Archive for the Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion Category

Agaisnt Prometheus

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion, Welcome to The Machine on October 29, 2009 by CjH

An Interview with Derrick Jensen on Science and Technology

Derrick Jensen is the prize-winning author of A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Listening to the Land, Strangely Like War, Welcome to the Machine, and Walking on Water. He was one of two finalists for the 2003 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, which cited The Culture of Make Believe as “a passionate and provocative meditation on the nexus of racism, genocide, environmental destruction and corporate malfeasance, where civilization meets its discontents.” He is an environmental activist and lives on the coast of northern California.

Frank Joseph Smecker: You write that this culture is murdering the planet – species extinction, entire continents of clear-cuts, the removal of 90 percent of the large fish from the oceans, global warming – all are but a handful of the dire effects of industrial civilization; how has philosophy shaped and influenced the behavior that has led to these despairing conditions?

Derrick Jensen: The stories we are told shape the way we see the world, which shapes the way we experience the world. R.D. Laing once wrote that how we experience the world shapes how we behave in the world. If the world is presented as resources to be exploited, then more than likely, you’re going to exploit the world. For example, if one sees trees as dollar bills, then one will look at trees and treat trees one way; if one sees trees as trees, for what they are – as other beings to be in communion with – then one will see them and treat them another way. Philosophy is the telling of the world a certain way.

FJS: Would you say that the stories and ideas passed on by Western philosophers and other ideologues, which have influenced the modern behavior of the dominant culture, are perpetuated through other mediums today?

DJ: Absolutely. Even today our media and entertainment present stories that affect our behavior. Take for example Ugly Betty – that new show on television. This is just cruel, and ultimately influences the way this culture sees and treats women. Personally, I think she’s fairly cute, and if I’m going to do the objectifying rating of women thing, scores easily a six or more on a scale of one to ten– but they throw some glasses and braces on her and suddenly the culture is telling us that she is ugly. My point is that in Hollywood, even someone who is explicitly labeled as “Ugly Betty” is still reasonably good looking. What does that, along with all the other images of women that are put out there, do to both women’s and men’s perception of women? Newspapers, too, are just as responsible. For example, I recently read an article in some newspaper about the decline of certain frog populations, and the header of the article read something along the lines as: “Another Frog Croaks…” What that does is trivializes… it makes a joke out of species extinction! Or how about the salmon that are going extinct? In this culture, if salmon are of no economic utility then what good are they? This seems to come from a place of hatred and narcissism. I write in Endgame how the narratives we are told shape the way we live. If you are told your entire life that only the most successful at dominating survive; that nonhumans have no desires of their own and are here for us to use; that the U.S. has your best interests at heart; that those in power hold some inherent moral and ethical value; that trees and mountains are resources to be extracted, then you will come to believe all of that and behave in the world one way. If the stories that are told are different, then you will come to believe and act much differently. If your culture told you stories since childhood that eating dog shit tasted good, that’s going to affect your behavior. What I mean by this is that if someone told you story after story extolling the virtues of eating dog shit since you were a child, you’ll grow to believe them. Sooner or later, if you are exposed to other foods, you might discover that eating dog shit doesn’t taste too great. Or if you cling too tightly to these stories of eating dog shit – that is if your enculturation is so strong that it actually does taste good to you, the diet might make you sick or kill you. To make this example less silly, substitute pesticides for dog shit, or for that matter, substitute Big Mac™, Whopper™, or Coke™. Eventually physical reality trumps narrative. It can just take a long time.

FJS: You often write that the dominant culture has robbed the world of its subjectivity; how does this influence our behavior? And if the stories we are told inculcate an objective perception of the world and those around us, then how do we shatter those lenses in order to begin perceiving the world for what it is – a matrix of subjective relations to be in communion with?

DJ: If you do not perceive the fundamental beingness of others (i.e. nonhuman animals, trees, mountains, rivers, rocks, etc), or in some senses do not even perceive their existence, then nothing I say or write can convince you. Nor will evidence be likely to convince you, since, as already mentioned, you won’t perceive it, or more accurately, won’t allow yourself to perceive it. No matter how well I write, if you have never made love, I cannot adequately describe to you what it feels like to do so. Even moreso, if you insist that no such thing as making love even exists, then I will certainly never be able to adequately explain to you what it feels like. For that matter, I cannot describe the color green to someone who is blind, and who even moreso insists that green does not exist, could never exist; as well as to someone who knows that philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes to Dawkins have conclusively shown that green does not exist, could not exist, has never existed, and will never exist; or to someone who is under the thrall of economic and legal systems (insofar as there is a meaningful difference, since the primary function of this culture’s legal systems is to protect—through laws, police, courts, and prisons—the exploitative activities of the already-wealthy) based so profoundly on green not existing; who cannot acknowledge that this culture would collapse if its members individually and/or collectively perceived this green that cannot be allowed to exist. If I could describe the color green to you, I would do it. I would drive you, as R.D. Laing put it, out of your wretched mind. And you might be able to see the color green.  Or someone else could drive you out of your wretched mind. It certainly needn’t be me. I’m not the point. You’re not the point. Your perceived experience isn’t even the point. The point is your wretched mind, and getting out of it. And beyond that, the point then is your experience.

FJS: So to “see green,” figuratively speaking, is to experience the world personally, emotionally, convivially and reciprocally with other beings, rather than to experience it as a set of objective truths for personal material gain or information, or as protocol to maintain the status quo?

DJ: Exactly. This culture is based on the assumption that all of the world is without volition, is mechanistic, and is therefore predictable. The existence of the willfully unpredictable destroys a foundational assumption of this culture. The existence of the willfully unpredictable also invalidates this culture’s ontology, epistemology, and philosophies, and reveals them for what they are: lies upon which to base this omnicidal system of exploitation, theft, and murder; it’s much easier to exploit, steal from, or murder someone you pretend has no meaningful existence (especially if you have an entire culture’s ontology, epistemology, and philosophy to back you up), indeed, it becomes your right, even your duty (e.g. war, genocide, death squads, mercenaries, etc). The existence of the willfully unpredictable reveals this culture’s governmental and economic systems for what they are as well: means to not only rationalize but enforce systems of exploitation, theft, and murder (e.g., effectively stop Monsanto’s exploitation, theft, and murder, and see how you are treated by governments across the world).

FJS: So it’s really about personal experience over narrative, over inculcation?

DJ: In many ways it is. R.D. Laing began his extraordinary The Politics of Experience with: “Few books today, are forgivable.” He wrote this, I believe, because we have become very alienated from our own experience, from whom we are, and this alienation is so destructive to others and to ourselves, that if a book does not take this alienation as its starting point and work toward rectifying it, we’d all be better off looking at blank pieces of paper. I of course agree with Laing that few books today are forgivable (and the same is true for films, paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on), and I agree for the reasons I believe he was giving. This culture is murdering the planet. Any book (film, painting, song, relationship, life, and so on) that doesn’t begin with this basic understanding—that the culture is murdering the planet—is not forgivable, for an infinitude of reasons, one of which is that without a living planet there can be no books. There can be no paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on. There can be no dreams. There can be nothing.

FJS: It’s about experiencing a symbiotic world that is in dynamic equilibrium, not a world that is at our disposal. It’s about recognizing the pervading relationships between all of us: trees and fresh water, birds and wall-eyed pike, mountains and the sky, you and I; not about hours and wages, markets and policy, resources and industrial modes of production.

DJ: Correct.

FJS: The indigenous were and are in kinship with nonhumans, and in fact indigenous peoples never once held a utilitarian worldview over their landbase insofar as they perceived the natural landscape as a matrix of reciprocal relationships to enter into. Why do you think it is that the dominant culture cannot engage with the land in the same way?

DJ: In all of my books I’ve emphasized that the fundamental difference between civilized and indigenous ways of being is that for even the most open-minded of the civilized, listening to the natural world is a metaphor. For traditional indigenous peoples it is not a metaphor. It is how you relate with the real world. This culture’s way of life is based on exploitation, domination, theft, and murder. And why? Because it is based on the perceived right of the powerful to take whatever resources they want. If you see yourself as entitled to a resource, and if you’re not willing or incapable of seeing this other as a being with whom you can and should be in relation with, then you’re going to take the resource.

FJS: Do you believe that scientific philosophy galvanizes the exploitative utilitarian worldview?

DJ: Richard Dawkins, the popular scientific philosopher—he’s got almost as many Google hits as Mick fuckin’ Jagger—states that we exist in “a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication.” Implying that humans are the only meaningful intelligence on earth, and possibly in the universe, the world then consists of objects to be exploited, not other beings to enter into relationship with. Dawkins also writes: “You won’t find any rhyme or reason in it [the universe], nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Because the latter scientific assumption posits that nonhumans have no meaningful intelligence, they have nothing to say, to each other or to us. Thus interspecies communication is bunk, no matter who the nonhumans are: animals, plants, rivers, rocks, stars, muses, and so on. Anyone who thinks otherwise, and this is key, is superstitious, that is, delusional, maybe primitive, maybe crazy, maybe childish, maybe just plain stupid. Suddenly science has a stronger hold on one’s belief moreso than any religion. Scientific philosophy is much better at controlling people because if you don’t buy into it, you’re stupid. The fundamental religion of this culture is that of human dominion, and it does not matter so much whether one self-identifies as a Christian, a Capitalist, a Scientist, or just a regular member of this culture, one’s actions will be to promulgate this fundamentalist religion of unbridled entitlement and exploitation. This religion permeates every aspect of this culture.

FJS: In the book you wrote with George Draffan, Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control, you elaborated on the conflation of science and control; can you talk a bit about what you wrote? And would you agree that there’s also something to be said of this culture’s conflation of the power of command and truth?

DJ: Absolutely. First, if the scientific materialist instrumentalist perspective is right and every other culture is wrong, the universe is a gigantic clockwork – a machine: a very predictable and therefore controllable machine. Power in this case, then, is like meaning in that there is no inherent power in the world (or out of it)—just as no power inheres in a toaster or automobile until you put it to use—and the only power that exists is that which you project onto and over others (or that others project onto and over you). Power exists only in how you use raw materials – the more raw materials you use more effectively than anyone else, the more power to you. And science is a potent tool for that. That’s the point of science. This means, of course, that might then makes right, or rather, right, too, is like meaning and doesn’t inhere anyway—if nonhumans are not in any real sense beings and are here for us to use (and not here for their own sakes, with lives as meaningful to them as yours is to you or mine is to me) then using (or destroying) them raises no significant moral questions, any more than whether you or I do or don’t use or destroy any other tool—which means right is what you decide it is, or more accurately, it’s irrelevant, right is whatever you want it to be, which means it’s really nothing at all. But this malleable notion of right means that you can fairly easily talk yourself into feeling good about exploiting the shit out of everyone and everything else. If all of this sounds sociopathological, that’s because it is. Western philosophy and scientific philosophy is sociopathological, it finds logic through the power of command. It makes us all insane. Richard Dawkins wrote, “Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when.” Do you see the fundamental flaw in logic here? I’m guessing that if we lived in a culture that wasn’t sociopathological we would all see through this in a heartbeat. Let’s ask a simple question: How does science boost its claim to truth? Here is Dawkins’s (and the culture’s) answer: by making matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and by predicting what will happen and when. Do you see the problem yet? Okay, let’s try it a different way: Let’s say Dawkins has a gun. Let’s say he points this gun at your head. Let’s say he commands you to jump through hoops. Let’s say you do it. He does, after all, have a gun pointed at your head. Now, with this gun pointed at your head, he tells you to jump through those hoops again. And then he predicts that this is precisely what you will do. You do it. Whaddya know, he’s a fucking genius: He commanded you to jump through hoops, and he predicted right when you’d do it. Dawkins was with this sentence incredibly intellectually dishonest—and sneaky as hell—and the only reason he hasn’t been called out on it – and someone seriously needs to call this fucking guy out – is that he has a whole culture of sociopaths for company. He has conflated the power to command with truth. He has conflated domination with truth. But neither the power to command nor domination is the same as truth. The power to command is the power to command, domination is domination, and truth is truth.

Richard Dawkins could put a gun to my head. He could even kill me. But that wouldn’t mean that he is telling the truth. This culture is dominating the planet. This culture’s domination of the planet is killing it. That does not mean this culture is telling the truth, or is even capable of understanding it. At the same time, the power to dominate is a sort of truth. But there are other truths as well, that can be masked, obscured, or destroyed by this truth. An example should make this clear. Let’s say I force you to jump through hoops. Let’s say I enslave you. Are there not other truths that have been closed off because I forced you to jump through hoops, because I enslaved you? Any path forecloses others. Some paths foreclose more than do other paths. The same is true with truths: some paths to certain forms of knowledge, and some paths to certain forms of truth, irrevocably foreclose other paths to knowledge, and other paths to other truths.

I recently read an essay by Sam Harris, an ally of Dawkins and a full-blown nature-hater in his own right. The essay is entitled “Mother Nature is Not our Friend.” It begins, “Like many people, I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature. I imagined that there were real boundaries between the natural and the artificial, between one species and another, and thought that, with the advent of genetic engineering, we would be tinkering with life at our peril. I now believe that this romantic view of Nature is a stultifying and dangerous mythology. Every 100 million years or so, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain smashes into the earth, killing nearly everything [sic] that [sic] lives. If ever we needed proof of Nature’s indifference to the welfare of complex organisms such as ourselves, there it is. The history of life on this planet has been one of merciless destruction and blind, lurching renewal.”
The whole essay is as shoddy as it is full of nature-hating. I’m not sure why he couldn’t be bothered to spend a whole thirty seconds doing a Google™ search to learn that only one of the major mass extinctions was probably caused by an asteroid. I’m also not sure why he didn’t just say that nature is red in tooth and claw, and be done with it. The exploration of mass extinctions is based on data gathered by scientists using the premises, methods, and tools of science, then turned into stories by these or other scientists using the framework of scientific stories to assign meaning to these data points.

Big deal, you might say. Well, it is a big deal. The premises and other preconditions of any story nearly always overdetermine the direction of that story. They especially overdetermine a story’s morality, and even moreso they overdetermine the moral of the story (which is not the same as the story’s morality). And of course the story about multiple mass extinctions has a moral that is obvious at least to Sam Harris. This moral is precisely that of the larger scientific materialist instrumentalist mechanistic perspective, that, “Nature” is, as Harris says, “indifferent.” Or actually “Nature” is—as Harris would say were he a clear enough thinker to have even the slightest bit of internal consistency—even less than indifferent: “Nature” is insensate: indifference implies a capacity to feel. I can reasonably be described as indifferent as to whether the Knicks or the Spurs win tomorrow night. That may also be true for you. But one does not normally describe one’s clothes hamper as “indifferent” as to the outcome of tomorrow night’s game. I want to focus just a bit more on Harris’s sloppy word usage here, because I think it’s indicative of something far deeper than unclear thinking. Part of my clue for this is that his use of the word indifferent wasn’t the only interesting choice of words. Another was his title: “Mother Nature is Not our Friend.” I am fascinated by the fact that although people like Harris and Dawkins claim to believe that the universe is mechanistic, they so often use emotion-packed words like mother and friend and trust and merciless, and their language is quite often hostile, as though they’re describing not a machine as they pretend, but rather an enemy, or someone who has betrayed them. Think about this in your own life: how often have you said that your clothes hamper is not your friend? How often have you said your toaster is merciless? If you truly believe that something—something—is utterly insensate, you would hardly be likely to describe this thing as either a friend or an enemy or as anything other than a thing. These supposedly clear thinkers are, I believe, very confused in their thinking and most especially in what they feel about all of this, by which I mean what they feel about life. I can’t prove this, of course, but it seems very clear to me that the emotions they express toward life and toward the natural world are not the sort of neutral feelings one would normally experience and express toward an inanimate object, but rather a hatred toward, and fear of, life and the natural. I believe, and once again I can’t prove this, but it feels right, and has felt right since I first read Dawkins twenty years ago, that they really fear life, and fear death, and feel betrayed by life in part because they, too, like everyone else, must suffer, and they, too, like everyone else must die. The fact that they, too, must pay this price of suffering and death as a cost of participating in the joyous web of experience and relationship that is the ongoing and eternally creative process of living, somehow seems to them an affront. To which I have a two-word response: grow up. Clearly in their descriptions of life, they focus more on inherent suffering than they do on inherent joy and delight. Were they not so influential their perspective would merely be pathological and pathetic. As it is, their popularity is of course what one would expect it to be in a culture that hates and fears wild nature, that attempts to control and destroy wild nature, and that is in fact killing life on earth. The perspective of people like Harris and Dawkins (and indeed most people in this culture)—that of believing that the universe is “merciless” or is otherwise insufficient and needs to be significantly manipulated and/or improved in order to make it bearable—is a central perspective and driving motivator of the murder of the planet, and is in utter contrast to the perspectives and motivations of most of the indigenous, who generally perceive the natural world as sufficient, as bountiful, as beautiful, as generous, as provider, as mother, as father, as family. The perspective of people like Harris and Dawkins—the perspective that underlies civilization—is not only murderous, but it is also extraordinarily ungrateful.

