NOTED: HISTORICAL REVISIONISM


I wrote a short piece on bad labor history in textbooks for this week’s issue of The Nation:

Taken together, the narrative that emerges is one in which unions arose to address now-expired injustices, achieving only limited success, and then were replaced by legal regulations and enlightened business leaders. Not coincidentally, that’s the impression you’d get from a lot of our newspapers, politicians and TV shows too.

It’s in the Noted (news briefs) section. It’s adapted from this post I wrote for the website. Subscribers can download the issue here.

MORE ON EXPOSURE VERSUS ENDORSEMENT


Alyssa’s post this week on Game of Thrones inspired me to dredge up a 2005 post I wrote on differences between the approaches liberals and conservatives bring to media criticism:

Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses?

My original post is here. This led Alek to post a thoughtful response in the comments here. I don’t think Alek and I are too far apart on this.

I also want “a simple policy of letting media creators both expose and endorse whatever they want.” I don’t believe in obscenity laws (or the overturned ban on depicting animal cruelty, or libel laws for that matter). That’s why I started the post staking out my disagreement with Rick Santorum’s view that “if it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral” (and thus if it isn’t moral, it shouldn’t be legal). But we should still talk about the stuff they’re creating, right?

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12 MOST FRUSTRATING MOMENTS OF “WAITING FOR SUPERMAN”

The 12 most frustrating things I saw – or didn’t see – watching Waiting for Superman:


– The way Davis Guggenheim used the kids’ stories. Each of the kids was sympathetic, and they dramatized the deep inequality of opportunity in America. But neither the kids nor their parents got much chance to talk about what they thought would make their school better or worse. Instead we got Guggenheim intoning that if this girl didn’t get into a charter school, her life would basically be hopeless. If Guggenheim believes that these kids are suffering because too many of their teachers should be fired but won’t be, why not let the kids say so? If he believes these kids are suffering because teachers or administrators have low expectations for them, why not let the kids say that? And if the kids instead talked about classes that were too big, or teachers that were overwhelmed or undertrained, or being hungry in class, that would have been interesting too.

– Something that sounded like Darth Vader’s Imperial March played over slow motion shots of Democrats appearing with members of teachers’ unions. This was especially agitating watching the movie as the Governor of Wisconsin is trying to permanently eliminate teachers’ bargaining rights in the name of closing a deficit he created with corporate tax cuts.

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A PRAYER FOR THE CITY

Just finished Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City, which he wrote after shadowing Ed Rendell (and staff) through his first term as Mayor. It’s a compelling read and gives an interesting sense of the politics of early ’90s Philadelphia and, more than that, of how folks in City Hall go about their jobs and why. The book suffers, though, from the blinders of ideology in a way that maybe only a book by a zealously pragmatic journalist about a zealously pragmatic technocrat can.

In the Philadelphia of Bissinger’s book, there is no public policy argument for raising taxes to maintain public services – only the weakness of previous politicians who indulge in tax hikes like heroin. Disability rights activists get a dismissive sentence about how they unreasonably expect the city to spend “money that isn’t there” on public services. In Bissinger’s Philadelphia, there’s little grounds for the skepticism Ed Rendell and his crew face from people in the “Black establishment” or “Hispanic interest groups” – you wouldn’t think from the way such folks are described that they really represented anybody, except when Rendell worries if they turn on him they could summon thousands to vote him out of office. The most prolonged, serious engagement with the reality of racism (as supposed to the evils of racial politics) is a discussion of the the devastating legacy of explicitly racist New Deal redlining on the city’s neighborhoods, and it segues back into why urban citizens don’t trust the federal government rather than why racial distrust might still persist. Bissinger’s narrative of the life of an African-American great-grandmother struggling to raise her great-grandkids, like the redlining discussion, is compelling, but essentially divorced from the discussion of racial politics and the book’s scorned “Black leaders.”

And while a good chunk of the book is built around Rendell’s successful campaign to force takeaways in negotiations with the public sector unions, we never get a sympathetic – or even much better than contemptuous – portrayal of anyone who works in one. Bissinger repeatedly mourns, in vividly anthropomorphic terms, the death of middle class manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia (and he talks about service jobs as though they’re inherently undignified and inevitably sub-middle class). But he never gives the reader any reason beyond greed that the city’s employees, some middle class and some aspiring towards it, might zealously defend the standard they’ve won. He gives no reason beyond ambition and self-protection that Union leaders would go to the ramparts in that fight. Bissinger is super sympathetic, on the other hand, in describing a fervently anti-government libertarian who comes to work for Rendell on subcontracting out city jobs and ultimately moves first from downtown to gentrified pricey Chestnut Hill and then out to suburbs because of crime and schools. In Philadelphia, Bissinger states flatly, she had “no choice” but to pay for private school education.

