Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for the Higgy

April 15, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

A good Higgy nomination is a tough target to hit. As we found out last year, your pick can be rejected for being too powerful and thus being more a case of BSDD (Big Scary Dictator Disorder) than PLDD (Petty Little Dictator Disorder), as happened to my nomination of David Sarnoff. But your nomination can also be rejected for being not powerful enough, and thus not making a sufficiently large contribution to the worsening of the human condition to merit the award; this was the rationale given by the judges for not selecting Jay’s nomination of Louis Michael Seidman.

So the big behind-the-scenes bigshots who pull the real strings of power are out, and TV blowhards who just talk about what the bigshots do are also out. The core value of the Higgy is “arrogant delusions of shaping the world”; the bigshots are not deluded in thinking they can shape the world, whereas the blowhards don’t really even try to shape the world so much as describe those who do.

With all that in mind, I nominate Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for the Higgy, for inventing the “free speech zone,” also known as the “First Amendment area.”

Free-Speech-ZonesImage HT

As you can see from the image above, the basic idea of free speech zones is that “constitutional first amendment rights” are only to be exercised in government-designated areas. They are now used in virtually all major events, such as national political conventions; they are also set up anywhere something controversial is happening that attracts protests. They’ve been in the news lately in connection with the Bureau of Land Management’s dispute with the Bundy family in Nevada. As Mark Steyn comments, “The ‘First Amendment Area’ is supposed to be something called ‘the United States.’”

Gone is the old idea of America as the one country on the face of God’s earth where literally anyone can just stand there on the sidewalk talking to anyone who will listen, or where people can organize to protest the actions of the powerful in genuinely public spaces. The pseudo-genius of the free speech zone is that government doesn’t forbid you from speaking per se, it simply designates the zone in a secluded, out of the way place, destroying the public nature of your speech.

Yes, everyone agrees that there have to be some limits on the use of public space; if ten different groups all want to have huge rallies in the town square at the same time, you’ll run into problems. But, again, the pseudo-genius of the free speech zone is that it shifts us from dealing with that kind of coordination problem to the removal of free speech from public spaces entirely. It’s a transition from “speak as you will, unless your activities get in other people’s way, and then we have to find some accommodation for competing claims,” to “you may not speak in public places, lest you get in other people’s way.”

But of course the real motive behind the creation of free speech zones is not to avoid coordination problems. It is to prevent protests from besmirching the public image of big events and other things that powerful officials want to run smoothly. These zones are intended to isolate “free speech” from actual public participation, in order to create the appearance that all is smiles and unicorns in the sun-kissed lands of modern America, under the benevolent rule of our lords and masters, whose benevolence is proven by the fact that they generously grant us free speech zones.

Kirk’s actions in inventing the free speech zone exemplify the core value of the Higgy exceptionally well. He was chairman of the Democratic party during its 1988 national convention, which seems to be generally agreed upon as having pioneered the use of these zones. And it’s pretty clear that Kirk’s goal was to silence free speech in public places. Consider this contemporary account:

But even those groups that are cooperating with the system are upset that the official “free-speech zone” is too far from the convention arena (in fact, it’s about 500 yards away, down a hill, around a corner and hidden by a hotel-and-shopping complex). “You can’t be seen by delegates in the ‘free- speech zone,’ ” complained Peterson.

“The city keeps telling us that the buses bringing delegates will let them off right across from the protest area, so they’ll have to see us,” said Paul Cornwell, chief organizer of Alternative ’88. “But you know how that’ll go. It’s going to be about 100 degrees out there and all the delegates are going to zoom into the air conditioning as fast as they can.”…

Protesters also were angered to learn – during a hearing on the suit – that the city plans to use the street that separates the “free-speech zone” from the Omni Center to park the delegates’ buses.

“In addition to putting us out of sight, they’re going to form a barricade of parked buses,” Peterson said.

Kirk seems to have drawn his inspiration from the Planning Office in Hitchhiker’s Guide:

The tradition has continued in the use of free speech zones ever since.

