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"Minimalism" Anothe Fad Only the Rich Can Afford

I hate it as the incredibly tedious piece of personal performance art it has come to be in our society, but I also hate it as an aesthetic: your white-on-white-on-white life and meticulously crafted wardrobe of only the most wispy products Everlane and Aritzia have to offer are, frankly, a saltine cracker’s idea of what a Cool Girl would wear.

In terms of its visual merits, or as a capital-S style, the hyper-curated minimalism really only conveys one thing: “I wanted to take the very safest route to chic, cut away every possible misstep or risk. I saw the French Girl Chic articles and I was like … that’s pretty damn homogenous, but smoking tests poorly in focus groups and those occasional striped shirts are too bold. Time to reduce my look even further until literally every item I purchase tells people ‘I could get something more interesting, but I have enough money to choose not to’.”

Because let’s be clear about what the minimalist aesthetic, at least as a personal style choice, actually is: it’s a way of aping the connotations of simplicity and even, to a degree, asceticism, without actually having to give up those sweet, sweet class signifiers.

Being minimalist in this way – “Stop wasting money on all that IKEA nonsense! With this $4,000 dining table hand-whittled by a failed novelist in Scandinavia, you will never need another piece of furniture!” – really just means having enough upfront disposable money to “invest” in your wardrobe and surroundings. Reducing a wardrobe down to a few painfully elegant cashmere-cotton blend tops is only really possible if you can put down at least $1,000 in one go for the creation of your “capsule wardrobe”.

The visual cues and undercurrents of moral superiority it apes, the “no-makeup makeup” because you’ve bought $250 worth of nigh-invisible Glossier products, the vaguely Japanese home decor because we assume literally anything that isn’t crowded with color and pattern is somehow automatically Japanese – it’s all about spending an incredible amount of time and attention to look as if you hadn’t thought about it at all.

And these are all fine things! You are allowed to enjoy having precisely 10 sweaters in slightly different shades of taupe, or meticulously keeping your all-white dining set on white open shelves, despite the fact that it clearly implies at least once-weekly dusting of your entire kitchen, but what is #problematic about it is pretending that this is somehow a noble or morally positive way to spend your money.

It is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world: “Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy, and the incredibly-expensive, sparse items I have deemed worthy instead!”

And we are entitled to buy whatever we like, but to pretend that the intentional and costly upfront implications of a minimalist-chic life are anything but privileged posturing is ridiculous. But I believe that we feel these things because the minimalism-as-luxury-good phenomenon is extremely caught up with the minimalism-as-faux-spiritualism phenomenon, which is its own can of farm-to-table, artisanal worms.

Long story short, the past 10 years or so has sold us one of the most oddly logical, yet no less cloying, answers to our hyper-consumerist late capitalism: minimalism as a secular kind of religion, an add-on to the cultures of yoga and green juices and general living well by putting together a tapas platter of cultural and spiritual practices without ever fully committing to one.

The premise of minimalism in this way is very vague, and ever-shifting to accommodate the tastes and stomach for consistency of the individual practitioner, but the overall theory is the same: by paring your life down as actively as possible, you are almost guaranteed to appreciate what remains more, and are likely to pick up some serious wisdom in the process, which usually makes for excellent self-serious Medium content down the road.

There are a million variations – fitting all your belongings into a single box, small-house or van living, radical de-cluttering, extreme purges of technology or social activity, etc – but they all hold the same vague, usually unspoken level of superiority.

They all imply that they are in some way a moral upgrade from the life of “mindless consumerism”, and as a bonus, allow you to take on some of the desirable aesthetics and morality of poverty without ever having to be poor. You’re not homeless, you’re on the road, doing some chic van-living and following the good weather! You’re not unable to afford basic home goods, you’re choosing to pare everything down to a single cardboard box! If life were a video game – and there are some scientists who seem to believe it may be – minimalist spirituality is a great way to get all the gold coins of poverty without ever having to be one of those icky poor people.

The implication of this kind of minimalism is obvious, and yet it somehow never seems to get addressed: the only people who can “practice” minimalism in any meaningful way are people upon whom it isn’t forced by financial or logistical circumstances.

You cannot choose to “declutter” if you are already living in a sparse home you cannot afford to furnish. You cannot “reduce” the food you consume if you are already only able to put one good meal on the table per day. And when nearly halfof Americans would be unable to pay their bills if they missed a single check, this “forced minimalism” is much, much more common than we would like to imagine. We cannot pretend that performative reduction in consumption, or choosing to only consume in certain ways, is not one of the most gratuitous displays of privilege out there, and to frame it as in any way a moral choice is more than a little offensive.

But the truth is that, as with so many other social phenomena that insufferable white dudes have co-opted, this spiritual minimalism has essentially become yet another competition for who can be the best at whatever you’ve chosen, even if that “whatever” is literally “having less shit”.

