‘Accountability’ isn’t enough [some angry language]

August 1, 2011

Not a great day for those of us who spend many of our waking hours fighting against various aspects of neo-liberal hegemony.

It looks like sometime today, both houses of Congress will pass a bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling; in that bill is also a radical realignment of our budgetary and social priorities, tilting our economic structure in more sharply towards the ultra wealthy. The poor, working, middle classes will wind up paying more for less, while the rich pay less for more AND suck up more of other people’s money for themselves. This outcome of the new policy is clear and well-documented.

What troubles me the most about it is that it will devastate working and living conditions the huge majority of the country. On that level, it’s a clear betrayal of all that’s good and right about our country.

After that, what troubles me most is the utter shamelessness of the Republican Party, which serves nobody but the ultra-elite (although it’s exploits the ever-living fuck of Evangelicals, racists, and anybody else who will listen to their madness). Other than the occasional token effort to make this effort sound like it was about anything other than vacuuming up more power and resources for themselves, they have made almost no effort even to pretend like there’s any agenda here other than real one. That is, like the moment in 1984 when O’Brien admits to Winston that the Party only does what it does because it can, the GOP is steadily revealing its true agenda–or trying to hide it less.

You’d think with the recent exposure of the Koch brothers’ machinations, the influence of the shady group ALEC, example after example of radical right-wing leaders sucking at the government teat while they decry government programs–and then not really even trying to explain themselves because they don’t really have to)… You’d think all those things would make conservatives act a little more cautiously as the (mostly) men behind the curtain are revealed to be what they are–selfish, greedy, inhumane pieces of subhuman shit.

Instead, the opposite has happened. As the conservative machine becomes more visible, it becomes even more brazen. As the institutions you’d expect to stop (at least resist) them continue to fail us–you know, the Democratic Party, the law, the voters–I suppose there’s no reason for them even to pretend to be anything other than what they are.

And that, activist friends, helps me focus on what I’ve been increasingly see as the heart of the matter for the last year, maybe more: how to excise the political, economic and social poison these subhuman scum have injected into the system for nothing but their own gain. Lots of us have adopted, adapted the terminology of “accountability,” which is close to right–how do we hold these monsters ‘accountable’ for what they’re doing? But I’m increasingly sensing that the discourse of accountability makes it too easy to let these criminals off the hook. Elected officials are held accountable at the ballot box, if ever. That’s not enough.

We’re starting to see some movement in the right direction, I think, and I’m currently hanging my hopes on:

The recall elections happening in Wisconsin  When elected officials do the opposite of what you elected them to do, grab them by the backs of their necks and throw them on the scrap heap. There’s no reason to wait two years to vote them out.

The ballot initiative in OH to overturn SB5  When your legislative apparatus passes legislation that the huge majority of citizens reject, override the vote.

I’m all in favor of conventional kinds of activism and organizing. Although I’m not terribly impressed with the Coffee Party leadership (the rhetoric of the organization sounds like a thousand other people who suddenly got political and don’t yet understand that they’re not the first people to have thought about this stuff, but maybe that’ll wear down soon), the general idea of a citizen movement acting responsibly and demanding same is hard to argue with. As a union member and leader-of-sorts, of course I’m committed to labor activism and unions as strategies and modes of organizing.

But what we’re seeing in Wisconsin and Ohio right now is something else. Yes, it’s reactionary in the sense that it’s about undoing damage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. But more important, I think, is that it’s directly responding to the problems. It’s not waiting for Election Day to trade people who did bad things for other people who will probably do bad things–it’s attacking the problems NOW.

If there’s any chance of salvaging our current form of government (if, in fact, that’s even a good idea–but I’ll set that aside for now), I believe we have to start here. Punch the assholes in their faces for being assholes. Yank them out of office when they violate the will of the people. Organize against laws that nobody wanted passed in the first place.

This is, by the way, exactly what the Tea Party says it does. It’s also exactly what the mainstream corporate media reports the Tea Party doing. Two things about that: (1) No, they don’t. The Tea Party is nothing but a tool of the Koch Brothers and Dick Armey-and-friends, and is about as authentic a grassroots movement as ‘Americans for Prosperity.’ (2) Even if that’s not true (or getting less true–some analysts believe the Tea Party is getting out from under the control of its masters), there aren’t very many of them. Reports of the Tea Party’s mass-movement-ness have been greatly exaggerated.

If the Tea Partiers and progressives want to have an actual grassroots battle for the soul of the nation, count me in. When you Tea Partiers tell the Kochs and the Armeys and their friends to take their resources and shove them up their asses, when you tell your mouthpieces of Fox News you don’t need their corporate support–that is, when you practice anything you actually preach–then we’ll have an interesting situation on our hands.


