as that world is proving itself to be woefully inadequate to the needs of its people. The alternative is scary as shit.

Goodnight Gorda

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Here’s some fun Gorda facts:

  • When I met her at the Humane Society, her name was “Bunny.” They found her in a barn and she was a mother to a single kitten, who they named “Bugs.” It was a very shitty name.
  • It took me almost two years to come up with a different name because I am both extremely uncreative and incredibly self-conscious about making decisions that are permanent.
  • The Humane Society almost prevented me from adopting her due to my living situation, but a nice lady who worked there changed her mind when they saw the way I snuggled with her and also maybe was swayed by the fact that I almost started crying when they told me I couldn’t have her.
  • The name Gorda was derived from watching “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which is a movie in Spanish about a young Che Guevara. At one point, Che calls his chubby friend “fatty.” I asked the person who I was watching the movie with to tell me what word he used, and it was “Gordo.” And so Gorda’s gender-appropriate and totally not fat-shaming name was born.
  • Back when I was in my early 20s and she was not geriatric, I was able to leave her alone in my apartment for several days at a time with a pile of dry food and a big bowl of water. I also left a window open so that she could wander in and out as she pleased. After I returned from one of those trips, a neighbor told me that he had been awakened in the middle of the night to something large and furry in his bed. As it turns out, Gorda had been so snuggle-deprived in my absence that she had crawled through one of his open windows, found his bedroom, and crawled into bed with him. She was not taking no for an answer.
  • As we all know, cat years progress much faster than human years, and I am actually able to pinpoint the exact moment that Gorda surpassed me in age. When I was living in that same apartment and still young and dumb, I came home late at night, coming down from a particularly intense mushroom trip. Immediately when I came downstairs, I could tell that Gorda was upset with me. She glowered down on me from her perch on top of the couch, judging me. It’s as if she was saying “I know what you’ve done, Stephen. How dare you take illicit drugs and then return to my home.” From that point forward, she became “Gorda the wise,” and she became my caretaker.
  • The Humane Society informed me in no uncertain terms that Gorda was not fond of other cats, and that was very true. But one day, my landlady (who lived above me) came home with a very sweet and tiny kitten, and we thought that maybe introducing her to Gorda would re-ignite some kind of motherly instinct inside of her soul. We placed them in front of each other, and Gorda sniffed the kitten twice before winding up with her right paw and smacking that adorable kitten as hard as she could three times. She fucked that kitten up.
  • Despite her hatred of cats of all sizes, Gorda had a particular affection for dogs. She never met one that she didn’t want to snuggle.
  • Over her last few years, her name became less apt as she lost more and more weight. My friend Sean came to visit from Billings a little while back and informed me that her new name should be “Emaciata.” He does not speak Spanish.
  • Whenever my nephews and niece came over, Gorda would go into hiding – either in a kitchen cupboard or in the basement. We were worried that she would do the same when we brought Simon home – but the opposite occured. Because we spent so much extra time sitting, lying down, in bed, or otherwise snuggling with Simon, she had a captive audience. And she never turned down an opportunity to join the snuggle pile, even as Simon started beating the shit out of her on a regular basis. If meeting a kitten didn’t reignite a motherly instinct, I think being around a human child did – she was always so gentle with him, even when he didn’t return the favor.
  • Gorda’s last week involved lots of ground raw chicken, extra snuggles, and plenty of tormenting from Simon, which she continued to tolerate.  Her last moments were spent in full snuggle mode, and she’s now taken up permanent residence in one of her favorite spots in the backyard under our big Dogwood tree.

