Politics

Failure of Leadership: Money, Power, Privilege

RadicalMoiI'm generally a big picture kind of person, though my own focus for activism right now is pretty narrow. In case you haven't been watching my every move, I've been spending the last couple of years concentrating on education labor activism but my personal impulse is to be outraged by every sort of injustice: racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality, war, greed, you name it, I'm pissed about it. I've always believed that everyone should have equal opportunity, a fair and level playing field, and the right to be treated in every way with dignity as fellow human beings.

I have to give my parents credit for that. In many ways, they were a lot like Alice Dreger's Polish emigre parents. My dad was a working class, old school FDR/JFK Liberal and my mother was a deeply religious woman constantly outraged by injustice. Dad's belief in civil rights and free speech were unshakable and he had a real soft spot for underdogs, even if it did take him a while to come around to feminism. Mom was more the avenging angel type and would have gladly carried one of those Biblical flaming swords, had they been issued to mere mortals. So I grew up in a kind of Truth, Justice and the American Way household, without the jingoistic patriotism. In my house, everybody deserved respect and a fair break. Is that so hard?

It sure seems to be. And I've been thinking a lot about why, lately, as I get ready to teach my research course that focuses on economic inequality this summer. Human failing is the obvious "Duh!" reason for injustice, or what we more frequently call human nature. We have it in us to be absolutely selfish, vile shits, but we also have it in us to be amazingly altruistic. The sheer number of beautiful, generous, uplifting things we do for each other is one of the best parts of the internet, along with cat videos. We make cheap artificial limbs for kids and dogs. As individuals, we collect massive amounts of money for the victims of natural disasters. We turn our ingenuity to making the lives of refugees and the poor easier. We get out in the street and protest injustice even when popular opinion is against us, changing those opinions in the process.

OutofbalanceAnd still, what we see in the news, and in our lives, is a grossly unequal and unjust world where far too few people hold not just most of the money, but all the cards. Two immediate examples, one petty, one part of an ongoing battle: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration spawned, among other scandals, something called Bridgegate, in which Christie's cronies "conspir[ed] with Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly to close the lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to 'punish' the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie in his re-election bid." This doesn't sound like much; traffic sucks in New York and New Jersey most of the time anyway. But this was an intentional obstruction that created a public safety hazard and held up EMS vehicles, resulting in at least one death. Christie and his cronies grossly inconvenienced and endangered thousands of drivers and helped cause the death of a 91-year old woman because somebody didn't play pattycake with them.

I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

The second example, much more immediate and appalling is the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Charges have just come down today against six police officers who not only illegally arrested Gray, but then proceeded to beat the crap out of him somehow in the back of the van he was being transported in. It's too early to say exactly what happened, but it seems clear that neither Mr. Gray's safety nor dignity were paramount in the minds of the cops who picked him up. His pleas for help were ignored and he was not secured safely in the back of the van. Somehow, he acquired a spinal injury that killed him between the time he was cuffed and when he arrived at the station. The New York Times has highlighted a practice called the "rough ride" or the "nickle ride" used all over the country to rough up suspects without having to physically touch them, a form of torture not quite as egregious as that practiced by the Chicago Police Department but nonetheless abhorrent.

A third example, larger and even more systemic than the deaths of black people at the hands of police, is the denial of living wages to workers all over the world, and the sequestration of the majority of wealth in the hands of a few, and the way that gets talked about by others with relative privilege. Far too often, as in the case of this white, male, privileged tenure track asshat, it leads to a rhetoric of blaming the victim for the very injustices under which they are suffering. Likewise this equally phantasmagoric piece by David Brooks, in which he asserts that poverty is not really about lack of money but social psychology. The poor are poor because they want to be, because they're lazy, because they're incapable of taking "advantage" of a broken public school system handed over to shysters, an overpriced higher education system that leaves them tens of thousands of dollars in debt, or of non-existent living wage jobs. Meanwhile, living in poverty has a whole host of deleterious physical, psychological, educational and social effects. So, we fuck children up by not helping to provide secure, healthy living conditions and then blame them for failing. It's a brilliant strategy with all kinds of denial of responsibility built in.

This is where we come to the title of this post. All of these examples illustrate a failure of leadership—or the success of a certain kind of leadership inimical to the welfare of the people these leaders are supposed to be serving. If we posit the idea that political life in a democracy (hell, any political life), especially leadership, should be grounded in morality, compassion, and justice, then the leaders have, in these cases, failed spectacularly. Or succeeded in upholding a morally bankrupt, bigoted, unjust social order. Take your pick.

Humans are herd animals, by and large. We like to be together, we like to be led, we like to follow for the most part (see also: crowd theory). Even so, we are rightly suspicious of the motives of leaders who emerge from the crowd. Lord Acton famously said "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." What seems to actually be true is that the exercise of power heightens already existing personality traits. If we are compassionate, moral people when we're given power or find ourselves in power, we tend to exercise it with those qualities in mind to the best of our abilities. Nobody's perfect, but we've had some truly compassionate presidents in my lifetime, and before (FDR, JFK and Jimmy Carter all come to mind, despite their human failings). We've had plenty of the other kind too: the sorts who are more interested in power and personal advantage than they are in service to their countrymen or anyone else. I don't think you need examples of those. *Cough*Bush-Cheney*Cough*

Money, however, seems to have a more universally deleterious effect on people. Money creates a buffer between us and the rest of the world. When we have enough of it to live comfortably, it reduces stress and makes our lives easier and healthier (see above). It also allows and encourages us to be generous. Poor and middle class people give larger percentages of their income to charity than the wealthy and uber-wealthy do. Anything in excess of a comfortable income seems to turn us into greedy asshats for whom there is never enough money. We think, hey, I've made it; I don't care about the rest of you. This kind of contempt is the polar opposite of what we should want from our leaders, whether they are political, financial, or intellectual leaders. Sadly, that's mostly what we've got now: police departments that see a large proportion of the people they serve as insurgents; educational leaders who see children as nascent criminals and sources of income; political leaders who see citizens as potential terrorists and their own nation as a battleground; business leaders who see natural resources as exploitable commodities.

Leaders like Chris Christie and the chiefs of particularly abusive police departments foster an atmosphere of contempt in which abuse, selfishness and cruelty thrive. Christie is known for being a particularly petty jerk who verbally abuses constituents who challenge his god-like self image. It's not surprising that his administration should cook up a juvenile scheme like Bridgegate. That's the kind of tone that Christie sets; he has all the diplomacy and maturity of a 12-year-old schoolyard bully. Likewise, the kinds of police chiefs who look the other way when their officers brutalize or racially profile the public they're supposed to "serve and protect" foster contempt for their own communities. Broken Windows policing sounds good in theory, but without including respect for the people in those communities, it fosters the idea that everyone who lives there is currently a thug, practicing to be a thug, or used to be a thug and might be again at any moment. We then stray far from the principle of innocent until proven guilty and common sense, not to mention the spirit of the law. And if our elected leaders allow the (often useful) paranoia of intelligence agencies to be the pervading attitude toward our nation's citizens, that fosters distrust, hatred, and disrespect of everyone who does not look like "us." Who that "us" might be in a nation of immigrants from all over the world eludes me, but there are plenty of "others" to go around in the minds of the frightened. Right now, it's Muslims who are the potential terrorists of choice, even though lone wolf homegrown white supremacists like Timothy McVeigh are far more dangerous.

What concerns me most in all of these examples is the almost complete lack of compassion for our fellow citizens. More and more we as both nation and individuals are exhibiting not just a lack of compassion but an outright contempt for others who have less power, less money, less luck, less stuff, less education, less privilege than we do, whoever we are. We are "punching down" more instead of lifting up. In the courses I teach, we talk about inequality and social violence of many kinds. Most of my students are first generation college students (like me); many are first generation Americans (like my dad). Most of them buy into the "work hard, get ahead" American dream and are shocked to discover it is out of reach for most of us. But when they read about the fraying safety net we have, they immediately bring up welfare queens and foodstamp fraud, even though many of them have used those services themselves. The rhetoric of our privileged leaders is teaching these kids not to work hard but to hate themselves and their families for failing when they can't realize the return on their own investments. It's hiding from them who the true culprits of their oppression are and turning them against each other. It's an excellent tactic for social control and our leaders are making very good use of it.

But this doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. We're currently living in a society that lionizes socio- and psychopathic personalities. If you think I'm exaggerating, think about who we admire most: hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, bankers—none of whom actually produce anything—the Forbes 400, most of whom (with some notable exceptions) are vile, exploitative creeps. Example: The Koch brothers (numbers 3 & 4), the Walton family (numbers 6, 7, 9 and 10). Even when they mean well, as I suspect Bill Gates (#1 with $81B) does, money seems to give them an excess of paternalism that is completely misplaced, as though knowing how to make a fortune means you have the intelligence to solve all the world's problems, or even know when there is a problem. Gates's meddling in education is a prime example. According to Bill, our public education system is failing and needs the expertise of Microsoft's genius to fix it. Instead of listening to actual experts in the field—you know, people who've been educators their whole lives, who have degrees in it, and years of study and experience—we should let Bill tell us what's wrong and how to fix it. And now we are eviscerating public education, and firing our best teachers on the basis of an untried testing regime that makes kids hate learning. But that's another post.

Worse than the moneymakers are the politicians, like Christie, that they buy with those billions: ultra conservatives like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, Bobby Jindal, the Bush boys who apparently really hate poor people, women, minorities, immigrants, or anyone who can't give them money for reelection. Why do we elect these people? Evil must have better PR. We're not just voting for them though. We're validating their frightened, narrow, cruel worldview and often parroting it. We're encouraging their failed leadership and becoming part of the problem.

Stop voting for petty, mean, selfish assholes, people, lest you become their victims. Better yet, maybe it's about time the compassionate, honest people who care about justice showed the leaders we've got now how it's done.


New Year, New Focus

NYCMoiIt's been almost a year since I blogged here and I admit I've kinda missed it. I like writing, and I've been doing a fair amount of it (novel, poems, diatribes, conference papers), an awful lot of it on Facebook. In case you haven't been keeping up there, I've gotten myself neck deep in activism of various kinds, mostly the petition signing kind for human rights, environmentalism, social justice of various sorts. But I invested in a pretty big way in the labor movement too, especially educational labor.