Even ignoring the class angles, this idea that any “decluttering” in your life is automatically a positive thing is simply an aesthetic choice being reframed as a moral one because, let’s be honest, it’s really easy to look at a lot of what (mostly) women own as being totally frivolous. Makeup, more-elaborate wardrobes, cozy home decor, art, supplies for hobbies, nice home goods – it’s not a coincidence that most of the stuff we’re being told to flush away from our lives happens to be stuff that women mostly accumulate.

And, yes, there is a very strong capitalist-critical argument to be made about buying in more intentional and ethical ways, but color me shocked that very few of these minimalist troubadours ever really take things to an economic or class-based argument. It’s about reducing for personal enlightenment and pompous blog posts, it’s not about arguing for a more equitable society in which people consume proportionate to their needs. (If you need a perfect example of this, note the fetishization of the curated “simplicity” of the ultra-rich: their clean loft spaces, their designer capsule wardrobes, their elaborately reduced diets. These people are still conspicuously consuming in mind-boggling ways, they’re just filtering it through the convenient prism of simplicity, and that allows their million-dollar wardrobes to somehow be aspirational for someone advocating for “minimalism”.)

The point is, the points being made by the minimalism crew are neither truly spiritual nor truly socioeconomic. They’re another style, as superficial as anything else that might come down the runway at Fashion Week, just with an added layer of condescension. At the end of the day, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: this kind of “minimalism” is just another boring product that wealthy people can buy.

This piece was originally published on The Financial Diet


"Alternative Facts" are Lies

, The Guardian

I just bought my first official souvenir of the Trump era. No, it wasn’t a pink pussycat hat. It’s a black T-shirt with white typography that says “Alternative Facts are Lies”.

The shirt commemorates a piece of Orwellian newspeak that flew from the lips of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. She made the absurd claim that the new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, hadn’t lied to reporters about the size of the inaugural crowd, he had merely presented them with “alternative facts”. The salient part of her exchange with host Chuck Todd is worth setting out in full:

Chuck Todd: ... answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood. Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office ...

Kellyanne Conway: No it doesn’t.

Chuck Todd: ... on day one.

Kellyanne Conway: Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What ... You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains ...

Chuck Todd: Wait a minute ... alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered, the one thing he got right was Zeke Miller. Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true. Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.

By the time Meet the Press aired, I had actually grown tired of the argument over the size of the crowd at Trump’s swearing-in. It’s the kind of trivial issue that catches fire on social media and in the press, something Trump knows better than anyone. In this case, anyone on the internet could see a comparison of the Obama and Trump in photographs and catch the new president in his lie. Nonetheless, obsessive attention to crowd size dominated several news cycles.

The New York Times was right to call out the White House on obvious falsehoods, but its big headline was part of the reactive news coverage that Trump gamed throughout his campaign. Through a provocative tweet or gross insult, he could ignite a firestorm on social media and in the press. The timing is always interesting because when these storms blew, it was often to obscure a deeper and more serious menace. All the attention paid to the number of people at the inauguration obscured the import of both the executive order on healthcare he signed on Friday and the huge women’s protests on Saturday.

The farrago Trump has created on healthcare is consequential and shameful. Conway happily presented some “alternative facts” about it in the same television appearance, claiming:

He signed executive orders to stop Obamacare and all of its problems. Many people have lost their ... millions of people have lost their insurance, their doctors, their plans. So that stops right now.

He’s going to replace it with something much more free-market and patient-centric in nature.

It’s hard to imagine offering anything more patient-centric than providing more good health insurance. The Affordable Care Act has driven the number of Americans without insurance to an all-time low. Conway’s claim that “millions of people have lost their insurance” comes directly from specious Koch-funded ads during the campaign. It’s a provable fact that far more people gained coverage than had their policies cancelled. And in the latter cases, some individual market plans were discontinued, but policyholders weren’t denied coverage. They were often offered cheaper alternatives, because many qualified for federal subsidies or could buy new policies with better coverage on state and federal marketplaces.

Repealing Obamacare could deny more than 18 million people health coverage, and Republican proposals to replace it are a muddle of insufficiency. Some proposed bills may cover more people but the coverage is skeletal and won’t begin to pay for many procedures. The new secretary of health and human services, Republican Representative Tom Price, has offered a plan in Congress that makes good health care less affordable and less accessible for most people. The health care savings accounts that many Republicans embrace won’t help people who can’t save enough to cover anything approaching catastrophic treatment.

Trump and Conway are playing Three-card Monte with their alternative facts on health; “condemn the policy you don’t like, propose something far worse as a replacement and claim that it is much better”, as the New York Times described their hypocrisy.

