“Animals” and “Respectability”

August 27, 2014

Rev. Al Sharpton waiting to speak at Michael Brown funeral, Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis, MO, August 25, 2014. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post Dispatch, Robert Cohen, via http://www.wkbn.com).

Rev. Al Sharpton waiting to speak at Michael Brown funeral, Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis, MO, August 25, 2014. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post Dispatch, Robert Cohen, via http://www.wkbn.com).

With America’s history of racial oppression, it should come as no surprise that the range of reactions to events like the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (among many others, male and female, Black and Latino) have been on the side of racial stereotypes and assumptions. On the one hand, police officers, ordinary Whites and some ultraconservative Blacks have used the terms “animals” and “thugs” interchangeably because Garner and Brown were big Black guys, the stereotypical boogeymen, lurking and ready to rape, maim and kill scared-shitless White folk.

On the other hand, the traditional civil rights establishment and its cadre of ministers have equated the lessons of Brown and the Ferguson protests with the need to stop “looting and pillaging” and to stop wearing baggy pants. That’s the fallback position for attempting to explain why the message of police brutality and militarization against communities of color because of racism and classism isn’t getting through to Whites who have mostly been silent on these incidents.

As I’ve written in the past year or two, both of these perspectives suggest that Blacks and Latinos must somehow make ourselves worthy of humanity. That way, even the most racist of Whites could see that we’re not animals or thugs, but human beings worthy of the same human rights and civil liberties that they enjoy. This didn’t work even during the height of the Civil Rights Movement some five decades ago. Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., John L. Lewis, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Wearing suits and ties, marching with White allies, having the backing of the President of the United States. None of that swayed most Whites, as evidenced by changes in American politics since 1968.

Screen shot of CNN newscast coverage of support for Officer Darren Wilson at rally, Ferguson, MO, August 23, 2014. (http://rawstory.com).

Screen shot of CNN newscast coverage of support for Officer Darren Wilson at rally, Ferguson, MO, August 23, 2014. (http://rawstory.com).

The fact is, those Whites and sycophant Blacks who call African Americans and other people of color “animals” and “thugs” know we’re just as human as they are, if not more so. It’s their way of asserting that they’re better than us, precisely because they believe they can get away with seeing, calling and treating Blacks and other people of color as such. Especially since so many of these “animals” and “thugs” advocates have missed the full material benefits of American capitalism. And with America’s long history of allowing Whites to get away with lynchings, murders, rapes, race riots and other forms of violent oppression, why shouldn’t Whites think they’re in the right when they give money to Officer Darren Wilson for “doing his job” in murdering Michael Brown? As I’ve said before, the year doesn’t matter, the clothes don’t matter, our demeanor in public or how perfect our walk doesn’t matter to many — if not most — Whites. That may be our problem as people of color, but it’s definitely their problem as well.

Rev. Al Sharpton, sexual predator Jamal Bryant, megachurch-Gospel-of-Prosperity pastor T.D. Jakes and so many other men who spoke at Michael Brown’s funeral Monday put themselves on the other side of the “animals” and “thugs” coin with their agenda-loaded bloviations. Sharpton especially should know better, given his history of talking out of both sides of his mouth about the limits of the politics of respectability (Tawana Brawley comes to mind). Yes, being able to orchestrate nonviolent protests with proper victims in a way in which the mainstream media cannot dehumanize or engage in stereotypes was how the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the first place. But this methodology had its limits then, as it led to some victories that looked more like symbols than actual victories (even Dr. King said as much in his final three years). It definitely has its limitations now.

Foot on my neck and head, symbolic of oppression in terms of view of Black and Brown as "animals," April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

Foot on my neck and head, symbolic of oppression in terms of view of Black and Brown as “animals,” April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

We have a leadership that has grown corpulent and ossified in its stomach, pockets and spirit when it comes to oppression and how to respond. Their thinking in so many ways isn’t much different than the Whites who post pictures of President Barack Obama eating a banana with his face pasted onto the head and body of a great ape. That’s the full shame of watching a funeral that was more about individual agendas than it was about Michael Brown or his family and friends, or his life and death, or mobilizing a larger effort.

