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Optimism and Obamagogue

Posted: 2008-11-14

This essay first appeared on a list devoted to literacy concerns. Pointing out that justice demands both organization and a sense of moral right, Rich Gibson explains what we can do and why we must do it.

I think writing and teaching are inherently optimistic,

"glass half full," kind of exercises. In writing, we believe we have

something to say worth knowing, and there might be someone out there

who gets it. In teaching, most educators do want to leave the world a

little better, enjoy kids and the hope that is built into their

youth, and think that teaching will help kids understand what is up a

bit better. So, this is an optimistic list.

Criticism is not abandoning optimism. I am optimistic about the long

haul. The very few will not rule the many forever. In the short term,

though, optimism needs to be matched by critique, a careful

examination of why things are as they are in order to figure out what to do.

Everyone does this to one degree or another, consciously or not,

using history and a guess at the present to take action for the

future: trying to pick a job, buying a house, shopping sales, buying

goods or stocks, etc. That is especially true now when the future is

crunched, banging loud on your door.

Arriving with some inheritance sets up most people's room to

maneuver. The less you arrive with, the less you can duck and dodge.

Obama, or in my dig, Obamagogue, needs to be viewed critically. Sure,

he needs to be examined as a human being. Bright, well spoken,

athletic, seemingly pleasant enough, literate (what a departure!),

fairly well informed about world affairs and perhaps coming in with a

good attitude. However, we also know he is a south-side Chicago

political operative with all the baggage that necessarily entails.

Cinderella, he ain't.

Will Obama's election do a lot to crush racism, as it should be?

Maybe. But have we not seen the Coleman Young's, Richard Hatcher's,

Kenneth Gibson's, Kwame Kilpatrick's, et al, come and go with nearly

no impact on the rise of racism? Is it better to have black cops?

Yes, in the sense that they may be less likely to shoot people

driving while black, but no in the sense that they are still used to

violently smash picket lines. At this point, Obama's impact on racism

is hard to predict. For many voters, the pocket book overcame some

racism, but that racism is still there. And it is not just an

attitude, but a structure: Last hired first fired is a reality.

Obama needs to be addressed inside his role in the structure of US

political economy. A simple question to ask: Is there considerable

evidence that this government, a capitalist democracy, is an

executive committee and armed weapon of the rich, or is it a popular

democracy floating free of economic consideration? Another good

question: Where might Obama fall between those apparent poles?

Capitalism means, at base, the exploitation of the labor of many, by

the relative few. Democracy, rule of the people, is often but not

always overwhelmed by the system of capital. Capitalist democracy

commonly operates by convincing the exploited many that they are not

ruled by the few, giving the many a chance to participate in

constructing their own oppression, as in getting teachers to choose

which standardized history text to use rather than to choose whether

any text at all should be used.

As an aside, [this is list] surely, concerned mainly with educational

matters. But education cannot trump other, always related, issues. It

would not be ok, for example, if the US adopted a national Whole

Language educational project and continued to invade Iraq,

Afghanistan, Colombia, etc. In a more practical sense, as those

things are related, that is, education and war, and as we can easily

see the US is not going to adopt a national Whole Language plan but

is going to continue its empire, as it must to survive, we can put

the role of education policy in perspective.

Now comes Obama with people brimming with his slogans: Change! Hope!

Moving Forward! We Are All in the Together!

Perhaps millions of people now feel they can be proud to be an

American again, without recognizing the problem of nationalism built

into the sentiment. If anything should be fairly apparent, it is

class war, everywhere, perhaps wearing the mask of national unity,

but class war nevertheless. We are not all in this together.

On the other hand, most fellow Americans went shopping on the advice

of George Bush, while he made an illegal and in many ways fascist,

war. And, about 1.2 million Americans actually did that war for him.

What might they do now they cannot go shopping but have few

demonstrable analytical abilities either? How much of Americana do we

want to be tied to?

