Tag Archives: America

The Conscience of a Conservative, Explained

Due to the vagaries of composing blog posts at 4am, I do not believe the total irony of my previous post, The Conscience of a (Real) Conservative, was able to shine through.

The title, of course, was a play on Paul Krugman’s book The Conscience of a Liberal which was, in turn, a play on the title of Barry Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative. Taken together, these two men represent polar opposites in American political discourse.

I am not a conservative in the way that term is understood today. To make it easier to label me in the bizarro world of American politics, I am an avowed leftist. My support for Bernie Sanders and Marxist analysis of class struggle should have been dead giveaways.

But leftists today are conservatives. A conservative is someone who wants to see the return of old values and old modes of doing things. We live in an age of radical newness. It is a newness defined by the commodification of everything (including children as test scores), the explosion of financial services and unprecedented control over our lives by corporations. It is the newness of the Reagan Revolution, which is still running its course as we speak.

And Reagan might have been a self-styled conservative, but he was actually a radical revolutionary. Him and his acolytes in government today aimed at nothing less than the total restructuring of our society along corporate lines.

A conservative is someone who wants to turn back this revolution. A conservative is someone who wants to go back to the New Deal and Great Society and finish the work started back then.

I am what might be called a traditional teacher. It does not escape my notice that all of the new curricula and teaching fads that have infested our schools have had corporate logos. It is not lost on me that the obsession with testing, teacher evaluations, charter schooling and online learning are merely parts of the forward march of the Reagan Revolution, this time with the aim of corporatizing education. As a traditional teacher, I am arrogant enough to assume that I know better than the reformers about what ails poor children and their schools.

As Chris Hedges explains towards the end of this interview, the true conservatives are the people who want roll back what he calls the “Corporate Coup” of the past 35 years:

Harvard Gives Bloomberg Award for Anti-Poverty Programs

Bloomberg loves all the people of New York City.

No, this is not a joke. The New York Daily News reports:

The city has been awarded Harvard University’s Innovations in American Government Award for its anti-poverty work, Mayor Bloomberg announced during his Sunday radio address.

Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government gave the award to the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity for its “pioneering approach to anti-poverty programs,” Bloomberg’s office said.

And what types of anti-poverty measures did the city put in place?

One of the programs partners with employers in the transportation and health care sectors to find out what kind of skills they need and then works with job seekers to get them the right skills.

Wow, that really is innovative policy. It is such a drastic shift away from those other programs that assume poverty is due to some sort of deficiency on the part of poor people. Just like Clinton’s welfare reform gambit in the 1990s when recipients had to attend demeaning job training courses, this is just more of the same post-Reagan era garbage. I remember my mother, who was on and off welfare throughout my childhood, being forced to attend classes on how to build resumes and sit through motivational speeches by self-absorbed business leaders who fed her the same “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” garbage that we still hear today. This was a woman with 25 years of secretarial experience who saw all of the jobs that used to pay her a living wage become automated over time, pushing us from the ranks of the poor down into the ranks of the very poor. But of course, her poverty was all her fault for being a lazy and shiftless single mother who had to work the double-duty of bringing home a paycheck while raising a son in the big city.

There was a simpler era when leaders in New York City realized that people did not have jobs because there were no jobs to be had. We once had a mayor named Fiorello LaGuardia who, because of his connection to Franklin Roosevelt, was able to funnel millions of dollars into New York City for the purpose of giving people jobs. The Depression was still felt in NYC, but the blow was somewhat cushioned.

Another one of Bloomberg’s innovative anti-poverty programs:

… helps New Yorkers put aside some of their tax refund to build a nest egg, Bloomberg said. Those savings, up to $1,000, are matched 50 cents to the dollar with private donations.

“Last year, participants who saved for the full year built an average of more than $800 in savings — which is extremely important when an unforeseen emergency arises,” Bloomberg said.

Yes, as long as that unforeseen emergency does not include having to bury a loved one, finding a new apartment or any type of major or minor surgery. That extra $800 might be real handy if you lose your monthly Metrocard or need bail money because you were arrested for breaking the city’s vagrancy ordinance (i.e. having the nerve to walk down the street without money in your pocket). God forbid there was a real emergency, you would have to wait a decade or two until you could bury Uncle Joe, move to an even smaller studio apartment or get that enlarged spleen removed.

Seriously, what planet does this man live on? Certainly not the planet of normal people who have to live in a city with an ever-increasing standard of living.

