Sarah Palin, the hero of Haarlem and the Deepwater Horizon

We sometimes forget the great service that Sarah Palin provides by reminding us that all that Columbia/Harvard Ivy League nonsense obscures the genius of the American spirit, which relies on a small number of simple truths to answer just about any problem.  She was invited on the Bill O’Reilly show on June 15 to critique the President’s Oval Office remarks on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, because, as O’Reilly said, there is “not a governor in the United States who has more experience than you do dealing with the oil companies.”  O’Reilly dutifully led her through her talking points, which involved a three-legged stool and making sure that “all technology is being thrown at this problem.”  Reilly brought her down from her lofty rhetoric to give some handy advice.  And Palin gave it:  the President should bring in the foreigners and listen to American entrepreneurs.  But where her experience proved most helpful was her ability to cull wisdom from the unlikeliest places.  Who but a deep thinker would have thought of consulting Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker for the solution? But there it was as plain as the nose on your face:

“They [the foreigners] can’t even get a phone call returned, Bill. The Dutch. They are known in the Norwegian. They are known for — for dikes and for cleaning up water and for dealing with spills. They offered to help and, yet, no, they too, with a proverbial can’t even get a phone call back. That is what the Norwegians are telling us, and the Dutch are telling us.”

There you have it.  We wouldn’t be in this mess if we had a President who didn’t go to Columbia and Harvard and instead had spent his time in America — not a madrassa mind you — learning about the Hero of Haarlem, who stuck his finger in the dike and saved all of the low country.


Republicans corrode the Copper State

In the current issue of Harper’s Magazine (July 2010) Ken Silverstein (one of the few remaining journalists in this dawning era of digital group think) has a startling description of the current workings of the GOP in “Tea Party in the Sonora,” with an assessment of the results of right-wing rule. It seems that Arizona has made a serious effort to wrest the title of guttersnipe of states from Mississippi, notwithstanding Haley Barbour’s interim stop as Medicaid-slashing governor on his tour from corporate lobbyist to the Oval Office.

Silverstein attributes Arizona’s inevitable decline to the kind of wealth-ocracy normally associated with the post-Confederate South to the composition of the state legislature, which, he says, is “composed almost entirely of dimwits, racists, and cranks.” Part of the problem comes from the neo-orthodoxy of Republicans who refuse any kind of tax increase whatsoever. Thirty-eight of Arizona’s legislators, according to Silverstein, have taken the pledge of the misnamed Americans for Tax Reform to never vote for a tax increase, read their damned lips. It doesn’t matter if one tax increase is offset by a tax decrease. If there’s a particularly bad tax, the solution is to get rid of it and never replace it — the goal is to eliminate taxes altogether, to return to a sort of Eden where men can live off their capital without work. And Republicans are willing to achieve this even (or especially) if it means we must all forswear everything we’ve learned from the original couple’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge. (Barbour by the way vetoed a proposal to increase the cigarette tax and decrease the grocery tax.  Although Barbour is also a pledgee of the Americans for Tax Reform, in his case the distaste for cigarette taxes might be owing to his former membership in Barbour Griffith & Rogers, big tobacco’s friend in need and deed.)

Silverstein shows how this mania has devastated Arizona.  He also shows how it works:  Arizona now has tax exemptions for everything from country clubs to pedicures.  If the theory behind selective tax exemptions is to encourage an economic activity that otherwise couldn’t support itself (that’s how Adam Smith would see it), then Arizona must have decided they have to take the lead in the campaign to eliminate Onychomycosis from the face of the earth.

The lure of the tax cut is the dangerous siren song of Republicans generally.  Sometimes it has caused them to lose discipline, and divert them from the greater goal of destroying government for the immediate gratification of lessening taxes.  Harry Reid in the US Senate has been able to pick off a few Republicans like Scott Brown by adding tax deductions or credits to bills the Republican Party frowns on, such a bills designed to pull the country from its current Recession.  Mitch McConnell probably wished he had some of that wax that Odysseus used to stop up the ears of the men with weaker wills than either McConnell or Odysseus so that he could more easily steer the party towards its goal.

No such problem in Arizona.  The state has a clear objective:  to make over Arizona into the image of Guatamala in the glory days of Carlos Castillo (minus the Hispanics, of course).  They sing of Armas and the man.  One government employee told Silverstein:

“People who have swimming pools don’t need state parks. If you buy your books at Borders you don’t need libraries. If your kids are in private school, you don’t need K–12. The people here, or at least those who vote, don’t see the need for government. Since a lot of the population are not citizens, the message is that government exists to help the undeserving, so we shouldn’t have it at all. People think it’s OK to cut spending, because ESL is about people who refuse to assimilate and health care pays for illegals.”

(I wonder if the collections of even the Arizona libraries are limited to what is sold at Borders. Probably everything that a taxpaying citizen of Arizona would want, but I digress.)