If this were effective in silencing speech, Kirk might not qualify for the Higgy on grounds that he’s a case of BSDD. But in fact free speech zones don’t silence free speech. Protestors ignore them; note that the quote above begins with “But even those groups that are cooperating with the system . . .” There were a number of groups that didn’t cooperate with Kirk’s system in 1988. The public image of the event was even more effectively spoiled than it would have been by a peaceful public protest.

By contrast, when Communist authorities in China copied our model of free speech zones (read those words again: Communist authorities in China copied our model of free speech zones) during the 2008 Olympics, it had few difficulties. Over in China, free speech zones are BSDD. Here in America, they’re PLDD.

True to form, today the rallies in Nevada were not held in the designated free speech zone, and protesters got into nasty conflicts with authorities. Ultimately the authorities – who were actually in the right as regards the merits of the case, but who had blown everything out of proportion and were more concerned with swaggering around with guns than with settling the dispute in a reasonable way – had to back off in humiliation.

Huge shock: people who are highly motivated enough to turn out for a protest do not simply bow their heads and do as they’re told when they’re told that free speech is no longer allowed in genuinely public spaces. If you deny them a legitimate opportunity to make their voice heard, that only makes them more angry and more determined to make their voices heard. So even when the lawful authorities are in the right, their efforts to silence dissent only make them look wrong and undermine their ability to enforce the rules.

Talk about arrogant delusions of shaping the world! I’m proud to nominate Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for The Higgy.

The Already Existing Chaos in Student Testing

April 11, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Matt complains about “coming chaos in student testing” because opponents of Common Core don’t agree on what should replace it. As I’ve been arguing in the comment thread, the American political system is designed to allow messy, chaotic coalitions to form quickly among people who don’t agree about much but want to oppose something that they all dislike, even if they don’t agree about why they dislike it or what should replace it.

You want to know why that’s happening in the case of Common Core testing? Stuff like this:

I’d like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.

Imagine how that sounds to parents. Jim Geraghty comments in his email blast:

We live in a world where Ed Snowden’s revealed all of our biggest national-security secrets, but parents in New York State can’t know what’s on the tests the kids are taking. What, are they trying to design a system with as little accountability as possible?

Yes, they are.

You would not have this huge anti-CC coalition drawing together people who agree about nothing else if CC were not being done in such a way as to generate huge opposition from a very diverse set of constituencies. And the CC coalition has proven that it is not willing to bend even an inch to accommodate those concerns.

As long as the CC coalition behaves the way it does, no one has any right to complain about the coalition that has formed against it. They are right to work together to oppose CC without waiting for consensus to emerge on an alternative.

I will keep on saying it and saying it: The core issue is trust. Nothing else matters. The system has lost the trust of parents, not because the parents are paranoid but because the system actually does not deserve their trust. Nothing else is going to go right until the system earns back the parents’ trust.

And the only plausible path to restoring trust is school choice without a common standard.

Update: More analysis of testing concerns from Rick Hess: “Four years after these testing consortia launched, I still can’t get answers to practical questions about whether the results will provide the kind of valid, reliable data needed to support transparency, accountability, and informed competition.”

Brilliant Health Care Solution Discovered!

April 3, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Shorter Yuval Levin: The Feds couldn’t make the Obamacare website in three years, then they outsourced the job to the private sector, which did it in six weeks, and are now bragging this proves Big Government can do the big jobs after all. So the obvious thing to do is outsource the actual provision of the health care to the private sector, declare victory and go home. The Gordian Knot of Big Government, cut at last!

Nominate a Fool for the Higgy!

April 1, 2014

William Higginbotham

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Yes, that glorious time of year has come once again – it’s time to post or send in your nominations for the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year award. As the notorious younger twin to JPGB’s prestigious Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year award, “The Higgy” recognizes outstanding achievement in the field of petty crapulence.

The award is named for history’s greatest monster, William Higinbotham.

Nominate someone who worsens the human condition in a way that meets the judges’ criteria for the award:

Higinbotham’s failing was in mistaking self-righteous proclamations for actually making people’s lives better in a way that video games really do improve the human condition. So “The Higgy” will not identify the worst person in the world, just as “The Al” does not recognize the best.  Instead, “The Higgy” will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.

