Tuesday, March 23, 2010

REVISITING THE POPULAR FRONT: CELEBRATING THE LIVES OF PAUL ROBESON AND ANNE BRADEN

Harry Targ

The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative. Paul Robeson, 1937.

…there are no heroes in this story…no villains…only people, the product of their environment, urged on by forces of history they often do not understand. Anne Braden, 1958.

Biographies can tell us about ourselves, where we came from, and where we might go. I recently read two narratives of the lives of extraordinary people and their times. I think their lives and politics are relevant to us today.

The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest for Freedom, 1939-1976, by Paul Robeson Jr., chronicles the years of struggle in the life of the theatrical performer, singer, linguist, and fighter for human freedom. Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South, by Catherine Fosl, tells the story of a militant Southern woman who rejected the political culture of her day to fight for the liberation of African Americans, always insisting that Southern whites had to play a significant role in that struggle.

Paul Robeson, born in 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, only the third African American to attend Rutgers University, graduated with academic honors and all-American football status. He received a law degree from Columbia University but gravitated to the theater, the concert hall, film, and linguistics. As his world renown grew, Robeson became politically engaged. In 1937 he declared at a fund raiser for the brigadistas fighting the Spanish fascists that “the artist must take sides.” Over the remaining forty years of his life he fought alongside others at home and around the world against colonialism, racism, class exploitation, and imperialism. While he symbolized to the world the struggle for a humane socialist future for all, he became the number one target of racism and anti-communism at home.

Anne Braden, although younger than Robeson, led a parallel life of political activism. She was born in 1924 in Louisville, Kentucky to a traditional Southern family. Schooled in the values of Southern womanhood, she increasingly saw the white supremacist south as an evil that not only repressed African Americans but served as an impediment to the achievement of human liberation of people everywhere. She pursued a career as political organizer and journalist, publishing the invaluable periodical, The Southern Patriot. She, with her husband Carl Braden, spent years organizing against racial segregation. Her struggle repeatedly encountered racists who opportunistically used anti-communism to protect their white privilege.

The differences in the backgrounds of these two progressive giants are obvious, but the biographies referred to above, illuminate fascinating parallels. First, both Robeson and Braden were raised in political cultures that were hostile to social justice. Each was raised in supportive, though sometimes stern families. The world beyond their immediate families was driven by racism. Robeson experienced it as an object. Braden experienced racism as a person being socialized to accept and endorse it.

Second, through a multiplicity of associations and experiences each came to realize that racism was not only an impediment to their own development as full human beings but was also an impediment to the development of all humanity. Consequently, at relatively young ages, Robeson and Braden came to the view that they must devote their lives to the struggle against racism.

Third, both Robeson and Braden realized in their struggles that capitalism as an economic system stood in the way of human liberation. They understood that the capitalist mode of production was built on the backs of workers. Racism, they understood, was used by capitalists to divide workers who together could organize to create a more humane society.

Fourth, Robeson and Braden accepted as a basic premise of their political work the proposition that human solidarity was a necessary if not sufficient condition for the creation of a humane society. Robeson wrote in his autobiography, Here I Stand, that underlying the world’s diverse folk music traditions there was a common musical form, a pentagonal chord structure. To Robeson this shared chord structure mirrored the fundamental oneness of humankind.

Anne Braden, saw human beings as shaped by their environments. Her own upbringing in a segregated society shaped her consciousness, but circumstances made her realize that people can liberate themselves by organizing resistance to that society. Racism had its roots in economic and political structures, and people were “urged on by forces of history they often do not understand.” But they can come to recognize and oppose those institutions that oppress others and by extension, themselves.

Fifth, both Robeson and Braden committed their lives to organizing against capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and racism. For them this meant crossing racial lines, participating in union struggles, linking struggles for civil rights with struggles for civil liberties, and unabashedly working with the Left to bring about social change.

