Sunday, July 1, 2012

Issue #69 July 1, 2012- Dividing America, Walkergate and Issue Updates

What This Is…
Issue #69- July 1, 2012
In this issue: A Nation Divided?, Walkergate and Issue Updates

Can't get enough history and political science, check out Issue #8 from July 3rd of 2011.

One Nation?…
What makes a nation a nation?  Is it a common set of beliefs, a powerful central authority, a unifying religion…?  For most of human history our concept of a "country" has been very different from our current idea of a nation-state.  Most people felt more loyalty to a specific region, local area or other affiliation than to a larger entity like a country. 

As political divisions became more clear, the citizens of the countries began to feel more pride in their country and nationalism was born.  These new countries had larger and more diverse populations.  While citizens of a nation often shared similar ethnic, cultural or other characteristics they began to identify themselves more by their country than by their village, county, religion, etc.  In order for these countries to get and maintain the loyalty of their citizens it became necessary to develop a political philosophy that supported the rise of the nation-state.

What has become clear over time is that the regional, ethnic, religious divisions within a country don't cease to exist.  They may be masked by a strong political structure or other unifying force, but they still have a significant effect on a countries social, economic and political structure.  This is true in all nations and the United States is no exception.      

 Americans take a great amount of pride in the belief that our nation is an exceptional one.  This belief comes from a number of sources and from a long tradition of viewing our nation as a place founded on strong values that have been built upon as time has passed.  The United States started as a "City upon a Hill", a place that would be an example for the world to follow.  Presidents with views as different as Kennedy and Reagan used this image in speeches. 

...I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. "We must always consider", he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us". Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.

...I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still...

As the United States grew and developed, this sense of uniqueness and "exceptionalism" followed as well.  Terms like "Manifest Destiny" have been used to make it seem like the United States operates outside and above the norms that other nations must follow.  The idea that Americans are somehow a "chosen people" who are following a "divine" plan to greatness is widely supported in history books and national traditions.  Historical accounts that ignore any conflicting opinions and marginalize the efforts of "minorities" and other individuals who are outside the traditional accepted "norms".

The United States isn't the only nation with this sense of "uniqueness".  Over the course of human history countless groups have viewed themselves as the "chosen people" and as the most important culture in the world.  Whether it was one of the earlier empires like Rome, or one of the later nation states like England the fact remains that powerful groups of people will formulate legends, myths and histories to support their claims of greatness. 

What the United States shares with these other "world powers" is a sense of purpose and a separation of us from the "other".  For example, Rome had its citizens and barbarians.  The United States is unusual in the fact that the line between "citizen" and "barbarian" is often blurred and indistinct.  The fact that America is a nation of immigrants expanding over a large continent makes our experience one filled with challenges in terms of creating a sense of unity.

While history is frequently maligned as being of little importance or interest, we can't afford to ignore the impact that our history has on shaping national identity.  Political figures and other policy makers use historical references and imagery to define their positions and to build support for their agendas.  Our sense of purpose and pride in our society is significantly influenced by how our history is presented.  No nation wants to view itself in a negative light and therefore the inevitable "blemishes" that every society has must be somehow dealt with. 

No historical account of any group or nation can ever fully encompass the experiences of all individual participants, or the perspectives of the different demographic groups involved.  In addition a historical perspective has an additional (dis)advantage of being developed after the outcomes of events have been determined.  This allows for those using the historical accounts to benefit from hindsight and to minimize conflicts that don't serve as significant turning points in the stream of events.

The simplification and sanitizing of historical events may create a national history that can be viewed with unquestioning pride, however, it also means that there are gaps and inconsistencies which create unanswerable questions for historians.  This is a significant problem for many Americans.  On one hand we have a desire to view our nation as truly "exceptional", but in order to do so we must find ways to deal with the negative events and policies that have littered our historical landscape.  In other words, history isn't a linear progression towards perfection, but rather the uneven and often contradictory movements of human beings living in uncertain, frightening and often confusing times.   

The simpler version of American history lends itself well to absolute patriotic fervor.  It also allows for people to look at the past as a time of unity and common purpose.  We ignore the conflicts that existed during our history and instead imagine that our nation was united in the pursuit of common goals.  We forget that there were anti-war activists during World War II.  We ignore the unpleasant realities of our history and attempt to justify the past policies of our nation.  Those who question our national identity are viewed as un-American and find their opinions and value as citizens attacked.

