Sunday, July 25, 2021

ON THE CUBAN REVOLUTION: Some Remembrances From the 50th Anniversary

Harry Targ

December 31, 2009

This month the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. This revolution, and its bigger than life heroes and heroines, has been an inspiration to peoples from the Global South, and progressives, particularly youth, in developed countries. For all its flaws, the Cuban Revolution validates the slogan of international activists who chant: "Another World is Possible."

Happy 50th Anniversary Cuba!

(Below I insert a few commentaries I have written over the years on Cuba).

Reflections on the Cuban Revolution Today

President Bush (February, 2008) now travels through the African continent trumpeting the United States as a model for the peoples of the Global South. At the same time Fidel Castro steps down as Cuba’s chief of state stimulating reflections on the role of the Cuban revolution at home and abroad. Which country has had a more progressive impact on the historical development of the world?

Despite enormous changes and advances since the 1959 Cuban revolution, Cuba remains part of the Global South (what used to be referred to as “Third World” or “developing countries”), a world which has been shaped and distorted in its economics and politics for 400 years by the global capitalist system. Cuba, while in many ways a developed and even industrialized country, remains closer in economic profile and diplomatic standing and possibility to the nations of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America than the industrial capitalist countries of North America, Europe, and Japan

In the words of C. Wright Mills reflecting on the Cuban revolution at its outset, Cuba remains part of the “hungry bloc,” not in the sense of poverty and scarcity as he meant it-Cuba is part of the developed world in these terms- but in the sense of still struggling to achieve its right and capacity to define its own destiny. In fact, it could be argued that Cuba’s “hunger” for self-determination, its spirit of nationalism, is what drove the revolution in the nineteenth century, in the 1930s, in 1959 and still drives the revolution today.

The spirit of revolution links Cuba’s past to its present. There have been other continuities in Cuban history as well, particularly since 1959. The most obvious one has been the hatred and aggressive stance of the United States. The United States suspended formal diplomatic relations with the island nation before President Eisenhower left office, launched a full-scale economic blockade of Cuba in the Kennedy period, initiated a long-term program of subversion and sabotage of the islands economy and polity, and extended the blockade to pressure other countries to cut their ties to the island’s economy.

The hostile United States policy since the 1950s has been driven by the needs and hopes of capitalism; cold war fears of “communism;” the “realpolitic” philosophy which says that Cuba is within the U.S. sphere of influence; and the historically claimed right of the U.S. to control Cuba’s destiny enshrined in the Monroe Doctrine of the 1820s.

Despite this hostility, since 1959 there has been a high level of support for the revolution among Cubans because it provided substantial economic advances for the people and satisfied their thirst for self-determination. Consequently, even during the “special period” of the 1990s support, while declining, held because the revolution continued to represent the spirit of nationalism for the vast majority of the Cuban people.

Finally, a continuous element of the Cuban revolution has been change and a pragmatic spirit that addresses needs, possibilities, and dangers as they arise. Cuba has been one vast laboratory experiment in which new policies, priorities, and programs have been introduced to meet the exigencies of the moment. Alongside inevitable dogmatisms and bureaucratic resistances has been the willingness of Cubans to throw out the old, the unworkable, the threatened, and replace it with the new as history requires (shifting from fertilizer, pesticides, and hybrid seeds to organic agriculture for example). Over its long history the revolution ended foreign ownership of the Cuban economy. It created an egalitarian society. It provided health care, education, jobs, and a rich cultural life for most of its citizens.

At the most fundamental level, the revolution fulfilled all of the economic and social goals Fidel Castro articulated in his 1953 “History Will Absolve Me” speech. For most Cubans alive before 1959, there is no question that the revolution has been an outstanding success. This is true for their sons and daughters if one could compare what would have been their possibilities before 1959 with what they have achieved today. The revolution has worked.

And finally, in the great debate between the U.S. and Cuba as inspirations and models for most of the citizens of the globe, Fidel Castro might say again “History Will Absolve Me.”

Cuban Revolution Survives Economic Crisis; Still a Challenge to Market Orthodoxy
by Harry Targ

Summer, 1999

The Cuban revolutionary government, challenged by the United States for forty years still survives in a post-cold war international system. The scruffy band of guerrilla fighters, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, came to power in 1959, dethroning long-time dictator and U.S. client Fulgencia Batista.

From the beginning the United States engaged in sabotage, external attacks, an economic blockade, ending diplomatic relations, and prohibiting U.S. tourists from traveling to the island, all to undermine the regime and generate enough opposition to the Castro forces to overthrow it. Despite well publicized policy "changes" in recent weeks, the Clinton Administration is still committed to the overthrow of the Cuban revolution. But why?


Primarily, the Cuban political and economic system remains committed to its own brand of national autonomy and socialism. The Cuban state continues to provide free health care and education, a basic rationed diet of food to all Cubans, almost free housing, and free and low-cost cultural attractions to all Cubans. Racism, and more recently sexism and homophobia, has been significantly reduced in Cuban society. And, even in the face of sabotage and covert operations against the island nation, political democratization at the local, regional, and national levels has been increasing.

Even while Cuba's articulated autonomous, communitarian, egalitarian, socialist principles are not fully achieved, the island nation 90 miles from the United States represents a challenge to what Clinton supporters call "market democracies." For the United States, all nations must cut back government programs, end supports for the disadvantaged, sell off profitable and efficient state-owned enterprises and "let the market" manage peoples’ lives. For the Cubans, "the magic of the marketplace" would mean giving up national autonomy to the 250 multinational corporations and banks that dominate the global economy, the end to free health services and education, and the dramatic shift in the distribution of the wealth of the country from the vast majority to tiny minorities (including Miami Cubans who would return to claim properties their families left over 40 years ago). In short Cuba remains an alternative model of social, political, and economic development for poor countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This the U.S. seeks to challenge.


How is Cuba surviving the radical changes in the world and its own economy since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991? The collapse of the Socialist Bloc led to deep economic crisis for Cuba. Between 1991 and 1994, the Cuban gross domestic product declined by 35%, imports dropped by 75%, oil imports declined by half, and caloric intake dropped from roughly 2800 to 1735 per day. The impacts of the 40-year U.S. economic embargo in this context became all the more costly to Cuba (1997 estimates say the embargo cost the Cuban economy $800 billion just for that year alone).

