Song of the Day: Pete Seeger “John Brown’s Body”

So in the new year I’m going to try to commit myself to a “Song of the Day” feature here at extracreditlifepoints.

Today’s song relates to what I’ve been teaching in my history class: Pete Seeger’s “John Brown’s Body.”

John Brown came to fame (and perhaps infamy) for his belief in racial equality, his willingness to use violence to back abolitionist efforts in Kansas, and most of all, his effort to provoke a slave uprising in the south, starting at the armory at Harper’s Ferry, VA. Brown was hated in the south and considered a traitor by many northerners, though he gradually became a hero to many, particularly slaves and black soldiers, who saw themselves as sharing something in common with a man willing to fight and die for the cause of ending slavery.

The song’s melody has its roots in the camp meetings of the 2nd Great Awakening, the Christian religious revival that spawned the abolitionist movement during the 1830 and helped create the modern definition of equality that we see today. This song’s first appearance is believed to have been in 1861, courtesy of the “Tiger” Battalion of Union soldiers in Massachusetts. Many believed the song to be crude on many levels (and perhaps felt more than a little uncomfortable when African Americans started singing it) and in 1862, Julia Ward Howe adapted the song into the Battle Hymn of the Republic that we know today.

And Hey! For kicks let’s pull a couple tracks here. From the great New Orleans singer, here’s John Boutte jazzy version of the Battle Hymn. http://www.last.fm/music/John+Boutt%C3%A9/_/Battle+Hymn+of+the+Republic

And in tribute to some of the great union battles of the past year, here’s Ralph Chaplin’s 1915 twist on the tune as performed by Utah Phillips.

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For those with Amazon Gift Cards to Burn, the 10 Best Albums of 2012

 

About two years ago, I remember reading an article in Salon that argued that hipsterism had reached its saturation point. The saturation point for any sort of trend is when it appears just about everywhere. Basically, if the New York Times is reporting on something as a thing “all the kidz are raging about,” you know it’s on its way out.

Well I guess the last Radiohead album gave the hipsters in Brooklyn a new lease on life (and their apartment after their parents cut them off.)

Now the last few years have been defined much more by making fun of hipsters than actually being or hanging out with hipsters. I apparently went to a hipster school, and I still don’t really know what it is except that it’s a name I can use to make fun of people I didn’t really talk to that much and had moustaches.

Hipsterism has generally been defined in culture and music as celebration of irony and intelligence. Both qualities trumped other virtues like honesty, earnestness and being gainfully employed. Among other things, hipsters lived in Brooklyn, grew weird pornstaches (if they were men), cut their hair to Mad Men-lengths (if they were women), and mocked others who outwardly cared a little too much. These were the emo kids you heard about in high school. They wore tight jeans with blazers and cheap ties. Again, do I know any of these people? Nah, but I’m told they are somewhere, and I’m not supposed to like them. (Okay yes on tight

In music, I guess this has meant loving weird, electronic music, mixed with horns and occasional strange time signatures. For better or for worse, Radiohead has become the ultimate hipster band. See also any band that made you think “Smiths” “Cure” “Elvis Costello,” (the look, not always the music) “Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”.

Something started to change in the music, though. If you went to college, you started to notice over the last few years a lot of banjos and mandolins. The debut of the Fleet Foxes signaled that what we listened to and why we listened to was shifting.. Bands like the Fleet Foxes, the Avett Brothers, and then Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers were rooted in acoustic guitars and nods to folk, bluegrass, and country. And not the overly polished tripe of Nashville country, but the sounds of outlaws like Johnny Cash and the oft-imitated Gram Parsons.

Now this music has always been around. And really, it’s downright stupid to make any generalizations about music in the 21st century when the world of music is so fragmented. (Beautifully so, mind you.) Especially when none of what I will say here includes the biggest selling musician of the year, Ms. John Mayer’s Ex.

Still even Miley Cyrus seems to have felt the world move beneath her feet. Did you notice this?

All of which brings me at last to this list. This is my Best Music of 2012 list. I’ve broken it into two categories. We’ve got my Top 10 of 2012, which is dominated by the sounds of Americana, demonstrating that a big part of our music scene is looking backward. If the ‘70s gave us a post-hippie hangover that was built on folk, blues, and country, then 2012 has brought us a post-hipster hangover rooted in that very same deep well of American music. Plus some soul and horns for good measure. Does this music indicate that my particular demographic (mid-20s upper-middle class white kids) is becoming a little more earnest and open and authentic in our emotions. It could be, or it just means we like scraggly beards again.

Still, there’s something to a lot of this music that I feel has not applied to American music in a couple years. Every album on this list captures the fullness of a life well-lived. There’s sadness and joy mixed together as artists discover love, heartbreak, death, birth, unemployment, a good party, and come out the other side hopeful that life, even if it’s not great now, will be getting good in a little while. There are lots of things great music can do, but that to me seems to be the quality of the music that lasts.

Alright y’all ready? Let’s do this.

Honorable Mentions:

The Men Open Your Hearts A Brooklyn band that channels part MC5 and part- Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones. It’s a punk and country stew that does lots of things well.

  • Highlight That rager of an opener “Turn it Around.”  And hey speaking of revivals…

 

The Revivalists City of Sound Now if you’ll hear the opening track “When I’m Able,” you might notice “Hey this sounds  like Kings of Leon what the fuck Mr. U?”. To which I’ll say “Yea? So what?” At which point you’ll realize that you’re not really mad at Kings of Leon’s music. You’re mad, because you liked their early stuff better, feel they sold out, and that they’re kinda dicks.  The New Orleans-based roots rockers have upgraded their sound and embraced a more mainstream sound, perhaps so that a wider audience will hear them, but they have not forgotten where they got their start. After all, almost every track here has a fantastic horns section!

  • Highlight Gotta go with the menacing “Criminal,” a tense and angry piece that may be the heaviest track on this whole list. 

Alabama Shakes Boys and Girls That thing I said about the fullness of life? It works here for the Shakes’ introduction to the world, “Hold On.” We’ve got drums and a three chord guitar intro before Brittany Howard belts out “Bless my heart, bless my soul, didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old.” Like so many great singers, Howard sounds a little bit older and world-wary than she is, even if she knows what it’s like to be young. If you like the Black Keys, but wanted them to have a little more soul, then this should be your band.

  • Highlight “Hold On.” 

10.) P.O.S. We Don’t Live Here Anymore This was a last minute addition to the list and a record that took me a while to warm up to and a good excuse to mention my guest post on One Week One Band about P.O.S collaborator, Astronautalis, last spring. I can’t pretend to be a hip-hop/R&B expert (it took me months to get around to hearing this Frank Ocean character), but P.O.S may be one of the boldest voices in the underground scene. He’s not afraid to take his punk roots to the music, collaborate with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and spit rhymes that are political, cynical, violent, or surreal. Stefon Alexander’s latest record takes him away from the punk-rap hybrid that he perfected on 2009’s Never Better, and closer to the electronic sounds of most modern rap music, and it took a little while for me to take that journey with him. Still, there’s enough variation in sound and arrangement to tell you that Alexander is still a smart and daring voice, even if music is a little bit more mainstream than it used to be.

  • Highlight I just love Astronautalis too much not to give credit to the disco throwback beat and shout out to the Minneapolis hip-hop scene, “Wanted/Wasted.” 

9.) Mynabirds Generals Save our number 2, this is the most political piece here. While their first album was clearly pulling from Stax Records, here we’ve got some clear electronic and punk influences in a noisy mix that is not meant for comfort. Laura Burhenn is frustrated and angry, and waiting for a revolution to come on a second record that pulls from equal parts Sleater-Kinney, Cat Power, and Of Montreal.

  • Highlight The melodies of the anti-war chorus of “Disarm.” 

8.) Spirit Family Reunion No Separation Killers at Floydfest this year, I’ve already said a bit about the Spirit Family Reunion and give them many thanks for making the long drive back from Virginia a little bit brighter and reminding me of what I have to come home to. This band follows in the footsteps of Old Crow Medicine Show in presentation and musical styles, except it’s hard to imagine Old Crow writing something quite as honest and raw as the ode to a lost friend, “On My Friend.” It’s bluegrass, but with no attempts to sound like Foghorn Leghorn.

  • Highlight The infectious stomp of “Green Rocky Road.”