Finally, Paul Robeson and Anne Braden became two of the most despised political activists in Cold War America. Robeson returned to the United States from a long sojourn in Great Britain during much of the 1930s to an America ready to embrace his music and theatrical performances. His classic radio broadcast, “Ballad for Americans,” was heard by millions of Americans. But after World War II, Robeson turned his attention more toward fighting racism (lynchings, segregated institutions such as baseball, and white supremacy in the South), opposing colonialism, supporting the expansion of the right of workers to join unions, and promoting peace. In the context of the emerging Cold War the former celebration of his life and work turned to anger against him. In the 1950s, the State Department pulled his passport so he could not travel overseas. He lost his audiences and livelihood as hundreds of his previously scheduled concerts were cancelled. Even African American churches were reluctant to host a Robeson concert for fear of government reprisal.

Anne and Carl Braden purchased a home in Louisville in the 1950s and sold it to an African American family. The property was in an all-white neighborhood. This generated a massive campaign to keep the family from occupying their house. The campaign was leveled at the Bradens for their work against segregation as much as against the African American family. After an extended public trial characterized by charges of Communist subversion Carl Braden was sentenced to prison for “sedition” based on an arcane Kentucky law. Subsequent to the trial and incarceration, virulent anti-communism dogged most organizing campaigns embraced by the Bradens.

The Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), which the Bradens led, was always viewed with suspicion. Anti-communism even crept into the politics of the civil rights movement as it blossomed in the late 1950s. Despite the virulence of it, which usually was linked with racism, Anne Braden became an inspirational force among the young SNCC organizers in the South in the early 1960s, along with Ella Baker. Anne Braden took particular responsibility for building white activism around civil rights.

In the end, anti-communist campaigns, such as those against Robeson and Braden, were used as tools by racist forces to demean, delegitimize, and split the working class and youth and to defeat progressive forces. Anti-communism and the defense of white supremacy became inseparable.

How do we assess the roles of Paul Robeson and Anne Braden in historical perspective? They participated as leaders, as intellectual and moral inspirations at a time when the working class was on the move in the 1930s and 1940s, and civil rights activism spread in the 1950s. As workers mobilized to demand the right to form unions, Robeson was there. Braden committed her life to the struggle against racism and she saw Black/white unity as basic to victory.

Both participated in struggles with allies from the organized Left, particularly with members of the Communist Party USA.

Finally, and most critically, Robeson and Braden participated in and advanced a politics of the Popular Front. Popular Front politics began with a commitment to class struggle. It was based on the presumption that racism was the central barrier to social change. And Popular Front politics prioritized commitments to broad-based networking among people and groups who engaged in a whole array of peace and justice issues.

Are there lessons from these lives for us today? I believe so. Robeson and Braden taught us that the pursuit of social change was a lifetime activity. And they demonstrated to us that our political work must engage the broadest range of issues and the greatest numbers of people in our struggles for a humane future. These two biographies tell insightful and inspiring stories that everyone interested in social change should read.





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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

MONEY FOR EDUCATION, NOT FOR WAR

Harry Targ

The Tippecanoe School Corporation which educates over 11,000 students in 17 schools is being forced to cut its budget by $8 million by year’s end. This means firing over 150 teachers and staff. In addition, during the next round of contract talks teachers will be asked to take a cut in salary and benefits. Supplies and expenses for the classroom and for travel will be cut. Of course, increasing class size is in the mix as well.

In addition, the state higher education system has been ordered to cut millions of dollars in expenditures, including freezing and reducing salaries, eliminating new hires, and increasing class size. Purdue University has to cut $30 million over the next two years while the size of undergraduate classes explodes and applications for graduate school skyrocket. And of course the economic crisis in education, K through college, is occurring in almost every state in the country.

Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, summarized the crisis very well when he reminded readers that states cannot run deficits to cover educational costs. (In Indiana, recent “reforms” have shifted educational costs from property taxes to the sales tax. In a recession spending and sales taxes go down and so do financial resources for education). He added that;

“Across America, schools are laying off thousands of teachers. Classrooms that had contained 20 to 25 students are now crammed with 30 or more. School years have been shortened. Some school districts are moving to four-day school weeks. After-school programs have been cancelled; music and art classes, terminated. Even history is being chucked. Pre-K programs have been shut down. Community colleges are reducing their course offerings and admitting fewer students. Public universities, like the one I teach at, have raised tuitions and fees.”