It’s already terrible that we already have a nation of millions trying to hold people of color back, if only in their own minds (to quasi-quote Public Enemy). We can no longer afford to have an aging leadership whom, even when well-meaning, is unable or unwilling to move beyond symbols and pontification to an effort that promotes new tactics and strategies and younger leadership. It’s beyond time for younger generations to take the reins, and not in a respectable way, either.

US Intervention Issues, Easy To Predict & Do Nothing About

August 9, 2014

An F/A-18E Super Hornet takes off from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, as US air strikes in Iraq begin, August 8, 2014. (AFP/US Navy via http://images.smh.com.au/). In public domain.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet takes off from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, as US air strikes in Iraq begin, August 8, 2014. (AFP/US Navy via http://images.smh.com.au/). In public domain.

We’re back at it in Iraq again, albeit on a limited basis. Humanitarian food and medicine drops, airstrikes on ISIS positions near the US consulate in Erbil (also an oil depot, by the way). The saga that has been the twenty-three year quagmire of Iraq, one entirely of our own making, continues. That President Barack Obama has called this intervention one in prevention of “genocide” doesn’t impress me and many others, considering the actions of Israel in Gaza over the past six weeks. I guess one nation’s genocide is another nation’s defense through indiscriminate killing and wounding. The hypocrisy stinks from here to Pluto and back.

I digress. Americans now loathe the words “Iraq,” “Middle East,” and “intervention.” Yet after Vietnam, and especially after the end of the Cold War, we should have held our government accountable for any interventions without clear causes, clear interests, and clear objectives. Instead, we’ve been stumbling all over the place, like a drunkard with a car full of bombs and shells, careening from one conflict to another, blowing up people, places and property all along this wild and disgusting ride.

But let’s not act as if this was unforeseen. The most astute foreign policy experts withoutPhDs in Soviet studies (e.g., Condoleezza Rice) knew that any major intervention in the Middle East, whether to protect people or US energy interests, would mean intervening over and over again. All with the potential for geopolitical instability as the interventions would stack up over time.

FRONTLINE logo, PBS, August 9 2014. (http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/art/bigfl.jpg).

FRONTLINE logo, PBS, August 9 2014. (http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/art/bigfl.jpg).

And no, I’m not talking about a 1993 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies or a 1999 conference hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That would be far too obscure and inside-expert to be clairvoyant. Try PBS’s FRONTLINE series of documentaries between 1990 and 2000. They did at least three documentaries predicting this gradual but steady destabilizing of the Middle East with the help of an increasingly interventionist American foreign policy, starting with Operation Desert Shield in August 1990.

Below are the three FRONTLINE documentaries that I watched during the period in which experts predicted the infuriatingly unstable world wrought by capricious US foreign policy, economic dominance and military interventions (all from the website http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/programs):

The Arming of Iraq: Frontline Special (aired September 11, 1990)
FRONTLINE examines how Saddam Hussein built Iraq’s massive arsenal of tanks, planes, missiles, and chemical weapons during the 1980’s. Correspondent Hodding Carter inve[s]tigates (sic) the complicity of the US, European governments, and Western corporations in creating the Iraqi military machine the world is now trying to stop.

Give War A Chance (aired May 11, 1999)
FRONTLINE explores the bitter divide between military and civilian attitudes about where, when, and why America employs military force. In examining the gulf between what American diplomats want and what the military is prepared to deliver, correspondent Peter J. Boyer follows the inevitable collision from Vietnam to the Balkans between diplomat Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Leighton Smith. Their careers, and ultimate clash, represent the most vivid example of this critical foreign policy dilemma.