7.) Leonard Cohen Old Ideas Man, thank Buddha for that manager who bilked Mr. Cohen out of millions of dollars, which forced him to leave his Buddhist monastery make a worldwide comeback tour and first new album in 8 years. And kudos to the Producers Ed Sanders, Patrick Leonard, and Cohen himself for creating a warm and earthy mix that is at long last worthy of Mr. Cohen’s odes to aging, sex, and general darkness. No cloying synthesizers to be found for the first time in decades. Just a simple backing band of guitars, keyboards/organs, bass, and drums, the vocals of some of Cohen’s favorite backing singers (Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson) and Cohen’s barely-above-a-whisper baritone over it all. Not much has changed in Cohen’s lyrics or even in his voice over the last 30 years or so. It’s just that at long last we have a band and an arrangement that properly backs them up.

  • Highlight Again given the arrangement and the overall theme of this post, perhaps the plaintive and honest “Going Home” is appropriate. 

6.) Justin Townes Earle Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now Your year’s resident break up album, and boy is this one to mope over. But it’s not all acoustic guitar and sadness: Kudos to the killer Memphis backing band—featuring a great horn section—for infusing this album with vitality and even a little bit of Stax-style rhythm. May this sit alongside Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” and Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” in your collection of tributes to your own self-destructive relationships. The kind that make you blame your lover, yourself and the world at large for your state of affairs, all in equal proportions, while coming out the other side feeling ever so slightly better.

  • Highlight Though I love the trumpet solo on “Down on the Lower East Side”, I have to say that “Look the Other Way” sums up effectively what makes this album work. 

5.) John Fullbright From the Ground Up I’m calling this one the debut of the year! John Fullbright on guitar is a young Steve Earle, and on piano is a young Randy Newman. Equal parts angry, cynical, broken, tragic, and hopeful, this native Oklahoman spits in the face of religion (see the irreverent Gawd Above), looks desperately for love, and sings too-honest lullabies to your children. There are a lot of New York coffee house singers wishing they sounded like this, but they don’t.

  • Highlight The bluesy stomp and autobiographical lyrics of “All the Time in the World” 

4.) The Avett Brothers The Carpenter Loves me a good sequel, and the brothers deliver nicely here. It’s another collection of songs of love, hate, and mortality with the edges smoothed over by Rick Rubin, albeit with a little less piano and a little more guitar and banjo. Their music has continued to grow and develop, combining dramatic lyrics with some of the great pop hooks of the last few years.

  • Highlight“Live and Die,” a terrific single and one which is taking its place as one of the great folk-pop songs ever.  There are few songs that give me a sensation of pure joy, and this is one of them.  

3.) Carolina Chocolate Drops Leaving Eden One more distinctly southern-fried banjo album for you from the preservers of the tradition of great black string bands from North Carolina But just as the Avett Brothers have Beatle-esque pop and hard rock in their repertoire, the Chocolate Drops are not afraid to throw down soul and hip-hop  in their sound, as demonstrated by Adam Matta’s beatbox throughout this record. The real breakout star on this record, though, is multi-instrumentalist and singer Rhiannon Giddens. She’s got charisma and soul on par with every great soul singer to come down the path since her favorite string music fell out of the mainstream all those decades ago, and it is only logical that she would feature on some of the strongest tracks here. She silently mourns a dead factory town in the touching waltz “Leaving Eden,” warns a friend against anger in “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?,” and celebrates divorce in the old blues tune “No Man’s Mama.” Don’t get me wrong, this is truly a group effort, and this band would be nothing without the brilliant arrangements courtesy of Don Flemons and Hubby Jenkins. But it is Giddens that brings this record to a higher plane.

  • Highlight The song that demonstrates everything old and new in this band’s sound, “Ruby Are You Man At Your Man?” 

2.) Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball Okay full disclosure: I am a massive, Bruce-o-phile. I’ve got shirts, I’ve been to concerts, I love ripping live Bruce bootlegs, I mourned for Clarence Clemons… I’ve got a Bruce thing. But trust me when I say that Wrecking Ball deservedly stands not only as one of the best records of 2012—even if no one else agrees with me—AND as one of the great Springsteen albums of his career, as well as possibly the best original Boss album since Ghost of Tom Joad back in 1995, maybe even Nebraska thirty years ago.

We all saw this coming, right? Economic troubles gripped the nation? A factory’s closing? SOMEONE GET THE BOSS OUT OF HIS JERSEY MANSION!

Springsteen is a wealthy man now, for sure, yet he can still tap into that well of working class frustration and despair than everyone else, and he has spent a career discovering and re-discovering the music and words of workers across the generation. When a generation grew up in the ‘90s rejecting undocumented immigrants, Springsteen wrote an album to address their experience. When President Bush lied us into an unjust war of invasion, the Boss found Pete Seeger’s music and mixed it with gospel and Irish folk. And as he entered his 60s, he brought all that together. There is, no short, no greater or more natural storyteller, and that’s why a large and loyal fanbase turns to him to explain the world around them when it starts to get ugly.

Wrecking Ball is a synthesis of damn near every sound of his career. We’ve got the horns from the Seeger Sessions, the thunderous stadium rock from the 80s, the blues and soul that has informed every step of his career, folk and gospel references, and even sampling that brought us Streets of Philadelphia along with a rap from newcomer Michelle Moore. This, folks, is an hour long celebration of damn near everything American music has been in the last 70 years and everything that the American people should be, even when they aren’t: loyal to each other, to their communities, defiant in the face of  pain and heartache, and optimistic for a future that they are certain will be better than what has come before. And thank you, Boss, for reminding us of that.

  • Highlight A title track that would make sense on any of Springsteen’s tours of the last 30 years. Originally written for the to be torn down Giants Stadium, this song has come to stand for a struggling nation that will not fall in the face of obstacles. 

1.) Galactic Carnivale Electricos I first heard this record this past summer passing through New Orleans on my way to Austin. Driving out of Lafayette, Louisiana, I played this album at least four straight times and eagerly announced that this record and everything Stanten Moore and his band of NOLA funk players do should represent the future of music.

New Orleans is a city that is famously in love with itself and its own past, and for good reason. So much of American music owes its existence to this city. Save for Lil Wayne, it has not been a city known for being on the cutting edge of what music is in the present. You go there to hear John Boutte sing old jazz or the Soul Rebels Brass Band play new hip-hop in the style of old funk. It’s a city that’s fun, and not always a city that’s particularly… well… new.

Galactic started in that scene. They were a band rooted in old jazz and funk. Starting in the mid-00s, though,  the band started to take note of the city’s bounce scene, NOLA’s unique brand of hip-hop and worked on how to merge that sound with their own complex arrangements. That ongoing experiment has made them the bridge between the old and new that New Orleans so desperately needed, and it has, in turn, made them the coolest and greatest and most unique band to come out of the city in quite some time.

Their last album demonstrated, Ya-Ka-May, demonstrated just how much respect their experiment was getting, with appearances from Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, the Rebirth Brass Band, Wolfman Washington, and locals names like Big Freedia. For 2012’s Carnivale Electricos, they have finally turned that experiment into a cohesive sound that is all their own. Carnivale  is a Mardi Gras album; to my mind, it is THE Mardi Gras album, the one that will make your whole body move to sounds black, brown and white from New Orleans, Central America, and Brazil. Every genre bend they take on this album—whether it’s a standard rock track like Hey Na Na, a Cajun remix on Voyage ton Flag or the Brazilian rap of O Coco da Galinha—is stitched together by the funk-infused drumming of Moore, hot electric guitars, and a hip-hop production. Even as Galactic pulls influences from across the continent, no track sounds out of place, and the album never sounds like a museum piece or a show-off move. This is something new that everyone can move to, and I hope they do.

  • Highlight Good God there is no one highlight. Just listen to these two tracks back to back to understand why this album is so brilliant. 
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Off to vote! Quick thoughts as I go out the door.

Good morning. I don’t have time today for a long post, which is a shame, because people brought up a lot of great points. So let me just issue a few quick thoughts.

 

1.) Vote today! And please bring your iPhone or a camera with you. Depending on where you live, there will be operatives- largely from the Republican campaign- who will try to sabotage your right to vote. They will often try to intimidate you with blatant lies (a classic from my college days: You will lose your financial aid if you vote outside your district). The long lines you might have seen in Florida? Those are tools of voter suppression, and the only way to respond to those actions is to vote.

2.) After the election Democracy does not end at the polls, it begins there. With the election in the rearview mirror we need to mobilize at the  local, state, and national level on any and all issues that are important to us. President Obama is a politician; politicians don’t stand by the people who will stay silent when he does something they don’t like. The louder we are, the more we can do on the issues that matter.

3.) The system is broken and Jill Stein won’t completely fix it Got a few responses to my blog on Sunday, and perhaps the most compelling was this question: “What exactly would a Jill Stein Administration look like?