This sense of patriotism being defined as unquestioning loyalty to an ideal based on questionable historical foundations creates significant problems for our modern society.  Current events are more confusing and less easily analyzed because of their immediacy and their lack of clear, easily defined outcomes.  Because our sense of what it means to truly be an "American" comes from a historical context where we are always the "good guys" it becomes very challenging for many citizens to deal with views that conflict with their own.  The reality is that our history is filled with conflict between different factions, parties and ideologies.  It is this conflict that has pushed the United States onward in its path, for better or worse. 
As we approach this 236th celebration of our Independence Day we need to keep these ideas in mind.  Our nation is a union of different cultures, groups and individuals bound loosely together.  We probably have more things that are different from each other than we do in common, yet this has always been the case.  Despite conservative historical views, we have not ever shared a single unifying religious, political or economic ideal.  There have always been, and always should be, dissenting viewpoints and diversity in all areas here in the United States.

It is our ability to disagree that has allowed our nation to evolve to the point that it has currently reached.  As time has progressed we have seen frequent struggles and slow progress towards a socially and morally just society, a society that can begin to try and achieve the moral standards that our founding documents set out as goals.  Standards that call for a government that provides equal opportunities for all citizens regardless of any defining physical, social, economic, cultural or political characteristics.  Diversity that should strengthen our nation, not serve as divisions that weaken us.

Yet we now face another time period filled with conflict.  This conflict features a struggle that is mainly an internal and economic one.  As our population changes and our nation begins to look and sound different, there are many who are responding with fear and anger.  They seek to hold on to what they have, and fail to recognize the potential for growth if we open our minds to new possibilities.  No nation can survive by staying stagnant and fewer can progress by moving backwards.  We can celebrate our historical accomplishments while still looking at our past with unbiased eyes.  Eyes that see the flaws of previous generations and look for ways to avoid the same pitfalls.  Eyes that are able to see the good and build on the strengths of our predecessors as well. 

There are fundamental differences in how conservatives and progressives see the world.  This isn't unusual, as I mentioned earlier our nation's past is filled with dissenting viewpoints.  It is through compromise and conflict that we moved through these disagreements and developed political, social and economic norms that worked for the good of many citizens.  Then as these norms were challenged, new ones emerged. 

The world we inhabit isn't the ones that our historical icons lived in.  Our responses to the challenges we face can use their words and actions as examples, but must also account for the new reality that we exist in. Simply calling for a return to the "good old days" won't solve our problems or improve our nation.  Instead we need to remember the fact that our pledge for "One Nation…Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for ALL" relies on our ability to be "independently united".  American exceptionalism rests on our diversity, bound together by a desire for the common good for all, not on a monolithic power structure based on any single group's belief system. 
We face challenging times in today's world.  The current trends in the conservative movement call for a limiting of dissenting voices.  Whether this is through political, social or economic means is less relevant than the fact that the current GOP leadership is more about limiting citizen access to power than it is about promoting freedom for anyone. 

In school we teach that most bullying behavior is the result of some type of fear or misplaced anger.  This is exactly what we see in the vicious attacks that are so common in our political "debates" today.  It is much easier to silence an opponent than it is to debate them.  Many of our current political leaders and not individuals who recognize the "great responsibilities" that Kennedy spoke of.  Instead they take a narrow view and look only to the immediate future, the next election and follow the current trends to keep their campaigns financed and their offices safe.  This is true in economics as well as politics.

However, there have been some recent developments that give reason for hope to emerge.  Here in Wisconsin we have come to expect that there will be few, if any deviations, from straight party lines.  Thus, we expect every vote to be cast with party affiliations firmly followed.  This meant that many of us were surprised to see that Supreme Court justices on the Federal level could produce a decision that overturned parts of Arizona's Immigration Laws and uphold the constitutionality of "Obamacare".  There is little evidence that any decision of the same type will come from Wisconsin's partisan legislature or court system in the near future.    

Unfortunately, there was also the seemingly inevitable conservative backlash directed at the ruling.  Responses that used historical references to support their views.  Wisconsin's own Ron Johnson tried to claim that denying medical coverage to sick citizens was somehow more "American" than providing for the "general welfare" of the people of this nation.  Scott Walker is trying to stall any implementation of the health care reform legislation, despite the court's ruling.       

Several other conservatives tried to invoke images of the American Revolution as support for their opposition to the ruling.  I find it interesting that these "patriotic" Americans called for rebellion, while the "union thugs" here in Wisconsin continue to labor for the state even in the face of the attacks on our "liberty and pursuit of happiness (or property, whichever you prefer)". 

What do comments like these mean for the future of our country as a UNITED States of America?  How seriously should we take statements like these?  If they were just heated rhetoric then that's one thing (irresponsible and immature though they may be), but if there is any kernel of truth in them then our nation is in serious danger.  The uprising in Wisconsin was peaceful and used the political system as it currently exists.  Calls for armed uprisings are completely different. 