Whether or not you believe the universe is mechanical, it gave you your life, your extraordinary, unique, awe-filled life. Unless your life truly is miserable, to not show gratitude for this gift is to show yourself a spoiled, immature wretch.

FJS: Has science provided the world with anything good?

DJ: That’s a very common question that is asked: Hasn’t science done a lot of good for the world? For the world? No. Show me how the world—the real, physical world, once filled with passenger pigeons, great auks, cod, tuna, salmon, sea mink, lions, great apes, migratory songbirds, forests—is a better place because of science. Science has done far more than facilitate the destruction of the natural world: it has increased this culture’s ability to destroy by many orders of magnitude. We can talk all we want about conservation biology and about the use of science to measure biodiversity, but in the real, physical world the real, physical effects of science on real, living nonhumans has been nothing short of atrocious. Science has been given three hundred years or so to prove itself. And of course three hundred years ago great auks (and fish, and whales) filled the seas, and passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews filled the skies, and soil was deeper, and native forests still stood. If three hundred years of chainsaws, CFCs, depleted uranium, automobiles, genetic engineering, airplanes, routine international trade, computers, plastics, endocrine disrupters, pesticides, vivisection, internal combustion engines, fellerbunchers, dragline excavators, televisions, cellphones, and nuclear (and conventional) bombs are not enough to convey the picture, then that picture will never be conveyed.

Without science, there would not be ten times more plastic than phytoplankton in the oceans. The Nazi Holocaust was, as I made clear in The Culture of Make Believe, and as Zygmunt Bauman made clear in Modernity and the Holocaust, a triumph of the modern industrial rationalistic scientific instrumentalist perspective. Global warming, which may end in planetary murder, would not be running rampant without the assistance of science and scientists. Without science there would be no hole in the ozone. Without science and scientists, we would not face the threat of nuclear annihilation. Without science, there would be no industrial civilization, which even without global warming would still be leading to planetary murder. Sure, science brought us television, modern medicine (and modern diseases), and cardboard-tasting strawberries in January, but anyone who would rather have those than a living planet is, well, a typical member of this culture. If it’s the case that evolution happened so that we would come to exist, then it’s pretty damn obvious we’re fucking up whatever we were brought into being to do. How much sense would it make to have all of this evolution take place simply so that the point, the apex, the pinnacle of this evolution can end life on the planet? Talk about the world’s longest and stupidest shaggy dog story.

FJS: Is there any personal philosophy you do uphold? And is there any hope for the future survival of life on the planet?

DJ: Everything is circumstantial. We can definitely rely on tenets to guide our behavior, but ultimately, care about what happens in the world supersedes philosophy. We need to recognize that physical reality trumps our philosophy. Life is far more complex than philosophy can state. I can’t even figure out romantic relationships, or the relationship between what I eat and my Crohn’s disease. As for philosophy, it is like a map. The map is not the territory – the territory is far more complex than the map, and the constituents of the territory are even far more complex. Ourselves, trees, mountains, nonhuman animals – everyone alive in this world is far more complex than the philosophy or science that seeks understanding (viz. control). In all honesty, we can’t talk a philosophy. Philosophy teaches us how to live, so a philosophy must be land-based. Therefore, the philosophy of Vermont has to be different in Vermont than the philosophy of northern California. As for hope, hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. That’s how we use it in everyday language: we don’t say, “I hope I eat something today.” We just do it. But the next time I get on a plane I hope it doesn’t crash, because once I’m in the air I have no agency. So I don’t hope this culture doesn’t kill the planet: I’ll do whatever it takes to stop it. I have agency. So do you. We must actively protect as much of the natural as possible. When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to hope at all. Think about it: what is the real source of our life? Of our food, our air, our water? Is it the economic system? No. It’s the landbase. And those in the future will only care about whether or not we left them with clean air, clean water, and healthy intact landbases. The world is being killed and we have to stop this.

Thousands of years of inculcation and ideology all aimed at driving us out of our minds and bodies, away from any realistic sense of self-defense, real land stewarding, have gotten us to identify not with our bodies and our landbases, but with our abusers, governments, and civilization. Break this identification, and one’s course of action becomes much clearer. Love yourself and love the land, and each other, and you will act in the best interest of, and defend, your beloved. The material world is primary. This doesn’t mean that the spirit does not exist, nor that the material world is all there is. It means that spirit mixes with flesh. It also means that real world actions have real world consequences. It means this mess really is a mess, and we have to face this mess ourselves; that for the time we are here on Earth – whether or not we end up somewhere else after we die, and whether we are condemned or privileged to live here – the Earth is the point. It is primary. It is our home and it is everything. It’s silly to think or act or be as though this world is not real and primary. It is very silly to not live our lives as though our lives are real.


Is Democracy a Hit with Humans because it Mirrors our Myopia?

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion on October 1, 2009 by CjH

By Arundhati Roy, ZSpace

While we’re still arguing about whether there’s life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? By democracy I don’t mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration. I mean the working model: Western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as they are.

So, is there life after democracy?

Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defence of democracy. It’s flawed, we say. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than everything else that’s on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say: ‘Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia…is that what you would prefer?’

Whether democracy should be the utopia that all ‘developing’ societies aspire to is a separate question altogether. (I think it should. The early, idealistic phase can be quite heady.) The question about life after democracy is addressed to those of us who already live in democracies, or in countries that pretend to be democracies. It isn’t meant to suggest that we lapse into older, discredited models of totalitarian or authoritarian governance. It’s meant to suggest that the system of representative democracy-too much representation, too little democracy-needs some structural adjustment.

The question here, really, is: what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasised into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximising profit? Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be?

What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly-our nearsightedness? Our inability to live entirely in the present (like most animals do) combined with our inability to see very far into the future makes us strange in-between creatures, neither beast nor prophet. Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost.

It would be conceit to pretend that the essays in this book provide answers to any of these questions. They only demonstrate, in some detail, the fact that it looks as though the beacon could be failing and that democracy can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once dreamed it would.All the essays were written as urgent public interventions at critical moments in India-during the state-backed genocide of Muslims in Gujarat; just before the date set for the hanging of Mohammed Afzal, the accused in the December 13, 2001, Parliament attack; during US President George Bush’s visit to India; during the mass uprising in Kashmir in the summer of 2008; after the November 26, 2008, Mumbai attacks. Often they were not just responses to events, they were responses to the responses.

Though many of them were written in anger, at moments when keeping quiet became harder than saying something, the essays do have a common thread. They’re not about unfortunate anomalies or aberrations in the democratic process. They’re about the consequences of and the corollaries to democracy; they’re about the fire in the ducts. I should also say that they do not provide a panoramic overview. They’re a detailed underview of specific events that I hoped would reveal some of the ways in which democracy is practised in the world’s largest democracy. (Or the world’s largest ‘demon-crazy’, as a Kashmiri protester on the streets of Srinagar once put it. His placard said: ‘Democracy without Justice=Demon Crazy.’)

As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry. Something about the cunning, Brahminical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, ‘apply-through-proper-channels’ nature of governance and subjugation in India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world’s favourite new Superpower. Repression ‘through proper channels’ sometimes engenders resistance ‘through proper channels’. As resistance goes this isn’t enough, I know. But for now, it’s all I have. Perhaps someday it will become the underpinning for poetry and for the feral howl.

‘Listening to Grasshoppers’, the essay from which this collection draws its title, was a lecture I gave in Istanbul in January 2008 on the first anniversary of the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. He was shot down on the street outside his office for daring to raise a subject that is forbidden in Turkey-the 1915 genocide of Armenians in which more than one million people were killed.My lecture was about the history of genocide and genocide denial, and the old, almost organic relationship between ‘progress’ and genocide.

I have always been struck by the fact that the political party in Turkey that carried out the Armenian genocide was called the Committee for Union and Progress. Most of the essays in this collection are, in fact, about the contemporary correlation between Union and Progress, or, in today’s idiom, between nationalism and development-those unimpeachable twin towers of modern, free market democracy. Both of these in their extreme form are, as we now know, encrypted with the potential of bringing about ultimate, apocalyptic destruction (nuclear war, climate change).

Though these essays were written between 2002 and 2008, the invisible marker, the starting gun, is the year 1989, when in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan capitalism won its long jehad against Soviet Communism. (Of course, the wheel’s in spin again. Could it be that those same mountains are now in the process of burying capitalism? It’s too early to tell.) Within months of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Indian government, once a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, performed a high-speed somersault and aligned itself completely with the United States, monarch of the new unipolar world.

The rules of the game changed suddenly and completely. Millions of people who lived in remote villages and deep in the heart of untouched forests, some of whom had never heard of Berlin or the Soviet Union, could not have imagined how events that occurred in those faraway places would affect their lives. The process of their dispossession and displacement had already begun in the early 1950s, when India opted for the Soviet-style development model in which huge steel plants (Bhilai, Bokaro) and large dams (thousands of them) would occupy the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. The era of privatisation and structural adjustment accelerated that process at a mind-numbing speed.

Today, words like ‘progress’ and ‘development’ have become interchangeable with economic ‘reforms’, ‘deregulation’ and ‘privatisation’. ‘Freedom’ has come to mean ‘choice’. It has less to do with the human spirit than with different brands of deodorant. ‘Market’ no longer means a place where you go to buy provisions. The ‘market’ is a de-territorialised space where faceless corporations do business, including buying and selling ‘futures’. ‘Justice’ has come to mean ‘human rights’ (and of those, as they say, ‘a few will do’). This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the tsars of the new dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalise their detractors, deprive them of a language in which to voice their critique and dismiss them as being ‘anti-progress’, ‘anti-development’, ‘anti-reform’ and of course ‘anti-national’-negativists of the worst sort. Talk about saving a river or protecting a forest and they say, ‘Don’t you believe in Progress?’ To people whose land is being submerged by dam reservoirs and whose homes are being bulldozed they say, ‘Do you have an alternative development model?’ To those who believe that a government is duty-bound to provide people with basic education, healthcare and social security, they say, ‘You’re against the Market.’ And who except a cretin could be against a Market?

To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too tedious for a world with a short attention span, and too expensive in an era when free speech has become unaffordable for the poor. This language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing.

Two decades of this kind of ‘Progress’ in India has created a vast middle class punch-drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it-and a much, much vaster, desperate underclass. Tens of millions of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their land by floods, droughts and desertification caused by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines and special economic zones. All of them developed in the name of the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy.

The battle for land lies at the heart of the ‘development’ debate. Before he became India’s finance minister, P. Chidambaram was Enron’s lawyer and member of the board of directors of Vedanta, a multinational mining corporation that is currently devastating the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa. Perhaps his career graph informed his worldview. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In an interview a year ago, he said that his vision was to get 85 per cent of India’s population to live in cities. Realising this ‘vision’ would require social engineering on an unimaginable scale. It would mean inducing, or forcing, about five hundred million people to migrate from the countryside into cities. That process is well under way and is quickly turning India into a police state in which people who refuse to surrender their land are being made to do so at gunpoint. Perhaps this is what makes it so easy for P. Chidambaram to move so seamlessly from being finance minister to being home minister. The portfolios are separated only by an osmotic membrane. Underlying this nightmare masquerading as ‘vision’ is the plan to free up vast tracts of land and all of India’s natural resources, leaving them ripe for corporate plunder. In effect, to reverse the post-independence policy of land reforms.

Already forests, mountains and water systems are being ravaged by marauding multinational corporations, backed by a State that has lost its moorings and is committing what can only be called ‘ecocide’. In eastern India, bauxite and iron ore mining is destroying whole ecosystems, turning fertile land into desert. In the Himalayas, hundreds of high dams are being planned, the consequences of which can only be catastrophic. In the plains, embankments built along rivers, ostensibly to control floods, have led to rising river beds, causing even more flooding, more waterlogging, more salinisation of agricultural land and the destruction of livelihoods of millions of people. Most of India’s holy rivers, including the Ganga, have been turned into unholy drains that carry more sewage and industrial effluent than water. Hardly a single river runs its course and meets the ocean.

Based on the absurd notion that a river flowing into the sea is a waste of water, the Supreme Court, in an act of unbelievable hubris, has arbitrarily ordered that India’s rivers be interlinked, like a mechanical water supply system. Implementing this would mean tunnelling through mountains and forests, altering natural contours and drainage systems of river basins and destroying deltas and estuaries. In other words, wrecking the ecology of the entire subcontinent. (B.N. Kirpal, the judge who passed this order, joined the environmental board of Coca-Cola after he retired. Nice touch!)

The regime of free market economic policies, administered by people who are blissfully ignorant of the fate of civilisations that grew too dependent on artificial irrigation, has led to a worrying shift in cropping patterns.Sustainable food crops, suitable to local soil conditions and micro-climates, have been replaced by water-guzzling, hybrid and genetically modified ‘cash’ crops which, apart from being wholly dependent on the market, are also heavily dependent on chemical fertilisers, pesticides, canal irrigation and the indiscriminate mining of ground water. As abused farmland, saturated with chemicals, gradually becomes exhausted and infertile, agricultural input costs rise, ensnaring small farmers in a debt trap. Over the last few years, more than 1,80,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. While state granaries are bursting with food that eventually rots, starvation and malnutrition approaching the same levels as in sub-Saharan Africa stalk the land. Truly the nine per cent growth rate is beginning to look like a downward spiral. The higher the rate of this kind of growth, the worse the prognosis. Any oncologist will tell you that.

It’s as though an ancient society, decaying under the weight of feudalism and caste, was churned in a great machine. The churning has ripped through the mesh of old inequalities, recalibrating some of them but reinforcing most. Now the old society has curdled and separated into a thin layer of thick cream-and a lot of water. The cream is India’s ‘market’ of many million consumers (of cars, cell phones, computers, Valentine’s Day greeting cards), the envy of international business. The water is of little consequence. It can be sloshed around, stored in holding ponds, and eventually drained away.

Or so they think, the men in suits. They didn’t bargain for the violent civil war that has broken out in India’s heartland: Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal.

Coming back to 1989. As if to illustrate the connection between ‘Union’ and ‘Progress’, at exactly the same time that the Congress government was opening up India’s markets to international finance, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then in the opposition, began its virulent campaign of Hindu nationalism (popularly known as ‘Hindutva’). In 1990, its leader, L.K. Advani, travelled across the country, whipping up hatred against Muslims and demanding that the Babri Masjid, an old 16th-century mosque that stood on a disputed site in Ayodhya, be demolished and a Ram temple built in its place. In 1992, a mob, egged on by Advani, demolished the mosque. Feeding off the communal frenzy it had generated, the BJP, which had only two seats in Parliament in 1984, defeated the Congress in 1998 and came to power at the Centre.

It’s not a coincidence that the rise of Hindutva corresponded with the historical moment when America substituted Communism with Islam as its great enemy. The radical Islamist mujahideen-whom President Reagan once entertained in the White House and compared to America’s founding fathers-suddenly began to be called terrorists. CNN’s live broadcast of the 1990-91 Gulf War-Operation Desert Storm-made it to elite drawing rooms in Indian cities, bringing with it the early thrills of satellite TV. Almost simultaneously, the Indian government, once a staunch friend of the Palestinians, turned into Israel’s ‘natural ally’. Now India and Israel do joint military exercises, share intelligence and probably exchange notes on how best to administer occupied territories.

