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Optimism and Obamagogue

Publication Date: 2008-11-14

This essay first appeared on a list devoted to literacy concerns. Pointing out that justice demands both organization and a sense of moral right, Rich Gibson explains what we can do and why we must do it.

I think writing and teaching are inherently optimistic,
"glass half full," kind of exercises. In writing, we believe we have
something to say worth knowing, and there might be someone out there
who gets it. In teaching, most educators do want to leave the world a
little better, enjoy kids and the hope that is built into their
youth, and think that teaching will help kids understand what is up a
bit better. So, this is an optimistic list.

Criticism is not abandoning optimism. I am optimistic about the long
haul. The very few will not rule the many forever. In the short term,
though, optimism needs to be matched by critique, a careful
examination of why things are as they are in order to figure out what to do.

Everyone does this to one degree or another, consciously or not,
using history and a guess at the present to take action for the
future: trying to pick a job, buying a house, shopping sales, buying
goods or stocks, etc. That is especially true now when the future is
crunched, banging loud on your door.

Arriving with some inheritance sets up most people's room to
maneuver. The less you arrive with, the less you can duck and dodge.

Obama, or in my dig, Obamagogue, needs to be viewed critically. Sure,
he needs to be examined as a human being. Bright, well spoken,
athletic, seemingly pleasant enough, literate (what a departure!),
fairly well informed about world affairs and perhaps coming in with a
good attitude. However, we also know he is a south-side Chicago
political operative with all the baggage that necessarily entails.
Cinderella, he ain't.

Will Obama's election do a lot to crush racism, as it should be?
Maybe. But have we not seen the Coleman Young's, Richard Hatcher's,
Kenneth Gibson's, Kwame Kilpatrick's, et al, come and go with nearly
no impact on the rise of racism? Is it better to have black cops?
Yes, in the sense that they may be less likely to shoot people
driving while black, but no in the sense that they are still used to
violently smash picket lines. At this point, Obama's impact on racism
is hard to predict. For many voters, the pocket book overcame some
racism, but that racism is still there. And it is not just an
attitude, but a structure: Last hired first fired is a reality.

Obama needs to be addressed inside his role in the structure of US
political economy. A simple question to ask: Is there considerable
evidence that this government, a capitalist democracy, is an
executive committee and armed weapon of the rich, or is it a popular
democracy floating free of economic consideration? Another good
question: Where might Obama fall between those apparent poles?

Capitalism means, at base, the exploitation of the labor of many, by
the relative few. Democracy, rule of the people, is often but not
always overwhelmed by the system of capital. Capitalist democracy
commonly operates by convincing the exploited many that they are not
ruled by the few, giving the many a chance to participate in
constructing their own oppression, as in getting teachers to choose
which standardized history text to use rather than to choose whether
any text at all should be used.

As an aside, [this is list] surely, concerned mainly with educational
matters. But education cannot trump other, always related, issues. It
would not be ok, for example, if the US adopted a national Whole
Language educational project and continued to invade Iraq,
Afghanistan, Colombia, etc. In a more practical sense, as those
things are related, that is, education and war, and as we can easily
see the US is not going to adopt a national Whole Language plan but
is going to continue its empire, as it must to survive, we can put
the role of education policy in perspective.

Now comes Obama with people brimming with his slogans: Change! Hope!
Moving Forward! We Are All in the Together!

Perhaps millions of people now feel they can be proud to be an
American again, without recognizing the problem of nationalism built
into the sentiment. If anything should be fairly apparent, it is
class war, everywhere, perhaps wearing the mask of national unity,
but class war nevertheless. We are not all in this together.

On the other hand, most fellow Americans went shopping on the advice
of George Bush, while he made an illegal and in many ways fascist,
war. And, about 1.2 million Americans actually did that war for him.
What might they do now they cannot go shopping but have few
demonstrable analytical abilities either? How much of Americana do we
want to be tied to?

