Friday, December 30, 2022

Books I've Read: AFTER THE IVORY TOWER FALLS by Will Bunch


Haven't been writing lately, which has allowed me more time for reading. But I find, often, that when I look back at the books I've read, though I may heartily recommend a title, I have trouble recollecting anything as to its contents. All that's left is the feeling that it was good or insightful or worthwhile, which isn't nothing, but it's less than I'd like. So, I'm trying something new -- both to possibly kickstart the writing habit . . . again, and maybe to afford my aging brain the opportunity to hold more of what I've read within its gray matter. Thus, the first in what I hope will be a series of posts relating what I've read and what I thought of it. I plan these to be more off the cuff than finely tuned pieces of writing, preferring to "work out on the page" what I thought of the book rather than making this into homework. The ideas offered may come across as half-formed or half-baked, and I apologize if this puts you off, but this is more for me than you--spontaneous, unformed, following whatever thread is sparked in my brain as I'm writing. If you gain something from this, that's great and thanks for reading, if you don't, I am sorry, but what'reyagonnado?

For this inaugural edition we have the latest nonfiction book I've read: AFTER THE IVORY TOWER FALLS, HOW COLLEGE BROKE THE AMERICAN DREAM AND BLEW UP OUR POLITICS--AND HOW TO FIX IT, by Will Bunch. 

Prior to WWII, college in America was a haven for the well-off, the top 5% of our society being afforded the opportunity of postsecondary education, while the rest of the country found themselves relegated to the fields or factories to make ends meet. But, after America helped to defeat Nazism, there was a question of what to do for the returning veterans, and one idea was the G.I. Bill, allowing veterans the opportunity to attend college that hadn't been possible before (with the caveat that this meant white veterans, in the main). Many college presidents felt these working class men would soften the learning at their venerated institutions, but they were proven wrong. 

The American Dream had found another pipeline, as college became a stepping stone for many working class whites to better their status in society, while also engaging their minds and working toward the civic good of all. It was a time when America came to understand education as a public good, something to be aspired to and lauded. In the decades that followed public universities flourished, women were also afforded the chance to seek higher education, and the government assisted, with Pell Grants being a primary tool for allowing those with lesser financial means to afford the cost. But this was a time when tuition was not as exorbitant, in relation to household incomes across the spectrum of fiscal wherewithal. It was a time of great opportunity and aspiration. 

But during the upheaval of the 1960s and 70s things began to turn. Those on the conservative right of American politics (Republicans, say it, Republicans) turned away from the idea of education as a public good. In governors' mansion and state legislatures across the country they slashed funding for public colleges. This drop in funding, along with the privatization of universities, banks, and other financial institutions, meant there was a rise in tuitions for public universities. Pell Grants and other government programs meant to assist people with the cost of college did not keep up, and many times were also slashed or at least became stagnated under Republican fists. 

The cost of college soared out of reach of many, and continues to do so, but these people also held true to the idea that a college diploma was the only way for later generations to improve their status within society. And this improvement is still true, to a point. During recent recessions, the unemployment rates of those without a diploma have often been double that of people who've earned a college degree. But what about the cost behind that degree? Those people are burdened, now, with debt spreading into the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, even when they attend state universities, and it is a debt crisis that is untenable. 

With the rising cost of college, the divide between the haves and have-nots has also increased, and this has spilled over into our political ideologies. Republicans, thanks in no small part to hateful rhetoric from talk-show personalities like Rush Limbaugh, believe that college is nothing more than an indoctrination society for politically correct ideas of equality, respect, and representation for minorities. Democrats see this thinking as ill-informed and downright wrong, and they see college as the grand answer to all of society's ills. They're both wrong (though conservatives are more wrong). 

The real problem is, truly, the rising debt spiral for those attending college. It burdens those who choose to follow the traditional path to a better life, while it shuts out so many more who would benefit if given the opportunity, and, maybe even more dastardly, it labels those who do not attend college (a four-year institution, as I've been using the term 'college' throughout) as lacking in merit. Which is completely wrong. Education -- post-secondary education, including not just four-year universities but also trade schools, internships, community colleges, and other, similar programs -- must be seen as a common good, once more. We are failing our young people, at the point when they are most vulnerable: "You're 18 now, better figure out, fast, what you're gonna do with you entire life, and get right to it!" We need to do better. 

Where do the politicians get it wrong? 
As noted above, Republicans feel that colleges have become incubators for indoctrinating their children into 'politically correct' thinking. This is false. 
Democrats focus only on four-year institutions, with their proposals of canceling student debt or making public colleges tuition-free, failing to consider the cohort for whom a four-year degree program is not the answer. 