This year we’re inaugurating a new tradition of launching The Higgy on April 1. It’s a very fitting practice, given the emphasis in the judges’ comments last year on the role of foolishness in evaluating the merits of a nominee. The ideal Higgy nominee is not just someone who makes the world worse, but who has “arrogant delusions” that “self-righteous proclamations” improve the world. But don’t worry, the ancient custom – established by our forefathers in a distant age now lost to history – of announcing the winner on the only appropriate day (April 15) shall not change.

Last year saw a spirited competition that made the judges proud. I nominated David Sarnoff, who ruined the lives of the inventors of television and FM radio. Jay nominated Louis Michael Seidman, who provided spurious legitimization that helps officeholders get away with disobeying the supreme law of the land in the pursuit of their selfish ends. But Matt’s nomination of the winner, Pascal Monnet, surpassed all our fondest expectations for The Higgy. As Matt relates:

UX is a clandestine group of Parisians who make use of the underground tunnels to break into museums in order to restore neglected pieces of art. Pascal Monnet is a museum administrator who did everything in his power to shut them down…The group invests their time, effort and money into restoration projects neglected by the state, and even gives pointers to museum administrators regarding the flaws in their security. Armed with a map of the underground tunnel networks beneath Paris, UX members set up workshops in order to conduct late night restoration projects.  In 2006, they decided to fix a large clock within the Pantheon…After fixing the clock, UX notified the administration of the Pantheon, whereupon the story started to go wrong…[Bernard] Jeannot’s then-deputy, Pascal Monnet, is now the Pantheon’s director, and [on top of Jeannot's huge lawsuit] he has gone so far as to hire a clockmaker to restore the clock to its previous condition by resabotaging it. But the clockmaker refused to do more than disengage a part—the escape wheel, the very part that had been sabotaged the first time. UX slipped in shortly thereafter to take the wheel into its own possession, for safekeeping, in the hope that someday a more enlightened administration will welcome its return.

In the face of such Higinbothamesque behavior, the mind simply boggles. But does Monnet stand alone, or are there more Higgy-worthy scoundrels out there awaiting our discovery? Dear readers, it’s up to you to bring further vile offenders to light so we can dishonor them!

Responding to the President on Choice Media

February 24, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Recently, the president claimed that “every study” shows voucher programs aren’t highly effective. Choice Media has posted a short clip in which a legend in the field (Paul Peterson), the leader of voucher research conducted by the president’s own department of education (Pat Wolf), and a modest chorus in the background (yours truly) contest the president’s claim.

Pass the Popcorn: Do You Want to Be Awesome, or Loved?

February 18, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It’s a Pass the Popcorn so big, I couldn’t fit it onto JPGB. Head over to Hang Together for 3,300 words on The Lego Movie and Frozen, which offer the two great moral worldviews of our time.

If you haven’t seen The Lego Movie, go see it. It’s hilarious. The entertainment value is well worth your money. I expect that some of the pop culture gags in this movie will be referenced by nerds around their digital water coolers for some time to come. And the gags are almost all visual, so it’s going to be a lot funnier on the big screen than it will be in your living room.

Don’t go expecting deep wisdom, just go expecting a great time, and you’ll have one.

Now, to business. Do NOT read the rest of this article until after you’ve seen both The Lego Movie and Frozen (subject of my most recent Pass the Popcorn article over at JPGB). Major spoilers lie ahead…

The Lego Movie and Frozen are both examining what may well be the most important question facing our culture. They are not about the culture war as such, but they are about the core question of the meaning and purpose of human life that lies behind the culture war…

Your thoughts and feedback welcomed!

Pass the Popcorn: Frozen

February 13, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

While there’s still time, go see Frozen while it’s still in theaters. The Pixar conquest of Disney has been an uneven battle up to now, but this move is an unqualified victory and it may turn the tide of the war. It’s a profound movie on many levels.

