Social Justice Unionism, Education On Tap Style

I recently discussed why teachers unions are important agents of social justice on “Education On Tap,” a Teach For America (TFA) podcast created by Aaron French. I really enjoyed the conversation – French goes above and beyond his promise to make the show “a little bit of fun” – and appreciated TFA’s continued (though still very young) efforts to deconstruct myths about organized labor and education reform ideas.

You can listen to the podcast here. A couple additional details on two of the topics we discussed:

1) How we refer to education stakeholders: We often use the phrase “reformer” to describe people on one “side” of the education debate. As Nick Kilstein explains, we typically think “reformers” do the following:

1. Support market forces including choice and competition as a mechanism to improve all schools. This is usually done through vouchers and charter schools.

2. Support business practices including evaluation, promotion and merit pay to motivate and attract teachers

3. Hold that teachers and schools should be accountable for student achievement, usually measured by standardized testing

4. Support alternate paths to the classroom through programs like Teach For America

5. Affiliate themselves with no-excuses charter schools

However, neither French nor I (nor Kilstein) are crazy about this term, for a few reasons. First, the group of people we call “reformers” sometimes have drastically different views on these topics. For example, opinions about the appropriateness of suspending students vary widely among people who support the rapid expansion of charter schools. Because “reformers” don’t hold monolithic views, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to lump them all into the same category.

Second, using the term “reformers” erroneously suggests that only a certain group of people support school improvements. However, teachers in unions and other critics of typical education reform efforts fight for school reforms themselves; they just have a different (and, on balance, more evidence-based and theoretically sound) perspective about which reforms we should pursue on behalf of students in low-income communities. Despite misleading claims to the contrary, very few people actually support the “status quo” in education. Though the word has become associated with negative imagery for a lot of education stakeholders, nearly everyone is a “reformer” to some extent.

Third, the use of a term like “reformers” reinforces the notion that there are two polarized “sides” in education debates, the “reformers” and their opponents. As I discussed with French, I believe the “sides” are much less in opposition than they sometimes appear to be, and that most people in education are in general agreement on the vast majority of issues. The more we can deconstruct the notion of “sides,” the better.

That said, I don’t have a great solution to either the first or third problems (for the second, I’d recommend that we use clunkier phrases more like “proponents of market-driven reforms to education” and “advocates for a comprehensive social justice approach to education policy” when we can). Categories can be useful for brevity’s sake, and as is evident below, it’s hard to construct an argument while avoiding categorization altogether. Still, I think it’s worth reflecting on our naming conventions as we endeavor to be more nuanced.

2) Why unions are power-balancing advocates for low-income kids: French explained during our discussion that many people believe the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA, the local union for which I served as an Executive Board member from 2012 to 2014) to be an atypically progressive union. In reality (and I believe French agrees), the vast majority of unions, including national teachers unions like the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), are some of the most power-balancing institutions out there.

Recent research by Martin Gilens confirms this fact: unions consistently advocate on behalf of less advantaged populations on a wide range of social justice issues. They serve as an important counterbalance to wealthy interests and exploitative policies, and have made extremely important gains for working Americans throughout their history. It’s probably not a coincidence that the steep decline in unionization over the past thirty years has coincided with a steep increase in earnings, income, and wealth inequality.

That doesn’t mean unions can’t be wrong on certain issues. We should absolutely condemn the behavior of police unions that defend racist positions, for example, and demand that they be held accountable and change. Teachers unions shouldn’t be immune from criticism, either, and it’s imperative that we confront them when we believe their positions are misguided. Not all teachers unions have realized their potential as social justice unions just yet, and while I firmly believe that a different approach from the education community would help more of them do so, organized labor must also proactively analyze and revise practices that don’t fit its mission.

Yet we must also remember that teachers unions have very strong track records on behalf of low- and moderate-income families, and more credibility as advocates for low-income kids than many of the people and organizations who malign unions. Even if you think certain teachers unions are wrong about aspects of education policy, it’s completely inaccurate to argue that their existence harms low-income kids. The empirical evidence is clear (much clearer, in general, than the evidence about education policy ideas) that teachers unions are a major net positive for low-income populations.

There’s joint responsibility to change the tone of education conversations, and union members must avoid becoming reflexively defensive when confronted with criticism. We do ourselves and our students a disservice when we react by ignoring people outright or slinging insults right back; instead, we should try to understand the legitimate elements of critiques, address them, and educate people on where they’re wrong and how to have more productive dialogue.

At the same time, union members and leaders are understandably offended when proponents of market-driven reforms (making an attempt!) imply that union opposition to these reforms is borne of laziness, selfishness, and/or incompetence. Everyone needs to remember that teachers in unions, who are directly student-facing and who will actually implement education reform ideas, typically have good ideas about what students need, and that both private and public sector unions are important advocates for low-income people in general. While there is some shared responsibility, the tone of the debate cannot change until proponents of market-driven reforms acknowledge these facts. The sooner anti-union messaging becomes a thing of education reform conversations past, the sooner we can collaboratively develop great policies for students.

A big thank you to French for having me on the show, and hope you enjoy the podcast!

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Everything You Need to Know About Inequality

Jared Bernstein and I just published a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation on inequality in the United States (available for download here). This presentation is first and foremost intended as a comprehensive resource. Part 1 of the presentation documents the increase in inequality over the past 35 years; the trend is evident from every major data set and income definition. Inequality deniers have fortunately become a rapidly-dwindling breed, but should you encounter one, Part 1 should help set the record straight.

Part 2 discusses why inequality matters. As we summarize on our slides, inequality “reduces opportunities, undermines the democratic process, distributes growth unevenly, and may even have negative macroeconomic effects.” We provide the mechanisms behind these reasons and evidence documenting them as well. The slide notes contain a more in-depth look at these issues, as they do throughout the presentation, for anyone interested.

Fortunately, increasing inequality is not inevitable; it is “a problem that better policies can directly address.” Part 3 of our presentation explores some of these policies, measures that can begin to address inequality’s causes and counter its effects. While our slides in this section are in no way exhaustive, they’re a good starting point for the type of comprehensive social justice agenda I’ve mentioned previously.

I believe the section on equality of opportunity (or lack thereof) in Part 2 is particularly relevant for education stakeholders, as it highlights the importance of this comprehensive agenda (as opposed to a narrower, education-only policy focus). Consider the following chart, the extended version of our featured graph from slide 26:

Source: Pew Economic Mobility Project

Source: Pew Economic Mobility Project

This chart uses data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project to compare adult economic outcomes for two different types of students: students who grow up in the bottom income quintile but manage to graduate college (“poor college grads”) and students who grow up in the top income quintile but don’t make it through college (“wealthy non-graduates”). Wealthy non-graduates (49%) are almost twice as likely as poor college graduates (27%) to end up in one of the top two income quintiles as adults.

As we discuss in our presentation, inequality presents a variety of education-specific obstacles for low-income students, and addressing these obstacles (and thus facilitating college completion) is an important part of our agenda. At the same time, the less favorable distribution for low-income college graduates shown above provides a critical reminder of the importance of a comprehensive social justice agenda. If we truly want to provide low-income students with opportunities equivalent to those of their higher-income peers, we need strategies that address the needs of low-income families, strategies that address some of the direct effects of growing up disadvantaged. That means we must get the economy back to full employment. It means we need a strengthened safety net, higher labor standards, and a reversal of the decline in unionization. It also means we need better-regulated markets and improved fiscal policy. A push for quality education can’t have its intended effect unless it’s part of this larger agenda.

Jared and I hope that this presentation, by documenting inequality’s rise and consequences, provides a compelling basis for these claims. While the historically high level of inequality represents a serious threat to fundamental American values – opportunity, democracy, and broadly shared prosperity – we believe we can combat this problem if we acknowledge it and work together on solutions.

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The FDA Modifies Gay Blood Ban But Continues to Disregard Facts

Just before Christmas, the FDA accepted the recommendation of a Department of Health and Human Services panel and announced that it would modify its ban on gay blood donation. Instead of barring gay (and bisexual) men from donation for life, as the policy had up to that point, the FDA will now accept blood from gay men who have been celibate for at least one year.

