Thursday, January 24, 2008

Maybe these guys are as dumb as they sound

How can you tell Mitt Romney is lying? He's moving his lips.

The dumbest statement in tonight's Republican debate came from the empty suit who once ran Massachusetts. He was asked about the war in Iraq and he said that we needed to stay because we can't let Al Queda take over the country. Either Romney is deliberately dishonest or he's as hopelessly ignorant of the world as George W. Bush.

Al Queda is a Sunni organization. They regard Shiites, who are the clear majority in Iraq, as heretics. Al Queda Mesopotamia, as they designate themselves, has even alienated their presumed Sunni allies, who were disgusted by their tactics of random, horrific bloodshed. Al Queda is in no more of a position to take over Iraq than Luxemburg. Remember that in 2000 we elected –- sorry, the Supreme Court elected –- a president who couldn’t name the leader of Pakistan.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Call it the Hysteria Channel

Well, it looks like the continuing embarrassment that is the History Channel is marking Martin Luther King Day with marathon showings of "Monster Quest" instead of their usual informative documentaries on Nostradamus, real-life vampires and how Lyndon Johnson ordered a hit on JFK. Now I mourn all those years wasted getting a Ph.D. and reading scholarly works when all I needed to be a historian was to pick up a copy of the "National Enquirer."


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Black Like Me

Bill Clinton has long been referred to as our “first black president.” As the campaign wears on, he seems to be undergoing a change of pigment.

I don’t think for a moment that Bill and Hillary Clinton are racists, in the sense that they believe that black people are innately inferior in intelligence and character. They are, however, guilty of the related sin of paternalism.

This attitude surfaced before Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate LBJ-MLK comparison to herself and Senator Barack Obama. Last year, Clinton made an absolutely cringe-worthy speech in which she clumsily tried to mimic the cadences of a black preacher. Al Jolson was a more convincing African American. The performance reminded me a bit of the Lenny Bruce routine, "How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties."

If Clinton herself is not racist, however,, there is an ugly, bigoted undertone to the comments of Clinton surrogates like Andrew Cuomo, who referred to Obama’s political style as “shuck and jive,” or the suggestion by Clinton backer Bill Shaheen that Obama may have dealt drugs in the past, or the comments of an anonymous Clinton campaign staffer who said, " If you have a social need, you're with Hillary. If you want Obama to be your imaginary hip black friend and you're young and you have no social needs, then he's cool."

It can’t be said enough, Clinton and her husband’s chief sin is that they seems to buy into the white master narrative of history in which Caucasians are always the chief actors, while people of color (to use a clumsy phrase) are on the margins, acted on and lead by those blessed with less melanin.

Make no mistake about it, Clinton’s recent comments angered many African Americans. This past weekend I participated in a panel as part of the “381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story” exhibit at the Dallas African American Museum. The room was filled with pioneers in the Dallas Civil Rights Movement, including Pete Johnson who was friends with Martin Luther King, Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy and the other leaders of the freedom campaign. Johnson was actually supposed to be in the car with Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman one lethal night in 1964 and thus narrowly missed being murdered by racist policemen and their Klan allies. Pete Johnson, however, did get beaten on the head during a civil rights march, hard enough to put him in a coma.

These revolutionaries bear the scars of the struggle on their bodies. Johnson, former Dallas City Council member Diane Ragsdale and others who fought the civil rights battle in the streets shared one sentiment: white politicians paid no attention to segregation and black poverty and oppression until they were forced to by brave, protesting African American men, women and children.

“We forced Johnson to [pass the Voting Rights Act].” I overheard Ragsdale say. As I said in a previous post, I don’t completely agree with that. I think LBJ deserves some credit for his legislative role in ending Jim Crow and making real the right to vote in the South. But to make him the central figure in the greatest domestic drama in 20th century America is absurd and shortchanges the courage of the civil rights protestors, as well as diminishes their achievements.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Attend A Tale of Sweeney Todd

Perhaps the smartest stage musical ever, and the most emotionally complex, “Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” reached American movie screens this Christmas season, 28 years after it first appeared on Broadway. “Sweeney Todd” put off many theater-goers in 1979. Pun intended, much of the production is hard to swallow. Sondheim wrote a musical score at times replicating the harsh factory whistles that rent the air of Industrial Age London. The effect can be both engrossing and unnevering. Sondheim’s lyrics and the characters who sing them, show great wit and clever wordplay, but the tone is not one of levity but of gallows humor most grim.

Director Tim Burton’s films waver from the brilliant (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) to the cheesy (“Mars Attacks!) “Sweeney” marks Burton at his best. Few directors match Burton’s ability to use visual landscapes as central characters in the plot. Sweeney Todd and his partner in murder and cannibalism, Mrs. Lovett, may be sociopaths but grimy, gray, factory-besotted London, serves as the real monster in this story.

In Burton’s production design, London appears as a place where the sun never shines, human faces are pale and haunted and all surfaces are coated with soot and gore. From the grisly opening credits to the poignant, if sanguine, tribute to Michelangelo’s “Pieta” that concludes the film, Burton’s visualization of the stage musical provokes both awe and dread.

Of course, there is no more versatile and engaging actor than Johnny Depp, who plays the title character. Some have faulted Depp for striking one note, one of simmering rage, from the opening scene on. In fact, Depp deftlyc aptures the fatal flaw shared by almost all of the principles in this tale – obsessive compulsion.