And for all their faithful devotion to principle, Republicans are entitled to a little compensation, a little vig, no? And that’s evidently what State Representative Steve Yarbrough (R-Chandler) believes. According to the Arizona Education Association Rep. Yarbrough has led the successful fight for tuition tax credits. So far so good, right? More tax relief. But here’s a complicating factor.  Rep. Yarbough also owns the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization. That can’t be bad, right? After all it’s Christian and only donates to Christian schools. His organization is the largest of so-called STOs in Arizona, the point of which is “to facilitate the Arizona Private School Tuition Tax Credit. [An STO] accepts contributions from Arizona income taxpayers for the benefit of children attending participating schools. Donors may then be eligible to claim a tax credit that reduces dollar for dollar, any income tax owed to the state of Arizona,” according to the explanation of another of Arizona’s STOs. What could possibly be sweeter than that?  You get to do good by donating to a Christian organization, and it costs you nothing because the state will whack it off your tax bill. And the beast of government is slowly starved. Everyone’s a winner! This scheme undoubtedly was designed by St. Matthew after he stopped being the tax collector and became a Christian.

And even Rep. Yarbrough wins by doing good.  According to the Arizona Christian State Tuition Organization, Inc.‘s website, although the law only requires 90% of donations to be spent on “scholarships,” ACSTO spends a whopping 92.4%.  Thus, good government guy that he undoubtedly is, although in 2007 (the last reporting year) ACSTO took in $11.4 million in tax-reimbursed “donations,” Rep Yarbrough voluntarily limited his own salary to $100,000.  This is only 4 times what he makes as a legislator to fight for such a godly program.  (Needless to say, these organizations are also exempt from Federal taxes under IRC §501(c)(3).  If only some Republican could see to it that donations could also be deducted from Federal taxes, then we’d see some real movement toward Guatamala!)

All of this makes you want to move with all your children to Arizona.  Unless, of course, you have a Spanish accent.

Lincoln, Obama and urgency

Our President likes to demonstrate parallels between himself and the 16th President.  He announced his decision to run for President from Springfield, Illinois, for example.  It is good politics, of course; current Republicans refrain from bad-mouthing Abraham Lincoln, even as they pander to unreconstructed Confederate sympathizers. The press has willingly, thus far, played along, helped out by the then fairly recent publication of Doris Kerns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005).  The snappy title of the book provided a capsule of its argument and allowed mainstream journalists, who probably did not read the book and who certainly had no deep grasp of American history,  to appear literate by comparing Obama to Lincoln when he selected his “rival” Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State.  The novelty of having poitically ambitious members of an administration was stressed despite its not having been particularly novel — the tradition had so many examples from George Washington (who had both Jefferson and Hamilton in his cabinet) to Ronald Regan (who selected his rival George H.W. Bush for his running-mate) that it might actually be considered quite common.

Nevertheless, it seems likely that Obama himself believes he is much like the Great Emancipator.  Perhaps the “charity for all” business allowed Obama to (wrongly) believe that Lincoln’s own style was similar to his own simplistic philosophy that the best policy is exactly in the midde of two perceived extremes.  Or perhaps Lincoln’s leisurely story-telling reputation and soaring language allowed Obama to (again wrongly) believe that rhetoric trumps attention to executive skills.

There is one quote attributable to Lincoln, however, that Obama never seems to heed, possibly because it is apocryphal:  “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”  This quote was brought to mind today by the description in today’s New York Times of the complete disorganization that still characterizes the response to the disaster of the Deepwater Horizon 56 days after the explosion:

“From the beginning, the effort has been bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials, as well as BP. As a result, officials and experts say, the damage to the coastline and wildlife has been worse than it might have been if the response had been faster and orchestrated more effectively.”

Ah, urgency!  If thou weren’t so uncool, we might have used thee to appoint U.S. Attorneys, pass an effective jobs bill, prosecute torturers, obtain a public health insurer alternative, withdraw from Iraq … the list keeps getting longer.  It makes you wish that instead of reading A Team of Rivals, the President had read The Lincoln Story Book by Henry L. Williams (NY: 1907), p227:

“Giving a lift in his carriage to two ladies, to the Soldiers’ Home, the horses were splashing and sliding after a shower in the mire, when Mr. Lincoln assisted the frightened women to alight. He set three stones for stepping-stones in the mud, and assisted them to firm ground. He had cautioned them in making the passage:

“All through life be sure you put your feet in the right place, and then stand firm!”

Pound finds the Modern in the Exotic: “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”

The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

from Cathay (London: Elkin Mathews: 1915), pp. 11-12.*

by Ezra Pound

WHILE my hair was still cut straight across my
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look-out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-Yen, by the river of swirl-
ing eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with
Over the grass in the west garden—
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the
river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you,
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
By Rihaku.

