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!'”


Public Education Fights To See, & Politeness Be Damned

February 15, 2014

Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee, the two faces of American education, October 10, 2013. (James Ferguson, The New York Review of Books, http://nybooks.com).

Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee, the two faces of American education, October 10, 2013. (James Ferguson, The New York Review of Books, http://nybooks.com).

Unlike the whole George Zimmerman vs. DMX debacle bandied about by idiot promoter Damon Feldman, there are some fights truly worth seeing for us Americans. Especially in the realm of public education, because it involves all of our futures, not to mention the future of our democracy. I’d pay top dollar to see Diane Ravitch pummel Michelle Rhee. Literally pummel, that is. Not just with words, sarcasm, passion and a highly sharpened argument. But with boxing gloves and an uppercut to the right side of Rhee’s jaw.

Oscar de la Hoya getting beat up by Manny Pacquiao, Las Vegas, NV, December 6, 2008. (http://beatsboxingmayhem.com).

Oscar de la Hoya getting beat up by Manny Pacquiao (or in my imagination, Ravitch beating up Rhee), Las Vegas, NV, December 6, 2008. (http://beatsboxingmayhem.com).

Okay, I’m being tongue-in-cheek. Yet there’s a part of me — the same part that wrote Celebrity Deathmatch Meets Brave New Media back in ’10 about watching politicians and journalists beat on each other — that could imagine some of these fights play out in a boxing ring. To have Bill Gates get his head knocked in by Anthony Cody. Or Leonie Haimson lay out former New York City DOE Chancellor Joel I. Klein. Or, for that matter, the White soccer moms US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made fun of giving him a full-on beatdown. Then, after the ten-second countdown, they stitch and bandage him up, and begin again.

Collage of who's who in corporate education reform and who stands against it (from top left, across and down, John Deasy, LAUSD/Gates Fdn; Anthony Cody; Haimson; Perry; Hess; Duncan, Pedro Noguera; Barth; Kopp), February 13, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Collage of who’s who in corporate education reform and who stands against it (from top left, across and down, John Deasy, LAUSD/Gates Fdn; Anthony Cody; Haimson; Perry; Hess; Duncan, Pedro Noguera; Barth; Kopp), February 13, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

I imagine this because this fight to save our public schools from the corporate education reform agenda has been an ugly one. Folks like Gates, Duncan, Klein, Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Richard Barth, Dr. Steve Perry and several big-name others have taken full advantage of the financial needs of public schools and the greed of politicians. Not to mention the concerns and worries of parents and the perpetual fear-mongering of the media. They took possession of the conversation about the future of public education long before actual educators and parents had a chance to pick up our weapons and respond.

For those like me who saw the potential dangers of this shift to high-stakes testing-as-teaching, to punitive measures as teacher evaluations, to data for data’s sake, we politely lodged our concerns. We wrote our occasional letters to the editor and comments on blogs, and asked our questions at conferences. And all while applying for grants from the Walton Family Foundation, for jobs at Gates and consultancies with Teach for America.

Where public education fight meeting March Madness bracket, February 13, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Where public education fight meeting March Madness bracket, February 13, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Of course we were wrong. We may have even been hypocritical. But if folks like American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess are to be believed, we’ve also been mean-spirited and disrespectful to this group of “good-intentioned” do-gooders. Speaking at the American Federation of Teachers Albert Shanker Institute on “Philanthropy & Democratic Education: Friends or Foes” this week, Hess called for educators, parents and children to be “patient” with people like Gates and foundations like the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Why? Because, according to Hess, because “there are a lot of easier ways for them to spend their money than on education.” We need to be “reasonable,” and to “disagree without engaging in personal attacks” or jumping to conclusions about their personal “motivations.” Translation: rich people have thin skins after they’ve spent their lives in hubris and racial paternalism in playing with our lives.

