The free ride for Charlie Sykes continued this past Sunday in the Journal Sentinel, where book editor Geeta Sharma Jensen treated the small, thin book like a legitimate piece of homey literature. "And so, we have his rules," she gushes, "spawned by common sense, aimed at parents, and designed to give teens a dose of reality."
Golly, even I might want to read that. Too bad the book itself is a mean-spirited continuation of Sykes’ radio poison, having little of the "common sense" or "reality" proclaimed by Jensen. Sykes has created a world of his own manipulative design, featuring the usual straw-men, phoney assumptions and false "solutions" for problems that either don’t exist or that have since the beginning of time.
But, I guess, if you are a local high-profile media "personality", you get to put out a book and do the media tour without really being challenged for the substance of the product itself. It’s like coddling the local rock-n’-roller who really isn’t that great, but, hey, he’s our guy. Apparently, as long as Sykes shows up with the book, smiles and doesn’t get too smarmy like he does on his radio show, hey, a couple of books will be sold.
The 50 Rules, Sykes’ says, began with 10, then 14, then, whatever. At 50, the book is stretched as thin as the book’s 161 white-spaced pages. "Don’t forget to say thank you" and "look people in the eye" reads more like Miss Manners than the sanctimonious societal scold Sykes pretends to be. My favorite throw-away Rule is "learn to deal with hypocrisy". I think this means Sykes is not going away and we will have to learn to deal with him.
The most-discussed Rule is the one about that great wing-nut canard, dodgeball, which, according to Sykes, is more like life "than your gym teacher thinks". Leaving aside the cheap shot at teachers that Sykes knows nothing about – again, the premise of the book is based on a lie about schools in the first place – this idea that "dodgeball is life" is ludicrous. The kids who succeed in dodgeball are the same who succeed in sports generally – good hands, quick response, good arm. Combine the good athlete with a bully, and you have a pretty obnoxious situation in dodgeball, but those guys are out there acting like jerks anyway.
If you want to say "life is dodgeball", you might as well say "life is sports" (even more so with the dedication, practice and skill development in regular sports), and we know that’s not true. Some athletes succeed off the field and some don’t. Many athletes off the field are not on top of life, as much as they need to get one.
Because Sykes holds himself as some sort of get-over-it tough guy, I’m guessing what he is getting at with the whole dodgeball nonsense is that kids need to deal with over-powering, bullies. Well, sure, and so what? Dealing with bullies is only a part of life, not life itself. Bullies also will need to learn to deal with other types of people, eventually – even the corporate world trains for and demands teamwork and will get rid of punks, no matter how talented. Maybe Sykes, the radio bully with the government-regulated megaphone, thinks that everyone needs to get over his own mostly un-earned media position. "You are offended, so what," goes one of the Rules. But that’s what you’d expect to hear from a bully, isn’t it?
On the polite media tour, Sykes is able to spout the nonsense about dodgeball, coddling teachers and parents and all of the historical sins of youth without being challenged. The questioners nod their heads and take it all in, as if Sykes is only stating the obvious. He walks out of every media studio he enters unscathed, as if his wisdom has been received and acknowledged. Legitimacy is therefore brought for the price of a vanity book, and the rest of the media just plays along.
For his part, Sykes takes his enhanced intellectual heft to the microphone and continues to influence local elections and parrot daily talking points on behalf of Republicans everywhere. Mission accomplished.
UPDATE: In a comment on Tuesday, one Dr. Blogstein invited me to call in to his talk-blog when he was having a discussion with Sykes that night. I did, and here is the audio link. (Push the "play" icon next to Sykes; I start at 35:35). They kept me on for about 15 minutes. Any attempts I made to engage Sykes were rebuffed by Sykes and the hosts (I don't know where they were from -- out East, maybe) by claiming I was taking his words too seriously, apparently. Sykes talks and writes, like all wing-nuts, to reach the level of guys in a bar, and the Blogstein crew was more than willing to play along. Sykes' issues were "apolitical", according to Blogstein. I argued that Sykes sets up straw-men by pointing out anecdotes and extrapolating out to the whole teaching profession. They were having none of it -- they know what they know and, if they think kids are being coddled ("bubblewrapped", according to Sykes), well, that's what they think. It is (or should be) Sykes' motto: Never let the facts get in the way of a good argument. Anyway, I was basically advised to lighten up.
Anyway, this is the kind of free ride Sykes gets on his book tours. He knows that he is poisoning the well for future attacks on public education, but he poses like just some gentle soul commenting on known truths. When you challenge any of his false premises, hey, lighten up. The Blogstein crew couldn't put this in the context of his radio antics, but he knows what he's doing.
Interesting moment: early on, Sykes invited me to write my own book. I said I would, if I had the same kind of corporate support he gets from groups like the Bradley Foundation and the Wisconsin Public Policy Institute. Later, Sykes seemed to plead poverty as a reason to write the books. Ha.
The free ride continues, even on blog-talk-radio.