IF BY “CAREFREE” YOU MEAN HETEROSEXUAL

At a time when November 4 seems to be shaping up to be a very very good night, it’s sad to see California’s Equal Marriage Ban (Prop 8) leading against the opposition in our nation’s biggest state. After months behind by double digits, the marriage ban brigades have pulled ahead on a raft of plentiful money and false advertising. They’ve moved votes by claiming that if civil marriage equality remains in place, churches will be forced to perform religious marriages they oppose and schools will become training grounds for homosexuality. That’s false. So is the slippery idea, promulgated by self-appointed hall monitors of heterosexual marriage, that letting the rest of us get married to the people we love will somehow force them to “not just be tolerant of gay lifestyles, but face mandatory compliance regardless of their personal beliefs.”

Maybe it’s a sign of progress that the “Protect Marriage” crowd can’t scare up a majority just by saying same-sex couples don’t deserve to get married, and instead they have to pretend that your right not to like them getting married is somehow under attack. Indeed, as Paul Waldman argues in Being Right Is Not Enough, what’s really striking about public opinion on same-sex marriage is how far left it’s moved in just a decade. When I was in middle school and domestic partnership seemed like a noble but politically unpalatable concept, it would have been hard to imagine that by 2004 our Republican president would have to say nice things about civil unions days before the election and dispatch his running mate to endorse full marriage equality as a sop to some swing voters.

The arc of history is bending towards progress here, and faster than we might have thought possible. California voters won’t stop it in two weeks, but they will make it go faster or slower.

Honestly, watching Marriage Protection Poster Couple Robb and Robin Wirthlin make their case for why discrimination belongs in California’s constitution, what disturbs me most as one of the people they want their marriage protected from isn’t the dishonesty about what’s actually at stake. It’s their honesty about what they want and what they’re afraid of. As much as they bend over backwards to borrow the language of the left (see, it’s their “rights that are being infringed upon,” and now “it’s no longer OK to disagree”), what’s brought this couple across the country to campaign for Prop 8 is dismay at the idea that their children would be exposed to “human sexuality,” by which they mean gay people (King and King is not a children’s book about gay sex, it’s a children’s book about gay people). They want their kids to “not have them face adult issues while they’re children…we just want them to have a carefree and protected childhood.” No word on whether Robb and Robin’s poor son has yet had his innocence spoiled with talk of America’s struggle against racial apartheid, or god forbid coming into contact with people of a different race from his own. And if their son or one of his classmates should be wrestling with “adult issues” of his own, one gets the sense that Robb and Robin would have little to offer other than cries that the child is oppressing them.

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON DEMOCRATIC DEBATE NUMBER THREE

Is it just me, or was the difference between the questions asked and the questions answered more pronounced in this debate than the previous ones? Maybe because the questions asked the candidates to speak about the extent of racism in America or its role in exacerbating social ills. Maybe the most marked contrast was when the candidates were asked why Blacks with high school degrees are less likely to find jobs than Whites without them; most of the answers were about how to get more Blacks high school degrees.

The order of the candidates led to the delightful spectacle of Chris Dodd making funny faces every round about having to follow Mike Gravel saying something about how craven and nasty everyone else on stage was. And it gave Barack Obama repeated chances to echo John Edwards, one time even saying he was finishing his sentence – does that mean he doesn’t take Edwards seriously as a threat at this point?

The biggest revelation of the night though was that Joe Biden organizes rallies for Black men to tell them they can be manly while wearing condoms. When I say progressive masculinity, you say Joe Biden! Where’s YouTube when you need it? Someone should name a line of condoms after the guy.

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT?

The cover story in the latest US News and World Report showers the following pearls of wisdom on job-hunting readers:

Instead of teaching in a public school, teach in a private school because it’s easier and there’s less “bureaucracy.”

If you want to be a school psychologist, the best kind to be is the one who deals with gifted students.

Running a non-profit is way less satisfying than just racking up a fortune in the private sector and then making charitable contributions, because in the non-profit sector you have to deal with volunteers who can be unreliable.

What adds insult to injury is the magazine’s claim that they came to these conclusions after taking into account the sense of meaning and purpose people want out of their jobs. Makes you wonder which people they’re talking about.

