Monthly Archives: February 2012
When Hollywood imagines the future, from Logan’s Run to Avatar, it tends to picture living spaces as sterile and characterless, without any cultural clues to the person who lives there. No record library, no DVDs, no Hemingway on bookshelves … often no bookshelves.
And here we are, catching up to that vision of the future. Sales of physical books dropped 30 percent last year, while e-book sales more than doubled. Sales of DVDs fell during that same period, while online streaming rose. And in 2011, for the first time, digital music downloads overtook sales of CDs. It’s as if we’re deciding en masse that when it comes to the arts and entertainment, we can do without the actual object that is the object of our affection. Who needs real-world clutter in an age when everything streams?
In short: “Welcome,” as Morpheus put it in The Matrix, “to the desert of the real.”
In that film, as you’ll recall, people interact in a reassuringly cluttered but virtual reality. Actual reality is barren. No stuff at all. Nothing physical to establish that one person is different from another. It’s a horror story in which humanity has abandoned all of what makes us human.
This fear of losing ourselves as we lose our stuff — is it just a product of our experiences with technology? Well, if you look at science fiction from the past few decades, you’d certainly think so. In the 1950s, the newness of television inspired Fahrenheit 451, where TV substitutes factoids for information and books are outlawed. A decade later, early spaceflight prompted the sterile domain ruled over by the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The gene-pool experiments of the ’90s prompted Gattaca, where genetic purity is mirrored by a brutal architectural purity.
But the computer age didn’t invent that fear. British author E.M. Forster had these same thoughts more than a century ago. In 1909, right after writing A Room with a View, he penned a story about a cave without a view — a sci-fi story called “The Machine Stops,” written almost pre-technology, in an age of gaslight and pianos in the parlor. Here’s a bit of the story’s beginning (read on-air by Jennifer Mendenhall):
Imagine if you can a small room, hexagonal in shape like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no musical instruments, and yet this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair sits a woman, Vashti, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.
Remarkably prescient, no? Considering that light bulbs weren’t yet common in houses, and the first radio stations wouldn’t be founded for more than a decade.
There are good reasons for imagining sterile environments in stories about the future. Space travel requires eliminating things that might float around in zero gravity; clean lines feel “modern” because they contrast with the accumulated mess of everyday existence. But isn’t accumulated mess what defines us as individuals? Forster thought so, and figured we’d grow isolated without it — so, almost a century before computer geeks got around to it, he imagined Skype and the iPad:
“The round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her. ‘Kuno, what is it, dearest boy?’ ‘I want to see you not through the Machine,’ said Kuno. ‘I want to speak to you not through the Machine. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I want you to pay me a visit, so that we can meet face-to-face.’ “
Have a little … face time? The folks at Apple would recognize that. Imagine Forster’s horror if he could see people on a modern city street, avoiding eye contact and bobbing to the beat in their headphones. These days, we think technology is the culprit, but Forster was writing decades before TV started creating couch potatoes, almost a century before parents could complain about computer games turning kids into zombies. And still, his character Vashti doesn’t want to leave her little hexagonal cave. Why would she?
“Kuno’s image in the blue plate faded. For a moment Vashti felt lonely. Then the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. Buttons to call for food, for music, the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. Seated in her armchair, she spoke … while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well … and saw her, fairly well. The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned.”
Abandoned for chat rooms? Online dating? We’re almost there, right? Everything virtual until you’re actually in the apartment of a new acquaintance. At which point, what do you do? Scan the bookshelves and glance through the DVDs, looking for clues. Faulkner? Tom Clancy? There by the stereo, is that Sinatra or Sid Vicious?
A friend told me the other day that she had no CDs in her house anymore. All her music was on her iPod. She still has books, but she’s not buying as many as she used to. From the kid stuff in her entertainment center you’d guess she’s a Disney stockholder. But as her family outgrows those videos, so will her living room.
And her kids’ll be growing up in a world without hard copies of a lot of what members of their mother’s generation use to “define” living spaces and to tell people who they are. It’s fashionable to worry about whether these days, the media in people’s lives are supplanting the people in people’s lives, and about what’s getting lost as the world goes digital — all those cool album covers we had as kids, the stacks of paperback sci-fi novels, the toy soldiers. Won’t the next generation be isolated without them — cut off like Vashti, staring at screens all day?