The London barber Benjamin Barker returns to London after being falsely charged and convicted of a crime by the cruel and lustful Judge Turpin, who seeks to sexually conquer Barker’s wife Lucy. Sentenced to a life sentence, Barker ends up in an island prison for 15 years while Turpin tricks Lucy into visiting his home during a costume party. The always moralizing Turpin publicly rapes her. After Lucy goes mad, Turpin completes his crime by seizing custody of the Barkers’ daughter, Johanna. Turpin raises Johanna as his daughter. However, the publicly pious judge, who holds an extensive collection of pornography in his library, suffers from violent sexual compulsions, and soon decides he will marry the young girl.

One of the few mistakes made in this film is the deletion of a scene in the stage play where Turpin, overwhelmed with shame for his pedophiliac fixations, flogs himself as he cries, “Mea culpa, mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.” This moment suggests a more complex villain, one whose stunted conscience still wracks him with guilt over his unnatural affections. In the movie, Alan Rickman shines as Judge Turpin, but the character is static and filled with uncomplicated villainy.

If Turpin sexually fixates on Lucy and then Johanna, then Barker/Todd obsesses on vengeance against the judge. Barker is told that Lucy was raped and died after she took poison. Renaming himself Sweeney Todd to conceal his identity, he goes on a killing spree. His erstwhile collaborator Mrs. Lovett (played on stage by Angela Lansbury but in the movie by talented and beautiful Helena Bonham Carter) also feels compelled by irresistible drives. She can think of nothing but her desire to win Benjamin Barker’s affections. Meanwhile, these killers are surrounded by a world relentlessly centered on power and money, whatever the cost. Free will exists nowhere in this tragic universe. In "Sweeney,” characters are imprisoned by their desires and are destined to find no relief.

Hence, Depp smolders from the opening scene to the final curtain and the effect is not tedious but riveting. When Barker first sets back in London, the soon-to-be murderer surveys this graveyard-turned-metropolis and spits out this verbal blast at full-tilt speed:

There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world
Inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth
What a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London.

At the top of the hole
Sit the privileged few,
Making mock of the vermin
In the lower zoo,
Turning beauty into filth and greed.

This is a cry of the hopelessly alienated, of those who feel so wronged by society that empathy with the rest of the human race evaporates and any kind of retribution represents justice. Sweeney Todd becomes the voice of wounded and aggrieved murderers who have become all too familiar in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, from University of Texas sniper Charles Joseph Whitman to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, to the legions of Middle Eastern suicide bombers. This age seems to mass produce spree killers with the rapidity we manufacture bombs. A world dominated by predatory corporations, to whom people are mere commodities, has fractured society, locking all in a homicidal, zero-sum game.

After being cornered into committing his first murder, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett stumble upon a grotesque means to dispose of the corpse. Lovett, who sells what she admits are “the worst pies in London” (at a storefont below Sweeney’s barbershop) notes how hard it is to get quality meat. She observes that a rival’s business is booming at same time the cats in the neighborhood are mysteriously disappearing. “Mrs. Mooney and her pie shop/Business never better, using only pussycats and toast/and a pussy's good for maybe six or seven at the most,” Lovett laments. Todd, meanwhile, has already declared his desire to not simply avenge himself against Turpin but against the entire loveless and irredeemably evil world. The always scheming Lovett suddenly imagines how Todd’s blood lust can be satisfied at the same time she gets access to free meat. Lovett suggests that Todd’s victims serve as meat pie filling. What follows is the most delightfully pun-filled and dark number, “A Little Priest.” Filled with affection for the amoral schemer Lovett, Todd imagines their bloodstained future together:

The history of the world, my love
is those below serving those up above.
How gratifying for once to know
that those above will serve those down below!

. . . Have charity toward the world, my pet.
We'll take the customers what we can get.
We'll not discriminate great from small
No, we'll serve anyone —
Meaning anyone —
And to anyone
At all!

Cannibalism serves as a grand metaphor for 19th century capitalism. Watching Lovett grind Sweeney’s customers into that day’s menu items, it is hard to not think of Halliburton, Blackwater and the other callous war profiteers in Iraq or the modern sweatshop operators like the Nike Corporation. If caught, Sweeney Todd’s murders would send him to the gallows because his method of killing is so intimate. Yet, corporations who greedily consume the lives of their workers somehow get a free pass because they kill, to paraphrase Woody Guthrie, with a fountain pen.

Depp’s supporting cast is remarkable. Helena Bonham Carter provides the most subtle and poignant moment of acting in the movie as she tries to reassure a young boy, Toby, who has come under Lovett’s and Todd’s care. She realizes that Toby, smitten by Lovett, suspects Todd is involved in some evil scheme. Bonham’s face captures the fierce contradictions of Mrs. Lovett, who dreams of a conventional domestic life with Todd and a quasi-adopted son she feels affection for, and the brutal need to avoid discovery of the pie shop’s horrible secrets. Bonham’s heart-wrenching performance accomplishes the almost impossible: making a calculating serial killer a figure to mourn for and pity. Sacha Baron Cohen, meanwhile, is hilarious as Adolfo Pirelli the barber, Alan Rickman again makes a compelling villain. Remarkably, with such a talented cast, Ed Sanders turns in perhaps the strongest performance as the youthful and abused Toby.

Sweeney Todd takes risks and assumes its audience is sharp. Audiences should return Burton’s generosity by embracing this film as both social criticism and high art.

