Sunday, January 15, 2012

Issue #42 January 15, 2012- Two Competing Visions For America

What This Is…
Issue #42- January 15, 2012
In this issue: Celebrating Dr. King, Recall Information, Where To From Here?, Scandal and Corruption, The Effect of Walker's Budget, Respecting Educators, Unions, Charter Schools, Different Visions of America

MLK Day…
I would be remiss if I didn't start this issue by remembering that we will be celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday.  Much will be written and spoken about this great American.  I would just take a moment and remind us that he was a leader who was a unifying force in more than just a single issue.  His stance on labor rights, the anti-war movement, civil rights for all Americans and his non-violent methods for expressing his ideals are what set him above so many others who have spoken and acted on these same topics. 

We can't forget that, had it not been for his support of worker's rights he would never have been in Memphis in April of 1968.

I've spent a great deal of time with my students learning more about Dr. King.  We are trying to answer the question, what makes him so special.  My students all had the basic elementary school answers and knew all about the evils of segregation.  What I felt was missing was an understanding that it isn't just people of one race who can take Dr. King's message as an inspiration.  Dr. King was special because he was able to see the need for all people to live, work and achieve together in peace. 

As a nation we need to look to leaders like King, not just as historical figures who sit on a dusty shelf, but as vibrant models for what we can have today.  Our nation has made slow progress towards the ideals that our founders set for us.  The progress has been inconsistent and halting, but we can see evidence of the effort being made.  Unfortunately, our current climate here seems to be a regression to less enlightened times.

We can't simply celebrate on Monday with some brief lip-service to the message that Dr. King died to deliver.  We must not wait for someone else to come along and return us to the path of equality and freedom.  Each of us needs to make the effort to help get our progress towards a nation where dreams truly can come true started again. 

Recall Information…
We are fast approaching the deadline for the filing of the petitions to recall Governor Walker, Lt. Governor Kleefisch and the 4 GOP senators targeted for recall.  January 17th will be an historic day in Wisconsin.

It appears that recall activists have gathered enough signatures to force recalls in all races including the one for Senator Fitzgerald.  This effort is the one that is the most genuinely grass roots and has been run through the sheer dedication of a small core of volunteers without significant support from larger recall groups.  If you have an opportunity to get out and make a final push to recall Fitzgerald, now is the time.  While I know that the organizer, Lori Compas, has made incredible efforts to verify all of the signatures collected, we can assume that Sen. Fitzgerald will go to extreme lengths to protect his job.  The more signatures in all the recall efforts, the better.

With the impending end of the signature gathering period almost here it is natural for people to turn their attention to the next stage of the recall process. 
However, it is also important for us to take some time to celebrate and reflect about what this process really means.  It is easy to get caught up in the details and forget the bigger picture.  We are living in a time where every day brings a new challenge and it is difficult to appreciate the historic nature of what is happening here. 

One key thing to focus on is the motivation behind the recalls.  While the conservative message is that these efforts are purely motivated by unions and their collective greed, the reality is quite different.  What has unified the activists is a desire to right the wrongs that have been perpetuated by the Walker administration and to return a sense of ethics to our state government.  It is true that financial self interest is a part of this effort, but there are too many people from very diverse backgrounds participating to trivialize the effort by making it a single issue campaign.  

It is this unifying spirit that motivates people to stand out in the cold (although we certainly can't complain about the weather recently), go door to door and to give of their time, money and energy.  There is the impending challenge of unseating some very powerful political officials who have a tremendous amount of support from influential organizations.  However, nothing can take away the accomplishments we've achieved to date.  By forcing the recalls, activists have taken the initiative and momentum back from the conservative forces who were using their majorities in all branches of government to force a radical agenda on Wisconsin.  

We must also remember that this is only a stage in the ongoing fight.  Over the past year the reaction to the Walker administration has had different focal points.  There were the protests in Madison, the legal and legislative battles, the senate recalls over the summer, and now this recall effort.  Along the way we have engaged in countless actions that have strengthened our resolve and set the tone for the debate.  We need to celebrate our efforts and look for ways to continue the fight. 

