Thursday, June 14, 2018

Heart of Darkness

Author: Joseph Conrad.  Year of Publication: 1899.

Heart of Darkness chronicles the tale of Marlow, the narrator of the story, who recalls for a few seamen a time of his life when, as a young man, he went to the Belgian Congo to captain a riverboat for the company in charge of trade in the colony.

Yes, a colony, the infamous colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, the Congo Free State. To understand this book, you must understand the background which Conrad did not have to explain to his contemporary audience.

Africa resisted colonization until the last decades of the 1800s, mainly because its interior was full of people to resist and exotic diseases that killed Europeans in less than a year. While European countries gained a toehold on coastal cities, they could not penetrate the continent with success until two things happened: military technology advanced to produce automatic weapons, guns that did not need reloading but could deliver a spray of bullets to mow down advancing Africans armed with only clubs, spears, and arrows; medical advancements that discovered drugs like quinine that could provide protection against disease.

Outnumbered 2 to 1, 3 to 1, maybe even 10 to 1, European armies were able to defeat native armies and establish colonial control.

Europe foresaw what they could do. By this time, they had colonized the western hemisphere and experienced the numerous revolutions that freed the continents of North and South America, not to mention several islands in the Caribbean, from their control. I refer not only to the U.S. revolution, but the Haitian revolution and the many revolutions driven by Simon Bolivar.

They had established hegemony in Asia including the domination of China. As land is limited upon the Earth, only one great opportunity was left: Africa. Technology delivered it into their hands and the scramble was on.

That is what it was known as--the Scramble for Africa. It culminated in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, where the European powers split the continent among themselves to avoid warfare over territory and boundaries.

Unlike the British, French, German, Portuguese, and other European governments, which ruled their colonies through the auspices of their officials, the Congo Free State, that part of Africa given to Belgium, was taken by its King, Leopold II, as his personal fiefdom and colony.

Originally, the King scoured the territory for ivory as the quickest way to score profits. That is the period in which Marlow takes up a job, goes to the Congo, works his way upriver, and later recounts his experiences.

But by the time his readers were devouring his words, Leopold had established rubber plantations as a better way to maximize his wealth aggrandizement from the colony. His rapacity and brutal treatment of Africans were infamous across Europe. Fail to meet production goals and hands were cut off. There are photographs surviving from this time in which piles of hands can be seen. Rebel and worse treatments were handed out.

Even given the very low standard of morality regarding the people of Africa that all Europe held at the time, Leopold's cruelty was so aberrant that heavy pressure from the other European powers forced the Belgium government to wrest control of the colony away from Leopold in 1908.

Now let us come back to the novella. It is short, only 38,700 words by the best estimates. That is enough.

The atmosphere is bleak. At the outset, the sky and water are described as one sheet of steel gray, so like one another that the observers cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. Dusk is falling as they wait for the tide to turn and run out. (This is a time of sails, not motors, and timing the tide for departure from port was essential.)

Themes of death and darkness are established as the words go on. Even in a city supposedly full of bright opportunities, Marlow describes it as a whitened sepulchre, that is a dark tomb that is painted over to distract the eye from its contents.

Everything that happens comes to a meaningless or purposelessness. On the journey to Africa, we find a French warship firing off cannons into the land. Why? We do not know. But battleship bombardments fail in effectiveness even in our day, so we can appreciate the continuing gloom of uselessness of effort that Conrad describes.

This is a psychological story, driven by the author looking deep into our souls, through his narrator, to see what is there.

Marlow begins the inquiry early when, before taking his listeners to Africa, he asks whether the experience of exploring a new land, such as penetrating into Africa, is any different whenever it happens? He asks if the Romans, invading Britain, did not have the same experience? Weren't the peoples of the island just the same, just as primitive, just as savage, and wouldn't they have resisted the Romans the same as the Congolese resisted their invaders? Abandon their river homes, flee inland, wear down the invading force?

He arrives in the Congo. He encounters three individuals of interest, the third of whom I will describe last although Marlow finds him first.

