Sunday, November 27, 2011

Issue #35 November 27, 2011- Opportunity, Politics, Individualism, Unions and School Choice

Issue #35- November 27, 2011
In this issue: Opportunity, Recalls, Dirty Politics, Buy Local, Rugged Individualism, Educator Unions and School Choice

Giving Thanks in a Time of Opportunity…
Frequently lost in all the uproar, hype and hoopla about the political conditions in Wisconsin is the fact that residents of WI still have so many things to be thankful for.  We may not like the direction our state is headed.  We may be concerned over the divisions that are widening between citizens politically, socially and economically.  We may be concerned about the health and welfare of our fellow Wisconsinites as they struggle to overcome challenges from a number of sources.  However, these problems can't overshadow all the good that is part of Wisconsin as well.  This is truly a time of opportunity for our state and our nation.

Opportunity is not a guarantee of success, but rather a prospect for the future.  Opportunity can lead us in many directions, positive, negative and uncertain.  At its heart, opportunity is what we make of it.  Effort, energy, organization and solidarity can lead us in positive directions.  Thankfulness and opportunity go hand in hand with concern and challenges. 

Our "leadership" in Wisconsin has made much of their efforts to make our state a better place for future generations by making "tough decisions".  We are supposed to be thankful to them for these decisions and their efforts.  I have to admit that I am thankful to Walker and other Wisconsin Republicans.  I'm thankful for their actions which have awakened so many of us here.  The increase in participation in the political process has been monumental and will hopefully continue beyond this next election cycle. 

I'm thankful to the Republican leadership for reminding me why I am a union member.  Membership in my union means more to me now than it did at this time last year.  Maybe it's that "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone", or maybe it's just that I've really gotten an opportunity to see the great things that MTI does.  Maybe it's all the great people I've met and talked to because of the increased efforts to organize and act.  Whatever the reason, thank you Gov. Walker.

I'm also extremely thankful for the efforts of law enforcement here in Wisconsin.  Just looking at the images from other places in the U.S. (not to mention the rest of the world) reminds us of how lucky we are here.

Along with many of you I'm thankful for all the benefits that come with being middle class in the mid-west.  So many of the things that we have come to view as expected are really special and should be appreciated.  Food, shelter, access to health care, conveniences, education, clean environment… the list goes on and on.  These are the things that make our lives easier and better.  Unfortunately, many of these things are under attack by current Republican policies.  We are on the edge of disaster as these policies begin to really take full effect.

(Milwaukee County is certainly not alone in this problem)

That is where opportunity comes in.  This Thanksgiving can be used as a benchmark date.  We have endured the initial assaults on our way of life and are fighting back through political means.  Our efforts today will be vital to deciding what Wisconsin (and from here out to the rest of the nation) will look like a year from now.  We have the chance to make a difference, but it will take a great deal of effort and will be a continuing struggle.   

We're on the Road to Recall…
We are almost 2 weeks into the recall effort and the results to date have been extremely positive.  Keep circulating those petitions and finding ways to volunteer by entering data, making phone calls, putting a sign in your yard. 

The kick off rally was great and the rest of the state is in full recall mode.  A few examples of recent articles.

A big question continues to be, who will run against Walker.  While it is still too early to really worry about this (we need to be sure we have the signatures), the question is a valid one.  The candidate must be a strong one, who has a strong message.  It won't be enough to run a candidate on the "Anything But Walker" ticket.  This is something that will need to be addressed in the near future and may be very challenging. 

As always, there is no shortage of reasons to recall our governor.  This You Tube video is a great reminder of some of them.

Dirty Politics…
Over the years I've always talked to my students about how impressive the current American political system is.  Not necessarily in terms of quality of leadership or exceptional results, but because of our ability to work together on controversial issues.  The United States is a large nation of extremely diverse interests and has always struggled with this "blessing".  It is what makes our nation special and at the same time provides challenges that smaller more homogeneous nations don't need to address.

Our political system is frustratingly slow to respond and often results in compromises that make many unhappy, but at the same time provides a framework for stability and unification.  On a daily basis we may have complaints about politicians and the "red-tape", but we can't dispute the benefits of living here under these rules. 

I'm deeply concerned that this is changing for the worse.  Not only are we facing threats to our system of government, but they are occurring at increasingly rapid rates and are more extreme in nature.  Wisconsin provides great examples of this trend.  It took over a century to build the network of legislation and regulation around worker's rights issues and only a few months to dismantle it.  The dismantling of the system was accompanied by a wide ranging attempt to undermine the checks and balances that have stabilized our government. 

Along with the changes to the power structure came the efforts to disenfranchise citizens.  This has been done through a voter ID law along with conscious efforts to confuse and intimidate citizens trying to exercise their rights.

