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Clipped from Atlantic Online, this story references Alberto Gonzales’ sinister involvement in the March 2004 warrantless eavesdropping program even after the program was declared unlawful by then AG John Ashcroft, himself no constitutional bargain.The whole article is worth the time to read as it outlines the hubris of the Bush administration as they flaunt the law and the constitution for their own gain.

The bonus is that this administration has a mere 606 days left to spread its brand of authority. Of course, what I fear most, given the recent saber rattling at Iran, including sending a large Navy task force to the Persian Gulf to intimidate the Iranians into giving up their nuclear program. As Bush readies for one more military incursion in the Middle East we must ask how much more war can we take before we lose all that makes America the envy of the world? We are rapidly sliding down the path to isolation from the rest of the world, and to what purpose? The mythical enemy is not Osama Bin Laden, although I have no doubts that he is a really bad guy, rather, the enemy, as Pogo (the comic strip character central to the old Walt Kelly daily strip) once remarked “is us!”

clipped from www.theatlantic.com

E very day that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is allowed to remain in office is corrosive to constitutional governance and an invitation to further politicization of the Justice Department.

That is the main lesson of former Deputy Attorney General James Comey’s astonishing revelations on May 15 about Gonzales’s sinister involvement in a March 2004 effort to continue a then-secret warrantless eavesdropping program after it had been declared unlawful by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and his subordinates.
Meanwhile, the May 14 resignation of Paul McNulty, Comey’s successor as deputy attorney general, further depleted the ranks of principled professionals in the demoralized department, which Gonzales has been filling with inexperienced political hacks. In the words of Arlen Specter, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s senior Republican, as long as Gonzales is in charge, “it’s embarrassing for a professional to work for the Department of Justice.”

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Yesterday the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld the national ban on a midterm method of ending pregnancies sometimes referred to as partial birth abortion. The decision clears the way for states to pass new laws designed to discourage women from having abortions.

Of course President Bush could not keep silent on this one. In a statement issued by the White House, Bush welcomed the decision. “The Supreme Court’s decision is an affirmation of the progress we have made over the past six years in protecting human dignity and upholding the sanctity of life,” he said. “Today’s decision affirms that the Constitution does not stand in the way of the people’s representatives enacting laws reflecting the compassion and humanity of America.”

Somehow, Bush relates the notion of life to the sacred. But has Bush analyzed with any precision what sacred really means? We can look to the work of Giorgio Agamben (1998) as he writes about Homo Sacer (Sacred Life) in the following terms. The sacred is found in a double state of exception between the unpunishability of killing and the exclusion from sacrifice. Agamben’s analysis rests on a snippet from Pompeius Festus from the treatise On the Significance of Words in which Festus writes: The sacred man is the one whom the people have judged on account of a crime (this man has been excluded from the community). It is not permitted to sacrifice this man (to offer him up to the gods), yet he who kills him will not be condemned for homicide (he may be executed by the state without subjecting the executioner to the crime of murder). Agamben understands the sacred (sacer) then to take the form of this double exception both from the human and the divine sphere of influence, from the profane and the ‘religious’ spheres. The fact that sacrifice is taboo for homo sacer is another way of saying that what already belongs to the gods cannot be offered up to those very same gods and so is excluded from sacrificial consideration. At the same time, the homo sacer is included within the community as he/she takes the form of being able to be officially killed. “Life that cannot be sacrificed and yet may be killed is sacred life (Agamben. 1998, p. 82). Sovereignty lies at the crossroads of this double exception.

The sovereign sphere is the sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide and without celebrating a sacrifice, and sacred life–that is, life that may be killed but not sacrificed–is the life that has been captured in this sphere (Agamben, 1998, p. 83).