For instance, over the summer, I went to the UALE/Cornell Summer School for Union Women, which was a fantastic experience, and at which I made some great friends/contacts. My local, (or one of my locals) AFT 1839 at New Jersey City University, where I'm part of the executive committee, footed the bill, for which I'm extremely grateful, as I couldn't have done so myself. I was on employment for the first time since 1992 because even freelance work is thin on the ground right now. While I was up at Cornell, I met women from all kinds of unions and labor organizations, from all over the world: retail workers from NYC, telephone workers from Africa, forensic lab techs from Puerto Rico, make-up artists, auto workers, housekeepers, cafeteria staff, and a number of faculty members, many of them from CUNY's Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and from SUNY's UUP, both unions I also belong to. I quickly became known as the three-union woman, because I was the only contingent faculty member there (I think). It was a warm, fierce group, and I thank Marcia Newfield of CUNY's PSC for suggesting I go there.

Also on Facebook, I've been doing a lot of national organizing and this last summer, nearly became an oAdjunct working conditions postern-the-ground organizer for SEIU upstate, at the urgings of my new best friend, Teresa Mack-Piccone, Texan English Ph.D. extraordinaire, who's organizing for them out of Albany. I think 25 years ago I would have been all over that job like white on rice, but I'm pretty sure I don't have the energy for it now. So my organizing has been quieter and a little more subversive. For Campus Equity Week, I plastered my New Jersey campus with signs that said A is for Adjuncts: Our working conditions are Student Learning Conditions, and encouraged folks to post how many adjuncts shared their office or where in their department in very public places. I'd like to follow that up this semester with some agit prop theater in the commons, but I'm not teaching there this time around, so we'll see how that goes.

In the spring. Teresa invited me to give a conference paper with her at the Washington DC SEIU HQ, where I got to meet Joe Berry of COCAL, Maria Maisto of New Faculty Majority, and reconnect with the inimitable Anne Weidner of UUP. We dragged along one of the few vocal tenured allies I've met, Seth Kahn of West Chester U, someone else I met through Facebook, and again met some amazing people fighting to get decent working conditions for adjuncts across the country. I really have to give kudos to SEIU, which is one of the few labor unions in country that's actively organizing adjuncts. The Steelworkers in Pittsburgh were chosen by the adjuncts to represent them, and the same with the UAW in Michigan, but SEIU has gone into DC, Boston, LA and now into New York and actively organized adjucts in a campaign that has been met with as much hostility as any mineowner's, including the hiring of union busting law firms. There's a good use of tuition and endowment money.

And the conditions, make no mistake, are killing us. In September, what I still think of as my semi-hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ran a story called "Death of an Adjunct," detailing the miserable conditions 25-year veteran French adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko died in after not being rehired. I don't know an adjunct who isn't terrified that this might be us. More than a few of us are graying (remember, academic careers often don't even start until you're in your 30s or 40s), many of us have chronic conditions, children with chronic conditions, or have been struck down by cancer or other illnesses without any health insurance. Thanks to ACA, that might change, but that doesn't absolve the institutions we work for from treating us with the dignity we deserve. If you can pay for administrators, who add very little to the intellectual reputation of the university, you can damn well pay for the people who make or break your reputation as an institution of learning. More on that in later posts.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that somehow I'm becoming the activist I always wanted to be. I have a cause (several, in fact) and have found my voice, and don't have any fear about using it out loud anymore. I don't have to hide my outrage, and I can use my writing as a way to accomplish something good in the world. This doesn't mean I've given up the creative part; far from in it. In fact, I stumbled into a great writing group and have managed a rewrite of the novel I've been working on forever, and I've been writing a lot of poetry. So this change I've been undergoing, from silent, not very good Christian person, to vocal, skeptical Buddhist fellow-traveller proceeds apace. I like where it's going.

Stay tuned for more about education and activism and education activism.

 


Unsung

9-11Moi

The City rebuilds itself on its own ashes,
like Troy on sixteen other Troys—
this burned out hulk where cop and fireman died
herding the innocents in downward flight
no different from the scorched ruins
left beneath centuries
of building and rebuilding in Anatolia.
Except
with no Homer to name their names,
assign their metaphorical attributes,
and send them in perpetuity
with their doomed engines of salvation
to the high smoking towers,
who will know them fifty, a hundred,
two thousand years hence?
Already we forget the names—if we ever knew them—
of the soldiers new fallen in Assyria’s sands
by the waters of Babylon,
the half million citizens
dead of our retribution
against a city that stole nothing
from us.

No bells toll
so read the names,
but intone them all, linking dead with dead:
Agamemnon, Father Mike, Hector;
the Myrmidons, Spartans, Amazons,
Luis Moreno, Allen Greka, Linda Jimenez (the new dead of Akkadia);
the cops, the firemen, the EMTs,
Uhuru Houston, two Angelini, Yamel Merino;
the lawyers, brokers, office workers
of Cantor Fitzgerald, a whole company erased;
Helen and Cassandra, Hecuba,
mothers, wives, and sisters
of busboys,  janitors, CEOs, salesmen; and after,
the searchers, sifters, dismantlers
still choking on the dust and ash.
Even the rescue dogs, exhausted, sad, and footsore,
finding no one alive.

All that’s missing is the gods.

9/11/12


Day of Activism against NDAA

RadicalMoiThought you were safe from indefinite incarceration because of the Constitution?

Thought it was illegal to call in the army for domestic action?

Thought your goods and services were safe from seizure by the government if you were a law-abiding citizen?

Not anymore.

These are powers now vested in the president's office, not just in Obama's hands. Imagine someone like Dick Cheney with these powers. Think Fascism can't happen here? It already has.

Learn about it and and speak out. Before they use it to take your voice away.

;


Occupy Wall Street I—A Personal Story

Protestor I've been trying to get to these rallies for the last two weeks and can't seem to shake the cold I've gotten from getting up at 5:30 and getting home at 10:30 twice a week to work two jobs. So I thought I'd use my powers for good, and at least write about why I support them. Unlike a lot of people, I'm not really hurting, or don't consider myself one of the hurting, anyway, in part because I've made certain choices about my life that helped put me where I am. Unlike the so-called 53 Percenters, I realize that no matter how lucky or content I consider myself, this is not what the American Dream is supposed to be.

Despite this cold, I realize I don't have it that bad, so I'm not complaining. I could be doing this five days a week, or seven, like the English department secretary at NJCU, who works at Home Despot or some other big chain store on the weekends. I also don't have a lot of debt, and what I do have is less than five figures—less than most people pay for a car. My student loans were small and are paid off, despite the fact that I went to an expensive private school for my undergrad degree, where I accrued those debts. I had a teaching fellowship at the state school I went to, and I paid tuition there too (which seems unfair when I was also working for the university), but it was in-state tuition and I had no loans. I feel like I live pretty comfortably, but my standard of living is well below what my parents enjoyed, even though neither of them went to college and my dad was a blue-collar worker. I don't own a house or a car, don't even own my apartment. I've got next to nothing in the bank, and a very small retirement fund. Even so, I'm better off than many, and have a lot of freedom and time to myself.

So why am I supporting the protesters at Occupy Wall Street? Because I'm both taking responsibility for my choices and acknowledging that lots of other people don't have that luxury, and/or didn't even make the choices I did and yet find themselves in much worse shape.

As I said on a sign I made for the rallies, I'm a 51-year-old single woman with no dependents (other than my nagging cat, whom I will not have to send to college) and a Master's Degree. I haven't had health insurance since I left school for more than a a few years at a time. I worked full time for a while out of grad school, and a couple of places where, despite my education, I was treated like both an idiot and a flunky, for barely a living wage. Every year, I used up all ten of my sick days in one shot with bronchitis, and spent my two weeks of vacation with my parents. I'd come out here to go to grad school at NYU, where I had no scholarship, so I had to pay for my exorbitant tuition by working full time. About halfway through the second master's degree I was working on in a new field, I realized that several things were going to happen: I would probably have to take out loans to get through the Ph.D., because I was having enough trouble doing the kind of work I knew I was capable of while working full time. The doctorate was going to cost me a fortune and there were no guarantees of a job when I was done. If I did get a job, it was likely to be in the middle of freakin' nowhere, and certainly not in New York City. I wanted to stay here more than I wanted to get a Ph.D., and I wanted to write more than I wanted to be an academic. I hadn't written anything but graduate school papers while I was working full time, and it was killing me. So I totally rethought and refashioned my whole life.

Annoy a ConservativeI left school, I quit my full time job, and I started temping and freelancing and working part time. In a lot of ways, my life improved drastically. I was happier, I didn't get sick, I did a lot of writing and started to get published. I had the luxury of taking poorly paid teaching jobs because I was doing other things too, and met some great people along the way, some of whom became life-long friends. In other ways, it was not so good. It was a good thing I didn't get sick or hurt, because health insurance eventually doubled from an affordable $245/month to something astronomically out of reach. Money was very tight, even though my folks helped out, and I learned to live pretty frugally. Even so, there were three years where I couldn't afford to pay the taxes I owed, and didn't file. I also got into some serious credit card debt. The low point was the infamous neck bone stew I made when I was down to my last couple of dollars and waiting for a client to pay me.

To make matters worse, at the time, even when I did get a paycheck, it took days to clear, and often I didn't actually know how much money I had in my account. In nine years of undergrad and graduate school, I'd never bounced a check. Now I did it with alarming frequency because my tally never matched the bank's: not Citibank's, Chase's, or Chemical's. That was because of banking regulations that allowed them to hold even local checks drawn on their own banks, for three days before releasing the funds, instead of making them available right away. Thankfully, that finally changed, but before that, I found a bank, HSBC, that didn't try to screw me with overdraft fees by playing with my balance. I've bounced only one check in the 12 years I've been with them.

