HEJE Overview 6-1-18


Risks of crop-dusting were sensed before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”

After World War II, when industrial farming really started to gain ground, there were three parties to the widespread use of pesticides in American agriculture: scientists who helped develop and evaluate them; the pilots who applied them, and the chemical companies which mass-produced, marketed, and profited from them.

Pesticides, some of which had been developed during the war, were seen as the “magic bullet” to eradicate difficult plants like musk thistle and field bindweed, and pests like the corn borer.

During the 1950s, crop-dusters (“ag pilots”), faculty at ag schools, and farmers were all actively involved in evaluating the risks and benefits of this new chemical arsenal: “In Hays, Kansas, pilot Donald E. Pratt – known as the ‘Spray King of the West’ – established the P-T Air Service, an aerial spraying school that combined spraying education with agricultural science. Pratt had his pilots learn as much as they could about the newest pest control chemicals on the market. His crew met with state entomologists and weed scientists to better understand crop-pest interactions. Then Pratt conducted his own experiments on private test plots to assess effectiveness and hazards. Many Great Plains pilots ran flight schools similar to Pratt’s.”

Then came Rachel Carson and Silent Spring (1962), in which the author identified the underplayed risks of wide-scale dusting: “Although today’s poisons are more dangerous than any known before, they have amazingly become something to be showered down indiscriminately from the skies. Not only the target insect or plant, but anything human and nonhuman within range of the chemical fallout has known the sinister touch of the poison.

Her book, and the activism it spurred, eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the banning of DDT (1972).

But other chemicals were developed: “…new and more toxic alternatives succeeded it – first organophosphates, and more recently, neonicotinoids. But insect pests and weeds have developed resistance to each new generation of products. Today many farmers are contending with weeds that have developed resistance to the widely used herbicide glyphosate – the latest step on this chemical-pest treadmill.”

There are approaches to agriculture such as crop diversity and planting practices that inhibit weed growth which do not rely on chemicals – they allow nature, through active stewardship, to do the job she does best.  And “[t]hese seemingly contrasting views – using chemicals to control pests while seeking to minimize environmental damage – reflect the nuanced attitudes many Great Plains farmers and pilots have long held toward pesticides and herbicides.”


Jury awards the family of a man shot by a sheriff’s deputy $4

On January 14, 2014, 30-year-old Gregory Vaughn Hill, Jr. was shot in his own garage by a St. Lucie County (Florida) sheriff’s deputy. A woman passing by to pick up her child from a neighborhood school had called the police to complain about loud music coming from Hill’s garage; when Hill opened the garage door and saw the deputy, he closed it again and the deputy shot through the door four times, hitting Vaughn once in the head and twice in the abdomen.

Vaughn’s family sued for damages related to the manner of his death; this week, a federal jury awarded them $4 – $1 to his mother for funeral expenses, and $1 each to his three children as a settlement. The police department, which was deemed to be responsible in small measure, was assessed 10% of the total award – thus, $.04 – but this is expected to be voided.

The jury explained that they deemed Vaughn responsible for his own death. He was intoxicated, he was playing loud music, and it was discovered after his death that he had an unloaded pistol in the back pocket of his pants.

Vaughn’s family will appeal the decision, but local officers, typically, have praised it. “’We are pleased to see this difficult and tragic incident come to a conclusion,’ St. Lucie Sheriff Ken Mascara wrote in a May 24 Facebook post. ‘We appreciate the jury’s time and understanding and wish everyone involved in this case the best as they move forward,’ the post concluded.”

“… and [we] wish everyone involved … the best.” Presumably this phrase (which has a rather unsettling similarity to the “hopes and prayers” meme) applies in particular to Vaughn’s three young orphaned children – one of whom watched the entire incident of her father’s shooting from across the street.

Question to self: Why did it take a SWAT team four hours to reach Vaughn’s home, only to discover he was dead?

Question to readers: One guess as to Vaughn’s race and to the sheriff’s deputy’s race. That shouldn’t be hard.


Teaching Les Misérables in a prison

Chris Hedges spent four months teaching Victor Hugo’s great novel (pub. 1862) at a maximum security prison in New Jersey. His students, like Jean Valjean, the novel’s protagonist, “struggle with shame, guilt, injustice, poverty and discrimination, and yearn for redemption and transformation.”

