Human Rights Abuses Continue in Myanmar as Western Governments Ease Sanctions

On August 1, 2012, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the continuing sectarian violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Arakan State. The report, entitled “’The Government Could Have Stopped This’: Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State,” details the absence of security forces as deep seeded sectarian tensions boiled over resulting in raised villages; sword, spear and stick wielding mobs; dozens of mutilated bodies; and 100,000 displaced people.

According to HRW, Burmese security forces are guilty of more than just benign neglect. After international pressure and the threat of unrest spilling over into neighboring states forced President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency, police and paramilitary forces in Arakan State unleashed a campaign of terror against Rohingya Muslims including killing, rape, mass arrests and torture. On June 12, Rakhine mobs burned down the homes of up to 10,000 Rohingya while police and paramilitary opened fire on those Rohingya desperately trying to put out the flames with live ammunition.

One month later, on July 12, President Obama announced that his administration would begin easing sanctions on investment in Myanmar, encouraging US companies to do business in the country, including investing in projects sponsored by the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. The EU, Australia and other countries have also agreed to ease restriction on investment in Myanmar.

The lifting of sanctions and the restoring of diplomatic ties comes in response to the “flood” of reforms enacted by the “quasi-civilian” government which came into power following the November, 2010 elections. Thein Sein’s government has overseen the release of some high-profile political prisoners, the easing of media restrictions, the legalization of labor unions and the participation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, outlawed since winning a landslide election victory in 1990, in the political process.

While this list of reforms may seem impressive on the surface and worthy of lavish rewards by the international community, much caution is needed. According to the organization, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which tracks political prisoners in Myanmar, hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up in prisons notorious for abuse and torture, the exact locations of many of these prisoners remain unknown. Despite pronouncements of increased speech and assembly freedoms, activists and demonstrators continue to be arrested and imprisoned for participating in rallies. The situation is exponentially worse in ethnic nationality areas on Myanmar’s periphery where arbitrary detention, beatings, rape and torture are epidemic.

For many Western governments, the election of Suu Kyi and 42 of her fellow NLD members to parliament in the April by-elections signaled a watershed in Myanmar’s movement towards democracy. A flurry of diplomatic activity followed the announcement that Suu Kyi had won a seat in the lower house of parliament with historic visits from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UK Foreign Minister William Hague, and a host of other diplomats eager to have their photo op with the embattled democracy campaigner and praise the speed and breadth of the government’s reforms.

The political success of Suu Kyi had become the sole metric by which many Western governments measure progress towards democracy in Myanmar. The reality, however, is that the by-elections represented a meager 8% of the 664 seats that make up both houses of parliament. Of those seats, the current Constitution automatically designates 25% to serving military officers. An additional 76% of seats are held by the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, made up largely of former military officials. Altogether, both directly and through thinly veiled proxies, the Burmese military controls about 84% of parliament, in addition to several key ministries including the powerful ministries of intelligence, defense and foreign affairs. In what sense then is Myanmar’s government even “quasi-civilian” as it’s often characterized by Western media? And how does the election of a handful of NLD members represent a sea change for democracy in the country?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. But the superficial reforms are enough to justify the easing of sanctions among Western countries, particularly the US, eager to challenge Chinese hegemony in the region and gain access to Myanmar’s lucrative oil, gas and mineral reserves. The fact that Obama’s announcement easing restrictions for US companies on investment in Myanmar followed on the heels of a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims by security forces in the country’s Southwest should come as no surprise. The recent spate of “reforms” in 2011 and 2012 are occurring simultaneously with renewed fighting between the Burmese Army and Kachin rebels in the Northeast of Myanmar.

June 2011 witnessed the end of a 17-year ceasefire agreement between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army. Several factors contributed to the renewed violence including the construction of the Dapein Chinese hydroelectric dam in Kachin state that has displaced thousands of Kachin villagers, and a rejection by the KIA of a government program to transform ethnic rebels into a government sponsored border guard force. With the renewed fighting comes a host of documented human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese Army against Kachin civilians.

