Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Not So Innocent Right to Free Speech

Lars Tønder
  Northwestern University

A new “Muhammad crisis” is unfolding before our eyes. Provoked by the movie “Innocence of Muslims,” and enforced by recent developments in the US, the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere, the crisis evolves around a familiar pattern of arguments and objections, which trouble our established ways of invoking and defending the right to free speech. Like the many other crises that preceded it, the current “Muhammad crisis” signifies a challenge, not only to ideals of democratic deliberation, but also to how we perceive and engage the world of power and politics.
  To see how complex and challenging the current Muhammad crisis is, one only has to consider the mix of ingredients that provoked it: A California-based film producer who previously had worked on adult movies such as “Young Lady Chatterley” and “The Sexpert”; a self-proclaimed movie director who spent most of the year before the film was shot in federal custody on bank fraud charges; an Evangelic pastor in Florida infatuated by publicity and the desire to save Muslims from their own faith; a new fragile government in Libya threatened by remainders of Al Queda’s terrorist network; a growing disappointment with the Arab spring and the lack of democracy in Egypt and elsewhere; the ongoing killing of innocent civilians by US-directed drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and, finally, a good deal of unsettled resentment from earlier conflicts such as the Danish cartoon war. Exceeding our usual models of efficient causality, these ingredients are connected through affective resonances and symbolic equivalences that produce an event like one we are witnessing today: An event where history is covered over by an explosive present, and where the criterion of judgment lies in the future—not in the past.
The complexity of the event helps to explain why the prevailing response among proponents of Western democracy has been insufficient and, perhaps more importantly, why it appears to be dangerously self-defeating. Promoted by a global coalition that includes such unusual bedfellows as Mitt Romney, Salman Rushdie, and the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the response among proponents of Western democracy has been threefold: eliminate any doubt about the right to free speech; depict anyone who don’t share this view as weaklings who at least tacitly accept the use of violence; and, in the spirit of what John Durham Peters, in Courting the Abyss, calls “homeopathic machismo,” proceed by ignoring, repeating, or deepening the original offense (or some combination thereof). Like the parsimonious observer who looks for the parts rather than the whole, the prevailing response promises to reduce the complexity of the world so as to identify the only truth there is to see—that the best way to invoke and defend free speech is to stand steadfast and, if necessary, to up the ante whenever criticized or challenged. As Rushdie explains it in a recent interview about the link between the publication of the Satanic Verses and the current Muhammad crisis: “If you are standing up for important principles…as I have learned the hard way…you don’t defend those principles by compromise or appeasement. In the end, you just simply have to defend them and take the consequences…I’m just going to fight my corner” 
It is hard not to notice here a desire for sovereignty, which, despite Rushdie’s subtle use of language in many of his novels, puts him in close proximity to Mitt Romney and others who have criticized the Obama administration for trying to counter the initial reactions to the “Innocence of Muslims” movie by objecting to the movie’s depiction of Islam. One reason to resist this response by Rushdie, Romney, and others is the absence of a resilient openness to difference as well as the antagonistic violence it inflicts against the purpose of free speech—to expand the range of utterances and to allow more voices to be heard. Another reason to resist the response is the tendency to disavow fundamental changes in the contemporary conditions of free speech. Contrary to the complexity already noted, the response among the proponents of Western democracy posits a center of power (the State or the individual), which places itself above the lived experiences of its subjects or parts, and which claims to have the authority needed to protect itself from contestation and revision. In a complex world like the one characterizing the current Muhammad crisis, such a power center does not exist in any meaningful way. Not only must the United States and other governments compete with a multitude of non-state agents, the connections between the different agents (state and non-state) now develop at an accelerated pace, which exceeds the control of just one center of power. The complexity, we might say, changes the context of free speech, and therefore also the means appropriate for invoking and defending it. Might the tendency to gloss over this shift not explain why the “sovereigntists” seem either tone deaf with regard to various uses of free speech, or guilty of furthering the violence that they accuse Muslims around the world of committing?
