Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Rubio’s philosophy on higher education

21 Aug

I’ve written before (see 16 Feb 2014) on the new and dangerous trend in higher education policy in the U.S., which is to suggest that “college is not for everyone,” as if that general shaking out takes place meritocratically, independent of class and race.  Even the liberal wing of our mainstream political spectrum, in the form of President Obama, is comfortable going to high schools (but not affluent ones) and bringing this message.  The economist Robert Reich, to his credit, shows that a four-year college degree is currently the best predictor of higher income, and while he does argue that college shouldn’t be the only route to the middle class, he also says, significantly, “I don’t believe the main reason to go to college – or to choose one career over another – should be to make lots of money.  Hopefully, a college education gives young people tools for leading full and purposeful lives, and having meaningful careers.  Even if they don’t change the world for the better, I want my students to be responsible and engaged citizens.”  Let’s not forget the argument that more, and more critical, education is beneficial, if not necessary, to a functioning democracy, especially in countries that wield tremendous global power.

But this idea that expanded vocational training is the best way to reform higher education in the 21st century, and open up the middle class to more people, is much stronger on the right side of the spectrum, including leaders and presidential candidates who have gone after their state university systems, for example Governor Walker of Wisconsin.  This point of view bears examination.

Several days ago (18 Aug 2015), Senator Marco Rubio made a stump speech at the Iowa State Fair in which he reiterated several themes and policy suggestions about higher education that he had been making in previous speeches.  And yet, two nights of Google searches turn up no transcripts of his speech in any newspaper articles.  When I heard an excerpt on NPR, I wanted to stop in my tracks, because even the sound bite revealed so much about how conservatives see the need and potential for higher education.  But the speech itself warrants detailed, critical examination because it reveals not only what Republican conservatives (and economic neoliberals) think of the value of higher education, but how higher education can contribute to extending greater economic inequality, not ending it.

As a public service, I have transcribed several sections of the speech.  Early on, he says,

I want this to remain a country where parents can do for their children what my parents did for me. My parents were born on the island of Cuba, they came to the United States in 1956, they barely spoke the language at the time, had no money and very little education…. They were able to leave all four of their children better off than themselves…

This is a significant opening, because not only does he reveal that his parents came before the Cuban Revolution, but what his parents did for him – to his and their credit – was to enable him to graduate from a four-year college after transferring twice, first from a small college (just before it went bankrupt, by the way) where he went on a football scholarship, then from a community college before graduating from the University of Florida and then law school.  So in a way, even though the market failed him, he and his family had the means for him, with scholarship assistance, to go from community college through a post-graduate degree.  The question that lingers is whether he wants, as he claims, to be able to do this for young Americans as it had been possible for him.

But curiously, his speech takes a different turn:

We have to modernize higher education. We cannot continue stuck with a 20th century higher education system, that tells everyone you either get a four-year degree, or you get nothing at all… The first thing we have to do is more vocational training. We need more people trained to be welders, and airplane mechanics, and machinists. These are good-paying jobs… A welder makes more than a political science major, and we need to train more young Americans to do it…

Does he speak of more young people having access to a four-year political science degree (like the one he received) or more access to law school?  And when he says that “A welder makes more than a political science major” (which may, according to Reich, be factually untrue), I would ask, More what?  More money, or more decisions that affect other people’s lives?  There is the false dichotomy of the bachelor’s-or-nothing, which doesn’t even exist now, and then there is this fallacious promotion of the idea that most young people are better off with vocational training because their income will be higher.  Not only untrue in the aggregate, but also because it overlooks the value added of being in a position of social and political influence that a college degree makes more likely.