By 1998, when the BJP took office, the ‘Progress’ project of privatisation and liberalisation was about eight years old. Though it had campaigned vigorously against the economic reforms, saying they were a process of ‘looting through liberalisation’, once it came to power the BJP embraced the free market enthusiastically and threw its weight behind huge corporations like Enron.(In representative democracies, once they’re elected, the people’s representatives are free to break their promises and change their minds.)

Within weeks of taking office, the BJP conducted a series of thermonuclear tests. Though India had thrown its hat into the nuclear ring in 1974, politically, the 1998 nuclear tests were of a different order altogether. The orgy of triumphant nationalism with which the tests were greeted introduced a chilling new language of aggression and hatred into mainstream public discourse. None of what was being said was new, only that what was once considered unacceptable was suddenly being celebrated. Since then, Hindu communalism and nuclear nationalism, like corporate globalisation, have vaulted over the stated ideologies of political parties. The venom has been injected straight into our bloodstream. It’s there now-in all its violence and banality-for us to deal with in our daily lives, regardless of whether the government at the centre calls itself ‘secular’ or not. The Muslim community has seen a sharp decline in its fortunes and is now at the bottom of the social pyramid, along with Dalits and Adivasis. Certain events that occur in the life of a nation have the effect of parting the curtains and giving ordinary people a glimpse into the future. The 1998 nuclear tests were one such. You didn’t need the gift of prophecy to tell in which direction India was heading.

In February 2002, following the burning of a train coach in which 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were burned alive, the BJP government in Gujarat, led by chief minister Narendra Modi, presided over a carefully planned genocide of Muslims in the state. The Islamophobia generated all over the world by the September 11, 2001, attacks put the wind in their sails. The machinery of the state of Gujarat stood by and watched while more than 2,000 people were massacred. Gujarat has always been a communally tense state. There had been riots before. But this was not a riot. It was a genocidal massacre, and though the number of victims was insignificant compared to the horror of say Rwanda, Sudan or the Congo, the Gujarat carnage was designed as a public spectacle whose aims were unmistakable. It was a public warning to Muslim citizens from the government of the world’s favourite democracy.

After the carnage, Modi pressed for early elections. He was returned to power with a mandate from the people of Gujarat. Five years later he repeated his success: he is now serving a third term as chief minister, widely appreciated by business houses for his faith in the free market, illustrating the organic relationship between ‘Union’ and ‘Progress’. Or, if you like, between Fascism and the Free Market.

In January 2009 that relationship was sealed with a kiss at a public function. The CEOs of two of India’s biggest corporations, Ratan Tata (of the Tata Group) and Mukesh Ambani (of Reliance Industries), while accepting the Gujarat Garima (Pride of Gujarat) award, celebrated the development policies of Modi, architect of the Gujarat genocide, and warmly endorsed him as a future candidate for prime minister.

As this book goes to press, the nearly two-billion-dollar 2009 general election has just been concluded. That’s a lot more than the budget of the US elections. According to some media reports, the actual amount spent is closer to ten billion dollars. Where, might one ask, does that kind of money come from?

The Congress and its allies, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), have won a comfortable majority. Interestingly, more than 90 per cent of the independent candidates who stood for elections lost. Clearly, without sponsorship it’s hard to win an election.And independent candidates cannot promise subsidised rice, free TVs and cash-for-votes, those demeaning acts of vulgar charity that elections have been reduced to.

When you take a closer look at the calculus that underlies election results, words like ‘comfortable’ and ‘majority’ turn out to be deceptive, if not outright inaccurate. For instance, the actual share of votes polled by the UPA in these elections works out to only 10.3 per cent of the country’s population! It’s interesting how the cleverly layered mathematics of electoral democracy can turn a tiny minority into a thumping mandate. Anyway, be that as it may, the point is that it will not be L.K. Advani, hate-monger incarnate, but secular Dr Manmohan Singh, gentle architect of the market reforms, a man who has never won an election in his life, who will be prime minister of the world’s largest democracy for a second term.

In the run-up to the polls, there was absolute consensus across party lines about the economic ‘reforms’. Govindacharya, formerly the chief ideologue of the BJP, progenitor of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, sarcastically suggested that the Congress and BJP form a coalition. In some states they already have. In Chhattisgarh, for example, the BJP runs the government and Congress politicians run the Salwa Judum, a vicious government-backed ‘people’s militia’. The Judum and the government have formed a joint front against the Maoists in the forests who are engaged in a deadly and often brutal armed struggle against displacement and against land acquisition by corporations waiting to set up steel factories and to begin mining iron ore, tin and all the other wealth stashed below the forest floor. So, in Chhattisgarh, we have the remarkable spectacle of the two biggest political parties of India in an alliance against the Adivasis of Dantewada, India’s poorest, most vulnerable people. Already 644 villages have been emptied. Fifty thousand people have moved into Salwa Judum camps. Three hundred thousand are hiding in the forests and are being called Maoist terrorists or sympathisers. The battle is raging, and the corporations are waiting.

It is significant that India is one of the countries that blocked a European move in the UN asking for an international probe into war crimes that may have been committed by the government of Sri Lanka in its recent offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Governments in this part of the world have taken note of Israel’s Gaza blueprint as a good way of dealing with ‘terrorism’: keep the media out and close in for the kill. That way they don’t have to worry too much about who’s a ‘terrorist’ and who isn’t. There may be a little flurry of international outrage, but it goes away pretty quickly.

Things do not augur well for the forest-dwelling people of Chhattisgarh.

Reassured by the sort of ‘constructive’ collaboration, the consensus between political parties, few were more enthusiastic about the recent general elections than some major corporate houses. They seem to have realised that a democratic mandate can legitimise their pillaging in a way that nothing else can. Several corporations ran extravagant advertising campaigns on TV, some featuring Bollywood film stars urging people, young and old, rich and poor, to go out and vote. Shops and restaurants in Khan Market, Delhi’s most tony market, offered discounts to those whose index (voting) fingers were marked with indelible ink.Democracy suddenly became the cool new way to be. You know how it is: the Chinese do Sport, so they had the Olympics; India does Democracy, so we had an election. Both are heavily sponsored, TV-friendly spectator sports.

The BBC commissioned a coach on a train-the India Election Special-that took journalists from all over the world on a sightseeing tour to witness the miracle of Indian elections. The train coach had a slogan painted on it: ‘Will India’s voters revive the World’s Fortunes?’ BBC (Hindi) had a poster up in a cafe near my home. It featured a hundred dollar bill (with Ben Franklin) morphing into a 500 rupee note (with Gandhi). It said: ‘Kya India ka vote bachayega duniya ka note?’ (Will India’s votes rescue the world’s currency notes?) In these flagrant and unabashed ways, an electorate has been turned into a market, voters are seen as consumers, and democracy is being welded to the Free Market. Ergo: those who cannot consume do not matter.

What does the victory of the UPA mean in this election? Obviously a myriad things. The debate is wide open. Interpreting an Indian election is about as exact a science as sorcery. Voting patterns are intricately connected with local issues and caste and community equations that vary, quite literally, from polling booth to polling booth. There can be no reliable Big Conclusion. But here’s something to think about.

In its time in office, in order to mitigate the devastation caused by its economic policies, the former Congress regime passed three progressive (critics call them populist and controversial) parliamentary acts. The Forest Rights Act (which gave forest-dwellers legal right to land and the traditional use of forest produce), the Right to Information Act and, most important of all, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The NREGA guarantees every rural family a hundred days of work (hard, manual labour) a year at minimum wages. It amounts to an average of Rs 8,000 (about $170) per family per year. Enough for a good meal in a restaurant, including wine and dessert. Imagine how hellish times must be for even that tiny amount of money to come as a relief to millions of people who are reeling under the impact of the precipitous loss of their lands and their livelihoods. (Talk about crumbs from the high table. But then, which one of us has the heart, or the right, to argue that no crumbs are better than crumbs? Or, indeed, that no elections are better than meaningless elections?) Implementing the NREGA, seeing that the crumbs actually reach the people they’re meant for, has occupied all the time and energy of some of India’s finest and most committed social activists for the last several years. They have had to battle cartels of corrupt government officers, power-brokers and middlemen. They have faced threats and a fair amount of violence. One rural activist in Jharkhand immolated himself in anger and frustration at the injustice of it all.

Ironically, the NREGA only made it through Parliament because of pressure brought to bear on the UPA government by the Left Front and, it must be said, by Sonia Gandhi. It was passed despite tremendous resistance from the mandarins of the free market within the Congress party. The corporate media was more or less unanimously hostile to the Act. Needless to say, come election-time and the NREGA became one of the main planks of the Congress party’s election campaign. There’s little doubt that the goodwill it generated amongst the very poor translated into votes for the Congress.But now that the elections are over, victory is being attributed to the very policies that the NREGA was passed to mitigate! The Captains of Industry have lost no time in claiming the ‘People’s Mandate’ as their own. ‘It’s fast forward for markets’, the business papers crowed the morning after, ‘Vote [was] for reforms, says India Inc’.

There is an even greater irony: the Left Front, acting with the duplicity that has become second nature to all parliamentary political parties, took a sharp turn to the right. Even while it criticised the government’s economic policies at the Centre, it tried to enforce similar ones on its home turf in West Bengal. It announced that it was going to build a chemical hub in Nandigram, a manufacturing unit for the Tata Nano in Singur, and a Jindal Steel plant some kilometres outside the forests of Lalgarh, home to the Santhal people. It began to acquire land, most of it fertile farmland, virtually at gunpoint. The massive, militant uprisings that followed were put down with bullets and lathicharges. Lumpen ‘party’ militias ran amok among the protesters, raping women and killing people. But eventually the combination of genuine mass mobilisation and militancy worked. The people prevailed. They won all three battles, and forced the government to back off. The Tatas had to move the Nano project to Gujarat, that laboratory of fascism, which offered a ‘good investment climate’. The Left Front was decimated in the elections in West Bengal, something that had not happened in thirty years.

The irony doesn’t end there. In a fiendishly clever sleight of hand, the defeat of the Left is being attributed to its obstructionism and anti-development policies! ‘Corporate captains feel easy without Left’, the papers said. The stockmarket surged, looking forward to ‘a summer of joy’. CEOs on TV channels celebrated the new government’s ‘liberation’ from the Left. Hectoring news anchors have announced that the UPA no longer has any excuse to prevaricate on implementing reforms, unless of course it has ‘closet socialists’ hiding in its midst

This is the wonderful thing about democracy. It can mean anything you want it to mean.

The absence of a genuinely left-wing party in mainstream politics is not something to celebrate. But the parliamentary Left has only itself to blame for its humiliation. It’s not a tragedy that it has been cut to size. Perhaps this will create the space for some truly progressive politics.

For the sake of argument, let’s for a moment contemplate the absurd and accept that India Inc and the Captains of Industry are right and that India’s millions did in fact vote for the speeding up of market ‘reforms’. Is that good news or bad news? Should we be celebrating the fact that millions of people who have something to teach the world, who have another imagination, another worldview and a more sustainable way of life, have decided to embrace a discredited ideology, one that has pushed this planet into a crisis from which it may never recover?

What good will forest rights be when there are no forests? What good will the Right to Information do if there is no redress for our grievances? What good are rivers without water? What good are plains without mountains to water and sustain them? It’s as though we’re hurtling down a cliff in a bus without brakes and fighting over what songs to sing.

‘Jai Ho!’ perhaps?

For better or for worse, the 2009 elections seem to have ensured that the ‘Progress’ project is up and running. However, it would be a serious mistake to believe that the ‘Union’ project has fallen by the wayside.

As the 2009 election campaign unrolled, two things got saturation coverage in the media.One was the 1,00,000 rupee (two thousand dollar) ‘people’s car’, the Tata Nano-the wagon for the volks-rolling out of Modi’s Gujarat. (The sops and subsidies Modi gave the Tatas had a lot to do with Ratan Tata’s warm endorsement of him.) The other is the hate speech of the BJP’s monstrous new debutant, Varun Gandhi (another descendant of the Nehru dynasty), who makes even Narendra Modi sound moderate and retiring. In a public speech, Varun Gandhi called for Muslims to be forcibly sterilised. ‘This will be known as a Hindu bastion, no Muslim dare raise his head here’, he said, using a derogatory word for someone who has been circumcised. ‘I don’t want a single Muslim vote.’

Varun is a modern politician, working the democratic system, doing everything he can to create a majority and consolidate his votebank. A politician needs a votebank, like a corporation needs a mass market. Both need help from the mass media. Corporations buy that help. Politicians must earn it. Some earn it by dint of hard work, others with dangerous circus stunts. Varun’s hate speech bought him national headlines. His brief stint in prison (for violating the Election Commission’s code of conduct), cut short by a court order, made him an instant martyr. He was gently chastised for his impetuousness by his party elders (on TV, for public consumption). But then, in order to export his coarse appeal, he, like Narendra Modi, was flown around in a chopper as a star campaigner for the BJP in other constituencies.

Varun Gandhi won his election with a colossal margin. It makes you wonder-are ‘the people’ always right? It is worrying to think what lessons the BJP will draw from its few decisive victories and its many decisive losses in this election. In several of the constituencies where it has won, hate speech (and deed) served it well. It still remains by far the second largest political party, with a powerful national presence, the only real challenge to the Congress. It will certainly live to fight another day. The question is, will it turn the burners up or down?

This said, it would be a travesty to lay all the blame for divisive politics at the door of the BJP. Whether it’s nuclear tests, the unsealing of the locks of the Babri Masjid, the culture of creating fissures and pitting castes and communities against each other, or passing retrograde laws, the Congress got there first and has never been shy of keeping the ball in play. In the past, both parties have used massacres to gain political mileage. Sometimes they feast off them obliquely, sometimes they accuse each other of committing mass murder. In this election, both the Congress and the BJP brazenly fielded candidates believed to be involved in public lynching and mass murder. At no point has either seen to it that the guilty are punished or that justice is delivered. Despite their vicious public exchange of accusations, so far they have colluded to protect one another from real consequences.

Eventually the massacres get absorbed into the labyrinth of India’s judicial system where they are left to bubble and ferment before being trundled out as campaign material for the next election. You could say it’s all a part of the fabric of Indian democracy. Hard to see from a train window. Whether the new infusion of young blood into the Congress will change the old party’s methods of doing business remains to be seen

As will be obvious from the essays in this book, the hoary institutions of Indian democracy-the judiciary, the police, the ‘free’ press and, of course, elections-far from working as a system of checks and balances, quite often do the opposite.They provide each other cover to promote the larger interests of Union and Progress. In the process, they generate such confusion, such a cacophony, that voices raised in warning just become part of the noise. And that only helps to enhance the image of the tolerant, lumbering, colourful, somewhat chaotic democracy. The chaos is real. But so is the consensus.

Speaking of consensus, there’s the small and ever-present matter of Kashmir. When it comes to Kashmir the consensus in India is hardcore. It cuts across every section of the establishment-including the media, the bureaucracy, the intelligentsia and even Bollywood.

The war in the Kashmir Valley is almost 20 years old now, and has claimed about 70,000 lives. Tens of thousands have been tortured, several thousand have ‘disappeared’, women have been raped and many thousands widowed. Half a million Indian troops patrol the Kashmir Valley, making it the most militarised zone in the world. (The United States had about 1,65,000 active-duty troops in Iraq at the height of its occupation.) The Indian army now claims that it has, for the most part, crushed militancy in Kashmir. Perhaps that’s true. But does military domination mean victory?

How does a government that claims to be a democracy justify a military occupation? By holding regular elections, of course. Elections in Kashmir have had a long and fascinating past. The blatantly rigged state election of 1987 was the immediate provocation for the armed uprising that began in 1990. Since then elections have become a finely honed instrument of the military occupation, a sinister playground for India’s Deep State. Intelligence agencies have created political parties and decoy politicians, they have constructed and destroyed political careers at will. It is they more than anyone else who decide what the outcome of each election will be. After every election, the Indian establishment declares that India has won a popular mandate from the people of Kashmir.

