Archive | April, 2014

Mr. de Blasio: Tear Up This Blacklist

5 Apr

Was Bill de Blasio’s dad blacklisted in the 1950s? Well it sure looks that way.

Long story short, Warren Wilhelm Sr., government analyst, was dragged before a McCarthy-era committee in 1950 and 1953, interrogated about suspect activities, interests, and affiliations, and then stripped of his security clearance.

“Over the next several years, the case resurfaced as Mr. Wilhelm was considered for promotions,” the New York Times reported in 2013.

Apparently the promotions didn’t come. Bill’s dad, who’d been awarded a Purple Heart for his WWII battlefield heroics, didn’t talk much about his difficulties with the Loyalty Board to his kids. But the Wilhelms left Washington for greener pastures after 1953, and he seemed to struggle thereafter in almost every way imaginable. It seems reasonable to assume, then,  that Mayor Bill de Blasio might understand, as few others can, the malignant power of the blacklist.

It’s a question of some immediate relevance. Currently making the rounds is an online petition asking that the mayor’s schools chancellor put an end to a Bloomberg-era policy of blacklisting-for-life probationary teachers who are “discontinued” ( “fired”, in plain English) from their initial DOE assignment.

The petition makes the obvious point that school principals should base their decision to retain  a new teacher, or not,  on strictly *pedagogical* grounds.   Yet this does not happen often.

So, apart from pedagogy, what else would matter? Well, politics, for one; both in the local ( i.e. within the school) sense of the word and in the more general sense.
Religion, race, and ethnicity, for another. ( All of the “old reliables”; rolled into one, for clarity’s sake.)
Sexual orientation and gender. (“But there are LAWS against that sort of thing.” Yeah. Right. PROVE it.)
Cronyism and nepotism. ( “Got a relative who needs a job?  We just might have an opening.”
Personality conflicts, unrelated to work performance. (Grow-up, folks. It happens all the time.)

The petition itself provides an excellent example of how the process actually works:

“Then, several months later and out of the blue, it happened. Without even realizing it, Jennifer crossed Principal Higgins by questioning some change in assignment and a preparation period she felt she was owed. Suddenly, Jennifer stopped receiving “satisfactory” observation reports and began receiving several “unsatisfactory” ones. Principal Higgins then rated Jennifer unsatisfactory for her first year final rating. Jennifer was devastated. It didn’t make sense. The students and parents liked her. She received unofficial praise from the assistant principal, but to Principal Higgins Jennifer didn’t differentiate instruction. She didn’t have coherent lessons and didn’t demonstrate knowledge of resources.

450 NYC probationers were discontinued in the last two years. The real killer here though is the *blacklist*. By the time teachers step into a New York City public school classroom for the first time  they have already  spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in preparation: studying for undergraduate and —  in many cases — graduate degrees; serving in unpaid internships;  jumping through all kinds of testing and licensing hoops.  Suddenly… because of something so trivial as a personality conflict with a supervisor… they are essentially banned-for-life from their chosen  profession. Under the blacklist, no other principal in the 1,700 school NYC system may hire them. There is only one public school system in New York City. Just as there was, in the 1950s, for Warren Wilhelm …..and for many, many others… only one federal government.

One of the most striking and promising things about New York City’s new mayor is his intriguing resume. In an era when government policy is shaped for the most part by shallow, basically interchangeable , suburban prep school dilettantes, de Blasio’s bio smacks of something real.  Whatever he turns out to be…  he’s  not your typical 21st  Century  American big-city mayor.

Psycho-historically speaking,  Bill’s early years are less “story” than *struggle*.  And the struggle seems to have decisively shaped the public servant we are watching so nervously ( in the sense of:  “Who is this guy, *really*?”) today.

Plenty’s been written about the mayor’s troubled dad ,  a Harvard-educated economist. His presence in — and his absence from — Bill’s early life. His influence, for better or worse, on the tender, emerging mayoral psyche. Warren Wilhelm Sr.  struggled, it would appear… the way many of us struggle…. with the complexities, misfortunes and imponderables of life. But perhaps not as effectively as most.

