Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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In 1848, Horace Mann, the godfather of the modern public school system, wrote that education is "the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery." But is that still true today? Reuters followed two high school students in Massasschusetts, home to the nation's top public school system, and found evidence that our schools are becoming the opposite of what Mann envisioned: another source of division between the wealthy and everyone else.

An artist's rendering of the Perot Museum's fracking-themed Shale Voyager exhibit.

If oil companies designed the lessons contained in middle school science textbooks, it would be a national scandal. But helping to design scientific displays in natural history museums that host countless school field trips each year? Apparently, that's just fine.

Take the shiny new Perot Museum of Nature and Science (yes, as in former presidential candidate H. Ross), which opened in Dallas on Saturday. A $10-million donation from Hunt Petroleum (now owned by Exxon) helped finance the museum's Hunt Energy Hall, where exhibits include a larger-than-life drillbit cutting through a slab of faux rock, and a fracking-themed virtual reality experience known as the Shale Voyager. The New York Times' Edward Rothstein got a preview:

The Hunt Hall has its virtues. Some science centers treat environmentalism with almost devout attention, eager to drive home homilies, so it is a novelty to see it treated in this hall, as it is in other parts of the Perot, as one subject among many. It is refreshing as well to see some attention devoted to the engineering difficulties in the extraction of oil and get some idea of the science, however awkwardly presented.

But it is almost bizarre to see a major exhibit about energy whose central focus is on fracking and its machinery, even if the process ultimately transforms American energy production. We also get little sense of the controversies and debates that now fuel any examination of the energy issue. Even if the hall is meant to reflect Texan preoccupations, we learn in only a small part of a display case that "Texas produces more wind energy than any other state in the U.S."

The Perot Museum is far from the only one pumping up fossil fuels. Forth Worth's Museum of Science and History features the XTO Energy Gallery, named after the eponymous Barnett Shale fracking outfit. And in North Dakota, fracking billionaire Harold Hamm has shelled out $1.8 million to help construct a new wing of the North Dakota Heritage Center that will include an exhibit on—you guessed it—fracking.

These relationships might seem less problematic if the museums actually built firewalls between their fundraising and curatorial departments. I don't know how things work at the museums in Dallas and Fort Worth, but when I visited the North Dakota Heritage Center earlier this year, museum staff told me that they'd sought Hamm's input on the content of their energy exhibits. This brings to mind the kind of "science" espoused by the Creation Museum—the transmutation of opinion and faith into "fact" through the magic of pseudo-scientific dioramas.

Hamm and Perot Musuem donors T. Boone Pickens and Trevor Rees-Jones represent a new generation of philanthropically inclined Texas oil magnates. But while their names are showing up on a lot of buildings, they haven't begun to build the kind of legacies left by, say, the Whitneys or the de Menils—families that underwrote world-famous art museums in New York and Houston. Funding fracking exhibits might be a good PR move, but in the long run, the best PR is the kind that lacks an obvious political agenda.

Earlier today, President Barack Obama took the battle over the fiscal cliff to Twitter, urging his followers to voice their support for his budget plan with the hashtag #MY2K. The tag refers to the $2,200 that the average American family will save each year if Congress votes to extend the Bush tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent of earners.

Obama's Twitter campaign reflects a push to mobilize his large army of grassroots supporters beyond the electoral campaign. His strategists don't want to repeat the mistakes of four years ago, when the populist energy from his campaign fizzled for lack of any meaningful way for his supporters to stay involved. Vocal support from liberals for the middle-class tax cuts might make it easier for Obama to boost taxes on the rich.

The #MY2K hashtag quickly began trending on Twitter. But waging a policy battle with social media isn't as simple as it might sound. Here's a sample of tweets that use Obama's hashtag:

The origninal tweet: 

The conservative Heritage Foundation quickly purchased ad space on the #MY2K search results: 

 But there's this thing called a mandate. . . 

 What will your $2K buy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feel the pressure, Congress!

 

 

And don't forget the kittehs!

 

 

Is $2K even enough?

 

 

At any rate, this whole fiscal cliff thing is so 1999. . .

 

 

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