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Lincoln: Did he care about the slaves or not?

Lincoln: Did he care about the slaves or not?

2013 is a round-number anniversary for many things. It is the 50th anniversary of both Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and the Kennedy assassination. We are 4o years removed from the start of the Watergate Hearings. In the month of January specifically, we are 150 years removed from the Emancipation Proclamation. For as much we would like to think that slavery is ancient history, 150 years is practically yesterday in terms of historical time.

As someone who teaches history to 11th graders, many of my students have been told conflicting stories about Abraham Lincoln and his views on slavery by the time they have me. One teacher might have told them that Lincoln freed the slaves. Another teacher said that he didn’t give a damn about the slaves. Somewhere along the line kids seem to learn that Lincoln owned slaves, was part black himself or both.

Lincoln is one my favorite historical figures and no I have not seen the Lincoln movie yet, although anything with Daniel Day Lewis is worth watching. He was an extraordinarily complex man (Lincoln was) which helps account for our confusion on what he stood for. As president, few men have combined the characteristics of both politician and leader as completely as Lincoln.

A politician does things that are expedient with an eye to enhancing his own power or that of his party’s. A leader believes in a certain just, but largely unpopular, course of action and tries to shepherd the country towards the same point of view. Bill Clinton (about whom I have written) was a great politician but not a great leader. My favorite American, John Quincy Adams, was a great leader but a poor politician. Lincoln combined the best of both worlds. Only the Roosevelts come close to touching him in presidents possessing both political and leadership skills.

If Lincoln’s views on slavery confound many school teachers and students today, imagine how maddening it was for people of his era. The mark of a good politician is that we are still unclear on what his course was 150 years later. This can be attributed to a simple human fact that we overlook about Lincoln: he, like most humans, changed his mind. His views on slavery evolved throughout the war, as did his policies.

Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley a year into the Civil War in August 1862:

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing,” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save Slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy Slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

This is why many people say that Lincoln didn’t care about the slaves. For the first part of the war Lincoln had a singular objective of preserving the Union. His views on slavery had always been ambivalent. A part of him felt it was morally repugnant and a barrier to free enterprise. Another part of him felt it was not his place to interfere in the business of other white men. And yet another part of him viewed blacks in general as a problem, which is why he was a major supporter of African-American colonization of Africa before the war. Naturally, he held the common assumption of the time that whites were superior to blacks.

Yet, as the war dragged on, Lincoln started to believe there might be practical reasons to abolish slavery. During the time Lincoln wrote this letter, general Ulysses S. Grant was working on conquering the Mississippi River, a major part of the Union war strategy. Grant observed that slaves in the area believed that the Union Army meant freedom and would walk off the plantations into the protective arms of union blue. Many generals sent them back, sometimes at gunpoint, but Grant saw a practical use for taking in the enslaved people who yearned for freedom. By doing the grunt work of an army, all of the cleaning, cooking, trench-digging and other back-breaking tasks it entails, the freedmen would free up Union soldiers to do actual fighting. At the same time it drained the labor power of the south and gave the Union the moral high-ground in the eyes of Britain, who was debating on whether or not to help the Confederacy.

While he was composing his letter to Greeley, Lincoln was also drafting an Emancipation Proclamation. It would be an executive order and a tight legal document freeing all slaves held in rebel territories. It did not free slaves in Confederate areas captured by the Union army, nor did it free slaves in the border states (slave states who were loyal to the Union). For Lincoln, it was mostly a matter of military strategy. He would co-opt the labor force of the south to the benefit of the Union Army. In so doing, Lincoln was taking the third option he outlined to Horace Greeley by “freeing some (slaves) and leaving others alone.”

Yet, neither Greeley nor the rest of the country knew what Lincoln had in store. Lincoln needed to announce his Emancipation Proclamation at the right time. The war had been going badly so far. The Union general, George McClellan, was not the fighting general Lincoln needed. Instead of fighting, McClellan was mired in endless preparations for his very large and well provisioned army. And he was getting his ass handed to him by Robert E. Lee at every turn. Lincoln could not have announced the Proclamation at such a time lest it look like a desperation move on the part of the north. Lincoln needed to wait until after a Union victory to proclaim his new policy on slavery.

That victory came a month after the Greeley letter at a Maryland creek known as Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history. Even though McClellan failed to destroy Lee’s army when he had him on the ropes, McClellan scored a costly but technical victory. Lincoln then announced that an Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in rebel territory would take effect on New Years’ Day, 1863.