I should note one other interesting, well-acted film, “Charlie Wilson’s War.” This based-on-a-true-story movies tells the story of a boozing, womanizing East Texas congressman who gets gripped by the plight of Afghan refugees and persuades the Congress to generously back Mujahideen insurgents fighting Soviet forces that invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Tom Hanks is charming, Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in another Oscar-worthy performance, and Julia Roberts reveals a harder edge in this tale of CIA blowback. Again, like “Sweeney Todd,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” doesn’t talk down to its audience and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (of “The West Wing” fame) assumes that the audience knows, or knows how to find ou, about the numerous names dropped -- Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Rudolph Giuliani, John Murtha, etc. – throughout the screenplay. This makes one omission in the film offensive.

Hoffman’s character, gruff CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, near the end of the movie, refers darkly to the “crazies” who are taking over Afghanistan as the Soviets retreat in the late 1980s. Those “crazies” are never identified. Hopefully, most of the audience knows that the reference is to the Taliban, who were beneficiaries of the largesse showered by President Reagan and Charlie Wilson during the Afghan War. More specifically, Osama bin Ladin received aid and training from the CIA during this period. The movie ends, however, before we see the tragic consequences for America of Charlie Wilson’s crusade.

Such a well-performed and well-written film should not have pulled its punches. Sorkin’s script, as filmed by veteran director Mike Nichol,s avoids the moral of the story: the follies of American interventionism and the foreign policy ethic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” “Charlie Wilson’s War” is still well worth watching, but a moment of cowardice diminishes the production.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A day late and a dollar short

John Kerry decides to endorse Barack Obama after the primary in New Hampshire, where such an endorsement might have pulled votes Obama's way (the senator from neighboring Massachusetts won the New Hampshire primary in 2004.) I don't expect that the dull, rambling, verbose Yankee is going to have much influence in voting in South Carolina, except maybe among the key undertaker constituency.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

And then again . . .

I forgot that the Democrats are the political equivalent of Jim Jones' People's Temple. Kool Aid, anyone?


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Random Thoughts Hours Before the New Hampshire Primary

We have officially reached the low point of the presidential campaign.

It's been bad enough that under seven years of Bush and Cheney, we've had the president and vice president intentionally manipulate the fear of another 9-11 within America. The White House has cynically ratcheted up dire warnings and tweaked the color coded terrorism alert status to coincide with Republican political needs.

In the last week, as her poll numbers slid, we saw Hillary Clinton, aided and abetted by the media, resort to fear-mongering as well. It started with this weekend's Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire hosted by ABC television. "Good Morning America" anchor Charlie Gibson didn't want to open with a question about the subprime lending crisis, or the continued deterioration of middle class living standards, or the number of Americans without health insurance, or global warming. Gibson went apocalyptic from the get-go.

"[T]he central [question] in my mind is nuclear terrorism," Gibson grimly announced. "The next president of the United States may have to deal with a nuclear attack on an American city. I've read a lot about this in recent days. The best nuclear experts in the world say there's a 30 percent chance in the next 10 years. Some estimates are higher. Graham Allison, at Harvard, says it's over 50 percent."

Whenever experts give odds like this, I always ask what are the numbers are based on. The CIA clearly has been clueless about the activities of Al Queda, in part because we have few or no "human assets" within that loosely organized network. Putting together a nuclear bomb requires expertise, an infrastructure, access to materials, and discreet locations for testing. Once the device is tested, we would know a blast had gone off. It is hard to imagine that any terrorist group can, in the next 10 years, pull together all the prerequisites needed for constructing a bomb, sneaking it into the United States without detection, and successfully setting it off, when sovereign nations like Iran and North Korea have been unable to develop nuclear arms, even without the difficulties faced by Al Queda. Statements like Gibson's sound authoritative, but he owes an explanation for the methodology behind the question's premise.

A few days later, Hillary herself invoked fear of a nuclear attack in order to resuscitate her failing presidential bid. During a campaign stop, she observed that the day after Gordon Brown assumed the post of British prime minister, terrorists were foiled in an attempted double bombing in London and Glasgow.

“I don’t think it was by accident that Al Qaeda decided to test the new prime minister,” Clinton said. “They watch our elections as closely as we do, maybe more closely than some of our fellows citizens do…. Let’s not forget you’re hiring a president not just to do what a candidate says during the election, you want a president to be there when the chips are down.” In other words, don't be surprised if there's a mushroom cloud over an American city if an inexperienced Barack Obama gets sworn in as Commander-in-Chief.

It gets worse. Hillary compared herself to Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama to Martin Luther King in a way that demeaned both the senator from Illinois and the slain civil rights leader. "False Hopes," Hillary said. "Dr King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking out over the magnificent crowd, the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument, sorry guys, false hopes, the dream will die, it can't be done, false hope, we don't need leaders who tell us what we can't do, we need leaders to tell us what we can do and inspire us."

"I would, and I would point to the fact that that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the President before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became a real in peoples lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished."

Senator Clinton suggests that King's agenda depended mostly on the patronage of a powerful white politician. Granted, Lyndon Johnson overcame his Texas upbringing and showed ac remarkable commitment to equal opportunity for all even as a school teacher and a New Deal aparatchnik in Texas. Johnson does not get nearly the credit than he deserves for advancing the civil rights cause and accepting the political penalty that came with that advocacy. Nevertheless, it was men like Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, and A. Philip Randolph who made black civil rights the foremost issue in American domestic politics in the 1950s and 1960s. To portray King as an impractical dreamer who would have failed unless some benevolent Caucasian rescued him simply echoes a racist tradition of seeing whites as the sole important actors in history.

The last week before the New Hampshire primary ended with Bill Clinton, stumping for his wife in a continuing act of penance, delivering this angry shot across the bow regarding Obama's position on the Iraq War vs. Hillary's.