In the summer of 2008, a dispute over land being allotted to the Amarnath Shrine Board coalesced into a massive, non-violent uprising. Day after day, hundreds of thousands of people defied soldiers and policemen-who fired straight into the crowds, killing scores of people-and thronged the streets. From early morning to late in the night, the city reverberated to chants of ‘azadi! azadi!’ (‘freedom! freedom!’). Fruit-sellers weighed fruit chanting, ‘azadi! azadi!’ Shopkeepers, doctors, houseboat owners, guides, weavers, carpet-sellers-everybody was out with placards, everybody shouted ‘azadi! azadi!’ The protests went on for several days.

The protests were massive. They were democratic, and they were non-violent. For the first time in decades, fissures appeared in mainstream public opinion in India. The Indian state panicked. Unsure of how to deal with this mass civil disobedience, it ordered a crackdown. It enforced the harshest curfew in recent memory with shoot-at-sight orders. In effect, for days on end, it virtually caged millions of people. The major pro-freedom leaders were placed under house arrest, several others were jailed. House-to-house searches culminated in the arrest of hundreds of people. The Jama Masjid was closed for Friday prayers for an unprecedented seven weeks at a stretch.

Once the rebellion was brought under control, the government did something extraordinary-it announced elections in the state. Pro-independence leaders called for a boycott. They were re-arrested. Almost everybody believed the elections would become a huge embarrassment for the Indian government. The security establishment was convulsed with paranoia. Its elaborate network of spies, renegades and embedded journalists began to buzz with renewed energy.No chances were taken. (Even I, who had nothing to do with any of what was going on, was put under house arrest in Srinagar for two days.)

Calling for elections was a huge risk. But the gamble paid off. People turned out to vote in droves. It was the biggest voter turnout since the armed struggle began. It helped that the polls were scheduled so that the first districts to vote were the most militarised even within the Kashmir Valley.

None of India’s analysts, journalists and psephologists cared to ask why people who had only weeks ago risked everything, including bullets and shoot-at-sight orders, should have suddenly changed their minds. None of the high-profile scholars of the great festival of democracy-who practically live in TV studios when there are elections in mainland India, picking apart every forecast, exit poll and minor percentile swing in the voteshare-talked about what elections mean in the presence of such a massive, year-round troop deployment. (An armed soldier for every 20 civilians.) No one speculated about the mystery of hundreds of unknown candidates who materialised out of nowhere to represent political parties that had no previous presence in the Kashmir Valley. Where had they come from? Who was financing them? No one was curious.

No one spoke about the curfew, the mass arrests, the lockdown of constituencies that were going to the polls. Not many talked about the fact that campaigning politicians went out of their way to delink ‘azadi’ and the Kashmir dispute from elections, which they insisted were only about municipal issues-roads, water, electricity. No one talked about why people who have lived under a military occupation for decades-where soldiers could barge into homes and whisk away people at any time of the day or night-might need someone to listen to them, to take up their cases, to represent them.

The minute elections were over, the establishment and the mainstream press declared victory (for India) once again. The most worrying fallout was that in Kashmir, people began to parrot their colonisers’ view of themselves as a somewhat pathetic people who deserved what they got. ‘Never trust a Kashmiri,’ several Kashmiris said to me. ‘We’re fickle and unreliable.’ Psychological warfare has been an instrument of official policy in Kashmir. Its depredations over decades-its attempt to destroy people’s self-esteem-are arguably the worst aspect of the occupation.

But only weeks after the elections it was back to business as usual. The protests and demands for azadi and the summary killings by security forces have begun again. Newspapers report that militancy is on the rise. Unsurprisingly, the poor turnout in the subsequent general elections did not elicit much comment.

It’s enough to make you wonder whether there is any connection at all between elections and democracy.

The trouble is that Kashmir sits on the faultlines of a region that is awash in weapons and sliding into chaos. The Kashmiri freedom struggle, with its crystal-clear sentiment but fuzzy outlines, is caught in the vortex of several dangerous and conflicting ideologies-Indian nationalism (corporate as well as ‘Hindu’, shading into imperialism), Pakistani nationalism (breaking down under the burden of its own contradictions), US imperialism (made impatient by a tanking economy), and a resurgent medieval-Islamist Taliban (fast gaining legitimacy, despite its insane brutality, because it is seen to be resisting an occupation). Each of these ideologies is capable of a ruthlessness that can range from genocide to nuclear war.Add Chinese imperial ambitions, an aggressive, reincarnated Russia, the huge reserves of natural gas in the Caspian region and persistent whispers about natural gas, oil and uranium reserves in Kashmir and Ladakh, and you have the recipe for a new Cold War (which, like the last one, is cold for some and hot for others).

In the midst of all this, Kashmir is set to become the conduit through which the mayhem unfolding in Afghanistan and Pakistan spills into India, where it will find purchase in the anger of the young among India’s 150 million Muslims who have been brutalised, humiliated and marginalised. Notice has been given by the series of terrorist strikes that culminated in the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

There is no doubt that the Kashmir dispute ranks right up there, along with Palestine, as one of the oldest, most intractable disputes in the world. That does not mean that it cannot be resolved. Only that the solution will not be completely to the satisfaction of any one party, one country or one ideology. Negotiators will have to be prepared to deviate from the ‘party line’. Of course, we haven’t yet reached the stage where the Government of India is even prepared to admit that there’s a problem, let alone negotiate a solution. Right now it has no reason to. Internationally, its stocks are soaring. Its economy is still ticking over, and while its neighbours deal with bloodshed, civil war, concentration camps, refugees and army mutinies, India has just concluded a beautiful election.

However, Demon-crazy can’t fool all the people all the time. India’s temporary, shotgun solutions to the unrest in Kashmir (pardon the pun) have magnified the problem and driven it deep into a place where it is poisoning the aquifers.

Perhaps the story of the Siachen glacier, the highest battlefield in the world, is the most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times. Thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been deployed there, enduring chill winds and temperatures that dip to minus 40 Celsius. Of the hundreds who have died there, many have died just from the cold-from frostbite and sunburn. The glacier has become a garbage dump now, littered with the detritus of war, thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice-axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate. The garbage remains intact, perfectly preserved at those icy temperatures, a pristine monument to human folly. While the Indian and Pakistani governments spend billions of dollars on weapons and the logistics of high-altitude warfare, the battlefield has begun to melt. Right now, it has shrunk to about half its size. The melting has less to do with the military standoff than with people far away, on the other side of the world, living the good life. They’re good people who believe in peace, free speech and human rights. They live in thriving democracies whose governments sit on the UN Security Council and whose economies depend heavily on the export of war and the sale of weapons to countries like India and Pakistan. (And Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, the Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan. .. it’s a long list.) The glacial melt will cause severe floods in the subcontinent, and eventually severe drought that will affect the lives of millions of people. That will give us even more reasons to fight. We’ll need more weapons. Who knows, that sort of consumer confidence may be just what the world needs to get over the current recession. Then everyone in the thriving democracies will have an even better life-and the glaciers will melt even faster.

While I read ‘Listening to Grasshoppers’ to a tense audience packed into a university auditorium in Istanbul (tense because words like unity, progress, genocide and Armenian tend to anger the Turkish authorities when they are uttered close together), I could see Rakel Dink, Hrant Dink’s widow, sitting in the front row, crying the whole way through. When I finished, she hugged me and said, “We keep hoping. Why do we keep hoping?”

We, she said. Not you.

The words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, sung so hauntingly by Abida Parveen, came to me:

Nahin nigah main manzil to justaju hi sahi, Nahin wisaal mayassar to arzu hi sahi

I tried to translate them for her (sort of):

If dreams are thwarted, then yearning must take their place, If reunion is impossible, then longing must take its place.

You see what I meant about poetry?

Filmmakers vs. Capitalists

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion on September 17, 2009 by CjH

Move Over Congress, Here Comes Achbar, Moore and the Yes Men

Pam Martens, CounterPunch

We’re about to find out if the filmmakers can succeed where Congressional hearings and mainstream media have failed.  Will the film documentaries examining insatiable corporate greed and Wall Street malfeasance provide the American people with the necessary foundation of understanding and activist tools to seriously tackle the problem head on?

The embryo of a breakthrough idea is emerging amidst the smell of popcorn and Raisinets in theatres around the globe: the mega corporate structure is no longer facilitating product innovation as much as it is spawning audacious crime innovation. So big and bulky it can’t get out of its own way, let alone innovate, the bloated behemoth resorts to crime for profits.  Unless we think there is a future for our nation in patenting, securitizing and exporting felonious acts, we need to change course and fast.

Three films are standouts as a combined curriculum for leading Americans out of the darkness.  Together, they provide a compelling argument that the seeds of today’s financial calamity were planted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1886 to effectively grant corporations the same protections as humans.

Each film uses its own unique stories of corporate atrocities but delivers the same underlying message: corporate personhood, heeding only the clarion call of profits at any cost, has developed the endemic traits of a psychopath, corrupting everything it touches from its own managers, courts, or governments.  As these corporate tentacles of corruption now reach into every conceivable part of our existence, the corporate personhood structure is effectively snuffing out human personhood, one foreclosed family at a time, one Bhopal disaster at a time, one corrupt judge jailing children for profit at a time.  If there is a Dickensian feel to all of this, it’s because deregulation of corporations is accelerating the devolving human nature of our society.

Ideally, the films should be viewed in this order: First, “The Corporation,” a 145 minute film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan that premiered at Sundance in January 2004 and has racked up 26 international awards. A two-disc DVD now includes an additional eight hours of deleted scenes, Q and A’s, and clips sorted by person’s name or topic.

Next, Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” which will be released to mass audiences in the U.S. on October 2 after September premieres in Venice and Toronto.  (I researched Moore’s film from released clips, web archived interviews and an extensive amount of European press.)

And, third, the uproarious corporate prankster movie which will begin its U.S. theatre release on October 7, “The Yes Men Fix the World.” This film presents a hilarious and ingenious how-to program on inflicting public shame on corporations within the confines of their own corporate confabs.

“The Corporation” begins by tracing the birth of the corporation and its rise to “personhood” status.  Prior to the Civil War, corporations were restrained by having their charters issued by states for specific purposes and terms.  If corporations engaged in illegal acts, their charters could be revoked.  But following the passage of the 14th Amendment, which provided that no state could “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” the corporations aggressively sought to gain personhood status for themselves.  The film notes that while 600,000 people died in the Civil War to give rights to people, from 1890 to 1910 the U.S. Supreme Court heard 307 cases under the 14th Amendment: 288 came from corporations; 19 by African Americans.  (The pivotal case the corporations use to cite their legal personhood is the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific.)

The Yes Men have honed in on this same corporate personhood problem.  On November 12, 2008 the Yes Men (known as Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) participated in a hoax that saw 1.2 million copies of an extremely high quality, but fake, New York Times being distributed in New York City and other major metropolitan areas.  The newsprint edition was backed up by an equally high quality web site.  Above the fold headlines declared “Iraq War Ends” and “Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy.”  A spoof article outlines how John McCain is heading up a program to help corporations finish their quest to become fully human persons by achieving that one distinguishing characteristic: a conscience.  “You’d have to be very cynical to think that corporations, when they won protection as ‘persons’ under the ‘Freed Slave’ Amendment, were thinking only of their own wealth…It’s clear that corporations just admire humans and what we have. We should be good hosts and help them however we can. Right now, that means making them responsible and responsive.”

All three films, wittingly or unwittingly, focus the audience on the psychopathic tendencies of the modern day corporation.  Moore’s film delves into a host of malfeasances including some markedly grotesque examples.  One, previously detailed in the February 2, 2008 CounterPunch article “Global Finance and the Insanity Defense,” is the corporation’s purchase of large life insurance policies on their workers without their knowledge.  Called dead peasants’ insurance, janitor’s insurance or Corporate Owned Life Insurance (COLI), here’s what we reported in February 2008:

“Some of the largest corporations in America have been boosting their income statements by including cash buildup in the policies as well as receiving the death benefit tax free.

In 2003, the General Accountability Office (GAO) released a study with the startling findings that companies were taking out multiple policies on the same individual and that 3,209 banks and thrifts had current cash values in these policies totaling $56.3 Billion.

But instead of a congressional revolt against this revolting practice, it remained in place for at least 16 years after Congress first learned about it.  Then along comes the worker-friendly sounding Pension Protection Act of 2006 submitted by our Congress and signed by the President. Buried deep within this massive document was the grandfathering of the millions of previously issued policies with a little tinkering at the edges of tax and reporting issues on newly issued policies.”

Moore’s movie has not yet hit U.S. theatres and the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have already published pieces that discredit the filmmaker.  Matthew Kaminski, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, says “Mr. Moore can’t be judged as a documentary film maker, except dismissively. He confuses issues on purpose. He repeatedly ignores the other side of the story. He never asks why, for example, a company might take out an insurance policy on a key employee.”    Here, Kaminski is guilty of his own charge, ignoring the other side of the story: billions of dollars of life insurance was taken out on non-key employees, without their knowledge.  In many cases the insurance remained in force after the employee left the firm, extinguishing any possible claim to an insurable interest as required under the law.

The New York Times, which together with Judith Miller relentlessly waved the pompoms in the leadup to the Iraq war, notes the following in a piece on Moore’s film by Michael Cieply, citing a study from the Center for Social Media: “The report found that documentarians, while they generally aspire to act honorably, often operate under ad hoc ethical codes. The craft tends to see itself as being bound less by the need to be accurate and fair than by a desire for social justice, to level the playing field between those who are perceived to be powerful and those who are not.”  The Times ran another piece by Bruce Headlam which devoted four words (“privatized juvenile detention centers”) out of a 2100 word article to Moore’s expose in the film on the jailing of children for profit.  Following is the background on what locals in Pennsylvania are calling the Kids for Cash scandal, a growing and fluid public corruption case. You decide if four words get the job done.
Our society has apparently begun to mimic the psychopathic corporate personhood role model.  Two judges (Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan), a lawyer (Robert Powell), and a builder (Robert K. Mericle) of privatized juvenile jails in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania have been charged by Federal prosecutors in a scheme to essentially sell kids, as if they were commodities, to fill up the for-profit jails.

Here’s how the scam went down according to criminal charges and civil suits:  first,  one of the judges cut off funding to the county’s own juvenile detention center; next he gave a green light to the builder and co-owner lawyer to build the first jail (a second one was later constructed); a 20 year, $58 million lease was signed by the county;  then his pal judge who headed the juvenile court facilitated a form being shoved under parents’ noses just before entering his courtroom waiving the child’s right to counsel.  Typically, within a few moments of the child entering the courtroom for “crimes” as small as slapping another child, making fun of school personnel on a website, or stealing change from unlocked cars, children were handcuffed, shackled and sent off to the privatized juvenile jail leaving parents stunned, crying and even fainting in the courtroom.  In many cases, children were incarcerated for months.

Very likely, many of these children will never again feel safe in our society; a precious part of their childhood has been viciously removed for profit.  The judges received over $2.5 million from Powell and Mericle in reward for their efforts.

You can bet that the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal will see no connection between the above episode and Wall Street’s transgressions.  So let me make the connection.  Attorney Powell needed the same comforts as Wall Street titans: a mansion, a private plane, and a 56’ yacht named “Reel Justice.”  The builder, Robert K. Mericle, has been permitted to essentially reduce his charges by placing $2.1 million in a fund for children.  According to the Times-Shamrock newspapers of Northeastern Pennsylvania, “In his plea agreement, Mericle agreed to donate $2.1 million to local programs promoting the health and welfare of children. Mericle has already placed the funds in an escrow account with his attorney, William Winning of the Philadelphia firm Cozen O’Connor, according to the agreement.”  This sounds very similar to Wall Street’s perpetual habit of committing massive crimes against the public and then settling for millions with the SEC.

And then there’s the matter of the two judges, who prosecutors say have been showing signs of hiding assets and may be a flight risk.  The judges are free on bail and not confined to their homes.  That’s more generous than Bernie Madoff’s home detention while he awaited sentencing.  What message does that send to these children and their families?