Another Human Rights Watch Report dated March 2012 entitled, “’Untold Miseries’: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Kachin State,” details how 75,000 Kachin have been displaced by the violence. The government is blocking desperately needed humanitarian assistance to displaced persons and refugees while the Army continues to attack villages, raze homes, pillage properties, torture civilians, rape women and force young men and boys to become porters and slave laborers. According to Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at HRW, “The Burmese Army is committing unchecked abuses in Kachin State while the government blocks humanitarian aid to those most in need.”

This government-sponsored terror is not confined to Kachin and Arakan states. Ethnic minorities all along Myanmar’s periphery are subject to abuse and brutality at the hands of the Burmese Army. A recent report from the Human Rights Foundation of Monland documents the use of forced labor in Mon and Karen states. The military forces young men and boys, often the sole breadwinners of their families, to act as porters for up to weeks at a time. If they refuse they are beaten and tortured. Many young men are conscripted as slave laborers to work on the Army’s rubber plantations, cultivated on land confiscated from local villagers.

Reports of abuse are widespread and continuing and yet the international community remains eager to lift sanctions and repair relations with the Myanmar government, citing the election of Suu Kyi and a handful of cosmetic reforms as justification. Western governments are not ignorant of the suffering of ethnic minorities in Myanmar; they are simply indifferent to it. For them, the veneer of democracy and human rights is enough to open the floodgates for foreign investment. Myanmar is simply too valuable, both strategically and economically, to leave to China.

The 2015 general election will be a test of Myanmar’s commitment to democracy, but the true metric for measuring progress towards democracy in Myanmar will always be its treatment of ethnic minorities, and their inclusion in the democratic process. By that metric, Myanmar is far from a democracy.


Posted in Historical/Political Analyses, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Problem of Anonymity

In a recent article, British author and journalist Heather Brooke bemoans the increasingly common journalistic practice of granting anonymity to official spokespeople who use it to ensure deniability and avoid personal accountability for their comments to the press. Other writers, including Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, have written extensively about this insidious practice and its deleterious effects on journalism and public accountability for high-ranking officials. Granting blanket anonymity to official spokespeople with little or no justification has become so pervasive in journalism that many journalists simply do not understand why it is a problem, or even what constitutes anonymity for a source.

In January I had a brief email exchange with Al Jazeera Middle East correspondent David Poort over an article he wrote entitled “Qatar’s Emir Suggests Sending Troops to Syria“. In the article, David quoted a single anonymous “senior US official” claiming that Iran was supporting the Assad regime in its crackdown on protestors. The following are my emails to David and his response:


I am a frequent reader of Al Jazeera news articles and generally admire the quality of journalism displayed. However, this article fails to meet the high journalistic standard I have come to associate with Al Jazeera news. The claim that Iran is aiding the Assad government in its crackdown on protesters relies entirely on quotes from a single anonymous “senior US official.” It is never stated why this official requires anonymity and no empirical evidence supporting the claim is presented.

David Poort:

Dear Mr Moore,

Thank you for your feedback.

I agree with the objection you raise against using a statement that comes from an anonymous official. However, I decided to add this line, as it was given to Al Jazeera directly via our Washington bureau. We therefore know the identity of this source.


I’m sure you do know the identity of the official you quoted, but the reading public does not and this official’s name is not in the public record, therefore he/she cannot be held accountable for the statements made. This is the problem with granting anonymity to officials when they make such significant claims. You could at least include some justification for granting this official anonymity. Does Al Jazeera have an editorial policy on this?

David did not respond to my reply.

It is simply astonishing that an accomplished journalist working for a prominent news organization could think that because he, or his editors, knows the identity of a source, that source is therefore not “anonymous” if his/her name is not stated in an article in which he/she is quoted. As if anonymity for sources refers to keeping their identity secret from the journalist quoting them and not the reading public. How a journalist can quote someone without knowing their identity in the first place is a mystery to me.