While this shift represents nominally better policy, however, it preserves the ban’s core problem: that the FDA is targeting a high-risk group (men who have sex with men) instead of high-risk behavior (unprotected sex, especially receptive anal sex, with multiple partners – regardless of the gender of those involved). Not only is the ban unjust, but statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also indicate that the policy is scientifically baseless.

The FDA’s blood donation guidelines apply to questionnaires used by the Red Cross and other blood collection agencies. Prospective donors respond to survey questions that ask about their travel history, drug usage, and other risk factors associated with disease transmission. People with certain responses are asked to disqualify themselves from donation.

Because it highlights activities that increase the risk of disease, this practice should function as an important educational tool. But by suggesting that gay and bisexual men are at risk and straight people aren’t, the FDA’s guidelines misinform the public. To the extent that it contributes to ignorance of the risks associated with certain types of heterosexual sex, the FDA’s policy, even in its revised form, actually presents a public health concern.

The FDA’s insistence on outdated, unscientific guidelines for blood donor deferral also undermines its credibility more generally. Diminished credibility could have significant ramifications; for example, it may be harder to debunk the myth that vaccinations cause autism without high levels of public confidence in the FDA. Most of the FDA’s recommendations about food and drug safety are surely legitimate, but critics of these recommendations can now point to a clear instance – blood donor eligibility criteria – in which the organization has disregarded the facts.

Some people might contend that the one-year ban is an improvement, albeit a very small one, to the lifetime ban. As minimal progress can be considered better than no progress at all, this argument isn’t necessarily wrong. But organizations also sometimes adopt nominally better policy to pacify opposition and avert or postpone more sweeping changes.

Regardless of the FDA’s motives in this case, their policy remains backwards. In addition to inappropriately stigmatizing gay men, the blood ban spreads misinformation about public health and harms the FDA’s credibility. It is therefore imperative that activists apply pressure until the FDA embraces science and adopts the focus on actual high-risk behavior that has worked in Italy for the past thirteen years.

Note: A version of this article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

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Shaming the Victim: The Public Backlash against Jackie and How It Reinforces Rape Culture

In this post, Lela Spielberg discusses the media’s coverage of a gang rape at the University of Virginia and its complicity in American rape culture.  Lela is a lifelong advocate for gender equality and has spent time as an elementary school teacher, education policy analyst, and director at an education nonprofit.

Lela Spielberg

Lela Spielberg

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely: “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” I’m sure most of you are by now familiar with this story and its central protagonist, “Jackie.” (If not, you should read it). The lack of urgency and transparency with which UVA and other elite universities across the country have chosen to handle allegations of sexual assault and rape on their campuses deserves plenty of comment, but my post is not about this story.

Instead, my post is about the controversy that followed Erdely’s story, and the overwhelmingly negative and unkind reactions towards Jackie from the media and the general public. Allow me to briefly summarize:

Following the release of the story, T. Rees Shapiro of The Washington Post chose to follow up on Rolling Stone’s story, and when he did, he found some inconsistencies in Jackie’s narrative. Several other, less reputable news outlets – including The Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, and Fox News – chose to follow suit. A mere week after the story was published, several holes had been poked in the Rolling Stone article. Every detail of the story and rape was questioned: Why were the alleged perpetrators of the rape not interviewed? Were there five men present at the rape, or seven? Did Jackie have to have vaginal sex with them, or was she “just” forced to perform oral sex?

None of these inconsistencies refute the fact that Jackie was indeed sexually assaulted at UVA, or that UVA was incredibly cagey in its handling of the assault and the story. Yet the ensuing public backlash was enough for Rolling Stone to issue a statement apologizing for the original article and for the media to continue, for almost a month now, to further discredit Jackie, Erdely, and, to some extent, the prevalence of rape on college campuses. These reactions are not surprising to me. Rather, they are symptomatic of a larger problem. The world we live in is overwhelmingly tilted in favor of its most privileged members – in most cases, wealthy, white men – and yet so blithely unaware of the privilege it grants some people and not others that those who challenge this privilege are vilified, impugned, and doubted.

I will not waste my time going tit for tat with The Washington Post and Rolling Stone on the facts of Jackie’s story. I understand that good journalism is about facts, and I regret that Rolling Stone did not do a perfect job checking them. But in a story involving trauma, there will likely be inconsistencies in first-person accounts of events. And those stories still deserve to be told.

What Jackie described to Erdely was a severely traumatic experience. It is a well-documented fact that when people experience an incredibly stressful event (and being forced to perform oral sex, being gang raped by several men, and/or having a beer bottle inserted in your vagina all definitely qualify as stressful), their memories of the event are often incomplete and/or altered. Moreover, most people tend to forget details as time passes. Think about it: if I interviewed you about a sexual experience, even a pleasant one, that happened two years ago, would you be able to tell me everything? Where did your partner work at the time? How long was the foreplay? How long did the sex last? What did you say to your friends afterwards?

(If you think you can recall these details, please email me so we can set up an interview. Then I’ll interview every single person tangentially involved, ask to go through your emails and texts, and print any inconsistencies in your story on the front page of The Washington Post.)

Indeed, that’s why self-doubt and guilt are two feelings that sexual assault survivors often experience. They wake up in disbelief: Did this really happen? Will I remember enough to tell the police? A judge? A jury? What if I forget a detail and I ruin my life, or his? In too many instances, this self-doubt prevents sexual assault victims from confronting their attackers or reporting the crime, which reinforces the idea in perpetrators’ heads that this kind of behavior is acceptable, and creates a new cycle of attacks and secret shame.

When women get the courage to tell the story of their sexual assault, they must brace themselves for a level of scrutiny and character assassination that not even the most saintly citizen could withstand. In Jackie’s case, the media has been quick to impeach her character, and has recently gone so far as to suggest she was obsessive and boy crazy. Behold just a few articles that come up when I perform a basic Google search on Jackie:

Defaming and questioning a woman’s character is an all too common reaction when a woman reports a rape. Everyone from acquaintances to law enforcement officials will ask tacit questions about what she did to deserve it: Was she wearing something revealing? Did she go upstairs willingly? Did she kiss him at the party? Did she drink anything? Did she send a suggestive text message? Not only will they raise doubts about the incident in question, but they will also call into question her general character: Does she sleep around? Does she drink a lot? Does she chase guys? Has she ever sent a naughty picture?

Here’s the deal, folks: even if the answer to every single hypothetical question posed above was, “yes,” it isn’t any less possible that the woman was raped, and it doesn’t make the rape any less of a crime and abomination. Being forced to have sex without consent is a horrific abuse. It is an assault on one’s sense of safety, on one’s physical body, and on one’s mind. Nobody deserves that, no matter who she is and what she did in the minutes before it happened. But yet, in Jackie’s case and the case of so many others, we spend way too much time looking for evidence that the behavior of the attackers was somewhat justified.

It’s no wonder that Jackie waited so long to tell her story. After all, look at what she had to look forward to: reporters harassing her and her family, internet trolls searching relentlessly for her identity, even her alleged “friends” questioning her integrity to reporters.

Zerlina Maxwell wrote an excellent piece for The Washington Post about the high cost of not believing rape survivors. She writes, “The cost of disbelieving women…signals that…women don’t matter and that they are disposable — not only to frat boys and Bill Cosby, but to us. And they face a special set of problems in having their say.”

I want Jackie, and the many women who have been or unfortunately one day will be in a similar position, to know they aren’t disposable. Talking about a sexual assault takes courage. It means replaying the details from an incredibly painful thing you are trying to forget. It means confronting your attacker, at the very least in your own mind, and sometimes in person, even though the thought and sight of him makes you sick. It means listening to the patronizing questions about what you did wrong, and it means bracing yourself for every mistake you’ve ever made, every possible error in judgment you’ve ever had, to be analyzed by people who don’t even know you.

After a story about rape makes national news, it’s a shame that the people on trial the most are the victim and those who tried to help her. But this doesn’t have to be our reality. Instead of focusing on discrediting the victim, let’s focus on her alleged attackers. Why did they do what they did? Have they done it to anyone else? What messages have they gotten from their families, their friends, from their university, and their society about the rightness and wrongness of what happened?