Also similar to the Madoff matter, for years people in Luzerne County tried everything short of shouting from the rooftops to expose the fact that these judges were up to no good but the investigation of these high powered people went nowhere: the list of people speaking out included the former county controller, Steve Flood, who eventually suffered a stroke and lost his ability to speak; the Juvenile Law Center which has now brought a civil suit on behalf of the children; a former Judge, Ann Lokuta, who says she was politically targeted for challenging the corruption; and parents of the children.

When Michael Moore says “I refuse to live in a country like this, and I’m not leaving,” he extols us to look deeply within ourselves.  How did we, some of the most hard working and creative people on the planet (as surely evidenced by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) allow our democracy to be transformed into a massive corporate crime scene?   (Moore wraps yellow crime scene tape around Wall Street in the film to underscore the point.)

Here’s my creative thought to start taking back our country: instead of giving gifts this holiday season that are made by corporations who have pillaged our democracy, give sets of the above three films.  For extra good measure, include Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s film “American Casino,” the most insightful look yet at the foreclosure and housing crisis.

The Corporate Stranglehold on Education

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion on September 8, 2009 by CjH

Is Higher Eduction in Need of a Moral Bailout?

By Henry Giroux, CounterPunch

As the school year begins, colleges and universities in North America are doing everything possible to attract students, including making themselves over in the image of a high-end mall or a cool brand name. Some institutions are giving students free Apple iPhones and Internet-capable iPods. Others are building attractive athletic facilities, developing more retail stores on campus, and providing plenty of specialized coffee shops. Some welcome this change as a brilliant market strategy while others believe that any face lift will improve the often stodgy academic image many colleges project.

Even as more and more students are excluded from a decent higher education because of the recession, educators seem less concerned about the plight of poor students than they do about how they can find the right brand to sell themselves to attract new students. But there is more at work here than the development of a new campus aesthetic or a recognition that students are now considered clients who represent an important market niche.

There is also the move on the part of many universities towards embracing  market mechanisms as a way of redefining almost every aspect of university life–in spite of the failure and excesses of this system as exemplified in the Bernie Madoff scandal, outrageous executive bonuses, financial corruption, the subprime mortgage crisis, and the corporate greed that caused the current economic recession. Rather than challenge the economic irresponsibility, ecological damage, and human suffering, and culture of cruelty unleashed by free market fundamentalism, higher education appears to be one of its staunchest defenders, uncritically embracing a view of itself based on a market model of the academy.

It seems that few educators have recognized that universities are in need of a moral bailout given that they are embracing the very market values, identities, and social relations that not only perpetuated the cut-throat values that caused the economic crisis, but also put many of them in the dire financial crisis they are currently experiencing.  The corporate stranglehold over higher education  gets stronger regardless of how devalued market fundamentalism has become during one of the greatest economic crisis the United States has ever experienced. Strapped for money and increasingly defined in the language of corporate culture, many universities seem less interested in higher learning than in becoming licensed storefronts for brand name corporations–selling space, buildings, and endowed chairs to rich corporate donors.  Not surprisingly, students are now referred to as “customers,” while some university presidents even argue that professors be labeled as “academic entrepreneurs.”  Instead of using their platforms to address important social issues, university presidents are now called CEOs and are viewed primarily as fund raisers.

In the age of money and profit, academic subjects gain stature almost exclusively through their exchange value on the market.  Twice as many students major in business studies than in any other major. The liberal arts increasingly appear to be merely ornamental, a dying vestige of an age not dominated by Gilded Age excess and disposability. Whereas the university was once prized as a place where students learned how to be engaged citizens educated in the knowledge, skills, values, and virtues of democracy, today they are trained to be workers and adept consumers. Educational value is now measured according to cost/benefit formulas, and the only rationality that matters is one of economic exchange.

Education is increasingly reduced to a narrow instrumental logic, only recognizable as a form of training, just as teaching is removed from the language of social and moral responsibility, critical imagination, and civic courage. In the age of increasing specializations, pay for grades schemes, excessive instrumentalism, and an increasing contempt for critical thinking, higher education is producing new forms of political and civic illiteracy, turning out students who have little understanding of the complexities of the larger world, unaware of their power as social agents, and removed from those capacities that combine critique and a yearning for social justice,  knowledge and social change, learning and a compassion for others.   And the outcome can be seen in a growing generation of young people and adults who are barely literate, live in an utterly privatized world, and are either indifferent or complicit with a growing culture of cruelty.

As higher education is transformed into a business or increasingly militarized, young people find themselves on campuses that look more like malls or recruiting stations for the national security state.  Moreover, they are increasingly taught by professors who are hired on a contractual basis, have obscene work loads, and can barely make enough money to survive. Tenured faculty members are now called upon to generate grants, establish close partnerships with corporations, and teach courses that have practical value in the marketplace. What was once the hidden curriculum of many universities—the subordination of higher education to corporate values—has now become an open and much celebrated policy of both public and private higher education.  There is little in this vision of the university that imagines young people as critical citizens or critical agents,  educated to take seriously their role in addressing important social issues and bearing some responsibility for strengthening and deepening the reach of a real and substantive democracy. Addressing education as a democratic endeavour begins with the recognition that higher education is more than an investment opportunity, citizenship is about more than consuming, learning is about more than preparing for a job, and democracy is about more the false choices offered under a rigged corporate state and marketplace.

Higher education may be one of the few sites left in which students learn the knowledge and skills that enable them to not only mediate critically between democratic values and the demands of corporate power, but also to distinguish between identities founded on democratic principles and identities steeped in forms of competitive, unbridled individualism that celebrate self-interest, profit making, and greed. Put differently, higher education should neither confuse education with training nor should it suggest that the only obligation of citizenship is consuming.

Higher education is a hard-won democratic achievement and it is time that parents, faculty, students, alumni and concerned citizens reclaim higher education as a fundamental public good rather than merely a training ground for corporate interests, values, and profits.  Education is not only about issues of work and economics–as important as these may be, but also about matters of justice,  freedom, and the capacity for democratic agency, action, and change as well as the related issues of power, exclusion, and citizenship. Education at its best is about enabling students to take seriously questions about how they ought to live their lives, uphold the ideals of a just society, learn how to translate personal issues into public considerations, and act upon the promises of a strong democracy. These are educational and political issues and should be addressed as part of a broader concern for renewing the struggle for social justice and democracy.  Let’s give our students the education they deserve in a substantive democracy. Schooling offers more than the promise of a decent job, however elusive that has become; more importantly, it offers the promise of a just and democratic society.

Bush’s Third Term?

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion on September 3, 2009 by CjH

You’re Living It

By David Swanson,

It sounds like the plot for the latest summer horror movie. Imagine, for a moment, that George W. Bush had been allowed a third term as president, had run and had won or stolen it, and that we were all now living (and dying) through it. With the Democrats in control of Congress but Bush still in the Oval Office, the media would certainly be talking endlessly about a mandate for bipartisanship and the importance of taking into account the concerns of Republicans. Can’t you just picture it?

There’s Dubya now, still rewriting laws via signing statements. Still creating and destroying laws with executive orders. And still violating laws at his whim. Imagine Bush continuing his policy of extraordinary rendition, sending prisoners off to other countries with grim interrogation reputations to be held and tortured. I can even picture him formalizing his policy of preventive detention, sprucing it up with some “due process” even as he permanently removes habeas corpus from our culture.

I picture this demonic president still swearing he doesn’t torture, still insisting that he wants to close Guantanamo, but assuring his subordinates that the commander-in-chief has the power to torture “if needed,” and maintaining a prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan that makes Guantanamo look like summer camp. I can imagine him continuing to keep secret his warrantless spying programs while protecting the corporations and government officials involved.

If Bush were in his third term, we would already have seen him propose, yet again, the largest military budget in the history of the world. We might well have seen him pretend he was including war funding in the standard budget, and then claim that one final supplemental war budget was still needed, immediately after which he would surely announce that yet another war supplemental bill would be needed down the road. And of course, he would have held onto his Secretary of Defense from his second term, Robert Gates, to run the Pentagon, keep our ongoing wars rolling along, and oversee the better part of our public budget.

Bush would undoubtedly be following through on the agreement he signed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 (except where he chose not to follow through). His generals would, in the meantime, be leaking word that the United States never intended to actually leave. He’d surely be maintaining current levels of troops in Iraq, while sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan and talking about a new “surge” there. He’d probably also be escalating the campaign he launched late in his second term to use drone aircraft to illegally and repeatedly strike into Pakistan’s tribal borderlands with Afghanistan.

If Bush were still “the decider” he’d be employing mercenaries like Blackwater and propagandists like the Rendon Group and he might even be expanding the number of private security contractors in Afghanistan. In fact, the whole executive branch would be packed with disreputable corporate executive types. You’d have somebody like John (”May I torture this one some more, please?”) Rizzo still serving, at least for a while, as general counsel at the CIA. The White House and Justice Department would be crawling with corporate cronies, people like John Brennan, Greg Craig, James Jones, and Eric Holder. Most of the top prosecutors hired at the Department of Justice for political purposes would still be on the job. And political prisoners, like former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and former top Democratic donor Paul Minor would still be abandoned to their fate.

In addition, the bank bailouts Bush and his economic team initiated in his second term would still be rolling along — with a similar crowd of people running the show. Ben Bernanke, for instance, would certainly have been reappointed to run the Fed. And Bush’s third term would have guaranteed that there would be none of the monkeying around with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that the Democrats proposed or promised in their losing presidential campaign. At this point in Bush’s third term, no significant new effort would have begun to restore Katrina-decimated New Orleans either.

If the Democrats in Congress attempted to pass any set of needed reforms like, to take an example, new healthcare legislation, Bush, the third termer, would have held secret meetings in the White House with insurance and drug company executives to devise a means to turn such proposals to their advantage. And he would have refused to release the visitor logs so that the American public would have no way of knowing just whom he’d been talking to.

During Bush’s second term, some of the lowest ranking torturers from Abu Ghraib were prosecuted as bad apples, while those officials responsible for the policies that led to Abu Ghraib remained untouched. If the public continued to push for justice for torturers during the early months of Bush’s third term, he would certainly have gone with another bad apple approach, perhaps targeting only low-ranking CIA interrogators and CIA contractors for prosecution. Bush would undoubtedly have decreed that any higher-ups would not be touched, that we should now be looking forward, not backward. And he would thereby have cemented in place the power of presidents to grant immunity for crimes they themselves authorized.

If Bush were in his third term, some of his first and second term secrets might, by now, have been forced out into the open by lawsuits, but what Americans actually read wouldn’t be significantly worse than what we’d already known. What documents saw the light of day would surely have had large portions of their pages redacted, and the vast bulk of documentation that might prove threatening would remain hidden from the public eye. Bush’s lawyers would be fighting in court, with ever grander claims of executive power, to keep his wrongdoing out of sight.

Now, here’s the funny part. This dark fantasy of a third Bush term is also an accurate portrait of Obama’s first term to date. In following Bush, Obama was given the opportunity either to restore the rule of law and the balance of powers or to firmly establish in place what were otherwise aberrant abuses of power. Thus far, President Obama has, in all the areas mentioned above, chosen the latter course. Everything described, from the continuation of crimes to the efforts to hide them away, from the corruption of corporate power to the assertion of the executive power to legislate, is Obama’s presidency in its first seven months.

Which doesn’t mean there aren’t differences in the two moments. For one thing, Democrats have now joined Republicans in approving expanded presidential powers and even — in the case of wars, military strikes, lawless detention and rendition, warrantless spying, and the obstruction of justice — presidential crimes. In addition, in the new Democratic era of goodwill, peace and justice movements have been strikingly defunded and, in some cases, even shut down. Many progressive groups now, in fact, take their signals from the president and his team, rather than bringing the public’s demands to his doorstep.

If we really were in Bush’s third term, people would be far more active and outraged. There would already be a major push to really end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the Democrats still wouldn’t impeach Bush, especially since they’d be able to vote him out before his fourth term, and surely four more years of him wouldn’t make all that much difference.

Environmentally Friendly Bombs on the Way

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion on August 26, 2009 by CjH

It sounds like the worst contradiction in terms: environmentally friendly bombs. And no, it’s not a story from the Onion this time around. Calling something green that’s designed to blow up its surroundings when it hits its target is just – well – dumb. Yet, scientists are working on a bomb that would create less environmental fallout via toxic gases and polluting debris. I guess if we’re going to slaughter people with high impact explosives, we might as well do it in a greener way.

Neoliberalism, Charter Schools and the Chicago Model

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion, Political Economy on August 26, 2009 by CjH

Obama and Duncan’s Educational Policy: Like Bush’s, Only Worse

By Danny Weil, CounterPunch

In his first major speech on education since his election and swearing in as President, a speech made to an unscheduled meeting of the Council of Chief State School officers, held on March 10, 2009 in Washington D.C., Barrack Obama repeated the claims heard from many quarters that the United States must drastically improve student achievement to regain lost international standing in the world. He called for tying teachers’ pay to student performance (merit pay) and for expanding charter schools throughout the nation. In calling for merit pay for teachers, Obama argued:

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.”

The president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA), Dennis Van Roekel, weakly insisted that Obama’s call for teacher performance pay did not necessarily signify raises or bonuses would be tied to student test scores under No Child Left behind, as merit pay proponents have consistently called for. According to the NEA president, it could mean more pay for board-certified teachers or for those who work in high-poverty, hard-to-staff schools. However, much to the chagrin of the NEA president, administration officials later clarified the issue, saying that among other things, they most certainly do mean to tie higher teacher pay to student achievement on standardized tests. This clearly seems to signal that the No Child Left Behind standardized testing regime will continue unabated and the ‘average yearly progress’ will continue to serve as the metaphorical educational Dow Jones of ‘measureable outcomes’, not only for teachers and students, but as we discussed in previous chapters, eventually as benchmarks for the ‘charter school providers’ or EMOs themselves.

Besides the usual decades old call for more rigid educational standards on a state to state level and supporting No Child Left Behind, the “other things” the Obama administration alluded to in relation to educational performance have yet to be disclosed as of this writing, but one thing is for sure, Obama is clearly on record as a big time proponent of a national expansion of the charter school market. In fact, Obama is on record claiming “state limits on numbers of charter schools aren’t good for our children, our economy or our country” (ibid), and he echoed in his speech that day the repeated, yet unsubstantiated claim, that many of the innovations in education today are happening in charter schools. Obama also indicated he wants kids to spend more day time hours in school, with longer school days, school weeks and school years, something KIPP charter schools currently require and a similar proposal that the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE) has called for in their report, Tough Choices or Tough Times. He also hinted he might even be convinced to support private vouchers.

It should be no surprise that Barrack Obama supports charter schools. As the junior senator from Illinois he doubled the amount of charter schools in his state, despite reservations from teachers, community leaders and unions. In an interview conducted in Cleveland, Ohio in March of 2009, where Governor Strickland has called charter schools a drain on public expenditures and plans to introduce legislation to reduce state spending for them, Obama harped on the ‘charter schools as innovation’ theme once again and commented on his adamant support for charter schools, stating that the nation needs to:

“… create laboratories of innovation so that in the public school system, we are on a race to the top as opposed to stuck in the old ways of doing things. And so we’ve got to experiment with ways to provide a better education experience for our kids, and some charters are doing outstanding jobs. So the bottom line is to try to create innovation within the public school system that can potentially be scaled up, but also to make sure that we are maintaining very high standards for any charter school that’s created.”

It seems Obama has latched on to the ideological rhetoric that charter schools are somehow engines of innovation that promise to raise all public schools’ performance, even though, the real impetus behind charter schools is not about innovation and improving public schools but about privatizing public schools, replacing them with elaborate associations of state subsidized charter school networks, contract schools and public vouchers run by for-profit and non-profit providers. There simply is no state or national “educational innovation bank” that collects information on charter school curriculum and teaching practices and then disseminates it to traditional public schools.

Never mind that, it looks more and more like the Obama educational agenda is already beginning to shape itself into reality. On July 30, 2009 the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee voted a $40 million increase in funding for federal Charter School Programs (CSPs), bringing total funding to a whopping $256 million for fiscal year 2010. Also included in the bill were significant educational reform investments strongly aligned with the Obama Administration’s priorities, such as a focus on increasing the number of high quality charter schools, rewarding effective teachers, and turning around the nation’s lowest performing public schools.

