Category Archives: dystopian

Something messed up is happening somewhere, large our small, roughly pointing us toward one or more dystopian futures. Read this if you are in the mood to fix something you cannot accept.

Scored by Lauren McLaughlin: Some Thoughts

Note: This is an expansion of a book I reviewed on the blog post “Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012” on

Scored by Lauren McLaughlin

This YA novel is the dystopia for our time. What happens when you put together No Child Left Behind high-stakes standardized testing with surveillance measures like spy-cams and GPS monitoring of cell phones, and then introduce a company whose product is a single score for every child, which colleges and corporations will then use to sort people?

That is the reality for Imani LeMonde, a high school student whose scores put her on track for a college scholarship — something that is otherwise out of reach for all but the very rich. The scores are supposed to establish a meritocracy to replace our system of inequalities, but something else is going on. Scores update minute-to-minute, and they depend not only on school performance but also day-to-day activities and peer group associations.

Imani’s troubles begin when her score drops precipitously because her friend Cady is kicked out of her house and moves in with a boy. This takes her off the college track, and if her scores drop farther, her only options will be welfare or the military. She has a choice to make — but it’s not the simple moral dilemma of whether or not to denounce Cady to regain her score, because that option is not open to her. Instead, she has to look deeply into the scoring system to understand how it works — and what matters to her.

The society pictured here is not far off the mark. Our teens and children will be subject to more surveillance than we ever imagined. Case in point: school records are kept in “longitudinal databases” where they can be tracked over long periods of time and across school district and state lines. And by school records I mean test scores, tardies, absences, ethnicity, dental records – you name it. (For a sneak peek of the hundreds of items that can be collected, visit

This information is being provided to the private sector without public comment or scrutiny. For example, the Seattle Public School district signed a Memorandum of Understanding with an organization called the Community Center for Education Results, indicating that the district would be sharing its database of student information with CCER. This database excludes “personally identifiable” information about the students according to the federal FERPA law, but because it is so specific, it is potentially identifiable information, particularly if you are nonwhite, use special education services, and so forth. Also, private sector organizations could easily combine this information with other databases.

(Thanks to the mirmac1 for her comment on Feb 21, 2013 on the blog

Just as one example among many, yesterday I went to the Pacific Science Center and visited an exhibit called “Professor Wellbody’s Academy of Health and Wellness.” This is a grant and foundation-funded exhibit. As part of the exhibit, children can join the “Academy” by entering information about themselves – first name, school attended, and health habits such as diet and sleep. So now there’s a database about kids per school, and a certain lack of clarity about who will get that information.

Ten years from now, could a prospective employer check the database for these types of information about my children? I bet. Could they get a score? I bet.

Censorship on overdrive

What is censorship? A central committee allowing publication and distribution of approved items only? 

What’s the role of a public library? Historically they’ve taken a stand against book-banning.

What is censorship in the digital age?

What is the role of a public library in the digital age?

All these questions and others have been churning around in my mind ever since reading this post:

Overdrive, the (for-profit) provider of ebooks for public libraries, holds a monopoly on providing ebooks, probably for purely pragmatic reasons (they’re the first to come up with a system the library could actually use), which would be one thing if they allowed for downloading of ALL books, but they don’t. Only approved books–that is to say, only books put out by major publishers–that is to say, only books with the information that the corporate interests who control the publishing industry want us to have.

I’m wondering about intellectual freedom for my children, brave new pioneers of the “screen-time generation.”

How Gossip Affects Groups

Gossip is usually seen as problematic and wrong, but everyone does it. Why? It’s true it can be very damaging, but does it also serve a productive function? If so, is there a good way for groups to handle it – play with fire, but using tongs?

With no further ado, here are a couple of sociological and anthropological articles to see about the role of gossip as it affects groups.

Gossip and Group Unity

The topic “gossip” in the Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology talks about these positive and negative functions of gossip in groups:

  • Helps maintain group unity, morality and history
  • Lets members debate group norms
  • Gives individual members a map of their social environment
  • Enables groups to control cliques
  • Keeps fights within the group to project harmony to the outside world
  • Helps individuals gain power through selective distribution of power

I can see how any of these bullet points could be good or bad, depending on circumstances. But overall, it looks like gossip has an important role in group definition and unity – which is a fundamental need of groups.