As we continue our work to make sure we have enough verifiable signatures an article in the Wisconsin State Journal this past week caught my eye.  It was a summary of a police report where a man named Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop was arrested.  It got me thinking about how easy it would be for the GOP to find names like this on our petitions, share it in a misleading way and continue to try and discredit our efforts.  Yet, in the end this was this man's legal name.  Having done data entry, canvassing and other actions over the past months I can vouch for the sincerity and ethical nature of the recall movement.  Unfortunately, we are vulnerable to the propaganda machine of the GOP.  All we can do is continue to do our best to keep our integrity intact and rise above the tactics of our opponents.  The fear, racism, etc. of the right will be another obstacle for us to overcome.

Where Do We Go From Here?…
Despite the nagging fears that conservatives will pull some trick to try and avoid the recalls entirely, most of us believe that the elections are going to happen.  The question on everyone's minds is who will run against Walker.  In this area, Republicans have an initial advantage.  They know who they will have as candidates and have already begun to set the stage for the upcoming elections.  The incumbent candidates almost always begin with an advantage and the recall process can help the candidate in office under circumstances like our current one. 

Many names have been put forward, but it will be interesting to see who ends up being the Democratic candidates in each of the races.  What seems clear to me is that, whoever is chosen to run against the GOP candidates they must have a few key characteristics.  They must be able to unify the electorate behind them.  Wisconsin voters are extremely polarized, but there is still a middle group of voters who will swing the election.  The extremes on either side are set and virtually impossible to change, it is the more moderate or undecided voter who will be the target of the efforts to gather support for either party.

Whoever the candidates are who will run in these recall elections will be in a very difficult position.  This is especially true in the race for Governor.  This person will face extreme pressures from all sides and will be asked to do a seemingly impossible task.  They will have to work with a legislature that is sharply divided and has shown little ability to work productively with each other.  They will be viewed as either a savior or a pawn of the working class.  Every action will be analyzed and critiqued under a microscope on the local, state and national level.  They will need to articulate their policies and defend every action to a harshly divided citizenry.

In order to unify the electorate the candidates must have a strong message that is easily communicated.  We know the GOP campaign strategy and have seen the power it generates.  We must be able to counter this with a message of our own.  The message must be more than just an attack on conservative actions.  Brady Hoke, Michigan Football Coach, talked about recruiting and said, "If we've got to talk about the negatives of other schools, we don't have enough positives."  This is true in politics too, we won't generate support if our message is just anti-Walker.

By running a campaign that is purely based on opposition to recent Republican actions we run a defensive campaign.  We can't allow the conservatives to set the tone and the agenda of the debate.  Instead our candidates must actively take their platforms to the people immediately upon announcing their candidacy.  They should identify key elements of their platform and vigorously promote these points.  The candidates must draw on the strengths of the movements that support them to create a broad coalition of supporters who will be active voters to unseat the GOP candidates.

We know that there will be lots of money and plenty of vicious underhanded tactics employed by conservatives during the election process.  These tactics will be designed to sway those undecided voters through fear and feelings of self-preservation.  This is the proven method used by the GOP for years.  They create an atmosphere where people feel threatened and offer a false sense of safety if their candidate is elected. 

This sense of impending doom is ironic when one considers that Republicans pride themselves on being patriotic and staunch Americans.  If they have so much pride in America, why is our country always in decline and why can't the people of America be trusted?  Republican leadership has promoted voter restrictions, limits on free speech and other policies that disenfranchise the citizens of America.  Those facts, along with the constant talk about how horrible things are here because of our elected government make you wonder what the GOP really values.  Maybe these facts shed a little light on this issue:
-In 2010 Campaigns
46% of political groups that were active didn't disclose funding information
Only 34% of political groups that advertised disclosed donor information
90% of money spent without disclosures was conservative

Who are these undisclosed donors?  Who does the GOP really represent?