While even the Obama-fan media says they don't know exactly what

Obama will do, we can, surely, look at the open statements Obama has

made about education. He supports the Teach for America operative,

Michelle Rhee, in DC with great gusto.


Her secretly funded project is, in part, to destroy tenure and

establish "merit" pay.

Obama supports merit pay. He supports privatized charters (I have no

quarrel with some public charters like the one Susan Harman set up).

He wants more money for NCLB. If NCLB is funded and is still used to

regiment the curricula, to use bogus forms of assessment (which will

invariably measure little more than race, language, class, and

subservience) that will not be alright.

We know, too, that Obama calls for national service. His key team

leaders wrote books about that. National service is free labor, as in

community service requiring that school kids "volunteer." But it can

also be a syphon for the middle class, opting out of what may be a

draft (granted, kids with no shoes from Mexico and South America may

fill the void).

There is no noticeable effort coming from the powerful to truly

dismantle the three pronged attack on schools that is NCLB:

regimentation of curricula, false assessment linked to student

advancement and educator pay, and militarization. The essence of NCLB

remains a bi-partisan scheme, just as it always has been. NCLB is

directly related to imperialist war and economic war as well.

The central issues of life; (1) labor, (2) rational knowledge (and

history as well), (3) love---not only aesthetics and non-exploitative

mutual care but also sexuality as a matter of pleasure, and (4) the

struggle for freedom, are now almost outlawed in schools. The process

that won that goes back to the bi-partisan effort to regain dominance

in schools after the US ran away from Vietnam, defeated politically,

morally and militarily, while schools got out of hand on the home front.

NCLB works. Kids learn to not be curious, to learn not to like to

learn, and accept that science proves they are in their proper,

stratified, social position.

Obama arrives with structural problems. The US, if is to remain an

empire, must have control of key oil regions like those around Iraq

and nearby Afghanistan. Why? Because oil moves the military. No

military, no empire. Oil, however, moves every military. There are

limited oil regions, and the competition is now stiff.

Some very reputable scholars suggest the US, behind Obama, could

slowly dismantle the empire as did the British. But the British did

not dismantle the empire without incredible levels of violence,

especially in Africa, and the Brits had the US to hide behind and

manipulate, as they do to this day.

The US has only the US. The recent failed wars made allies

contemptuous and distrustful and enemies licking their chops. Worse,

the US citizenry is completely unprepared to suffer the consequences

of dismantling the fruits of empire--meaning a fully ravaged

lifestyle. What would they do?

The US is not going to leave Iraq, though US troops may retreat to

the bases and oil fields and leave Iraqis to kill each other while

140,000 US mercenaries continue to roam Iraq. The US is not going to

run off from Afghanistan, but it cannot win in Afghanistan. 300,000

Russian troops finally left the region, whipped by people who started

out throwing rocks at tanks. Before them, the British, the great

empire, ran away. The battle for empire is a problem US capital, as

it is, cannot solve--and it cannot exit.

We should note that one of Obama's top advisors is Brezinkski. He

wrote the Carter doctrine which declared that all of the Middle East

and its oil fields are part of the US empire and the US would use all

of its available force to defend its region. Obama's new Chief of

Staff is a committed Zionist, unlikely to solve another key issue:

Israel and Palestine. I find no significant errors in Sam Smith's

belated warnings about Obama, here.

Beyond oil is the crisis of what is really finance capital, the head

of finance disconnected from the body of production. It is unwise to

wage war on the world without a steel industry, even if US

agriculture could starve parts of the world. Should Obama let finance

capital swing in the wind, he faces a huge deflationary crisis,

troops guarding closed banks, as in the Great Depression. If he

prints money and tries to reindustrialize, then he faces a big

problem of inflation. Besides, it may be too late when Obama arrives.

It could be George Bush is so delusional now that he leaves Obama

with a very real collapse. "Hey, we ruined it. Give it to the black guy."

