01.06.03

"How impossible it is for me to make regular entries in the diary. I suddenly remember how I used to puzzle over the word at school. Always wondering why diary was so like Dairy and what the connection was. Never found out. Like that label on the bottle of Daddies Sauce - it never stopped. The man on the label was holding a bottle of Daddies Sauce and on the bottle was a label with a man holding a bottle of Daddies Sauce ... ad infinitum ad nauseam for me at any rate."

Kenneth Wilson, diary, 01.06.53

 
 
 
 
 
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scam: a novel


Pierre Berton
The Great Depression: 1929-1939

Berton is probably unknown in the United States, but in Canada his image as a genial, bowtied, grandfatherly figure - at least for my generation - is both generally assumed and completely inaccurate.

This book, a thick history of Canada during the Great Depression, is no polite, nostalgic look back at "hard times" and how they (somehow) made us better. It isn't suffused with the sadness and resignation of, say Barry Broadfoot's Ten Lost Years, the famous oral history of the decade from a Canadian perspective. Berton's book is a clenched fist of a book, a seething 600+ pages of barely contained rage. It reads as if every event described had happened yesterday, and that, by God, some bastard is going to pay for it.

For awhile, Berton seems unsure about who he hates more, Canada's Hooveresque Prime Minister of the first years of the Depression, R. B. Bennett, or his predecessor and successor, the horribly unique Mackenzie King. In the end, King wins out, and Berton can barely contain his contempt for this asexual, table-rapping, timid yet canny politician. By the end, I had an urge to take the subway to King's grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery and salute the son of a bitch with a few considered gobs on the slab that sits over his earthly remains. Highly, highly recommended.

BUY IT


H. Christopher Whittle, CEO of Edison Schools and founder of Whittle Communications, has been selling the idea of "for-profit" education for years now, with an "Elmer Gantry delivery" that promised complimentary computers for students, higher test scores to keep their parents happy, and lower administration costs to please school administrators. It sounded nice, but it has proved to be a disaster, most particularly for the students press-ganged into the experiment.

Recent articles in Fortune and Business Week have detailed the fiscal overreach that has seen Edison stock collapse from a high of $37 to less than two dollars. Stock analysts - usually the pollyannas of the financial industry - are unforgiving: "Edison will likely either become a private company or face bankruptcy."

Whittle plan was ambitious: Edison would take over schools and "cut the fat" that everyone assumed was there, instituting longer days and school years, training teachers intensively, dividing classes into "clusters" and "houses" that kept students and teachers together for years, and concentrating on reading as well as "Foreign languages, art and dance". If he succeeded, Whittle would be at the helm of a nationwide chain of progressive private schools run for public school boards at less than the cost of much-reviled public schools.

Things started going bad when suburban middle-class parents decided they liked their schools just fine, thank you, and forced Whittle to go for the inner-city market he initially had no intention of courting. He had fans in high places - Republican governors like Lamar Alexander, Tom Ridge and George W. Bush among them - and Whittle won contracts, 150 in 22 states, with 80,000 students.

By the end of this school year, though, Whittle will probably be running quite a few less, as Edison schools in Texas and Pennsylvania are poised to pull out of their contracts after results that have ranged from disappointing to disastrous.

In Texas, test results were less than promised, but in Philadelphia, Edison has produced what would be a farce if the fate of so many children weren't at stake.

Attempting to cut costs, Edison managers eliminated nonteaching assistants and hall monitors. "Disaster ensued," according to Fortune. "Fights and fires broke out, and police had to be called into one school to restore order until staffers were rehired." It gets worse. As Edison stock tumbled, and Whittle was forced to put his Hamptons estate up as security on an $18.2 million loan, books, computers, lab and art supplies were repo'ed from Philadelphia's Barratt Middle school just before the school year began. The free computer progam in Edison schools was abandoned.

There's more. In October, Whittle paid for a $300,000 retreat for Edison principles and staff in Colorado Springs, where he mooted a plan to save money by cutting adult staff and having students work an hour a day in school offices and on technology support systems. 600 students, by his accounting, could do the work of 75 adults. "I think it's an important concept for education and economics," Whittle said.

While child labour is common in schools across China, there's some reluctance to let American schools return to a practice outlawed a century ago. Confident of his political connections, though, Whittle promised he could have the plan in place by 2004.

