[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.

Continue reading “[Guest Post] The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education”

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

[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.

[In Brief] Romney's Abortion Flip-flop

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.

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

A Texas Republican (Who Else?) Thinks Schools Need Mandatory Bible Reading

Hey, you know what will help teens avoid pregnancy? Comprehensive sex education, right?

Nah.

Here’s Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican in the Texas state house:

What I think is that that’s unconstitutional. Apparently many other readers of Rep. Riddle’s Facebook page thought so too, and told her in no uncertain terms, because she followed up with this:

OK, enough already. My friend Mary – a teacher – not as conservative as I am – has mentioned how many of her students have no foundation of faith and are having babies at 15 – plus so many more problems. She has stated that with no foundation of faith these kids are a drift [sic]. Knowing how sensative [sic] folks are about prayer and ect. [sic] I thought a simple reading of Proverbs – a book of wisdom – would be helpful. I certainly did not intend to offend – I was just throwing out an idea.

She then waxes Jeremiac (I made that word up) about “the level of disrespect in today’s world” (as opposed to yesterday’s world, when rather than posting a mean comment on someone’s Facebook, you challenged them to a duel and possibly killed them) and the importance of “open discussion” (except, apparently, when people disagree with you).

Several things.

1. Apparently you don’t have to understand basic grammar, spelling, and writing style in order to be elected to public office. Seriously, I know this is a nitpicky point compared to the rest of what I’m about to cover, but most of us learned to spell “sensitive” in elementary school.

And to think that Riddle wants to take time out of every school day to read Proverbs. Clearly, there are more pressing problems with Texas education.

2. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Republicans seem to only focus on the second part of that inconvenient part of the First Amendment: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But that first part is pretty damn important. Our Supreme Court has determined that forcing children to observe religion in public schools violates the establishment clause. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), school-mandated prayer was struck down; in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), school-mandated Bible reading was struck down as well.

So, although Riddle has now had nearly 40 years to get used to the latter ruling, she apparently has failed to do so. And no, school prayer was not “tossed” because it’s not “politically correct,” but because it violates our Constitution. There’s a difference.

3. Jesus does not prevent teen pregnancy. Comprehensive sex ed does. It also does a lot of other cool stuff, like help prevent STI transmission and sexual assault, but that’s besides the point.

Here’s another interesting thing. According to Gallup, the most religious state in the U.S. is Mississippi. According to the CDC, the state with the highest teenage birthrate is…Mississippi.

Awkward.

Even supposing that this is a fluke, it’s a well-known fact that other states with high levels of religiosity tend to have high rates of teenage pregnancy and birth, as well. Of course, this is all correlation and not causation–except for the fact that religious states tend to have abstinence-only sex ed, which does not work.

Now, Rep. Riddle’s friend Mary, who is of course a credible source because she is “not as  conservative” than Riddle (and because this isn’t anecdotal at all) claims that it’s specifically the godless heathens who are getting themselves pregnant. Leaving aside the question of how Mary manages to divine the religious beliefs and observance level of her students–and avoid confirmation bias–the information I have just presented about teenage birthrates in religious states seems to refute her point. Why would nonreligious teens only get pregnant en masse in religious states, but not in nonreligious states? And if they do, what does that say about the environment these states create?

4. The United States was not “built on Christian and Jewish values.” While most of the Founding Fathers identified at least nominally with Christianity, that does not mean that they based the entire nation upon it. Many of them were either deists or anti-clerical Christians, so it’s hard to imagine them supporting state-mandated religious observance. Historian Gregg L. Frazer, meanwhile, argues that the Founding Fathers subscribed to a belief system he calls “theistic rationalism,” which combines religion with reason (a feature mostly lacking in Christian fundamentalism).

Interestingly enough, despite our nation’s supposed “Christian foundation,” the Constitution contains not one mention of the words “God” or “Christianity.” The only time it uses the word “religion” is in the First Amendment, which provides for freedom of–and from–it.

On a side note, can we stop lumping Judaism in with Christianity? These two religions are really quite different. And to suggest that anyone had the Jews in mind when establishing the United States is simply laughable, given how long it took for institutionalized antisemitism to find its way out of our country.

5. Proverbs is hardly the harmless book of “wisdom” Riddle thinks it is. Here are some quotations:

  • “Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.” (Proverbs 20:30)
  • “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” (Proverbs 23:13-14)
  • “Give beer to those who are perishing and wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” (Proverbs 31:6-7)

The first two certainly make sense given the Texas GOP platform‘s ringing endorsement of corporal punishment. As for the latter, I was under the impression that religious Republicans think that people who drink alcohol when they’re under 21 are sinners too.