None of this is to say that we, as political theorists and as members of different democratic regimes, should not embrace the right to free speech, or that we should refrain from criticizing the “Innocence of Muslims” movie and the violent responses it has provoked. What the changes in the context of free speech do suggest, however, is that we need a different framework for perceiving and engaging conflicts like the current Muhammad crisis. Rather than appealing to a sovereign desire which pretends to be detached from the event it regulates, and in which it remains entangled, the challenge now is to study conflicts like the current Muhammad crisis so as to better counter and pluralize the various lived experiences embedded in it.
A first step in this direction might be to actually watch and criticize the parts of the “Innocence of Muslims” movie that have been released on line as the movie’s trailer. (As it was the case with the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, the tendency in public discourse has so far been to state a general opinion with regard to the legality of the movie, and to relegate to the unexamined background questions about how the movie works symbolically as well as affectively.) As anyone who has looked it up on YouTube will know, watching the trailer can be both excruciatingly painful and tragically funny: The visual effects are amateurish, the acting is horrible, and the narrative is either absent or clumsy. Still, the movie does manage to stir its audience, not only because it takes up a controversial issue, but also because it evokes affective resonances and symbolic equivalences that create an effect similar to the “mirror neurons” detected by researchers in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Since it is at this level that the complexity is subtlest, it may also be here that our critical efforts are most productively spent.
A particularly telling sequence in the movie includes a set of scenes which show the young Prophet as a fatherless “bastard,” who submits himself to female desire, and thereby gradually learns the false lesson of deriving pleasure from dominating others: “killing the men and capturing the women.” What kind of resonances and equivalences subsist below the simplicity of this statement? The first thing to note is how the affects evoked by the statement are not unlike Christianity’s own fear of female desire, something that historically has justified the domestication of women’s sex life through misogyny and repression. A reminder of this historical fact surfaced only a few days after the YouTube video had gone viral, when Karen King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, reported the finding of a papyrus fragment from the 2nd century whose mentioning of “Jesus’ wife” appears to challenge Christianity’s more orthodox view of marriage, sexuality, reproduction, and family life. Like the “Innocence of Muslims” movie, the papyrus fragment was quickly perceived as a challenge to the secure grasp of a religious orthodoxy. Unlike the movie, however, the fragment entered into a different kind of circulation, one that was defined, not by the cheesiness of an incendiary joke, but by the claim to high culture and scholarly work. Because of this difference in circulation, the papyrus fragment appears easier to domesticate and contain, even if it represents a past historicity that, unlike the manufactured one invoked by the “Innocence of Muslims” movie, has the potential to alter the basic presuppositions of a religion.
The fact that the “Innocence of Muslims” movie’s manufactured historicity has come to seem politically relevant is a testimony to the movie’s powerful linkaging of affective resonances and symbolic equivalences. The movie’s political relevancy increaces furthermore if we pay close attention to how the movie, by erotizing the fear of difference, depicting the Prophet as an illustrious sex-maniac who only wants to dominate others, fuels the violent aggressions it pretends to refute. Not unlike a self-fulfilling prophecy, the movie puts the effect before the cause, and thus evokes a mirroring whereby “my” fears become “yours” (and vice-versa), undoing the hopefulness of the Arab spring, stirring up the mob in a more predictable manner than the one we witnessed a little more than a year ago on Tahrir Square in Cairo. The mirroring works, we might say, because the movie’s branding simultaneously reduces the range of possibilities to two antagonistically opposed positions, and reconnects these positions through an intimate bond surrounded by a potent set of affective resonances and symbolic equivalences. As already intimated, the rhythm of these movements is not specific to Arabs or Muslims, but to democracy as a mode of government in which the excitement of the people rising up is always-already entangled with the worry that the uprising will overwhelm the desire for control and management.
Crowd drives al Qaeda linked militia out of Benghazi
