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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part V

The Old Fortress of Havana, in Habana Vieja

Sometimes it’s missed in all the political nonsense, but there was a Cuba before the revolution.  That Cuba was the focus of today’s tour of Old Havana, or Habana Vieja.

San Cristobal de la Habana, Havana’s full name, was founded in 1515 and started out as a launching pad for future Conquistadors such as Hernan Cortes, Hernando De Soto and Francisco de Coronado.  King Phillip II of Spain designated Havana an official city in 1592, and it soon became one of the biggest cities in the Americas, third behind Lima and Mexico City.  The great Spanish treasure fleet, the armada of ships laden with gold and silver from across the continent, gathered in Havana’s harbor for the annual journey to Spain.  It also became the center for sugar, coffee, tobacco and especially the African slave trade.

Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, features many of the important buildings that harken to Cuba’s glorious (and not so glorious) colonial past.  The narrow lanes, colonial and neo-classical architecture, and cobblestone squares have undergone extensive renovations, making it the most tourist-friendly area in the whole city. 

That’s the problem.  Old Havana, being landmarked, has few, if any, actual Cubans in it.  They just didn’t fit with the tourist model, I guess.  Most tourists, after all, look to get away from reality, and the everyday Cuban’s existence is way too fucking real.

So Old Havana is your slightly Disneyfied version of itself.  It has the look and feel of a Latin Colonial Williamsburg sans the goofy actors that would make it a ghastly idea: “And on your left, folks, is Padre Eduardo baptizing a heretic before he is burned alive.  On your right you’ll see our friendly slave auctioneer, Pablo, with a new crop of young bucks from the Gambia.  Say Hola to the nice people, Pablo!”

It got even goofier when we reached the Hostel Ambos Mundos, a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway.  Now, there’s a lot to like about Hemingway: his terse writing style, his depressing dramatic arc, his propensity to find gin bottles in all sorts of places. 

Yet the Ambos Mundos was a little too Hemingway—too terse (it was smaller than I thought), too depressing (did you see the tourists?  And their black socks?) and the gin bottles were neatly stacked next to the Havana Club Rum.  I could see why he moved to Idaho in 1960, to eventually enjoy a date with the business end of a 12-gauge.

With one look at the pathetic “Papa” look-alike out front taking pictures with tourists, I could’ve used a 12-gauge as well.

 One sight that was somewhat of a relief was a working church.  Since John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Cuba has enjoyed a good deal of religious freedom.  Churches, synagogues, even mosques were advertising their services openly.  The Cathedral of Havana, dating from the 1700s, is the center of Catholic life on the island—a life that was officially put on hold for quite a few years.   

They were advertising Good Friday services, which tells me there’s more than one bearded revolutionary that Cubans listen to.

Once the Presidential Palace. Now the Museum of the Revolution.

For some interesting armaments—and a good laugh—try the Museum of the Revolution, only a minute or two by bus from Old Havana.  The Museum of the Revolution was once the Presidential Palace, from 1926 until 1959, and looks pretty much as it did when the July 26th guys came in 1959, signaling a change in management.  The first floors have the old presidential office and cabinet room, to show just what kind of a bastard was Cuba’s last pre-revolutionary president, Fulgencio Batista.

Left or right, there is no argument that Fulgencio Batista was a colossal prick and a real asshole.  Batista was president during two stretches of time, from 1933-1944 and 1952-1959.  He basically ran the show behind the scenes between these two stretches.  He became a typical Latin-American strongman: silencing all opposition, curbing civil rights, engorging himself on government funds meant for public programs, and worst of all, enriching himself off of corrupt deals with American companies and American organized crime figures such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.

Batista's Office. Prick never saw it coming.

Even the US—which will tolerate ANYONE so long as they don’t utter the “C” word (hint—it’s not cancer)—couldn’t stomach Batista much longer.  So it was a relief, somewhat, when he fled into exile on New Years Day of 1959. 

The story of that movement is told throughout the rest of the museum, often in interesting and amusing ways.  One thing I appreciated was the dioramas of the 1953 Moncada barracks attack, and the 1958 Santa Clara offensive.  Nobody makes good dioramas anymore, with the neat cardboard roofs and trees topped with green sponge—although a couple of the roofs need to be replaced.

The Wall of Cretins is definitely a must-see, especially if you’re a fan of bad caricatures from the early 1990s.  On the wall are overwrought cartoons of Batista in his officer’s uniform, Ronald Reagan as a cowboy and George H. W. Bush looking sickly and prissy in Roman armor, which makes me wonder whether there are Cuban agents in Skull and Bones.  

Take a look outside, towards the back, and there sits a fair amount of military vehicles surrounding the crown jewel of Cuba: the Granma, the boat that took the boys home in 1956 to begin the revolution.  It’s surrounded by glass and guards, although the T-34 tank and the fighter wings had no such protection.   I dared not ask if the Granma was available for charters during the daytime.  I didn’t see any fighting chairs on the back, either.

The Granma. Unfortunately it isn't open for charters or "booze cruises."

Yet the revolutionary lovefest can get downright silly.  The Che wing (like you didn’t expect one) is off the main route and is lit in an eerie low light.  His effects are displayed in a box as if in a funeral parlor.  Yet the commanding feature of the room is its goofiest.  Dominating the room is a giant diorama scene of two life-sized figures—Che Guevara and his buddy Camilo Cienfuegos—plodding through the jungle.   The whole image smacked of the natural history museum: two Cro-Magnon men with fatigues and automatic weapons.