And so it did, probably the most important and hallowed executive order in American history. For all of the talk of Lincoln’s practicality and indifference towards slavery there was something inherently symbolic about the Emancipation Proclamation. It was written in strict legalese with none of the rhetorical flourishes  and soaring perorations for which Lincoln is known. Lincoln wanted it to be so legally airtight that there was no mistaking that slavery will never exist in Confederate-held territory again, providing the north won the war. The finality of it was striking.

Furthermore, it hinted at the future of both slavery and Lincoln’s views on slavery. Once slavery is gone in most of the south, how will it ever survive in the rest of the country? It was just a matter of time before the institution of slavery completely folded everywhere. This also presaged Lincoln’s turn. As he saw blacks willing to join the army to fight and die for the Union he began to respect the black race more and more. First he let them join the army but collect less pay than white soldiers. Then he lobbied to equalize pay for black soldiers. He refused to exchange prisoners with the south because they refused to release black prisoners, who they considered “contraband”. Because of this, Lincoln was blamed by northerners for the suffering of Union POWs at Andersonville. He began to take unpopular stances because he was starting to see blacks as true equals to whites.

A year after he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln would give the Gettysburg Address. It would be there, on the battleground that ended up deciding the war, where Lincoln infused the war with new purpose. Not only was this war to save the Union and therefore democracy as a viable form of government, but democracy must be infused with a “new birth of freedom” if it is to survive. In other words, the war would be about bringing an end to slavery as much as it was to preserve the union, since both would be required to save democracy around the world. Most of the western world had established monarchies who believed democracy was a weak form of government that would eventually implode in the United States. To many, the Civil War was the implosion of democracy proving to the world the folly of the American experiment. Lincoln was determined not to have this happen.

This announcement cost Lincoln dearly politically, sealing his fate as a one-term president. The interminable bloodshed of civil war had soured the country on Lincoln’s leadership. Quite simply, white people in the north did not want to support a war to free slaves. Lincoln took a dangerous political stand for the sake of being a leader.

The election of 1864 would pit Lincoln against his old general George McClellan who considered Lincoln his inferior. McClellan was a war hero and a victim ever since Lincoln fired him. McClellan’s promise of a negotiated peace with Lee sounded good to a country bled white by mechanized war. Lincoln knew he was going to lose badly.

However, the Union Army captured the Mississippi when Vicksburg surrendered to Grant. His protege William Tecumseh Sherman was making his way to the south’s most populous city: Atlanta. A few weeks before the election Sherman took Atlanta. The end of the war was in sight and Lincoln ended up winning at the polls because of it. It turned out northerners would prefer to extend the war just a little longer if it meant freeing all slaves,

This is where Lincoln confuses us. The same presidency that started with a policy of indifference towards slavery gambled everything on ending it. Lincoln simply changed his mind, first by seeing how slaves helped the Union Army after they left the plantations, then after seeing blacks fighting for the cause of the Union. It is a poetic change of mind. Thanks to Lincoln’s confidence in the Union Army, it is a gamble that paid off politically.

By the time of his second inaugural speech Lincoln was a changed man. The conciliatory tone he adopted towards the south in his first inaugural address was gone as far as slavery was concerned. He now claimed that the Civil War was God’s punishment for the evil of slavery, giving a context to all of the death of the previous 4 years. When the 13th Amendment was finally ratified ending slavery once and for all, Lincoln signed his name to it even though the president’s signature was not required for passage. This is a far cry from the equivocal Lincoln  of the Greeley letter.

It is important to teach the whole Lincoln for many reasons. First, it answers the question of how people can say that Lincoln both freed and didn’t free the slaves. Second, it shows that people we idolize can change their minds when confronted by new evidence. It teaches the lesson that we don’t need to be wedded to an idea. Finally, it shows that taking a stand can pay off and being out of step with your contemporaries just means you’re ahead of the moral curve.

Obama has been fond of symbolic comparisons to Lincoln. His biggest challenge within the party was a seasoned Senator from New York who was thought a shoe-in for the nomination. And just like Lincoln did for Seward, Obama appointed Hilary as Secretary of State. Just like Lincoln, Obama was an upstart from Illinois. He appointed a “team of rivals” who all had more experience than him and believed they could probably do the job of president better.

Unfortunately, I fear symbolism is the only thing Obama has in common with Lincoln. Obama has not taken many risky stands. The ones he has taken, like a public option for healthcare, he quickly shied away from when the political heat became too much. He is more Clinton, less Quincy Adams and even less an FDR or Lincoln.

Maybe his second term will be different. We never got to find out what Lincoln’s second term would have looked like thanks to John Wilkes Booth. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been such a hero if he was allowed to handle Reconstruction after the war.

Maybe he wouldn’t have been but Lincoln is still a worthy person to take as a role model for Obama and the rest of us.