It’s a fair question, and I think there’s little doubt that a President Stein would be stymied by conservative Republican and Democrats in Congress. (Though I think a true Progressive in the Presidency might actually mobilize the Progressive Caucus in the House, which is the House of Representatives’ largest and perhaps most powerless caucus.)

But as my post illustrated, so much of presidential power in the 21st century is unchecked by Congress. That’s just the reality. And here Stein- should she keep by her promises- would have great effect. Civil liberties and foreign policy are areas over which any President has great control and so I’d rather have a President who is speaking my language on these issues than one who is not. In a government this gridlocked, that is the most you can hope for. (That includes, by the way, building the base of progressive parties and progressive Democrats in your local races.)
4.) President Obama will win- For however many or few who are reading this, understand something: Obama is going to win. That’s not my intuition or my guess, that’s Nate Silver running multiple statistical analyses of recent polls and saying President Obama has a 90% chance of winning. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying or just plain stupid.

5.) Vote for the electoral college victory? This is an idea I’ve heard. Maybe President Obama will win, but by how much? We need to give President Obama a big win, so he can do a lot of stuff, or at least the Republicans will have less to be mad about.

This argument doesn’t sway me for several reasons

1.) Any anger the Republicans have will be sound and fury, signifying nothing. They still won’t win the Senate, and they’ll still keep the House. In short, very little about an Obama second term will change (he will not do more or less for us), based on whether he gets 49.9% of the vote or 50.1% of the vote.
2.)  The angry portions of the Republican base are, at this point, so irrational that attempting to vote to somehow placate their anger, or give Obama power against them is wholly meaningless. They have thought President Obama was illegitimate since day one, and they will think he’s illegitimate after this election, no matter what we do. (VOTER FRAUD! KENYA! SOCIALISM!)

For what it’s worth, if President Obama loses the popular vote, I propose progressives take this as an opportunity for dialogue and use that to end the Electoral College for the next election. There’s no reason for us to stand firm behind a broken system, just because it helped our guy this time around. That is the mistake Republicans made in 2000, and that mistake may well come around to bite them in the ass in this election.

Okay that’s all I have for now. More opinions later! Good luck at the polls, everyone!

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I’m not voting for Barack Obama and You Shouldn’t Either: Ideological and Strategic Reasons for Voting against the President

So I figured that if I was going to return to the blogosphere, I might as well do so with a bombshell  as the election comes closer and join the longstanding blowup on the internets about President Obama’s progressive bonafides.

I’ve been pretty open about my disdain for President Obama as well as Governor Romney, though I’ve hesitated to actually endorse anyone. Yet with the election coming close—and a lot of time to think about what to say thanks to Hurricane Sandy and a full week without students to teach—I thought I might as well discuss why, as a progressive voter and registered Democrat, I am not voting for the President in this election.

A few things to start with. Firstly, I do think that President Obama has a few quite noteworthy accomplishments to his name. He is certainly the most pro-gay rights president we’ve ever had. The auto bailout and the Economic Recovery Act preserved many jobs that might have vanished in the economic crisis. Many of his policies as President have been good. But not good enough. Not good enough for the times we are in, and not good enough to justify a second term.

Secondly, I voted for then-Senator Obama in 2008, both in the Democratic Primary and the Presidential Election. I actually volunteered for his campaign. I remember standing in a college auditorium and counting down the clock to 11, when Wolf Blitzer called California, Oregon, and Washington for Obama and calling him the winner of the 2008 campaign. I sensed the weight of the moment and still do. This was our first African American president, and a move away from the bluster and incompetence of the Bush Administration.

I went into President Obama’s term with a great deal of hope. But also a strong sense of the reality of who this man was. I believe I went into 2009 with no illusions that President Obama would be the firebrand progressive I wanted him to be. He was a moderate technocrat, one of the most conservative—along with Hillary Clinton—candidates in the Democratic primary. When he voted in favor of shielding telecom companies from punishment for sharing private information of their consumers, illegally, with the federal government, I still supported him, believing that his general commitment to civil liberties would be maintained. When he ridiculed then-Senator Clinton’s support of the Iraq War, I trusted that he would be a wiser president on the issue of how and when we use force. I trusted that he would stand with working people as the economic crisis spiraled out of control. I trusted that he would keep his promise to maintain an open government.

I expected compromises, and I expected periodic disappointments, but even so, I expected that in general, Obama would hold to the promises of his campaign.

I say all of this, because I feel it is essential that you understand who I am, so that you can understand why I am choosing to vote the way I am. I do not come to this decision lightly, nor do I come to it as a longtime radical—no disrespect to radicals—or naïve fool. I come to this decision, because I grew up in the Bush years, persistently terrified for four reasons:

1.)    Our civil liberties were being routinely violated by a growing national security state.

2.)    We as a nation were being dragged into a state of perpetual war around the world, though particularly in Iraq. Our government, as a result, was making us less safe while killing thousands of our soldiers and—at least—tens of thousands of innocent civilians around the world. All the while, the President took on these tasks without getting proper consultation from Congress.

3.)    Our government was doing nothing to address the effects of climate change, which have been on full display this year in the form of droughts, wildfires, and unprecedented hurricanes.

4.)    Our society was growing increasingly unequal, as tax cuts were being extended to the wealthiest Americans while services were being cut for everyone else.

It is on these issues that I became politically aware and active during the years of the Bush Administration, and on these issues I expected real change from the Obama Administration. Contrary to what Democrats may want to believe, we have not gotten the change we deserve on any of these issues. And so I am taking this moment to say that President Obama has had his chance, but with respect, I am looking elsewhere for that change.

So let’s go through all of these issues.

1.)    Civil Liberties: An atrocious record.

On civil liberties, there can be no doubt that President Obama is every bit as bad as President Bush, and in some cases worse. Under President Obama, the Patriot Act was extended, Section 1021 of NDAA guaranteed  the right of the government to detain any U.S. citizen on U.S. soil without due process, extraordinary rendition has continued, and warrantless wiretapping has continued. Meanwhile, President Obama has claimed for himself the right to not only detain U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, but have such citizens assassinated by his order without any form of due process. Meanwhile, President Obama has locked up the White House more tightly than ever, effectively declaring war on whistleblowers in every branch of the gov’t, the most notorious examples being Bradley Manning (at one point locked in solitary confinement for months on end for no apparent reason) and Julian Assange (currently fighting extradition to Sweden, which could likely lead to extradition to the United States under the espionage charges, or as the New York Times would call it if they did it, journalism).

2.)    Foreign Policy: The state of war continues, and perhaps more frighteningly, the power of the executive branch to make war has expanded under President Obama, most notably in the case of Libya.

President Obama has been able to run on the argument that Libya was a success. Yet I think we should all be concerned that Obama so easily claimed for himself the power to support an expansive conflict in another nation with no backing—or even a vote—from the Congress. This precedent could have dangerous consequences for the future.  For its part, it’s not at all clear that we are any safer for having intervened in Libya, nor is it clear that Libya will turn into a democratic nation at any time in the future.

President Obama has received great credit for ending the war in Iraq, yet few have discussed the fact that Obama wanted to continue the military presence in Iraq. It was only after Iraq itself refused to allow the U.S. military to stay in the country, that President Obama announced we were leaving.

Credit due to President Obama for starting to remove troops from Afghanistan, though I am withholding judgment on this issue. After all, President Obama has set an arbitrary deadline of 2014, which was pushed back from 2011, and may be pushed back again, all while following the so-called “Vietnamization” policy that failed so miserably 40 years ago.

And meanwhile, President Obama has drastically expanded the policy of drone warfare to not just Afghanistan but Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, a policy which has killed far more civilians—often children—than any actual, potential terrorist. Under President Obama, the military has carried out a policy of killing anyone in the vicinity of a suspected terrorist—classifying anyone killed above the age of 17 as a militant—and then killing anyone who arrives on the scene as a first responder.

Put together, all of this should say one thing, which is that philosophically, President Obama is no different from President Bush. He is perhaps more competent than Bush was—and perhaps more competent than a President Romney—but at its core, President Obama’s foreign policy is not one that will make us a safer or more moral country. In essence, Bush, Obama, and Romney share one guiding philosophy: There should be no limits on U.S. power to make war where and when it chooses.

I am voting for Jill Stein, because she is not choosing to make that critique, and frankly, we will not be truly much safer as a nation unless we recognize that that critique applies equally to both major parties.

3.)    Environmental policy President Obama’s record is mixed at best.