The Cubans were forced to adapt to the collapse of socialism and the complete global capitulation to "marketplace" global capitalism. In 1994-95 a series of new laws were put in place to facilitate economic recovery. They included the legalization of the dollar in local transactions, shifting agriculture from state farms to agricultural cooperatives owned by groups of farmers, the opening of private agricultural markets for the sale of surplus produce, the legalization of small business enterprises run by families, and the legalization and expansion of foreign investment, particularly to encourage joint venture investments with foreign companies. (Only U.S. investors have been excluded, not by the Cuban government but by the United States government).

As to economic strategy, the Cubans committed themselves to rebuilding their tourist industry, expanding their innovative pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries for export, maintenance and enhancement of traditional exports such as nickel, sugar, tobacco, and citrus, increasing research and development of energy resources, and encouraging small enterprises as an alternative to the black market.

By 1998, Cuba had joint venture agreements with 340 foreign companies, oil and gas production had risen, tourism had earned upwards of $2 billion per year, and tourist and housing construction on the island had grown markedly.

The Cuban economy has made significant advances since the depths of the economic crisis in 1993-94 (caloric intake on a daily basis is up to 2,400 from the desperate 1,735 figure and the vital health and education systems survive even in weakened form) but life remains hard for most Cubans. Many must work two jobs. Those with access to dollars live easier lives than those that do not (maybe half the population) creating a modest but potentially destabilizing system of economic stratification.

Tourism has created boom times but also prostitution, ugly commercialism, overcrowding, and some unsavory cultural penetration by those from European, North American, and Latin American societies.

However, while Cuba has been forced to make significant changes in economic policy to relink with the capitalist global economy, it remains committed to the original goals of the revolution-healthy, well-fed, educated citizens- and sees the state as playing a significant role in maintaining and enhancing these goals. Hence, Cuba continues as a challenge to the dominant market orthodoxy that is sweeping the world and continues to the present, in word and deed, the vision of altruistic women and men of all races struggling together to achieve a better world for all.


Reflections on Cuba: The Starved Rock Metaphor Still Holds

Harry R. Targ
Summer, 1994

When I was a small child my parents took me to Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle, Illinois. Three hundred years earlier, on a rock formation 125 feet above the Illinois River a community of Native Americans took refuge while being attacked by enemies from below. Fully surrounded, cut off from the outside world and its sustenance, they eventually died of hunger and thirst.

As I returned from my latest trip to Cuba in June,1994, the image of a proud, defiant, and encircled people starved to death by a more powerful enemy flashed across my mind. I had traveled there as a member of a delegation of philosophers and social scientists attending an international conference at the University of Havana. It occurred to me that the metaphor of Starved Rock better represents the reality of relations between the United States and Cuba than more conventional metaphors given in the media. Since Cuba's social and political revolution in 1959, the media and the U.S. government have depicted American-Cuban relations as a battle between good and evil-between freedom and tyranny, democracy and dictatorship, communism and capitalism-the hallmark of the Cold War lens to the world. And now despite the end of the Cold War around the world, the actual policies of the United States toward Cuba remain the same, as if nothing had changed.

Despite the efforts of journalists and politicians to portray Cuba in Cold War terms, over the last decade scholars, peace activists, artists, health care professionals and others have traveled to Cuba if they could show they had a professional interest in doing so. Travelers to Cuba, along with scholars and journalists, included Cuban-Americans who had been allowed to return home to visit relatives. As a result of decisions made by President Clinton in August, these categories of people, including researchers, will be severely restricted in their travels to the island. A door which had been opening for research, and scholarly dialogue, such as my annual participation since 1990 in the meetings of North American and Cuban philosophers and Social Scientists, may be ended.

Those of us who have visited Cuba over the last several years have gained a clearer picture of the changes occurring there. Those changes, as well as the history of Cuban-American relations, suggest that U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba is misguided. For example, it is vital to remember that the Cuban economy and political system were shaped by 450 years of Spanish colonial rule, followed by 60 years of almost total United States control of Cuban economic and political life. Significant United States investments in the Cuban sugar industry began in the 1880s and expanded dramatically over the next 30 years. This was paralleled by the U.S. intervention in Cuba's war with Spain in the 1890s and the virtual U.S. military occupation of the island after the end of the so-called Spanish-American War. By the time of the revolution in Cuba in 1959, U.S. investors controlled 80 percent of Cuba's public utilities, 90 percent of its mines, 90 percent of its cattle ranches, 50 percent of its railways, and 40 percent of its sugar. Twenty-five percent of the deposits in its banks belonged to Americans. Also U.S. influence over Cuba's destiny was insured by agreements in the 1930s guaranteeing the American purchase of about 65 percent of Cuba's sugar crop. Finally, Americans owned Havana's lavish hotels and casinos. In short, by the time of the Cuban revolution in 1959, Cuba's economy depended on foreign-owned exports and a foreign owned tourist industry. Most importantly, the wealth accumulated from that economy was disproportionately distributed among small numbers of foreign investors and wealthy Cubans, leaving most of the population in poverty.

The inequitable economic system that had been created in the era of Spanish colonialism and reproduced later under U.S. control was maintained by a Cuban dictatorship supported by the United States. By the 1950s, powerlessness and poverty had created revolutionary ferment. Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro articulated goals of economic and political democracy, improved health care, better education and housing, and the diversification of an economy free from foreign control.

Throughout the eight U.S. administrations since the late 1950s (with only a modest reduction of tension during the Carter years), U.S. foreign policy has opposed the Cuban revolution. From the time of the first agrarian reform program in May 1959 that expropriated the very largest U.S. and Cuban landowners, the United States has supported the destabilization and overthrow of the Cuban regime. Although the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco when the Central Intelligence Agency planned invasion of Cuba with 1,400 dissident Cuban refugees was crushed in three days, the efforts to overthrow the revolutionary government continued. Before the Bay of Pigs the U.S. canceled sugar purchases, created an economic blockade of the island, and ended diplomatic recognition. Since the failed invasion the U.S. has pressured allies to end their ties to Cuba, supported subversion and assassination teams, funded various projects to destroy crops on the island, encouraged defections and the flow of refugees to the United States, supported at least 12,000 Cuban refugees in various covert and other anti-Cuban projects in Florida, and periodically has threatened the island with U.S. military assault. The United States low intensity war on Cuba gained another weapon when Congress voted to create Radio Marti in 1983 and TV Marti in 1990. These beam anti-Castro propaganda to the island. In 1992 Congress further tightened the economic blockade by passing the Torricelli Bill which restricts foreign corporations partially owned by U.S. multinational corporations from trading with Cuba.