What we did on our 4Cs vacation :)

April 11, 2011

[OK, Governor Corbett, if you’re reading this, it wasn’t a vacation, really.]

Lots of news from last week’s Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta, but I want to make sure this one gets posted sooner rather than later–

At the Annual Business Meeting on Saturday, CCCC voted resoundingly to approve the following resolution (authored by Holly Middleton and yours truly, with very helpful input from Steve Parks and the members of the CCCC Resolutions Committee, to whom we also owe thanks for endorsing the resolution before it hit the assembly floor):

WHEREAS NCTE/CCCC has shown a commitment to establishing fair labor practices for its own members and adjunct instructors of Composition; and

WHEREAS unions and fair labor practices for all workers are increasingly under assault; and

WHEREAS socially responsible event planners can negotiate competitive rates and labor-friendly contracts that protect CCCC in the event of a labor dispute;

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED THAT CCCC consult with the hotel workers union and other labor organizations to schedule meetings and conferences in hotels and conventions with fair labor practices or contract with vendors which practice fair labor practices; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the CCCC commit to offering housing at conference rates in at least one hotel with fair labor practices at every meeting.

This is the first resolution the Labor Caucus has brought directly to the floor of our convention, and we wanted something both passable and substantive.  I think we got it.


Labor Activism at 4C

April 2, 2011

[This is the same message I’ve posted to the WPA, H-Rhetor, and Rhetoricians for Peace listserv.  Wanted to put it here so I could update it and/or point people to it.]

Sorry for cross-postings, but I’m trying to spread this as quickly and widely as possible.   –Seth

**************

On behalf of the CCCC Labor Caucus

 

Anybody in Atlanta Wed afternoon for 4Cs who wants to fight against the attacks on labor (organized and otherwise) across the country right now:

 

It’s not hyperbolic to say that organized labor, and working people more generally, are under assault right now. You know the litany: Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Michigan, rumbles in lots of other places, all facing dangerous and heavy-handed efforts to hurt working people (academics and teachers at all levels included). While there are huge efforts underway in all these places to respond, we can’t let pass the opportunity to claim an organized space and time at CCCC for collaborating and collectivizing our efforts.

 

With the blessing of the Labor Caucus and CCCC, the group hosting the Pre-Convention Workshop “Labor Organizing in Hard Times” has decided to change our agenda for the day and to throw open the doors of the meeting at 3 pm to everybody who wants to join in the fight. Our decision to do this is based on the sense that it’s simply incumbent on us, as a Labor Caucus, to do as much of this work as we can together with as many CCCC attendees as we can find who share our commitments–or even come close.

 

Vitals:

Wednesday, April 6

3 PM-5 PM (Later if people want to stay and we don’t get booted out of the room)

Location: I don’t have an actual program yet, but we’re W.1 (Labor Organizing in Hard Times) in the program

 

It’ll be an open door, so there’s no need to RSVP. However, if there’s an issue you know you want to work on and want to make sure somebody else knows about it, feel free to let me, Seth, know (via e-mail is probably best: skahn@wcupa.edu).

 

I can’t say I hope to see you there because I hate that we have to talk about this. But we need to gather as many people as we can who care about labor across the country and put all these years of rhetoric training, all these years of activist experience, all the commitment we have to fairness and equity, to work.

 


An Open Letter to Governor Tom Corbett (R-PA)

March 10, 2011

[I just sent this letter to the Governor.  It takes up a theme I’ve been developing here on the blog for the last few weeks: “Who does that help?”  I don’t expect the kind of reply the letter calls for, of course, which is one reason I’m posting it here.  It becomes a lot harder for him not to answer if A WHOLE LOT OF US ask it.  Yes, that’s a call to action.]

***************

Governor Corbett:

As a faculty member and union leader on a PASSHE campus (WCU), I’m sure you can understand that I’m reacting to your proposal to halve our state allocation for next year with some dismay.
I’m also sure that other concerned faculty, who are better at making financial arguments than I am, have been (or soon will be) elaborating our case for a less draconian (from our perspective) budget cut–to you in hopes that you’re willing to rethink/compromise, and to our local legislators in hopes they’ll support us.
So rather than trying to convince you on specific economic grounds that we really need x dollars system-wide in order to function, I want to ask a somewhat different question.  If the Legislature gives you what you’ve asked for, and our allocation drops by half, who does that actually help?  Who, as specifically as you can say, actually benefits from that move?  Where, specifically, does that money go instead of to PASSHE, and how does that shift benefit the system’s students and their families, the system’s employees and their families, and the communities that depend on their PASSHE campuses in large part for their economic well-being?
Believe it or not, although I’m a committed liberal and a union officer, I’m willing to hear responses to that question with an open mind.  I will, however, be demanding in the sense that a response without specifics isn’t enough.  Who does it actually help if you win and enforce such radical budget cuts on a system that has already shrunk or condensed our operations as much as we can without sacrificing the quality education students and the Commonwealth rightly expect of us?
Thank you for listening, and I’ll be looking forward to your reply.
Seth Kahn, PhD
[Personal contact info, blah blah blah]