 I haven’t yet mentioned much about Camilo Cienfuegos, but he definitely forms a Cuban “trinity”, if you will, with Che and Fidel.  Cienfuegos is something of a good-ole-boy character in the revolutionary story: not as ideologically tight-assed as Che, nor as militarily tight-assed as Fidel.  Cienfuegos was famous for his good humor, rapport with regular Cubans, and his reckless courage (he preferred to fight standing up, rather than ducking for cover). 

When early man refuses to work for a living... (it's too easy)

In a sense, he embodies all Cubans: good-hearted, sociable with a high degree of solidarity that makes one lose all sense of reason or logic.

Logic does pop up, however, in a more sinister way.  All through the museum, I kept wondering why we needed to drive two minutes to a museum that was clearly within walking distance.  A jaunt down the blocks from the palace revealed why.  Remember that tourism in Cuba is designed to keep reality as far away as possible from the tourist, and that neighborhood was all too real. 

Dilapidated old buildings.  Apartments with, little, if any, furnishings.  Locals milling around or walking to and fro, in what looked like hand-me-down clothes from a decade earlier.  A sign saying that “Water was coming Sunday,” which may or may not have been wishful thinking.

The local store, however, topped it all.  It just didn’t seem like a store.  There were a few meal sacks, a scale, and an old lady behind empty shelves and a giant chalkboard.  On this chalkboard had beans, coffee, sugar, corn, cooking oil – all commodities rationed to all Cubans.  Yet there were what I thought were dates, and I pray to God that they weren’t.  If so, then this shop hasn’t seen coffee since January.  Same with sugar, probably the same with corn.

The place that promised water for Sunday.

This was not a place to spend CUCs, unless you plan to subsidize a family for a month (which can be done with 20-25 CUC).

The cat was out of the bag a long time ago, so all this wasn’t that surprising.  What amazed me was the effort it took to actually AVOID this place.  If you’re ashamed of something so much, I guess you’ll go to any lengths to not confront the situation.

Yet there’s no time for too much contemplation—our chariot waited for another visit with functionaries.  After lunch, we went to the Friendship House, a house with a tragic love story too convoluted to remember, but was now home of the tour company and also the institute that is its parent company, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, or ICAP.  ICAP’s purpose is to promote “in all possible ways the relationships of friendship towards Cuba.” 

This seemed sincere enough.  The Friendship House staff were very nice, and the two speakers who spoke about ICAP were very friendly and open to our questions—even mine, which at that point needed to be asked. 

In America, if you call for the end of the Cuban embargo, certain words are thrown in your direction: commie, leftist, pinko, granola, hippie, drape-smoker, dopehead, Castro-lover, Che-lover, socialist pig, etc. etc.  Frankly, the ending of the embargo labels you an outsider, an outcast, and a freak.

 I am none of the things above.  In fact, I was probably the cop that put you in jail for being these things. 

Yet it is becoming clear to me (and to others in power as well) that the embargo does nothing but cement Fidel in power as he uses it as his bogeyman to scare Cuba into submission.  Although I see a different conclusion, I do have a similar objective.

Frankly, groups like mine, in large part, are already affirming what they believe.  It was mostly preaching to the choir—and a loud choir, at that.  To them, I’m the greaser out back revving my Harley during the Ave Maria while smoking a joint and fingering Mary O’Shaughnessy from St. Agnes down the street. 

Now I’m going to sound really arrogant, but I’m being as fair as I can.  If this embargo is to be lifted, its guys like me that have to be convinced.

 Even though the “direct action,” is noble and can often get the attention of people in power, the guys like me have a more direct “in.” We know the people in power, went to school with the children of the people in power, and have more direct access to actual powerbrokers.  Jose Serrano and Bernie Sanders may listen to the Venceremos brigade, but real power in Washington see them as a nuisance, not as a viable policy option.

So I asked the nice ladies if ICAP were spearheading any efforts to get conservatives like me to come research Cuba, and (this wasn’t said, obviously) conservatives who resent the fact that they must listen to official rhetoric at 3 in the afternoon without the requisite rum sloshing.

The translator issued my demands, the ladies smiled and gave a confusing answer that I forgot (even though I understand Spanish).  Asking the others, my question wasn’t answered—not like I was actually expecting a straight answer.

A little counter-revolution: capitalist merchandising at the Plaza of the Revolution.

The last stop was at the Plaza of the Revolution, the center of Cuba’s revolutionary government.  It’s a plaza in the academic sense of the term, in that it’s a common space between a lot of important landmarks.   Basically, it’s a paved lot in front of the grotesquely huge Marti Monument, and facing one of the most fearsome buildings in Cuba—the Ministry of the Interior, or MININT. 

The front of the building has a huge wrought-iron rendering of the famous Korda photograph of Che Guevara.  This made perfect sense: in the early days, Che was responsible, along with Raul Castro, of rounding up and “administering justice” to dozens of Batista apparatchiks—justice largely administered through a 7.62 mm slug straight to the temple. 

The Interior Ministry. Where snitches give stitches (Thanks, Britton for the quip)

The guards in front were nervous about me taking pictures of the place.  Maybe they wanted to drown out the torture sessions inside, where counterrevolutionaries are subject to full-length Bertolt Brecht plays in the original German followed by generous choruses of Guantanamera.  That would make any man talk.  I’d start after Act I of Mother Courage (note the forced irony).

