What Democracy Looks Like

October 5, 2018

A convergence of two recent lines of thought–I need to spend a few minutes putting them together. There’s not a lot new in here, but as I often preach in class, nothing is too obvious that it’s not worth saying at least one time.

This semester I’m teaching a course in environmental advocacy writing and was talking yesterday about working for Greenpeace in the summer of 1989. Greenpeace has always framed its activism as democratic organizing against corporate power (rather than about individual responsibility), and that’s the frame I “grew up” in.

This morning (Fri Oct 5), David Sirota published a furiously brilliant opinion piece in the Guardian (“America’s New Aristocracy Lives in an Accountability-Free Zone“), in which he describes what wealthy and powerful people have done in this country to insulate themselves from any legal or political consequences for their abuses.

Sirota’s explanation of what it will take to pierce the accountability-free zone is exactly right and worth quoting at length.

To wedge open the gates of the accountability-free zone, everyday citizens will have to be organized enough to overcome already-well-organized money.

In the political arena, that means electing pro-accountability candidates of both parties, and then forcing them to follow through on prosecuting wrongdoers and voting down aristocracy-approved nominees who represent the accountability-free zone.

In the consumer economy, it will require boycotts, pressure campaigns, union drives, #MeToo movements, shareholder resolutions and other direct actions to hold companies and executives accountable (and as the recent minimum wage campaign against Amazon proves, those efforts can succeed). It will require support for companies that offer different models of corporate behavior, and it will require swarms of cable-news-addled dittoheads to shut off the TV and instead support other forms of media that are serious about questioning, scrutinizing and challenging power.

In the job market, it will require employers to actually fire executives when they lie, cheat, steal, harass and otherwise mistreat their workers.

And at a cultural level, it will require any and all efforts to rescind and deny social status to those who have committed egregious war, financial and sexual crimes — and it will require doing that even if those miscreants wear nice suits and have gilded credentials.

I had a micro version of this realization during the summer I spent canvassing for Greenpeace. Outside the office one day before work (yes, playing hacky sack!), one of my comrades was ranting about how EVIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 3M (the target of one our major campaigns) was.

I said, “Y’know what’s ‘evil?’ Satan. If 3M is really evil, we’re probably not going to out-organize Satan, so we should just go drink beer instead. If that sounds as silly to you as it does to me, let’s get to work. There are millions more of us than there are of them.”

The wealthy and powerful don’t get away with being terrible because nobody can stop them, but because not enough of us band together to do it. The work of making that happen is hard, but the concept isn’t.

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The right has been horribly incivil for years, so why the f— do they deserve even a semblance of politeness now?

June 25, 2018

[For now I’m setting aside critiques of the civility trope articulated so well by scholars lots of smart people over the last 10-15 years.]

First things first–not all forms of public confrontation are created equal, even from opponents of Trump/Trumpism/right-wingnuttery. Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen, by all accounts handled the situation with Sarah Huckabee Sanders very politely. It’s well within her rights legally to deny service to somebody she believes is responsible for terrible things, and she did. That’s different from shouting Kirstjen Nielsen out of a Mexican restaurant, or protesting at her home. I’m not making an argument about the relative legitimacy of those examples, only the point that they function differently as forms of resistance.

Now to the real heart of what I want to talk about: any response right wing horribleness is long overdue. I just wrote in a Facebook post that for me, although this started earlier, 2008/9 is a decisive moment at which the GOP gave up any right even to beg for, much less demand, that people treat their leadership nicely. Do the people who propagated the uber-racism of birtherism really think that the rest of us should just write that off as a political tactic? Have the people who organized and trained the proto-Tea Party to shout down anyone who disagreed with them at Town Hall meetings about healthcare in 2009 forgotten how rude and disrespectful, how uncivil, their people were? [UPDATED: And five words–Sarah Palin for Vice President]

You gotta be kidding me. Of course they haven’t. They just don’t like it when people confront them.

