“An Arrogant Clod” Harkening the “Downfall of Our Nation”
Three weeks ago, two longtime campus-town Democrats published a commentary in the Iowa City Press-Citizen condemning Donald Trump and his right-wing billionaire nominee (since confirmed) for United States Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos. It was a bitter assault, combining standard liberal denunciations of for-profit charter schools and educational privatization (DeVos champions both) with attacks on Trump as “an arrogant, ignorant, narcissistic clod leading us into a New Dark Age.” The two virulent liberals who penned the column wrote that Trump “does not do much reading” and “may well be responsible for the ultimate downfall of our nation” (emphasis added). They also denounced DeVos for having attended private schools and sending her children to private schools.
I hold no brief for the vicious and idiotic Donald Trump, his terrible Education Secretary, corporate “school reform,” or the charter school crowd, God knows. At the same time, however, I have no love for Democrats who work themselves into a lather about right-wing neoliberal policy when such policy is advocated and conducted by Republicans but who remain creepily silent when it is carried out by their own preferred major capitalist party.
“Presiding Over a Further Dismantling of Public Education”
The Press-Citizen column sparked my curiosity. Did the authors dash off a similarly angry and personal assault on the “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” Barack Obama’s appointment of the militant charter school advocate and corporate schools hero Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education in early 2009? Duncan’s record as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) from 2001 to 2009 as a chilling reminder that the neoliberal era Democrats have not very far behind Republicans when it came to assaulting public education in alliance with corporate interests. As Henry Giroux and Kenneth Saltman reflected, Duncan “presided over the implementation and expansion of an agenda that militarized and corporatized the third largest school system in the nation, one that is about 90 percent nonwhite. Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, advocated a growing police presence in the schools, arbitrarily shut down entire schools, and fired entire school staffs.” The blog Schooling in Capitalist America provided a useful take on Obama’s hoops buddy Arne Duncan’s Big Business ties and service in Chicago:
“Prior to his role as Chicago schools chief, Duncan has been the education program coordinator at Ariel Capital Management, sponsor of a Chicago charter school that boasted of its desire to ‘make the stock market a topic of dinner table conversation.’ Duncan headed the infamous Chicago ‘Renaissance 2010’ plan. Established by the Commercial Club, a century-old Chicago institution comprised of the largest and most powerful corporations in the city. With the help of the corporate consulting firm A.T. Kearny, the Commercial Club unleashed one of the most ambitious school privatization schemes since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Renaissance 2010 called for the closing of one hundred public schools and reopening them as privatized charter schools. It was a page taken directly out of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) playbook. NCLB, passed in 2001, created a host of unattainable achievement goals measured through massive amounts of high-stakes standardized tests. Under these new unachievable targets, schools are set up to fail and when they do the federal government swoops in and ‘restructures’ them. Like NCLB, Renaissance 2010 targeted schools that have ‘failed’ to meet Chicago’s accountability standards as defined by high-stakes standardized tests and turned them over to non-profit and often for-profit charters.”
“Another integral part of the plan is to hand control over schools away from teachers, their unions, and community residents and into the hands of the business sector. At least two-thirds of the newly opened schools will be nonunion. The Commercial Club raised $25 million from the corporate sector to close public schools and reopen them under the governance of an unelected board called the New Schools for Chicago organization. The NSC is appointed by the Commercial Club and composed of leading corporate representatives and Chicago Public Schools executives. The ‘civic leaders” on what the Chicago Sun-Times dubbed a ‘shadow cabinet’ include the chairs of McDonald’s Corporation and Northern Trust Bank, the retired chair of the Tribune Corporation, and the CEO of the Chicago Community Trust—a major corporate foundation…Before he became the [U.S.] education secretary, Arne Duncan was an enthusiastic advocate for the Commercial Club’s scheme, privatizing Chicago public schools at a rate of about twenty schools per year. Revealing his corporate-minded orientation to schooling, Duncan told a room full of businessmen at the Commercial Club’s ‘Free to Choose, Free to Succeed: The New Market in Public Education’ symposium in May of 2008, ‘I am not a manager of 600 schools. I’m a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I’m trying to improve my portfolio.’”