The night brought more important concerns.  If the revolutionary rhetoric didn’t brainwash me, the sports hysteria certainly did—I was concerned about my Industriales.  Industriales of Havana was playing game 7 of the national baseball championship with Villa Clara, and any nighttime excursion will involve this game somewhere. 

Mr. D affirming his Cuban baseball affiliation.

Industriales basically equates to the New York Yankees of Cuba.  Since its inception after the revolution, Industriales had been Cuban champion 11 times and were looking for ring # 12.  According to the bartender at the Riviera, our first stop, the team has suffered from a piss-poor bullpen, thus forcing this final game. 

By the time we got to a music club in Miramar, the game was well into extra innings, and the dance floor was not as packed as Cubans crammed into the side bars to watch the game.  The gaggle of whores approached once, but then kept their distance.  We were of a different mind that night—can the Lions of the Prado win against the bumpkins from Santa Clara?  And why was I giving a shit about a 7-hour ballgame by amateurs that can’t turn a decent double play?

On the last out of the game, the place exploded.  People were hugging, kissing, high-fiving all over the place.  The DJs and the band suddenly sprouted blue Industriales gear and chanted their praises well into the night.  Even the hookers seemed happy, though it could be because the tourists would be shelling out more in this celebratory mood.

We continued dancing for an hour or two more.  It was an awesome time.

For one night, being in Cuba seemed downright normal, even in spite of the lunacy of daylight.

For Part VI, we’ll see a “literacy museum”, a visit with a Castro, my first encounter with dissidents as well as my most counter-revolutionary act to date.

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The Devil and Jeff Spicoli: A Response to Sean Penn and Hugo Chavez

Mr. Hand: Am I hallucinating here? Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?
Jeff Spicoli: Learning about Cuba, and having some food.    – from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Sean and Hugo: It's like the blind and dumb leading the blind and dumb, only with guns and petroleum.

Like his stoner counterpart, Sean Penn has been spending time learning about other countries, often with food involved. 

Not only is he learning about Cuba, but also Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, Bolivia…

The problem is that Sean’s been paying a little too much attention to his Marxist hosts, and thus spreading a deciding one-sided view of these socialist “paradises”.  He is actually making some more gullible folks think that these places are actually “better” than us.  Better than the United States that raised him, gave him a film career and allowed him to speak his mind in between his insufferably self-serving film roles. 

Nowhere is Sean more deluded than in the bailiwick of his friend Hugo Chavez, Venezuela.

Unlike most socialist shitholes, I have a visceral connection with Venezuela.  In the 1950s and 1960s, a slew of European immigrants, largely from Spain and Italy, came to Venezuela to work on their burgeoning public works projects.  Many Italians from all over the country left postwar Europe for rosier opportunities in Latin America.

Some of these Italians included my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins and my father, who spent six years in Caracas before emigrating to the US.

The best recurring themes from my kin are the days when Venezuela was—gasp—not a shithole.  To Italian immigrants, Venezuela was a promised land with perfect weather and endless job opportunities thanks to a government that welcomed outsiders.  It made sense: the name of the place means “little Venice”, after all—too bad the only things the two places have in common today are a fetid stench and a constant sinking feeling.

So my view of Venezuela’s situation is decidedly cloudy.  I still have family there, and the situation there worries me on a personal level that could obscure my judgment.

 That doesn’t mean, however, that Sean Penn isn’t full of shit.

This week, Sean appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO and discussed his efforts in Haiti (Very commendable).  Inevitably, the subject turned to Hugo Chavez and media coverage of his regime (not so commendable).  In essence, Sean wants the media to provide more favorable coverage to this balloon head, and to jail any reporter who says otherwise.

How un-democratic. 

It’s time for me to be the Mr. Hand that finally straightens out Jeff Spicoli.  Sean made three points that are particularly irritating considering his subject matter.  Let’s tear them apart one by one.

Lie # 1: Chavez should not be called a “dictator.”

The first, and arguably the most bogus, is the whining about the media continually calling Chavez a “dictator.”  The dictionary defines a dictator as “a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.” 

Chavez, a former coup plotter, was elected president in 1998.  He then ordered a massive revision of the constitution in 1999, granting him sweeping new powers and packing the legislature and courts with his supporters.  He suppresses free expression.  He rigs judicial procedures against political opponents.  His favorites control the armed forces.  His political apparatus resembles a totalitarian surveillance regime that is slowly creating a police state.

Sean, if that’s not a dictator, I don’t know what is.  If you don’t like the term, here are a few that you may like:

Chancellor, First Consul, Princeps, Chairman, Prime Minister, General Secretary, or Generalissimo

These titles were worn proudly by such democratic luminaries as Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Caesar Augustus, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin and Francisco Franco.  All of them dictators, almost all of them rotting in a dank corner of hell.  Pretty much all of them would re-assess their role as being truly a dictator, if given the opportunity.  Hitler may be reluctant, but Joe Stalin would straighten him out.

Don’t believe me?  Human Rights Watch, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, stated in their country report on Venezuela in January that

“President Hugo Chávez and his supporters have effectively neutralized the independence of Venezuela’s judiciary. In the absence of a judicial check on its actions, the Chávez government has systematically undermined journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and the ability of civil society groups to promote human rights.”

He even uses the guise of democracy to exercise his dictatorial control.  Many left-wing pundits laud a certain aspect of the regime as the epitome of participatory democracy—the “Bolivarian circles”, and later the “Bolivarian Missions.”  The regime would have you believe that these circles are community groups coordinated to solve common problems.  The missions, furthermore, are outreach organizations to other areas of Venezuelan life.

