Sunday, February 5, 2012

Issue #46 February 5, 2012- History, Elections, Recalls, School Reform and More

What This Is…
Issue #46- February 5, 2012
In this issue: Historical Perspective, Elections, School Reform and More
The More Things Change…
We are living in historical times.  There is no doubt in my mind that what is happening now in Wisconsin and across the nation (and world) is one of those time periods that will have a significant impact on the future of our country.  This is a potential turning point in history.  We have seen a slow erosion of citizen's rights in the political, economic and social spheres.  During the past year people around the world have begun to visibly fight back and work to reclaim what they value. 

It is a time filled with contrasting emotions like fear and hope.  A time when we see the dangers and work to avoid them, but are uncertain about our potential successes.  During times of strife we frequently turn to past experiences for guidance and for perspective.  In other words, history becomes more alive for us.  History leaves the textbook and takes to the streets and we see the power that common human experiences can have on our society.   

Most of us have heard a version of George Santayana's quote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  It is an idea that is used to defend the value of learning about historical events.  It is also cited by individuals trying to justify their positions on social, economic and political issues.  This idea has become widely accepted and if frequently used as a warning that we are heading toward disaster if we follow a particular policy or other course of action.

The idea that we can learn from the past is a valuable concept that is frequently misused.  Historical events happen in a context that can't be replicated exactly in current times.  Historical events can only be used as a guide and can't be followed blindly.  The belief that by looking to the past we will find the blueprints for our future is one that, when used inappropriately, is very dangerous.   

History is not a tool that can be used blindly.  The fact that all of our recollections of past events are shaped by our personal bias and experience makes one person's "fact" another's "misinterpretation of actual events".  This is not to say that it is impossible to get a reasonably accurate view of a specific historical event.  It is the interpretation of these events that is problematic.   

We’ve seen our political leaders make glaring mistakes when quoting historical "facts".  While on one hand these errors are humorous and provide fodder for attacking candidates we dislike, at the same time the implications of the mistakes are frightening.  When ignorance is used to formulate policy we find ourselves in a precarious situation.  A situation that leads us further from reasoned judgment and more towards uninformed ideology. 

So, is it even useful at all to look to the past when contemplating the future.  I strongly believe that we must know where we came from in order to move forward in positive directions.  We all rely on past experience to complete daily activities.  We can recognize mistakes and learn from them.  However, we only can learn from the past if we are able to view it with an open mind.  It is vital that we don't turn our history into a rigid, unchanging evolution that puts us at the pinnacle of an inevitable chain of events.  It is also important that we don't view our history as one of perpetual gloom where we live in fear of returning to a past that was negative in all aspects. 

History is made up of events and people who lived their lives and made decisions based on their existing situations.  In any history we focus on the famous and historically important figures, for example accounts of the American Revolution will talk about George Washington and his army.  We can't ignore the fact that without "his army" George Washington would not have achieved what he did.  At the same time "his army" wouldn't have achieved as much without Washington.  When we read any history we can't forget the relationship between the big historical events and the common everyday experiences of people that underlie them. 

We are those common people.  It is our actions during this time that will inspire our leaders and create the future that will follow. 

Election Integrity…
At the heart of any democratic society lies the ability of the people of that society to express their opinion.  There are many ways for Americans to have an impact on our political system.  The most obvious and arguably the most important is the right to vote.  This is the way in which the majority of us will express our voice in the political process.  Therefore it is of significant concern when the process becomes tainted or rights are restricted in any way. 

Here in Wisconsin our electoral system is facing major challenges.  These challenges are taking different forms, but the impact is being felt as citizens lose faith in the system, feel excluded from the political process and see our government as a flawed and corrupt entity.  It is important to the future of democracy that we fight against the forces that seek to control the process and return the power to the people it belongs to. 

Challenges to our system of democracy exist in many forms.  The huge influence of big money donors is one challenge that threatens to destroy democracy as we know it.  By ruling that money is speech and can't be restricted, the Supreme Court opened the door to widespread spending and allowed a small number of wealthy individuals huge amounts of power.  This effect is being felt here in Wisconsin as Governor Walker rakes in the campaign donations.  The spending in the recalls over the summer set records and those records will be shattered in the elections of 2012.     

Of course the money spent in Wisconsin is tiny compared to money spent on a national level. 

Clearly there is a strong sentiment that changes need to be made in the way we finance our elections.  It is our job as citizens to support measures that will clean up our campaign finance regulation by using our vote and making our voice heard.  If we don't vote in the upcoming elections then those who are in power will continue to strengthen their stranglehold on the electoral process.