To be sure, whether a mirroring of this kind leads to the riots and violence we have witnessed in the past few weeks is not independent of the context in which it is received. In the current case, the American war on terror as well as the socio-political transformations started by the Arab spring have made the context particularly prone to an amplification of the initial aggression, thereby creating a cascading effect in which each offense must be answered in kind. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that both sides of the conflict have come to embody a sovereign righteousness with regard to their own use of free speech: Whereas a majority of Muslims object to unregulated free speech, demanding revenge for the harm inflicted by the producers of the movie, the sovereigntists in the US and elsewhere continue to insist on their constitutionally protected right to speak as they see fit.
If we want free speech to be more than an antagonistic shouting contest in which the winner is the loudest, it is the amplified mirroring of aggression and violence that we need to destabilize in favor of a different set of affective resonances and symbolic equivalences. As a general rule, we might say that it is no longer sufficient to defend the right to free speech against concerns about blasphemy and idolatry; rather, if the goal is to expand the range of utterances and voices heard in public, we also need to experiment with new ways of reimagining free speech within a vibrant democracy that challenges its own presuppositions in an attempt to deepen the citizenry’s commitment to difference and pluralism.
Tahrir Square: Christians and Muslims take turns protecting each other as each group prays.
One way to conceptualize this experimentation is to pursue what Deleuze calls an “ethology” interested in the capacities of finite bodies “for affecting and being affected”. The idea behind Deleuze’s ethology is to begin with the assumption that “no one knows ahead of time the affects one is capable of,” and then proceed to interpret this assumption as a reason to privilege a “long affair of experimentation” in which “lasting prudence” is mobilized as part of an attempt to determine what the most powerful “composition of fast and slow speeds” could be in any given context. While the latter does not preclude an insistence on the right to free speech, it expands the discussion to include a dynamic interest in how the right to free speech is used in this or that context. That is, the ethology envisioned by Deleuze requires us to consider, not only whether the right to free speech is acknowledged as imperative to democratic government, but also whether it fosters affective constellations that can augment the ability to think and to act. The latter does not entail a censoring of free speech, but it may make us more attuned to ways of countering the current tendency to limit the range of utterances and voices head in a context characterized by complexity and pluralism.
With regard to the current crisis, the experimental approach encouraged by Deleuze’s ethology puts pressure on both the Muslims who demand revenge for the harm inflicted by the producers of the movie, and the proponents of Western democracy who insist on their constitutionally enshrined right to speak as they see fit. Like the initial reaction from the Obama administration, the idea is to begin by explicitly acknowledging and criticizing the harm inflicted by the speech found in the “Innocence of Muslims” movie. Unlike the Obama administration’s response, however, the approach envisioned here goes further to expand the range of utterances and voices. At the symbolic level, the approach engages in the kind of critical work that subverts the mirroring invoked by the “Innocence of Muslims” movie, and that helps, not only to create greater sensitivity to marginalized and subaltern groups within society, but also to establish new points of connection between different constituencies on both sides of the conflict. At the affective level, the approach’s “performance” of free speech means cultivating a political sensibility in which the desire to both affect and to be affected is front and center. 
  To this end, consider the following as an assemblage of suggestions that might change the current course of events: (1) embrace the notion that there is more than one proper way to invoke and defend the right to free speech; (2) cultivate an endurance and resilience that deflects harmful speech and enables encounters across religious, cultural, and political differences; (3) mobilize newspapers, television, film, and social media to provide a pluralizing imaginary that subverts the one evoked by movies such as the “Innocence of Muslims”; (4) encourage State officials to fund and participate in communities and grassroots projects that cut across existing binaries between religious belief and secular government; and (5) experiment with genres such as comedy and street performance to create a more joyful sensibility that embraces expressions of disagreement and fallibility as a show of strength rather than as a sign of weakness.
  Whether any of these suggestions will satisfy the parties involved in the current Muhammad crisis is unlikely, and might also be beside the point. In a world like ours, the most important point is not to reduce the complexity that surround issues of free speech, but to experiment with new modes of resonance and equivalence. Without such experimentation free speech may no longer become what it once was—a practice of discovery, resistance, and pluralization.