The new president doesn’t seem to understand the actual facts. Spicer, who so viciously attacked the press on Saturday, had to hurriedly walk back the comments of his boss when Trump, during an interview with the Washington Post before the inauguration, promised “insurance for everybody”. Spicer’s amendment to his comments dragged Trump back to Republican orthodoxy: access to insurance would be increased and costs cut through marketplace competition, not huge new government spending for universal coverage.

When you’ve spent your career being scrupulous about facts, it’s hard to adjust to life in Trump’s post-truth America. Certainly, the press has made its share of mistakes and had serious flirtations with what Steven Colbert labeled “truthiness” during the Bush years, when news organizations, including the Times, published stories based on false intelligence. There were far too many fake news stories in 2016 from sketchy sites. But I agree with Susan Glasser, the editor of Politico, who recently wrote an important essay for the Brookings Institution called “Covering Politics in a ‘Post-Truth’ America”. She concluded that serious political reporting (not poll prognostications) has never been better. But there is too much of it, and so little of it, even the fine investigations of Trump’s business dealings or past treatment of women, seems to matter to people.

The world, however, does pay attention to the words of the leaders of the last remaining superpower. The “American carnage” that President Trump described doesn’t comport with the American reality. We do not live in a country that is economically shattered and crime-infested. Crime rates are historically low and there has been record job growth over the last eight years. His cry of “America First” evokes Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist and antisemitic poison, not the inclusive and empathetic beliefs shared by most Americans. Globalism and technology have hollowed out some industries and parts of the country, but an interconnected world has benefited more people than it has hurt.

Most people believe there is truth and there are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies.


LA TImes: Betsy DeVos Not Qualified to Lead in Education

Betsy DeVos’ love of private school vouchers didn’t disqualify her for the role of U.S. Education secretary, even though vouchers are a bad idea. Nor did her lack of experience in public schools. 

What did render her unacceptable was her abysmal performance at her confirmation hearing Tuesday, during which she displayed an astonishing ignorance about basic education issues, an extraordinary lack of thoughtfulness about ongoing debates in the field and an unwillingness to respond to important questions.

She was so unprepared that she sounded like a schoolchild who hadn’t done her homework. She frankly embarrassed herself and should be rejected by the Senate. Better yet, President-elect Donald Trump should withdraw her name and find someone who at least meets the basic qualifications for the post.

The hearing probably will be remembered for the grizzly-bear moment, when DeVos suggested that a public school in Wyoming might need to have guns on campus to protect against trespassing grizzlies. But her important bloopers were on more substantive ground.

A forgotten mortgage stimulus program that was passed by Obama to help the middle class Americans reduce their monthly payments by as much as $4,264 each year.

DeVos suggested that a public school in Wyoming might need to have guns on campus to protect against trespassing grizzlies.

DeVos said, reasonably enough, that all kinds of schools — traditional public, charter, private — could expect her support if they did a good job of educating students. But then she contradicted herself by refusing to say that she would hold charter and private schools just as accountable as conventional public schools. Doing a good job matters only for some schools, apparently. 

And how would schools be measured — based on whether they meet a certain standard of proficiency, or how much they improve over time? DeVos floundered trying to address this issue raised by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), clearly unfamiliar with one of the central questions in school reform. As Franken said in a deserved rebuke, “This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years.”

DeVos apparently didn’t even realize that there’s a federal law protecting the educational rights of students with disabilities, saying it should be up to states to make decisions about disabled students. Told that this was a matter of federal law, she stumbled yet again, saying, well, then, the law should be followed, and suggesting that she might have been confused earlier. In addition, she was wildly off in her figures on student debt.

Add to this her failure to answer questions about her home state of Michigan’s underperforming charter schools, whose growth she advocated; about existing laws to protect adults from predatory for-profit colleges; or whether she would honor the Obama administration’s rules regarding sexual abuse on campus.

DeVos is entitled and expected to disagree with Obama administration policies; what disqualifies her is her lack of understanding of existing law and policy, and her inability to address them thoughtfully.


Remembering The Entire Message of MLK Jr. Crucial Today

Newburyport, Mass. — Every year on the third Monday of January, Americans of all races, backgrounds and ideologies celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is rightly lionized and sanctified by whites as well as blacks, by Republicans as well as Democrats.

It is easy to forget that, until fairly recently, many white Americans loathed Dr. King. They perceived him as a rabble rouser and an agitator; some rejoiced in his assassination in April 1968. How they got from loathing to loving is less a story about growing tolerance and diminishing racism, and more about the ways that Dr. King’s legacy has been scrubbed and blunted.

The Dr. King we remember today is particularly at odds with his radical turn in his last years. In 1967 he denounced the Vietnam War and warned that America was courting “spiritual death.” In early 1968 he planned the Poor People’s Campaign, in which millions of impoverished Americans — black, white and Latino — would gather in Washington for an enormous demonstration. He called for $30 billion annually in antipoverty spending, and asked Congress to guarantee an income for each American. To many Americans, this sounded like socialist lunacy.