Few in our country know that while the U.S. hostility forced Cuba to seek alliance with the former Soviet Union, the tiny island nation went to great lengths to establish its own international identity and to carry out economic programs at home that sometimes contradicted Soviet advise. For example, it was Cuba and not the Soviet Union that initiated support for the MPLA government of Angola in 1975. At home, Cuba for a time adopted policies based upon moral rather than material incentives towards work in the 1960s over the objections of Soviet advisers. In the 1980s the Cubans carried out economic policies of "rectification" that were defined as different from those of the Soviet Union. It is true that Cuba traded many of its agricultural commodities, such as sugar, tobacco, citrus products, medicines, and health services to the Soviet Union for oil, heavy machinery and other products not otherwise accessible to Cuba. In fact, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European Bloc, Cuba carried out 85 percent of its trade with them. But it negotiated trade agreements, not handouts. The distinction is important because for thirty years U.S. administrations portrayed Cuba as a mere extension and tool of the Soviet Union. Nothing could be further from the truth.

With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, its chief trade partner, Cuba has initiated a variety of reforms to make up for its losses. It has committed itself to increase tourism to earn valuable and scarce foreign exchange; established joint ventures in this sector with investors from Spain, Great Britain, Canada, and other countries; passed new laws encouraging foreign investment; expanded its sophisticated government program of biotechnological research; and increased exports of new serums and medical equipment to a variety of countries. And despite the portrait in the U.S. media of a country isolated from the rest of the world, Cuba has expanded its trade ties with Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Further, it has enacted reforms allowing Cubans to use dollars to purchase scarce goods in newly established dollar stores, transformed state-run farms to agricultural cooperatives, and legalized the establishment of small private enterprises. Debates about these changes have occurred on Cuban television and in thousands of workplaces around the country.

Even before the current economic crisis Cuba had initiated a variety of reforms to rekindle enthusiasm for the revolution and engage Cubans more directly in decisions affecting their lives. The program referred to as a campaign for "rectification," sought to increase worker participation in factory decisions, to get people within communities to construct new housing and public buildings with materials provided by the government, and to return defense to local militias. Central to the campaign has been efforts to involve young people and women more directly in politics.

Reforms have continued into the 1990s. Last year's election was changed to give Cubans more of a voice in the political process. In prior elections, people voted for representatives to municipal assemblies, which in turn selected the provisional assemblies that then selected national legislators. In the 1993 election, however, Cubans voted directly for candidates for the national legislative body. Eighty-three per cent of the legislators selected are serving for the first time, including larger numbers than ever before of young people, women, and Cubans of color.

Evidence suggests that, despite Cuba's serious economic problems, most Cubans still support their government. At the time of the 1993 election, rightwing Cuban-American broadcasts from Miami urged Cubans to reject Castro's regime by not voting or by defacing their ballots. But more than 90 per cent of eligible voters did vote, and less than 10 per cent defaced their ballots or left them blank. Despite the fact that most U.S. media outlets never mentioned the Cuban elections, many scholars and researchers observing the election saw it as a referendum affirming the Cuban government. Even Cubans who blame the government for Cuba's economic hardships regard militantly right-wing Cuban Americans, such as Jorge Mas Canosa of the Cuban American National Foundation, who has been a close advisor on Cuban affairs to Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, as more of a threat than the economic crisis. Most Cubans on the island see the vocal Cuban Americans as political descendants of the former hated dictator Batista and his henchmen.

In sum, several of Cuba's economic difficulties are rooted in its history of colonial rule and then U.S. domination, economic embargo, and political and military hostility. But the Cuban revolution has survived, creating a humane regime for most of its population with particular successes in health care, education, housing, and science. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates are similar to the United States, the literacy rate is 97 per cent, one-third of the entire population is engaged in some kind of education, and there are eleven times more teachers now than before the revolution. While poor by many indicators, Cuba, compared to most Third World countries, stands out for its social and economic development and remains, even with its current difficulties, an inspiration for millions of peoples around the world.

The implications for U.S. policy seem clear: It is time for a change. Our policy of trying to starve the island is inhumane and out of touch with the desires of most Cubans, whom we claim to be trying to free. Our policies are irrational given the fact that the cold war that gave rise to them is over. Cuba is no longer allied with a superpower enemy of the United States. Cuba is reforming its economic and political system in line with changes occurring around the world. And, finally, most Cubans, fiercely nationalistic and proud of their revolution, reject what the Clinton Administration and its Cuban-American political allies offer them: a return to a pre-1959 era of poverty and powerlessness for the many.

It is time for the United States to begin negotiating the end of its economic blockade and to forge political, economic, cultural, and scientific connections with the island. It seems unlikely that U.S. policy will change, however, until the American public becomes more informed about the history of Cuban-American relations and the current state of affairs in Cuba. Those of us who have visited and studied Cuba must continue to speak out and need to be heard, for surely mutual isolation and hostility are unnatural for two countries just 90 miles apart.

Harry R. Targ is professor of political science at Purdue University. He is the author of Cuba and the USA: A New World Order? International Publishers, 1992.



Monday, July 19, 2021


Harry Targ, Professor Emeritus, Political Science, Purdue University

Dan Morris, Professor of English, Purdue University

“Higher education groups, faculty members, and journalists portray ongoing efforts to counter critical race theory as authoritarian, heavy-handed, unfair, and illegal. However, they fail to recognize that liberal indoctrination on college campuses has rubbed American parents the wrong way.” Accuracy in Academia

“The Purdue University Board of Trustees on Monday (April 19) announced its plan to adopt a civics literacy graduation requirement for undergraduates, beginning with students who enter Purdue in fall 2021. The board will vote on the requirement at its June 11 public meeting.” Purdue Today, April 19, 2021.