Overall, an admittedly cursory reading of Proverbs reveals it to be mostly gibberish. I can think of many better things to require schoolchildren to read if you want to teach them about wisdom and morality. I’m personally a huge fan of Nietzsche. But you’re free to disagree.

Also, the idea of Nietzsche ever being taught in a Texas public school is sadly unlikely.

A Texas Republican (Who Else?) Thinks Schools Need Mandatory Bible Reading

[Guest Post] Rebuild America! Become a Narc!

Sometimes it’s very helpful to have friends who know things you don’t. That’s why I gladly accepted my friend Brian’s offer to write a rant about drug policy–namely, about no knock raids.

Just over a year ago was the 40 year anniversary of America’s great unsung job program. Like that great majestic albatross known as Medicare, it has led to the provision of medical care to tens of thousands that might not have otherwise bought, or even afforded health insurance. And well before any 90’s Heritage Foundation wonks even mouthed the words “individual mandate.”

It’s produced new jobs both in the private sector through privatized prisons and drug screening; it’s strengthened government employee unions in ways that it would take 20 Scott Walkers to undo, and it has spurred huge innovations that econometricians have trouble measuring even today, in the era of Big Data.

But you don’t realize it, because you don’t give Richard Nixon enough credit. It’s okay though. I’m here to show you the enduring impact of that oft pilloried Chief Executive. After all, it was Tricky Dick himself who uttered that famous phrase, “We’re all Keynesians now.” The relevant concept here is the multiplier effect, which you could probably read all about from Paul Krugman or some other reasonable economist. (Feel free to open up some tabs of his NYT columns now).

I can almost hear some of you out in the intarweb groaning, “But Brian, what about the broken window fallacy?!” To which I say, can it really still be a fallacy if it’s way, way more complex than broken windows?

So, what’s this wondrous dynamo of employment, healthcare, and innovation?

THE WAR ON DRUGS!

Let us look at an everyday occurrence in this venerable effort to a Drug Free World: the no knock raid.

So what did you see there? If all you saw was dead dogs, traumatized families, and perforated persons, you really to think about it in a wider context. First, there were all those tough, dutiful SWAT teams. All that elite training cost money. And have you ever seen a team tumble out of an ordinary police cruiser? Nope. Special trucks for them too. Are they hydrids? Probably not, yet. And don’t forget about all that distinctive armor. Have you seen the prices for that gear? Now do you see the job creation? Maybe not, as we haven’t even seen all this hardware in action yet!

As much as some of you dear readers on this blog may be skeptical of gun rights, you cannot deny that gun manufacturing is a proud (and exporting) American industry when it is working towards arming the folks in blue. And if that video was any indicator, no raid would be complete without discharging those guns a few times in the quest to wipe heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, LSD, and sundry other illicit substances from the nose, eyes, mouth, and elbows and other administrable points of our great nation.

But to the real action: those tense seconds and minutes that make for gripping COPS footage. First there’s the entry. Damaging those doors and locks in the course of making a dramatic appearance means more money to hardware stores to furnish repairs.

And who comes running to the door? If the Humane Society of the United States is to be believed, 39% of American households have a dog. And if we presume that “raided by SWAT teams” and “owns a dog” are independent events, then up to about 2 in 5 raids could involve a dog reaching the police first. So there’s cremation and doggy life insurance in play.

Since there’s always the possibility of someone transitioning from living to deceased in the course of the SWAT team’s kinetic action, human life insurance and final medical expenses also crop up, as well as funeral services. And what goes on at a funeral? Somber dress clothes, so dry cleaning. Bouquets to be laid on casks and gravestones, thus payments to florists are rendered. The family and friends of the deceased would also have to pay for the burial. And what goes on at funerals? Crying. Which means lots of tissues. And how does one get to a funeral? If going to a college across the street from a Catholic cemetery has taught me anything, you get to a funeral in a procession. So there’s more gasoline purchased right there.

But what if the family and friends of the recently living, partial witness of the raid are upset about what transpired in the servicing of a drug warrant? They might file a lawsuit against the police, which means more money to America’s legion law firms, stimulating the economy one 6 minute interval at a time.

Now I’m sure some of you are saying “What if I don’t have a dog?” “What if the police don’t discharge their firearms in the direction of me or my family?” “What if it all goes peaceably and according to the plans of those Top. Men. and Women?” “What if no arrests are even made?”