The Future of War (aired October 24, 2000)
The U.S. Army is experiencing an identity crisis brought on by the end of the Cold War. As it heads into the 21st century, the nation’s largest military service is struggling to keep pace with changing technology, changing enemies and increasingly global missions. FRONTLINE examines the Army’s internal debate between those promoting change and those resisting it, and how todays decisions may impact the outcome of wars fought decades from now.

Emaciated and dead cow in desert, Australia, 2009. (Government of Australia via http://www.nsf.gov/news/).

Emaciated and dead cow in desert, Australia, 2009. (Government of Australia via http://www.nsf.gov/news/).

The last one actually included examples of possible future interventions going into the late-2010s, with a particular focus on Iraq.

So to those millions of Americans who don’t want to dwell on the past and only talk about the vapid and the positive, I say that’s hard to do when we let our past fester like carrion in the middle of the Sahara Desert at high noon. The stink is too obvious to ignore, and apparently was so easy to predict that most Americans ignored it. And all to our peril, past, present and future.

A Children’s Crusade

August 2, 2014

Living among the dead, Flanders, Belgium, most likely during Second Battle of Ypres, April 21-May 25, 1915. (http://www.flandersfieldsmusic.com/).

Living among the dead, Flanders, Belgium, most likely during Second Battle of Ypres, April 21-May 25, 1915. (http://www.flandersfieldsmusic.com/).

World War I reached its 100th anniversary on Monday. One hundred years ago this week, European imperialism, nationalism, and Social Darwinism/scientific racism all led to what was once known as the Great War. It was a war that would leave ten million soldiers, sailors and airmen dead, another seven million civilians dead from military action, malnutrition and disease, and another 23 million wounded in action on both sides.

A British Mark V tank coming out of a trench, France, circa 1917. (Imperial War Museum via http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/10/05/).

A British Mark V tank coming out of a trench, France, circa 1917. (Imperial War Museum via http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/10/05/).

That war, a mostly European war of the great world powers, was itself based in the idea that Western culture and technologies would make this a quick and winnable war of dominance, for Germany, Britain, France and possibly Russia. The first war planes, the first tanks, the first submersibles, along with mustard and chlorine gas, nests of machine guns and trench warfare. It’s amazing how small-minded these so-called great powers were a full century ago, and so remarkable that we’ve grown beyond this thinking today!

Actually, not so fast! Our world seems to have learned little from the lessons of the First World War, repeating practices that leave the globe perpetually on the brink of chaos and potentially in peril of annihilation. We’ve seen this with the Second World War, with the Cold War and its myriad proxy wars in the Global South, with post-Cold War aggression in the Balkans, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and with US preemptive aggressions in the Muslim world. Ethnocentrism and ethnic cleansing in the name of a religion (or a lack thereof, in a couple of cases) or nationalism has been a part of modern war since World War I.

Poppies in field between Kelling and Weybourne, North Norfolk, England, UK,  June 2002. (John Beniston via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Poppies in field between Kelling and Weybourne, North Norfolk, England, UK, June 2002. (John Beniston via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Imperialism and colonialism and resistance to both in the name of freedom, or too frequently, another form of ethnocentrism and religious nationalism. Name a given nation, and you have some strain of Western imperialism and colonization, resistance and ethnocentrism and nationalism (religious, anti-religious or otherwise) running through their recent history. India, Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the former Yugoslavia, Perón’s Argentina, Pinochet’s Chile, the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, South Africa and apartheid, Israel and Zionism and settler colonialism, Japan and its military occupation of China, just to name a few. The First World War unleashed these forces this week one hundred years ago, a Pandora’s box that we will need to destroy, for it’s obviously too late to close it.

One of Sting’s songs from his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, is titled “Children’s Crusade” (1984). It’s the story of Britain’s blind march into the First World War, the wasting of a generation of youth in the name of the empire, juxtaposed with the UK’s heroin and drug epidemic of the early 1980s.