Don’t be fooled.  I’ve seen these “circles” and missions before.  They are very effective in identifying and reporting on political opponents, much like the block captains and revolutionary committees in Cuba. 

One mission, the Mission Miranda, is particularly disturbing.  It is a civilian militia trained to defend the country in an emergency.  More likely, he’s arming his poor, deluded supporters into being cannon fodder in case the “inevitable” US-backed right-wing military coup was to take place.

Lie # 2: elections in Venezuela are “free and fair.”

Sean stated on Monday that Chavez was elected in the freest election in the hemisphere.  On the surface, he seems to be right.  In the elections between 2002 and 2009, political opponents were able to field candidates and campaign.  A lively debate ensued.  Outside monitors were in place to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. 

Yet Sean, in his naïveté, refuses to acknowledge that old Hugo would subtly stack the deck in his favor—and often not so subtly.

The 2002 and 2006 presidential elections, the 2005 legislative contests, and the 2009 referenda on constitutional amendments were all deemed “free and fair” by various international groups, including the Carter Center.  Yet each had widespread allegations of vote tampering, harassment of opponents, oppressive and biased media coverage, constitutional arm-twisting, and outright fraud.

The best example of this is the 2005 legislative election, in which seats for Chavez’ rubber stamp national assembly were contested.

After the 2002 elections, an attempted coup briefly deposed Chavez.  He quickly regained power and exerted even harsher pressure on opposition candidates than before.  Due to this more repressive climate, as well as tactics by the national election board to tamper with voting machines and disqualify candidates on trumped-up charges, the majority of the opposition boycotted the 2005 elections in protest.

The result was a “free and fair” election with just 25% turnout.  With the consent of a fraction of the Venezuelan people, with political opponents boycotting the proceedings, Chavez’s cronies gained 116 of the 167 seats in the legislature—enough to change the constitution at will.

Would we allow this in any other setting?  Would Duke automatically win a national championship if Kentucky forfeited in protest because of biased ACC officials?  Would the Red Sox simply be given a World Series ring because other teams refuse to play in a hopelessly biased Fenway Park? 

The election itself may have been conducted correctly—orderly lines, few machine mishaps, a transparent tabulation system.  Yet the circumstances behind that election show that many Venezuelans had no illusions that this system was either free or fair. 

But what about 2007, you may ask?  The 2007 referendum defeat that would have given Chavez unlimited terms of office and even more powers?  Let’s just say Hugo wasn’t going to overreach twice.

What few people realize is that Chavez got those term limits lifted, albeit quietly, in February 2009, in a referendum that many Venezuelans claim violated the very constitution Chavez forced down their throats ten years earlier. 

Yeah, Chavez really loves to play by the rules.  You have to admire a guy that is so hungry for power, he’s willing to break the same rigged rules he put in place before.

Lie # 3: Opponents of Chavez are content with oppression of the poor

Finally, Sean seems to think that Chavez is something of a zero-sum argument.  If you don’t support him, then you don’t support the poor, and you’re some kind of capitalist monster.  I would prefer not to be lumped with Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, thank you.

Let’s be fair.  Something had to be done about the poverty in Venezuela, and numerous administrations since the 1920s have done little, if anything, to provide even a modicum of hope in their desperate lives.  Chavez, at least on paper, is an advocate for Venezuela’s underclass and counts on them as a base of support—one that has turned out in droves for him at the polls.

Now let’s see what he delivered.  There have been, I’ll admit, modest improvements in the quality of life of some poor Venezuelans: NOT all, but some.  Yet the cost of this “revolution” is disastrous.

Venezuela’s crime rate is at its highest point in its history.  The gap between rich and poor, rather than shrinking, is now wider than ever.  Nationalization measures have wrecked havoc in all major industries—even PDVSA, the state oil monopoly, which dared to defy Chavez a few years back with a threat of a strike.  2010 will be the second year in a row in which the Venezuelan economy has contracted.  Its once-vaunted infrastructure is crumbling to ruins, with rolling blackouts and abandoned roadways.  What little revenue exists is placed in pet projects, corrupt politicians, and ill-advised “relief” programs that the country cannot afford.

He’s been in power since 1998.  That’s twelve years.  We don’t give our presidents 100 days to fix things, and he’s been given three of our presidential terms.  Don’t you think the poor should be fed up with this?

Yet why don’t the poor rise up to throw out Chavez?  It’s probably because the opposition has their thumb up their butts, too.  The official opposition is a loose conglomeration of about a dozen parties, mostly the groups that used to run the show before 1998.  Not only is their opposition fractured, their message is one not even conservatives in the US want to hear: a return to the “good old days” of pre-1998. 

The one thing that Chavez did that should be acknowledged is to bring the plight of Venezuela’s poor into sharp focus.  Whoever succeeds him, whether they are from the left or right, must take their situation as part of the agenda, not shunt it aside as in generations past.

So Sean, you have every right to say what you say.  That’s the beauty of America.  It’s also something you can’t do at your buddy’s country.  Yet I also have the right to respond you your inane nonsence.

Therefore, my response to you is this: you may be right that Chavez is an advocate of the poor, but that does not mean their “liberation” comes at all costs. 

If you were dictator of the good ole’ U S of A, Sean, would you be willing to sacrifice our Constitution, our basic civil rights, our infrastructure, our financial base, our military preparedness, our popular culture, YOUR lavish lifestyle, the lifestyle of your friends, artistic and intellectual freedom, and our standing in the world—simply to make it look like you care for the little guy?