Monday Morning Picture Round-Up

Reflections On Presidents’ Day: The Election of 2012

Happy Presidents' Day from Bushbama.

The Washington Post ran an article this past Sunday on the most important presidential elections in American history. The assumption is the upcoming election of 2012 will rank right up there with many others as a watershed moment. This is a very popular assumption, and it is very wrong.

One important election to which the article pays very little attention took place in 1800. The Federalist and incumbent John Adams squared off against his Republican Vice President, Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists had occupied the presidency since the promulgation of the Constitution and had done a great job alienating small government types centered in the south and west (which back then was everything between the Appalachians and the Mississippi). President Washington stood strong against the Whiskey Rebellion, President Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts and both of their administrations had decidedly Anglophile foreign policies. To Republicans like Jefferson, all of this meant that the Federalists aimed to imitate the English monarchy America had fought so hard to jettison.

Thomas Jefferson led a spirited opposition to both Washington’s and Adams’ Federalist program. He resigned as Washington’s Secretary of State because he felt his counsel was continuously ignored. As Vice President, he helped vilify John Adams at every turn, leaking stories of Adams’ bad temper and obsession with the trappings of royalty to the press. Along with James Madison, he helped draft what would become the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions that sought to invalidate the Alien and Sedition Acts that Adams had signed into law. The resolutions were the first bold statements in favor of nullification, the idea that a state can choose not to follow a federal law if they deem it unconstitutional. Although the resolutions went nowhere, nullification would rear its head later during the presidency of Andrew Jackson and again on the eve of the Civil War.

So when 1800 came around, Americans had a clear choice between continuing the strong government program of the Federalists and experimenting with the states’ rights agenda of the Republicans. The campaign was vicious, with each side’s press corps working overtime to destroy the characters of the opposing candidate. Adams was attacked as an obese Anglophile monarchist. Jefferson was attacked as a Jacobin who owned and cavorted with slaves. Once the votes were tallied, no man had received a majority of electoral votes. It was up to the House of Representatives to choose from the top two candidates, which were Jefferson and the shady Aaron Burr. After several contentious votes, Alexander Hamilton used his pull in the House to throw the election to Jefferson. Although he hated Jefferson, he thought Burr was too dangerous to be president. This would be the beginning of a rivalry between Hamilton and Burr that would end with the fatal duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.

Once the election was decided, John Adams sat dejected in an unfinished ramshackle residence located on a swamp called the District of Columbia. He reflected upon what a Jefferson Administration might mean for the country. At no point did he ever consider contesting the results of the election, or of using his power as commander-in-chief to declare some sort of martial law that would extend his presidency indefinitely. Instead, he dutifully vacated what would become the White House and went back home to Massachusetts. It was an epic moment in the history of western civilization. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the reins of power transferred peacefully from one group to another. It was a validation of the principles of constitutional government and a hopeful sign that the fledgling republic could survive political turmoil without descending into civil war. The two men at the center of this battle would have an icy relationship until, towards the end of their lives, they struck up an extraordinary correspondence. That correspondence would only end when both men died, which happened to be on the same day: July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day of the Declaration of Independence.

The upcoming election this year promises to have nothing on 1800. On the surface, there might be similarities between the two incumbents, John Adams and Barack Obama. Both men were educated at Harvard. Both men were very conscious about being presidential and bringing a sense of gravitas to the highest office in the land. Like Obama, Adams did things that caused howls in his own party. He made peace with France despite his own party’s call for war, especially after the humiliation of the XYZ Affair.  This opened up Adams to criticism of being a closet Republican. Obama has been accused of selling out the progressive wing of his party, whether it was by not fighting for a public option during the healthcare reform debate or refusing to call the Bush Administration to account for war crimes or by supporting a law that puts Social Security on the road to extinction. It seems that an argument can be made that Obama is a modern-day John Adams.

In reality, the similarities are only skin-deep. Adams’ peace overtures to France were based on what he knew to be the best interests of the country. Despite the saber-rattling of his own party, he knew that war with France would be impractical. The United States had no military to speak of and no way to mobilize one in time to avoid defeat. France, for all of the turmoil its revolution was causing at the time, was still a world power that was already fully mobilized and doing a heck of a job defeating the monarchies of Europe. As Washington pointed out in his farewell address, the United States was a fledgling country that needed time to develop. At the very least, war would hinder that development and, in the worst case, would kill the United States in its cradle. Adams had to sacrifice good politics in favor of good policy. Making peace with France would surely lose him his base and the election, but it would ensure the survival of the United States for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, Obama cares not for good policy. Everything he does is a political calculation. Fighting for a public option would have surely cost him millions in contributions from Big Pharma, not to mention feed into wild criticisms of him being a radical socialist (just remember the utter insanity of many of the town hall meetings about healthcare reform). Going after Bush for war crimes and rolling back the surveillance state created by the Patriot Act would prevent Obama from having the same type of latitude Bush enjoyed as president. Going out of his way to compromise with a Republican Party hell bent on his destruction makes him look like a consensus builder and rational centrist. Unlike President Adams, what is good for the country and the people in it matters little to President Obama. His calculations are based upon how he can keep the corporate funding rolling in and how he can pander to the other party’s base in order to pull in the airhead “centrists” who pine for “bipartisanship”.

