Monthly Archives: March 2010

Life and Debt

The United States has finally joined the ranks of other advanced nations by establishing something close to a universal health care system for its people.  The legislation clearly leaves a lot to be desired, but history suggests that such entitlement programs (think Medicare) are almost always massively popular once they are passed.  Hopefully the current legislation will prove to be the foundation for a true public system of health care provision in the future.

What was perhaps most interesting in the interminable fight over the health care bill was the opposition.  Not a single Republican voted in favor of the legislation.  The party mobilized against reform, branding it a form of state totalitarianism, as if the Cold War never ended and red-baiting tactics have just as much appeal as they did in 1965 when LBJ rammed Medicare through Congress.

The other main element of rhetorical opposition hinged on flagrant race-baiting, a tactic that is unfortunately less obviously and clamorously outdated.  An article in Investors’ Business Daily compared health care reform legislation to affirmative action, saying that the bill is “affirmative action on steroids, deciding everything from who becomes a doctor to who gets treatment on the basis of skin color.”  In addition, the article argues that the bill is a backhanded way of pushing the project of reparations for slavery since it will, according to their crazy logic, effect a massive transfer of wealth from white to black populations in the U.S.

These extreme positions should by all rights condemn the Republican party to utter political irrelevance, the overheated mouthpiece of an increasingly small segment of fundamentalist Christian white power zealots.  Their cynical fear-mongering should consign them to the slagheap of history.  Enough to think about the fact that over 44,000 people die each year because they lack adequate health insurance (see the Names of the Dead website, which attempts to put personal stories to some of these horrifying statistics).

But Republicans are counting on a revolt against big government akin to the one that turned Bill Clinton into a lame duck in the mid-1990s.  The knives are being sharpened for November.  There are already ominous rumblings in the air on a number of different spatial scales in this regard.

The International Monetary Fund recently released a report intoning the mantra of fiscal discipline and austerity for the world’s most wealthy nations.  For the first time in history, the U.S. has the threat of structural adjustment from without (rather than, in the form of Reaganomics, from within) hanging over its head.

In addition, New Jersey’s newly elected governor is pushing through a raft of draconian budget cuts to deal with a looming budget deficit while refusing to raise taxes on the rich.  A recent article in the New York Times suggested that these reactionary policies are actually popular not just with the rich but also with traditional Democratic sectors of the state’s population, who feel taxed to death.  The ghost of California’s property tax rebellion (which led to the infamous Proposition 13) looms large.  The present parlous state of California should be a cautionary tale for the rest of the nation, New Jersey included.  Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true.

The battle, it seems, remains largely the same: to expand social justice for the majority of the population while forestalling anti-tax, anti-state rebellions.  Something’s got to give, and if it’s not the bloated U.S. military-industrial complex, it’s likely to be programs that benefit the most vulnerable segments of society.  We can, in other words, expect further rounds of race-baiting and fiscal belt-tightening in sectors such as social provision (including education, of course).

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Mercy Mercy Me

A quick post about the Nature, Ecology, and Society Colloquium that I attended a while back at the CUNY Grad Center.  I was on a panel with my colleague at Queens Melissa Checker and Beryl Thurman, Executive Director of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island.  My (horrendously bleak) paper is available on the talks section of this site.  Melissa and Beryl both gave excellent talks which I want to discuss briefly here.

Melissa’s talk focused on the urban environmentalism as a form of gentrification.  She looked in detail at community opposition to a greening project in Harlem.  Why, she asked, would people object to projects such as pedestrianization and tree planting?  This question is particularly pertinent in light of the long history of struggles against air pollution in poor communities in NYC such as Harlem and the Bronx.  In answering this question, Melissa suggested that these greening projects often ride roughshod over community priorities such as parking space for church attendance on weekends.  More important, however, is that fact that they often are driven by relatively affluent newcomers to the neighborhood who take a very condescending attitude towards long-time community residents.  Green project can play a pivotal role in driving up property values, which in turn helps to push out many who cannot afford the sky-rocketing rents and taxes associated with gentrification.  Melissa’s discussion suggests that one cannot assume a priori that urban greening efforts such as plaNYC are of benefit to all the city’s residents.

Beryl’s presentation was a bracing call for attention to the embattled shore front communities of working class areas in the city.  Living in Staten Island’s North Shore, which has the distinction of having some of the highest levels of air pollution in the nation, Beryl explained that multiple sources of contamination face poor communities in many parts of NYC.  Among the many form of contamination are tons of uranium ore dumped by the Manhattan Project!  In addition, on the North Shore, storm surges lead businesses that are located on the edge of the NYC harbor to pump out effluent onto the island itself.  It then drains down into the predominantly black and Latino communities who live in the area.  Beryl warned that poor communities in NYC are nearly as vulnerable to significant storm damage as those of New Orleans.  All it takes is a big storm – which is of course far more likely to arrive as weather patterns get more extreme in coming years and decades.

A powerful reminder of our intense (and uneven) vulnerability.

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The Left Hand of the State

In “Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market,” the late great sociologist Pierre Bourdieu discusses the social suffering experienced by teachers, social workers, and other members of what he calls the left hand of the state: the “agents of the so-called spending ministries which are the trace, within the state, of the social struggles of the past.”  The left hand of the state is opposed to the technocrats of the Ministry of Finance, the public and private banks.  Today, the powerful right hand of the state no longer seems bent on amputating the left hand.

This battle between the two wings of the state was particularly apparent this week.  In Rhode Island, state officials fired the entire teaching staff of a school that had been judged to be failing.  The right hand brings the ax down on the left.  This is part of the “accountability” agenda advanced by the Republicans since “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB).  Particularly disturbing, however, is the fact that this decision was publicly supported by President Obama and the Democrats.  In fact, the action was partially a product of his administration’s wholesale embrace of NCLB.  The school in question was to be reconfigured under the guidelines of an Obama administration School Improvement Grant, which mandated that poorly performing schools should be transformed by a) extending instructional hours; b) converting them to charter schools; c) closing them entirely; or d) replacing the principal and half of the staff.  The local school board had been pursuing the first option, but when the teachers’ union demanded higher wages for increased instruction time, the board broke off negotiations and shut down the school.  NCLB=No Teacher Left Employed.

There has been some resistance to this punitive agenda of late.  On Thursday, a national day of action in defense of public education saw demonstrations take place across the country.  Here’s a map of actions.  My union, the Professional Staff Congress, took part.  I was tied up with a job search, unfortunately, and so don’t have any pix.  But the PSC recently produced a great brochure that makes some strong arguments against proposed cuts to higher education in NY.  And here’s an interesting video meditation by UC Berkeley activists on the student movement:

I’ll give Bourdieu the last word: “Now that the great utopias of the 19th century have revealed all their perversion, it is urgent to create the conditions for a collective effort to reconstruct a universe of realist ideals, capable of mobilizing people’s will without mystifying their consciousness.”

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