If some future historian or culture critic were sifting about the ruins of our time and wondered how and when we became different from our Western predecessors, he should give more than a passing glance at this poem. There were “modern” (and even consciously-created “modernist”) poems before this one. This was not the first poem of the so-called “Imagist” movement, not even Pound’s first. Pound did not found the movement. And Pound wasn’t even the first artist to “discover” Li Bai, whose first century poem Pound translates here. (Mahler used a German translation of four Li Bai poems in his symphony for alto and tenor, Das Lied von der Erde, which had been first performed four years before in 1911.) Nevertheless, the poem is probably the most striking evidence of the fault that was then opening up with the past which would become a full-out earthquake with World War I and the aftermath.

Le Père Tanguy by Vincent Van Gogh. (Oil on canvas. 1887. Musée Rodin.)

Le Père Tanguy by Vincent Van Gogh. (Oil on canvas. 1887. Musée Rodin.) Click to enlarge.

Foremost Pound conciously reaches back to an ancient aesthetic in translating the great Tang dynasty poet.  Given that the Romanticism of the time was becoming so highly mannered and (much like the Rococo to the Baroque) moved the aesthetics of an era beyond its moorings, looking outside the prevailing Western tradition was almost a necessity. Yes, “Chinoiserie” and “Japonism” were both then fashionable in Europe, as it had from time to time over the last several hundred years. But Pound’s approach was not to highlight the exoticness or quaintness of the “oriental.” He intentionally adopts the point of view of the ancient as directly (that is, without the need for an anthropological or historical filter) relevant to modern man. By contrast, see how Van Gogh highlights the clash of East and West in his portrait of Julien “Père” Tanguy. (L’Art Nouveau, which would flourish around the turn of the century, and figured prominently at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, was more formulaic and even adapted for everyday design, but it was still self-consciously exotic.) Pound would continually commune with the ancients, particularly the Hellenes and Romans (his important Homage to Sextus Propertius would be published four years later), the medieval troubadour tradition (which runs through the Cantos, which he began at the time of this poem), and less successfully with the ancient Egyptians. In all of these cases Pound treated the ancients as people who had something vital to say to us right now. He did not have the attitude of a museum curator, treating the ancients as primitives or their culture as curios.

To convey as much of the content (intellectual and aesthetic) of the original (literally, to make the best “translation”) Pound, next, had to focus on what is possible to convey in English, in poetry, from the original. Pound would eventually develop his own aesthetic theory of poetry around two central media of communication: verbal images and the aural “music” (rhythm, melody, sound) of the poem. He seems to have at first stumbled on the principles here by his chance encounter with the writings of Ernest Fenollosa.

Ernest Francisco Fenollosa. (Unknown photographer. From The Ninth Report of the Secretary of the Class of 1874 of Harvard College. June, 1874 - June, 1909. (Cambridge: Riverside Press: 1909).

Ernest Francisco Fenollosa. (Unknown photographer. From The Ninth Report of the Secretary of the Class of 1874 of Harvard College. June, 1874 – June, 1909. (Cambridge: Riverside Press: 1909).

Fenollosa was something of a polymath. He had studied philosophy at Harvard, divinity at Cambridge and art at the art school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The important early American Darwinian Edward S. Morse invited him to Japan in 1878. The year before Morse had visited Japan to collect brachiopods and was selected by the Emperor to help westernize Japan.  (Japan was reaching outside its own immediate cultural tradition at the same time the West was.) Morse recommended Fenollosa to teach Western Philosophy at the Imperial College in Tokyo. (More on Morse in a future post.) While in Japan Fenollosa developed a fondness for Japanese art so much so that it was he, the Yankee, who provide an impetus among Japanese painters for a revival of sorts in Japanese painting. He even helped found the Tokyo Fine Arts Academy. On return to Boston, Fenollosa became the curator of Oriental Art at the Boston Fine Arts Museum. After dismissal from the Museum (involving the scandal surrounding his divorce and too soon remarriage) he returned to Japan to teach again. When he died in 1908 (back in America), Fenollosa’s widow (the second wife who cased the Boston scandal) chose Pound to entrust with her husband’s notes on Chinese poetry and Japanese plays. (Pound shared these notes with his colleague William Butler Yeats, who studied Fenollosa’s theories on Japanese Noh drama.)

Fenollosa had come up with a theory of Chinese poetry, which seems somewhat loopy on the face of it, and it turns out cannot withstand the scrutiny of modern scholars. Nevertheless, the ideas contained enough electricity to charge Pound into not only editing and publishing Fenollosa’s work as “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (1920) but also claiming that it provided a basis “of the fundamentals of all aesthetics.” The crux of the analysis seems to be that ancient Chinese did not operate like any known modern language. It did not obey modern (or at least Indo-European) grammatical rules, and the “meaning” of words was not subject to the kind of definitions we are used to: “Every written Chinese word is properly … an underlying word, and yet it is not abstract. It is not exclusive of parts of speech, but comprehensive; not something which is neither a noun, verb, or adjective, but something which is all of them at once and at all times.” On top of all this he saw the radicals by which the words were written as providing a pictorial view of the word which was part of the elements of the poem.

