Sunday, August 4, 2013

Issue #124- Freedom, Education and Labor

Freedom, What Does It Mean?…
Americans pride themselves on living in the "Land of the Free".  Freedom is a word that is tossed around with alarming frequency.  It is a term that is used to defend virtually any action.  When combined with our equally strong love of personal property we have a combination of ideas that is very easy to abuse.  Please don't misunderstand me, I strongly believe in the concepts of freedom and the rights to own things.  Many conservatives try to paint those who oppose them as believers in a system where we are all subservient to "Big Brother" and where every possession is subject to outside control.  My issue isn't with personal freedoms or ownership rights, what is problematic for me is the apparent lack of moderation and the complete absence of an underlying philosophy that accompanies our rhetoric about freedom in modern America.

It often appears that the supposedly strongest advocates for freedom don't recognize or appreciate the history and the power of the words that they use.  Freedom can not be a term that is applied haphazardly or inconsistently.  If we truly live in a free society then we need to accept that those who disagree with us have a right to express their ideas.  In order for a truly free society to exist there must be room for many voices, and we must be willing to listen to what they have to say with an open mind.  The current uproar over the Solidarity Sing in Wisconsin's capital building is an example of the conflict we are having around the concept of freedom, but it certainly isn't the only one.   

There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that the most visible and vocal opponents of the Solidarity Sing would probably consider themselves patriotic and defenders of American values like freedom.  Yet, instead of engaging in constructive dialog about what is happening, they hide behind vicious personal attacks and the power of the state that they claim to reject.  There is a reason that the First Amendment is #1.  If you put the Bill of Rights into a historical context the reasoning behind that Amendment becomes crystal clear.  The rights of individuals and groups to bring their grievances against those in power is a powerful idea that threads its way through the history of human society.  A few quotes from famous historical figures can say it much better than I can.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
--S.G. Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
--Abraham Lincoln

“If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.”
--Noam Chomsky

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
--Nelson Mandela

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”
--Sigmund Freud

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
--Ronald Reagan

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It is interesting that we tend to revere and romanticize the struggles of those who fought for freedom throughout history, but we try to minimize and marginalize those involved in modern day struggles.  It is as if freedom has been achieved and we no longer need to do anything to protect it.  In fact we don't even really want to think about what it means.  Freedom becomes a caricature of itself in our current society.  A word without substance that is used to restrict as much as to liberate.  Has freedom become a word that is synonymous with adherence to rules and regulations, even ones that we don't agree with? 

Public figures and political leaders aren't shy about invoking our deeply ingrained support of concepts like freedom and equality.  However, these references are used selectively and as much to quell freedom as to promote it.   

We are living in crucial times for our democratic institutions.  The damage that is being inflicted in the name of "public safety" and "American values" will take significant time to undo.  The attacks on basic freedoms are accompanied by an effort to indoctrinate our young people into believing that it is enough to be "college and career ready".  As long as they are prepared to compete in a global economy it is irrelevant that they are unaware that they have lost many basic rights and freedoms.  They can't miss something they never had.     

Agree or disagree with the political allegiances of the Singers, it is still important to realize that their efforts are vital to the continuing ability of the common citizen to voice their opinions publicly.  Those who unthinkingly attack the Singers do so at the risk of further erosion of our freedom and a drastic shift in the way that we define important values of our society.  Singing for your beliefs should not be a crime and the consequences of criminalizing dissent are severe.  True freedom should be strong enough to withstand challenges, especially when non-violent in nature.     

Wisconsin Politics…
Anyone who thought that the end of the "Recall Season" and the November national elections would be the end of political strife in Wisconsin is going to be greatly disappointed.  It appears that we have only begun a period of intense conflict in the world of Wisconsin politics. 

Occupying the center stage will be the 2014 race for governor.  Democrats will need to find a strong candidate to challenge Walker.  A few people are beginning to express interest in becoming a candidate.    

No matter who challenges Walker, they will face a very tough race.  As the national economy continues its slow recovery, we are seeing positive growth in Wisconsin's economy as well.  This is welcome news, no one wants the citizens of our state to suffer, but at the same time it provides Walker's supporters with ammunition to defend their candidate.  There will be many different analyses of the economic indicators, but any positive growth will be heralded as the result of the Governor's actions.   

This gets at the heart of the difficulties that any candidate opposing Walker will face.  We judge the success or failure of our politicians by the immediate impact they have on our pocketbooks, not on the ethical or long term consequences of their actions.  