I also finally found a great part-time job that I stayed at for just a little more than ten years before there was a mutual parting of the ways. I still had no health insurance, but my bosses treated me with respect and it gave me a lot of freedom and a little 401(k) that I put into a high risk fund to earn some quick dough while my very safe TIAA-CREF fund slowly built up through ultra safe investments. That 401(k) disappeared when the housing bubble burst and the stock market crashed. I cashed in what was left—less than $2,000—because I needed it for living expenses. Since then, I've been freelancing and teaching again, which I love. But I discovered that in the ten years I'd been working part time and only occasionally freelancing, rates for editing and writing have not risen at all. Not even to reflect the cost of living or inflation. In fact, if you consider those two factors, they've actually decreased. There's a lot of work out there for freelance editors, but you should see the griping on the discussion board of the Editorial Freelancers Association.  It's not that we're unhappy about the amount of work, but we're really unhappy about what people want to pay us for our skills and years of experience, and the fact that so many of our clients, even big publishing companies, make us wait 30 to 90 days after submitting an invoice for a paycheck. Until recently, freelancers have had no union or organization to protect them, and why should we need one? Because too many employers want something for nothing.

That's not even my main source of income now, nor the one that concerns me most. My real complaint is the structure and disparity of pay in the post-secondary educational system. This is just one of many places where the capitalistic model has run amok. When I was in grad school in the early 80s, very little teaching was done by adjuncts. Community colleges were populated by teachers with master's degrees, and the PhDs taught at 4-year and graduate institutions. Now, there is such a glut of doctorates (thanks in part to the misleading advising of professors, who seem not to realize that the market isn't infinite), that community colleges regularly require a doctorate for new hires. Worse, as much as 60% of any department's classes are taught by adjuncts now, people with advanced degrees who are limited by policy from most of the rights and privileges of being an academic: no tenure, no job security, no opportunities for research support, and most importantly, no employment benefits. Oh, and did I mention the the wretched pay scale?

When I worAdjunctsked in industry, my skills as an editor and layout designer were billed out at between $60 and $90/hour. Obviously, I didn't make that much myself, but that's what I was worth. Most editorial work goes for about $35/hour, unless it's highly technical or science editing which is far better paid. When I first started teaching as an adjunct at a community college in New Jersey in the 90s, I was paid $1200 for a three-credit class running four months and meeting for 180 minutes a week, and that's not unusual. At one school I recently taught at, I was paid about $1800 for a four credit course that met for about the same number of minutes each week. That's just the gross pay, not the net. and that amounts to about $30/contact hour, the hours I'm actually in class—far less if you include the hours I work outside of class. Neither of those jobs provided me with an office where I could meet students or keep my books or even required me to keep office hours, much less paid me for them. But good teachers always have office hours, always make time to see their students. I can't tell you how much totally unpaid tutoring I've done.

At universities with unions, the pay is much better ($1200 a credit, rather than a class), and so are the working conditions. But I still have no access to affordable health insurance, no job security of any kind (imagine not knowing if your job was going to disappear every four months), and often, my schedule is so crazy that I spend four to six hours on the road just getting to the various places I teach. Needless to say, this makes going to faculty meetings or seminars or anything that might make me better teacher nearly impossible. Not to mention how it isolates you from the rest of the faculty. Just as an example, a couple of years ago I was teaching in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, not all on the same day, but the Staten Island and Bronx jobs were. That meant I left the Bronx in the morning, took a train and an express bus to Staten Island, where I also took a campus bus to my class, taught a three-hour class, had office hours, and took the bus, a ferry, and another train to the Bronx, taught another three-hour class, and took a bus home. If I didn't catch the right ferry, I was late for the Bronx class, so it was always stressful. And the commute was never less than two hours. Now, I have an hour and a half commute to New Jersey for a job that pays well, but not well enough for me not to have to teach somewhere else too, because I'm restricted to 6 credits or two classes. With three, I could actually make a good living.

The adjunct system is good for university endowments, and bad for its students and faculty. The constant searching for, hiring, and class observations of adjuncts, most of whom are transient doctoral students, takes time that department heads and committees could better spend on department administration. Adjuncts are less available to their students, and have less time to spend developing their courses or teaching methods. Many of them are untried as teachers, and don't have much supervision the way we did as teaching assistants at Michigan State. But by god we're cheap, and the administration likes that. In many places, we're as faceless and interchangeable as factory labor, without unions to protect us from lousy pay and long working hours.

Replacing regular tenured faculty with the cheap labor of adjuncts is the equivalent of outsourcing jobs overseas, or hiring illegals to pick your produce. But we're not talking about consumer products here. Education is not a consumer business, though we've led students to believe it is. "I pay this much tuition, I damn well better get good grades," many of them seem to think. They've been led to believe that the value in what they're getting is in their GPA, not in gaining skills or knowledge or learning how to think for themselves. In part, that's another issue, but it's one that has sprung out of the idea that the education is a business, not an art or a service. The product model of education is bankrupt and is bankrupting our future by making students believe that we can just "give" them an education, that they can just "buy" it, not that they have to work for it. Using adjuncts to replace tenured faculty exacerbates this attitude by offering them sometimes-shoddy teaching, and removing the opportunity for them to develop any kind of mentoring relationship with someone they may really feel they learn from. Many of the students I taught in the Bronx were deeply disappointed that I wasn't going to be there this semester to teach a required class I usually teach. One of them begged me to let her email me her paper for some help. How could I say no? I love working at that school because of them, but I can't afford to work there because, even with the maximum number of classes, I can't pay my bills each month.

Let me repeat that, because it's what's fundamentally wrong here: Even if I teach the maximum number of classes (3) I'm allowed, even with with a special dispensation for an extra class, and a class or two at another institution, I cannot pay my very modest bills, let alone save anything, or afford health insurance. Four to five classes are considered a full-time load. Even with that, I am barely getting by.

This is what the 99% are pissed about.

The social contract used to be that if you worked hard, got an education, and found a job, you could make a decent living. That is no longer true. You can work hard, get an education, find not one job, but two or three, and still live at the poverty level with no sense of security. Now, my choices to work part time instead of full time earlier in my life have given me less security for the future than most people, and that was my choice. I'm not complaining about that; I knew what I was doing when I did it. What is deeply wrong, however, is that so many of us must work extravagant hours well beyond the 40 hour work week to even keep your head above water. There is no getting ahead anymore, except for a very few. Costs have risen, wages have fallen, and the middle class seems to be paying for almost everything.

Taxes that should go to infrastructure go instead to the military industrial complex for unnecessary wars. And the people who use that infrastructure the most don't help pay for its upkeep. Sure, we all use in the infrastructure: roads, dams, railroads, telecom, electricity. But without that infrastructure, no business would even get off the ground, let alone grow to become a multimillion or -billion dollar enterprise. As I said in a conversation on Facebook, shipping companies, not cars, beat the roads and bridges to pieces . Bandwidth is eaten up by corporations, not private users (it's why they're trying to suppress streaming video--because it cuts into their usage). Corporations are the largest consumers of electricity (who leaves all those lights on in the skyscrapers?). Passenger trains make way for freight, which is what the majority of rail traffic is. Harbor facilities are almost exclusively for shipping and freight now, with a little bit of passenger traffic. Even airlines make more money from cargo than passengers. And who craps up the water? I'm not dumping any chemicals down my toilet, are you? The heaviest users need to pay the heaviest "fee," in taxes, for that usage. It makes their wealth possible.

Balance-the-budgetNot to mention that we, the workers—the teachers who educate them; the technicians who keep the equipment running; the people at the CAD station doing the specs and on the production line following them; the salespeople on the road; the marketers and graphic artists who provide the sales materials; the packagers, truck drivers, train engineers, and other shippers and delivery people; the HR people who keep employees happy and bargain for the best benefits; and the people who manage these people, are all doing the actual work. Without them, commerce grinds to a halt. We're not asking for anything more than our fair share of your success, 1%. We all helped make you what you are. This goes for the Masters of the Universe who do nothing more than move that capital around. Why do they earn so much for producing nothing tangible, especially when they have the power to wreck entire nations, and aren't afraid to do it? Capitalism is as much a group effort as Socialism; Socialism just distributes the rewards more equitably. What we have now looks more and more like feudalism.

And this isn't even touching on the corruption of our representatives by PAC money, or the safety net we all, as moral human beings, owe the weakest members of our society. Without a sense of obligation to one another, we are worse than animals. This is what bothers me about the so-called 53%, many of whom have the attitude that "I work hard and get by. The rest of you are just whiners." There is a shocking lack of empathy or foresight in that attitude. How stupid do you have to be to realize that if you're hit by a truck tomorrow and paralyzed from the waist down, your working days at your three jobs are over? Do you really want your alternatives to be begging in the street or a private charity poor house? None of us are immune to disaster or misfortune. Some of us, in fact, are born into it and have no power to change it for the first 18 years of our lives. The cold-hearted selfishness of this "I've got mine, screw the rest of you" attitude sickens me, and millions of others.

I've made choices in my life that leave me more vulnerable financially than many, and I'm willing to shoulder that responsibility. All I want is the opportunity to make a decent living at something I'm very good at doing. I don't want a handout, or even a hand up. All I want, all most of us want, is a fair shake for our own efforts.


Grade This, Motherf%#@&*!

TeacherMoiI went off on my College Prep students last night. They've been a troublesome group and that's been only partially their fault. This half semester has been full of breaks and holidays and every time I'd get a momentum going, we'd have a break and lose it. Labor Day, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Columbus Day—every other week, it seemed we had a holiday. It's also been troublesome because I'm not teaching all of the class. I don't mind team teaching, but I think it's a mistake to break these two components—reading and writing—apart, and treat them as though they don't influence each other. And the only reason I'm team teaching is because CUNY, like most universities, limits the number of hours adjuncts can be in the classroom, even though they've increased the instructional hours of the course itself. That's just fucked up on at least two levels: not only does it prevent adjuncts from making a decent living by teaching at a single school rather than at least two, it causes stupid bureaucratic snafus like this one, which hurt students.

But I digress.

I went off on my students last night because when I told them my recommendations about their opportunity to take the CUNY assessement test are due next week, one of them said, "well why should we bother coming back after that?" And I lost it. Sarcasm on full bore, I responded, "because you might possibly still learn something." And then I gave them my patented five-minute lecture about why college is not about grades, it's about knowledge and learning, and how little your GPA matters in the grand scheme of things, and how they're only cheating themselves if they put nothing into the effort of learning.