PLUTO

When I was in elementary school, they told us that what are called the nine planets were really eight planets and a rogue moon. Then I went to high school, and they told us that there were most certainly nine planets. Then I got to college, and took an intro course where they told us there were somewhere between eight and hundreds of planets in this particular solar system.

This morning on the TV news the anchors were agonizing over what the revelation that Pluto may not be a planet will do to the school children who’ve worked so hard at rote memorization of the planets. This should suggest something about the limits of rote memorization as an educational strategy. And it offers a useful reminder to students and teachers that teachable moments are sometimes the ones that cast doubt on what you’ve been taught.

ROBERTS’ RULES

Good news: Edith Brown Clement is not, for the moment, a nominee for the Supreme Court.

Bad news: I’m starting to miss her already.

John G. Roberts’ America is not one which does the best traditions of this country proud.

People for the American Way has compiled some of the reasons why. Among the more troubling of his arguments:

School-sponsored prayer at public school graduations poses no church-state problems because students swho don’t like it can just stay home from their graduations.

Congress can ban flag-burning without a free expression problem because bans don’t prohibit the “expressive conduct” of burning the flag – they just remove the flag as a prop with which to do it.

Arresting minors for crimes for which adults are given citations poses no equal protection challenge because minors are more likely to lie.

On choice, Roberts authored a government brief in Rust v. Sullivan that Roe “was wrongly decided and should be overturned.” As for the Lochner litmus test, he dissented from a D.C. Circuit Court case upholding the constitutionality of the Endangered Species Act. And at least in Law School, he apparently took a very broad view of the “takings” clause, opening the door to dangerous judicious activism targeting popular economic regulations which protect the economic security of the American people.

My speech to the Yale Political Union (yes, I even wore a tie…) tonight:
Thanks for having me tonight. All of us in this university community are going to have important decisions to make over the next week, and I appreciate the chance to add my voice to what I hope will be a constructive debate about how we can best see our shared values better realized by our university.

One of the values which brings us together at this institution is a shared commitment to educational excellence. I’m glad to be able to say that I’ve received an outstanding education to this point at Yale, and it’s one for which I’m very grateful. That’s why many of us, with GESO’s strong support, have fought to make that education a realistic possibility for more students. And it’s why many of us are deeply concerned by trends which threaten to erode the quality of undergraduate education at Yale and at universities across the country.

One of these trends is casualization: the transformation of long-term, well-supported jobs into temporary, insecure work lacking the job security and job benefits of their predecessors. Casualization is a national economic trend in which employers cut costs by disinvesting in their workers and cease encouraging workers’ long-term investment in their work. The casualization of academic work is reflected in the national drop from three decades ago when 80% of teaching was done by ladder faculty to 50% today. Ladder faculty have long-term contracts and opportunities for further advancement or tenure. They’re being replaced with a casualized workforce made up of adjunct professors and graduate employee teaching assistants on whom is shifted an increasing portion of the academic workload. Here at Yale, ladder faculty do even less than 50% of the teaching – more like 30%. Adjuncts do another 40%, and teaching assistants do 30%. That means an hour of teaching at Yale University is at likely to be done by a TA as by a professor with a multi-year contract. Needless to say, this is not the academy some of GESO’s detractors are picturing when they refer to its members as “ruling class” spoiled kids biding their time until accepting tenured jobs on completion of their degrees. Instead, they’re doing the teaching work which in another generation was done by ladder faculty, and discovering on graduating that the jobs they may have hoped for at other universities are being done instead by casual employees.

The trend of casualization poses two challenges: How do we make sure universities maintain enough long-term faculty to provide effective mentorship? And how do we make sure that the casual workers who do a majority of today’s teaching have the support necessary to do the best job possible? Around the country, more and more graduate employee TAs, including three-fifths of the ones teaching in humanities and social sciences at Yale, have decided that the answer includes exercising their right to collective bargaining and union representation. As undergraduates, if we want a university which fosters educational excellence, equal opportunity, and democratic participation, then their fight is our fight as well.

This fight is our fight as undergraduates because until Yale fully values the work of our teachers, Yale cannot fully value our education. GESO is right to call for a living wage for graduate student employees to justly compensate the crucial work they do and to enable them to do it better by removing the necessity of working additional jobs on top of teaching, classes, and research. GESO is right to call for paid teacher training to help graduate student employees become better teachers, for smaller class sizes to facilitate better learning, and for office space in which they can better advise students. GESO is right to call for pay equity so that teaching assistants are not paid less the longer they’ve been teaching, and for a rational system for teaching assignments so that teaching assistants are not needlessly teaching far out of their areas of study.

