Sunday, August 30, 2009

THE POLITICS OF DEATH

Harry Targ

Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living! - Mother Jones

Political progressives must speak out critically against the rituals of political life that so disenfranchise and mystify us. Along with the use of fear to induce submission (as was discussed in a prior blog essay), spectacles surrounding the deaths of prominent figures captivate our collective attention in ways that derail our political projects.

First, thanks to monopoly media, the deaths of certain political and cultural icons become subjects of 24/7 coverage, extending involvement with the sorrow and pain derived from the loss of esteemed leaders to the exclusion of attention to other issues of the day. Americans are asked to experience the same mourning and suffering as that of the deceased person’s relatives and friends.

Second, despite descriptions of the political activities of beloved public figures, every effort is made to disengage the deceased from history. The politics of death serves to reinforce the “great person” theory of history which suggests that historical change is the result of the wise and vigorous and inspired activities of talented individuals, not groups or social movements. The politics of death suggests that if the agendas of the deceased are unfulfilled, such as health care reform, we must wait for the next great leader to emerge to see the reform through to fruition. This view, of course, is contradicted by an understanding of history that sees change as resulting from a confluence of context, social movements, inspiring and compelling ideas and visions, resources, and human needs, along with effective and articulate leaders.

Third, as in the case of the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, television, radio, blogosphere, and print media pundits struggle over the construction of self-serving and partially correct images of the person. In the case of the death of Senator Kennedy, Republicans and centrist Democrats chose to emphasize political accomplishments that resulted from his capacity to compromise. He is presented as a senator always willing to create public policies that somehow satisfied the ideologies and interests of politicians with both liberal and conservative perspectives. From this point of view, Senator Kennedy’s repeated statements of commitment to the underprivileged did not conflict with his desire to work out legislative compromises with those who would never articulate any sympathies for poor and working people. And, disingenuously, as Rachel Maddow suggested, representatives of this point of view even went so far as to suggest that if only Kennedy had been able to participate in deliberations, the Senate would have been able to achieve some kind of health care reform package. However, it is clear that these same Republicans and Democrats have had no intention of ever supporting any health care reform, however modest. Many of those centrists or conservatives who sincerely reflected upon the loss of a friend, such as Senator Orrin Hatch, were seemingly almost always able to separate their love for their liberal friend from what he stood for.

The ultra-right talk show and FOX crowd often managed to mention that they were not going to talk about Senator Kennedy’s flawed character “out of respect to the family.” Sean Hannity repeated this humane declaration twice in one ten minute segment of his television show after the death of the Senator was announced. Hannity, Limbaugh, Ingraham, and the rest of the right-wing team that so dominate television and radio repeated their ridicule of Senator Kennedy’s character and political significance (Ingraham got ABC guest George Stephanopoulos to agree that Kennedy was not as transformative a political figure in the United States as was Ronald Reagan). They repeatedly warned that liberal Democrats might use the death of Senator Kennedy to rekindle support for health care reform. This, they said, would be scandalous.

Some left commentaries moved in opposite directions. One perspective lionized Senator Kennedy and his fallen brothers by arguing that if the Kennedy’s had not been killed in the 1960s, the United States would have been different. Civil rights legislation would have come more easily. The war in Vietnam would have ended earlier, or maybe never would have been escalated in the first place.

Others on the left concentrated on all the neo-liberal turns Senator Kennedy had taken in his long legislative career arguing that he must be seen as a traitor to the working class. Some commentators come close to blaming Kennedy for the declining fortunes of the labor movement, the shift to neo-liberal economic policies at home, the North American Free Trade Agreement and a host of other shifts in government and public policy, in the end implying that he, almost single-handedly, shaped the horrific economic and political history of the last thirty years.

Ironically, right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity and Mother Jones share a common perspective on the politics of death. Hannity warned right after Kennedy’s death: “and by the way, a lot of this was the politicizing of -- remember Paul Wellstone's death? You know, 'Let's do everything for Paul.' And we're now being implored to get behind Obamacare because it's what Ted Kennedy would have wanted." [The Sean Hannity Show, 8/26/09] Hannity knows that the power of Ted Kennedy today lies in how he is remembered and to Hannity that represents a threat to reaction. The right-wing wants to block any remembrance of the deceased Senator that would hold up his vision of what remains to be achieved: health care, worker rights, living wage jobs, and peace.

