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Time to Revive the Peace Movement

By: mattreichel Tuesday July 15, 2014 2:55 pm

Peace

It has been 10 years of dormancy for the peace movement: a full decade since the thriving demonstrations of the early Bush years gave way to liberal demands that the focus shift to defeating the president at the ballot box. This fixation remained through the two ensuing presidential elections, which have demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, the futility of this approach to altering American foreign policy. The vibrant and young foot soldiers of Obama’s first election are now seven years older, jaded and frustrated. Most of them are underemployed, over-indebted, and increasingly hopeless about their lot in life.

Meanwhile, the elders responsible for luring them into the charade of electoral politics are seeing their safety net whittle away at the hands of an ever-avaricious power elite. This farce of democratic engagement has provided zero dividends, as Americans are worse off than they were a decade ago, and our military posture remains as imperialist and expansive as ever.  Some of us resolutely warned against straying off into the electoral forest in 2004, but now is not the time for finger wagging or “I told you so” pronouncements. With the latest vicious bombardment of Palestinians by the Israeli war machine, the concurrent conflagration in Iraq, the rise of a U.S.-backed oligarchy in Ukraine, and continued drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, the time is nigh for a revival of the peace movement.

This isn’t to minimize the significance of other pressing issues, such as wealth inequality, but rather to recognize the immediacy of militarism, together with its encompassing nature. So long as the United States maintains an aggressive military posture, there is little room for social expenditure at the federal level. For now, these battles are best focused in states and municipalities, where gains have slowly been made in recent months. At the national level, all we have seen is Obama’s platitudinous pronouncements in the 2012 State of the Union address. Nothing concrete. No mention has been made of taxing wealth, inheritance or financial transactions, nor of investing in a broad based Green New Deal to jump start the economy in a more efficacious way than the risky bond-buying program at the Federal Reserve, which has done little but prop up the stock market and create the illusion of positive growth.

Let’s give credit: the Occupy movement did a remarkable job at setting the nation’s discourse on inequality, but lacked the capacity to move from there. If anything, its value was that it pointed the finger at the prime culprits: the villains of Wall Street. The corrective action would have to be taken in individual states and cities.  Indeed, the impacts of Occupy’s consciousness-raising have been felt via the ensuing Chicago Teachers’ Union strike and the election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council and subsequent passing of the $15/hr minimum wage, to provide just a few examples.

These local battles ought continue, by all means. In fact, it appears that Chicago Teachers’ Union president Karen Lewis is on the verge of officially announcing her campaign for mayor against Rahm Emanuel, with an initial poll giving her a 9-point advantage. If she were to prevail, the result would be a substantial victory against the scourge of inequality, and the decades-long attack on public sector workers in the nation’s third largest city. It would also be a blow to the mainstream of the Democratic Party that has been the primary enabler of the charter school movement, which the Chicago Teachers’ Union has campaigned so steadfastly against. This is a vital issue that needs to be addressed, and is best done through local organizing.

However, our national focus must return to the peace movement. We must recognize our unique position in the world to affect change in Israel/Palestine, as Noam Chomsky notes in a recent piece in the Nation: “As long as the United States supports Israel’s expansionist policies, there is no reason to expect them to cease. Tactics have to be designed accordingly.” He argues, to the frustration of many progressives, that popular opinion in the United States is not yet adequately aligned for BDS to be as effective as its proponents hope. His judgment seems accurate to these eyes, which is precisely why it is so important to focus energies on resurrecting the peace movement from its moribund state. Already, there have been Palestinian solidarity marches in major metropolitan centers throughout the country, which is encouraging. However, these need to be accompanied with teach-ins, lectures, and leafleting activities. Let us see this ongoing tragedy as an opening to excite moral outrage and encourage a new generation of anti-war activists.

 

On Goons and Rhizomes: A Tale of the Internet Age

By: mattreichel Wednesday March 12, 2014 9:17 pm

 

In one of a series of significant talks over the weekend by the world’s foremost Internet freedom activists, Julian Assange spoke on MSNBC about the central “battle” of the Information Age: “On the one hand, we are in many ways heading towards a transnational dystopian total surveillance society the likes of which the world has never seen . . . and on the other, people are coming together. Whenever people can communicate, they develop new values and a new consensus and a new polity. That is something that all young people are exposed to.  . . “[1]

In other words, the Internet is the new central terrain of human discourse and conflict, encompassing the full range of human personalities, from the authoritarian to the radical to the entirely banal. That these tendencies have endured the development of new communication technologies is not particularly noteworthy. What is quite interesting is that this new terrain does not generally conform to rigid geographical, social or cultural structures. Information does not flow in one direction, but in any direction, or many directions at once. It is “rhizomatic” in nature. In their seminal work on the subject, A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari explain: “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance.”[2]

As Assange references in his interview, previous geopolitical structures have been reformulated or even reversed: activists and journalists now seek refuge FROM the United States, fearing the fate of Chelsea Manning et al. The fact that Snowden finds himself in exile on the other side of the Iron Curtain is especially telling of this. America is now the nucleus of the goon state, encompassing its broad network of security and police forces as well as its army of spooks: the effective antithesis to the rhizomatic realm of near-infinite possibility.

