Category Archives: political rant

I’m Not the Only One Criticizing David Brooks as a Commencement Speaker

David Brooks is this year’s commencement speaker for Rice University. As I’ve written before, Brooks’ contradictions and constant rhetoric about how grades don’t matter may not be the perfect fit for a campus of awkward nerds. However, Brooks isn’t just speaking at Rice, but at Brandeis University as well.

In that context, other bloggers have taken issue with some of Brooks’ writings. Notably, Student Activism addressed a Brooks’ column titled “Virtues and Victims,” which Brooks wrote in the wake of the Duke lacrosse rape scandal and the publication of the no longer relevant Tom Wolfe’s exaggerated piece of FICTION, I am Charlotte Simmons. In that column, Brooks laments the decline of social order and character building in universities.

[E]ducators [from] several decades ago understood that when you concentrate young men, they have a tropism toward barbarism. That’s why these educators cared less about academics than about instilling a formula for character building. The formula, then called chivalry, consisted first of manners, habits and self-imposed restraints to prevent the downward slide.

As Student Activism points out, there is a good deal with which to disagree in Brooks’ yearning for this wonderful past.

There’s a lot to object to in this, starting with the suggestion that all men have the impulse to rape, and that the best of us are merely taught to restrain it.

Yes, college guys can be idiots. And alcohol-fueled, hormone-surging late-teenagers don’t always make the smartest decisions. (Perhaps this is a reason to not let people carry guns on campus). But to refer to rules as “self-restraints” as Brooks does is a sheer fallacy.

Student Activism points to the Berry College Handbook for Women, published by the college’s women’s student government in 1956, as evidence that these restrictions were anything but self-imposed:

DATES — Girls may have dates on Sunday afternoons from 2:45 to 5:00 PM, at parties, movies, and other social events and also at the college store between classes. When girls are coming from the college campus, boys do not escort them farther than the ‘parting of the ways’ which is on the road between the Recitation Hall and Mother’s Building. There must be no dating in out of the way places. Petting is not permitted.

This isn’t self-imposed manners, this is gender segregation. And this isn’t merely a relic of the past. Many current schools, usually ones with religious affiliations, impose strict regulations about men-women interactions. These sorts of rules don’t merely prevent students from learning and growing in an atmosphere of social freedom, but also create a campus potentially hazardous to women. As Student Activism argues:

On the typical American campus of the fifties, students were not taught self-restraint — they were restrained, and they were punished when they were caught circumventing those restraints. If they learned anything about how to behave behind closed doors, it was at great risk, and in defiance of the mechanisms employed to keep them apart. If a female student at Berry College in 1956 consented to be alone with a guy in circumstances that made sex possible, she was in violation of school rules. She was in danger of expulsion. Every man on campus knew this, and that knowledge gave the worst of them great power.

If a woman was treated badly in such circumstances — if  she was raped, if she was coerced, if she was abused, if she was humiliated — she was vanishingly unlikely to speak out. And there wasn’t even any way to have an open discussion about what it meant to be “treated badly” — the campus rules permitted no public dialogue about sexual ethics, no opportunity to arrive at communal understanding about how to behave and how to expect your partner to behave, no space in which to forthrightly compare expectations and experiences.

Indeed, without open discussion, there is no way to learn how to act when one finally does leave the imposed rules of a college campus.

One of the purposes of college is to provide a safe zone to learn how to act in the greater world. Imposing strict rules on students merely moves that learning time down the road until after graduation, perhaps until it is too late.

Rice University allows this sort of freedom not just in its student interactions, but in its drinking culture as well. As a wet campus, Rice allows open discussion of and engagement with alcohol related issues. A recent survey by the Rice Drinking Culture Task Force indicated that transfer students feel that the wet campus increases safety. These students, who have seen what other campuses are like, recognize that policies of openness create a campus of knowledge and safety, rather than ones where potentially dangerous activities have to be hidden.

To conclude, there is a reason that campuses don’t have strictly imposed rules anymore. And it is a reason that Brooks should consider.

This world that Brooks pines for is a world of stifling rules and unequal punishments. It’s a world of shame and exploitation. It’s a world of ignorance and silence.

It is a world that generations of students heroically fought to be freed from.


In which gay reality eclipses gay irony


This man is being oppressed.