I could trace this back as early as 2005, when I wrote about the second GWBush inauguration in an op-ed for Philly Inquirer. In that piece, I bemoaned how horrible people (including myself) were to each other that day, yelling profanities and accusations of treason at total strangers on street corners. I also got handwritten anonymous death threats mailed to home for saying it.

Or 2006, when a group of rightwingers started showing up our local peace group’s weekly vigils; for a few weeks until the police orchestrated an arrangement to keep us physically separated, the crowds mixed and there was a lot of ugliness–instigated entirely by the right wing folks (they, of course, will argue that we started all of it; I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole just now). They said vile homophobic things to one of our members; one of their leaders provoked a Vietnam vet, one of the Winter Soldiers, to push a camera out of his face and he was arrested for assault. Two of their members got right behind me one day, nudged me towards a curb, and said loud enough for me to hear, “I wonder what would happen if we pushed one of these fucking hippies out into traffic.” They called us traitors, vandalized our group’s founder’s home, picked a flame war with me in the early days of this blog–they weren’t very civil.

In about 2012 (I think), a group of Tea Partiers showed up a West Chester Area School Board meeting knowing that somebody was going to advocate for a school tax increase of about 10 cents a month. The Tea Partiers decided that the appropriate response was to bring rolls of dimes and throw them at the speaker. Civil!

This list could go on and on. The point is, in the not-too-distant past, the right wing decided that rules of functional deliberation don’t apply to them, and now screech indignantly when anyone responds at all, much less in kind. I think the rest of us made a terrible mistake by not understanding sooner that we needed to shut that down. We’re dealing now with the festering mess of letting them get away with it. The Trump administration is what happened when that festering mess trickled up into the top levels of our government.

So, to the people confronting Trump administration officials who are the public faces of explicitly racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic, and other hate-based policies, I say “Sorry the rest of us took too so long.” To say, collectively and loudly, “You don’t get to do that anymore” is the least we can do.

[ADDENDUM LATE MONDAY AFTERNOON]

As I keep seeing this discussion all over my Facebook feed, what distresses me most of all is how badly we’re missing a simple point. By making the debate about the opponents of Trump and Trumpism, we’ve already conceded the single most important point there is–that every single thing those bigots are doing is an atrocity or atrocity-in-waiting. We’re doing their work for them by arguing about Stephanie Wilkinson or whoever and their individual decisions. We need to be praising and supporting every single person who stands up to them. If you need to take this opportunity to think about what you would do, that’s your call, but that’s about you.

 


OK, so the “progress” hasn’t been “amazing” [A correction to something I said at MLA 2018]

January 8, 2018

On Saturday, I was part of an MLA panel called “What Tenured Professors Can Do about Adjunctification.” A group of us who have responded to various calls to work for contingent faculty equality/equity gathered to generate ideas and tactics for tenured faculty to motivate others in our cohort to fight against the exploitation of contingent faculty (and contingency more generally). Our purpose wasn’t to strategize a movement, that is, but to get tenured faculty involved in work that’s already happening.

We began by introducing ourselves and explaining our reasons for joining the panel. The first two speakers noted the lack of progress we’ve made nationally on addressing labor inequality. As I listened, I was concerned about the tone this would set. We were there to catalyze new activism, and starting by emphasizing failures felt, well, awkward.

When it was my turn, I responded directly to the claim that nothing has really changed. Because I was trying to accomplish too many things at once, I said something that (I hear secondhand) rang a sour note for a lot of adjunct faculty; I need to clarify what I was after. I don’t remember the exact language, but it was something like, “I disagree that nothing has happened. There’s been amazing progress around the country, and the wins we’ve seen have set the standard we all need to be aiming for.”

My friend Amy Lynch-Biniek was live-tweeting the session. I don’t use Twitter so I never saw any reaction, but I learned last night that some contingent faculty reacted badly to the “amazing progress” claim. After an exchange on the Tenure for the Common Good Facebook page, I realize why. For many contingent faculty, the claim that nothing has changed rings truer than mine that lots of things have.