Hess’ was the typical bullshit argument of a neoconservative who, instead of focusing on the fact that we’ve put our kids, teachers and schools in jeopardy, he focused on optics, and a false sense of optics at that. Hess would have poor kids kissing Gates’ ring for spending his money on reforming our schools in his image, and have impoverished parents crying tears of joy for supposedly saving them from bleak futures. Heck, Hess would have us groveling in thanks for dollars from any of these folks, because all that matters are their alleged good intentions, not the road to perdition leading from their good intentions.

Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI, The Borgias series (SHO), 2011. (http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com).

Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI, waiting for his ring to be kissed by Cardinal Orsini, The Borgias series (SHO), 2011. (http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com).

So, no, I’m not going to be patient. Nor should the millions of kids doomed to see school as a testing factory. Nor should parents who want a brighter future that they play a role in determining, not some family worth $140 billion in Arkansas. Nor should the millions of teachers who’ve been turned into scared lab technicians, worried about their jobs every minute of every day.

We shouldn’t be reasonable, because being reasonable with deep-pocketed plutocrats amounts to bowing and scraping. And for goodness’ sake, let’s not excuse foundations like Gates or Broad because of “good intentions.” Screw good intentions! We’re not personally attacking any individual program officer or an administrative assistant. We’re criticizing their leaders and their use of their foundations for attempting to remake public education into a free-market monstrosity. Period.


Bad Conversations and Education Reform

November 2, 2010

Improving Degree Completion for 21st Century Students, Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, November 2, 2010, Screen Shot. Donald Earl Collins

I’ve been thinking about the fields in which I’ve worked and sort-have-worked in over the past fourteen years, and I’ve drawn one simple conclusion. For all of the talk of education reform, the talk about reform itself is in need of a reformation. I’m tired of the contrast between the experts in the field — who pay little attention to the cutting-edge trends, research and activism in K-16 education — and the everyday folks. They refuse to do anything except complain about teachers, as if education is as simple as organizing a file cabinet.  The who, what and what for’s regarding education reform has stifled what should be an engaging conversation, one that’s essential in the consideration of America’s twenty-first century ills.

Who’s part of this conversation remains something of an atrocity. Almost all of the experts in education reform — whether on a scholarly panel or in the documentary Waiting for Superman — tend to be Whites (more male than female) over the age of fifty. With more than one in three students in public schools of color — and with tens of thousands of teachers and administrators of color in this school districts — it’s hard to believe that all the experts are White, and most of those are middle-aged to elderly males. Their vision, at best, is a liberalized twentieth-century vision of K-12 and postsecondary education. Most of their proposed solutions — smaller class sizes, more homework, small schools, higher certification standards — will not in any way fundamentally reform K-16 education.

When combined with what’s considered important in education reform these days, it becomes painfully

A Nation At Risk (1983) Book Cover, November 2, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

obvious that the conversations we have on education reform are predetermined ones based on certain interests and short-sighted economic considerations. Most of the money in education reform — whether from the federal government, private foundations or corporate interests — is earmarked for things related to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). No one living in this century would deny the importance of STEM fields to a post-industrial economy. But not to the exclusion of everything else. Science folk and scribes alike still need to know how to write well, to think critically, to act ethically, to extend themselves beyond government and corporate interests.

Thomas Friedman — at least as he wrote in The World Is Flat (2005) — Bill Gates, the Obama Administration are all correct in that STEM fields will provide living wages and supply jobs at a rate over the next generation to replace the easy jobs of the by-gone era of industrial jobs straight out of high school. Yet none of them fully appreciates the connection between education reform, community development, corporate irresponsibility, lobbyists and the swaying of government policies and the politics of race and class in all of this.

STEM fields without a real direction for providing livable communities for the poor and for low-income people of color. Education reform that doesn’t do more than make scientists out of artists. Ideas that don’t account for the long-term issues of climate change and energy and resource depletion. Education policies that contradict themselves in terms of funding and a lack of understanding of what education reform truly

Double the Numbers (2004) Book Cover, November 2, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

means. That’s what we have now, and have had since the 1940s.