But, as Mother Jones suggests, progressives should remember fallen heroes, but not dwell on them as individuals, and “fight like hell” to build a just and humane world.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

THE POLITICS OF FEAR: A BASIC TOOL OF REACTION

Harry Targ

“Scare hell out of the American people.” (attributed to Arthur Vandenberg, Senator, Michigan, February, 1947)

“Ridge writes that there was a ‘vigorous, some might say dramatic discussion’ about raising the threat level. The former Republican governor of Pennsylvania (and first secretary for Homeland Security) says his aides told the White House that doing so would politicize national security.” (‘Ridge Felt a Push to Politicize Alert Levels,” Boston Globe, August 21, 2009).

A basic tactic used by American politicians to marshal support for policies and politicians that ordinary citizens, given their common sense and self-interest would never support, is to create a sense of fear. The “politics of fear” has a long and venal history in American political life. We can point to warnings of the penetration of foreigners into our public life before the civil war, to dangerous Reds in the struggle for the eight-hour day in the 1880s, to the Red scares of the post-World War I and II periods. The politics of fear has always used class hatred and class envy, racism, sexism, homophobia, and a sense of the “alien” to create enthusiasm for policies that are backward and inhumane.

After World War II, opinion polls indicated that most Americans hoped for a period of peace built upon the continued collaboration of the powerful wartime allies, the United States, the former Soviet Union, and Great Britain. But, as President Truman articulated in a relatively unknown speech to a gathering at Baylor University on March, 6, 1947, the United States was committed to the creation of a global economy based upon private enterprise, foreign investment, and free trade. He alluded to forces in the world that sought to organize economic life around different principles, national autonomous development and state directed economies.

What the Truman administration had been discussing in private was not a public debate on the virtues of free markets versus national planning, but a global crusade against “communist tyranny.” At an apocryphal meeting of key aides and politicians in February, 1947, before Truman’s famous “Truman Doctrine” speech of March 13, the formerly isolationist senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, reportedly declared that he would support a global policy, presumably to promote free market capitalism, but he advised that the president should “scare hell out of the American people.” Why? Because the American people still thought peace was possible between the East and the West. In March, Truman warned Congress that the United States was going to be engaged in a long-term struggle against the forces of tyranny in the world, the international communist menace.

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, warned that President Jacob Arbenz, of Guatemala, constituted a threat to the Central American isthmus, and eventually the United States itself. Since Arbenz supported the expropriation of unused land owned by the United Fruit Company, the administration claimed he was moving toward communism.

Candidate John Kennedy framed his campaign for president around the fears of a “missile gap” that had allegedly opened up between the United States and the Soviet Union and the spread of communism to 90 miles off our shores on the island of Cuba.

Ronald Reagan, another presidential candidate, powerfully introduced the idea of a “the window of vulnerability” to popular discourse on the dangers to American freedom if the incumbent candidate Jimmy Carter was reelected and the government did not dramatically increase military spending.

With the end of the Cold War, new enemies needed to be constructed. And, indeed they were. They were more diabolical, less tangible than the Soviet Union and international communism. These included “failed states,” “rogue states,” and “terrorists.”

So, in a new book, not to anyone’s surprise (except for the dense mainstream media), a former Bush official, Thomas Ridge, reports on the latest gimmick in the politics of fear tool kit, color coated signals of threat levels. And in this case, once again the threat levels were designed and used, not only to engender fear and quiescent support for insane war policies but to support candidates who created these policies.

Reflecting on the politics of fear and its long history, we can extrapolate some core ideas about it and how it works. The politics of fear creates demonic enemies such as communists, terrorists, foreigners, or people who are defined as different. The politics of fear requires an implied or stated prediction of doom. If the people do not support what is being advocated, the consequences for human survival would be in jeopardy. Only clear and total support of the policies and politicians promoting it can save us from the apocalypse. Finally, in most instances the politics of fear relates to war and militarism.

The Nixon administration added to the politics of fear the militarization of domestic policies as well. For example, the US needed to commit to a war on cancer or a war on drugs. While military images verbally have not been added to the debate about health care reform today, some opponents have begun to carry guns to places where debates are occurring, suggesting that this debate is indeed a prelude to war.

What are some lessons that this argument raises for progressives to consider? First, we must recognize that the politics of fear undergirds much of our political discourse and it has for a long time. Second, the politics of fear is based on distortions of other peoples’ thoughts and behaviors and other countries’ intentions and what their actions might mean for us. Third, we must be ready to challenge virtually every instance in which the politics of fear is used to coerce and manipulate people. Fourth, we need to articulate more vigorously our own public policy proposals and our own vision of how we can build a society that is based on social and economic justice rather than fear, enemies, and the prospects of doom.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

HIGHER EDUCATION TODAY: THEORY AND PRACTICE

In the Beginning

I am a child of the cold war. I was born in 1940, was an adolescent in the 1950s, and devoid of political consciousness when President Eisenhower warned of the "unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex" in 1960. I was modestly inspired by the young President Kennedy's admonition to "ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." In fact I have thought a lot about that exhortation recently as I compare the enthusiasm with which young people embraced the Kennedy campaign in 1960 and the way young people today are energized by Barack Obama. While most of us did not realize then that JFK spoke for American empire, he helped mobilize young people who throughout the 1960s fought against it.