“The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”
The title of Forster’s story, remember is The Machine Stops; it’s about overreliance on devices. But as in most dystopias, technology and the sleek sterile chill of modernity are stand-ins for the real culprit. Our anxiety is primordial — given voice in literature and art since whenever it was that people first gathered together. In caves maybe.
Once you’ve felt the comfort of society, you worry about losing it. So to remind yourself of how you’re connected, you gather things around. And you cling to them, not so you won’t lose them, or lose what makes you you, but so you won’t lose the connections they represent. The fear is of emptiness — but of emptiness inside us, not of empty rooms.
Mooresville’s Shining Example (It’s not just about the laptops)
By ALAN SCHWARZ, NY Times
Published: February 12, 2012
A version of this article appeared in print on February 13, 2012, on pageA10 of the New York edition.
MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Sixty educators from across the nation roamed the halls and ringed the rooms of East Mooresville Intermediate School, searching for the secret formula. They found it in Erin Holsinger’s fifth-grade math class.
There, a boy peering into his school-issued MacBook blitzed through fractions by himself, determined to reach sixth-grade work by winter. Three desks away, a girl was struggling with basic multiplication — only 29 percent right, her screen said — and Ms. Holsinger knelt beside her to assist. Curiosity was fed and embarrassment avoided, as teacher connected with student through emotion far more than Wi-Fi.
“This is not about the technology,” Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, would tell the visitors later over lunch. “It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction — preparing students for their future, not our past.”
As debate continues over whether schools invest wisely in technology — and whether it measurably improves student achievement — Mooresville, a modest community about 20 miles north of Charlotte best known as home to several Nascar teams and drivers, has quietly emerged as the de facto national model of the digital school.
Mr. Edwards spoke on a White House panel in September, and federal Department of Education officials often cite Mooresville as a symbolic success. Overwhelmed by requests to view the programs in action, the district now herds visitors into groups of 60 for monthly demonstrations; the waiting list stretches to April. What they are looking for is an explanation for the steady gains Mooresville has made since issuing laptops three years ago to the 4,400 4th through 12th graders in five schools (three K-3 schools are not part of the program).
The district’s graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years ago. Attendance is up, dropouts are down. Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student — $7,415.89 a year — but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.
“Other districts are doing things, but what we see in Mooresville is the whole package: using the budget, innovating, using data, involvement with the community and leadership,” said Karen Cator, a former Apple executive who is director of educational technology for the United States Department of Education. “There are lessons to be learned.”
Start with math lessons: each student’s MacBook Air is leased from Apple for $215 a year, including warranty, for a total of $1 million; an additional $100,000 a year goes for software. Terry Haas, the district’s chief financial officer, said the money was freed up through “incredibly tough decisions.”
Sixty-five jobs were eliminated, including 37 teachers, which resulted in larger class sizes — in middle schools, it is 30 instead of 18 — but district officials say they can be more efficiently managed because of the technology. Some costly items had become obsolete (like computer labs), though getting rid of others tested the willingness of teachers to embrace the new day: who needs globes in the age of Google Earth?
Families pay $50 a year to subsidize computer repairs, though the fee is waived for those who cannot afford it, about 18 percent of them. Similarly, the district has negotiated a deal so that those without broadband Internet access can buy it for $9.99 a month. Mr. Edwards said the technology had helped close racial performance gaps in a district where 27 percent of the students are minorities and 40 percent are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Others see broader economic benefits.
“Even in the downturn, we’re a seller’s market — people want to buy homes here,” said Kent Temple, a real estate agent in town. “Families say, ‘This is a chance for my child to compete with families that have more money than me.’ Six years from now, you’ll see how many from disadvantaged backgrounds go to college and make it.”
Mooresville’s laptops perform the same tasks as those in hundreds of other districts: they correct worksheets, assemble progress data for teachers, allow for compelling multimedia lessons, and let students work at their own pace or in groups, rather than all listening to one teacher. The difference, teachers and administrators here said, is that they value computers not for the newest content they can deliver, but for how they tap into the oldest of student emotions — curiosity, boredom, embarrassment, angst — and help educators deliver what only people can. Technology, here, is cold used to warm.