I wasn’t going to write anything else – I was mostly just planning on posting pictures. But it’s worth saying that getting a cat was both one of the dumbest and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I didn’t think it through. I didn’t imagine it would be a 13 year commitment. I didn’t foresee how hard it would be to move around from place to place with a furry friend who viewed her litterbox as a more of a bullseye than a dartboard. Had I been able to see those things, I never would have taken her in. But it was so, absolutely, completely worth it that none of that stuff ended up mattering. 21 year-old me was an idiot, but that idiocy led me to one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. And now, with Gorda gone, I’m that much farther away from being that kid who would make a decision like that. A decision that was 100% based on what’s in his heart with absolutely no practical considerations involved. Thinking about that kid, I’m shocked at how careless he was but amazed at how that carelessness didn’t always lead him in the wrong direction. I kind of miss him.

 

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Young Gorda

Gorda Hannah

Gorda ashamed

Gorda majestic

Gorda reaching

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I’m gonna miss my baby. Goodnight, sweet Gorda.

Homogenization Nation

There’s only one thing you’re sure of: You’re missing out. You’re doing something wrong and it’s time to adapt. You’ve decided to dress a little nicer and cut off some of the rough edges. You swear a little less and stop talking about politics. You’ve got to find some stability. You’ve got to make more money. You’re missing something.

You turn yourself into a brand. Your circle of friends becomes larger and ever-less intimate. That’s a good thing, because you’ve been told to view them as a source of potential income. You no longer hit them up because you want to hang out – you hit them up because you’ve got an exciting business opportunity for them. You’re gathering information on them, probing them for weak points. Your interactions are transformed into transactions. You’re always on point. You never let your guard down.

Your income has gone up over the last few years. That’s a good thing, because everywhere you turn there seem to be more and more people who are trying to separate you from that income. Your rent has gone up. Your most expensive purchases need to be replaced every year. The things you used to buy to save money now cost more because saving money is trending. New gatekeepers seem to be popping up everywhere to charge you a fee for the things you used to do for free.

In the world around you, your favorite establishments are closing and being replaced with boutiques and wine bars. The ones that stay open are getting glossy remodels and adding new locations on the other side of town. They now have a variety of merchandise for you to purchase. Miniature shopping malls have been placed between you and all of the activities you enjoy. All you have to do is walk through them (but you might as well buy something while you’re at it). Visible signs of poverty seem to be disappearing from your neighborhood. You don’t ask where those signs went – it’s probably just because people are doing better. Everything is being consolidated, homogenized. It’s relentlessly predictable and you wonder if you should find comfort in that.

Everyone tells you that confidence is key. If you want a bright future, you’ve just got to believe in yourself. Things are looking up, you tell yourself – there’s a windfall right around the corner. But before you turn that corner, there are all kinds of people who want to cash in on your windfall before it happens. You’ve already parted with all of your current income, so why not part with your future income too? They told you to bet on yourself – you’re good for it if you believe you are. You sign the promissory note. The only possible trajectory is up. All you have to do is believe.

In the virtual world, you’re now connected to your 750 closest friends on every conceivable social media platform – and you wouldn’t want to say or do anything to offend them. You’re becoming increasingly aware that your every click and keystroke is being monitored. You adjust your behavior accordingly.  Every search yields the same 10 results. Information is harder to come by, but at least shopping is really easy. The places in the virtual world that you used to go to relax now serve as constant reminders of all that you’re missing out on – the new shoes you could be wearing, the trips you could be taking. And it can all be yours in one click.

In your more pessimistic moments, you wonder why there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to hide anymore. You feel suffocated by all of this. Your life seems ever more devoid of genuine interactions with people, but maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. Maybe being authentic is a sign of weakness. Maybe passion is a sign of youth. You push all that aside. You’ve got to be on point. You don’t want to miss out.

The economy is doing well, you hear.  This is the part of the business cycle known as a “recovery.” And in your weaker moments, you wonder: If this is a recovery, why is it so fucking bleak out there?

