[Guest Post] The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education

CTU Labor Day Rally. Credit: CTU Facebook Page

After months of deadlocked negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union began their first strike in 25 years today, shutting down over 600 schools that serve over 400,000 students.  The 600 delegates of the CTU voted unanimously in favor of the measure at a meeting August 31, two months after 98 percent of members who cast a ballot authorized the union to call a strike.

Education activists across this country have greeted the CTU’s fight with much enthusiasm, for they see it as a fight for everything they believe in. Many think this strike has the potential to turn the tide against those who wish to privatize our schools and slash budgets across the country. Moreover, as perhaps the largest, best-organized strike since the 1997 UPS strike, it could re-ignite the American labor movement after decades of decline.

In this post I’ll attempt to put the struggle within the context of the nation-wide neoliberal attack on public education, go over the details specific to the fight in Chicago, and explain why you should be siding with the teachers and with universal, high-quality, fully-funded public education.

The Charter Menace

A charter school is a publicly-funded school that is not subject to the same rules and regulations as a regular public school, often run by non-governmental groups. As of December 2011, 2 million students attended the 5,600 charter schools in the US. This number has been increasing by 7 percent annually since 2006 [PDF]. Charter schools have been touted as the saviors of American education, perhaps most famously in the documentary Waiting for “Superman” by Davis Guggenheim. They have become something of a cause célèbre among America’s billionaires, like Bill Gates and various Wall Street philanthropists. They enjoy bipartisan support, taking an important role in Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and an even more important one in Obama’s Race To The Top.

But as I’ve learned these past few years, when the two parties in Washington agree on some issue, we have very good reason to be worried. Charter schools are no exception. A widely-cited study from Stanford University shows that though 17 percent of charter schools deliver the promised improvements, 37 percent actually perform worse than traditional public schools [PDF]. The ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ of charters may sound like good things in the abstract, but they’re of no use if they can’t produce better results. So why on Earth would so many influential people throw their weight behind a project that for the most part either changes nothing or actually makes education worse for American children?

Defenders of charter schools, like a certain ruling class rag, often point to the charters that do deliver spectacular results, and say that we just need to replicate that in all the other charters. But a closer look makes that picture seem implausible. One of the charters that’s often (rightfully) praised for its results is SEED, a boarding school in DC. What they don’t usually mention is that SEED spends $35,000 per student, while traditional public schools spend about a third of that on average. Another advantage of charters that’s often left unspoken is that, unlike neighborhood schools, charter schools are allowed to get rid of under-performing students as they please. Geoffrey Canada’s charter schools in Harlem, another oft-praised project, made extreme use of this privilege when they kicked out an entire class of middle school students for not being up to par. So it’s no surprise that they are able to perform better than traditional public schools: they can just get rid of anyone who could drag their scores down.

Finally, teachers from charter schools are generally not unionized. This may sound like a good thing to many in the current political climate, in which politicians on both sides of the aisle enjoy blaming teachers and their unions for the problems of public education. But the data do not lie: according to a well-regarded study from Arizona State University [PDF summary], schools with unionized teachers tend to produce better results. This should be common sense. Unions can bargain for better pay, better working conditions, and increased job security, all of which can attract better teachers, who can in turn provide a better education to students.

Of course, there are many other sources of threats to American public education, but I would clog the intertubes if I tried to write about all of them. A notable example is “Parent Trigger” laws, which would allow parents to take over an under-performing school and do with it as they please, including turning it into a charter schools. Such laws sound nice, even democratic in the abstract. But if we remove the sheep’s clothing that disguises them, we are left with just another plan to privatize public education. Like charter schools, parent trigger laws also have the support of the nation’s billionaires, as well as their own awful piece of Hollywood propaganda (which was apparently showed at the start of the DNC).

Not to mention more long-standing issues that have always plagued education in the United States. For example, since education is mostly funded by property taxes, poorer neighborhoods have always had lower-quality education, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Given the ample evidence for the failure of charter schools, I find no satisfactory answer for why anyone who genuinely wants to improve American education would support them. We must accept that American elites have no intention of improving public schools—after all, they can afford to send their kids to fancy private schools. The insistence on charters is not born out of compassion, but out of the realization that politicians cannot admit they want to gut public education and still tell their constituents they believe in the ideals of a liberal democracy. As Prof. Sanford Schram of Bryn Mawr has said, charter schools and other neoliberal reforms of the welfare state are merely Plan B for the world’s capitalists: a pragmatic response to the political impossibility of getting rid of welfare completely.