The Emergence of Educational Institutions as Critical Instrumentalities of Economic and Political Domination and Subordination

As Marx wrote, “all history is the history of class struggle.” While this is correct, it is appropriate to ask why capitalism has sustained itself and grown, from industrial, to finance, to monopoly finance capital in the twenty-first century. Marxists, and others, usually have relied on explanations of the sustenance of capitalism emphasizing the role of the police, the military, and in less-violent ways the expansion of consumerism.  But what was hinted at in Marx’s German Ideology and powerfully articulated by Antonio Gramsci, ruling classes rule by force and consent. And in the new century both the sophistication of the instrumentalities of force, weapons, and consent, educational institutions and the media have grown enormously. There has been extended discussion in recent years about the military and police, but less so about education and the media. In the current century the latter have taken on importance for system maintenance and corporations and banks.

Educational Institutions and Ideological Hegemony

It is obvious that the maintenance of any political or economic order is the education of the young in such a way as to give legitimacy to it. In the 1960s political scientists began to study what they called “political socialization:” how and what people learn about the norms, values, and procedures that govern the maintenance of society. Some studies found that children begin to accept the virtues of political institutions, the presidency, the courts, political parties, at very young ages. What they learn about politics in the home is reinforced and developed in school systems. Selective presentations of history and the arts is provided by formal content and repeated rituals, such as the pledge to the flag, competitive sports, routinized social life such as dances. In addition, as theorists such as Jim Berlin have argued, the educational system not only produces and reproduces citizenship, but it also reproduces workers, giving young people appropriate skills in language an mathematics. Educational theorists have pointed out that the character of education develops and changes as the economy changes, from competitive to industrial, to monopoly capitalism.

In addition to adding “socialization” to the lexicon of analysis political scientists began to write about “political culture,” or the values and beliefs that dominate the thinking of most members of a society. Ideas about the basic units of society, individuals or communities for example, the relative importance in the society of cooperation or conflict, the role of “human nature” or institutions as primary forces in shaping society.  Perhaps most basic in the United States is the relative acceptance of private property or public goods as prime values.

In higher education, curricula reinforce and solidify the dominant ideas of the political culture. It is seen as social science and humanities disciplines reify standard paradigms about history, what is great art and philosophy, and what values are beyond reproach. In the post-World War II in the United States the dominant political culture was tinged with virulent anticommunism, the demonic other. Ruling classes, powerful corporations, and state institutions oversaw what was defined as legitimate educational content.

Meanwhile business schools and science and engineering programs were training young people in the schools necessary to promote the political economy. The humanities and social sciences grounded student learning in the acceptable political culture while the fields, what we call STEM, trained these same students in the tools of system maintenance. The former president of the University of California, Clark Kerr, coined the term “multiversity” to describe the functions of such institutions in the late twentieth century and he made it clear that the multiversity was supposed to serve the national security interests of the United States.

As Clark Kerr was leading the California university system young people became increasingly engaged in struggles against racism and escalating war in Vietnam. While these educational institutions became more repressive, as with the shootings of students at Jackson State and Kent State Universities, increased discourse on college campuses, sometimes initiated by faculty, was critical of the dominant political culture and its normal functioning, that s training workers for the economic machine. The university, to use a workplace metaphor, became “contested terrain.” Some faculty and students began to criticize the capitalist system, the war machine, the privatization of the commons, and histories that seemed to endorse patriarchy and racism. From the vantage point of those who rule, ideological hegemony had to be reimposed in the educational system. As conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh once proclaimed, “we,’ that is conservatives, control all major institutions except for the university.

In the twenty-first century, efforts of the defenders of capitalism have sought to reimpose the traditional political culture by privatizing public schools. Not only are charter schools a profitable source of investment, but they by virtue of their existence and curriculum reify the idea of the market, private over public goods, and opposition to teachers as workers and teacher unions, and the elimination of the tradition of public education entirely.

At the university level, traditional study of history and the arts (with all their ideological contestation) are being defunded while colleges and universities define science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as the primary purpose for having education systems. And major funds for STEM education and research come from huge corporations, particularly digital, drug, and agricultural corporations, and the military. And in the spirit of Limbaugh, the Koch brothers, the Association of Trustees and Administrators (ACTA), the State Policy Network, and the Associated Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) have worked with state legislatures to the early post-World II days when Kerr spoke approvingly of the multiversity. In sum. education from kindergarten through the university is increasingly designed to instill the ideology of the dominant political culture and to create a twenty-first century work force to serve the needs of monopoly/finance/global capitalism.

The Shock Doctrine, Covid 19 and Higher Education

For those of you who see “ideas as material forces” and grew up in an environment where the university was “contested terrain,” that is, where ideas were discussed, common assumptions were challenged, and students developed intellectual as well as political solidarity.

The idea of “the shock doctrine”. Naomi Klein tells us, is that economic and political crises afford the opportunity for the dominant classes to institute changes that majorities of people in usual times would not accept. In addition, a long time ago James O’Connor wrote about “The Fiscal Crisis of the State.” In the twenty-first century that has meant steep declines in public support for higher education. Finally, Nancy MacLean has written about the agenda of radical libertarians which includes reducing the role of the state as to administering, financing, and regulating public affairs, and relying more on market forces.

As a Goldman-Sachs memo suggests we might expect efforts by powerful forces to try to institute a “Post-Corona Virus Higher Education System” very different from the higher education many of us experienced.

Furthermore, the discussion of higher education in the context of the corona virus crisis is bringing to the foreground the profoundest of debates in society at large. The debate highlights those who celebrate individualism, the survival of the fittest, the market, and shrinking public institutions versus those who see community, solidarity, public institutions, and real democracy as our only hope for survival. Many of us learned about these two fundamentally competing worldviews in colleges and universities and we took our stand.

The Beginnings of Civic Literacy at Purdue University

“Trustee Malcolm DeKryger compared time at Purdue to an eye of a hurricane, where students were focused on the rigors of getting a degree.