"It is wrong that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment and how he had been against the war in every year, enumerating the years, and never got asked one time, not once, 'Well, how could you say that when you said in 2004 you didn't know how you would have voted on the resolution? You said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war," Clinton said during a campaign speech in Hanover.. "And you took that speech you're now running on off your Web site in 2004. And there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since."

First of all, it is funny, in a sad and pathetic way, to hear the former president criticize Obama for being inconsistent. Back in late November, Clinton made this claim:

"Even though I approved of Afghanistan and opposed Iraq from the beginning, I still resent that I was not asked or given the opportunity to support those soldiers," Clinton said. He said he "should not have gotten" the tax cuts he received as a wealthy earner.

The former president chose an unusual way to oppose the war: by backing it. "I supported the president when he asked for authority to stand up against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Clinton said on May 18, 2003, during a commencement address at Tougaloo College in Mississippi.

Clintonian hypocrisy is hardly new, but his charge regarding Obama's stand on the Iraq War doesn't hold up. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who lined up behind Bush from the very beginning and only started to criticize the war when public support began to wane, Obama stated his opposition from the outset. Obama spoke out against the proposed resolution giving Bush a green light to invade Iraq in 2002 when he was a little-known state senator taking what was then an unpopular position. Obama's support forthe stand taken by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who voted against the resolution, was loud and clear.

Obama also has not had an identical voting record as Clinton on issues of war and peace. While he did, like Hillary, cave in the to phony Bush "vote for more spending on Iraq or you'll endanger the troops" ploy, he refused to play along with the latest case of Bush warmongering, this time against Iran. Sen. Clinton seems to have learned nothing from the Iraq debacle. She voted for a Joe Leiberman-sponsored resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a "terrorist organization" and authorizing the trigger-happy administration to take "appropriate" action.

When the National Intelligence Estimate declared that Iran had given up its nuclear weapons program, she laughably claimed credit for it, saying the Revolutionary Guard resolution persuaded Tehran to change course, even though the NIE clearly said Iran had dropped its weapons program in 2003 and the resolution was approved by the Senate four years later. Obama can be faulted for not being present to oppose the resolution - he was out running for president - but nevertheless his opposition to it was clear and forceful.

Meanwhile, this week, the Bush administration has attempted to pull off its own Gulf of Tonkin incident between American and Iranian naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz. Bush wants to run the table on the Axis of Evil, even though he's losing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the once principled but now thoroughly opportunistic hack from New York, Hillary Clinton, will be on hand to plunge us into one more futile war.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Hillary-ious reasoning

It’s the war, stupid.

Last night, as I was watching CNN’s and MSNBC’s coverage of Barack Obama’s historic win in the Iowa caucuses, the comments of CNN’s political reporter Candy Crowley caught my attention. Crowley was asked how important a factor opposition to the Iraq War was in how Iowa Democrats voted.

Following a mantra echoed across the mainstream media, and repeated on CNN’s Politics.com website, the war has faded as the major issue in this campaign because of the decline in violence in Iraq and the drop in American casualties. As a story on CNN’s website, “Democrats voted for change, GOP for faith and values,” posted today (January 4, 2008) puts it, “The apparent decrease in violence in Iraq due to a surge in U.S. troops last year may have contributed to the war diminishing in importance among Iowans. The U.S. military death toll for December was the second-lowest month death toll of the Iraq war.”

Before I go back to presidential politics, let me say three things about the drop in casualties and the “success” of the surge. There are fewer casualties because insurgents have decided to wait out the surge, and to resume their full-scale rebellion once the American troop presence drops. Secondly, it appears that the Iraqi puppet government will be unable to forge a workable plan for power sharing and for dividing oil revenues among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Once their efforts collapse, as they most certainly will, expect the violence to ramp up again.

Finally, much of the reduction in violence has been a result not of the surge but of ethnic cleansing. Through murder and intimidation, Shiites have chased Sunnis out of their neighborhoods, Sunnis have returned the favor, and both Sunnis and Shiites have taken steps to make sure a Kurd doesn’t live next door. Iraq is now de facto three separate nations. Unfortunately for the Sunnis, most of the oil lies underneath their Shiite and Kurd neighbors. The Sunnis, a minority in Iraq, will seek to regain control of that lucrative resource by any means necessary, even if it means resuming a full-scale civil war.

To get back to how the war affected the Iowa caucuses, contrary to what CNN and other media outlets imply, the war was a very important issue to voters. Overall, the economy and the war tied, at 35 percent each, as top concerns among all Iowa Democratic caucus goers, according to the entrance poll results on CNN’s website. Meanwhile, 36 percent of voters who considered the economy as the most important issue picked Obama, while 35 percent of those choosing the war as the top concern backed the senator from Illinois. That basically means that the war and the economy were equally important to Obama’s constituents. Obama was considered the best candidate to end the war by a clear plurality of caucus attendees.

Of course, the media has a long and disturbing record of blowing off or belittling the Iraq War opposition. There are several well-known examples, such as Clear Channel’s suppression of the Dixie Chicks after their anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War comments. Then there’s Tom Freidman’s pro-war cheerleading and scoffing at those who doubted tales of Saddam’s WMDs. Finally, there was Bob Woodward’s craven awe over the president’s purported leadership in the buildup to the war, at least until we began to lose.

Here’s a personal experience: on February 12, 2003, just before the Iraq invasion, students spent almost an entire day protesting against the impending invasion of Iraq. Austin police underestimated the protestors as numbering 2,000. The event lasted several hours, however, and students came and went. The total number of students participating in the course of a day probably reached at least 5,000. Nevertheless, the Austin corporate media, including the “Austin American Statesman” dutifully repeated police crowd estimates with no caveats.