An idea put forth by Bunch, an idea that has been percolating for decades, is the idea of a mandatory year of service for 18-year-olds. Where the collective battle against Nazism brought us together as a country, maybe it would be a good idea to have something on that scale that could allow all of our young people to have a common touchstone. With the diminishing rolls of people at church or joining civic organizations, there is a need for something to connect us. This solitude that is enveloping our society is helping to foment the divisions we see in our politics. We don't talk to one another any more. We don't meet up at the Lions Club. We don't talk during the tea service after church. We don't bridge the divide that is tearing our country apart. A year of service, where one would be in a collective that consisted of people from across the political spectrum of America might be the first step in healing this wound. And it would give young people an opportunity to earn a living, learn some skills, and consider what they might want to do next, without having to dive into the deep end of the pool where loan sharks and bone-crushing debt awaited them. 

And we need to also, as a country and through the federal government, make education beyond high school a priority once again. We need to fund it, to push it, to make it a reality for everyone. But, that does not mean just four-year universities. We need to broaden our idea of post-secondary education. Include internships, trade schools, and other institutions and programs, as noted earlier in this spiel, so that we provide opportunities that match up with everyone's needs. And, one more time, FUND IT. 

It's an idea. 

Friday, December 9, 2022

Another video dropped here so I can find it later, if need be

 My yoga stretch regimen, to help keep my back from rejecting physical activity again

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Stewart Copeland, with the Police: Wrapped Around Your Finger

Dropped this here, so I don't need to search for it on youtube again. 

Monday, April 4, 2022

Frank Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: good or bad?

So, that's not a totally fair title, but I prefer it to my original click-bait idea: "Why do I accept Frank Millers' Fascistic Superman?" Anyway...

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley.
One of the best selling comics of all time.
One of the most influential comics of all time.
A classic from one of the all-time great creators in comics.
You may not read comics, but it's quite possible you have read Dark Knight. Along with Alan Moore's & Dave Gibbons's Watchmen, it ushered in a new era of superhero comics from which we have yet to disentangle ourselves, despite attempts to do just that by many creators, including Alan Moore himself. But! This is a post about Dark Knight, so let's get to it. 

Since the start of COVID, my buddies and I have been talking comics over Zoom, on a weekly basis. Our latest discussion was on Dark Knight, and it didn't go as I expected. Popular opinion would have you believe this work is unassailable, a pinnacle of comic book storytelling, the greatest Batman tale ever told, a superhero story for the ages. For the most part, you would get little argument from me ('greatest' might be a stretch, but it's in the discussion). So, when a couple of my friends revealed the clay feet upon which this classic piece of comic art stands, I was surprised. But they're smart dudes, so I was ready to hear them out . . . and then tell them why they were wrong! 

An aside: I feel like I should get my personal history with this book out there, because it is pertinent to the discussion as well as to my consideration of the book. I started collecting comics in 1984, when I was 12 years old. I grew up in a small town and did not discover comic book shops until 1988 or '89. In 1987, I found the Warner Books edition of Dark Knight Returns, in my local bookstore, Mr. Paperback's. I immediately bought it. Having read very few -- and possibly none at all -- Batman comics at that point, this was basically my introduction to the character. It made a lasting impression on me, and I have re-read it multiple times through the years. I know it well, and I thoroughly enjoy it. 

Aside #2: A brief summary of Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne is 55 years old. Batman has not been seen for a decade. Superheroes have been outlawed, and even saying their names on television is not allowed. The only one left is Superman, working covertly for the U.S. government. But, the animal inside cannot be contained, Batman returns to clean up Gotham, and Superman is sent in to stop him; it ends in a stalemate. Except . . . Bruce is good with chemicals, and he ingested a concoction that made him appear dead when he was merely in hibernation. Kal-El (Superman) attends the funeral, and his super-hearing picks up a heartbeat, just as he's about to leave. But he's willing to let Bruce wage his war, if he keeps it low-key. 

Two of my friends were critical of Dark Knight, one more than the other. Their main point of contention was the characterization of the two main heroes: Batman and Superman. Both of them felt that Miller wrote these characters completely wrong. Regarding Batman, they could never see him giving up on Gotham or going into retirement; it's not in Bruce Wayne's nature. He's obsessed about instilling fear into criminals in order to clean up his city and make sure nobody ever experiences the tragedy he did when his parents were shot dead in Crime Alley. Superman, to their minds, is written as a bootlicker who follows orders from a fascist authoritarian, in the form of the broadly satirical Ronald Reagan. The prime example of this comes after the nuclear fallout of the missile Superman barely diverted. Even with crime rampant in cities across America, Gotham -- previously the most dangerous city in America -- is now experiencing a substantial decrease in crime due to the Batman's actions. Despite that, Superman is sent into Gotham to put a stop to Batman. Because, the law. 