At the same time the local races will be intense and will have a huge impact on the immediate political future of our state.  

Misinformation in Education…
The efforts to mislead the public and to reshape the discussion in favor of conservative ideas is no less visible in the debate around education.  With the ability to control the budgeting process, an active PR machine and visible public figures, conservative "education reformers" are leading the public down a path to privatization.  They are pulling out all the stops in an effort to portray our public schools as "failing", a drain on the economy and a threat to democracy.      

The rhetoric of "reform" doesn't match the reality that most families live in.  Some statistics from the survey cited in the accompanying article. . .
*Fifty-eight percent of parents polled  said they view public schools as the single most important institution for the future of their community and of their nation.
*The two biggest problems facing public schools are too much testing and too little funding — both at 32 percent. Third on the list is large class sizes (23 percent), fourth is lack of support for teachers (17 percent) and fifth, poor teacher quality (16 percent).
*Fifty-seven percent said testing has taken away too much time from teaching and learning.
*Sixty-four percent said standardized tests given by their state do not accurately measure student achievement.
*Sixty-eight percent of parents are satisfied with their children’s public schools, including 66 percent of parents with children in urban schools and 62 percent of parents with incomes under $50,000.
*Seventy-six percent oppose reduced funding for traditional public schools to increase spending on public charter schools.

The Truth About Organized Labor…
Deceit and misinformation is not limited to politics and education.  When it comes to worker's rights and the organized labor, the rhetoric is just as misleading and harmful.  Those who oppose unions and the rights of workers to organize utilize the language of freedom and opportunity, while actively undermining the values they supposedly support.  Governor Walker provides an excellent example of this when he says, "He (FDR) felt that there wasn't a need in the public sector to have collective bargaining because the government is the people. We are the people. And so what we've done is to be able to empower our great employees, to affirm them."  If by affirming them he meant cutting take home pay, increasing the costs of benefits (often while reducing the quality), attacking their pensions and eliminating hard won collective bargaining rights, then he is correct in his statement.  

Scott Walker likens himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt in speech Monday

The simple reality is that without some type of organization and collective voice, most workers will be subjected to poor working conditions and paid a low, non-family supporting, wage.  Wal-Mart and fast food chains provide all the evidence needed to support that claim.   

The Daily Beast

It is no real surprise that, "The leisure and hospitality industry, which includes restaurants, is adding jobs faster than any other sector in the U.S. In June, the sector added 75,000 jobs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fast-food cooks make $9.02 an hour, or about $18,760 a year, on average, according to 2012 data from the Washington-based agency."  These are not wages that will fuel a sustainable economic recovery.  

Individuals who work in these industries deserve our respect and support.  Somewhere in the not so distant past we, as a society, began to degrade people who worked these jobs and saw their occupations as less valuable than many others.  Instead of seeing the importance of each and every employee, we have made it a point to only tout the efforts of a few as important in the success of a company or business.  The shift in employee policies and compensation in a company like Wal-Mart is an example of this change.  

It is clear that workers can't rely on the "good-will" of management and need to organize to protect themselves and their colleagues.  

This is true in all professions and occupations.  As long as we put more value on the rights and freedom of the powerful we will see the continuing disenfranchisement of many.  The privatization of education, along with the weakening of unions, will give rise to more stories like this educator in a Catholic school, fired for being gay.  No matter what position is taken by leaders, without codified protections for workers it will be up to management to create a positive and inclusive working environment.     

Without the protection of collective bargaining agreements, organized labor and other protections for workers we will see income gaps widen in America.  It shouldn't come as any surprise that it is many of the same demographic groups who have suffered political, social and economic oppression throughout history are currently facing a negative employment climate. 

Nowhere in Wisconsin is this more true than right here in Madison.  Mayor Soglin recognized this in his speech to the downtown Rotary where he recounted, "how Henry Ford in the 1920s realized that paying workers a living wage was crucial to the health of his own business and the broader economy," and  "lashed out against the Wal-Mart model of retailing based on poverty wages and part-time employees."  He also pointed out one of the key problems facing anyone trying to improve the lot of workers when he said, "if Madison tried to do something about low wages on its own, it would simply push businesses to leave the city altogether."  

We all need to be aware of the implications of Soglin's statement.  As long as people are willing to buy the cheapest product, ignoring the reasons for the low cost, and there are places to exploit economic need, businesses will ignore the plight of their employees.  They will relocate and cut corners to increase their profit margin, even beyond what's reasonable or necessary.  It is up to each and every one of us to make a statement with our purchases and our voices.      

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