Bush trivializes the sacred when he speaks about upholding human dignity and the sanctity of life. What is really happening here is that the sovereign makes the choice to create an exception for women, to exclude women that opt for termination of pregnancy, to cause those women to become homo sacer. In the case of abortion, this amounts to a minority of religious zealots dictating policy while the rest of us stand by watching. What is being sacrificed here is precisely the sacred, that very quality Bush is so ready to protect. The Bush/Roberts court, by creating the exception that creates homo sacer effectively perpetrates a violence at the crossroads of the profane and the divine that is subtractive of both the profane and the divine.

Justice Ginsburg called the decision alarming. She argued as follows:

It “cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away
at a right declared again and again by this court,” she said.

She said this dispute was about how, not whether, abortions would be
performed during the second trimester. Despite Kennedy’s talk of
“promoting fetal life,” the ban on the procedure “targets only a method
of abortion,” she said. “The woman may abort the fetus, so long as her
doctor uses another method, one her doctor judges less safe for her.”

She also called the decision demeaning to women. It “pretends” to protect
them “by denying them any choice in the matter,” she said.

Justice Ginsburg, in referencing the court’s desire to “chip away” at Roe v. Wade scolds the majority for ignoring precedent of over 40 years. If we are a nation of laws, then precedent must rule. I seem to recall that the conservatives yell most loudly about activist courts that simply rewrite the law to suit their needs. It seems that the Bush/Roberts court is turning down the road of activism…but, of course, it is activism that the radical right agrees with so no hue and cry from them now.

Justice Ginsburg’s remarks could also be considered in the light of Agamben’s view of homo sacer. By denying women choice the court excludes women from the process, creating an exception that stands at the crossroads and, therefore, falls within the power of the sovereign to dictate. This is a disturbing development in the democratic experiment called the United States.

References

Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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I received a comment from someone who did not agree with my position. After some consideration I decided that I would delete the comment, not because of its content, but because of the language used to express disagreement. In two lines I counted five off-color comments. Rational debate has no room for language that is offensive, for name calling, or for displays of anger that are out of control. One of the great features of a blog is the ability to carry on reasonable discussions regarding many issues of interest to the blogger. This blog is no exception to that idea. My concern here is not that someone disagrees with my position; I do not nor can I claim a lock on any knowledge. Rather, my quarrel is with the tone and tenor of the comment itself. Rather than dispute ideas, the commenter resorted to name calling and foul language that has no place in civilized discussion. I will delete comments like this one every time I see one. I will never delete a comment that engages in an exchange of ideas.

Giorgio Agamben (1998) makes the point that modern democratic societies run the risk of decaying into totalitarian states when the subjective self confuses itself with the objective whole thereby granting to the sovereign all power, even full power over death. The comment I received was from an individual who, in his (or her) anger, could no longer engage in rational debate; he (or she) could no longer recognize that a difference of political opinion in a democratic state must not lead to responses embedded in anger, rather that they ought to be open to the light of day for all to respond. When anger wins out Agamben’s point appears in full force–the totalitarian state is here as we are expected to submit to the will of the dictator, in this case, George W. Bush. Granting the sovereign maximum power outside of debate and with no accountability is nothing more than objective submission to totalitarianism, something a democracy cannot tolerate.

I struggled with deleting this particular comment, the first time I have ever done so, because I believe in the power of rational debate, discussion and the inevitable disagreements that flow from these debates. The fact is, however, that I have chosen to approve comments as a form of censorship of abusive, crude, or foul language; language that has no place in thoughtful debate or discussion. I doubt if the commenter is a regular reader of this blog, but if he is I invite him to resubmit his comment without the language problems that prompted my deletion. Make your point, make it clear and let’s have at it and see what ideas prevail in the end.

References

Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.). Sanford, CA: Sanford University Press.

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Is there a significant difference in making an ontological statement and an epistemological statement. Susan Buck-Morss (2003) presents the following examples of the problem raised. Consider the following statements:

  1. Because the United States does not violate human rights, it is a civilized nation.
  2. Because the United States is a civilized nation, it does not violate human rights.