Edison has never had a profitable quarter, but that has never hindered Whittle's optimism. "If we wanted to to stop growth right now and say we're never going to open another school, we'd be profitable today." With a history of overstating revenues that sunk Whittle Communications, Whittle assured everyone that he'd learned from his mistakes.

Last May, however, the SEC "declared that Edison was confusingly inflating revenues by including salaries paid directly by Edison-managed public schools to teachers." Edison disputed the SEC's allegation with the lame "but everybody does it" excuse, but was forced to restate revenues, lowering them by $77.6 million over four years.

Ramon Cortines, a former Edison board member, put it politely: "I believe integrity is extremely important. I began to find that lacking." Put another way, by Lisa Snell in Reason:

"One might be able to equate Edison schools with market failure if Edison and its government contracts even remotely resembled an education "market". But there is no competition. The company's students do not 'choose' Edison schools. Exactly like the public schools they replace, Edison's contract schools have a captive customer base supported by government funding. While some parents have been very pleased with Edison's results and have fought to retain the schools, the fact is that Edison's schools are a government-sanctioned monopoly in each community they serve."

"Edison," Snell writes, "has been serving the wrong customer." Whittle, however, is still hopeful, promising that the Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which requires failing school districts to change management, will increase Edison's market share.

I have been reading about Chris Whittle all my adult life, in a series of glowing profiles that painted every project he began as a sort of second coming, the re-invention of the wheel, so I don't expect he'll disappear anytime soon. It would be sad but ultimately actionable if this overcapitalized carny were only gulling the sort of witless investors who flock to, say, the technology sector, or telephone soliticing. That he's insinuated himself into something as essential as education and seems free from any kind of oversight or threat of prosecution outside a few class action lawsuits is more than tragic. Would someone - even the market, bless its black heart - please stop this fucking vulture?

H. Christopher Whittle - asshole of the month.


IT WAS A DARK THOUGHT, and I knew it as soon as it passed through my mind. When I heard, just before Chrtismas, that John "Joe Strummer" Mellor had died of a heart attack, I thought it was somehow appropriate, a fitting exit, though I'm sure his family and friends wouldn't share my morbid little musing.


photo ©Bob Gruen

MY SOLE PERSONAL MEMORY of Strummer, and the Clash, was from a 1979 concert at the O'Keefe Centre, at some point before the release of London Calling. I was in the pogoing crush at the front of the stage, and at the top of every little, hobbled leap, I could catch a clear glimpse of the band. By far the coolest-looking was Paul Simonon, in black leather pants and sleeveless army surplus shirt, his bass hanging to his knees, feet wide apart; because he rarely had to do anything else but play bass, he could hold his swaggering poses the longest.

  Over on the other side of the stage, Mick Jones went through the usual repertoire of leaps and windmills. The lead guitarist is popularly supposed to be the glory boy of any band, but as anyone who's played guitar will tell you, there's something more than faintly geeky about the business of guitar solos, even the starkly distilled punk version thereof. At the point of the band's stage phalanx was Strummer, who only had to bash away at rhythm, while doing the lion's share of the vocals. The band were - and I still think so - the most purely thrilling rock and roll band I have ever seen. They'd just outgrown the paint-splatter and stencilled-slogan phase, and had adopted a stunning mix of military and rockabilly looks; I spent years trying to duplicate that look myself, and even today, the ideal me is dressed like some careful mingling of Eddie Cochrane and Dana Andrews in The Best Years of Our Lives.

  On that night almost twenty-five years ago, Strummer was the very picture of galvanized rage. In profile at the microphone, his face was a harrowed skull knitted with tendons and bulging veins, streaming sweat and spewing spit. His eyes were either twisted shut in a burlesque approximation of anguish, or wide open, staring agog over the heads of the crowd to some spot a hundred miles away, at some horrible vision of the future that conditioned the whole existence of punk rock. He looked like he was going to have a heart attack. He was - the whole band were - a vision of terror and violence and discipline and resolve, the scarred but heroic last-ditch defenders at some barricade that, in retrospect, probably only existed in our minds.