Are you willing to give up your mansions, press junkets, interviews, signing fees, bloated contracts, agents, managers and publicists for the poor and destitute?

I didn’t think so.

Class dismissed, Mr. Spicoli.

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The National Head Count: The Weird History of the US Census

Most moments in our life involve some sort of head count.

On a field trip, a teacher routinely counts heads multiple times, in fear that little Juan stuck his hand in the Ming vase.  Schoolchildren need to divvy up teams, insofar as to distribute the fat, slow kids evenly and without favoritism.  During tax time, the more fertile couples take careful accounting of their kin, labeling each “Dependent # 1, Dependent # 2…”

So it goes that countries must periodically count heads.  The census, or the accounting of the population of a given area, has existed in some form or another since antiquity.  The word comes from the Latin censere, meaning “to estimate,” thus proving that even the ancients could fudge numbers with the best AIG accountants.

Without the census, there would be no Christmas—literally.  The historical record of Christ’s birth comes due to the census ordered by Augustus around the first decade CE (“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” – Luke 2:1).  In the Roman Republic, a periodic census would calculate the population of men fit for military service.  During the imperial period, a census took place in order to assess for taxation, which is why Joseph trudged to Bethlehem with his pregnant wife.  It makes for an interesting census questionnaire:

Members of household: Joseph: husband, Mary: wife, Jesus: son of God and basis for worldwide religion.

Assets: One donkey, carpentry tools, salvation for the world (or at least those who believe in the divinity of the third member of said household).

Race/Ethnicity: White, non-Hispanic (despite Hispanic-sounding name of third member of said household).”

Like our ancient brethren, America has also resorted to a counting of heads for official purposes.  Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution stipulates a regular, periodic census to apportion Representatives to the US Congress.

“The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” – Constitution of the United States, Article 1, Section 2.

The first census was conducted in 1790 and took a while to compile, as census takers—originally court officers and marshals—went from house to house, farm to farm collecting information.  From the August start date, the official reports would not be sent to Congress until 16 months later, October 27, 1791.  The delay was largely due to states lollygagging in collecting their data: I’m looking at you, South Carolina!   The original questionnaire looked like this:

  • Name of head of family
  • Number of free white males 16 and up, including heads of families
  • Number of free white males under 16
  • Number of free white females including heads of families
  • Number of all other free persons, except Indians not taxed
  • Number of slaves

Unfortunately, this was probably in hierarchical order.  The number of slaves was important, at least 60% of that number anyway, thanks to theThree-Fifths rule that counted “all other persons” as three-fifths for purposes of representation.

1850 Census from Springfield, Illinois, with Abraham Lincoln’s entry.

At first, only heads of households were listed, with aggregate numbers of family members.  By 1850, all household members were named, including slaves.  The 1850 and 1860 censuses had slave schedules attached, and got much more complicated.  The 1850 census questionnaire asked about race, sex, education, occupation, even “whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane or idiotic.”  I’ll leave it to you to guess how many Americans picked that last category.

Even though the census is necessary—and participation compulsory, although the penalty for non-compliance is a joke—many Americans regard the ritual with suspicion.  Many feel the US government uses census data to punish potential lawbreakers or tax cheats.  Others feel that it’s a method of social control.

None of these has turned out to be the case, yet one instance in particular has stung this image.

According to US law, no one — neither the census takers nor any other Census Bureau employee — is permitted to reveal identifiable information about any person, household, or business.  Like all laws, however, there were ways to get around them, particularly if you’re German, Italian or especially Japanese.  Just prior to our entry into World War II, the FBI used census data to compile a Custodial Detention Index, or CDI.  The index contained information of citizens, enemy aliens and foreign nationals who were considered a threat to national security—the “race” question on the census form really helped.  The internments of Japanese Americans, and a smaller number of Germans and Italians, came thanks to the little form we fill out every ten years.

Yet our census continues, and the 2010 census will begin in a little over a month.  Make sure you fill out that form—don’t worry, it’s shorter this year than in years past.  If you forget, the census taker may visit your house and take down your information.  You probably won’t get caught, but try not to lie: refusing to cooperate is a $100.00 fine, but lying on the census is a $500.00 fine.

And for God sakes, don’t say the joke about taking the census in a Polish village.   It’s for your own good.

The following links provide more information on our once-a-decade head count:

US Census Bureau — the agency responsible for the census.  A part of the Department of Commerce, these are the guys that send out those annoying forms.

2010 US Census — provides information about the current census, how it will be administered, the questionnaire, etc.  I’m still a little peeved that the form isn’t online yet.

Census in Schools — a site for teachers and students with lesson plans, printables and other information for the classroom.

Finally, for a good laugh, here’s the Three Stooges in their 1940 film “No Census, No Feeling.” Definitely fun to watch with students–especially the reactions to the ridiculous questions that were asked.  Enjoy.

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The Battle for the Textbook: Texas rewrites its social studies

I get a lot of use from my textbook. 

Whenever my LCD projector’s a bit too low, two or three Grade 4 texts oughta do the trick.

That is the extent to which I use these relics. 

The Information Age of the 21st Century has effectively rendered a textbook obsolete.  As soon as established theories and truths are set in paper before yawning students (who sign the inside cover along with drawings of the male member) alternate discoveries and revisions make them outdated even before they come to press. 

In spite of this, many districts across America continue with the hard-bound behemoths of our youth, and with good reason.  At least in math and science, they provide solid resources that can be preserved year after year.  On paper, this means saving on mountains of copying worksheets and more time copying useless memos.

