U$A: Beware Capitalism as well as Fascism

Often accurately praised as a deft and almost idealizing satire of religion, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle also can serve as a fictional examination of political science.

Central to the politics of the novel is the fabricated tension among military, government (dictatorship), and religion (Bokononism):

“But people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.” (pp. 174-175)

The U.S. has existed for much of its history on a similar tension between democracy and capitalism, but other tensions have been incredibly important also, many of which are as fabricated as the one in San Lorenzo: the U.S. versus [insert foreign country/enemy], capitalism versus communism (McCarthy Era, arms race with Soviet Union).

With the election of Trump, many have raised concerns about the creeping threat of fascism, and then, some have countered that with arguments that Trump is not a fascist threat.

Lost in that debate, I think, is a very real and present danger: Trump is the logical consequence of the manufactured tension between corporate America and “government” (here, well represented by Bokononism).

For much of the existence of the U.S., the ruling elites of corporate America have created a public demon, “Big Government,” and used that mischaracterization of the democratic purposes of government to meet the very narrow needs of business leaders.

While fanning the flames of the general public’s hatred of the evil Big Government, corporate America has remained mostly unscathed, and then, as a result, the rise of Trump may be about fascism, or it may not be, but it is clearly about the ultimate triumph of naked capitalism and the end of democracy, even as weak as democracy has always been.

The problem with this is that we are now fully committed to an amoral way of being as a people. The rightful tension between capitalism and democracy, what was essential to our becoming a free and equitable people, depends on the moral imperative of democracy to guide the essentially amoral mechanisms of capitalism.

Government as a moral lever has ended slavery and child labor; has expended voting and marriage to all adults; and has corrected innumerable unethical and abusive elements that were created and sustained by naked capitalism.

Left without a moral barometer, heroine sales would be shaped by market forces to respond to heroine addicts; the same if true of snuff films, and the most abusive forms of pornography.

There is no market that would not be shaped by capitalism in ways that are “right” for that amoral paradigm: heroine priced at the level the market will bear, and so on with snuff films and child pornography.

Without the collective moral imperatives of a people—government—people become mere consumers at the whim of the Invisible Hand—and some become sacrificed along the way (slaves, children, women, etc.).

And here we are: Trump is the embodiment of naked capitalism, in which no moral standards exist, just ratings—the crassest reduction of market forces.

Trump’s administration is not a reality show, but an infomercial on replay, a shitty product that depends on the force of overstated (and false) claims that simply have to convince enough people to buy in to not only survive, but thrive.

But Trump has not caused this ugly erosion of a people; he merely represents who we are.

And who we are is a culture in which millionaire pro athletes enjoy the necessary tension between labor and billionaire owners through unions while the rest of the country sits by after electing Trump who is marshaling in the very real possibility of a national right to work law—a federalization of erasing the necessary tension between labor and owners.

All decent people should fear and work against the rise of fascism, but right now, the U.S. is experiencing the real and horrible consequences of abdicating our moral and ethical boundaries to the naked capitalism that is Trump, that is us.

We have become lost in very garbled ends and have completely ignored the means.

Government is rightfully the collective will of the people, a necessary moral and ethical check to the amoral forces of the free market, in which the “free” is not about liberty but about being free of any ethical concerns.

And thus, I see no need for fascism because there is no resistance; the fall of democracy in the U.S. serves the same interests whether by fascism or the slowly creeping cancer of naked capitalism.

The fall of democracy in the U.$.A. is about a people freely admitting we have no soul, no real concern for anyone except “me.”

The branches of government be damned; we have the Home Shopping Network, the foma of a lost people drunk on crude oil.

I, Too, Am a Dangerous Professor if You Covet Ignorance, Hatred

We Marxists are rightfully criticized for being idealistic, but we are unfairly demonized by those across the U.S. who wrongly associate Marxism, socialism, and communism with totalitarian governments and human oppression.

You see, Marxism as a scholarly stance is a moral stance—unlike the amoral pose of capitalism.