Of course none of these things, even if true, is particularly amenable to translation. But in his notes Fenellosa provided a key of sorts for Pound: under the radicals he provided words with something like a visual etymology of the radical. Pound used these notes to “translate” a number of Li Bai’s poems in his book Cathay. (Pound calls the poet Rihaku.) And despite the lack of rigorous scholarship behind the notes, Pound was able to “translate” the poem with an accuracy that defies later more scholarly attempts.

Ultimately, whatever caused him to conceive of the poem as he did, Pound produced an English poem of stunning beauty. The work is broken up into stanzas (unlike the original) to indicate the different ages and the different sensibilities of the narrator. The vocabulary becomes more sophisticated with each stanza, as are the images that are conveyed. And importantly the images carry the poetic voice. There is no attempt to stuff the Chinese poem into some Romantic or post-Romantic form. How that would kill the poem is shown by the first four lines of W.J.B. Fletcher’s translation of the same poem, which does just that:

When first o’er maiden brows my hair I tied,
In sport I plucked the blooms before the door.
You riding came on hobbyhorse astride,
And wreathed my bed with greengage branches o’er.

It is perhaps unkind to compare this effort with one of the great works of one of the English language’s most masterful lyrical poets, especially since Fletcher was not a professional poet, but rather a diplomat who translated while acting as British consul in Hoihow, China. His preface to the book from which this translation comes, Gems of Chinese Verse translated into English (Shanghai: 1919), makes the expected showing of being offered “not without diffidence” and there is no indication in the book that he knew of Pound’s translation, much less that he was trying to outdo it. Nonetheless he did have someone vouch for the poetry in the preface. H.L. Hargrove (a Saxon scholar who identifies himself in the preface as “Ph.D., Yale”) says: “What Keats said Chapman did for Homer is what Fletcher has done for the Poetic Realm of Old Cathay.” And Hargrove was not talking about the verity of the translation: “I am no Sinologist and cannot vouch for the accuracy of the translation, but I know this is true poetry.”

What is more surprising than a hackneyed rendering by an Edwardian civil servant is the fact that Amy Lowell, who was once a colleague in the avant-garde with Pound, decided to one up him. It is true that Lowell tried to (and succeeded for a year or so until it became irrelevant) usurp the titular leadership of the Imagist movement from Pound. But to attempt to outdo him on this very poem was a foolish errand.

I presume that Lowell’s version is a better literal translation. The actual translation was done by Florence Ayscough, a member of the East Asia Society. Lowell only takes credit for the “English versions.” Ayscough also provides a useful cultural and historical introduction to the collection. In a couple of instances the literal translation which Lowell renders shows how Pound took liberties (or misunderstood) the original. For instance, the monkeys (“gibbons” in Lowell’s work) don’t howl over the wife (suggesting in Pound’s piece the loneliness of the writer), but in the place that the husband has gone (evidently to show how haunting that place is). But even knowing that Pound changes the text, it is hard to say that it is not better for all that.

In fact, when you compare Lowell’s poem to Pound’s, you find that Pound in almost every instance in which they differ chose the better approach. You simply have to consider Pound’s choice “My Lord You” with Lowell’s “the wife of my Lord” to conclude that Pound had the pulse of the lyric. Lowell makes no attempt to follow Pound’s lead in differentiating the voices of the narrator by age.  In fact, by using the third person in the first line, Lowell undoes some of the natural naiveté in the narrator’s voice.  Lowell’s use of “my Lover” in the third line is jarring compared to the muted innocence of Pound’s letter writer. The one line that Pound adds (“Forever and forever and forever”) emphatically shows how intense and permanent her love had become, an anchor that Lowell’s poem lacks.  If one were going to disturb the line “The paired butterflies are already yellow with August,” there really must be a better line than “It is the Eighth Month, the butterflies are yellow” (although Fletcher’s choice “September now!—the butterflies so gay” is clearly much worse).  And Pound was completely right in leaving the place names untranslated; the translation seems pedantic in Lowell’s piece, although Lowell’s reference to  “Looking-for-Husband Ledges” evokes a more compelling image than Pound did with his unexplained line “Why should I climb the look-out?”

It is nevertheless a testament to the enduring value of Li Bai’s original, however, that Lowell’s piece is itself an artful poem, one that but for Pound’s version would be considered a masterful translation.