Perhaps the best way to understand President Obama’s thinking on educational policies and public policy commitments to educational reform is to go beyond the rhetoric and examine his appointment of Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education. Reflecting once again Obama’s willingness to compromise with large business forces, Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools was tapped, according to Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, because “Duncan mirrors the President-elect’s style of governing — get all sides around the table, listen carefully and experiment with meaningful reforms.”

But the story is more complicated than simply sitting around the table and compromising with conciliatory business, unions and public leaders. Since his election, Obama has pledged $100 billion dollars of federal money for a stimulus for public schools throughout the nation. But there’s a hitch; in order to qualify for federal monies the states that apply for the stimulus money must remove any caps they have on the amount of charter schools that can be created in their states and those states that do not have charter school laws, of which there are currently ten, either will have to pass laws allowing the growth of charters or miss out on any stimulus funding. According to Duncan:

“States that don’t have charter school laws, or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools, will jeopardize their application for some $5 billion in federal grant money. Simply put, they put themselves at a competitive disadvantage for the largest pool of discretionary dollars states have ever had access to.” (The Wall Street Journal)

Duncan elaborated further:

“Maine is one of 10 states without a charter schools law, but the state legislature has tabled a bill to create one. Tennessee has not moved on a bill to lift enrollment restrictions. Indiana’s legislature is considering putting a moratorium on new charter schools. These actions are restricting reform, not encouraging it.” (ibid.)

What the Obama administration is doing, in tandem with the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is part and parcel of typical neo-liberal policy making: wielding federal stimulus funds as a financial weapon to force all states to increase the amount of charter schools they host as well as force those states that do not have them to pass legislation authorizing them. Through financial arm-twisting at a time of disastrous economic crisis, the Obama administration plans to use the power of the federal government to create a much larger national market for charter school providers, be they for profit or non-profit, virtual charters, EMOs or single operators.

This is deeply troubling, for many states which do not want charter schools or have found the experiment to be less than adequate and in fact damaging to kids and funding, for traditional public schools will now be forced to choose stimulus money over policy, a form of economic extortion and increased federal and corporate control over decision making, especially at a time when many of these states are literally financial insolvent. This is another example of how disaster politics operates, only this time the disaster is not a natural disaster but an economic disaster that threatens public policies.

Ohio’s Corrupt Charter Schools

Public school advocates, specifically in the state of Ohio where charter school corruption is rampant, but elsewhere as well, say charter schools drain essential resources needed for public schools. Ohio’s Governor Strickland has called them “a destructive influence” on public education for a number of reasons. Consequently, the Governor tried two years ago to restrict the growth of charter schools but failed. This time, however, through a formula in his current budget bill for 2009, he would cut their funding by about 20 per cent and would deny them the chance to get extra government money. Instead he would make this funding available to public schools in Ohio’s poorest traditional public school districts. Virtual online charter schools, the fastest growing sector of the charter school market, would face much larger cuts under the Governor’s proposed budget. When asked about Governor Strickland’s position on cutting charter school funding as it pertains to his own, Obama responded by skirting the issues Strickland raised and alluded instead to the bad-apple analogy:

“I know that part of his concern was prompted by some bad experiences with charters in Ohio that weren’t up to snuff.”

Amanda Wurst, a spokesperson for the Ohio Governor, stated in response to Obama’s support for charter schools:

“The president and governor agree that charter schools are at their best when they serve as centers of innovation and are held to the high level of accountability as the traditional public schools.”

Wurst went on to note that the reason Governor Strickland wants to give extra money to public schools in poorer districts is to help them attract and retain teachers — a problem charter schools don’t have. However, with Duncan’s plan to use federal stimulus monies as leverage to force states to both due away with caps on existing charter schools and allow for charter school legislation in the states where none exists, it could mean Governor Strickland is over an economic barrel and will not have much wiggle room for decision making as to the future of charter schools in Ohio – not if he wants any part of the federal stimulus monies.

When the Wall Street Journal heard the news of Obama’s educational plans to leverage federal money for greater charter school penetration into the market thr newspaper could hardly contain its excitement and enthusiasm. The idea of using the federal government to force state governments to create financial opportunities and markets for the burgeoning souk in education by unleashing charter schools through state legislation was simply more than its editorial writers expected; and all this from a newspaper usually critical of any government intervention. In an editorial regarding Duncan’s plans to withhold federal stimulus monies from those states deemed unfriendly to charter school legislation, the paper’s editorial section commented:

“As a percentage of what the Obama Administration is spending on education, $5 billion isn’t much. But it does give the federal government some leverage, and the best way to use it is for Mr. Duncan to show states that he means what he says about charters.”

Using the government to create market opportunities for business interests is at the heart of neoliberal economic policies and why market adherents both need and relish government; the role of the government being one of legislating and unleashing favorable public policies that benefit businesses’ ability to maximize private capital, while socializing private costs to the public. This is essential for markets to function. Duncan knows this, which is why he was chosen by the Obama administration to head the Department of Education. Furthermore, as Kathleen Kingsbury pointed out in the Time magazine special on the appointment of Duncan:

“One other big plus: Duncan will be sure to have the President-elect’s ear. They are personal friends and often play basketball together, most recently on Election Day. Like Obama, Duncan is Harvard-educated, and his Chicago roots run deep. The schools chief grew up in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where the Obamas have lived for several years. He went to the same private school the President-elect’s daughters attended until recently.”

But the real story and the prospects for the nation’s future educational policy can be best revealed by Duncan’s historical involvement as a technocrat with the neoliberal policies created in Chicago under the Renaissance 2010 project launched by Mayor Daley in 2004; here, Duncan was the darling of business elites and their public policy makers during his seven year tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Let’s take a brief look at Renaissance 2010 and the role of the new Secretary of Education in this effort in Chicago to enhance our understanding of what the Obama administration’s policies towards charter schools might look like.

Renaissance 2010 is a corporate project that was launched in 2004 to reform both the city and its public schools with the intent of creating schools and geographical spaces that would serve to attract the professionals believed to be needed in a 21st century ‘global city’. It is basically a land use plan for housing and urban development aimed at increasing gentrification, with schools playing a predominant role in maintaining and assuring a healthy urban middle-class and attracting global visitors, tourists and Wall Street financial interests. The city wants to transform itself from a former industrial hub into a global corporate financial and tourism center and to do so the city needs government policies and legislation that are friendly to capital’s goal of downtown land redevelopment and the gentrification of working class and low-income neighborhoods. As the educational authors Jitu Brown, Rico Gutstein and and Pauline Lipman write:

“Quality schools (and attractive housing) are essential to draw high-paid, creative workers for business and finance. Schools are also anchors in gentrifying communities and signals to investors of the market potential of new development sites.”

Renaissance 2010 places public schooling under the control of corporate leaders who aim to convert public schools to charter and contract schools, breaking the power of unions and handing over the administration of the newly created charter schools to ‘providers’ beholden to corporations, philanthropists, and business interests. Duncan, as the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), was an efficient technocrat or manager for the neo-liberal policies and legislative necessities dictated by the elite members of the Commercial Club and he helped to centralize decision-making power in the hands of corporations and their political representatives and then worked to carry out public policy favorable to the plans hatched by this same powerful Commercial Club.

Arne Duncan is part and parcel of an educational movement that we are increasingly witnessing in New York, Washington D.C., New Orleans and Chicago, Texas and elsewhere: a movement towards centralizing decision-making regarding public schools in the hands of an elite autocracy; this is often referred to as ‘mayoral control’. Under this governance structure, a small group of policy makers are then tasked with the job of legitimizing corporate and financial actors to make crucial decisions about public education without the messy problem of public accountability, public transparency nor public input. This represents a neo-liberal turn that goes beyond issues regarding the private operation of individual charter schools and instead twists and turns its way right into the heart of privatizing the public urban sphere in entirety, while making the government simply a boardroom or ‘secret parliament’ for powerful corporate interests.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Renaissance 2010

The story of Renaissance 2010 and the role of Arne Duncan as administrator of educational policies designed to further the urban planning initiative begins in the city of Chicago, with the Commercial Club, established in the 1800s to promote the interests of Chicago’s corporate and business elite. The business ‘union’ has long influenced Chicago’s education policies. It was on June 24, 2004, that Andrew J. McKenna, Chairman of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, enthusiastically announced the plan in the Club’s press release:

“Chicago is taking the lead across the nation in remaking urban education. No other major city has launched such an ambitious public school choice agenda.”(Civic Committee Press Release, 2004.)

McKenna’s jubilance was aimed, of course, at Major Daley’s announcement of Renaissance 2010. The plan promised to radically transform public education in Chicago by introducing choice and markets into the Chicago educational arena, shifting control away from elected local school councils and toward the unelected Commercial Club while diminishing the power of the teacher’s union. As part of the plan, the Commercial Club created New Schools for Chicago (NSC), which includes the chairs of the McDonald’s Corporation and Northern Trust Bank, a partner in a leading corporate law firm, the CEO of Chicago Community Trust, the retired Chair of the Tribune Corporation and top Chicago Public School (CPS) officials. The bright side of the suggested educational reforms for the Chicago business community and one reason they are so excited over its prospects is that the new educational plan, with its matrix of non-union charter and contract schools, would also promise to substantially reduce the power of the CPS teachers’ union (37,000 strong) as well as other school employees’ unions (ibid)

The new arrangement had actually been in the embryo stage for some time, as a year earlier the Club’s Civic Committee (the group’s ‘think tank’) issued a report entitled Left Behind, which called for the future “creation of at least 100 public charter schools” in the city. The model that Chicago is embracing is the franchise model for charter schools, the Paul Hill’s Diverse Provider Strategy imposed on New Orleans Public Schools and now managed by Paul Pastorek and Paul Vallas. The franchise, or educational retail charter school model under Renaissance 2010, is expected to have a privatized regional business center to provide services to administrators and teachers, replacing the central public education district office, and the new center will also be expected to handle the daily administrative functions of the retail franchise charter schools.

With the launching of Renaissance 2010, the Commercial Club began developing policies not only central to reforming the schools, but they also began to make key decisions, outside the purview of democratic decision making, regarding the CPS’s day to day operations. According to Pauline Lipman, of the University of Chicago in Illinois, and David Hursh of the University of Rochester:

“Under Renaissance 2010, the Commercial Club gains control over Chicago’s public schools through New Schools for Chicago, a board appointed by the Commercial Club and composed of leading corporate representatives and ‘civic leaders’ including the CPS’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and the Chicago Board of Education President. Referred to in the press as a ‘secret cabinet,’ this unelected body not only participates in the selection and evaluation of new schools, but also distributes Commercial Club funds to those schools.

They go on further:

“The Commercial Club, representing the corporate and political elite, has been the central force behind Renaissance 2010. Further, while Renaissance introduces markets and competition into education, it increases state intervention as the Chicago Public Schools administration intervenes in the daily activities of educators by introducing corporate models of governance with standardized testing linked to rewards and punishments.”

The central role Arne Duncan played in moving along the Renaissance 2010 mayoral corporate project is clear. Although he was not the conceptual author of the privatization policies promoted by mayoral control of the Chicago public school system and the effort of the Commercial Club at ‘school reform’, as an enthusiastic CEO and participant in the “secret cabinet”, Duncan displayed a willingness to eagerly align himself with neoliberal policies and corporate interests and push for their implementation through educational policy initiatives. He adamantly supports privately run contract schools and charter schools and makes no bones about the fact that he would like to see these models proliferate throughout the nation.

Duncan is also known to not only be a ardent defender of corporate involvement in, and privatization of, public schools, but he personally oversaw the attempted closing of 20 Chicago public schools in low-income neighborhoods of color in 2004. And he did so with little or no community input – managing, at least for a time, to snub the meddlesome outsiders, like parents and their children, who might have raised objections to the CEO’s plans for the schools, or at the very least offer suggestions in the spirit of community decision making.
During the first half of 2004 before details of any school reform plan under Renaissance 2010 had been announced by Duncan, Bronzeville community members, part of the Mid-South of Chicago, anxiously awaited the release of the Mid-South plan; the Mid-South plan was to be the first in the series of plans which were being hatched by the Commercial Club of Chicago as part of Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010. Initially the community was told that a decision had been made by the “secret cabinet” to improve 20 schools between 31st and’47th Streets along the Dan Ryan Expressway east to Lake Michigan. The community and residents of Mid-South complained early and bitterly about being locked out of the decision making processes regarding the schools in their neighborhoods. Ken Calvin, a Bronzeville homeowner, went on the record against any decisions made for the community by the centralized CPS:

“It sounds like Chicago as usual. It was stunning to find out that the working groups consist of institutions that are outside of this community. So how are they included in the planning process but we aren’t as residents and community leaders? That’s a little bit nuts.”

The details of the Mid-South plan as it was known among elite policy making circles, was leaked to the press on July 24, 2009. But the plan leaked to the press didn’t call for any improvements of the public schools in the area as citizens had been falsely led to believe; instead it called for the closure of 20 of the 22 public schools in the community, a decision Arne Duncan as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools was to implement. Even more outrageous was the fact that parents of the children involved in the school closings did not receive any notice of the plan until the final day of school in 2004). This lack of democratic decision-making resulted in angry demonstrations, testimonies at School Board meetings, vocal community hearings and the development of a resistant group called Citywide Action to Revitalize Education or CARE, made up of several community organizations including the SEIU. Bronzeville resident, Brenda Perry, who in July 2004 spoke at a community meeting of local school council members and parents, once the details of the plan to close the 20 schools was revealed by the “secret cabinet, was furious and she blasted the local school council, stating:

“You ignored us for years while scores dropped. Now you want to use us for a social experiment. It’s wrong.”

The community members argued that the plan was concocted and put into place by Duncan to rid the community of its residents in order to further gentrification plans for the new urban land reforms. The evidence for their claims, they said, was the fact that the closing of the schools would mean their children would have to transfer to schools located outside the community, meaning transportation problems which, when added to the lack of affordable housing as a result of public housing demolition and high property taxes, meant that they were being simply pushed out of their communities. Things did not go as planned, due to the volatile and well organized resistance to the 20 school closures the plans for the Mid-South project were scrapped and Duncan and the CPS unhappily bowed to community demands. All this was handled under Arne Duncan’s watch.

But as Brown, Gutstein and Lipman wrote , in all fairness to Arne Duncan:

“….. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) policies are not really about Duncan or his successor. The biggest threat to finally achieving equitable and quality education in Chicago’s low-income African American and Latino/a schools is not the individual who carries out the policy but a system of mayoral control and corporate power that locks out democracy. The impact of those policies includes thousands of children displaced by school closings, spiked violence as they transferred to other schools, and the deterioration of public education in many neighborhoods into a crisis situation.”

Progressive educators see as Duncan as having enthusiastically carryed water for the corporate constituencies and privatized interests seeking to gentrify communities. Their goal is a “business ethos” in schools designed to undermine unions, parent involvement and democratic decision-making, full public disclosure, accountability, transparency and community involvement. As Brown, Gutstein and Lipman write, regarding Chicago Public Schools and the autocratic decisions made by Arne Duncan when CEO of CPS:

“In a democracy there must be opportunities to impact decision-making. CPS has refined sham hearings to a twisted art form. When schools are slated to close, CPS is supposed to hold public hearings (which Duncan never attended) so that a hearing officer and board members (who almost never attend) can engage the school community and listen to their rationale as to why the school should not be closed, or other alternatives should be explored. In virtually every case, parents, students, teachers, and community pour out their hearts. In many cases, they document how their school has been drastically underserved by CPS or that their school has consistently improved. Tears are shed out of fear for their children’s safety or the destruction of a family atmosphere in a school building; yet the CPS Board—on Duncan’s recommendation—consistently votes unanimously to close the school. This has prompted a revitalized effort by community members and organizations to remove the mayor’s authority to appoint the CEO and the school board and move towards an elected school board.”

However, the controversy over Duncan’s policies does not stop with his support for Renaissance 2010. Duncan has also been a strong proponent of school choice when it comes to military schools. He was quoted in the November 2, 2007, issue of USA Today saying: “These are positive learning environments. I love the sense of leadership. I love the sense of discipline.”