Stay tuned, for next week is part 2, when we’ll stretch our scope both before and long after the raid is completed.

Brian Kuczynski is a developing economics junkie who tries to teach too much through the medium of chess. When he isn’t devouring comics and Stephenson, he’s intravenously dependent on Reason.com.

[Guest Post] Rebuild America! Become a Narc!

Chikin With a Side of Homophobia: Why You Should Boycott Chick-Fil-A

The president of Chick-Fil-A, Dan Cathy, recently confirmed what most of us have known for a while–the company is virulently homophobic.

I mean, he didn’t come right out and say, “We’re a homophobic company.” But he did say, “Well, guilty as charged” when asked about Chick-Fil-A’s position on LGBT rights. He went on:

“We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that…we know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

There are several interesting things about this statement. First of all, Cathy claims to support “the biblical definition of the family unit.” The Religious Right seems to believe that the Bible defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But in fact, as this graphic humorously points out, there are various other configurations that the Bible deems acceptable, such as men having multiple wives or keeping concubines in addition to their wives. In addition, rape victims and female prisoners of war can be required to marry their rapists/captors, and a childless widow is required to marry her late husband’s brother.

So if we’re going to support “the biblical definition of the family unit” in this country, why aren’t we going all-out?

Second, Cathy proclaims that “we are married to our first wives.” Does the company discriminate against divorcees in hiring decisions? What would happen to an employee who decides to get a divorce? Is Cathy aware that divorce is a legal, accepted facet of American culture? On that last question, apparently not.

Third, Cathy seems to at least recognize that his position will draw a lot of ire when he says that “it might not be popular with everyone.” But I despise the use of the word “popular” in this context. Denying rights to people on the basis of their sexual orientation–which is what the organizations to which Chick-Fil-A donates promote, as I’ll discuss later–isn’t merely “unpopular.” It’s, you know, discriminatory. Unpopular is tie-dye and ponchos. Unpopular is crappy 70s music. When people like Cathy claim that they’re doing something “unpopular,” they make it sound like they’re bravely going against the grain, flaunting their nonconformity, in order to…deny rights to people on the basis of their sexual orientation. Edgy.

Finally, it is interesting to note that, up until now, Chick-Fil-A has denied its anti-gay position. As I’m about to show, these were just blatant lies, which ought to make you even angrier. If you’re going to be a homophobe, at the very least own it. And then, you know, change.

Now, as for Chick-Fil-A’s actual anti-gay advocacy, the facts are quite condemning. In 2009, WinShape, the charitable arm of the company, donated nearly $2 million to anti-gay groups like Marriage & Family Legal Fund (started by Chick-Fil-A senior VP Donald Cathy), Focus on the Family, and Eagle Forum.

In case you need any convincing that these are really terrible organizations, I will provide some evidence. The founder of Focus on the Family, James Dobson, supported the Federal Marriage Amendment, which, had it passed, would have made same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Besides its stance against LGBT rights, Focus on the Family also supports school prayer, corporal punishment, and creationism, and opposes abortion (duh). It also donates to the campaigns of anti-gay politicians, and it started a ministry called Love Won Out, which supports scientifically-discredited gay conversion therapy, and sold it to Exodus International, another one of Chick-Fil-A’s charity recipients.

Eagle Forum is a conservative interest group founded by noted anti-feminist and professional asshole Phyllis Schafly. Eagle Forum does way too much terrible creepy stuff for me to list here, but you can read all about it on the wiki page. Its (and Schafly’s) main claim to fame, though, is that they led the effort to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. Although the ERA is mainly known as a women’s rights amendment, Schafly believed that it would pave the way for legalized same-sex marriage:

“ERA would make all federal and state laws sex neutral. If two men show up and say we want a marriage license and [the person] says ‘you’re both men, I’m not giving it to you,’ that would be discriminatory.”

So, two things are clear: Chick-Fil-A has given a LOT of money to these organizations (probably more in that single year than I will earn in a lifetime), and these organizations do plenty of tangible things that prevent LGBT rights from being fully realized in the United States. And not only gay rights, really–in virulently opposing abortion and supporting corporal punishment, for instance, these organizations also seek to infringe upon the rights of women and children. Actually, given their anti-divorce claptrap, they’ve managed to do the impossible and infringe upon the rights of straight white men, too. They’re equal-opportunity rights infringers!

All of this is why I think that you–yes, you–should never set foot in Chick-Fil-A again.