There is a quote I like, by a favorite writer of my father’s, Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Regardless of the particular details of what happened to Jackie, and the details surrounding any assault on someone’s body, spirit, and safety, we should not look for reasons to let those who committed these crimes, or ourselves, off the hook.

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Dear FDA: Let Gay Men Donate Blood

Gay men cannot donate blood in America.

I was reminded of this discriminatory and illogical policy after a recent conversation about student advocacy on Twitter.  In 2005, at the end of my junior year of high school, several friends and I mounted a campaign to change this rule.  I wrote letters to and corresponded with members of the Red Cross and independent blood centers.  Many of the people I spoke with expressed agreement that the policy was misguided.  The Medical Director at the Red Cross’s Penn-Jersey Region branch, for example, wrote to me on October 3, 2005 that “the American Red Cross believes it is time for the FDA to reevaluate the issue.”  I reached out to the FDA, which sets the policy, and spoke with the Consumer Safety Officer in their Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.  After he told me the decision lay with the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Committee (BPAC), I followed up by drafting a letter to each of the committee’s members.

By that time, I had begun working for Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based LGBT nonprofit.  I turned the blood drive policy campaign over to my new employer and, for the next two summers, worked primarily on the Fortune 500 Non-Discrimination Project and LGBT History Month.  The BPAC never responded to our letter, and the FDA continues to bar gay men from blood donation despite opposition from the American Osteopathic Association and the American Medical Association.

The FDA insists it is “open to changing the lifetime ban and is awaiting the results of new research that will provide additional evidence.”  However, despite the FDA’s claims to the contrary, additional evidence is not needed.  Evidence clearly supported changing the policy nine years ago, and the evidence is even stronger today.

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services panel recently recommended replacing the lifetime ban with a one-year ban, but this change would only be a marginal improvement; the ban should be lifted altogether.  Since the FDA is meeting to discuss the issue on December 2, I am posting an updated, condensed version of my original letter below.

Open Letter

Dear FDA Staff,

I wrote to each member of the Blood Products Advisory Committee nine years ago on behalf of dozens of students from Moorestown Friends School and the New Jersey Governor’s School of International Studies.  We hoped you would reconsider the FDA’s policy barring “men who have had sex with other men (MSM), at any time since 1977” from donating blood.  I remain concerned about this issue and am following up with this “open letter” to continue the conversation.  The FDA’s policy still unnecessarily stigmatizes gay men and fails to most effectively “assure the safety” of individuals who receive donated blood.

The FDA claims this policy is warranted because gay men “are the population most severely affected by HIV. In 2010, MSM accounted for at least 61% of all new HIV infections in the U.S. and an estimated 77% of diagnosed HIV infections among males were attributed to male-to-male sexual contact.”  While these numbers might sound impressive after a cursory review, they do not justify the policy.

First, homosexual males – men who have had sex with other men – are the only people the FDA bans from donation on the basis of an identity characteristic.  While the FDA’s website implies otherwise, profiling on such a basis is discriminatory by definition.  Listing statistics about the incidence of HIV in the gay population is eerily similar to overtly racist arguments in favor of racial profiling.  The policy is (arguably) wrong regardless of its impact on the blood supply.

Second, the policy does not accurately identify risk behaviors for HIV.  As shown below, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) periodically publishes the “Estimated Per-Act Probability of Acquiring HIV from an Infected Source” (these estimates do not factor in the effects of condom usage):

The CDC's "Estimated Per-Act Probability of Acquiring HIV from an Infected Source, by Exposure Act"

The CDC’s “Estimated Per-Act Probability of Acquiring HIV from an Infected Source, by Exposure Act”

Consider Tom, Heather, and John, three potential blood donors who don’t know whether or not their sexual partners have HIV.  Tom, a gay man, is in a monogamous relationship and only has oral sex.  Heather, a straight woman, is in a monogamous relationship and occasionally has anal sex.  John, a straight man, has unprotected penile-vaginal intercourse with multiple partners.

According to the CDC’s probabilities, Tom is least likely to contract HIV and taint the blood supply.  Yet Tom is the only person the FDA bars from blood donation.

The following revisions to the FDA’s policy would be more likely to “assure the safety” of donated blood:

1. Remove the clause identifying “men who have had sex with other men (MSM), at any time since 1977” as high-risk.

2. Add a clause identifying “receptive anal sex” as a high-risk behavior.

3. Add a clause identifying “unprotected anal and/or vaginal sex with multiple partners” as a high-risk behavior.

A policy that incorrectly identifies high-risk groups instead of high-risk behaviors is neither effective nor just.  I hope you will end the FDA’s institutionalized discrimination at your December 2 meeting and look forward to hearing your response.

Sincerely,
Ben Spielberg

Note: A version of this post appeared in The Huffington Post on November 19.  Another modified version appeared in The Washington Post on December 2.

Update (12/13/14) – The FDA did not respond and refused to even vote on this issue; the bigoted and irrational lifetime ban remains in place for now.

Update (12/23/14) - The FDA has now replaced the lifetime ban with a one year ban, but this change is minor and still fails to address the policy’s core problems.

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TFA, CTA, and What It Means to Be a Union

A former instructional coach and one of only five people selected nationwide as a 2012 recipient of the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, Jen Thomas is now President of the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA).  In this post, also destined for the next issue of the California Educator, Jen discusses the California Teachers Association’s (CTA’s) recent cover story about Teach For America (TFA) and the responsibility that comes with being part of a union.

SJTA President Jen Thomas

Jen Thomas

Like any president would be, I was delighted when I received the October edition of the California Educator and saw one of San Jose TA’s members smiling from the cover. Clinton Loo was not only a very talented math teacher, but a member of our local’s governing body: he spent the 2013-2014 school year as our Secretary-Treasurer.

My excitement turned quickly to concern, though, when I saw the title of the article in which Clinton was featured: “Teach for America: Do-gooders or school Rhee-formers?” My concern was the rhetorical choice this framing implied. My colleagues and friends from TFA are either “do-gooders” with the saccharine naiveté that implies, or agents of Michelle Rhee and her intolerable demagoguery.

The October issue of California Educator, featuring TFA alum and former SJTA Secretary-Treasurer Clinton Loo on the cover.

The October issue of California Educator, featuring TFA alum and former SJTA Secretary-Treasurer Clinton Loo on the cover.  

As CTA, this article highlights two serious problems: inadvertently undermining our union brothers and sisters who came to us from the TFA program, and not resolving the problems generated by the organization.

1) CTA members who come from Teach for America should feel that they are as valued and supported as any other teacher entering the classroom.  First and foremost, a teacher is our colleague. We must be united in support of one another, and that starts with being extremely careful with how we frame important questions about the changing political landscape in our profession when these questions can lead to division in our ranks.

2) What are we doing about these issues and are they unique to Teach for America members?

  • High TFA turnover is an issue, but about 50% of all teachers leave in their first five years, driven out by workload, wage stagnation, and the abject failure of our society to prioritize education.  Many TFA corps members stay in San Jose for long past their two-year mandate and often they leave for the same reason any teacher leaves: The job is entirely unsustainable. Our compassion for that should be where we anchor this conversation.
  • No, five weeks training is not enough time to make a quality educator. We’ve also seen teacher training programs of a year or even two years that do not produce teachers ready to face the real strains and struggles of the classroom.  Poor preparation puts a terrible burden on our system; what are we going to do about it?
  • That TFA members don’t become actively involved in the union because they see themselves as education transients is a broad statement and contradicted by our experience in San Jose. Perhaps we are unique, but TFA corps members and alumni don’t deserve to all be painted with the same brush.
  • Where’s our plan to be as strong as Leadership for Educational Equity? Let’s build on our political strength and create a powerful support and training program to elect public officials from the teaching ranks.

Issues of training, policy, and politics; issues of values, arrogance, and teaching as a hobby – all of these are valid and worth a discussion aimed at remedy rather than rhetoric. In the meantime, every CTA member past and present – regardless of how they came to the classroom – should believe that we are united together in support of the work we do for our students, our colleagues, our communities, and our futures.

That’s what it means to be a union.