While we all know this, it is imperative that we revisit the crisis in education and its connections to history, economics, and budget priorities.For example, New York Times columnist and economist, Paul Krugman recently reminded us that a critical component of Reaganomics, and what the world has since called “neoliberalism,” is the privatization of any and all public institutions. Every instrumentality of the state should be used to smash the state, except for its support functions for finance capital and the military. By cutting government spending, the Reagan administration began the historic process of “starving the beast.” Downsize public institutions so they can no longer deliver.

As Krugman put it: “Rather than proposing unpopular spending cuts, Republicans would push through popular tax cuts, with the deliberate intention of worsening the government’s fiscal position. Spending cuts could then be sold as a necessity rather than a choice, the only way to eliminate an unsustainable budget deficit.”

In the field of education, the “starve the beast” privatizers advocated for charter schools, arguing that the private sector can educate the young better than the public sector. As Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, has pointed out, despite statistical manipulation there is no evidence that private schools perform any better than the underfunded and downsized public schools.

The “starve the beast” approach also developed a rationale for declining public school performance to justify further privatization. The problem with public education, they claimed, was the teachers. And of course not all teachers were performing badly in their jobs. No it was the teachers in unions that were dragging down our educational system.

The project of privatizing the educational system, by starving the public system, has been paralleled by a fundamental feature of American government, the existence of a Permanent War Economy. Ever since the Korean War every administration has put military spending as the first national priority, such that over much of this period half of every tax dollar went to military spending.

What this looks like in the state of Indiana and Tippecanoe County (and you can find out comparable data for your own community by accessing the National Priorities Project at www.nationalpriorities.org/costofwar_home) includes the following:

Taxpayers in Indiana will pay $10.7 billion for total defense spending in FY2010. For the same amount of money, the following could have been provided:

166,952 music and arts teachers for one year OR
1,437,611 scholarships for university students for one year OR
1,932,357 students receiving Pell Grants of $5550 OR
1,604,035 Head Start places for children for one year OR
187,862 elementary school teachers for one year OR

In Lafayette, Indiana the population hub servicing most of the Tippecanoe School Corporation children, $85.8 million in local taxes going to military spending in 2010could provide the following:

1,503 elementary school teachers for one year
1,336 music and arts teachers for one year
15,462 students receiving Pell Grants of $5550
11,503 scholarships for university students for one year
12,835 Head Start places for children for one year

A call for “money for education and not for war” is critical to improve the lives of young people today and tomorrow. Diane Ravitch puts it succinctly:

“I have not changed my fundamental belief that all children should have a great education that includes not just basic skills, but history, literature, geography, civics, the arts, science, foreign languages, and physical education.”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

MEDIA CREATES A TEA PARTY

Harry Targ

Friday morning I was listening to my pseudo “fair and balanced” National Public Radio station, sipping my fair-trade coffee, and crunching on my organic granola while listening to two reports on American politics.

The first addressed the rising threat of the Tea Party movement to the “traditional” Republican Party. Of course, the victory of Rick Perry over Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison figured in the analysis as did the significant showing of a third, Tea Party, candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

The second report was on the upcoming primaries in Arkansas where incumbent but very conservative Democratic candidate Blanche Lincoln is being challenged by a much more liberal challenger, Bill Halter, who wants to be the party’s choice to run for the U.S. Senate. Lurking in the wings of this story, of course, is the Tea Party movement on the right which will run against either the conservative or liberal Democrat.

The sub-text of these stories, that is texts that are partially hidden but still visible, is the rise of the new right which if the media is to be believed constitutes a major grassroots movement in the political life of the country.

Robert Borosage, announcing a June conference of progressives, captured my sense of frustration when he wrote:

“Apparently, any time more than two right-wingers get together, the media gets the vapors, showers the teabaggers with fluff coverage, and heralds the beginning of a transformational movement.”