The manager: the man placed in charge of managing all the stations and bringing out the ivory. He is a man without feeling, a man who only looks after the profit, who sees the natives as a pool of labor not quite human, to be exploited as one would put an ox to a yoke to plow a field.

The scenes of death that are described are stunning. The grove of trees, where Marlow goes to escape the heat and finds natives, beaten or worked beyond the capacity of the human body to recover, lay dying. The clink of chains that bind together a group of men, fastened around their necks, as they are driven up the road with heavy burdens that they carry. The savage beating of a man, who accidentally set a fire that burned up a hut full of cheap goods for trade (calico and bolts of cloth), and the abandonment of that man to let him lie and die.

But we have not yet approached the heart, the residing place of darkness that Conrad is taking us to.

The second person is Kurtz, the man with high connections, the man who didn't have to go to Africa but did. He was slated for greatness, at the moment only an agent in the wood, but soon to take over the manager's position before going back to Europe to rise high in the Company.

Everyone knew of Kurtz, some admired his work with the natives but most scorned it.

Kurtz, who came to the colony with the high motive of civilizing the savages. (Now today, we would find that attitude objectionable, but at the time, it was seen as altruistic and noble.)

But dark rumors about Kurtz disturbed Marlow and tension is built as the story moves on: is he true to this ideal or what is he really doing?

Spoiler Alert! Stop reading now if you intend to read the book.

We find that Kurtz has been participating in unspeakable rites with the natives in the dark of night. He has not traded for ivory although he has sent down the river more ivory than all the other agents combined. No, he does not trade; he goes raiding for it. In other words, he steals it.

In those dark, midnight rituals, we find that Kurtz, who has a charismatic personality that finds expression in his voice, is allowing ... encouraging ... compelling the natives to pay him homage as a god.

In Kurtz, we find the heart of darkness and the message of Conrad. European colonizers, so superior in their smugness of civilization, are no better than these African people. The wilderness does that. Stripped of the structure of civilized society, those customs and laws built up over centuries, put into the wild, one must look into one's soul to find what is there ... if anything.

In the emptiness of Kurtz, who had nothing to resist becoming savage in his own way, Conrad accuses his society: Everything you imagine them to be--you are no better.

Postscript: While this is the accepted meaning of the novel, I have to wonder if Conrad himself understood it. The third character, which I have saved to the last, is the accountant. He dresses every day in a starched white collar, dazzling white linen shirt, snow white pants. It is not easy maintaining this standard. As Marlow recounts his tale decades in the future (so he has had time to evaluate each personality and decide upon it), this is the only one he admires. Reason? because the man maintained his standards. He was able to preserve his principles despite the degenerating influence of the environment.

BUT! the text also tells us that he was only able to do so by coercing a native woman into the necessary laundry practices. She was unwilling, but he made her do it. I hope you join me in recoiling at that. I would rather dress in rags than forcing anyone into labor that they do not want to do.

Second postscript: I took up this book because a colleague mentioned it. In the disturbing suicide of Anthony Boudain, it comes out that this was one of his favorite books. I leave this comment right here. Make of this fact what you will.

Summit in Singapore

Or maybe the Singapore Summit. Either way, it sounds like a great movie title.

The Kim-Trump summit. The Trump-Kim summit. The way those two names rattle together, it makes me wonder why all the pundits praising or condemning the meeting between the two leaders are missing on the great punning opportunity.

The Trumpkin summit. Wait, wasn't that the name of a dwarf in Narnia?

To borrow a Trumpian phrase, it was a big nothing-burger. They met, they talked, they ate; Trump showed off 'The Beast,' his presidential limo (this phrase did not originate with him), maybe in the hope that Kim Jong-Un would swap three nukes for it on the spot?

At the end, they issued a joint statement that said they would continue to talk, at least their staffs would.

Trump canceled U.S. participation in training exercises (can we stop calling them war games?) with South Korea's military, but that was a move he was planning to make anyway with the excuse of saving money. Well, yes, he does have a need to find DOD budget to fund his military parade. So he gave nothing away; he only tried to make it look like it was a concession to North Korea.

