Of the people, by the people, for the people

Watching a video of an interview with Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower, fugitive and public intellectual living in Russia. I saw Citizen Four, the movie about his decision and actions to release information about the widespread NSA surveillance both in the United States and around the world, last night. The story impressed me, not in small part because it featured Snowden in his humility, his philosophical thinking, his challenge of the contradiction between the American value of the right to privacy — encoded in the Fourth Amendment — and the justification for gathering data about millions of Americans under the Patriot Act.

The video I’m watching contains a set of lines from Snowden that I love and resonate deeply with conversations I’m having with colleagues and friends about the question of government and governance (for they are not the same thing) and what it means to live in a democracy:

…We should be cautious about putting too much faith or fear in the work of public officials. At the end of the day, this is just a president…If we want to see a change, we must force it through ourselves. If we want to have a better world, we can’t hope for an Obama, and we should not fear a Donald Trump. Rather, we should build it ourselves.

Can we have a people-powered movement, a change that flies in the face of corporatism and cronyism and doublespeak and corruption of not only democracy but also critical thinking? Can we have a government, again, of the people, by the people, for the people, as Lincoln once mused?

Paciencia, then. Estamos plantando. Let’s start planting.

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PAINTING BY A. BALLESTER

“GOP Gov. Snyder’s office says Detroit school kids have no right to literacy”: an opportunity to develop media literacy

The post title comes from an article a friend of mine posted on my Facebook feed, alarmed and asking what I thought of this situation.
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Photograph by Herbert Russell

Below is my response…

It’s a very interesting proposition. Checked out the story on the CBS website and this is what was included:

“The lawsuit says the schools are in ‘slum-like conditions’ and ‘functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy.’ The case, filed in federal court, directly accuses Gov. Rick Snyder, the state school board and others of violating the civil rights of low-income students.”

A couple of missing connections:

1) Schools in Detroit (and Philadelphia and Chicago and other struggling school districts) have suffered from a lack of funding which is connected both to housing issues as well as to the direct connection of federal funding to school performance, which has been in part due to the way that some states have interpreted the Common Core (see http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/common-core-state-standards/). Obscured with this kind of commentary is the connection between federal funds and testing/school performance, which also drives decision-making on teacher retention, and the fact that schools continue to be financed by property taxes. Those tax revenues in Detroit have fallen significantly over the last decade or more, due in part to the Great Recession as well as other economic issues germane to Detroit, all of which has contributed to the struggles of that school system.

2) The accusation that Governor Snyder — who has indeed been taken to task for mismanagement and shady dealings with the public school system in Michigan — explicitly believes that students should not have a right to literacy is not accurate. Here’s another story whose header reads, “Literacy Not A Right For Detroit School Kids According To State” (http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2016/11/21/literacy-not-a-right-for-detroit-school-kids-says-state/) but which doesn’t include any specific comment that Snyder actually made about this.

I’m concerned that this is sensationalistic reporting rather than a deeper exploration of the complex questions in play. I would say that negligence is definitely a part of this, but saying that Snyder was attacking the civil rights of poor and the illiterate children of Detroit is an exaggeration. This is attack-the-individual thinking which has characterized “reporting” of late and keeps us from working on bigger and more complicated problems.

A final point: We as Americans are stuck in the democratic paradox (see my discussion of this in a previous post), which allows liberalism — freedom to pursue your own way of doing things, freedom not to be responsible for other people, etc. — to coexist with democracy. How can we support the participation of all Americans in our civic spaces when we prioritize the education of some over others through inequitable economic policies and “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” thinking?

I don’t think my friend liked my response. It’s been three hours, which is like an eternity in FB world.

Rancière and the role of education in political conformity/contestation

Yesterday I read a paper by Gert Biesta, a professor of education drawing from philosophy and political science whose interdisciplinary thinking inspires those of us like myself who are unconvinced by the all-too-often superficiality and dilettantism of the field of education. (I will write about this this week, as it bothers me greatly that those of us researching and working to improve the education system in the United States seem sometimes to be perceived as the redheaded stepchildren of academia.) Biesta’s paper, entitled “The Ignorant Citizen: Mouffe, Ranciere, and the Subject of Democratic Education,” addresses a little-critiqued assumption in education and political thinking in the United States: that democracy as a political regime is a good thing.

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SOURCE: HTTP://INTERACTIVE.FUSION.NET/RISE-UP-BE-HEARD/VOTING-PARTICIPATION.HTML

He focuses on two authors, Jacques Rancière and Chantal Mouffe, social and political thinkers whose (post-)Marxist collaborations on radical redefinitions of democracy offer a response to the democratic paradox, a conceptualization of the modern democratic state and the messy imbrications of liberalism and democracy as propositions in the question of political  identity, subjectivity, and subjectification. Biesta asks whether our view that democratic citizenship should be a substantive goal of education presupposes a set of assumptions of political conformity that make democracy itself possible, thus conceiving of the role of education as a process of socialization, rather than one of subjectification. Of these two processes, Biesta suggests, the former asks “how ‘newcomers’ can be inserted into an existing political order” (141), while the latter supports a redefining of democracy not as a space of assumed consensus — which proposes a preestablished order into which the political subject is inserted — but rather a producer of “dissensus” in which political subjectivity can be contested and “new ways of doing and being can come into existence.” (emphasis in original, 150)

