Friday, March 04, 2005

The Structure of the Narrative and Checker's Attack (on Macario Guajardo)

Meant to post this earlier. It's from my good friend and colleague, George Schmidt and it responds to Checker Finn's (or his organization's) criticsm of the Guajardo family. See the write-up on this at: -Angela

Dear Angela,

Got lots to do, but wanted to get back to you. Last night as I was nodding
off, Sharon was reading to Sam the delightful story "The Day the Babies Crawled
Away..." which is, as Sam notes, "scary" in parts. I was very tired, but very

Just a quick one for the early morning on what was important about the Times

When you asked the question about the structure of the Times article, I
almost could see what it would be like being in a seminar guided by you. Great
question (it reminded me of a signal class I had -- with no more than eight
students, guided by two professors -- called "iconography of Romanticism" at the
University of Chicago as an undergraduate a half century ago, but that's for
another time; in something that small, you prepare because you can't
escape...another reason for reasonable class size...)...


The power of the story's structure is its integrity. This rests firmly on the
things that Checker Finn's critique hit on and fear most: the underlying tr
uth of the critique in the lives of children; the structure of family and
community support the children are receiving. That is really well described in the
Times story, and usually it hasn't been so well described in other narratives
of resisters. It's something thousands of parents and children can take with
them and ponder for its inherent truth (and for how powerfully it exposes the
inherent falsity of its critics).

Like you said: It's real. It's as real as those conversations we have at
dinner, or in the car, or when we least expect it but as parents have come to
realize the importance of...

Checker is obviously beside himself as to how to attack these stories.

He can't attack intelligent children who take public stands with integrity.
Instead, he attacks the adults. Implicit is that the adults are "manipulating"
the work of the kids. This is an insult to the kid(s) and everyone else, but
typical of right wing pundits like him (he'd really have a career on Fox News
if he ever stopped sucking at the foundation trough...). Instead of these
children being manipulated by "Communists" or "liberals," they are being
manipulated by the most dangerous of all — parents who love them and the truth! And, my
God! the parents are teachers (notice how he doesn't use the word teacher, but
tries to pull in the "educator" jargon and the baggage the right wing has
tried to paste us with...)...

What Checker falls into, though, is attacking the strength of people without
realizing that, unlike politicians, regular people don't do focus groups to
teach their children right from wrong. We're at bedrock here, right down to the
grandmother at lunch in the photograph.

I suspect we've all been through this as parents. We've made our choices, but
at what point do our sons and daughters take the field of battle like we
have? And how do we feel about that when they look us in the eye and tell us it's
because of the way we raised them that they are doing this?

Like most good parents, Macario's father told him to "let it rest for a
month." So the kid does. He spends time thinking about it and probably checking it
our more, talking with his friends and doing all the other things that
ten-year-olds do. Then he comes back and is more strongly convinced of the direction
he wants to take. The tests are making good kids cry. They are forcing
teachers to rush through garbage worksheets rather than help kids learn. All the
evidence is in front of him every day.

So the family and network of friends supports the kid, who has thoughtfully
made his (or, in Mia's case, her) own decision. And the Times narrative
establishes that very well, while respecting Macario's voice throughout. And -- then
the right wing slimers go after all of them: child; family; community.

How dare they? It's one thing for Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly and all those
other fascist fruitcakes to thrash around in medialand, but it's quite
another for them to walk the walk against my kids on my block and on the field where
my kid plays Little League.

It's at this point, I think, that the right wing's whole script, powerful as
it once looked, begins to collapse.

In order to get away with his Fox News style attack, Checker has to denigrate
the kid, and his family, and conjure the manipulative "educator" parents.

Like Carl Rove, he attacks us at our strong points -- truth and our love of
children. But this time, unlike John Kerry, we can defend on our strong point
with a string of "How dare you..." We haven't been brainwashed by a decade or
two inside the beltway to believe that every truth is relative and every
opinion has to go through some artificial focus group.