Given the history of both men to shake hands on an agreement and disavow it soon afterward with the claim that it did not mean what everyone took it to mean, the summit would not have done much regardless of what deal was made.

The real hope for progress is that all the issues have opened for discussion and negotiation. As I think over the past failures of the 6-way talks with North Korea, the ones that included Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea, it was the limitation of the talks to telling North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons or we would hurt them. We did, but they kept on.

None of the other issues were brought up. In March 2017, in the midst of the fire-and-fury and American-dotard exchange, when many were thinking that war would be the only way to resolve the situation, I advocated for renewing the talks. I was scorched by social media that the talks have not worked. I replied that we needed to think about what the other side needed and maybe offering an end to the war would be a good incentive.

No one thought it a good idea, but that is where we have progressed and that is a good thing. Has no one noticed that for all the threats, North Korea did not and has not fired a missile test toward the U.S. mainland, Hawaii, or even Guam?

The country is not led by a madman. He is a brutal dictator, he has murdered rivals to secure power, but he is not insane.

He has a need to secure his regime and that is what he wants. He realizes that, for him to achieve that, he needs to reduce the threat of war on the peninsula and to improve his country's economy.

If we keep those needs in mind, we have a chance to move ahead and make a huge reduction in the tension between the parties involved: both Koreas, Japan, and the U.S., which has the treaty obligations to defend both Japan and South Korea.

I am not naive and I am no Pollyanna, but I am optimistic that we could achieve a breakthrough in the coming years.

Postscript: the real wild card in this is China. North Korea depends upon China in most ways, yet resists its influence. How far can Kim Jong-Un go given China's goals in the region? They have backed him because North Korea is a useful check on American power and influence in the region. the last thing China will accept is a complete rapprochement between the U.S., its allies, and North Korea. Reunification is out of the question.

China's purpose is to use their economic power and developing military power to push the United States out of the eastern Pacific, maybe, in their most optimistic dreams, all the way across the Pacific back to our western shores.

Will China support or sabotage talks to reduce tensions, formally end the war, and relieve sanctions in a return for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula?

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Teacher Appreciation, Year Three

It's that time of year again. Grumpy, old teacher is back, but has more to say than in previous years because he has more than one audience in mind.

In anticipation of Teacher Appreciation Week, when (in theory) the public, parents, maybe students, never legislators (with sincerity), and you will die if you hold out for a sincere appreciation from Betsy Devos, tell teachers how great they are, before we get there, this grumpy, old teacher first wants to say whom he appreciates.

1. Custodians who clean the room daily. Students are messy even when they are not doing it deliberately: paper dropped on the floor, gum stuck under the desk, all types of refuse put into all the wrong places because it's too much trouble to get up and walk to the trash can to drop it in. Every day you sweep it up and carry it out. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do to keep my classroom clean.

2. Cafeteria workers who feed children daily. Students often do not eat before they reach school, sometimes their choice, sometimes they have no food to eat, sometimes things happen. You make sure they have hot and nutritious food to eat. At my school, you make sure the milk is not spoiled and the fruit is not rotten. You make sure that no child comes to my classroom hungry and unable to learn. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do to feed my students.

3. Security personnel. Students need continual urging to get to class on time, to get back to class when out for a bathroom break, and intervention when their emotions get the better of them. You keep our students safe. You come when a student melts down in the classroom to take them out so they can recover. Your eyes constantly watch our perimeter for intruders who do not belong on campus. More than that, you establish relationships with students so they feel comfortable sharing their concerns and fears with you. Because of that, we head off most trouble before it can start. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do to keep our students safe.

4. Caring administrators. You may have moved up the ranks, but you have kept your teacher's heart. You remember what it's like to teach, to struggle with reluctant learners, to deal with all the problems that walk in the door that have nothing to do with school, and you do not blame teachers. You support them. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do to support his efforts to create an environment where children choose to learn.