Progressive candidates must counter this message of doom and gloom with an alternative.  Our message must be one of hope and unity that brings people who may have very different viewpoints together.  The recall efforts have already started the unification process.  The diversity of volunteers and their different reasons for participating are a potential source of strength for the candidates who run against the sitting politicians.  The political leadership of our movement must listen to the people who have collected the signatures and build a platform that will lead to victory in the elections.  We must set ourselves up as something different than the GOP, not just try to beat them at their own game.  Andrew Young, of the SCLC, said, "Even if you're a winner in a rat race, you're still a rat."  We don't want to be a better rat, we want to be a different creature entirely.

It is not enough that we rely on leaders who will make these things happen.  If we have learned nothing from the past year but this one thing we must remember that it is the people of Wisconsin who must take back the reins of power.  We must be the ones who set the tone for the debate and who hold our leaders accountable.  The recalls are just the start of this process.  As we move into the elections and beyond we, the people, must make sure we stay educated and vigilant.  We can't allow the big money interests to spread their message without offering a counter message and keeping our fellow citizens informed.  That is our charge if we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of living in a free and just society. 
Scandal and Corruption…
Of interest to all of us in Wisconsin have been the ongoing stories of corruption and underhanded methods used in the current Republican administration.  In fact it is this pattern of alleged wrongdoing that has helped solidify the resistance to Governor Walker.  Even long time GOP supporters have had a hard time justifying the actions of the Governor and his administration.  It is another reason to hope for a successful recall. 

In addition to the web of corruption that is surrounding the Republicans in Wisconsin there is also the pattern of misinformation and deceit.  One common belief of many citizens is that politicians, in general, are not trustworthy.  This current collection of GOP political figures is cementing that view in the public's mind.  The evidence of misinformation, changing stories and outright lies is significant.  Unfortunately, at times the sheer volume of deceit creates a sense of helplessness in the voting population.  We must find a way to continue to highlight the examples of fraud and double-speak while giving an alternative to "politics as usual."     

The Effect of Walker's Budget…
The supporters of Scott Walker would have us believe that he has the interests of all Wisconsin citizens at heart.  They want us to believe that he is standing up for the little guy here and trying to make our state a better place for the common person.  The sheer hypocrisy of this is staggering.  It is in the area of the budget and the state's economy that he has done some of his most blatant manipulation of facts and misleading of the general public.  He is employing an economic strategy that doesn't work and is actually harmful to the majority of working Wisconsinites. 

The cuts to education and public services have been devastating, but Walker continues to send the message that they were a good thing.  The word "tools" has taken on a whole new meaning here. 

The financial costs to the middle income earners in Wisconsin have been destructive and demoralizing.  One example is the area of property taxes.  I've heard countless conservatives trumpet the "good news" that property taxes have gone down.  I haven't met a person yet who has seen their bill decrease.  It makes me wonder, if property taxes really went down across Wisconsin (as Walker's supporters allege) and yet most people's taxes went up, did a small number of people (possibly wealthy GOP supporters) see a significant decrease in their property taxes?  

I know my story is just one of many, but the impact of Walker's policies are clear to me personally.  My family is dealing with a loss in net pay of over $700 per month from last January.  That's right, my family's monthly usable income declined that much from January 2011 to January 2012.  Surprisingly enough the cost of living seems to have gone up and now my property taxes are higher this year too.  Insult to injury.  And this is just the financial toll.  The cost to me as my profession is assaulted and the supports that I have are attacked are also unsettling.

What I find truly disturbing is the ease with which Walker's political machine deceives the public.  In a few easily remembered phrases he is able to set the tone for the debate and put progressives on the defensive.  His message plays to the emotions of fear, self preservation and jealousy that motivate people to support his agenda.  Facts are irrelevant to the discussion, it's propaganda pure and simple.  Just look at this clip of a pro-Walker ad followed by a school official countering the ad.  You can see the power of Walker's message and the reality that to truly understand what the truth of the matter is, one must take time and really understand what is happening.

Respecting Educators…
There's no doubt that educators in America have taken a beating over the past years.  The level of animosity directed at public school workers has increased exponentially.  I can't speak for all educators, but I strongly believe that most of us don't expect the public to bow to our every whim.  We have a difficult job, but recognize that all jobs have their challenges.  We appreciate the benefits we have and would be happy if everyone could enjoy the same level of support that we enjoy, thanks to our unions and collective bargaining.  We aren't saying that we should be millionaires or have unlimited resources for our schools.  What we really want is for the public to recognize our efforts and be supportive of our profession.