We Marxist academics and scholars are all about the good, the right, and the equitable—including creating intellectually challenging classrooms in which every student feels physically and psychologically safe.

But this is 2016 Trumplandia, a sort of Bizarro World in which reality TV has become a real-life nightmare, including a professor watch list promoted by an Orwellian right-wing organization that claims to be protecting free speech and academic freedom by identifying dangerous professors.

George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, has responded with the powerful I Am a Dangerous Professor, and my home state of South Carolina has had three professors included on the list.

The responses to the list have run a range from fear (because professors have received very serious threats) to bemusement to anger about not being included.

I am a white male full professor with tenure, but I teach in the South—where before I joined a university faculty, I was an intellectually closeted public school teacher for 18 stressful years.

As a leftist and atheist, I was constantly vigilant to mask who I was, what I believe and live, because I was fearful of losing my job and career (SC is an Orwellian-named “right to work” state) that I dearly love.

When I interviewed for my current position, I was about as naive and idealistic as a person could be about the golden fields of higher education.

During my model lesson for my day-long interview, I explained to the class I was a critical pedagogue, and thus offering a Marxist perspective on literacy and power.

Later in the day, at the debriefing and in hushed tones, I was told I may want to not share the whole Marxist thing if hired at the university.

I was hired—although my being a critical educator, scholar, and public intellectual have all been problematic throughout my second career as a professor.

And I have bull-headedly remained true to my ethics as both a professor/teacher and a critical pedagogue, best expressed by my dear friend and mentor Joe Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive. (p. 2)

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (p. 11)

In fact, yesterday in my foundations of education course, I reiterated to the class that as a Marxist I often seem obnoxious, even dogmatic because I teach and speak with a moral imperative, an impassioned moral imperative—seeking that which is right, good, and equitable.

About this watch list, then, I am torn, struggling between embracing Yancy’s brilliant rebuttal and my own belief that I am in fact not the dangerous one because the dangerous thing about this world is to remain both ignorant and without a moral grounding.

As a Marxist educator and scholar/public intellectual, as a critical pedagogue, I am not the person hiding who I am or what I am seeking.

The dishonest are those who claim to be objective when in fact they are endorsing uncritically an inequitable status quo.

The dishonest are those claiming a non-political pose that is itself a political pose.

The dishonest are waving flags and chanting the entirely dishonest “Make America Great Again.”

That is dangerous stuff—endangering the faint promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that I, in fact, hold sacred.

So I am left with this paradox: I, too, am a dangerous professor if you covet ignorance, hatred.

If you are seeking the Truth, however, as well as the right, the good, and the equitable, please call me comrade because I am no danger to you at all.

Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again”

When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.

Bayard Rustin

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

When I met with my first-year writing seminar, Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter, this Monday, I noted that the weekend had provided for us local and national examples of why the course matters: locally, one high school restricted students from having U.S. flags at a football game because of patterns of using that flag to taunt and harass rival students who are Latinx/Hispanic, and nationally, Colin Kaepernick was questioned about his sitting during the National Anthem at the beginning of NFL preseason games.

As entry points into the work of Baldwin as well as the long history of racism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I read aloud and we discussed Langston Hughes‘s “Theme for English B” [1] and “Let America Be America Again.”

I stressed to these first-year college students that Hughes lived and wrote in the early to mid-1900s—nearly a century ago in terms of the college student personae in “Theme for English B.”

As we examined the professor/student and race-based aspects of power in “Theme,” students were quick to address the relevance of Hughes today—emphasizing as well part of my instructional purpose to expose these students to the lingering and historical racism in the U.S.

But the real meat of this class session revealed itself as we explored “Let America Be America Again.”

Hughes: “(America never was America to me.)”

Written and published about 80 years ago, “Let America Be America Again” represents a racialized dismantling of the American Dream myth—a poetic companion to the skepticism and cynicism of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other writers/artists works throughout the early to mid-twentieth century.