(Sorry to jump the tracks with my narrative and point at John Kerry, but in
my opinion, Kerry lost the election because he tried to have it both ways with
his opposition to the Vietnam War. I was a part of that here in Chicago.
Instead of insisting manfully that he was doing the right thing then when he
returned from service and then organized against the war, Kerry equivocated. He left
his attackers an opening from which he never recovered. We don't have to make
the same mistake because we aren't being surrounded by DLC stupidities and
focus groups).

What we have here is in the Texas narrative(s) are delightful parents and
their children standing up for education in public schools that respects we
parents and our children. Real heroes of the kind America appreciates in its soul,
not scripted and costumed embarrassments like George W. Bush on an aircraft

Now we are attacked by the likes of "Dr. Finn" (I think people should
resonate it so it sounds like "Dr. Strangelove" ...) who wants to continue attacking
our schools from his right wing pundit's perch, etc., etc.

You might ask your students and grad students about the structure of that
narrative. I'm writing this with the New York Times article (the photograph gives
a major piece of the story, in that iteration) beside me. I'm going to use it
as an example of how to tell our stories with journalistic integrity. All
three pieces of the story work together, but the key is the integrity of the
narrative itself. In the on line version, however, what's missed is the impact of
the combination of the headline, photograph, cutline, and narrative. Together
they are as perfect as I could want in that part of the "news hole" to convey
the story. (Notice how the photograph with the grandmother in the background,
lunch, etc., roots the story in that network, too). Another (last) thing about
the story is that it's current news. The photograph is from "yesterday" and
was taken while the test was being boycotted. Can't do better than that.

During the Vietnam War, with six certified World War II heroes in my
immediately family (including my mother, who served in the main field hospital on the
island of Okinawa during the battle from April through September 1945 -- after
the war had "ended" for many Americans...) and living on a working class
block in Linden New Jersey of VFW vets (they always made that distinction where I
grew up, noting that the American Legion was for the patriots who never made
it into combat) I really had some explaining to do when I became a
conscientious objector that that war. Not only did I have to explain it to my draft board
("You, of all people..." I was an Eagle Scout, had had the biggest Newark Star
Ledger newspaper route in Union County, and was on scholarship at U of C so
everyone's idea of the right stuff kind of kid), but I had to sit down and have
a beer with every uncle and father I knew in the town and beyond. Each
explanation had to have integrity, the look me in the eye and say that kind of
thing. I knew that would happen going in to the decision, and that my parents would
he the harshest critics of all. My father had said to me when I first hinted
this was all coming because of my growing opposition to the war, "Think about
it for some time before you do this. If you're sure you know the
consequences.... Do it..."

Sound familiar?

Anyway, looking back on it, when I finished that extended conversation with
my entire family and the fathers of many of my high school friends (those who
had gone to college), I almost knew in my heart that the Vietnam War was going
to end.. I was the first conscientious objector in the history of Elizabeth,
New Jersey's draft board, and the first ever from Linden New Jersey. Once
people like "us" were lost to LBJ and Nixon's war, no elite policy wonks could
bring the war back into the mainstream. It crumbled across the kitchen tables and
the Formica tabletops of hundreds of thousands of working class homes in
places where fathers and mothers have those conversations with their sons and
daughters and everyone looks forward to Spring Training at this time every year and
the beginning of the baseball season.

I have that same feeling about "No Child..." and the reign of high stakes
testing. By brining these ridiculous arguments into every kitchen, Checker and
Bush have overstepped the limits of even their power, and all the one-liners and
talking points from Checker, Bush's handlers, or the Ross Perots of the world
are now splintering against rocks that they can't ever dislodge.

Working class people have to trust their leaders. Above all, despite the
attacks, we trust our schools and teachers.

Long day ahead. Best to those of you who survived the last decade in Texas
from those of us who are surviving Chicago,

George Schmidt

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