Now, I’m generally quite skeptical about boycotts. Unless it’s very well-organized and happens on a large scale (see: Montgomery Bus Boycott), it’s unlikely to work. One individual withdrawing their business from a company won’t make it improve its labor practices, stop stocking an offensive product, and so on.

Indeed, if we boycotted every company that does shitty things, we’d probably have to live off the grid. I buy Apple and Coca-Cola products even though I have much to criticize them for, because honestly, refusing to buy them wouldn’t do anything, and you have to pick your battles.

However, with Chick-Fil-A we have a very different situation. This is a company that gives large sums of money–money provided to it by consumers–to organizations that actively work to oppose social justice, full stop. So when you give money to Chick-Fil-A, you can be certain beyond a doubt that some of that money is going to these organizations. Collectively, we as a nation helped Chick-Fil-A send nearly $2 million to these organizations in a single year. If you support equality, you should not be okay with that.

I haven’t eaten at Chick-Fil-A in years. In high school, I wasn’t old enough to care about things like this, and besides–embarrassingly enough–my high school band had a monthly fundraiser night there. As I was raising money for my own band, I was also raising money for wingnut politicians’ campaigns and for harmful conversion therapy.

I don’t miss eating there. The food was pretty good, but the knowledge that not a cent of those two million dollars came from me is better.

P.S. If you need any more incentive to ditch Chick-Fil-A for good, I present you with this:

*Edit* This is just too good not to link to.

Chikin With a Side of Homophobia: Why You Should Boycott Chick-Fil-A

Why Dan Savage Shouldn’t Use Hate Speech Against Gay Republicans

I’ve got a post up at In Our Words today! Here’s a preview.

A few weeks ago, an organization of conservative LGBT folks and their allies called GOProud endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Surprise, surprise: a conservative group endorsing a conservative presidential nominee.

Dan Savage, however, was apparently irritated enough by this to comment on it. He tweeted, “The GOP’s house f*****s grab their ankles, right on cue…” with a link to the story, followed by the word “pathetic.” Except that he didn’t use the asterisks.

One could hardly design a more controversial and, in my view, offensive message. First of all, the phrase “house f*****s” is a blatant allusion to another offensive term, one laden with historical meaning: “house Negros” (or “n*****s”). In the antebellum South, slaves were divided between those who worked in the fields and those who worked in the plantation owner’s house. The house slaves were typically lighter-skinned and received better clothing and food, and the type of work they did was less physically taxing than that of the field slaves.

A century later, Malcolm X characterized the “house Negro” as a slave who is more likely than a “field Negro” to support—at least tacitly—the institution of slavery, because it has afforded him or her an easier life than it did to the field slave. Similarly, he described African Americans who wanted to quietly live and work among whites as “house Negros,” and himself and his fellow activists as “field Negros.”

[…]This is the complex and painful analogy—which I have probably oversimplified here—that Savage has, for some unknown reason, chosen to invoke. To him, LGBT folks who support conservative politicians are like “house Negros” because they are willing to support a power structure that others (rightfully) consider oppressive.

Read the rest!

Why Dan Savage Shouldn’t Use Hate Speech Against Gay Republicans

"F*ck the Bourgeoisie": In Which I Infiltrate a Socialist Gathering

Yesterday some friends took me to the annual conference co-sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change and by the International Socialist Organization. The conference is called, quite simply, Socialism 2012.

Now. I am not in any way, shape, or form a socialist. However, I’ve always been curious why that particular political affiliation carries such a stigma, especially in the United States. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who sympathize with Marx or with other socialist thinkers and keep those sympathies meticulously secret.

In my own life, socialism has been presented to me as Very Very Bad and Very Stupid. I have parents from the former Soviet Union, after all. Whatever value socialism may or may not hold, I will never, ever begrudge them for hating it, because it (however inadvertently) turned so many people’s lives into a living hell all over the world.

(Yes, yes, I know that wasn’t “real” socialism. But it’s pretty hard for people to stay objective when their friends and family are dying, so I’m not going to be the asshole who minimizes their suffering by telling them that.)

That said, I generally prefer to learn and experience things for myself. I don’t buy for a second the argument that one should stay away from these things for fear of being “brainwashed,” which I’ve heard many times before. In fact, I’m actually pretty insulted when people tell me that. I think everyone should know by now that if there’s only one thing I’m good at, it’s thinking for myself.

So, let it be known that I did not come back from this conference a changed woman. I’m not any more a socialist today than I was two days ago.