In fact, rapid increases in military programs in Chicago public schools actually did occur largely under Duncan’s tenure as CEO of CPS. According to Lipman:
Chicago Public Schools has five military high schools, more than any city in the nation, and 21 “middle school cadet corps” programs. The military high schools teach military history and have military-style discipline. Students wear military uniforms, do military drills, and participate in summer boot camps. The hierarchical authority structure mirrors the Army, Navy, and Marines, with new students (“cadets”) under the command of senior students who work their way up and require obedience from those in “lower ranks.” All but one of the military high schools are in African American communities, and all the middle school cadet programs are in overwhelmingly black or Latina/o schools., and CPS plans additional ones in the future (ibid).

Before Arne Duncan was CEO of CPS, there were procedures in place whereby schools could be put on probation if they had performance problems and they could even be forced to forge alliances with external partners, like mentors, in order to improve their performance. No more; under Arne Duncan’s rule, all this was phased out and now schools that underperformed on standardized tests were to be closed, or “turned around” by private ‘providers’ and ‘turn around artists’ (many of them funded by the ubiquitous deep pockets of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Wal-Mart family fortune). In the turn-around model, the new autocratic accountability regime headed by Duncan drastically increased pressure on teachers and students to perform higher on standardized tests, in accordance of course with NCLB, while at the same time they suspended or in some cases completely did away with extra-curricular activities like art, physical education and recess (Aug. 25, 2008, Chicago Sun Times cited in Brown, Gutstein and Lipman, 2009).

The Obama education policy differs little from the Bush administration’s policy of hitching student and teacher performance to what many in the educational community and beyond call inauthentic assessments that actually force teachers to teach to the test and do little to encourage critical thinking or collaborative problem solving. Nor does the Obama policy seem to differ much in setting goals for the rapid expansion of charter school networks and non-profit and for-profit ‘providers’ to run them.

Where it is more far-reaching than the Bush educational plan, however, is in its commitment to expand the charter school market by forcing all the states in the nation to pass legislation for the creation of charter schools. It also goes further down the road of ‘choice’ by requiring all states to remove all caps on charter start-ups, and then have them unleash some variation of the Diverse Provider Strategy model, a network of retail charter and contract schools accountable and wedded to a system of ‘measureable outcomes’ derived from standardized tests mandated under No Child Left Behind. Add to all of this the fact that Obama has said he might be in favor of private vouchers, his adamant commitment to merit pay based on performance on standardized tests, his suspicion of tenure and seniority and one would think that teacher’s unions would be aghast.

Many are and on July 13, 2009 in San Diego about 2,000 public school teachers gathered at a Washington hotel for the American Federation of Teachers conference to let the Obama administration know it. Present at the AFT conference was the new U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Duncan urged the union to join the Obama administration’s push to build support for a new wave of school reform as Congress prepares to reauthorize the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. Seated at the convention on a stool on a stage alongside Duncan was Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT; both of them sported a button on their shirts with the words, “Trust us; we’ll work with you”. Duncan challenged educators to be open to linking pay to student performance on standardized tests and to experiments that could reduce job tenure protections and seniority. He was met with boos by many members. It will be interesting to see how Duncan’s proposals, all of which run contrary to teacher union concerns, will be met in the future when they become actual policy proposals under the Obama administration.

Randi Weingarten made the union’s position on charter schools clear at the San Diego convention in her response to the Obama administration plans for expanding the charter school market:

“Successful charter schools should be applauded and should share their lessons; troubled charter schools that fail their students should be held accountable and closed; and charter school teachers should be supported and given the right to union membership and voice .”(AFT, 2009)

Weingarten also cautioned elected leaders not to walk away from their responsibility to help all public schools succeed “by turning entire public school systems into charter schools”.

Many in the educational community are unhappy with the Obama administration’s commitment to NCLB standardized tests. Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., writes a blog for EdWeek where she dialogues with Deborah Meier, a leading progressive educational leader. In early 2009, in a letter posted to Deborah Meier at EdWeek, Ravitch candidly expressed her dismay over the Obama administration’s devotion to NCLB and the direction Arne Duncan was taking the department of education:

“I have been watching and listening to our new secretary of education, trying to understand his views on the most important issues facing our schools and the nation’s children. I wanted to believe candidate Barack Obama when he said that he would introduce real change and restore hope. Surely, I thought, he understood that the deadening influence of No Child Left Behind has produced an era of number-crunching that has very little to do with improving education or raising academic standards.

We truly need change and hope. I thought he understood. He chose to keep his own children far from NCLB. He decided to send them to a private school in Washington, D.C., that shuns the principles and practices of NCLB.
However, based on what I have seen to date, I conclude that Obama has given President George W. Bush a third term in education policy and that Arne Duncan is the male version of Margaret Spellings. Maybe he really is Margaret Spellings without the glasses and wearing very high heels. We all know that Secretary Spellings greeted Duncan’s appointment with glee. She wrote him an open letter in which she praised him as “a fellow reformer” who supports NCLB and anticipated that he would continue the work of the Bush administration. Recall, Deborah, that the media today defines an education reformer as someone who endorses Republican principles of choice and accountability.

Although Obama has said that teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to “fill in bubbles on standardized tests” (Weinstein, 2009) it certainly seems that under an Obama administration, save effective organized opposition, NCLB is here to stay.

As I worked on an investigation of charter schools my journey led me through a myriad of think tanks, front groups, advocacy organizations, and reform clubs and associations active in the controversy over charter schools. What I found particularly noticeable were literally hundreds of think tanks, many of which have been active in proposing charter school legislation for decades under the auspices of privatization. I was struck by how large these think tanks were and had become, how well-funded they seemed to be and how they have the ability to create multi-issue networks that can respond on a wide range of issues in a relatively short period of time, a plus in the 24/7 news cycle world within which we live. Many of the think tanks I visited in my research, though not all are also often the same think tanks that promote private vouchers, engage in anti-teacher rhetoric and encourage the privatization of education in general. It is important that as consumers of a great deal of think tank commentary and information about charter schools we take the time to analyze just what a think tank is, why they exist and whose interests they serve.

Just what is a think tank? According to SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy:

“A Think Tank is an organization that claims to serve as a center for research and/or analysis of important public issues. In reality, many think tanks are little more than public relations fronts, usually headquartered in state or national seats of government and generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors.” (SourceWatch, 2009)

People for the American Way foundation’s (PFAW) library has files on over 800 of what they call “right-wing think tanks”, documenting their activities and providing information about their efforts to reshape society. Many of the think tanks on PFAW’s list are the usual suspects found in charter school debates, school voucher debates and in fact, in all debates over the privatization of schools; think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, Black America’s Political Action Committee, Center for the Study of Popular Culture, The Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family, Hispanic Alliance for Progress Institute, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the Hoover Institution and the list goes on and on as the reader can see from going to PFAW’s website.

In order to assure a healthy debate on issues such as charter schools and educational policy, it is necessary to publicly disclose situations wherein people of wealth and power are manipulating people with little wealth and power, and specifically how the use of language and imagery is used to accomplish these ends. No where can this be seen better than in the debate over health care in the United States and the debate over education and charter schools is no different.

On April 1, 2009, while putting the finishing touches on the second edition of this charter school book, my attention was drawn to a news report in the New York Daily News by the journalist, Juan Gonzalez. The article, entitled “Rev. Al Sharpton’s 500G link to education reform” detailed financial wheeling and dealing, skilled manipulation, personal gain, payoffs through third party intermediaries, front groups, cronyism and rigged public relations campaigns and events designed to influence and manipulate public sentiment on matters of educational policy, especially charter schools.

It should be no surprise that the Reverend Al Sharpton, the self-proclaimed civil rights leader, would be linked to personal financial controversies and political scandals over educational policies in New York City and elsewhere. After all, the Reverend has been a lively and highly vocal figure in the public arena for decades, consistently camera-ready and often rubbing noses with those in power for the sake of personal aggrandizement and questionable financial gain. Yet what should be of interest, if not somewhat surprising, is the exact nature and actual details of the incestuous relationships between so-called community leaders, Wall Street, politicians, conservative think tanks, and well-heeled financial donors, all described by reporter Gonzalez in the New York Daily News piece. The news report detailed secretive dealings and hidden financial payoffs involving Sharpton, the current New York City school Chancellor, Joel Klein, Harold Levy (former New York Chancellor of Education), Joe Williams a strong charter school advocate with his own ‘front group’, Wall Street financiers and the overnight creation of what has come to be known as ‘The Education Equality Project’ (EEP), an ‘educational reform group’ which both Joel Klein and the Reverend Sharpton founded back in 2008.

The new organization, the Education Equality Project (EEP) which Chancellor of New York schools, Joel Klein and Reverend Sharpton set up in 2008 was supposedly put together in an attempt to launch some type of political campaign to erase the historically wide achievement gaps in education between white and black students, or at least that was the stated intent at the group’s announcement ceremony. In fact, at its website, the Education Equality Project proclaims:

“The Education Equality Project (EEP) was founded by Reverend Al Sharpton and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein as a national advocacy group focused on closing the achievement gap. Reverend Sharpton and Chancellor Klein are committed to bringing about real equity in public education. Their partnership and shared passion for change is the heart of our organization.” (Education Equality Project, 2009).

What the website fails to mention, however, and what Gonzalez was able to uncover, is that Sharpton’s own organization, The National Action Network, was immediately paid $500,000 for Sharpton’s consent to endorse, involve and partner himself with Joel Klein to launch the new Education Equality Project. The cash no doubt was timely, and quite handy, for at the time of the payment Sharpton’s National Action Network had already agreed to pay the US government $1,000,000 dollars in back taxes and penalties as a result of a criminal investigation – a combination of the organizations failure to follow tax law as well as Sharpton’s own complicity in personal tax evasion. However, the story gets even more bizarre (Gonzalez, 2009).

It appears that to avoid any publicity over the ‘pay for play’ payment that Sharpton received for his alliance with Joel Klein in erecting the new EEP, the $500,000 intended for Sharpton’s group was covertly funneled to Sharpton’s National Action Network by Plainfield Asset Management, LLC, a Connecticut hedge fund. As the story progressed, I asked myself: ‘why was an asset management company chosen to make a payoff to Al Sharpton’s group?’ Perhaps the best motivation could be found in the fact that the former Chancellor of New York Schools, Harold Levy, is currently the managing director of Plainfield Asset Management and a registered lobbyist for the firm. And just what does Plainfield Asset Management, LLC do? The company works closely with Wall Street and other well positioned financiers investing capital here and abroad for maximization purposes. At their website the corporation claims:

“The firm manages investment capital for institutions and high net worth individuals based in the United States and abroad. Plainfield currently employs over 130 people among its three offices in Greenwich, Connecticut, Summit, New Jersey and London, England. The firm’s accountants are PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. The firm’s prime brokers are Goldman Sachs & Co., Deutsche Bank Securities Inc., JPMorgan Prime Services and Citigroup. The firm’s principal lawyers are Seward & Kissel LLP.” (Plainfield Asset Management, 2009).

Plainfield Asset Management is also a major investor in gaming operations in New York City and the firm is currently pressing city and state officials to authorize two deals worth millions of dollars. Harold Levy, former Chancellor of New York Schools and now a paid lobbyist, has targeted City Hall to privatize the city’s off-track betting operations as well as laboring assiduously in an attempt to win the bidding process for the state’s proposed development of Aqueduct Racetrack (Gonzalez, 2009). The revolving door that allows politicians to become lobbyists once out of political office and then turn around and lobby the offices they once inhabited could not be better illustrated than Levy’s involvement in Plainfield Asset Management and his work on behalf of privatization efforts within the city of New York. In light of all this, as I read on I still failed to understand the connection between Plainfield Management, LLC and the Reverend Al Sharpton, charter schools or privatization efforts in New York schools.

The complex relationships went from murky to clear when the money trail failed to stop with Plainfield Asset, LLC. In a bizarre move that is still left unexplained, what the former New York City School Chancellor, Harold Levy did, was to pay the sum of $500,000 to yet another non-profit organization called Education Reform Now. Education Reform Now then turned around and covertly paid the $500,000 to Sharpton’s group in several installments, knowing that the National Action Network is not a non-profit organization but a for-profit organization devoted to lobbying efforts; this now began to make more sense and rendered all the secretive and tricky financial payments appear both understandable and questionable on multiple levels. To add a twist to the plot, Education Reform Now was then allowed, under IRS rules, to claim the ‘donation’ as a charitable tax deduction (Gonzalez, 2009).

As I continued reading, questions immediately arose as to the status of the non-profit group, Education Reform Now, which served as the pass through or ‘front group’ for the $500,000 to Sharpton and his organization. Who or what is ‘Education Reform Now’ and just what do they stand for and why the subterfuge in paying off Sharpton? I went to their website where the group claims, among other things:

“Although we clearly favor a more rigorous, structured education as providing the greatest benefit for both the individual and society as a whole, the most important principle is freedom of choice. Parents must be free to choose the type and style of education they want for their children, organized and delivered in ways they find most suitable. One of the most pernicious of the mythologies of American public education is that some kind of wisdom resides in the bureaucratic tangles of government that makes it a fit dictator of the right and proper ways to educate children.” (Education Reform Now, 2009.)

Curious, I wanted to know more; like who actually runs Education Reform Now? It didn’t take much digging to find the answer: it was and still is as of this writing, Joe Williams, the former New York Daily News reporter who also directs another educational think tank or front group, Democrats for Education Reform, a leading advocacy group for expanding charter schools throughout New York. Now the whole complex web was starting to make sense and the story eventually came full circle when it was revealed that Joe Williams is also listed as the president and the treasurer of the same Education Equality Project (EEP) launched by Rev. Al Sharpton and Joel Klein in 2008, for which Sharpton’s National Action Network was handsomely paid.

I decided to look up Democrats for Education Reform on the internet to see what exactly they do. The group says it works to foster charter schools throughout New York and elsewhere. They also claim, at their website that:

“We support policies which stimulate the creation of new, accountable public schools and which simultaneously close down failing schools
We support clearly-articulated national standards and expectations for core subject areas, while allowing states and local districts to determine how best to make sure that all students are reaching those standards.” (Democrats for Education Reform, 2009)

Although Joe Williams, head of the group, prefers to remain silent on the matter of the $500,000 payoff to Sharpton, current New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein not only acknowledges the payment but has been busy using his connections and the high-profile Sharpton partnership to raise more than $1.6 million dollars for EEP; no doubt the $500,000 investment in Sharpton’s glitzy media image, political influence and rhetorical support is paying off for the burgeoning New York city think tank and their ongoing efforts in New York to privatize education through charter contract schools, much in the same vein as we see in Chicago, Washington D.C., and New Orleans.

From the point of view of those pushing policies intent on privatizing education in New York or advancing the notion of charter schools, an endorsement from the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton would of course be a blessing. Furthermore, with current mayoral control over New York City educational policies, an ongoing and bitter controversy within the city, having the ‘civil rights leader’ on the side of charter proponents would simply be another public relations coup for the neo-liberal reformers and give their think tanks more credibility in specific communities of color and therefore a larger base and more legitimacy for raising money. Now they would have a ‘community spokesperson’ endorsing their privatization efforts, one very accessible to the corporate media, rhetorically savvy and himself a skilled manipulator. Former New York City School’s Chancellor, Harold Levy partially confirmed the public relations angle when he was confronted with the circumstances regarding the private payment to Sharpton’s group. He simply equivocated at the time, responding:

“Our goal was to increase public awareness of the problems of high poverty schools, particularly in the context of the presidential race.” (Gonzalez, 2009).