The efforts by conservative leadership have given like minded citizens the license to act in negative ways.

I read this article about getting an ID and then read most of the comments afterwards.  I wonder why the same people who raise an outcry over any restrictions on concealed carry are saying that it's no big deal to make voting requirements tougher.  Is it more important to carry a gun than fill out a ballot? 

As we go out to collect signatures on recall petitions be sure to be careful and safe.  Also be sure to know your rights and stand up for them.  We all know there will be an effort by Walker supporters to intimidate petition circulators and restrict access to fellow citizens.

At the same time, we need to be assertive, not aggressive.  Many of the employees who will be confronting circulators may actually support us, but may be told to enforce a company policy.  Is it any surprise that Wal-Mart will be taking a strong anti-petition policy?  However, I'm also sure that many of their employees want to sign and support our efforts.  We need to respect the position that our fellow workers are put in and help them in their efforts to balance their political views with their economic needs. 

Spend Your Money Wisely…
There are many ways that you can have an impact in our current political and economic climate.  One important way to make a difference is to be a careful consumer.  If we can get enough people to buy locally and buy products made in the U.S. (preferably by union workers) the large merchants and manufacturers will have to take notice. 

It is also important to let shop owners know who you are and why you are making the purchases you are making.  They need to know that there are many people out there who make buying decisions based on criteria beyond price and convenience. 

"Rugged Individualism" and the Cult of Personality…
America, like all other societies,  is a nation of contradictions.  We have a strong traditional idea that Americans are supposed to be rugged and individualistic.  The historical ideal of an American is symbolized by the pioneer, the entrepreneur, the person who picks themselves up by the bootstraps and turns any situation to their advantage.  This is the image that the conservatives put forward.  It directly contrasts with the progressive idea of a community that looks out for each other and the union model where "An Injury to One is an Injury to All".

Conservative ideology would have us believe that if each person just puts in the hard work then they have the opportunity to succeed.  They argue that if you don't enjoy success then you just haven't tried hard enough.  Conservatives offer the lazy, unmotivated liberal as the foil to their ideal American.  Yet this view is not realistic and neglects to take into account all the variables that influence a person's success or failure in any endeavor. 

The view of the rugged individual doesn't play well in historical context either.  For example, Lewis and Clark are frequently held up as examples of the ideal American.  They, along with a small number of others, took great risks and suffered tremendous hardships in order to cross the continent.  What isn't noted in many historical accounts are the contributions of countless others without which Lewis and Clark would have been unsuccessful.  These "others" are given footnotes or ignored historically and were ignored at the time as well.  Sacajawea and York got no compensation (although Clark got compensation as York's owner) for their contributions.  Of course the native people of the continent got their reward for helping Lewis and Clark over the next decades as they lost their way of life. 

Lewis and Clark were also entirely supported by the United States Government.  They were a publicly funded expedition.  Lewis himself recognized the need for government support in order to open the west for the fur trade.  After returning from his journey he wrote, "If the government will only aid, even in a very limited manner, the enterprize of her Citizens I am fully convinced that we shall shortly derive the benefits of a most lucrative trade from this source…"  The fur trapping, independent mountain man of the early west needed the government to help their efforts just as much as the later entrepreneur.

Conservatives would have us learn history as though it were based on the efforts of a few great individuals.  It is true that progress and innovation frequently takes the efforts of a small number of people providing leadership, but these individuals are supported by others.  The others frequently provide the infrastructure that makes the leaders efforts successful.   

The "Cult of Personality" or near worship of individuals is a trait that is very highly entrenched in our culture here in the United States.  While we love to talk about our independence and individualism, we are heavily reliant on the guidance of our leaders and follow celebrities in an almost blind devoted manner.  We buy what we are told to buy and think what we are told to think.  In this regard we are no different from other societies across the world.  The term "Cult of Personality" is frequently used to describe Stalin and other Soviet leaders, but could easily be used for American heroes as well.

This type of hero worship is a part of human nature.  We all look to leaders to help us guide our thoughts and actions.  The difficulty lies in the fact that as a society we must also balance this with a realistic view of the icons of our culture.  Even the greatest person is still a human being full of the inconsistencies, foibles and strengths that we all have.  We must either accept, ignore or alter our icons to fit our perception of what they stand for.  For example, historical figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are portrayed in different ways by different groups.  They are either made more heroic or are vilified depending on one's perspective.  Things like Jefferson's religious ideas and slave ownership are problematic for many.  Current citizens might wonder what side of the Whiskey Rebellion they would have been on and how they would have viewed General Washington had they been alive at the time.  Of course many of these topics are simply ignored by modern leaders as they invoke a historical figure's image to support their own beliefs.