Young men and soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade

Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

Though not his best work, Sting’s “Children’s Crusade” has made me think more than once about the brutality of humanity and this inherent need to dominate other human beings, as well as the lands and resources for which vulnerable people have been cleansed and displaced. He should update it for 2014 this way:

Midnight in Gaza, Twenty Fourteen
Bombed and shelled hospitals, pawns in the game
Ashes and sackcloth, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

And all for a century-old crusade of nationalistic paranoia, imperialistic abuse, and dehumanizing ethnocentric warfare.

Talking Tocqueville Too Much

July 5, 2014

Alexis Tocqueville caricature (1849), by Honoré Daumier, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Alexis Tocqueville caricature (1849), by Honoré Daumier, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Every year for at least the past thirty years, without fail, I’ve read at least one article, seen or read at least one book, or watched at least one commentary about the great Alexis de Tocqueville. These are almost always about the French political theorist’s grand tour of America in the early 1830s and his affirmation of America’s exceptional democracy, egalitarianism and lack of permanent social classes. Over the years, I’ve found these all too frequent comments and examinations of a long-dead tourist vomit-inducing.

Tocqueville may have gotten it right, that America and its democracy was in a unique position in 1833 to take off and become a powerful nation, if given the time. But he didn’t understand America at all, at least, not really. Tocqueville didn’t understand how central inequality was to the development of America’s unique and exceptional democracy. He assumed, quite wrongly, that any issues of inequality in our then young nation were limited to the American South, where cotton was king and slavery was the backbone of the economy. Tocqueville only saw slavery as a moral dilemma of debasing humanity — slave owner and slave — and not as a political or economic one. So what if he predicted the rise of the US and Russia as world powers if he didn’t predict the American Civil War?

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist (due out September 9, 2014 -- there's always Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery [1944]), July 5, 2014. (http://bn.com).

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist (due out September 9, 2014 – there’s always Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery [1944]), July 5, 2014. (http://bn.com).

Tocqueville looked at America outside of the South and saw an egalitarian and agrarian society, one unconnected to the slavery located south of the Mason-Dixon line and spreading southwest across the Mississippi River. Where did he think the money came from to finance plantations, to ship the raw materials of these plantations overseas and to buy more slaves? How did Tocqueville think these plantation owners could turn cotton into cloth and tobacco into cigarettes and cigars? Much of it came from bankers and merchants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, and from the factories of New England and New York. Slavery was the backbone of the rise of the American economic system, and was America’s industrialized foundation. Period.

Tocqueville argued that America was unique because of its lack of a permanent class system, particularly an aristocracy. Our country’s democracy, in fact, guaranteed the constant churning of social mobility. Tocqueville must’ve been high on the tobacco leaves he sniffed in his tour of Virginia! While the nation had shed most of the obvious symbolism that came with wealth in Europe, Tocqueville had completely ignored that for the first half-century of US, only rich, land-owning White males could vote (and in many cases, hold office). Only in the five or ten years before his tour of the US did non-propertied White males gain the right to vote.

On top of this, though most Americans were farmers in the 1831-33 period, American urbanization had already begun. American cities didn’t have the age or splendor of European ones, to be sure. But what Tocqueville didn’t recognize was that wealth was already beginning to be concentrated in cities like Philadelphia, Boston and New York, in the form of commerce, in banking, and in the beginnings of modern industries. And though large-scale exploitation of poor and uneducated Irish immigrations wouldn’t begin for another fifteen years, the exploitation of poor, native White (and frequently, female and child) labor was already well underway, pulling Whites from countryside to cities in the process.

"World's Highest Standard of Living" poster with Black flood victims in bread line, Louisville, Kentucky, by  Margaret Bourke White, February 15, 1937. (ThunderPeel2001 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws -- low resolution.

“World’s Highest Standard of Living” poster with Black flood victims in bread line, Louisville, Kentucky, by Margaret Bourke-White, February 15, 1937. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws — low resolution.