‘There’s a lot stuff going on in our country and our civics going around us,’ DeKryger said. ‘But when you’re in the eye, it’s pretty quiet. … I guess that’s why I personally agree with that idea that we’ve got to make sure there is that touchpoint out there, so when you do go out into the world, you’re prepared.’”  (quoted in Dave Bangert, “Purdue Trustees, Mitch Daniels Reiterate Call for Civics Test Get A Diploma,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, June 18, 2019.

No one can dispute the value of education about the nation, the world, and the issues that have and will affect peoples’ lives in the short-and long-term future. Schools and universities, of course, have historically been primary venues for disseminating such information. However, most often politicians have preferred narratives about themselves and others that they wish to inculcate in the young. A more desirable form of information and analysis is one that is diverse, sensitive to one’s own past and present, and shows respect to narratives and experiences of other peoples and nations. This kind of “civics” education is a complicated and not achieved by learning isolated facts.

President Mitch Daniels, Purdue University, in the spring, 2019, proposed that the university require that each graduating senior at the university demonstrate a knowledge of what he called “civics.” The members of the Board of Trustees recently endorsed the idea and implicitly castigated faculty for not moving expeditiously to establish a civics certification process for graduating seniors. But faculty have questioned the need for such a certification, what civics education is, and how to provide for it. Specifically, they asked whether claims about civics ignorance at Purdue and elsewhere were true. They also asked whether taking a short-answer test really demonstrated knowledge of the United States government, its constitution, and the political process. Some faculty argued that such a need could only be satisfied by at least one course, perhaps in Political Science or History, that would provide a richer knowledge, raise competing understandings of the development of the United States government, and would allow for serious discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of the American political experience. A ten or twenty item short answer test, they argued, would not reflect the more subtle and sophisticated needs of civics education.

Some faculty were puzzled by why, in the context of the existence of a set of university core requirements already in existence, this idea of a civics certification emerged. One possible source of the idea of some kind of civics education can be seen in a January 2016 report published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an organization founded by the State Policy Network, which is tied to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Charles and David Koch Foundation. The report called “A Crisis in Civic Education,” describes a survey it sponsored in 2015 that demonstrates that college graduates and the public in general lack knowledge of “our free institutions of government.” It listed examples of some basic facts about government and history that respondents failed to answer correctly. These included a lack of understanding of how the constitution could be amended, which institution has the power to declare war, and who was “the father of the constitution.”

Perhaps ACTA’s underlying concern was suggested by a quote in the preface of the document attributed to Louise Mirrer, President of the New York Historical Society, who received an ACTA award in 2014 “for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education.” She said that in the contemporary world of conflicts between religious, ethnic and racial groups, Americans need to be reminded of US history “…especially as that history conveys our nation’s stunning successful recipe, based on the documents of our founding, for an inclusive and tolerant society.” (Apparently, she forgot the limitations on the rights of Blacks, women and those without property to vote in “the documents of our founding.”)   In addition, the report takes aim at community service programs, which it asserts “…give students little insight into how our system of government works and what roles they must fill as citizens of a democratic republic.”

It is clear, therefore, that what the ACTA report (and one could reasonably assume what has motivated the recommendation of President Daniels, himself an award recipient from ACTA) and the Purdue Board of Trustees regards as civics education is a narrative that celebrates the American experience. These sources presume that specific facts about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers and basic truisms about the United States as a “melting pot” constitute civics education. Although civics education is surely a desirable goal of education at every level, K through college, it requires moving beyond memorizing basic facts to more subtle examinations about the American experience, including exposing students to debates about how and why that experience has unfolded in the way that it has.

What Would a Discussion of Democracy Look Like?

Everything we Americans have learned since infancy suggests that the United States is a democracy. In fact, the United States political system, we are told repeatedly, is the gold standard for the world. Distinguished data source Freedom House claims that freedom can only exist in democratic political systems. Democratic systems are those in which governments are accountable, the rule of law exists, and associations and speech are guaranteed to all. Polity IV, another data-based source of information about governments, has a more refined definition of democracy: procedures by which citizens can express their preferences about leaders and policies and there exists both constraints on executive power and guarantees of civil liberties.

University of Iowa Political Science Professor William M. Reisinger prepared a chart summarizing the key components of democracy reflected in the writings of political philosophers (such as Aristotle), politicians (John C. Calhoun), skeptics (H. L. Mencken), and a variety of contemporary political scientists. He appends to his chart 25 quotations that illustrate variations in the understanding of the concept “democracy.” Reisinger identifies five emphases in most writings on the subject.

“1)it is a dangerous form of government; 2)it includes genuine competition for power; 3)it permits mass participation on a legally equal footing; 4)it provides civil and other liberties that restrict the sphere of state power within the society; or 5)it promotes widespread deliberation about how to make and enforce policy so as to promote the common good” (William M. Reisinger, “Selected Definitions of Democracy,”

For example, a real civics education might address questions such as:

-What is democracy? Is it just about voting or does it also include the distribution of society’s resources?

-What is power? Who has power in the United States political system? How did they get it? Is the distribution of power and influence in the United States democratic?

-How are people elected to public office? What kind of resources do they need to run for public office? What kind of people are likely to be elected to public office such as relating to their class, race, gender, nationality, and occupations?

-How do policies get introduced, discussed, debated, and passed? Who influences the policymaking process? What role do powerful interest groups play in the policy process?

-What role do political parties play in the electoral and policy process?

-In the United States have there been population groups who have not been the beneficiaries of the political system? Who are they? Why have they not enjoyed the benefits of the political system? What is gerrymandering?

To answer these questions requires that students take a course or more that addresses these issues, perhaps in Departments of Political Science and/or History. For sure, if students lack civics literacy (and that is an empirical question) it cannot be achieved by answers to a series of short answer questions but thorough study, recognizing that answers to the questions are complicated with differing possible answers. And addressing these questions in multiple ways would constitute a real civics education.

Historicizing the Drive for Civics Literacy

Histories of higher education suggest that universities have always been, as the workplace metaphor suggests, “contested terrain.” Administrators have sought to shape what and how knowledge is disseminated, to whom, by whom, and for what purposes. Higher education since the 1960s particularly has been contested. Clark Kerr, referred to above, saw education as inclusive of many strands, scientific and humanist, but always designed to serve the interests of the United States as a world power.