5. Counselors always at the ready. I detect the problems, but don't have time to find solutions. Often, it is far beyond a classroom teacher's ability or resources to help a child despite the desire to do so. When I bring someone to your attention, you go to work. You find counseling for a child stuck in grief, you deal with the trauma of their personal life's situation, you probe when we know something is going on but we don't know what, you give advice for success, you have the time that I do not. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do to provide students with a support system that they need.

6. Office clerks who keep the school running. You deal with all the needs of the school and children: administering medicine, tracking tardies, answering the phone, meeting parents, checking to see that people who show up to take a student are authorized to do so, maintaining records ... if you were not around, the system would dump all those tasks on teachers. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do so he can focus on teaching.

7. Parents who do not blame teachers when children do not perform according to expectations. We are a team and you know that. You don't call the school to complain about me; you call me so we can discuss how to help your child. You recognize we have the same goal: the success of your child. You cannot do what I do, but I cannot do what you do. You are the most significant person in your child's life, even if your child is a teenager and is busy telling you that you no longer matter (hint: the louder the protest, the more you know it is not true), and your support makes all the difference. I can't make a child do homework, I can only record a failing grade, but you can AND you do. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all the ways you support him.

8. Lastly, the public who supports a robust, strong public education system of schools. I'm not talking about fake public schools (charters). I'm talking about the real thing. You call legislators, you hold school board members accountable, you don't have children in the system any longer but are happy to pay the taxes needed to support public education because you realize its crucial role in supporting our society. Thank you. This teacher appreciates the support you provide.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Oklahoma! Where the Teachers Beg for Art Supplies

I'm not sure how to react to the story: OK Teacher posts pic of broken chair.

People have donated $44,000 worth of supplies in response.

Part of me is amazed and grateful at the support Americans provide to public education, willing to go beyond the cheap parsimony of state legislatures that have been defunding public schools for two decades in the hopes that ALEC, the Koch Brothers, Eli Broad, and others will bless their careers and give them new opportunities to build personal wealth through power.

Much of me is angry that this is what we have come to.

In my school, we can't get enough desks for our classrooms; therefore, another teacher and I pass desks between our classrooms every day to accommodate the number of students that will be in the room.

I have broken furniture that will not be replaced. Every teacher does. For the lucky few who get noticed, go viral with a social media post, and are blessed with an abundance of donations, I am very happy.

But I will note that for every one of those, there are a thousand teachers who go without.

See, that's the problem with private charity. It does its best, but it can't be as effective as a comprehensive, universal effort that is fair to all. That takes government and that takes taxes.

Private charity is controlled by the donor. Donors are generous, but they also act according to their beliefs, their histories, and their life histories.

I hate to say it, but the racial dynamics of our country come into play. We are much more likely to be generous with someone who looks like us than someone who does not.

That's why we have a government bound by constitutional principles (equal protection under the law and due process, among others) that must be fair. Even with those principles in place, we don't live up to the promise.

Sadly, though, this is what we have come to--teachers must beg for help. Nobody seems to question it. I know a lot of teachers who maintain Go Fund Me accounts. There are enough teachers doing such fundraising that school districts are reacting with prohibitions. I guess it's too embarrassing for them. However, I have never heard of a district banning Go Fund Me that hands a teacher a $5,000 expense account for classroom supplies, either.

Does your doctor have a Go Fund Me for bandages, syringes, and rubbing alcohol? Does your accountant have a Go Fund Me for a laptop computer and adding machine tape? Does your auto mechanic have a Go Fund Me for tools, motor oil, and antifreeze? Does your hairdresser have a Go Fund Me for combs, curlers, and hair dye? Does your bus driver, even a school bus driver, have to have a Go Fund Me to put gas in the bus?!

When did we accept that this is the norm for a teacher's life?

I've made up my mind. I appreciate the generosity of Americans, but this story makes me angry.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Planet of Exiles (Ursula Le Guin)

Ursula Le Guin was a science-fiction author whose works, written in the 1960s and 1970s, were said to lift the genre to a new level of excellence much in the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien did for the fantasy genre.

