Thursday, June 17, 2004

Back to School

I think it's time to get Olde School up in here.

Because I am insulted every time I hear someone in the media or in the streets, or even in the halls of the various universities I've taught at uttering the words, "the failure of liberalism" or "the failure of the public education system." The moronic argument goes something like this: that LBJ's liberal, 'Great Society' programs such as the "War On Poverty", the urban education initiative, and Affirmative Action threw money at social problems such as poverty, racism, sexism, and illiteracy, rather than...well, rather than enforcing 'values' or something like that, some vaguely Reaganesque crap, and so the programs 'failed'. Public education 'failed.' The War On Poverty 'failed.'

Oh, Really.

Then where did I come from? How do these shallow, reactionary blowhearts account for a tall, large, Black male from a Detroit ghetto (me) who received health care in his childhood so that he didn't die from the TB, pneumonia, and malnutrition that one in seven of the people in his family had tended to die of just one generation earlier, just ten years before the election of John F. Kennedy? How account for the fact that this ghetto child learned history, biology, sociology, chemistry, Shakespeare, music, civics, geometry, macro-economics, human reproduction, simultaneous offense and defense in football, cinematic analysis, home economics, psychology, etc., all before college?

In the years that I taught at the university level, many of my students, Black, white, and other, came to college straight out of high school so bone stupid that they lacked essential knowledge and basic literacy skills that I'd acquired by the time I'd finished jr. high school.

Where did I, and at least 40 other black men and women my age whom I've met over the years who also went through the public education of the LBJ/Nixon years, get a merit scholarship to a state university and then win a fellowship to go to an Ivy League school (Cornell University)? How did I teach at two private schools (University of Miami and Barry University), and why, if public education and liberal democracy failed, have I become a published writer and journalist?

Because...ready for this? The public education system did not fail. Believe it or not, throwing money at social problems, or at just about any damn thing else you can name, does a hell of a lot to end suffering and to enhance the success and well being of whatever or whoever you hit with the money you threw. You better believe that all the money Henry Ford tossed at his sons contributed mightily to their health, education, and welfare. Wealth equals well being. It facilitates power, self actualization, and material development. The rich are not miserable at all. I know. I went to school with them. What the rich are is well fed, clean, healthy, and well dressed. And they sure as hell don't die of gum disease that poverty has allowed to develop into mouth cancer.

Take the Marshall Plan, for example. $11,820,700,000, and $1,505,100,000 in loans, were spent over a four year period in Europe following the war to rebuild the infrastructure, institutions, environment, and political apparatuses that had been destroyed by WWII. This almost obscenely exorbitant tossing of money at a very real problem (urban destruction, mass starvation, social collapse, and the looming threat of political disintegration in the major European cities) worked quite well at solving the problem.

Marshall Plan Expenditures between April 3, 1948 and June 30, 1952, according to the Statistics & Reports Division of the Agency for International Development, formed a crucial component of the Truman Doctrine, which was President Truman's attempt to shore up Europe against the 'threat' of Chinese (and later Russian) Communism. A starving, brutalized, ill educated, tragically crippled European population would never make good allies in the continuing war against Marxism that Truman visualized and which later in fact became the 'Cold War'. So, you see, the Marshall Plan, incredibly successful in it's execution and application, was not undertaken out of benevolence, but out of political expediency. Perhaps that is why a similar plan has not been conceived to do for Cleveland, Philly, Detroit, and Montgomery what had been done and worked so well for Paris, Rome, and London.

One example within the United States of this sort of buying off of social unrest that was comparable to Truman's motivation to appease a European population in danger of slipping into intractable rebellion against capitalism, was in fact the War On Poverty itself, undertaken largely in response to the threat of endless race riots, feminist agitation, civil rights agitation, urban rebellions, Black nationalist inspired mass disobedience, and even radical Marxist and Maoist consciousness which increased exponentially among the poor and working class Blacks, Latinos and women of the 1960's and 1970's. The model for this of course had been the far more sweeping, and far more long lasting "New Deal" policies of the Roosevelt administration, attempting to buy off the American working class and to appease the forces agitating throughout the 1930's for open class war against America, Inc.

The War On Poverty, though far less expansive in scope, far less unitary, and far less ambitious in expenditures than either the New Deal or the Marshall Plan, nevertheless led to the spending of billions of dollars (or more accurately the redistribution of those billions) over the period of a few years of actual implementation and two decades of the programs' effects on people's lives. The genius and the ultimate human effectiveness of the Johnson Plan was not so much in its gross expenditure, but in Johnson's far more transformative restructuring of federal government and of social institutions themselves, all of which had a powerful impact on the individual lives of the poor at an immediate, individual level and in long term implication.