Then I read David Brooks’ March 5 New York Times column, “The Wal-Mart Hippies.” Now I am not a Brooks naysayer. Sometimes he has interesting things to say even though I usually disagree with him. But this column was too much. For Brooks, the similarities between the New Left of the 1960s and the Tea Party of today are much greater than their differences. He said that the two movements have used the same shock and awe tactics. In fact, he said, the Tea Partiers are adopting the tactics of Saul Alinsky.

Most importantly Brooks suggests that both movements had this simplistic notion that “the people are pure and virtuous.” Both movements “go in big for conspiracy theories.” The 60s theorists had these silly ideas about “shadowy corporatist/imperialist networks-theories that live on in the works of Noam Chomsky.” The Tea Party folks also have silly ideas about how the Federal Reserve Bank, the F.B.I, big banks and corporations have caused our problems.

And both movements “have a problem with authority.” Brooks says both New Leftists and Tea Party activists oppose any systems of authority, reject the idea of original sin, assume the perfectibility of human kind, and believe in mass spontaneous action. The last straw was when he referred to a pundit’s comparison of Glenn Beck to Abby Hoffman.

Brooks, while paying brief lip service to differences in the two movements, ignores the theory and political perspectives that animated the two movements. As a result he elevated the theory as well as practice of the Tea Party followers. In this way Brooks gave legitimacy to mainstream media political discourse that has made the Tea Party story a significant one. As with the New Left failures of the 1960s, “the Tea Partiers will not take over the G.O.P., but it seems as though the 60s political style will always be with us-first on the left, now the right.”

Perhaps David Brooks should have suggested that the “60s political style” will always be with us as long as the monopoly media choose to create, distort, and use various political currents as part of common and enticing frames.

As Robert Borosage suggested, the main stream media has created for its own purposes, and perhaps the purposes of political reaction, the imagery of an angry, grassroots movement that bravely confronts authority figures, both liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican. They are framed as well-informed, though impetuous citizens, who are suffering from the downside of big moneyed interests.

The media presents Tea Party claims that the problem with America is government with little or no reflection on the bases of their claims. The media instill in public consciousness Tea Party claims about the dishonesty of science, the heartlessness of all politicians, inhumanity of “bureaucrats,” and the distance the United States has come from the framers of the Constitution.

And the Tea Party phenomenon is presented as an authentic grassroots movement with little or no analysis of its support, encouragement, and financing by inside the beltway big capital (the very folks they presumably are railing against). Hardly a word is printed, for example, about Tea Party funding from former Congressman Dick Armey’s Freedom Works or funding by the Koch Family Foundations of Americans for Prosperity. And the media fail to discuss the racism embedded in many of their claims such as, “They are taking our country away.”

And interestingly enough, the media portrait of Republicans is of a beleaguered middle-of-the road political faction who just might have supported health care reform, climate change legislation, and other Obama proposals if it were not for the pressure from the grassroots.

While reflecting upon the Tea Party phenomena, how it has been framed, and the Brooks comparison, I was reminded of Todd Gitlin’s book, The Whole World is Watching, which showed the radical shift of the media frame on the New Left before and after 1965. After the first major protest rally against the escalating war in Vietnam, Gitlin suggested, the media frame of the New Leftists as sweet caring young people shifted to the bomb throwing monsters that the media argued they had become.

While the Tea Party phenomenon is only a year old, according to Borosage, they are still showered with “fluff coverage.” If the media had continued its positive coverage of New Left activism after 1965, the way they seem to be covering the Tea Party today, perhaps the war in Vietnam would have been stopped sooner.

In the end, it may be that the Tea Party movement is far less pervasive than has been presented. Its level of popularity probably varies enormously from place to place. And the pain and suffering of many people identified with the Tea Party-alienation, powerlessness, economic marginalization, inequality, and hopelessness-is buried in stories, such as the one by Brooks, of political style.