President Obama’s support of environmentalism has been half-hearted at best. At his worst, he has been supportive of the disastrous policies of off shore drilling and “clean” coal under what he euphemistically calls an “all of the above” policy.  He has already supported the southern section of the Keystone Pipeline, which leaves little reason to trust that he won’t approve the rest of the pipeline once he is elected, a pipeline expected to cause massive environmental damage and encourage our addiction to oil instead of real alternative solutions. He provided minimal support for an actual cap ‘n’ trade program despite having support from a prominent Republican Lindsey Graham and Independent Joseph Lieberman to get the bill passed.

4.)    Economic policy On this issue we need to go back to the moment of Obama’s election and what that demanded and what many of us expected to vote for.

With the economy in free-fall, unemployment rising, and the country in the midst of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, it was clear we needed a New Deal. One which, like the last one, would include recovery for the people (in this case, that meant debt relief for those deeply in debt because of this crisis), economic stimulation (a massive push for jobs), and strong financial reforms. (Rebuilding the Glass-Steagall reforms that had protected the economy for so long.)

On each of these points, President Obama failed to fully grasp the importance of the moment, half-assing actions that required clear and immediate action and siding with the financial elites over the larger mass of middle and working class Americans he should have been supporting. A number of writers, smarter  than I, have made this larger point. Here’s an excerpt from Matt Stoller’s excellent piece on Salon:

Many will claim that Obama was stymied by a Republican Congress. But the primary policy framework Obama put in place – the bailouts, took place during the transition and the immediate months after the election, when Obama had enormous leverage over the Bush administration and then a dominant Democratic Party in Congress. In fact, during the transition itself, Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson offered a deal to Barney Frank, to force banks to write down mortgages and stem foreclosures if Barney would speed up the release of TARP money. Paulson demanded, as a condition of the deal, that Obama sign off on it. Barney said fine, but to his surprise, the incoming president vetoed the deal. Yup, you heard that right — the Bush administration was willing to write down mortgages in response to Democratic pressure, but it was Obama who said no, we want a foreclosure crisis. And with Neil Barofsky’s book ”Bailout,” we see why. Tim Geithner said, in private meetings, that the foreclosure mitigation programs were not meant to mitigate foreclosures, but to spread out pain for the banks, the famous “foam the runway” comment. This central lie is key to the entire Obama economic strategy. It is not that Obama was stymied by Congress, or was up against a system, or faced a massive crisis, which led to the shape of the economy we see today. Rather, Obama had a handshake deal to help the middle class offered to him by Paulson, and Obama said no. He was not constrained by anything but his own policy instincts. And the reflation of corporate profits and financial assets and death of the middle class were the predictable results.

Here’s economist Robert E. Prasch noting the flaws in Obama’s advisers and strategy in the wake of his first election:

The reason underlying this monumental failure is not hard to find.  President-Elect Obama and his inner circle fundamentally misjudged the political moment.  The nation was clearly demanding significant change – so much so that they were willing to elect an unseasoned—Black—politician (remarkable given the U.S.’s unflinching history of racism).  Yet Obama and his inner circle somehow convinced themselves that recycling the tired old idea of “triangulation” from the Clinton first term would be their best play.  To that end, Barack Obama and his senior advisors immediately set about alienating their core supporters.  Within two weeks of election day, the Administration announced that Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner–the individuals whose previous records individually and collectively defined what it meant to be monumental failures as public servants–would be placed in charge of the economic recovery.  Their appointments indicated, and their performances amply confirmed, that whatever “hope and change” meant as a slogan, it would in no way apply to the president’s economic policies.  They have, without a doubt, restored Wall Street’s fortunes – what they have not done is restore the fortunes of anyone else.

In short, President Obama showed, through his advisers and early actions as President, that he was interested in recovery for financial elites while average people remained a secondary priority.

We see this in the actions he took: His healthcare plan, as shown in this interview between Bill Moyers and the health care activist, Dr. Marcia Angell, was a subsidy for health insurance companies with minimal price protections that would benefit us as consumers. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that was meant to place regulations on banks was so riddled with regulations as to be functionally irrelevant. His stimulus bill—according to Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman—was half the size it needed to be to actually solve the crisis. Meanwhile, American wages are stagnant, the economy has been slow to rise, and income inequality is on the rise, far greater, in fact, than it was under the Bush administration. The various causes of the financial crisis before us remain unaddressed. And President Obama has failed to demonstrate that he has the political will to address these problems.

Moreover, there’s great reason to be concerned that a second term of President Obama will make these problems worse. Last year, President Obama offered to make cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t attempt those same cuts next year.

So to reiterate: I am a progressive, and I voted for President Obama, because I believed he would move us toward a progressive vision of America, toward a government that would support average Americans, protect civil liberties, and move us away from endless war. I did not expect perfection from President Obama, but I did not expect this.  I did not expect drone warfare, rampant persecution of government whistleblowers, or skyrocketing profits for large banks while working class people struggled with minimal hope that their government would assist. And so, as a matter of principle, I am moving my business elsewhere.

These are my ideological arguments for voting against Obama. All this, and I haven’t even discussed education, though see my earlier post for my thoughts on that topic.

Okay so what are my options?

Dr. Jill Stein is representing the Green Party this election, and has taken strong stances in opposition to President Obama on each of the above issues. In particular, her stance on economic and environmental issues is particularly strong. She has proposed ambitious and sweeping solutions to the economic and environmental crises through the Green New Deal. She is the only candidate who has taken the lessons of the Great Depression to heart, and proposed a jobs program to match the current crisis.

Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party is on the ballot in some states and is a write in option in most states. Anderson is an impressive speaker with political experience as mayor of Salt Lake City, who has made opposition to President Obama’s civil liberties and foreign policy positions a central plank of his campaign. To see both of these candidates and how they compare to the major party candidates, check out this special on the first presidential debate on Democracy Now. A search of their website also shows their responses to the other debates. (The second one is fun, as it features Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode. It can be interesting to compare the objections of the bases of each of the major parties. Check out this debate if you want to see Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.)

My inclination is to vote for Jill Stein. Her party and campaign is the most prominent and organized of the various progressive parties, and she has a longstanding history in progressive activism. And I do think that leftists have much more weight when they can speak in one voice.

Really, though, what matters here, is that you as a progressive voter officially demonstrate your discontent with the leadership of the Democratic Party. I’m going to say this a couple times, but let’s be clear: the only way that progressives can regain power and really jumpstart a movement is when they get over the fear that prevents action.

I’m going back to Mr. Prasch to make this point:

Anyone who has ever gone shopping knows that their bargaining power depends ultimately upon his/her willingness to walk away.  The ability to walk away explains why the service we get from our local dry cleaner is significantly better than what most of us get from our local cable provider.  When you have a choice, and demonstrate a willing to take that choice, you become empowered as consumer (I might add that the same is true of labor markets, which explains why most employers prefer a higher level of unemployment than their employees).  Right now, a deeply cynical reelection campaign is betting that progressives will be too afraid of Romney to seek to empower themselves.  This, let us remember, has been the strategy pursued by an increasingly right-wing Democratic National Committee for close to thirty years.  Every four years we are asked to vote for the lesser evil.  In a couple of weeks we will all learn if this plea will pay off again.  The question is, will we learn?  Will we learn to bargain with a faithless leadership of the Democratic Party?  If not this election, then when?

So what would happen if we chose to walk away? If that was a real threat that Democrats needed to worry about? Well suddenly, Democrats would have to take us as seriously as the wishy-washy swing voters that they generally go after. They would have to really persuade us they are worth voting for by presenting a coherent, ambitious vision for how they will change America.

American history has shown that all reform movements must make this choice at one point or another. Fighting for reform means that you have to do more than compromise from within the system. You have to consciously oppose the system, fight it and move it in your direction. The abolition movement of the mid-1800s, the progressive movement of the early 20th century, labor unions and activists, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s openly fought the establishments of the major parties, not by guaranteeing their votes to whichever party was slightly better.

I’m going to come back to this, but let’s address common arguments against voting third party.

Yea, but Obama isn’t perfect. He had a weak Democratic leadership in Congress, Republicans blocked everything he tried to do, yet still did good things. So let’s give him some credit.

Re-read my post. Many of the most odious actions President Obama took were on issues entirely in his control, such as national security or foreign policy. In other cases (e.g. healthcare, the deficit) he gave away the game to Republicans before even negotiating.  But moreover, President Obama, when he believes something is a priority, will absolutely push it through. He pushed through the auto bailout, the second piece of the bank bailout (with no instructions as to where the money was supposed to go), the repeal of DADT, and his nuclear treaty. He’s only weak and powerless when it’s convenient to the argument to say so.