This fixation on grades is pretty common among high school students and undergraduates. I remember having it myself. But I also remember the moment I realized what bullshit it is. I'd completely blown the final in one of my biology classes, not because I didn't know the material, but simply because it was finals week and my brain seized up like an unoiled engine. All the information was actually in there; I just couldn't get it to come out in coherent sentences or filling in the blanks. I left most of the test blank, in fact, something I never do, because I was just blank myself. Even my prof asked me what was wrong when I handed it in. But I realized as I walked out of the test totally frustrated, that it didn't really matter, ultimately, because I knew I'd learned a lot. I could have gotten at least a B on that exam if my brain hadn't turned to a gooey frozen treat. But that didn't lessen the amount of knowledge I had in my head. And neither did the C I got in the class, though it didn't reflect what I actually knew, either.

And that's why grades as the main focus of academic learning are bullshit. With the crazy emphasis on assessment and test scores that is prevalent in elementary and secondary ed today, it's no wonder students are all about grades. And that does them a disservice too. The best thing you can teach a kid at that age (the earlier, the better) is to love learning. To be curious, rapacious, even, for knowledge. Because the grades follow from that. Grades are just an imperfect tool for trying to see how much of what you've thrown at the wall stuck, and sometimes for how students will use those facts for good or evil.

There's no test that's ever been devised for how that knowledge will shape that student's pursuits, personality, or their actual life outside school, and that's what's really important. Did you learn to think for yourself? Did you learn how to apply reason to your questions? Did you learn something about how the world works beyond the theories? Did you learn the weaknesses of theory without practice and experience? Did you learn how to be kinder? Did you learn how to see and hear and appreciate beauty in its diversity? Did you learn how to step back and see the big picture and where the small picture fits into it? Did you learn from our past mistakes, or at least how to recognize those mistakes?

Those abstractions are the foundation of everything else. And you can't grade those. You can only mourn their lack in the world we've created without them.

 


Ten Years Later—Light and Shadow

9-11Moi So it's ten years ago today, as the media has been pounding home to us for at least a month. I know everyone has been thinking about it though, regardless of the media. Decades seem to have a special significance for us. Me, I'm avoiding all the commemorations like the plague. Not because I'm indifferent, but because this still bothers me a lot more than I thought it would, ten years later, and I don't like sobbing in public with strangers. So I'll stay home and write about it, instead.

Rubble-public domain-Michael RiegerIn the early days just after Ten Years Ago, the first thing I would do in the morning is open the curtains wide and pull up the shades to let in the light. The weather was glorious: mild and sunny and dry and the breeze carried the smell of burning electrical systems and worse things over the river and into my top floor apartment. My windows faced east and west then, so I couldn't see the smoke, but that didn't keep it out of my apartment. Ten years later, I wonder how many toxins I absorbed then, and how much of other people's DNA ended up in my lungs. Not enough to make me sick, like many of the people who worked at the site without respirators or even masks afterwards, but enough to make me, all of us who breathed that in, funerary vessels.

Letting in the light seemed so important to me that I was almost frantic to do so every morning. I think I knew even then we were heading for some dark times. Bush and Cheney et al were still unknown quantities, but the bumbled reaction and instant jingoism didn't bode well. Already there were stories of people beating up anyone who looked like they might be Muslim. I'd read enough history by then to know that the first thing people do in this kind of situation is look for scapegoats and someone to blame. And the more people to blame, the better. So hating Muslims was suddenly "in." All those windows in the Towers shattering suddenly sounded like a Kristallnacht for Muslims.

When I called my folks and let them know I was all right, my dad answered in a voice I seldom heard him use, unless he was telling unhappy war stories, the ones that didn't involve bars and Herman Caretta, his drinking buddy. I think he'd seen the handbasket arrive, too. Mom felt sure this was a preview of the Apocalypse and I had to be ready for it. I remember yelling at her, "You can't prepare for anything like this!" And you can't. Even if you know, rationally, that it might happen, that doesn't prepare you for the emotional response to it. Nothing can. It's purely visceral, glandular, the reactions of the lizard brain.

All you can do is search for the light, afterwards.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of darkness. Not just the knee-jerk bigotry, but an unscrupulous grab for unprecedented power by a few people in the government and trampled civil liberties: warrantless wiretapping, an attempt to get booksellers and librarians to spy on their customers and patrons, the other dangerous absurdities of the grossly misnamed Patriot Act, and worse. Guantanamo Bay. Extraordinary rendition. Water-boarding. Flouting the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. The U.S. sliding slowly into Fascism and hate. The invasion of a whole nation in a hunt for one man. Not to mention blind support for an ill-conceived war undertaken under false pretenses. That we started. We started a war.

Ten years later, we finally got the great thinker behind the act. And the terrorists have decided they'd like to mark the anniversary with another attack, so there are armed soldiers and police everywhere. But the "War on Terror" has become a permanent fixture, with no end in sight. The new normal. This all seems strangely familiar to a child who grew up in the 60s with a father working for the military.

What's missing this time around seems to be the outrage. At first, fear kept many of us going along with the government, doing exactly what Benjamin Franklin warned against when he said, "They who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Cops and firemen and Cantor Fitzgerald didn't die so the government could take away our rights to free speech, protest, assembly, and privacy. Why are we not more angry about that? Dissent is not treason or unpatriotic. Lack of dissent is. Blind patriotism is the tool of dictators.

Not only did our civil rights come under attack so a small group of ideologues could expand their powers, but those same ideologues outright lied to New Yorkers about the health risks of the aftermath. I was working at an environmental consulting firm (who later wrote the environmental impact statement for the rebuilding of the Towers), and by then I knew enough about what goes into buildings to know that air couldn't possibly be safe to breathe. The first thing our company did was hand out the respirators and masks we had to workers down at the Pile. The buildings were full of asbestos and dioxin. Even the concrete particulates in the dust was dangerous in such concentration. Here's how Scott Simon describes the air down there in his report for NPR:

The air downtown: thick, stinging, gritty, and filled with fragments of life still floating from the world as it was shortly before 9 a.m. on 9/11. Atomized smithereens of bricks, glass and steel, office papers, coffee cup lids, half-bagels with a schmear, Yankee hats, wedding bands, sugar packets, shoes and human slivers in a stinging, silvery vapor that made you cough and cry.

New documents are still surfacing that show the federal response to monitoring was disingenuous at best, and completely false at worst. You can search the original documents here, thanks to Pro Publica. Mother Jones points out that,

Within days of the twin towers' collapse, when the air was heaviest with asbestos and dioxin, a warning that office workers in New York's Financial District might be at risk if they returned to their workplaces was removed from public statements at the request of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Better to keep up a good image and hurt your own people than admit that the terrorists really fucked us over. This is something that dictatorships often do: they, like the Wizard of Oz, want to make the rest of the world think that they're infallible and all-powerful and they've got everything under control, even in a disaster. China and North Korea both do this on a regular basis. There, I suspect it's more about losing face as leaders than here, where it is an attempt to whitewash incompetency (cf. Hurricane Katrina). Before analyses could even be completed, Christie Whitman, then head of the EPA, was telling us the air was fine. Hard to backtrack later and say, "Whoops, we were wrong. You all inhaled a significant amount of toxins, carcinogens, and biological debris."

And we're still, despite having ushered in a new, more liberal president, illegally kidnapping, detaining, torturing, and in some cases, barring from returning home American citizens. You thought extraordinary rendition ended? Now we have "rendition lite." It's still American citizens being detained on foreign soil without access to lawyers, which ought to scare you. Because if our government can imprison any American citizen without cause, they can imprison all of us, for any reason, or none at all. You, too, can be "disappeared."

So is there any light?

There's always light. One of the most beautiful things that happened during 9/11 was the outpouring of sympathy and support from around the world. We've large spent that goodwill now, but it was fantastic while it lasted. Also beautiful, and somehow more heartening, was the way New Yorkers responded to each other: with compassion and kindness, with hard work and an overwhelming generosity. It didn't last at that initial intensity, as such things don't, but I think it made others look at us differently, and I think it made New Yorkers see each other a little differently. When the rest of the country was calling for an invasion of Afghanistan, the anti-war voice was loud here. We'd had a brief taste of what war was like and wanted none of it for anyone else, even our enemies. We wanted justice, not the slaughter of more innocents. I won't say it made us kinder or gentler—as a guy I conversed with on the bus Friday said, "We're not cold, we're busy." We're always going to be busy because that's what the city's like. But we're a little more forgiving, I think. A little calmer. And a little more proud of ourselves.

One thing that New York does, by and large, is get along. We've had some stupid moments over the last ten years, like the completely artificial brouhaha kicked up about the Ground Zero mosque that isn't a mosque or even on Ground Zero. (And I want to say to some of the victims' families: it is not always about you. This was a national tragedy, not just your personal tragedy. You don't have sole rights to framing it or interpreting it. Nobody does.) One of my first conscious reactions to the attack was to join the Southern Poverty Law Center's organization, Teaching Tolerance, which I continue to support. And a couple of years after the attacks, I moved from my largely Puerto Rican block in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to a neighborhood in the Bronx that's full of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Afghans. Not by design; it just happened that way. But I'm glad it did. Some are Hindu, but most are Muslims. There are women wearing the full black burqa and girls in just the hijab, and men in the long tunics and pants as well as western dress. There's an African Muslim center a couple of blocks away, near the synagogue and on the same street as the Baptist church. They're unfailingly nice people. But I see some wariness in their eyes that saddens me too, and makes videos like this necessary:

I don't know if 9/11 and the attacks elsewhere in the world have made us more aware of our foreign policy. I think it definitely made us feel less invulnerable, and that's never a bad thing. Invicibility leads to arrogance, and there's enough of that in the world. On the other hand, maybe our resilience, our insistence on plugging along with participatory democracy, as imperfect as it is, on continuing to voice our displeasure at our elected officials in the face of the drift toward fascism has given new urgency and heart to others. I'm excited by the Arab Spring. The hard work is still ahead, but so much of it was accomplished non-violently that that gives me hope too. It's a little light in the darkness too, when people start to take their governance into their own hands, and start thinking about human rights. There are going to be huge bumps in the road, maybe even some detours, but they've started on the journey to a more perfect union. We need to rethink the road we're on, too.

