Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Antiwar Opportunists

Political bumper-stickers are funny things.

Drivers who adorn their vehicles with numerous stickers can sometimes inadvertently convey contradictory messages. For example, I often see cars with peace symbol stickers or phrases like, "Don't Attack Iran!" next to one for "Obama/Bidden, '12." I shake my head and wonder if the driver is aware the former sentiment is essentially cancelled out by the latter.

Point being, President Barack Obama is not a peace president. In fact, as I have detailed many times on this blog, he has been more of a military hawk than George W. Bush--who once bragged to the late Tim Russert that, "I'm a war president."

The U.S.'s overall military-spending as well as our troops' global presence have increased dramatically under Obama. We currently maintain military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq (yes, we are still in Iraq), along with daily drone bombings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. And Obama has all but codified the Bush administration's criminal policy of "preemptive" war under the interminable "War on Terror."

Yet try to point any of this out to a room full of liberal Obama supporters, and you will be greeted as though you are from Mars. The fact that Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in the fall of 2009--while he was currently planning his escalation of the Afghanistan War, now the longest military conflict in U.S. history--has only further cemented liberals' conception of Obama-as-peacemaker.

But go back and listen to Obama's Nobel acceptance speech. The president used the occasion to invoke the nonviolent actions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., only to then summarily dismiss their antiwar views as naively unsuitable for "the world as it is" today. ("Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms," he claims, despite the fact that the U.S., under both Bush and Obama, has rejected al-Qaeda's every offer for peaceful negotiations.)

What is that quote again about truth being the first casualty of war...?

The biggest misconception about liberals is that they are ideologically opposed to war whenever it can be avoided. They are not.

Liberals only express antiwar sentiment when it is a Republican president that is advocating the war. When the man in the White House is a Democrat liberals have no problem dutifully falling in line to "support the troops." This is why the antiwar movement has essentially shutdown under Obama.

Case in point, hundreds of thousands of liberal Americans protested Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003. Indeed, these were some of the largest antiwar demonstrations in history and they were not relegated to the United States. Yet there have been no comparable protests against Obama's continuation of the very same war or the conflict in Afghanistan (which Obama campaigned on expanding as a candidate in 2008). And there has been even less discussion--never mind critique--of Obama's covert "dirty wars" in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the antiwar women's group, Code Pink, describes her firsthand account of the antiwar movement's evaporation even before Obama was elected president in a recent interview on the online Real News Network ("Media Benjamin on 'Reality Asserts Itself'," 04/16/2014).

"What happened to that [antiwar] upsurge?" RNN host, Paul Jay asks Benjamin.

"Well, you said it," she replies. "It's a one word answer: Obama."

"We had a huge movement," Benjamin continues.

You just look at one group like Code Pink: We came out of nowhere, and suddenly we had over 300,000 people on our mailing list. And we had over 300 groups around the country and, really, around the world... When Obama started to gain steam as a candidate, those started fizzling out. And when he won the election we had half the numbers of people we had before on our mailing list. And most of the groups started to disintegrate.  

The antiwar movement, in other words, is the victim of simple partisanship.

This is precisely the conclusion reached by researchers at the University of Michigan and Indiana University in a Sept. 2013 study. The researchers surveyed 5,300 antiwar protesters from 2007-2009 and found that the majority of protesters who identify themselves as Democrats, "withdrew from anti-war protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success" in the 2008 presidential election ("What Happened to the Anti-War Movement?", Truthdig.com, 09/05/2013).

Summing up the researchers' findings, reporter David Sirota writes, "...during the Bush years, many Democrats were not necessarily motivated to participate in the anti-war movement because they oppose militarism and war--they were instead 'motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments'."

The fact is mainstream liberals have never been the knee-jerk pacifists Fox News makes them out to be. Historically, liberals have a long tradition of supporting military intervention--especially when it is the name of "humanitarianism." (See: Bosnia, Kosovo, the Gulf War, Iraq War I--hell, even World War II was fought for "humanitarian" reasons. And yes, it is perfectly legitimate to question the justifications for the United States' involvement in "The Good War.") Indeed, this liberal thirst for interventionism dates back to WWI, during which a Democrat--Woodrow Wilson--was president.