Ch’ang Kan
by Li T’ai Po

from Fir-Flower Tablets (Boston: Houghton Co: 1921), pp. 28-29.**

by Amy Lowell

WHEN the hair of your Unworthy One first began to cover
her forehead,
She picked flowers and played in front of the door.
Then you, my Lover, came riding a bamboo horse.
We ran round and round the bed, and tossed about the 
sweetmeats of green plums.
We both lived in the village of Ch’ang Kan.
We were both very young, and knew neither jealousy nor 
At fourteen, I became the wife of my Lord.
I could not yet lay aside my face of shame;
I hung my head, facing the dark wall;
You might call me a thousand times, not once would I turn 
At fifteen, I stopped frowning.
I wanted to be with you, as dust with its ashes.
I often thought that you were the faithful man who clung to
the bridge-post,
That I should never be obliged to ascend to the Looking-for-
Husband Ledge.
When I was sixteen, my Lord went far away,
To the Ch’ü T’ang Chasm and the Whirling Water Rock 
of the Yü River
Which, during the Fifth Month, must not be collided with;
Where the wailing of the gibbons seems to come from the sky.
Your departing footprints are still before the door where I 
bade you good-bye,
In each has sprung up green moss.
The moss is thick, it cannot be swept away.
The leaves are falling, it is early for the Autumn wind to 
It is the Eighth Month, the butterflies are yellow,
Two are flying among the plants in the West garden;
Seeing them, my heart is bitter with grief, they wound the
heart of the Unworthy One.
The bloom of my face has faded, sitting with my sorrow.
From early morning until late in the evening, you descend 
the Three Serpent River.
Prepare me first with a letter, bringing me the news of
when you will reach home.
I will not go far on the road to meet you,
I will go straight until I reach the Long Wind Sands.


* The text follows the punctuation and wording (as well as line-breaks) of the original. Some modern anthologies differ.

** The text here also follows the punctuation, spelling, word-choice and line-breaks of the original.

Who proctors the proctors?

This second, consecutive post on public teacher ethics is occasioned by a New York Times piece last Thursday on teachers and administrators who engage in cheating to improve their students’ scores on standardized tests. Steven D. Levitt (a Times blogger on matters of behavioral economics) is said to have studied answer sheets of standardized tests administered in Chicago in the 1990s and concluded that 4-5% of elementary school teachers cheat. Undoubtedly the amount has risen as the incentives for higher scores have risen.

Now bear in mind that the cheating is in an area that is central to what the teachers are supposed to do. It is not cheating on taxes or handing in false expense reports. Central to what we expect public school teachers to do is honestly evaluate their students. And yet on this central issues 1 out of 20 cheat.

Perhaps I am naive, but I cannot conceive of another profession in which cheating in something so central to the integrity of profession is so rampant. I cannot believe, for example, that 1 in 20 litigators destroy harmful documents before producing his client’s documents pursuant to a discovery request. I don’t believe that 1 in 20 accountants falsify audit results.  I don’t even believe that 1 in 20 traffic policemen will forgo handing out a ticket for a bribe.

In fact, the cheating by teachers is more akin to third world petty bureaucrats than professionals.

The explanations in the article are unconvincing. It is true that the recent emphasis on standardized tests often produces unfair, counterproductive and nonsensical results. (Likewise, when I reviewed client documents before discovery I often found a document that I knew the other side would be able to misconstrue, making the litigation costs for everyone greater and settlement disproportionately more expensive to my client. Nevertheless, I, like all other litigators I know, produced the document, rather than rationalized destroying it.) It is also true that often times teacher and administrator promotions and bonuses depend on the fortuitous results of the tests. But if teachers are craven enough to falsify documents the public, rightly or wrongly, relies on (remember this is public school, one of the supposed virtues of which is public oversight and civic participation) for a couple of thousand dollars aren’t they in the wrong profession to begin with?

Perhaps we should stop beatifying the public school teacher. I am sure there are many who are quite dedicated and some who make many sacrifices. But when 1 in 20 betray one of their fundamental principles, then they require more rather than less supervision. (And this doesn’t even take into account other issues such as competence and temperament.)

But we have the odd situation where public school teachers are accorded protections unknown in any other field. They have procedural due process protection by virtue of being public employees. They have the protection of union membership and union contracts. They often have the protection of tenure (as do administrators, for some reason), even though academic freedom issues are entirely unknown in elementary school. And most importantly they have the protection of the hive.  Administrators and supervisors come from the ranks of the profession. They live in a closed environment where outsiders are rarely permitted to enter (and when they are, the conduct of all is usually scripted). School administration have used “security” concerns to further seal the schools from outsiders. And almost all school districts have such byzantine procedural rules than any complaint by an outsider or client (such as the students or their parents) is generally dissipated in a cloud of exhaustion much the way chancery court worked in Bleak House. This is of course on top of the protection that naturally results from the reality that most parents neither have the time nor ability to monitor what is going on in the public school.

This situation is perhaps just another example of the American genius for reducing a system to inefficiency by applying ad hoc procedural protections to parts without consideration for the whole. First, teachers are protected from arbitrary dismissal. So something has to be done to protect students. Procedural codes are devised for “complaints.” Administrators therefore believe they have no management responsibilities and therefore concentrate on financial and other matters. The public is outraged that teachers are not incentivized to teach basics and therefore enact blunt instruments like standardized tests. Teachers feel this is unfair and cheat in order to produce “fairer” results.