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A Response to Machiavelli: Three Legislative Proposals

Tom Block is an author, playwright and artist.  In his last 34justice guest post, Tom described Niccolò Machiavelli’s influence on American politics.  He also laid out his proposal for a “Moral Ombudsman,” a nonprofit that would “offer a true moral center from which to judge the legislation and actions of” politicians.  In this follow-up, Tom explains three specific policies a Moral Ombudsman might recommend.

Tom Block

Tom Block

Twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt said of her friend Walter Benjamin (a philosopher and social critic) that he was a “clumsy theorist.”  Not that he couldn’t theorize and walk at the same time, but that he was only interested in developing theories which couldn’t be implemented, in the messy world of the public square.

I share this clumsiness with Walter Benjamin, and so I am transforming the theory for my Moral Ombudsman – proposed in my last posting in this space – into three very real proposals to begin implementation of this anti-Machiavellian political program in the rough-and-tumble world of contemporary American politics.

Though these ideas might at first appear heuristic (theoretical or exploratory), they are in fact common sense responses to some of our most pressing social challenges – and ideas which could be implemented at the local, state or even national level.

I. Family Legislation War Act

My fascination with the socially binding attitude toward war was heightened while watching the build-up to America’s incursion into Iraq in 2003.  An “adventure” which still haunts our economy and foreign policy today, more than a decade later.

My morbid attraction to the subject led me to write a book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God, which explored the conflation of war, spirituality and the state.  It investigated not only the religious language used in fomenting war fever in the country, but also the reasons why this framing of this deadly form of politics (which often amounts to genocide) resonated so successfully with the general public.

I also realized how ubiquitous war is, both in the United States and throughout human history.  By one count, the United States has been at war during 214 out of our 235 calendar years of existence.  Hardly surprising, however, when you learn that throughout the past 5600 years of recorded history, 14,600 wars have been fought, more than two wars for each year of human “civilization” (p. 17).

The American addiction to war has many causes: psychological (situating the generalized anxiety we feel inside in some far off “other” and then destroying it); economic (at least 50% of the American economy is dependent on the military-industrial complex) and political (nothing brings a population together or rallies them around a leader as does war).  As such, stemming this gruesome tide might appear nearly impossible.

However, for our psychic as well as social health, it makes sense to do everything we can to phase this activity out as a political option.  To this end, there is one simple legislative proposal which might help stop, or certainly slow, the pace of American wars – and if adopted throughout democracies and republics worldwide, could do much to stanch the bleeding around the globe.

If politicians were forced to vote a single member from their own immediate family into war at the head of the army, they might think twice about casting that politically expedient vote.   From Bill Clinton’s (42nd President of the United States) daughter Chelsea to President Barack Obama’s (44th President of the United States) daughters Malia or Sasha to one of George W. Bush’s (43rd President of the United States) twin daughters or even Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY – at this writing, the Minority Leader in the US Senate) children: we could do much to lessen the rush to war if the vote was modified in this manner.

By personalizing the vote for bellicosity, the noxious pattern of sending other people’s children (usually from the underclass, as the armed forces often provides the best employment option for those who have few of them) to die for our country might be halted.  While it is easy for the rich and powerful to send unknown bodies off to other lands to be psychically or physically maimed, even politicians might think twice about involving their beloved kin.  And if a particular representative didn’t have children?  A sacrificial brother, sister or first cousin would suffice.

This simple law would allow even the most stolid of politicians to appreciate in its entirety what it means to go to war.  Not to say that all wars would be stopped – World War II, for instance, might well have been fought under these pretenses – but the succession of wars of choice that we have entered (and often instigated) over the past 75 years (currently numbering 18 and counting) would have been considered far more gravely beforehand than they in fact were.

II. National Service

My Father (b. 1933), drafted into the army as all of his generation and then recalled during the Cuban Crisis (1961-62), tells many stories about his experiences there.  In particular, he relates how people from all strata of American life came together to live in the shared cultural environment of the armed forces.  Living as equals, these men from rural, suburban and urban America, some toothless and poor, others headed to Ivy League colleges, shared an experience for months, a year or more which would stay with them for a lifetime.  Most importantly, it deepened their sense of the American community as one which involves people from all walks of life, even though they might have disparate political and social views, as well as economic prospects.

This sense of a national citizenry – in which all Americans got to personally know people from every segment of our society – has been lost with the passing of the draft.  In my opinion, much of the political and social fracturing of our country that we have seen over the past two decades might be due to this loss of shared experience.  We no longer get to know each other as equals, in a common American endeavor.  Community members from the rural South to the urban Northeast have grown insular, identifying more with their local culture than with the country at large.  And as our political life has suffered, our social discourse has soured and the answers we so desperately search for concerning everything from global warming to unemployment have become more and more difficult to come by.

I do not advocate reinstating the draft.  As you can see from my first idea, I am far more in favor of fazing out the standing army, rather than getting more Americans to serve in it.  However, I do strongly feel that we need some kind of national program to help knit our American community – far more diverse now than when my father was in the army fifty years ago – together into a singly polity.

I propose a democratizing event that brings all segments of our society together.  A year of national service concentrating on public and social work – from environmental cleanup to light infrastructure jobs to helping the poor in cities or rural areas where there is need – would reinstitute this shared sense of American community.  Taking place for one year between high school and college, and perhaps modeled on an existent program like Americorps, Teach for America or even the Depression-era Works Projects Administration (WPA), this endeavor would help heal the fissures that have been appearing in our culture, and threaten to grow from cracks into chasms of difference between disparate segments of our population.

Not only would young adults at a formative time in their lives come to feel the warmth of working for the common good, they would also be forced to work with and perhaps even befriend people from different socio-economic, religious, ethnic and geographical backgrounds.  This would do much to combat sectarian, economic and racial rifts that have yet to be healed (and sometimes seem to be on the rise) in our society.

III.  Into the Voting Booth

One of the unfortunately, though rarely remarked upon, concerns with our democracy is that such a small percentage of the voting age population votes in elections.  In presidential years, a bare majority of Americans vote – not even 60% of the voting age population in recent elections (since 1960, the percentage has ranged from a high of 63% in 1960 to 49% in 1996).  In off-year elections, known colloquially as “midterm elections,” a little more than a third of the voting public casts ballots, allowing only a 20% minority of voting age citizens (the majority of those voting) to make decisions that affect the whole country!

According to Howard Stephen Friedman (a professor at Columbia University and economist at the United Nations), the USA trails virtually all advanced democratic, economically healthy nations in voter participation.  According to his graph, the United States of America lags far behind Belgium, Australia, Italy, Greece, Spain, Korea, Portugal, Japan and many other industrialized nations, coming in with a paltry 38% of eligible voter participation, on average.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 12.02.34 AM

Different countries address voter participation concerns in different manners.  Unfortunately, in our country, legislative energy has recently been expended in depressing voter turnout even further, rather than encouraging it.  One party has realized that the majority of Americans do not agree with their political program, so the surest way to electoral victory is to make it more difficult to vote, not easier.

As Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, noted:

For the first time in decades, voters in nearly half the country will find it harder to cast a ballot in the upcoming elections. Voters in 22 states will face tougher rules than in the last midterms. In 15 states, 2014 is slated to be the first major election with new voting restrictions in place.

These changes are the product of a concerted push to restrict voting by legislative majorities that swept into office in 2010.  They represent a sharp reversal for a country whose historical trajectory has been to expand voting rights and make the process more convenient and accessible.

It should also be clearly stated that these restrictive measures were passed in response to a problem (“voter fraud”) which has been shown time and again not to exist.  And that “of the 22 states with new restrictions, 18 passed them through entirely Republican-controlled bodies.”

American democracy should not be about inventing fraudulent, though “legal” (in the narrowest sense of the word) means to assure electoral victory.  We should work toward the kind of voter inclusion of Belgium (93%) or Australia (80%), instead of being satisfied with a little more than half of a bit more than a third of our voting age population making decisions for the whole country.

To this end, I propose not only making access far easier, but also moving the election day to the weekend (or declaring it a national holiday); having voting laws administered by the Federal Government (instead of a patchwork of state and even local jurisdictions, allowing partisan election judges to make, shift and change laws to the best effect for their political party) and even go so far as to – like Australia or Belgium – pass a law making voting in this country mandatory, instead of attempting to restrict it to partisan friends, while discouraging others from participation.