What I do have is a new appreciation for socialists and for the spaces they create. It must be nice to belong to a collective like socialism. Everyone there seemed to know each other, and I saw people from all walks of life–young people like me, middle-aged respectable-looking people, aging college professors. There were people of all shapes and colors. Tons of queer people. People with various interesting hairstyles. Aside from the issue of their politics, I felt somewhat at home.

I went to a talk on Marxism and queer theory, which, amazingly, I understood most of. While this is nothing all that different from something I might come across in a class at school, there is nonetheless something special about the fact that hundreds of people got together to talk about this on a Friday night. Not for a grade. Not for their resume. Certainly not for social approval, since going to a conference on socialism is pretty far down on the list of things people do to fit in.

The most amazing part of it, to me, was that I had entered the sort of space that I consider sacred–a space in which “serious” discussion is the norm, not the exception. A space in which it’s normal, upon first meeting someone new, to ask them about their views on a particular political issue. A space in which nobody thinks you’re weird if you’re checking out the bookstore and freaking out with your friends about all the great books you’re finding. A space in which politics is something to get emotional about, something to loudly, clearly express your emotions about, whether by cheering, clapping, hissing, booing, shaking your head, snapping your fingers, or putting your fist up in the air.

And I, who have been told ever since childhood to “calm down” and “stop getting so emotional about it” and “go get a life,” felt comfortable among these people with whom I otherwise disagree quite strongly.

That disagreement, which lurked beneath my consciousness for most of the time I was there, surfaced strongly during a break between talks, when people were chanting. Most of the chants were exactly of the sort that you’d expect–one amusing one went like this: “One, two, three! Fuck the bourgeoisie! Four, five, six! Fuck the bourgeoisie!” And so on.

But then there was a chant that repeated the word “Intifada” over and over. I don’t remember exactly how it went because I tend to block these things from memory somewhat. I’m Israeli by birth, and Israel is something I almost never write about for various personal reasons. My stance on the issue is even-keeled and probably in line with that of most American liberals and progressives and so on. That said, I will tell you that it is incredibly alienating and deeply painful to hear a room full of people chanting something that, to you, could mean the deaths of friends and family. I know that’s not what it means to Palestinians. And it’s especially not what it means to white American socialists. But that is what Intifada means to me.

I know where they’re coming from. I’m quite well-versed in the “terrorist as freedom fighter” line of thought. They’re entitled to their opinion as I am to mine. But shouting something like this seems gauche and callous, like chanting “USA! USA!” when America invades another country, or like gathering to watch a public execution as entertainment. I’m choosing to believe, though, that these people are well-intentioned and believe that what they are chanting about is some convoluted form of peace.

This is not a political statement. This is not a statement about equivalency, who’s right and who’s wrong, whose land it is, who committed more war crimes and human rights violations, etc. This is a statement that is entirely moral: I believe it’s wrong to glorify killing innocent people, no matter to what end.

And, just for the record, I’ve been in countless pro-Israel spaces before, including an AIPAC conference, and I’ve never heard an equivalent sort of chant there. I’m sure it happens, but I’ve never seen it. And when it does happen, whatever the setting, I would find it as disgusting and wrong as I found this Intifada chant.

In any case, I was determined not to let that spoil the whole evening. It was a reminder, though, that it’s not only my lack of socialist politics that ultimately makes me unwelcome there. It’s something as incidental as the circumstances of my birth.

It would be nice if, someday, I find a group with this sort of energy and passion that I do actually agree with. But I’ve long given up seeking a spiritual, political, or cultural home anywhere.

For now, it’s enough to occasionally go to things like this–and things like Pride and Occupy Chicago and Friday night Shabbat dinners–and witness other people experiencing that feeling that I want so badly for myself.

"F*ck the Bourgeoisie": In Which I Infiltrate a Socialist Gathering

I Read the Texas Republican Party Platform So You Wouldn't Have To

The Republican Party of Texas recently released its 2012 platform, a 23-page document that I decided to read because there isn’t enough misery in my life, apparently.

This document is stunning even by Republican standards (sorry, Republicans). I will outline some of its most preposterous points here. (Note, however, that the preposterousness is by no means limited to what I’m including in this post.) Section-by-section, here it is. If you need alcohol, I suggest drinking each time they invoke God as the basis of their policies.