Yet the composition of textbooks is a thorny issue, especially when it comes to social studies.  Deven Black recently sent me an article from the Texas Tribune entitled “Hijacking History.”  It details the sausage-like process of establishing standards, solidifying content and even copyediting of a state textbook for social studies. 

Texas’ education system is fairly unified in that the entire state uses the same set of textbooks.  It’s a huge state, so the publishers kill their own young to get the contract.  What goes into the textbooks, however, can often become a political tug-of-war between conservatives and liberals, as evidenced in the article.  This has tremendous implications for the classroom, as the struggle at the board level affects what is read in on the page.

Essentially, “Hijacking History” is about this left-right struggle, and how it affect s the whole process.  Take Joe McCarthy, for example.  Bill Ames, a conservative activist and member of one of the State Board of Education’s curriculum-writing committees, fights to “rectify” McCarthy’s legacy by including information about actual Communist infiltration in the US government. 

When it comes to including minority acheivements, the infighting can get downright petty.  Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez, for example, were supposed to allow space equally to Barry Goldwater and Billy Graham.  So Justice Marshall, who argued before the Supreme Court in 1954 to end segregation in public schools, has to share his shelf with a southern preacher who claims “voices” speak to him.

Look, even as a conservative, I don’t buy these arguments.  Yes, I know about the Communist infiltration.  McCarthy’s paranoia was somewhat justified–somewhat.  However, if in laying down wood a few planks must fall, then McCarthy let some real two-by-fours fly.  In the grand scheme of things, he did a lot of harm along with his good intentions. 

Don’t get me started on Billy Graham, it’s a no-brainer: Thurgood Marshall wins by a mile.

What amazes me, however, is the push for “American Exceptionalism.”  We’re going to tell students not only that the United States is the greatest, but also that it is immune to the heaves and throes of world history.  According to some really out-there right wing wierdos, the US, by divine design, cannot topple like the  empires of old.  A thousand year “reich”, perhaps? 

America will endure forever–Jesus said so.  And I know because he spoke to me in Dixie-accented English, just like he did in the Bible. 

What a crime.  What’s a bigger crime is that these inane arguments will somehow end up in a textbook that will be taken as gospel by thousands of educators too lazy to offer a dissenting viewpoint.

The lesson is clear: building a textbook, or a curriculum, is never easy.  You always end up pissing off somebody–believe me, I know.  The balance of ideas and viewpoints is important.  It is also important to include the voices of those Americans who have long been silent, either by force or by neglect.

  Be careful, though…there is such a thing as TOO fair.  Don’t let the facts get buried in the need for political compromise. 

 If you insist on using a textbook, please PLEASE understand that it isn’t Biblical truth.  Even the Bible isn’t biblical truth, for that matter, but I’ve pissed off the evangelicals enough for one night.  Always try to stress alternative viewpoints, especially if they do not necessarily mesh with your own.

If all else fails, use a textbook for what they’re best at–as a  paperweight.

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Teaching the Bill of Rights to those who Shouldn’t Use them Yet

ONE DAY LEFT FOR “HISTORY’S GREATEST ASSHOLE” CONTEST!  DON’T BE LATE!

Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal. He loved his Fifth Amendment

The Founding Fathers never counted on kids who know too much for their own good.

My students, in their urban-battleground existence in the Bronx, have seen enough bad situations to turn your Nantucket Reds a deep brown.   As much as they don’t want to admit it, their childhood has been accelerated.  They think grown-up thoughts, grown-up ideas, even grown-up vocabulary (especially what you can’t say in school.)

In spite of this, they are still children.  Still the ward of their parents. 

Now try to explain the Bill of Rights to them.  It’s as if you’re dangling the keys to a Porsche, yet you keep snatching it away until the drivers’ test.

The United States Bill of Rights, written in 1789 and ratified in 1791, outline the basic freedoms and rights enjoyed by all Americans.  It takes its rightful place among the faded parchment of our lore: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The Bill of Rights is also the most controversial of the three crinkly papers in the National Archives.  The exact meaning and extent of these rights is still hotly debated.  Conservatives want to go over the thing with White-Out and a Sharpie.  Liberals want to tack on another ream of paper covering everything from environmental awareness to Hacky-Sack regulations. 

Yet whatever your persuasion, one thing is clear: this is not kid stuff.  The Bill of Rights was meant for adults.

Many of your high-minded, Kum-Ba-Yah teachers of the granola type forget this mantra, with disastrous results.  After 30 minutes of finally getting a semblance of quiet from his little hellions, Mr. Patchouli diagrams how the Bill of Rights protects the freedom of everyone–even the students.  “That’s right, boys and girls, you have the right to say what you want, do what you want, read and write what you want…”

Think he’s getting his book reports on time anymore?  That science fair project ever get done?  How about the assessments he needs to perform his “data-driven instruction”? 

By January, this class has gone completely unhinged.  And all of them utter the same thing: “I’m allowed to!  It’s in the F***ing Bill of Rights!”

Many liberal-minded teachers are, unfortunately, like Mr. Patchouli.  They’re not bad people, and I’m sure they mean well.  Their problem is their audience–a pack of self-absorbed, out-of-control, feisty, moody, bored, defiant snot factories.   This is not the informed citizenry that Madison and Jefferson envisioned.  Yet these teachers treat them like adults, forgetting to be honest with them about their status.

So for those who must teach about American freedoms to children, here’s a step-by-step guide. 