In the end, what it all boils down to is Kurt Vonnegut's words: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." None of this shit would ever have happened if we were all kind to each other. If we learned nothing else from this event, it should be the need for unconditional love and compassion.

On today of all days, people, love your neighbors. And your enemies.


Memorial Day and Me

RadicalMoi I have an uneasy relationship with Memorial Day and Veterans Day. On the one hand, my dad, Louis, was a WWII vet who made a career of the armed forces. He joined the Army Air Corps, was a belly gunner in a bomber for a while, and served in the Berlin Airlift. He stayed in the service until the early 60s, then worked as a civilian mechanic for the Air Force for another 20 years until he retired. He was proud of his service, but he got out purposefully when Vietnam started heating up. I think he saw the writing on the wall and had had enough of fighting, much as he enjoyed the camaraderie and fixing airplanes.

Most the of the stories he told about the war were drinking stories, how he and Herman Kareta (whose last name I'm spelling phonetically) went out on the town and barely avoided the MPs, or didn't, quite. But every now and then, he'd let something slip that showed it hadn't been one big pub crawl: he and his buddies giving their rations away to the hungry kids in Berlin; watching a fellow belly gunner's remains being hosed out of the turret after an engagement. Sometimes it was stray remarks in response to the news, like wondering how Lt. Calley could look himself in the face in the morning. And he had a clear idea of why he'd joined up to fight Nazis, even though his family was German-Hungarian, and he spoke German. Like most first generation immigrants, he was fiercely loyal to the country he'd been born in, and an assimilationist. When my mother, a Jehovah's Witness, was browbeaten by nurses or doctors about taking blood transfusions, he stood by her and supported her decision, even when it meant he might be raising a newborn by himself or lose his wife to cancer. "That's what I fought for," he said, "the right to freedom of religion." When we opened the prison at Guantanamo Bay and started stuffing it full of "enemy combatants" and then torturing them for information, he was just as sure that that wasn't what he'd fought for. The trampling of civil rights infuriated him and he was willing to go to the wall to protect them.

On the other hand, I've been a believer in non-violence all my life. The men in the religion I grew up with went to prison rather than be forced to kill other people. I admired that conviction and the willingness to pay the price for it. During Vietnam, I had cousins who  worked as hospital orderlies at the order of the courts for resisting the draft. One of the elders in my congregation had spent time in prison for refusing to support in any way the same war my dad fought in. "Thou shalt not kill" was not a negotiable order, and it never seemed like a first choice for resolving political differences to me. Violence makes people fearful, and fear makes people act without empathy or compassion. And war is a great method of social control, as Orwell makes so evident in 1984.

But as I've gotten older, my pacifist position has acquired a lot of gray areas. I'm not sure that something like non-violent resistance would have worked with  the Nazis. Non-violence is great for effecting social change, for toppling tyrannical regimes, but not so much for stopping empire-makers with serious weapons. I still think our invasions of Vietnam and Iraq were wrong. I think we were foolish to get involved in the morass that is Afghanistan, though the alternative seems to be a failed state on par with Somalia. I'm divided about our intervention in Libya. If I could believe it was purely for the sake of the civilians who are being shelled by Qadaffi, I'd feel better about it, but there's oil involved and always is in the Middle East.

I don't much like even the idea of a standing army, and certainly not of a draft on par with what Israel now has and we used to. But if you're poor, the armed forces can be a great way to learn a skill and pull yourself up out of poverty, especially in peace time. But because of that, in war time, the casualties tend to be the working poor and minorities, too. And most wars now tend to be about money, somebody else's money, usually.

But fighting, as my dad did, to stop invading aggressors in land-grabs, to fight for principles you believe in—free speech, a free press, an equal chance for everyone, the inherent values of human life—that seems worth it. Dad certainly felt it was, and I'm grateful he and others did. But I'm bitterly opposed to the current wars we're in, and I wish people would stop signing up for these conflicts. I wish the rich people and the movers and shakers would stop expecting poor people to fight for their bank accounts, and I wish even those who just wish to serve their country would wise up and realize patriotism has nothing to do with supporting a corrupt government. Because sending people off to die in Iraq and Afghanistan is no better than organized crime sending its "soldiers" to hit another mob. Lives aren't dollars for businessmen to spend in pursuit of their bottom line.

So on this Memorial Day, thanks to Dad and his contemporaries and sympathy for the people fighting yet another commercial war devoid of principles. Get out while you can.

 

 


The Road to Hell

RadicalMoi Many years ago before I'd left college, I read an article about the "Me" generation, questioning what kind of world this newly affluent, comfortable, coddled, self-centered group of people would make in the coming years. I'm at the tail-end of the Boomer generation and missed most of the stuff I would have liked to participate in: anti-war protests, Woodstock, feminist marches, in part because of my age, and in part because of who I was then. But I was lucky to grow up with the benefits of a generation who though that government should have more of a role in our lives than just providing for the protecton of the country. I went to good public schools. I benefitted from new highways built in our rural area, and the streetlights that came with it. I had decent food, safe medicines, buses to take me to school. We never needed it, but some of my friends made use of welfare programs that kept food on the table and clothes on their backs in one of the poorest counties in Michigan, one that had no industry and few jobs that weren't tied to farming or tourism. But as more of my generation joined politicis, there was a constant tug of war between those who felt some social responsibility toward their fellow humans, and those who just wanted to get everything they could for themselves. It's not entirely a clear-cut division along party lines but it's definitely a liberal-conservative split.

The current budget slashing is just an extreme example of it. And so much of it seems penny-wise and pound foolish. Out go funds for Planned Parenthood, which provides not just abortions (a small fraction of their service costs), but family planning which helps keep people from having too many kids that they can't support. Out goes funding for public broadcasting, which supports a number of educational programs for children that commercial TV wouldn't touch, giving them a boost up the ladder to help them succeed in school. Stripping the FCC of power to regulate the airwaves assures that only those who can pay for internet access will get it, leaving a huge number of rural and urban poor out of the greatest communication and information revolution in human history, and giving other countries a huge education advantage. South Korea has more people with broadband internet access than we do. This is not really a war about ideology. Or rather, it's a war about a different kind of ideology than we commonly think it is. Sad to say, it's really a war between compassion and privilege.

Say No to Government in Medicare I'm not even talking about the haves vs. the have-nots. A lot of the folks who are screaming bloody murder against what they call big government, are not particularly well-off themselves. Some of them are middle class folks who got screwed by Wall Street and are turning their anger on the government. Some of them are the working poor who feel that "other people" (read: minorities) are getting more of their share than they should be. But most of them feel put-upon in some way, and feel they're being taxed to death for things they don't use, or that the government is somehow interfering in their lives for no good reason. And yet many of them fail to realize they are recipients of that same government's investments in infrastructure (things as basic as sidewalks and highways) and the bare bones safety net of programs like Medicare. When you see protesters carrying signs against Big Government that say "Keep Govt. Out of my Medicare" the cognitive dissonance just boggles. Who do they think provides it in the first place? There's not some privately owned or publicly traded insurance company called Medicare.

There are very few people still alive who remember what it was like without any safety net at all, before Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and various welfare programs existed, or before government took a hand in regulating the safety of food, drugs, dangerous manufacturing industries, and enforced building codes, before unions helped guarantee a decent living wage for workers. If you want to see what that's like, spend some time in China, which is now undergoing its own early industrial period similar to the age of the Robber Barons here.

For example, take a look at coal mining, one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. According to the Dept. of Labor, a total of 71 miners died last year in the U.S.

In 2010, 19 coal miners in addition to the 29 who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine were killed in mining accidents. Twenty-three miners in the metal and nonmetal mining industry also died in mining accidents – 45 percent were contractors. Not including the Upper Big Branch-related deaths, it appears that more than half of the 42 additional miners died in accidents involving violations of the Rules to Live By standards.

1907, the year the Bureau of Mines was created, saw the deaths of 362 miners in one disaster alone. By contrast, in 2008, 3,215 miners died in Chinese coal mine disasters alone (down from 5,986 in 2005), not including other mining disasters. China has a huge number of small coal mines, many illegal and under the radar, but even their large official mines do not have the safety regulations ours do. Our government decided that mine owners did not have their workers' best interests at heart and stepped in to regulate safety codes. Whenever those rules are disregarded, people die. That's one of the benefits of so-called Big Government. That's why we elect people: to represent our interests where we're powerless to do so.

Take away the govenrment's ability to regulate, to fund where market forces would not, to provide a safety net for the poor and powerless, and you would live in the country of snake-oil salesmen, company towns, disease epidemics, and grinding poverty, a country without decent highways, police, fire fighters, or health care for anyone who could not pay.We've experienced that in the Great Depression, in the Dust Bowl, in the Pinkerton strikes, in the years of labor organizing. Why would we want to go back to that? Are the people crying for the end of Big Government merely short-sighted or more selfish than even the Robber Barons?

What saddens me about this turn of events in American history is the utter lack of compassion it demonstrates. We've put such a high price on independence and self-reliance that we fail to see our obligations to each other and our interconnectedness. Social institutions that provide services for the poor have always been with us, whether private, religious, or governmental. Behind those institutions are people who are well-aware that not everyone is as lucky, capable, or healthy as they are, people who are privileged by class, income, intelligence, or race to be able to make it on their own. But with 45% of the wealth in this country concentrated in the hands of 1% of the population, do any of us really think private funding is going to pick up the slack? I don't see anyone stepping up to help cover health care costs for those who can't afford it. Oh, in individual cases, yes, but no one is stepping up to offer affordable health insurance for the 45 million of us who are unable to afford its currently exorbitant rates. I see new cell phone towers going up but not much in areas that don't have enough customers to recoup the cost. This is what government does: builds infrastructure and funds programs that are not all about the bottom line.

I'm all for austerity measures, and I'm willing to bite the bullet myself, but when you are already in the lower brackets of income, there's not much bullet left to bite. Austerity for the rich is not austerity for the poor. And when you ask the poor and the middle class to bear the brunt of the tax burden AND the austerity measures, you are risking exactly what's happening in the Middle East right now. People who are unemployed, unable to pay their bills, unable to put food on the table, afford a place to live or send their kids to school have nothing to lose, and the rich have everything. Spreading the wealth around via taxation and government sponsored social programs keeps everybody happy. If the rich are not going to help support the society in which they live, and from which they benefit, they deserve neither its privileges nor its protection, and certainly not its accolades.

