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In Brooklyn, New York, you need a street tag to have credibility. Local kids call me Reeces Pieces because I rap better than Emenem. – Alan Singer

In this post I try to connect a number of recent events, Katrina, Japan, Wisconsin, NPR, Teachers, Unions, and the Tea Party Express,  where I see the connection but you might not. Try to bear with me. As always, I welcome responses.

I just returned from New Orleans where I spoke at a conference on Race, Gender and Class sponsored by Southern University at New Orleans. While at the conference I rented a bicycle and spent a day traveling around what remains of the Lower Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit when the levees on the Industrial Canal broke during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A new concrete barrier along the canal rises what seems like about twenty feet above the entire area. I estimate that about 20% of the housing units in and around the Lower Ninth ward still need to be demolished. Other homes might have been in bad shape inside but did have a fresh coat of paint. Doors and exterior walls still showed markings from rescue teams. There are also large areas that are vacant land. There is new housing construction, much sponsored by a foundation affiliated with Brad Pitt. The new homes looked like low-density truck and train containers on stilts. There were high-tech solar panels on many of the roofs.

By bike, New Orleans looked like two separate cities. There is the tourist city with historic buildings, beautiful gardens already flowering, street tours, theme bars and restaurants, museums, and quant shops. This city is largely White.

But there is also the other New Orleans, Katrina New Orleans, which is largely poor, Black, and still devastated. Hurricane Katrina was the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. But it was also a human made disaster caused by faulty infrastructure and delays in responding to people in need. The rapid official response in Japan to a much wider disaster caused by the earthquake and tsunami stands in sharp contrast.

Eighty-five percent of New Orleans was flooded after levees collapsed and at least 1,300 people died in Louisiana and Mississippi. As a result of Katrina, between 2000 and 2010, the population of New Orleans declined by 140,845 residents, or a drop of almost thirty percent. The poorer Black population fell most sharply. Many of the city’s poorer residents have stayed away because fewer than a quarter of the city’s public housing units that were destroyed by the storm and later demolished have been rebuilt.

The public school system in New Orleans has largely been dismantled. People with money send their children to private or religious schools. Other people’s children attend publicly funded, private operated, remediation academies. The overall population of New Orleans is about 63% minority, while public school students are nearly 95% African American. Before Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board operated 127 schools that enrolled over 65,000 students. Today, almost 60% of the districts public school students attend charter schools, more than in any other urban school district in the country. Despite these changes, the majority of the students continue to perform poorly on all academic measures. The abandonment of public housing and schools and the exodus of the poor and Black from inner cities may well become the model for the rest of American cities as they face increasingly devastating budget crises. If the economic collapse was America’s earthquake, state and local government bankruptcy and budget cuts will be the tsunami.

Not surprisingly, one of the topics discussed at the conference was the Tea Party Express and its influence on American politics, especially as candidates emerge for the 2012 Republican Party’s presidential nomination. The different responses to natural disasters in Japan and the United States underscore a major problem with the Tea Party’s vision for America. Their ideology, in its more formal form, is often called neo-liberalism, although I am sure its members reject any association with the word “liberal”. Neo-liberal economists and philosophers want to minimize the role of government in the economy and society and believe people should basically fend for themselves in an unregulated economic market place.

The Tea Party movement is premised on the idea that Americans see themselves primarily as taxpayers who are forced to finance government extravagance, particularly highly paid unionized government workers, which is a major reason for the attacks on unions and teachers in Wisconsin and other states. They take their name from the Boston Tea Party that they mistakenly identify as a taxpayers’ revolt.

The real Boston Tea Party during the winter of 1773-1774 was actually very different. It was a citizens’ revolt demanding the full rights and responsibilities of Englishmen. When colonists said “No Taxation Without Representation,” they were not saying they should not pay taxes. They were insisting that as citizens they should have a say in governing themselves. The distinction between defining yourselves as taxpayers or as citizens is fundamental. Taxpayers claim to be individuals who accept no social responsibility and demand the most limited government. Citizens see themselves as part of a collective body politic with shared obligations and the ability to participate in defining social policy and justice.

The response to Katrina was a taxpayers’ response. What are the costs and benefits of investing in recovery and reconstruction? Who should bear the costs? Who should receive the benefits and profits, if any accrue?