While even the Obama-fan media says they don't know exactly what
Obama will do, we can, surely, look at the open statements Obama has
made about education. He supports the Teach for America operative,
Michelle Rhee, in DC with great gusto.

Her secretly funded project is, in part, to destroy tenure and
establish "merit" pay.

Obama supports merit pay. He supports privatized charters (I have no
quarrel with some public charters like the one Susan Harman set up).
He wants more money for NCLB. If NCLB is funded and is still used to
regiment the curricula, to use bogus forms of assessment (which will
invariably measure little more than race, language, class, and
subservience) that will not be alright.

We know, too, that Obama calls for national service. His key team
leaders wrote books about that. National service is free labor, as in
community service requiring that school kids "volunteer." But it can
also be a syphon for the middle class, opting out of what may be a
draft (granted, kids with no shoes from Mexico and South America may
fill the void).

There is no noticeable effort coming from the powerful to truly
dismantle the three pronged attack on schools that is NCLB:
regimentation of curricula, false assessment linked to student
advancement and educator pay, and militarization. The essence of NCLB
remains a bi-partisan scheme, just as it always has been. NCLB is
directly related to imperialist war and economic war as well.

The central issues of life; (1) labor, (2) rational knowledge (and
history as well), (3) love---not only aesthetics and non-exploitative
mutual care but also sexuality as a matter of pleasure, and (4) the
struggle for freedom, are now almost outlawed in schools. The process
that won that goes back to the bi-partisan effort to regain dominance
in schools after the US ran away from Vietnam, defeated politically,
morally and militarily, while schools got out of hand on the home front.

NCLB works. Kids learn to not be curious, to learn not to like to
learn, and accept that science proves they are in their proper,
stratified, social position.

Obama arrives with structural problems. The US, if is to remain an
empire, must have control of key oil regions like those around Iraq
and nearby Afghanistan. Why? Because oil moves the military. No
military, no empire. Oil, however, moves every military. There are
limited oil regions, and the competition is now stiff.

Some very reputable scholars suggest the US, behind Obama, could
slowly dismantle the empire as did the British. But the British did
not dismantle the empire without incredible levels of violence,
especially in Africa, and the Brits had the US to hide behind and
manipulate, as they do to this day.

The US has only the US. The recent failed wars made allies
contemptuous and distrustful and enemies licking their chops. Worse,
the US citizenry is completely unprepared to suffer the consequences
of dismantling the fruits of empire--meaning a fully ravaged
lifestyle. What would they do?

The US is not going to leave Iraq, though US troops may retreat to
the bases and oil fields and leave Iraqis to kill each other while
140,000 US mercenaries continue to roam Iraq. The US is not going to
run off from Afghanistan, but it cannot win in Afghanistan. 300,000
Russian troops finally left the region, whipped by people who started
out throwing rocks at tanks. Before them, the British, the great
empire, ran away. The battle for empire is a problem US capital, as
it is, cannot solve--and it cannot exit.

We should note that one of Obama's top advisors is Brezinkski. He
wrote the Carter doctrine which declared that all of the Middle East
and its oil fields are part of the US empire and the US would use all
of its available force to defend its region. Obama's new Chief of
Staff is a committed Zionist, unlikely to solve another key issue:
Israel and Palestine. I find no significant errors in Sam Smith's
belated warnings about Obama, here.

Beyond oil is the crisis of what is really finance capital, the head
of finance disconnected from the body of production. It is unwise to
wage war on the world without a steel industry, even if US
agriculture could starve parts of the world. Should Obama let finance
capital swing in the wind, he faces a huge deflationary crisis,
troops guarding closed banks, as in the Great Depression. If he
prints money and tries to reindustrialize, then he faces a big
problem of inflation. Besides, it may be too late when Obama arrives.
It could be George Bush is so delusional now that he leaves Obama
with a very real collapse. "Hey, we ruined it. Give it to the black guy."