Continue Reading →

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Transmission From The Front: The CTU Fight For the Future

Curt Maslanka
  Chicago Teacher 

  I will say this about myself. Many colleagues and I saw this strike coming several years ago. After Obama won the presidency in 2008, the anti-teacher rhetoric in the mainstream media skyrocketed. His campaign donors and the Gates and Walton Foundations knew he would give them the green light to scarf up as much of public education as they could in the biggest land grab since the Cherokee Strip.
  Their first line of attack was to drill into the public mind the grotesque caricature of the lazy school teacher sucking off the teat of taxpayer dollars, sheltered in his/her sloth by the powerful ,corrupt teacher’s union.
  Back then, mentioning these facts in liberal circles would go over about as well as a turd in a punchbowl. People then were just not ready to hear it.
The corporate education reformers, in their supposed egalitarian campaign to purge the country of these lazy teachers and inject free market competition into the public school, armed themselves with the buzz words of “accountability” “value-added metrics” and “data driven management,” all euphemisms for their project to transform public education, flawed as it may be, into an institution ruled by the rawest, most brutal form of capitalism. To me, merit pay based on “valued added metrics” will do this: It will pit a teacher’s strong altruistic motivation against a reptilian survival instinct. Many have criticized that teacher evaluations based on standardized test score growth will lead to “teaching to the test,” a false pedagogy which strips curriculum and instruction of any creative richness. But I think it will produce far greater harm to children. 
Teachers, by nature, are very different beings from commodities traders. We have all chosen a vocation that does not yield big bonuses and stock options; financially, we are not big risk takers. The reward that motivates the teachers I know is the thank you letter from a former student, the confirmation that we have helped improve another‘s life. To chain income and job security to student test score growth will force teachers to view students as dollar signs with either a plus or a minus sign imprinted on each of their foreheads. A student who is suffering - because a parent is unemployed, because their home was foreclosed, because they have new foster parents, because they are living in a car, because they have cancer - is a student who may perform below the prescribed growth metrics and therefore becomes a liability on the teacher’s balance sheet. That is why I say value added metrics is a perversion of the aims of education in that teachers will have to make cost benefit analyses on the neediest, most disadvantaged students in their classrooms, turning vulnerable children into hot potatoes that threaten a teacher’s livelihood.
The power of the Chicago Teachers Union’s strike lies in this harsh truth about corporate education reform and Chicago teachers’ stand against the President‘s Race To The Top policies. A strike with this degree of intensely committed and motivated rank and file has not happened in a long time.
  I am still living in the immediacy of this strike and have not yet acquired the proper distance to analyze it fully or express myself without resorting to words like “overwhelming” and “awesome.” But I can say this. It has been the most human and humane experience of my life - both on the street and on the computer. It is an event in which social media has not been an isolating phenomena but an inspiring and integrating one. On September 9th, a Sunday evening, when CTU President Karen Lewis officially announced the strike, Facebook exploded in a manner I had never seen. We were naturally frightened but also ready to take this stand. We joked with each other about the impossibility of getting a good night’s sleep. At 6:30 the next morning, when the picket lines at 600 schools across the city first formed, we started posting photos of our strike lines on Facebook as if we were sharing baby pictures. This may sound corny but in all of the “liking” we did of each other’s photos and status updates, we were embracing each other in a giant group hug, producing an even greater feeling of solidarity. Then early Wednesday morning, Rebel Diaz released the hip hop anthem” Chicago Teacher” which frames urban educators as romantic folk heroes. By Friday, you heard it everywhere.
As the week went on, strikers became more creative in forging drum corps, creating ever funnier signs, and rewriting song lyrics. Parades of dancing teachers on side walks, I know, seem to mock the tragic fact that 400,000 students have been stranded at home and I know everyone was aware of that tension. But you cannot put a cap on that kind of exuberance. When 26,000 human beings set aside personal differences to converse with each other, and support each other and stand together against the Gates Foundation‘s dystopian ideals, that is power. And no amount of advertising against the union can counter this human force. I will never forget all of the conversations with strangers on street corners, all of the trains and buses crowded with teachers in route to demonstrations, and all of the glorious waving and cheering at other red-shirted comrades. Rich human interactions made possible by the strike which, for awhile at least, dropped barriers between people.
I don’t envy the persons writing the narrative of Chicago 2012 who will have to sort through the uncountable number of photos and video clips of the picket lines and downtown demonstrations. There are too many primary source documents. I know that when I replace my android phone I would like to donate it to a labor archive because in it are all the text messages of one ordinary rank and file member to other members of the Chicago Teachers Union during this extraordinary event.