Consistent with his earlier history and with his boss’s militantly neoliberal world view , Duncan’s six- year reign atop the Department of Education was marked by consistent support of charter schools, a relentless obsession with standardized testing, and endless arguments with teacher unions. The Chicago-based education professor Pauline Lipman summarized Duncan’s federal legacy on the Real News Network in the fall of 2015:
It’s really the Chicago model that Duncan has expanded as a national education agenda…the main features of that are…Increased testing, expansion of charter schools through the Race To The Top initiative, paying teachers based on student test scores. And in general shifting education more and more towards business methods, business people in charge of education, creating more influence for corporate think tanks, neoliberal think tanks, venture philanthropies like the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation in the national education agenda. And shifting public education increasingly toward preparing students for corporate workforce needs rather than a broad public education….So really, if we look at Duncan’s legacy, we can see that he has presided over a further dismantling of public education in the U.S.
Private School Histories
Since the Press-Citizen commentators condemn prospective public school authorities for having private school histories and loyalties, I will add for what it’s worth that both Duncan and Obama are products of elite private schools. They are also both parents of students sent to such schools. Duncan attended the prestigious and expensive University of Chicago Laboratory School (UC Lab) from kindergarten through twelfth grade and finished his schooling with a bachelor’s degree at Harvard College. With his “school reform” work done in Washington, Duncan returned to Chicago, where he has joined the board of Aerial Capital Management and enrolled both of his children in UC Lab, where high school tuition is $33,558.
Obama attended the elite private Punahou Academy in Honolulu. He went on to complete his formal education at two top private institutions: Columbia University, and Harvard Law. Before he moved into the White House in 2009, Obama’s two daughters attended UC Lab. During his presidency, the Obama girls attended the expensive and private Sidwell Friends School ($39,360 per student each year including hot lunch for middle and high school). Maybe Barack’s new kite-surfing buddy, billionaire playboy Richard Branson, will help the Obamas send their daughters to Oxford.
(Full disclosure: I am a product of UC Lab from kindergarten through sixth grade. My parents paid $800 a year to send me there during the second half of the Nineteen Sixties – that scary decade the deeply conservative presidential candidate Obama made sure to distance himself from while praising Ronald Reagan. It was all public schools after that, replete with a descent into Marxism.)
Now You’re Mad? This Ain’t “Late-Shaming”
I searched the archives of the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the local University of Iowa’s Daily Iowan to see if either of the anti-Trump/anti-Devos commentary authors (locally prolific editorial and letter-to-the-editor writers for many years) published any comparably critical commentaries either when Duncan was appointed or afterwards in relation to Obama and Duncan’s neoliberal education policies. No such commentaries by either of the local “left” Op Ed writers could be found. This is consistent with the fact that one of authors could be seen driving around Iowa City in a pickup truck bearing an Obama bumper sticker as recently as 2014. It is consistent also with the other writer’s response when a local antiwar leftist asked her what she thought about Obama’s relentless child-killing drone attacks across the Muslim world (what Noam Chomsky has rightly called “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern time”): “if Obama hadn’t done it, a Republican president would have.”
On “social media,” I have been admonished not to “late-shame” young left-leaning liberals who have come to oppose policies advanced by Trump that liberals did not oppose under Obama. It’s sound advice, I think, but this isn’t about late-shaming. It’s about double-standards and hypocrisy. I’m not talking about folks in their late teens and early twenties here. What, really, are we on the actual Left supposed to say to senior liberals and progressives who have shown again and again that they simply won’t get serious about criticizing and opposing a corporatist, Wall Street-captive, neoliberal, militarist, and imperial presidency unless that presidency is headed by a Republican like George W. Bush or Donald Trump? The partisan double-standard they have demonstrated again and again makes them dubious allies in the struggle for peace, justice, democracy, and environmental sanity. As I recently wrote in an online note to such older and situationally selective, morally suspect “progressives”:
Don’t like war? Why did you keep your mouth shut when Obama plunged Libya into chaos, when he bombed Bola Boluk, and as he conducted the arch-terrorist targeted-assassination drone campaign?