Obama voted for the bankster bailout which we can now see as one last
grab at the treasury. He voted to protect government spying on
citizens. We know Obama lied about capital's most important product:
more capital, money. He used $700 million to win an election,
betraying his statement of principles.

Either way, what is ahead is, in my humble opinion, an inevitable
sharpening of the war of the rich on the poor. Wage cuts. Layoffs.
Speed up, The stretch out. Gutting health benefits for those who have
good benefits and making them pay for mediocre or worse health care
for others. Foreclosures. Taxing one section of the working class to
stave off the misery of another section of the working class.
Inflation means increasingly worthless paychecks. Deflation means
closed banks and lost savings. The rich can maneuver against this.
Those who live paycheck to paycheck cannot. And, it helps when your
neighbor owns the bank and tells you it will close day after tomorrow.

Can Obama be the velvet glove over the iron fist of this process?
Sure he can, for awhile. Then what? Then he will have to pick sides,
as we all will--but our choice is limited by our available capital.

Will Obama side with the many, or the few? I will bet the ranch.

What to do?

For our purposes, it does no harm to lobby for or against some
educator for Secretary of Education. But that really gives us little
or no power. What if she/he betrays us, as so many of them have when
we elected school board members? What then?

At base, our potential power (terrific as education workers who now
occupy the key central organizing point of North American life) is
rooted in our ability to control the processes of our work places and
communities, and to control the products of our work (in many cases, ideas).

Can we do that now? No we cannot. We are poorly positioned in this
real train wreck. Why not?

Partially because our union leaders betrayed us. Loaded with big
salaries (fruits of empire), they let us down in every conceivable
way, but especially in abandoning and denying the reason most people
join unions (contradictory interests of workers and bosses), and thus
abandoning any vision of on-the-job and community organizing. Indeed,
they fought against those, like Susan Ohanian, who sought to resist
the racist high stakes exams--and tried to demolish the struggle.

Unionism, even at its best, cannot answer this international crisis.
Unions divide people (using dues payment, capital's bottom line) by
job, race, nation. Unions don't unite people. They divide us. Yes,
some people are in unions (5 million school workers) but most (about
88 %) are not. We need to have, say, one toe in the unions, and ten toes out.

What can we do? We can start with what we have, our own critical
abilities and the limited organizations that exist that could create
the solidarity necessary to build a resistance rooted in the reality
of class struggle and the need for direct, on-the-job, action. The
Rouge Forum would be one of a very few examples of groups that could
do that. Justice demands organization.

Justice also demands a sense of moral right. Ethics. It is wrong to
conduct venally graded racist high stakes exams without complaint. It
is wrong to fail to say, "appearance is not essence, which is what
you claim these exams measure," if for no other reason than if
appearance always matched essence, there would be no science, but
more importantly, to not resist is to become what you do.

Not too far off, there is going to be resistance. People are going to
fight back because they have to fight back, not because they want to.
My crystal ball guess is that education workers are going to get hit
soon, hard. They will have to choose. Collapse and face very real,
ugly, problems of daily life, or resist.

It is wrong, as well, to play up to power and demand higher,
regressive, taxes in order to bribe educators to keep conducting
NCLB, as the California Teachers Association appears to plan to do
via a referendum (that will probably fail, making them wrong but
stupid as well). It is right to shut down schools and start freedom
schools in the midst of what may be considerable social strife.

At issue is whether school workers can make sense of the resistance
and fight back in ways that could win, by forging close ties with
poor and working class kids and parents, or will they let each other
get picked off one at a time as, for example, the suburban Michigan
Education Association watched the nearly complete destruction of the
Detroit public education system (an American Federation of Teachers
local). That what happens in Detroit is going to happen to all of
Michigan, a bit later, seems to have escaped the MEA.

Last, I am optimistic that we can become more whole people, be more
creative, have more fun, demonstrate our very real abilities which
most people cannot demonstrate at work, inside the resistance. There
is joy in understanding reality and seeking to change it.

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