Continue Reading →

Monday, September 17, 2012

In Mitt We Trust: A Love Story

Chad Shomura
  Ph.D. Candidate, Johns Hopkins University 

News headlines billed Ann Romney's RNC speech as an attempt to “humanize” Mitt. This characterization bespoke a deep Republican anxiety: if I were of GOP persuasion, I too would worry that the multimillionaire, long-haired-boy-hating, strap-pet-on-car-roof Romney seems out of touch with humanity, let alone American voters. The daunting task of humanizing Romney has become pressing, especially in light of his colleagues' cracks on women, such as Todd Akin's baffling understanding of anatomy and “legitimate rape” bullshit and Tom Smith's analogizing of rape-borne pregnancy with child-bearing out of wedlock. Humanizing Romney has been, as expected, a PR project, not an educational or political one; it has been about creating distance between Romney and reprehensible views, rather than gearing the president-hopeful toward championing women's rights and urging his party to do the same. So just how did Ann try to humanize Romney?
Ann stepped onstage and announced that she would not talk about politics or party, but about “love.” Amy Davidson, writing for The New Yorker, later asked “does love mean not having to talk about politics, or about money?” It's tempting to ask “what's love got to do with it?” and simply dismiss Ann's speech, like voices across the Twitterverse have, as irrelevant, stupid, and laughable. But doing so would underestimate the work done by the telling of love—the publics it forms and energizes, the types of politics it encourages and discourages, the worlds it aims to create or destroy.
For Ann, love is a many-splendored thing; it weaves together romance, nation, family, and faith. In Ann's story, love is something that women—actually, mothers—know intimately. Women for Ann are exemplified in motherhood, a station where they know love deeper than men, work harder than men, and feel the anxieties of daily living more intensely than men. Mothers deal with gasoline bills, grocery bills, their kids' sports bills. They are attuned to a “great collective sigh” of parental worries and hold the nation together. Because of these things, women know better and mother knows best.
So Ann, the Republicans' current emblem of domestic motherhood,4 was the night's spokeswoman of love, tasked with rallying a nation behind her husband. She spoke of her marriage's love, which began with the “boy” she met at a high school dance. She referred several times to Romney as this boy, the young man displayed in sepia snapshots onstage, as though the frozen image of his youth revealed something enduring and endearing about love and promise. Yet the Romney romance wasn't “storybook.” It had real difficulties, from health issues to having an ironing board as a dining table. These struggles made a “real marriage,” one whose love pours into family, community, and country, and Mitt has been a loving husband, father, son, friend, neighbor, and governor. “Look into your hearts,” Ann urged, as though we might find Mitt and his love there. It is a love that any woman—specifically, any mother—would recognize.
This intimate public clustering about a love plot is not new. Lauren Berlant has shown that since the 1830s in the United States, womanhood, sentimental romance, and affect have constellated as a “juxtapolitical” intimate public which keeps damaged worlds afloat fantasies of the sweet hereafter. This intimate public is juxtapolitical because, more often than not, it registers life-affirming authenticity in emotional expression divorced from political activity. Women are legitimated because they channel hope through narratives of love despite suffering and suffering disappointment at the hands of self-serving political elites. What might be different about the intimate public of Ann is that she is part of that elite. Sure, Ann's locus of enunciation is a white, affluent elsewhere, but her words hit home. As a Utah Republican delegate remarked after Ann's speech, “She may have privilege, but she understands.
Ann's intimate public may be one of those rare instances noted by Berlant in which intimate publics do political work. I say “may” because what Ann's insistence that “you can trust Mitt” amounts to remains unclear. Does it mean that we should vote for Romney and let him handle things once he's elected? Does it sidestep the political altogether, seeing affective identification and faith as enough? In any case, Ann presents a radically diminished politics, investing confidence—nay, trust—in a single person. Ann is not Barack Obama who, in recent speeches, has been trying to politicize his crowds, not only for the upcoming election but also for the long haul: Obama views people, not a single individual, as the agent of politics. Ann, on the other hand, reiterates the conservative creed of America under the umbrella of providence; that “no one will work harder,” that “no one will care more” expresses Ann's imagination of Mitt as marking the end of history. Indeed, Ann framed her husband not only as a caring human but as our Savior: “He will take us to a better place, just as he took me home safely from that dance.” You see, Ann says, Romney doesn't boast of his charity (i.e. his left hand doesn't know the doings of his right hand) and no one else will “move heaven and earth” to deliver a new America. In Ann's eyes, the boy at the dance grew up to be God. We see another strange side of Ann's intimate public: it humanizes but also deifies Romney so that he is like us but also absolutely different. So although Ann wanted to speak about love, her speech's point is that the Beatles were wrong—love is not all you need. You need Mitt. Mother may know best but Romney works best, so we need to sit back and let the Man do his job. In Mitt we trust?
So here's what it means to trust in Romney. It means casting one person as the starring role in an exaggerated story of human agency. It means twisting the social into a circuit for consolidating a majority by strangling difference. It means that concern for posterity lies in handing down the American Dream and not in averting the planetary catastrophe of climate change whose effects are present today. It means propping up heteronormal love and “real marriage,” invalidating subaltern intimacies, and authorizing the abusing, shaming, and violating of gender deviants, queers, and trans persons. It means that women are to be valued primarily, perhaps only, as mothers of both home and nation, rather than as persons with political capacities and rights to their bodies.
Trusting in Romney means believing that big business makes dreams come true and doesn't exploit the precarity of labor life under post-Fordism and neoliberalism. It means framing economic meltdown as the over-regulation rather than under-regulation of the market. It means that austerity is to become the new ordinary because “everyone has to make sacrifices,” though the poor are hit the hardest. It means that pain and discomfort are to be presented as universal experiences that frame the superrich as down-to-earth folks who thus deserve our vote of confidence. It means that calls to tax the wealthy come to express an anti-patriotic hatred of hard work and America. It means vilifying the poor for their imagined “entitlements” (i.e. the social safety net) rather than the wealthy for their real sense of entitlement (regarding tax breaks, state subsidies, media sycophancy, etc.)
Trusting in Romney means that politics is to be about representation, affective identification, and assurance rather than direct action, grassroots solidarity, and empowerment. It means pursuing American Exceptionalism with a beefed-up military. It means that the presidency should be a corporate position filled by CEOs who manage the United States with godlike business savvy. It means that corporations should count as people. It means that real-life struggle in America is located in the microeconomics of everyday life rather than waged against complex and longstanding structures of poverty framed by racism, settler colonialism, and patriarchy. Finally, it means a United States in which democracy is decaying, corroded by a love whose stay-at-home politics would leave our lives fraying while our hearts are melting.
Continue Reading →

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Assault on Public Education: Inspired by Actual Events