I was working as an adjunct professor and I was teaching one of those 300-student American History survey courses I refer to as the UT version of “distance learning.” I gave my students a walk so they could participate in the protest or take part in a pro-war rally, for that matter. There was no question that a very large percentage of UT students showed up and that they opposed George W. Bush’s empire building.

Imagine my surprise that night when I watched coverage of the protest on the Austin NBC affiliate KXAN. KXAN had a record of right-wing bias. At the beginning of the 2000 presidential race they did a profile of Bush in which they interviewed family friends, business associates and public school teachers. No a syllable of criticism was heard. In other words, the station pissed away valuable news time with a big, fat pro-Bush valentine. I never saw a similar profile on Al Gore on the KXAN 6 and 10 p.m. news.

The coverage of the anti-war rally had a similar slant. Like her peers, the KXAN reporter covering the anti-war rally unquestioningly used Austin police estimates and then snidely noted that those in attendance represented about 1/25th of the UT student body. Even if one accepts the police numbers, this is a stupid argument. Two-thousand students is a large demonstration and many UT students didn’t have kind professors like me who let them participate in the rally, many were not on campus that day, and many were buried in academic work. To add insult to injury, the reporter spent more time covering the 20 or so conservative counter-demonstrators than the anti-war students who outnumbered them by at least 100-1.

I called KXAN the next day and I charged them with journalism malpractice. The head of the news department insisted that the report was fair. I asked her to tell me how much time in the report was devoted to the pro-war and anti-war protestors. The airtime for the tiny group of pro-war demonstrators amounted to 35 seconds. The coverage of the much larger anti-war rally came to only 30 seconds. The balance was taken up with reporter face time.

“That’s balanced,” the news director said. “It’s balanced to give more time to a group of 20 pro-war students than to at least 2,000 anti-war students?” I asked. “They got almost exactly the same time,” she said. “That’s balanced.” I’m sure she meant “fair and balanced, in the style of the Fox Noise Channel.

The worst case of media condescension towards peace activists I found in the past five years was the story “Give Peace a Dishtowel: Think Peace Protestors Are Lame? What Are You Doing with Your Life?” by Andrea Grimes in the August 24, 2006 issue of the “Dallas Observer.” Unembarrassed by her breathtaking shallowness, Grimes at one point wanders into yuppified self-indulgence. Grimes writes:

“Most of us also don't spend a lot of time really thinking about what's going on in the Middle East. Who's got time to worry about civilian casualties when Grey's Anatomy is on? I've shed more tears over Meredith Grey's relationship with Dr. McDreamy than I have over the fact that thousands have died overseas. Does that make me a bad person?”

To be perfectly blunt, yes.

I wish that kind of media dimwittery was rare. Yet networks like CNN, the “most reliable source for news” according to them, portrayed Obama’s success as completely disconnected from his anti-war stance. In fact, Obama has made his wisdom in being against the war from the beginning, opposing the surge, and refusing to endorse the Bush saber rattling against Iran, a centerpiece of his argument against Hillary Clinton. Hillary, he has successfully argued, showed a complete lack of judgment regarding the Iraq War and a possible military strike against Iran. (Why lose just two wars when you can hit a triple?)

Hillary lost for one reason. Her defense of her Iraq war votes insults our intelligence. Let’s leave aside the obvious fact that Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 9-11 and was therefore irrelevant to our security needs. Clinton contends that she was hoodwinked by faulty CIA intelligence claiming Iraq had a nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program.

Hillary is older than me and she should remember how the CIA spent years clownishly failing to assassinate Fidel Castro (or at least take away his charisma by making his beard fall out through specially-treated cigars), totally misread the strength of the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies during the Vietnam War, were caught completely by surprise by the fall of the Shah in Iran, and didn’t see either the anti-Gorbachev coup or the collapse of the Soviet Union coming in 1991.

Why would Hillary, if she’s so smart, so gullibly accept the intelligence of the Keystone Cops at the CIA when the UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and American experts like Scott Ritter raised serious doubts about the Bush administration’s claims? Back to a personal story: when I was an adjunct at UT in 2003, I made several predictions about the war to my students. Somehow, I was smarter than the experienced senator from New York. Normally I am a lousy prophet, but in this case I batted the cycle.

Not having access to the intelligence briefs I assume Hillary read, I predicted that no weapons of mass destruction would be found once Iraq was occupied. The reason – the last time Saddam Hussein was in danger for his life, after the coalition had crossed the Iraqi border during the original Gulf War in 1991 and it was uncertain whether they would drive on to Baghdad and oust him or possibly kill him in the effort, Saddam used no WMD, even against Israel – an act that might have peeled important Arab allies from the coalition if the Israelis responded in kind.

Secondly, Hussein’s regime had consistently proved itself utterly inept, in the earlier Iran war, in the misreading of how the U.S. would respond to a Kuwaiti invasion, and so on. How would these clowns have successfully developed a nuclear weapons program without the world conclusively detecting it? Why were the boneheads who proved so strategically hopeless against the army of teenagers they faced in Iran suddenly assumed to be geniuses when it came to the extremely difficult task of building a nuclear weapons program and leaving no indisputable evidence in the process? In any case, American planes had bombed the shit out of Iraq for about a decade. That should have suggested to Clinton that Saddam’s military capability would be severely diminished. Otherwise, Hillary’s husband Bill wasted a whole lot of money, and Iraqi lives, with all those bombs.