Romney will be worse. (Particularly on women’s rights.)

Unquestionably. How much worse is up for some discussion. They are virtually identical on foreign policy issues, they both want to cut the deficit dramatically (specifically by cutting social programs), and Romney wrote President Obama’s health care bill. Certainly, Romney has demonstrated he is a principle-less amoral sociopath, but with Democratic control of the Senate, it’s uncertain how much power he will have to carry out the conservative vision he supposedly believes in. Margaret Kimberley, meanwhile, makes a persuasive case that there’s little reason to believe Romney will make things much worse than Obama has or will on issues such as foreign policy and health care, in particular. Falguni A. Sheth makes a persuasive argument that, on women’s rights, our narrow focus on Roe v. Wade has actually harmed the effort to build abortion rights and women’s rights in this country.

All of this, by the way, is irrelevant to the vast majority of progressive voters, who live in states that have already been decided for President Obama. (I’ll address that later.)

Voting third party will cost the “lesser of two evils” the election. That’s what happened in 2000 when Al Gore lost to George W. Bush. Lots of progressives voted for Nader, so Gore lost.

First of all, this is not true, and has never been true, according to CNN exit polls.

Second of all, this sort of thinking is odious in that it excuses our Democratic leadership when they run horrible campaigns. Many don’t remember this, but Al Gore ran a horrendous campaign in 2000. The reason people thought there was no meaningful difference between him and Governor Bush? Al Gore did not demonstrate that there was a meaningful difference between him and Governor Bush!

Thirdly, even with that campaign, he still won Florida. Anyone who brings up Florida needs to address the incredible corruption on display in that election, from the voter suppression efforts of their Republican governor, Jeb Bush, and secretary of state all the way up to a Supreme Court that voted their guy into power against all precedent and reason.

Still not convinced? Fine, but please consider this question.

What would you do if a Democrat ran for president who was pro-life? Who was in favor of overturning the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act? Who advocated war with Iran? Who favored fracking or denied climate change?

At what point would you be willing to walk away from the Democrats?

You need to decide this, because if you don’t, you will always be ignored by your party. If your stance on any of these issues is, “Whatever, just be slightly better than the Republicans,” then you will never gain the attention of the Democratic leadership. Democrats will always walk on you, over you, or around you to get votes elsewhere. And that means that the nation will continue to be moved further and further to the right. Not by conservative Republicans who propose horrific ideas, but by Democrats who capitulate to them. This is why Barack Obama is a conservative president, more conservative than Nixon, as conservative on some issues as Reagan was, and more conservative on some issues than Bush was.

In short, if you are not willing to walk away, if you are okay with the erosion of your civil liberties, the erosion of our middle class and a foreign policy that includes indiscriminate killing of civilians by drone bombs, then to paraphrase Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Presidential debate, “your choice is clear.”

If not, then might I suggest you look over Jill Stein’s campaign platform and make a different type of decision this coming Tuesday.

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Excellent article by Karen Lewis and Randi Weingarten on what teachers got out of the strike.

Diane Ravitch's blog

This is a good article. Unspoken, or only hinted at, in this very conservative newspaper, is that strikes are effective.

When employers treat workers shabbily, a strike is justified.

When working conditions are intolerable, a strike is justified.

When management engages in harmful practices–like closing schools and handing the kids over to private entrepreneurs–a strike is justified.

The hidden message: Teachers of America, get your comfortable shoes ready.

Protect the children in your care.

Defend public education against privatization.

Strike reluctantly, but strike if you must.

Only one error here: Chicago’s teachers have had 17 years of “top-down disruptions” (aka, “reform”) not just 10.

OPINION
September 23, 2012, 6:25 p.m. ET
A Gold Star for the Chicago Teachers Strike

After 10 years of top-down disruptions, teachers showed the power of collective action by those who work in schools.

By KAREN LEWIS AND RANDI WEINGARTEN

After more than a decade of…

View original post 756 more words

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Occupy the First Anniversary!

Occupy is back… maybe! I’ve been otherwise occupied (HA! You get it?) the last few days, but I will be at Foley Square today. Solidarity with those protesters who were arrested—oftentimes just for walking on the sidewalk—on Saturday and here’s hoping for humane treatment of protesters over the next few days.

With every anniversary, everyone wants to present their own opinion about what Occupy was supposed to do, and why it succeeded or failed. And I am nothing if not a bandwagon jumper. So here we go.

Now, maybe it’s the former high school and college debater in me, but I can’t move forward on this issue until we address definitions of terms. What do we mean when we define success or failure in the context of Occupy Wall Street?

Some have defined success in terms of Occupy’s ability to stay together as a coherent and powerful organization. In this context, I suppose the movement has failed. Many have drifted away from the original Occupy Wall Street, and Occupy groups around the country have dwindled to a handful of faithful activists in each city.

At this point, a lot of writers have decided to point to in-fighting within Occupy’s organization as the root cause of its dissolution, or its inability to compromise and negotiate with outside political groups.

Yet this seems willfully blind to the elephant in the room: the concerted efforts of police in every major city to harass, intimidate, and straight up abuse protesters and destroy encampments. Any discussion of Occupy Wall Street that fails to discuss how police action both ignited protests and helped to dismantle them is dealing in irrelevancies.

A cop pepper spraying non-violent protesters behind a net led to hundreds of protesters joining in solidarity in New York City. 700 protesters being led onto the Brooklyn Bridge last September by the police only to then be kettled and arrested made Occupy a national movement. The and fiery destruction of the Occupy Oakland encampment by the Oakland PD—which included shooting an Iraq War veteran with a tear gas canister and attacking protesters who tried to help him—alerted the nation to the militarization of its police forces. And the effective criminalization of these encampments made it effectively impossible for Occupy to be a public and constant force for change that many of its critics have demanded. When Occupy re-organized itself in New York City in March in Union Square, the NYPD responded with brute force.

If you don’t talk about any of that, you are not fully addressing what brought Occupy to the front and center of politics in 2011. And if you assume that Occupiers could have negotiated and compromised with many of these politicians in that context, then you are being more than a little naïve.

Yet despite that, Occupy has carried on its activism, and was engaged in the Trayvon Martin protests, May Day Marches in numerous major cities (they were a large part of the 20,000 workers that marched in New York City), and the one year demonstrations this weekend. I consider that quite a record.

Similarly, critics have charged that Occupy has failed to engage with the current political system in any substantive way. And that has, in turn, limited Occupy’s influence. What people are really saying here, to my mind, is that Occupy has failed to get actively involved in Democratic Party politics to make change.

Again, the debater in me needs to dig up the basic assumptions behind this argument and what such folks are saying about Occupy. Firstly, we need to identify Occupy’s goal. While Occupy has refused to release a detailed platform—and for now I’m not going to address that argument—I think we can safely define the general goal of the movement as economic equality and social justice. Different people will define this goal in different ways, but that seems to be the force that brought people together. And those who claim they can’t see that are being willfully obtuse so that they can happily debate whatever strawman they deem fit for any given moment.

The assumption, then, that people are making is that the political system as currently designed is capable of meeting that goal of economic equality and justice. Speaking not as a revolutionary but as a reformer in the mold of the Great Society programs of the 1960s, I would argue that is flat out not true. The Democratic Party has made a conscious decision—one that it made in the late 1980s and early 1990s—at the national level to refuse to recognize their progressive base, and to step on them and walk over them whenever it seems fit to meet the demands of its most conservative members (not to mention, absurdly, the demands of conservative Republicans who have continued to refuse to work with them) or for that matter its very wealthy financial backers, many of whom come from banks headquartered on Wall Street. The idea that, at this point, the Democratic Party that negotiated away the public option to health insurance companies behind closed doors, gutted the financial reform bill, has acquiesced to drone warfare across the world and blatant violations of Constitutional rights at home, and is currently quietly backing Rahm Emanuel over the Chicago Teacher’s Union is absurd. The party—and the corrupt system that sustains that party—needs to be fought or at the least reformed, not compromised with.

I’m not against compromise, by the way. I like compromise, and I like when we can reach deals. But as I discussed a few weeks ago, compromise and bipartisanship for its own sake is meaningless and needs to be recognized as such. And for the record, I’m not opposed to using Occupy as a way to get activists into local offices in their towns and cities, where it might be possible to make real, tangible change. But we cannot assume that the national political structure is capable of supporting our best interests at this time and place. So long as Republicans control Congress and Democratic leaders seem eager to appease them, we will gain nothing there.