Dr. King spent his final days in Memphis, marching with striking sanitation workers. On March 28, 1968, some marchers behind him turned violent. His critics believed their argument had been proved — that Dr. King’s claims to nonviolence were so much pretense. When he was killed a week later, Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, told an audience that Dr. King was “an outside agitator, bent on stirring people up.” Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, described Dr. King’s killing as a “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.”

But Dr. King’s legacy — the meaning of “Martin Luther King” in the popular mind — began to change as soon as the man himself left us. As groups like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen called for armed resistance, Dr. King’s peaceful methods looked more appealing. Many white Americans focused on one line of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — that he longed for the day when his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” — and molded him into a gentle champion of colorblindness.

Continue reading the main story



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The King holiday was both cause and effect of this selective appropriation. Congressman John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, first proposed a holiday bill in 1968, and he offered the legislation virtually every year thereafter. In 1983, it finally neared passage. Though Reagan, by then president, opposed the holiday, congressional Republicans realized that endorsing the bill could help to burnish their party’s civil rights bona fides. The House passed the legislation by a wide margin.

But the debate in the Senate did Republicans no favors. Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, filibustered the bill, saying that Dr. King “appears to have welcomed collaboration with Communists” and distributed a 300-page packet detailing Dr. King’s supposed treachery. Mr. Helms eventually ended his filibuster, and on Oct. 19 the Senate passed the holiday bill.

Dr. King’s opponents weren’t done. The Conservative Caucus collected 43,000 signatures on a petition urging Reagan to veto the holiday. But Reagan signed the bill anyway — in large part because, Senator Helms aside, many conservatives had “discovered,” and embraced, a useful version of Dr. King.

That embrace tightened during the battle over affirmative action. On Jan. 15, 1986, days before the first Martin Luther King Day, Attorney General Edwin Meese proposed to eliminate minority hiring goals for federal contractors. Using words that would be repeated, in one form or another, throughout the affirmative-action debate, Mr. Meese claimed that his proposal was “very consistent with what Dr. King had in mind.”

In 1996, Louisiana’s governor signed an executive order to halt affirmative action programs. “King sort of believed like I do,” said Mike Foster, a Republican. “I can’t find anywhere in his writings that he wanted reverse discrimination.” (Mr. Foster’s search apparently did not include Dr. King’s book “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which he explained: “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him.”)

This reappropriation continues today. In an attack on Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, for kneeling in protest during the national anthem, the Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney said that people like Mr. Kaepernick should “move to another country.” Mr. Swinney recommended that protesters heed Dr. King’s shining example: “I think the answer to our problems is exactly what they were for Martin Luther King when he changed the world. Love, peace, education, tolerance of others, Jesus” — as if Dr. King never criticized his country or paralyzed American cities with campaigns of civil disobedience.

In this season of political polarization, it is tempting to hope that we can unite in celebration of Dr. King. But celebrators ought to know whom they are honoring. Dr. King died for striking garbage workers and beseeched his government to protect the vulnerable. He had a message for those who would target immigrants or wall off America from the world. In a 1967 speech, he declared: “Our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than national.” Instead of policing their borders, nations should “develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole.”

The alternative was unacceptable. “History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.” To honor Dr. King is to follow a different path.


S.C. Lawmakers Pushing 3 Stingray Bills?

By TechDirt

It's really, really difficult to give the South Carolina legislature any credit whatsoever. In the past few years, it has offered up bills that:

required journalists to register with the government before enjoy their First Amendment rights (to make a point about the Second Amendment)

criminalized profanity in public forums (including the internet)

criminalized the recording of criminal acts

- required computer sellers to install default porn blockers in devices (that could be removed for $20)

The track record of this state's legislature is less than stellar. Hell, it's less than passable. 1/5 would not re-elect.

But there are still a few legislators with good ideas trying to do good things within the confines of a state where adultery is still considered a criminal actThe Tenth Amendment Center briefly highlights three new bills targeting law enforcement Stingray device use, all with their own merits.

The first, brought by state rep J. Todd Rutherford, is the most extreme of the three.

The legislation would prohibit any state or local law enforcement agency in South Carolina from purchasing cell site simulators, commonly known as “stingrays.”

At this point, use of these devices by South Carolina law enforcement is unconfirmed. If, indeed, no agencies are in possession of IMSI catchers, this bill would maintain the status quo. If agencies are already in possession of the devices, the bill would require these agencies to discontinue use and... ask Harris Corp. for a refund, I guess. This wouldn't prevent state agencies from asking for federal assistance and borrowing their devices, but it's still the most restrictive Stingray-related legislation proposed yet.

As such, it will probably never become law. The other proposals have a much better chance of reaching the governor's desk. Rutherford's backup proposal would prevent agencies purchasing cell tower spoofers from entering into nondisclosure agreements with manufacturers.