Then he continues,

For example, a single mother raising two kids, who works full-time for nine dollars an hour as a home health aide, the only way she’s ever going to get a raise is to become a dental hygienist or a paralegal, but to do that she has to go back to school. And she can’t, because she has to work full-time and raise a family. I believe we need to have alternative accredited programs that allow people to get the equivalent of a degree, from alternative institutions that allow them to package learning, no matter how they acquired it. Let people learn online for free. Give them credit for what they’ve learned on their own. And suddenly that receptionist, instead of making ten dollars an hour or twelve dollars an hour can be a paralegal making $65,000 a year. I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of four-year colleges, they’re going to remain part of our program – after all, how are we going to get college football without them? I am saying this: We can’t keep graduating people with degrees that don’t lead to jobs. That’s why I believe that before you take out a student loan, schools should tell you how much people make when they graduate from that school with that degree. So you can decide if it’s worth borrowing $50,000 to major in Greek philosophy, because after all, the market for Greek philosophers has been very tight for two thousand years.

Let’s just ignore the complete denigration of the use-value of basically all of the Western intellectual tradition at the end there, shall we?  More important, to our argument, is the disingenuous wiggling that at first suggests vocational training is not only the most cost-effective but the only available opportunity for working adult students, and then goes on to suggest that people should be able to get credit for watching online videos (or whatever “learning online for free” means) and what they’ve learned on their own – essentially no formal education whatsoever.

This is also incredibly insulting to the working four-year college undergraduates whom I teach, those who do manage to find the time to work towards a Bachelor’s degree (and sometimes a Master’s degree) while managing jobs, careers, children (sometimes grandchildren), spouses (or children without spouses), and loans because they want something more fulfilling to them than just a manual trade or unskilled labor.  I would never have the nerve to suggest that they settle for a career they don’t want, nor would I be so patronizing to assume they don’t want to know about Greek philosophy or film history because they don’t “need” it to discharge their work duties.  As Professor Reich says, I want them to have fulfilling lives, where dignity is worth a lot more than simply bringing home and spending a paycheck.

So there are clearly two tracks in Rubio’s educational vision for 21st century America.  Those who can afford to can attend college and support those college football games, preferably without loans unless the students have a guarantee their majors will get them good jobs, which as we know in fact is not the only thing majors are good for.  (And preferably not at colleges they have to leave because the schools go bankrupt or can’t afford to keep academic or even athletic programs funded.) Those who can’t afford school without costly loans can go to vocational schools, or even better, can “learn online for free,” and then go into the workforce in well-paying jobs, but jobs that, regrettably, have little social, economic, or political influence. It’s “the only way they’re going to get a raise,” as he says.  I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t become welders or dental hygienists or paralegals if they want or need to, only that if they want to enter a career where they will have more influence in the democratic process and the economy, or they want a career that they themselves find more fulfilling, they should be able to choose that path and have access to the funds to make that possible – rather than be ruled out because they come from a low-income background or went to an under-resourced high school.  Following Rubio’s logic, there will be less need for federal aid both to universities and colleges (whose enrollment base will provide the necessary revenue), and to students because there will be low-cost options available like vocational schools, training programs, and of course free Internet, so that they shouldn’t have to depend on the government to pay for degrees that won’t pay off financially.

This is not doing for America’s children what his parents did for him.  Maybe a little Greek philosophy would help him understand this.

On cynics and our educational system

16 Feb

All week I’ve been thinking of Oscar Wilde’s famous quotation, “a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” During my youth, I never really understood this as I do now, but it seems particularly apt in light of recent debates and discussions about the value of a higher education degree in the humanities (which readers of this blog know is an issue of great interest to me).

Starting with President Obama’s comment about vocational school preparing students for a higher income than majoring in art history at a university, there were subsequent reports on NPR that argued that humanities majors do fine economically (especially as compared to non-college grads), and a Pew study demonstrated that a college degree is still the best predictor of higher income, regardless of major.  The Pew study in particular equated “value” with “usefulness” in the job market and the workplace.

“Value” of education cannot be measured by income level or limited to usefulness in the ability to earn a salary.  Once we’ve become that cynical, then we have lost sight of what education is really good for – the eradication of ignorance, our ability to improve the quality and sustainability of life for all beings, learning about who we are from history, and understanding ways of looking at the world that enable us to live and get along with others without killing them, among other things.  Sometimes it’s just about the ability to ask deeper questions about our existence, or to appreciate more the artistic and ethical dimension of our lives.