As if further evidence of liberals' penchant for war, a recent cover story in that bastion of elite liberal opinion, the New York Times, illustrates recent military recruits' frustration--even disappointment--over the lack of any current major (declared) military conflict in which to build their careers on ("In New Officers' Careers, Peace is No Dividend," 04/14/14). "[F]or the [West Point Academy] class of about 1,100 cadets," the article laments, "there may be few, if any, coveted combat patches on their uniforms to show that they have gone to war.

Reinforcing the mythic national narrative of war as a glorious, noble pursuit where boys become brave men of valor and courage and similar nonsense, the Times' story continues, "Many of them may not get the opportunity to one day recall stories of heroism in battle, or even the ordinary daily sacrifices--bad food, loneliness, fear--that bind soldiers together in shared combat experience."

Then again, what should one expect from one of the leading publications that successfully sold readers the lies and deceptions that launched the Iraq war?

(Ironically, all of the young soldiers interviewed for the story express a desire to transfer to the Special Operations forces, the elite mercenary unit primarily involved in the U.S.'s covert missions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. The military careerists claim that is where "the real action is.")

It is the Left--the radicals, anarchists, socialists, and communists--not liberals, that have consistently been the staunchest opponents of war.

The outspoken Socialist leader and perennial presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1918 under the Espionage Act for passionately denouncing World War I. "Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder," Debs spoke to a massive crowd in Canton, Ohio. ".... And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars. The subject class has always fought the battles..."

Yet contemporary liberals have little connection, both to the history of this nation's radical left-wing movement, and to the socialist ideals many of its members like Debs advocated. The truth is, liberals tend to support empire (they call it "neoliberalism"), which is inextricably linked to capitalism. Liberal acolytes like Katrina vanden Heuvel, Van Jones, Todd Gitlin, and Rachel Maddow may correctly decry capitalism's excesses or foibles from time to time. But by definition, liberals are only interested in reforming the system. Radicals want to overthrow it.

As a result, liberals are not necessarily opposed to war as a means of foreign policy. Like Obama, they are merely opposed to "dumb wars," as he famously referred to the war in Iraq. And this is why the antiwar movement has atrophied under Obama. Liberals do not want to challenge war and mass killing when it is "their guy" in the White House.

Glenn Greenwald is right: Obama is not the "lesser evil." He is the "more effective evil."

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Class Dismissed

Portland has, in recent weeks, become the latest case study in the ongoing corporatization of higher education.

Last month, The University of Southern Maine laid off 15 full-time faculty members--the majority of which belong to the humanities and liberal arts department--in order to make up for a $14 million budget shortfall. All of the laid off professors are tenured, but have been "retrenched," which, as the Portland Phoenix's Nicholas Schroeder explains in a recent cover story ("Crisis at USM," 03/28/2014), is a "jargony term for eliminating specific programs without appearing to violate faculty union contracts."

The departments cut include Music, Theater, English, Sociology and Women and Gender Studies, along with Geosciences, Recreation and Leisure Studies, and New England Studies. And this is only the first round of cuts to as many as 50 total positions across the University of Maine System. The USM administration, currently headed by President Theodora Kalikow and Chancellor James Page, cites declining enrollment and tuition freezes as the need for the cuts.

Kalikow says she wants to remake the sprawling, multi-campus college as a "Metropolitan university." With all due respect to both Portland and USM, the words "metropolitan," and "Maine" really do not belong in the same sentence.

But students and faculty are fighting back.

The anti-austerity activist group #USMFuture--which consists of current and former USM students, faculty, members of the Portland Green Independent Committee, the Southern Maine Workers' Center, and Occupy Maine--staged a rally and march against the layoffs in Portland's Monument Square on April 10.

Andy Moxley, one of the rally's participants from the organization Socialist Alternative, drew comparisons between the ongoing corporatization of education and the nationwide drive for a higher minimum wage (the "Fight for $15," as it is being called).

"These issues are absolutely related," said Moxley. "They are both issues that affect working-class young people. We keep belt-tightening until we have no room anymore. This sort of austerity is not working. I think people are realizing that. And the fight for $15 is definitely a part of this [larger] struggle."

Many protesters carried signs that read, "Students Are Not Customers," and "Education is Not a Business Transaction." Yet, that is increasingly how colleges are treating both.