The inability of journalists to even understand what it means to grant anonymity to official spokespeople, never mind why it is so potentially harmful, is a testament to the pervasiveness and creeping institutionalization of this practice. If the journalism profession is to maintain any shred of the ethical standards it constantly espouses and that make it an indispensable public service, it must address this insidious trend.

Posted in Media Analysis | Leave a comment

Neoliberal Education Reform Is What’s “Not Fair”: A Response to Dana Goldstein

In her most recent online piece for the Nation, “NYC to Release Teachers’ ‘Value Added’ Ratings: Why It’s Not Fair”, Dana Goldstein criticizes the planned publication of the value-added ratings of 12,000 NYC public school teachers, including teacher’s names, by the NY Times and WNYC. “Value-added” refers to the statistical estimation of a teacher’s impact on students’ standardized test scores in math and reading.

While Goldstein points out that value-added ratings have been proven unreliable in studies conducted by The Economic Policy Institute, which found the margin of error for determining teacher influence on student test scores to be in the 35% range for math and up to 50% for reading, she does not criticize the use of high-stakes tests as a metric of both student learning and teacher effectiveness. Instead, Goldstein condemns the publication of teacher’s names alongside the data and cautions that value added, while a “promising tool”, must be “refined and deployed with extreme caution.”

Goldstein’s myopic focus on the reliability of value-added ratings ignores the larger context of education reform efforts in the US. The wisdom of reform initiatives focused on standardization, accountability, and school choice (privatization) is never questioned. Indeed, this reform model has become bi-partisan consensus since the implementation of Obama’s “Race to the Top”, which enshrined as orthodoxy much of Bush’s NCLB approach to federal education reform. Once bi-partisan agreement is reached on an issue, the parameters of the debate are set and ideas and opinions that fall outside of those parameters are relegated to the margins.

Any reasonable approach to nationwide education reform efforts would begin by comparing US outcomes with those of other nations to determine what policies have been effective elsewhere. Fortunately, such a comparative tool already exists in the form of the Program for International Student Assessment, the most recent results of which were released in 2009. Every 3 years since 2000, PISA has measured the proficiency of 15-year-old students per nation around the world in the areas of math, reading and science. In 2009, Finnish students posted the highest scores on the PISA for the fourth consecutive year. In contrast, US students ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack with math scores slightly below the OECD average.

Policy makers concerned about improving education in the US would look at the PISA results and conclude that Finland might have something to offer the US in the realm of education reform. So what does education reform look like in Finland?

In 1960, Finland’s international education ranking was close to average, as the US’s is today. Around that time, Finnish policy makers decided that in order to compete economically with resource rich nations, Finland would have to grow its high-tech sector, and it could only do that by first improving its schools. Education reform in Finland took the form of reduced class sizes, increased teacher salary coupled with greater requirements for certification (all teachers in Finland must complete a master’s program), superintendents and principals with significant teaching experience,  and greater autonomy and curricular control for teachers and administrators. Rather than implementing a system of test-based accountability schemes, Finland relies on the competence and discretion of experienced administrators to evaluate teacher performance and make decisions about salary and retention.

How does this compare with education reform efforts in the US?

Firstly, there has been an effort on the part of reformers in the US to fast-track teacher certification through alternative programs that allow candidates to circumvent traditional pathways. This has been accompanied by an increase in funding for programs like Teach for America, which take recent graduates from leading universities headed for eventual careers in lucrative professions in business and law and place them in underperforming urban schools to teach for up to 2 years. The underlying assumption, of course, is that teaching is not a profession that requires specialized training and education, but simply a job that anyone can perform, or an act of charity when it’s done in impoverished urban schools. Meanwhile, teachers’ unions and the benefits and salaries they have fought to secure are under attack on the state level from anti-labor politicians who are determined to use the recent financial crisis as a pretext to justify their assault on workers’ rights. Taken together, these efforts have operated to deprofessionalize teaching and eliminate incentives for intelligent, passionate individuals to pursue teaching as a career.