Contrary to what elitists like Bloomberg believe, not to mention their lickspittles among the 99%, poverty is not something that people can be counseled out of. Resume-building seminars, “no-excuses” charter schools and hokey adages about pennies saved being pennies earned are not the things that will end poverty in America. The proof is in the pudding. We have had programs like this for several decades, stretching all the way back into the 1980s, and poverty has gotten worse, way worse, during that same time period.

Between 2009-2010, 75, 000 New Yorkers were pushed down into the ranks of the poor. This was higher than the national average. The fact that the city has received this award is a disgraceful move on the part of Harvard University.

Putting It All On The Table About The Khan Academy

Click to play your quality education.

(ATTENTION SALMAN KHAN SYCOPHANTS: PLEASE READ MY LATEST POST ON THE KHAN ACADEMY “60 MINUTES WORSHIPS SALMAN KHAN AND SO DO YOU“. IT IS EVEN MORE WORTHY OF YOUR VITRIOL.”

Let me just lay it on the line for all of the proponents of the Khan Academy.

First, I believe Salman Khan is a good man. He believes in what he does and certainly has a grand vision. Moreover, anybody who can attain several degrees from MIT and build a non-profit empire is nobody’s fool. There is a reason why so many people admire him.

And this is precisely the reason why his academy needs its critics. The fact that it is so difficult to find people willing to say one negative thing about Khan makes criticism that much more urgent. The popularity of an idea or a person to me is a tremendous argument against it. I do not fall in line so easily.

But that is just the start.

People have taken issue with the sarcastic tone in my previous posts (here and here) about the Khan Academy. What they do not seem to grasp is that my sarcasm is a reaction to the insufferable arrogance of many of Khan’s proponents. There is a tremendous haughtiness in claiming that something is the “future”.  Not only is it impossible to foresee all of the variables that might shape the future, it is an abdication of your individual responsibility in making conscious choices about the future. Just because something looks like it might bring a paradigm shift does not mean it has to be unquestionably embraced. I am still of the quaint school of thought that the future is what we make of it.

As an educator, I am used to people swooping in with their magic bullets, making all types of wild claims about this or that being the savior of education in America. All of them, every single one, now lie on the trash heap where they belong. I am not saying this will necessarily be Khan’s fate, only that I have good reason to be skeptical.

The arrogance goes even further than that.

The assumption that many of Khan’s supporters make is that brick and mortar schools are failing. Having spent 25 of my 33 years on this planet in brick and mortar classrooms, I beg to differ. Schools are an outgrowth of society. Children in the inner cities who drop out of school do so because of conditions in that society, not because their schools have failed them. There are children who are born to parents in gangs. There are neighborhoods where the only strong male role models are drug dealers and criminals. There are households where the television is on 24 hours a day. In short, there are children, millions of them, who are born into a world where there are no expectations for them outside of the streets, jail and an early grave. If schools are failing, it is because society is failing. If there is an academic “achievement gap”, it is because children are born into a world where a socioeconomic achievement gap is already well entrenched.

This is not excuse-making or scapegoating. This is reality. The actual scapegoaters are the people who blame schools for this inequality. Doing so allows them to continue to put their fingers in their ears so they can go on pretending poverty and horrid inequalities are not real problems in need of solutions, let alone discussion.

And because most of the critics of brick and mortar classrooms are so far removed from those classrooms, they can approach the issue in no other way than to look at standardized test scores. Never mind the fact that the research on the efficacy of judging children and schools by test scores is murky at best. Never mind the fact that countries with the best school systems, like Finland, eschew testing. Never mind that Finland gives their teachers autonomy over the profession so that outsiders cannot just waltz in and offer their half-digested opinions on what teachers should be doing. None of this matters to Khan Academy advocates, because their advocacy is based on supreme arrogance.

Somehow, the Khan supporters who have made their way to this website have accused me of misunderstanding Khan’s vision. Yet, they leave it at that and do not show me where the misunderstanding lies. Again, after years of seeing magic bullets in education, I can spot when the emperor has no clothes.

To assume that Khan is doing anything new outside of making videos is just nonsense. It is just plain insulting to have people assume that Khan does things that teachers in brick and mortar classrooms are not doing. You do not think teachers are building lessons inductively? You do not think teachers are bending over backwards to use technology in their lessons? You do not think teachers provide a wide range of activities, differentiated (as the current jargon goes), for varied learning levels and styles? You do not think teachers monitor what their students do, without the need for fancy graphs to show them which of their students did what in how much time? You do not think teachers give out awards, accolades, praise and encouragement, just like Khan awards badges to students for being experts? I shudder to think what you actually think teachers are actually doing.