Mooresville frequently tests students in various subjects to inform teachers where each needs help. Every quarter, department heads and principals present summary data to Mr. Edwards, who uses it to assess where teachers need improvement. Special emphasis goes to identifying students who are only a few correct answers away from passing state proficiency standards. They are then told how close they are and, Mr. Edwards said, “You can, you can, you can.”
Many classrooms have moved from lecture to lattice, where students collaborate in small groups with the teacher swooping in for consultation. Rather than tell her 11th-grade English students the definition of transcendentalism one recent day, Katheryn Higgins had them crowd-source their own — quite Thoreauly, it turned out — using Google Docs. Back in September, Ms. Higgins had the more outgoing students make presentations on the Declaration of Independence, while shy ones discussed it in an online chat room, which she monitored.
“I’m not a very social person, but I have no problem typing on a keyboard,” said one of those shy ones, Chase Wilson. “It connected me with other students — opened me up and helped me with talking in public.”
In math, students used individualized software modules, with teachers stopping by occasionally to answer questions. (“It’s like having a personal tutor,” said Ethan Jones, the fifth grader zooming toward sixth-grade material.) Teachers apportion their time based on the need of students, without the weaker ones having to struggle at the blackboard in front of the class; this dynamic has helped children with learning disabilities to participate and succeed in mainstream classes.
“There are students who might not have graduated five years ago who have graduated,” said Melody Morrison, a case manager for Mooresville High School’s special education programs. “They’re not just our kids anymore. They’re everybody’s kids — all teachers throughout the school. The digital conversion has evened the playing field.”
Many students adapted to the overhaul more easily than their teachers, some of whom resented having beloved tools — scripted lectures, printed textbooks and a predictable flow through the curriculum — vanish. The layoffs in 2009 and 2010, of about 10 percent of the district’s teachers, helped weed out the most reluctant, Mr. Edwards said; others he was able to convince that the technology would actually allow for more personal and enjoyable interaction with students.
“You have to trust kids more than you’ve ever trusted them,” he said. “Your teachers have to be willing to give up control.”
That was the primary concern that the 60 visitors expressed during their daylong sojourn to Mooresville in November. “I’m not sure our kids can be trusted the way these are,” one teacher from the Midwest said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid trouble back home.
Thomas Bertrand, superintendent of schools in Rochester, Ill., said he was struck by the “culture of collaboration among staff and kids” in Mooresville and would emphasize that as his district considered its own conversion.
“There’s a tendency in teaching to try to control things, like a parent,” said Scott Allen, a high school chemistry teacher in South Granville, N.C. “But I learn best at my own pace, and you have to realize that students learn best at their own pace, too.”
Mooresville still has some growing pains. In one ninth-grade social studies class, a video that easily could have been shown on a large screen instead went through the students’ laptops, several of which balked, “Unable to find proxy server.” One fourth grader, having to complete 10 multiplication questions in two minutes for the software to let her move on, simply consulted her times tables, making the lesson more about speed typing than mathematics. And those concerned about corporate encroachment on public schools would blanch at the number of Apple logos in the hallways, and at the district’s unofficial slogan: “iBelieve, iCan, iWill.”
Mooresville’s tremendous focus on one data point — the percentage of students passing proficiency exams — has its pitfalls as well. At November’s quarterly data meeting, there were kudos for several numbers whose rise or dip was not statistically significant, and no recognition that the students who passed by one or two questions could very well fail by one or two the next time around. Several colorful pie charts used metrics that were meaningless.
“I realize the fallacy of looking at one measure,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview afterward. “We look at scholarships, A.P. courses taken, honors courses, SAT scores. But the measure that we use is what the state posts, and what parents look at when they’re comparing schools moving here.”
After three years of computers permeating every area of their schooling, Mooresville students barely remember life before the transformation and are somewhat puzzled by the gaggle of visitors who watch them every month. (“At times it’s kind of like being a lab rat,” one 11th grader said.) But Mooresville understands its growing fame in the world of education, much of which has yet to find the balance between old tricks and new technology.
“So,” Ms. Higgins asked her English class after the bell rang, “you think you’re going to like transcendentalism?”