Collusion

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The theory goes something like this: Donald Trump’s campaign met with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign and asked them for help in winning the election against Hillary Clinton. In return, the Trump campaign agreed to pursue better relations with Russia in the event that Russian help ended up putting them over the top. Russia proceeded to “hack the election” by sending phishing e-mails to Clinton campaign officials and spending money to promote ads and fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Russia also did some other things that we have yet to uncover evidence for, such as rigging voting machines and hacking voter registries. Trump went on to win the election, and will presumably do some favors for Russia at some point as a reward for their help in winning the election.

The above narrative is both simple and compelling. But as time goes on, we appear to be getting farther and farther away from this operating theory. Instead, what you’ll hear over and over is the word “collusion.”  It’s a catch-all term that encompasses a number of possible activities, not all of which have anything to do with rigging an election. And as we get farther away from the shocking results of that election, it seems that fewer and fewer people are mentioning any vote-rigging, preferring instead to stick with the word “collusion.”

Listen: It’s pretty clear that there were Russian interests who were trying to curry favor with the Trump campaign, through a variety of means both legal and not-so-legal. But foreign countries currying favor with elected officials and prospective elected officials isn’t only not unusual – it’s actually an integral feature of our politics. Why do you think that a bill which criminalizes a peaceful boycott movement against Israel makes it to the Senate floor? Why do you think that people inside Obama’s white house referred to foreign policy think tanks in Washington DC as “Arab-occupied territory?” Why do you think our foreign policy establishment so overwhelmingly favors the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia even as our actual material and strategic interests in the Middle East continue to decline?

Michael Tracey says it best on Twitter:

Insofar as the Russia “scandal” is a scandal, it’s a political corruption scandal masquerading as a global espionage scandal.  Paranoid liberals want to frame it as the latter because it makes the wrongdoing appear unique to Trump.  But the political corruption exposed – unregistered foreign lobbying, underhanded oligarchic influence, campaign hangers-on overstating their influence as a means of currying favor and attaining career advancement – reflects an indictment of the entire political system and is thoroughly bipartisan in nature.

Conspiracy theories are a constant tornado of information, innuendo, and – more than anything – certainty. Before we even heard that people in Trump’s orbit are being arrested last week, we all heard a chorus of people yelling “SEE?” simultaneously. Yet again, as the dust settled we learned that we are still waiting for that other shoe to drop – the one that proves that the conspiracy theorists were Right All Along. Throughout all this time, as the shoe continues to not drop, we are constantly being inundated with that certainty and innuendo. By the time all of this is over, the fact that the one big thing we were all waiting to learn never came to pass won’t even matter.

Here’s a corollary for you: Can anyone tell me what the Benghazi scandal was all about?  Can anyone tell me what the central thesis was that implicated Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in some kind of wrong-doing after those attacks? I can’t either! But that’s the thing with conspiracy theories – it’s all noise and no signal. You see where I’m going with this – “collusion” is nothing more then Benghazi for liberals.  There’s a smattering of wrong-doing underneath it all, a high degree of certainty that something larger lurks underneath, and a great number of people who will pointedly refuse to tell you what that something is.

The obvious response to this is, “who cares, as long as it hurts Trump.” I have a great deal of sympathy for that argument, and if I thought that this scandal would bring down the Trump administration without further reverberating throughout our cultural and political landscape, I’d say that a little exaggeration is OK. I’d call it politics. I’d say it’s for the greater good. But as I’ve explained before, that’s not how this is shaping up. This pseudo-scandal emboldens our horrible and murderous national security state, it moves the Democratic Party even further to the right (thus ensuring that they continue to lose), and it puts us at genuine risk of another Cold War with Russia. Worst of all, it’s not even going to bring down the Trump Administration. So what we’re left with is all of the negative impacts of this hysteria and none of the benefits.

You can count me out.

 

The Bullshit Factory

I’m going to complain about work a little bit here, so I should start by saying that I have what I can only describe as the best job that anyone could ask for.  But throughout my time in education, professional development and trainings have always rubbed me the wrong way.  I’ve always found them to be both devoid of useful content while also operating as a kind of circle-jerk where educators stroke each other’s egos.