Of course there have been significant efforts made to restrict our right to participate in the voting process.  Much has been said about the new voter ID law here in Wisconsin.  Our defense is to make sure that we help our fellow citizens get registered to vote and make sure that all Wisconsinites have the materials and information necessary to vote in the upcoming elections.  Get deputized to register voters, keep friends, family and neighbors informed and make sure you are properly registered as well.  With the spring elections being held over Spring Break it is important that absentee ballots are properly completed by those of us travelling out of the area. 

While legislation and financial influence are incredibly powerful, there is also a pattern of intimidation being utilized to try and prevent citizen participation in the political process here.  During the signature gathering phase of the recall effort we saw numerous events where volunteers were harassed and threatened.  There were also efforts to tamper with the process and invalidate petitions or otherwise undermine the legal efforts to express political opinions.  Now that the petitions are filed the efforts to bully progressives haven't stopped.         

It is troubling to see the way that our democratic system has been circumvented by the current GOP actions.  In the past year the conservatives in Wisconsin have used their control of the 3 branches of government to force their agenda through without due process.  At the same time they are calling for us to slow down the recall process and not rush ahead with the elections that the people have called for.

Along with the bullying and harassment comes the efforts to discredit the recall process by offering up examples of fraudulent signatures and spreading stories of outlandish comments made by signers and gatherers of petitions.  There is nothing wrong with verifying the signatures and I encourage all citizens from all parties to be involved.  The issue is that by drawing attention to the inevitable questionable petitions we can't ignore the much greater number of valid signings.  As the GOP trumpets the relatively few signatures that are invalid they seek to taint the entire process and thereby render the recall avenue for citizen participation less valuable.   

Finally, there are the elections themselves.  The United States has a long history of electoral difficulties.  In some cases it is the eligibility and competence of the electorate, but more commonly the problems lie in the tallying of the votes.  As we move towards a digital age in voting there are significant concerns about the validity and accuracy of the actual recording of votes. 

What's a citizen of ordinary means to do about all of this?  Quite simple really, stay informed, organized and active.  As long as our system of government remains as it is we have the ability to impact our political processes.  It is when citizens disengage from the process and turn their attention elsewhere that we lose our rights and our control of our government.  We can't let that happen. 

Recall News…
With significantly more signatures turned in than are required to recall all the GOP candidates targeted in this round of recalls it seems a foregone conclusion that there will be elections in the not so distant future.  In fact it seems like a waste of valuable time and money (something Republicans say they are against doing) not to simply proceed with the election process once enough signatures are verified on recall petitions. 

The main reasons the GOP has for delaying the process seem to center on their efforts to slow down the momentum built by recall activists and to undermine public confidence in the electoral process.  We must stand strong and continue to spread the message that the recalls are merited and the recall efforts have been honest and aboveboard. 

Progressives can use this extra time to build support for their candidates and to spread our message to voters.  The stalling tactics used by the GOP can be to our advantage as we work to select the best candidates and refine our political organizing efforts.

What we can't do is focus too much on the polls and projections that will inevitably be put forward.  In the end the only poll that really matters is the one on election day and we must build towards that.  Polls can be helpful, but shouldn't be relied upon too heavily.  This is especially true for on-line surveys and other less formal polls, but also holds true for polls sponsored by different "independent" organizations.     

As we move ahead in the recall process we can't forget that there is a legal issue hanging over the Walker administration.  Conservatives want to dismiss this as a "non-issue", but the investigation seems to be building in intensity.  At the very least we have seen that this administration is willing to overlook some significant problems and has made some very questionable choices in terms of selecting staff.  Given the methods that have been used to advance Walker's agenda it is not unreasonable to believe the allegations to be valid.    

School Reform and Educators…
Reform has become a four letter word for me.  It seems like every effort to "reform" something I believe in moves us in a direction I can't support.  This is especially true in the area of public education.  I am fully aware of the fact that our public schools have flaws.  These have been well documented and heavily discussed by many different sources.

The issue I have with most "reformers" is that their goals don't seem to be uniformly in the best interests of the children and families we serve.  In fact the objectives of many who seek to fix the public schools seems to be one of either self interest or are mainly political in nature.  They would throw out the current system and replace it with a system that has not been proven to work.