The third bill being introduced should be pushed in concert with Rutherford's second bill. Rep. Cezar McKnight's proposal would prevent state law enforcement agencies from signing nondisclosure agreements with the FBI, which has been standard procedure since the modified military tech began making its way to police departments around the nation. This would help ensure any evidence obtained with these devices will be properly presented in court, rather than obscured behind parallel construction. Or it could, theoretically. The bill ties this to warrant usage, so nondisclosure agreements would be allowed if the agreement doesn't stipulate the devices should be deployed without securing a warrant first. This ties it to the DOJ's current Stingray guidelines, which is better than continuing to obscure device deployment behind pen register orders.

The FBI's nondisclosure agreements have never specifically instructed law enforcement to avoid seeking warrants. However, the implication of the demanded secrecy pretty much made it impossible to seek a warrant, since doing so would disclose use of the device. Parallel construction was encouraged if warrants were sought and evidence introduced in court, but the FBI never strictly forbade the use of warrants in its nondisclosure agreements. So, the bill should be reworded to forbid entering into nondisclosure agreements with federal agencies and drop the clause tying it to warrant requests.

All in all, it's an encouraging set of proposals, but it's hard to see law enforcement agencies letting any of these make it to the governor's desk without a fight.


Opinion: Artificial Tree Making Christmas Merry for County Budget

By Greg Wilson/Publisher, The Anderson Observer 

When Anderson County Council approved the purchase the 28-foot Majestic Mountain Pine artificial Christmas tree last year, there were more than a few wondering if the news was good tidings of great joy. 

Some argued in favor of planting another live tree, something to replace the non-traditional magnolia tree which was dying on the town square after being damaged by an ice storm. But experts were united that the land in front of the new courthouse was not fertile soil for a live tree to flourish. 

The other option was to buy a cut live tree and haul it to the square every holiday season. The cost of buying, transporting and hauling away a comparably side live tree would have been roughly $5,000 a year, plus the cost of lights and decorations (which though not reoccurring, is costly).  

Added to the annual cost is a two week of labor costs to the county, since traditionally it has taken a week to set up and a week to take down a cut live tree on the square, including the time to decorate and undecorated the tree. The price tag based on needed personnel totals $7,000. 

So the annual costs of a cut live tree in the 25-30-foot range would have cost the county, assuming costs remain constant (which is unlikely), roughly $12,000 per year.  

Instead, the county purchased a 28-foot Majestic Mountain Pine, fully decorated and lighted artificial tree for $25,000 last year. That tree, which has been wildly popular with citizens, is expected to deck the downtown halls for close to two decades. 

The cost of setting up and taking down the artificial tree, something that takes less than two days to set up and two days to set down, 12 days less than a cut live tree, bringing labor costs of only $600 to the county.

As a result, the purchase of the artificial tree will save Anderson County more than $180,000 over the next two decades. Based on current pricing and labor rates, the total cost of a cut live tree, including purchase, transportation and all labor costs, would total $240,000 over the next 20 years. 

The cost, including labor and maintenance and updates for the current artificial tree (including a planned upgrade), will total less than $60,000.  

This does not include the increased traffic downtown from the visitors, many of whom come to see the decorations and stay to eat downtown or visit Carolina Wren Park to ice skate. 

Added to the huge financial benefit is the fact that folks seem to really, really like the current tree. People drive downtown to talk family pictures in front of it, people have been married in front of it, kids and others have made winter scarves, hats and gloves and hung them on the tree for our area’s needy. It also really does dress up the center of downtown in the best possible way.

Call it the gift that keeps on giving, thanks to so forward thinking by leadership in Anderson County. 

So if you see you council representative, thank them. And thank Anderson County Administrator Rusty Burns, who loves Christmas perhaps as much as I do, and I start listening to holiday tunes in late summer. It was his vision and research that led to the path to purchase the tree.

And if you want to shoot the family photo in front of the tree downtown, you still have more than a week to do so.

Merry Christmas.


Anderson Voter Registration Office Stellar Example of Public Service

By Greg Wilson/Publisher, Anderson Observer

It has been almost a month now, but it's never too late to express gratitude.

No matter how you voted in early November, the folks at the Anderson County Department of Voter Registration and Elections deserve praise as shining examples of public service at its best during the entire process.

The department moved into a new facility on North Main Street earlier this year, one so much more inviting and customer friendly than the old hallways of the former Bailes building. But it is the people behind the counters and in the offices at Voter Registration and Elections that Anderson County can be especially proud of this year.

During the managing of the long lines of absentee voters who stretched around the block downtown for weeks leading right through the big election day itself, the employees of Voter Registration and Elections were polite, professional and prepared.

