Left Field

Stupid Is..., McCollege Pix, Bush Beat, Demonstrator Showdown & His Saganic Majesty


Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

When the Lege is in session the daily grind on the House floor can get tedious. So it’s always a kick when the Governor walks into the chamber, dragging the center of the room along with him, as the press pack, legislators, House staff photographers, House sergeants, and the Governor’s press staff trail along. All the while, Speaker Laney whines on at the front mike, asking, as if someone were listening, “Will the jinnelmen nyeeld?” The gentleman usually yields – to a gentleman (or lady) at the back lectern, who will then yield the floor back to the gentleman at the front mike, as debate goes on and on. At least the scene starts to jump when the Governor shows up.

Last April 14, Bush started at the front of the House, paused for half dozen grip-and-grin photos, then stopped at the desk of his own state representative.

Because the Governor’s Mansion sits on the north end of the Fifty-first District, Democrat Glen Maxey is George Bush’s state representative. Maxey is also the only openly gay member of the Legislature. And he is a master of the legislative art of close-talking – the intimate in-your-face and quiet conversation that suggests to fellow legislators (or lobbyists) that what they are about to hear is totally entre nous.

On this occasion, Bush walked over to Maxey’s desk, in the southeast corner of the House, to engage him in close talk. The A.P. photographer caught the moment: Bush, standing squarely in front of Maxey, the Governor’s hands about to settle on the legislator’s shoulders. The visuals are clear. But what the Governor said is not, and has become an issue of contention between Maxey and the Bush press.

According to Maxey – and Bush is not talking – the Governor congratulated him for his work on children’s health insurance. Maxey had led the progressive House Dems, whomade sure the Governor didn’t have his way, and that 200,000 kids didn’t get cut from a federal-state children’s health program. “Congratulations,” Bush said. “You shoved it down our throat.” That much, the Governor’s press office does not deny. Then, as Maxey tells it, Bush moved even closer and said, in a low voice, “I value you as a person, and I value you as a human being, and I want you to know, Glen, that what I say publicly about gay people doesn’t pertain to you.”

“I was stunned,” Maxey said, adding that that’s when “Skippy, the little ACT-UP devil that sits on my shoulder, was telling me to kiss him!” Instead, Maxey says he told the Governor, “When you say a gay person is not fit to be a parent, you’re talking about me.” (Bush was supporting legislation, which subsequently died in committee, that would have made it illegal for gays or lesbians to adopt children.) The Governor moved on, and Maxey turned to colleagues nearby and made sure they knew what the Governor had said. He even told some reporters – with a request that they hold the story until after June 20, the final day for the Governor to veto bills. After June 20, Maxey began to talk openly about the incident, which is why this four-month-old story is just now coming to light.

Maxey has some support. Dawnna Dukes, another state representative from Austin, said she was on the floor at the time and the Governor said what Maxey attributed to him. But Dukes is pulling her punches. “I think in this particular case, when he saw Glen Maxey, he felt bad about his public statements. I think in a way this was his apology. It just kind of got messed up.”

Even the most outspoken legislators have come to believe that dissing Dubya can have only two results, both bad: you either incur the anger of the President, or Bush loses, comes back as Governor, and every bill you file is vetoed. Maxey is one of very few who are talking.

He should have kissed him.

Stupid is as Stupid Does…

For years, minority advocacy organizations have argued that standardized tests tend to discriminate against ethnic minorities for a variety of reasons, including the cultural bias of the test questions, the inadequacy of instruction in minority school districts, and socio-economic factors that contribute to students’ poor educational performance. In Texas, the argument has fallen largely on deaf ears. Indeed, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund recently sued the Texas Education Agency over the use of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, which students must pass to graduate from high school, and which has been found to hold back a disproportionate number of Hispanic students.

There is one Texas state agency where the cultural differences argument gets a more favorable reception, however. Left Field has learned that the Texas Rehabilitation Commission regularly uses the cultural differences theory for a novel purpose: to screw Hispanic applicants out of benefits. The Commission is responsible for determining eligibility for Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that provides cash benefits for children and adults with severe disabilities, such as blindness, muscular dystrophy, and mental retardation. The testing issue arises in the case of clients with mental retardation, who must take an I.Q. test to determine whether or not the applicant qualifies for benefits. The test is administered by a psychiatrist in conjunction with a T.R.C. caseworker, and it’s a fairly straightforward process – unless, that is, the client is a member of an ethnic minority. The official guidelines published by the Social Security Administration allow for exceptions to formal psychological testing “in the case of ethnic/cultural minorities where the native language is not principally English-speaking.” The manual suggests that in lieu of testing, the best indicator of whether such a child is disabled may be “how the child performs activities of daily living and social functioning.”