Gossip and Power

This article talks about the way gossip, both positive and negative, affects the gossiper’s power over the gossip recipient in a workplace: “Passing the Word”. (Full citation: Passing the word: Toward a model of gossip and power in the workplace by Nancy B Kurlandand Lisa Hope Pelled. Academy of Management. The Academy of Management Review. Apr 2000; 25, 2; ABI/INFORM Global pg. 428)

The main takeaway is that gossip can confer power in an organizational setting.

Positive gossip can make the gossiper seem like an expert, draw others into their social circles, and make the recipient feel like the gossiper might spread positive news about themselves. Negative gossip can also coerce the gossip recipient, by making the recipient think that the gossiper might spread negative news about themselves. And gossip, of course, can backfire and reflect badly on the gossiper.

Gossip and Social Networks

The chapter “Gossip and Network Relationships” talks about how the strength of bonds within a social network can intensify or weaken the power of gossip. (Citation: “Gossip and Network Relationships” by E.K. Foster, R.L. Rosnow in the book Relating Difficulty: The Processes of Constructing and Managing Difficult Interaction.)

Some key concepts:

  • A social network may be dense or sparse in its connections
  • In a dense social network, people have equal access to a map of their social environment
  • The advantage of a dense social network is a) that individuals who are more in line with the group have more influence; and b) people will be more aware of the group’s norms
  • If people can exchange gossip freely, the social network is denser
  • Groups can have gatekeepers, who limit the exchange of information between people and have more power as a result
  • The information provided by gatekeepers can be difficult for group members to verify
  • Dense gossip networks limit the ability of gatekeepers to control information
  • A strategy for limiting the power of gatekeepers is to form social ties around them.
  • The structure of the gossip network can benefit or harm the group. Groups can fracture along gossip lines.

This is also about gossip and power. I was most interested in the information about gatekeeping – how gossip can be used to restrict information by causing mistrust, and also how gossip can be used to get around gatekeepers.

This is what I’m thinking about: Gossip confers power. Gossip affects groups and the individuals within groups in both positive and negative ways. So what happens if a group actually gets together and talks about its gossip – laying out a map of its social networks and gossip networks, and setting ground rules for gossip that reflect the way people actually do it?

Other Gossip Citations

Here are some other articles that might be of interest:

Foster, E.K. and Rosnow, R.L. “Gossip and Network Relationships.” Relating Difficulty: The Processes of Constructing and Managing Difficult Interaction. Kirkpatric, Duc, and Foley. 2006. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gluckman, M. (1963) ‘Gossip and Scandal’, Current Anthropology 4 (3): 307–15

Haviland, J. (1977) Gossip, Reputation and Knowledge in Zinacantan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Heilman, S. (1978) Synagogue Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Paine, R. (1967) ‘What is Gossip About? An Alternative Hypothesis’, Man 2 (2): 272–85

Charter Schools and the Reason Foundation

Charter schools are on the rise nationally, despite no evidence of success and evidence of real harm to students. Seattle has voted down charter schools time after time, but 2010 might be the year they establish a firm foothold in our most vulnerable neighborhoods. Charter school companies like KIPP and GreenDot are coming to town to give public and private lectures, probably in an effort to pass state legislation allowing charter schools. Meanwhile, the school superintendent seems to be pushing to close schools that have failed under No Child Left Behind.

What’s behind this huge push?

A previous blog post talked about the influence of billionaires Fordham, Gates, and Broad in the recent anti-union efforts of the organization NCTQ. These billionaires have charter school plans as well, which I’ll discuss in another post.

But another key player is the Reason Foundation, a major libertarian organization partly funded by billionaire David H. Koch. (The Koch brothers fund the Tea Party, and their father, Fred Koch, was a founding member of the John Birch society.)

Through this foundation, Koch has been gaining greater and greater power over public policy. This power is leading to changes in our laws that the vast majority of Americans probably do not want.