Leo Zimmermann
  Activist, Researcher, and Writer in Baltimore, Maryland

The new film Won't Back Down, inspired by actual events, tells the uplifting story of parents and teachers fighting to control their school. Maggie Gyllenhaal, a working-class mom who's had enough, comes to spunky Black teacher Viola Davis with a crazy idea that just might work. They're fighting a vast network of miserable, bored teachers, power-hungry administrators, and wealthy union bosses. "I punished her because she does not follow rules!" says the authoritarian white teacher who imprisons Gyllenhall's cute kid in a closet. "All-out war is how we gotta look at it" says Davis as she surveys a row of model fighter planes. Davis and Gyllenhaal use "parent trigger laws" to abolish the school's clumsy bureaucracy and assert community control. At the end of the day, we've see a few courageous individuals take power back from an uncaring system.
It's a vision that the Democratic Party supports. Won't Back Down isn't scheduled for release until September 28, but delegates at this year's DNC were treated to an advance screening. The special event was sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a group started by hedge fund managers which claims credit for the appointment of Arne Duncan as education secretary. Although the DFER billed the screening as a town hall, they weren't particularly interested in allowing two DAER to attend. Party leadership has made it clear which side they favor.
But the Democrats aren't the only ones who love Won't Back Down. The film has been shown at least two other times: at the Republican National Convention, and at a special benefit concert organized by Wal-Mart and Anschutz Film Group/Walden Media—organizations not previously known for protecting the public commons or standing up for the underdog. Teach for America (TFA) was another sponsor. Also playing at both conventions was Michelle Rhee, a famous education reformer who once, during her three years teaching (with TFA), taped her students' mouths shut when they wouldn't stop talking on the way to lunch. Rhee is one of many Democrat celebrities who now push Republican education policies.
Though they show different faces, these groups are heads of one hydra, serving an elite group of extremely wealthy people. They are fighting and winning a trans-partisan campaign to deliver the public educational system into the hands of private companies. And Won't Back Down is not just a tearjerker with Oscar aspirations and questionable framing: it is a two hour advertisement for a new campaign to make parent trigger laws a reality. If successful, these laws will enable an unprecedented wave of public school closures.
The forces of privatization are, sensibly, pursuing a strategy of infiltration, astroturfing, and co-option. Elizabeth Warren's "the system is rigged" speech at the DNC deploys the words of a radical critique to champion "small businesses" and "the middle class". (All we need to do is start with a "level playing field", because everyone wins in Monopoly.) Won't Back Down similarly exploits legitimate anger about our neglected public schools, redirecting blame away from the corporate culprits and towards the very people who have dedicated their lives to working with children. Perhaps even worse, the film depicts a successful attempt at community control—cooperation between parents, teachers and students, the radical event that we desperately need—and reduces it to the question of whether school choice is permitted.Yes, if we could only open a charter school, then other politics would become unnecessary. "Change the school, you change the neighborhood", Davis tells us with sincerity.
The film's release coincides not only with the parent trigger campaign and the presidential election, but also with a major strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Contrary to the message of the 'reformers', Chicago's teachers do have support from local parents, who are frustrated with the systematic neglect of public education. The CTU is indeed contract changes for teachers. But they're also explicitly targeting the problems that afflict America's urban school systems, such as large class sizes and insufficient social services. They're demanding a return of art, music, and gym classes to public high schools. And they're calling attention to favoritism for charter schools combined with neglect for neighborhood schools that serve the nation's poor and minority children. 
The ultimate irony of the whole scenario is that the national union to which the Chicago teachers belong—the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—won't express support for a strike or even allow its membership to dissent against Obama's expansion of Bush-era education policies. These policies, which explicitly promote competition at all levels (among students and teachers as well as school systems and states), are antithetical to principles of labor solidarity. Yet the union bureaucracy—portrayed by 'education reformers' as a lumbering defender of rules and bad teachers—is in fact a tool used quite efficiently to dampen actual solidarity among teachers (and students and parents) who oppose the neoliberal onslaught. This apparatus captures the massive energy that flows inherently from organized labor, but carefully diffuses and directs it to serve status quo interests. (Still more easily, it captures the attention of the media.)
Shape-shifting Randi Weingarten, the collaborationist president of the AFT, first agreed with the movie's portrayal of bad teachers, then criticized it for its stereotypes, then acknowledged that many teachers were "crappy" but blamed their crappiness on insufficient evaluations. (Unlike the rank and file of her union, Weingarten explicitly favors the creation of charter schools.) Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association (the other major teacher's union) simply called it "a great movie". These leaders, who have quietly but desperately resisted the Chicago strike, will seek to undermine and contain it even as they weakly state their support.
In Chicago itself, it was only after the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) won control over the CTU—through an astounding campaign of aggressive grassroots organizing—that a strike appeared possible at all. The city's negotiators have already made progress in thwarting the strike by cutting early deals with more docile unions. Elaborate and overwhelming astroturfing, amplified by the mass media, creates the illusion of support for the 'reformers': The CTU's main opposition in Chicago, beyond Mayor Rahm Emanuel, comes from Stand for Students, another wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street trying to represent itself as a popular movement. As the money for neoliberal education reform soaks in, we can no expect resistance from political parties or "non-profit" institutions. Indeed, we cannot trust institutional boundaries at all when the whole arena is saturated by 'reformer' money.
In 1968 we saw a very different kind of teachers' strike in New York. A minority-run school board, empowered to make decisions for the Ocean Hill–Brownsville schools, actually implemented changes in curriculum and personnel—firing some white teachers in the process. Outraged union leaders, with media assistance, carefully drove a wedge between teachers and communities. They presented community control as a threat to the union bureaucracy—and the union bureaucracy as a critical check against the 'low standards' of the supposedly antisemitic Negro school board. New York's UFT (still the AFT's most powerful Local and the CTU's primary foil) so greatly feared community control that it shut down the entire city's school system with a 36-day strike. The school district challenged the perverse vision of individualist meritocracy that permeates American education; the UFT and other authorities found this challenge unacceptable.