And this is the man who so many of my historian and political scientist colleagues like to cite and quote? Especially around Independence Day! Sorry, but if I did a two-year tour of, say, South Africa right now, and predicted their eventual greatness because of their unique racial democracy and rapid economic development, who’d take me seriously by 2200 CE? Maybe MSNBC host Chris Matthews‘ great-great-great-great grandson, who would then claim South African exceptionalism based on my predictive power from 180 years before.


Corporations, Dogs, and a Possible Civil Rights Future

July 2, 2014

Matt Wuerker, Corporate Money/Vote Here, January 2010. (Politico.com). Qualifies as fair use -- low resolution, related to subject matter of this blog post.

Matt Wuerker, Corporate Money/Vote Here, January 2010. (Politico.com). Qualifies as fair use — low resolution, related to subject matter of this blog post.

It finally happened. After twenty-two attempts between the 117th and the 118th Congress, and a short ratification process, the US Constitution finally has a Twenty-Eight Amendment. For the first time, more than two million corporations with headquarters within America’s borders have citizenship rights, including the right to vote. Despite widespread opposition from Democrats and independent progressives, thirty-eight states ratified the amendment in record time, 72 days. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment — the one lowering the national voting age from 21 to 18 — had held the previous record of 100 days, as three-fourths of the states had ratified it in 1971.

President Michael Bloomberg signed the bill this morning in a well-attended Rose Garden ceremony. With such luminaries as Mark Cuban, Bill Gates and David Koch present, the President said, “This is a great victory of American democracy, ensuring its preservation for future generations.” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), also present at the ceremony, said, “The American people finally have a democracy that represents us all, one that will stabilize our government and our economic way of life.”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Hall, January 27, 2005. (http://themoderatevoice.com).

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Hall, January 27, 2005. (http://themoderatevoice.com).

What President Bloomberg and Speaker Ryan didn’t say was that this was the most expensive constitutional amendment campaign in the nation’s history. The Walton family, the Koch Brothers and NBC Universal Comcast-Time-Warner alone spent almost $1 billion in saturating the Internet and airwaves with ads in support of the amendment between mid April and the end of June, according to the Toronto Star. Independent watchdog groups, including the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, put the total amount at $2.2 billion, with much of the money going directly to state legislatures and much-needed infrastructural projects.

“When governments can only operate at the behest of corporations, you no longer have a democracy, you have a plutocracy,”  UN spokesperson Malala Yousafzai said at a press conference in New York this afternoon. “Only twenty percent of the US electorate participated in the ratification process,” Yousafzai said, corresponding roughly to the demographics of America’s rich and middle classes.

That this came on the same day as the 60th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not lost on America’s public intelligentsia. “This is a shame that the America republic will have to live with for years to come — if there’s an American republic in the future,” Melissa Harris-Perry said in an interview on CBC Radio in Toronto.

This expansion of American democracy comes on the heels of a landmark US Supreme Court decision. Last week, in a 5-4 ruling, the majority decided PETA v. US in favor of the plaintiff, saying that for the first time, “dogs have a constitutional standing on par with persons.” Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court’s majority opinion, and Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion. What made the PETA decision truly historic was that Justice Thomas explained the court’s decision. “We have found, with the help of significant scientific evidence, that dogs are sentient beings, and thus, deserving of the same civil rights that we have all enjoyed in this country for decades. Although dogs today have not been granted the power of the ballot box, they, like my generation of black men and women, have come a long way in their fight for civil rights,” Justice Thomas said.

Co-founder and President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Ingrid Newkirk, and David Shankbone's dog Little Man, New York City, November 1, 2007. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC BY-SA 3.0, GFDL.

Co-founder and President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Ingrid Newkirk, and David Shankbone’s dog Little Man, New York City, November 1, 2007. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC BY-SA 3.0, GFDL.

