On Fatal Shores: American Excess and Recess
by Charles Lemos, Wed Dec 23, 2009 at 02:53:55 AM EST
Not having a television set, much of what passes for popular culture escapes me but when the chatter reaches a crescendo and begins to grace the pages of respectable broadsheets such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, one can't help but take notice of social phenomenons. MTV, who invented the genre of reality TV, has scored again with a social anthropological study of a subset of American youth - that of East-Coast Italian-Americans - in a new program called Jersey Shore.
The reality TV show set on this fatal shore of our Atlantic coast began airing earlier this month follows seven deeply tanned oversexed twenty-something Italian-Americans who self-described as guidos and guidettes plus one cast member who is not ethnically Italian but just appreciates the finer points of guidoism. These eight, and trust me eight is more than enough with this group, whose ages range from 21 to 28 shared a house for the month of August in Seaside Heights, New Jersey with MTV recording their exploits where no alcoholic beverage is safe in their seemingly endless pursuit of casual sex. These are individuals for whom life seems to be an eternal collegiate Spring Break vacation. Theirs is a hedonism matched by few; theirs is a brazen debauchery that simply would exhaust most of us. It has to be seen to be believed.
Whatever guidoism happens to be, it apparently includes copious use of hair products (one buys gel by the case), frequent visits to tanning salons (good thing the healthcare reform bill is levying a tax on their use though the aforementioned cast member has a tanning bed at home), fist pumping bravado, sheenly glossed lips that accentuate them for pouting, cologne galore, minimalist clothing (shirts seem optional for men), gyrating hips, tight six-pack abs (one cast member calls his "The Situation" which now doubles as his nickname) and a penchant for clubbing as a lifestyle. It is certainly an attitude and one not necessarily limited to Italian-Americans but perhaps more reflective of a sub-culture that is not uncommon in parts of the Northeast. The self-descriptive moniker of guido is new to me but having lived in Rhode Island and New York, the type is recognizable even if it seems a parody on steroids. Though set in Joisey, the six of the eight cast members hail from New York (three from Staten Island alone) with Rhode Island and New Jersey contributing one cast member apiece.
Not surprisingly, the show has raised a ruckus. The show has angered the more mainstream and venerable Italian-American organizations, upset New Jersey tourism officials, and has caused a few advertisers to skip away. André DiMino, the president of UNICO, the national Italian-American service organization, was upset by the use of the word guido. "Its a derogatory comment, DiMino told The New Jersey Star-Ledger before the show first aired. Its a pejorative word to depict an uncool Italian who tries to act cool.
Then again the moniker is embraced by our egotistical eight with relish and pride: I am a good-looking, well-groomed Italian whos very, very good with the ladies, boasts one. And not really different from other communities who have converted epithets into boasts. There are certainly plenty of gay men who self-describe as faggots and queens, for instance. One of the cast members, Nicole Snooki Polizzi - a 22-year-old from upstate New York - put it like this: I dont take offense to it. I feel we are representing Italian-Americans. We look good. We have a good time. Were nice people. We get along with everybody. I dont understand why it would be offensive. And as I noted not everyone in the cast is an Italian-American. Jenni J-WOW Farley, 23, a nightclub promoter from Franklin Square, Long Island, finds that guido is a cultural phenomenon that transcends race or ethnicity (according to the NJ Star-Ledger, she didnt phrase it quite so precisely). I suspect that she is right in that it is a 'cultural phenomenon' but what does it say about American culture?
Again not surprisingly, the show has spawned volumes of commentary. To Simon Maxwell Apter of the tabloid blog Huffington Post, the show represents "the triumph of the American Dream, pure and simple" adding that the Jersey Shore is a "positively American creation, a celebration of tawdriness and uninhibited egotism that would be unheard of anywhere else." I'm not quite sure when vapidness and narcissism began to be celebrated so overtly as American virtues. More on the mark is Joshua David Stein of the New York Times who finds the show "nothing more than American Kabuki theater, a refreshingly solipsistic aesthetic world, a temporary coastal community that's a bulwark against normative American youth style." Mr. Stein goes on to opine that the Jersey Shore is American "regionalism at its best." I would add that is also American provincialism at its worst.