Planet of Exiles is a story of two different peoples, one light-skinned and one dark-skinned, who are faced with a crisis of existence and must find a way to work together or perish. Given that the author penned the work in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement, the choice to make the two peoples black and white cannot be a coincidence or anything other than a well-thought-out choice.

Without spoiling the story for you (and I recommend that you read it), I will mention many of the features of the plot that examine and perhaps turn on its head what we experience in our race relations.

Most notable is how both peoples regard themselves as human and the other as something less even though they both share the same body form and function with the same intelligence. Le Guin lets us wonder until halfway through the novella when we learn that the black people are immigrants to the planet from the League of All Worlds. That reference clues the reader to her first book, where the League of All Worlds is the interplanetary allegiance and government formed by humans from Earth after they colonized other planets.

The black people have the true claim to the label 'human.' They call the white people, native to the planet, hilfs. As the League humans explored planets, they catalogued the species they found. Hilf means a highly intelligent life form. When the white people hear the acronym, they bristle as they think it is an insult.

The black immigrants are immune to the diseases that plague the native peoples. This is explained by a doctor that both people are almost identical in their genome. There is only one variation, but it is enough so that the immigrants cannot be sickened by the planet's bacteria and viruses. However, it also prevents the two races from conceiving a child together.

Both peoples are under threat from another life form that is retreating through their lands into southern places as a long winter is arriving. (The planet's orbit around its sun results in seasons that we are told last for 24 years of our time.) These Gaal are doing something new. Instead of raiding and passing through, picking off the vulnerable but avoiding the strongholds of walled cities, they are organized and attacking the cities. The Gaal are committing genocide and taking over the cities.

A black leader proposes an alliance with the white people. But it goes awry due to a love affair between the leader and a white girl. As a result, the only chance both peoples have to turn aside the Gaal is squandered as the white people react with rage and refuse to cooperate.

Later, as the Gaal sack the white city, the black people attack them and rescue as many white people as possible. They regard it as an essential responsibility that springs from their very humanity.

As the story ends, the doctor and others are left to wonder at the disease that is claiming the lives of their people wounded in the battles with the Gaal. A young white woman, the lover and now wife of the black leader, explains that they are observing the planet's diseases kill.

Does that mean that the black humans are evolving? Does that mean that the black leader and wife will be able to conceive children after all? Is that a good thing? How will both peoples react?

Le Guin leaves us wondering as we finish the last page of her story.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Witches Were White

Now that's a tease of a headline!

Yet it's what I heard in the hallway--one of those moments when people don't think they are being overheard.

A student was complaining about the movie, A Wrinkle in Time. That's the movie for which I offered extra credit if students went to see it a few weeks ago.

I had a purpose for the movie viewing beyond the mathematical angle (I am a math teacher, for those who don't know me.) I wanted students exposed to the interpretation of a well-known and much-loved story by an African-American female director and to see an African-American female in the lead role as well as supporting roles.

I wanted students to see a fresh and different perspective on the story and wondered if that would challenge their assumptions.

I promoted my offer with a movie poster prominently displayed on my hall bulletin board.

"The movie was terrible. [I am paraphrasing.] In the book, the witches were white. They had a black witch. She was a bad actor. They ruined the story ..."

The student's friend, to whom she was complaining, shushed her. He was trying to tell her to be quiet--don't let her race-based complaint be heard lest it bring trouble.

Unknown even to her, the student's complaint was race-based. She didn't like the fact that there were black actors playing roles that she imagined were white characters when she read the book.

In a way, I rattled her worldview and that is part of the job of a teacher: make kids think more deeply about what beliefs they have absorbed from their subculture. In another way, it shows the challenge we have in building a better society.

The witches were white. I too have read the book and no, Madeleine L'Engle never specified a race for the witches. It is the privilege of the dominant race of a society that everyone, including the minority members, will assume that the characters of a book are from the race of the dominant race of the society.