[Self] Pep Talk

March 10, 2011

[WARNING: the “pep talk” part of this takes a while to get to…and it’s probably not all that peppy, but headed in the right direction I think…]

Hard to watch or read any news for the last few weeks and not feel a growing sense of doom for those of us who strongly support labor–not just “working people” or “the middle class” (which are categories so diffuse that they don’t capture much anymore), but Labor, as a movement.

Yesterday we took hits in Wisconsin, which most of us know about, and Michigan, which took me by surprise.  The day before, PA’s new Republican Governor, Tom Corbett, offered up a budget proposal that slashes state funding for public universities (already hovering just over 30% of our operating budgets) in half; demanding salary and benefits givebacks from public unions (at least he said it directly); and so on.  We know about the passage of SB5 in Ohio, which will likely pass the House and be signed into law soon.  Idaho legislators have voted to strip K-12 teachers of collective bargaining rights.

And this is, as we all know, just the beginning.  Actually, no it isn’t.  The effort to kill labor has been growing, steadily, for a long time now.  Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the Air Traffic Controllers’ union is a more (but still not entirely accurate) marker of the onset of this strategy.  We can leave it to the labor historians to duke out dates, but the point is that what we’re seeing right now isn’t new; it’s more frontal and more public than we’ve seen–as far as I know, we haven’t seen this level of attack on organized labor since about the 1940s)–but it hasn’t popped up from nowhere.

A lot of my liberal friends will disagree with me here (although a lot will agree, too), but one of the major enablers of the current attacks on labor is the national Democratic Party, which has taken Labor for granted for a very long time now.  And that’s partly Labor’s fault, too, for living in an “At least they’re not Republicans” paradigm.  Dems know Labor won’t desert them, so they vacuum up campaign contributions and organizing/mobilizing energy during elections and then do nothing to support Labor in between.  The Dems could have passed EFCA quite easily had they wanted to, instead of just sweeping it under the rug.  The Dems could have told the Republicans to shove the Bush tax cuts up their bums because we need that money to pay things that actual human beings need.  But they haven’t, and there’s little reason to believe that will change in any future I can imagine.

So where does that leave the actual working people, the people on whose labor this country depends, to turn for support?  All that’s really left, it seems, is each other.  There are millions of us.  We don’t have the cash that Waltons and Kochs and Gateses and Soroses have on hand.  We don’t have the weapons that wingnut militias have lying around.  We don’t have legislatures in our pockets like our self-appointed neo-liberal corporate masters have.

And you know what?  I’m finding myself less and less troubled about those problems as every minute goes by.  Why?  Because the institutions they ru[i]n only continue to work as long as we the people continue to support them.

Whose money are the rich stealing?  Ours!  How do we stop that from happening?  Don’t spend money on stupid crap; buy from union shops; tell the bad guys that you’re boycotting them; make a stink in every setting where people are giving money to culprits of exploitation.

Why do corrupt quasi-representative government institutions continue to sell us down the river?  Because we let them–by voting, or not voting, and then pretending like we’ve discharged our duty as citizens until the next Election Day.  We have to make demands and fight for them.  We have to confront lawmakers and executives face-to-face.  We have to demand that the self-annointed answer hard questions in public, and lambaste their empty answers.

On Facebook yesterday, two of my friends started calling for a General Strike, and quite honestly I think we have to start thinking about that.  If Labor, as a movement, is going to mean anything in this country, it’s time for its proponents to think really hard about throwing down the gauntlet.  For too long, our culture has subscribed to the “What’s good for _____ [fill in the blank with corporate quasi-capitalist behemoth] is good for America” logic, and it’s proven time and again to be a lie.  Why not, “What’s good for American workers is good for America?”

What’s so damn hard about that?

Or put another way:  We’ve allowed ourselves to be pigeon-holed as a “special interest” for too long.  What could be less “special interest” than the basic economic security of the huge majority of the population?  There is only a small cabal (the real “special interests”) to whom our basic economic security doesn’t matter.  We can no longer wait around for those very elite, wealthy, selfish, solipsistic, inhumane people to come to their senses, to wake up, to have an epiphany, to see the Lord (or Karl Marx, or Lech Walesa, or whoever).  We can do this without them.