Yes, I realize that Sal Khan’s ideal classroom is one where students build robots and solve problems for most of the day. How much robot building do you think will go on in classrooms in Harlem, whether that classroom has a flesh-and-blood teacher or one made of pixels? Are you willing to provide the resources (through your taxes) to shower schools with the materials needed for students to engage in such activities? Do you think Sal Khan is the first person with the bright idea of project-based, hands-on learning?  The arrogance is astounding.

I have an arrogant question of my own: what innovation does Sal Khan offer in American education besides a pause button?

But the saving grace of the Khan acolyte is the idea that Khan’s is a worldwide vision. We can put a few Khan videos in our pockets, go to Africa and bring education to the kids over there. I have no doubt that Khan and his supporters are genuine in this belief. I also have no doubt this represents more of the same arrogance.

Sure, we could send an army of educational missionaries to the underdeveloped world. It would be an efficient way to educate masses of people on the cheap. What the heck, right? This is the educational wave of the future.

Instead of asking if we could, maybe we should first ask if we should. Does this really represent the best that we can do at the moment for the schooling of children worldwide, including our own children? After generations of sucking the third world dry of its resources, dropping bombs on their homes and meddling in their politics, are we really so easily duped as to think Khan videos can even begin to uplift the education of their children? It is typical, well-fed western arrogance. It is the same belief that leads us to think that designer jeans, rock music and movies make people in other countries better off. These are signs of what we think “civilization” is. The Khan Academy is the Levi’s of schools.

The greatest gift we can give to the children of the entire world is the gift of providing a quality education to our children first. The greatest way we can be a beacon of hope to everyone else is if the children of America’s inner cities are provided with the same education currently reserved for the children of America’s elite. It is amazing how Bill Gates can tout the Khan Academy as the panacea for everyone else’s children. While the Bloombergs, Broads and Obamas of the world send their children to brick and mortar schools with small class sizes and all the enrichment activities one could ask for, everyone else’s children are given the url to the Khan Academy.

It is the absolute pinnacle of arrogance to assume we can uplift the people of other countries without uplifting our own. We have not learned what a true investment in America’s education would mean, yet we think we can bring that lesson to every corner of the earth. We have a duty to the rest of the world to be honest with ourselves first. Until that time, we are merely being disingenuous.

Educating is about providing role models. America has a duty to be a role model to the rest of the world. While Khan and his admirers are genuine in their vision, it is not a vision that will make us the role models that our children, and the children of the world, need us to be.

Thomas Pynchon and The Simpsons

One of the only known photographs of Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon is one of America’s great authors. His magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, has bent minds and frustrated critics since its publication in 1973. He is the perfect model of post-modern literature, where every experience is disjointed and nothing is what it seems. You cannot make it through a Pynchon book and come out the other end trusting your senses. My favorite book from him is Mason and Dixon. It is set in colonial America, yet retains a palpable sense of modernity and “trippyness”. Only after you read it do you begin to understand what an accomplishment it is. I am proud to say that I made it through Gravity’s Rainbow as well, but not so proud to say that I can stand to read it a second, third and fourth time before I begin to understand it. There is still much more for me to read from Pynchon, but I am still recovering from my last venture into his world.

He is also very reclusive, rarely giving interviews and never showing his face. Again, this is the Pynchon irony. He writes books steeped in modernity, yet eschews the celebrity culture that defines a large part of that modernity. That explains the humor in the following clip from the Simpsons. Pynchon did the voice himself.

The Simpsons defines post-modern in 14 seconds:

Pynchon is the closest thing to an acid trip in American literature.

Zuccotti Park Revisited: Reign of a Parade

The Giants had their victory parade down the Canyon of Heroes today. Their route took them through the heart of the financial district, including what used to be the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Zuccotti Park. Since November’s eviction, Zuccotti Park has been a wasteland of empty sitting areas, police officers and a few protestors (not all of them associated with OWS). Today, it was a place for revelers to take a load off (and even sneak a libation or three) after standing along Broadway for several hours. What a difference six months makes in the life of Zuccotti Park.

It was just this past September that a few dozen activists set up camp in the concrete square. That act alone awakened the conscience of a nation. Over the ensuing weeks and months, people like me were able to go to Zuccotti Park to talk about poverty, inequality, the environment, corporate greed and our morally bankrupt political system. Thanks to the brave people who held the park over the course of three months, issues that concerned citizens had been talking about in the wilderness for years all of the sudden took center stage. It was a shot of adrenaline into what normally was a sterile and farcical political discourse.