Just as in the campaign for undergraduate financial aid reform, the issue at stake is both how this institution supports the people who are here and who it is that makes it to Yale in the first place. Those who say GESO isn’t sympathetic because most Yale graduate students are white single men in their early twenties are not only wrong about the make-up of Yale’s graduate school – they’re ignoring the factors which make graduate school a more difficult prospect for others. All of us have a stake in the provision of childcare and dependent healthcare for graduate student employees because TAs who didn’t have to spend significant fractions of their pay on childcare and put their kids on HUSKY would be free to be better teachers, and because addressing these injustices would mean fewer outstanding students and teachers kept out of Yale.

Yale cannot be the global leader or liberal educator which we aspire to make it as long as it draws teachers and students disproportionately from a narrow segment of this country. While every individual brings unique perspective to bear on their work, when the voices of swaths of the population are largely absent the ranges of experience narrow. GESO is right to call for full funding for the Office of Discrimination and Equal Opportunity and a formal impartial grievance procedure for discrimination complaints. And GESO is right to call for greater transparency in admissions, hiring, and retention of women and people of color as a spur to further diversification and integration of our community. Today teaching unfortunately mirrors other parts of Yale’s workforce in that women and people of color are concentrated in lower-paying casualized jobs from which it is difficult to rise into the secure well-compensated positions today dominated by white men.

Because they believe in the best ideals of this university, Yale graduate student employees have been organizing for nearly two decades for policies which better support them, their families, and their students, first as “TA Solidarity” and then as GESO. Over this time, GESO has spurred a series of progressive reforms in their working conditions, from stipend increases to healthcare coverage to the formation of the Graduate Student Assembly. Throughout, GESO has recognized that winning requires more than deserving better – winning requires being organized. Everything GESO has achieved has been won through organizing, by building a platform out of the articulated concerns of thousands of graduate student employees and bringing them together to press collectively for change. It’s because the process of agitating for better conditions demonstrated to graduate student employees the urgency of achieving an institutional voice and a seat at the table that they’ve been fighting for over a decade for a union contract.

In pursuing union recognition, these graduate student employees demonstrate their faith in the fundamental democratic principles which inspire this university in its best moments: that justice is best served when everyone with a stake in the result has a part in the process. In signing union cards, they demonstrate their understanding that their rights are best protected and their interests best furthered when they stand together in calling on Yale to do better, be it Chinese students combating discrimination at Helen Hadley Hall, researchers fighting to make the AIDS drug they helped discover available to poor patients, or parents pushing for childcare they can afford and trust. Three-fifths of humanities and social science TAs have joined up with GESO for the same reasons workers in many jobs in many parts of the country do: To make their work more effective and better supported and their voices better heard and respected.

We’ve come to this point because Yale’s leadership has refused to recognize what everyone from the United Nations to the Internal Revenue Service does: that the thousands of hours graduate student employees spend each day teaching classes, grading papers, and conducting experiments constitute labor critical to the functioning of the university, and the people who do it are a workforce. Whether TAs plan to spend their lives doing exactly the same work, whether they enjoy doing it, and whether they learn on the job are all as irrelevant in considering the legitimacy of this union as they would be were it a union of artists or of supermarket clerks or of carpenters. Equally irrelevant is the question of whether Yale’s graduate student employees are better or worse off than its clerical and technical or service and maintenance workers, who’ve shown far less interest in that question than GESO’s student detractors. Instead, Yale’s other service workers have stood with and sacrificed with GESO throughout, just as Local 35 did in staying out on strike for ten weeks to help Local 34 win its first contract at a time when the image of mostly black male blue-collar workers standing with mostly white female pink-collar workers left most observers in confusion or disbelief. These Yale workers stand with GESO because they know from personal experience that the university is stronger and healthier when the people who do the work of this institution have an organized voice in negotiating how that work happens.

Unfortunately, President Levin has not yet come to that realization. Instead he told undergraduates a month and a half ago that he would rather see GESO strike than have even a meeting with GESO leadership because it would be “less detrimental” to the university. This after a full decade of abject refusal to sit down with the union which has each year won the support of a majority of TAs in the humanities and social sciences to discuss GESO’s proposals for change or to agree to a fair process for a majority to make clear whether or not it wants GESO as its bargaining representative. Unless Levin changes course, I’m confident that tomorrow a majority of GESO’s members will vote to strike for a recognized voice, and I’ll be proud to stand with them next week for changes which realize the great potential of this university.