Johnson brought the poverty rate from 22 percent to 13 percent - largely through the modification or creation and entrenchment of state bureaucracies such as AFDC (Aid to Families of Dependent Children), whose payments to dependent families such as my own, he drove up to $577 for a family of four (in 1980 dollars). Infant mortality among the impoverished had remained constant from 1950 to 1965, and fell by one-third after 1965 due to Johnson having expanded federal programs to deliver medical and nutritional support to the poor. Medicaid and Medicare altered the fact that 20 percent of the poor had never seen a doctor or dentist, and had never been exposed to the FDA minimum daily nutritional requirements model. When Johnson left office the number had gone from 20 percent to only 8 percent. Poor families consigned to having to live in housing of the rural areas and of the inner cities with no indoor plumbing, no heat, no insulation, and no ventilation, went from 20 percent in 1960 to only 11 percent by 1970.

In 1961, at the end of Eisenhower's presidency, there were 45 so-called "social programs". The number rose to 435 by 1969. Federal expenditure on such programs which delivered meals to school children, clothing and medicine and housing to the poor, and state institutionalization of health, education, and welfare, went from $9.9 billion in 1960 to $25.6 billion by 1968.

What the poor got a taste of you see, a taste only mind you, was the reality I just explained to you regarding the rich: the rich are well fed, clean, healthy, and well dressed. And they sure as hell don't die of gum disease that poverty has allowed to develop into mouth cancer. Did programs which extended these privileges of health, education and welfare 'fail'??

No. Want to know what failed? The United States did, gentle reader. The democratic party, and the spineless university faculties who rolled over for Reaganomics, and the corrupt local politicians who abandoned their urban constituencies, and the gutless women and Blacks who opted for middle class comfort rather than continued social protest did. The corrupt union leadership did. Jimmy Carter did. America Inc. did.

Crucial components of Johnson's War On Poverty were desegregation, a restructuring of the educational system the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, and Fair Housing legislation. The War On Poverty was a tripod: one leg was food, health care, and housing. The second leg was affirmative action to rectify a hundred years of structural economic impoverishment. The third leg was education. Due to the betrayal of the education component of the plan, the short term benefits (to me, for example) did not translate into long term social transformation.

The ruling class overturned democratic liberalism and public education because it was successful, because the G.I. Bill allowed hundreds of thousands of 1st and 2nd generation white ethnics (this means you, you Italians, Irish, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, etc.) who'd been locked out of the mainstream of the institutions and the economy to gain access to education following WWII.

The ruling class (The Trilateral Commission, the pentagon, the corporate sponsors of McEducation ('would you like fries with that business degree?') and the co-opted senators who serve them overturned democratic liberalism because Blacks and women, on the treads of the feminist and civil rights movements were allowed into state universities (into law schools, medical schools, and political science programs, not just agriculture, nursing, and education) in massive numbers from the 60's on, reversing one hundred years of social control by a monied elite, and because affirmative action, which was not a system of preferences as LBJ conceived it but rather a redistribution of social and economic opportunity in such a way as to engineer equality for women and so-called 'minorities', changed the reality of a White, male 12 percent within the population controlling 85 percent of the country's social, intellectual, and economic capital.

Though it was mostly White women who benefited economically as a group from affirmative action, both women and Blacks undeniably benefited socially and intellectually in what Howard Zinn has called the greatest reversal of social capital and the most effective undercutting of social hierarchy and or political elitism in the history of the west. Of course, where social and intellectual equality exist, it cannot be long before economic equality will be achieved as well anyway.

Which is why the Reagan administration began an era (continued throughout the hideous Bush years, with a slight break under Clinton, then roaring right back into gear under President Doofuss Jr.) of relentless, remorseless attacks on unions, on funding for federal enforcement of civil and constitutional rights, on public education, public health, public access, public power, public assembly, and public media.

So yeah. Please don't say that public education 'failed', not around me, as if I were a ghost or invisible, as if my very life had not been spared by it and as if these thoughts inside my head were not actually happening(thoughts which I am able to formulate, organize, and express because I was given the gift of literacy by scores of wonderful, white ethnic public school teachers who swarmed into the country's ghettos in the 60's and 70's to teach in the public schools, allowing me to be able to push a verb effectively against a noun). It was good enough for the monied elite who attended Harvard for a hundred years, so why, pray tell, would it not be just as useful, just as beneficial, and just as empowering for the grandson of a Black, Alabama dirt farmer (my grandfather, Charner Dukes, Jr.) to be allowed to stroll amidst the ivy?

Public education 'failed'?? The War On Poverty worked just fine for me, thanks. I recall the steel jawed bite of that beast easing off me and my family considerably under LBJ.