Statement 1. is an epistemological description allowing for critical judgments about relative truth or falsity. Statement 2. on the other hand, is an ontological description establishing by definition the fact that the United States is civilized. This is not a judgment but, rather, a statement of truth. There is no room for judgment in the predicate because civilized nations do not violate human rights. Since, as a matter of fact, the US is defined as civilized, anything it does is, therefore, the act of a civilized nation.

The epistemological opens the door to critical debate. Stated in another way, Because the US does (or does not) violate human rights, it is not (or is) a civilized nation. Here the relative truth values can be weighed, discussed, debated, or otherwise set to a test to determine the truth or falsity of the statement or its converse or any shaded, nuanced levels in between. Not so with the ontological. The ontological statement is one meant to justify a position, to close, even usurp, debate. By defining the conditions of being as a fact, there is no possibility of refutation. To do so is to be unpatriotic.

The US is not the only nation or group to engage in ontological justification. Here are a few other examples of ontological statements that are meant at their core to justify behavior without substantive debate or discussion :

  1. As a Muslim my struggle is Jihad, a holy struggle; therefore whatever violence I employ must also be holy.
  2. Imperialism is undemocratic however, Israel is a democracy; therefore Israeli occupation of Palestine is not imperialistic but a defense of democracy.
  3. Because I am an American (Iraqi, Israeli, Egyptian, _____________) I am prepared to die for my country (religion, ethnicity, gender, _____________). You can fill in the blanks for whatever requires an ontological justification.

While the change from epistemological to ontological appears to be small—a mere shifting of the subject and predicate of a statement—the result is one that is open to or closed to critical thinking and debate.

My point here is really quite simple. Reasoned discussion always stems from knowing and not from being. Ontological statements define being in terms of a truth statement that is not subject to debate while epistemological statements embrace notions of debate, the weight of evidence, and otherwise thinking about interests being served. Ontological debate is, and can only be, a shouting match. Perhaps it is time to stop shouting.

References

Buck-Morss, S. (2003). Thinking past terror: Islamism and critical theory on the left. London, UK: Verso.

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In a stunning article in Educational Theory, Tyson E. Lewis (2006) argues that contemporary schooling in the United States, through policies of zero-tolerance, lockdown, and No Child Left Behind policies, separates and isolates students from the body politic by creating ambiguities that emerge from the complexities of disciplinary procedures and high-stakes assessment policies prevalent in inner-city schools that serve low-income, minority students. Lewis relies on arguments made by Italian political philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, and Critical Theorist, Theodor Adorno to make his case.

According to Lewis, Adorno makes the case that schooling creates the precondition for fascism to take hold due primarily to the undemocratic nature of the classroom. In Western education the classroom is often understood as a place of discipline and punishment, of separation and separating, of execution and executioner that is implicit in the student-teacher dialectic of power and passivity. School is not understood, in the main, as a place for developing autonomy, critical decision making, or self- and communal-response-ability; this in spite of rhetoric to the contrary. Lewis seems to understand the difference between language and the Real (Žižek, 2002).

Agamben, according to Lewis, presents a case for the Nazi death camp as the paradigmatic case of the creation of exceptional space, space removed from the principal political space of the community yet existing within that space without visibility or recognition. This form of exceptional space extends to many institutions found in the Western idea of Global Capitalism such as airports, hospitals, and credit bureaus. Lewis argues convincingly that schools must be included in this exceptionality as well. When such exceptional space is created “life is held in suspension, neither inside nor outside the polis, neither fully alive or dead. Stated differently, life is made to survive in legal limbo” (Lewis, 2006, p 161). Schools, create space that is inherently undemocratic. Student’s lives are suspended while dependent upon the whims and fancies of outsiders, political and administrative demands, that place their lives in suspension where survival in legal limbo is, perhaps, all that can be expected.

What is destroyed in the process is not dignity, rather it is control or the illusion of control. When placed in survival mode, life is reduced to the bare necessities, to what Agamben (1998) has labeled homo sacer, literally, sacred life, but in Agamben’s terms is defined more metaphorically as bare life. In the paradigmatic exceptional space, the Nazi Death Camps, homo sacer collides with the ordinary citizen, one surviving in limbo, outside of the borders of the political system and one entrenched within the borders of that system; one powerless, the other holding the key to ultimate power—life and death.