The response in Japan has been a citizens’ response. The entire society has been mobilized to care for victims, to limit damage, and to ensure safety. The entire society will also be mobilized to rebuild. The collective good, not the cost of recovery, appears to be the primary concern.

Unfortunately, today, to criticize or even analyze the Tea Party Express, has made commentators the subject of attack as bias. A PBS fund-raiser was recently fired because he made off-the-cuff remarks that many in the Tea Party are motivated by racism, which probably is a true statement. PBS is under such a rightwing assault for its supposed liberalism that the head of the not-for-profit company was also forced to resign.

Right wing populist groups such as the Tea Party Express and attacks on phantom enemies are not a new phenomenon in the United States. Populism in the 1890s had both radical and reactionary elements. It coupled a demand for political reform with anti-intellectual currents. William J. Bryan, who emerged as a leader of the movement and three times was a Democratic Party Presidential candidate, could champion the poor and disposed, oppose imperialist war, and launch a crusade against teaching about evolution. During this period, farmers, small businessmen, and workers were caught up in a vise of impersonal market forces that lead to the disintegration of rural society and urban growth. The shock of change gave rise to both progressive and reactionary movements.

In 1920, Warren G. Harding, who coined the term “founding fathers,” ran for President using the slogan “return to normalcy.” What the term suggested was a return to a utopian version of pre-World War I conditions in the United States, a small town Protestant world where women could not vote, there were no Eastern and Southern European immigrants, and there were fewer cities and factories. Of course it was not possible to turn back the clock to a world that never really existed, but Harding’s supporters did succeed in imposing prohibition, breaking the labor movement, arresting political radicals, and severely limiting immigration. The 1920s witnessed a resurgent, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jewish Ku Klux Klan fueled by the status slippage of “traditional” Americans. Participants in these populist movements were displaced by the rise of industrial capitalism that led to new work and workers, shifts in population and power, great concentrations of wealth, and new groups that defined themselves as Americans.

In the past, when the governing elite or the right lacked a genuine ideological or political threat that they can use to stir up patriotism and mass support, they simply invented one, as they did in the early national period anti-sedition campaigns, during the 1890s anti-labor union attacks and the Red Scare at the end of World War I, under McCarthyism during the Cold War, and with the charges that Obama is a socialist. They neither needed an actual opponent or evidence. As Ambrose Bierce so tellingly described it in his Devil’s Dictionary, “Patriotism is as fierce as a fever, pitiless as the grave, blind as a stone, and irrational as a headless hen.” If the contemporary Tea Party Express did not have the unions, teachers, and PBS to kick around, they would have invented them.

Teachers’ unions, in Wisconsin and New York City, have caught the venom of much of the Tea Party neo-liberal assault, partly because there are very few viable private sector unions and working people, especially younger ones, have little sense of the importance of a labor movement. The unions share responsibility for this because they have not gotten their message across very well either to their members or the general public. In recent conversations I have had with newer teachers, they had little sense of how the union helped establish teaching as a profession and what conditions will be like if the union weakens.

Many young teachers, as well as the general public, do not understand the origin of the great disparity in pay between beginning teachers, in New York City the starting salary is $45,000 a year, and long term veterans who might earn over $100,000 a year. The Bloomberg Administration has been using this disparity in its campaign to lay-off veteran teachers in the next round of budget cuts and keep supposedly “excellent” cheaper new teachers.

Of course the teachers’ unions did not create this unfair pay scale, although they did acquiesce. When I started teaching in 1971 in New York City there were eight steps to maximum salary. Today New York City has an additional five longevity steps, the last after 22 years of service, before reaching maximum pay. During the 1970s and 1980s, instead of granting raises in a period of double-digit inflation, the city added the longevity steps and promised teachers that if they accepted salary freezes and minimum increases in the present they would be paid in the future. Now Bloomberg and the city want to get rid of veteran teachers so they do not have to make good on what was promised in the past.

Newer teachers, and workers in other industries, need to realize that once seniority protection is removed everyone becomes vulnerable once they have a little experience and command a higher salary. Instead of removing union protection from teachers and other civil service workers, it needs to be extended to all workers in the private and public sectors.

Hopefully the fight for 100% unionization will also be the fight that transforms the United States from a nation of taxpayers to a nation of citizens.


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