Point taken.

What I wanted to get at, but didn’t say well, is that I agree we haven’t overthrown neoliberalism or the casualization of higher ed. Tens of thousands of contingent faculty positions are still contingent–and as I’ve argued here before, contingency is more stressful than permanence, even when pay and working conditions are equitable. But the wins, even those at smaller scale, also count for something–not least for the people who benefit from them, and also for the sense of possibility they generate for everyone else.

Not just the sense of possibility, either. Those efforts and successes call on the rest of us to do better. As our panel convener, Carolyn Betensky, said (loosely paraphrased) in her opening remarks: the faculty most vulnerable to retaliation and job loss for their activism, and whose conditions are worst even if they keep their jobs, shouldn’t be alone in fighting back against the casualization of the academic labor force.

We have a responsibility to our colleagues off the tenure track and on it; and to the students who attend our schools (and more). That responsibility starts with treating each other like human beings and demanding that others do the same.

[I’ve written at length about ethical problems for tenured/tenure-track faculty doing adjunct-activist work. If anything I’m saying in this post is setting off those alarms for you, I hope you’ll read this chapter and see that I get it.]


Why “just leave” doesn’t solve the problem

October 16, 2017

In this morning’s Inside Higher Ed, Claire Potter returns to an argument I thought was kind of over–that if adjunct faculty find their treatment so bad and their conditions so untenable, why not leave?

There was a wave of this line of argument in 2012/2013 when Margaret Mary Vojtko died, and the contingent faculty equity movement started to gain what I think is real (yes, very slow-moving) power. My gut reaction to it then, and now, is to be irritated in the same way I was at people who told New Orleans residents post-Katrina that they should “just leave.”

After a second cup of coffee, I think it’s more productive to cast that response differently. There are a few points that need to be on the table in order to get at what I want to say–in short: Sure, as long as ______.

1. It’s already happening. That’s why quit lit exists. Faculty in increasing numbers find the situation untenable and opt out. For the record, I say good luck and godspeed to any individual who has that choice and takes it. You shouldn’t have to save anyone else (either by staying, or by leaving).

As an aside–people who advocate leaving the profession ought not to castigate people who do, a la accusations that people who write quit lit are “just whining” or “sound so proud of themselves” or other nastiness. You can’t advocate that people leave and then snark at them when they do. I haven’t seen Prof. Potter do this, but I have seen others. Not OK.

2. Not everyone has that choice, not in a meaningful sense. They’re not literally tethered to whiteboards or desks (if lucky enough to have one). But I know at least a dozen adjunct faculty who are placebound in locations remote enough not to offer real options (anecdotal, yes, but they’re just the ones I know personally). There are also freeway flyers who are teaching too many courses in too many places to be able to conduct a very thorough job search even in locations where such jobs exist; they’re golden-handcuffed to the work they have because it’s just barely enough to survive on, and risking it even to carve out the time it takes to job-search can be a real danger (see Con Job for a clear example of this story). There are other examples. The kind of solidarity en masse quitting would require isn’t simple or obvious (maybe not even possible). Prof Potter envisions lots of alternative employment venues when she says:

First, no one — whether a department chair, a graduate adviser, a graduate student or a contingent faculty member — should be dismissive about the value, availability and satisfactions of work in nonprofits, industry, government or secondary school teaching and academic administration. Yes, you may need some help from a career counselor to mount a successful search; yes, there may be geographical challenges. But the fact that other people you know have had difficulty pursuing careers that make good use of a humanities Ph.D., or that your own doctoral program discouraged you from even thinking that way, doesn’t mean such work isn’t available or that a doctorate in the humanities is not good preparation for it.

Again, those are fine choices for people who have them. Along with the problem of reaching critical mass of solidarity for such a move to work, I’m concerned that at a macro level, encouraging people to leave puts the people who can’t leave in even worse positions (if numbers are powerful, isolating people harms them, right?).