Now privatizers including the UFT are recycling images of community control. Instead of black nationalists, we see a post-racial fantasy coalition, united not even by their poverty or sense of community so much as by their American dreaming. Instead of Dr. King, let alone Malcolm X, we get John Adams. Instead of socially-conscious education, we're told to demand a "good" education: defined no doubt as perpetual competition, high-stakes test preparation and workforcery. (Oh, and civics.) And the difference between a school staffed by volunteers from within the community and a school staffed by Teach for America (again: Wal-Mart's cosponsor at the WBD screening) couldn't be more stark.
The Chicago strike is neither a chaotic wildcat action nor a meaningless union power play. It actually seems to be a legitimate seizure of institutional machinery. If the CORE-led CTU comes out of this strike with its principles intact, it stands to make real gains on behalf of Chicago's children. Meanwhile, established neoliberal institutions—the two major parties, the union bureaucracy, and wealthy "non-profits" of all types—are united in wishing that this strike would just go away. 
The actual events that inspired Won't Back Down can't be the community takeover of a school through parent trigger laws because a takeover of this kind has never happened. The film presents a neoliberal fantasy cloaked in the image of popular uprising. Its real-life appeal thus comes from real resistance to the model it promotes—resistance which it desperately hopes to control.

Continue Reading →

Monday, September 10, 2012

Running on Vapors: Presidential Politics and the Neoliberal Moment

Sanford F. Schram
Bryn Mawr College

Both of the major political parties in the U.S. have now completed their 2012 presidential nomination conventions. Yet, it seems most ironic: the country is at a major turning point politically, yet neither party seems prepared to seize the opportunity to provide a credible vision for going forward to addresses the economic crisis that continues to wreak havoc on families all across the political spectrum and up and down the class structure. As a result, the ongoing political paralysis induced by hyperpolarization is likely to continue through the rest of the election campaign and after.  Why did the rhetoric from both conventions sound so old and hollow, especially in face of the challenges the country urgently needs to address?

The Republican convention formally endorsed Mitt Romney as its presidential candidate to end a primary season where Romney spent most of his time trying to placate an increasingly implacable base of über-conservatives, including especially members of the Tea Party. A series of opponents took turns defeating him in primaries as the base persistently withheld its approval. By the time Romney arrived at the Republican convention in Tampa, he had done everything he could to remake himself as a “severe” conservative, including choosing Rep. Paul Ryan as his Vice Presidential candidate. Thus Romney was anointed acceptable if not a true believer. His convention speech was locked into re-citing a litany of extreme conservative positions on taxes, spending, regulation, welfare, health care, reproductive rights, immigration, race relations, trade, foreign policy, you name it. He mirrored his campaign stump speech, lacking specifics because he has no real serious plans for making these tired policy prescriptions work. Romney was still hoping he could run simply by saying he was not the current President who had failed to pull the country out of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

The Democratic convention was an improvement. Yet, Obama did not really close the deal: his rhetoric was inspiring but will it be enough given that the economic crisis continues to leave so many people unemployed and growing numbers of families impoverished? There seemed to be something missing at the core of the Democratic convention, as if the party’s leaders dared not discuss some Pink Elephant in the middle of the Charlotte convention hall.

Why the silence? The conventions provide an answer: neither party is prepared to confront the structural changes in the economy that have been developing for over thirty years in the face of globalization. Both parties are mortgaged to philosophical ideas, political interests and portfolio investments that are either abetting this structural change (the Republicans) or incapable of offering an alternative to it (the Democrats).