Dig: the infant mortality rates, death rates from child malnutrition, homeless rates, and illiteracy rates among Black Americans were significantly reduced during the period of 1960-1977. The massive and needless bureaucracy that came along with the incredibly empowering social and educational programs of the 60's did a lot to retard that forward progress, but the progress was nevertheless real. That progress was arrested only by the advent of the brutally backward economics of Reagan (may he rest in pieces). But don't tell me that something that saved me from poverty, illness, illiteracy and death 'failed'.

I'm insulted by the ignorance and the unction of such a claim. This is a new Dark Age in which Americans assess reality not on the basis of historical and material analysis or even by evaluating opposing arguments, but by the consumption of visual imagery, and the regurgitation of jingoistic bytes.

Though I was originally inspired to create a web log ('blog') by my friend and partner in ethnic trangression, Regina Rodriguez, I think I will go on writing this thing simply to contribute to what I hope will be the public record of this Dark Age once the last Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Powell has finally dropped dead and we get our society back.

Olde School.

Just another internet blog that only the Germans will read very closely? (hello, Berlin!) What is "Olde School"? It's a deliberate attempt at memory. It's remembering John Lenon, Arlo Guthrie and his daddy Woody, Paul Robeson, Joe Hill, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Aunt Emma Goldman, James Brown, Robert Kennedy in the last year of his life, Cesar Chavez, Noam Chomsky, Public Enemy, John Belushi, Kofi Natambu, Buckminster Fuller, Maslow, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Stimsonian democracy, Amiri Baraka, Orson Welles, Stella Adler, Jim Starlin (whodat??) Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Joe Louis, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra demanding that Sammy Davis Jr. be allowed to walk into the front door of the Sands alongside them, Pam Grier in "Coffy", The Pentagon Papers, Xam Cartier, Marvin Gaye, Helen Caldicott, the real Martin King (the one who considered renouncing civil disobedience just before he was shot in the neck) and oh, yes...Heisenberg and his incompleteness theorem.

Step off, DMX (mediocre). Step off, Jay-z (no content). Step off, Colin Powell and Condi Rice (Mr. Step and Ms. Fetchit). Step off, Bill Cosby (Uncle Tom). Step off, Laura Bush (Texas hick and neo-con moll). Olde School is in the house. Someday they'll dust off the radioactive debris and uncover this blog and see that somebody was thinking in the dark days of the 'war-shington' oil barony just prior to the advent of the anti-Christ and the tribulation (the anti-Christ being of course Dick Cheney, and the tribulation being all those nasty Soylent Green burgers they will be forcing us to eat once genetic engineering has destroyed the nutritional value of all our natural food sources). Our descendants will dig beneath that radioactive rubble and find blogs that prove that the 'silent majority was not so silent. They will find our words.

Or maybe not.


Waller is a professor, writer, and journalist. He writes for The "Michigan Citizen", a weekly newspaper in Detroit found at www.michigancitizen.com and is a columnist for "Corporate Mofo", and online journal found at www.corporatemofo.com. More of his journalism can be found in the archives of the Miami online bilingual journal of political and cultural affairs, "Progreso Weekly", found at www.progresoweekly.com. He is a regular guest on the Miami radio talk show, "Shock to the System" on WAXY AM 790. WAXY can be found at www.waxy.com

3 comments:

Dwight said...

The Blog is one new way in which people can form connections and communicate and share values, as you have shared your values and experiences of the 60s and the War on Poverty with powerful directness and clarity. What a transforming force that is. Through communications of what we live by and for, come connections. It is very difficult for me to imagine that the regressive, byzantine ways of the Bush/Reagon set can hold up to the kinds of hopeful human connections that emerge from those who have attempted to live openly in this past half century.

My experience of the war on poverty, began in Montgomery Alabama, continued through VISTA in Philadelphia and clearly transformed my life, so that my children were raised with certain ideas of equality and justice that I could never have rooted myself in and communicated to them without those formative experiences.

Now in Rogers Park in Chicago, your old cohort Regina shares her startling unique voice through a writing group that we both attend.

Good to hear your voice, Rayfield!

IncaProphet said...

A wonderful, refreshing piece to read. Inspiring. For those of us who didn't grow up during that period, it is a relief to know that people like you have not forgotten the gift they were given, and choose to let others know there are other ways in which society can and has helped the unprivileged to rise above poverty and received an education. Fortunately, there are people like you, who want to give back and scream "Wake up! to those of us who need to learn what is going on with "that man behind the curtain", so that we can pay attention and fight back.

Laurence Ducheny said...

Wassup Prof Waller just checkin out your blog. Cool to have you as a teacher!
Laurence