This is not even mentioning his Department of Homeland Security’s crackdown on Occupy Wall Street. What we have in President Obama is someone who does the bidding of the same corporate elite that pulled the strings of George Bush. For all of his faults, President Adams was his own man. He did not need to placate rich people in order to secure his job. Securing his job took a back seat to following his conscience. President Obama has a conscience, but the shape of that conscience is determined by the people and policies that promise to keep him in office.

The upcoming election of 2012 is not another 1800. It is not another 1828, 1864 (the choices in 1860 were much murkier) 1896, 1932 or 1964. Those were years when Americans knew they were at a crossroads. They had a clear choice before them. 1800 was a choice between Federalism and Republicanism. 1828 was a choice between internal improvements and white supremacy. 1864 was a choice between seeing the Civil War to its end and letting the south go its own way in order to secure peace. 1896 was a choice between big business and small farmers. 1932 was a choice between the same old laissez-faire and a “new deal for the American people” (whatever that meant at the time). 1964 was a choice between a federal government that actively sought to remedy inequality and one that wanted to handcuff government’s ability to do much of anything. With all of these elections, a different outcome than the one that actually happened would have clearly set the country down a much different path. 2012 is not one of those elections.

The election of 2012 has much more in common with 1820, 1852, 1888, 1976 and 2000. All of these elections took place in an atmosphere of political stasis. There was very little to distinguish the candidates from each other. Working backwards, the 2000 election was notable for its puny turnout and characterizations of it being the Seinfeld election: an election about nothing. 1976 was a choice between a fiscally conservative Republican and a fiscally conservative Democrat (a harbinger of the New Democrats of the post-Reagan era). 1888 was a squabble over tariffs, with both candidates being in full agreement over the right of corporations to step on the throats of workers (including children). 1852 was between a pro-slavery Democratic Party and a Whig Party so divided over slavery that they were unable to unite behind any platform at all. These were all elections in which the status quo had nothing to fear from the outcome. So it is with 2012.

The election of 1820 was noteworthy for being the last election in American history when a candidate ran unopposed (The other such elections involved George Washington, with whom there was no competition in the minds of the people). James Monroe rode the wave of the Era of Good Feelings to a second term in the White House (properly named after we had painted over the damage the British had caused it during the War of 1812). The Federalists were done and the entire United States, north, south and west, was effectively a Republican nation. The economy was booming, the British were ejected from the Ohio River Valley and the United States had vast stretches of land in the Louisiana Territory that promised unlimited resources. For white men in the Era of Good Feelings, America seemed to offer boundless possibilities. Jefferson’s Republican Party took the credit and James Monroe was the beneficiary.

What we have today is an Era of Bad Feelings. Instead of the promise of endless expansion, Americans of all colors and genders are facing an age of severe limits. Not only is our job market and quality of life deteriorating, we cannot even look forward to another generation of the United States being the undisputed superpower of the world. Unemployment is a permanent condition for millions of Americans. The ones lucky enough to find jobs are working in the low-wage, low-skilled service sector that grinds people up and spits them out. The workers (especially teachers) that used to have union protections and job security are rapidly being stripped of their livelihoods. Other countries like China and India promise to be major players in the 21st century. The American Dream that was the promise of the Era of Good Feelings came and went and now it withers on the vine.

Going into November, we essentially have a perverted version of 1820. It is an Era of Bad Feelings where we essentially have one candidate and one party. Sure, there will be two major people and they will each clad themselves in one of the two major brands, but they will both work for the same interests. Americans essentially have no choice. There is one political party and it is the Corporate Party. It is the party that will do everything in its power to provide boundless opportunity for those who already have it all. It is the party that will continue to destroy the lives of anyone who works or cannot find work for a living. Whether it is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum who take the oath of office on January 20, 2013, America will go down the same path.