At some point, the solution has to be the same as the one Alexander used when he confronted the knot at Gordium and start over.

Unethical AP journalist respects lack of ethics in pubic school teacher

This from an AP story today concerning the two alleged terrorism suspects now before the Federal Court in Newark:

“Alessa was very violent and his family told educators that they were seeking professional help for him, said a former teacher at the school who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, citing Alessa’s privacy.”

So, a pubic school teacher violates the confidence of a student (probably enforced by statute; most certainly by District policy) and requests the reporter, Samantha Henry, to keep her name confidential.  The reporter complies and explains that it’s the violation committed by the teacher, of a policy designed to protect the student, that entitles the reporter to shield his or her name, to allow the teacher to anonymously denigrate the student.

They must have really intense discussions in ethics classes at journalism school.

Before this report, Henry was perhaps best known for covering the controversy generated when some identified the location of the 2014 Superbowl as New York, when in fact it will be played in the stadium of the New York Giants and New York Jets in East Rutherford, New Jersey, which is almost 6.5 miles by car away from Times Square, New York.  In that report she was able to reveal the names of the two sources she interviewed, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Carlos Echeverry, owner of the Fabulous Stylz barber shop in East Rutherford.

John Wooden (1910-2010)

Athletes litter the field of pop culture as much as actors and singers or pop musicians. Their bursts of fame are generally much shorter than the others, however, because their playing careers are much shorter, owing to “the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet would put it. Nevertheless, the sports themselves and occasionally players have entered American high-brow culture fairly regularly.

Of the popular professional American sports, baseball and boxing attract the most interest among literary types. Henry Kissinger, always one to ensure his comments are self-referential and self-aggrandizing, once said that he enjoyed baseball because it was “so cerebral.” The English Department of Middle Tennessee State University recently (March 26, 2010) held its 15th “Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference.” This year’s event boasted as its most famous guest Ferguson Jenkins, a Hall of Fame pitcher, who I saw on many occasions and continue to believe that playing for the Cubs prevented him from achieving the fame that he was due.

Aside from Ring Lardner (who began as a sports writer), numerous top flight writers wrote about baseball: Bernard Malamud’s The Natural follows the intersection of two all-American types: the athletic prodigy and the serial killer; Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby reveals who was behind baseball’s darkest moment; Don DeLillo’s Underworld follows the post-game history of the ball “shot ’round the world,” and so forth. Ball Four by former pitcher Jim Bouton, otherwise unknown in literary culture, was included in the 1995-96 exhibit by the New York Public Library of the Books of the Century. (Granted it was in the category of “Popular Culture and Mass Entertainment.” But then so was Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Capote’s In Cold Blood and Stoker’s Dracula.) It did not hurt Bouton’s reception by New York institutions that he was once a New York Yankee and “enhanced” Mickey Mantle’s reputation, of course. But the book would deserve commendation for no other reason than eliciting the remark that it was “detrimental to baseball” from the execrable Bowie Kuhn, who himself was detrimental not only to baseball but to the legal profession, from which he finally fled to sink his fortune into a homestead in Florida to protect his wealth from his firm’s bankruptcy creditors, after the massive, phony billing scheme sent his partner Harvey Myerson to jail.

Boxing always attracted a darker literary sensibility. Less like the chirpy “boys of summer” spirit, boxing reflects the point of view of the great American creation the noir (which shows its serious artistic pretensions by its French name): the lone male, equipped only with his brains and fists, must wage a brutal battle (in fact battle after battle) against a force intending to destroy him, in a war that he will ultimately lose. It is no coincidence that Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade, was himself a boxer. But so were the other über-males of American literature Ernest Hemingway and Jack London. (In one of the oddest stories of ex-patriot American literati in Paris, Hemingway tells in A Moveable Feast of trying to teach Ezra Pound to box.) In a different field, über-male Miles Davis, who also liked to box, recorded an improvised fusion-jazz set as a background to a film on legendary boxer Jack Johnson, which he later released as an album tribute to the boxer. (Norman Mailer, who liked to portray himself as an über-male, also liked to portray himself as a boxer.) In fact, Joyce Carol Oates called boxing “a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity ….” Rod Stirling repeatedly used boxing as a metaphor for loss (but not loss of the “religion of masculinity”), not only in his Requiem for a Heavyweight but also in short stories and “Twilight Zone” episodes. And of course if anyone ever personified the liberal intellectual’s view of existential manhood in the 60s-70s, it was Muhammad Ali.

