It is a peculiar, dark and unhinged world in which we dwell and it seems to grow more so all the time. Consider the extraordinary case of Vergara v. California, now winding down and awaiting a judgment. Here we have nine students, bankrolled by Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur David Welch, co-founder of Infinera, and founder of the advocate group StudentsMatter, suing the state of California. The suit claims that teacher tenure laws have denied them their civil rights.
Yes, for those who have not been following the case, you read that correctly.
The claim is that tenure laws — which merely insure that a teacher who has already passed through a probationary period of at least three years has the right to a hearing or due process before he or she is fired — are denying the nine students, a multicultural lot who range from high school seniors to fifth graders, nothing less than their civil rights.
The nine have been represented by the law firm of Dunn, Gibson & Crutcher which includes superstar attorneys Theodore Boutrous and Theodore B. Olson, the latter of whom won the case representing George W. Bush at the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore — not typically the kind of folk you would expect to be interested in civil rights. Given the specious argument of the case and considering who has orchestrated and funded it, teachers naturally believe the real purpose of the suit is to undermine the teachers’ union in California which would surely have a ripple effect across the country. At the start of the trial, Marcellus McCrae, a partner in the firm representing the plaintiffs, denied such a motive and stated that destroying the teachers’ unions is not the suit’s goal.
“Let’s be very clear,” McCrae declared at the beginning of the trial, “ We are not seeking to take away teachers’ rights – only five overly expensive and time-consuming statutes in the education code that prevent the removal of grossly ineffective teachers.”
Somehow the idea of grossly incompetent administrators allowing the continuance of grossly ineffective teachers does not enter into the picture. One of those “five overly expensive and time-consuming statutes” is due process, the removal of which would make the profession of teaching as secure and as dignified as that of a 17-year-old employee of McDonalds.
The students’ suit – if you are hallucinating that students actually initiated this action — demands that the court declare each of these statutory protections unconstitutional. Studentsmatter seems to exist for the sole purpose of something called “impact litigation.” “Impact litigation” seems to mean “union busting.”
It is a sign of our increasing historical amnesia, outright ignorance or savage disrespect for our language and our history that a figure like David Welch, like so many education privatizers can usurp the language and banner of civil rights and somehow use kids to position himself as an heir to figures like Martin Luther King, and pass off the privatization campaign as a continuation of that heroic and dangerous and spiritually charged battle. That said, Welch and his fellow privatizers are nothing if not media savvy (or can hire people who are ) and know exactly what they are doing and what buttons to push. (The Students Matter website features a Springsteen-esque soundtrack – think “Philadelphia” — to help along that emotional connection with the underdog school kids.)
It is no accident that nine students were selected and coached in this case. The Vergara Nine seems deliberately calculated to echo the trial of the Little Rock Nine, the group of African American students who were denied entry into a racially segregated school by Arkansas governor Orval Faubas which led to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. The idea of the nine is to create an emotional connection drawn from an historical instance of grotesque institutional racism and somehow transfer it into a rationale to strip teachers of their rights and bust teacher unions without you even being aware of it.
After all, who but a moral monster is against civil rights?
But my understanding of Vergara v. California brings to mind not King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” but rather, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, one of the 20th century’s most prescient and intrepid writers. Even if the Nazism and Communism that Arendt analyzed have been replaced by gentler if more insidious and pernicious purveyors of absolute control – namely corporations and plutocrats — The Origins of Totalitarianism remains the prescriptive classic of that dark genre and there is still much to be learned from it today.
“Total domination,” writes Arendt” which strives to organize the infinite plurality and differenenciation of human beings as if all of humanity were just one individual, is possible only if each and every person can be reduced to a never changing identity of reactions, so that each of these bundles of reaction can be exchanged at random for another.”
And: “It is the very nature of totalitarian regimes to demand unlimited power. Such power can only be secured if literally all men, without a single exception are reliably dominated in every aspect of their life.”