Among the episodes/passages in the book which aroused the most discussion among Hedges’ students was that in which the local bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu, lied to the gendarmes and said he had given the bishopric’s silver to Valjean. “Who would do this?” a student asked. “No one,” another student answered. Several students dismissed the scene as improbable. And then from the back of the room a student, speaking in emotional undertones, told this story.“I came back to my bunk one day,” he said. “There was a new Bible on it. Inside was a letter. It was from my victim’s sister. She wrote, ‘I forgive you. Now you must forgive yourself.’ I broke down. I could be more than a criminal. I could change. She made that possible.”

Another element of the novel in which Hedges saw congruities with the life of one of his students was Valjean’s unqualified love of the orphan Cosette:

Most of my students have children. They struggle in prison to hold on to their role as fathers. Their children are often the only way left for them to have influence on the outside. But, as in the novel, these children grow up and drift away.

One of my students, serving a life sentence without parole and unable to be with his small daughter, structured his day as if she was in the cell with him. He woke her up in the morning. He cooked for her. He spoke to her. He read books to her. He wrote long letters. Every night he said goodnight to her as if she were in the next bunk. This ritual was not only about loss. It preserved his identity as something other than a prisoner. It allowed him to retain the title of father. It kept alive the virtues of nurturing, tenderness and love that prison can often crush.

There are two points of interest here. One involves the uses of literature within society generally, and the all-too-apparent de-emphasis on its teaching in 21st-century schools. One of literature’s greatest values is to “teach” – to “show” as it were, through plot and characters and setting – us what it means to be someone other than ourselves. In doing so, it both allows us to identify points of shared humanity with the characters, as well as allowing us to identify aspects of a character’s humanity which, while we do not possess it, we admire and wish to cultivate, even create, in ourselves. In this respect, Literature is a veritable School of Life, although it is up to us as readers to take what we will from it.

The other point concerns the conditions of inhumanity within which Hedges’ students exist. These conditions, writ large, say a great deal about the inhumanity of their larger society. Prisons are not separate from society; they are apart, yes, but they are very much a part of who we are as a people.


Minneapolis in 2040: Great mixed-use neighborhoods but … no public schools?

Minneapolis’s master planning document, “Minneapolis 2040,” is nearing approval by its City Council. But “The vision is for a city with business nodes in multi-use neighborhoods, full of green space, access to transit, bike lanes, high density housing and…no schools, it would seem.”

Despite the plan’s six values, 14 priorities, and 97 (!) “goals”, education didn’t make the cut.

It turns out that the Minneapolis city plan originated from a 2008 document produced by the Brookings Institute, “Blueprint for American Prosperity.” It favors “’unleashing the potential of a metropolitan nation’ and argues that cities are the place to turn when looking for ways to keep the U.S. economy at the top of the increasingly competitive global rat race. The document is long and focuses a lot on the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of federal policies, and instead seems to position businesses and corporations as the rightful redesigners of American life.”

“The Blueprint is full of the same ideas as the Minneapolis 2040 plan, including the need for new zoning laws that prioritize higher density housing, transit needs, ‘vibrant neighborhoods,’ less sprawl, and income inequality–but it comes at these from a business plan model, rather than a workers’ rights or family friendly angle. That’s because it is a business plan model.”

There appears to be a corporate-and-corporate-foundation-supported idea involving “a district-less vision for the future of education in Minneapolis, where neighborhoods and community schools do not particularly matter. Rather than a robust, philanthropist-driven embrace of the concept of public education (that it is a cornerstone of our democracy and a public entity worth supporting, for example), Minnesota Comeback’s ideology revolves around a partially privatized system of individual choice.”

Illinois Update: What are the implications from its passage of the ERA?

On Wednesday night, Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the ERA when its House voted 72-45 in favor, 46 years after it passed Congress (1972) and 36 years after the expiration of the last officially-designated deadline for passage by the states (1982).

Some might be surprised that Illinois took so long, but it’s important to recall that it was specifically targeted by Phyllis Schafly’s organization; it was re-introduced sporadically after 1979, most recently in 2014 (when it passed the Senate but was left to die in the House).

What state is most likely to ratify next, bringing the number to the magic “38”? The map of states remaining is not encouraging.



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