Democracy (a system of government by the whole population) cannot be healthy if certain segments of the citizenry are discouraged or even prevented from voting.  Current election tightening – something, that Weiser assures, hasn’t happened on this grand a scale since Reconstruction, more than 125 years ago – is bad for the country, though certainly better for one of the major parties.

We must take the ballot box back for all Americans.  Twenty two countries in the world have some form of compulsory voting, including much of Latin America, Australia and Belgium.  The State of Georgia (USA) had such a law on its books in its Constitution of 1777 which stated: “Every person absenting himself from an election, and shall neglect to give in his or their ballot at such election, shall be subject to a penalty,” though it was omitted from the State Constitution of 1789.

We cannot live in a democracy where some people control who votes, while more than half of the country doesn’t even cast them.  This leads to results which do not reflect the “will of the people,” but simply the will of the powerful.  As Joseph Stalin noted: “It is enough that the people know there was an election.  The people who cast the votes decide nothing.  The people who count the votes decide everything.”

A participatory democracy must include the voices from the vast majority of its citizens, even if their voices are compelled to speak.  If we, as a country, can pass laws to narrow the vote, then we can just as assuredly pass one that will compel it.  And if we truly want to live in a “democracy,” we should do it sooner rather than later.

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Machiavelli in America and One Response to this Social Illness

Tom Block is an author, playwright and artist, whose work spans more than two decades.  In this blog post, Tom introduces us to his political antidote to our Machiavellian political sphere.  Adapted from his book, Machiavelli in America, this piece is part of Tom’s greater exploration of how to bring spiritual and even mystical values to bear on contemporary society. His work is collected under a theory he calls “Prophetic Activism,” a model of using art, thought and other means to infiltrate (rather than simply oppose) the power centers of business and politics.  For more information about Tom’s work, please visit his website.

Tom Block and his most recent book, Machiavelli in America

Tom Block and his most recent book, Machiavelli in America

Nowadays, the Machiavellian notion that political arrangements may not be judged by any objective standards of right and wrong, that there is neither any natural or any divine law, but only the law of will, of success and failure, is almost unchallenged (p. xvi).

Many people are familiar with the controversial thinking of the Renaissance political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (d. 1527).  His influence has been so widespread that the word “Machiavellian” has been incorporated into our language as a pejorative, defining a person who is cunning, duplicitous and operates in bad faith.

What might be less well known is the profound influence that Machiavelli has on contemporary American politics.  From state houses to the Presidency, Machiavelli’s ideas and motivations are central to building winning political campaigns and passing legislation, however un-democratic and antithetical to a healthy, pluralistic society.  As Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted (p.149): “Today, Machiavelli’s influence on political policy may be greater than at any time since he served the Florentine government.  Machiavelli has become American.”

The foundation of Machiavelli’s political ideology is straightforward: everyone in society is selfish, acting primarily for personal gain.  And for a politician to succeed in mastering this world, she has to either manipulate or frighten people into believing that their interests ally most closely with her own.

Machiavelli’s program concentrates on subjugation and mastery.  He does not concern himself with the common good, democracy or human rights.  For Machiavelli, the concepts of moral philosophers from Moses to the Sufis and the religions within which they operate are certainly important.  But only because these religious systems provide a fraudulent tool for the relentless, morally unhinged pursuit of power.  In terms of their direct relation to political reality, however, he considers them as meaningless as music.

Machiavelli’s central tenet is that the truth of any matter must be overwhelmed by two stronger factors: fear and fraud. In terms of inspiring fear in the populace, it is the surest method of gaining control over them:

I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others (p. 82).

He also noted that truth can be easily shunted aside, using fraudulent means to inspire fear, and then oneself offered as the palliative, inspiring a populace to follow the leader:

The great majority of humans is satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and is often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are (p. 182).

It is through inspiring fear in the citizenry, as well as using fraud as a tool to appear to be what the people want (i.e., safe, religious, moral, “like” them etc.) that political victory can most easily be won.

In terms of winning political office or legislative battles by immoral means?  Not to worry.  He noted: “When the act accuses, the result excuses” (p. 139).  Whatever actions undertaken to attain political victory are excused if the actor is successful.  Machiavelli absolved triumphant leaders of all blame or responsibility for any act necessary to attain and retain power:

A wise mind will never censure anyone for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic . . . when the result is good, it will always absolve him from blame (p. 139).

Machiavellian inspiration is not hard to discern, either throughout American history or even in our most recent political season.  A brief study of George W. Bush’s (43rd President of the United States) manner of attaining a very dubious electoral victory, and then his perverse political use of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 (on New York’s World Trade Center and other sites) would suffice.  But for our purposes, it is important to mention that George W. Bush was acting in a time-honored American Machiavellian tradition.

Neo-Conservative thinker Michael Ledeen (b. 1941) noted the similarities between the beginnings of America and the Florentine’s ideals: “There is much in Machiavelli that sounds like the American Founding Fathers…Machiavelli’s notion of the good state calls to mind The Federalist Papers” (p. 109).

Ledeen continued on to reference specific Machiavellian influence on James Madison (fourth President of the United States), Alexander Hamilton (first United States Secretary of the Treasury) and Benjamin Franklin (Founding Father and so-called “First American”).  The Florentine’s inspiration can also be found on the thinking of George Washington (first President of the United States); Thomas Jefferson, (principal author of the Declaration of Independence) and John Adams (America’s first Vice President, as well as the second President of the United States).  All of this has been outlined in more depth in my book.

The reverberations of the long-ago Florentine political philosopher can clearly be ascertained in the most recent electoral campaigns, which often are based in fear, character assassination and moral fraud.

For instance, in this current electoral cycle in North Carolina, Republican challenger Thom Tillis is ratcheting up the fear by linking Senator Kay Hagan (D) to terrorist threats.  A campaign advertisement of his notes: “Hagan and [President] Obama are to blame for the growing emergency linked to extremist groups like ISIS.”  And in keeping with the Machiavellian dictate that another sure way to win a political campaign is to assassinate the opposition, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has undertaken a scorched-earth campaign against his challenger, Alison Grimes (D):

As many observers predicted, the McConnell strategy was to bring Grimes’ popularity down.  She has been bombarded by negative attacks over the summer by McConnell’s campaign and super PACs.

The reality of American politics turns away from the moral intentions of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution and toward a power-driven oligarchy, ruled over by the most pernicious, negative and fraudulent.

It should be noted that this problem infects one side of the aisle far more than the other.  Although the mainstream press would be loathe to appear anything but “objective” (defined as the midpoint between the two parties), it is the Republican Party, and even more so the right-wing “Tea Party” members of that party, who most clearly exhibit the influence of the medieval political philosopher.  Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted that this linkage between America’s right wing and the Renaissance philosopher goes back to at least World War II:

Machiavelli has been a theme in American conservative political discussion since the 1940s.  It is likely that the use of Machiavelli has contributed to the combative mentality that characterized American Cold War politics, the belligerency of American conservatism and the take-no-prisoners tactics and language employed against liberalism and the Democrats (p. 168).

In my book, I outline many specific manners in which Machiavelli not only influenced our Founding Fathers, but also can still be felt in the legislative, executive and even judicial branches of government, including the overwhelming power of money, the efficacy of character assassinations and the use of war-like language to the utilization of religious and moral fraud and war itself, all as immoral political tools.

Regardless of what we might wish, think or work for, it is the Machiavellian dictates of power politics which are accepted as “politics as usual,” while all other potential moral methods of political interaction are simply shunted to the side as the strategy of losers.  And time and again, the results of political elections confirm the view that Machiavelli is for winners.

Although this dynamic is well known and even remarked upon, we (as a society) haven’t developed effective responses to Machiavelli, specific manners of combatting this pernicious dynamic.  What I offer in my book, and will summarize here, is one manner of attempting to combat this social cancer.  And one which takes into account our zeitgeist, from the deeply religious nature of so much of America’s public life, to the unwillingness of American journalists to base their reporting on the truth, opting instead for some mushy middle between the positions of the two major parties, which they define as “objective.”  This lack of moral clarity in the press corps only allows fraudulent political actors more leeway in creating their own alternate reality, a vile combination of fraud, character assassination and amoral pandering.