It is not that Russia is any less authoritarian than the United States, but that Putin has no incentive to hand Snowden over, and this is a man frozen in the world of realpolitik. His American counterpart, meanwhile, functions from within the liberal tradition: another dinosaur of a bygone era, desperately seeking to maintain control of a world slipping out of his grips. He has been repeatedly outflanked by Putin on the diplomatic front, because the amorphous blather of bourgeois liberalism stands little chance against stern Slavic nationalism, at least when the latter is the honest broker.

Meanwhile, there is no room for window-dressing in the battle for the Internet. Whether politicians call themselves liberal or conservative, they derive their legitimacy from the support of the victorious villains of the last major technological era: the digital age. It was here that finance capital was revolutionized by the heightened capacity to run complex algorithms and models on arcane investments, giving bankers and hedge fund managers more ways to make money, and also more incentive to skirt regulations by hiding behind the wall of complexity. Meanwhile, the pace of atomization increased dramatically, as union membership plummeted and the country became less community oriented. Traditional gathering places like bowling alleys and bingo parlors began closing en masse, political participation fell, and the public commons were privatized and commodified. Arboreal linkages disappeared all around, and the behemoth banks obliterated the isolated nomads beneath them.

Finance capital won the Battle of the Digital age, with the top 1% realizing some 95% of wealth gains from 2009-2012. A precarious population of baby boomer children rose to fruition, steeped in egregious student debt, facing an economy of permanent precariousness, and then a freshly emergent threat. As digital communication gave way to a nearly universal Internet, at least in wealthy countries, the propensity for a thoroughgoing intelligence and surveillance capacity emerged. J Edgar Hoover’s fantasyland had arrived. The goon component of government and its private counterparts could now gather information on everyone, everywhere. It could squash a radical idea before it had the chance to germinate. It could fire a drone on alleged terrorists from the comfort of a command center. The goon state could entrap defiant political leaders in scandal, like Hoover did, but much more ruthlessly and efficiently. It could strike fear into the young and aspirant, by making quick example of activists peacefully assembled in public parks and pavilions.

American Sickness; American Denial

By: mattreichel Monday December 17, 2012 4:47 am

Sadly, we have seen another dreadful spree killing followed by the typical array of responses from commentators evading the underlying sociological and psychological causes. We hear abundant talk about the “culture of violence in America,” in addition to political posturing about gun laws and access to adequate mental health care. These are not irrelevant factors, to be sure, but they are not causal. It is like explaining the persistence of inner-city poverty by pointing towards the substandard public school systems therein, rather than recognizing these factors as intertwined and related to a larger sociological malaise: namely, inequality. As I wrote in response to the Batman rampage this summer: “The first tragedy is the violent act, and the second is the unresponsiveness of society. Both of these are rooted in a hyperactive ego, aggravated by the forces of alienation, de-socialization and the heightened automation of American existence.”

Portrait of James Holmes against a red background

James Holmes, the 'Batman killer.' How can we cure the deep resentment which leads to mass killings?

Batman killer James Holmes and Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza were both described as introverted and reclusive by peers. This description has been a constant through the decades of these incidents. Furthermore, the perpetrators have generally had no known history of violent aggression, or even a recorded history of mental illness. Despite this, many liberals advance the psychological-deterministic viewpoint that more robust mental health care would end these recurring episodes. Surely, there are a whole host of reasons the United States needs to invest in public preventative psychiatric care, but this misses the core cause of these massacres.  In fact, the underlying problem plaguing the offenders is unlikely to get captured by mental health workers, because their subdued personality makes it so the first readily visible sign of malaise occurs with their violent release.

Furthermore, psychological disorders do not exist in a vacuum. They are a reflection of dysfunction within society, especially when this recurrent. I am certain that the pharmaceutical industry would love for psychiatrists to invent a new branch of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) with suggested treatment of some cocktail of mind-numbing pills for all patients exhibiting warning signs of introversion. However, this would be equally as destructive as this nation’s frivolous war on drugs, or its war on “hyperactive” children. There is no patch to cover up this blemish on the Disneyland Empire, where all is meant to be jubilant behind the white picket fence. You cannot simply apply varnish and scrub away at a deep-seated sickness.

The fact is that Americans are in a state of denial about their condition. They glance the other way or proffer the aforementioned solutions, refusing to allow for the possibility that we are innately infected. The malady at work here goes to the very heart of what it means to be an American. Specifically, we are an ego-driven society wherein empathy is viewed as weakness. What’s more, a rational and measured tenor tends to get swallowed up in the boisterously egomaniacal personalities that predominate. This is a setting particularly harsh on introverts, and notably male introverts. A quiet and rational composure is viewed as un-cool, if not wholly un-masculine. Meanwhile, smart children and adolescents are often disparaged as “nerds” or “dorks.” Our culture treats its dynamic and intelligent members as “weird” outsiders.

This denigration of the smart kids further promulgates through this nation’s virulent anti-intellectualism. One of its manifestations is that Americans discourage meaningful conversation. They prefer talking in incessant platitudes and trivialities. So when someone pipes up with “I think these spree shootings point to a more intrinsic societal problem . . . ,” you are bound to get scoffed at or mocked. Otherwise, you might be accused of cynicism, despite being the guy who is actually trying to help an increasingly desperate situation.