But the point is that as long as the discussion focuses on future income as the measure of the value of an education, then we are accepting the line of thinking and terms of the debate promoted by the Reagan administration, which is that justification can be reduced to lower cost to taxpayers and a higher monetary return for the individual. In short, greater profits.  This is what the capitalist system has transformed into, and not one President since then has challenged this concept.  Is the profit motive, either on campus or in the larger world, a relevant guiding principle for our educational system?

This thinking displays the utter cynicism of Reagan and his followers, because they know the price of an education (and the price of its rewards), but they haven’t a clue about what the value of education really is – or if they do suspect, they are afraid of the challenges that educational system provides to the world order of corporate power.  This is why the Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, has argued that state aid for higher education should only go to those fields that produce graduates ready for jobs in the workforce.

President Obama’s remark about art history as a major is disappointing on a number of different levels.  As I posted on my Facebook page, there are three senses in which his comments are disturbing.  First, American higher education has been transformed into an industry that trains people to fill jobs and make profits, while the all-important qualities of ethics, conscience, questioning, imagination, innovation, and sustainability are seen as frills or luxuries for the very elite or privileged, but they don’t matter ultimately. Well, they do. The planet is at risk from the idea that profit generation has no consequences. This began with Reagan when he was Governor of California, taking on the University of California system, and four decades or so later, only the most elite of higher education students can have the opportunity to think about these issues and train to be leaders among the decision-making classes.

Second, maybe if more people in this current administration had studied the humanities, this administration wouldn’t show such a stunning lack of imagination in actually bringing about the progressive changes they promised.

And third, this increasingly common argument, which I’ve heard from liberals as well as conservatives, that college “may not be” for everybody, is disingenuous, especially in light of massive federal and state cuts to education over the past 30 years. It’s as if we’re saying, well, don’t feel there’s an injustice in the fact that your high school doesn’t prepare you to attend college (and study humanities), you can do even better with this consolation prize, and you’ll earn big money, too!  It’s so patronizing for anyone with an Ivy League graduate degree to tell high school kids they should be as satisfied with a trade when they haven’t had the real opportunity to get into fields where they become the creative leaders or, let’s face it, the CEOs or the policy-makers. If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself what would have happened if he had made this speech at a fancy private school.

Job-readiness and the profit motive will do nothing to prevent nuclear annihilation (from bombs or reactor disasters) or global warming that threatens to make Earth uninhabitable.   Studying scientific research and human values in the context of one another is of far more value in safeguarding our long-term future.  We study to grow rich at our peril.


6 Dec

I can’t recall a time in my life when the world has collectively paused to remember the life of one person, nor can I remember anytime in my own life when I’ve been so moved at the death of a world leader. I’m not old enough to remember the major assassinations of our time, except I do remember the murder of the Salvadoran Jesuit priests at the Universidad Centroamericana, which was news if one followed events in Latin America, but the significance of the murders was generally underappreciated. But Mandela’s passing, even though it was long anticipated, has been one of those rare moments when the entire world seems to suspend breath and recognize the passing of one of the great figures of modern history. Charlie Rose just called him “perhaps the most admired man in the world,” and he is probably right.

I’ve been thinking about Mandela’s greatness as a leader and as a voice of conscience. I’ve been meaning to write about him for some time already, but now it is of course most appropriate. My own appreciation for him went up when I read John Carlin’s masterful biography disguised in part as a sports story, Playing the Enemy, which even more than the film emphasizes Mandela’s gift and genius for negotiation, strategy, and reconciliation. Part of Mandela’s great gift was the ability to shift from risking his life for the freedom of his people – in a way, more globalized, of all people – to embracing reconciliation and peaceful transition when peace was necessary. All this without compromise, or with a minimum of compromise. He embodied principle, conscience, collective action, and effectiveness is a way that few others have.

I’m particularly gratified when I see coverage of the fact that Reagan and Thatcher (the former being sanctified in American historical memory, despite everything we know about his actual record) were, as the cliche goes, on the wrong side of history, that they regarded the ANC as a terrorist organization and they opposed divestment, and that they come off now as dated, foolish, and yes, colonialist as they were even then when they were fooling and obfuscating their respective electorates.