Though at least one administrator of this blog might disagree with me, I feel strongly that God and religion must be taken into account when considering a palliative to the shared social illness exhibited in our public square.  Activist responses to social illnesses must take into account the reality of that society; and offer familiar (i.e., religiously-based for Americans) manners of infiltrating and changing it – instead of simply standing outside of the metaphorical walls to the city and lobbing well-meaning and ineffectual ideas toward a population that couldn’t care less.

A Response to Machiavelli: The Moral Ombudsman

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas put forward an interesting proposal concerning the insertion of truth into politics:

Before an election, have candidates take a lie detector test.  Put it on TV and/or the Internet.  A panel of reporters or other experts could ask the questions, just like they do in presidential debates.  In fact, this could be a five-minute segment at the end of the debates.  “And now, to the lie detectors…”

Ha, ha, ha!  The political participants on both sides of the aisle would never accept common sense remedies such as this one.  It would too easily and clearly unmask the whole pernicious system.  Lie detector tests are for criminals!  Not for politicians, they would assure.

And we certainly can’t rely on the press to offer us a reportage of current politics and events based on truth (instead of some bizarre combination of “objectivity,” generally held opinion and polling data – which itself only represents the desires of the most powerful propagandistic machine).

The unwillingness to base journalism in truth is well-noted, by the way.  As the Los Angeles Times noted in an editorial: “the canons of the profession [journalism] prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  And as Washington Post journalist Melinda Henneberger said, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting:  “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

So it falls to us, we the people, to devise our own method of inserting truth into the Machiavellian world of American politics, and what follows is one such proposal.  I have devised an idea that can be implemented within our political system, offering a muscular response to the ingathering of power and money by the top one percent of American citizens.  As Machiavelli noted (p.211): “So enormous is the ambition of the grandi that it soon brings that city to ruin if it is not beaten down by various ways and various modes.”

This response to Machiavelli offers one manner to “beat them down.”

Honest discourse and unimpeded knowledge is virtually impossible to come by in the American political panorama.  For this reason, I propose that clearly stated information itself represents the greatest potential tool supporting genuine democracy.  In a country where voter suppression, lying, cheating, stealing and all manner of fraud are accepted as “politics as usual,” the ability to come by clear and concise information on any issue is virtually impossible.

The Moral Ombudsman would operate within the parameters of 21st-century Washington D.C., acknowledging the manner in which power is won and imposed.  Specifically, this is the call for the creation of a non-profit organization of the same name: “The Moral Ombudsman,” to develop and insert a moral lodestar into politics.

The Moral Ombudsman would bring together a board of recognized religious and social leaders to form a non-governmental organization to provide moral oversight of our lawmakers, as well as the laws that they make.  This collective would be constituted of leaders from the following religious and spiritual groups, representing the breadth of faith and secular communities in the United States: Christianity (two each from Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterians, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox); Judaism (one each from Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox); Muslim (one each from Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi); Buddhism, Sikhism, Hindu, Mormon; Unitarian, Secular Humanist and Atheist.

Other potential board members might include an academic leader, an agreed upon politician (preferably at the end of his public career, and not at the beginning), a social theorist or perhaps lay leader who would add perspective to the conversation.  The final constitution of the board would represent the vast majority of American citizens.  It would also acknowledge the Christian heritage of our nation by weighting the board in that direction.

The board would first be charged with developing a social and political moral code that would be agreed upon by all members of the board.  Although at first blush, this step clearly seems to present a potentially insurmountable obstacle, it is not as difficult as it might appear.  At the core, virtually all religions are in accord.  There are moral values shared by all creeds, which inform the hearts of every sacred path.

In this response to Machiavelli, the common good will take into account such things as the obligation of those who have the means to aid those who do not; the right to adequate health care access to for every citizen (hardly revolutionary, as thirty-two of the thirty-three developed nations have universal health care, with the United States being the lone exception); adequate shelter, a necessary amount of nutritious food, free education, freedom of religion and association and freedom from racist or ethnically deleterious laws and treatment.

Social issues such as the following would be discussed and agreed upon, becoming the bedrock formulation for the Moral Ombudsman.  These positions would help define the manner in which politicians, their actions and their laws, would be viewed:

  • Obligation of the rich to help the poor
  • Human right to health care
  • Human right to adequate, nutritious food
  • Human right to satisfactory housing
  • Forgiveness, restitution and rehabilitation as bases for the prison system
  • Minority rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from racism
  • Freedom from hate speech
  • Foreign policy based in respect and commonality
  • Truth as the basis for news reporting
  • Truth as the basis for political language and ideas
  • Truth as the basis for political campaigns

Each religion’s scriptures provides many different readings, from the suppression and slaughter of the “other;” veiling of women; polygamous and tribal laws to readings that emphasize peace, respect and open-mindedness.  Put bluntly, George W. Bush could find plenty in the Scriptures to justify his views, as could Martin Luther King Jr.

Leaders from the various religious creeds would be sought who believed in the opening and loving aspects of their creeds, not the close-minded, “us” vs. “them” manner of politicizing religion.  They would conceive of theirs as a valid path, and not the single road to spiritual grace.  They would be leaders whose views shared much with the contemporary zeitgeist in respecting the plurality of ethnic, social and cultural diversity and the worth of individuals (instead of holding that the religious system is more important than the rights of its constituent members).

The Moral Ombudsman would reach beyond social, economic and political barriers, speaking in the best interests of all Americans, all the time.  The Moral Ombudsman would be immune to fluctuations in the stock market, monetary reward, poll numbers or television ratings.

Issuing its decisions in policy papers, op-ed articles, newsletters, scorecards on the votes of members of congress, governors and the president and other like manners, this non-profit watchdog group would finally offer a true moral center from which to judge the legislation and actions of our elected princes.

Once the moral structure was set into place with the creation of a specific set of political virtues, the work of the organization would be to judge both legislators and legislation by its precepts.  Each law coming up for a vote in Congress would be compared to the moral principles agreed upon by the Board.  A grade would be issued, with a zero representing a completely immoral law (such as raising taxes on the poor so that the rich might have a lower tax burden), to a 100% (universal health care, for instance).  There would be a written release issued, as well as a rating.

Each legislator would have his votes analyzed, and would receive a sum-total number score for his moral centeredness.  This method is modeled on the scores issued by NGO groups from the National Rifle Association to the Nature Conservancy.

Additionally, the Executive Branch, military, State Department and actions of members from other governmental arms would be so judged.  Pilotless Drone attacks on other people’s soil?  Nope.  No matter how much verbiage there is about terrorism, eliciting the fear response of the population, this cannot be morally justified.  Secret Ops work in Latin America?  Presidential pandering, military posturing, and State Department dithering?  No, no and no.  The Moral Ombudsman’s job would not be to garner votes or make friends with the higher ups.  It’s job would be to begin the vital but nearly impossible work of centering American politics in a moral schema, instead of allowing it to continue to founder in the media created world of “objective reality.”

In the end, difficult though it might be, a moral middle would be carved out of the amorphous and amoral public and political square.  Finally, some manner of shared values would emerge that each of us, in our heart of hearts, might agree upon.

Is this solution easy?  Absolutely not.  Is it fraught with potential problems?

Yes.  Oh, yes.

But we are left with no choice but to try.

 

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The Political Lens: What Global Warming and Wright v. New York Have in Common

During the 2003-2004 school year, my chemistry teacher told my class that global warming wasn’t occurring.  I believed her.  When I attended New Jersey’s Governor’s School of International Studies in the summer of 2005, a professor told me the opposite – the evidence for global warming, and for the human contribution to it, was virtually incontrovertible.  Confused about what to think, I began to research the issue.  I also reached out to some of my other former teachers to ask for their input.

Three things became immediately clear.  First, most popular articles about global warming contained more empty rhetoric than useful information.  The mainstream media, as it far too frequently does, focused not on the truth but on grandstanding and a false sense of balance.  Second, I didn’t know enough climate science to look through a given study’s results and determine their legitimacy.  Third, I didn’t have to – a different approach could tell me everything I needed to know about each study’s likely veracity.