Election Hysterics and The Bad Faith Liberals

By: mattreichel Monday October 22, 2012 9:21 am

Election hysteria

photo mrmanc

Judging from the Twitter-sphere, the presidential election is an addiction for some: akin to alcoholism, but a lot less fun. This affliction actually runs much deeper than the election itself, though it presents its symptoms most acutely in these final weeks of the bullshit extravaganza. Its subjects are likely to engage in incessantly vacuous chatter in this arrogant “have you heard?” tone. They prattle on, eventually driven to hysterics about the assured doom the country will face if their perceived foe prevails.

They fail to realize that we are already muddling through the muck. Furthermore, the election offers little chance of addressing our malaise, as issues of economy, foreign policy and national security are largely insulated from public purview.  One can make a reasonable argument for voting Obama in swing states as a strategic defense move, though that is it. Otherwise, it seems that the self-professed liberal should be busying himself with social movement activism. The manifold nature of injustice in this country leaves little time for the well-intentioned to descend into the pathetic stupor of electoral obsession. From student debt relief to stopping the private prison racket to defending public schools and libraries from the ravages of austerity, we need our collective intellect and imagination focused on public betterment.

However, a large segment of liberals are not genuinely motivated by concerns of social justice. For them, politics is bourgeois social activity. They vote for Democrats as a demonstration of how cultured and swank they are. Some even use politics as a means of assuaging the guilt they feel about their position of relative privilege. This tendency descends, in large part, from Thomas Jefferson: the original American liberal. The slave-owner who decried the evils of that institution. The “small-government” advocate who helped greatly expand the size and scope of the federal government. The champion of individual rights, except for the “noble savages” in our midst. Jefferson was a walking contradiction, and so too are his ideological descendants, whom I term the “Bad Faith Liberals.”

They appear to be that which they are not: a living contrivance. On the topic of “bad faith,” Sartre alluded to the deception of the waiter at a Parisian cafe, trying too hard to play his role, herky-jerky in motion: visibly outside of his skin. He is inauthentic, but realizes this to some degree. His free will is compromised by circumstance. Perhaps the waiter fears for the security of his job if he behaves differently. The liberal, likewise, fears the consequences of making far-reaching criticisms. He knows it will jeopardize his relative comfort in the world. He fears it will alienate him from friends and family, who collectively choose to not think critically about politics. His career might suffer as well as his social status, as ours is a superficial culture where nonconformity renders one “crazy.”

This thinking represents the psychological underpinnings of authoritarianism. And have no illusions about it: this is an authoritarian country by any reasonable measure. Having the world’s highest incarceration rate is enough evidence. Further confirmation is the fact that a sizeable portion of the population believes that the rich have intrinsic qualities, and merit their wealth regardless of how it was attained. Liberals, too, believe it cliché, even trite, to suggest that social democracy might have some intellectual value. To speak of a common good renders one old-fashioned and “narrow minded.” Ours is a society that worships the rich and powerful, even to the point of providing excuse for their voracity.

This is important because politics is a reflection of society (the two do not exist in a vacuum). Our culture is obsessed with individual: from sports phenoms to movie and music stars to political figures. As such, the national conversation is generally about personalities and petty dramas rather than ideals. Meanwhile, much of what does pass for meaningful discourse amongst liberals serves merely to provide a veneer for the inherent contradiction of their existence.

The bad-faith liberal pretends to be a humanitarian, whilst actually an enabler of the American military machinery that has devastating consequences for civilian populations in affected regions. He poses as anti-racist, despite allowing for a national security policy that explicitly targets Muslim and Arab populations for special surveillance and judicial treatment. He has also permitted the proliferation of private prison gulags that prey on minority and poor populations so as to maintain a positive balance sheet. These represent just a smattering of the issues not discussed at any of the debates. Even the foreign policy debate is pure platitude, no substance. These are the realities the Blind Faith Liberals disregard, because it is easier to live a contradiction than to demonstrate the agency to address systemic injustices.

One can argue that it is unfair to pin these crimes on liberals, as they are not the primary promulgators. However, they have the capacity to do something, and have instead continued on with their merry lives. Many bourgeois liberals have yet to be significantly impacted by the economic and social decline of the country. Working-class and poor populations, largely minorities, have obviously been the most profoundly inured by the neo-liberal authoritarianism that now predominates. The bad-faith liberal has only caught a whiff thus far. Perhaps they feel the stress of a workplace that has been stripped of job security, reasonable vacation time and health care provisions. They might be joining the growing numbers of people suffering from depression and other psychological disorders associated with stress and feelings of inadequacy. Maybe their adult-age children are having problems finding jobs and making student debt payments. Nonetheless, the Bad Faith Liberal remains committed to the existent political superstructure, and his contradictory role within it.

In so doing, he undercuts his own freedom, by limiting his role to cheerleading for one side of the boxing match. The two permitted parties define themselves in opposition to one another, and this delineation ultimately encompasses the culture of the country writ large. Americans often judge one another in reference to a liberal-conservative dichotomy. The red state vs. blue state rhetoric is ubiquitous. Liberals decry gun-toting, god-fearing southerners, and conservatives complain of a threat from amorphous “outsiders.” The two sides invariably play the role assigned, out of fear of freedom. And it is ultimately this fear that unites them, together in the muck.