That gray area is subject to abuse, according to one former T.R.C. employee, who worked for the agency in Austin for fifteen years until he retired in 1998. The former hearings examiner (who asked Left Field not to blow his cover) reviewed denials that had been appealed by clients. “There may be some truth … that Hispanics may test lower than their intelligence would imply because of cultural differences,” he told us. “However, that seemed to be used as a way to deny [benefits to] Hispanics routinely when I.Q. scores were low. And I saw people who were denied that should not be. I had the impression that it was just a formula used, that it was kind of kneejerk.” In other words, borderline I.Q. scores often didn’t make the cut, if the applicant was Hispanic.

Of course, all S.S.I. applicants in Texas have a good chance of being denied. The Dallas region by far outstrips any other area in the country in the rate of rejections, though the size of the Social Security rolls has no direct bearing on the state budget. “This is just a more stringent section of the country,” said our informant.

Social Security Administration spokesperson Dee O’Neill denies that Hispanics have been singled out in an effort to trim the S.S.I. rolls. “We are solely interested in getting the best results from standardized testing,” O’Neill said. “It’s only logical,” he said, that language and cultural factors be taken into account to accomplish that end. Does this mean Social Security will be filing an amicus brief in the MALDEF suit against the T.E.A.? No comment.

Universities for Sale

Happily leading the nation in corporate privatization, the Austin campus of the University of Texas can be expected to go public any day now. A stock issue would finally eliminate the illusion that the educational purposes of the school take any precedence over generating bucks for corporations, contractors, alumni, football coaches, administrators, regents, etc. etc.: i.e. the entrenched bidness interests that run the state of Texas. But in the meantime, weeds of rebellion keep springing up in the cracks of limestone mediocrity: students are working hard on anti-sweatshop initiatives and to support affirmative action, together with the international activism that drives many campus movements.

Two U.T. graduate film students have put their celluloid in service of their principles. Kyle Henry directed University Inc., which focuses acerbically on the increasing corporatization of U.T.; Laura Dunn, a Yale alum, directed a short but thoughtful documentary, Subtext of a Yale Education, on the struggle to organize staffworkers at Yale.

Henry is already becoming well-known as a Texas filmmaker, most notably for his documentary American Cowboy, a portrait of rider Gene Mikulenka and the International Gay Rodeo Association. As a U.T. student, he’d gotten involved in the campus film programs, centered in the Radio-Television-Film Department and the Student Union Film Program (where he worked as a projectionist and programmer). Henry’s new film recounts the losing battle over the U.T. administration’s determination to close down the long-standing Union film program because it was “losing money.” As Henry told an interviewer last year, “When the film program was closed down, even in the worst year … close to 20,000 people went to the program. Still, it ‘lost’ $30,000. The reason it lost that money was because it was suddenly designated as a ‘revenue center’ by the university (which it never had been in the past – before last year it was just a ‘program’).” University Inc. is not simply a history of the struggle over the film program, but of the larger context of a university administration increasingly remote from the educational needs and desires of students – and increasingly devoted to the demands of the “marketplace,” as exemplified in U.T.’s gargantuan and growing sports business masquerading as an athletics program. Henry told Left Field that he also tried to portray a sense of just what it’s like now to be a student at U.T. “The audience gets bombarded with alienating experiences from all sides,” he said, “just like the students get bombarded. As Mario Savio says at the close of the film, it’s less and less like a university, and much more like a factory, in which the students are the product.”

Laura Dunn’s shorter film (shot in 1995 when she was an undergrad and edited at U.T.) considers the difficult labor struggle of Yale staffworkers, mostly from poor and minority New Haven families, within the intellectual and financial context of one of the nation’s elite private universities. Although the workers were asking for little more than job security against outsourcing and a living wage, university administrators responded that Yale’s enormous endowment can only be used for “educational” purposes, and that – regardless of perceived or real injustice – the labor market must set wage rates. The students working on the film received an abrupt understanding of the real meaning of a “liberal education.” Dunn, who was a Yale American Studies student at the time, told Left Field that her teachers and university administrators actively discouraged her from making the film, dismissing it as political and therefore not “art.”

The filmmakers are putting together a fall “McCollege Tour” of the films beginning September 17, planning shows at U.T. (Sept. 24 and 26 at Cinematexas) and Yale as well as Rice, Kenyon, Duke, the Universities of Arkansas, Massachusetts, and several others. For more information, contact Kyle Henry at [email protected].