Let us now turn to how all of this is playing out in the city that gave birth to neoliberal ideology.

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“Traditional” Morality and Anti-Porn Arguments That Fail

So the Republicans have added a section to their official party platform that calls for a crackdown on pornography.

Whereas previously, the GOP platform had only addressed child pornography, the new language reads: “Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.”

Although this sentence does not technically suggest a push for more regulation, the “anti-pornography activist” (I’m giggling) quoted in the Reuters piece I linked to claims that Romney has promised to somehow increase the use of blocking software to combat internet porn.

I have no idea how he would do this, and I doubt that a Republican-led White House would manage to crack down on porn given that most reasonable people agree this is a ridiculous thing to be spending time on right now.

However, I want to examine some of the ludicrous things that have been said by Patrick Trueman, the “anti-pornography activist” I mentioned. Trueman is president of Morality in Media, a religious nonprofit that seems intent on defining morality for the rest of us. About porn, Trueman says, “It’s a growing problem for men in their 20s….It’s changed the way their brain maps have developed. This is the way they get sexually excited.”

As usual, research appears not to be necessary here. I don’t even know what these “brain maps” are that Trueman is referring to; I doubt that he does, either. (To quote Hunter from the Daily Kos: “I think ‘brain maps’ is the most science-ish thing said by any Republican in at least a week, so there’s that. Now if we could just get them to believe in ‘climate maps’ we’d be getting somewhere.”) And it’s interesting how he thinks that porn is a bad thing because it’s supposedly harmful for men specifically. What about women? Do we even exist?

A press release from Morality in Media does seem to mention some actual research:

Research shows that children and adults are developing life-long addictions to pornography; there is a very substantial increase in demand for child pornography because many adult-porn users are finding that they are no longer excited by adult images; on average four out of five 16 year-olds now regularly access pornography online; 56% of divorces cite Internet pornography as a major factor in the breakup of the marriage; girls consuming pornography are several times more likely to engage in group sex than those who do not; significant and growing numbers of men in their twenties are developing “porn-induced sexual dysfunction.

No citations are provided, so I can’t vouch for any of this. I would be rather surprised if all of these findings came from research universities or other independent-ish sources, though.

It’s interesting that anti-porn crusaders always cite the fact that pornography can be addictive as proof that it’s Morally Wrong. Alcohol and nicotine are addictive, too, but they are legal–as they should be in a free society. They are also addictive in a much more physical and tenacious way than porn is.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the bit about porn factoring into divorce is true. When romantic relationships break up, I’ve noticed, it seems pretty common to blame other things that are going on rather than the obvious: that the relationship itself just isn’t working. The couple just isn’t attracted to each other anymore. They’re not in love. Whatever. It’s not hard for me to imagine that in a failing marriage, at least one person might turn to porn for distraction or sexual release, and the other would be hurt and would cite that as a reason for the subsequent divorce.

Point is, causality is never easy to establish in cases like this.

I also find it interesting how the tone of this press release assumes that girls engaging in (safe, consensual) group sex is necessarily a bad thing, and how it likewise assumes that because people are getting bored of adult porn and are moving on to child porn (?!), the former should be cracked down upon as well.

In an interview, Trueman also said that men who watch porn for years before getting married end up being “dysfunctional sexually because their brain maps are changed. They enjoy what they’ve been doing for 10 to 12 years. Normal sex is not something that gets them excited.”

Again with the brain maps. It’s so difficult to debate these statements because they are never, ever backed up by research, so anyone who agrees with them can just trot out some anecdotal evidence and consider the argument won. So here’s some anecdotal evidence of my own: I know plenty of people who are fairly into watching porn, and they are not “dysfunctional sexually.”

I also wonder how many of pornography’s negative consequences are due to 1) its taboo nature; and 2) the dominance of exploitative, misogynistic, and otherwise oppressive forces within the porn industry, as opposed to the “immorality” of pornography itself.

Greta Christina wrote something wonderful about this over four years ago, and I will quote it here. Although she was referring to anti-porn arguments made by feminists, not Christian Republican men who want to run your sex life, what she said still applies:

I think anti-porn writers have a very bad habit of ignoring Sturgeon’s Law. They fail to recognize that, yes, 90% of porn is crap… but 90% of everything is crap. And in a sexist society, 90% of everything is sexist crap. I’ve seen some very good arguments on how most porn is sexist and patriarchal with rigid and misleading images of women… but I’ve never seen a good argument for why, in a world of sexist TV and movies and pop music and video games, porn should be singled out for special condemnation — to the point of trying to eliminate the genre altogether.