Over the course of this school year, the staff at my school has participated in a series of trainings on something called “Trauma-Informed Care.”  Here’s the gist of it:  Many students experience severe trauma at a very young age:  chronic hunger, rape, abuse, neglect, etc.  A child’s brain has no idea how to process these things, so it goes into overdrive and produces all kinds of hormones.  Over time, these hormones have a drastic affect on the brain’s structure and chemistry.  Because of this, many of the behaviors that students exhibit later in life are a result of physical damage to their brains as much as emotional.  A teacher or social worker who is “trauma-informed” will be better able to recognize and respond to these behaviors than a teacher who isn’t, hence the training.

Unfortunately, even a topic like trauma-informed care – which treats the student as a victim of circumstance whose behavior is often times beyond their control – gets siphoned through the bullshit factory and ends up taking on a fundamentally conservative tone; one that manages to instead blame the students and their culture for their behavior.  By the time it reaches our ears, the content of these trainings are injected with pop psychology terms like “growth mindset,” which is a fancy way to say that students are in fact making a conscious decision to have a negative mindset towards school.  In this worldview, students’ behavior couldn’t possibly be the result of factors outside of their control such as crushing poverty or an educational system that’s actively trying to disenfranchise them.  So why is it that a science-based, progressive theory around how students learn been transformed into into the same old conservative lecture on the value of personal responsibility?

First and foremost, there’s clearly a disconnect between the types of people who conduct trainings like this and those of us who are in the classroom every day.  For obvious reasons, the kinds of people who leave the classroom to become administrators tend to be more conservative than those of us who stay in the classroom.  And the longer they stay away from a classroom, the more conservative they become.  As a particularly egregious example, the person charged with running our training session last week brought some of her own personal experience with trauma to the classroom.  She talked about her daughter, who recently got in trouble at her small private (!) school for wearing nail polish. Her daughter had been called into the principal’s office, and she had come home very upset.  That’s…. it.  The person who was training us on how to be better educators values public education so much that she doesn’t deign to expose her child to it, and her understanding of trauma itself is so vacuous that she thinks that having a bad day qualifies.  She’s not alone – a lot of administrators move out of the classroom because they resent the kids who attend public school, and couldn’t possibly take a moment out of their busy days to consider the baggage that students come into their classroom with.  These views are fundamentally opposed the the very idea of trauma-informed care, and yet somehow the people who are conducting the trainings are able to hold these contradictions within themselves without spontaneously combusting and bursting into flames.

The other reason these trainings lose all of their meaning is because of their audience.  When you’re presenting to a group of teachers, one of the easiest ways to kill time is to get us to talk about how difficult our jobs are.  So instead of discussing responses to trauma that our students experience, we end up talking about “vicarious trauma” and “organizational trauma,” which are things that teachers experience when we have tough students or when we have administrators who don’t back us up… or something.  We discussed these forms of supposed trauma far more than we discussed anything related to the students we work with.  In this way we transform a discussion that is supposed to be about our students into a conversation about ourselves and the struggles that we face trying to educate them.

Finally, it’s hard for me to avoid the conclusion that there is a religious element that pervades professional development as a whole.  This is true of all professions, including teachers.  Let’s say you’re a classroom teacher who views yourself as Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society or Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds.  Now let’s say that despite that belief, your day-to-day job involves a distinct lack of revelatory, life-changing moments for your students or for you.  How do you maintain your fundamental belief in your transformative power as an educator?  In much the same way that religious people go to church in order to maintain connection to a God they cannot see, educators go to conferences and trainings to ritualistically worship an idea of education that doesn’t exist in the real world.  It’s why these trainings, year after year, all seem to come back to the same mantra – “We do good work, the students are the problem.  We do good work, the students are the problem.  We do good work, the students are the problem.” If you say that often enough, you’re likely to believe it, despite everyday evidence to the contrary.