But then the eviction came. The White Shirts and beat cops gave way to riot police. They took the park by storm in the middle of the night, ripping up tents and burning books in an inquisitional orgy of repression. The movement certainly did not die that day, but no longer would the protestors be able to use Liberty Square as their base of operation. The police promised them that the square would be open to the public the next day and then ringed the block with barricades and blue shirts for the next month. All signs of life and community vanished from the area. There was very little liberty to be had in Liberty Square.

Today’s parade was a mockery of what the occupiers started to build six months ago. The occupiers held the park in an exercise of mass awareness and citizenship. Today, red-cheeked and well fed onlookers stood facing Broadway, their backs to the park, in order to catch a glimpse of their favorite millionaire athletes. It was an exercise in mass distraction. Bars in the area quickly filled up at midday with partiers intent on keeping the mass distraction going. They spilled out into the street, making noise, slapping hands and blocking crosswalks. Yet, there was no pepper spray, no mass arrests, no White Shirts and nobody was dragged to the paddy wagon. Nobody questioned them as to whether they should be at work or whether they might find better things to do with their time. No sanitation worker talked down to them or called them lazy do-nothings. Instead, they dutifully followed behind the revelers, cleaning up ticker tape and other assorted refuse. When normal life resumes in the financial district tomorrow morning, it will be like nothing had ever happened.

That is why, on this day especially, it is important for us to remember the work that started at Liberty Square 6 months ago.

The Fault Lines of Education Activism

I will never know what it is like to be black. Despite the fact that I grew up in black neighborhoods, went to mostly black schools, keep black friends, teach black students, listen to black music and, sometimes, use black slang, the truth is that I will never come close to knowing what being black in America is like. Furthermore, I cannot begin to fathom the types of advantages conferred upon me merely for being a white man (a tall one at that). Despite the fact that I grew up poor and my ancestors were Eastern Europeans who never owned slaves, I know on some level that the color of my skin has played a role in where I am today. When approaching the race issue, a healthy amount of deference must be paid to these factors.

Education reform, and the backlash against it, largely turns on issues of race. Elitist reformers try to occupy the moral high ground by implying that their programs are designed to uplift the chocolate parts of urban areas. The results of these reforms, especially in places like Washington, D.C., speak for themselves. The “achievement gap” is as wide as ever. In New York City, the schools that have been closed have been the ones that serve minority students. After 10 years of No Child Left Behind, not to mention the Race to the Top initiative that has accelerated NCLB’s goals, it is safe to say that the elite’s concern with children of color has proven to be disingenuous.

On the other hand, the people who stand against these reforms do have a genuine concern for children of color. Educators, parents, students and concerned citizens that have endured these reforms are under no illusions as to what they have done to inner city schools. The reason why so many veteran teachers like me harbor a deep mistrust of the Teach for America program is because we know the philosophy that gave birth to it. Teaching in the inner city is not charity work. If you are not in it for the long haul, then you should not be in it at all. If your concern with the schooling of brown children is about allaying your own liberal guilt, then your concern is not real.

Ironically, the activists who are genuinely concerned with children of the inner city are divided on the race issue. On the one hand, there are those who point to the persistent achievement gap and segregation in public schools as evidence that race needs to be the starting point for the battle against education reform. The other hand points to the impacts of poverty on schooling and believes class struggle needs to be the centerpiece of public education activism. These types of squabbles over strategy and priority have traditionally torn leftist movements asunder in the past. The one thing both camps have in common, and the thing that distinguishes them from the elitist education reformers, is that they actually believe what they claim to stand for.

Unfortunately, a genuine concern for public education is not enough to take back our schools. At some point, we will need actual victories and concrete plans. I do not know how to reconcile the two camps and I do not know which side has the better strategy. What I do know, however, is a little bit of history.

Historically, movements that have centered on racial issues have had some success. The abolitionist movement, despite initially being reviled by most whites, helped nudge the north and Lincoln over to its cause. The civil rights movement was wildly successful in getting the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed through Congress. During the 1990s, the culture wars led to more sensitive treatment of minority topics in public schools and universities, ushering in the era of “political correctness.” This was on the heels of decades of affirmative action programs that were, albeit, continuously weakened over the years . With the exception of abolition, these victories were limited, but they were victories nonetheless.