I find this particularly fascinating given both my own work and the current state of affairs in the United States. Whatever democracy was supposed to be, we must concede, has over the years been weather-worn and worm-ridden with myriad divestments of the possibility of equality, teetering on the values and behaviors of the powerful in the form of casino capitalism and corporate influence in government while variously commodifying and excluding immigrants, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, trans and queer people, women, and the poor. Critical thinking invites consideration of the democratic paradox from our country’s earliest conception. On a more philosophical level, the question of the role of education in the definition and positioning of the political subject is broad and hard to address. My research focuses on “low-status” adult immigrants and their participation in educational opportunities in nonprofit organizations, especially those which provide workforce skills training, and the influences of such educational experiences on their political participation as “new Americans.” Even this term brings a different challenge when we consider whether it refers to democracy as emblematic of political systems which permit participation so long as an individual is socialized into following the rules, so to speak, or whether it refers to a contestation of what participation itself means, of what the individual’s role and possibilities are, of what civic learning is and can be, and so on. Biesta states:

“The ignorant citizen is the one who is ignorant of a particular definition of what he or she is supposed to be as a ‘good citizen.’ The ignorant citizen is the one who, in a sense, refuses this knowledge and through this, refuses to be domesticated, refuses to be pinned down in a pre-determined civic identity.” (emphasis in original, 152)

Can we even conceive of civic learning as an opportunity to access the “experiment of democracy” (152) as it could truly be construed, where the political subject, the individual, can access spaces of dissent and creative generation of new political possibilities, not simply as a sleepwalker through the monolithic set of political norms through which we experience our political selves in the era of Trump?

Getting started

It’s a funny title for a post, since I’ve been writing this blog since 2014. However, what began as a scholarly exercise, to be executed faithfully but unhurriedly, has shifted in my mind. The stream of conversation now, in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, has become a torrent of great anger, anxiety, sorrow, and uncertainty, with smatterings of told you so’s and many predictions for the future. I am writing this now to exercise my voice and to contribute what I can, as a PhD student, a professor, and a reader and writer about immigration and education. As both aspects of the conversation about the future of America very much need defense and advocacy, I commit myself to doing this as much as I can, both here and elsewhere in my work.

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COALITION OF IMMOKALEE WORKERS PROTEST ON MARCH 10, 2012
SOURCE: HTTP://WAGINGNONVIOLENCE.ORG/FEATURE/WHY-IM-WALKING-200-MILES-WITH-THE-IMMOKALEE-WORKERS/

Last night I read a Truthout article about the increasing influence of big donors on public education. Entitled “Are Wealthy Donors Influencing the Public School Agenda?“, the piece detailed the shifts in education policy at the local and state level that have occurred more and more via the donation of big money from wealthy “reformers” (the discursive construction of the term reform will be the topic of a future post.) These philanthro-barons come to the proverbial table with disproportionately loud voices, silencing participation from smaller (read: less well-funded) participants on decisions relating to educational policy taken by local school boards. Donations from such “education reformers” — who are often not members of the communities to which they donate — have influenced the ways in which school board elections come out, using the power of media representation to undercut messaging from competitors with smaller coffers. Aside from skewing the democratic election process, the influence of wealthier, more powerful donors brings the increasing presence of the values they espouse, which, according to the article’s authors’ background research (see here and here), differ significantly from most people in the United States. These donors tend to hold neoliberal perspectives rooted in market-driven solutions like “school choice” (code for controversial voucher programs and the increase in the number of charter schools, which are meant to provide alternatives to struggling district schools and compel those in existence to ‘step up their game’) and “accountability” (code for highly problematic data-driven decision-making which supports funding cuts and staff reductions for underperforming schools).

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CAT WITH A CIGAR BY LOUIS WAIN, COURTESY OF WIKI COMMONS

The issue resonates with the 2016 presidential election for me, not because of the “fat cats always win” crowing I’m doing along with many other folks. Instead, I see this as part of a conversation we in the United States need to have about the role of the media and messaging in shaping our public discourse. The Truth-Out article includes the story of a local school board candidate who, like me, works in the education of adult immigrants. He states the following:

It [money] changes the discourse…their [the reform candidates] message is the only message. Not just the dominant message anymore. It’s the only message people are hearing.

Why is this the case? Are parents and communities literally unable to get access to a diversity of perspectives in decisions about education? Is it the fact that we are so overloaded at work, so wrapped up in the latest Netflix series that we can’t find the time to talk to the other people on our street or on the bus or subway? The blinding and deafening of corporate media blitzing, which likewise draws strength and influence from the strategic controls of wealth, may have something to do with this. The news tells me the schools are struggling, teachers are not doing their jobs, students are innocent and must be saved, our families are under fire, and other messages that induce panic. We must make change. Enter…reform. Exit community togetherness, dialogue with equal sharing of the mike.