  It was fucking amazing. The idiot-leaping crowd, myself included, invaded the stage during the final number, and some angry souls standing on the chairs in front of Strummer hacked and bashed to pieces about twenty of the O'Keefe Centre's plush seats, causing a scandal and shock-horror headlines in the morning papers. I spent the next decade and a half looking for the same pyrrhic, harrowing charge from music (and failing). Joe Strummer, refugee from the British bureaucratic middle class, baby boomer and world music fan, was forever burned into my memory drenched with sweat, eyes agog, pointing with his guitar-pick at some looming, awful thing somewhere behind the crowd that pulsed up and down in front of him like uneasy water at the edge of a dock.

  When the show was over, security shooed us off the stage. Everyone was smiling, though, and we shook hands - strangers, all of us, until that moment - and said goodnight. I walked to the subway buzzing with a thrill I'd never known before, and completely unaware that I had crested, at 15, the musical and pop culture peak of my life. It was all very gently downhill from here, but I wouldn't know that for almost twenty years.

I THINK I JUST SHOOK MY HEAD when I heard about John Lennon's shooting, a year or so after that Clash concert. New York City, a crazed fan, a celebrity culture that turned ugly - sad, yes, but what was shocking about it? Shocking, maybe, that it hadn't happened a lot more. I was a punk, besides, and Lennon had already become a faintly risible figure to me. Kurt Cobain's suicide was far less than a shock - I could, by that point in my life, recognize a doomed person when I saw one. George Harrison's death last year was just another celebrity mortality, a head shot I had to search for in the archives at the paper where I work.

  Strummer's death, on the other hand, made me genuinely sad, and felt a bit untimely. He was only fifty, the same age as my sister, a jogger and a musical "lifer" with a family. I'd long ago reconciled myself to the subsidence into absurdity of all the old punk ideologies, so the fact that he died sitting in a kitchen chair in a Somerset farmhouse, comforted by his wife and daughter, miles away from the pre-Thatcher squats and urban squalor where the Clash began, only felt like life, unhappy and unexpected, like all domestic tragedies.

THE ONLY BAND THAT MATTERS. It was a slogan ripe for eventual parody, and by the time the band released Cut the Crap - which I offhandedly panned in my college newspaper - it had become wishful thinking. It's hard to forget how painfully brief punk's moment really was, especially if, like me, you were doomed to spend the next couple of decades digging without success for the gleaming, vital, but lost vein in a mountain of fool's gold and musical dross.

  In the Observer's Strummer obit, Sean O'Hagan summed it up pretty nicely: "It was a kind of white boy blues, a kind of protest; the sound of primal rage and racial tension, of inner-city boredom and sheer frustration, all channelled into this pent-up noise that at times threatened to consume the singer." The Clash, O'Hagan writes, "looked and sounded like you always imagined all the truly great rock'n'roll groups looked and sounded: lean, lithe, loud, primal and fucked-up."

  "Let fury have the hour, anger can be power / D'you know that you can use it?", Strummer sang on "Clampdown", one of the few songs on Sandanista! that I could actually enjoy. The band were huge by this point - FM rock radio staples - and Sandanista! was the kind of record high school jocks would play all night at parties. I had a vague sympathy for the leftist politics the band had embraced by then, but something indefinable about the left bothered me, and prevented me from becoming any kind of fellow-traveller. Perhaps it was the sloganeering - the propagation of heartfelt but unexamined catchphrases that bands like the Clash excelled at - or the anhedonic grubbiness that the left seemed to champion.

  It's so generally assumed that punk rock was an essentially left-leaning political phenomenon that another aspect of punk - a non-aligned conservatism that was nostalgist in inspiration and often luddite in expression - is often overlooked. It was the impulse that brought rockabilly, Mod, and sharp vintage clothes into punk's musical and style vocabularies, and it was the one that I responded to most profoundly. It was also behind the automatic dismissal of bands (like the Clash) once they'd left the club and small theatre circuit, effectively leaving the intimate, basically conservative "community" that gave birth to them, one that aped, consciously or not, the necessarily defensive working-class communities that were disappearing by the 70s.

  Working class culture was both reviled as cowed and conformist and fetishized as organic and "honest", which gives some idea of the deeply confused politics of punk. One thing's for sure - I didn't know an awful lot of other working-class people in the scene, at any point from 1978 onwards. I frankly couldn't understand the self-abnegating pursuit of grubbiness that punk's Trotskyite, Marxist-Leninist and "anarchist" left so hotly pursued. Nothing in my own family's backround - hopeful Irish-Catholic immigrants in pursuit of home-ownership and "lace-curtain" gentility - led me to think that being unkempt, dirty or style-challenged was a goal worth working toward.