All of this is an unnecessary introduction to John Wooden, who died June 4, 2010, well into his 99th year. Basketball, at which he excelled as player in high school and college and as a coach, is not susceptible to literary treatment, at least not the way baseball or boxing is. It has none of the individual moments of personal glory of baseball or the existential maleness of boxing. Nor does it (or any other sport) participate in the kind of sickly nostalgia or forced feyness in which many of baseball’s custodians hold that sport. Basketball is a team sport too fast paced and interrupted to have a narrative feel to it. While celebrities arise from basketball, often they become pop figures because of the visual appeal of their craft (Michael Jordan, Julius Erving) or the bizarreness of their behavior (Dennis Rodman). Nevertheless, Wooden is something of an iconic figure, and if basketball is to have a culture icon, it probably should be Wooden.

Wooden’s character belongs to a pre-high definition TV era, and he certainly did not appreciate the bizarre. He had the dignified character of a Joe DiMaggio or Bill Bradley. Wooden was perhaps the most reserved of the three. He had all the trappings of a very socially conservative life-style. He was married for 53 years and remained devoted to the same woman after her death. Each month he would visit the grave and write a letter to her. Their first meeting at a carnival while still in high school and their much later “honeymoon” at a Mills Brothers concert in Indianapolis add to the charm of the relationship. He was a high school and college athlete, became a teacher and coach, and clawed his way up the field of college coaching. He served in the Navy during World War II and achieved the rank of lieutenant. After the war he took the coaching job at UCLA because he had “given his word,” even though he had hoped to become coach of Minnesota, which delayed making its offer (until after Wooden agreed with UCLA) only because of inclement weather. He was an avowed Christian but modest in his outward display. (“If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.”) Christianity Today claimed that he read the Bible every day and that he held Abraham Lincoln as his role model. His life seemed the very epitome of a kind of Midwestern virtue that we only now are reminded of by the occasional Gary Cooper movie.

Wooden was born in the center of Indiana, Hall, grew up on a farm in Centerton (a dirt poor one judging by pictures of his family when he was small), but according to the timeline on his official website (sponsored by McDonald’s), in 1924 “hard-times force Wooden family off the farm and to nearby Martinsville, Indiana; pop. 4,800.” Wooden’s father would take a job at one of the sanitariums that Martinsville sported. Martinsville had a number of spas and sanitariums owing to the local mineral waters, which made it somewhat of a destination for the wealthy and sickly. At one of these sanitariums in 1890 Albert Merritt once worked as a porter. Merritt was the son of slaves who founded the Martinsville Boys Club and is now claimed to be “beloved” by the town. But by 1924 Martinsville no longer had a racial climate that allowed someone like Merritt to ply his good works. Racism, the virulent kind, blossomed like a noxious weed in the 1920s. David Curtis Stephenson, who had moved to Indiana from Oklahoma in 1920, having lost his bid for a Democratic nomination to run for Congress, channeled his political ambitions into the internal political workings of the Ku Klux Klan, backing Hiram Wesley Evans’s successful effort to unseat William J. Simmons as the Klan’s Imperial Wizard. For his efforts Stephenson was appointed Grand Dragon of the northern states. This appointment paid immediate benefits in Indiana. Klan membership dramatically increased. Martinsville became known as a “sunset town,” meaning that any blacks in town after dark were considered open targets. In October 1923 a Klan rally was held at the courthouse in Martinsville, drawing Klansmen from surrounding towns and as far away as Indianapolis. The crowd was described as “imposing,” and carried banners reading “White Supremacy,” “Protect Womanhood,” “Free public schools,” and “Pure Americanism.” Stephenson switched to the Republican party, and he assisted his favorite, Edward L. Jackson, to become Governor of Indiana. Jackson, although a corrupt buffoon, would further entrench the Klan into Indiana politics by, among other things, appointing reputed Klansman Arthur Robinson Senator over progressive scholar and former Senator Albert Beveridge (the biographer of John Marshall). Both Stephenson and Jackson suffered monumental falls by the end of the 1920s, Stephenson was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1925 for the abduction, forced intoxication, rape and felony murder of a school teacher (whom Jackson introduced Stephenson to). Jackson, who was fearful of pardoning Stephenson, suffered the retribution of the Grand Dragon who expected no less. Stephenson knew where many of Jackson’s bodies were buried, and bribery charges against Jackson followed. Although he would escape conviction, Jackson left office a disgraced man in 1929. Martinsville continued the focus of racial hatred, spitefulness and crimes up to today. The town is still best known for the murder in 1968 of a black woman attacked with a screwdriver while she was selling encyclopedias door to door. In 1990 the town had no blacks counted in the census. Even the local black internist was too afraid to check the box for “African Americans.” By 2002 the local Chamber of Commerce had hired a “diversity consultant” purportedly to “undertake a county-wide initiative to address what I like to call making everyone feel welcome here” according to the Chamber’s president.

This was where Wooden spent his high school years and where he met his wife. While in high school he sent the Martinsville Artesians to the state championships in each of the three years between 1926-1928, winning the title in 1927. (Wooden was captain of the 1928 team that lost in the final game. Wooden said that losing as defending champions “still hurts.”) The team, of course, was all white.