Finally, there is the idea that Occupy did not bring about the revolution we all were waiting. Because the system still exists as it was last year, we must therefore be disappointed in Occupy’s efforts.

There’s a certain cognitive dissonance on display here. The same people who urged activists to be patient with the Democratic Party as it failed on a number of its core principals has become remarkably impatient in the face of activist movements that do not involve the traditional political framework. Many Occupiers were Obama supporters, and were even actively involved in President Obama’s campaign.  Such people often waited three years for a radical overhaul of a badly broken economic and political system before deciding to go elsewhere to make that change happen. On the other hand, within weeks of Occupy’s formation and ascendance, people were eager to call it a failure. “I woke up this morning, and there’s still poverty! FAIL!” “Went on Wikipedia, and found out Citizens United is still on the books. Wow so much for “We are the 99%, right? FAIL!”

Two problems here. Firstly, anyone who cannot see how our discussion of inequality now was sparked by the Occupy protests has just not been paying attention. Last summer, the whole of our political and media elite had bought wholesale into the story of austerity. “Cut budgets, for surely that is the most pressing matter! Put financial reform, programs for the poor and middle class, our blatantly unfair tax structure, and everything else aside! We need to cut social security NOW or all hope is lost!” (None of these folks seem to have noticed that the U.S. has been in debt for some 95% of its existence as a nation.) Occupy was the first group to start talking tangibly about inequality, and the rest of the media structure got on board.

But secondly, many of these thinkers seem to have convinced themselves that the only way forward for reform is through politics and political parties. It is not.

And this to me is where Occupy has had its greatest success. It opened a generation of engaged citizens—some students, some workers, some from wealthy backgrounds, some from poor backgrounds—to the possibility of reform that does not involve the Democratic Party, but can include marches, sit-ins, strikes, civil disobedience, and formation of our own institutions of thought instead of just ones approved from above, whether by party or by government. I was always inspired by the stories I heard from Occupy Encampments of People’s Libraries, free classes put on by professors, teach-ins, free kitchens that served the poor, and true communities with some basic infrastructure that came out of these groups.

It goes further than Occupy, though. People who marched in those protests have gone on to get involved in their own communities in all sorts of ways worthy of note. This cannot be neglected. The movement to Occupy Homes that have been foreclosed grew out of Occupy. Radicalization efforts within the New York City Teacher’s Union were developed by activists who were involved in Occupy. Occupiers have joined in environmental activism, activism against police corruption and brutality, and even political organization. Occupy helped set up those networks of activism. Occupiers marched against NATO meetings in Chicago, and have continued the banner of radical politics in Oakland. Much of this news, by the way, has continued to be blacked out by a national news media that has never wanted to take Occupy all that seriously.

None of this is to say that Occupy has been the unqualified success that I or many other activists wanted, or that it hasn’t faced its share of infighting. But for many who started their adult lives by volunteering for the Obama campaign or for veteran activists or workers who last year saw no clear way forward for their causes, it has drastically changed the game. Any evaluation of Occupy has to give credit for that.

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Regarding the Chicago Teacher’s Union Strike: It’s not about the money! (But if it is so what?)

On Monday, the Chicago Teacher’s Union officially went on strike. It is the largest teacher’s union strike in over 20 years, and represents a huge event. Chicago’s school district is the 3rd largest in the country, representing 600 schools, 26,000 teachers, and 400000 students. It is also an event potentially rife with political consequences, as Rahm Emanuel is Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff. Obama got his start in Chicago. Chicago is a testing ground for many of the most prominent education reform proposals in American education.

Like many unions, the Chicago Teacher’s Union traditionally has been run by leaders who were largely in bed with the city leadership and corporate leadership who has been eager to shut down schools, replace them with charter schools, and evaluate students and teachers based on scores on faulty exams. In 2010, the Coalition of Radial Educators (CORE) led a movement to overthrow the traditional leadership, making a prominent South Side educator, Karen Lewis, its president. They have significantly overhauled the union, and much of the leadership of the union is now rank and file educators. The coalition itself has also included parents and community members relevant to schools. In the months leading up to the strike, 90% of union members gave the union the right to strike. In short there has been widespread solidarity behind this strike, and widespread opposition to the policies of Rahm Emanuel.

Typically, Democrats have been dead silent on the action, and have refused to provide their support to the union. Republicans have condemned the strike while… attempting to prove to the public that the Democrats support the union. (Gotta give credit to Republicans for standing on conviction and imagination!) The UFT and the AFT have tepidly supported the CTU, while refusing to organize their members. (A march was organized by the Movement of Radical Educators in New York City yesterday from Union Square to the headquarters of the Democrats for Education Reform. The UFT was nowhere to be seen.)

That’s the state of the political scene’s response to what’s going on in Chicago. The most important response, however, has been that of the media, which does not seem to get the full meaning of this strike.

Many have focused on the pay raise and the benefit raise that the union is pushing for. This is certainly one of the sticking points in the contract negotiations, but there’s more to the story. I’ll let one of the strike organizers speak for himself.

PHIL CANTOR: We’re striking for a lot of reasons. If you just see what’s in the mainstream media, all they talk about is that teachers want more money. But that’s really far from the truth. We’re fighting for reasonable class sizes. We’re fighting for wraparound services for our students. I teach in a school with a thousand students; we don’t even have one social worker in that building for most of those kids. So we’re fighting for the education our students deserve in Chicago. We’re fighting against reforms that we see, from the classroom level, are not going to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain why the emphasis on salary then. Is that the legal issue of what allows you to strike?

PHIL CANTOR: That’s absolutely right. You know, Rahm Emanuel has pushed through laws in Illinois, basically designed for his political gain, in my opinion. We’re not allowed legally to strike over anything but compensation. But teachers are not most interested in compensation; we’re most interested in being able to do our jobs for the students we serve. So, you know, I think we’re trying to tie other issues that we feel are very important to compensation, so they’re part of the bargaining table agreement.

You caught that? Yes legally speaking… this strike is about the pay, thanks to an anti-union bill passed earlier this year that makes that the only thing teachers can legally strike over. But it goes deeper than that, and that’s what makes this strike a very important moment in education activism. Chicago has been the center for every failed policy of the last 10 years, policies which have not raised test scores, but have certainly given greater power over our schools to corporate entities who design tests, lead charter schools, and bust unions. All the while, teacher morale is at an all time low and school resources in the poorest schools in Chicago (which can boast of having the most segregated school system of any large city in America.) are depleted. Yet that same reform movement that has failed us in this past decade has come back to say that if we just dump on teachers more, if we just have one more test, one more hoop to jump through, then everything will be okay. Test pay (I refuse to call it merit pay, because I’ve yet to see evidence to suggest that these tests actually indicate merit) is the next battle in education, and for the first time, a large union has taken to the streets to say that this should not happen.

That’s what we need to be talking about, and in the end, that’s what makes this movement worthwhile.

In short, this is more than just pay. This is about teachers being able to have some hand in how their profession works, and community members being able to have some hand in how their schools function.

But let’s say this is just about a 16% raise in pay in exchange for a longer school day. (This after Rahm broke the contract and rejected a 4% cost of living raise, which contrary to city claims, the Chicago DOE was able to afford.) Many have claimed that teachers are refusing to sacrifice for the common good, and claiming that the approximately $70,000 average salary that teachers take in is way too high.
I must admit that I don’t have the greatest argument against this. I’ll let this anonymous writer make the argument for me. Cheers:

Teachers’ hefty salaries are driving up taxes, and they only work 9 or 10 months a year. It’s time we put things in perspective and pay them for what they do – babysit.  We can get that for less than minimum wage.

That’s right. Let’s give them $3 an hour and only the hours they worked; not any of that silly planning time, or any time they spend before or after school. That would be $19.50 a day (7:45 to 3:00 PM with 45 min. off for lunch and plan– that equals 6 1/2 hours).

Each parent should pay $19.50 a day for these teachers to baby-sit their children. Now how many students do they teach in a day…maybe 30? So that’s $19.50 x 30 = $585.00 a day.

However, remember they only work 180 days a year. I am not going to pay them for any vacations.

LET’S SEE…That’s $585 X 180= $105,300 per year. (Hold on. My calculator needs new batteries.)

What about those special education teachers and the ones with master’s degrees? Well, we could pay them minimum wage ($7.75), and just to be fair, round it off to $8.00 an hour. That would be $8 X 6 1/2 hours X 30 children X 180 days = $280,800 per year.

Wait a minute — there’s something wrong here. There sure is.

The average teacher’s salary (nationwide) is $50,000. $50,000/180 days = $277.77/per day/30 students=$9.25/6.5 hours = $1.42 per hour per student– a very inexpensive baby-sitter and they even EDUCATE your kids!)