From helping the elderly, disabled or others who needed a little help - such as providing chairs for them in the long lines - to the smiles and cheerful attitudes that marked every interaction I witnessed this year, this group went far beyond the call of duty in their work.

It’s important to remember these are our friends and neighbors, working long hours under a mound of regulations and restrictions, behind the process that protects this sacred responsibility of Democracy.

And they proved themselves in stellar fashion.

But their work is never done. New elections are coming and they are in preparation mode again. But now would be a good time to stop by the office and offer thanks for their dedication and hard work. A dozen doughnuts from Krispy Kreme would make the thank you all the sweeter.

The holidays are a good excuse to be generous with our gratitude toward those doing something well and in the process making Anderson County a better place to work, live and vote.

So thank you to all the hard-working employees who made this crazy election year a little easier to manage.


Veteran Teacher Says Standardized Tests Useless

By Peter Greene

Is there such a thing as a useful standardized test?

To have this conversation, we have to get one thing out of the way. If you believe (and I think some school reformers sincerely do) that the only reason that teachers oppose the current high stakes test-and-punish status quo is because their self-serving union tells them to, you are blinding yourself to some real issues.

First, there is a real gulf between national union leadership and rank-and-file teachers precisely because union opposition to reformer policies has usually been tepid. Teacher opposition to testing comes first and foremost from teachers who have been watching testing become a toxic, destructive element in our classrooms that interferes with our ability to deliver real education. It’s detrimental to our students. And it is used in many places to deliver a professional verdict on our schools and ourselves with an accuracy no greater than a roll of the dice.

Opposition to testing also comes from other people who see how it plays out on the ground: parents. The Opt Out movement — in which hundreds of thousands of parents have not allowed their children to take state-mandated accountability standardized tests — was not created by teachers. It is not led by teachers — and in some places, it is actually potentially damaging to teachers under the current bizarre test-driven accountability system.

So if you imagine that test opposition is some sort of political ploy engineered top-down by unions, you are kidding yourself.

None of That Answers the Question, so Let’s Get Back To It

If I am such a dedicated opponent of standardized testing, what do I propose as an acceptable substitute?

Let’s first clarify our rather fuzzy terms.

“Standardized” Test?

Come to think of it, we’d better clarify “test” as well. For many folks, it’s only a “test” if the student is answering questions. A five-page paper assignment, for instance, is usually not called a test. In fact, the more open-ended the assessment, the less likely folks are to call it a “test.”

“Standardized” when applied to a test can mean any or all (well, most) of the following: mass-produced, mass-administered, simultaneously mass-administered, objective, created by a third party, scored by a third party, reported to a third party, formative, summative, norm-referenced or criterion-referenced.

This broad palate of definitions means that conversations about standardized testing often run at cross-purposes. A teacher talking about performance assessment task piloting in New Hampshire may think she is making a case for standardization, while I think that performance assessment is pretty much the opposite of standardized testing. There’s a lot of this happening in testing debates — people arguing unproductively because they have very different things in mind.

Acceptable substitute for what purpose?

The confusion is further exacerbated by a myriad of stated and unstated purposes for standardized testing. This confusion about purpose has emerged as a huge issue in the ed debates because far too many of the amateurs designing testing policy don’t understand this at all. At. All.

It’s not just that corporate school reformers argue that you can make the pig gain weight by measuring it. It’s that they also assert that the scales used for weighing the pig can also be used to measure the voltage of your house’s electrical system and the rate of water flow in the Upper Mississippi.

If we want to find an acceptable test, we have to first declare what the test is going to be used for.

Ranking schools, students and teachers

This is where purpose becomes important. I can’t think of a good test for achieving the goal of ranking students, teachers and schools — for which many of today’s “accountability” tests are used — because I don’t think these goals are worth achieving. As a teacher, I don’t need to know how my student compares to students in Idaho. I don’t need to know that as a parent, either.

It’s a fool’s game to compare teachers to other teachers, schools to other schools, and students to other students. First of all, I can only make the comparison based on a narrowly defined criteria. Otherwise I’m reduced to deciding if my insensitive smart flabby artist student ranks lower or higher than my sensitive tall winning cross-country racer student. The comparison only has meaning if it is based on narrow criteria (which student answered the most math problems correctly on Tuesday) — but what good is a narrowly defined comparison?

If I find that my smart, funny wife is not as smart and funny as some other woman, should I be unhappy in my marriage? If this delicious steak is not as delicious as the steak I had last night, should I spit it out? If all the teachers in my school are great, should it be closed down because some other school has greater ones?

The signature feature of a ranking system is that it locates losers. But what decent teacher would stand in front of a class of 30 on the first day of school and say, “Five of you will turn out to be losers.”