The campus conflicts of the sixties and beyond grew over the content of higher education, classes and programs, who the educators should be, and the influence said educators should have in the planning process; what AAUP calls “shared governance.” From the 60s until today, faculty, students, and communities were able to create programs on peace, women, race and racism, ethnic studies, the environment, and to a considerable degree programs that were interdisciplinary in character. While the popularity of these programs grew enormously from the 1960s, there have always been powerful political and economic interest groups seeking to oppose newer curricula. The relative power of the “pushback” has directly related to the strength of these forces outside the university on the one hand: from business, to politics, compared to the mobilization of students and other consumers of education on the other hand.

In this context, the rise of conservative forces, illustrated by the Koch brothers and their institutional creations, such as ALEC, the State Policy Network, Americans for Prosperity, ACTA, gained momentum over the last several years, particularly since the election of the first African American President Barack Obama in 2008. It is in this context that ACTA solicited the report on higher education referred to above which called for a program in civics literacy.

Since the ACTA report, the US has experienced increased police violence (from the aftermath of Ferguson to George Floyd and beyond), the rise of a new generation of Black Lives Matter Activists, Native Americans protesting the construction of oil pipelines that would destroy native lands, outrages against malfeasance of the Trump administration including the president’s endorsement of racism and the super-exploitation of women, and reversal of environmental policies designed to modestly slow the destruction predicted by climate change. At the University of North Carolina Nicole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure because an influential alum objected to her work on the 1619 Project. This project led to a New York Times magazine supplement which documented impacts of white supremacy occurring throughout U.S. history. In parallel actions, several state legislatures have moved to ban so-called “critical race theory” from classrooms. Therefore, in this social, political, and cultural environment cynicism about government has risen, the legitimacy of government has declined, and more and more young people (such as the Parkland students) have begun to challenge the system of political and economic order.

Therefore, it is in this context, the crisis of legitimacy, that significant political forces have seen the necessity of transforming the content of education back to the day when paradigms in virtually all fields celebrated American exceptionalism.   Boards of Trustees, educational administrators, and politicians believe that the deepening legitimacy crisis among the citizenry, particularly the young, can be alleviated in the aftermath of the pandemic either through creating sanitized programs of civic literacy or banning educational content that bears critically on United States history and politics. Thus, the long-term crisis of legitimacy in the country, its exacerbation in recent years, and the occasion of the pandemic have provided the opportunity for efforts to transform the educational process.

For more details on the Purdue case see Dan Morris, “Dictating Civics…” below:




Sunday, July 11, 2021


Harry Targ

Nancy MacLean in her groundbreaking 2017 book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” addresses one of the central problems facing the American people, indeed majorities of people around the world; the contradiction between democracy and capitalism. As we look to the 2022 elections, the seemingly successful efforts of state governments, with support from the court system, to suppress voting, gerrymander districts, and in other ways to squelch the voices of the people, threatens majority rule. In addition, media consolidation, the creation of “news deserts,” restricting what is to be taught in the education system from grade one through the university, all are part of the concerted threat to fully inform publics. This too is a threat to democratic participation and majority rule. Consequently, it is useful to revisit MacLean’s main arguments.

MacLean begins by analyzing central premises of the so-called Austrian school of economics. Nineteenth and twentieth century luminaries from this tradition, particularly Van Mises and Hayek, articulated the view that the main priority of any society, but particularly democracies, is the extent to which markets are allowed to flourish, unencumbered by governments.

According to this view in a truly free society markets remain supreme. In fact, “liberty” exists in a society to the extent economic actors are unrestrained in the marketplace. Virtually all limitations on economic liberty so defined constitute a threat to “real” democracy. Governments exist only to maintain domestic order (the police power) and to defend the nation from external aggression (defense of national security). Governments provide police protection and armies. And that should be all. In sum, as President Ronald Reagan expressed the market vision: “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.”

To further illustrate, MacLean describes the brutal dictatorship that overthrew the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Allende, a socialist, was elected by a plurality in the 1970 presidential election in that country and in the spring, 1973 in municipal elections held across the country, Allende’s coalition of parties drew even more votes for their candidates than did Allende in 1970. The United States, based on directives from President Nixon, had already moved to make the Chilean economy “scream” and had initiated contacts with Chilean generals who would be prepared to carry out a military coup against the popular government.  The military coup, ousting Allende from power, was launched, ironically on September 11, 1973.

As MacLean points out, in the aftermath of the coup, General Augusto Pinochet rounded up and killed thousands of Allende supporters, destroyed the long tradition of electoral politics, abolished trade unions, and began the process of ending government involvement in the economy and public institutions. Social security and education were privatized. Policies of nationalization of key industries were reversed. The shifts to what the Austrian school called economic liberty were imposed on the Chilean people with the advice of University of Chicago economists, such as Milton Friedman, and later, George Mason University economist, James Buchanan, who was instrumental in recommending “reforms” to the Chilean constitution making return to democracy more difficult. Subsequently only a few other dictatorships in Latin America showed any sympathy for the Pinochet regime with most of the world condemning its domestic brutality. But as MacLean reports, Milton Friedman and his colleagues never condemned the Chilean regime and Buchanan regarded it as a paradigmatic case of economic liberty, a model which the world should emulate. (And today, the Chilean people are rising up to rewrite the Pinochet era constitution that suppressed democracy).

Although the Chilean case represents an extreme example of dictatorship and free market capitalism, she uses it to illustrate a central point. In most societies, and the United States is no exception, majorities of people endorse government policies that can and often do serve the people. Ordinarily, citizens support public transportation, schools, highways, libraries, retirement guarantees, some publicly provided health care, and regulations to protect the environment, as well as police and military protection. The problem for Buchanan and his colleagues is that each one of these government programs. except for the police and military, constrains the “liberty” of entrepreneurs to pursue profit.