Are conservatives in our nation so radicalized that they would contemplate revolution simply because of a mandate for health care?  How divided are we really?  One must wonder if the partisan comments and over the top language that we see in on-line commentaries and hear on political talk shows are the norm, or the exception.  Have we reached a pivotal point in our nation's history?

It seems to me that we are getting closer to a point of no return here in Wisconsin and around the United States.  While for the most part we are able to get along, there is a definite lack of civility and an inability to rationally discuss political and economic issues in many forums.  Because of the heated nature of the political situation here people on both sides have become stereotypes to each other.  What is acceptable behavior for someone who shares your ideology is unacceptable for someone from the opposing side.  Imagine the Fox News commentary if a  progressive leader had called for an armed uprising in response to the June 5th election.        

Can we pull back from the brink?  Will calmer heads prevail?  Will we find leaders from both sides who can represent the competing interests while maintaining courteous and productive dialog? 

A comment posted regarding last week's edition asked the question, "How to explain or understand the JSonline story about two Wi. Billionaires who pay little or no taxes and the comments say good for them, they work hard and deserve to keep their money...these are the same commenters who say teachers and union members are overpaid and don't pay their fair share!?"  Clearly the divide and conquer strategy has been effective in building political power for the GOP, but will it lead to a sustainable society?  How do we find a way to unite and then conquer the challenges that we face together, not as individuals, but as a true collective society? 

A worthy question for our nation's Independence Day.

The end of the recall cycle brought a slow-down in coverage of the "Walkergate" scandal.  In typical mainstream press style, once the furor died down the press turned its attention to other things.  However, the investigation continues and still merits our attention.   

Something scary to contemplate.

Continuing the Resistance…
Meanwhile…the work continues as people across Wisconsin look for ways to keep fighting for their state.

While many of us are frustrated with President Obama he remains our best option in the November elections.  Now isn't the time to look for alternatives.

Issue Updates…
Worker's Rights…
The struggle for worker's rights has focused on public sector unions, but it is important to remember that most workers in America are not unionized and are in the private sector.  Our efforts to protect worker's rights must include all jobs and all industries.  There is a concerted effort to weaken the rights of employees across the board. 

I hope that I'm wrong and that Walker's policies will result in an improved economy.  Too many people are suffering significant hardship and I can't support a strategy of destroying the economy like the GOP has used on a national level.
However, unless we see significant changes it is difficult to imagine Wisconsin's economy recovering at a reasonable pace.  It would appear that it is time to rethink the Walker plan, but that's just my opinion.  Our political leaders need to do something, not just cut taxes and hope for the best.

After 5+ decades of relative labor stability in our education workplaces we re-enter an era of uncertainty and potential strife. 

If it ain't broke… Keep your hands off of the Wisconsin Retirement System Governor Walker!!!

Real Education Reform…
The Madison Public Schools face some questions as the search begins for a new superintendent.  With all of the issues that face our district a change in leadership raises many questions. 

We have significant work to do as public educators gear up to continue to try and eliminate the Achievement Gaps.  I continue to express the belief that public policy makers need to either make an honest effort to help us, or get out of our way and let us do our jobs.  Cutting funding, increasing testing and pushing for privatization of our schools won't close any gaps, but will widen them.   

Some good news for higher education, and some bad.

One tried and true GOP strategy is to undermine the public's confidence in a particular policy, profession or department.  Then use the lack of public support as a justification for further cuts and attacks.  This tactic is obviously being used to try and destroy public education.  What is interesting is the fact that the public has a negative view of public schools in general, but likes their local school.  Contradiction?  No just an example of how the anti-public school propaganda has an impact on public opinion and an opportunity for us to counter their message.  Get more people involved in their local school systems. 

As more and more schools are forced to focus their educational efforts towards passing standardized tests the GOP is able to advance their underlying agenda.  A nation of drones who lack the skills necessary to defend their rights in an increasingly complex world. 

I know that many conservatives have argued that teacher experience isn't a relevant factor in the quality of a student's education.  However, I know that I'm a more effective teacher now than I was 15 years ago.   

Honest Elections…
Not all news from the Supreme Court was good.

On the other hand, now many of us have some new heroes to root for.  A bi-partisan effort to reform elections, how refreshing.

The recount in Racine continues with some real questions about the integrity of the GOP being raised.  I thought recounts were an unnecessary expense for taxpayers?!?!

We all knew there was more to voter ID than just keeping our elections fair, didn't we.

Money doesn't guarantee electoral success, but it certainly doesn't hurt a candidates chances. 

It's My Money and I'll Spend How I Want To…
Keep looking for ways to spend your money wisely.

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