Ranking and rating means that even if everyone is excellent, the least excellent must be marked Below Basic or Underperforming or Just Not Good Enough. A system based on ranking and rating is a system that assumes that in every endeavor, there are people who just aren’t good enough. I reject that view of the world, and so I reject any testing system designed to reinforce that view. If everybody in my classroom does a great job, everybody in my classroom gets an A.

Providing feedback for parents

Here we have a standardization problem because not all parents want the same feedback. Is she getting an A? Is she passing? Is she developing a better grasp of abstract language particularly as used in classic literature? Is she okay? Does she seem happy? These are all types of feedback I’ve been asked for by some parents. What one measuring tool would satisfy all those questions?

Standardized testing is repeatedly sold with the myth of the clueless parents, the parents who have no idea how their students are doing. But the solution to this problem is transparency, the levels of which can be controlled by the parents.

For example, the electronic gradebook. Our parents can look up their students any time and see exactly what I see when I pull up the gradebook. Some of my parents look every day. Some look never. Some look and then call or email me to ask, “So what exactly was this one assignment.”

When we control the available information, we do parents a disservice. Only revealing the grade at report card time is a disservice. But anyone who has taught at a school with big detailed portfolio gradeless systems can tell the story of the parent who looked at all that data and said, “Look, can you just tell me what grade she’s getting?”

Parents deserve just as much feedback as they want. Standardized testing has nothing to do with providing that.

Feedback for teachers

Any decent teacher generates this kind of data daily. Any lousy teacher will have no use for standardized test data even if it arrives on gold-clothed ponies.

You are dodging the question

Okay, yes. I’ve laid out my usual assortment of objections to standardized testing, but I still haven’t said what would be an acceptable substitute. If you’re still here, I’ll try to address that now.

What qualities would an acceptable-to-me standardized test have?

If I ever were to find a standardized test that I could live with (or even date regularly), this is what it would look like.

Criterion-based (and so, objective)

If I’m going to measure my students against a standard, not against each other, I can use the test to answer the question, “Do my students know how to find verbs” or “Can my students identify dependent clauses?” If every student in my class can’t potentially get a top score, I’m not interested. And if it’s not objectively scoreable, it’s no help. That means that no standardized test is going to be used for any higher-order critical thinking-type skills.

(This is part of the whole point of Depth of Knowledge testing love — it creates the illusion that higher order stuff can be scored objectively. But it can’t).

It is possible to come up with standardized questions. I once had a textbook with great literature questions — but I still had to evaluate the answers myself.

In fact, I can only see using a standardized test for checking the lowest levels of simple operations — simple recall, basic application.

As Close to Authentic as Possible

I want a task that actually assesses what it claims to assess. Multiple-choice questions don’t assess writing skills. Click-and-drag questions don’t assess critical thinking.


This ought to go without saying, but if I, the teacher, don’t get to see the questions, the answers, and the exact results from my students, then, no, thank you. I can do better myself.


I rarely re-use my own test-like assessments; instead, I make new ones each year to fit the class and the instruction. Particularly when I’m working summative assessments, I’ll create something that focuses on the issues with which we are addressing. For instance, if we’re solid on spotting infinitive phrases but have trouble picking out gerunds used as direct objects, I can design a test that will help both me and my students.

Expertise and Convenience

There are lots of things I don’t know. Materials prepared by people who are experts in particular areas are a necessary aid, and those sometimes include assessments. I’m happy to have an expert in a particular field in my classroom.

And at some points, I can use the convenience of having something pre-built to save me some time.

So, the acceptable alternative…?

Do I really think that there are no necessary standardized tests?

Well, it is true that we all use standardization because we don’t completely individualize everything from assessment through evaluation — but that’s a hugely broad definition of “standardized.”

By that standard, everything used with two or more students is a standardized test — and it may be useful to think of standardization as a sliding scale. The more we broaden the reach of the assessment, the more students we try to make it each, and the more we try to make the grading of the test be quick and uniform, the less useful the assessment becomes. A test that you can give to every student in America and which can be scored in just a week will by necessity be inauthentic and measure little.

So for best classroom assessment, we stay as close to the individualized specifics end as we possibly can. The more that an assessment is developed in response to specific instruction by a specific teacher of specific students, the more useful that assessment will be in performing the most useful function of any test — telling students and teachers where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

Yes, that information is not what the policymakers would really like to have. But the information they would like to have is completely useless to me in the classroom (and so far, they’ve found no reliable method for either collecting or using such information anyway). I’m not convinced that information can be collected by standardized tests anyway.

I’m not saying that all standardized tests are evil. And stripped of baseless high-stakes consequences, their awfulness is greatly reduced. There are standardized tools that are tolerable, and a few that might rise to the level of useful.

But necessary?

Still zero.

Peter Greene,  a veteran teacher of English in a small town in Pennsylvania, wrote on his  lively Curmudgucation blog that he has found himself in conversations about standardized testing that go something like this: people who like standardized testing defend it to the max while he counters that the number of standardized tests necessary for students to take is zero.