Hughes begins with a celebratory stanza that easily lulls readers into an uncritical response to the American Dream, but then offers a brilliant device, the use of parentheses, to interject a minority voice (parenthetical, thus representing the muted voices of the marginalized in the U.S.) after several opening stanzas:

(America never was America to me.)…

(It never was America to me.)…

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

And then the poem turns on two italicized lines followed by:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

My students soon recognized a disturbing paradox: Hughes and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan share a foundational claim but for starkly different reasons.

Trump has built political capital on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim (both as “Others”) sentiment that the media and pundits often mask behind what is being called legitimate white working-class angst.

Parallel racist anger has been sparked when Michelle Obama, for example, confronted that the White House was built in part with slave labor—raising the issue of just who did build this country. Upon whose backs? we must ask.

Eight volatile decades ago, Hughes named “the poor white, fooled and pushed apart” now courted by Trump’s coded and blatant racism and xenophobia.

However, Hughes’s poem celebrates the diverse workers who created the U.S. while reaping very little if any of the benefits. Hughes offers a different coded assault, his on capitalism and the ruling elites, but not the rainbow of U.S. workers “fooled,” it seems, by the hollow promise of the American Dream.

In Whitmanesque style, Hughes raises throughout the poem a collective voice of immigrants and slaves as the foundation of the U.S.:

I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

But as he returns to the poem’s refrain, Hughes unmasks the promise and tempers the hope:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

In the final stanza, there is hope, built on “We, the people, must redeem.”

In a time of Trump’s cartoonish stereotype of the empty politician, his “Built a Wall” and “Make America Great Again” sloganism, we must reach back almost a century to Hughes’s often ignored voice that merges races through our shared workers’ remorse.

Hughes calls out the robber baron tradition of U.S. capitalism—”those who live like leeches on the people’s lives”—as the “fooled and pushed apart” line up to support those very leeches.

“Let America Be America Again” is a warning long ignored, but truths nonetheless facing us. Silence and inaction are endorsements of these truths.

“To be afraid,” Bayard Rustin acknowledged, “is to behave as if the truth were not true.”

It remains to be seen if we are brave enough as a people to “Let America Be America Again.”


[1] See also Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes.

Education Does Not Need Business Hokum

The United States has now “progressed” in its fascination with wealth to the point that Trump (a serial failed billionaire, born with, but not earning, a giant silver spoon) is benefitting from the Teflon of his wealth, possibly all the way to the White House.

Despite everything we claim, folks in the U.S. think getting rich justifies just about everything, and is willing to turn a blind eye to virtually anything rich and famous people do—while destroying middle class and especially poor folk for the same behaviors.

An equally disturbing and illogical obsession is one with business—especially as a counter to the often damned “government.”

One of our most important public institutions has always and continues to be cheated because it is a public institution and by our fetish for business models at all cost.

It is a regular refrain by good people with good intentions that education just needs the savior that is the business model: business leaders (not educators) tossing out those hokum promises of competitiveness, leadership, and innovation.

Let me be clear, I am not being sarcastic about these arguments and proposals being from good people with good intentions. But that cannot justify the emptiness and inappropriateness of the terms or concepts behind them.

Despite our love affair in the U.S. with competition, a solid body of research shows that collaboration and cooperation are far more effective than competition. That fact is even more pronounced in education where within and among states, schools, and teachers, we must be working together—not against each other—in order to bring equity to the lives and schooling of children, and their families, and to everyone.

Competition creates some winners, and many losers.

“Leadership” and “innovation,” however, are simply the very worst of the business world, the empty-suit mantras best captured in the comic strip Dilbert.

In business and education, a key failure of both includes bureaucracy and the professionalization of the workforce—seminars, certification, retraining to create leaders and innovators.

It is all hokum—profound wasting of time, energy, and funding; benefitting only the marketers of “leadership” and “innovation.”