Secondly, a major thrust of recent federal and state level reforms has been in the area of charter schools and vouchers. Both of these are designed to use public tax dollars to subsidize the profits of private educational institutions, thereby undermining public education while enriching the private sector. A recent (2009) nationwide study by education researchers at Stanford University compared learning outcomes of charter schools with those of traditional public schools. The study found that 50% of charter schools nationwide have results no different from the local public school, and 37% of charter schools deliver results that are significantly worse than the student would have realized at the traditional public school. Unsurprisingly, “public-private partnership” schools are not a feature of education reform in Finland. Finland has invested its resources in improving public schools rather than transferring wealth from the public sphere to for-profit institutions.

Lastly, standardized curricula and testing have been the centerpiece of reform in the US. Increasingly, high-stakes tests are determining everything from the amount of funding that schools will receive, to teachers’ salary and tenure eligibility. This is placing greater pressure on schools and classroom teachers to improve student’s test scores. Often, this results in a “teach to the test” culture where the focus is on improving student’s scores in math and reading to the exclusion of other subjects like science, social studies, art, music, foreign language, physical education, etc. This curriculum narrowing takes place within a framework of top-down curriculum implementation. Rather than allowing teachers to design effective curricula, reformers are placing curricula drafting in the hands of bureaucrats, businesspeople and education “experts,” all of whom are far removed from the classroom context. In contrast, Finland has virtually eliminated high-stakes testing and replaced it with exams given to small but statistically significant student samples to collect data. Finland also allows teachers to design their own curricula using national guidelines as a blueprint, not an instruction manual.

From these comparisons, one can conclude that either US policy makers, despite overwhelming empirical evidence, do not believe Finland can serve as a model of successful education reform, or US policy makers are not interested in improving education.

If policy makers aren’t interested in meaningful education reform, what are they interested in?

The answer is meaningful neo-liberal reform. All of these policies are designed to transfer public wealth and collective decision making to unaccountable private institutions. Privatization and test-based accountability go hand in hand. When under-resourced schools, particularly those in inner cities serving low-income and minority populations, struggle to meet the standards forced on them by the state, politicians point to this as evidence of the failure of public schools to educate America’s youth and offer privatization as the only logical remedy.

Over the past thirty years, politicians aligned with business/corporate interests have worked tirelessly to diminish the public sphere and dismantle essential social services in the name of privatization. From trash collection and parcel services to health care, education and the military, privatization has wreaked havoc on the social contract and placed profits over the basic needs of people. Privatization, however, is simply one weapon in the neoliberal’s arsenal alongside deficit reduction, deregulation, slashing corporate taxes, liberalized trade, etc.

When liberal/progressive commentators like Dana Goldstein debate the merits of value-added ratings and other accountability schemes without placing them in the larger context of reform efforts focused on standardization, accountability and privatization, they are limiting the scope of public debate and unwittingly advancing a neo-liberal education reform agenda.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Selective Journalism: How Western Media Manipulates Information and Context to Conform to Official Narratives on Iran’s Enrichment Program

One of the hallmarks of non-democratic nations is the absence of an independent press. In countries like China and North Korea, all media is state-run and strictly regulated. News stories reflect the will of the dominant political class and rarely if ever deviate from the official line. In contrast to this despotism, we are told, Western democracies like those found in Europe and North America foster a free, independent press as the cornerstone of political participation. Without an engaged and well-informed electorate, the democratic experiment would inevitably fail. This association between democracy and free press has its roots in the writings of Enlightenment thinkers from John Stuart Mill to Thomas Jefferson and can be found plastered in high school civics textbooks throughout the US. Unfortunately, the idea that Western media is “independent” does not hold to scrutiny in the 21st century and the case of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is a perfect example of this.