They keep each other down through this culture of oppositionalism. The fear breeds resentment and guilt, which leads the American to hate himself and thus his compatriot. It is this process that informs the lack of a robust social safety network in this country, as failure is almost invariably blamed solely on the individual. This further leads to a juvenile tendency to disparage and demean others for trivial and superficial reasons. The net result is the destruction of confidence and dignity, rendering the American unlikely to stand up for himself against the rapacious and regressive forces of organized money.

Indeed, the Bad Faith Liberal stands up to no one. He merely externalizes his lack of confidence through the politics of oppositionalism. He believes that the country would be better off without the angry, resentful, small-town conservative. He sees not that he shares those first two traits. If the two would overcome these drains on the soul, and speak civilly to one another, we could recommence the task of nation building in the United States. We might even regain the passion necessary to function as a democratic polity.

This requires realizing our free will. We are not cogs in a machine. We are not restrained to playing a tightly-defined role in some convoluted national narrative. We needn’t choose team red or team blue. We have the ability, like all humans, to be dynamic and thoughtful individuals. And if we demonstrate that dynamism in a collective effort aimed at addressing the ever-expanding authoritarianism in our midst, we will arise from the muck one day.

Chicago Teachers’ Lukewarm Victory

By: mattreichel Tuesday September 18, 2012 3:22 am

From my perspective as a native of Chicago, alum of its public school system, and activist of various sorts, little could be more gripping than this current Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike. Normally, the intriguing tales of social movement action occur in foreign countries, involving actors that are not so personally connected to me. This one, however, hits home quite literally, as my mother is a retired Chicago Public School (CPS) teacher: one who worked for 35 years in an underserved elementary school on the city’s South Shore. There was nothing particularly flashy about her tenure nor was there meant to be. It was honorable public service: the humble work of someone who sought to do her share without taking special credit in the way Teach for Ameri-scabs seem to demand recognition for helping those “poor little minority kids.” And behind the fight over a just contract and due compensation for Mayor Rahmbo’s longer school day lies the central theme of this story: one of the last principled unions in this country is taking a stand against the ongoing effort to turn the nation’s schools into a veritable strip mall of charter schools.

The charter movement is reflective of broader trend of transforming our urban centers into playgrounds for young (mostly white) professionals seeking to pass their post-collegiate years caught up in a trendy nexus of cafes and brew pubs, with a smattering of yoga studios interspersed. The schools are largely an afterthought, as said yuppies likely intend to retreat to suburbia before having any kids: that or they will use private schools or hope their kid tests into a selective enrollment program of choice. As such, they are not overly concerned with the quality of the local public schools, which are primarily used by poor black and immigrant populations. This disconnect between various members of the population and the needs of public infrastructure represents a breakdown in community. Charter advocates have preyed on this breakdown to move in with an eye on the prize of billions of tax dollars waiting to be extracted, with enough to go around to all parties involved: for-profit charter companies, textbook publishers, test-makers, real estate interests, construction companies, and so forth.

The Emanuel administration has plans for a long-term shuttering of 80-120 public schools, with the bulk of those students ostensibly transferring over to a sloppy array of charter schools. I take some editorial liberty by inserting the word sloppy, simply because I now live in New Orleans, the charter dream city. It was here that state officials used the cover of Hurricane Katrina to Shock Doctrine the local system, chartering all but a few schools while the city lay in ruin. The resulting arrangement is a confusing collection of independent and network charters, wherein some schools fall under the state’s purview (or lack thereof) and others are governed by the city, while still others are part of the misnamed “Recovery School District.”

Behind this project was the same cast of charter advocates at work in Chicago: the Gates Foundation, the aforementioned Teach for America, a hodgepodge of Astroturf groups like “Stand for Children” and “All Children Matter,” and the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). And, I repeat, the power grab was done while the vast majority of the union staff was evacuated due to the devastation wrought by one of the worst natural disasters in this country’s history. In other words, we are up against utter scumbags in this fight. Vile, despicable scum!

On that note, let’s get back to Rahm Emanuel. Hate him all you want, I know I do, but he is actually quite a gift for the left. He is such a raving asshole that even the corporate press is showing tepid signs of support for the CTU in the current impasse. And in this era of corporate hegemony, that is quite remarkable. Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune led with this analysis:

“The measure of who won and lost in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s showdown with the Chicago Teachers Union won’t be clear until the details of the new contract emerge, but last week’s strike took some of the luster off the mayor’s self-portrait as an innovative leader brimming with new ways to solve the city’s most vexing challenges.

The long, stressful path to getting a contract in place offered a glimpse that Emanuel perhaps is not as multidimensional as he tries to appear. Repeatedly, the mayor turned to one tool: the attack.”

 

For good measure, the paper “balanced” the coverage with some of their typical yellow journalism: running a piece titled “CPS parents rally against strike,” which includes a video of some 8-10 people standing around barking inanely at a downtown intersection. This is quite insulting to those of us who have organized rallies with hundreds of people, and not one corporate press “reporter.”

The Sun-Times also struck a supportive tone, as columnist Mark Brown said: “If the point of going on strike is to get a better deal than you would have received without it, then the Chicago Teachers Union is already a pretty clear winner this week in its confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his school board.”