“Only if you’re a nonconformist,” a student cracked.
WASHINGTON — Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.
It is a well-known fact that children from affluent families tend to do better in school. Yet the income divide has received far less attention from policy makers and government officials than gaps in student accomplishment by race.
Now, in analyses of long-term data published in recent months, researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.
“We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race,” said Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist. Professor Reardon is the author of a study that found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.
In another study, by researchers from the University of Michigan, the imbalance between rich and poor children in college completion — the single most important predictor of success in the work force — has grown by about 50 percent since the late 1980s.
The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008, before the recession’s full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have aggravated the trend.
“With income declines more severe in the lower brackets, there’s a good chance the recession may have widened the gap,” Professor Reardon said. In the study he led, researchers analyzed 12 sets of standardized test scores starting in 1960 and ending in 2007. He compared children from families in the 90th percentile of income — the equivalent of around $160,000 in 2008, when the study was conducted — and children from the 10th percentile, $17,500 in 2008. By the end of that period, the achievement gap by income had grown by 40 percent, he said, while the gap between white and black students, regardless of income, had shrunk substantially.
Both studies were first published last fall in a book of research, “Whither Opportunity?” compiled by the Russell Sage Foundation, a research center for social sciences, and the Spencer Foundation, which focuses on education. Their conclusions, while familiar to a small core of social sciences scholars, are now catching the attention of a broader audience, in part because income inequality has been a central theme this election season.
The connection between income inequality among parents and the social mobility of their children has been a focus of President Obama as well as some of the Republican presidential candidates.
One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more essential for success in today’s economy.
A study by Sabino Kornrich, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, and Frank F. Furstenberg, scheduled to appear in the journal Demography this year, found that in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.
“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Dr. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
The gap is also growing in college. The University of Michigan study, by Susan M. Dynarski and Martha J. Bailey, looked at two generations of students, those born from 1961 to 1964 and those born from 1979 to 1982. By 1989, about one-third of the high-income students in the first generation had finished college; by 2007, more than half of the second generation had done so. By contrast, only 9 percent of the low-income students in the second generation had completed college by 2007, up only slightly from a 5 percent college completion rate by the first generation in 1989.
James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, argues that parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality, particularly in the years before children start school.
“Early life conditions and how children are stimulated play a very important role,” he said. “The danger is we will revert back to the mindset of the war on poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it’s a mistake.”
Meredith Phillips, an associate professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, used survey data to show that affluent children spend 1,300 more hours than low-income children before age 6 in places other than their homes, their day care centers, or schools (anywhere from museums to shopping malls). By the time high-income children start school, they have spent about 400 hours more than poor children in literacy activities, she found.
Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” was published Jan. 31, described income inequality as “more of a symptom than a cause.”
The growing gap between the better educated and the less educated, he argued, has formed a kind of cultural divide that has its roots in natural social forces, like the tendency of educated people to marry other educated people, as well as in the social policies of the 1960s, like welfare and other government programs, which he contended provided incentives for staying single.
“When the economy recovers, you’ll still see all these problems persisting for reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture,” he said.
There are no easy answers, in part because the problem is so complex, said Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. Blaming the problem on the richest of the rich ignores an equally important driver, he said: two-earner household wealth, which has lifted the upper middle class ever further from less educated Americans, who tend to be single parents.
The problem is a puzzle, he said. “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.”
By Ruben Navarrette, Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 7:53 AM EST, Wed February 8, 2012
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.
San Diego, California (CNN) — Karl Rove is obviously a smart guy. And yet, recently, the political strategist and former senior adviser in the George W. Bush administration did something that wasn’t very smart. He picked a fight with Clint Eastwood.
I tell you, this story made my day.
Rove essentially threw down a penalty flag over, of all things, a Chrysler ad featuring the actor that aired during the Super Bowl. In the ad — titled “Halftime in America” — Eastwood praises the strength of the American spirit and the resilience of the American people in bouncing back from adversity. The symbol of that resilience: the U.S. auto industry.
The idea of the ad is to sell cars, of course. And maybe it’s also intended to give Americans a much-needed pep talk as they continue to wrestle with economic uncertainty.
But Rove thinks there is something more sinister at work here, and that the real purpose of the ad is to put in a plug for President Obama’s re-election.