A BBC article dated February 19, 2012, titled “Iran ‘May Boost Nuclear Program’, Diplomat Warns” discusses the “expansion” of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. The article expresses concern about the anticipated instillation of centrifuges at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Facility outside of the city of Qom. The report quotes anonymous diplomats saying the “facility now contains the electrical circuitry, piping and supporting equipment required for the new centrifuges.” Although, the diplomats add that the centrifuges have not been fitted yet and there is no indication as to when they might become operational. The article goes on to assert, “this is another warning that Iran may be stepping up its controversial nuclear work.” Unmentioned in all of this is the fact that Iran voluntarily disclosed the existence of the Fordow site to the IAEA in 2009 and has since allowed inspectors full access to the site. According to the latest IAEA report on Iran issued November 18, 2011, “the Agency continues to verify that FFEP [Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant] is being constructed according to the latest DIQ provided by Iran.” In other words, Iran has been completely forthcoming and transparent about details related to the construction and purpose of the Fordow plant. The author of the BBC article apparently doesn’t find any of this information relevant or worthy of inclusion.

The author does, however, find room to warn that the new facility, once it becomes operational, could allow Iran to “speed up the production of enriched uranium – required for both power generation and nuclear weapons.” While ominous and potentially fear inducing, this line fails to account for the complexities and nuances of uranium enrichment. All Iranian enrichment sites, including Fordow, are designed to enrich uranium up to 20%, the level required to fuel Tehran’s small medical research reactor, which produces isotopes for use in chemotherapy. The latest IAEA inspection of the Natanz enrichment plant confirms that Iran is enriching uranium to low levels for use in medical research: “In the production area, Iran first began feeding low enriched UF6 into Cascade 1 on 9 February 2010, for the stated purpose of producing UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 for use in the manufacture of fuel for he Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).” In contrast, nuclear weapons require uranium enriched to levels of 95%. While Iran could potentially enrich uranium to this level in the future, its centrifuges are not currently calibrated to do so. Again, the author abandons complexity and context in favor of cheap fear mongering.

The article frames this “revelation” about Iran’s increased enrichment capacity within the larger context of the rising tensions between Iran and the West. The author provides a textual montage (in bullet point form) of Iran’s latest provocations and Western official’s warnings. The first of these is arguably the most revealing: “On Saturday, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Iran’s nuclear ambitions could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region – where at present the only country believed to possess such weapons is Israel.” That the glaring irony of this sentence could escape notice by anyone speaks to the insidious profusion of the imperial mindset. Yes, Israel possesses a stockpile of hundreds of nuclear weapons and refuses to sign on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or allow international inspectors access to its weapons sites, but this could in no way trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. On the other hand, Iran’s hypothetical pursuit of a nuclear weapon, in no way spurred by Israel’s arsenal, could have seriously destabilizing consequences for the region. This is but one example among many of Western media’s consistent refusal to include Israel’s nuclear weapons in the current debate over Iran’s enrichment activities.

Another bullet point cites the alleged Iranian attempts to assassinate Israeli diplomats abroad in India, Georgia and Thailand: “Israel earlier accused Iran of masterminding attacks on its embassies in India, Thailand and Georgia – an accusation denied by Iran.” Of course, there is no mention of the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists on Iranian soil by members of the opposition exile group, Mujahidin e-Khalq, with the training and support of Israeli Mossad. Interestingly, MEK is a terrorist organization according to the US, so the recent revelations of Israeli involvement with MEK point to Israel as a state sponsor of terrorism under the current US definition. Again, these are all externalities and do not warrant mention in the BBC article. That Iran’s alleged bellicosity may be a response to ongoing US/Israeli aggression is never even considered.