Endowed, like his son, with uncommon physical and intellectual stature, Wilhelm saw more than his share  action  in WWII and lost a leg in the battle of Okinawa. The war, and its aftermath seemed to stay with him, long after V-J Day, according to the mayor’s own account.

Still, Wilhelm distinguished himself professionally as a government budget analyst in post-war Washington, DC, while raising a handsome family in upscale Georgetown with his, wife, ex- OWI ( Offiice of War Information) translator, the former Marie de Blasio. Life, on the surface at least,  (And was “life” in 1950s America ever anywhere else?) was good.

Then came McCarthy. “McCarthy” was less a person than it was an era; a mentality; a zeitgeist. More than a “mentality”, it was a lack of mentality. (Keep this phraseology in mind; we’ll be getting back to the NYC Department of Education shortly.)  McCarthyism was  an officially anti-communist ( and  — unofficially—  anti-socialist, anti-liberal, anti-intellectual, and anti-labor) firestorm, stoked deftly by demagogues in congress with plenty of backing from their sponsors and string-pullers in what today we call … with plenty of statistical justification…“the one-percent.”

In 1950, Warren Wilhelm was dragged, along with his wife, before before a government “Loyalty Board”. What HUAC was in that era for Hollywood notables, the Loyalty Boards were for ordinary federal bureaucrats who were suspected of Soviet sympathies. Warren Wilhelm, it developed, had studied … among many other topics…. the Soviet economy, as a grad student at Harvard. That this fact raised… if you’ll excuse me… “red flags” at all , hints at the Godzilla-like political monster that was stalking,  then devouring  the collective “brain” of official Washington in the early 50s.

In the end, the couple was cleared of being spies. They were cleared of being Communist Party members. They were not cleared of harboring Soviet “sympathies” and of playing “pro-Soviet” records on their home phonograph. Warren  Wilhelm retained his position in the government. His prospects for advancement evaporated.

Three years later, he was brought back. before the board. Someone at Yale, presumably a college classmate had anonymously reported that , Wilhelm harbored “ultra -liberal “ ideas as an undergrad.

That’s *in college*. That’s *15 + years after the fact*. That’s  “Ultra-liberal”  ideas It’s not clear how Wilhelm defended himself against that one. Nor, in 2014, is it clear why he would have to. All we know for sure  is that the family left DC shortly thereafter and had what sounds like a few relatively good years in the Connecticut suburbs before relocating yet again  to Cambridge, Mass. where Mr. Wilhelm seemed to slide more rapidly  into alienation, alcoholism and, eventually, an early, self-inflicted death.

Maybe the blacklist… if there WAS a blacklist…. had nothing at all to do with Mr. Wilhelm’s struggles with depression and alcohol in the 60’s and 70’s. But maybe it did. 

Maybe the blacklist.… if there WAS a blacklist….never *officially* existed at all.. I’m sure the feds would deny the existence of such a thing; or they’d have coined a euphemism. NYC DOE calls what it does variously, “flagging”, “red-flagging” and “problem-coding.”

Yeah. OK. Fine. Wonderful.  But spare us the doubletalk: it’s a *blacklist*. One can’t get work if one is “on” it. That’s what  a “blacklist” is.

If you’re like most New Yorkers, you didn’t even know there is a blacklist. Heck, if you’re like most teachers, you wouldn’t know either; until you’re actually ON it. ( If you’re like most Americans , you are unaware even  that there was a blacklist in America in the 1950s. Such is the state of American  History instruction in United States secondary schools  in this glorious 21st Century of ours. Fodder for another post entirely.)

But there it is. The blacklist. It’s modern day cultivator and guardian — no surprise here — is  NYC’s Department of Education, that bottomless pit of  nepotism, patronage, mendacity, mindless cruelty and absolutely incomparable bureaucratic dysfunction.

Mayor de Blasio can do something about it. The question of the hour  is: will he?