On the other hand, movements that have centered on issues of class have largely failed. The Populist Party of the late 1800s took form after uniting white and black farmers in the west. Indeed, many of their early victories on the local level were due to the combined voting power of black and white men. But with the advent of women’s suffrage in western states, the co-opting of the Populists by the racist Democratic Party and the institution of Jim Crow in the south, ruling elites were effectively able to drive a wedge between the races of the lower classes. The communist protests of the early 1920s were viciously suppressed by the Palmer Raids. The Black Panther Party, which really was a movement that attempted to fold all oppressed people under the umbrella of communism, was hounded and eventually destroyed by the FBI. (You can read my treatment of the Black Panthers here). Martin Luther King himself was assassinated when he started concentrating on the rights of poor workers. Something seems to scare the ruling elites about overtly class conscious movements, causing them to work overtime for their destruction.

In a book that I often cite on this blog, “Downsizing Democracy”, the authors dedicate some time to modern civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. They point to their fights for fairer hiring and promotion practices in corporate America, as well as their battles over use of the “N” word, as bread and butter issues of middle class blacks. It is unlikely that the poor minorities of the inner cities cared much about these things. Perhaps they have learned from history to keep issues of poverty and issues of race separate.

In the end, I do not know the best route to take for public school activists. As a white man, it is easy for me to lump race in with issues of class and tell black leaders that they should hitch their wagons to the star of economic equality. What I do know for a fact is that whether we stand against education reform because it is racist or because it is classist, our convictions are genuine and born out of first-hand experience with what has been happening to our schools. Perhaps this should be our starting point. Perhaps instead of trying to push our individual agendas to the forefront, we should unite over the issues that promise victories against education reform. I have no answers to provide in this regard. But perhaps education activists can unite behind the practical question of from what direction is our next victory likely to come?

Schooling in the Age of Authority

When historians of the future get to work on the current era of American history, they might very well dub it “The Age of Authority (1980-20xx[?])”. The incarcerated prisoner, eligible to be worked as a slave under the terms of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, is one side of the era’s commemorative coin. The other side is the militarized police officer, decked in riot gear and toting an assault rifle under the guise of defending the land against terrorism. One is victimized by repression; the other feeds his family from it. One is being held accountable for his actions; the other has a blank check. Fueling it all is an interlocking network of private contractors who have profited from the era’s boom in prison construction.  They use these profits to hire lobbyists who push for tougher laws and longer sentences. President Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, enshrining in law the suspension of habeas corpus, only promises to swell the prison population more. The prison system is a beast, largely feeding on the most oppressed people in the United States.

The Age of Authority finds expression in education reform as well. In the previous era of American history, the one symbolized by the protests of the 1960s, reform was agitated from the grassroots by Americans acting collectively as citizens. By contrast, education reformers today are the most elite members of society (i.e. Bill Gates), effecting reform from the top down. They use money to fund think tanks, school districts and political campaigns, allowing them to dictate policy. Much like with the prison system, victims of their policies are usually the most oppressed members of society. Schools are mandated to perform on standardized tests or else face getting shut down. The schools with the lowest scores, which are the schools with the lowest incomes, get shut down under the guise of accountability. Veteran teachers who serve these neighborhoods are railroaded out of the system. Children are shuffled around from school to school, ending up in classrooms with much more inexperienced teachers, unentitled to workplace rights and livable wages.

Meanwhile, those on the right side of the system: the Secretary of Education, mayors, chancellors, superintendents and principals, have little to no accountability at all. They are on the right side of the system, making their livings from the incessant march of reform. Much like the police officer who brutalizes protestors fears no reprisal, the school leader who brutalizes children and teachers has a blank check. Why else would Mayor Bloomberg in New York push for merit pay policies that failed on him (and us) before, or the principal of Bronxdale High School be able to sexually harass his staff? They are the beneficiaries of schooling in the Age of Authority.

Of course, the biggest losers of all are the children of the poor. They get inexperienced teachers who recite pre-packaged curricula. Their schools are increasingly infested with the ethos of “no excuses”. Children with enough independent thought to challenge their parroting teacher are suspended, expelled or receive corporal punishment. There is no room for deviation from the script. Standardized tests, guided by the national Common Core Standards, will be the culminating experience of their school careers. This means 13 years of rote memorization, filling in bubbles and wearing uniforms. In the ultimate vision of education utopia pushed by Bill Gates, children will eventually sit in front of computer screens and click on bubbles after watching a lecture by Salman Khan on Youtube. In truth, there is very little ground to cover between the inexperienced teacher and the teaching computer. Both of them are programmed with scripts and neither of them have anything in their bags of teaching tricks other than an exhortation to try the same thing again until the correct bubble is chosen.