Of course, this is but one example among many of Western media’s selective use of information and dearth of context to ensure that coverage of Iran’s enrichment activities toes the party line. One could literally pull any article on this topic from virtually any mainstream Western media outlet and find the same superficial, biased coverage. Unlike what you might find reading Xinhua or the People’s Daily, those official organs of the Chinese Communist Party, Western media outlets do not print outright falsehoods (although sometimes they do). Rather, they employ a much more sophisticated method of presenting selective information and ignoring or avoiding nuance, complexity and historical/political context to guarantee adherence to official doctrine. This is far from the free and independent press of John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson. Although, it is much more difficult to determine whether this betrayal represents a dire threat to modern democracy or, as I suspect, stems from the severe erosion of democracy over the past several decades as a result of the increasing financialization and corporate domination of the economy, including media. Either way, journalism is degraded and citizens lose out.

Posted in Media Analysis | Leave a comment

Response to Jeff Chang’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation””

“Hip-hop had been reduced to a kid-friendly Broadway production, scrubbed clean for prime-time, force-fitted into one-size-fits-all” (Chang 194). Before McDonalds adopted it as yet another marketing tool, Jeff Chang describes hip-hop’s birth from within the neglected wasteland that was the South Bronx. City officials instituted a policy of “benign neglect” towards the Bronx with the hope that it would destroy itself from within and save the city the cost of relocation and revitalization projects. As a product of financial and political neglect, did hip-hop negate itself by submitting to corporate exploitation?

Chang writes that The New York City Breakers “earned an ovation from Ronald and Nancy Reagan at his second inauguration” (Chang 194). This incident highlights the contradictions inherent in the commodification and mass production of hip-hop culture. Hip-hop is receiving accolades from the chief representative of the very system it was born to oppose. As hip-hop was gaining momentum in the ghettos of New York City, the American CIA was facilitating the import of heroin and cocaine with the profits going towards anticommunist and counterrevolutionary operations in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Chang quotes Aqeela Sherrills, who witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by the CIA’s entrepreneurialism, “‘The neighborhood was already tough, but people literally lost their families to drugs and the violence that came out of people utilizing drugs and making money off drugs. Folks went to jail for the rest of their life. People got murdered. It totally devastated the neighborhood’” (Chang 208). The movers and the consumers of these drugs were the impoverished inhabitants of the nation’s urban slums. As corporations were capitalizing on the mass appeal of hip-hop culture, and Ronald Reagan was patronizing a group of break artists at his inauguration, the CIA was aiding in the destruction of American ghettos to fund the assault on democracy abroad.

Does hip-hop’s definition as a “‘fuck you’ to white society and the previous black generation” make it unable to be commodified? Did hip-hop cease to be hip-hop the moment the record companies found it? The answer is a complex one. Without the megaphone of corporate sponsorship hip-hop might never have made it out of the boroughs of New York City. The mass production of hip-hop essentially gave a voice to the voiceless; however, that voice quickly acquiesced to “the kid-friendly Broadway production” which Chang describes. DJ Kool Herc addresses this issue in his introduction: “And now we have a platform to speak our minds. Millions of people are watching us. Let’s hear something powerful” (Chang xiii). The mainstream voice of hip-hop has become one which reaffirms the ignorant, racist stereotypes about black culture. Rather than using their “platform” to speak out against the injustice and inequality which gave rise to the hip-hop movement in the Bronx, the mainstream of the hip-hop community has chosen to submit to the will of their sponsors. When they flash “bling-bling” and drive around in expensive cars they are dancing at the behest of their corporate puppet masters and fueling a consumer culture that willfully ignores the suffering of the poor, disenfranchised masses. The very same poor and disenfranchised masses that gave birth to hip-hop beneath the ruins of the South Bronx.