Obama voted for the bankster bailout which we can now see as one last

grab at the treasury. He voted to protect government spying on

citizens. We know Obama lied about capital's most important product:

more capital, money. He used $700 million to win an election,

betraying his statement of principles.

Either way, what is ahead is, in my humble opinion, an inevitable

sharpening of the war of the rich on the poor. Wage cuts. Layoffs.

Speed up, The stretch out. Gutting health benefits for those who have

good benefits and making them pay for mediocre or worse health care

for others. Foreclosures. Taxing one section of the working class to

stave off the misery of another section of the working class.

Inflation means increasingly worthless paychecks. Deflation means

closed banks and lost savings. The rich can maneuver against this.

Those who live paycheck to paycheck cannot. And, it helps when your

neighbor owns the bank and tells you it will close day after tomorrow.

Can Obama be the velvet glove over the iron fist of this process?

Sure he can, for awhile. Then what? Then he will have to pick sides,

as we all will--but our choice is limited by our available capital.

Will Obama side with the many, or the few? I will bet the ranch.

What to do?

For our purposes, it does no harm to lobby for or against some

educator for Secretary of Education. But that really gives us little

or no power. What if she/he betrays us, as so many of them have when

we elected school board members? What then?

At base, our potential power (terrific as education workers who now

occupy the key central organizing point of North American life) is

rooted in our ability to control the processes of our work places and

communities, and to control the products of our work (in many cases, ideas).

Can we do that now? No we cannot. We are poorly positioned in this

real train wreck. Why not?

Partially because our union leaders betrayed us. Loaded with big

salaries (fruits of empire), they let us down in every conceivable

way, but especially in abandoning and denying the reason most people

join unions (contradictory interests of workers and bosses), and thus

abandoning any vision of on-the-job and community organizing. Indeed,

they fought against those, like Susan Ohanian, who sought to resist

the racist high stakes exams--and tried to demolish the struggle.

Unionism, even at its best, cannot answer this international crisis.

Unions divide people (using dues payment, capital's bottom line) by

job, race, nation. Unions don't unite people. They divide us. Yes,

some people are in unions (5 million school workers) but most (about

88 %) are not. We need to have, say, one toe in the unions, and ten toes out.

What can we do? We can start with what we have, our own critical

abilities and the limited organizations that exist that could create

the solidarity necessary to build a resistance rooted in the reality

of class struggle and the need for direct, on-the-job, action. The

Rouge Forum would be one of a very few examples of groups that could

do that. Justice demands organization.

Justice also demands a sense of moral right. Ethics. It is wrong to

conduct venally graded racist high stakes exams without complaint. It

is wrong to fail to say, "appearance is not essence, which is what

you claim these exams measure," if for no other reason than if

appearance always matched essence, there would be no science, but

more importantly, to not resist is to become what you do.

Not too far off, there is going to be resistance. People are going to

fight back because they have to fight back, not because they want to.

My crystal ball guess is that education workers are going to get hit

soon, hard. They will have to choose. Collapse and face very real,

ugly, problems of daily life, or resist.

It is wrong, as well, to play up to power and demand higher,

regressive, taxes in order to bribe educators to keep conducting

NCLB, as the California Teachers Association appears to plan to do

via a referendum (that will probably fail, making them wrong but

stupid as well). It is right to shut down schools and start freedom

schools in the midst of what may be considerable social strife.

At issue is whether school workers can make sense of the resistance

and fight back in ways that could win, by forging close ties with

poor and working class kids and parents, or will they let each other

get picked off one at a time as, for example, the suburban Michigan

Education Association watched the nearly complete destruction of the

Detroit public education system (an American Federation of Teachers

local). That what happens in Detroit is going to happen to all of

Michigan, a bit later, seems to have escaped the MEA.

Last, I am optimistic that we can become more whole people, be more

creative, have more fun, demonstrate our very real abilities which

most people cannot demonstrate at work, inside the resistance. There

is joy in understanding reality and seeking to change it.

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