That 1% of the wealthy are happy to make money off of the rest of us, but they don't give back much. This is not to say that all the wealthy are, by definition, greedy bastards. But it's interesting that FDR, one of our most socially conscious presidents, was considered "a traitor to his class" and that the Kennedys are so much more the exception than the rule. Even Andrew Carnegie must be ashamed of the current crop of super-rich. And the anti-government fools are happy to help them.

It's not your party that matters. It's not your religion. It's not how much money you have or don't have. It's how much empathy you have for the people around you: your next door neighbor, the people on your block, in your town, in your city, whether you know them personally or not. The new motto of this country seems to be "I"ve got mine. Fuck the rest of you." And that's just sad.


Sticks and Stones

Depressed Moi Sticks and stones/may break your bones/but [words] will never hurt you.

The news is pretty grim this week, after the shootings in Arizona, and there's a lot of rhetoric about rhetoric floating around as well, some of it on the left just as vituperative as on the right. It looks like the shooter was mentally unbalanced, but when can that not be said about any shooter of fellow humans? It takes a certain insanity to want to end another person's life for any other reason than self-defense (and I wonder if that impulse isn't just to get the person attacking you to stop, any way you can, rather than a conscious, specifically you-or-me life-and-death choice). Assassination, however, which is what this was, is particularly cold and calculating and abhorrent, even when mixed up with mental illness.

Palin Graffito The big question on everyone's mind is how much the current poisonous atmosphere of hate and recrimination and vitriol (a favorite word to fling around) contributed to the mindset of the shooter. He seemed to be fixated on Congresswoman Giffords, and the other casualties occurred mostly because he had more rounds in his gun. His own ramblings were, as has been pointed out, "straight out of the Right-Wing Insanity Handbook," as William Pitt says on Truthout, above. Loughner seems enamored of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas, but whether the crosshairs posted by Sarah Palin or her "don't retreat, reload" (half-)witticism influenced him to pull the trigger will be impossible to determine.

Motive is always murky, even when the actor is not mentally disturbed. Do any of us truly know why we do what we do? What things in our lives make us act the way we do? It's just handy but standard procedure to blame our parents, blame society, blame our siblings, blame our neighbors, but none of us, except the truly mentally incapacitated, can escape personal responsibility. How much Loughner's capacity is diminished hasn't yet been determined, so his amount of personal responsibility can't yet be apportioned.

But those of us who aren't of diminished mental capacity, who function just fine in the world, who get up every morning and go to work, take care of our kids, pay the mortgage, vote, complain about the government, volunteer, and think of ourselves as decent human beings, what kind of responsibility do we bear for others violence? When does a nation become . . . a mob?

It's very hard not to hate someone who threatens your way of life and your cherished personal beliefs, and hate is a catalyst for anger. The knee-jerk reaction is usually along the lines of "what the fuck is wrong with you? Are you crazy? You idiot!" We're defending our territory and some of that territory is very personal: health care, the apportionment of wealth, education, our personal pet hobbyhorses. I get a little crazed when people try to tell me vaccines are the cause of autism and a product of a government conspiracy, because I'd really rather not see the spread of things like small pox, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, scarlet fever, chicken pox, shingles, pneumonia, and influenza kill or maim or even sicken anybody. It scares me on a visceral level, and that's never a good place from which to begin a reasonable discussion. Religious discussions tend to get heated for the same reason: the outcome, in believers' minds has to do with nothing less than life and death, not to mention the afterlife. When we are threatened on such a basic level, rationality and civility take a back seat.

But it's disingenuous to say that language that uses violence as a metaphor cannot be taken seriously. For Palin to claim “We know violence isn’t the answer. . . . When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our votes,” is worse than disingenuous, it's ignorant. Never mind that we don't know, really, who she means by that pronoun "we" and neither can she. One need only look at history for examples of how "coded" and seemingly innocent remarks  like the "second amendment solutions" and symbolic crosshairs can turn to violence. Anybody remember Thomas Becket?

Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, when one of the major issues (as it continued to be through the reign of Henry VIII), was the power and rights of the Church in England. Becket claimed the papacy's primacy in trying clerics for anything up to and including murder; Henry, busily reforming England's legal structure, claimed that right for his civil courts. Though appointed by Henry, Becket's conscience dictated that his loyalties and best interests resided with the papacy. Henry found this rather annoying, to say the least.

Whether Henry actually made that peevish, offhand remark from his sickbed—"Will no one rid me of this turbulent (or "troublesome" or "meddlesome") priest?"—or whether it was a taunting annoyance with his own courtiers, as Becket's contemporary biographer (and witness to the assassination) claims (""What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"), it led to the murder of a political figure struggling with Henry for the power of the kingdom. We'll never know if Henry made those remarks in a moment of frustration or calculatedly, knowing his word was law and that someone would take the hint and "get rid" of Becket for him. The point is, the words were said, and acted upon. When you let words loose in the world, whether spoken or written, in a place where others have access to them, you have lost control of not just their interpretation, but of their consequences.

In this country, we have the right to say whatever we like, if it's not like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there isn't one. I posit that saying we should resort to "second amendment solutions" and similar rhetoric is the moral equivalent to that standard. Words like this are not just inflammatory but incendiary. In a country with slipshod regulation of guns, that's criminal behavior, too. There is such an offense as incitement. And while I believe that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to give the populace the means to protect itself from and, if necessary, rise up against a tyrannical government, picking off its representatives because you don't like what they say is not the best solution. I don't think we're in need of an armed insurrection. And that's not what this, or any other assassination we've experienced as a nation is.

We often exaggeratedly say "I could just kill X," or "So and so would be better off dead." because they frustrate or enrage us, and we know we don't really mean it. But sometimes, just for a moment, or maybe longer, we do. Worse, sometimes, somebody else thinks we mean it, and agrees, and has the means and will to make it so, and what we've said may be their tipping point or jusitification. Sometimes, that offhand remark is not much different than "get him!" That make us at the very least complicit, if not outright culpable.

Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

Street art by Eddie Colla. HT to Towleroad and Dennis Kleinsmith on Facebook.


Year Nine: The Best Thing We Can Do

9-11Moi
is go on,
perhaps not just as we were
but remembering
all the fallen
and who they loved,
not just the heroes,
because there are no heroes
without those
in need of rescue,
and all of them
are sacred:
just ordinary people
until that moment.

So much of that
is chance:
Get up ten minutes late
and the maelstrom
passes over—
as though there were blood
on your doorposts—
but wipes out your
job, your company,
your colleagues, strangers,
everyone
more punctual than you.
Where you might have stood
the air fills with the dust
of the dead and destroyed,
crystalline and ash at once,
poisoning the future.

Who you pray to
if  you pray
did not protect you.
The flames that descended
from heaven that day
were not holy, but
made by someone
who just wants to watch
the world burn.

–Sept. 11, 2010, Da Bronx

© Lee Kottner, 2010


random thoughts on the end of the decade

DreamingMoiHmm, it's been an interesting 10 years. In just about 6 months, I turn 50 and it seems to be making me a little philosophical in my old age. The last 10 years have been, in comparison to, say, my 30s, really good personally, despite some things most people would call tragedies but that I've come to see as either life stages or just ordinary events. I think I've grown and changed more in roughly the last decade than I have in the first 40, with the possible exception of childhood, when pretty much every human being grows and changes exponentially. It's not that I've gained so much more knowledge (though I hope I never stop learning new things), but that I've figured out what to do with what I already know, emotionally and otherwise.

Continue reading "random thoughts on the end of the decade" »


teaspoons and awakenings

Badgirl MoiAs I mentioned before, this has been a hellish semester, crammed with classes. My two writing labs just ended and I was looking forward to sleeping in on Wednesdays again, but now I've just acquired two more classes that meet on--guess when?--Wednesday morning. I'm filling in for another adjunct who's had a heart attack. Here's hoping I don't have one either. So I'm back up to five classes now, for another five weeks.

And sometimes I wonder why I"m doing this, and I wonder if I'm reaching anybody. My Modes and Logic classes at CNR have been fraught with fraughtness this semester, including a power struggle to get the media resources I need. The discussions, which are usually so lively there, have been like pulling teeth. Students have been falling asleep in class; we've all been sick as dogs. One of my students just found out she has small cell lung cancer. Another's been in the hospital off and on with asthma. The absenteeism has been alarming. And the coming in late pernicious.

Just when I'm ready to throw in the towel, something happens like what happened this morning, at the make-up class that was half-empty. Whatever stories I pick for this class, I try to teach them from a feminist, and a humanist, perspective. I want us to be able to talk about not just sexism, but racism, and class, and any other kind of discrimination and bigotry, because that's what so many of the great stories, and our stories, are all about. And I try to infuse those stories and the backgrounds to them with as much feminist theory as I've gleaned from my own readings (since there were no women's studies classes when I went to school) and relate them to our lives today. We talk about the limited choices women have been presented with, about the madonna/whore dichotomy we're saddled with, about how childcare and caring for everyone but ourselves is always our responsibility, how important education and economic independence are for women, and how even now women pay for their desires with their lives. I'm never sure it's sinking in, or making any sense, until I get comments like this:

As we're sitting waiting for the rest of the class and the AV equipment to show up, my one student who's always there when I walk in says to me, "you know, your class has really opened my eyes to a lot of new ideas about the way women are treated. You really got me thinking about that now." And as I'm doing a little happy dance inside, another student agrees and starts to relate how she's begun rebelling against the way her husband treats her as property, as something he has the right to rule over or boss around, and describes her most recent act of rebellion, which consisted of going out of the house wearing pants instead of a skirt, and giving him the stink-eye about it when she came home, all because of the way we've been talking about The Awakening, and "The Story of an Hour," and "Seventeen Syllables," and "The Lesson," and "Eveline."

Then I'm glad I got out of bed and shouldered my teaspoon and went to class. There's nothing like seeing feminist awakenings happen right under your nose to make it all worthwhile.


theory kills

WorldWearyMoi I've been having an interesting but frustrating discussion over on Facebook with a 26-year-old that's really making me feel my age in some ways. He's a proponent of free-market capitalism at its most extreme, a Libertarian wedded to the theory of complete government non-interference. Economists, I've concluded, are a strange bunch. The field is a combination of complexity studies, human psychology, and faith, as far as I can tell, though it leans very heavily on the latter, more than the former. Market behavior seems to be like gravity: everybody experiences it, but nobody knows what it is or how it works.