I was not just an empty vessel, ready for cooptation, however. I read and heard about the courageous people organizing and participating in the Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, and the freedom rides in the south. And I slowly but significantly drifted into the cognitive orbit of the melodies and messages of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, but the politics of social change only marginally entered course work in high school and college. As a student of foreign policy and diplomacy and international relations I gravitated toward the most "radical' paradigm reflected in curricula at the time, "the realist" perspective. This view suggested that all nations, even our own, were driven by the pursuit of power. Defending freedom, fighting totalitarianism, standing up to communism, the realists said, was the discursive "cover" for the drive to power for which all nations were driven.

I attended a graduate program in political science that was in the forefront of the new "behavioral science" revolution. We were told we were scientists in the academy and citizens when we returned home. As scientists we were engaged in the pursuit of the construction of empirical theory about human behavior. Our task was to better describe, explain, and predict -- not change -- political behavior. The unverifiable "laws" of human nature, embedded in the realist logic, were to be replaced by rigorously acquired data and verifiable knowledge claims.

When I came to Purdue University in 1967, assigned to teach courses on international relations, I was troubled by the fact that neither the realists nor the behaviorists helped me understand the escalating war in Vietnam. I was also increasingly troubled by the assumption that it was not my place as a professor to do anything about the war, as teacher or citizen, presumably armed with a body of knowledge that might have value to the debate about the war.

I started teaching a course with the ambiguous title "Contemporary Political Problems," and through it my students and I explored the writings of the day that we thought bore upon our place in the world. These ranged from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), to the Port Huron Statement (1995), to Camus' The Rebel (1992), to C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite (1959), to William Appleman Williams' The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1972). Later on I organized courses around anarchist and utopian thought. My exposure to the Marxist tradition came later.

Almost invariably, our discussions ended up exploring what the various theorists and activists we read thought about education. We added to our readings in these courses essays on education by Paul Goodman (1964), Ivan Illich (1999), Jonathan Kozol (1968), Herbert Kohl (1988), Robert Paul Wolff (1970), and such eclectic writers as Lewis Mumford (1963). And this was before the availability of the works of Paulo Freire in the 1970s, and followers such as Henry Giroux (2007), Peter McLaren (2000), and other radical educational theorists. Out of all this, I began to develop an analysis of the political and economic contexts of higher education; a sense of the contradictory character of education, particularly higher education; a conception of how my education had been shaped by the cold war and U.S. empire; how the modern university was "contested terrain," as to ideas and behavior; how "theory and practice" were connected; and, for me, what the obligations of the educator were in the modern world.


For the full article, go to http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/targ100809.html

You may also download this article as a pdf here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

BLOCKADE ON CUBA STIFLES INTELLECTUAL EXCHANGE

(The Obama administration has begun to make modest changes in United States policy toward Cuba , such as easing travel to the island by Cuban Americans and transferring money to relatives, but the economic, cultural, and educational blockade of the island remains. The mainstream press continues to publish decontextualized accounts of "dictatorship," "bureaurcracy," and"economic chaos" on the island.

For example, The New York Times published a story recently pridefully announcing that with US Homeland Security support "6,000" Cuban doctors and other health professionals have fled the island or their humanitarian assignments in other countries to come to the United States since 2002. The article, by Mirta Ouito, "Doctors in Cuba Start Over in the U.S."August 4, 2009, does mention that Cuba has sent 185,000 health professionals to 103 countries over the last 50 years. But she writes: "Yet for many Cuban doctors, who earn the equivalent of $25 a month, the lure of a life of freedom and opportunities in the United States is too strong to resist." She sites an American Medical Association official who estimates that one of four doctors in the United States was trained overseas. While the author describes the difficulties Cuban medical defectors face in pursuing their profession, she seemed undisturbed by the irony of a US government program designed to attract trained health professionals from doing important work in countries of the Global South at the same time that the most developed country in the world has to increasingly rely on international doctors to meet the needs of the American people.

Below is reprinted a 2004 article that described one example of literally hundreds of academic exchanges that flourished before former President George Bush tightened the blockade of Cuba. The 50-year blockade must end and egalitarian exchanges between the people of North America and Cuba must be reestablished for the benefit of all).