But aside from the tremendous humanism of Mandela’s goals, the depth of his commitment, another valuable contribution (that will come out more in the histories yet to be written) is his strategic thinking. Although we as humans tend to see many things through an adversarial or warlike framework – or because we do – we can say he was one of the great tacticians of our time and all time. His leadership became the spearhead of a kind of revolution, a liberation.

In a wise remembrance, South African political science professor Richard Pithouse observes, “Mandela was also a man whose ethical choices transcended rather than mirrored those of his oppressors.” This is so much the crux of what made him different from other world leaders, and is perhaps the potential saving grace of individual activism.

Let me explain my position. I am generally one who believes in collective action as being more broadly and permanently effective. Though I know that “one person can make a difference” (and have seen it over and over not only in my life but in world politics and social justice), one of our tragic flaws as a species is to wait for, or expect, the one charismatic person to come along rather than recognizing that it will indeed take all of us working together to bring about social change and indeed effect our survival. For various reasons, this myth of the individual is promoted by our media – for example Rosa Parks gets the credit for the Montgomery bus boycott when in fact she was the most visible part of a larger movement – perhaps because promoting the strength of collective action is far more threatening, since it would be more effective if more people took up that banner. That said, we do have world leaders, we do have movement leaders, who make choices – policy decisions, strategic decisions, decisions about tone, humanism, and ethics – that have broader impact across the spectrum of political actors in any given situation.

As a leader of a movement, a very broad movement, Mandela made strong ethical choices (that he didn’t have to make), and imaginative choices (about strategy and reconciliation) that most people in similar situations do not make and historically have not made. And this is an individual thing. All of us are faced with hundreds of ethical choices about how we live our lives – and few of us have the fate of a movement or a people in our hands. The ethical choices we make affect mostly our lives directly, but indirectly are part of a larger body of tens of thousands of ethical decisions that end up statistically having an impact on the environment and the economy, and even on our foreign policy. What puts Mandela in that smallest of upper circles of prophetic leaders is that he made the more deliberate ethical choices even when he didn’t have to. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Bayard Rustin all come to mind in this same sense of ethical choice. Not just political choice and being on the side of justice, but doing so in a particularly steadfast ethical way. Leaving at the end of his first term, for example, is profound. (I remember the joy, the dancing in the streets, when Robert Mugabe was first elected. How differently that turned out.)

In the last day, I’ve come to realize that “compromise” has at least two meanings. One is the kind of negotiation, the way of giving up certain requirements in order to come to a consensus that enables people to progress in a more unified and less divisive manner: I’ll give up this if you give up that. There is at least the pretense of equality of power. The second meaning though is the sense of compromising one’s principles because the “office” (in the abstract) demands it, or those who hold power over you (like your employer) demand it. That is, compromising one’s ideals in the face of perceived greater power. The genius of Mandela is, in part, knowing the difference, knowing when the compromise over punishment and retribution will move the entire country, indeed the world, forward, but when not to compromise on principles like freedom and equality because doing so will move nothing forward and will sell out your own cause.

What we see over and over in the world these days – to a sickening degree – is that most people and most supposed leaders compromise their own ethical positions, their positions of conscience, because they think the position they now hold requires them to have a loyalty to a corporate entity (usually an amoral one), whether that’s a for-profit corporation or a government agency. I think I first noticed this personally in 1992 during Janet Reno’s confirmation hearing, when she testified that she was against the death penalty personally, but as Attorney General would support it because that was the official policy of the office. Now we see this everywhere. Morally, people somehow feel that accepted practice is that you adopt the morals and loyalties of the office you hold, not your own personal sense of conscience. There is no more conflicted figure in the U.S. in this regard than Janet Napolitano, who as Secretary of Homeland Security willingly carried out policies that deported more individuals, and broke up more families, than any other regime in American history, yet now as Chancellor of the University of California is expected to stand up for undocumented students or at least espouse a school policy that does not try to deport them all. Same person, completely conflicting morals determined by her professional office at the time (taking her current position policy at face value and assuming she is not working behind the scenes against the interests of her students whom she is charged to educate). The young Obama was a committed opponent of apartheid and an advocate for the community members whom he was working with, but as officeholder of commander-in-chief he is expected to carry out military and paramilitary policies that as a student activist he would have opposed. Same person – has he changed his personal beliefs, or does the role he find himself in circumscribe his ethical choices? That’s the question. He may be forced to compromise on some policies to get a bill passed with bipartisan support (although history is filled with examples of those who did not compromise and got their way nonetheless, like his predecessor in the office), but only he can choose whether to compromise on his ideals and principles because of how he thinks (or has been told, or threatened) he is expected to act in a given office at a given time. Protocol.