Let us contemplate for a moment the difference between majority and minority.

Majority: the greater part or number; the number larger than half the total (opposed to minority): the majority of the population.

Minority: the smaller part or number; a number, part, or amount forming less than half of the whole.

Gays are a minority. Straights (or “breeders”) are a majority. As a majority, the straights have conscious or subconsciously formed a society around themselves — a society that responds to and serves their needs. The Gays live in this society, too — a fact that is being slowly accepted. However, Gays also need, or at least want, a society that responds to and serves their needs. At a small level, this is accomplished on university campuses via Gay & Lesbian Support Groups, or Gender and Sexuality Centers, or whatever you want to call them. In a heteronormative society that inherently offers things like insurance benefits, marriage, and positive role models for the Straights, these groups offer some minuscule sense of support for Gays who may have difficulty in a world where people blame them for, you know, bad things they didn’t do.

However, some opponents to the Gay centers see them as a threat, or through a lens of jealousy.

“Hey, how come the Gays get their own center. I want a Center. No special treatment!”

Well, it is mostly because you already have a center. It is called Everything Else.

I made fun of this not-uncommon complaint in the infamous Racist Backpage.

Well, this week has been one of those times when something that once was a Bad Joke is a now on path to be a Real Law.

Any state college or university that uses state funds for one of those sordid dens on iniquity that go by the euphemistic name of “gender and sexuality centers” (read: “Gay & Lesbian Support Groups”) must now also fund a Family Values Center.

The provision, part of a budget bill, was put forward by Wayne Christian of East Texas and passed 110-24.

Wow, what a fantastic use of resources. Bill supporter Wayne Christian defended this policy as merely equalizing the playing field:

“I’m not treading on their rights to that, to teach alternative sexual behavior,” said Christian, R-Center (right). But he said they must match it, dollar for dollar, with advocating heterosexual, “traditional values.”

Hey, but you know what else is already advocating heterosexual values? Everything else!

But what exactly will these centers teach as heterosexual values? I assume something along the lines of how to write a prenuptial agreement to make divorce a breeze!

The purpose of these Gay Centers is to provide some support for people who do not have support inherent in our societal structure. Or, as a secondary purpose, they can educate others to help reform our society into one where the centers aren’t necessary. However, given that Christian is a man who feels the need to apologize for describing the terms that he actually uses in his bill, maybe he could spend some time hanging around one of these Gay Centers.

The legislative debate on the issue included Christian apologizing to the women in the gallery when someone asked him to define “pansexual,”

In his own argument for Straight Centers, Christian inherently makes the argument for Gay Centers. In fact, he admits to this:

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, asked, “What is a pansexual?”

Christian said if Castro would go to UT’s or A&M’s gender and sexuality centers, “they would teach you.”

So given that Christian admits that people can learn things at the gender and sexuality centers, what does he think people can learn at Straight Centers? I don’t really know, but maybe he can provide the answer to one of those Questions to Never Ask. Ever.

Houston redistricting, River Oaks, and St. John’s School

[Edit: Credit to Greg’s Opinion for these awesome yet simple maps.]

The new redistricting map has been a pretty popular topic on the Houston blogs the last few days (though the Houston Chronicle website has had rather minimal coverage). One of the funnier comments on the new map came from The Houston Press’ Hair Balls Comment of the Day:

I love how they engineered District G to gay-marry the Memorial-area millionaires with the River Oaks billionaires.

That whole district looks like a closeted Republican phallus awkwardly inserted into District J’s orifice.

Admittedly, District G is a pretty funny shape. It is basically the Rich Jerk district, covering most of wealthy west Houston, reaching inside the loop to rescue away River Oaks from the too cool for school J district.

Admittedly, this makes a lot of sense. People with similar interests should be grouped under the same representative. On the other hand, 713 Brooks Brothers River Oakers may be insulted to see themselves paired with 281 Memorial types with their jacked up Tahoes and glitter-clad Abercrombie girls. It is George H.W Bush v. George W. Bush all over again.

And upon further inspection, perhaps that little River Oaks cutout isn’t the most optimal shape. Sure, upon first look it basically adheres to the unspoken borders of where the white women at:

Between Westheimer and the Bayou, ending at Shepherd was basically my old stompin’ grounds. However, there is one important River Oaks institution that is split by this map: St. John’s School!