Privatizers demand unlimited power. Privatizers speak constantly of choice and freedom while constantly attempting to reduce the freedom of teachers by stripping them of their union won protections and reduce them to at will employees. Privatizers, some of whom like Bill Gates are virtual monopolists, moan of the monopoly of “government schools” while attempting to impose a single all encompassing privately owned monstrosity called the Common Core on every school in America. Privatizers spend millions on propaganda films like Waiting For Superman and The Lottery and hire public relations firms to pass themselves off as legitimate organizations and erect billboards in Times Square filled with lies meant to do nothing less than dominate the minds of all who see them and turn them against all aspects of the school system that has educated the overwhelming percentage of Americans for almost 200 years.
Arendt describes how such domination is formed by gaining power over individuals
( and then nations) by systemically undermining their individuality and hence their loyalties by a process of systemically deranging their identities and thus manufacturing an emotional connection to a leader or a cause. Broken down to it’s essentials it works like this: our identities are made up of components. Most of us are members of families, communities, political parties, ethic groups, churches, synagogues, mosques and more. Figure out how to target and undermine these components and you have created a void that is to be filled with what the totalitarian wants to fill it with . An attack on one’s identity is always and ever an attack on one’s sense of reality. One is atomized. All that was familiar is made to seem distant,strange, perhaps even sinister. I.e. That school you entrusted your child to – is it really invested in educating your kid ? Are those teachers really “world class?” Is it really your kid’s fault that he failed that class ? It goes without saying that the less educated, more impoverished and psychologically fragile one is, the more vulnerable one is to such attacks which is precisely why all privatizing fronts target the poor.
The endgame is that the atomized person is left with an emotional connection with “the leader ” or the cause, which in the end is, in fact, interchangeable. If done successfully, the emotional connection can find one blissfully helping in the destruction of a public system where at least one has a modicum of rights and a chain of accountability so as to build a publicly funded private enterprise where one has no more rights than a medieval peasant before a king or queen. I have seen this disturbing dance performed by parents in Harlem before the figure of Ms. Moskowitz.
Cults operate under very similar methods.
That’s how the totalitarian methodology worked with individuals under earlier and cruder systems meant for total domination. Something analogous, if far more subtle and sexy, has been going on for years within the campaign to privatize the US public school system: the creation of an extraordinary, indeed unprecedented number of phony grassroots non-profit fronts aimed at undermining all components of a school community in the same manner you would undermine all components of an individual. Such fronts produce the operatives and foot soldiers of the privatization campaign. How would such a method work in undermining a school system ? What is the “identity” of a school ?
What are the components?
First there is the community at large.
Then there are parents.
Then there are teachers.
Finally there are the students whose participation is such groups, until Students Matter, seemed to be considered outside the pale. No more.
Now consider the targets of just a handful of the tax deductible front groups created by and maintained by billionaires over the past ten years, each one created to undermine traditional beliefs and implode the system at large by dividing and conquering every single one of the above constituencies and turning them against each other – and, if possible, at each others’ throats.
Like so much of the campaign to privatize public education, this is a wholly unprecedented phenomenon in the American experience.
Consider the effect of charter schools and charter fronts on communities across the country. Have not the creation of publicly funded charter schools to some degree or another, rent asunder the communities they ostensibly serve ? Have not billionaire created groups like Families For Excellent Schools help sow discord and enmity between parents living on the same streets in the same neighborhoods who without such slick guidance might well be fighting in a common cause for good schools for all of their children ? Were such groups not designed to do exactly that ? Has not the entire idea of a community as geographically defined been ripped apart by the machinations of the charter lobby and their fronts? Have the creation of charter schools not turned one part of a community against another in an insane war for scarce resources and even scarcer public space? At PS 149 where I work in Harlem (where Harlem Success Academy first “co-located” and with Cuomo’s recent legislation may be “co-locating” that much the more ) I have seen this disturbing aspect realized on a daily basis.