More and more, college recruiters and administrators, parents, employers, and even a few professors, are pushing students away from the liberal arts courses, traditionally the backbone of higher education. They insist these disciplines are not "practical" and will not lead students to a career. Courses in the humanities (Music, Philosophy, Creative Writing, Literature) are considered "superfluous" because they will not make anyone (monetarily) rich. And this has perverted the entire purpose of education which is inherently self-critical, political, and even, at times, subversive.

Universities are becoming glorified vocational training mills, emphasizing job skills over actual learning.

"Education," W.B. Yeats famously wrote, "is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

John Branson, a Portland attorney who served as the pro-bono lawyer for Occupy Maine, echoes Yeats's sentiments. In a recent Op-Ed to the Portland Daily Sun ("In Defense of the Liberal Arts," 04/03/14) Branson recalls the benefits of his own liberal arts education at Yale.

"We [Branson and his classmates] were to become lifelong learners," Branson writes, "equipped with the intellectual ability and moral courage to contribute meaningfully not only to our future employers but society itself."

He continues:

Unfortunately, instilling our young people with the moral courage and intellectual ability to think for themselves is directly at odds with both the dominant paradigm of indoctrination and the corporate model for modern education reform. .... The goal of the modern corporatocracy... is to develop linear thinkers devoted to the absorption and acceptance of conventional knowledge, wisdom, and opinions; to mold pliant workers reluctant to rock the boat; and to create an army of malleable consumers easily influenced by modern advertising and marketing.

Let's be honest: The UMaine public schools have never been outstanding. They are average at best. (The truly excellent schools--Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin--are financially out of reach for most students and their families.) USM is a glorified commuter school, and the system's flagship college, The University of Maine in Orono, suffers from perpetual understaffing of faculty. Like most major colleges, UMaine overly relies on graduate students and part-time adjunct instructors to teach most of its courses.

But these budget cuts only threaten to make mediocre schools even worse.

And this dumbing down of education is not limited to our universities. The national trend toward austerity has led to a defunding of public schools, teacher layoffs, and a lack of adequate resources and learning spaces. Lawmakers complain they "do not have the money" to properly fund K-12 education, yet seem to have no problem with mega-retailers like Walmart and McDonald's basically living off of taxpayer expense.

And the emergence of charter schools in recent years--privately owned, for profit schools that are still publicly funded--threatens to usher in a future in which all education is privatized and commercialized.

The Kennebunk school district (RSU 21) where I teach as an Ed Tech recently finished implementing the new Common Core learning standards, which 46 states plus the District of Columbia have essentially been forced to adopt. (Adoption of the Common Core curriculum is tied to federal "Race to the Top" funding--some $4.35 billion. States not on board with Common Core are not eligible for the funding.)

These new standards mean more student learning will be "measured" by standardized tests and mandated educational outcomes. It also means more teacher salaries--and, in some cases, continued employment--will be based on their students' test scores. Indeed, this brave new world of corporatized education, in which the so-called "bad teachers" are those whose students do poorly on standardized tests, forgets that teaching is, as radical educator Paulo Freire observed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a reciprocal endeavor. Even the most talented and engaging educators can only lead students to the metaphorical fountain of knowledge. They cannot force students to drink from it.

Yet the corporate forces--including the "philanthropic" Gates Foundation--that are pushing curriculum like Common Core do not understand this. They only understand one thing: How to make a profit. They see money in public education and they want it. All of it. And if we do not stop them, these corporate forces will destroy not only our nation's education system, but the very concept of an informed, engaged citizenry along with it.

UPDATE, 04/11/2014:

President Kalikow announced Friday afternoon that all faculty layoffs have been rescinded. According to the Portland Press Herald, Kalikow made the decision just minutes before the USM Faculty Senate Meeting and claims the student-led protests "did not play a role" in her reversal. This, of course, seems highly unlikely. However, Kalikow made clear the university must still account for the budget shortfall and is "open to alternative plans."

So, is this a win for us? It is hard to say. As Maine Green Independent Party chairman and state senate candidate, Asher Platts points out, this is, at best, a temporary victory. There are still structural changes needed to the University of Maine System's administrative board in order to change the ever increasing Business-orientation of higher education. Platts writes on the Maine Green Party's website:

While it's great that the faculty layoffs have been rescinded, we must keep our eyes on the prize of reforming the UMaine system to allow for more democratic means of making decisions, review funding models, and [to improve] the state of Maine's relationship to the UMaine system or we will be fighting this same battle over and over.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bedtime for Democracy

In the wake of 2010's disastrous Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and now this week's equally game-changing, McCutcheon v. FEC, which lifts the cap on campaign contributions from rich donors, it might be time to start asking the obvious question we are all too afraid to pose:

Do we even still live in a representative democracy, anymore? Or has the United States become a sort of oligarchic plutocracy where only the very wealthy have any ability to influence government?