While the new map appropriately puts those public school ruffians from Lamar in District J, (Lamar? More like Lame-r! Amirite?) it also abandons St. John’s Lower and Middle schools (not to mention the Lamar Towers) to the J hoards. The J recruiters could walk on to St. John’s south campus at any time to convert children, ruining the American family structure that River Oaks holds so dear except for divorces and trophy spouses.

This new map splits a prized River Oaks institution, setting brother against brother and Quadrangle against Quadrangle.

Perhaps city council could propose a little switcheroo before approving the new map, putting SJS’s lower and middle school into District G and the Upper School into District J. After all, lower and middle schools are largely populated by legacy kids who were born in River Oaks, will work in River Oaks, and will die in River Oaks, never leaving the protective barrier of those tree lined streets, with its annexes at the University of Texas and various Aspen ski ranges. However, the Upper School has slightly more Rebels, and it would be appropriate to place these burgeoning Fischers in the artsy J district.

This swap wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, St. John’s don’t have any actual population, so the campuses could be exchanged without offsetting the districts’ population balance. And it would be a nice little way of recognizing the underlying theme of the new city council districts.

Then again, in 10 years the glory of these districts may be changed with a new census. So would 10 years of a slightly awkward map just to prove a point be worth it? Sic Transit Gloria.

Houston redistricting, blacks, and Hispanics

While I am excited about the Houston City Council redistricting plan, and its new District J, not everyone is as pleased. With the opportunity for two new districts, there was a certain expectation that one would be black and the other would be Hispanic. So far, it seems like the map did not create a new Hispanic district.

This could prove to be a legitimate complaint, given Houston’s growing, and already pretty huge, Hispanic population. However, it isn’t as if there are no Hispanics on the city council.

One could hypothetically include Melissa Noriega, if we count marrying into being Hispanic. But I don’t think it works like that.

Yeah.... I don't think she's Hispanic.

However, while there are two (at least obviously) Hispanic members on city council, there are four black members.

This seems a bit off, given that Houston is 25.3% black, but 37% Hispanic or Latino. However, things are not that straightforward.

First, two of these black council members are at-large positions, elected by the entire city rather than by district. Going by a district-only basis, there is an equal number of Hispanic and black members on city council. So it is not as if the black community is being favored over the Hispanic community, at least not on a cursory view.

Secondly, the distribution of the Hispanic population lends it well to two districts.

Each red dot represents 25 White people, each blue dot 25 African Americans, each green one 25 Asians, each orange one 25 people identifying themselves as Hispanic. “Others” are rendered in gray.

Judging by the orange dots, there are two major isolated concentrations of Hispanic populations: one in north Houston, and the other in southeast Houston. It just so happens that these population concentrations overlay well with two current districts: District H and District I.

This is the old city council map.

And it just so happens that H and I are represented by Hispanic councilmen, and generally preserved under the new plan.

The other population centers seem too small or spread out to create a proper Hispanic district. One could try to combine those two population centers in west Houston and northwest Houston into one district. This would require combining, from what I can see, parts of the new A and F, cutting through G and C.

This is the proposed city council map.

However, creating a district like this would both smack of Jerrymandering (which currently isn’t justiciable, but is frowned upon), and could threaten to throw off the necessary population balance between the districts.

Furthermore, it is very well possible that a strong Hispanic political organization and voter turnout in Districts F or A could lead a Hispanic councilman. Or better yet, a good city-wide organization could get several at-large Hispanic council members. But the Hispanic political organizations so far have failed to accomplish this feat. Which leads to….

Third, Hispanic voter turnout simply isn’t high enough to get any more council members. Yes, Hispanic voter turnout in Texas did grow by 31 percent between the 2000 and 2008 elections. However, turnout in Houston is notably lacking. As Paul Burka noted concerning the 2009 Houston mayoral runoff:

The lowest turnout of any precinct in East Side barrio neighborhoods was 7.8%.

The highest turnout of any precinct in the East Side barrio neighborhoods was 8.9%

[By contrast, a] typical precinct in the Heights had a 30% turnout.

