Monday, September 29, 2008

How the culture wars killed free expression

Christopher Shinn, the writer of new political play Now or Later, explains how campus censorship strangles debate

In America and Britain, theatre has become a notable battleground on questions of free speech and free artistic expression. In 2004, the controversial play Behzti was cancelled in Birmingham after Sikhs protested that the play offended their community, while in America religious fundamentalists have objected to The Crucible and My Name is Rachel Corrie on similar grounds.

American playwright Christopher Shinn has followed, often in exasperation, the on-going discussions and debates on the rights and wrongs of staging controversial plays in the West. He decided to do something artistic about it: write a play called Now or Later that tackles campus censorship through the very topical lens of the American presidential elections.

Shinn's play is set on the eve of a presidential election. The Democrats are on the point of victory when news breaks out, via political blogs, that the would-be new president's homosexual son, John, has gone to a party dressed as the prophet Mohammed and his friend as the gay-baiting evangelist Pastor Bob.

As footage of the party circulates around the globe, sparking riots in the Muslim world, John is under immense pressure from presidential advisers to make a public apology. While John insists on the importance of free expression, and also that he was attending a private party, his friend Matt points out that he could be responsible for deaths around the world. Principle and pragmatism collide to fascinating effect. Staged in real-time, Now or Later carefully explores the anguish and arguments of this very contemporary concern.

When I meet the man behind Now or Later, he is dressed in casual t-shirt and jeans and overseeing the play's final rehearsals at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London. The Royal Court discovered Shinn 10 years ago - when he was just 23 - meaning that most of his plays, such as Dying City and Other People, have been premiered there, too. The theatre's director, Dominic Cooke, has programmed the play to coincide with the run-up to the real American presidential elections. Now or Later couldn't be more timely.

`I think the first thing I wanted to do was give myself a formal challenge', says Shinn carefully, `which was to write a play in real time and then I started to think, what could happen in real time that is interesting and dramatic? And in politics today, with blogs and 24-hour news channels, things can happen very rapidly. So I started thinking about politics in order to find a subject that was fit for formal challenge. In my mind, I had politics, power and issues of freedom of expression and, as a dramatist, I'm always looking for conflict.'

Shinn says that in Now or Later he is exploring conflicts and clashes between the West and Islam. As he puts it: `With Islam, it is perceived that the current administration is responsible for suffering in the Muslim world', says Shinn, `and therefore there can be no criticising of that world or how Muslims might experience that. The end result is to limit the conversations that Muslims can have about that themselves.'

Nevertheless, Shinn's well-crafted central protagonist in Now or Later, John, is motivated just as much by exposing the censorious nature of Ivy League students, as attacking Muslims in and of themselves. Surely, I ask him, the problem of censorship has its roots within the liberal left rather than any external threat to `Western values'? `Yeah, I think you're right,' says Shinn. `I think in many ways American campuses are a distorted and extreme way of dealing with problems in US culture. The left-wing ideology in these campuses doesn't seem to be related to the way the world is. The antics on campus almost have a feeling of play acting, as it's so divorced from people's lives. Nevertheless, the Ivy League students are the future politicians and opinion leaders so it's worth examining how they're getting a distorted picture of how the world is working.'

As a left-wing champion of free speech, and a fan and reader of spiked, Shinn is exasperated that it is often the left who are now the loudest advocates of blue pens and artistic clampdowns. He reckons that there was a sea change in universities back in the 1990s that has now become politically mainstream.

`As a gay man, I found the left's fight for free expression very beneficial', he says, `but that crossed over into identity politics. From there it was important to privilege the subjectivity of people who had previously been oppressed and marginalised. But instead of this emphasis on a diversity of voices, there became an unspoken rule whereby only people who experienced something, whether as a gay man or black woman, were allowed to speak about it directly. This created a real fracture where these oppressed groups, rather than finding commonality, separated out. These different groups ended up in these retreats which itself created paranoia and bad blood.'

Shinn's work seems to belong to a lineage of American playwrights and artists, from Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer through to Philip Roth, who offer an unflinching examination of the gaping holes in American society. Although European liberals love to dismiss American culture as rather candy-floss and dumb, no other Western nation produces art that is not only self-aware and self-critical, but resists the temptation of self-loathing. Shinn's work is no exception.

`Yes, it is one of the really good things about America', says Shinn cheerfully, `it thrives on that self-critique. You know, you even see it in relation to the Bush administration where a lot of extreme policy has been moderated due to the ongoing critiques and debates. The real strength of American culture is always in searching for ways of moving on from difficulties. That's something I'm proud of within America and what I want to achieve in my work as well.'

Naturally enough, Shinn has been eagerly following the US presidential election and is neither cynical nor goggle-eyed about Obama. `He has no track record so people are projecting all kinds of things onto him', says Shinn. `The Democratic Party haven't yet been in a position whereby they are explicitly running to the right in order to appeal to swing voters.' And as Now or Later deals with the question of a presidential candidate's children, the play unwittingly anticipates the furore surrounding Sarah Palin's pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, who is under pressure to conform to conventional morality. As Shinn says, `yes, all that does evoke the play in general, as it deals with children, sexuality and lies.'

