Monday, March 10, 2008
When a Symbol Isn't a Symbol
Seeing parts of my childhood home town quickly succumb to urban decay, I have developed a morbid fascination with the decline of Detroit, which I indulge from time to time through the Internet.
Needless to say, I found the following image and commentary (via Marginal Revolution) highly compelling at first glance. This is what the book depository of the Detroit public school system looks like, after many years of neglect.
This is a building where our deeply-troubled public school system once stored its supplies, and then one day apparently walked away from it all, allowing everything to go to waste. The interior has been ravaged by fires and the supplies that haven't burned have been subjected to 20 years of Michigan weather. To walk around this building transcends the sort of typical ruin-fetishism and "sadness" some get from a beautiful abandoned building. This city's school district is so impoverished that students are not allowed to take their textbooks home to do homework, and many of its administrators are so corrupt that every few months the newspapers have a field day with their scandals, sweetheart-deals, and expensive trips made at the expense of a population of children who can no longer rely on a public education to help lift them from the cycle of violence and poverty that has made Detroit the most dangerous city in America. To walk through this ruin, more than any other, I think, is to obliquely experience the real tragedy of this city; not some sentimental tragedy of brick and plaster, but one of people.What better symbol could there be of the failure of state-run education, right?
Pallet after pallet of mid-1980s Houghton-Mifflin textbooks, still unwrapped in their original packaging, seem more telling of our failures than any vacant edifice. The floor is littered with flash cards, workbooks, art paper, pencils, scissors, maps, deflated footballs and frozen tennis balls, reel-to-reel tapes. Almost anything you can think of used in the education of a child during the 1980s is there, much of it charred or rotted beyond recognition. Mushrooms thrive in the damp ashes of workbooks. Ailanthus altissima, the "ghetto palm" grows in a soil made by thousands of books that have burned, and in the pulp of rotted English Textbooks. Everything of any real value has been looted. All that's left is an overwhelming sense of knowledge unlearned and untapped potential. [bold added]
Wrong. The problem with this picture, so to speak, is that the fire happened before the supplies were abandoned. And yet, this obvious possibility and the commentator's use of the word "apparently" did not stop some "friends" of capitalism from picking up this soot-covered ball and running with it before further facts behind the history of this building came to light:
I have seen these photos and selections from my post appropriated by right-wing, racist, and libertarian bloggers to illustrate existing prejudices against black people, the city of Detroit, and the very idea of public education.Let's set aside, for the sake of argument, whether this passage is meant to lump advocates of capitalism together with white racists and Republicans (or equating us with libertarians), as so often happens.
Suffice it to say that even without such an unfortunate smear, such carelessness played right into the hands of someone who, after taking the moral high ground ceded to him, was apparently just as quick to blame this sad state of affairs on capitalism, through the convenient surrogate of the building's absentee landlord. ("[T]he free market capitalist is the bad guy here....", he claims in a comment at Marginal Revolution.)
There are, as that blogger later admits, "a million other ways to go after the detroit [sic] public schools", (not to mention "the very idea of public education"), but this is indeed not one of them. A picture is not merely not an argument. It can, through carelessness, be made worth a thousand words to one's intellectual opponents! In fact, even if the original commentator had said nothing beyond elaborating on the circumstances behind the ruin he blogged, anyone who held it up as an example of the failure of public education would have undercut his position.
Such carelessness makes one look sloppy, and therefore, one's position look suspect.
Sowell on Writing
I can't believe I took so long to think of seeing whether Thomas Sowell (who is one of my favorite writers on economics) has a web page, but he does, and I learned when I found it that he has posted some interesting and entertaining thoughts on writing.
It's long, but worthwhile. He offers me and my fellow aspiring writers his condolences and some good advice -- and copy editors a thrashing!
From time to time, I get a letter from some aspiring young writer, asking about how to write or how to get published. My usual response is that the only way I know to become a good writer is to be a bad writer and keep on improving. However, even after you reach the point where you are writing well—and that can take many years—the battle is not over. There are still publishers to contend with. Then there are editors and, worst of all, copy-editors. [bold added]Enjoy!
I like the name!
C. August, who recently left a comment here, has started his own blog, and has named it Titanic Deck Chairs:
What's with the "Titanic Deck Chairs" thing? Hopefully it's pretty obvious, but here's the thumbnail sketch. I hate talking about trivial crap. Sure, I may talk about working on my house or something, but when it comes to Ideas, I can't be bothered to discuss the surface issues at any great length. The only thing I get fired up about is digging to the heart of an issue and finding the fundamentals.He's got just a couple of posts up so far, but I can't wait to read more!
Thus, I refuse to "rearrange deckchairs on the Titantic" when there are icebergs out there.
My Favorite Faulkner Quote
There's something about the way he said this that I really enjoy....
He got the job of postmaster at the University of Mississippi ..., but his duties began to interfere with his writing. His letter of resignation to the Postmaster General is one of the brighter items on file in Washington.... but my advice would be: "Do not attempt this -- unless your name happens to be 'William Faulkner'!"
"As long as I live under the capitalistic system," he wrote, "I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation." [bold added]