“Leadership” is the last refuge of someone who has nothing real to offer. “Innovation” is a market promise only slightly less misleading than the stock market or the lottery (and really, there is no difference between those).

“Leadership” is “Let me tell you what to do (because I am better than you, which is obvious by my success and your failure, which is your own fault).” Service, however, is “How can I use my privilege in the service of your needs?”

There is a paternalism and missionary zeal among business leaders and models that claim be a fix for any or every thing. Just look at how this has manifested itself in education already with the rise and apparent impending fall of Teach For America, a leadership organization masquerading as an education organization.

No, education does not need business leaders or a business model. In fact, business needs to step away from its own ridiculous model.

Yes, education needs to be reimagined, but by educators in the service of all students, families, and ultimately the democracy our schools serve.

U.S. Offers Only Soft or Hard Commitments to Ravages of Consumerism

Many people have commented on the rise of Trump as the leader in the Republican quest for president—noting it is like a bad reality show or some life-imitates-art version of Idiocracy.

However, the truth of what Trump represents is much, much uglier than any of those speculations because Trump represents almost perfectly exactly who the U.S. is, and essentially always has been.

The U.S. has always bloviated on sweeping and grand ideologies about Freedom, Liberty, and so much horse manure, but the very beginnings of that were while white males owned human slaves and white females were human only in relationship to some white man.

The U.S. has always been about someone’s freedom at the expense of other people’s human dignity; and that fact remains today in 2016.

And when people say the the U.S. is a conservative nation, mostly right of center (especially in relationship to Europe and Canada), the reality of that is “conservative” is a code for a blind and nearly rabid commitment to consumerism—a consumerism grounded in Social Darwinism that breeds a lust for financial wealth regardless of the consequences to others.

Sure, Trump is profoundly unqualified to be a national leader and is spewing vile and inexcusable hatred, but the space between Trump and mainstream Republicans and Democrats is minuscule once you set aside the rhetoric.

From Trump to Cruz, a slight step back and to the side; from Cruz to Hillary, yet another slight step back and to the side. Republicans bark a hard commitment and Democrats skirt a soft commitment to the ravages of consumerism, but the consequences are the same.

Except for Sanders in the 2016 election cycle, team politics between Republicans and Democrats is splitting hairs and turning a blind eye to your candidate while eviscerating the other side’s candidate for the same behavior.

Mainstream politics in the U.S. creates the delusion of choice and keeps the public frantic so that no one notices there really is no difference because everything is about the winners maintaining their edge.

Never-ending war, mass incarceration, staggering income and wealth inequity, underfunded public institutions, refusals to acknowledge lingering racism—these are the qualities among every candidate on both sides of the so-called aisle.

The Nixon/Reagan contributions to mass incarceration of black and brown populations are nearly indistinguishable from the Clinton era gutting of the social safety net devastating the same people.

And all the while, the only thing that matters is the economy. The sacred economy doomed George W. Bush’s presidency and ushered in Obama—not any ethical matters of war or failures to secure human dignity or the lip service we give Democracy.

There could be few indignities worse than electing Trump as president of the U.S., but to be perfectly honest, Trump is in the course of the history of the country, the most perfect representative of who we are and have always been: A cartoon character spewing bromides to hide our dark and soulless greed.

And then, nearly as bad, if we elect someone from the remaining mainstream candidates, that indignity will be only slightly less than choosing Trump because what she or he represents is so close to being the same that it really doesn’t matter.

A Crack in the Dam of Disaster Capitalism Education Reform?

“Disaster capitalism” may at first blush appear to be hyperbole, ideological manipulation, or so much academic jargon; however, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the education reform that disaster unintentionally created now represents the various components of how those market-based policies both reflect and perpetuate the very educational problems reformers claim to be addressing.

For this post, I am targeted as elements of disaster capitalism education reform the following: dismantling teachers’ unions/tenure, hiring Teach For America (TFA) cadets, converting traditional public schools to charter schools, and creating takeover districts (often called “achievement” or “opportunity” districts).