The sad thing is, many of those low-wage and unemployed Americans will deck their cars with bumper stickers and hang American flags outside of their windows. They will go to the voting booth under the illusion that they are making a difference, or at least choosing the lesser of two evils. When November 2016 rolls around, if it rolls around, the votes that they cast 4 years prior will be shown to have no impact at all. It will be like nothing ever happened.

Separation of Church and State and the Tyranny of the Private Sector

While religious congregations of poor people get evicted from New York City public schools in the name of throwing up the barriers between church and state, President Obama is bending to forces that want to tear those barriers down. On Friday, he backtracked on his original proposal requiring religiously-affiliated businesses to pay for birth control services as part of their employees’ health insurance package. Instead, he proposed that the insurance companies pay for those services themselves.

This is, of course, a political move on the president’s part. The original proposal stirred up religious conservatives who balked at the idea of businesses being forced to cover services they consider morally wrong. He did this despite the fact that his poll numbers among Catholics were little impacted by the controversy. The vast majority of Catholics that oppose Obama have most likely always done so, while the same can be said for the Catholics that support him. Bending to his opponents in this way will not bring them over to his camp. There is probably little he can do on any front to bring them over. If history is any guide, Christian fundamentalists of all stripes: Catholic, Protestant and Mormon, are the most intractably conservative voters around. Obama once again finds himself pandering to the other party’s base.

The pollsters have made entirely too much of how this issue might impact Obama’s support among Catholics. Within that group of Catholics is a wide swath of Hispanics, America’s largest immigrant group. They support Obama not because of religion, but because Hispanic immigrants (not to mention immigrant groups stretching back to the days of Andrew Jackson) have traditionally supported the Democratic Party. Catholics who oppose Obama on purely religious grounds do so because they have always opposed the Democratic Party. This explains why Obama’s poll numbers in the Catholic community have remained relatively static throughout this entire controversy.

Like abortion, this really should be a non-issue. This is not about religion. It is about women being able to have control over their own bodies. While certain businesses might have religious affiliations, this does not mean all of their employees share those affiliations. Obama’s detractors really want businesses to be able to use their power as employers to make religiously-motivated decisions about the healthcare coverage of the people they employ. Considering many of these institutions are providing healthcare because of “Obamacare” (a federal law that uses federal funds), this really would constitute a violation of church/state separation.

The irony should not be lost on anyone. Poor people in New York City get their congregations evicted from public school buildings and the Catholic Church is nowhere to defend them. Wealthy employers want the right to use federal money to deny birth control to their employees on religious grounds (on what other grounds can you reject someone’s access to birth control?) and the Catholic Church is in their corner. While it is unlikely the religious conservatives will get their way on this issue, the controversy surrounding it points to a larger problem of just how tyrannical the American workplace has become over the past 35 years.

Thanks to the erosion of labor unions and OSHA laws, employers have been accustomed to wielding the type of power over their employees rivaled only by the sweatshop owners of the late 1800s. They can hire and fire at will, institute mandatory overtime and employ illegal immigrants who they use and abuse with little oversight. (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed is a particularly great book on this matter). The fact that people like Rand Paul can even comfortably broach the issue of repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under the guise that it violates the rights of business owners, proves how high the tide of employer power has risen.

Supporters of these policies are careful to use the language of free markets, tying the freedom of business owners to do as they please to some vague notion of American liberty. In reality, the increasing power of the American employer has been used as the battering ram to destroy all of the gains workers have won during the Progressive Era and the New Deal, not to mention the gains of individual citizens during the Civil Rights Era. This is what the Reagan Revolution was all about. It is a testament to the absolute victory of this Revolution that both Republicans and Democrats have been on board, and remain on board, in the destruction of the American citizen and worker.

And on no single issue are Democrats and Republicans more in agreement than education reform. Despite Obama’s attempts to distance himself from the No Child Left Behind law of his predecessor, his Race to the Top program is merely NCLB on steroids. States can only opt out of NCLB’s requirements if they institute, among other things, more charter schools. As Norm over at Ed Notes reminds us today, charter schools provide the same sort of tyrannical workplace found throughout the rest of the economy. They are privately run (non-profits are a boom industry, despite their benign designation) and require their staff to work long hours for less money than their counterparts in public schools. Just like the rest of the private sector today, there are no unions to prevent any of this from happening. This tyranny reaches down to the ranks of the children, who are counseled out of charter schools if they prove too difficult to educate. It is the trademark of the Reagan Revolution: hand over more power to private entities that have no obligation to respect the rights of workers or their patrons. In this way, all of the democratic gains of the past 100 years vanish.