(Let's put the broader question of whether the U.S. has ever truly been a democracy, aside for the time being. For the sake of argument, let's assume America was founded as a democratic nation. I'll let readers fight this one out in the "Comments" section.)

Many progressive pundits have lamented in recent years the state of our "beleaguered," or "weakened" democracy. But just how "weak" must a country's democratic institutions become before they finally gasp their last metaphorical breath? At what point is the transition from an open, free society, to a closed, totalitarian one complete? Have we, in fact, now reached that point? Does our democracy exist in name only?

Chilling questions, to be certain. Yet the Supreme Court's campaign-spending decision last week demands we treat them as more than academic hypotheticals.

Those Americans whose civic participation starts and ends in the voting booth once every four years might want to start paying more attention. And you might want to start contemplating alternative forms of action while you are at it, given how increasingly pointless those elections are becoming--unless that is, you happen to be rich.

Last week's McCutcheon decision--which raises the so-called aggregate limit on the amount of money an individual can directly contribute to a candidate, PAC (Political Action Committee), or political party from $2,600 to $3.5 million--maintains the Roberts-led court's trend of equating the spending of money with free speech.

While many conservatives have lauded the Justices' decision as a win for "freedom," it is a freedom only a very small, wealthy percentage of Americans can exercise. As Andy Kroll makes clear in his recent coverage of the McCutcheon decision in Mother Jones ("The Supreme Court Just Gutted Another Campaign Finance Law...", 04/02/2014), this will no doubt further the vastly disproportionate influence the extremely rich already yield in our elections.

"The decision is a boon for wealthy donors," Kroll writes, "a potential lifeline for the weakened Democratic and Republican parties, and the latest in a series of setbacks dealt by the Roberts court to supporters of tougher campaign [spending] laws." 

It is time to start thinking outside of the voting booth. Occupy Wall Street had the right idea, initially. Not only did the movement leave an indelible impact on our vocabulary, with phrases like "One percent," and "99 percent," still widely in use today. But it also made clear, to anyone who still did not understand, where the real centers of power are in this country: Not the White House, but Wall Street.

Unfortunately, the widespread emergence of "sister occupations" throughout the country (including here in Portland) kind of lost the plot. It is hard to occupy Wall Street--based in Manhattan--when you live in, you know... Maine. Had the Portland Occupiers set up camp in front of a local TD Bank or Bank of America (or even the Portland offices of Preti Flaherty, law firm of Harold Pachios, a longtime Democratic donor and strategist), that would have made sense. Instead they quixotically settled for about five months in Lincoln Park, where most of their anti-corporatist message was mistaken by passerby for "camping."

When Occupy re-emerges--and I believe it or something like it will--I hope it can move beyond these fledgling failings and coalesce a truly populist mass movement. Still, the Occupiers were on the right track. And this is why the movement was ultimately crushed by the corporate state. They knew it was a threat.

In his remarks shortly after forcibly evicting the Occupy protesters from Zuccotti Park, New York's "independent" Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismissed the group's grievances as "totally unfounded."

It is increasingly clear any substantive effort at restoring our democracy and the rule of law is going to come from outside the two-party system. Real progressive change will come, as it always has, through activists, socialists, and third-parties like the Green Party. (Full disclosure: I am the Secretary for the Portland Green Independent Committee, of the Maine Green Independent Party.)

Contrary to popular opinion, Greens can win elections. We have had particular success on the local and state levels where voters are more willing to look past the bogus "spoiler" argument. And even if Greens fail to win office we can still influence the election by bringing up issues--like raising the minimum wage, or instant run-off voting--the Democrats and Republicans would not otherwise discuss.

Our democracy has been hijacked by an unfettered corporate state. It has been sold to the highest bidder. Extremely wealthy capitalists like the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and Warren Buffett now own America. And the only hope we have of taking our country--and our democracy--back is by stepping outside of the system.

Do not "Keep Calm and Carry On," as the ubiquitous motivational slogan urges. It is time to get mad and f*&@ sh#! up.