microcosm of the school board
Thursday, October 14 2004
Internet Search is now so good that human memory and education are have lost some of their importance. I don't have to know what a roentgen is; I can look up a good definition faster than I could explain it to you even if I did know. I don't have to be a Madonna expert to sing you "Lucky Star" because I have Google. Its responsiveness and the ease with which its results can be narrowed gives a skilled user the feeling that the internet is an extension of the mind. It's a very powerful feeling, though it doesn't come naturally to people. When I'm making computer repair housecalls, I frequently resort to Google to answer questions that crop up. Clients are always amazed, saying "I would have never thought to use Google." Mind you, they know Google is a search engine, and they know all sorts of information is on the web. They just can't quite put these pieces together.
Meanwhile, though, search on the desktop has languished in the limbo of Microsoft's fat and dumb happiness. If the answer to my question is not on the internet but is on my computer instead, Microsoft's built-in search can find it for me, but it's not fast, and there's no facility for carefully narrowing the search. Typically, I initiate a search and then go off to do something else, checking in now and then to see if my computer found what I'm looking for. This awkward, asynchronous process tends to break the mental flow that might otherwise give the process the feel of thinking. With Windows XP, Microsoft actually managed to make their search even worse, presenting the user with an initial search screen that has an animated avitar but no place to type a search phrase! This extra step in the process makes it that much more painful and greatly decreases the likelihood that search will ever be used. There aren't many people whose faces I want to rub in a cheese grater, but the user interface designers who created the Windows XP search are definitely on that list. (Yes, I know, there's a way to turn that dog animation off, but I've yet to sit down at a Windows XP computer where the dog had actually been turned off unless, of course, I turned him off.)
The solution to the desktop searching problem finally arrived today in the form of a tool designed by Google. It actually takes the form of a web server that runs in that background on your computer, and it delivers search results to the browser of your choice in web pages that look exactly like Google internet search result pages. The responsiveness is as good as an internet search, and all the usual Google search-narrowing tools are at your disposal. The only downside is that the catalog must be built from the documents on your hard drive before the desktop search is complete, and with a lot of data this process can take many hours.
The annual Woodstock Film Festival is happening again and this evening Gretchen and I decided to see School Board Blues one of its many films. Since School Board Blues is a documentary about the local Woodstock school district, it had quickly sold out. But Gretchen managed to get us tickets anyway by sweet talking the guy at the door. She joked that we were press, a claim that (even if it hadn't been made completely in jest) should have been belied by the conspicuous lack of laminated credentials hanging from cords around our necks. No matter, the guy thought Gretchen was serious, and he let both of us in free. Since she was the first audience member inside, she selected the best seats in the Bearsville Theatre.
The movie concerned itself with the Onteora School Board, which has jurisdiction over the second largest school district in New York. It's a largely rural district stretching from West Hurley to Phoenicia. Its residents tend to live in trailers, ranch houses, and rotting remnants of the Catskill's former glory. But the district also includes the wealthy, progressive village of Woodstock. It's the difference in world views between urbane Woodstock residents and the billies in the hills that provided the tension that this film documented. Its focus was the reverberations resulting from a single fateful decision. The decision that began it all forbade the Onteora School District from using its Indian mascot, which was regarded as degrading by Native Americans. The loss of the mascot riled hillfolk who had never before voted in any election, and a reactionary school board was quickly swept into power. Obviously having consulted, An Idiot's Guide to Extremist Rightwing Policy, the new board quickly set out to restore the Indian mascot, rescind the anti-discrimination policy, privatize the bus system, bring drug-sniffing dogs into the schools, and secretly hire a nurse who promoted faith-based family planning and abstinence-only contraception. The board proved amazingly inept at decisionmaking, and chose to squander considerable resources fruitlessly investigating enemies instead of working to improve the schools.
Meanwhile, the few progressive voices left on the board as well as the citizens who had worked to get rid of the mascot found themselves targeted by minor acts of terrorism. Their tires were sabotaged and they started receiving threatening phone calls. An anonymous post on an internet messageboard claimed that the reactionary tide was actually the result of a white supremacist movement aimed at throwing aside "Jew-inspired" education.
Happily, once the macot was restored, the hillfolk quickly lost interest in the school board. In stages, progressives from Woodstock grabbed seats on the board as they became available, always winning by large margins. Saturation publicity of the issue in Woodstock reminded its residents of the high stakes, and they consistently out-voted reactionaries from the hills, who, without a mascot issue to rally around, couldn't muster the voting power of their demographic.
audience was filled with lots of partisans and characters from the documentary, all (or nearly all) of them on the anti-mascot side. They cheered the good guys and booed the bad guys whenever they appeared on screen. You could feel the tension in the room. These people had suffered through this experience, and they'd been scarred by it. Sure, in the end they managed to retake their school board. But not before the reactionaries could inflict damage that will take years to fix. And the Indian remains Onteora's mascot. For the time being that issue is regarded as the third rail of Onteora politics.
The film provided an excellent insight into the way the political process in a democracy actually works. Not everyone votes, and few people have well-reasoned opinions when they do. The issue of Onteora's Indian mascot concerned a symbol, and nothing brings out the irrational beast of the human brain's reptilian basement like an attack on a symbol. We've seen it with the flag (both Confederate and American), we've seen it with the Pledge of Allegiance. It's instructive to see the grave price paid by progressives for their attack on a symbol held dear by conservatives, an attack the conservatives viewed as "city folks comin' up here and tellin' us how to live." The destructive know-nothing school board swept into power rather reminded me of George W. Bush and his grim band of medievalists. As I pointed out to Gretchen, much of the right wing ascendancy in this nation, starting with Reagan, can be traced to a backlash against the civil rights movement. We take two steps forward and then we have have to hope we're not swept two or three steps backward.
Gretchen had a coupon for fifty dollars off at the Blue Mountain Bistro (a Euro-Mediterranean restaurant the corner of Glasgo Turnpike and Route 212), so that was where we had our dinner. It was good meal, built for both of us around a bottle of French white wine, portobello mushrooms with pasta, and tapas. Gretchen was telling me about one of her poems recently published in a gay literary journal, and how it might be odd if she were to actually go to a reading and introduce people to her husband. "I don't feel straight," she said, "but I'm sure there are people in the community who would consider me an imposter." This reminded me of a dream I had the other night in which I had a boyfriend. He wasn't anybody in particular, just some placeholder of a guy, and there was nothing in the dream about sexuality itself. But in the dream I was sitting with this guy on a bed in the room I used to share with my brother in my childhood home, and I was thinking, "Hmm, so I guess this means I'm gay." It wasn't an especially big deal to me in the context of the dream, though the realization did surprise me. When I told Gretchen this, she wondered if it was symbolic of some other change I was going through. I thought about it for a few seconds and said that maybe it meant I was coming to realize that I was finally all grown up and a part of a community, not just some rebel teenager doing everything on my own in a desolate wilderness of idiots. I told her that sometimes as I'm driving I feel a connection to community that I never used to feel. People depend on me and I depend on them. I depend on that guy in the oncoming lane - I entrust my life to that guy - not to swerve into mine. I told Gretchen that I'm frequently impressed by the culture of cooperation that happens automatically when people obey traffic signals. Most people don't stop to consider it, but I do. The fact that someone doesn't throw a fit of rage when he has to wait for two cars to pass before he can enter traffic, it might seem trivial to you, but to me it's an amazing transcendance of animal nature.
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