One thing that really sets us apart in this discussion is my lack of faith in theories. I'm not talking about things like scientific theories that explain natural laws, but theories of human behavior, whether they're theories of altruism, politics, criminal behavior, or economics. Humans are such complicated, complex systems individually that ascribing behavior to any single factor, no matter how complex it is itself, will always lead to exceptions. Our societies are such complex organisms that I'm not sure we'll every understand how even a large crowd works, let alone cities, states, or nations. The more I travel, the more true that seems to me. I've always been interested in what, exactly, goes into making of national character, and China really challenged me to define that as much as I could, which wasn't much. Simplified, US character vs. Chinese character is rugged individualism vs group harmony, but that's so simplified that it's actually worthless. What kind of groups do you have when everyone's an only child? When more and more Chinese are alone in cities rather than together on family farms? Theories like this are like statistics: you can make assumptions and predictions on a group level, but those predictions break down on an individual level.

Anyway, we've been arguing about universal healthcare. He thinks it's not a right, and I say it is and there's really no possibility of reconciliation of those two views. It seems to me that it is an excellent investment for any nation to ensure the health and education of its citizens, to increase their productivity. In his mind, the interference of government in our personal lives (i.e., demanding we help fund healthcare for those less fortunate than us) is more abhorrent than others going sick and possibly dying prematurely. He believes this should be funded voluntarily, which is a lovely thought. But I've learned over the years that people are not that generous, and not that kind. Sure, when asked to give in individual cases we very often come to the rescue and are happy to do so. But to ask us to fund a system for the faceless and unknown, for people we may not think deserve it, is ludicrous. I wish it weren't so, but it is. And this is where the role of government comes in: to push us, as Ted Kennedy so often did, beyond our base and selfish impulses to have compassion for people we do not even know. Unregulated systems are dangerous because they treat human beings and their lives as abstractions and numbers. Any theory about human behavior does this, even the theories that lead to helping people. Regulation provides, to some extent, a correction of that impulse. But what each system really needs is compassionate administrators to correct the rigidity of any system. This is not to say that we should all get what we want. Sometimes, what we want isn't necessary, but when you're gambling with people's lives, I think it's better to err on the side of generosity than strict adherence to law.

That's because a life of compassion is far more fulfilling, far better for everyone, than a life dedicated to theory. I don't think I've learned this just as a humanities teacher or student, but in the life experiences I've had too. I've been so down it looked like up to me, emotionally, physically, and financially. Yes, my friends pitched in, but I really could have used some help paying for that $35,000 worth of therapy that made me a productive citizen again. I still would have had to do the work involved, but the difficulty would have been halved. I don't regret the investment, but neither would my government. It's never a bad idea to invest in people, not to make them dependent, but to help them get where they want to go. The people who don't want to go anywhere? That's a different matter. But the people who can't and want to? Why would we not want to help? And in the case of healthcare, not helping them is tantamount to passive euthanasia: standing by while nature takes its course. Sometimes that's appropriate, but often it's not. Good healthcare decreases the burden on the state and the burden on its citizens.

And a little compassion never hurt anybody.


RIP Ted Kennedy

RadicalMoi Like FDR, a "traitor to his class" in the best ways, a crusader for the poor during his 47 years in the senate, a statesman, an unabashed Liberal even when it was a slur, a voice of reason and a flawed person, as all of us are. I'm afraid he's the last of his kind, and his passing robs the world of American politics of one of the last voices of reason, someone who considered politics not a way to amass power and prestige, but a duty, a service, a way to speak for the powerless. I'm not usually very sentimental about politicians, but I think Kennedy was a true humanitarian and there are too few of them in American politics now. I rarely think politics should be a career, but Kennedy's record of service proves the exception to the rule. I'm sad at his passing. I don't think there's anyone to fill his shoes. And that's both a crime and a source of shame.


one last story

ChinaMoiLotus I've been saving the best for last, not only because that's when it happened, but because it's a good place to sum up. I meant to get to it earlier, but my back has been out and I've been more or less flat on it when I'm not going to the chiropractor or getting a massage. It's also been unspeakably hot here in NYC (I miss my Harbin AC!), which never makes me happy. And the jet lag has been, in a word, awful: in bed at 9:30, up at 5:30. Ugh.

But all that inactivity has given me time to digest and distill the trip, and other people's questions have made me think about the highlights. To be honest, I have to say that China is still not my number one choice of places to go, but in all fairness, I saw a very small and untouristy part of the country. In many ways that's good: I got to meet people one normally wouldn't on a vacation and see more of the "real" China than tourists usually do. In another way, I feel a bit cheated; the area we were in was heavily Russian/Western influenced and not, I think, "typical" if there can be such a thing in a country as big as China. It's like coming to, say, Indianapolis and judging all of the US by it. Except that China has this very old culture, and much of Harbin felt, in comparison, quite new, even the parts that date back to the 19th Century. Because in 3,000 years of history, that's pretty darn new.

One of the things I'm coming to realize now, looking back, is how entrenched that culture is. The sense of continuity is like oil on water. Sure there have been wars, but they seem to have the air (and this just may be my ignorance) of wars of succession, rather than wars of revolution. Even Mao, whose ideas truly were revolutionary, didn't completely succeed in upending thousands of years of culture. The Imperial bureaucracy is still there; only the name has really changed. If there's any one reason for that (and there never is), I think it boils down to the contrast between the western desire for progress and change and the Chinese respect for the past and tradition. I think that reverence for the past made China lose some of the momentum it once had in science and technology. Turning inward will do that. But what I didn't see in physical culture was more than made up for by the wonderful people I met, something I would not have been able to do on a regular tourist jaunt. China's people, if the ones I met are any indication, are its real treasure.

And that reverence for the past still produces some astonishing contemporary art, which I found out when Li Liqing took me to the Art and Culture center not far from campus. This was a kind of mini-mall for artists, two stories tall, with small studios/galleries for individual artists. The first floor was mostly jade, furniture, and ceramics (with a pet store and flower shop thrown in for good measure, probably to feed all the koi in the various displays), and the top floor was mostly painters and calligraphers. Not all the art was Chinese style; there were a number of oil painters doing landscapes in the western style as well.

CalligraphyTools I'd been asking around at dinner to see if anyone knew where to buy calligraphy supplies, like ink sticks and ink grinding stones. It turned out that Li Liqing's niece was taking calligraphy lessons from a woman named Teacher Tang. She very kindly sold me some beautiful, handmade paper (100 large sheets for about $30!). Teacher Tang doesn't speak English but understood it well enough to realize that I recognized good paper and knew a little bit about calligraphy and the tools. Enthusiasm translates easily and she could tell I loved the paper. Teacher Tang then walked me over to another store where they sold me a quite nice ink stone with cranes carved on the lid and three ink sticks, all for about $45.

The ink sticks are works of art in themselves, and the largest one, which cost me about $10 (the smaller ones were about $1.50), has the most beautiful pine fragrance. Teacher Tang walked me through the grinding process and showed me how to hold the brush and very kindly offered to tutor me via the Chinese IM qq.com. I may take her up on it; or if I go back next year, just sign up for lessons while I'm there.

Li Liqing and I walked around the rest of the mall a little bit before we had to rush back to classes. The standout for me was a man doing ink paintings of wild horses. The brush strokes were extremely economical in the way Chinese ink paintings are, but I've never seen anything look as lively as his work did. I have a weakness for Chinese and Japanese horses anyway, and these left me gasping. I never got a chance to price them, but I suspect they were waaaaaay out of my league. Maybe next year.

Just before we came home, I asked Li Liqing to take me back to the calligraphy shop because I wasn't sure I could find it again, and because I needed an interpreter. Jan came along for the ride too, and we wandered around the showroom a bit more and bought some jade. We went back to Teacher Tang, and discovered Li Liqing's niece having a lesson. She's eight and was shy and stubbornly refused to "perform" (not that I blame her a bit. She did say hello in English though and went right back to her work.

NiHao I'd decided to buy a piece of calligraphy and watched a demo by one man whose style is that interesting messy freehand but his attitude turned me off. Most of the other stores were closed for the day (it was late on Friday) so we ended up back at Teacher Tang's where Li Liqing's niece had made a little piece of calligraphy for both Jan and I that said "Ni Hao" (hello), which Teacher Tang stamped with her own chop.(It's still wrinkly because I didn't have it dry mounted.)

It turns out Teacher Tang's father, who is now 80, is one of the top three calligraphers in Harbin and has collectors all over the world. She was happy to bring some of it out and show me. The first piece, translated roughly, said "books are treasure mountains" which could not have been more perfect for me. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement and made it clear that that was the one I wanted. It's beautiful calligraphy, crisp without being stiff, done on gold-speckled paper. (It's off for framing, or I'd post a picture.) I was so excited and pleased that Teacher Tang started to tear up and knocked 200 yuan off the price. Li Liqing kept saying that Teacher Tang was so touched by how much I appreciated Chinese culture, which is something I've heard again and again, whenever I expressed any interest in any aspect of Chinese art or history. Teacher Tang and I hugged each other and professed our respect and admiration for each other and I went off to dinner with Li Liqing.

Scroll-Marcy's That's where things got really amazing. I had my loot with me in a lovely green box and Jan and I were talking to the rest of Class D about our art purchases when Lin Tao (thanks to Jan for reminding me of his name) asked to see it. I pulled it out and he looked a little critical, asked what I paid for it (not considered rude in China) and then said he thought I paid too much (which is a pretty common conclusion, I suspect, when Westerners buy stuff in China). My response was that it didn't matter what it was actually worth because I loved it. That led to a longish discussion about the value of art and beautiful things and then art in general. At some point in that discussion, Lin Tao says, "I had no idea you had such respect for Chinese culture. I have something you should have." And he leaves the restaurant, goes home, and comes back about 20 minutes later with a six-foot long scroll of yellow silk, with a beautiful painting of chrysanthemums and bamboo and rock mounted on it. Lin Tao's uncle had done it and insisted that I should have it. Here's Marcy's pic of me all choked up, accepting my marvelous gift from Lin Tao, who's opposite me (that's Chang Juntao holding the top).