  The only thing that seemed to unite these disparate strands of punk was a hatred of racism, one that came with a more-than-vague sense of shame and unease. We were, most of us, white, the majority of these middle-class, raised with the benign liberal belief that overt racism, at the very least, was unseemly. In England, the ugly racism of skinheads and the National Front seemed, somehow, to dovetail with Thatcher's resurgent Tories, and gave Rock Against Racism and the staff of the NME a cause and a target.

  Only the most boneheaded sort of punks hated disco, and a love of reggae was an article of faith in the UK. Black music - slick and musically accomplished - was the only sort of "virtuoso" music it was permissible to like, and it was where many of us migrated when the punk "moment" was over. If Strummer had a claim to lyrical genius, though, it was in songs like "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" and "Safe European Home", which gave voice to the uneasiness white punks felt in the presence of black people, an apologetic stoop that stood out in contrast to the usual, defiant, angry stance.

  Unexamined, this submissive attitude would devolve into cultural relativism and the shamefaced denigration of western, Christian, and Enlightenment traditions that still poisons the left today. For some of us, though, it was a bad fit, but it would take years to articulate precisely why. We knew, obviously, that something was deeply wrong with the politics and culture of the 70s, and suspected that the moral fallout from the 60s was making it worse, but most of us lacked to tools or rhetoric to say precisely what and how. Some of us would spend years casually but uneasily repeating "right on" slogans before making often-dramatic breaks with the left, while many more would, with the passing years, start to resemble the self-satisfied "hippies" we hated so much.

  That Thatcher's policies - oversold with harsh and confrontational rhetoric and as terminally destructive to the old working class as their labour unions - were also peculiarly responsible for partially dismantling Britain's calcified culture of class and privilege was easy to ignore without the benefit of hindsight. It's easier still to forget that British punk - very different at its core from basically apolitical American punk - was born out of the social and economic torpor of successive Labour, not Tory, governments. Thatcher had been in office just four months by the time I saw the band, and punk's moment was over, except for the shouting.

  Thatcher, though, made a great target, but it was an instantly venerable kind of outrage, one shared by both punks and "hippies" like Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, and by political cartoonists, like Steve Bell and Gerald Scarfe, from twenty to fifty. Thatcher-Reagan became the monolith against which the left defined itself. Thatcher, like Reagan, was a great caricature, and that, as much as their administrations' agendas and mistakes, turned all of our politics into a cartoon.

TODAY, IT ALL SEEMS SO SHALLOW. Still, I've never voted for a conservative political candidate in my life, as much out of respect for my CCF grandfather as my instinctive dislike of the Tory, Reform, and Alliance candidates that end up on my ballots. This may change, but the political right is going to have to change as much as I have before it happens. And I've never been able to forget the words "Anger can be power", echoed weakly a decade later by John Lydon's Public Image Limited as "Anger is an energy".

  Joe Strummer's coffin, according to the Guardian, "was adorned with a Stetson and stickers reading 'Vinyl Rules' and 'Question Authority'." Two slogans, one basically Luddite, the other essentially radical, still summing up the political schizophrenia of punk. I'd like to think that punk taught us to identify undeserving authority of any kind, right or left, and let us further understand that "question" doesn't mean "reject".

  I probably wasn't the only one who was dismayed to hear Strummer's early, painfully inarticulate interviews, which set the standard for "earnest but dumbfounded" as the preferred tone for even the most articulate and political punk lyricist, for years to come. It took me as long to learn, though, that questioning authority required more than just nodding my head when some beknighted musician muttered disparaging comments about politicians, businessmen, the rich, rock stars and the like. I could understand why a sensible person would find Henry Kissinger, Augusto Pinochet or P.W. Botha morally reprehensible, but why couldn't they be just as appalled at Yasser Arafat or the revolving cast of African kleptocrats and ideologues like Mobutu or Nkrumah or Savimbi murdering their own countrymen? And why, with what we knew, did we still give Castro a free ride, or glorify a political adventurer like t-shirt icon Che Guevara?