As I sat reading the article about the pay-off to the Reverend Al Sharpton for his support for the expansion of charter schools in New York, I could not help but recall the time when Jay P. Greene, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a leading spokesman for the privatization of every and all aspects of public schooling, appeared in 2006 on NPR, CNN and PBS to put forth his Hollywood thesis on ‘the drop out crisis’ in public schools (Greene, 2006). The interviews might as well have been staged ‘infomercials’ for his claims, for he was never challenged nor were any alternative points of view introduced to foster debate or cross swords with his key assumptions and claims. In fact, Greene’s claims on the matter (the problem was due to lack of teacher incentives and systemic rot) were later inherited by Oprah Winfrey as a newsworthy story. Winfrey then went on to cite Greene’s work as evidence on her TV show, which has an estimated 49 million viewers; yet nowhere did she present any alternative point of view to challenge Greene’s thesis, nor were there any challenges to Greene’s reasoning and claims (Kovacs, 2007). The whole thing was a staged exercise in propaganda and of course the public was never told that at the time of Greene’s interviews and press rounds that Greene had recently been appointed head of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s new Department of Education Reform. The Department was created and then given $20,000,000 dollars from Arkansas’s other favorite son, Sam Walton and the Walton Family Foundation, a strong supporter and major contributor to charter schools.

The Greene incident also drew parallels with television show 20/20, an ABC affiliate show (home to the Oprah Winfrey show) which in 2006 premiered John Stossel’s special attack on public education entitled, “Stupid in America”. ABC aired the show not once but twice in 2006, without ever letting their viewers know that Stossel, when he is not engaged in media coverage for 20/20, is a close associate of the Cato Institute, a neo-liberal think tank that vociferously targets the termination of public education as one of its main goals. Of course the audience was unaware of either the Cato Institute or Stossel’s ties to the think tank and there was no equal time given to any alternative points of view — nor were there any voices to challenge Stossel’s claims.

Amy Wells, perhaps the most notable writer on the subject ends her book, Where Charter School Policy Fails, commenting that:

“…the only remaining hope for charter school reform to have any lasting positive impacts on the public educational system would be for more progressive members of this diverse and complex movement to recapture the language and symbols of what constitutes a good charter school law. Until that happens, the hopes and dreams of thousands of social justice educators and families engaged in this reform will be marginalized and reliant on powerful and private market agents who have never served the most disadvantaged students well.” (Wells, 2002.)

From the point of view of this author, comparing and contrasting laboratories of learning for purposes of defining deficiencies or inefficiencies in educational settings, be they charter schools or traditional public schools, when those comparisons are based on inauthentic standardized testing is an exercise in futility and more than simply futile, it could be a capitulation or acceptance of NCLB and standardized testing as inevitable. Corwin and Schneider agree with the in-authenticity of the testing, noting:

Comparing the test scores of charter schools with regular schools in Arizona is nonsense if not fraudulent. Rather than perpetuating the nation’s warped obsession with tests, researchers should be cautioning the public about the pitfalls and calling for alternative forms of assessment. But until they arrive, we are stuck with standardized tests to measure academic achievement (Corwin and Schneider, 2005))

They go on to note, that in the beginning of the charter school movement success was based on such things as whether charter schools had waiting lists, whether they were fiscally solvent, whether they met various local and state building codes and whether they could attract students, however as the two authors write:

“But then the rules changed dramatically when charter schools and schools that accepted federal vouchers were caught up in the No Child Left Behind legislation. Suddenly, they too had to test their students and show adequate yearly progress. And the choice schools had to use the same tests that the states developed for all the other public schools in the state. Now for the first time, policy makers, legislatures and parents alike could make comparisons across schools, something that hadn’t been possible before. The hoax of the superiority of choice schools was about to be exposed.”

However, surprisingly, even Corwin and Schneider resign themselves to the testing regime. Commenting on the charter school versus traditional public school performance argument, they comment:

“Rather than perpetuate the nation’s warped obsession with tests, researchers should be cautioning the public about the pitfalls and calling for alternative forms of assessment. But until they arrived, we are stuck with standardized test to measure academic achievement.”

From here, they then go on to argue:

“In any case, not withstanding the criticisms, NCLB has become a fact of life that everyone will have to live with.”

These comments seem not only odd in light of the affirmation that the tests are not authentic but they also represent a capitulation to resignation and despair. For if the tests are inauthentic and if the testing regime is hurting kids and not allowing us to develop best teaching practices for our children, then isn’t resistance to the notion of standardized testing and NCLB what is needed? If charter schools are to be the laboratories of change they disguise themselves as, then won’t these innovative changes be based on more authentic forms of assessment and won’t this require political organization among and between community groups, parents, teachers and all educational stakeholders? If it does, then Corwin and Schneider’s comments above are hardly motivating for those who are working diligently to change NCLB or do away with it in entirety.

However, even if one accepts the underlying assumptions that standardized tests somehow aid and abet student learning and facilitates assessment and better teaching practices, when we compare the standardized testing scores from traditional public school students to student test performance at charter schools, charter schools still come up short. This point was recently brought home by the study done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), at Stanford University. The scope of the study entitled, Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States, released in June 2009, is an exhaustive study of charter schools, the first national assessment of charter school impacts of its kind. The findings from the Stanford researchers must be disheartening to charter school advocates, including the Obama administration, for they conclude from their research that:

“The Quality Curve results are sobering:

Of the 2,403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons. Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total. The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools instead.

The national pooled analysis of charter school impacts showed the following results:

• Charter school students on average see a decrease in their academic growth in reading of .01 standard deviations compared to their traditional school peers. In math, their learning lags by .03 standard deviations on average. While the magnitude of these effects is small, they are both statistically significant.

• The effects for charter school students are consistent across the spectrum of starting positions. In reading, charter school learning gains are smaller for all students but those whose starting scores are in the lowest or highest deciles. For math, the effect is consistent across the entire range.

• Charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high schools and charter multi-level schools have significantly worse results.

• Charter schools have different impacts on students based on their family backgrounds. For Blacks and Hispanics, their learning gains are significantly worse than that of their traditional school twins. However, charter schools are found to have better academic growth results for students in poverty. English Language Learners realize significantly better learning gains in charter schools. Students in Special Education programs have about the same outcomes.

• Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second and third years in charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains.” (Credo, 2009).

These findings are hardly anything to get excited about, especially after close to 20 years of experimenting with charter schools and they act both as an indictment of charter schools and NCLB, as well as evidence against their hollow claims.

When I think of the Neighborhood Charter School in Massachusetts or the Freire Charter School in Philadelphia, both of which we spoke about in chapter four, I ask: ‘Why can’t all children have this rich, educational experience?’ ‘Why can’t we offer substantial educational experiences to all children, no matter where and how they might live?’ Realistically, although the Neighborhood Charter School and the Freire Charter School along with countless others of similar depth allow us to see what hope, community building, collaborative problem solving, innovation and educational democracy can bring, reality tells us they are really just boutique schools, elite enclaves available only to a privileged or select few.

Rarely are charters schools viewed under any moral lens other than competition, individualism and choice and for this reason it is necessary to spell out what I feel are four primary moral issues that many progressive educators would argue should be used to determine the efficacy and efficiency of charter schools. From here, we can then ask if charter schools, as they are currently developing, meet the moral criteria. The morals I speak of here are solidarity, diversity, equity and equal opportunity, and participation in power and decision making. Let’s look at these morals one by one as they relate to charter schools.


To begin with, take the moral issue that calls for solidarity among school staff, workers, teachers, parents, students, community and administration. Without unity at a school sites, it is argued, democratic governance is simply not attainable nor is authentic student learning possible. Educational stakeholders, from teachers, staff, parents, students, community members and administration must know that they are part of a unified effort to create educational opportunities for all students and they must have opportunities among themselves to discuss their common struggle for human dignity and the problems, dilemmas and successes they face at school sites. The notion that “we are all in this together” is essential if any educational institution wishes to operate democratically and survive; horizontal arrangements among stakeholders at school sites is essential for democratic decision making. Do charter schools meet the moral criteria under the lens of solidarity and unity?

For some charters, like the Neighborhood Charter School and other excellent enclaves of learning the answer is, yes. There are many wonderful charter schools doing wonderful things, this is certainly not arguable. However we have seen how the development of retail franchise chains of charter schools run by for-profit and non-profit EMO’s and independent operators do little to encourage solidarity and unity among educational stakeholders; in fact many of them do the opposite, employing a divide and conquer strategy among and between teachers, parents, community and administrators while centralizing autocratic decision making power in the hands of a small elite group of ‘providers’ and their publicly funded cronies. This hardly promotes the idea that “we are all in this together” and therefore morally fails to create solidarity or communities of democracy and excellence. As Lipman and Hursh note:

“Because charter school employees do not have union protections, they are subject to the same labor abuses, system of favoritism and cronyism, and lack of job security as non-union workers in other sectors. For example at one Renaissance 2010 charter school, teachers negotiate their salaries individually, are not allowed to leave the building during the working day, and have no job security from year to year.” (Lipman and Hursh, 2007).

Promoting such ideas as competition among teachers for merit pay also does little to encourage a learning organization with shared decision making; it pits teachers against each other, as opposed to allowing for collaboration and opportunities to share the best instructional practices and innovations teachers have developed. In fact, the whole notion of competition itself, as expressed by the market fundamentalism of NCLB is arguably antithetical to school governance, effective teaching and student learning. Teaching and learning are cooperative activities, not ‘go it alone’ segregated pursuits that are solely based on ‘measureable outcomes’. What is sorely needed at educational learning sites is the development of collaborative problem solving opportunities for all educational stakeholders and competition certainly does not provide for cohesive collaborative learning, either among teaches or students.

Add to this already volatile equation of educational despair, the explosion of virtual charter schools with for-profit curriculum kits, whereby students and their parents can ‘opt out’ of the public square to pursue their individualized learning at home, and we can begin to see the visible signs of the erosion of civic responsibility and common struggles for human dignity. Ethnic-theme charter schools and gender based charter schools, two other current phenomena that are witnessing huge growth today, also serve to undermine solidarity and like virtual charter schools, are disenfranchising. The return to “separate but equal” surely cannot hope to encourage unity among educational stakeholders in the interest of forging democracy in schools, or society at large. In fact, it can be argued that many charter schools are atomistic forces of disunity and threaten to undermine any common struggle for solidarity and human dignity.


Secondly, we look at the issue of diversity appreciation among educational workers, students and the communities they serve. An appreciation of diversity of thought, race, class, gender, sexual orientation and culture are all important if we are to work together to make democratic decisions regarding the education of our nation’s children; this is true among and between students, parents, administrators, and staff as well as the public in general. Under the moral lens of diversity appreciation, do charter schools make the grade? The answer is generally, no. Harnessed to NCLB and state testing, charter schools do not account for the enormous difference in student circumstances for testing purposes. Furthermore, as we noted earlier, the movement to re-segregate schools, either by race, gender or class through many current charter school designs we discussed is disturbing and threatens a return to the “separate but equal” approaches to education we saw before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. This can hardly be said to be good policy for democratic forms of school decision making or civic commitments to excellence. Understanding the common struggle for human dignity requires an appreciation of the diversity of thought and “difference” among all educational stakeholders and opportunities to work with and learn about those differences.


The third moral pillar I would argue that is required for successful democratic institutions such as schools is the provision of equity or equitable opportunities for all teachers and children to learn regardless of race, class, ethnicity, gender, gender preference or culture. Without educational equity and the provision of equal opportunities for learning, no educational reform stands any chance of success. Yet as we saw earlier, the burgeoning market in charter schools rests on a high volume business model of garnishing more and more of the ‘subprime’ kids, those on the lower rung of the economic ladder who usually live in highly populated urban centers. In a highly stratified class society such as ours, children who are fortunate enough to attend the Lusher Charter School or the Freire Charter School, just to use two examples, will get a champagne education, while those less fortunate due to class discrimination, gender discrimination and racism will most likely receive a subprime education. Charter schools also restrict enrollment, due to size, preference, burdensome parental contracts and costs. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want lotteries funding our schools and then turn around and use lotteries to decide who gets access to quality public education?’

For teachers, it is also important that they too receive equitable opportunities to enhance their skills, talents and teaching practices. However, with the development of privatized curriculum and the “best practices” model of education the role of teachers is more and more defined as technicians, dispensaries of information for memorization purposes in accordance with the testing regime of NCLB. Peter McLaren and Ramin Farahmandpur ask us to consider the return of the current neo-functionalist organizational model in urban schools:

“Today urban schools are adroitly organized around the same principles as factory production lines. According to [Jonathan] Kozol “rising test scores,” “social promotion,” “outcome-based objectives,” “time management,” “success for all,” “authentic writing,” “accountable talk,” “active listening,” and “zero noise” constitute part of the dominant discourse in public schools. Most urban public schools have adopted business and market “work related themes” and managerial concepts that have become part of the vocabulary used in classroom lessons and instruction. In the “market-driven classrooms,” students “negotiate,” “sign contracts,” and take “ownership” of their own learning. In many classrooms, students can volunteer as the “pencil manager,” “soap manager,” “door manager,” “line manager,” “time manager,” and “coat room manager.” In some fourth-grade classrooms, teachers record student assignments and homework using “earning charts”….[Jonathan] Kozol writes that in the market-driven model of public education, teachers are viewed as “floor managers” in public schools, “whose job it is to pump some ‘added-value’ into undervalued children.” (McClaren and Farahmandpur, 2006).

This description is hardly a characterization of equity in education and charter schools that view and devise education in this light can never qualify as moral leaders, centers of innovation or sites for meaningful reform and student learning.


Finally, any democracy and democratic institution must rest on the moral principle that demands that educational stakeholders be accorded opportunities for participation in issues of power that affect them. Teachers, students, staff, community and parents must have opportunities that allow them to be able to participate in the day to day governance of their schools and in order to effectively do this they need access to information, rules and regulations that allow for democratic decision making, and collaborative problem solving to manage the day to day affairs of schools. Yet charter schools far too often lack transparency, fail to disclose their decision making processes nor provide financial accountability when working with educational workers and their communities. Under such corporate models as Renaissance 2010 in Chicago and elsewhere, neoliberal policies express a preference for the governance of schools by elites and experts, outside the purview of the communities they purportedly serve and without full disclosure, accountability and transparency; with the growth of private charter school providers and EMO’s of all stripes, this can only threaten to worsen, causing morale problems among educational workers, and creating hazards and disharmony among all educational stakeholders.

The Obama administration seeks to encourage the expansion of the charter school market through government legislation and fiscal reform. What this will mean for education is now partially becoming visible, though the outlines are still vague. It could mean the growth of a new national and state-wide school system as we see in New Orleans – a system more and more reliant on a network of charter schools managed by for-profit and non-profit providers subsidized by public funds. This then in turn could mean less fiscal and political attention being paid to traditional public schools, a form of fiscal starvation.

We live in a society highly segregated by social class and race and this is becoming increasingly evident as inequality continues to rise in America, as it has over the last thirty five years. Can charter schools really work to educate students to think critically in light of the tremendous inequality and social breakdown evident in American life, or are they, as author Jonathan Kozol argue “desperation strategies that have come out of the acceptance of inequality” (Kozol, 2005)?

The answer for many progressive educators is, no, the charter school movement cannot hope to cure our nation’s ills and in fact can work to compound them. Charter schools, as their advocates admit, are based on a moral ethic of ‘go it alone individualism’, market fundamentalism, atomization and private choice. These moral values blur the distinctions between public and private efforts at school reform and in doing so charter schools as an educational reform movement create a constriction of democracy that deligitimizes democratic decision making in schools; it does not enhance it. This can hardly be said to be good for democracy, education or the future of our children. If it is really true that the moral importance of solidarity and unity, diversity appreciation, equity and equal opportunity along with opportunities for participation in power are important to building educational sites of quality learning and community, then charter schools may not only not be the answer, they may actually exacerbate the problem of social dissolution.

Our challenge now is a formidable one. In light of the fiscal disemboweling of public schools throughout the nation, the massive teacher lay-offs, the furloughs, and the savage cuts in public educational services the debate over charter schools needs to be seated within a much larger moral consideration regarding educational purpose tied to democratically inspired ethical values, authentic assessment, cooperation among and between all public schools and the notion of democratic decision making itself. Therefore, moral philosophical thinking about education, as Dewey argued, must be relevant in our efforts to reform public education in a way that creates more meaningful and enriched lives by providing real innovative opportunities for public educational centers of excellence. We as a nation must ask ourselves what the goals of education really are in a democracy. For then, and only then, can we begin to develop the morally based educational centers that can foster students’ learning to think critically about the problems that face us individually, as a nation and as a global community.