But very rarely we do have a leader – Mandela, and perhaps Pope Francis – who recognize that being a leader for the ages means tailoring the ethics of the office to a higher sense of social justice, rather than tailoring their personal ethics to the expectations of the role the way it has always been done. Continuity, especially in the wake of an oppressive or disastrous regime, is a pragmatic choice, not an ethical one. Mugabe was in a position to reshape his country and what the presidential chair would look like ethically in a new Zimbabwe. He failed. Mandela had a similar opportunity, and made much more strategically difficult, but ultimately morally prophetic and just, choices. And while one could argue that they had the rare situation of finding themselves at the helm of essentially new countries, every leader in truth has this opportunity to the extent he or she is willing to reshape this. In U.S. history, both Franklin Roosevelt (from the left) and Ronald Reagan (from the right) shaped the chair to fit their principles, not the other way around. Lyndon Johnson’s tragedy was that though he may have tried to do so domestically, he failed because he became ensnared in the dying ethics of colonialism and the Cold War mentality.

The challenge of a prophetic leadership, the kind that leads towards social justice and equity, is in reshaping the ethics of a seat of leadership to a higher sense of individual, even spiritual, ethics, within the larger framework of ethics not as circumscribed by the office and the power-holders, but by that of a larger ideal of justice and equity that in fact is collective while respecting the integrity and dignity of individual lives. This means exactly what Pithouse says Mandela accomplished, “transcending” rather than “mirroring” the ethical and moral choices of oppressors. This is also what the Pope is doing in rejecting the idea of living in wealthy quarters, in visiting prisons and the homeless around Rome.

Something is wrong with leaders when you know what they will say in advance because their office demands they say the expected thing that people in that role are allowed to say. When a leader says something that expands our imagination, something that adds to our way of thinking about what is possible and necessary to bring about a better world, something that provides an insight that goes beyond bromides, that enables hope as something real and powerful rather than a demand to keep waiting passively, that is leadership, rather than just filling a seat and wielding power – the power to keep things the way they already are – because someone has to.

I disagree with the conclusion in an otherwise excellent and insightful article by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker blog, which ends, “It was Mandela’s good fortune that his moment inverted the demands commonly placed upon a politician’s shoulders. His country needed him to publicly and explicitly act on his firmest convictions, not bend them on the altar of expediency. Mandela emerged at that rare point in history where idealism and pragmatism were practically indistinguishable.” The problem is, this denies Mandela’s own agency and the choices he made, and could have made. We live in a time of mediocre men and women, leaders whose edge is ground down by the cynical and dulling impact of neoliberalism, when we assume that leaders can only act out of pragmatism. The leader who exhibits ideals and imagination is so rare, that even faced with one, we must find a more cynical explanation: it is necessary to look for a rationalization as Cobb does that it really was pragmatism after all that motivated even Mandela as well. No country needs its leaders to “bend [ideals] on the altar of expediency” – and indeed, the case can be made that the radical right (Reagan, Thatcher, G.W. Bush) chose not to do what was expedient either because they could make those choices and sacrifice nothing. Progressive movements around the world need to embrace idealism and support leaders with backbone, the ones who will choose principle over comfort and privilege. What is asymmetrical about this equation is that ideals and privilege are congruent choices on the right, so the forces demanding personal compromise are weak, but ideals require sacrifice among leaders on the left, and the personal rewards of compromise are so easy. Pragmatism becomes the easiest path.