 


Thanks, Michelle Rhee, for exposing the lunacy of your own position

March 8, 2011

Found the link to this video clip on Daily Kos this morning, but want to say some things about it that the Kos blogger didn’t say:

On the page of a Facebook friend the other night, I posited the notion that Scott Walker is serving the rhetorical function that propaganda theorists call “the decoy.”  As you might imagine, decoys are examples that look much worse than what you want your audience to accept, such that your proposal looks a lot better in comparison.  The simplest example (roughly paraphrased from the textbook I use in my Propaganda class) is the real estate agent who shows you a dilapidated house with a very high price tag, so that when you look at the not-very-nice house with the slightly-less-ridiculous price tag, the second house looks like a great deal.

So I’d already been considering this idea in relation to the newly elected governor of my own state (PA), Tom Corbett, who is also a Republican with strong conservative credentials; before his election to the Governorship, Corbett was one of the Republican state attorneys-general who filed lawsuits to kill the new healthcare law.  Not long after the Wisconsin protests hit the news, Corbett was able to say that he has no interest in union-breaking, which makes him sound quite reasonable–except that Walker has said the exact same thing.  And except that Corbett will almost certainly sign individual pieces of PA legislation that do most of what Walker’s budget repair bill does in terms of union-busting.

Sorry for the diversion into local politics there…  Anyway, so when Michelle Rhee, one of the virulently anti-union education “reformers” who’s led the national charge to attack teachers and eviscerate any meaningful notion of education, shows up on Fox News (quel surprise!) to talk about teachers’ unions, she able to distinguish her own position from Scott Walker’s, ostensibly, while agreeing with the really insidious parts of it.  That is:

[Scott Walker is bad]: I don’t want to bust unions; he’s overreached; unions should be able to negotiate some things.

[Scott Walker is right]: Unions should only be able to negotiate salaries, not policy or working conditions.

[Conclusion]: Look at how reasonable I sound!  I’m not as crazy as he is!

The problem here, I hope it’s obvious, is that the position is incredibly offensive.  I don’t want to speak for other teachers and teachers’ unions, but my hunch is that most of us would trade some of our salary and benefits bargaining power for the power to negotiate policies and working conditions.  In fact, we know for a FACT that the Wisconsin teachers’ union would do this BECAUSE THEY ALREADY OFFERED.

More importantly, Rhee’s position is offensive to teachers because who knows better than teachers do what our jobs are?  Who knows better than somebody who works with students, and administrators, and (for K-12 teachers) parents EVERY DAY what it takes to do the job well?  Somebody who (like Rhee) was an abject failure at the job?  Somebody like Bill Gates who, by all accounts, wasn’t even a successful student much less teacher?  Somebody like George W. Bush who, by his own accounts, was utterly uninterested in his own education except the diplomas that his family name earned him?

This isn’t to say that teachers at all levels, especially those whose schools rely heavily on public funding, shouldn’t be answerable to those who fund us.  Of course we should (Just like Congress should! And the Pentagon! And all the corporations that suck down corporate welfare and then hide their crimes behind “proprietary interest” laws, and hide their accounting practices in other countries’ banks!).  And if the pitbulls on the right would actually shut their yaps and listen every once in a while to anybody other than themselves, they’d realize that we already do exactly that–we try quite diligently to discuss results, polices, outcomes, needs, possibilities, curriculum and pedagogy, lots of parts of our jobs.  But they don’t want to hear it, and continue to contend that they (knowing NOTHING about what we do or what it takes for school systems to work) should have complete control over the schools.

Lots of us on the left decry the anti-intellectualism that’s really pervasive in our culture these days, but I’m not talking about the street level version of it right now (of course it’s related–school board members have to win elections, and as the mayoral race in DC showed last year, education policy can cost elections too).  I’m talking about the level of the agenda setters, the folks who have access to the mass media that charts the terms of the discussion, the people with recognizable names and faces.

If it didn’t depend on punishing students in the process, I’d challenge Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates and Arne Duncan to spend a year as a full-time teacher (not a week or a month, as I’ve seen others propose–that’s not long enough), in a school that actually operated according to the principles they espouse.  But I wouldn’t wish that on any student, much less a school full of them.  So instead, I’ll challenge the educational reformers to do something more practical and, maybe over the long haul, more useful.  OPEN YOUR DAMN EARS AND LISTEN!

Your unwillingness to listen to anybody else’s point of view is exactly what would make you suck as teachers and colleagues, which I suppose is no surprise now that I think about it….