That is why public sector unions are so important. They are the last rampart against the destruction of all of these hard-won gains. When unions like our own United Federation of Teachers roll over and play dead, they disappoint the entire American workforce, public and private. This demonstrates the need for public sector unions to be militant. Just as the pro-private sector policies of the Reagan Revolution have thrown the country back 100 years, unions also need to reset themselves 100 years. Those were the days when the International Workers of the World (“The Wobblies”) were not afraid to meet the intractable demands of management with the intractable demands of the working class. It was their activism, as well the activism of countless groups like them, that forced government to institute the worker protections of the Progressive Era and the New Deal. What the unions of today need, every single one of them, is a coup d’état that wrests control away from the comfortable functionaries who have made themselves fat from making concessions to the demands of the Reagan Revolution. In their place, we need a cadre of leaders who militantly defend every last right workers today still have while ruthlessly fighting to regain all of the rights we have lost.

The entire birth control controversy in which the president has been mired is about a whole lot more than the separation of church and state. It touches upon issues of workplace tyranny that this country has yet to face honestly.

Take Action: Sign the Petition to Get Rid of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education

Picture from New York City Public School Parents website: http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2011/02/arne-duncan-dumb-and-dumber.html

With the backlash against SOPA, we see how effective online activism can be.

Sign the petition here.

Full text of the petition. (Original Link)

Dear President Obama,

We, the undersigned, a cross section of the nation’s teachers and their supporters, wish to express our extreme displeasure with the policies implemented during your administration by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Although many of us campaigned enthusiastically for you in 2008, it is unlikely that you will receive continued support unless the following three dimensions of your administration’s education initiatives are changed:

  1. The exclusion of teachers from policy discussions in the US Department of Education and from Education Summits called under your leadership.
  2. The use of rhetoric which blames failing schools on “bad teachers” rather than poverty and neighborhood distress.
  3. The use of federal funds to compel states and municipalities to use student test scores in the evaluation of teachers and as the basis for closing low performing schools.

Because of these policies, teachers throughout the nation have become discouraged and demoralized, undermining your own stated goals of improving teacher quality, upgrading the nation’s educational performance, and encouraging creative pedagogy rather than “teaching to the test.”

We therefore submit the following measures to put your administration’s education policy back on the right track and to bring teachers in as full partners in this effort:

  1. The removal of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and his replacement by a lifetime educator who has the confidence of the nation’s teachers.
  2. The incorporation of parents, teachers, and school administrators in all policy discussion taking place in your administration, inside and outside the Department of Education.
  3. An immediate end to the use of incentives or penalties to compel states and municipalities to use student test scores as a basis for evaluating teachers, preferring charter schools to existing public schools, and requiring closure of low performing schools.
  4. Create a National Commission, in which teachers and parent representatives play a primary role, which explores how to best improve the quality of America’s schools.

We believe such policies will create an outpouring of good will on the part of teachers, parents and students which will promote creative teaching and educational innovation, leading to far greater improvements in the nation’s schools than policies which encourage a proliferation of student testing could ever hope to do.


The Undersigned

Obama’s War on Knowledge

Obama reveals his plans to destroy all learning.

One of my favorite blogs is On The Edge. Susan, who is the author, usually chooses the right stance over the popular one. Yesterday, she posted an article about Obama’s plan for higher education reform. It is essentially Race to the Top for universities, where federal funding will be tied to whether or not universities will be able to lower tuition. This means, of course, slashing pay for professors and the proliferation of online courses as a way to cut costs. The article paints a grim picture of universities ending up totally beholden to private interests. Susan ends her post with a chilling comment, “watch them try to do away with tenure on the college level.”

Teachers, whether in grade school or university, are the guardians of knowledge for the young. Oftentimes, they are the only pipeline youth have into the world of important ideas. The standardized testing craze in public schools has already been taking knowledge out of the hands of teachers and putting it into the hands of private testing companies, which are usually owned by even bigger corporations like News Corp. What this will amount to, once education deform has thoroughly ravaged public education, is a very narrow elite deciding what is important for people to know and what is not. This is the same story with the media, where a handful of corporations decide what gets aired and what remains invisible. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which by no means has been defeated, promises to be a major first step in allowing corporations say in what remains on the internet and what gets disappeared.

Taken together, public schools, the media and the internet pretty much account for all of the ways people interact with the wider world. Our entire matrix of knowledge is shaped by these things. Those whose only knowledge of the world is gleaned from their public school education are usually not informed at all, especially since the relevance of that education wanes as people get older. Those that bury their heads in the television for news usually come away with a shallow understanding of what is happening, leaving them with little but flimsy talking points. The internet might be the best place of all for news, but it is only useful if the person doing the surfing is able to discern the small amount of good information from the vast amount of garbage. Although all of these things are either under attack or totally beholden to corporate interests, there was always a silver lining in the background: the college professor.