Meanwhile, the children of the reformers themselves are being educated to be tomorrow’s elitists. They have a one-way ticket to an Ivy League school where they can take economics, business or computer science. These are the subjects with a closed system of circular logic, perfect training to be an authoritarian in the Age of Authority. They will be trained to speak in the unforgiving language of binary, whether it is zeroes and ones or supply and demand. Binary thinking leads to binary morality where right is right and wrong is wrong, or where rich is rich and poor is poor. They will be trained to assume their own superiority. The language they internalize in their education leaves them unable to imagine an alternative to the Age of Authority. They will go on to be Authority’s most virulent apologists. At the same time, children of the poor will go on to be its most willing supplicants.

It is often said that the education reformers want to train the children of the poor to be mechanical workers and consumers. While this is true, it is also obvious that the reformers are training their own children to be as mechanical and unreflective as everyone else.  The future is one where the reformers hope everyone internalizes their station as a natural condition. Their vision is feudalism. Just like feudalism in Europe, it will be rigidly stratified. Just like feudalism in Europe, this stratification will be perpetuated by training people in fundamentalism. In Europe, fundamentalism meant the church, where God had ordained the existing state of affairs as natural. In the Age of Authority, fundamentalism means a certain set of class-specific discourse that keeps people’s thinking firmly within the bounds of the status quo.

Yet, it is impossible that the school system will be so efficient in breaking the human spirit. There will always be those indomitable people who will fill in the wrong bubbles, wear the wrong clothes and say the wrong things, sometimes even on purpose. Those will be the ones slotted for the prisons. If the Age of Authority cannot break you, it will eat you, digest you and spit you out the other end. You will be fodder for the prison slave system, forcing everyone in its charge to wear county orange so as to make each individual impossible to spot.

Education is the final frontier for the Age of Authority. Having already dominated every other facet of life, the only thing left for the elite to do is reach into the souls of children in order to train them to play their proper roles.

1968

1968 was, in the words of Mark Kurlanksy, “The Year That Rocked the World”. It started with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, where the Vietnamese proved they were far from defeated despite being bombed “back into the stone age”, as Lyndon Johnson put it. Anti-war protests reached their height, resulting in armed student takeovers at places like Columbia.The presidential elections were shaping up to be a referendum on the war especially, but on the state of the country in general. There was a sense that things had gotten out of control. The war was going nowhere. Young people, minorities and other oppressed groups were more vocal than ever before.

President Johnson announced he would not run for president, even though he was eligible for one last term according to the 22nd amendment. He realized that Vietnam had fractured his party, his administration and his entire legacy. The Democrats would have to choose a new standard-bearer. It was clear that they were deciding on the future of the party.

Throughout the primaries, it became clear that Robert Kennedy held the future of the party in his hands. He had taken the place that Eugene McCarthy had hitherto occupied: anti-war, pro-civil rights and a darling of the younger generation. He was also an arch-rival of Lyndon Johnson, with whom he had done battle since his brother’s administration. It stuck in LBJ’s craw that Kennedy had become the presumptive nominee of their party. Kennedy hit his crescendo on the evening of Martin Luther King’s assassination. He was supposed to address a crowd in Indianapolis when he received the news of King’s death. Kennedy scrapped his prepared words and spoke from the heart, striking the perfect chord for the moment.

A few weeks later, Robert Kennedy would himself be dead, cut down by an assassin after a victory speech in the California primary. His death opened up the possibility for Eugeme McCarthy to enter back into the race, but he would have to best Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had the backing of Lyndon Johnson and the party machinery. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago would be a battle between the establishment Democrats behind Humphrey and the younger liberal Democrats behind McCarthy. It was clear that the Democratic machine intended to dominate the convention with the help of Chicago’s Mayor Daley, himself a big player in machine politics. He ensured that the police kept young protestors away from the convention. The police were given a blank check, causing a riot that would define a generation.

Humphrey received the nomination and ran on a platform identical to Lyndon Johnson’s. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. What’s more, he even promised the “silent majority” that he was going to crack down on outspoken hippies and minorities. Nixon’s message appealed to the conservative side of the country, especially the south, and he became the first Republican to successfully use the “southern strategy” that has become the bulwark of Republican power ever since.

What we lost in 1968, with King, Kennedy and the election, was the type of leadership that confronted injustice. Never again would there be such a collection of popular, effective and visible leaders who so plainly called for equal justice for all.