The most obvious lesson of Frozen – the one that’s made explicit in the movie - is that love is not about how you feel. It’s about putting other people’s needs ahead of your own. This by itself would make Frozen a profound inversion of the old Disney culture by the Pixar invaders. But Frozen not only makes this point, it traces some wide-ranging consequences. Such as: people invest too much importance in romantic love relative to other kinds of love. The responsible grown-ups who tell you not to burn down everything else in your life for the sake of “true love” (quote unquote) are not your enemies, they’re your friends. They’re the people who really love you.

When Enchanted subverted these same fairy-tale conventions – e.g. getting engaged to someone you just met – it was just going for laughs. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of laughs in Frozen. It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen in years. But there are no laughs on this particular subject. Frozen is not subverting the Disney view of marriage for fun. Frozen is playing to win.

That alone would be enough to make Frozen an early contender for the most culturally regenerative movie of the year. But there’s more going on.

Under the surface, Frozen is dealing with two other subjects that are, if anything, even tougher for our culture. One is the corruption of human nature. It used to be that pretty much everyone agreed there was a systematic moral dysfunction in human nature. This is a teaching held by Christians in an especially strong form, of course, but it is by no means a peculiar Christian doctrine. Aristotle believed it, as did Kant. There is a whole song in Frozen about how nobody is what he ought to be: “Everybody’s a Bit of a Fixer-Upper.” While there are villains in Frozen who are willing to kill, the main threat to the heroine’s life comes from the selfish actions of a sympathetic character – someone who loves her. We are explicitly told at one point that the explanation is simple: everyone is like that.

This is, of course, related to the main message. It’s because other people are so disappointing that we prioritize our own feelings rather than other people’s needs. And it is because we are ourselves so disappointing that our lives fall apart when we prioritize our own feelings.

The other theme in Frozen, one buried even deeper, is the tension between social rules and individual freedom. Without giving too much away, I can say that Frozen is the movie Brave was trying to be, but couldn’t be. Brave was trying to deal with the fact that society needs rules, and individuals who are not well served by the rules need to learn to subordinate their own desires to the good of their neighbors as embodied in the rules; at the same time, social authorities need to recognize that the rules must accommodate the needs of individuals – including the needs of those unusual individuals who are not well served by the same rules that serve everyone else.

There was internal conflict over Brave at Disney, and it shows. Frozen pulls off the same angle brilliantly – better, perhaps, than Brave could have. Because in Frozen we are shown what happens to individuals who try to flee from society in order to escape its rules. They fall apart. Their lives become arbitrary and meaningless – and they learn to hate. “The cold never bothered me anyway” sings Queen Elsa as she builds an ice castle for herself at the top of a remote mountain, but she doesn’t realize how the cold is seeping into her heart.

We all need freedom, but we also need each other.

Oregon Wins!

January 28, 2014

OregonDucksMascot(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Ladies and gentlemen, the United States of America is now concluded. The judges have turned in their scores, and the victor has been selected. Oregon wins.

We would like to congratulate all fifty states on their outstanding efforts, and wish them good luck in future competitions.

Taste the ABC Rainbow!

January 23, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The new edition of the ABCs of School Choice is out – now available in a rainbow of colors, showing that Friedman provides the full spectrum of data on school choice programs.

No red, though? I’m disappointed.

School Monopoly Culture Wars

January 22, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Neal McCluskey of Cato has long been a champion of one of my nearest and dearest reasons for favoring school choice: it defuses the culture war. When families with diverse beliefs are all (effectively) forced to send their children to the same schools, it creates a lot of unnecessary conflict.

Today, Neal announces that Cato has released a pretty cool web feature – an interactive national map of public school conflicts over religion, sexual ethics, free speech, and other cultural issues. You can search by state, by large districts (Chicago has six ongoing conflicts, New York City seventeen, Milwaukee four) by type of conflict, or by keyword. I randomly typed in the keyword “balloon” and found the case of a teacher who wasn’t allowed to do a class project on treatment of homosexuality, and held a “funeral” for his project, at which he asked his students to write their feelings down on helium balloons.

Don’t click the link if you want to get work done this afternoon. Kudos to Cato!


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