Despite all of this (or maybe because all of this) Wooden referred to himself as a “liberal Democrat.” It is true that at one time, as Edmund Wilson pointed out, everyone was a liberal. That time seems far away just now; yet, it wasn’t more than a lifetime ago. But given that Wooden captions one of the photos in the “Scrapbook” of his official website with the statement “I’ve got the Bruins in my blood, but I’m a Hoosier at heart,” his affiliation with the Democrats seems unexpected at best. Going back to the days of William McKinley, Indiana rarely voted for a Democratic Presidential nominee (voting against FDR twice and Wilson for re-election). And when they voted for a Democratic, it was usually one of the unreconstructed Neanderthal type, such as Senator Samuel Ralston, anti-Catholic Klan favorite who died in office in 1925. Wooden’s un-Hoosier broadmindedness was of an entirely different cast and showed itself in the same way that his Christianity did—modestly, without fanfare but resolutely nonetheless. Perhaps it was from his father that he maintained a sense of social justice in the midst of the muck. He said that when he “graduated” elementary school in Centerton, his father gave him a paper with the following 7 instructions on it:

1. Be true to yourself.
2. Help others.
3. Make each day your masterpiece.
4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
5. Make friendship a fine art.
6. Build a shelter against a rainy day.
7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

He claimed that he kept the paper his whole life. He certainly developed an instinct for aphorisms. And as far as we can tell from his decisions, he seems to have followed them. And at least once it had some visible effects.

After World War II Wooden took a job as teacher and coach at Indiana Teacher’s College (now Indiana State University, where Larry Bird would play 30 years later). In 1947, his first year, he coached the Sycamores to an invitation to the NAIB (now the NAIA) tournament to be held in Kansas City. Wooden refused the invitation because of the tournament’s whites-only rule —Indiana Teachers College had one black backup player, Clarence Walker. Walker played only limited minutes, but as his son later told the story, for Wooden it was a question of team. Walker was a member of the team, and either the team played or it didn’t. “They wouldn’t permit a colored boy to play in the tournament and I had one on my team—Clarence Walker out of East Chicago,” Wooden said later. “While he wasn’t one that got to play very much at all, he still was a member of my team and I wouldn’t take the team without him.”

The next year the Sycamores were again invited to the NAIB tournament but this year the tournament committee changed the rules to permit black players. They informed Wooden that Walker would still be prohibited from staying at the segregated hotels or eating at the white-only eating places in Kansas City, but he would be allowed in the tournament. Wooden again refused. Something about these decisions suggests an intentional stand by Wooden to make a point, because in the regular season Walker had to suffer the indignities and worse of segregated Indiana. There were places he could not play, yet the team continued to play in Kentucky and Virginia. On campus he had to live in the back dorm, and when he went to away games he often had to use a separate locker room. Whatever the reason for the refusal, under pressure from the college president and persuasion from the NAACP, Wooden eventually relented. Walker stayed at the home of an African American minister in Kansas City. Indiana Teachers College made the finals but lost to Louisville. The game was historic in a couple of senses. It was the first collegiate championship game (outside New York at least) in which a black played. It was Wooden’s only loss as a coach in a championship game, and it was his last game in the NAIB. Although he coached for only 2 years in the league, he entered the NAIA Hall of Fame in 2009, largely due to his stand in favor of Clarence Walker. The tournament itself was not a dramatic moment in the history of the civil rights movement. Kansas City’s black newspaper The Call said that “no expressions of disapproval were heard” from the fans. Walker was not a star by any means; he scored only 8 points the entire week of games.

Clarence Walker would become a high school teacher and coach, put his three kids through college and even become the President of the Board of Commissioners of Lake County, Indiana. His children tell of how Walker spoke of Wooden and his teammates who supported the decisions. He also impressed on them how Wooden had enough pull to be able to find a black preacher in Kansas City who would take Walker in. Wooden himself said that when a couple of years later an “all colored team” won the tournament, he received hate letters blaming him for the result.

Wooden would go on to coach Lew Alcindor, Jamaal (then Jackson) Wilkes, among others. And in all cases he seems to have cemented feelings of great warmth and respect. Wooden has written a handful of books over the past decade, all in the inspirational/admonitory style that would become a genre of “sports leadership” books. The genre would make considerable money for coaches such as Pat Riley and Bill Parcells, who were able to fill some of the demand by the sports-hero-worshiping management world willing to spend for the maxims of “strong” leaders. Wooden himself has left a legacy of aphorisms about the concept of team, the power of self-respect, and the value of principle. Perhaps these sayings are no more useful than the hollow words of numerous others from high school coaches fantasizing about the big time to professionals whose main interest is maximizing income from sponsors and the lecture circuit. But if an editor were interested in trying to rekindle interest in the collection of aphorisms as an artform, he’d be well-advised to consider Wooden, whose own sayings seem to have been percolating in some deep recesses of the soul and not merely the best received on a corporate leadership circuit.