To put it simply, if citizens of the United States were asked if they support public programs, majorities would say “yes.” Although there have been extraordinary constraints on majority rule, even enshrined in the US constitution, the history of the United States can be seen as a history of struggles to improve and achieve majoritarian democracy. Demands for voting rights for women, African/Americans, non-propertied and low-income workers, released prisoners, and others have been basic to the American experience. The great anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century all across the globe were premised on the vision of individual and collective sovereignty of the people. If economic liberty is conceptualized as inversely related to majoritarian democracy, then capitalism and democracy are incompatible.

Nancy MacLean, based on this fundamental contradiction, develops a narrative of efforts by celebrants of economic liberty, the Koch brothers and their allies, to build campaigns in virtually every state and locale to disenfranchise people. ALEC affiliates in state legislatures over the last decade have promoted legislation to suppress the right to vote, eliminate the rights of workers to unionize, disempower city councils, eliminate the right of local governments to make fiscal decisions, and to enshrine in curricula in K to 12 education systems and the universities ideologies about the virtues of economic freedom. There are powerful political pressures to privatize every existing public institution. And these pressures have increased and today come from almost the entirety of the Republican Party and some of the Democratic Party as well (including efforts to defeat progressives within their ranks). Again, the best government is no government (except for the maintenance of police force to squelch demands for change and military power to protect the nation at home and abroad).

Nancy MacLean is warning us that there is a powerful drive, based on wealth and power, in the United States to destroy democracy. This democracy, while flawed, has been fought for since the founding of the United States. Its continuation, leaving aside its need for improvement, is under fundamental threat. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

LIES AND WAR: From Truman to Rumsfeld and Beyond

 Harry Targ

Post-modernists talk about “discourses,” “narratives,” “tropes,” and verbal “deconstructions.” They should be commended for suggesting how words are used to mobilize, inspire, deceive, promote self-interest, and, too often, justify killing everywhere. Former Arkansas Senator, J. William Fulbright in describing how he was tricked by his old friend President Lyndon Baines Johnson to support a resolution authorizing escalating war in Vietnam said: “A lie is a lie. There is no other way to put it.”

The story can begin any time. As World War Two was ending, the Greek government constructed by Great Britain after the Nazis were defeated sought to crush a rebellion by activists who objected to their newly imposed rulers. The Greek rebels included former anti-fascists freedom fighters, some of whom were Communists or Socialists. The British, no longer able to support the repression of the Greek Left in what was a civil war, called on the Americans for help.

In February,1947, Truman foreign policy advisers met to discuss what to do about the Greek civil war and the threat of “Communism” spreading along the Mediterranean. The Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenberg, attending the meeting. said he would support U.S. military and economic aid for the unpopular Greek government. But, he said, tell the President he better “scare hell out of the American people.”

One month later, President Truman gave his famous Truman Doctrine speech to the Congress and the American people. He warned the American people, who until that time still had positive feelings toward the Soviet people, that the United States and the “free world” were going to be engaged in a long-term struggle against the forces of “international communism.” The Truman Doctrine was not about nations and movements with different interests and ideologies but rather a global struggle between the forces of good threatened by the forces of evil.

United States administrations ever since have justified aggressive foreign policies by lying and distorting the realities behind complex international relationships. In addition, when a politician, a journalist, a scholar, or a whole peace movement criticizes targeting nations and movements as diabolical and security threats, these critics are challenged as weak, indecisive, cowardly, and even worse, stalking horses for the vile enemy or enemies.

Campaigns of propaganda masquerading as truth have been a constant feature of international relations, particularly since World War Two. The reality of U.S. struggles against demonized enemies tells a sobering story. Deaths in wars and interventions in which the United States participated from 1945 until 1995 totaled about ten million people. These figures, extracted from the valuable research of Ruth Sivard, (World Military and Social Expenditures, 1996) do not include injuries and forced migrations of millions of people fleeing combat zones. Nor do these figures include the wasteful trillions of dollars of military expenditures and environmental damage resulting from a war system.

Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush Team Continued the Tradition of Lying to Make War

 …Don Rumsfeld is, to use a phrase that is used too loosely but that certainly applies in this case – a ‘great American’ – and has been for decades. And if you want to look for a genuine model and prototype for your own careers, you could not have chosen a better role model than him. Mitch Daniels interviewed at the Rumsfeld Foundation, November 4, 2020.

Neoconservatives, celebrants of war, have had a long and growing presence in the machinery of United States foreign policy. James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense in the Truman Administration, was a leading advocate for developing a militaristic response to the Soviet Union in the years after World War II. As historian Andrew Bacevich pointed out, Forrestal was one of the Truman administrators who sought to create a “permanent war economy.” He was, in Bacevich’s terms, a founding member of the post-World War II “semi-warriors.”

Subsequent to the initiation of the imperial response to the “Soviet threat” — the Marshall Plan, NATO, wars in Korea and Vietnam, the arms race — other semi-warriors continued the crusade. These included the Dulles brothers (John and Allen), Air Force General Curtis LeMay, and prominent Kennedy advisors including McGeorge Bundy and Walter Rostow, architect of the “noncommunist path to development,” in Vietnam.

Key semi-warriors of our own day, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Elliott Abrams, Robert Kagan, and others who formed the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) in the 1990s, gained their first experience in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The PNAC view of how the United States should participate in world affairs is to use military superiority to achieve foreign policy goals. The key failure of Clinton foreign policy, they claimed, was his refusal to use force to transform the world. For starters, he should have overthrown Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The neoconservative policy recommendations prevailed during the eight years of the George Walker Bush administration. International organizations were belittled, allies were ignored, arms control agreements with Russia were rescinded, and discourse on the future prioritized planning for the next war.

And concretely the United States launched long, bloody, immoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 200,000 Iraqis were killed in the US war, thousands were displaced, and violence spread throughout the Middle East and Persian Gulf. And despite the 2003 Office of Management and Budget office prediction of Mitch Daniels that the war would cost $60 billion, recent estimates suggest the true cost of the Iraq war approached $3 trillion. Cost estimates, claims that the US troops would be welcomed as liberators, and the war would be over quickly all turned out to be false. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s declaration before the world that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction proved false as well.