The mission statement of the Reason Foundation says:

“We use journalism and public policy research to influence the frameworks and actions of policymakers, journalists and opinion leaders. Reason Foundation’s nonpartisan public policy research promotes choice, competition, and a dynamic market economy as the foundation for human dignity and progress.”

This agenda of “choice, competition, and a dynamic market economy” is especially dangerous for our public schools. But that’s the direction our nation’s schools are taking, and it’s because of the behind-the-scenes power of billionaires and organizations like the Reason Foundation and the Fordham Institute.

The Reason Foundation policy paper “Fix the City Schools: Moving All Schools to Charter-Like Autonomy” by Lisa Snell, proposes that schools perpetually compete with one another based on the results of standardized tests, and perpetually close when they fail to meet standards that have been imposed by the top.

Snell writes: “The bottom line is that the district seeks continuous improvement by assessing performance of all schools, closing the lowest performing schools and creating alternate opportunities for students in the least productive schools.” In other words, “the essence of this policy brief” is to “close failing schools, open new schools, replicate great schools, repeat.”

What makes this technique so damaging to students is that charter schools, on the whole, don’t provide a better education. One third of charter schools do worse than public schools – while only one sixth do better, and one half do about the same. This means that approximately one third of students in these closed schools will move on to an even worse education. And every time a school closes, all the students face severe disruptions.

These are not just theoretical outcomes, but represent the actual, lived experience of millions of students in districts where charter schools have taken hold, as in cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. (David H. Koch, by the way, is the richest and most powerful resident of New York City.) It has been devastating for the most marginalized children – poor children, children of color, special education children, and English language learners.

But the actual suffering of children does nothing to deter the Reason Foundation or school district leaders in cities targeted for charter schools. Snell interviewed Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek and described his vision for public schools:

“There was an article written the other day called ‘Try, Try Again,’ and I think it epitomizes our strategy. We’ll give it to a charter operator. We’ll let them work it. If they fail, we’ll bring in another charter operator and if they fail, we’ll bring in another charter operator until they get it right.”

Our struggling kids can’t wait while policymakers and state superintendents try out this charter experiment. They need real change now. They need an end to the punitive measures in No Child Left Behind.They need librarians, counselors, social services, and tutoring. They need equal access to excellent education, regardless of income, race, ability, or language. They need qualified, experienced teachers with union protections. They need small class sizes.

Because there are no quick fixes.

Because education isn’t about “high performing” or “productive” schools.

It’s about the kids.

home and community

One of the most broken aspects of contemporary society is the lack of community. People often give lip service to the word “community” without knowing what it was, and I did not know what it was until I had children and suddenly understood its lack. When I joined the co-op preschool system, I began to feel what community could be – people looking out for each other, people working together on a long-term common goal. At the same time, I saw its limitations: for one, it would be a community I would have to exit when my children entered kindergarten.

So where do we look for examples of community? Here is a perspective from bell hooks, from her time growing up in the fifties and sixties, where home was a place to develop critical consciousness and a foundation for black liberation struggle. She’s talking about the nuclear family as well as the extended family, and linking what happened in the family space to what happened in the broader black community.

This task of making homeplace was not simply a matter of black women providing service; it was about the construction of a safe place where black people could affirm one another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination. We could not learn to love or respect ourselves in the culture of white supremacy, on the outside; it was on the inside, in that “homeplace,” most often created and kept by black women, that we had the opportunity to grow and develop, to nurture our spirits. This task of making a homeplace, of making home a community of resistance, has been shared by black women globally, especially black women in white supremacist societies. (pp 42-43)
She goes on to talk about the breakup of families under slavery and under apartheid – it was no accident, she says, because undermining the family also undermines the site of struggle – and that capitalism, consumerism, sexism, adoption of white middle-class ideology are doing the same thing today.
Masses of black women, many of whom were not formally educated, had in the past been able to play a vital role in black liberation struggle. In the contemporary situation, as the paradigms for domesticity in black life mirrored white bourgeois norms (where home is conceptualized as politically neutral space), black people began to overlook and devalue the importance of black female labor in teaching critical consciousness in domestic space. (p 47)

So, the first step to a liberatory strategy – for families of any color – would be to rebuild that politicized domestic space, that “homeplace.” To bring critical consciousness back into the home through feminist struggle.