Teaching is a challenging profession.  It is one that takes a special person with a wide variety of skills to succeed in.  Unfortunately, I hear every day about people who are thinking of leaving the profession.  Not because they can't, or don't want to do the job, but because of other factors.  Factors like the lower income they receive.  Factors like the negative climate surrounding public education today.  No one likes to work hard at a difficult task and then be attacked for their efforts.  This is especially true in a job with as many variables as education has.  The effects of these outside factors can be huge.
Illinois teacher's suicide note blames work conditions.
Our main line of defense for public educators for decades have been our unions.  Our unions have provided us with a collective voice that has enabled us to protect our jobs, our working conditions, our students and our profession.  Without unions to represent us we are at the mercy of outside forces that may have little or no knowledge of education.  These forces may have other agendas that they are putting ahead of public education.  These forces certainly present themselves as anti-educator in many ways.

It is true that at times unions make mistakes or slow down efforts to change schools.  No organization is without flaw.  However, it seems ridiculous to completely remove the voice of professional educators from discussions that impact not only their jobs, but the way that students are taught.  We work in a field that is constantly changing and evolving.  New ideas are the cornerstone of good teaching, but so many of the "reforms" being put forward recently seem to be a regression to a previous time.  A time when education was truly more of a "one size fits all" endeavor. 

Public educator unions are not alone in being attacked by conservative forces.  The motive behind the attacks seems clear.  It's not about the budget, it's about getting and holding on to power.  This is a battle that has been going on ever since there have been employees and employers.  Without a collective voice the employee has relatively little power.  Just look at labor history in America.

Charter Schools…
At the core of the education reform efforts are the twin pillars of testing and choice.  This has been addressed many times by this author, but continues to deserve attention.  These are issues that won't go away and that are part of the ongoing effort to discredit public education and allow private interests to tap into a lucrative market.

Here in Madison the battle has focused on the attempts of the Urban League to get approval for the Madison Prep proposal.  While it was voted down in December, the groups that support the proposal are unwilling to accept defeat.  There is a clear need for our community to work to address the issues that revolve around success for all students in our schools.  However, it must be a community effort that works on building consensus, not on continuing attacks of public educators and our schools.   

The question as to the real motivation of the Madison Prep proposal may never be adequately answered.  I will hold to my belief that most of the supporters of Madison Prep truly had the interests of the students of Madison in mind with their proposal.  This is as true for them as it is for the educators who spoke out against the issue.  We must accept the fact that we can disagree and not have the larger issues always influence our decisions. 

At the same time I must question the level of involvement that some influential privatization of education organizations may have had in this proposal.  Kaleem Caire has had a history of working with these organizations and while he stated, “On the issue of vouchers, we agreed.  On other things, we didn’t. I don’t listen to the guilt-by-association crap,” it is difficult to imagine that their influence wouldn't be felt in some way.  Another example of the corporate influence is in the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  The organization gets money from Georgia Pacific and Coke, two businesses who lobby for the use of BPA in plastics.  BPA is a chemical that is controversial in its effects and possibly is a health risk.     The President of Komen, Elizabeth Thompson said, "I want to be very clear, we are not influenced at all by any subpart of any one of our funders."  A more proper way of saying what Mr. Caire said. 

In both these cases we have spokespeople for a worthy organization stating that their efforts are not subverted in any way by corporate money.  However, we also know that money is a corrupting influence in many ways.  At the very least we must be vigilant for the possible infiltration and co-opting of a message by other organizations.  It is not an accusation of wrongdoing to highlight connections, but rather an alert that we can't forget the fact that not everyone holds the best interests of others as a high priority. 

We have a problem.  It is a problem that goes beyond schools and into the society we live in.  Privatizing education doesn't work any better than any of the other privatization efforts that our nation has undergone over the past decades.  Our medical system, our banking industry, our environmental protections all benefit from being publically regulated.  Education is no different.  I continue to ask the question, who does the GOP represent? 