Harry Targ
June 17, 2004


Fourteen students and two professors returned to Purdue University on June 9 from an 18 day study abroad trip to Cuba. The students, from the Schools of Agriculture and Liberal Arts, completed an interdisciplinary course called “Experiencing Cuba.”The course included four days of formal instruction at the Agrarian University of Havana, an institution much like Purdue. In addition site visits were made to a tobacco farm and factory, an urban garden where the new Cuban commitment to sustainable agriculture was illustrated, an ecological preserve, and a botanical garden specializing in exhibiting and studying tropical plants. Students also toured a special facility for Cubans with mental and physical disabilities. As to politics, culture, and history, students visited museums specializing in Cuban history, religion, and the arts. The Purdue group had occasion to interact with Cubans in many places including the university, in neighborhoods, and in other urban and rural settings. The trip was capped by a six-day 700 mile ride across the island from Havana city to Santiago de Cuba on the Caribbean.

The course was organized by faculty in the School of Agriculture and Liberal Arts as part of a project to link Purdue University to appropriate academic institutions on the island. The project would link Purdue and Cuban faculty with interests in collaborative research, graduate students who wish to pursue research projects involving Cuba, and undergraduate students who wish to study in Cuba. It is hoped that at some time Cuban faculty and students will be able to study at Purdue University when United States policy toward Cuba changes.

The organizers of the Purdue/Cuba project launched the program because Cuba has had special historic ties, positive and negative,with the United States that warrant study. Also, Cuba for the last 45 years has been a social laboratory for the development of diverse social, economic, and cultural policies that interest peoples around the world as well as the United States. For example, Cuba’s health and educational programs have long been of interest. In the 1990s Cuba’s adoption of policies to promote sustainable agriculture have been seen by some as a possible model for other developing countries.

The Purdue study abroad course in Cuba was not among the first. In fact, over the last decade the Treasury Department has issued education licenses to over 750 colleges, universities, and high schools to develop such courses. During the Purdue visit to the island, for example, there were faculty/student groups from the University of Georgia, the University of Charleston, Duke, and William and Mary. A University of Michigan group was to arrive in June.

Treasury Department licensing of university programs is required because the United States has had a 40-year economic embargo and travel ban on free and open exchange with the island nation. Established by President’s Eisenhower and Kennedy, the embargo and travel ban were designed to cause economic and political chaos in Cuba that would lead to the collapse of its revolutionary government. Since the policy never led to the desired outcome, the U.S. in the 1990s began to modify the policy to let selective groups of people travel to Cuba, and in 2001 to allow so-called humanitarian sales of food products to the island on a pay-as-you go basis. U.S. academic institutions and other organized trips to the island would be authorized by Treasury if the programs had a clear educational purpose. Just during the first quarter of 2004, 1,300 Americans participated in 60 educational programs in Cuba.Despite the broad based support by liberals and conservatives,Democrats and Republicans to abolish the economic embargo and the travel ban, the Bush administration piece-by-piece has been eliminating the minimal educational and economic connections with the island.

In early May, 2004, the administration announced that it would accept a series of draconian recommendations from an appointed task force on Cuban policy to stimulate “regime change” in Cuba. Universities which in the past had been issued two-year licenses for educational travel would now have to apply for a new license each year. Educational programs shorter than a full semester would require special permission and would have to adopt the goal of U.S. policy toward Cuba, that is “regime change.” Faculty who engage in research on Cuba or who travel to the island to arrange for educational programs will be further limited in their right to travel.

Along with the efforts to eliminate the academic exchanges with Cuba, the new Bush policies cut dramatically the rights of Cuban Americans to travel to visit relatives on the island. Heretofore, they could travel once a year and such travel could be to visit extended family members. Now Cuban Americans can travel to the island only once every three years and to only visit parents or children. The amount of money Cuban Americans can send to their relatives on the island was radically cut as well.

In 2003, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is charged with enforcing sanctions against several countries and terrorist networks and drug traffickers, as well as overseeing travel to Cuba, spent $3.3 million of its $21.2 million budget on Cuba. Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security has used extensive personnel and resources to interview travelers to and from the island. Enforcing the archaic ban on Cuba has used disproportionately large amounts of resources compared with the struggle against terrorism and drugs in the world.

Almost all the Purdue students who traveled and studied in Cuba reported that the experience was intellectually stimulating. While student evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of the Cuban experiment varied, most shared the belief that free and open exchange of experiences between peoples is truly educational. It is time to end the U.S. blockade and travel ban on Cuba so that two peoples, so close and yet so far from each other, can learn from each other’s experiences.