Neoliberalism is the name for this structural change and the neoliberalization of the U.S. political economy has been a long time in coming, with economic downturns successively presenting opportunities to offload workers, outsource jobs, and restructure firms so that they can more efficiently and profitably, if also more heartlessly, participate in the global economy. For instance, in four of the five U.S. recessions since the recession of 1970, as the economy recovered, it came back with fewer jobs than before, a result most likely due to major corporations seizing the opportunity to restructure and move further into the global economy where first-world workers are an uncompetitive burden. This would not necessarily be fatal for sustaining an occupational structure enabling most workers to earn a decent living for themselves and their families. Yet, that would require systematic planning to move laid off workers into new jobs that paid decent wages. Instead, in the U.S. especially, but now increasingly elsewhere, the state’s role in responding to restructuring is insufficient to keep pace. Wages have been stagnant for most classes of workers for over thirty years, with manual skill workers seeing major diminutions in the real value of their pay. Precarity is pervasive—save for the elite at the very top of the class system.

The current presidential election, then, is at best implicitly about whether the state still has an obligation to the mass of working people who are being systematically marginalized by the intensification of restructuring. The U.S. may drift by default to what could be called a tiered society. At the top, there is a limited stratum of upper and upper middle class people ensconced in positions of corporate oversight and needed professional occupations. At the bottom is everyone else who is increasingly deemed undeserving of the state’s attention, in part because they failed to position themselves as successful participants for the globalizing economy and are as a result seen as a burden that a globally competitive corporate sector cannot and will not carry. At the extreme, those in poverty are cast aside as disposable populations to be monitored, surveilled, disciplined, and punished more than they are to be helped.

Neoliberalism is not simply an ideology that prizes market fundamentalism and a return to laissez-faire economics. That would be Plan A. Yet, Plan A has run afoul of Keynesian Economics and its insistence that only the state is big enough to counteract market failure. As a result, there remains a belief in the welfare state to counter the capriciousness of the market and the adversity it creates for those who get marginalized. The proponents of neoliberalism cannot just sweep the welfare state away and return to a system of laissez-faire economics (think the 19th Century and the age of the robber barons). Instead, the right must resort to Plan B: If you cannot eradicate the welfare state, marketize it. Remake welfare state programs to operate consonant with market principles in service of more efficiently buttressing the market itself. From education vouchers to medical insurance vouchers to private investments accounts in lieu of social security, from welfare-to-work programs grounded in incentivizing taking low-wage work to the penalties and rewards in reentry programs for ex-felons and same in drug treatment programs, the programs of the welfare state are increasingly run according to strict market logic to get clients to be more market-compliant actors themselves. The state increasingly contracts with for-profit providers who are incentivized to discipline their clients so that those clients themselves become more disciplined and docile, internalizing market logic so they will more willing accept the verdict of the globalizing market and take any low-wage jobs, if available, as their main source of economic salvation.

Neoliberalization is undoubtedly a failed project where vouchers do not cover the cost of market participation, for schools or health care, where incentives for work still lead to poverty-inuring low-wage and insecure employment, where social and economic policies allow market principles to undermine any sense of collective responsibility until we need to consider remediation before mounting social and economic problems created by those failed policies threaten the very fabric of our society.

Yet, the two nominating conventions ignored the Pink Elephant. One party hopes we won’t notice it is committed to realizing this dystopia for the 99 percent so as to create a utopia for its select class of financial backers, the 1 percent. The other party, not as indebted to the corporate class, does not dare express any but the mildest platitudes of opposition—for fear of falling even further behind in the competition for corporate donors.

Mobilizing against the neoliberal shift must of necessity come from outside the political parties. Yet the fact of the matter is that most people would rather not be political, not risk losing what they have, and not take their chances engaging in direct action. So when they do, we know something has happened to change the normal course of affairs. Once people come to see that there is less to lose by acting, they are ready to be mobilized. The historical record is clear that the only proven way to get real change is at those times when the people on the bottom rise up and say they are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore. The global economic meltdown since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 has created a crucible which makes mass mobilization possible, as witnessed by the Occupy Wall Street campaign in 2011, where those marginalized and left to the wayside by the intensification of the neoliberal economic restructuring in the wake of the Great Recession finally started to fight back. With sufficient mobilization, the neoliberalization of the welfare state will not stand.

Yet, it will take nothing less than a broad-based social movement, more sustained and robust than Occupy, to vanquish the Republicans supporters for supporting this structural shift, while beginning the process of holding the Democrats accountable for their timidity in opposing it.

Continue Reading →