  Strummer once provoked a bit of deserved outrage by sporting a Red Brigade t-shirt onstage, the kind of sloppy appropriation of radical imagery that plagued punk in those days. On the other hand, he wrote "Tommy Gun", a rejection of terrorism and its fashionable supporters, that only suffered lyrically because the music that delivered it - all power chords and parade ground drum rolls - sounded even more furious: "You'll be dead when your war is won / But did you have to gun down everyone?" "I'm gonna get a jacket just like yours / An' give my false support to your cause." "I see all the innocents, the human sacrifice / and if death comes so cheap, then the same goes for life!" The message - clear enough on the page - got a bit lost, and we all just stood there, a bit overwhelmed. "Tommy gun. Fuck, yeah!"

  I like to think it was this Strummer - still, at heart, the son of a foreign service diplomat - who was quoted in the aftermath of 9/11: "I think you have to grow up and realize that we're facing religious fanatics who would kill everyone in the world who doesn't do what they say. The more time you give them the more bombs they'll get." It's nice to read that a quarter of a century gave Strummer the words he always seemed to lack in interviews way back then, but then, maybe, he knew that the stakes were a lot higher now than then, and so there's no time to fumble with words.

  This quote - unlinked to its source, alas - is from a short obit by Jim Robbins in the National Review's blog, The Corner. Robbins also points out that "Rock the Casbah" was particularly popular with American troops in the first Gulf War. Proof, if it were needed, that rock and politics - like religion and politics - make for a lousy mix. The riffs and beats of a pop song atomize lyrics into slogans and reduce the whole experience of a song to a sensation. "Rock the Casbah" gets blasted in the turrets of Abrams tanks in the Gulf and "Born in the USA" becomes a Ronald Reagan campaign song. I'm sure someone like Naomi Klein-spouting Thom Yorke would be dismayed that I sit here at my desk listening to Radiohead, perhaps even writing an attack on Ms. Klein's brand of "Media Studies 101"-derived millimetre-thick social criticism.

  Robbins' piece, and a few things I've read elsewhere, have reminded me that I'm not the only old punk who didn't toe the Party line, or doesn't any more. I'm not ashamed of whatever attitudes and taunts I used to define my politics back then. It felt right to dismiss hippies, boomers, and the resurgent political right at the same time, with the harshest language possible, if not the most convincing arguments. It took time to understand that the tight-lipped hedonists, militant atheists and moral cowards on the left were as worthy of my outrage as some smug economic triumphalist musing about running schools for profit. (see left)

  I still believe that anger is a power, and it's with, perhaps, some dismay that I realize that, at nearly forty, nearly a father, there's even more to be mad about than there was when I was fifteen and seething with frustration. The stakes nowadays, after all, are a bit higher. I can laugh about being the old punk, buying the Clash box set in a fit of nostalgia, occasioned by the untimely death of a man I ever only saw once, long ago, on some local variety centre's stage. It was, ultimately, all going to come to this, and I probably knew it even then.


©2003 Rick McGinnis - all rights reserved
JOE

I'm late, I know, terrible late with this entry. The fact is that, for the last two months and more, I've been labouring over an entry about war, the war, the war that we're in, or starting, or whatever. I'll still try to finish it and post it up here, but in the meantime, I had a few thoughts about Joe Strummer and punk rock that needed to get out.

For all of my regular diary readers - I'm terribly sorry for taking so long. There's been enough to read on the rest of the site, I'm sure, but the diary thing has been a bit moribund. That will change. There have been changes, big ones, in my life lately, and I'll try to talk about them in more detail here.

PLACES TO GO:

john scalzi
james lileks
alan zweig
weisblogg
mike reed
justin johnson
jeff jarvis
little green footballs
ken layne
uss clueless
relapsed catholic
textism
rockcritics.com
arts & letters
talking points memo
peter maass
spiked
cliff yablonski


Reforming the Prophet - click to buy it

W.R. Clement
Reforming the Prophet

MY CRAZY FRIEND BILL HAS WRITTEN ANOTHER BOOK! Like his previous book, it's about the fact that we in the west continue to live in the social, political, and economic fallout from the Renaissance. Reforming the Prophet, however, places the idea in the context of the unreformed world of Islam, which has yet to - or, rather, is about to have - it's own, violent, terrible age of enlightenment. Bill's conclusion is simple enough: Poor Islam, poor us.

"The lesson of the Western reformation is that reformations are so messy, bloody and socially splitting that things must go terribly wrong before anyone in their right mind would choose to be part of a reformation... Reformations have a nasty habit of leaving their religious issues behind to fester and become appropriated as a metaphor for economic, educational and social displacement issues."

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