The ad starts with Eastwood saying: “It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker rooms discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.”
“It’s halftime in America, too,” he continues. “People are out of work, and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re gonna do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared because this isn’t a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.”
“That’s what we do,” Eastwood concludes. “We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, we’ll make one. Yea, it’s halftime in America. And our second half is about to begin.”
It’s a good, strong ad. But did you hear the political message? No? Me neither. All I heard was an upbeat message slickly produced and expertly delivered. Which raises the question: Even in a presidential election year, does every single thing have to be about politics?
For Rove, the answer seems to be “yes.” He told Fox News that he was “offended” by the ad, which he said was an example of “what happens when you have Chicago-style politics.”
Give me a break. It’s OK to not be impressed with the resurrection of the Motor City. But do you then have to respond by attacking the Windy City?
Rove thinks the ad is calling for Obama’s re-election, so we can start the “second half.”
But the political strategist does raise one legitimate concern. He is worried that Obama and his team are scheming to use “our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising and the best-wishes of the management which is benefited by getting a bunch of our money that they’ll never pay back.”
Chrysler received, from the U.S. government, a bailout of about $12.5 billion; it has since repaid much of the money, leading the Treasury to estimate that taxpayers will take a loss of $1.3 billion.
Now, Rove suggests, as a kind of interest, Chrysler might feel obligated to also repay Obama for helping push through the bailout.
For his part, Eastwood denied there was any political motivation behind the ad.
Speaking to Ron Mitchell, a producer at Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” Eastwood insisted, “I am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama. It was meant to be a message … just about job growth and the spirit of America. I think all politicians will agree with it.”
But, he added, if Obama or other elected officials “want to run with the spirit of that ad, go for it.”
It would be great if our leaders went for it. We need more optimism in American politics. There is too much doom and gloom, and too many people preaching that America’s best days are behind it. Everyone feels entitled to one thing or another, and everyone is a victim. People adopt the view that there is always a scam, a hidden message, or an ulterior motive. Someone is always trying to convince you of something or con you out of your life savings.
Rove has succumbed to that trend. He jumped to the wrong conclusion with no evidence to back up his claims, and he made himself look foolish. It’s OK to have politics on the brain, but there should be room for other things.
Sometimes, a Super Bowl ad is really just a Super Bowl ad. And the message behind this one is bigger than any one political figure.
After all, America may be headed into the second half. But no one says we can’t change quarterbacks.
Watch Chrysler’s SuperBowl ad:
Why, in the battle over Citizens United, the Supreme Court never had a chance.
By Dahlia Lithwick, Slate.com
The Supreme Court has always had its critics. Chief Justice John Marshall had to contend with the temper of President Andrew Jackson (“John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!”). And Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes went toe-to-toe with FDR, who wouldn’t let up with the court-packing. But in the history of the Supreme Court, nothing has ever prepared the justices for the public opinion wrecking ball that is Stephen Colbert. The comedian/presidential candidate/super PAC founder has probably done more to undermine public confidence in the court’s 2010 Citizens United opinion than anyone, including the dissenters. In this contest, the high court is supremely outmatched.
Citizens United, with an assist from a 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo, has led to the farce of unlimited corporate election spending, “uncoordinated” super PACs that coordinate with candidates, and a noxious round of attack ads, all of which is protected in the name of free speech. Colbert has been educating Americans about the resulting insanity for months now. His broadside against the court raises important questions about satire and the court, about protecting the dignity of the institution, and the role of modern media in public discourse. Also: The fight between Colbert and the court is so full of ironies, it can make your molars hurt.
When President Obama criticized Citizens United two years ago in his State of the Union address, at least three justices came back at him with pitchforks and shovels. In the end, most court watchers scored it a draw. But when a comedian with a huge national platform started ridiculing the court last summer, the stakes changed completely. This is no pointy-headed deconstruction unspooling on the legal blogs. Colbert has spent the past few months making every part of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizen United look utterly ridiculous. And the court, which has no access to cameras (by its own choosing), no press arm, and no discernible comedic powers, has had to stand by and take it on the chin.