It is the hidden agenda of many "reformers" that I find most troubling.  They are preying on a public that only hears part of the truth and believes the negative stories that are told are the entire picture of public education.  They use words that say they care about all children, but their policies benefit only a few.  In fact many of the crusaders for fixing our schools are supported by organizations that have more interest in profiting from education reform than in actually fixing anything.  These are some excellent articles that highlight this point. 

What effect has this had on public educators?  The cumulative effect of the attacks on our competence along with the assaults on our rights as workers have been devastating.  We are finding ourselves lacking in support, resources and time, all things that we need to have in abundance as we work to educate the young people of America. 

Public educators find themselves waging battles on multiple fronts.  We have our daily struggles to provide the best possible educational opportunities for our students.  The achievement gaps exist for many reasons and we struggle to find the best ways to reach those children who are not succeeding.  In itself this is enough for a professional to deal with.  It is what we went into teaching to do, educate.  It is a challenging task, but it is also rewarding and fills a vital need for our society. 

At the same time we are working to educate students we are also finding it necessary to engage in political actions to defend our profession.  As collective bargaining rights are removed and pressure is applied to hold us accountable we find it necessary to take action to protect and preserve our rights.  One of the consequences of Governor Walker's union busting legislation is that educators now have to devote significant time to political actions.  We can't rely on collective bargaining to settle potential problems and must devote more time to politics. 

Beyond the political and economic issues that have been created by the GOP's actions we are also seeing the effects of testing and accountability affect our schools.  The amount of testing that is being done is schools is increasing exponentially.  The number of new initiatives designed to increase student achievement on these assessments is also rising.  We are being told what to teach and how to teach on a regular basis.  These changes are implemented quickly and frequently the changes are soon changed again.  Administrators are feeling the pressure applied from above them and pass this on down to the teachers and support staff in each building. 

Educators are faced with a difficult situation.  We are at the mercy of legislation like NCLB and Race to the Top.  Public perception of our performance is closely tied to testing and other public information about schools.  At the same time we know that many of the initiatives imposed on us are not good practices in educating children.  We know the students we work with and are often their best advocates.  Yet we are being told that our experience and expertise is of less value than that of outside "experts".  Many of these so called experts are long removed from the classroom (if they ever were in schools) and are basing their decisions on how they play out politically or on data collected by flawed assessments. 

We are being swept up in a wave of "reform" hysteria.  A hysteria driven by forces with ulterior motives who promote questionable practices.  If educating students was as easy as many "reformers" make it sound then we would not have the issues in education that we have.  Instead of working with educators we are told we are the problem and that we should just do as we are told.  The pressures on public educators are immense and are truly affecting us in negative ways.     

Our struggles are closely tied (yet also independent from) to the current resistance to conservative ideology that is going on through the Occupy Movement, the recall efforts in Wisconsin (and other states), and other opposition actions across the nation.  It is through our collective actions and support of each other that we maintain strength and hope for a better future.  A future where we can provide a quality education with the best possible outcomes for each student. 

I Can't Believe We Still Have To Protest This "Stuff"…
One of my favorite signs from the spring protests expressed the frustration that we seem to be unable to get our nation past some significant prejudices.  Many of the problems that we are told have been "fixed" still exist, just in a more devious form.  The message from conservatives states that every American has an equal chance and as Herman Cain so eloquently put it "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself! ... It is not a person's fault if they succeeded, it is a person's fault if they failed." 

Yet we can't forget that the playing field in America isn't truly a level one.  The racism and sexism that have existed in our society in the past haven't gone away.  These "isms" continue to have a considerable effect on the opportunities people have and in the level of economic, political and social success they can achieve.

Women's efforts in the workplace have long been devalued. 

The movement to make individuals more accountable for their actions is an example of a potentially positive idea being tainted by the process of implementing "reforms".  In Massachusetts they have implemented a "zero-tolerance" policy and the results have negatively impacted some groups of students.  By disrespecting the professional judgment of educators and eliminating their ability to deal with situations as they see best we create a system that can force students out of school and thereby reduce their potential to be productive and positive members of society.

Teachers aren't perfect.  Our schools reflect the society they exist in.  There is no way to completely separate the problems of society from the schools and the effects are felt in many ways.  I couldn't believe that I was reading this article from 2012.  We have a history in this country of using public education as a weapon against other cultures and must be aware of potential continuations of this.  This is also an example of how private schools can act in ways that public schools can't (and shouldn't).         