3. They shouldn’t have to. Does anyone have a right to a tenure-track job just because they want one? No. But telling people they should walk away from their commitments (ethical, professional, financial) because of a broken system puts all the onus for improving the system on them. And when we look at the work that adjunct faculty across the country are doing to organize/advocate for themselves and each other, to put even more responsibility on them to fix anything seems unreasonable.

4. Would you do it? If the logic of the argument is, the system is broken and the only way to force its repair is for people to leave, why aren’t we all answerable to that logic? Why is it the responsibility only of the most vulnerable? The evidence that the system is broken isn’t just bad adjunct jobs; it’s that they have those jobs while often doing much the same work as I do at my stable well-paid job. If leaving is the answer, shouldn’t we all?

I’ve been surprised for years that none of the adjunct faculty I rabble-rouse with has ever asked me if I’d give up tenure as a way to fix the two-tiered system. Honestly, I don’t know. It’s cavalier to say, in the hypothetical, that of course I would. The answer is tied to the argument I’ve been making here–as an individual, giving up my tenure would accomplish very little. We do it in solidarity, or we don’t do it. And I won’t hold adjunct faculty to a different standard.

 


Liberty University Students Speak Out! (again) And now what?

August 20, 2017

Last October I wrote a post praising Liberty University students for circulating a petition denouncing their university president’s support of the Trump campaign, and then challenging them to do something other than simply having made their statement. Of course that never happened because reasons.

This morning, I’m having almost the exact same reaction to the news that “Some Liberty University Grads Are Returning Their Diplomas To Protest Trump,” reported by NPR. In a nutshell, my responses are two–

1. Yay!

2. So?

I recognize that diplomas are simultaneously just pieces of paper and symbols for substantial accomplishment, and as such sending them back to the institution is a meaningful statement in its way. On the other hand, it leaves a lot of actual work undone. First, without attaching any kind of demand to it, even if Falwell wanted to “agree,” he’d have nothing to agree to. Second, like the petition last fall, the one-off “I’m going to say my piece and be done with it” is simultaneously brave and a cop-out.

Obviously as a left-ish person, what I’d really like to see is the Liberty alums realize the damage their church and its leaders have done to countless millions of lives; work to remedy that damage; and work to minimize the risk that bad people can keep doing terrible things while hiding behind theology and church dogma to do it. I’m OK with baby steps, but those steps have to go somewhere, and stopping after only one is no reason to congratulate themselves.


Why I Support the WCU Sanctuary Campus Letter

November 30, 2016

Ten days ago, out of concern among WCU students and faculty that the post-election wave of violence and threats against marginalized people will likely our campus, a group of faculty decided to join a nationwide movement called #SanctuaryCampus that calls on colleges/universities to become havens for community members who may be in danger under the new political regime. Among other provisions, the campaign asks campuses to declare their unwillingness to participate in sweeps or raids fishing for undocumented people.

I helped to circulate the letter and organize this effort–i.e., I didn’t just sign but have recruited other signers–not because I want to “tell the university to break the law” or “demand non-compliance with federal policy” or other such nonsense, but because I want the university/system leadership to take a proactive stance on behalf of threatened populations before a new administration tries to execute policies that would harm people we’re supposed to support.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think the letter asks the university to break any laws–and it certainly doesn’t demand anything of the sort. The letter does ask the university to resist efforts at harming our students as strongly as we can–or more to the point, it asks the university’s leadership to commit to not enabling miscarriages of justices that we fear are likely given the campaign and post-election ethos. PASSHE spokesperson Kenn Marshall (who lost my trust based on his active propagation of disinformation during our contract negotiations and strike) thinks it might.

That’s what dialogue is for, y’all. If the university/system made the case that they can’t commit to certain terms in the letter but can do ___ instead, I think most of us are listening.

I also support the campaign because it asks for other commitments from the university as well, largely redoubling our commitments to diversity and inclusion in ways that are more than hortatory. There are students and staff and faculty who feel directly endangered, and we need to make sure they feel as safe as we can make them.

