Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reflections from Kim

This post is from Kim.

I was six years old when Nixon ran against Kennedy. My grandmother , whom I adored, was living with us at the time, and she and my mother were for Nixon. My father was for Kennedy. LIFE Magazine did a spread on both men, with big pictures of their faces on the cover. I declared that I was for Kennedy as he was much better looking. My grandmother said, “He is that, and if that is a qualification, then you have made the right choice.” She said in such a way that I thought she was praising my insight and only later realized she was being a little sarcastic.

My grandmother was a lifelong Republican. She died the night McGovern was overwhelmingly defeated by Richard Nixon, Nov 7, 1972. I had almost flunked out of my first semester of college because I working day and night for McGovern. So that night I mourned two huge losses. I think my grandmother liked George McGovern—he was, after all, a Methodist minister, and she was also a lifelong Methodist. But Nixon was her man and I am grateful she did not live to see Watergate or the tapes that have come out revealing his profound anti-semitism and overall crudeness. On the other hand, she missed his signing of Title IX which she would have been proud of, and his unsuccessful attempts to pass universal health care and a guaranteed annual income.

My grandmother was solidly pro-choice and felt the government should have no role in the reproductive lives of women, except to protect our freedom. She believed that rich people should pay a higher proportion of their wealth in taxes, a view she shared (or perhaps got) from Eisenhower, a Republican president who presided over an America with a 90% top marginal tax rate. As a young woman, my grandmother was a suffragist and marched for women’s right to vote.

She would not recognize today’s Republicans. MoveOn.Com just put the following list of attacks on women by the GOP. My grandmother would have opposed every one of these, but then she belonged to the Grand Old Party, which really bears no relationship to today’s vitriolic, mean and illogical officeholders hiding behind the rubric Republican. From a commons point of view, the terms “republican’ and “democrat,” “liberal” and “conservative” have almost no meaning in any traditional sense. I am searching for a new word for myself and, retroactively, for my grandmother. A word that indicates that the person using it starts with questions about the common good and goes from there. I’ll let you know when I find one.

Meantime, here is some of what we are up against:

Top 10 Shocking Attacks from the GOP's War on Women
*(Posted on February 21, 2011 by MoveOn.Com)
1) Republicans not only want to reduce women’s access to abortion care, they’re actually trying to redefine rape. After a major backlash, they promised to stop. But they haven’t yet.
2) A state legislator in Georgia wants to change the legal term for victims of rape, stalking, and domestic violence to “accuser.” But victims of other less gendered crimes, like burglary, would remain “victims.”
3) In South Dakota, Republicans proposed a bill that could make it legal to murder a doctor who provides abortion care.
4) Republicans want to cut nearly a billion dollars of food and other aid to low-income pregnant women, mothers, babies, and kids.
5) In Congress, Republicans have a bill that would let hospitals allow a woman to die rather than perform an abortion necessary to save her life.
6) Maryland Republicans ended all county money for a low-income kids’ preschool program. Why? No need, they said. Women should really be home with the kids, not out working.
7) And at the federal level, Republicans want to cut that same program, Head Start, by $1 billion. That means over 200,000 kids could lose their spots in preschool.
8 ) Two-thirds of the elderly poor are women, and Republicans are taking aim at them too. A spending bill would cut funding for employment services, meals, and housing for senior citizens.
9) Congress just voted for a Republican amendment to cut all federal funding from Planned Parenthood health centers, one of the most trusted providers of basic health care and family planning in our country.
10) And if that wasn’t enough, Republicans are pushing to eliminate all funds for the only federal family planning program. (For humans. But Republican Dan Burton has a bill to provide contraception for wild horses. You can’t make this stuff up).
1. “‘Forcible Rape’ Language Remains In Bill To Restrict Abortion Funding,” The Huffington Post, February 9, 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Madison on My Mind

I grew up in Wisconsin, only an hour's drive from Madison. So I've watched the news of the growing demonstrations opposing the new Governor's attacks on a few of the state's public sector unions with a mix of awe and state pride. By now, everyone knows about the power struggle going on in my home-state's Capitol -- and quickly spreading across the rest of the Midwest too!