At heart, though, Now or Later is a timely, not to mention, expert exploration of how censorship, and perhaps the need for self-censorship, is acting as a straitjacket within Western culture and politics. Although the play might seem a little didactic, Shinn doesn't marshal the audience into accepting any conclusive argument. Now or Later provokes thought rather than stymies it. `It is one thing to believe in freedom of expression,' he says, `but that may lead to the death of other people. So the play is asking: would you be responsible for that? And then what happens afterwards? So how badly do you believe in freedom of expression?'


Official education fraud in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials say they want to give struggling children a chance, but the district is raising eyebrows with a policy that sets 50 percent as the minimum score a student can receive for assignments, tests and other work. The district and teachers union last week issued a joint memo to ensure staff members' compliance with the policy, which was already on the books but enforced only at some schools. Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President John Tarka said the policy is several years old.

While some districts use "F" as a failing grade, the city uses an "E." "The 'E' is to be recorded no lower than a 50 percent, regardless of the actual percent earned. For example, if the student earns a 20 percent on a class assignment, the grade is recorded as a 50 percent," said the memo from Jerri Lippert, the district's executive director of curriculum, instruction and professional development, and Mary VanHorn, a PFT vice president.

In each subject, a student's percentage scores on tests and other work are averaged into a grade for each of the four marking periods. Percentages for marking periods later are averaged into semester and year-end grades. A student receives an "A" for scores ranging from 100 percent to 90 percent, a "B" for scores ranging from 89 percent to 80 percent, a "C" for scores ranging from 79 percent to 70 percent, a "D" for scores ranging from 69 percent to 60 percent and an "E" for scores ranging from 59 percent to the cutoff, 50 percent.

The district and union insist the policy still holds students accountable for performance. "A failing grade is a failing grade," district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.

At the same time, they said, the 50 percent minimum gives children a chance to catch up and a reason to keep trying. If a student gets a 20 percent in a class for the first marking period, Ms. Pugh said, he or she would need a 100 percent during the second marking period just to squeak through the semester. "We want to create situations where students can recover and not give up," she said, adding a sense of helplessness can lead to behavior and attendance problems. "It's not grade inflation. We're not saying, 'Give people passing grades,' " Ms. Pugh said.

But the policy strikes some teachers and parents as rewarding bad work and at odds with the district's "Excellence for All" improvement campaign. "Clearly, some people will not be pleased with this policy," Mr. Tarka said. But he added, "We stand by that decision."

Judy Leonardi, a Stanton Heights resident and retired district home economics teacher, said she objected to the notion that a student could "walk in the door, breathe the air and get 50 percent for that." "I don't think it sets kids up properly for college, for competition in life," she said. To Ms. Leonardi, a 20 percent score means a student isn't trying or needs more help with the material. Automatically putting 50 percent in the grade book, she said, doesn't help the student in either case. "To me, it's morally wrong," she said. Ms. Leonardi worries that the policy could cause high-performing students to goof off from time to time, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn't have to bounce back from anything lower than a 50 percent. And she said one teacher she knows already worries about how awkward it will look when a student correctly answers three of 10 questions on a math quiz -- and gets a 50 percent.

The state Department of Education doesn't regulate grading scales, and schools and districts across the state use various models. Districts nationwide have debated use of a 50 percent minimum.

Northside Urban Pathways, a Downtown charter school, gives students zero credit for any work below a "C." Linda Clautti, chief executive officer, said that approach complements the school's college-preparatory mission. "I have not had any complaints. We do parent surveys every year," Ms. Clautti said.

In a recent article in Harvard Educational Review, Freedom Area School District Superintendent Ron Sofo recounted an experimental program that he said helped to dramatically raise the math scores of struggling sixth-graders. Among other features, the program included "A, B, Not Yet" grading, in which students were required to redo work until it merited an A or B. Some Freedom Area teachers opposed the special grading scale, calling it coddling of bad students, Dr. Sofo said.

In suburban Philadelphia, a Bensalem School District task force on testing and grading has recommended that 50 percent be the minimum score a student receive. Superintendent James Lombardo said he's in favor of implementing the idea, partly as a fairness issue. He noted that a failing grade carries far more mathematical weight than any other grade if the "E" or "F" has a range of zero to 59 percent. "I guess I laud the Pittsburgh district for recognizing some of the foibles of our numerical system," he said, adding low percentage scores sometimes are given to students because of their attitude or work ethic, rather than their level of accomplishment.

Asked whether she agreed with the 50 percent minimum, Regina Holley, principal of Pittsburgh Lincoln K-8 and president of the Pittsburgh Administrators Association, said: "Well, that's the board's policy, and that's what we have to use." She said teachers and principals should take other steps to give parents a clearer picture of how their children are performing in class. "Our school provides that to the parents in a conference. We provide it in a letter. We give it to the parents in a phone call," Dr. Holley said.


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