Money massages us into forgetting that we don’t need saving by outside angels. We forget that we have our own tools. Can we recall that in a democratic country all voices should be equal, not some “more equal than others” because they come from throats swathed in silks printed in glossy campaigns that inundate and lure us away from critical thinking and connection to our neighbor?

Pro-immigrant activism in Boston

Yesterday morning I went with organizers from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (https://www.miracoalition.org/) to the State House in Boston to advocate for the support of amendments to the state budget which protect immigrants’ access to housing, in-state tuition, education, and health care. We spoke with representatives and their aides and interns about this complicated but yet very human process of passing laws. Inspiring to think about how shaking hands, seeing people face to face (if not eye to eye), can still influence change. We are all civically connected!

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I’m also attaching the a link to the documents which listed the talking points we brought with us to speak with the representatives. MIRA made it accessible and real for everyone involved. A great model to follow in considering how to participate in the health and protection of our community in partnership with our elected leaders!

MIRA opposes Public Housing Discrimination 1
Please co-sponsor these amendments_&_opposed amendements for action

Conclusion: A commitment

This is the conclusion for an essay I just finished tonight (I’ll publish the rest tomorrow, as it’s still in the finalization process):

Thus, I will end this essay with a vow that I make for myself, for my fellow educators, and for my students: I promise to continue to think critically and philosophically about the important and ignored issue of non-profit adult education, all the while building my own fluency, my own form of “sociopolitical literacy,” to building bridges and better understandings with the pragmatists, while working to mediate and change the relationship between the power holders in society and those who are subject to their will. As academics we, too, belong to a powerful group as well, and we must act as bridge-builders and communicators as well as critics of the neoliberal status quo. I must understand that within the powerful hegemony/doxa of neoliberalism rest many enshrined truths that cannot be easily moved from their thrones, including the powerfully influential discourse of philanthropy as a form of apolitical good. I must be clear in my use of terminology and be willing to understand things from the other side; I must be clear, too, that in understanding what education is – no matter whether it be for children or adults, native-born people or immigrants – my role must be to remind my colleagues that our goal is educating within a democratic vision (if not a truly democratic version yet) of our society. Just as we progressives argue that American children are not simply future workers but future members of an (ostensibly) democratic nation, so too must we remember that immigrants – including some of the parents of these American children for whom we so passionately advocate – who come to live in our community, society, and country do not deserve the dehumanizing, prescribed, circumscribed version of a neoliberally defined future, either.

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Sophie’s Choice

I just watched the movie referenced above this weekend, and if you haven’t seen it – especially if you’re a Meryl Streep fan – I would highly recommend it. True to its name, the title character, Sophie, makes a terrible choice and changes the course of her life forever. (I won’t spoil it but suffice it to say, it’s a doozy.

I feel that as a voter in the U.S., I am generally faced with the very difficult choice of trying to decide how to cast my vote. I’m a registered independent, but in the past I’ve consistently voted Democrat. I did so sometimes because I believed in the candidate or issue I was voting on – like Obama’s election and re-election, for example – but more often because I felt that I was, as the overused saying goes, choosing the lesser of two evils.

But what happens when the system itself is “evil” – or at least working poorly – and voting in fact may be an expression of my approval thereof? I heard something similar from Russell Brand, a British celebrity-turned-political activist who spoke in an interview with Jeremy Paxman about his belief that voting in a system that serves to consolidate the power of the few over the impotence over the many implies “tacit complicity” from its constituents. In the interview, Brand avers that the current system must be replaced by a new political structure in which the people of ostensibly democratic countries feel truly served and protected by their leaders (though he has no idea what such a system could look like).

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I’m certainly not ready to take on anything like that daunting task, but I have one thought, a simple one that many others have suggested and one which showed up in the Green Party platform that I’m reading for class (along with the Republican and Democratic platforms as well – our professor is even-handed and believes in fair representation of all perspectives): abolish the electoral college. Such a move, the Green Party argues, would “guarantee the Presidency to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states,” rather than permit what happened in 2000, for example, when George W. Bush, in spite of losing the popular vote, won the electoral college and, thus, the presidency.

Now, in making such a basic suggestion, I am overlooking the fact that, for example, campaign spending reached $1.5 billion in the midterm elections, as well as the fact that Facebook tweaked voter turnout in 2012 by conducting a psychological experiment using a concept called “emotional contagion” which it leveraged to influence random users’ voting activities based on exposure to certain information. The playing field certainly is not level; media-based political influence, campaign finance reform, accountability and other issues certainly must be dealt with as well (which, incidentally, the Green Party accounts for in its platform). But starting with an easy target – the dismantling of the electoral college, a 200-year-old system in which the lower classes left voting decisions to the “most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each state” (see here for more historical information) – is a way for we, the people, to begin exploring new definitions of a dried-up democracy. Rather than make this about an impossible decision, it can start to be about changing the conversation to accommodate realities that have not come into being yet are long overdue. We still have power in our hands, and it seems that new conversations need to happen about how to use it.