WHAT A DEAL!

Best of luck to brothers and sisters at the CTU.

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First day thoughts: Ways to hook students and develop thematic learning

So the school year started for me last week, which means once a week I’m going to make this an education blog and report on ideas and possibilities for the social studies classroom.

Day One is an important day for a teacher. How you set up the classroom, what you choose to do with your students, will end up defining in many ways what your year will look like. You are not just giving books out, assigning seats, you are setting the tone for what you want the classroom to be. You yourself are getting back into the rhythm. And more than that you are demonstrating why your students should hang with you day in and day out during a long school year.
In history, in particular, day one is about hooking students on a subject many students are just not interested in. History is routinely ranked as one of the least popular subjects for students in schools. It’s rooted in memorization of topics that often seem to have little relevance to student’s own lives.

People study history for all sorts of reasons. The most common reason we all hear is so that we don’t repeat it. That’s certainly true, but it’s not the only reason. Sometimes we study history, just because we find it interesting. Sometimes to hear dramatic stories, sometimes to explore different and unique cultures. And sometimes just so that we understand our own selves. These are all ideas and topics that should be reflected in how we study this content. For day one I attempt to bring some of these myriad reasons to the floor by having students bring them up for me.

After we go through the syllabus, students take two to three sentences to identify a problem that they see in society and a general topic they find interesting in history. If your students are going to struggle with the second one, you can throw out some ideas. Luckily, enough, any topic can be made historical by its very nature.

The next step is to have students work together to turn those problems and topics into questions. This is, in fact, the essential work of historical research. Once we know what we want to study in general, we have to figure out what exactly we’re hoping to find out about that topic. For this first day, those questions do not have to be terribly complex, though you should certainly push for students to create analytical as opposed to fact-based questions. (It often helps for students to think in terms of “How” or “Why” questions.)

Once you’ve gone through all the questions and topics, as a teacher, you can condense these questions into ten questions or so and put them on a poster in the classroom. You can reference these questions throughout the year.
These questions effectively become the curriculum of the course. Questions such as “How can a society confront poverty?” can become one of the essential questions that we answer during the course. Any content can be placed in the context of questions students ask. You can even make an activity of answering each question when the year comes to an end. It could be a research paper or project.

In the wake of our current standardized testing craze, many teachers are still tied to a chronological race through history.  This can still be a useful tool for analyzing content in the minds of students. For teachers in more flexible environments, these questions can literally be organized as units of the course, and used to engage students in the material they find interesting while also teaching them essential skills of historical research and analysis.
Regardless the hook is set for the year. Some students have found this activity off the bat, though many were skeptical. The only way it becomes valuable is if you continue to go back to these questions throughout the year. That will make that first day meaningful.

None of this is perfect, by the way, and I would love for everyone to provide their suggestions or modifications of this sort of activity based on their own experiences as teachers or students.

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5 quick thoughts on Romney’s speech and the continuing Republican War on Reality…

Get ready, folks. This is a political post. It just can’t be avoided. Here are my thoughts on the Mitt Romney speech tonight:

1.)    Women Clearly the Republican Party has taken the “War on Women” to heart, and has basically made the argument that “Some of our best friends are women.” Romney continued to make that pitch in this speech. He likes mothers, he had a woman as his lieutenant governor, he’s married to a woman and loves his mom!

There might be some who will be fooled by this, but let’s be smart enough to judge a candidate on their policies, not their rhetoric. Romney has stayed silent while his party has instituted policies that blatantly harm and degrade women. And I’m not even talking about abortion here. Thanks to numerous Republican legislators,  doctors can lie to their patients about the health of their child to prevent them from having a child. In Arizona, the date of pregnancy is now listed as two weeks before actual conception. States have been rolling back equal pay laws, and the national party has rolled back protections against domestic violence. The fact that Romney found some Republican women who might support these policies only indicate that there are women out there who hate—or at least have very little sympathy for—other women.

2.)    Business Romney seems to be insistent that the only people qualified for the presidency are people who run businesses.

Firstly, if you look at the history of the presidency, this is flat out not true. A significant portion of presidents were lawyers before they entered politics. Several presidents were military men. Ronald Reagan was an actor and union man as part of the Screen Actor’s Guild!

As a friend of mine put it, there is a model for business experience in government. And that’s Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. A name that Romney strenuously tried to avoid during this speech for obvious reasons.

Secondly, can we stop this fetishization of business experience? They don’t have a sterling record right now; professional businessmen wrecked the economy, and had to be bailed out for it, just to name one of hundreds of examples. But the values of business simply don’t apply to every other field! Businessmen who can only think from a businessman’s worldview could not possibly make good teachers, social workers, psychologists, scientists, writers, actors, or musicians. Businessmen can’t always transfer easily between different types of businesseses. I don’t think you’d want Romney trying to run a farm. Nor would Romney have hired a professional auto mechanic  as an Assistant CEO at Bain. Simply put, this is not the be all-end all of lifetime experience. (Kudos to Al Sharpton for making this point on MSNBC.)

But thirdly, I don’t want Romney’s particular experience in government. Romney didn’t make things. By all accounts, he expanded his wealth while, in the process, destroying other businesses and picking the bones for whatever millions he could pocket for himself. There’s no record of job growth in his business career, and no indication from his career that he would build jobs while in office.

3.)    The “bipartisanship” myth I was actually thinking of writing a longer piece on this but I think this will do. Romney appears to have borrowed some of President Obama’s “bipartisanship” message from 2008 for this speech, perhaps in an effort to appeal to former Obama voters. For now, I’m not going to focus on the absurdity of a vicious attack dog like Romney calling for bi-partisanship. Let me just say instead that anyone promising you bipartisanship is either a naïve fool or a snake oil salesman. (I’ll lead you to decide what you think about Obama or Romney.) And that’s for three simple reasons:

–          Democracy is built on partisanship. The basis of democracy is that people disagree with each other, and it’s absurd to think you can get around that or that any era in American history was marked by agreement and harmony in our halls of government.

–          Recent legislation and policies show us that bipartisanship sucks. Bipartisanship has brought us some of the worst and most foolish and shortsighted policies of the last 20 years. Bipartisanship brought us NAFTA, welfare reform, banking de-regulation which torpedoed the U.S. economy (approved with 90 votes in the U.S. Senate), the Patriot Act, the absurdity of No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era tax cuts, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, credit card industry de-regulation, the Wall Street bailout, drone warfare, the war on government whistle-blowers, the NDAA provisions that allow the U.S. military to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely without charge, and (my personal favorite) a bill that effectively empowers the Secret Service to arrest any protesters that happen to protest near a major American politician.

–          It’s the worldview, stupid! So I’m not here to say that politicians shouldn’t reach across the aisle when possible and pragmatic to do so. But people fight in politics, and that’s not a bad thing. And a politician who merely promises they will bring you bipartisanship is promising you nothing. He’s promising you that something will be done, even when what is being done is harmful to the nation and to you as a voter. You need to pay attention to their worldview, their philosophy, and their specific ideas for solving problems. The problem in our system is not that we don’t have bi-partisanship. The problem is: Our politicians’ worldivew freaking sucks! Their worldview is geared towards empowering themselves at our expense as citizens and empowering their corporate backers at the expense of the rest of us. If you disagree with that basic idea, then be prepared to fight for it, because it is not en vogue right now. I don’t want to feel like my elected officials are getting along better if that just means they are ignoring critical issues or agreeing on issues that I find abhorrent. And neither do you. If you like a campaign’s ideas (and their experience and their character), vote for them. If not, don’t. But please understand those ideas and understand the things you want your president to be fighting (or reaching across the aisle) for.

4.)    Someone resolve this contradiction in thought. So Romney finally sorta got to talking about his basic plan for the economy. Not deeply or with great substance, but sorta, as well as some specific critiques of Obama. I’m not going to get to the accuracy of his claims yet, but I want to speak about how the Republican philosophy right now is at war with itself. How can Romney simultaneously claim the government is not responsible for creating jobs while trashing Obama for cutting the military… because that move will cost jobs? In making that argument, Romney recognizes that the government can, in fact, be a job creator. It is, in fact, the most direct form of job creation.  And God knows that there are jobs that need to be done that business is just not equipped to deal with. (Education, police, alternative energy technology, space exploration, military, highway rebuilding, etc.) To argue tax cuts will create jobs relies on an indirect cause-and-effect that really only works in theory. There are lots of things people and businesses can do when their taxes are cut, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll start hiring people or investing significant amounts of money into the economy.