That's one of the top ten presents I've ever been given, from someone who was nearly a stranger. And that's pretty representative of the graciousness and kindness of the people I met, from new freshmen, to professors, administrators and people on the streets of Harbin. Damn, I'm choking up now, just thinking about it.

About a dozen people turned out on Thursday to see us off at 6 AM and Shuai Yong shepherded Elliott and I to the gate with several other HIT faculty members. We were asked to autograph four shirts for them, which I thought was hilarious, and given a CD with copies of the pics all the HIT faculty took when we were together. This was the note Shuai Yong attached to it:

Time flies.
I hope it gave the beautiful recollection to you in Harbin city.
I wish the past 3 weeks is just the beginning of our friendship. I miss those days very much. If God can give me another chance, I will say 3 words to everyone-I love you. If you have to give a time limit to this love, I hope it is 10 thousand years.
Let's keep in touch.

I would like to go back again, just to see the friends I made there, if I can't see more of the country. I would like to go back again in 10 years, in 20 years, and see what China has become. We can learn so much from each other about living and how to do things. I hope the Chinese government gets the hell out of the way of its own people. China will be a truly great nation then.

Continue reading "one last story" »


Letter to the President: Torture

RadicalMoi Got my activist on and decided to write another letter to President Obama. It's so funny; I'm turning into my dad, who was a great writer of letters to politicians, newspaper editors, and other public figures he didn't agree with. It seems to be a Kottner trait; my grandmother did it too.

Here's a draft of my latest missive. I'm going to let it sit a couple of days before I send it, so any comments, typo spotting, corrections, suggestions, welcome.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

20 April, 2009

Dear President Obama,

I’m a teacher, poet and artist living in New York City. I have been a disinterested non-voter for most of my life, but President Bush’s policies and actions—and your candidacy—galvanized me and changed my world-view. I’m writing first to thank you for the increased transparency you’ve brought to our government since taking office, and for striving to keep so many of your campaign promises. I applaud you especially for making the commitment to closing the unlawful prison at Guantanamo Bay. Since voting for you in the last national election, I’ve become increasingly involved in political and human rights activism, and I thank you also for that inspiration.

Which is why I’m also writing you today to ask you to reconsider your stance on forming a Truth Commission and the prosecution of interrogators who practiced and condoned waterboarding and other forms of torture under the aegis of the CIA and the Justice Department’s Orwellian definitions. I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments before, but I think it’s important that you know they’re also coming from some of the ordinary citizens who voted and campaigned for you, because we saw you as a new broom. I’m also writing to you because I need to be able to say I’ve done as much as I can to put an end to a practice which places the country I am a voting citizen of in the same category as benighted, tyrannical regimes.

I agree with you that this is a divisive issue, and I understand and sympathize with your desire not to create more divisions in this country. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between merely bowing to the demands of a group of people who have been newly restored to power and doing the right thing. If we deny our wrongdoing, that allows these wounds to fester. Witness the ill feelings regarding the denial of a Turkish massacre of Armenians just after World War I, and the Japanese denial of the enslavement of Korean women during World War II, for example. That denial thwarts the efficacy of diplomacy on many levels, as well as presenting a barrier to the social and political growth of the deniers. The Allies were able to bring the perpetrators of Nazi genocide and torture and Japanese atrocities to justice because Germany and Japan were conquered and occupied nations. Because we have no such pressure on us, it is even more imperative that we take steps to right our own wrongs and do so publically. Politically mature nations, like mature individuals, are able to admit their wrongs, take the consequences, and move on. South Africa has set a clear example in this area with its apartheid truth commission. It’s not a simple solution or an easy one, but it’s a necessary one, for a number of reasons.

Torture is one of the most heinous violations of human rights, whether it involves waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, threats of rape or bodily harm, or fear for one’s life. Laws against intentionally harming a fellow human being are part and parcel of every civilized legal code on the planet. The difference between assault and torture is merely one of nomenclature and alleged purpose. Any argument of a real distinction between the two acts is sophistry, especially in light of the fact that torture produces so little—if any—useful information. As cartoonist Gary Trudeau pointed out in one of his Bush-era strips, it “used to be a given” that the U.S. did not torture its prisoners. We’ve lost the benefit of that moral high ground now. Sweeping the wrongdoing under the rug will not help us regain it.

A country which allows its agents to practice torture has no credibility in the world at large when it comes to speaking of human rights. How can we pressure countries like China to treat their prisoners humanely when torture is a part of our own repertoire? How can we condemn countries like Syria for their treatment of prisoners if we’re using them to do our dirty work? Hypocrisy like this taints everything we do on the world stage. If the U.S. is to be a true leader, we must face our errors, punish those responsible for them, and clean house. If we can’t clean our own house, Mr. President, we can’t ask others to do the same.

As signatories to the Geneva Conventions, this nation is bound by law to prosecute those officials who violate it. Article 131 says, “No High Contracting Party shall be allowed to absolve itself or any other High Contracting Party of any liability incurred by itself or by another High Contracting Party in respect of breaches referred to in the preceding Article.” We have clearly breached the rights of prisoners not to be tortured; prosecution of those responsible must follow if the rule of law is to be respected. In this country, without the rule of law, our experiment in democracy means nothing.

Finally, I know I don’t need to speak of the danger our policy of torturing prisoners places our troops in, but I will. My father, who died in 2005, was a WWII Army Air Corps, and later Air Force, veteran who was appalled by the existence of Guantanamo and the treatment the prisoners were subjected to. More than once, he told me this was not what he fought that war for. We need to repudiate that policy as strongly as possible to help ensure the humane treatment of our captured troops, as well as the humane treatment of everyone who comes to our shores. That sense of fairness was what my dad fought for.

For decades, the fact that American law, political philosophy, and foreign policy worked fairly well and were grounded in a strong sense of right and wrong allowed me to go along my complacent, non-involved way, confident that I lived in one of the best countries in the world. The Bush era’s egregious violations of the Constitution and American civil rights changed all that, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad in some senses. Now that our economy is struggling from unregulated greed, 48 million of us suffer from economic apartheid in health care, and our freedoms have been underhandedly undermined by the very people who are supposed to protect them, I can’t let myself stand by without saying something. I won’t ever be that complacent again, but I would like to regain that sense of confidence in the country I live in.

This is a long letter, and I’m not sure it will even reach you, Mr. President, through no fault of your own. But someone in your administration will read it and, I hope, pass on my sentiments, if not my letter, to you. I also know I’m not telling you anything new. You know these arguments, and you seem to me to be a reasonable, careful, and also moral person. I hope you will consider my words not as criticism, but as a call to action, the same call you gave that resounded in me. Thank you once again for the opportunity to express my views, and for doing the many good things you’ve already done.

Yours respectfully,

Etc.


verbing the teabag, or, more evidence the Republicans are clueless

LibrarianG Slang. Lord, I love it.

English users love to make verbs out of nouns: Impact. Sandbag. Gaslight. And now: teabag. Actually, this one has been around for a while, if not in general usage, since it's a little risque. And that is why it's good to stay current, to keep up with slang. YOu don't have to like it and you don't have to use it, but a little knowledge keeps one from looking like a complete, utter fool. It's not that hard. Just a little research goes a long way. Google. Wikipedia, even.

In this particular case, the irony quotient is just too high to pass up, as it was for Rachel Maddow. It's almost as if there were a mole planted in the Republicans' planning committee. If so, it's the best bit of sabotage I've seen in ages. You can hardly blame her for being on the verge of losing it, with or without the help of her offstage colleagues guffawing in the background. And I must say, this is one of the best use of, ahem, innuendo (no pun intended) that I've ever seen. There's nothing the censors would have found objectionable, but if you understand what the term means in its slang form, the implications are hilarious, and amazingly insulting, considering what a bunch of hypocritical prudes Republicans tend to be. It's genius.



a little activism

NYCMoi Okay, I've had enough. Here's what I sent off to my state senator and to the senator representing most of my students at CNR and here are their email addresses if you'd like to do the same:
diaz@senate.state.ny.us
and
serrano@senate.state.ny.us.
You can find your senator here.

Dear Senators Diaz and Serrano,

I'm currently an adjunct professor at the College of New Rochelle's South Bronx Campus. I live in Parkchester and commute by bus or subway three or four times a week to the campus at 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in the Bronx. I'm writing to you both about the looming MTA fare hike, but not just because it will increase my costs in the face of the meager pay that adjuncts make. I'm writing you both on behalf of my students, who live in your districts.

Many of my students are on public assistance. Some of them have overcome enormous obstacles to attend college: abusive relationships, drug addiction, extreme poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, AIDS, deaths in their families. Many of them are still confronted with these problems and keep coming to school anyway, because they know getting an education is a stepping stone to a better life. The thing that impresses me most about my students is their deep desire to improve themselves, to become contributing members of society, rather than victims of circumstance. They work so hard, juggling exhausting, low-paying work, the demands of children, and their school work. I admire them immensely.

Many of our college's classes meet once a week to minimize the amount students have to spend on transportation. If the MTA raises their fare as much as threatened, a large number of my students will not be able to afford to make the trip to school even once a week. This will short-circuit innumerable efforts by hard-working people to make something of themselves. The working poor have enough obstacles in their way. Please work with your fellow senators to keep the MTA fare hike from being another one. This is no time for dithering. Peoples' dreams are in your hands.

Yours sincerely,

Ann E. Kottner


dear president Obama:

RadicalMoiIt's time we stopped using Bush's sweeping idea of state secrets to conceal evidence of torture in the case of Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, or any case at all. I voted for the first time in my 48 years because I believed you would not continue Bush's violation of the Geneva Convention. If we used torture or condoned it, we need to own up to that and prosecute those responsible to regain our legitimacy in the arena of human rights. I understand state secrets are necessary but not this one.

(text of an email I sent to the president via the whitehouse.gov) I would have said much more, but you only get 500 characters, and even this was a little long (I had to leave out the last sentence). But at least something got said. I'm getting like my dad, writing letters to Congressmen and political officials. Maybe it's about time.