The American system of government became stronger as it moved away from the ability of single individuals to drastically alter the system.  The fact that power was decentralized increased the stability of our government and helped protect the rights of citizens.  That is one huge concern about recent events.  Over the past few years the ability of common citizens to impact the system has become reduced.  Citizens United is an example of how we have made common people less important and less represented.  Common citizens felt like they couldn't make a difference and began to opt out of the system.    

Scott Walker has become an icon of modern politics here in Wisconsin.  He has become a symbol for all that is good or evil depending on what your political beliefs are.  However, by making him a centerpiece for what is happening we ignore the fact that he is only a single person who has become a focal point for political action here.  Whatever the results of the recall here they are only one part of the ongoing struggle to advance the cause of corporations or labor.  This effort will not end the struggle any more than events like Gettysburg or D-Day ended those struggles. 
Our system of government should be based on a process that has evolved over time, not on the whims of the moment.  As power becomes centralized it becomes easier for individuals to manipulate the system for their advantage.  An interesting contradiction is that, while Americans worship the celebrity and focus on famous individuals, there are many others who act to influence the process.  These individuals operate quietly using money and influence to guide leaders that they select.  They fund studies that influence political leaders and the general public.  They provide resources for political campaigns.  They give grants to organizations and support a variety of causes.  In short they control a great deal of power in this nation.  Some of these individuals are well know and others are not, but their influence is being felt all across the country.

Because these individuals are extremely wealthy they are typically more conservative in nature.  They have a common goal of keeping their status as elite citizens protected and to maintain their standard of living.  They are the "Robber Barons" of modern America.  As people feel disenfranchised they turn to leaders who say and do things that make them feel empowered.

Why We Need Educator Unions…
Now more than ever educator unions are necessary in America.  Public education is facing massive efforts to standardize the way that educators do their jobs.  The drive to evaluate teachers is gaining momentum in many circles and there are calls for the de-professionalization of educators. 

Educator unions are a voice to help protect the status of educators as professionals and not just babysitters.  Current ideas for evaluating teachers in Wisconsin focuses on two areas, using prescribed teaching methods and using student test scores.  In other words, teachers must teach in a certain way and then hope that their X (in my case 9-11) year old students rise to the challenge on the standardized tests.

I would argue that standardized curriculums and standardized testing makes educators less accountable.  By telling me how to teach, my accountability is reduced.  I am simply following a script that someone else (presumably smarter and more proficient) has created.  Think of a movie review for a film that has been negatively received.  I've read many where the reviewer talks about how Actor A is a tremendous actor who tried to rise above a poor script.  As an educator, I will be forced to try and implement someone else's ideas and my professional and creative skills will be negated. 

Standardized testing has the same effect.  I have no control over what material is covered on the test and am reduced to either teaching to the test, or taking my chances that my students will know the material.  Educators who don't believe in the testing also are able to ignore the results as not valid.  Instead of really looking at addressing the needs of the students, testing becomes the issue.  Do we really value tests over students?

Another reason we need educator unions is the current, anti-educator climate.   

School Choice…
One of the biggest movements in education recently has been the idea of school choice.  The arguments against school choice are many, but the supporters of choice are well funded and highly motivated.  Their arguments sound valid, but a little research often turns up inconsistencies and other motives. 


Why attack public education?  The venom directed at public schools would make it seem that the destruction of our public education system is a high priority for conservatives.  What is it that they dislike and fear about our current system? 

I would argue that public schools unite communities and allow for students to meet a wide range of diverse people.  Private schools, by nature will divide communities and become more homogeneous.  People want to be with people who are like them, that's natural.  However, in order for a diverse nation like the United States to survive we must get to know each other on an individual basis.  Otherwise we will become a collection of separate republics divided by language, race, financial status, gender, religion, etc., not a unified nation.  

Public schools also provide an opportunity for all students to get a basic education.  Whether they actually do so is at the mercy of a nearly infinite set of variables.  However, the basic premise is still there that anyone can attend a public school and is entitled to an opportunity to become more educated.  Education is one of the strongest indicators of economic success in the future and clearly provides an individual with better prospects for future achievement.  By making school choice more widespread the quality of public education will be affected.  Multiple studies in large cities have shown this effect. 

Opportunities for higher education are becoming more restricted due to costs and cuts to university budgets.  By restricting access to primary and secondary education the general population will suffer.  The less educated a population the easier they are to control.  Look at the efforts made to restrict learning for different groups throughout history.  Maybe there is a different agenda at work here.  

As Madison grapples with the issue of school choice and Madison Prep we need to keep the big picture in our minds.  We also need to make sure that the general public gets the full story, not just what special interest groups want them to hear.

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