AMENDMENT 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

This one is simple.  Make sure you stress two important caveats:

(1) You have all of these rights, but you can’t hurt anybody or cause anybody to get hurt.  (Conservatives can include caveats about Communism, terrorism, atheism, hippies, etc.  Liberals can include caveats about neo-Nazis, racists, Klansmen, fascism, capitalism, anyone remotely resembling Barack Obama, etc.)

(2) You’re a kid.  In school, at home, in life, you’re the property of adults until you’re 18.  You don’t have these rights yet.  Deal with it.

AMENDMENT 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

This one should be a no-brainer, just be careful of your students.  “Well-Regulated” is key: to legally own a gun, you have to abide by the gun ownership laws of your state.  The gun Ramon got “from his friend” who “just got out” probably doesn’t count.  Finally, for God’s sake, don’t mention Texas.

AMENDMENT 3: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

This antique of the Revolutionary War served a purpose.  Stress the bad things the British did to houses, money, furniture and goods when discussing the quartering situation to younger students.  In high school, mention what the redcoats did to women–that’ll perk up the back row.

AMENDMENT 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendments 4, 5, 6 and 8 are often grouped together.  I call them the “Law and Order/CSI/NCIS Amendments” since my kids probably know all these rights from these television programs, if not from their own experience.  Sit back and enjoy when your tough boy does his best Eliot Stabler impression and mimicks “tuning up” a suspect.

As for Amendment 4, this is when personal stories arise of families dealing with law enforcement.  If they’re guilty as sin, don’t tell it to the kid’s face.  Besides, he may get that gun he bought from Ramon and train its business end on you.

AMENDMENT 5: No person shall be held to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Few amendments have such legendary status as the fifth.  It’s chock full of protections for the accused, as well as the old eminent domain clause (to be avoided if in the Bronx, as the Cross-Bronx Expressway can be a touchy subject).  Just make sure they know that double jeopardy has nothing to do with the game show.  The “Right to Remain Silent” comes from this amendment. 

Finally, include a funny anecdote about “taking the fifth”, such as Las Vegas gambling kingpin Lefty Rosenthal invoking his rights 37 times to a Congressional subcommittee, thus earning his nickname.  Administrators love when teachers use organized crime: the RICO charts help kids with their organizational skills.

AMENDMENT 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

Kids may get the impression that this is how all criminal trials are conducted.  Well, “Assistance of Counsel for his defense” does not mean GOOD assistance of counsel.  Again, as before, try to avoid personal stories with Amendment 6.  Last thing you need was a fistfight over why a cousin got a 10-year bit due to a dumbass public defender screwing up their case.

 AMENDMENT 7: In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

This is why the Enron people, the Adelphia folks and Bernie Madoff could not go to Judge Judy–to our chagrin.

AMENDMENT 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

This is why we don’t have public flogging, disembowelment, breaking at the wheel, the stocks, the pillory, crucifixion, public beheadings, or body parts on pikes–don’t you just love the old days?

AMENDMENT 9: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

This is the “dumbass” amendment.  Opponents of the Bill of Rights thought that such a bill was nonsense because it would be impossible to list all the rights a person had.  What about slapping your little sister?  How about dressing in your mother’s nightgown on the street?  When a fat kid takes your Twinkie, do you have the right to belt him in his chubby kisser?

Obviously, you have other rights.  These aren’t all of the rights, and Amendment 9 takes care of that.  Now shut up and finish your long division, you little pissant!

AMENDMENT 10: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This is the one that caused a lot of trouble.  Southern rednecks thought this amendment gave them a green light to put on bedsheets and go buck-wild on blacks.  Some states thought it gave them carte-blanche to insert a prayer into public schools.  The fat kid invoked the Tenth as reason enough to take your Twinkie.

Legislation has taken a lot of the loopholes out of the Tenth, so much of the damage has been undone.  Thankfully.

Let me know how you do with this.  If there’s any questions about this method, let me know.  I’ll send that fat kid with the Twinkie.  That’ll straighten those little bastards out.

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Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy – A Life full of Lessons

Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy (1932-2009)

I was never a huge fan of Ted Kennedy, even when he was useful in the classroom.

When I teach about the U.S. Congress to my classes I often use Ted Kennedy’s book, My Senator And Me: A Dog’s Eye View Of Washington, D.C.  It’s a children’s book about Teddy’s daily life as a U.S. Senator, narrated through the voice of his Portuguese Water Dog, Splash (Yes, conspiracy fans, that’s no joke.).  The book offers a thorough yet kid-friendly look at the often tedious nature of lawmaking.

Once I finish, I ask, “You want to hear about a very bad thing Senator Kennedy did?  Jose, close the door.”

Then I regale the students about a fateful night in Chappaquiddick.  We know it too well—that infamous incident in 1969, the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne in Teddy’s car, while the senator from Massachusetts saved himself and waited eight hours to file a police report.  The kids love it, as most of us love when powerful people do bad things.

However, his passing last night places me in a more forgiving mood—not too forgiving, but a little more conciliatory.  Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy leaves behind a complicated legacy, one of great highs and even more spectacular lows.  His life and work prove to be a useful teaching tool for students.  Kennedy’s personal failings, especially earlier in his career, can show students how even the greatest men are fallible—in Teddy’s case, stupendously so.  Yet it can also show that even when dealt a crappy hand, we use what we are given to make a difference in our world.