Even if every other source of knowledge has been bastardized by corporate interests, college professors hold out the hope of intellectual integrity. This does not mean that every professor is a bastion of reliability. Anyone who has seen the movie Inside Job knows that many professors are for sale and will hide behind the supposed intellectual rigor of their work in order to push a corporate agenda. Yet, on the whole, college professors at least have a pretense to rigor and a desire to help their fields of study evolve through solid research and analysis. Through journal articles and popular books, professors filter their findings down to the population at large. History professors provide a public service by researching recent history, interpreting their findings and shedding light on the politics of today. It is tenure that gives professors the freedom to value truth over fads. Unlike public school teachers, professors are not so pliable to outside interests, especially the interests of the rich and powerful. In certain cases, professors are able to speak truth to power in a way few others can.

Doing away with tenure for college professors will mean the total commodification of knowledge. There will be literally no way the average person can interact with the world around them without it being filtered through a corporate reality first. Hopefully, college professors across the country can overcome their traditional lack of stomach for pitched political battle and defend what promises to be the final frontier of free expression and the pursuit of truth.

Maybe they can start by becoming more involved in the debate over education reform. The ones not for sale need to shout louder and farther than the economists and education researchers who have whored themselves out to the corporate elite a long time ago.

In Search of a Tipping Point

I was never an Obama supporter and never will be. Towards the beginning of his term, his supporters excused the sad state of the country by blaming Bush. We are now three years in, which means that Obama owns a large part of the mess that is the United States of America. Through poor leadership, cowardice and, most importantly, being bought off by the same people that buy off every other politician, Obama has allowed this country to remain in the toilet. Somewhere along the way, Obama reached a tipping point where every problem could no longer be blamed on Bush.

The education deformers have reached their tipping point as well.

For the sake of convenience, let’s take No Child Left Behind (which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary), as the seminal point where the education deformers took the driver’s seat. In certain areas of the country, the deformers had already been in charge much longer. However, NCLB was the point where no public school child could escape the standardized testing regime that became a hallmark of deformer policy.

If Obama reached his tipping point in 3 years, then the deformers have certainly reached theirs in 10.

In the same year as NCLB, the nation’s largest school system in New York City fell into the hands of the new Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. He would eliminate the democratically elected Board of Education, who voted on all important matters of schooling policy for the city, and replaced it with a Panel for Educational Policy whose members were all appointed by him. They rubber stamped all of his reforms. His first war was against “social promotion”, which was the practice of moving kids to the next grade even when they had not passed. It was the first manifestation of the “no excuses” mantra the deformers would recite so much in the coming years. In his 10 years as overlord of education, 21 large public high schools have been closed while nearly 61 new charter schools were opened by 2008. He has waged a perpetual public relations war against the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, causing them to be complicit in a new contract that stripped them of many due process rights.

10 years of rampant reform in New York City, and what has become of the schools?

According to the results of the NAEP exams, which Diane Ravitch calls the “gold standard” of testing, no appreciable gains in math or reading since the reforms have taken place. By 2009, “just 24% of eighth-graders were deemed proficient or above on the reading test this year compared with 22% in 2003. In math, just 24% scored a proficient score compared with 20% in 2003.” The gutting of the large high schools also gutted the many programs only possible in large high schools: football, baseball, band, clubs and academic competitions. These were the things that brought spirit not only to the school building, but to the entire community. Walking the hallways now of the large high school buildings will take you through the several small schools that co-habitate there (or “co-locate”, if it is a charter). They jealously guard their space, competing over classrooms, laboratories, cafeterias, gyms and auditoriums. Instead of the community coming together, like they did in the large high schools, communities are ripped apart.

Teachers, owing to a contract that took away their rights to legitimately grieve unfair practices of administrators, live in fear of speaking their minds. Those who speak out are harangued out of the system on trumped up charges. The last 10 years have produced story upon story of veteran teachers being slapped with trumped up charges. Our “due process” now involves waiting forever for a termination hearing where well over 90% of teachers are found guilty. At the same time, principals like the one who sexually harassed his staff, or the one tampering with credits and dancing with strippers on facebook, go unpunished. It is a system of corruption and cronyism, harassment and intimidation, bureaucracy and dictatorship that we have been left with after 10 years of Bloomberg’s education deforms.

And yet, in his State of the City address, Bloomberg has called for ramping up  his reforms. Instead, Bloomberg should have done the honorable thing and acknowledge that he has reached the tipping point. He has been running the system for 10 years and still acts like a reformer. In reality, 10 years makes him the status quo. He is the education crisis. There is nobody else to blame.