But if America is about the pursuit of happiness, then what can one really say? Are they not entitled to the choices they are making in life even if many of us find them lacking in morals and substance? Moreover, these individuals seem genuinely happy. Still I cannot help but wonder if it is we who have failed them. What does this say about our country?
We are all not meant to be rocket scientists but seriously how does anyone not know in which year the country declared independence? And is it any wonder that if the American educational system is producing such less than stellar results that we find ourselves out-competed in the global economy?
Among adults age 25 to 34, the US is ninth among industrialized nations in the share of its population that has at least a high school degree. In the same age group, the United States ranks seventh, with Belgium, in the share of people who hold a college degree. Yet 20 years ago we ranked first in the world in both these socio-economic metrics. Where we once ranked first in the world in the percentage of high school graduation rates, we now rank 18th. Over one third of American teenagers that start ninth grade do not finish high school. We are falling into relative backwardness.
This year the United States will invest $543 billion in education K-12. At all levels of education, the United States spends $11,152 per student. That's the second highest amount worldwide, behind the $11,334 spent by Switzerland. But our results speak for themselves. Given what the United States spends on education, our relatively low student achievement through high school shows that our elementary and secondary school system is clearly inefficient. And it is about to get worse as the second part of this essay will show.
My second part of this story is sadder still. It is a tragedy now unfolding on another fatal American shore, the Pacific island state of Hawaii. From the Baltimore Sun comes a solid story aptly titled Trouble in Paradise:
Hawaii public schools are closed most Fridays, rats scurry across bananas in uninspected stores and there may not be enough money to run the next election.
About the only parts of the state untouched by the foul economy are its sparkling beaches and world-class surfing.
Hawaii's money troubles are creating a society more befitting a tropical backwater than a state celebrating its 50th anniversary and preparing to welcome President Barack Obama home for Christmas this week.
"There is community energy and outrage building up," said James Koshiba, a co-founder of the activist organization and Web site Kanu Hawaii, speaking about the cuts to education. "The people have to play a bigger role. Folks won't forget how this unfolds come election time."
-- Hawaii now has the shortest school year in the nation after the state and teachers union agreed to shutter schools for 17 days a year, leaving 171,000 students without class on most Fridays. Negotiations to reopen them collapsed last week.
-- Food establishments often go uninspected, a fact highlighted by an Internet video showing rats roaming freely across produce in a Honolulu Chinatown market. The state has just nine health inspectors on Oahu to handle nearly 6,000 markets and restaurants.
-- The state Elections Office said it may not be able to afford a pending special election, which would leave half of the state's population without representation in the U.S. House of Representatives until September 2010.
-- Homelessness is on the rise as mental health, child abuse, welfare and daycare programs run short on cash.
Budgets cuts have affected every part of island life with devastating consequences. In early December, budget cuts at a state hospital, where security was cut, may have been a factor in the escape of a 30-year-old accused child molester David True Seal, who was found not guilty because of insanity for the sexual assault and kidnapping of an 8-year-old girl on Maui in 2001, simply climbed over a 14-foot security mesh fence. He remains at large.
From the Honolulu Star-Bulletin:
The Department of Public Safety cut eight security guards at the Kaneohe hospital, Hee said. Those employees were replaced by private security guards who can't detain a patient once they are off hospital grounds, he said.
Assaults, whether verbal or physical, are occurring at the facility on a weekly basis, Hee (D, Kahuku-Kaneohe) said.
On the day Seal escaped, three hospital staff members were assaulted by a patient, Hee said.
Okubo confirmed that there was an incident at the hospital the day Seal escaped, resulting in injuries to staff members, but she couldn't disclose details because of patient privacy rights.
Hee said the Hawaii Government Employees Association filed a lawsuit in October against the state because of unsafe working conditions at the hospital.