Posted in Literary Criticism | Leave a comment

Freudian Analysis of Sonny in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

Jazz as an Alternative to Death

“It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much” (Baldwin 132). Many would argue that in life, pain outweighs pleasure. Freud contends that although we are unable to reconcile with the truth because it frightens us, each and every one of us has an unconscious desire to die. Death, according to Freud, is the ultimate escape from the sufferings and hardships which define human life and reality. In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin confronts this dark truth about human nature in his character, Sonny. Sonny’s suffering becomes so unbearable that he refuses to accept it as an inevitable condition of the human experience; he refuses to “take it”: “’But nobody just takes it,’ Sonny cried, ‘That’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to’” (Baldwin 133). Rather than directly embrace death, Sonny seeks relief and control in other, alternative forms. At first, Sonny finds escape in the form of a heroin addiction; it gives him a sense of control and allows him to impose a superficial order on his life. Later on, however, Sonny learns that through his music he is able to impose a real, empirical order on the chaos of his internal sufferings. This order manifests itself in the form of jazz music.

Freud believed that all human behavior is motivated by instincts. The death instinct, as Freud saw it, motivates us to be satisfied and at peace. In a sense, the goal of all human activity and toil is to be finished. We work so that by finishing our work we can be at rest. Because life is defined by activity, and death is the ultimate rest, the goal of life is essentially death. However, because the nature of death is uncertain, there exists a very powerful aura of fear around it, one that represses our desire to die and forces us to turn to other, more familiar ways of escape. These means of escape manifest themselves in a variety of different ways: books, movies, drugs, sex, music, etc. Despite their seeming disconnectedness, these escapes all have a common ability, they allow one to set reality, with all its sufferings, aside, if only for a short period of time. They also allow one, through expression, to impose order on the chaos inside.

For Sonny, this is the appeal of heroin. Heroin gives him a sense of control, if only a superficial one: “It makes you feel-in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling” (Baldwin 131). Sonny, like all people, is continuously motivated by the death instinct. He is motivated towards finding an end to the constant activity of life, towards peace. However, like most people, Sonny does not see death as an immediate option, for him too death is unknown and fearful territory and therefore the desire to die is repressed into his unconscious. Like all unconscious desires, the desire to die is expressed in the conscious, but in an indirect way. In this case, Sonny’s desire to die presents itself to his conscious in the form of escapist behaviors such as drug addiction: “No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem-well, like you” (Baldwin 132). Sonny admits to both his brother and himself that there is no way to avoid suffering completely, but there exists outlets through which the suffering becomes bearable, manageable. Sonny explains that if you are able to impose some degree of order on the suffering, you can still retain your identity. In a sense, heroin gives Sonny the ability to look at himself in the mirror and see, not just a vast ocean of hardships, but also a familiar face looking back at him.

The sense of control that heroin gives Sonny, which allows him to “keep from drowning in it,” is a false sense. The more one becomes dependent on a drug like heroin, the more control one relinquishes to the drug itself. Eventually, Sonny is no longer in control, but rather the heroin and the people who provide it. This becomes a gateway for even more suffering and pain. Luckily for Sonny, he has found an alternative to this downward spiraling phenomena in music. “But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air” (Baldwin 137). Through his piano, Sonny is able to grasp the chaos within and impose an empirical order on it by translating it into musical notes. Sonny’s escape into music then becomes the conscious representation of the unconscious death instinct. By imposing order, Sonny is decreasing his amount of suffering, and therefore moving towards peace and rest. The words of Sonny’s brother, upon hearing his jazz, are a testament to the power of music to transport us from the hardships of everyday life:

And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw

my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears

begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the

world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above

us, longer than the sky (Baldwin 140).

The world is a cruel place, “as hungry as a tiger,” and he must do everything he can to remind himself of this while he is being drifted aloft by Sonny’s music.

Freud’s death instinct manifests itself in the physical world in the form of escapist behaviors. These behaviors, some socially acceptable, others not, are the familiar alternative to the fearfulness of the unknown realm of death. For Sonny, suffering stems from a lack of control, and he seeks control in various forms. At first, he thinks he has found this control in the way heroin makes him feel, but this is only a superficial control. Eventually, Sonny turns to music in order to impose a higher, empirical order on the chaos of his internal state. As Sonny is unable to confront his desire to die directly, death, for Sonny, becomes music. Music is a sanctuary from the constant suffering, just as death would be.