The United States is not exempt from creating borderless states of isolation. Native American people have lived in isolation on reservations for a hundred years or so, isolated as sovereign nations within a sovereign nation, a euphemism that is intended to hide the source of Real power. During World War II, Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps, isolated in the California desert and the Great Basin where they could be separated from Real Americans. More recently, the detention camp at Guantanamo place the lives of enemy combatants in limbo under the watchful eye of the military. Each of these instances, including the paradigmatic case, fall into what Agamben (1998) calls biopolitics.

Lewis extends this argument to schools, labeling the activity of schools and schooling as biopedagogy. Students are placed in a position of being homo sacer in the sense that because they are subject to nothing but external rules, to not being able participants in the decisions that directly and indirectly impact their lives, schools are places where students necessarily collide with those that choose to control them. Schools isolate, separate, and punish sometimes just because they can. The real tragedy is that this all appears to be normal to the rest of us.

 References

Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.). Sanford, CA: Sanford University Press.

Lewis, T. E. (2006). The school as an exceptional space: Rethinking education from the perspective of the biopedagogical. Educational Theory, 56(2), 159-176.

Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real: Five essays on September 11 and related dates. London: Verso.

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Slavoj Žižek (2002) writes, “The problem with the twentieth-century ‘passion for the Real’ was not that was a passion for the Real, but that it was a fake passion whose ruthless pursuit of the Real behind appearances was the ultimate stratagem to avoid confronting the Real.  Žižek is, in part, referring to notions of tensions between universals and particulars that often are distinguished through the use of coded language. 

This is especially true as the debate surrounding No Child Left Behind begins to take on steam.  Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings (2007), writes, “The No Child Left Behind Act has evolved from idea to law to a way of life. It’s the foundation upon which we must build, and the time to act is now.”  Spellings, by her argument that NCLB has evolved into a “way of life” codes NCLB as the Real yet she ultimately fails to confront the Real in the sense that she fails to respond to the critics of NCLB. 

In the same document Spellings goes on to point out how to build on the stunning accomplishments already achieved under NCLB.  She writes that we must now:

  • Strengthen efforts to close the achievement gap through high standards, accountability, and more options for parents.
  • Give states flexibility to better measure individual student progress, target resources to students most in need, and improve assessments for students with disabilities and limited English proficiency.
  • Prepare high school students for success by promoting rigorous and advanced coursework and providing new resources for schools serving low-income students.
  • Provide greater resources for teachers to further close the achievement gap through improved math and science instruction, intensive aid for struggling students, continuation of Reading First, and rewards for great progress in challenging environments.
  • Offer additional tools to help local educators turn around chronically underperforming schools and empower parents with information and options.

But wait, I am confused.  Each of the points Spellings makes is formulated in the negative and often oppositionally.  She speaks of “achievement gaps” and “high standards” in the same breath.  She wants to target individual students in order to develop universal achievement among the disabled and limited English speaking students.  She wants more rigorous and advanced high school coursework seemingly by providing new resources for low-income schools (where the “achievement gap” is the greatest).  She wants to provide more resources for teachers to close (oh my, here it is again) the “achievement gap” along side intensive aid for struggling students.  And finally, not to be outdone, she wants to help local educators turn around local “chronically underperforming schools” presumably by informing parents and giving parents greater options for their children.  So how is any of this different from the Real of the current iteration of NCLB? 