But I also think that pro-porn advocates — myself included — need to stop pretending that there isn’t a problem. We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn — or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn — is sexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. And we need to be trying to do something about it.

Read the rest of the post; it’s good.

I’ve seen porn made by the dominant industry forces, and it’s horrid in all the ways you would expect. But I’ve also seen porn made by individuals and by small, socially-conscious producers, and it can be really awesome.

One recent study shows that 70% of men and 30% of women watch Internet porn. Keeping in mind that these numbers are probably deflated because of the stigma that porn carries (some studies suggest up to 80% of women watch porn), that’s still a lot of people. It’s especially a lot of men. Are all of these people really addicted to porn and incapable of being aroused by their partners?

In general, I agree with the stance that Greta Christina outlines in her post that I linked to. That said, I’m much more receptive to anti-porn arguments when they’re coming from a feminist perspective than from a “traditionally moral” perspective. I have little interest in traditional morality. I think we should all have the ability to create our own morality, and that means allowing people to access and experiment with porn if that’s what they want.

[In Brief] Romney’s Abortion Flip-flop

In 1994, one of our current presidential candidates said the following:

I have my own beliefs, and those beliefs are very dear to me. One of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people. Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.

One guess which candidate this was. And here’s a hint: it wasn’t Obama.

That same year, according to the Daily Kos post I linked to, Romney and his wife Ann attended a Planned Parenthood event, and Ann donated $150 to the organization. But in 2007, Romney claimed to have “no recollection” of that, and said that “[Ann’s] positions are not terribly relevant for my campaign.”

This last statement is in itself a lie. Romney claims that Ann “reports to me regularly” about women’s issues.

It doesn’t surprise me that politicians flip-flop on hot-button issues. Of course they do. And not only that, but people can and do genuinely change their minds about things (take it from me; I used to believe that abortion should be illegal in almost all cases).

But this isn’t just a change in politics; it’s a change in values. Romney did not say, “I believe that the government has no authority to ban abortion.” He did not say, “I believe that in a just society, women should have the right to choose.” He said that “we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter.”

What changed in 18 years that forcing one’s beliefs on others suddenly became acceptable to Romney?

This is yet more evidence that the Republican Party we have today is nothing like the Republican Party of two decades ago. Not that I would’ve been a huge fan of that one, either.

Why Do We Keep Talking About Akin and Not About Other Stuff?

I’ve noticed that every time a high-profile conservative says or does something stupid and it blows up in the media, some rank-and-file conservatives–in my Facebook newsfeed, elsewhere on the internet–have a very interesting response. They say something to the effect of this:

“Why are people talking about [insert stupid conservative here] so much more than about [insert Terrible Thing that also happened recently, such as a mass shooting]?”

They will ask if the former is “more important” than the latter, and wonder why people seem more willing to condemn a stupid politician than the perpetrator of a terrible act of violence. They will lament that the media seems to care more about bashing Republicans than about reporting “real news.” I saw this apples-and-oranges comparison being made between the Chick-Fil-A controversy and the Sikh temple shooting, and between Todd Akin and the FRC shooting.

This smacks to me of defensiveness and a certain type of persecution complex. What these people seem to be saying is this: “Yes, [high-profile conservative] said something stupid. But do you really have to talk about it so much? Why can’t you talk about this other important thing instead? Why can’t you just forget how stupid [high-profile conservative] is?”

There are a number of problems with this response:

1. Unless you’ve really done your research, you can’t really claim that the media is covering one subject more than another. Because how do you know? Many conservatives, I’ve noticed, seem to have a paranoid conviction that they are constantly being persecuted, denied their rights, and “attacked” by The Liberal Media (if you don’t believe me, go to the current affairs section of a bookstore and look at the titles of books written by prominent conservatives about the media). This means that their belief that certain subjects are being covered “more” in the media could simply be confirmation bias: you take note of all the news stories that deal with that subject and forget all the ones that deal with other subjects.

Now, I don’t mean to accuse conservatives of stupidity or of purposefully misrepresenting things. Confirmation bias is something we are all sometimes guilty of. But in this case, it might explain what’s going on.