If Obama reached his tipping point after three years, what about Michelle Rhee, who was the chancellor of Washington D.C.’s schools for three and a half? Her teacher evaluation system threw D.C. into a neo-Jim Crow era where inexperienced teachers ended up in poor neighborhoods while veterans ended up in gentrifying areas. She pulled off perhaps the darkest, most cruel irony in the history of education: bringing Jim Crow to the city in which Brown v. Board of Education was decided.

Where is the tipping point for education reform? The fact that we even use the term “reform” speaks to the utter victory of their propaganda campaign. Reformers are fresh with innovative ideas that inject new life into stale institutions. The deformers have injected poison into education, causing it to go backwards towards a musty and oppressive era of segregation. The blame is squarely on their shoulders, since they are the status quo.

In the end, there is one important overlap between Obama and the deformers besides both reaching their tipping points. Despite both of their promises of change, they brought nothing but tired ideas advocated for by a narrow elite. The reasons why CEOs can count on billions in bonuses while people get thrown out on the street are the same reasons why millionaires profit off of education deform while our schools are ravaged before our eyes. Is there any wonder why Obama and his buddy Arne are pushing Race to the Top?

The politicians and the corporate reformers have reached their tipping points. It is time we give them a little push so that they topple over.

A Quick Thought on the Iowa Caucus

It wasn't Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney who tied in the Iowa Caucus, it was these two.

I’m no political junkie, and I certainly don’t support the sham that is our two-party system, but I have a history teacher’s instinct to try to fit today’s events with the past.

That being said, last night’s Iowa Caucus represents the basic tension in the Republican Party. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney finished essentially tied. Santorum, a Roman Catholic, got the votes from the social conservatives, the most mobilized part of the party. Mitt got a smattering of everyone else, from the fiscal conservatives to pragmatists who see Mitt as the best chance against Obama. It is really the Republican tension represented in the father and son Bush presidents.

This has been the choice Republican voters have been faced with since the early 90s. George Bush Senior, who seems like FDR when compared with his son, always warned against the “lunatics” getting control of the party. By “lunatics”, he was referring to the Evangelicals who were becoming a growing and more vocal presence during his time. After Bush left, the Evangelicals voted in more and more members of Congress until they had the votes to impeach Clinton by the middle of his second term.

Then George Bush Junior came along. In what seems like a total repudiation of his father, Bush pandered to the “lunatic” section. He played up his born again Christianity and Faith-Based Initiatives. He was owned by Wall Street, just like Obama, but his voting base was the Evangelicals. Santorum might be able to pull off something similar.

On the other hand, Mitt Romney represents the George Bush Senior wing, the old establishment Republicans.  It is the party of Bob Dole and John McCain, the two losing Republican candidates since the 90s (outside of Bush Senior himself, of course). Dole and McCain did not energize the Evangelicals. McCain’s big concession to the Evangelicals was Sarah Palin, and that was against his will. Mitt energizes them just as much. No surprise then that John McCain is going to endorse Mitt today.

Bush Junior represents the winning formula for any Republican candidate, if such a formula exists anymore for the Republican Party. It entails energizing the Evangelicals because they will vote in droves. Any Republican candidate would be crazy not to take advantage of the very well-organized churches of the south and southwest, who act as organizing committees for Republican candidates that pander to them.

Rick Santorum has that quality. His speech last night was filled with nuggets meant to please the Evangelicals. At the same time, he talked about the working man and bringing back manufacturing, invoking the imagery of the Pennsylvania coal mines and steel mills. This could be a Bush 2.0, combining a Southern social conservative’s twang with a northeastern factory hand’s earthiness. I guess you can call it the Antonin Scalia appeal, if he has any.

It also represents a sort of uneasy peace that has been reached between America’s religious groups, who lately have tended to come together around socially conservative candidates (like Mike Huckabee in last year’s Iowa Caucus). Santorum has the potential to galvanize a large chunk of them after Ron Paul drops out, along with a larger circle of working class whites. Combine that with the usual fiscal conservatives who vote Republican and Santorum might be have a workable strategy. The only alternative for the Republicans is another Dole or McCain, which would be choosing a candidate because they’re a good operator who could win in a general election.

So I suppose I will be watching the primaries to see if George Bush Junior’s (Rick Santorum) or George Bush Senior’s (Mitt Romney) ghost gets resurrected. Then in the general election we will see if either of these, or a combination of the two, can beat Obama.

Ok, that was not such a quick thought, but I am a history teacher.

The New Obama Song…

Remember this song that went viral when the country was in the throes of Obamania?


Well, three years into the first Obama Administration, he has a new song reflecting a totally different national mood:

A stark contrast indeed.