It's always impressive when masses of people turnout for change, and given the massive demonstrations in North Africa these last few weeks it's easy to get swept up in a sort of protest mania. But Madison isn't Cairo (no matter what privatization-loving, budget-cutting Rep. Paul Ryan says). And it's not clear whether these challenges against the collective-bargaining power of public sector unions across the country will galvanize the majority of workers who aren't unionized, much less the many who are still unemployed. And that's because too many people seem to have bought into the myth that public sector employees have it too good. And rather than unionize everywhere to organize for better benefits and more job security, some people who are suffering would rather stick it to the unions than the rich businesses (including Wisconsin companies like Harley Davidson) using the recession as an excuse to boost profits through labor-saving and automation -- aka laying off workers.

The issue flying under the radar in this whole debate about just how draconian state budget cuts will be is the fact that the so-called budget and deficit cutters want to simultaneously pad the pockets of their campaign funders. The first thing that Gov. Walker did when he got into office in January was cut taxes for businesses. And at the end of last year, unemployment insurance was held hostage to tax cuts for the rich.

Cutting seems to be the only budget agenda of the Right. State facing a budget deficit? Slash public programs that we all rely on during tough times. Cut pay and benefits for state employees. And cut taxes for the rich and corporations that are experiencing record profits and raking in huge bonuses? A commons economy can't be based on forcing state employees to accept benefit cuts while showering tax cuts on the rich.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Living a Commons life

A friend wrote to me recently:
I read your blog regularly and I agree with a lot of what you propose.  Even when I don’t, or more often when I don’t know what I think, I find a lot of interesting ideas to share with friends.  You, Sean and Caroline do a great service!  However, while I oppose neoliberalism and abhor the rising inequality of the United States, I am not sure what I can do on a daily basis to address this. Most of what you suggest would require major policy shifts to become real, and I want to know what I can do to lead a ‘commons’ life right now, without needing to be involved in advocacy. Or am I just kidding myself, and really getting involved in a commons revolution is the only way to truly affect change?
My friend is a therapist.  She works for herself and volunteers as a therapist in a program for abused children.  She votes, gives away money, and buys most of her food at the Farmer’s Market. She has a cat and a dog she took in when a client of hers died.  I think she is living a commons life in many ways. 

But her question is legitimate—if we always propose ideas that few ordinary people have access to implementing, then how useful is our philosophy?  On the other hand, we cannot be so naïve as to propose that everything can be solved by individual agency.   Living a commons life, however, is not just about all the action we take—whether it is individual or as part of a large movement.  It is about how we ARE in the world.  When I was in seminary, we often debated the concept of evangelism:  should we go out and try to convert people to Christianity (and of course, sub-debates about what form of Christianity we were talking about), or should our lives be such that people would be attracted to our faith without us having to say anything about it?  I came down fairly solidly in the second camp, partly because I did not have a firm grasp on what I would be converting people from and to. (I was like the joke about what happens when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness?  You get someone who knocks confidently on your door, and when you open it, she has nothing to say.)  Yet when I look at my actions on a daily basis, I know there are many times when people would not be at all attracted to what I believe. 

So how can we live a “commons” life right now, in our work and home?  Here is a short list based on my shortcomings over the past week:
  • Don’t honk at people who cut you off in traffic.  It jars all the other drivers and it doesn’t really fix anything.
  • Speak to homeless people who ask you for money, whether you give them money or not.  They are used to being looked through and over and around.   I feel badly when I don’t give a homeless person money, but pretending I didn’t hear them is just rude. 
  • Don’t imagine what someone you dislike, but have to work with, is going to say, and then don’t imagine what clever cutting bon mot you are going to say back.  This is a true waste of brain cells.
  • Buy a few extra oranges or a hunk of cheese and give it to a homebound neighbor.  Act like you bought the stuff by accident and want to share it so it doesn’t spoil.  Tell her she looks nice in whatever she is wearing.
  • Send a thank you note, even if it is really late.
  • Stop working after 6-8 hours.  Then do something fun. The only way to have a balanced life is to have a balanced day today. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Retirement Age

Looking at society through the lens of the commons often yields views that are the polar opposite of what we are reading. The following editorial by James K. Galbraith is a case in point. What should be done for the common good is to lower the retirement age and to structure our society around the reality that we all have to rethink work altogether.