Spellings vigorously, but not rigorously, condemns schools, schooling, teaching and learning using language that alludes to underperforming schools, achievement gaps, and creating challenging contexts for learning.  Her claim is designed to spark disgust in the minds of those whose children “perform” at appropriate levels.  The problem here is that what is appropriate is and remains unclear.  The language used by Spellings is a language of blame, of pointing fingers at the victim which has a two-fold effect.  It removes blame from the dominant majority.  It is not their fault that some students underachieve.  Perhaps it is their low-income status, their disabilities, or their failure to master the English language.  Secondly, it fails to address the underlying social problems that lead to poverty, to alienation, and to resistance in school of working class and welfare class students.  But, gosh, most of us are off the hook.  Rhetoric alone will never fix the problem.

NCLB is something like coffee without caffeine, a simulacrum of the Real without the malignancy (Žižek, 2002, 2003).  NCLB is the perfect stratagem for the avoidance of confronting the Real.

References 

Spellings, M. (2007). Building On Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening the No Child Left Behind Act. Retrieved March 27, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/nclb/factsheets/blueprint.html

Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real. London, UK: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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I want to focus on the regulation or regulatory function of the American academic standards movement. It is precisely the regulatory function of that movement that requires closure, the encapsulation of the model itself. In this short piece, I want to examine the connected concepts of standards-driven instruction and data-driven instruction in American public schools. In a nutshell, data-driven instruction derives its power from the larger concept of standards-driven instruction. Both, however, miss the essential point that instruction must be less about technical complicity and more about knowing and knowledge.

A current sub-discourse of the American standards movement calls for the implementation of standards-driven or standards-based instruction. What is really meant by this language? What standards is one speaking of? How shall one implement those standards in the classroom? What standards are really important and why? Marzano & Kendall (1998) asked the question, what if all national standards that have currently been adopted by discipline specific professional organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies or the National Science Teachers Association or the National Council of Teachers of English, were taught in public schools beginning in kindergarten and continued to be taught until a student graduated from high school—how much time would it take to complete one’s pre-college education? Using a quite liberal formula for teaching and reteaching every standard and assuring a reasonable degree of mastery of each standard, and using the typical formula of a 180 day school year and a 6.5 hour school day they found that a student entering kindergarten at age 5 would finally be ready to graduate high school at the end of grade 22—ten full years after the normal grade 12. Given this analysis, students would not be ready for college until they were 28 years old. Marzano and Kendall did not even consider state standards or locally adopted standards as a part of their analysis. What is clear to me is that the obsession with standards has led to an insistence on quantity rather than on quality in education. One must consider that there are many ways to address quality education, only one of which is to obsess over the quantity of what one learns.

When quantity is the issue one finds multiple stories of abuse of the system. Emphasis on quantity leads to erratic implementation of and/or assessment of educational progress. An example seems to be in order here. In around 2002 in Illinois, where I live and work, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) decided that they would no longer test writing in the state assessment, the ISAT. The resulting message schools received was to effectively eliminate writing from the curriculum in grades k-12. This action came because No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements focused on the technocracy of reading and math. Writing was, therefore, legislated out of the literacy mix. In 2005 the ISBE announced that writing would return to the ISAT in 2006 and 2007 being phased back in over the two year period. The problem, however, became one of what would be tested rather than how to teach good writing. Teachers began asking, “What did they want on the test?” The clear implication was if what they (whoever ‘they’ might be) wanted was known then students could be drilled into compliance with the assessment and scores might actually rise.

My concern here is that when technocracy is substituted for learning the result is not education, rather the simulacrum of education. When it is more important to know what they want then writing does not re-present thinking, quite the contrary, in merely repeats a mindless formulaic approach to putting pencil to paper conforming to whatever is currently in vogue, whatever those in power determine, in this case, corresponds to appropriate writing. Instruction under these circumstances might be better classified as training, something we do to dogs, seals and dancing bears for purposes of human entertainment. Such instruction is not open to surprise, mystery, or wonder. It is not open to anticipation of something to come, of the absolute other. It is not open to ideas, thoughts, or innovation. It is efficient, predictable, and produces expected results. The technocrats behind the standards movement rely on regulation to insure the possible, to conserve what never was and to block everything that could be anticipated.

References

Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (1998). Awash in a sea of standards. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.

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