How bad is Hawaii's budget shortfall? Well in dollar terms about a billion dollars which isn't much compared to California's $41.8 billion dollar budget deficit but in percentage terms the situation is far graver. Hawaii is projected to have the second-largest shortfall of any state, percentage-wise, in the 2012 fiscal year, at 28.8 percent, behind only Arizona at 30.0 percent.
The budget crisis is perhaps affecting the state's public school system the hardest and where it is likely to have a more lasting impact. From Fox News:
At a time when President Barack Obama is pushing for more time in the classroom, his home state has created the nation's shortest school year under a new union contract that closes schools on most Fridays for the remainder of the academic calendar.
The deal whacks 17 days from the school year for budget-cutting reasons and has education advocates incensed that Hawaii is drastically cutting the academic calendar at a time when it already ranks near the bottom in national educational achievement.
While many school districts have laid off or furloughed teachers, reduced pay and planning days and otherwise cut costs, Hawaii's 171,000 public schools students now find themselves with only 163 instructional days, compared with 180 in most districts in the U.S.
The deal in Hawaii and has parents and education authorities up in arms, including families now scrambling to find day care for the off days. Parents of special-needs students are considering suing the state, and advocates believe the plan will have a "disparate impact" on poor families, ethnic communities and single parents.
"It's just not enough time for the kids to learn," said Valerie Sonoda, president of the Hawaii State Parent Teacher Student Association. "I'm getting hundreds of calls and e-mails. They all have the same underlying concern, and that is the educational hours of the kids."
The new contract, approved by 81 percent of voting teachers, stipulates 17 furlough Fridays during which schools will be closed, with the first happening Oct. 23. The teachers accepted a concurrent pay reduction of about 8 percent, but teacher vacation, nine paid holidays and six teacher planning days are left untouched.
The new agreement also guarantees no layoffs for two years and postpones the implementation of random drug testing for teachers.
Teachers probably wouldn't have voted for the contract if they had to work the same amount for less pay, paving the way for the shorter school year, said Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe. He also said the state couldn't get the necessary savings if teacher furlough days were scheduled for holidays -- or workdays with schools kept open.
Hawaii has the nation's only statewide school district, meaning that state government pays directly for education instead of self-supporting local school districts.
According to Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2003 research, the average number of instructional days in Korea, Japan and China was over 221, with Australia, Russia, England and Canada all between 188 and 196 days. With the latest cuts, students in Hawaii could have up to 12 weeks less class time a year than those in East Asia.
The long-term effects of school cuts include lowering Hawaii's competitiveness and ability to diversify its economy. These cuts will keep Hawaii dependent on federal handouts and tied to an economy based on the military and tourism service economy. They all but insure low-paying jobs for the children of Hawaii's working families.
The wealthy will be just fine. They will still be able to send their kids to private schools. But working-class families will suffer. It is curious that GOP Governor Linda Lingle refused to consider an excise tax to help defer the $468 million shortfall in the education budget. It would be bad for business, she said.
In reading on the crisis in the Aloha state, I came across this quote in a piece by John Letman, a freelance writer who lives in Kauai, over at Truth Out.
On Oahu, Kyle Kajihiro, program director for the American Friends Service Committee, an international Quaker-founded nonprofit that works for development, peace programs and social justice, sees the current economic crisis as a pretext to cut programs for political or ideological reasons. He said the cuts are indicative of the state's priorities.
"I have to question why the defense budget keeps going up and up and schools keep getting cut. It's unconscionable." Citing the National Priorities Project, Kajihiro points out that since 2001 Hawaii residents have paid a $3 billion share of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "For that same money, Hawaii could have funded 54,718 elementary school teachers for a year," he said. Hawaii has around 13,000 public school teachers.
Funding trillion dollar wars limits options at home but perhaps that is what politicians want. For in failing to fund education properly and to tackle falling standards, we create a subclass of citizens who often have no choice but to join the US military so that they may be dispatched to distant fatal shores.