Furthermore, I predicted that the invasion would be the easy part and that the occupation would prove extremely difficult and could stretch indefinitely into the future. Also, I observed the likelihood that Iraq had held together in spite of bitter sectarian divisions only because of a series of dictatorships culminating in Saddam’s iron rule. I suggested that removing the autocracy would centrifugally shatter the nation, which was an artificial colonial invention anyway.

If I knew this, why didn’t someone bright and fully briefed like Hillary? I suspect it’s because she didn’t swallow all of these Bush administration lies. She made a cynical, bloody calculation.

She knew that as a woman running for president, she would face sexist questions about her toughness and her ability to be a decisive commander-in-chief. She thought that her enthusiastic, almost Joe Lieberman-like support for the war would silence those doubts. She probably kept her fingers crossed that Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t completely clueless. In short, she supported a war I’m sure she had grave misgivings about because she thought it would serve her political interest. And 3,908 Americans (as of January 3) have died for that piece of realpolitik. Hillary has blood on her hands.

Even worse, she has been incapable of admitting a mistake. Edwards voted for the war, but at least he had the decency to publicly repent. What trust can we have for a president who makes a mistaken decision regarding war who won't accept reality? Isn't that what we have now?

This is a double tragedy because Hillary’s calculations have come to bitter failure. In Iowa, she lost to a man (Obama) who was against the war from the beginning and not just when it became politically expedient. She also lost to a badly underfunded candidate who has intentionally cut himself off from the lifeline of corporate PAC money (John Edwards.) Edwards has called for removal of troops from Iraq even more quickly and completely than Obama.

The war is the chief issue in this presidential election. When voters flock to Obama because they want “change,” one of the chief changes they hope for is a rapid end to a bloody, futile, and expensive war. The Democratic Congress has seen its popularity dramatically drop because of its cowardice on de-funding our Middle Eastern colonial adventure (though the Democrats will probably keep control of the House and Senate because the alternative is pro-war Republicans.)

The media is embarrassed by its sheepish support of the war in 2003 and it is trying to put that behind them by pretending people don’t care about Iraq anymore. Quoting Joseph N. Welch’s famous question from the McCarthy Army hearings in 1954, we should ask the press, “At long last, have you no sense of decency?”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Broken English

According to Jack Miller of Central Connecticut State University, Plano, Texas, is the 51st most literate city in America. You could have fooled me.

Miller based his rankings of the 69 best-read metropolises on six criteria: newspaper circulation, the number of bookstores, the availability of library resources, access to periodical publishing, the population’s educational attainment and internet connectivity.

There’s an obvious class bias in this list. Do people of little education read newspapers, shop at bookstores, go to the library or spend time on the internet? Do Miller’s ratings consider the number of people in a poor position to access these resources? Does Miller’s list consider the working class stiffs portrayed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s thoughtful and provocative book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” who work two or even three jobs to not quite meet all their expenses? This growing impoverished working class, because of corporate greed, has little time to read and little disposable income to spend on trashy novels like “The Da Vinci Code,” let alone serious literature. How about people struggling with English as a second language or whose chief exposure to computers comes only while they are public school students?

Each entry on Miller’s list is a tale of two cities. If Plano is one of the most literate cities in America, perhaps Miller can explain these gems from my students at the Spring Creek campus of Collin County Community College. Students authored the following statements in response to exam questions:

“In the end slaves started getting tired of working and started faking ill[ness] so they could get time off and not have to work. This started becoming a problem to slave owners and later became the cause of WWII.”

“Both Klans differed majorly.”

“Blacks would take the grunt of most of these group lynchings.”

“The Nazis wanted to extinct the world of Jews.”

“It took a series of events that spanned the globe to initiate World War II, making it a many-countried affair.”

“During World War II the country is very shaken up by everything that is going on in the country.”

“The Know-Nothings advocated alcohol and Catholics.”

“The Nazis wanted to extinct the world of Jews.”

“They figured they must advise a plan to keep immigrants and blacks from climbing to the top of society’s latter.”

“The Constitution gave support to the institution of slavery by making a law that all men, women, black and white, had equal rights.”

My students proved as creative with words as they were with the facts. Among the neologisms coined this semester:

“Ferior” as in the opposite of inferior

“Abusement”

“Selectional”

“Dominisy”

Collin College is what used to be patronizingly called a junior college. As such, it has open enrollment which means that a first-time applicant, even one without a high school diploma or who has flunked out of another college or university, can be admitted. Low ranking in one’s high school graduating class poses no barrier to being accepted. As such, like public schools, community colleges are open to all takers and, in many ways reflect the general population.

Why are my students who are native speakers of English so astoundingly unfamiliar with their mother tongue? Because the world described by Miller is an elite bubble. There’s a highly literate Plano where the affluent and comfortable who have schedules that permit time for leisure reading and visits to the library, or whose finances allow regular access to computers and the internet, form a cognitive elite. And then there’s the other Plano, which includes everyone else.

My students, who with many wonderful exceptions, generally come from the middle and lower high school academic ranks, are victimized by one trend in education that reduces literacy to a technical term describing minimal competence. Yes, most of these students recognize the sounds the letters on the page make, but they don’t comprehend the words, they don’t understand the author’s arguments, nor do they have any sense of word play or poetry.

This almost universalized unfamiliarity with the written word stems undoubtedly in part from standardized tests, such as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS.) Across the country, these tests are used to compare the quality of education from classroom to classroom and from campus to campus. Standardized tests have become the tail wagging the educational dog. It should be noted that these tests are products sold at a high profit to school districts by corporations that give generous donations to the politicians who then, in turn, mandate the tests.


Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson represent the four giants in this hugely profitable industry. Harcourt, CTB McGraw-Hill, and Riverside Publishing produce 96 percent of the standardized tests nationwide while NCS Pearson serves as the leading scorer of these exams.
According to the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College, standardized achievement test sales zoomed from $7 million in 1955 (adjusted for inflation) to $263 million in 1997. Today, the big four rake in from between $400 million to $700 million a year.

These standardized tests have slowly swallowed the entire school year. George W. Bush’s Orwellian-named “No Child Left Behind” act set strict standards regarding testing scores for school districts, individual schools and teachers, standards that do not take into account the wildly different socio-economic realities faced by schools across the country. Schools get punished if their students get low scores and can even lose funding. Teachers of low-performing classes can lose their jobs, even if a teacher of impoverished ESL students is being compared to one educating wealthy preps in Beverly Hills.

Schools obviously have a vested interest in pumping up scores. As a result, students take exams at the beginning of the year so the school can calibrate where they are academically. Then students get pre-tests for TAKS and other state assessments to prepare for specific parts of the exam. After months of drilling, they take the test, along with the SAT or ACT and various Advanced Placement Exams and, by the way, exams on what they are actually being taught in the particular classroom. Constant test preparation is not only stressful and dull, but adversely affects the quality of teaching.

The consequence of this testing mania is brilliantly described by Louis Volante of Concordia University in the article “Teaching to the Test: What Every Educator and Policy-Maker Should Know,” published in the “Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy” (September 24, 2004.)

“Faced with increasing pressure from politicians, school district personnel, administrators, and the public, some teachers have begun to employ test preparation practices that are clearly not in the best interest of children,” Volante writes. “These activities may include relentless drilling on test content, eliminating important curricular content not covered by the test, and providing interminably long practice session that incorporates actual items from these high-stakes standardized tests.”

Volante argues that the obsession with testing leaves students less informed. As Volante notes:


“Teaching to the test also has a ‘dumbing’ effect on teaching and learning as worksheets, drills, practice tests and similar rote practices consume greater amounts of classroom time . . . Insofar as standardized tests assess only part of the curriculum, time spent on test taking often overemphasizes basic-skill subjects and neglects high-order thinking skills . . . Research suggests that while students’ scores will rise when teachers teach closely to a test, learning often does not change . . . In fact, the opposite may be true. That is, there are examples of schools from New York and Boston that have demonstrated improvements in student learning while their standardized test scores did not show substantial gains.”

My wife Samantha has taught English for 20 years, five in California and the rest in Texas. She has observed that as the emphasis on standardized tests has grown she has been forced to drop more and more books from her reading lists. Her students in 2008 read a lot less than did her students in 1988.

Teaching students to be good writers requires that they read and read a lot. Students need to be exposed to both good and bad writing in order to know the difference. Frequent reading of lengthy works provides students writing models, which they generally imitate until they find their own voice. Achieving true literacy, which involves comprehension, the ability to reason, an appreciation of tone, symbolism, and allusion, and knowledge of where a particular book stands in relation to other similar books, requires much more reading time than allowed by the current political monomania regarding standardized texts.

I should note that my students, both at Collin College and at the University of Texas, have referred to all books as “novels,” even works of non-fiction. This unfamiliarity is understandable since they are only transient visitors to the world of reading. As wages drop, benefits decrease, tuition costs skyrocket, and the ability of families to get by with even two salaries, only the more advantaged students have parents with the time bring true literacy to their progeny. Most children are certainly being left behind.

The real agenda behind the flood of tests, besides financial gain for the testing companies, is content control over courses.

Again, using my wife’s experience, her school district designs the entire year around TAKS. To ensure that every pupil is receiving the exact same information, all the teachers in her department are expected to be at the same point at the same time. Everyone uses almost identical reading lists and teachers use the same quizzes on assignments. This district doesn’t have schools. It has factories.

The conservative ideologues who have wanted to dismantle the public schools since the 1954 “Brown vs. the Board of Education” desegregation decision are suspicious of educators for several reasons. First, they know that liberal Democrats have been more generous in funding for public schools and have been consistent supporters of higher wages for teachers. As a result, teachers unions generally back liberal Democrats in elections. Rather than trying to win teachers working in their interests, conservatives want to shatter teacher organizations by fragmenting public education into a crazy quilt of religious schools, secular private schools, and charter schools while the remaining public schools would inevitably become a dumping ground for students of color and poor whites.

Scattered among several smaller, financially distinct educational entities, teachers would effectively be unable to collectively bargain for better working conditions or lobby for educational reforms. Wages for teachers would drop as teacher unions splintered, leaving educators with little time or money to engage in politics.

Many conservatives hostile to public education also have a conspiratorial worldview. They fear that secular teachers share a hidden agenda to promote homosexuality, to oppose Christianity and to undermine patriotism. Traditionalists attack teachers who try to impart critical thinking skills and who illustrate to students how ideologies of race, class and gender shape perceptions of reality. Such conservatives fear that all this deconstructing confuses the little ones.

Students emerging from a classroom that emphasized critical thinking might ask troubling questions about the inequality of wealth in America, or the power of corporate lobbies, or the logic of religious dogmas. Better to keep the students memorizing the names of presidents and Civil War generals that having them carefully read books and imagine a new and better world.

As Henry Gonshak, an English professor at Montana Tech noted in his review of “The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of America Schools” by Martin L. Gross, such conservatives dwell in a fantasy land, attempting to re-capture a golden age that never existed. These critics of the so-called “education establishment,” Gonshak writes, believe that “[t]he traditional American classroom--with its emphasis on rote memorization, constant testing, strict discipline, tons of homework was . . . a kind of educational Eden, until the serpent-like forces of ‘progressive education’ slithered onto the scene.