What we got instead was the beginning of a long regression. Ironically, Nixon did not start that regression. By today’s standards, he would be a stark raving liberal, creating the Environmental Protection Agency and shaking hands with Chinese communists. In truth, Nixon was a transition, a springboard into a frightening new era just as obsessed with  surveillance and cracking down on free speech as he was.

1968 was the end of a brave era. What has come to replace it has surpassed perhaps all of the worst nightmares of that era.

The Amorality of Openness

Being open-minded is celebrated as a virtue. We teach children to not judge a book by its cover. People who can reconcile two sides of a debate are lauded as “moderate” or “reasonable”. I recently came across an education blog respected as an impartial observer in the education reform debate. It does not laud all of the developments of education reform, but it reprints all of the press releases and major articles of reform organizations. Because the deformers have nonstop access to the media, their entries far outnumber the contributions of alternative voices. Even though the blog is “impartial”, the debate ends up being framed in terms of the language of the deformers.

This is essentially a reflection of the state of the media in general. Instead of digging deep to the core of an issue (what they used to call “investigating”), reporters merely replay pre-fab press releases from those in power. When Bush accused Iraq of having weapons of mass destruction on the eve of the Iraq War, the media repeatedly ran Bush’s false claims while occasionally citing the investigators from the United Nations who said Iraq had nothing. The public was never really given a choice, nor any semblance of reliable or accurate reporting. Claims of supposed objectivity by the media were really a cover for their role as mouthpiece for those in power.

It seems to be a virtue in liberal circles in the United States to be tolerant and give the appearance of being open to all ideas. This type of vacuous relativism is what has caused American liberalism to devolve into irrelevance, especially over the past 35 years. The liberal mind was too open, allowing in ideas that eventually eroded away the beliefs upon which American liberalism were founded. President Obama, dealing with an intransigent Congress all of the sudden obsessed with government spending, offered up Social Security as a bargaining chip. No president from any party has ever been so willing to sacrifice the last few vestiges of liberal values, all in the interest of seeming fair and open.

This is the type of cowardice that has allowed education deform to take hold. Because Bill Gates or Eli Broad have an opinion on education, we think they are entitled to a fair hearing. Because they are willing to sink money into experimenting with reform, we think they should be given a shot. At no point did we ever assess (or “investigate”) why we have an education system at all or what real teaching and learning is about. All we have are piles of studies funded with Gates Foundation or Koch Brothers money that claim to be objective in their call for corporate education reform. Liberals have sold out the children of the poor with their weak and relativistic values where every wealthy person who says they care about schools means it and every 1%-funded study on how to teach is a legitimate topic of discussion.

I do not believe there is equal weight to both creationism and evolution. Global warming is a real event agreed upon by scientists. Aliens never landed at Roswell and there is no such thing as Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. Education deformers do not actually care about public schools. Education scientists and economists who do studies on teaching and learning are mostly out of touch with reality and their articles are better off left in the musty journals that only professors read.

At some point, people who care about public institutions and American democracy are going to have to get as dogmatic as the corporatists. Just as they laud business formulas, the free market and data, we must stand on our principles of civil rights for everyone and total economic justice. Instead of knee-jerk calls for tolerance, there needs to be lessons in critical thinking. All opinions are not equal. Many opinions are really policy positions and propaganda pieces. There is a difference between actual ideas and pre-fabricated sound bites.

Do not be so easily cowed with accusations of being “negative”. “Positive dialogue” where everyone’s opinions are valued are exercises in thought control that are meant to stifle criticism and real debate.

Readings in America’s Downfall

As an avid reader, I hope to share many recommendations right here on this blog and would love if you did the same. There are dozens of books I am dying to discuss but I have to be choosy. For now, here are a few great books that deal with recent, mostly American, history. They go a long way towards explaining how the United States got to where it is today.

Please note, there are many good books about the subject and it would be impossible to fit them all here. This is a sampling of a few great books from a field of study that gets more exciting every day.

Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore by James T. Patterson (2005)

This book has been criticized for being overly general and haphazard, reading more like a recap of major news events from the past 35 years. The truth of that statement is mainly the reason why I mentioned this book first. It is a good primer for people unfamiliar with the era, mostly younger people or those outside of the U.S. What it lacks in depth and focus it makes up for in clarity and fairness. In an age when every book about modern America is tinged with political partisanship, this book is a breath of fresh air. Despite the criticisms, Restless Giant does have its moments of depth and insight.