Subsequent to the Iraq War, the United States has been engaged in overt and covert war, economic embargoes to bring down governments it does not find to its liking (Libya, Syria, Iran, the Ukraine, Venezuela, Cuba), and has spent billions more on the military (over 800 military bases in 39 countries) while its domestic infrastructure declines. Now, the Biden Administration is ramping up support for confrontations with China and Russia.

Lies and War Are a Testament to Citizen Skepticism

Getting back to Senator Vandenberg’s advice to President Truman about how to gain support of the American people for moral/military crusades, leaders and media are warning about a new global terrorist threat, this time cyber attacks and space weapons, and a renewed post-Soviet threat from Russia and China, a new Cold War. The intensity of the selling job is testament to the good sense of the American people who continue to say “no more wars.”  


Sunday, June 27, 2021

UNIVERSITIES AND POLITICAL CONFLICT (originally posted July 10, 2012)

(The post pandemic crisis has escalated the conflicts over the very character of higher education: substance, governance, employment, and specifically whether universities should address the ugliness of United States history as well as accomplishments. It does us well to revisit the issue of higher education and whose interests it serves).

Harry Targ

Since Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement almost every institution in American life--financial, corporate, political party, media, military, and religious--has appropriately become subject to scrutiny and evaluation. In each case analysts and activists have begun to raise questions about what these institutions look like, whose interests they serve, and how they contribute to the well-being of society.

Until recently colleges and universities have been largely above reproach. Research and education have been seen as the cornerstone of American democracy and economic development. 

Institutions of higher education have traditionally performed four tasks in the service of maintaining and enhancing the development of the other institutions referred to above. First, universities, particularly since World War II, have provided research resources to produce the products and technologies that have stimulated the capitalist system. Often basic research has fed into major enterprises in society, from promoting a global food system, to building sophisticated armies, to developing new high speed systems of communication that maximize control of economies and peoples. Major universities bring together talented research scholars and public and private research dollars to create inventions that promote greater control of nature and people and to expand profit.

Second, universities train work forces. Some graduates will become the research scholars who will continue the tradition of study and economic development to advance the economy and the polity further. Others will be provided the skills to work in the private and public sectors to carry out the work of institutional perpetuation. Corporate managers, computer specialists, tourism experts, and employees in the public sphere are trained at the modern university. And, increasingly universities train the soldiers who will fight the wars that the United States continues to fight.

Third, universities provide an education that in the main facilitates the transfer of legitimated knowledge to consumers of that knowledge. Particular attention is given to the promotion of a scientific worldview that reduces physical and social reality to a multiplicity of “variables” that can be studied with statistical rigor. Knowledge is primarily scientific knowledge.

Legitimated knowledge that is passed along to college students also includes highly selective portraits of how economies work, what constitutes democratic political institutions, and what constitutes standards of quality in the arts. In subtle forms, universities pass along celebratory, often uncritical, images of the society in which students live.

Finally, universities are credentialing institutions. They reward students with degrees, recommendations, and honors, which can be used as licenses to participate in the other institutions in society. Even when political and economic elites receive prestigious degrees through family connections, it is the degree that helps the accumulation of power.

The four functions --research, training, legitimizing, and credentialing--have changed concretely over time. For example, in the United States, the development of the modern university paralleled the industrial revolution. Prestigious universities, such as Harvard, initiated modern departments at the dawn of the twentieth century replacing the primacy of theology and law with economics, business administration, and industrial engineering. Training in fields such as education was designed to create a literate work force that could staff the factories of modern society. And social sciences were created to develop theories that comported with industrial development, such as Social Darwinism. These theories largely justified the distribution of wealth and power within societies and in the international system.

After World War II higher education took on vital functions in new ways. The GI Bill funded college education for veterans to train the scientists and managers of the new age. Also, higher education would credential students to be placed in higher paying jobs so that they could earn enough to buy the goods that a booming American economy was producing.

By the 1960s, higher education experienced enormous growth. For University of California President Clark Kerr, the “multiversity” was the institution critical for the development of a new global economy, scientific and technological advances, and the invention of new tools to fight the Cold War. In addition, social scientists and economists, studying development, would generate theories to guide public policy, particularly in poorer countries experiencing revolutionary ferment.

The massive growth in higher education from the 1960s to the new century led to increased university budgets, higher tuition costs, over-trained and underemployed college graduates, and a layer of overpaid administrators who had taken over the operations of most universities from the professor ranks. In addition, many non-professional workers at the university kept universities operational and were paid a living wage with justifiably secure benefits.

Now, in the midst of a deep economic crisis, political and economic elites are lobbying to create new structures of power in higher education while still supporting research, training, legitimating, and credentialing. The approach that is increasingly promoted by political leaders, educational foundations, and most important, Boards of Trustees of universities, is what Kevin Phillips labeled “market fundamentalism.”

The market fundamentalist approach emphasizes cutting public support for higher education and reducing financial support for students, particularly underrepresented students. In other words, as opposed to the era of the GI Bill, the operant vision is ultimately to reduce access to higher education which will contribute to the increasing inequality in wealth and income in the United States.

Also, market fundamentalism relies on the market to induce “competition” to reduce costs among universities. It encourages new profit-based universities that can sell college degrees cheaply, primarily by substituting on-line courses for campus experienced-based education. In addition, market fundamentalists call for forcing universities to make every academic unit in the university pay for itself.

What is new about the crisis in higher education today, what appointment of new presidents represents, is that economic and political elites wish to continue the traditional functions of the university while reducing costs in higher education.

They want to transfer continuing costs to students and workers at the university.

They are working to streamline university education to research on corporate agriculture, medicine, computer technology, military developments, and allied fields.

And they want to cut educational programs that link research, education, and community service. This may entail eliminating programs that cannot be linked to the making of profit, such as in literature, the arts, and various social sciences and cultural studies. This is probably what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce meant when it warned of “growing skepticism about whether those lucky enough to graduate have acquired the skills and knowledge necessary for success in the 21st century economy.”

And finally, since politics has never been absent from debates about higher education, in today’s context corporate elites including those in the media, wish to eliminate the enduring tradition of “academic freedom” which has celebrated the view that the university must be a venue for the pursuit of “the marketplace of ideas.”

Expect the university to be another emerging site for contestation and political struggle.