The PETA decision overturned a lower court ruling, throwing out the case on the grounds that dogs aren’t human beings. PETA fought the lower court’s ruling based on the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (2014) decision, where the Supreme Court had ruled that a corporate, non-living entity had personhood status because it represented people’s interests and values. This earlier ruling provided an opportunity for PETA to bring in scientific evidence that could elevate the status of dogs as a living entity representing people’s interests and values.

“Dogs everywhere will celebrate this victory, along with their caregivers,” Ingrid Newkirk, founder and president of PETA said last week from her home outside Norfolk, Virginia. “It is our hope that these personhood rights will protect dogs from abuse and neglect for now and for the future, giving them the same rights as a living human being,” Newkirk added. It helped that the Leona Helmsley Charitable Trust covered the estimated $20 million in legal fees and scientific studies for the PETA claim.

Former US Solicitor General Kamala Harris, who had presented the government’s case to the Supreme Court last December, said after last week’s decision, “with this court making a dog a person, this court has made a mockery of American jurisprudence for all time. What about the rights of racial minorities to a fair trial, of women to reproductive choice, of ordinary Americans to a living wage?” Harris resigned on Friday, June 28, just hours after the PETA ruling. President Bloomberg declined comment on Harris’ resignation.

Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson expressed the feelings of many Americans in opposition when he said, “The Star-Spangled Banner should be rewritten. It should be, ‘O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, with corporations’ roaming free, and dogs over descendants of slaves!'”

A Man and a Tank

June 4, 2014

"Tank Man" temporarily stops the advance of a column of tanks, Tianenmen Square, Beijing, China, June 5, 1989. (Jeff Widener/AP via Wikipedia).

“Tank Man” temporarily stops the advance of a column of tanks, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, June 5, 1989. (Jeff Widener/AP via Wikipedia).

[Originally posted June 4, 2009]

Saturday, June 3, 1989, 12:04 pm. Me and my younger siblings were at 616, watching cartoons on ABC. It was a run of old Looney Tunes cartoons, which had Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai and especially Eri cracking up. It was a great morning, with my mother taking her Saturday classes at Westchester Business Institute, my idiot stepfather out carousing, and my older brother Darren roaming the streets like the goofball he could be. Then the late Peter Jennings broke into our local New York area broadcast to let us know that Chinese tanks were rolling into Tiananmen Square in Beijing, breaking through seven weeks worth of protests over the government’s continuing limits on the civil and political rights of its citizens.

It was after midnight in Beijing, already June 4. For the next forty or forty-five minutes, images kept coming on to our TV from Tiananmen Square as the Chinese military and their tanks toppled barricades, ran over cars and literally chased thousands of protesters out of the square. When I saw the first images of a blood-splattered protester and then of another one crying, I started to cry myself. My siblings looked at me like I was crazy. Then, no more images. Jennings reported that the Chinese government had forced ABC to shut down their satellite communications from within China. My guess was that they did it at gun point.

By the time I switched to another station for my siblings to watch, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t followed the story more closely. I mean, I was actually following it. But I guess I assumed that, like the glasnost and perestroika that had been pushed by Gorbachev since ’86, that the protests would be allowed to continue in Beijing. And like many other naive Americans, we were wrong about that. We hardly knew enough about four millennia of Chinese political history to understand how important an unopposed central authority has been to this culture. If I had applied anything I learned from a semester of East Asian History at all, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all.

With me crying — albeit not audibly — my youngest brother Eri asked me what was wrong and what was going on. I explained to them as best I could that this was a government crackdown on dissidents, that the Chinese government engaged in human rights abuses all the time, and that this crackdown meant many people were dying and going to die. Those few minutes were the most in which Eri and my other siblings had shown any interest in the world outside of Mount Vernon and New York City in all of times I spent with them growing up.

Peter Jennings, ABC World News Tonight anchor, November 1989 (broadcasting fall of Berlin Wall). (screenshot via Youtube).

