It has been said that I provide a particular service to the blog-reader community: I listen to talk-radio so you don’t have to. It is an ugly job, but someone has to do it.
As an extension of that, I also like to keep track of the wing-nuts away from the microphone. This includes attending debates that they have with people opposing their radical views in public forums. Hah! Gotcha! The right-wing-nuts wouldn’t be caught dead in a real debate that they don’t control in their sheltered studios with those expertly-timed mute and hang-up buttons for any caller who might manage to challenge the "arguments" of the self-righteous and happily-unchallenged radio "hosts".
Sometimes, wing-nuts choosing to pose as educated or erudite will get so full of themselves that they will actually commit to a book-writing exercise. So it is with local king-of-all-media Charlie Sykes, who we all know has written a book deceptively-titled 50 Rules Kinds Won’t Learn in School. "We all know" this because Sykes has been yapping about it on his show and everywhere else he can self-promote for the past month. I have always been amazed how WTMJ and other stations let themselves be used for un-paid Republican propaganda day-in-and-day-out without getting paid or at least reporting in-kind contributions. It’s the same thing when Sykes does something like write a book. Is Sykes’ publisher (St. Martin’s Press) being billed for all this free advertising? Shouldn’t TMJ management do something about this rampant hucksterism by its middle-age Boy Wonder?
Anyway, although I could have waited until 50 Rules hits the cut-out bins in time for Xmas, I felt it was my duty to seek it out, buy it and review it. So you don’t have to, see? I thought long and hard about this course of action – after all, it is indeed possible that $5 of my money will land in Sykes bank account. For instance, I refused to buy Christopher Hitchens’ interesting-looking God is Not Great screed because he is such a vicious idiot on the Iraq war. (Instead, I bought The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which is a particularly horrible bit of writing.) So, to slightly assuage my (yes) liberal guilt about the Sykes purchase this morning, I made sure I went to a locally-owned bookstore with a humanitarian give-back program (Schwartz). I also bought a new book by someone who, unlike Sykes, really does know something about what is and isn’t going on in the schools, Jonathan Kozol’s Letters to a Young Teacher.
Sykes’ 50 Rules is a remarkably thin and small book – in more ways than one. It is almost a pamphlet at 161 pages, including what is known in the trade as a generous use of white space. Like most of what Sykes does on the air everyday, the book purports to knock down a straw-man of his own creation. In this case, the pretend-villain is a fictitious school system, which he claims, based on deliberately sloppy inuendo and falsehoods, somehow coddles our young and protects them from the realities of life. Never mind the inconvenient fact that many of Sykes’ supposed rules actually are discussed – often – in schools throughout the country.
Despite the hysterical title and the attempted demonizing of unstated and non-existent schools, Sykes seems just as concerned with what he sees as indulgent parenting, again creating parental anecdotes out of whole cloth to show how we got to this supposed nadir of teen-age existence.
Mostly, though, Sykes seems to hate the kids – how they behave, how they dress, how they insist on their dog-gone individuality and independence. In this, Sykes is just like any other parental scold through the ages, complaining about the tough adult life they have inherited and howling in jealousy about the indulgent sins of the young and the failed authorities who enable them.
The Rules themselves are tediously crafted and sloppily presented. Smug asides like "get used to it" and "stop whining" are tacked to the end of several, as if the Rule itself and its implications are not obvious enough. "Life is not fair" says Rule 1, and it’s all downhill from there. Claiming that "the average teenager uses the phase ‘It’s not fair’ 8.6 times a day", Sykes does not really say what is exactly new about this, even if it were true. Oh, "they got it from their parents", he says. In one of his longer Rule explanations (a whole 3-and-a-half pages), he goes off about Stephen Hawking, the severely-disabled physicist, who, apparently, has declined to utter the scurrilous phrase. That may be, but perhaps a certain level of brilliance and world-wide acclaim count for something.
Even in the very first Rule, Sykes fails to explain what the schools have to do with any of this and he certainly doesn’t admit in any of the Rules that teachers in the schools do, in fact, counsel about the fairness or lack thereof of the Cold Cruel World that Sykes embraces. Self-esteem, he proclaims in Rule 2, has become "an obsessive fixation", leading to – gasp! – a substitution of purple for red correction pens in some school somewhere. For this proposition, he includes a footnote to – wait for it – himself! (A dead link no less.)
Like most of the selective, isolated anecdotes masquerading as a trends in the Sykes oeuvre, if it happened somewhere, it is happening and charactorizes the teaching profession everywhere. Rule 30 informs us that "Zero tolerance = zero common sense" and relates as typical various fluky rule enforcement efforts, such as a 3rd grader suspended for having a butter knife in his lunch-box. Let’s see...5 incidents, over 100,000 schools in the U.S....yep, that’s a problem, alright.
I’ll write more about 50 Rules in the next couple of days, but, even for a quick lunch-time read (after you are done with the Onion, of course), it is disappointingly thin gruel. Sykes just goes off on various rants about the Sins of the Young and, in most of the pamphlet – er, book – doesn’t even bother to link any of this to the schools and what they supposedly are or are not teaching in the classroom. Sykes knows little and cares less about what actually happens in America’s schools. His phony stories and sanctimonious lecturing, like so much of wing-nut posturing, is simply designed to tear down institutions that are designed to give rich and poor alike a fair chance at the basic skills needed in a complex society. True equal opportunity is a threat to those feeding the wing-nuts their talking points. And Charlie Sykes is here to do his part to make sure that never happens.