2. “The Media” is not a monolith. What you see covered in it depends entirely on what media sources you’re consuming. For example, my Google Reader has a section called “News” and a section called “Social Justice.” (It also has many others, such as “Tech/Business,” “Science,” “Literature,” etc.) The “News” section is going to have more stories about mass shootings than about stupid things conservatives say about the female reproductive system. The “Social Justice” section will be the other way around–although it, too, will have many stories about mass shootings as they relate to societal inequality, the justice system, mental health, and so on.

Also, I have trouble believing that Fox News inadequately covered the FRC shooting and lent too much airtime to Todd Akin’s comments. I really, really have trouble believing that.

But in any case, I get a bit annoyed whenever I see anyone complaining about the mainstream media not covering adequately the issues that are important to them. If that’s the case, stop consuming mainstream media. Find the websites, blogs, magazines, and radio shows that provide the news you’re looking for and support them with your money. The “mainstream media” (whatever that even is these days) will gradually lose its clout.

That said, it could very well be that the media covers stuff like Todd Akin and Chick-Fil-A more than it covers mass shootings, and that’s not necessarily because of The Liberal Media.

Here are some reasons why that might be the case:

1. When there’s more disagreement on an issue, it gets talked about more. I think we can all agree that shootings are Bad, that shooters are violent criminals who should be brought to justice, that shootings should be prevented if possible, and so on. When people agree, there’s less to discuss.

(One caveat: people disagree very strongly on how to prevent shootings. If you somehow managed to miss all the recent discourse on mental health and violence, and on gun control, you’re living under a rock.)

But with something like the Chick-Fil-A controversy or Todd Akin’s comments, there’s a lot of room for disagreement. Half of this country believes that same-sex couples should be denied the right to marry, and nearly half believe that women should be denied the right to an abortion. Although not everyone in the latter group agrees with Akin’s ridiculous misunderstanding of human anatomy, many do. We have a lot to discuss, so the media jumps on board.

2. It is, after all, an election season. The Sikh temple shooter and the FRC shooter are not running for political office; Akin is. (Trust me, if Akin had a history of shooting up people he disagrees with, we’d be discussing him even more.) People want to know who to vote for, so media outlets cover candidates in detail.

3. Stories like Akin and Chick-Fil-A often contain much more nuance and relevant backstory than stories about mass shootings. When a mass shooting occurs, there are usually only three types of stories that you’ll see. There will be stories about what happened, what might have led the shooter to do what he did (usually membership in certain groups, mental health problems, etc.), and how to prevent future shootings (usually better mental healthcare and/or gun control). There may also be some stories about the victims of the shooting and how they’re coping.

With stories like Todd Akin, however, there’s just so much interesting and important material to dredge up. There were stories about the medieval origins of Akin’s beliefs, ways in which other politicians fail at science, reactions from other Republicans, about Akin’s “apology,” what happens if Akin drops outidiots who defended him (pretty sure nobody defended the FRC shooter, by the way), other relevant crap that Akin has done, reactions from doctors, and, of course, what “legitimate rape” actually is (watch that video, it’s funny).

See? Lots to talk about.

In general, I consider the “but why aren’t we talking about this instead” response to be a bit dishonest. People are talking about the other thing, first of all. And second, no, we will not brush these “gaffes” under the rug. Political gaffes are generally those rare moments when a politician says what he/she really thinks, and as such, they’re extremely important.

Rape and Activism Are Not Mutually Exclusive: The Case Against Assange

It’s disturbing that the debate about Julian Assange and the rape charges against him has taken on such a black-and-white quality.

Either Assange did a terrible thing with WikiLeaks and ought to be tried for treason and is a vile rapist to boot, or WikiLeaks was an important and necessary project and Assange was right to publish the information and all those women accusing him of rape are lying bitches just doing it for attention/money.

Could it be that WikiLeaks is an important contribution to activism, but that Assange is also guilty of sexual assault?

I would say so.

According to the allegations against him, Assange had condomless sex with a woman after she insisted he use a condom, and he also had sex with her while she was asleep. The former is illegal under Swedish law*, and the latter is just obviously not consensual. You can’t consent if you’re asleep.

A British MP, however, disagrees:

Woman A met Julian Assange, invited him back to her flat, gave him dinner, went to bed with him, had consensual sex with him, claims that she woke up to him having sex with her again. This is something which can happen, you know. I mean, not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.