Yesterday the West Chester Daily Local ran a story about the sanctuary campus effort. Dr. Nadine Bean, who did most of the drafting of the letter, was the only faculty member who spoke to the reporter and has, unsurprisingly, become the focus of predictably nasty troll attacks against her as a result.

I’ve looked at the comments, one of which I responded to (the commenter “wondered” how Dr. Bean would feel when one of those “rapists” attacked a female student: I replied that his comment demonstrates precisely why we needed to do this), but anybody who’s been publicly visible for doing any kind of social justice work has probably been here or nearby before. Getting flamed sucks. People who are willing to say the things those folks say (usually behind a wall of pseudonymity, which is probably a conversation for another day) are usually pretty good at being intimidating–which is what they’re trying to be.

If you read this blog back in 2007, 2008, you’ve seen what this kind of flaming looks like. I learned then, especially as it relates to threats about my job, that the best response for me was to invite flamers to watch my teaching and read my scholarship. If any of you trolls wants to scare me by threatening to “turn me in” to WCU and PASSHE bigwigs, they already know who I am. They know what my politics are. They know I’m a union thug. Now they know I’ve not only signed the Sanctuary Campus letter but helped to circulate it. If you want to have a conversation about how well I fulfill my professional obligations, let’s do, but you have to play by my rules:

  1. It happens here so it’s visible and archived for anyone who wants to see it.
  2. You know my real name, so I get to know your real name too. If you say the nasty things, you have to own them.
  3. I get to decide if you cross a line such that I won’t approve a comment. It’s my blog. If you want to say something I won’t publish, start your own blog. It’s free and easy.

 


Why I’m OK with this version of the Safety Pin

November 15, 2016

The debate over wearing safety pins as a sign to potential victims of racial/anti-woman/anti-LGBTQ+/religious violence that the wearer is willing to intervene on their behalf has largely undone what I saw as a powerful opportunity. Not the first time something I thought was a good idea got washed away, not the last. So it goes.

I have to admit I had some trepidation about wearing the pin in public, which was inchoate until I read this piece (“So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin”), in which the author makes a strong case that even (especially) if the symbol communicates what was its primary message (not a generalized anti-bigotry message, but a much more targeted message to potential victims that they can count on your help if they need it), wearers need to be sure they can deliver what they’re promising. That might include putting yourself in physical danger, might even entail participating in violence if that’s what it takes. I was already having a hard time reconciling my own pacifism with that possibility, realizing both that it’s a deep personal/philosophical/political commitment and an expression of privilege that I get to decide whether to fight back, but the person who sees me wearing the pin on the bus doesn’t know that’s a complicated question.

I saw enough argumentation about how fraught the symbol has become–and arguments coming from the populations who I would be supporting by wearing it–that I decided not to wear one on my person. As one Facebook friend put it, no matter what I mean to be saying, I (and others, obviously) have lost control over that meaning, particularly in public settings where there’s not going to be time to talk about it.

However, I have decided that in conjunction with the hashtag #NotOnMyCampus, I’ll use the image designed by friend and comrade Kevin Mahoney as a signal to students, staff, faculty, and other members of our campus community that I’m doing more than announcing how anti-bigotry I am.

14980826_10101641746154607_9155585935161283640_n.jpg

By posting this image as a sign at my office and having it visible in as many places as possible, I want community members to know that I’ll help them with anything they need in the event of a threat or act of violence or harassment–filing reports, finding a place to hide out, organizing public responses, talking to Public Safety or police, confronting bigots face to face, helping to raise money for anti-violence groups, helping to organize bystander training, and so on. I’ll do as much of that as I can without waiting for people to ask, but this sign tells them that they can ask without having to wonder how I’ll respond.

If there are members of the community who find it an empty gesture, so be it. I hope they’ll tell me that so we can talk about what would serve as a more meaningful contribution. In that case, it will still have accomplished something useful.