If Hispanic turnout were greater, then Houston would see many at-large positions filled by Hispanic representatives. Strong Hispanic political movements could push impressive candidates to a victory in districts with large, but not majority, Hispanic populations. However, Houston Hispanics haven’t been able to accomplish that. Blacks have at-large city council members, and have had a mayor. The gay community has a mayor and has put forward city council members. The Hispanic community is, ideally, next in line.

It is difficult to comment on this situation without sounding condescending or critical towards the Hispanic political community. But at this point, Hispanics have the population to be a major political force. New districts or no, at-large elections are theirs to lose.

Houston City Council Redistricting and Ellen Cohen

As required (well, almost required) under the city charter, Houston is adding two new city council districts due to population growth. After a few months of planning and debate, Mayor Annise Parker has released a proposed map. Public hearings start April 13.

This is the old city council map.

This is the proposed city council map.

It is difficult to get a sense of where exactly some of these boundaries fall. I spent a few minutes trying to do an overlay of the new districts on a city map.

I guess it isn't very good. But I didn't try very hard.

[Edit: Here is a great map overlay]

The two big changes, beyond merely adding two new districts, are the changes to District C, and the J District.

First, District C undergoes a major reshaping. Originally, C was the area around West University and Bellaire, following along that southwest Houston circle of 610 and 59, extending from that into Meyerland and that general area. Under the new map, C loses its northeast corner and southwest extremities, instead following along 610 south, up to Westpark, and following along the area between Westpark and Westheimer (I think) and out to the city boundary near Highway 6.

Looking at a racial breakdown of Houston in this somewhat confusing map by data king Eric Fischer, C probably won’t change too much racially. Some red dots are being trades for other red dots.

Each red dot represents 25 White people, each blue dot 25 African Americans, each green one 25 Asians, each orange one 25 people identifying themselves as Hispanic. “Others” are rendered in gray.

However, not all politics is race. District C is shifting from the more original suburbs to Houston’s new suburbs along the appropriately new Westpark Tollroad. The oldschool Jewish Meyerland suburbs are being taken from the inner loop communities and being attached to distant suburbs. Furthermore, I think a good deal of this area is medium density apartments interrupted by strip malls. It would be interesting to see a real breakdown along election results, comparing what is being taken from C and what is being added. To throw out a guess, Democrats are being taken and Republican votes are being added. The former District C city councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck was a moderate Republican. However, she is term limited out from running again, justifying such a notable district shift. The apparent shoe-in to replace her was former state representative Ellen Cohen. However, this change to the district has apparently drawn her out of the District C race.

Hypothetically, would Representative Cohen even be a good fit for the new District C? During her time in Austin, Rep. Cohen had an image of being that somewhat liberal Jewish grandmother. This would have been a great face for the old District C, with its combo of Meyerland, inner-loop lower-upper class, and parts of the Museum District and Rice University. The new District C, with its slice of tollroad Richmond strip suburbia, may be better suited for a business-y Republican type. Even Clutterbuck, with her commonsense Christian soccer-mom schtick, may not be perfect for this new district in which C is apparently for Commuter.

However, as Cohen indicated, while she cannot run for C, she can run for District J, which brings us to big change number two: District J!

District J will be, as the joke goes, the Jay district. (Wait, is it pronounced Jay or Gay? Its a hard G, right? He’s a Jay!)

The new District J will be “an almost painfully hip, edgy, so-cool-it-hurts” combo of the Heights, Montrose, Museum District, and Rice University.

During the redistricting planning stages, there were rumors of the creation of a “Gay Council Seat.” While it was dismissed at the time, this is basically it. The Houston gay community is one of the most politically organized Democratic demographics in the city, and there is little doubt that it could successfully run someone for City Council in J. However, Ellen Cohen’s political experience and hip grandmotherly appeal to J’s youthful community definitely make her an appealing candidate.

Furthermore, it isn’t as if Houston’s gay community has had trouble running candidates for city council in other districts.

We’ll have to wait and see if this new city council map is even approved. And while I am not glad that my family’s home is going to be part of the new District C….

My family is now on the bad side of the tracks...

I am really anticipating to see how District J will reshape the debate inside City Hall.

Jobs, education, and Generation Y’s huge mistake

[Thanks to the always charming Nikki for the inspiration]

I’ve made a huge mistake.