Guest-blogging over at Ezra Klein’s site (mazal tov!), Dan Munz is suggesting the possibility of a Mfume v. Steele Maryland Senate race as a chance for Democrats to take on and shoot down the GOP argument that Democrats take Black voters for granted. I think Dan’s absolutely right that a concerted, rigorous response from the Democrats is long overdue. I’d say part of the problem, though, is that the Democratic party establishment does indeed take Black voters for granted, in much the same way it takes most chunks of the party’s base – union voters for example – for granted, and in a way the GOP simply doesn’t treat it’s own base. Wherever one comes down on the Katha Pollitt vs. Thomas Frank debate on whether or not evangelicals who vote Republican to erode reproductive choice get their money’s worth, the Republican party makes a serious, year-in and year-out campaign of selling itself to its base while the Democratic party more often treats its base like the weird uncle who always shows up drunk to Thanksgiving (the pundits who complain about how short-sighted the NAACP is for wanting Democrats to swing by when the NRA doesn’t ask the same of Republicans might spend their energies better considering why the parties’ records might leave NAACP members with more concerns about how loyal the candidates they vote for will be).

Granted, President Bush’s appeal to Black voters to better defend their interests by spreading their votes more evenly is pure condescending silliness (I’d like to see him apply the same logic to, say, Enron executives: “As long as you all keep voting for us, what incentive do we have to keep giving you those invisible handjobs?”). More fundamentally, of course, the problem with Bush’s case is the idea that Democrats brazenly push forward with liberal policies they know are bad for their Black constituents. The reality, unfortunately, is that Democrats tend not to do nearly enough brazenly pushing forward with much of anything. The problem isn’t that the Democrats are too far left; the problem (I know I know, I’m the guy with the hammer, and look – it’s another nail!) is that the Democrats are failing Black constituents, as well as White ones, by not offering a program or an approach that’s progressive enough. The Republicans are hard at work rolling back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, while the Democrats, even when they had branches of government of work from, have shown precious little initiative in extending them. Republican national candidates have mastered the art of the coded appeal to racist voters, while Democratic candidates remain anxious about looking like they’re trying too hard to attract Black voters (or, god forbid, “dependent” on them).

What might an aggressive Civil Rights agenda look like? An aggressive push for comprehensive voting reform, including a constitutional individual right to vote, uniform standards for ballot access and machinery, paper trails, and abolition of felon voter disenfranchisement. An aggressive push to transform the crimminal justice system into one which takes seriously the equal protection rights of Americans of different races and classes and which rehabilitates rather than stigmatizing those who pass through it. An aggressive push for drastically increased investment in education at all levels. An aggressive push to raise the minimum wage and strengthen the right to organize. An aggressive push to strengthen anti-discrimination legislation. An aggressive push for universal health care. An aggressive push for real affordable housing. That would be a start. Some of these areas have attained greater prominence in the Democratic party’s agenda of late, to a lot of people’s credit; others are still waiting. As Dr. King observed not long before death, the reforms that will achieve real progress in Civil Rights will cost billions. All of these reforms are changes in which Americans of all races have a stake, and which could be achieved such that the great majority of Americans would benefit. And this summer in Florida, I had infinitely more conversations with African-Americans reluctant to register to vote because of the party’s silence or meekness on continuing the progressive work of the Civil Rights movement than because they wanted school vouchers or felt demeaned by affirmative action or were scared of gay people.

So yes, the Democrats need better answers to the Republicans’ cynical appeals to Black voters, and they need candidates who are better at articulating them. But any message which boils down to “No, Democrats don’t take [you/us] for granted, they care about [you/us] very much” is doomed to fail. What the Democrats need, as Al Sharpton put it several times during the Presidential debates, is candidates who can give the donkey the kick it needs (not something Sharpton accomplished a great deal at). And the most powerful kicks tend not to come from candidates at all. As much as Dan talks about a “traditional” relationship between Democrats and Black voters, the tradition is fundamentally one of tension and contestation, one which envelops both Jack Kennedy’s supportive call to Coretta Scott King and Bobby Kennedy’s call to John Lewis pleading him to cancel the freedom rides. As with so many other cases, the job facing the leaders of the Democratic party is as much about improving its record as defending it.