The potential agreement, which delegates will commence considering today, includes several significant concessions on the part of the city. These include a 16% pay increase over the next four years, allowing laid-off teachers the chance to be considered for new vacancies, and barring the school district from using budget shortfalls as pretext to cancel scheduled teacher raises (as the mayor threatened to do this time). What’s more, the district scaled back the level at which teacher evaluation would hinge on test scores from 50% to the state-mandated minimum of 25%. Under the plan, the union would make concessions on health care, by converting to a so-called wellness plan, wherein workers with pre-existing health issues pay higher premiums. Furthermore, laid-off teachers would be provided only six months compensation, rather than the current twelve. What’s more, the union would not be granted further grounds for taking strike action, which is now limited solely to issues of pay.

Wait, wait, wait. Did I just say that teachers are only allowed to strike over compensation!? For those who appreciate not having had to work at the age of 10, or who like their weekends and holidays, and the protections afforded by workplace safety regulations, it should seem pretty egregious that the union is currently limited to striking over pay. But this is the case, thanks to a state law enacted by the Democratic state assembly and signed by the Democratic governor last year. The same players also passed a law requiring a seemingly impossible 75% approval vote in order for the union to strike. Jonah Edelman, who heads the aforementioned pro-charter group Stand for Children, boasted at the time that the CTU would never achieve that threshold. He was shown up in June, when the union mustered an incredible 90% vote in support of the action (despite non-voters getting counted as “no’s.”)

In sum, Illinois Democrats have been minutely less offensive than Wisconsin Republicans in their attacks on organized labor. Rather than trampling collective bargaining rights altogether, they force teachers into the role of the avaricious union thugs, replete with their “Cadillac health care plans” (now on the chopping block), whining about pay in these tight economic times. Meanwhile, pro-charter activists, aided along by members of the press, widely spread the fallacy that Chicago teachers were making an average of $74,000 a year. In reality, that figure is $56,720. For new faculty or lower demand teachers (sadly, foreign language instructors . . ) the figure is significantly lower. This is roughly equivalent to the median household income throughout the country, in a city whose cost of living is 5.1% greater than the national average.

Imaging aside, the authoritarian strike law has also allowed for the mayor to set a trap, wherein he can now claim that teachers are continuing their strike illegally, since pay issues have been resolved in principle. In fact, Emanuel brashly sought an injunction Monday, though a judge refused to act prior to Wednesday, stating that the issue could become moot if the strike is resolved by then. Nonetheless, the union’s maneuverability is immensely compromised from here on, as the law simply does not allow for them to address the gamut of issues needing attention.

Prime among them, what CTU president Karen Lewis calls the “elephant in the room,” is the potential closure of 80-120 schools to make room for a New Orleans-style mass “charterization.” Authorities in Chicago probably won’t be afforded the cover of a natural disaster to implement a fire sale on that level, though  Rahm does have the benefit of that incessant crisis, otherwise known as the American economy. With both parties firmly set on austerity as a “solution,” with its emphasis on union busting, privatization, and scaling back city services, the CTU is probably in for a long-term fight.

It is certainly encouraging that they stood firm, unlike practically every other union in this country. However, until we have a viable third (and fourth- and fifth – ) party capable of capturing appreciable levels of power, union militancy will be sorely limited by the oppressive laws of the two parties of the 1%. Furthermore, it will be difficult to maintain the support of the public, with a popular press that is the mockery of the Western World. While the proliferation of “alternative press” online does help, too much of those options remain loyal to the Democratic Party establishment, and are simply not having the valuable conversations we need about how to move on from the Rahm’s and Obama’s of the world. I couldn’t be more with the teachers than I stand today, but I hope they realize that there remains a long, hard road ahead.

The Batman Rampage and the Psychology of Violent Release

By: mattreichel Wednesday July 25, 2012 6:31 pm

Last Friday’s Batman rampage has provoked the same inane chatter that typically follows one of these. The president claims to be shocked, though he can’t possibly be as aghast as his subjects are about the burgeoning drone program. Meanwhile, we see the same vacuous moral posturing from “left” and “right.”. Liberals prattle on about loose gun laws and violence in movies, whilst conservatives speak about the loss of religious values and the decline of the family. Very few people are willing to point to a general societal malaise, even after 20 or so of these outbursts since Columbine. This is because the prevailing personality on these shores is ego-driven to the core: so caught up in personal pursuits as to be unaware of the distress in their midst. The first tragedy, then, is the violent act, and the second is the unresponsiveness of society. Both of these are rooted in a hyperactive ego, aggravated by the forces of alienation, de-socialization and the heightened automation of American existence.

A mugshot of the Aurora shooter

James Holmes (Photo: Donkey Hotey / Flickr)

While many trumpet the primacy of the American individual, life is actually quite contrived here. Choice has been whittled down to a handful of corporate options, no matter what product or service you desire. And the choice of personalities is even starker. The younger generations are forced to select between a few brutal archetypes: jocks and nerds for boys, princesses and tomboys for girls. We can forgive the immature mind for such a narrow range. However, we cannot forgive the parents who fail to imbue a greater depth of perception in their children.

Naturally, no one wants to be the fuddy duddy. Thus, Americans spend their teens and 20’s fixated on being “cool”: an obsession partially promulgated and easily manipulated by corporate interests. That was always the essence of MTV: marketing a monolithic image of what it means to be accepted in this country. It is the most vulgar form of conformity masquerading as individuality. The free spirit of the American youth is just as much a sham as the worker’s utopia of the Soviet Union: pure propaganda.