These points are valid. In all honesty, I'd never thought too deeply about the characterizations of Batman and Superman, or the other supporting characters, in this book. I just went along for the ride. That said, I agree completely that Batman and Superman are totally out of character in Dark Knight. But, I don't think that's a problem. And here's why: because I love being right

Or maybe there are better reasons. 

The most important thing to remember -- despite DC's desire to shoehorn this book into Batman's main continuity -- is that Batman: the Dark Knight Returns is an Elseworlds story, a tale from a parallel universe, where all the heroes' names are the same, but they are, to various degrees, slightly different. This is essential, I feel, to accepting and fully understanding Dark Knight.
(Allowing that all art is subjective, so you may understand it differently, and that's cool too, but wishy-washy statements don't make for compelling arguments. But I digress. Let's get back to our regularly scheduled program.)

In this Dark Knight continuity, Batman and Superman (as well as all the other notable characters) have aged beyond the perpetual 28 years they inhabit in the main comic books. Bruce Wayne is roughly 55, as Miller wished to make the character as old as his legend. Superman would also be around 55, though his Kryptonian physiology seems not to have dampened his powers. Jumping off from there, Miller wanted to craft a narrative that examined what a Bruce Wayne/Batman of 55 might be like. He wanted to look at how that would have affected him not only physically, but also emotionally. Sure, Bruce Wayne is a superhero, but age has a way of slowing you down, making you second guess your abilities, infusing doubt where it might not have resided before. It's an intriguing premise, and one that I appreciate seeing played out in Dark Knight

These characters have also experienced very real change in their lives, and they live with that hanging over them. Again, this is unlike the main comics in that, though there is the illusion of change and the hyperbole of earth-shattering events in those books, for the most part these incidents have very little impact on the characters. DC, as a publishing entity, needs to keep the status very much in quo so people will continue to buy their comics. There can be no real changes in these characters' lives; it's too much of a risk. Therefore, Batman, Superman, et al. plod along, ageless icons, experiencing titanic events, but never seeming to feel their repercussions. 

Miller wasn't interested in working within the status quo. He wanted to put these heroes under a microscope and poke at them, see how they might react to having experienced real tragedy, real change, real evolution. Jason Todd died ten years prior, a cataclysmic event from which Bruce Wayne found it nearly impossible to come back. For a decade he allowed Batman to remain dormant, so that no such personal tragedy might happen again. It can be assumed that, even if he were not directly responsible (and maybe he was), Bruce feels wholly responsible for the death of Jason, who took the mantle of Robin after Dick Grayson grew out of the name. This has weighed heavily upon him. 

Also in that time, superheroes have been outlawed. It seems a safe assumption that the timeline for this legislation parallels that of Bruce's tragedy -- ten years. As a result, Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) left Earth for the stars, Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) went back to her people, and Superman became the not-so-secret secret weapon of the U.S. government. Similar to the disbanding of the Justice Society when they refused to divulge their identities in the HUAC hearings, it can be assumed that heroes became suspect by regular civilians, that they were no longer trusted, and, thus, outlawed. Most of them retired, but Superman could not. His powers, and the responsibility instilled in him by Ma & Pa Kent -- who also taught him to respect authority, an important point -- meant he needed to find a way to continue helping humanity. So, he took the only path that he felt had been afforded him. He worked under guidance from the U.S. government, keeping a low profile but still doing good. 

Both of these heroes have gone through personal upheaval and been changed by that. This is why, I think, I am able to accept their characterizations, even if they are "off" from how they are regularly written. Superman has always been the rule follower, while Batman the rule breaker, and the idea that Superman would go along with the government if it meant he could contribute to bettering the world, even in some small way, works for me. Batman was responsible -- at least indirectly -- for the death of a teenager, Jason Todd. This would have a profound effect on Bruce Wayne, could cause him to turn in on himself and reevaluate his actions. Extrapolating from that, he might retire, give up on Gotham, and try to just live out the rest of his life in a way that wouldn't put another child in danger. 

Of course, in the end, Bruce Wayne returns to Batman. And, in my reading of those final pages, Superman, with a knowing wink to Carrie Kelly, the new Robin, learns that there may be another way to help this adoptive world of his. 

Ultimately, these characterizations were due to Frank Miller wanting a battle between Batman and Superman at the end of Dark Knight. He needed them to be on opposite sides of the fence, so that he could bring them to Crime Alley, along with Oliver Queen, and show readers that given enough money, ingenuity, and obstinacy, a human can defeat a superhuman in battle, even if that victory is fleeting.