Yesterday, some other 24-year-old wrote exactly how I feel in the New York Times. Well, not exactly. He focused more on the international atmosphere in which the current economic recession affects our dear 20-somethings. However, one paragraph stood out:

The cost of youth unemployment is not only financial, but also emotional. Having a job is supposed to be the reward for hours of SAT prep, evenings spent on homework instead of with friends and countless all-nighters writing papers. The millions of young people who cannot get jobs or who take work that does not require a college education are in danger of losing their faith in the future. They are indefinitely postponing the life they wanted and prepared for; all that matters is finding rent money. Even if the job market becomes as robust as it was in 2007 — something economists say could take more than a decade — my generation will have lost years of career-building experience.

For most of our Generation Y lives, we were told that if we studied hard, got a good education, and didn’t do drugs, that we would come out on top. Well, we did those things (except maybe some of the drugs), and so far the brightest minds of our generation are working part time at coffee shops to make ends meet.

Where is the promise of good grades at good schools leading to good jobs? Perhaps it is a flaw of our generation that we think we’ve been promised something. But then again we were. We thought we had struck a deal, like some sort of verbal contract: “stay in school, don’t do drugs, get a good education, and you’ll do great.” After all, that is what we were told in by oh so many afterschool specials or ABC TGIF shows. The dumb jocks may win now, but that’s alright, that’s OK, you’re going to work for us some day.

Except no one is working for you unless you’re managing a Starbucks or paying freelance writers $50 an article to review a restaurant where a meal costs $75 and you don’t reimburse.

More and more, people like David Brooks are telling us that grades don’t matter. And it is just so fucking frustrating. As I said before:

After 21 years of struggling and striving to get the top grades, top SAT score, top extracurriculars, the last thing you want to hear is about how you shouldn’t have worked hard for good grades.

We did RABDARGAB in elementary school, did educational summer camps in middle school, and made national merit finalist in high school. We did practice SAT classes, applied for awards, and did every little thing with the hope that one day it would pay off. If I had known then what I knew now, I wouldn’t have been afraid to drink in high school. Or even more in college.

We were promised our work would pay off. That our education was an investment. Well, now we’re coming to collect and finding the bank empty.

We just want a job. A good, old fashioned 9-5 way to feel like you can contribute to society. We want a way to start a life. But now you have to be an unpaid intern for like a year first, if you even get a job after that.

This situation could possibly be ameliorated by raising the pay and stature of teachers. Top college grads don’t seem to have much of a problem working for less pay at admirable non-profit jobs, so why don’t we try to view teaching the same way. Impressive non-profit positions are competitive and command respect, and have the promise social and vocational benefits in the long run. If we could raise teaching to a similar status, this would both ensure that teachers come from the cream of the crop and reward the hard work of those students.

But who the hell would want to be a teacher? Teaching is denigrated as a lazy job. And new teachers aren’t given support to train them for their positions.

Top notch graduates could prove to be an excellent resource of great teachers, but no one wants to go to a job where you are underpaid, disrespected by students and society, and get little training to even do your job right.

Another potential fix would be to guarantee a minimal degree of health coverage for people in the 20s.  The lack of a safety net is a barrier against launching one’s own business or becoming an entrepreneur. The sheer need for some sort of health coverage drives people to get a minimal job that doesn’t put educated talents to use. Simply ensuring some sort of basic level of protection could encourage a new generation of self-made businesspeople.

But rather than focus on the next generation of workers,politicians apparently think that the biggest threats to our nation are Muslims bringing shampoo on planes and the deficit, even though there is no noticeable affect on the bond market. But we can’t raise taxes on the rich back to where they were in the ’90s to make up for that deficit. So instead we have to cut jobs, like teachers or state historians. Not to mention this compounding with the problem of  private companies outsourcing and computerization of white collar jobs.

So now we have a generation of overeducated, underpaid, 20-somethings who desperately try to hold onto the fun of our youth because the reality is too depressing to confront. And because we actually have time to waste.

We don’t have jobs, but we have blogs, bands, and computer games. We don’t have the money to start families so we move back in with our parents. We hang out with our friends, and try to hold on to our past, because then at least we can pretend it is acceptable to not have a high paying, respectable job with a future. If we act like we’re still in college, then we don’t wonder why our degrees haven’t fulfilled the unspoken verbal contract of our youth, and can hope that it will get better.