“Preserving American Freedom”

  • “We strongly support the immediate repeal of the Endangered Species Act. We strongly oppose the listing of the dune sage brush lizard either as a threatened or an endangered species. We believe the Environmental Protection Agency should be abolished.” I don’t know about the status of the dune sage brush lizard in particular, but I do know that a world without the EPA would be a pretty terrible world. I mean, unless you want polluted air and water, uncontrolled pesticide sales, etc.
  • “We oppose this act [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] through which the federal government would coerce religious business owners and employees to violate their own beliefs and principles by affirming what they consider to be sinful and sexually immoral behavior.” What a drastically stupid misunderstanding of ENDA. Nobody’s asking anybody to “affirm” anything. They’re simply asking employers to stay out of their employees’ bedrooms.
  • “We urge Congress to adopt the Constitutional Restoration Act and support the principle of judicial restraint, which requires judges to interpret and apply rather than make the law. We support judges who strictly interpret the law based on its original intent.” I am reminded of a particularly humorous New Yorker cover. I can easily see why these reactionaries take such an issue with judicial activism, as that’s what brought us reproductive rights, desegregated schools, and other such horrid things.
  • “We urge that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 codified and updated in 1973 be repealed and not reauthorized.” Let me rewrite this part of your platform for you: “We support the disenfranchisement of African Americans and the poor while pretending that that’s not what we’re really doing.”
  • “Any form of desecration of the American Flag is an act of disregard for our nation and its people and penalties should be established for such.” Wait, what was the title of this section again? “Preserving American Freedom”? That First Amendment is just so inconvenient sometimes.

“Strengthening Families, Protecting Life and Promoting Health”

  • “We support the definition of marriage as a God-ordained, legal and moral commitment only between a natural man and a natural woman, which is the foundational unit of a healthy society, and we oppose the assault on marriage by judicial activists.” What is a “natural man”? What is a “natural woman”? Do tell.
  • “We urge the Legislature to rescind no-fault divorce laws. We support Covenant Marriage.” This means that people will not be able to get divorced without having to prove that at least one person has done something drastically wrong, such as commit adultery or abuse. However, the other person could plead a recrimination defense (“but so did you”). Even if both people have abused or cheated on each other, this means that a divorce may not be granted.
  • “We support the affirmation of traditional Judeo-Christian family values and oppose the continued assault on those values.” I got nothin’.
  • “We affirm that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society and contributes to the breakdown of the family unit. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God….” Thou doth protest too much.
  • “All innocent human life must be respected and safeguarded from fertilization to natural death; therefore, the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”From fertilization. This means that an egg which has just united with a sperm is a Human Being and that all abortions would be illegal, in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. And, because emergency contraception such as Plan B can work after fertilization has taken place, this, too, would be banned.
  • Aaaand who called it. “We oppose sale and use of the dangerous ‘Morning After Pill.’” It is not dangerous. Who just makes statements like these without backing them up with evidence? (Texas Republicans, obviously.)
  • “We strongly support a Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” I LOL’ed.
  • “We unequivocally oppose the United States Senate’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.” That’s correct, parents have rights but children do not. Among other things, then, the Texas GOP opposes the protection of children from abuse and exploitation, their right to have a relationship with both parents even if the parents have separated, and their right to be free from corporal punishment.
  • “We support eliminating bureaucratic prohibitions on corporal discipline and home schooling in foster homes.” On other words, we support child abuse.
  • “Health care decisions should be between a patient and health care professional and should be protected from government intrusion.” I include this only because of the irony, as the platform unilaterally supports government intrusion into healthcare decisions whenever they involve a woman’s reproductive parts.
  • “All adult citizens should have the legal right to conscientiously choose which vaccines are administered to themselves or their minor children without penalty for refusing a vaccine.” Thereby destroying herd immunity and bringing back lethal, crippling diseases. Makes sense.

“Educating Our Children”

  • “We believe the current teaching of a multicultural curriculum is divisive. We favor strengthening our common American identity and loyalty instead of political correctness that nurtures alienation among racial and ethnic groups.” In other words, we favor imposing our culture onto others because our culture is The Only Correct Culture.
  • “We recommend that local school boards and classroom teachers be given more authority to deal with disciplinary problems. Corporal punishment is effective and legal in Texas.” Corporal punishment is not effective and should not be legal. Dozens of studies conducted by Evil Un-American Scientists suggest this.
  • “We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced.” I suppose that’s better than not teaching them at all, but there is such a thing as scientific consensus. Evolution and man-made global warming, to use the non-euphemistic terms, are not controversial among the people who are educated enough to study them. They are only controversial among the uninformed.
  • “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” Guys, I don’t know how else to say this: they literally oppose thinking. They oppose producing citizens who are capable of critically evaluating information and ideas. They support producing citizens who do what they’re told because God/Pop said so.
  • “We oppose any sex education other than abstinence until marriage.” Congratulations, you support a scientifically discredited form of sex ed.
  • “We support school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded and which form the basis of America’s legal, political and economic systems.” Okay first of all, stop it with this term “Judeo-Christian.” Most Jews do not want our faith roped into this bullshittery. Second, newsflash, not everybody in the United States (or even in Texas) is Jewish or Christian. Deal with it.
  • “Since education is not an enumerated power of the federal government, we believe the Department of Education (DOE) should be abolished.” Oh vey.