Peter Jennings, ABC World News Tonight anchor, November 1989 (broadcasting fall of Berlin Wall). (screenshot via Youtube).

In the days that followed, the occasional picture or piece of film made it out of China to Hong Kong (still a British territory in ’89) or Japan or South Korea showing images like the man standing in front of a column of tanks, ready to die in the crackdown on him and other protesters. I must admit, it moved me. It was obvious that people would go to jail, likely face torture, that many would die and many more would lick their wounds as the Chinese government would blackout all but the official state news about what really was going on.

Larry Glasco, one of my Pitt history professors, was there for a visit when the crackdown began. He said he saw dead men hanging from lamp posts, bodies of dead and injured in spots, and faced his own crisis in dealing with the military. They confiscated his camera and threatened to hold him in jail in order to make sure he didn’t take his pictures back to the US. From what I remember, he did managed to smuggle some film — not much — out after the crackdown had ended. His wasn’t the only story I would hear during the second half of ’89 about what people witnessed as tourists and researchers in looking at the Tiananmen Square protests. It was the first time I had the chance to see up close what a tyrannical government really looks like when acting to protect itself.

It’s different from police brutality or even a racist mob. For better or worse, we’ve never seen this level of government or military intervention in this country over protesters that those everyday folks in China faced down twenty years ago. Even if we count what Native Americans faced in the late-nineteenth century or the Bonus Army crackdown by General Douglas MacArthur in 1932, that would only get us to a limited sense of what the Tiananmen Square dissidents faced. It made me think about how wrong one of my Humanities classmates was when he argued about the long-term viability of communism because it would reduce economic inequality and give people a greater degree of freedom.

But we were both incorrect. Any economic or political system in which citizens and others must show deference or actually walk in fear of isn’t one that any should follow. I don’t care if the system is communist, capitalist, or socialist, or if the government is a monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, or a representative democracy. If folks living in these systems and under these governments can’t speak their minds or publish their ideas, especially if they contradict whatever the government or system says, the government isn’t a just one. Although governments and systems should fit the cultural and historical context of a given population, it also should remain flexible enough to adjust to the changing needs of a people. That’s what the regime in China failed to understand in ’89 and for years afterward.

I’m hardly advocating the overthrowing of governments or even the imposition of American democracy. If anyone’s bothered to notice, we haven’t exactly been living up to many of our ideals overseas and at home over the last six decades. I’m merely attempting to remember the events of early June ’89 that touched me emotionally, that enabled me to understand that beyond the political and economic theories there’s the reality of the human condition, the need to keep humans who have authority in check. I learned this all too well growing up at 616 and attending Mount Vernon’s public schools. Without those checks and balances, the rights and lives of others face tanks lined up in formation, ready to run them over.

My and Diane Ravitch’s Path to Reign of Error

March 11, 2014

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

I first began reading Diane Ravitch in July 1990, the summer before my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the summer in which I became interested in understanding magnet programs and their relationship with desegregation and diversity efforts, courtesy of my own experience with Mount Vernon, New York public schools and its now defunct Humanities Program. I read both The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973 (1974) and The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (1985) that summer, with education scholar and Ford Foundation director Jeanne Oakes’ Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (1985) sandwiched in between.

It was the beginning of a twenty-year period of constantly intellectual disagreement between me and Ravitch. Oakes’ work captured inequality in terms of race and socioeconomics so much better than Ravitch, whose writings back then often treated these inequalities and distinctions as afterthoughts. When I shifted my research area to multicultural education and multiculturalism, though, that was when I found Ravitch’s absolutist defense of so-called traditional American democratic education and all things e pluribus unum unbelievably stifling. With all Ravitch knew about the politics of education, in New York and with the US Department of Education, how could she possibly defend a system that did as much to control and exclude students as it did to provide something akin to an equal opportunity?

