Quick Roundup 310

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.

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]
What better symbol could there be of the failure of state-run education, right?

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]

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.

Thus, I refuse to "rearrange deckchairs on the Titantic" when there are icebergs out there.
He's got just a couple of posts up so far, but I can't wait to read more!

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.

"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]
... but my advice would be: "Do not attempt this -- unless your name happens to be 'William Faulkner'!"

-- CAV


Brad Harper said...

"Titanic Deck Chairs" reminds me of a phrase I enjoy using - "Shingle Arguments"...

Most of the political discourse (Hell, most of any discourse for that matter) we encounter is debating aspects of the *shingles* on a house that either doesn't exist, or should've never been built.

See the issues (apparently) pertinent in our current presidential debate for examples.

Gus Van Horn said...

That's a good turn of phrase, as well.

I have found that over the course of blogging, my political opinions have become much better developed than they were before I ever started -- and my patience for discussing politics with most people much shorter for that very reason.

C. August said...

Thanks Gus, I'm honored. I'm also a bit daunted at the prospect of keeping this thing going on a regular basis. A whopping week (or less) into it, and I've still got ideas to write about. We'll see what happens when the first serious case of writer's block hits...

Gus Van Horn said...

That's what photos of your home projects are for! Hint, hint!

Joseph Kellard said...

“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.”

It is absurd to write that there is a “prejudice” against public education. Its centuries-long existence, but particularly over the 20th century, has given us all plenty of time and evidence to judge it accordingly and accurately as a failure.

Gus Van Horn said...

You are quite right.

To be charitable, there is a legitimate point in not being too eager to take something that is not evidence of one's point as evidence, but, yes: It is silly to dismiss non-support of public education as a "prejudice". Thanks for making that point explicit.

Dutch said...

hi. your parsing of that sentence actually makes you look sloppy and therefore suspect, as well, if you consider that I was actually referring to a slew of websites that picked up this story long before marginal revolution (who was pretty late to the game, coming two months after boingboing, fark, metafilter, digg, and reddit sent 200,000+ to the photo, including all the typical wackos you'd expect). After I saw what was being said about the photo on hundreds of tiny blogs last January, I went back and looked into what really happened at the book depository. When Reason magazine requested use of my photography for a piece they wanted to include in their print magazine, purportedly to illustrate their preexisting theories about public education, I "educated" one of reason's editors about the building's history and they decided to kill the story. a month or so later, marginal revolution picked it up. honestly, I don't even care what political schism MR falls under. I certainly was not equating whatever ideology it is that they or you hold dear with libertarianism or racism or whatever. I am not a political blogger and all this wonkism bores me to tears. it actually pains me to have to defend myself like this. all I cared about was making sure that anyone who wanted to use my photography as evidence for whatever ideology they follow understood that there was more to the story than their cherrypicking blog posts told.

I never expected my original blog post to be scrutinized by the "friends of capitalism." Do you guys have a comic book? You should. I have a small audience of 4-5,000 daily readers who come to my site to read personal stories. This was a meditation on the shocking scene I found after wandering into that warehouse and how it related to my experience living in downtown Detroit. To a certain extent, the photography speaks for itself, but I found a lot of bloggers with their own agendas offering plenty of ventriloquism. when I noted how many were reveling in my photos as fuel for their hostility towards blacks, Detroit, public school administrators, teachers, unions, democrats, and more, I simply thought it was prudent to point out that the reason these books supplies actually ended up this way is because a private insurance company would not allow the school system to salvage supplies it had already been compensated for, and a prominent businessman with a monopoly on the busiest border crossing to Canada bought the building and allowed it to fall into ruin simply because owning the property ensured his monopoly would continue.

again, I subscribe to no militant political ideology. I just felt that if anyone was going to use my photography in such a way, I had an obligation to explain what by then I knew to be true.

Gus Van Horn said...

I decided to blog on the larger point this episode demonstrated regarding intellectual activism rather than dwell on how insulting this "Dutch" comes across or speculating on the motives for his posting said innuendo-laden "meditation", and I am not going to waste my time doing any of this now. I will leave this as an exercise for the interested reader. The comment immediately preceding is an excellent place to start.