It all started when Colbert announced that, as permitted by Citizens United, he planned to form a super PAC (“Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow”). As he explained to his viewers, his hope was that “Colbert Nation could have a voice, in the form of my voice, shouted through a megaphone made of cash … the American dream. And that dream is simple. That anyone, no matter who they are, if they are determined, if they are willing to work hard enough, someday they could grow up to create a legal entity which could then receive unlimited corporate funds, which could be used to influence our elections.”
Then last June, like a winking, eyebrow-wagging Mr. Smith, Colbert went to Washington and testified before the FEC, which granted him permission to launch his super PAC (over the objections of his parent company Viacom) and accept unlimited contributions from his fans so he might sway elections. (He tweeted before his FEC appearance that PAC stands for “Plastic And/Or Cash.”) In recent weeks, Colbert has run several truly insane attack ads (including oneaccusing Mitt Romney of being a serial killer). Then, with perfect comedic pitch, Colbert handed off control of his super PAC to Jon Stewart (lampooning the FEC rules about coordination between “independent PACS” and candidates with a one-page legal document and a Vulcan mind meld). Colbert then managed to throw his support to non-candidate Herman Cain in the South Carolina primary, placing higher on the ballot than Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, and Michele Bachmann.
Colbert took the mainstream by storm in interview after interview that schooled Americans about the insanity of Citizens United and garnered blowback from NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd, who complained that Colbert is “making a mockery of the system” and questioned whether the real agenda was to “educate the public about the dangers of money and politics … or simply to marginalize the Republican Party?” Then came the un-ironic defenses of the irony of Colbert and the obligatory navel-gazing about whether Colbert is in fact effecting real change or in peril of succumbing to “irony fatigue.”
At one level, this is all just comedy, and it’s hard to measure whether Colbert’s sustained attacks on the court’s campaign finance decisions are having any real impact, beyond making us laugh. On the other hand, when the New York Times declares that Colbert’s project is deadly serious, and it’s just the rest of politics that’s preposterous, something more than just theater is happening. I spoke to Trevor Potter, former chairman of the FEC and adviser to John McCain, and the man Colbert has designated his “personal lawyer,” about the consequences of Colbert’s assault on the campaign finance regime. Potter is very careful not to ascribe an end game to Colbert’s efforts but says that he has seen Colbert’s campaign finance crusade as an “opportunity to open up to the rest of the world what we lawyers already know: that the whole area of campaign finance is a mess.” He adds that Colbert’s antics are “having a real effect in terms of public understanding about how the system works” and getting people to start to think about how to fix it.
Potter is also emphatic that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is not the sole cause of the problems he sees. (You can thank the media for its bang-up job of suggesting that the court singlehandedly designed super PACs with its decision in CU). Potter says Kennedy’s majority opinion is not so much disconnected from reality but, rather, “assumed that the world would work in the way he thought it would.” (In Kennedy’s fantasy, there would be no chance of corruption, no coordination between PACs and candidates, and full disclosure of corporate contributions.) And had the FEC done its job, had Congress passed better disclosure rules, had shareholders been better able to control corporate activity, the Kennedy decision would have been less monumental. (Potter is quick to point out that the court needn’t reverse itself completely for the country to fix the worst problems in the post-CU system.) Still he adds thatCitizens United “epitomizes the problem of having a court where no justice has ever run for any office, including dogcatcher.”
Of course that’s precisely the problem: The institutional aloofness that allowed the Roberts court to pen such a politically naive decision is the same blind spot that precludes them from even understanding, much less responding to, the media criticism. And as professor Lyrissa Lidsky, who teaches law at the University of Florida College of Law, reminded me last weekend, there is amazing language in Justice Kennedy’s majority in Citizens United about the need to elevate corporate speech to the same protected status as that enjoyed by the cable news shows. As Kennedy observed, “Speakers have become adept at presenting citizens with sound bites, talking points, and scripted messages that dominate the 24-hour news cycle. Corporations, like individuals, do not have monolithic views.”
In other words, (if you can stand the irony) in Citizens United, the Supreme Court empowered Colbert to create a super PAC so he could answer back to, well, folks like Stephen Colbert. The opinion even notes that “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may be fiction and caricature; but fiction and caricature can be a powerful force.” Now, courtesy of Mr. Colbert, no one knows that better than the court itself.