As I've been reflecting about the events of the past year I've become more aware of the benefits that I've enjoyed over the course of my life.  Without realizing it I've been a member of a fairly privileged class.  My race, gender, language, etc. have all allowed me to live well in a wealthy country.  The attacks on public workers are ones that people from other groups have experienced for a long time.  As we work to restore the rights of workers in Wisconsin we can't ever forget that there are other groups of people who have suffered discrimination and prejudice.  Our efforts can't stop once we've achieved our goals, instead we should use recent events as a motivation to improve the status of all people in America.

Free Press…
Last week I wrote about the importance of the free press in America and the threats that censorship and corporate ownership pose to its existence.  These threats come from many sources, but seem to me to have their roots in two origins; money and power. 

Free can mean many things, but the original intent of the term "free press" seems to center on the ability of the press to report information without fear of reprisal or censorship.  There is a shared responsibility between all parties to keep the information accurate and to be thoughtful in the process of sharing and receiving  the news of the day. 

However, the word free can also mean "without cost".  Our current media is heavily influenced by the influence of money.  We pay for the information we receive and our media sources are a lucrative business.  This leads to a constant desire to get the latest "scoop" and to corner the market on information.  While this competitive environment is positive in many ways as it drives journalists to seek out sources of information and to report on issues of importance.  The financial competition also creates an atmosphere where getting a story out can sometimes trump getting a story correct.  With the huge number of different sources of news there is a constant barrage of stories and editorializing.  Many times this flood of information leads to intense reactions that go beyond reason. 

Thomas Hobbes said, "The end of knowledge is power…" and it is true that information is a powerful thing to control.  Political leaders and media executives go to great lengths to make sure that they have the ability to disseminate information to the public in a way that benefits them.  We have seen the media manipulate and be manipulated in ways that impact the ability of the people to form reasoned opinions about events and policies.  While this is not a purely Republican trait, the GOP has made a habit of using the media as a form of propaganda in recent years.  The coverage of the Wisconsin protests are one great example of how the reality of a situation was manipulated for political advantage.

The political and financial manipulation of information is a severe threat to our democracy.  Without accurate information we are unable to make decisions in our best interest and are kept ignorant of the facts that influence our lives.  A free press helps keep our nation stable by ensuring the people make informed decisions.  Nations that don't have freedom of the press tend to resolve conflicts in more disruptive and violent ways.  That isn't what we want here in America.

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.
John F. Kennedy, In a speech at the White House, 1962
Follow the Money…
We have been told that the issues in Wisconsin center around our failing state budget.  The idea that we need to do whatever it takes to balance our budget and restore fiscal responsibility is central to Governor Walker's message.  However, it seems clear to me that the reality is quite different.  Money is certainly a significant underlying factor in the agenda advanced by the GOP, but not in the way that they claim.

There are many ways that we've been mislead about the financial goals of the Republicans in Wisconsin.  One is that they are interested in lowering the costs of government and reducing taxes for the common citizen.  Their tax reforms have a negative impact on many Wisconsinites. 

As to the reduction in government costs…

It certainly appears that the GOP's policies are all about improving the status of specific groups and not about improving things for all of us.  Remember who was appointed to a position in Walker's administration?  Jonathan Barry, part owner of Tyrol Basin.  I'm sure there's not any correlation here.

Republicans at a state and national level are not above using policies designed to help others and then speaking out against those policies for political advantage.  The accounts of GOP members benefitting from tax loopholes and financial assistance programs are numerous.  Yet at the same time these politicians speak out against the very programs they use.  Hypocrisy is not exclusive to Republicans, but the tone and tenor of the rhetoric they use magnifies the discrepancy between their words and their actions.

In fact it appears that many of the people elected to positions have little if any intention of actually representing the people.  By undermining the political process and damaging public confidence in the system these "leaders" promote their agenda of privatization and maintaining the power of the wealthy elite.

The actions of the Komen Foundation this week have been well documented.  It is sad that an organization that provides such hope for so many can be used in such political ways.  We should always be aware of where the money comes from when we consider what charitable organizations we support.

The struggle to regain control of our political process continues.

The mining issue in northern Wisconsin continues to provide a microcosm of what is wrong with Wisconsin politics.  The efforts to promote mining are supported by people operating in the shadows who aren't accountable to the public.  Opposing views are ignored or repressed.  Alternative ways of improving the economy are downplayed or restricted.  The needs of a few individuals are put ahead of the traditions, opinions and safety of the general public.  This is not what democracy is supposed to look like.

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