Double meanings? Allegories in three films

26 May

These days it feels as if I’m seeing allegories everywhere, or at least hidden meanings and metaphors. Earlier this month, I saw two films that I was sure held double meanings, but a cursory look at reviews failed to find others making the same point, and now I’m wondering if I’m just seeing things that aren’t there, or if reviewers are not writing about this, or if I’m not reading the right people. One of the first people I met to discuss her blogs was a Princeton English professor, but I never thought anything I could say about films would be valuable to anyone. Well, ok, but if so many people are missing the point, is it worth chiming in myself? These films have insightful things to say about gender, class, and race, but insights that penetrate deeper than might at first appear on their surface. The three films are Renoir, Beijing Bicycle (from 2001, but I just saw it on TV), and 42.


Of the three, both Renoir and 42 are biopics, but really only 42 is true to the form. The film Renoir concerns actually two Renoirs, hence the ambiguous title, the father Pierre-Auguste the painter, and the son Jean the filmmaker. The film captures Auguste towards the end of his life, and the son just before he was to begin a career in film. While not having read anything about the film I went in thinking it was a biography of the elder, it turns out to be about much more.

The glorious cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin (who also did the camerawork for Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love) actually recreates the palette of the impressionist himself in a kind of cinematic representation of the vision Renoir depicted on canvas. Lee’s use of light and color is breathtaking, and one can only imagine the pressure of trying to develop a cinematic portrayal of landscapes, nudes, and art in general that does justice to not only the painter Renoir but one of the early masters of French cinema as well. With this backdrop, we see the painter struggling to paint his last model, who became romantically involved with Jean and later starred in some of his early films. So the film is largely about transitions from father to son, from painting to cinema as the dominant medium of visual art, and from 19th century to 20th century treatments of women in art – “treatments of” as women continued (and continue) to be objectified even into the 21st century, gazed at, and manipulated, for art’s sake and not. Thinking of women as having been “painted” explains one of the more curious and intriguing moments of the film that involves the spattering of blue paint (which I’ll refrain from spelling out more here). If anything, the film to me is about these latter two themes: how visual art, and male artists’ use of women changed during the early decades of the 20th century, just as the archetypal father was replaced by the more virile son. The ample use of nudity recalls John Berger’s landmark essay in Ways of Seeing on the male gaze, but in this film, written by Jérome Tonnerre, Michel Spinosa and Gilles Bourdos, and directed by Bourdos, it’s as much about male privilege generally and male privilege in the arts more particularly, which still of course exists today. And while the painted nude still exists as a genre and an art school exercise, painting a nude has been replaced in large part by filming or photographing the nude.

    Beijing Bicycle

Where Renoir is thematically concerned with art and women, Beijing Bicycle is more concerned with the rise of capitalism in China after Deng Xiaoping. I’ve read around about the film, found that it was banned for a while, but haven’t seen any criticism that discusses it as an allegory for the new capitalism. Without giving away too much, a young peasant from the countryside migrates to the city and leases a bicycle for his new job as courier. The bike is stolen, and he makes a deal with his boss that he won’t be fired if he can find the bike again – which he does, in the possession of a student, who bought it from the thief with money the student stole from his father. The peasant steals it back, the student takes it from him again with the help of his buddies, and the back and forth reaches a truce with the peasant and the student agreeing to use the bike on alternate days, effectively to share it. There’s more that happens in the end, which I won’t give away here, but for my purposes, what’s really significant is the film’s clear comment on the effect of the new capitalism on China’s core populations. After all, two of the stars in the Chinese flag represent peasants and students, as pillars of the Revolution. This film (unlike the film with which it normally draws a comparison, the Italian neorealist Bicycle Thieves), shows the peasant and the student pitted against each other by the cynical actions of the thief who steals to survive and sells his goods for cash – the capitalist. The peasant and the student, left to share what property is left to them, namely the bicycle, work out a makeshift arrangement that is good for neither, and the thief (whom we don’t see) presumably makes off with the money. The director, Wang Xiaoshuai, renders both the peasant and the student sympathetic (despite the student’s sins there are still ways we are lead to root for him, especially romantically). But they’ve been robbed of their prosperity, and even their future. If communism had been an ideology that at least professed sharing between peasants and students (at least in the early days), the class struggle has been reconstituted under capitalism such that they are pitted against each other, and even their uneasy alliance ruins both as they are powerless against the more materialist elements.