Global warming research falls into two categories: research by legitimate scientists and “research” funded by big energy interestsLegitimate scientists, who have no economic incentive to lie, conclude that global warming is a manmade crisis deserving our immediate action.  The few studies that suggest otherwise are normally sponsored by organizations like Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute, interest groups with billions of dollars invested in the activity responsible for global warming.

As with global warming, knowledge of the individual and organizational incentives behind opposing “sides” of any debate provides us with critical information.  This “political lens,” though not completely foolproof, reminds us that certain claims deserve a larger dose of skepticism than others.  The agendas behind a movement are especially important to consider when we lack in-depth knowledge of a particular issue.

In education policy debates, “reformers” far too often selectively and inaccurately apply the political lens or dismiss its importance.  That dynamic surfaced after Stephen Colbert interviewed former CNN anchor Campbell Brown on July 31. Brown’s organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, had filed Wright v. New York three days before the interview.  Wright, modeled after Vergara v. California, challenges several aspects of teacher employment law.

A small group of teachers, parents, and grassroots organizers showed up to protest Brown’s appearance on the show.  Colbert, responding to the protesters and the Twitter hashtag #questions4campbell, asked Brown about her organization’s funding sources.  Brown refused to disclose her donors.  Amidst the criticism that followed, various stakeholders have rushed to Brown’s defenseThey continue to argue that a focus on Brown’s donors and political affiliations is a “desperate effort to distract from the real conversation” about teacher employment law.

The truth of the matter, however, is that educators would love to focus on substantive conversations about teacher employment law.  Teacher “tenure” and dismissal and layoff procedures, though they are intended to protect both student and teacher access to a positive, productive educational experience, don’t always work as intended.  Unions recognize this problem and recommend legislative improvements that simultaneously address issues with the execution of the laws and preserve their important components.  We also frequently discuss the laws on their merits.  Additionally, student advocates would love to see reformers, unions, and legislators engaged in substantive conversations about how to unite behind and fight for causes that matter considerably more for the lives of low-income students: in-school causes like funding equity and improved teacher support and out-of-school causes like the living wage and immigrant rights.

Unfortunately, pro-Wright propaganda, featured much more prominently in the mainstream media than legitimate arguments for the defense, often drowns out these “real conversations.”  No teacher has a job for life, competent school districts can and do dismiss bad teachers, and there is absolutely no evidence that teacher employment law causes inequities between low-income and high-income schools***, yet relatively large swaths of the American public have bought Brown’s misleading narrative and harbor severe misconceptions about the statutes and their effects.  Brown isn’t leading her crusade with a rigorous analysis of the facts and sound logical argument; instead, she “addresses” the lawsuit’s substantive critiques by ignoring inconvenient statistics and logic and implying that disagreement indicates a disregard for the well-being of children.  It’s hard for the public to understand the nuances of education law and research when Wright supporters prominently and erroneously equate opposition to the lawsuit with the defense of horrible teachers.

Thus while education law and research is arguably less complicated than the science behind global warming, the political lens is equally important to consider in this debate.  It’s theoretically possible that the unions who defend teacher employment law do so to protect teachers who call students names and sleep in class.  And it’s theoretically possible that Campbell Brown and her unnamed donors care more about the lives of low-income kids than do the unionized teachers who work with them every day.  It’s also theoretically possible that Exxon produces more honest research about global warming than does the entire scientific community.  But these theoretical possibilities are all extremely unlikely.

Instead, it’s significantly more likely that Campbell Brown’s donors, like the people who funded Vergara v. California, actively exacerbate economic inequality.  That Wright v. New York and Vergara conveniently allow them to undermine organized labor and distract us from the ways their business and political activities harm the families of the very same low-income students they purport to help.  That teachers in unions care deeply about delivering an excellent education to their students, and that their opposition to the lawsuit stems from its negative narrative, erroneous claims and premises, and failure to provide solutions to the actual causes of teacher quality issues.  In other words, looking through our political lens reminds us that there are literally billions more “adult interests” in support of Wright v. New York than in its defense.

Educators must continue to clarify facts about teacher employment law and support responsible reforms.  Most proponents of challenges to the statutes are well-intentioned, and a focus on agendas alone would not do the issues justice.  It is also entirely legitimate, however, to call attention to the profit and political motives behind lawsuits like Wright and Vergara.  Knowledge of donors and allies helps us understand why, when unions and Campbell Brown present conflicting information about the law’s intent and effects, Campbell Brown’s claims warrant significantly more suspicion.

Campbell Brown graphic

***While the plaintiffs in Wright, unlike those in Vergara, do not erroneously contend in their complaint that the laws cause inequities between low- and high-income schools, the idea that low-income students are disproportionately impacted by bad teachers was mentioned by Brown in her appearance on The Colbert Report and still surfaces in discussions of the lawsuit.

Update: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on October 2.

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The 34justice Political Tool: Ethics, Truth, and a Case Study of Michael Brown and Ferguson

Seating arrangements during the French Revolution gave us the Left-Right political spectrum.  During the first National Assembly in 1789, the king’s supporters sat on the right and proponents of revolution on the left.  In contemporary American politics, we often consider liberals, who  “believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all,” to be on the Left. Conservatives, who “generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems,” form the Right.

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

David Nolan, one of the founders of the Libertarian Party, found this one-dimensional political spectrum problematic.  Theorizing “that virtually all human political action can be divided into two broad categories: economic and personal,” Nolan believed that “political positions can be defined by how much government control a person or political party favors in these two areas.”  Nolan’s views laid the foundation for The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, a ten-question survey which categorizes an individual’s political views on a two-dimensional chart.

If you take The World's Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

If you take The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

Nolan’s categorization scheme, though more descriptive than the Left-Right spectrum, unfortunately suffers from the same major flaw: it presents opposing points of view as ethically and intellectually equivalent.  A better system would articulate how different degrees of attention to social justice and the truth drive competing political perspectives.

Published in 1971, the same year that Nolan released the current version of his chart, A Theory of Justice laid out an approach to determining ethics that is widely considered to be the most “fair and impartial point of view…about fundamental principles of justice.”  American philosopher John Rawls argues that we must consider a thought experiment in which each of us is behind a “veil of ignorance” in “original position:”

The idea of the original position is to set up a fair procedure so that any principles agreed to will be just…Somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage…[A]ssume that [all people] are situated behind a veil of ignorance. They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations.

It is assumed, then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like…They must choose principles the consequences of which they are prepared to live with whatever generation[, race, class, gender, disability status, sexual orientation, etc.] they turn out to belong to.

The veil of ignorance, by forcing us to consider the possibility that we will be anyone in society, focuses us on fairness and equality of opportunity.  Especially given human beings’ risk aversion, rational people behind the veil of ignorance would seek to minimize imbalances of power.  The ethics of a given policy proposal or viewpoint can be defined by the degree to which Rawls’s thought experiment informs our thinking, which generally means the degree to which we contemplate the circumstances of populations with low levels of power and privilege.

A better political categorization tool can capture this thought experiment with a horizontal “ethics axis.”  “Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis.  “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right.  The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.

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The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner.  This tool thus provides several advantages over the Nolan Chart and the traditional Left-Right spectrum.  First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis.  Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints.  Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.

Applying the 34justice Political Tool

A case study of the Michael Brown shooting and related events in Ferguson, Missouri can illustrate how to use the 34justice political tool.

The Veil of Ignorance in Ferguson

Ethical considerations require us to imagine ourselves behind the veil of ignorance in original position.  We don’t know if we’re white or black, police officer or regular citizen.  We must ask ourselves what sort of policies rational people would adopt in that situation.  Given the power differential between police officers and citizens, rational people who knew they might end up as citizens would want a system that set high standards for police behavior.  They’d want to ensure that the police force acted with transparency, restraint, and the best interests of the community in mind.  Rational people behind the veil of ignorance would also want to make sure police officers could enforce reasonable laws and use force to protect themselves if necessary – they might end up as police officers, after all – but they’d set a very high bar for the use of that force.

Knowledge of institutional racism would also factor heavily into the calculation of the rational person in original position.  We are much more likely to harbor subconscious biases against and jump to negative conclusions about black people than white people, and black people routinely face both overt and covert forms of discrimination.  A rational person behind the veil of ignorance, knowing that he might become a black citizen, would be especially wary of mistreatment by police.  Nobody in original position would agree to a system that placed more responsibility on black citizens than white officers; a viewpoint that did so would consequently be privilege-defending and unethical.