For taking that position he writes, he has been called a “union shill,” lectured that data from these tests are the life blood of education, and asked to be explain what the alternative to standardized testing is. Here in this post, he explains his thinking. This is a shortened version of the original, which you can find here.


JFK Assassination a Reminder: The Struggle Continues

The year was 1963. It started off as just another beautiful day. I was in class at Annapolis Elementary School on Green Street. Suddenly, my homeroom teacher came into our classroom. She was crying. She told us that we were dismissed and could go home early.

We shouted in joy and in unison. It was a Friday and we were getting out of school early.

I lived in downtown Annapolis at the time. I was a walker. As I joined with my friends in taking the short walk from Green Street to Pinkney Street, I noticed that all of the adults were either crying or agitated. I had no idea why.

When I reached my home, my family had surrounded a small black-and-white television set. Some of them were crying. As I looked at the television screen, I saw a reporter, who said, "President Kennedy has been shot."

Some people in my family pontificated that this happned because President John F. Kennedy was trying to help African-Americans. Others thought he was killed because of his ideology.

Even though, I was just a youngster, I instinctively knew that something serious had taken place. The assassination of President Kennedy was my first recognition that America had lost its innocence.

I have been an eyewitness to history. I have seen bullets and not ballots change the course of history.

I lived through the assassinations of President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, all in one decade. The places in Dallas, Harlem, Memphis and Los Angles where each of these men were gunned down are stark reminders of what a bullet can do and how dreams can be shattered. 

How different America might have been had any of these leaders lived longer. President Kennedy's call to action -- when he said, "My fellow Americans, ask not what you country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" – inspired a whole generation, including me.

I saw firsthand that people responded to his call of service. Students marched for peace and civil rights. Leaders advocated racial equality. Environmentalists worked to preserve the Earth. There was a sense that we were part of a great movement for social change.

Then the unthinkable happen -- one assassination after another.

I wept when Malcolm was murdered. I prayed when Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. And after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, it took me a long time to believe that change could come from ballots and not bullets.

On this 53rd anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination and looking ahead to the inauguration of a president-elect who became more famous for advocating building walls than building bridges, my faith is unshaken. I have faith in the future.

I know that there is a power in the universe that put wetness in water and blue in the sky, and that allows birds to fly. I know that history is replete with examples of progress being made against great obstacles. I know that every knock-down is not a knockout.

Every now and then, it is important to reflect on the words of President Kennedy when he said, "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind." It was the Rev. King who said, "Only when it gets dark enough can you see the stars."

I believe that our best days are ahead of us. In the words of Frederick Douglass, "Where there is progress, there is struggle."

On the anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, it is in that spirit that I say A Luta Continua, which in Portuguese means the struggle continues.

Carl Snowden is a longtime civil rights activist from Annapolis. Contact him at


Voting "Yes" on Extending Council Terms Good for County

By Greg Wilson/Publisher, Anderson Observer

One of the most significant issue on the ballot tomorrow in Anderson County is the referendum to extend county council seats to serve staggered, four-year terms. 

It is a good idea, a move which could really benefit Anderson County long-term. 

There are a number of reasons to vote in favor of this change. Under the current two-year set up, a new council member barely has any time to gain a solid understanding of the way things work before it’s time to start running another campaign. Voters should want their elected county council representatives to build good working relationships not only with their fellow council members, but with department heads, key front line workers and with members of the others in the area.

There is virtually no way to do this in a single, two-year term. 

Most other counties in the state seem to understand this, which is why 43 of our 46 counties have four-year terms. It allows an elected council member to concentrate on serving the citizens of Anderson County without being forced to shift attention to running for office after only a year in the position.

Some argue if congressional candidates are limited to two-year terms, why change county council’s terms to four years?

The answer is simple. Congressional candidates, state and national, have staff members - many of whom have served in those positions for years - to help them hit the ground running. They also have substantial numbers of colleagues in their respective offices who have the time and staff to help newcomers settle into office and understand how things run. 

County council members are serving in part-time positions, with a single clerk and no other staff. Many of them work full-time jobs and find it almost impossible to get acclimated to their office quickly. They are expected to learn on the part-time job, as well as stay on top of issues which can shift and change quickly. There are no scores of colleagues who have held office for years to ease them into the job. 

Four-year terms would also all council members to be the stewards of the county’s best interests, instead of being squeezed into becoming proxy votes for their districts on controversial issues. This allows for a long-term strategic planning when looking out for the what is best for the entire county and its citizens.

Finally, four-year terms could have the additional benefit, as it has in other counties in the state, of attracting more candidates who would be interested in serving at least a single four-year term, but are intimidated by the specter of the shorter two-year cycle.

Voting yes on changing the current system to one which better serves Anderson County could be another step toward better government.