“Promoting Individual Freedom and Personal Safety”

  • “We oppose the monitoring of gun ownership, and the taxation and regulation of guns and ammunition.” *barf* *yawn*
  • “We urge immediate repeal of the Hate Crimes Law.” I don’t even know which law this is talking about and I can’t find out, but on the whole, hate crimes are pretty bad.
  • “We support the Boy Scouts of America and reject any attempt to undermine or fundamentally change the ideals of the organization.” Yo why is this in here?
  • “We believe a person who injures or kills an unborn child should be subject to criminal and civil litigation.” So, a woman who has a miscarriage?

“Strengthening the Economy”

  • “We recommend repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, with the goal of abolishing the I.R.S and replacing it with a national sales tax collected by the States.” So how are they going to afford all that intrusion into Americans’ bedrooms? Not to mention the foreign wars? That’s what I want to know.
  • “We support immediate resumption of deep water drilling and production in the Gulf of Mexico.” Because that worked out great last time.
  • “We oppose the abusive use of class action lawsuits.” This would be…what, exactly?
  • “We believe the Minimum Wage Law should be repealed.” This certainly needs no comment.

“Defending Sovereignty At Home and Abroad”

  • “We support the withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations and the removal of U.N. headquarters from U.S. soil.” I’m not a huge fan of the UN for various reasons, but there needs to be some sort of authority that at least attempts to keep the interests of the entire world in mind.
  • “To protect our serviceman and women and ensure that America’s Armed Forces remain the best in the world, we affirm the timelessness of those values, the benefits of traditional military culture and the incompatibility of homosexuality with military service.” WHY. Somebody just tell me WHY.
  • On Israel, presented without further comment: “Our policy is based on God’s biblical promise to bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel and we further invite other nations and organizations to enjoy the benefits of that promise.”

So there you have it. There are certainly sensical and intelligent positions in this platform, too, but they’re mostly common sense. For instance, prosecute child molesters. Provide healthcare to veterans. Allow police officers to find criminals. You know, that sort of thing.

There are also a notable number of direct contradictions in this document. For instance, they say, “We favor improving the quality of education for all students, including those with special needs,” and then they proceed to outline a curriculum that destroys critical thinking. They say that the government should stay out of healthcare decisions, and yet they not only propose to ban all abortion, but they even decry Plan B as “dangerous” (which it is not). They also indicate specifically what information doctors are required (and, of course, not required) to provide about abortion. And, at one point, they even state, “As America is a nation under God founded on Judeo-Christian principles, we affirm the constitutional right of all individuals to worship in the religion of their choice.” This makes no sense! It is exactly because America is not a religious nation that religious freedom is even possible.

Why should you care about a platform advanced by one state’s Republican party? Even supposing all other Republicans in the country are perfectly reasonable and do not oppose things like voting rights for African Americans and critical thinking skills for children (unlikely), Texas is a large state and Republicans outnumber Democrats by a large margin in both houses of the legislature. So this affects a lot of people.

And, furthermore, the platform itself also states, “Every Republican is responsible for implementing this platform. Party candidates should indicate their positions on platform planks before their acceptance on the ticket and such information should be available on the Party website.” So, for all the crap I occasionally get to the tune of “Yeah well not all Republicans are like that” and “Yeah well many Republicans actually support same-sex unions,” well…in Texas, this is exactly how they are.

For more take-downs, see here, here, and here.

I Read the Texas Republican Party Platform So You Wouldn't Have To

"Vagina" is Not a Four-letter Word

You would be forgiven for assuming that our elected politicians are mature adults who can handle using words that designate genitalia. You would especially be forgiven for assuming that given that many of these politicians are very eager to legislate what can and cannot be done with genitalia.

However, you’d be wrong.