Don’t like high financial corporatism and economic inequality? Why didn’t you hit the streets against Obama’s epic bailout of the reckless Wall Street parasites in 2009? Why didn’t you fight at least for a financial transaction tax or for the nationalization of the leading financial institutions? Why didn’t you denounce the fake-progressive neoliberal corporatist so-called Affordable Care Act and struggle on behalf of single-payer national health insurance, or at least a public option? Why didn’t you join the Occupy Movement, the great populist anti-Wall Street uprising that Obama helped crush in the fall and winter of 2011, even as he stole some of its rhetoric for the 2012 presidential campaign…this even while economic disparity climbed during to the absurd point where the top tenth of the upper U.S. 1 Percent has a much wealth as the bottom U.S. 90 percent? (In Obama-mad Iowa City, middle-class liberal Democrats responded to the local Occupy chapter with arrogant disdain.) Where were you when we learned that 95 percent of the nation’s new income went to the top 1 percent during his first term?
Want to defend workers? Great, but why didn’t you do anything to press Obama to honor his campaign pledge to push for the re-legalization of union organizing through card-check authorization (the rapidly abandoned and forgotten Employee Free Choice Act)? Why didn’t you demand progressive action when we learned that 94 percent of the jobs created during Obama’s presidency were part time and/or temporary contract positions (“McJobs”)?
Excited against Trump’s assault on immigrants? You said little about Obama’s status as a stealth record-setting Deporter-in-Chief.
Don’t like border walls built to keep out Mexican immigrants? Then why didn’t you push Obama to tear down the extensive walls that already exist on the U.S. southern border – walls that have channeled untold thousands of desperate migrants into hazardous and often fatal desert treks? (As Tod Miller reported on TomDipatch and AlterNet last August, “one of the greatest ‘secrets’ of the 2016 election campaign [though it should be common knowledge] is that the border wall already exists. It has for years and the fingerprints all over it aren’t Donald Trump’s but the Clintons’, both Bill’s and Hillary’s.” The neoliberal Democrat Bill Clinton and his Republican allies in Congress initiated southern border wall construction in 1994 to contain migration sparked by their North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which displaced millions of Mexican farmers with federally subsidized U.S. agricultural exports. U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton voted along with Republicans for the 2006 Safe Fence Act. Many hundreds of miles of border wall have gone up since then, with construction continuing through the Obama years).
Do you seriously believe Barack ‘All of the Above’ Obama was some kind of great leader on the climate issue?…what, because he acknowledged the validity of climate science? Did you take to the streets against his pro-drilling and pro-fracking policies as the planet got dangerously warmer during each of his years in office? No, liberals, you did not, for the most part. On this and so many other issues, the very great majority of just sat and clucked about what a great victory it was in and of itself to have a smooth-talking, silver-tongued, outwardly sophisticated, Harvard Law-minted first half- white president and you moaned about the “obstructionist” Republicans who supposedly prevented (the arch-neoliberal and deeply conservative) Obama from being the true progressive he (you foolishly insisted) really wanted to be (this even though Obama tacked to the corporate and imperial right from the beginning of his presidency, when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress).
Blame Russia, Avoid Self-Criticism
Arrogant liberals’ partisan hypocrisy, overlaid with heavy doses of bourgeois identity politics and professional-class contempt for working class whites, is no tiny part of how and why the Democrats have handed all three branches of the federal government along with most state governments and the white working class vote to the ever more radically reactionary, white-nationalist Republican Party. Ordinary people can small the rank two-facedness of it all, believe it or not. They want nothing to do with snotty know-it-all liberals who give dismal dollar Dems a pass on policies liberals only seem capable of denouncing when they are enacted by nasty Republicans.
Contrary to my online rant, much of the liberal Democratic campus-town crowd seems to feel if anything validated – yes, validated. of all things – by the awfulness of Herr Trump. It exhibits no capacity for shame or self-criticism, even in the wake of their politics having collapsed at the presidential, Congressional, and state levels.