We are no more individualistic than our counterparts throughout the West. Not to worry: we have them beat on a whole host of other measures, such as waist-lines, decibel level of speech, and insincerity of expression. All of these traits stem from the predominance of ego, right down to the bulging bellies. The American desires his dominance over a domain. Hence his particular vulnerability at the hands of the swindling mortgage brokers of Wall Street, who preyed on the retrograde commodity fetish of the suburban abode. The fatalistic ego, driven by the “will to power,” as Nietzche sees it, describes the contemporary United States. Its citizens see personal success and wealth as the prime attributes, and have generally retained naïve faith in the economic system to reward the most virtuous.

The disease of Western egoism is far more widespread than these shores, to be sure, but this is the epicenter. It is here where social frustration occasionally boils over in an otherwise properly functioning person, compelling him to go and spray a few hundred rounds of ammo at an unsuspecting audience. He sees a culture ravished by expressions of ego, wherein boisterousness is encouraged above all. James Holmes and VT killer Seung-Hui Cho were both described as introverted to the extreme. They each felt excluded on account of their personalities. This culture makes life difficult on introverts, as well as those that are simply more measured in approach: men are supposed to be loud, cocky and inane. They are meant to engage in fiery, yet baseless, chatter, yelling over one another in uncivilized fashion. The soundtrack of America is the noise of bad conversation: the subjects speak louder and louder until the tortured introvert provides the crescendo.

Cockburn’s Death of Occupy Declaration and the Attendant Generational Fissure

By: mattreichel Monday July 16, 2012 12:11 am

In a rather imprudent attempt at provocation by lefty commentator Alexander Cockburn on the Counterpunch site last week, he declares the Occupy movement dead, and then proceeds into full-fledged hissy-fit, saying of the movement: “There were . . . features that I think quite a large number of people found annoying: the cult of the internet, the tweeting and so forth, and I definitely didn’t like the enormous arrogance which prompted the Occupiers to claim that they were indeed the most important radical surge in living memory.”

A medic stands in the foreground as people move behind him in a park.

Medic at the Philadelphia National Occupy Gathering (Photo: Mark Haller, Occupy Erie / Flickr, used with permission)

I have personally always enjoyed his prose, owing largely to his willingness to criticize conventional wisdom on the left end of the spectrum. His vilification of the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Eric Alterman have been simply priceless. Even when he adopts an opinion I find reprehensible, as with his denials of anthropomorphic climate change, he raises sound points that merit attention. I understand the impetus to criticize: he is right to say “new movements always need a measure of cynicism dumped on them.” However, that is not what he is doing here. He is merely bitching. As with his now-weekly dung cart of (mostly) Americanisms that he and other Counterpunchers resent ever entering the English lexicon, he comes off as pompous and out of touch. In so doing, he has accentuated a noteworthy generational fissure at the core of this movement.

Those who characterize Occupy as narrowly concerned with inequality and malfeasance on Wall Street have it wrong. Rhetoric about the evil crooks amongst the 1% is simply convenient fodder for the chattering masses. Even Cockburn admits to the success of the 99% slogan. However, by admonishing the movement for not being ready with emergency mass actions in response to the latest financial scandal in the U.K., he demonstrates a misunderstanding of what the movement is. This is not a thriving bureaucracy waiting to pounce the minute scandal breaks with a new round of encampments, marches, and battle with the police. The movement is definitively organic. It is a raw expression of the frustration of a precarious generation. As such, it continues the European movements of the last ten years against tuition hikes, worsening employment conditions for young workers, and horrendous job prospects for the recently graduated. While I lived in France, students took to the streets in opposition to then-president Chriac’s new employment contract for under-25’s, but broadly spoke of La précarité as cause to organize.

This is about a social and economic system that seems to have been fatalistically designed to not provide for anyone much younger than the baby boomer. It is as if the West promised it would never repeat the insanity of the mid-20th century, only to blunder its way into an increasingly bleak outlook for the mid-21st century. Francis Fukuyama captured l’espirit  du temps with the declaration of the “End of History.” After thousands of years of human civilization, his generation had found the right way to organize the world. This logic is rooted in the smug determinism of the enlightenment together with the naïve belief in the perpetually progressive nature of the human condition. I see no difference between Fukuyama’s pseudo-scholarship and a cranky old lefty plodding into an Occupy GA only to deride the lack of “a plan,” before retreating to the writer’s den, anxiously awaiting the opportune moment to declare the whole thing dead.

Jindal Puts Louisiana’s Schools Up for Sale: ALEC’s Education Reforms Rammed Through

By: mattreichel Thursday April 5, 2012 6:08 pm

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has wasted no time this legislative session in pushing wide-reaching education reforms designed to expand the charter school footprint, while opening the door to vouchers and tying teacher tenure to student test results. In the early hours of the morning on March 23rd, after a marathon session, the Louisiana State House passed two bills that form the core of a wide-reaching education reform agenda designed to expand the charter school footprint, while opening the door to vouchers and tying teacher tenure to student test results. Governor Bobby Jindal wasted no time in pushing these reforms through in the first weeks of the legislative session, and the urgency with which he has advanced this agenda has infuriated teachers and left even some charter-school advocates alarmed. “The governor’s expression of urgency for these bills is specious at best. [They] did not have to be passed under cover of darkness,” says Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) president Steve Monaghan. Even Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat who has been an avid charter school advocate, criticized the Governor’s haste: “I am by no means naïve, and know full well the Administration’s political advantage of pushing legislation through with as little debate as possible.”  With these bills, Louisiana is set to join Florida, Ohio and Minnesota amongst the states that have enacted the most far-reaching of these school reforms. This marks the latest wave in a concerted nation-wide effort by right-wing advocacy organizations and their corporate supporters to ravage the public sector.