An ethical and power-balancing viewpoint, therefore, approaches the actions of the Ferguson police force with more skepticism than the actions of the black community.  It begins with an attempt to understand the concerns and perspectives of black citizens.

We can thus categorize knee-jerk reactions about the Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson, all unsupported by evidence, as follows (as originally noted by Billy Griffin post-publication, the viewpoints described in the following sections are meant as an illustrative sample, not as a complete set of all possible viewpoints):

- Viewpoint A (privilege-defending): The police behave responsibly, so the conflicts are really the fault of an unruly black population.  The police officer who shot Michael Brown wouldn’t have done so unless he was in danger.  Similarly, the police wouldn’t use force against protesters unless it was necessary to maintain law and order.  Race is not an issue.

- Viewpoint B (partially privilege-defending): The police may have acted inappropriately during the shooting of Michael Brown and its aftermath in Ferguson, but Brown and the black community likely shoulder an equal amount of responsibility for what has happened.

- Viewpoint C (power-balancing): The police are in power and responsible for protecting citizens; police actions deserve intense scrutiny when they harm civilians.  We must avoid blaming the victim.  This situation is the likely product of systemic racism and institutional injustice.

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The Accuracy Axis in Ferguson

Here are the facts from the Michael Brown shooting itself:

- Brown was shot six times.  He was unarmed.

- Eyewitness accounts following the shooting say that Brown had his hands up in the air and was trying to demonstrate that he was unarmed when he was killed.  Recent video has corroborated that Brown’s hands were, in fact, raised.

- The police did not release their version of events until the day after the crime.  The report, when released, said that Brown reached for the officer’s gun in the car and was shot as a result of the struggle for the weapon. The department also did not release the name of the officer who shot Brown (Darren Wilson) for 6 days, despite repeated requests by the media and public (the police claimed that the delay was due to threats on social media).

- Anonymous police sources have claimed that Wilson was injured and taken to the hospital after the shooting, but initial reports about the injuries turned out to be false (as did a photo circulated by a Chicago firefighter). The police have not provided independent verification of the injuries.

Commentators have also debated whether several additional facts are related to the shooting:

- Brown took cigars from a convenience store without paying about 10 minutes prior to the shooting.  He shoved the store clerk on his way out the door.  We know this fact because the police department released a video of these events (which, despite the police chief’s claims, the press and public did not ask for) the same day they released Wilson’s name (which the press and public did request).  Wilson almost certainly did not know about the robbery when he stopped Brown on the street.

- Brown had marijuana in his system when he was shot (this information was released by an anonymous source and not in response to a specific request).  Marijuana can remain in a person’s system for over a month and there is no legitimate evidence linking marijuana use to violent behavior.

- The Ferguson police force has a (probably very long) history of unprovoked attacks on black people in the community.

Finally, the following facts relate to the protests in Ferguson immediately following the shooting:

- Across the country, numerous black citizens have been shot and killed by white police officers under suspicious circumstances.

- Unarmed black teens Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have also been killed by white citizens in recent years.  Mostly-white juries failed to convict the offending citizens of murder (Mike Dunn, Davis’s killer, was found guilty of multiple counts of attempted murder, while George Zimmerman, who killed Martin, was acquitted).

- Most protests were entirely peaceful, but a small percentage of people threw molotov cocktails and looted local stores.

- The Ferguson police, wearing military attire and sporting intense assault weapons, pointed guns at and used tear gas and other violent crowd control tactics on peaceful protesters.

- There is a clear pattern of racial profiling in Ferguson.  About 67% of Ferguson citizens are black, but black people comprise less than 6% of the Ferguson police force.  Over 85% of police stops and arrests are for black people.  Some police lieutenants in Missouri have been caught ordering indiscriminate harassment of black citizens.

- The city of Ferguson makes considerable revenue by routinely fining poor black people for minor offenses (like driving with a suspended license).  When they can’t pay, these citizens often spend time in prison.

These facts can help us categorize more evidence-based viewpoints:

- Viewpoint D (privilege-defending): We’ll never know exactly what happened when Michael Brown got shot, and we must remember that police work is difficult and dangerous.  Our police officers need to be able to use their judgment when they feel threatened.  Michael Brown was clearly violent, as can be demonstrated in the video of him robbing a convenience store, and he was also probably high.  There isn’t anywhere near enough evidence to convict Darren Wilson, and it is a concern that black people on the jury might show racial solidarity instead of looking at the evidence.

The black community’s rioting and looting also necessitated police action.  Citizens who don’t want to experience police violence should avoid doing anything that appears unlawful and/or dangerous.  Nothing is wrong with our police system.

- Viewpoint E (partially privilege-defending): The circumstances of Brown’s death look suspicious.  The police department certainly should have released its report sooner, so it’s hard to trust them over eyewitness accounts.  At the same time, the main eyewitness was a friend of Brown’s and the community is more likely to side with Brown than with the police.  Additionally, the fact that Brown robbed a convenience store beforehand, shoving and intimidating the store clerk, suggests that Wilson had good reason to fear Brown.

The racial disparities in Ferguson are definitely something to look into, but police also probably don’t pull people over for no reason at all.  And while the police used excessive violence in some cases, the rioting and looting of black citizens was a large part of the escalation of the situation.  The citizens in Ferguson and the police must both reflect on their behavior.

- Viewpoint F (power-balancing): The Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson’s response to it are a direct result of the effects of institutional racism.  Black people in this country clearly face challenges that those of us with white privilege never encounter.  We must listen to the black community and work immediately to correct the policies that lead to a justice system that unequally treats blacks and whites.

It’s pretty clear that Michael Brown’s death was an unjustifiable murder – not only was he unarmed and shot six times, multiple eyewitnesses consistently report that he had his hands in the air and was no immediate threat to Wilson.  The police department’s behavior raises considerable doubt about their claims.  There was no legitimate reason to delay the release of Darren Wilson’s name and the police report for so long, or to ignore eyewitness testimony.  The release of the convenience store video was also in bad faith because Wilson almost certainly did not know about this event when he stopped Brown; the police department seems more intent on blaming the victim than on assessing evidence relevant to the shooting.  Wilson should certainly get a fair trial, but police behavior has made that less likely to happen.  The trials in related cases raise doubts about whether the mostly-white jurors will deliver an evidence-based verdict in this case.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we must remember that “it is as necessary…to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is…to condemn riots. [A] riot is the language of the unheard.”  These riots are caused by frequent police harassment, unfair treatment by the criminal justice system, and a feeling of powerlessness.  Addressing those root causes is where our focus must lie.  That the vast majority of protests were peaceful and the police were the aggressors in nearly every conflict underscores the need for rapid reform in the way law enforcement operates.

The ethics and accuracy axes aren’t completely independent.  It’s relatively difficult to find somebody espousing an unethical viewpoint that accounts for all the facts, for example, and Viewpoints D and E require selective interpretation of available information.  A privilege-defending but evidence-based viewpoint (Viewpoint G) would have to acknowledge unequal treatment of blacks and police misconduct but, harboring open racial animus, excuse it anyway.

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Another category of interest might be viewpoints based on deliberate lies, rather than on a lack of information; they would fall below Viewpoints A, B, and C.

Assuming we agree that ethical considerations and the truth matter, Viewpoint F is objectively superior to the others.  Calling Viewpoints A, D, and G “conservative” and Viewpoints C and F “liberal,” as we might today, fails to identify fundamentally racist positions as unacceptable.  The traditional spectrum also ignores the importance of conducting thorough and accurate analyses.  Our traditional political categorization tools falsely suggest that truth and morality are relative.  In most cases, like the case of Michael Brown, they very clearly aren’t.

If we instead evaluate viewpoints using the veil of ignorance and a thorough analysis of the facts, we will more easily identify the root causes of disagreements.  We will also be forced to focus our conversations around ethical considerations and honest dialogue.  Over time, we could potentially revolutionize the way we discuss politics.

Note: The Huffington Post published a version of this post on Tuesday, September 23.

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Filed under Philosophy, Poverty and the Justice System, Race