The golden age conservatives imagine never existed. In fact the schools that conservatives like Goss rhapsodize about rested on a foundation of savage inequality, and not just due to racial segregation. In Texas, until 1918, parents had to pay for their schoolchildren’s textbooks, a heavy burden for a state still consisting mostly of poor farmers. Texas didn’t even require school attendance until 1915, and the first compulsory attendance law required only 60 days of instruction and their teachers weren’t required to hold more than a high school diploma until 1949.

By 1929 the school “year” had stretched to five months, but the calendar was much shorter in poor, rural districts and at the segregated and underfunded schools provided African Americans and Mexican Americans. Those students mostly attended one-room schoolhouses with crumbling, out-of-date textbooks, little space and badly in need of repairs. Powerful growers saw poor white, black and brown children as cheap agricultural labor and so they shortened the school year for these students so they could work in the fields.

By 1944-1945 only 32 percent of African American schools met the already low standards set by the state of Texas. Texas would initiate revolutionary school reforms in 1949, the Gilmer-Aiken laws, which promised to deliver more money to the schools, improve teacher education, and increase efficiency and accountability. Penny-pinching by the Legislature, however, eventually rendered these promises hollow.

The Legislature refused to make the difficult political choice of providing reliable and equitable funding for Texas schools, taxing the poor more heavily than their wealthy political donors. Texas reaped a predictable harvest for this Legislative negligence. By the early 1980s, Texas students ranked near the bottom nationally in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and 42nd in percentage of high school graduates attending college.

Texas is the supply side paradise that conservative education critics have wet dreams about. The state has no income tax and prefers to rely on the most regressive forms of taxation, such as sales levies, for its operating budget. Texas schools rely almost entirely on property taxes, which means that for most of the twentieth century, poor school districts had dramatically less funding than rich school districts.

By the last decade of the twentieth century, one school district, the wealthy Alamo Heights community, near San Antonio, held property wealth of $570,109 per student compared to $38,854 in nearby property-poor Edgewood, a 15-1 ratio. Tired of schools with obsolete textbooks and that often lacked chalk or even toilet paper, Edgewood parents filed a lawsuit seeking equalization of school funding in the late 1960s. The suit was still winding its way through the Texas courts two-and-a-half decades later. The rote-learning schools conservatives so dearly miss created widespread structural poverty aimed at maintaining the economic domination of white elites and gave students few tools for articulating anger at such obvious injustice.

If the conservative critique of modern public schools rests on a distorted representation of the past, their views on how classes should be taught represent a more sinister threat to democracy. I noticed some time ago that conservatives are “hooked on phonics.” They really need a 12-step program. Conservatives love phonics because they see it as a retreat from “whole language” approaches grounded in critical thinking, which the right sees as an opening gate for political correctness. Conservatives also hail phonics as a return to tried-and-true basics.

Phonics, however, is based on a lie. My only direct exposure to this teaching method has been through my son’s “Leap Frog” DVDs. Phonics teaches children that letters have single sounds, like “The C says cah.” Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with English knows that letters can have multiple sounds. Furthermore, several vowel sounds so resemble each other to make this method practically useless.

Lurking behind this limiting approach is a Manichean, black-and-white view of the world in which there is one truth and one truth only and that opposing contentions are, by definition, utterly false. The epistemology behind phonics reminds me of “Newspeak,” the new form of English being created by Big Brother’s dictatorship in George Orwell’s “1984.” Newspeak aimed to limit the meanings of words so that only thoughts permitted by the government would be possible. In fascist Italy, school children were taught to say, “Il Duce is always right.” They probably read the sentence using phonics.

Unfortunately, the standardized testing virus has spread to higher ed. The Texas Legislature, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that it wants measurable learning outcomes, meaning a test that all students have to take to make sure they learn a set of facts picked as important rather than ideas. The Legislature is doing this even as they are talking about cutting funding for developmental education programs at community colleges It appears they want all college classes to be very much alike, regardless of the individual expertise or experience of any particular professor. Apparently college curricula should be made the same way as spam.

A final note: to return to Miller’s rankings the most “literate” cities, here is his top 10.

1. Minneapolis. 

2. Seattle.
3. St. Paul.
4. Denver. 

5. Washington, D.C.

6. St. Louis.
7. San Francisco.

8. Atlanta.
9. Pittsburgh.
10. Boston.

Nine of the ten cities are outside the old Confederacy. Atlanta is the only Southern city in the top ten. Other Southern cities making the top 69, in addition to Plano, include Raleigh (14), Miami (22), Austin (23), Charlotte (26), Fort Worth (45), Dallas and Jacksonville (both tied at 47), Houston (55), Memphis (59), Arlington, Texas (62), San Antonio (63), Corpus Christi (65), and El Paso (68.)

Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas could claim no cities on the list. In short, the list is dominated by cities outside of Dixie in states with a history of higher taxes, higher expenditures on public schools and generally more liberal politics. The Southern cities making the list are the ones that drew a large number of migrants from the North and the West during and following World War II, when the South finally industrialized and became attractive to skilled urban workers.

More traditionally Southern communities, those most wed to conservative ideology, low taxes, low investment in public schools, support for school vouchers, opposition to teacher’s unions and deep suspicion of secularism and science, didn’t make the grade. It’s these areas that support the conservative candidates who are the most adamant about standardized testing. Why are we taking our cues on education from a bunch of illiterates?


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.