The last tidal wave of reform occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when authorities circumvented the process of debate by deliberating while large swaths of the population were still displaced. The changes enacted during that “Emergency Session” of the state legislature allowed for the vast majority of New Orleans’ public schools to be brought under the state-administered Recovery School District (RSD), which, in turn, facilitated the process of turning over management to private charters. In the meantime, the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) was effectively eviscerated, as the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) fired the entirety of its teaching staff after losing control of the bulk of its schools.  Over the next few years, New Orleans became the nation’s first majority charter city: a bona fide model for school “reformers” keen on extending the “school choice” doctrine to the rest of the country.

The current legislative initiative will effectively spread the New Orleans model to the rest of the state, while loosening administrative checks on charter governance and opening up a new arena of unaccountable education providers via the voucher program. This is part of a nation-wide process of special interests and right wing zealots promulgating legislation designed to attack one of the few remaining public pillars of this society. Their goal now is turning Louisiana into its pet project. Far from becoming a model for thoughtful school reform, the state is set to become an example of the havoc wreaked when elite interests are allowed to run rampant over the democratic process.

In attempting to identify the instigators of this agenda, the story begins and ends with the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conduit between corporate boardrooms and elected officials willing to enact their agenda of austerity and privatization. The non-profit evades lobby disclosure requirements by presenting itself as an advocate of rather innocuous ends: “the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty,” according to their website. In reality, their initiatives stick to a neo-liberal orthodoxy reminiscent of the structural adjustment programs long imposed on the global south by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. As the economic elite has seen its supply of exploitable poor countries dry up, they have refocused their attention on the United States, using mechanisms like ALEC as to help enact many of the same policies on states with governors and legislators firmly in their pocket. These policies include prison privatization, stripping collective bargaining rights, reducing or eliminating environmental protections, and enacting regressive tax laws.

Louisiana has been a principal focal point of ALEC’s education agenda in recent years, as best evinced in the decision to hold their annual meeting in the soupy August heat of New Orleans last year. Governor Jindal led a plenary session at the conference, and was joined in attendance by no less than 24 members of the state House, according to source material gathered by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). Among them was Noble Ellington, a recently retired Republican representative who presided as National Chairman of ALEC at the time. In an interview with Democracy Now that week, he stated that it did not matter that corporations amounted to such a dominant presence at the ALEC meeting, because elected officials were in attendance as well: “We represent the public and we are the ones who decide. So the tax-paying public is represented there at the table, because I’m there”.

That model might work if the taxpayer were the politician’s sole benefactor. However, campaign disclosure records show that some 50 members of the state House together raised more than $500,000 in campaign funds from ALEC member corporations during the last cycle. This fact alone ought serve as sufficient evidence of the foolhardiness of Ellington’s characterization of lawmakers as independent arbiters. However, yet more proof is immediately available on the home page for the Louisiana Legislature. There, one finds a link to the ALEC website: an outrageous illustration of how embedded corporate governance has become. That someone thought it remotely appropriate to put the link in place and no one else found it potentially offensive speaks to a widespread acceptance of the primacy of business interests in the public sector. The political elite sees no inherent problem with a bargaining table composed of corporations, the politicians they support with vast campaign largesse, and an empty chair where the public ought be.

After all, removing the public from the public is precisely the intent of these reforms. The initial wave followed a devastating crisis, a la Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” and ensuing reforms have effectively institutionalized the crisis in Louisiana. This has been achieved by keeping the system in a perpetual state of flux. Schools are constantly opening, closing or changing hands, teacher retention rates are exceedingly low, and a number of different government authorities vie for oversight within the same geographic area.  Just understanding the organizational flow of the New Orleans public school system is a tall task. There are 16 schools under the direct management of the state-run Recovery School District (RSD), and 49 charters that fall under the state’s purview at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). 26 of these charters belong to five separate networks that manage multiple schools, while the other 23 are part of independent non-network charters. Meanwhile, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) oversees nine non-network charters, and another two that are part of the same charter network as five schools that fall under the purview of the BESE. Meanwhile, the OPSB retains direct management of six schools: down from over 100 before Katrina hit.

Furthermore, the policy of tying teacher tenure to standardized test performance has added to this instability by greatly reducing teacher retention. A quick glance at empirical data on the number of first year teachers is quite revealing on this point. A recently published report by the Louisiana Board of Education (LBOE) provides this demographic information for the 2009-2010 school year. In the charter heavy RSD (37 of 70 total are charters), 619 of 2,237 teachers were in their first year. That comes out to roughly 27.7%, compared to a statewide rate of 10.7%. If the teacher tenure reforms accomplish anything, it is keeping the revolving door of personnel moving.