When we’re getting high, we don’t contemplate whether our entire lives up to this point were wasted on fruitless academic endeavors.

But then the media accuses us of being a bunch of manchildren with arrested development. And the only appropriate response is: I’ve made a huge mistake.

In whence I continue to rant about David Brooks and higher education

As the always lovely Michaela pointed out on my Facebook, David Brooks has a new blog on the New York Times. Oh boy! Now there are more opportunities to ramble on my own blog.

In his first blog entry, Brooks talks about distinguishing between universities, specifically those ranked best and those not perhaps the best. He claims that on personal experience, he cannot tell the difference between undergrads from difference universities or colleges:

I spend a lot of time on college campuses, and I’m not sure these distinctions have any meaning. If you put me in a room with 25 students for an hour, I couldn’t tell if they were from Harvard or Arizona State. There are smart students all over.

No doubt there are smart students all over, but if David Brooks can’t tell the difference between students from different schools, he is asking the wrong questions. If you had Rice students and University of Houston students in a room, I could tell the difference with one question: What college do you belong to?

You see, some schools can be very different from others.

But Brooks claims there is little difference between schools, relying largely on a study that demonstrates that lifelong earning has little to do with undergraduate education:

Recently Stacy Dale and Alan Kreuger came out with a study suggesting that the college you attend makes little difference when it comes to how much money you’ll earn. A self-confident student who gets a 1400 on her SATs will have the same income whether she goes to a super top university or merely a good one.

First of all, I question the accuracy and long-range meaning of the study Brooks references. Perhaps long term earning may be different, but ending up at a top school may result in a more enjoyable or prestigious job, even if the pay is the same. But to Brooks, pay seems to be what matters.

Either way, judging by what Brooks says, students and parents really shouldn’t split hairs about school rankings, because of what studies say. How ironic that David Brooks relies upon a study to make his point, when he goes on the next day to criticize not just policymaking based on studies, but ignoring more subtle life qualities that cannot be measured by income:

But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.

Indeed, let’s look at the study in his blog and ignore everything else. Except for when we shouldn’t. And let’s use income to determine that all schools have equal value, except for when we should use less tangible qualities. Which one is it?

But perhaps if Brooks were actually listening to university students (he does spend so much time on campuses) he would learn that location really does matter. The experience at Rice’s college system is different than living at the huge University of Texas.

I am reminded of a friend who planned on attending Rice, with an intent of focusing on arts. I warned her that Rice’s arts program, while impressive in its own way, was not a grand program and is basically based out of a trailer. She dismissed my claims. However, two years and one Playboy appearance later (Rice has a long history of involvement with that magazine), she transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design. Rice was not the right place for her. Location matters.

Or, for a more subtle difference, another friend was deciding between Rice and University of Washington at St. Louis. WashU had offered him more money than Rice, and thus chose that school. Given the close rankings between the two schools, certainly Brooks would support going for more money. But comparing notes, he expressed a certain regret not having gone to Rice. After all, students attended Rice because they wanted to: they wanted the small classes, college system, and general sense of unique community that didn’t exist at WashU.

Location matters.

My anecdotes are not scientific study, but according to Brooks we should not rely on merely quantifiable characteristics, so let’s just roll from here.

After all, there is a difference between Harvard and Arizona State, and if Brooks actually talked to students he would be able to discern it. Schools have their own focused agendas, specified academic focuses, and general personalities. A student’s sense of self and attitude towards the world can be shaped by going to one school over another.

Generally, students choose their own schools to a certain extent. This ensures, somewhat, that students end up where they want to be. They find schools that are perfect fits for them. But if we go by Brooks’ standard that it doesn’t matter, schools may find students who don’t fit well on campus, and may be harmed in the long run.

As Brooks himself says:

Colleges are distinguished most importantly by their cultures and personalities, not by anything that can be ranked by neat status rules.

I agree. But what is the point if people like Brooks cannot tell the difference between students?

Anyways, I’m rambling now. But in the end, location is important, and personalities are important. For undergrad. But people aren’t getting their long-term out of undergrad, they’re getting them from graduate schools. Brooks should take another look there and then claim how much ranking doesn’t matter.