5.)  Anti-Reality strikes again  This seemed clearly crafted to be the applause line of the night:

“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family.”

Now first of all, this is giving Obama waaaaay too much credit.  His record on dealing with climate change has been mixed at best. He put very little weight behind the cap ‘n’ trade bill as it went through Congress, has completely dropped the idea of investing in alternative technology, and looks to be on the path to approving the Keystone Oil Pipeline, not to mention offshore drilling. There’s no reason to believe that President Obama is a climate change president. But let’s go with it for now.

At this point in the game, if your worldview is rooted in science and rational thinking about our future, you’re going to be baffled by this line, and maybe a little insulted. If your worldview is built around denialism of basic, objective reality and a hatred of hippies—and maybe your salary comes from oil or coal companies—you are going to love that line. I happen to belong to the former group, and I’m going to bet at this point, a lot of other people are, too. (Including up until the last few years, Mitt Romney.)

And to me, all I could think is, I would like a president who is concerned with preventing the oceans from rising. That sounds like something that would help me and my family.

I’ve always been baffled when Republicans have attacked  programs that really just seem—on a non-partisan level—like good, commonsense ideas. A few years, Bobby Jindal—in responding to an address by President Obama—wanted to find examples of wasteful gov’t spending. The program he went after? Volcano monitoring. You know, because fuck preparing for and attempting to predict natural disasters!  Governor Chris Christie here in New Jersey made one of his crowning achievements closing a tunnel that would have drastically reduced traffic between New Jersey and Manhattan! Who needs all that increased economic activity?! Republicans were central in holding up money to be given to 9/11 workers who suffered illnesses as a result of their service that day. One of George W. Bush’s last achievements in office was vetoing a bill to provide low cost health insurance to poor children and his administration was noted by drastic cuts to veteran’s benefits and health care for soldiers while he sent them overseas.

If ever there was evidence of the callousness Mitt Romney’s Republican Party has for the impoverished, it is the ability of Romney to simultaneously say he will help families while slashing the very services many of them rely on. If ever there was evidence of the short sightedness of Mitt Romney’s Republican Party, it is his ability to say he will help you and your family while mocking climate change as it brings massive droughts to the American Midwest and threatens to turn coastal areas up and down the United States into flood zones. And if ever there was evidence of the Republican Party’s distinct anti-reality stance, it is their inability to see how investing in efforts to prevent climate change can only serve to benefit me and my family, not harm it.

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What the American Federation of Teachers does not tell you in endorsing Barack Obama

So the election is coming soon AND the school year is starting. So it only figures that I would start seeing this graphic showing up on Facebook, courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers. This graphic at least in theory is supposed to show us why educators and those interested in education should cast their votes for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Check it out.

I’m not a member of the AFT. I’m a member of the rival United Federation of Teachers. So I’m not sure how they went about writing this endorsement, or whether they conducted any sort of straw poll of their teachers. However, I would bet that if they did and included an option for third parties or “None of the Above,” you would get at least a third of teachers rejecting both Obama and Romney. And that’s because on their education platforms alone, both candidates are wildly inadequate. There are a number of reasons why that might be true, none of which are addressed in this graphic.
So first of all, I want to note that this graphic fails to address some of the most significant education policies of Obama’s first term. These have included:
1.)    The Race to the Top initiative, which provides increased federal funds to states that will increase high-stakes testing, tie teacher pay and tenure to evaluations which are generally tied to high-stakes testing, and increase funding for charter schools.
2.)    The implementation of Common Core Standards across 44 states, which are expected to guarantee increased standardized testing in schools as they generally require pre-testing and assessments throughout the school year.
3.)    The No Child Left Behind-waivers, which exchange the absurd idea that 100% of students in a school will pass any given test, with… more tests throughout the year as well as teacher evaluations based on tests.
Notice anything here? The AFT would have us believe that President Obama is committed to a policy of not “teaching to the test.” His actual record speaks otherwise, and we should not cut him slack here. Over his first term, President Obama’s Department of Education has implemented—and will continue to implement—policies that will increase standardized high-stakes testing in schools, not decrease it. This means less time for alternative forms of assessments and activities (projects, debates, research, etc.) and more time filling out bubble sheets and preparing for deeply flawed national exams. Ones which have failed to indicate that they improve the state of education. Bear in mind that these are policies which President Obama has a great degree of control over; Congress has not been involved with these regulations in any significant way.
It’s not surprising that President Obama wants to avoid touting these accomplishments to teachers. If there’s one thing many teachers are opposed to, it’s the increase in high-stakes testing. More testing means teachers spend more time test prepping instead of actually teaching. More tests cut into our instructional time and take away our autonomy, while holding us accountable for scores that are unreliable indicators of teacher quality and largely outside of our control. (At least 60% of a student’s test scores are influenced by outside-of-school factors.)
All of these are policies that Mitt Romney would likely continue as president. In fact, some insiders have been rumored to say that Arne Duncan might stay on as Education Secretary in a Romney Administration. There’d be effective continuity between the two administrations.
So that’s President Obama’s record on tests. Let’s take a look at some other planks of this piece.
First there is one area where there is clear disagreement between Obama and Romney.
Vouchers On this issue, President Obama and most of the Democratic Party have thankfully been in the right camp. Expect this to be a point of contention in the presidential debates.

In one area, President Obama’s support is somewhat murky and one has to pay attention to the language being used.
Class size To his credit, President Obama made the jump in class size nationwide a key issue in a recent radio address. Reducing class size, though, has certainly not been a major goal of his administration. In fact, his Secretary of Education has argued that reducing class size is overrated. He is, in effect, arguing that his efforts to save jobs have produced small class sizes as a nice side effect. In short, President Obama is at best a reluctant supporter of keeping class sizes small, but not one who is interested in it as a main issue.

Education jobs, Early Childhood Education, and Pell Grants I’m putting these three together, because they speak to the same root argument: Obama has increased funding for education, Romney will slash it.
This very well might be true, but it speaks more to the weaknesses of a future President Romney than the strengths of current President Obama. Yes, Obama has saved some funding, yet the massive education crisis in America remains largely unsolved. As this recession has deepened, state and local budgets have continued to be slashed, and the federal government simply has not been able to pick up that slack in any significant way.
This is, of course, not entirely President Obama’s fault. The Republicans have played all sorts of obstructionist games, particularly in the Senate, and Democratic leadership has failed to combat that obstruction.
But let’s not pretend President Obama was powerless on this issue. When Obama was at the peak of his popularity in early 2009, he could have called for the sort of expansive New Deal that our economy needed. It would have been an expensive project; progressives in his administration argued that $1.8 trillion was needed to fill the hole left by the Great Recession. With popularity ratings bouncing between 60 and 70%, President Obama could have gone to Congressional negotiations and to the American people with just that number. This could have been the stimulus bill, one much larger and more substantive than the $700 billion weak tea that we received.
Would he have gotten it? Maybe, maybe not. But he was in the right position to negotiate and to sell that number to the American people. This has been a problem throughout Obama’s term. Instead of going into Congressional negotiations demanding everything that he wanted, he seemed to go in demanding everything he thought he could get. And then negotiating down from there. And so we got a stimulus bill that many qualified economists said was not big enough. It wasn’t, and we never got another one. This meant, among other things, that our states had to raise taxes, slash budgets, or both. Generally both. All of our public institutions suffered as a result. And as far as education was concerned, Obama took his focus away from protecting jobs and focused instead on Common Core and Race to the Top.

So to review, as a teacher, on the issues that matter most to me, Obama has been weak and sometimes just flat out wrong. He’s flat out wrong on standardized testing, and his response to the education funding crisis has been limp wristed at best. And on the issue that matters most to me as an educator—the problem of poverty in my student population—Obama has failed to provide the sort of progressive case that our country so desperately needs.
I’m not going to weigh in on Obama’s record, overall, as president in this article; I’ll save that for another day. And yes, Obama is a better choice on education issues than Romney. And maybe his rhetoric on standardized tests will turn into action in his second term. But his record quite simply does not justify the AFT—the second largest teacher’s union in America—holding water for him. He just has not done enough to justify that endorsement.
For the past ten years, our federal government has pushed a policy of more testing, more school closures, and fewer union protections for teachers. And guess what? Our test scores have remained stagnant, our teaching pool is overworked and demoralized, and our students’ learning has suffered. If Obama wants to be a President who brought change and if he wants the full support of teachers, students, and parents, he needs to put forward a bolder vision for what our education system needs than what he has pushed for the last four years. And our union leadership needs to tell him that.

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