This is old news now for anyone who follows these things, but in case you don’t, here’s a recap. On June 14, the Michigan House of Representatives was debating a new bill that would severely limit a woman’s ability to get an abortion by placing new restrictions on abortion providers. The bill passed the House and will go to the Senate most likely in September. (They were also debating a separate bill, which did not pass, that would’ve restricted all abortions after 20 weeks, with no exception for rape or incest).

In response to this, Representative Lisa Brown (three guesses which party) gave a speech in opposition and said, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.'” You can see her speech in its entirety here.

The shock! The horror! Brown was quickly forbidden from speaking on the House floor by Republican leadership of the House. A spokesman for Republican Speaker of the House Jase Bolger said, “House Republicans often go beyond simply allowing debate by welcoming open and passionate discussion of the issues before this chamber…The only way we can continue doing so, however, is to ensure that the proper level of maturity and civility are maintained on the House floor.”

To that end, Republican Representative Mike Callton said that Brown’s remark “was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

What Bolger, Callton, and the rest of these concern trolls apparently do not realize is that language is malleable and entirely based on context. In general, words might be inappropriate to say for three different reasons:

  1. They are derogatory and hurtful slurs (i.e. the n-word, fag, retard)
  2. They have been designated as “profane” by our society (i.e. fuck, piss, shit, cunt)
  3. They refer to things or functions that are generally considered inappropriate for polite conversation (i.e. penis, vagina, feces)
These three categories of Bad Words operate in different ways. The first category is inappropriate to say basically always, unless, in some cases, you belong to the group targeted by the slur, or you are using the word in a conversation about the word (but even that is controversial).

The second category are words that are usually used to make a statement. They are much more frequently okay to use than the words in the first category. That’s why when people curse, they use these words. That’s why many writers, such as myself, use them for effect. They’re generally okay to say around your friends, but many people avoid using them in front of people they don’t know well.

The third category comprises words for things that we usually avoid discussing in polite company without a good reason. You wouldn’t exclaim, “That looks like a penis!” in front of your grandma, and you wouldn’t say, “My vagina feels funny” in front of your boss (I mean…unless you have a very open-minded boss/grandma). It’s not the words themselves that are “bad,” it’s the fact that you usually shouldn’t talk about the things those words refer to if you want to be polite.

But all of this falls apart when the context demands discussion of such topics. If you’re at a doctor’s appointment and the doctor needs to tell you something about your penis or vagina, it would be laughable for him or her to avoid using those words. If you’re negotiating sex with a partner, you shouldn’t have to worry that he or she will be offended if you use those words. And if you’re attempting to legislate what women can and cannot do with their private parts, you’re going to have to face the fact that those parts have names.

The most ironic thing here, though, is Callton’s remark about the word “vagina”: “I don’t even want to say it in front of women.” First of all, that’s patriarchal as hell; women can handle naughty words just as well as men can. Second, it’s not just a naughty word; it’s a word for a thing that (most) women experience on a constant basis.

Some conservatives have apparently made a slightly more legitimate criticism of Brown in that she connects restricting abortion with rape (via her “no means no” allusion). I say “slightly more legitimate” only because, having once been a pro-lifer, I understand how they would take offense.

After all, pro-life politicians do not wake up in the morning thinking, “Yo, I’m gonna take away some rights from women and tell them what to do with their own vaginas today.” They think, “Abortion is murder and I have a duty to stop it just like I would stop the murder of a child or adult.” To them, drawing any parallels whatsoever between restricting abortion and committing sexual assault would naturally seem preposterous. It is only those of us who couch the debate in the language of personal liberty who see the similarities.

That’s why this whole incident really highlighted for me the divisions between liberals and conservatives on the matter of reproductive rights. It’s not even just that they can’t agree on whether or not abortion should be legal; it’s that they can’t agree on what abortion is, and on the terms with which the debate should be framed. Liberals say abortion is a woman’s right over her own body; conservatives say it’s the murder of an unborn human being. How can we ever reach a consensus if we define our terms differently?

I don’t know how to solve this problem–and if I did I would probably be the savior of American politics–but at least this story has a partially-happy ending. Brown and several of her colleagues performed the play The Vagina Monologues with its playwright Eve Ensler on the steps of the statehouse last Monday night as a tribute to our right to speak the names of our own body parts. About 2,500 spectators came to watch.

But as for the bill that the House passed, that’ll go on to marinade in the state Senate, which currently has 26 Republicans and 12 Democrats. I’m not getting my hopes up.

"Vagina" is Not a Four-letter Word