Note: In response to newly elected Mayor Bill De Blasio’s extremely even handed charter school policy which were created to insure that New York’s most vulnerable students were not thrown out of their school to make way for charter empires, Families for Excellent Schools spent more than five million dollars on extremely sophisticated, heart tugging TV ads designed to paint charter school students as victims and Bill de Blasio as a heartless, racist monster. Days after Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State legislature rewarded the charter lobby with laws that essentially stripped fellow Democrat De Blasio of power over part of his own school system and gave charter school operators complete dominion over the New York City public school system, Families for Excellent Schools sent out a slickly produced oversized glossy postcard to millions of New Yorkers urging them to call Cuomo and personally thank him for “championing public education.” This from a group that howled at the notion of paying rent.
For the parental constituency the privatization campaign has produced, among others, the risible front group called Parent Revolution, foot soldiers for the absurd Parent Trigger Law which states that if 51 % of a school’s parent body vote for it, they have the right to fire the staff and reopen the institution as a charter school and only as a charter school which will remain a charter school indefinitely. How this kind of idiocy is possible with people’s professions and public property is beyond my comprehension, but what any student of the privatization campaign learns in short time is that when you are backed by limitless wealth, all things, no matter how unethical or insane are possible.
The Parent Trigger was celebrated in the execrable propaganda film, Don’t Back Down, which despite bombing at the box office was shown at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions and then featured at Chamber of Commerce events across the nation. The idea behind the group, the law and the film is to convince parents that the unionized teachers of the public school system have been failing their kids forever: conversely, that the publicly funded charter school entrepreneurs are their real friends.
The idea is to poison the well of public trust and parent against parent.
For teachers you have Educators 4 Excellence, allegedly formed spontaneously by two teachers in their early twenties under a bare light bulb in the South Bronx (or some such smaltz) who felt that they needed and richly deserved a direct line to power that was not through the teacher’s union and actually competed with it. Due entirely to massive contributions by hedge fund based Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and the ubiquitous Gates Foundation, the two non entities were able to do just that. Almost instantly. And more: E4E were given endless and glowing media coverage in major media by “journalists” who showed no curiosity whatsoever as to how a couple of unremarkable new teachers — whose new ideas aligned perfectly with those of the privatizers — were able to raise hundreds of thousands and then millions of dollars, quit their excellent teaching jobs to devote themselves to educating educators on how to be excellent, and obtain an excellent office on excellent 5th Ave in less than three excellent years.
Their job, of course, is to poison the relationship between teacher and teacher, and teacher and union. To be sure, the Gates Foundation has long ago prepared for an E4E dues check off campaign set to cripple teachers unions and is merely awaiting the most propitious moment in which to launch it.
For the past decade, which is to say the period in which the privatizers’ campaign and their concomitant fronts began in earnest, children were apparently considered off limits. Or, perhaps, the privatizers were merely biding their time — one of the many benefits of being a billionaire or having billionaire backers.
At any rate, with Vergara v. Califorina the privitizers have at long last taken the step of setting students against teachers. And with that the circle of domination is complete. This strikes me as an enormous and egregious step and I suspect it is only the first of many from that direction. Whatever the result of the trial, so ruthless and self righteous are the privatizers, it would not surprise me at all to see the emergence of front groups comprised exclusively of kids like the Vergara Nine who, by nature of being kids, will have no idea of how they are being used and by whom but will be convinced they know better than anyone who disagrees with them.
And why not? As with Eva Moskowitz’s bussing of hundreds of nine and ten and eleven year old students to Albany to “lobby” for her charter school empire, we as a people have degenerated to the place where kids can be transparently used as political pawns and almost no one bats an eye. All that seems to matter in the America of today is that you get your way, as we all and all in our own way race to the top of nowhere.
And don’t think for a moment that our children aren’t absorbing this lesson.
Meet the new face of totalitarianism. They come at you wearing not jackboots and insignias but Nikes and a smile, offering you a frappuccino and maybe a job in their brand new non-profit organization created out of nothing but an undying love of children, your children especially.