The continuous flow of new teachers is largely provided by non-profits like Teach for America and Teach Nola, each of which have supplied hundreds of rookie instructors since Katrina. These donor-subsidized salaries result in considerably lower cost to the state and charter operators, which many critics would surmise to be the primary intent of these reforms: chopping public sector salaries under the guise of improving the quality of education.

Teachers’ unions view the changes as a direct threat to the integrity of their vocation. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers’ (LFT) Director of Public Relations, Les Landon, spoke with me on this theme in particular: “We’re very concerned about what we see as the de-professionalization of teaching.” He raised the issue of removing the requirement that teachers be certified as one example of the move in this direction. However, the reliance on test results received the bulk of his criticism. He said: “Almost every decision on a teacher’s professional life is going to be based on student test scores. We think that’s a pretty terrible idea . . . What they are basically doing is trying to say that anybody can teach as long as you can get children to fill out the right bubbles on the test form.”

In that vein, New Orleans charters have fared better than their counterparts elsewhere in demonstrating measurable improvement in test scores. A study last year by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) showed that half of New Orleans’ charter schools were improving at a rate “significantly faster” than equivalent traditional schools. This broke with the national trend that showed charter schools performing slightly worse than their traditional counterparts. However, critics in New Orleans point to an inherent structural advantage on the part of charters. For example, some charters are selective enrollment, and most special-needs kids continue to enroll in traditional public schools. Furthermore, an achievement gap exists among charter schools, suggesting a replication of the same divisions long seen in traditional public schools.

What’s more, Landon argues that the current reforms will reverse any gains made in New Orleans’ charter system by eradicating the prevailing system of accountability. He explained that the CREDO study found that “the New Orleans charter schools were doing well because there was strict accountability on the issuance of charters . . . The Governor’s agenda this year virtually erases (this).” He notes that schools will no longer be required to provide fiscal reports with the LBOE, and instead will direct these reports to “charter authorizers.” These could be non-profit or corporate entities that create at least five charter schools, and then take over the oversight role currently assigned to the district. He is very candid on the implication of this reform: “What this bill does is open the floodgates to privatized education through the charter system.”

In fact, charter operators throughout the country have already proven adept at cashing in on their education endeavors.  An investigative report in the Miami Herald last October unveiled a range of charter school profiteers operating under the auspices of one of the most lenient charter laws in the country (former Gov. Jeb Bush is one of the most high-profile “School Choice” advocates). The authors detail one school, “The Academy of Arts and Minds,” that has been used as a lucrative source of business for founder Manuel Alonso-Poch. He charged $900,000 a year in rent, $150,000 for providing lunch, and $90,000 for handling the financial books during the last fiscal year. According to the report, charter schools have developed a reputation for this sort of activity, to the point of even attracting the watchful eye of the IRS.

The prospect for financial gain is likely the primary motivator of some of the most vocal supporters of these reforms. A scan through the board of directors of any of a number of charter operators reveals a veritable “Who’s Who” of American Aristocracy. For example, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which operates over 100 public charter schools throughout the country, boasts a significant list of billionaires. John Fisher, son of Gap clothing founders Doris and Don, sits atop as chairman. He is joined by his mother, as well as Carrie Walton Penner of the Walmart clan, Mark Nunnelly, managing director of Bain Capital, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and Philippe Dauman, CEO of Viacom. Bill Gates has also been an active contributor to various charter reform efforts.

The education reform agenda has widespread corporate and political support, with members of both parties amongst its biggest advocates. At the highest level, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan previously oversaw an aggressive expansion of charter schools in Chicago while superintendent of that system from 2001-2009. Furthermore, he specifically lent Jindal his support for the recent appointment of state school czar John White, a charter advocate who previously managed the New Orleans system. Meanwhile, similar reforms are currently being debated from coast to coast: New Jersey, Hawaii and Washington state have seen similar legislative packages introduced during the current session. At the same time, the Florida Senate narrowly defeated a “Parent Trigger” bill last month, which would have granted parents the power to turn their children’s schools over to charters if it were failing and a majority of parents approved.

While that defeat is certainly encouraging, it is one of the few times these reforms have been beaten back, given their heavy bipartisan support. Meanwhile, the left tends to be focused elsewhere, such as bankster malfeasance, ending the imperial wars, resisting the encroaching police state, and so on. It is hard to pick one issue of “most importance,” but education should probably attract more attention. This is an issue that cuts to the soul of the country, as school plays a crucial role in cognitively programming  young people. A whole generation of children are set to be molded in a savage educational environment of resentful and frightened teachers, corporate executives playing the role of school administrators, and billionaires desperately trying to cash in on a vital public service. This seems likely to create an adult population that knows only the retrograde “every man for himself” ideology. It will also wipe out a large swath of the middle class, much of it black and/or female, that populate the ranks of the unionized inner-city teaching force. It will replace them with armies of young, naive “do-gooders” from Teach for America, set on educating the “savages” of the “urban ghettos.” The new education model is replete with economically backward ideology, racism, and union-busting.

New Orleans has had seven years to see how much this system stinks. Unfortunately, the rest of the country looks set to get their turn in the near future. ALEC and other reformers will continue to push this agenda in every state of the nation, and this will not stop until they have thoroughly emasculated the public, or vice versa.