Kennedy’s career in the U.S. Senate is spectacular by any measure; even the most conservative Republican must concede this point.  With 46 years under his belt, only Robert Byrd of West Virginia had more seniority in the chamber.  He authored thousands of bills, guiding over 300 of them into law.  His advocacy in civil rights, education, equal housing, and especially health care reform were unparalleled.

Much of this success stemmed from how Kennedy dealt with events that would have destroyed other individuals.  Two of his brothers were assassinated.  He nearly died in a plane crash.  He battled alcoholism and wild living.  His family was the object of constant scrutiny.  His own son, Patrick Kennedy, Congressman from Rhode Island, was just as wild as Dad.

Because of these events—many of which were his own fault—Kennedy knew that his destiny was something different.  Kennedy decided long ago that the way to make his mark was to essentially forget he was a Kennedy and become a great senator.  Nobody could close a deal like Teddy; his colleagues on both sides of the aisle applauded his mastery of political dealing.  Even with a steadfast liberal ethic, Kennedy understood that compromise gets things done in Washington.

Yet Kennedy’s personal life cannot be ignored.  Indeed, it has made him a figure of fun by liberals and conservatives.  My personal favorite is comedy songwriter Bob Rivers’  “Teddy, the Red-Nosed Senator”, where Kennedy drives Santa’s sled and gets it wrapped around a maple tree.  Only Teddy could manage a DWI with a team of reindeer.

The Chappaquiddick incident, his alcoholic past, the scandalous behavior of himself and members of his family all hang like an albatross over the senator’s legacy.  As an American worthy of study, teachers should not—indeed, must not—overlook Kennedy’s shortcomings.  His mistakes alone warrant two days of lessons on “correct” behavior in the public and private arena.   Should we hold public officials to the same standards of behavior as ourselves?  Are celebrities, politicians and other public figures often “given a pass” for their misconduct?  Can a community condone a severely flawed public servant, even when that servant does good things for the community?

Yet Kennedy should not be seen simply as a drunken, lecherous buffoon.  Even this exaggeration has fallen off the mark in recent years; his last marriage to Victoria Reggie was among the best 17 years of his life.  Kennedy should be remembered as a complex character that rose above his failings to make an indelible mark on American politics.  His senatorial career stands as one of the yardsticks by which all legislators should be measured.

I was often at odds with Ted Kennedy.  In fact, rare is the moment when I actually agreed with the senator on any position whatsoever.  Yet I recognize a great lawmaker when I see one.   Ted Kennedy, I’ll miss kicking you around.  But I’ll miss your command of the senate chamber even more.

Tonight, I’m having a scotch in your honor.  Cheers, old man.

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This Day in History 5/3: Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

If you don’t like today’s post in the Neighborhood, simply fear my wrath.  At least, that’s what today’s birthday boy would suggest.

Happy birthday to 16th Century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli.  Among his talents, including a leading politician in the Republic of Florence during the early 1500’s, was the writing of perhaps the first book on modern politics, The Prince.  Rare is a college student who did not sit through an introductory philosophy or political science course without reading Machiavelli’s seminal work.  It’s a remarkably short read, but is full of ideas that still resonate today–even though most of us are loathe to admit it.

Machiavelli still evokes controversy today.  Many perceive him as favoring dictatorships or autocracy, as well as the use of brute force to maintain power.    We even have the word “Machiavellian” to describe measures that are cunning and deceitful.  Richard III, Cleopatra, Stalin, and even some modern politicians come to mind.  If it were this simple, then a lot of pretty rotten people would still enjoy power. 

To counter this, a little context is in order.  The Prince was written at a time when the Republic of Florence was about to collapse under the weight of war with the Hapsburgs and the Holy See.  The republican government, which existed in Florence for at least two centuries prior, was to end once and for all, and republican politicians like Machiavelli would feel the wrath of the incoming rulers, the powerful Medici clan that had ruled Florence from behind the scenes.  For Niccolo to avoid being drawn and quartered, it was important for him to play nice with the new leadership.  Even the preface of the book is dedicated to the new duke, which shows that even Machiavelli can be Machiavellian.  He basically wrote this, in part, to save his own ass. 

However, the lessons of the republic were not completely lost.  The Prince was prescribed as a manual for the attainment and preservation of power.  It was not the basis for a fair and just society, as Plato and Aristotle attempted in their works.  Machiavelli did not see it that way.  He saw power, and especially morality, as the maintenance of societal norms and functions using necessary, swift and short-term uses of aggressive force.  However, he also believed in the patron-client relationship, and viewed prescribed rewards as beneficial in maintaining power.  In short, a prince (or a government or a President, for that matter) needed to balance the use of force and authority with the rhythms and needs of elites and the people.

We hate to admit it, but most governments today are pretty much maintained through Machiavelli’s principles.  In fact, the use of opinion polls, instant access to current events, and internet communication make today’s politicians even more like Machiavelli’s prince than ever before.  Whereas political elites of yore can act on principle every once in a while and get away with it, today’s leaders must at least use a veneer of popular opinion to advance their agenda.  If he/she chooses not to–and actually act on principle, heaven forbid–then it is seen as a loss of credibility and legitimacy.  How can a person make decisions if he/she refuses to answer to the people that elected that person in the first place?

For high school students, Niccolo Macchiavelli’s work can lead to awesome discussions about power, morality, ethics (or lack thereof) and modern politics.  I would not recommend teaching about this to younger children, though.  It’s probably better to make sure they have a good set of morals before teaching them they are really subjective to your needs.

Besides, they’ll figure that out in the playground soon enough.

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