by James K. Galbraith

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Tune of a Hickory Stick

I started school in 1959 and so most of my formative school years where in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Like most of my classmates, we heard stories from our parents about their school years and the ones about punishment were usually cruel or humiliating.  For example, being forced to stand in a corner with a “dunce cap” on was common in my mother’s school.  My father recalled students being slapped in the face or spanked.  A little ditty composed around 1907 remained popular even through the 1950’s:   
School days, school days.
Dear old golden rule days.
Reading and writing and 'rithmetic.
Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.
The Golden Rule in the song was apparently a ruler and not a formula for promoting the common good. 
I certainly felt grateful that corporal punishment was forbidden in my public school.  Punishments for those of us who committed infractions were usually going to the principal’s office and the dreaded, “We have called your mother.”  Actions requiring punishment (or “discipline” which sounded less punitive) included smoking, skipping class, cheating on school work, and playing tricks on other kids.  The latter was my downfall.  I never smoked and I didn’t cut class because I actually liked learning.  I never cheated although I often allowed other students to cheat off of my spelling tests in return for some of their lunch.  Tricks I played on others included: 
  • Putting tape over the faucet of the bathroom sink, so that when someone turned on the water, it sprayed out all over them;
  • Taking out a desk drawer, then placing a piece of cardboard over the top, and putting it back in upside down and removing the cardboard.  The next person to open it watched all their stuff fall on the floor;
  • Thumbtacks on chairs of particularly obnoxious teachers.
Of course one of the points of a practical joke is not getting caught so I wasn’t reprimanded nearly as often as I deserved. 

Fast forward to today where suspension and expulsion are the commons forms of punishment and “zero tolerance” policies trump common sense in dealing with kids. According to the most recent issue of the PRRAC report, which summarizes a number of studies on punishment, schools with higher rates of suspension have lower ratings in academic quality and quality of school governance, and that disciplinary removal appears to have negative effects on student outcomes, and is a “moderate to strong indicator of dropping out of school.”

Given that today in California alone, 30% of students drop out of high school, with Los Angeles showing a 55% drop out rate, anything that increases the likelihood of someone leaving school should be immediately stopped. 

The racialization of punishment is also abundantly clear from the studies PRRAC summarizes.  White students are far more likely to be punished for offenses that could be objectively observed, such as smoking, whereas African American students are referred more often for “disrespect, excessive noise, threat and loitering—behaviors that would seem to require a more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent.”  (From “Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis.”  The full report can be downloaded from   Kids in general make “excessive” noise—that is their job. (Why else would we have the admonition, “Indoor voice, please”?)  They are disrespectful to people who don’t respect them first.  Respect cannot be commanded but must be earned.  Clearly the subtext here is that the African American students are not acting “white” enough.  And how in any kind of society would “excessive noise” at a school be grounds for suspension? 

Of course the larger context for how we “progressed” from hickory sticks to going to the principal’s office to expulsion cannot be separated from the often discussed “school to prison pipeline” that has filled our prisons in the last 30 years with nonviolent offenders.  California built 23 prisons from 1985-2001 (and during that same time frame, only one extension to the University of California.)  A board member of the San Diego Literacy Council told me that California plans how many prisons to build based in part on how many kids flunk third grade.  The general feeling is that if you can’t read very well by third grade, you will probably end up in prison.

Many far more learned people than myself have noted all this and written about it, including recommendations for research and data collection to keep documenting the relationship between excessive discipline, race of those being disciplined, quality of education and likelihood of dropping out of school, and the concomitant policy changes in schools to address and reverse all of this.

My contribution to the debate (besides lifting up this information to people like me who may be unfamiliar with it) is this:  our attitudes towards other people are very much formed in school and we need to build our policies around the idea that each child is a bundle of gifts and talents, wrapped in a fragile personality, and that our job as adults is to develop the talent, channel the gifts into positive expression and appreciate that we all act out in various ways as part of how we grow up.  Zero Tolerance is a tool of repression:  those two words should not appear together ever.  There is no doubt in my mind that I would not get through school today, even as a white person.  I did too many things that sent me to the principal. But it was in the principal’s tongue lashing, then forgiveness, that I learned the most important lesson of community:  nothing I did would cause me to be expelled