First of all, congratulations to MP George Galloway for devising the most awkward and unsexy way to refer to penis-in-vagina intercourse.

Second, what he said is technically true. Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each “insertion.” But if they don’t need to be asked, that is something they must indicate to their partner in order for sex to be consensual. If someone says, “Hey, you can have sex with me while I’m asleep” (assuming they say it while sober and of their own free will), then they’ve consented to sex while they’re asleep. If they say, “Next time we have sex, I would like you to take control and do what you want without asking for my consent,” then they have consented to “nonconsensual” sex (although setting a safeword is a good idea). But if they haven’t said anything like that, then yes, you need to ask.

Sleep notwithstanding, consent is still a process (something that even Naomi Wolf, who describes herself as a feminist, does not understand). Even if you’ve had sex with someone five hundred times, you still need their consent before you have sex with them again. Even if they’ve had sex with half of New York City, you still need their consent before you have sex with them. Even if they’re your spouse, you still need their consent before you have sex with them. If you don’t obtain their consent and have sex with them anyway, you are raping them. Even if they choose not to accuse you of rape, you’re still raping them. This is not a difficult concept.

Even those who understand that this is rape may doubt that Assange actually did it. Perhaps people think that he’s too committed to his cause to be the sort of guy who rapes people. However, it’s pretty naive to assume that passionate activists who truly care about making the world a better place cannot also be abusive in their personal lives. (If that were the case, this important book would not have needed to be written.) People are complex and full of contradictions, and they can compartmentalize their lives in surprising ways. For example, last week’s shooting at the Family Research Council headquarters was carried out by someone who volunteered for LGBT causes. There is no group of human beings–activists, liberals, LGBT people, atheists, socialists, what have you–that does not contain immoral, abusive individuals.

Also, it really says something about our society when people are more willing to believe that a government (or several governments) tracked down a man’s sexual partners and paid them to lie that he raped them, than that a powerful man may also be a rapist. Can we just take a moment to acknowledge how ridiculous and conspiratorial that is?

And despite the constant hand-wringing over the supposed prevalence of false rape accusations, this, too, seems outlandish given the reality. What could possibly motivate a woman to put herself through the process of pressing charges (which is traumatic enough to have been termed the “second rape“), have her character and personal history eviscerated in the media, face retribution from the person she accused, and have her name associated with the scandal for the rest of her life?

While “tons of money” could be the answer, that explanation nonetheless fails Occam’s razor. Given how common sexual assault is, it seems much more likely that Assange really raped those women than that somebody offered them thousands of dollars to frame him.

It’s possible, though, that the charges against Assange are false–and I don’t think we should assume that he’s guilty until he’s been indicted. But the assumption that he’s innocent just because his innocence would serve our political goals is dangerous.

Laurie Penny writes brilliantly in the Independent:

Let’s be clear here: nobody should have to stifle one set of principles in order to allow another to live. If you choose to do so, that’s a matter for your conscience. For myself, I believe in freedom of speech, and in the power of journalism– it’s what I do for a living. I believe that governments need to be made to answer for pursuing profit in the name of peace and massacring thousands in the name of security. I believe in ending the age of secrecy, and I believe that the United States currently seeks to prevent that by pursuing and prosecuting hackers, whistleblowers and journalists across the world. And I also believe women.

I believe women when they say that their sexual consent is infringed, violently and by coercion, by men they trust and admire, as well as by strangers. I believe that rape and sexual violence are wilfully ignored and misunderstood by governments, except when they happen to be accusing radical transparency campaigners of assault. I believe that it is possible to believe women and to support WikiLeaks at the same time without moral hypocrisy, and I believe that those across the left who seem to have a problem with holding those two simple ideas in their heads at the same time need to ask themselves what accountability actually means.

Read the whole piece. It’s worth it.

And make no mistake–if Assange did what he is being accused of, that’s not just “something which can happen.” It’s not, as Galloway also put it, “bad sexual etiquette.” That’s sexual assault.

Or, you know, “legitimate rape.

*On having sex without a condom against your partner’s wishes: as I mentioned, this is illegal in Sweden, but I don’t know how it works in U.S. law (anybody know?). Legal issues notwithstanding, it can be terrifying and traumatic–not to mention dangerous to your health–if a partner refuses to use a barrier and goes ahead with sex even though you’ve made barrier use a precondition for sex. I’ve known people that this happened to, and they felt violated just as any other victim of sexual assault might. It’s not something to take lightly.