Posted in Literary Criticism | Leave a comment

Education Reform Under Obama is Bush’s NCLB Recycled

On July 29, 2010, President Obama gave an hour long speech at the National Urban League’s 100th anniversary convention in which he laid out his education reform blueprint for the nation and responded to criticisms of his plan from civil rights groups and teachers’ unions.

The centerpiece of Obama’s reform effort is Race to the Top, a national competition between states fighting for limited federal education funding. In order to be eligible to receive Race to the Top funds, states must submit proposals demonstrating adherence to the Obama education agenda of universal standards and assessments, test-based accountability schemes for schools and teachers, and plans to “turn around” under-performing schools. So far, Delaware and Tennessee are the big winners from phase 1 of the competition with rewards of $100 million and $500 million respectively. $3.4 billion remains up for grabs in phase 2 with over 40 states submitting proposals. The Obama blueprint itself is little more than a repackaging of the previous NCLB initiative with a renewed emphasis on test-based accountability and privatization through charter schools and voucher programs.

The federally initiated educational reform efforts of the past twenty years had their roots in the efficiency movement of the early twentieth century. At that time, business was the ideal model for education and schools were viewed as assembly line factories, mass producing compliant workers to achieve maximum productivity. America 2000, George H.W. Bush’s initiative, its predecessor the “No Child Left Behind “Act, and now Obama’s blueprint have resurrected this business/industrial model with an almost fanatical devotion to standardization and accountability. The results have been a dramatic decline in teacher autonomy, curricular creativity and innovation, and substantive critical engagement within the classroom as schools are forced to teach to the test in order to receive desperately needed funds and avoid takeovers by the state. If teacher pay becomes contingent on student performance on standardized tests, as the Obama plan calls for, the teach to the test culture will become even more ingrained in American schools and teachers’ livelihoods will become dependent on unreliable test scores which do not accurately reflect student learning.

Along with test-based accountability schemes, the Obama blueprint would direct more federal dollars towards charter schools and voucher programs, both of which are designed to use public tax dollars to subsidize the profits of private educational institutions, thereby undermining public education while enriching the private sector. A recent (2009) nationwide study by education researchers at Stanford University compared learning outcomes of charter schools with those of traditional public schools. The study found that 50% of charter schools nationwide have results no different from the local public school, and 37% of charter schools deliver results that are significantly worse than the student would have realized at the traditional public school. If this is the reality, why does Obama continue to champion charter schools as the solution to America’s perceived education crisis while siphoning desperately needed funds away from traditional public schools? Ever since Reagan proposed the abolition of the Department of Education in the 80’s, successive administrations have searched for ways to remove education from the public sphere and transfer it into private hands. Education is simply one front in the larger battle for privatization alongside social security, health care, prisons, law enforcement, national security, etc.

Privatization and test-based accountability go hand in hand. When under-resourced schools, particularly those in inner cities serving low-income and minority populations, struggle to meet the standards forced on them by the state, politicians point to this as evidence of the failure of public schools to educate America’s youth and offer privatization as the only logical remedy. In contrast, true reform would increase funding to America’s most vulnerable public schools in order to reduce class sizes, retain essential support staff and attract the most effective teachers. Rather than allow bureaucrats and businesspeople to draft standards and design curricula and assessments, true reform would place teachers, parents and community members at the center of the decision making process. Finally, true educational reform aimed at closing the achievement gap would address the basic, underlying causes of this schism in American schools. Reformers would focus on closing, for example, the poverty gap, or the health care gap, or the nutrition gap, or the gender gap, or the myriad other socioeconomic related gaps which, when taken together, account for the overwhelming disparity of academic achievement in the U.S.

Posted in Education | Leave a comment