The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 by Sean Wilentz (2008)

The Age of Reagan is similar to Restless Giant in every way except two: a) It is tinged with political partisanship in favor of Democrats, b) It is more in-depth. Wilentz has an axe to grind with the Republican Party. The title of the book is basically a way to place blame for all of America’s problems today on Republicans (which is not very far from the truth). Wilentz defends Clinton and Gore, basically arguing Bill Clinton was the greatest president we ever had. If you can disregard such patent nonsense, then you will get a decent amount of depth on many important events of the past 35 years.

Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Public and Privatized Its Citizens by Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsburg (2002)

This is perhaps my favorite book of the bunch. Their central argument is that America has gone from a country where citizens work together for the public good to a place where consumers make decisions in isolation of each other. This has led to the end of genuine grass roots movements. Instead, special interest groups hire lobbyists to make back room deals. The closest thing they are to grass roots is receiving individual donations from supporters. People now express their politics by donating money to the groups of their choice. Political debate has taken a back seat to poll numbers which, as the authors point out, shape public opinion more than measure it. All of these developments have grown out of a corporate mindset that has influenced everything, including politics. People are treated like consumers, public institutions become privatized and ideas become sound bites. The book is a well-researched, well-reasoned sketch of the corporate takeover of our democracy.

The Roaring 90s: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph Stiglitz (2003)

This book is a sleeper. Everyone knows Joe Stiglitz for his more popular works like Globalization and its Discontents and the Three Trillion Dollar War, not to mention his frequent contributions to online and television media. Stiglitz was a big player in the economic policy world in the 90s, being a member of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors and Chief Economist at the World Bank. Rather than celebrate the economic boom of the era, Stiglitz sees it as a cause for concern. The 90s saw the triumph of a supposed free market regime touted by a generation of economists who were “free market fundamentalists”. They called for the selling off of the public sector and deregulation of large corporations. At the same time, poverty has gotten worse and average citizens have no say in the system. There is a reason why Stiglitz is one of the most cited economists in the world and it is for readable and valuable books like this.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch (2010)

This book is of course a personal choice. It certainly does not need a lengthy explanation from me. Others have already explained the virtues of this book far better than I can. Simply put, it has been the single best refutation of education reform written to date. The only, very minor, criticism I have is that I wish Diane Ravitch connected the schooling debate to a wider context, like the triumph of corporate Neoliberal policies over the past 35 years. Otherwise, anyone who wishes to engage in the public schooling debate has to reckon with Ravitch.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein (2007)

This one is an obvious choice. Naomi Klein has become one of the most celebrated intellectuals in the world today. Her work, especially The Shock Doctrine, was a major inspiration of he Occupy Wall Street movement. Klein’s thesis is simple: crises around the world have been used as excuses to implement reforms that benefit corporations. Where there is no natural crisis to exploit, one will be made up. (The “crisis” in public education comes to mind). It is a thesis that has only proven to be more true as time goes on, the economic crisis being another excuse to hand over trillions to banks. The intellectual source for all of these reforms is the late Milton Friedman, who trained an entire generation of economists in Neoliberal ideology. We are today living in the full bloom of the Neoliberal movement. The Shock Doctrine helps us make sense of it.

Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam by Gilles Kepel (2002)

Jihad is another sleeper. It deals with one of the most important issues of our time in a sophisticated, informed manner. Kepel does a masterful job explaining the rise of radical Islamic movements in the Middle East, reaching back into history to illustrate the forces that are shaping the Muslim world today. It is difficult to find books on this topic that are not either racist anti-Arab rants or saccharine paeans to peaceful Islam. Instead, this is a book for people who want cold straight facts on the Middle East presented in a comprehensive, illuminating and non-judgmental manner. It helps that Kepel is French and, therefore, not tainted by the way we discuss such things in America. His hopes that radicalized religious movements in the Middle East will die off naturally might be a little naive but it does not detract from the overall quality of the book.

Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi (2010)

Surprisingly, there has not been a wh0le heck of a lot written on the financial meltdown that is worth reading. Besides Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, Griftopia is the biggest little book on the subject. Taibbi covers sub-prime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps in clear, fresh language. Not only does he describe the chain of events that led to the economic crisis, he explains the philosophy guiding those events. He brings out the unbridled greed and sense of entitlement guiding many of these firms. In so doing, he is not afraid to call it what it is: fraud. It does not matter what things are illegal and what things were not. The entire system is rigged against us.

Taken together, these books will give you a thorough sense as to where we are as a country. There were many more books that could be put on the list. If you have any recommendations, post a comment.