I chalked Ravitch up to being another out-of-touch neoconservative, scared to death of race and diversity and multiculturalism. I said as much at conferences like the American Educational Research Association meeting and other conferences. I wrote as much in my dissertation and in my first book, Fear of a “Black” America: Multiculturalism and the African American Experience (2004). Through it all, I always found Ravitch’s writing compelling, but her conclusions wanting, because they lacked perspective and empathy in the context of public schools and diversity.

Then, Ravitch wrote Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform in 2000. Though it contained some of her common themes — overemphasis on the mantra of reform, the need for more testing, support for school choice, denigration of a multicultural curriculum — Ravitch showed growth in this book. She was less hostile to a more progressive curriculum and seemed, for the first time, really, to understand how much race and poverty had shaped the direction and the harshness of school reform going back to 1900. I happily used Ravitch’s Left Back in my History of American Education Reform course at George Washington in 2002. For her book provided a comprehensive and even-handed overview of the politics of K-12 education in a way that any educator of any American ideological perspective could understand.

I’ve finally read Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013). Reign of Error is Ravitch at her most passionate and energized. If I hadn’t read a couple dozen of Ravitch’s articles from the 1980s and 1990s and four of her previous books, I would think that this was her first book, as there is sense of urgency in Reign of Error that can seldom be found outside of epic memoirs and epic fiction novels.

Ravitch’s argument in Reign of Error is a simple one. Corporate education reform, if allowed to continue unfettered, will destroy public education in the US, and in the process, American democracy. Privatizing public schools (i.e., turning them into “public” charter schools), destroying teacher’s unions, constant high-stakes testing, bypassing school boards and forgetting about racial segregation and poverty — that’s corporate education reform’s agenda. As Ravitch said in Chapter 12 on the fallacies of merit pay for teachers, “Merit pay is the idea that never works and never dies (p. 119).” She could have also substituted the words “school choice,” “creationism,” “standardized testing,” “closing schools,” and “privatization” for “merit pay.”

But Ravitch goes further in her 400-page treatise. That though public education in the US has had its share of problems — the need for more teacher training and time for professional development, racial segregation and high levels of poverty while underfunded — that corporate education reform has compounded these problems several times over. That with corporate education reform, teachers, parents and students will have no say in public education, at least the ones without their own personal foundation with which to endow their own public charter school.

From a writer’s standpoint, this wasn’t Ravitch’s best effort. Her argument is repetitive, one where she likely could’ve cut the main chapters by a quarter (about 100 pages) and made the same points. I likely could’ve become inebriated if I had a shot of vodka every time the words “poverty,” “Gates,” “Walton,” “Broad,” “high-stakes testing,” and “corporate education reform” come up. But given my history with reading Ravitch and with this topic, of course Reign of Error was repetitive — it was like reading my own words on this same topic.

Ultimately, Ravitch’s Reign of Error is a primer for anyone interested in averting the social injustice that is the corporate education reform tyranny of wealthy philanthropists, money-grubbing entrepreneurs and politicians across America’s limited ideological spectrum. For those whom up to now this issue has been of limited interest, or for those who’ve felt the change in public education but haven’t quite been able to articulate those feelings, Reign of Error is for you.

For educators, parents and even students already involved in writing about or protesting against corporate education reform, this book is still for you. Ravitch provides so much ammunition that Reign of Error can be applied in numerous ways to numerous situations. At school board meetings. With #AskMichelleRhee hash tags on Twitter. In job interviews with Teach for America and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In letters to the editor of the mainstream newspapers and in comments to mainstream TV and radio newscasters. In arguments with neoconservative parents who send their kids to private schools.

“Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time (p. 325).” is how Ravitch ended her Reign of Error. It’s not an exaggeration. But it does beg a question. If we can successfully fend off corporate education reform — and assume that the country will continue to ignore the poverty and racial segregation that Ravitch desperately wants addressed — can she and I then spend five minutes discussing multiculturalism?


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