Arguments to hold schools accountable through testing and to allow all children to choose the school they attend may sound like good policy.  They may sound equitable and in the tradition of equality that our nation has attempted to employ at times.  However, the reality is quite different.  Our progressive legislation and efforts to monitor our educational system have grown out of a desire to improve opportunities for all.  They aren't perfect, but they are certainly better than a privatized model that segregates people and deprives many of a sound, quality education. 

For too long we have allowed the conservative message to be heard without a strong alternative being presented.  As a result we have seen a gradual decline in the ability of educators to influence education policy.  Bankers and economists run our government agencies that affect economic policies.  Those same interests have a larger say in education policy than educators do.  That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.  Economists wouldn't want a teacher running their departments in government, why do we accept the influence of economists in education to the degree we do?

A Different Vision For America…
The more that I write about the issues we face in America the clearer it becomes to me that we have a conflict raging here.  The conflict takes on many forms, but the essence of it for me is the way the opposite sides hold different views of what America stands for.  On one side we have conservatives spouting patriotic views and telling everyone that they love America and value our nation above anything else.  The America they love is rooted in a sense of individual entitlement and a lack of tolerance for alternative viewpoints. 

This conservative view holds many contradictions in it.  For example, conservatives would have us believe that they don't want the government to interfere in our lives.  The best government does the least is the prevailing idea.  However, these same people who don't want big government actually increase the government when they are in power. 

These same groups tell us that they value the American people and respect our citizen's ability to make sound decisions.  Yet at the same time they reduce transparency in government and restrict the rights of people to influence the decision making process.

Why is it that Republicans claim to love America so much, yet are constantly telling us that it isn't working?  They claim we are the greatest nation on the planet, yet are perpetually in one crisis after another.  Usually a crisis manufactured by our own actions.

Conservatives are always talking about the strengths of the American people, but a few examples of their real beliefs from Wisconsin show a different tale.  WMC Spokesman Jim Pugh,  "Wisconsin workers aren't lazy.  Employers are having trouble finding applicants who can pass drug tests and show up to work on time."
WMC VP James Buchen stated that employers are "having trouble hiring workers who are unemployed because they want to wait until their benefits are exhausted.  Applicants don't have the old-fashioned Midwestern work ethic our state is known for."  Using conservative values we are always looking to the past as something better than what we enjoy today.

Finally, there is the divisive nature of the message delivered by conservatives.  The extremes of any group will always, by their very nature, be polarizing.  However, the current GOP message delivered at all levels is dominated by the more radical portion of their supporters.  Our nation is built on the strength of its diversity, and by refusing to recognize the need to embrace the differences that make up our society we lose the opportunity to grow and develop in positive ways. 

On the other side we have the progressive movement.  Is it perfect, of course not.  However I strongly believe that progressive ideas value our American heritage and our current citizenry much more than our opposition does.  At the heart of the debate lies the real difference that I see between the two sides.  Conservatives fear the future and don't trust the people to shape that future in any positive way.  Progressives recognize that change is part of life and that we can act collectively to make our future one of hope and progress.


  1. Nice job Andrew. Assuming you don't compile all of this on Saturdays. have you considered posting on a daily basis? It is so much information for one sitting and many of the links I have already read by the time Sunday rolls around. Just a suggestion.

  2. Excellent synopsis of where we've been and good thoughts about where we need to go. Loved the comments about Republicans claiming to love America so much, yet are constantly telling us that it isn't working. SO TRUE! Progressives want to do better and are looking for solutions, not always looking to blame and then stand still amidst the debris. THIS time we have to figure out the more positive way to reach people AND NOT JUST REACT. The Recalls are the amazing first step. Now - FORWARD!

  3. Thanks for the comments, I have considered posting more often, but lack of time frequently makes this a problem. I've also thought about re-sharing some of the parts of the blog again later in shorter segments so that people could read only the sections that interest them. I recognize that many of you have read (or even shared) the links I use, but I hope that they are new to some and are useful references to those who have read them. To be honest I didn't see myself writing this much or this often when I started. We'll see where things go. Thanks again for the kind words.