It is being assisted in that egregious failure by a media-fed mania for citing dubious reports from the “intelligence community” to blame Trump’s victory on alleged Russian interference in “our [purported great] democracy.” Screaming “Russia did it” while citing the CIA (of all sources) is apparently liberals’ favorite new way of avoiding any serious confrontation with how their corporate and imperial party of choice (the dismal demobilizing dollar Democrats) opened the barn door to Trump and the GOP. The formula is this: say “Russia elected Trump” along with racism, sexism and “stupid uneducated white people” and feel both confirmed and superior. Resume your privileged life as usual, protesting on occasion in pink pussy hates and hoping for presumed friends of democracy in the arch-authoritarian Deep State to unseat Trump from above.
Along the way, liberals are aiding and abetting an authoritarian threat even worse than the quasi-fascistic (though thankfully incompetent) and orange-haired beast and his band of slimy billionaires and white-nationalist swamp creatures. I do not share Glenn Greenwald’s hope that the Democratic Party will restore itself as an “effective political force,” or his sense that that such restoration would be the most important way to resist Trump, or even his belief that Trump was “democratically elected.” Still, even with those significant qualifications, I must for the most part heartily endorse his following recent comments on Democracy Now!:
“…the Trump presidency is extremely dangerous. They want to dismantle the environment. They want to eliminate the safety net. They want to empower billionaires. They want to enact bigoted policies against Muslims and immigrants and so many others. And it is important to resist them. And there are lots of really great ways to resist them, such as getting courts to restrain them, citizen activism and, most important of all, having the Democratic Party engage in self-critique to ask itself how it can be a more effective political force in the United States after it has collapsed on all levels. That isn’t what this resistance is now doing. What they’re doing instead is trying to take maybe the only faction worse than Donald Trump, which is the deep state, the CIA, with its histories of atrocities, and say they ought to almost engage in like a soft coup, where they take the elected president and prevent him from enacting his policies. And I think it is extremely dangerous to do that. Even if you’re somebody who believes that both the CIA and the deep state, on the one hand, and the Trump presidency, on the other, are extremely dangerous, as I do, there’s a huge difference between the two, which is that Trump was democratically elected and is subject to democratic controls, as these courts just demonstrated and as the media is showing, as citizens are proving. But on the other hand, the CIA was elected by nobody. They’re barely subject to democratic controls at all. And so, to urge that the CIA and the intelligence community empower itself to undermine the elected branches of government is insanity. That is a prescription for destroying democracy overnight in the name of saving it. And yet that’s what so many, not just neocons, but the neocons’ allies in the Democratic Party, are now urging and cheering. And it’s incredibly warped and dangerous to watch them do that (emphasis added).”
“Who’s in a Position to Execute” the World
A final quibble with the Iowa City Press-Citizen column quoted and cited at the beginning of this essay: what would be so bad about “the ultimate downfall of our nation” (were the “narcissistic clod” Trump able to bring that about)? Most of the world would be happy to see that collapse – with good reason. The United States has been a rapacious, mass-murderous, and expanding empire from its birth as a nation. Responsible for the death of many millions the world over and the overthrow of dozens of governments since 1945, the U.S. has long and quite properly been understood by a plurality of politically and morally cognizant humanity as the top threat to peace and stability on Earth. Since well before Trumpenstein walked into the White House (on a path greased by the dollar Democrats’ relentless neoliberal demobilization of their onetime popular New Deal and Great Society base), it has been leading the world over the ecological cliff with its relentless advance of global fossil-fuel addicted and wastefully, environmentally and spiritually disastrous mass-consumerist capitalism.
I sometimes can’t help but think that a lot of the complaining you hear from liberals when Republicans hold the White House comes down to a belief that the wrong party and the wrong type of people are in nominal charge of an American System that is “leading us into a New Dark Age.” Liberals just want us to descend into Hell under the visible state leadership of slick and sophisticated, Ivy League law school graduate Democrats like Obama and the Clintons, not “ignorant, narcissistic clod” Republicans like George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Which reminds me of what then state senator Barack Obama said to the Chicago Tribune regarding the Bush administration’s arch-criminal and mass-murderous invasion and occupation of Iraq during the 2004 Democratic Party National Convention. “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage,” Obama told the Tribune, adding that “The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.”