When I first saw the ads for 42 I wondered, Why now? I was surprised there hadn’t been a commercial film about Jackie Robinson that I had heard of, although he is the subject of arguably the most memorable episode of Ken Burns’s documentary, Baseball. I’m convinced it’s not just a biopic, but a film with a very useful message, because the struggle against segregation and degradation is so forgotten by the current younger generation. But there’s got to be more to it. In a way, the story does reinforce the American myth that one individual can make a difference, that social change occurs because of one person, rather than because of collective action. Look at the way the Rosa Parks story has been cast as the work of one resolute and courageous individual – which she was – rather than considering her training and connection to the Highlander School and hundreds if not thousands of other trained Civil Rights activists.

But why is Robinson’s story so important now? It is the story of one individual who was able to break the color line but only if he could turn the other cheek, and not become angry or strike back at those who oppressed, harassed, or abused him. Then I realized, during the film, this is the same story we are seeing played out every day in the Obama story. The U.S. is not baseball, but then baseball has long been a metaphor for the U.S. I am not inside the head of President Obama, nor can I imagine what he has gone through in his life nor the threats and vitriol he probably receives and that we may never fully know about in the future. But I can only imagine that the reaction to his election must rival that of what Robinson went through – and indeed, even Hank Aaron got death threats on the verge of surpassing Babe Ruth’s record. There are levels of hate out there we can only guess at, and they are still out there. If anything explains Obama’s unwillingness to take on the goading, the disrespect dished up daily by McConnell, Boehner, Graham, and others, this is it. It is no secret that what lies beneath a lot of the hatred of Obama and the fear of his “socialism” is still the same old, perhaps more hidden, racism we’ve dealt with for centuries. And if Obama’s legacy really is to open the doors of power to leaders other than people of white European heritage, it’s going to have to be with a Robinsonesque restraint. The long-term goal of human equality may outweigh the short-term goals of trying to score a social justice agenda with a significant amount of economic redistribution. That was the political reality for Robinson in his day and it may still be the political reality today, no matter how much many of us in white America may think we have overcome.

Having said that, I kept thinking how smart Brian Helgeland’s script is. On the surface it’s a straightforward, slightly hagiographic biopic that works effectively without becoming too sentimental or hackneyed. It’s also helped by Mark Isham’s just-right and often beautiful scoring (Isham should give lessons to Hans Zimmer, by the way.) But it’s really a parable for our times. And when I realized this, it made me feel sorry for Tony Kushner, who I think completely misses the point in his discussion of Lincoln on Bill Moyers show, in which he compared Obama to Lincoln as master of the compromise. It’s too soon to tell, but I think it is wishful thinking to compare Obama to Lincoln in suggesting Obama’s compromises will save the union as Lincoln’s did. For me I now consider that the parallel for Obama is not Lincoln, but Robinson. But don’t get me wrong. It’s not just the breaking of the color barrier that links them, it’s the way they have had to use restraint to win. Obama doesn’t have to be a Lincoln to make his mark upon history, and indeed, he may not be – nor is there any guarantee his mark will be great. It is no stretch to say that getting Obamacare passed, or the raid on Bin Laden, may be his equivalent of winning the pennant, not winning the Civil War. Read this way, I think there’s more insight in Helgeland’s script than in Kushner’s, but either way, there’s something to think about as a result of seeing this film. The aptly named 42 is on the surface about #42, but one can’t help wondering if the title isn’t actually meant to draw a link from #42 to #44.

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