Thursday, November 30, 2006

Real News from the Real World

A year or so ago New York Times columnist John Tierney zeroed in on journalists’ habit of instinctively calling for a government solution to every “problem” they run across. “I once sat in on a story conference the day after an armored car was robbed of millions of dollars bound for banks,” Tierney recalled. “The first idea that came up for a follow-up story was: Does this robbery show the need for stricter regulation of armored-car companies?”

Thus it was with the fatal shooting of the 16 year old earlier this week outside Westbury High School in southwest Houston, with much of the media coverage seemingly undergirded by the narrow and dubious suggestion that the school, or the school district, was somehow at fault for not doing enough to protect the slain student, even though the shooting was just off campus, at a time when the victim should have been in class (and while the Chronicle made much of various statements suggesting the victim was “trying to change the bad habits that earned [him] a rough reputation”---he was already two years older than the average high school freshman---not being in class when school starts doesn’t indicate a high level of dedication to that effort [not that it was deserving of a cold-blooded execution on a sidewalk]).

Indeed, the Chronicle’s School Zone blog, seizing on the school superintendent’s odd assertion that there’s “probably not a safer place in the community than the school itself …The school is very safe, this school as well as all the others" (this at a school where there’s been a rape and mini-riot on campus within the last year), asked readers whether they thought Westbury and other Houston campuses are safe.

The resulting outpouring---from residents of the Westbury area, graduates of the school, current and former teachers and students, and others with no horse directly in the race---is one of the most fascinating things we’ve read in a long time, anywhere. It’s front-line reportage from people with boots-on-the-ground knowledge of what’s happening in their neighborhood and school. Taken as a whole, the postings are angry, sad, reflective, frank, contradictory (often within the same posting), resigned and resolved.

Many correspondents dispensed with the question altogether and got down to addressing the larger cultural pathologies that seem to all flow downhill into the schools, with more than one citing the glorification of the insidious and unimaginative gangsta-thug life ethos (most hilariously promoted by white liberals in the media and entertainment business as some supposed expression of street authenticity, when it’s really no more than the reflexive barking of trained seals---and yeah, this stuff directly affects behavior, not in a good way).

Others follow the trail through bad parenting, the disappearance of personal responsibility, neighborhood deterioration, immigration, the city’s lack of zoning (apartments vs. single-family homes), etc. and so on. One writer even calls for the abolition of magnet schools, saying that the concept has ruined neighborhood schools by concentrating attentive parents and high-achieving students at a few schools (which is true enough, although doing away with magnets would pretty much kill off the remaining middle-class participation in the Houston school district---among white, black and brown parents, and we’d be near the front of the line at the exit).

Anyway, this is good stuff---the kind of things that people can’t or won’t say in casual conversations with friends or neighbors, or to television and newspaper reporters. (By the way, the Chronicle should hire this “Marco” as a columnist, as a sort of Counter-Cultural Coach, although he may be overqualified.)

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