Even if the book had said the witches were white but someone had a new vision and changed that attribute, why would someone complain?

People, we have work to do.

After my first year at my current school, my principal gave me a 'needs improvement' rating in one area: knowing the background of my students. That really surprised me because of all the teachers at my school, I am one of the few, a very few, who thinks about my students, who they are, and how their personal histories play into the dynamics of the classroom.

It took me a long time to figure out that what he meant was that I was not using data (test data.) Actually, I was but he didn't know. When I showed him the research I did on my students, the rating changed for the next year.

I brought it up in my annual review meeting the following year: how it took me a while to figure out what he meant, that I was one of the most culturally aware ('woke' in the current linguistic coin) of his teachers. He replied that he did not think there was a problem regarding the interactions between white people and black people at the school.

For the record, my principal is black.

But we do have a problem, the same problem of all America, that when white and black people interact, the racial history of our country plays a role in how we hear and understand one another.

(Please do not try to figure out what school I teach at and who is who. I am trying to address a larger issue.)

In my school system, in my county, in my state, a southern state with a complicated and difficult history of race relations, we don't want to address this. We would rather pretend that the color of the skin doesn't matter; we treat everyone the same. Nothing more needed.

Except we hear the whispers in the hall: the witches were white.

It's time to stop the pretense. It's time to stop avoiding the painful conversations that must take place if we want to move forward and establish a more just society.

The witches aren't white. They are only what you imagine them to be.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Reflections on the Last Few Days

I. I admit it. I'm the weird one. Long before Parkland, long before Sandy Hook, long ago I began the practice of keeping my classroom door locked and closed at all times. What makes me weird is that I do not allow anyone except me to open the door.

You read that correctly. I answer the door, not students, not teenagers, not children. ME. Only me.

Teens see a classmate or friend through the window and throw the door open not stopping to realize that someone they cannot see may be ready to come through the door.

Only me.

It's routine for me. I hear a knock or a student alerts me that there's someone at the door. I go to the door, scan as much of the hallway as I can, assess the situation, and make the decision. If I make the wrong decision, I'm the one in the doorway dealing with it while my students jump out the window as fast as they can.

Weird ol' Mr. Sampson. It's the best I can do to keep my room secure.

II. Calls and plans for school walkouts have begun. Three days are mentioned: March 14, April 20 (anniversary of Columbine), and May 1. I have made no decision as to what I will do. I could be fired if I walk. At 60 years of age, it will be difficult to find another job and 60 is too early to retire. But a moment has arrived where one must make a decision whether to stand up and be counted.

Enough about me. This is a call for civil disobedience and that is what I will help students understand. There are times when rules and laws must be disobeyed, either because the laws and rules themselves are immoral or because something of tremendous importance requires action that would normally not be considered.

Students taking action, demanding change, demanding reasonable laws, insisting that their lives be protected, organizing protests in whatever form, walk-out, sit-in, or a march, these students are making the decision to engage in civil disobedience for a cause that matters: their lives.

There will be consequences and they need to understand that. That's the point of civil disobedience: authorities impose consequences until they are so shamed by the lack of resistance that they cannot ignore the issue anymore.

Remember these days: March 14, April 20, May 1.

III. You cannot enter the U.S. Capitol Building without undergoing a screening of your belongings and passing through a metal detector. Congress Protects Itself

Yet those senators and representatives won't even try to engage in writing laws to protect schoolchildren.

IV. Out of thousands of responses I've read over the past two days, I've only found two teachers saying, "Hell, yes , let me have a gun."

I'd like to say no teacher is saying that, but I have to be factual.

That almost no teacher wants a deadly weapon in their classroom should give all the self-appointed experts, who think because they once went to school they know everything about education, pause.

V. We can stop these tragedies. But it takes the will to do so. It takes the ability to find solutions and do it! It takes giving up all the divisions that our elite have devised to keep us apart and fighting when we the people should come together, give the elite the boot, and "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." (Preamble to the United States Constitution, 1788)