And another question about shared sacrifice

March 7, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote a critique of the current shared sacrifice trope in debates about budgets at federal and state levels.  The basic point, if you didn’t read it and don’t feel like reading it now, is that not only are the current budget-cutting efforts happening primarily on the backs of the non-rich, but that the rich are in fact benefitting from every single implication of those cuts.  It’s not even not-shared sacrifice; it’s actually redistribution of wealth and power from the bottom up.

Thinking this morning about our faculty union’s current negotiations, I have to ask the question in our context too.  We hear, over and over, that the current economic situation in our state is calling for shared sacrifice.  And our union, as we’ve made quite clear, understands the economic terrain–just as well or better than our system’s negotiators do, because we live with the consequences of it EVERY DAY.  I’m sorry, y’all, but that’s a divide that system management simply can’t cross.  We work, on the ground, with students, faculty, staff, and our local management; we see the direct implications of the state’s economic situation every time a student has to drop out of school because of financial problems, or a faculty member is retrenched, or another manager gets hired, or groundskeepers have to buy their own gloves and masks in order to be safe at their jobs, or…

So, when faculty sacrifice by taking on larger clases, more advisees, increased research expectations with decreased support, salaries that lag behind inflation even before you account for our increasing contributions to benefits packages (which I don’t begrudge, except to the extent that PASSHE management doesn’t seem especially inclined to do the hard work of fighting for better deals because the costs aren’t the same for them), shrinking academic freedom as teaching and research opportunities shrink in the face of increasing student bodies and mandatory “efficiencies” (like our state’s 60-credit transfer articulation agreement), …

Most of these sacrifices, management can make a case for on a one-by-one basis: accept larger classes in return for x; pay more for your benefits in return for y.  The problems are two:

(1) Taken together, they represent a huge problem.  It’s very, very difficult to do the job we’re hired for if every day we have to undertake another rear-guard action to protect our ability to do our jobs.  More directly–when we have to spend as much energy defending our work conditions as doing our work, there’s a big problem.  The problem is, as I think we call know, that anti-academic forces then use that problem as an argument against public higher education.  They get to say (although they’re lying) that faculty are greedy (we’re selling out our students in order to negotiate better contracts) and ineffective (we’re not working hard enough).  We all know that’s bullshit, but it plays well in the press.

(2) Closer to what I thought I’d be writing when I started this post–as faculty bargain away more and more of our positive working conditions in the face of supposed economic catastrophe, where’s the sharing?  That is, what is management giving up in return, and on what grounds are we faculty to believe it’s anywhere near proportional to our own sacrifices?  As faculty positions haven’t grown in proportion to increasing student bodies while management positions have skyrocketed, even as slight reduction on management hires doesn’t come close to balancing that out.  We also all know that because management salaries aren’t on steps or regular increments, they can play all sorts of accounting games with when and how raises are allocated (and often backpaid) so they can say they sacrificed the very raises they were still able to bank.

And beyond that, following closer the logic I started laying out yesterday, there’s an argument to be made that management doesn’t simply avoid sacrificing, but actually benefits when faculty gives up hard won territory.  When fewer of us are teaching more students, cobbling together more grants so we can afford to do any research, advising more, administering programs and departments with shrinking support, and all the rest of it, we’re also less likely to participate in shared governance (on whose time? with whose energy?); we (especially junior and temporary faculty) are scared for our jobs and less likely to make waves; we spend a lot more time doing management’s work for them (my last two CCCC papers are about the trickle-down of management work onto faculty, obscuring that phenomenon by calling it “shared governance”); and on and on.

I’m not as angry at our system management as I am at the Scott Walkers/Tom Corbetts/Chris Christies/Koch brothers/Tea Partiers of the world.  I’ve met a couple of our upper managers and, while I don’t especially appreciate some (most?) of the moves they make, I don’t distrust them personally.  Let’s put it this way–it very often doesn’t seem like their commitments to the work of the system are the same as ours.  There are lots of reasons that might be, and lots of ways of accounting for it, and even probably some good responses to it.

But for now, the important thing is that I see scant evidence that our state system is coming anywhere close to the level of sacrifice they continually ask faculty for, and it’s increasingly difficult to motivate faculty to keep sacrificing without some sense that we’re not the only ones doing it.

UPDATE: Comrade (!) Kevin Mahoney at the KUXchange has written extensively and convincingly about Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine, one of the more convincing descriptions of how PASSHE covers for its decisions in economic terms.  His colleague Amy Lynch-Biniek has done some good work calling attention to the inattention system management pays to what matters about teaching and learning, namely, teaching and learning.