Smokin’ Out the Governor

” I guess we should declare victory,” announced Jim Baldauf of Texans United, leading a group of demonstrators walking a picket line outside the Governor’s Mansion August 30. The demonstrators – representing Texans United, Downwinders at Risk, the PACE international union, and other groups – were protesting the Governor’s environmental policies, most particularly the voluntary air pollution reductions program Bush ramrodded through the Legislature a few months ago, successfully avoiding more effective direct regulation of major Texas polluters (like Crown Petroleum, which locked out workers represented by PACE and subsequently increased its pollution output).

But the demonstrators were also taking direct action against a new anti-protest policy adopted earlier this year by the Governor’s Protective Detail, a division of the Department of Public Safety. On four separate occasions, beginning March 10, Capitol police officers have arrested demonstrators for “blocking a passageway” outside the Mansion, although according to many witnesses, no passageway was blocked. It has been a tradition to hold peaceful demonstrations on the Mansion sidewalk for decades. At first, demonstrators were told they had to move to a “designated protest area” in a parking lot across the street from the Mansion, but in subsequent incidents D.P.S. officers merely waited until walking protestors raised their signs – and those who would not leave the area were immediately subject to arrest. (See “The Bush Beat,” April 30.) “The Constitution does not stop at the Governor’s sidewalk,” said Rick Abraham, director of Texans United, among those arrested in earlier protests.

The D.P.S. initially defended the policy as motivated by safety considerations, but it has been arbitrarily applied to selected protestors only, who were arrested and held in the county jail. Charges were subsequently dropped, when the Travis County District Attorney decided there was “insufficient evidence” – but the D.A. and the D.P.S. warned that other protestors might yet be subject to prosecution. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Governor and the D.P.S., charging that the state is violating the Texas Constitution and subjecting lawful demonstrators to an arbitrary and undefined arrest policy. Neither the Governor’s office nor the D.P.S. has provided any written policy or guidelines underlying the arrests, although Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes has described the new policy as allowing officers to use their own judgment in making arrests.

On this particular day, at least, the demo went off without a hitch – about two dozen demonstrators marched back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the mansion, carrying signs, e.g.: “The Right to Pollute but No Right to Free Speech on a Public Sidewalk.” A couple of D.P.S. cars passed by – and there was at least one “undercover” officer in the crowd – but there were no arrests or threat of arrest, leading the demonstrators to declare a victory for free speech.

Not so fast, says the D.P.S. While declining to comment directly on the A.C.L.U. lawsuit, D.P.S. spokesman Tom Vinger insisted that the new policy has not been changed, and that the decision to arrest will be made each time by individual officers, “based on probable cause.” While the Department is “showing some flexibility,” Vinger said, “we don’t want people to think there will be no arrests at the Governor’s mansion.”

In short, stay tuned: we haven’t heard the last of the Governor’s Mansion Presidential Sidewalk Showdown.

Messages from Space

According to a forthcoming biography by Keay Davidson, the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan was a secret but avid marijuana smoker, crediting the interstellar weed with inspiring essays and scientific insight. In a heretofore anonymous published essay which Davidson says was in fact written by Sagan, the scientist recalled, “I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves…. I wrote the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down.” (Sagan’s wife presumably distributed her own curves elsewhere.)

Left Field never took a shower with Sagan, but our far-out correspondents have come up with the following list of additional theories the spaced scientist is said to have discovered while under the influence of cannabis sativa:

The Top Twelve Theories Developed by Carl Sagan While Stoned

12. Dave’s not here, and he’s not there either. He’s a real nowhe
e, man.

11. The period of rotation of Pulsar JC9270 totally synchs up with the drum solo on “In A Gadda Da Vida.”

10. “Twinkies, Twinkies, little stars; seem so close, yet are so far.”

9. “Space is big. I mean space is really, really, big. I mean, it is so mind bogglingly huge you just can’t even imagine how vast it is. You may think it’s a long walk to South America to get some good Colombian but – trust me – that’s nothing to space.”

8. “Some day, with all of our advances in science and technology, we’ll be able to land a man on the sun.”

7. The Big Bong Theory.

6. “Theory of Infinite Supply”: No matter how many bowls you load, a quarter ounce never gets heavier (or lighter) in Zero G. Carl’s Corollary: Felony possession of more than an ounce is impossible in space.

5. Duncan Hines brownies > Betty Crocker brownies

4. “Theory of Joint Relativity”: A complex physics equation demonstrating that for any given observer at rest, the more pot you smoke, the lighter your car feels, the more your passenger compartment expands, and the slower your automobile travels with you at the wheel.

3. The Dead Will Never Die!

2. A single “You Are Here!” sign will work everywhere.

And the Number 1 Theory Developed by Carl Sagan While Stoned…

1. Wow, man! There are, like, a lot of stars. There must be hundreds of ’em. Maybe even thousands. No, millions and millions! Wait – I’m onto something here….