Before addressing how these disaster capitalism reforms are failing, I want to emphasize that very real and clear problems exist in traditional public schools (TPS), for example:

  • TPS are increasingly segregated by race and social class.
  • Vulnerable student populations (poor, black/brown, English Language Learners [ELL], special needs students) are disproportionately attending underfunded schools and school buildings in disrepair; they are funneled into low-tracked courses that are test-prep and/or unchallenging (basic); they are assigned inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers while also sitting in high teacher-student ratios courses; and they are disproportionately subjected to inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes.

When the education reform movement kicked into high gear, the promises were grand and the evidence was thin, but now we are beginning to have evidence of how the grand claims have wilted on the vine, and the fruit is rotting all around us.

The blunt truth is disaster capitalism reform commitments failed to admit the real problems facing our TPS (societal inequity as well as in-school inequity), offered market-based solutions that could only address problems indirectly (the Invisible Hand), and have refused to admit the growing research base showing that these so-called reforms create and perpetuate the problems reformers ignored at the outset (the whole “no excuses” charade that trivialized addressing societal inequity as making excuses).

Charter schools are not raising test scores, but they are segregating children by race and class. Charter schools are also intensifying the already inequitable disciplinary practices vulnerable students face in formal schooling (notably for black and brown children).

Takeover school districts (such as the Recovery School District in New orleans) have been unmasked as failures.

But possibly the best example of how disaster capitalism education reform is failing is now being exposed by former TFA participants, specifically the research of Terrenda C. White.

White’s analysis reveals that while TFA makes big claims about addressing diversity (and may have done so within TFA), the consequences of districts and states committing to TFA have had the opposite effect. In an interview, White strikes at this paradox:

What happened in New Orleans, for example, is a microcosm of this larger issue where you have a blunt policy that we know resulted in the displacement of teachers of color, followed by TFA’s expansion in that region. I’ve never heard TFA talk about or address that issue. Or take Chicago, where the number of Black teachers has been cut in half as schools have been closed or turned around. In the lawsuits that teachers filed against the Chicago Board of Education, they used a lot of social science research and tracked that if a school was low performing and was located on the north or the west side and had a higher percentage of white teachers, that school was less likely to be closed. As the teachers pointed out, this wasn’t just about closing low-performing schools, but closing low-performing schools in communities of color, and particularly those schools that had a higher percentage of teachers of color. What bothers me is that we have a national rhetoric about wanting diversity when at the same time we’re actually manufacturing the lack of diversity in the way in which we craft our policies. And we mete them out in a racially discriminatory way. So in many ways we’re creating the problem we say we want to fix (emphasis added).

The evidence is clear, across the elements of disaster capitalism education reform, that these policies are suffering from the same inequities that are at the root of TPS failures.

I have been making this plea for some time now, but the evidence has grown in my favor, and even those from within the disaster capitalism education reform movement, such as White, have begun to admit the crack:

Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease (emphasis added). (Oscar Wilde [1891], The Soul of Man under Socialism)

Let us now admit the larger problems, confront the failures of TPS, and then create policies that address directly and openly the problems, many of which are related to race and social class inequity.

I Didn’t Mean to Be Politically Prescient, But …

This is a poem I wrote in 2012, mostly out of a growing cynicism about mainstream politics. However, it appears that this presidential season has proven me to be far more prescient than I intended:

choice (Vote!)

Circus was a festive land, especially at Festival.
Every citizen was proud to be part of the 3Rings.

This day the Tent was snaked with lines to vote,
and he had learned the slogans by heart as a child:

“Your Ring, Your Clown, Your Choice” and
“A Choice Is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”

So he waited his turn to choose between two cards—
Ring 1: Barnum Party Blue, Ring 2: Bailey Party Red.

Either choice he already knew, but dared not utter:
When he chose his card and returned to the elephants,

he remained forever Carny1691 with a shovel because
nothing was ever different behind the paint of a Clown.