In the end, all these ideas are about is tapping the same human resources. The dwindling middle class, folks who’ve managed a traditional education track, folks whose lives are stable enough to allow the resources necessary for higher and advanced education. This need to tweak — instead of overhaul — the educational status quo and then call it reform is what leads to bad conversations. This is why what little in the way of reform actually occurs, and why so few of our kids get the reform they truly deserve.


Class Silence

September 20, 2010

Mum's the word on class.

One of the things that has driven me nuts over the past three decades is how we in this country walk in silence around issues of wealth and social class. We must never speak of our wealth, or poverty, lest we risk embarrassing ourselves or appearing arrogant. All Americans with an income between $20,000 and $20 million a year are middle class, not upper middle class, not affluent, not rich, just middle class.

Any mention of the top three percent in income (people whose income is more than $250,000 a year) amounts to class warfare, even though they control some 35-40 percent of the nation’s $57 trillion in wealth. No, poverty and affluence are relative, not absolute, and can only be measured subjectively,

Atacama Desert in Chile. Driest desert on Earth and place to stick our heads. (Public Domain)

through one’s own experience. Which is why any mention of our troubles is closer to sacrilege than declaring that there isn’t a God, especially in a nation that prints “In God We Trust” on its money.

There are ways to measure affluence and poverty regardless of cost of living and inflation. And please spare me the comparisons between the poor in the US and the poor in the Global South (Third World to those of you who like making other distinctions between fellow humans that actually dehumanize). I’ve seen too many corrugated roofs in Arkansas and Louisiana (all before Katrina), too many outhouses in rural Arkansas and Mississippi, too many families sleeping in the streets in San Francisco and New York, too many malnourished kids in Oklahoma and in DC to hear that “our poor are the richest poor people in the world” song-and-dance.

It’s simple really. Truly middle class people own a car and a home, or at least, have the option of doing both, with a steady income from a permanent job or from an established niche for work. If folks have one and rent an apartment or home, and aren’t really in a position to buy, they’re right on the borderline of the American middle class, but not quite there.

Of course, this definition does not mean that everything’s all right. Tens of millions of Americans, including yours truly, are struggling to pay car notes, student loans, mortgages and rent — not to mention credit card and other debt — and maintain a middle class or lower middle class lifestyle. Unfortunately, there are millions more who are working toward middle class, but aren’t quite there. They may say they’re middle class, but they’re really working-class or working poor.

Upper middle class or affluent Americans do more than own a house or a car. They own quality homes and quality cars, a Volvo or an Acura, maybe even a Lexus. They take at least one vacation a year with their families or friends, to other parts of the US, and on occasion, international trips. They eat at restaurants with their families at least as often as they eat a home-cooked meal. When shopping for groceries, sales are fine, as long as the sales aren’t on off-brand products like Faygo or Giant, Safeway or Krasdale. They have life insurance on every family member, 529 plans for their kids and contribute at least half as much to their 401K as their employer does in any given year (more than that if self-employed).

I’m certainly not arguing that the lives of the upper middle class or affluent or sub-rich are like being on Real Housewives or Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Yet so many in our public discourse make their lives now and times growing up sound humble, as if they grew up like me or others I’ve known over the past thirty years. People like Bill Cosby, Bill Gates or Bill O’Reilly, Dinesh D’Souza or Rush Limbaugh. It’s well beyond dishonest. It’s disgusting, and it helps to perpetuate the myth that the only reason all of us aren’t affluent is due only to our lack of hard work.

As the richest country on Earth — for the time being, at least — we’ve never reconciled our democratic ideals with our capitalistic obsessions. What helps maintain some sense of order, though, is our silence and quiet, desperate acquiescence to ever-increasing economic divisions in a country full of allegedly middle class people. As a song from Enigma goes, however, we should “question the absurd” here, as “silence must be heard.”


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