I’ll agree with that but also say it’s only a first step. One home with a critical consciousness, disconnected from the rest of the community, is not going to be effective. Critical consciousness has to be shared with the broader community. For that to happen, we have to strengthen community ties. And for that to happen, we need to know what community really means.

Well, what does it mean?

No, I don’t have the answer. But I do know that to build community, you find a common goal, shared work. For me it was the shared work of our co-op preschool. For the community hooks spoke of, it was building a black liberation struggle. Regardless, it goes farther than cultural criticism, farther than standing in a circle holding hands and singing. It has to move into practical action and material change too.

Of what sort?

That’s the question.

hooks, bell. Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.

Superman Was Born Jewish

Right now I’m interested in the superhero story, where it came from, how it has evolved, what makes heroes “good” or “bad” in our minds, why we like antiheroes, and what we need from our superheroes. So I picked up a book on the history of superheroes,  Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero by Danny Fingeroth. I was amazed at the extent to which the Jewish experience shaped Superman – and, by extension, America’s national mythology.

In the book, Fingeroth talks about the original creators of the Superman comic, two Jewish boys named Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. Superman came out of a mix of their personal history, their cultural heritage, the immigrant experience, world events, and ideology surrounding them. I’m convinced Superman was born Jewish. But what fascinates me is how he was born Jewish. How did his story come to be, and what messages did it have for Americans? Looking at the past can help us see the present. Where have our superhero stories come from, and what are they telling us?

The Jews at the time were immigrating to America because of pogroms and the rise of fascism in Europe. They had come in fear for their lives. They had to maintain a double identity: their homeland identity and their assimilated, mainstream identity. Fingeroth writes, “When your history tells you that you can be murdered because of who your parents happened to be, the freedom provided by being able to blend into the mainstream culture is essential to survival.” Thus, Superman’s double identity was born. Just as the Jews had to disguise themselves as WASPs, so did Clark Kent.

The rise of fascism also brought a desperate need to the Jewish people – a need that cried out for a messianic figure. The creators of Superman, therefore, sent out subconscious messages to the American people. Fingeroth lists a few:

•    Look out for the Nazis!
•    Have some compassion for their victims!
•    Don’t you understand we are just like you?
•    You have to help!
•    Here is how you can use your gifts, America – to help those in need and distress! (p. 18)

Another historical influence was the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism. Superman’s individualist ideology opposed the communist ideology. Fingeroth writes: “As expressed through Superman, the self was not to be subsumed to the collective. The self could best serve the whole by being allowed to flourish and thrive and express itself. This was the same celebration of the individual that had pervaded American popular culture from the solitary cowboy heroes of Owen Wister even onto the baseball fields . . . ” (42)

Yet another was the concept that science and reason could transcend human flaws, expressed in early science fiction.

One final influence was the Great Depression. Fingeroth quotes a 1975 press release from Siegal that shows how poverty added to the mix:

What led me into creating Superman in the early thirties?

Listening to President Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” . . . being unemployed and worried during the depression and knowing homelessness and fear. Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany . . . seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden . . . I had the great urge to help . . . help the downtrodden masses, somehow.
How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.(41)

So that’s Superman. Born out of dire need, giving inspiration and hope to so many. What impact did he have back then? Did he inspire Americans to have compassion? Did he contribute to getting us involved in World War II?

It is ironic that the same qualities we needed from a superhero back then are getting us in trouble now: the individualist ideology, the idea that a hero can swoop down and save us (so we don’t have to do it ourselves). Our time is different. We beat Hitler and then became him, creating our own occupation camps of Japanese and ultimately dropping a weapon of mass destruction on two Japanese cities. State communism fell. An individualist ideology that went too far has contributed to the dismantling of our social safety net.

What do we need from our superheroes now? What are we telling them? What are they telling us?

Tune in next time. Same bat-time! Same bat-channel!

Works Cited
Fingeroth, Danny. Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. Continuum: London and New York. 2007.