The Broad is Back!

January 27, 2017

Too Big to Fail

When the financial crisis of ’07-08 was addressed by incoming president Barack Obama, many Americans were unhappy with the resolution. Yes, we got “back on track,” and things did get better for many. But banks were declared “too big to fail” and were bailed out.  That, I think, was one of the seeds that led to our current president.

For good reason, people blamed the banks. When banks got help and no punishment, many Americans who had lost homes, cars, jobs, and even a lifetime’s work got rightfully angry. And for the next six years that anger brewed.

Sure we got the ACA, which to me will always be Romneycare as I first encountered in when I came back to the US in ’07 and lived in Massachusetts, but I know people who literally had to choose between insurance and food. Even the subsidies through the ACA were not enough. It depends, of course. When I came back to the US the second time, I used the ACA because I had no health care in my part time jobs. I paid a lot but got excellent coverage. My subsidy was about $500 a month, but since I literally paid more into the government in taxes than American Airlines, United Continental, and Hewlitt-Packard, and now it seems, President Trump, my conscience is clear. I have always paid every penny of taxes due, and I am willing to pay them to cover things like medical care and roads and so on.

So in spite of the ACA, we have millions of people who realized that they were unimportant to the government in spite of all its propaganda. Protecting the banks was protecting them, we were told, because if the big banks failed, the economy would suffer.

Well, you know what else is too big to fail? The United States of America. And failing we are.

We have a sitting president who is totally unfit for the job. Yes, he is a businessman who gets things done, (including bankrupting himself and many, many small businesses left in his wake) but countries are not businesses. It’s not about the bottom line. It’s about people’s lives. He has not divested himself from his businesses. He has named unfit people for almost every position in his Cabinet. Most are now in the position to make the very wealthy even wealthier. Many of them have outright conflicts of interest.

Many don’t know a thing about the departments they’ve been nominated to head. I could see Ben Carson as Attorney General. I wouldn’t like it, but the man is a physician. But as head of HHD? No experience. And don’t get me started on Betsy DeVos. As a career professor, I am appalled. I have been teaching students who have suffered at the hands of federal interference in education for decades. I’ve seen the steady decline in knowledge and skills. Not intelligence—preparedness. The thought of her policies literally makes me shudder. And I know the meaning of literal.

Ironically, in light of people’s growing fears of more wars, I think one of his best picks for a Cabinet position is Gen. James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. While more hawkish than I’d like, he has the experience needed and is respected by folks in the Pentagon.

But the worst thing I see is the polarization between every day Americans. It’s been growing since the 2016 election cycle started, but instead of calming down, it’s getting worse. We are hating like we haven’t in a long while. We’re mean, petty, bitter, snide, personal, not only to people in government, but to one another.

We call each other names, generalize and stereotype. We’re more openly prejudiced than we have been in the past 50 years, not just against race but against one another based on political beliefs. I was never a fan of being “politically correct,” but I have always been a fan of trying not to offend people. I try to use non-gendered and people first language. I try to use the identifiers people prefer. To me, that’s just good manners and a fulfillment of the Golden Rule. Many quip that the new Golden Rule is “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Not a quip, the truth, and always has been the truth. But if we say we are the best country on earth, let’s treat each other with respect and humanity. Let’s act like the nicest people on earth. Bullying and hatred are not parts of greatness.

Don’t like someone’s choices? Think their life is a sin? Fine. But don’t curse them, threaten them, harm them or kill them. That’s not acceptable. And I’m not looking at one side or another or another here. I see people on ALL sides of the political spectrum acting unacceptably.

The true core values of our country, democracy, equality, and freedom, have eroded at a pace that frightens me. America is the only thing that’s too big to fail. And we are. America is an idea. And ideal, really. And because we are no longer living up to our ideals, because democracy was trampled on for decades, because corporations have the same rights as citizens, we’ve been a functional oligarchy for a long time. Equality in this country is a joke. Some lives are just worth less. Many see this on color lines, but I believe it’s more on wealth lines. The poor of this country have been abused, manipulated, lied to, and used as tools of the ruling powers since the beginning.

Race is also a problem. A middle class person of color does face stereotypes and prejudice. I am not unaware of the problem, and I’m not stupid. My own son identifies as “non-White” and has faced prejudice both from law enforcement and regular folks. But a poor white person has more problems and inherent difficulties than that middle class person of color. I live in a predominantly white place and the problems of poverty I see are only slightly different than the ones I saw in NYC. Drugs, poor education, lack of family structure (I’m not saying a traditional family is necessary, but when mom and dad are meth dealers, life is nowhere near normal), poor nutrition, poor medical care, and the list goes on.

This economic disparity, this racism, this throwback to “traditional Christian values” of intolerance and hatred for those who choose to live outside one’s ideas of Christianity, these are also seeds that led to Trump’s shocking victory.

Folks like to argue that race is the only reason he’s president, but that’s balderdash. Back in ’92, Bill Clinton’s famous campaign reminder was “it’s the economy, stupid” hasn’t changed these 24 years later. We allowed the oligarchy to grow, and now the White House has become the Palace of Versailles, especially the gilded New York White House in Trump Tower. Cronies and supporters are put into positions of power, regardless of ability, and dissent is harshly treated.

I’m not buying into Trump’s rhetoric of “make America great again.” It has needed work my entire life, but it’s always been a great country. Things are possible here. I am the daughter of a construction worker who earned a PhD. I have taught young people who have literally gone on to change the world, young people who grew up in poverty, or were immigrants, or were people of color, or all of the above. They are America. I love my country, and I love its people. We are what’s made America great, but America has failed too many because money rules.

Greed is not one of America’s values. We’re too great to fail, and this is something that needs to be addressed. I am not calling for communism. That was tried and failed in the USSR and China, among other places. I’m calling for competence in government, experts in charge of departments, not political cronies, corporations losing the rights of citizens, and support for measures that give a leg up. I’m calling for democracy to come back, unhindered by lobbyists, restrictive voting laws and outside manipulation, for freedom to come back through solid educations so that people can make good choices and for humans to live as they wish as long as they remember that their rights extend no further than the tip of their noses. That’s what I learned in 7th grade social studies. My rights are for me, and I can not force others to do what I think is right unless it’s something protected by the Constitution. And finally equality. No human being is born better than another. There is one race, the human race. Because of my personal beliefs, I believe we are all brothers and sisters, and I should treat you as I would a sibling. You may infuriate me, you may test me, but at the end of the day, I do love you. But you do not have to share my beliefs. Believe me, most people don’t as I don’t identify as any specific religion. But as members of the same race, we have to work together.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is my manifesto, I guess. We’re too big to fail. We’re an experiment in democracy that needs to backtrack a bit and see where we went wrong. I’m pretty sure I know where that was. Who will join me?

November 28, 2013

I’m Thinking Maybe He Should Reread the Gospels

Many of my friends are abuzz with Pope Francis’s most recent pronouncements.  In his first apostolic exhortation. “Evangelii Gaudium” “Joy of the Gospel” he basically blasted unchecked capitalism and consumerism as “selfish”. I’m beginning to like this guy.  He said a lot of other things, and admittedly, I haven’t read the entire thing (it’s over 50.,000 words long), but unsurprisingly, this topic is what made headlines.

My cousin Dolores (faithful readers have read her ideas here) sent me an email this morning ending with:

Rush Limbaugh called the Pope a Marxist for preaching the gospel of Jesus…astounding!!!

I really think Mr. Limbaugh needs to read the Bible.  Actually, I think a lot of American “Christians” who shout and holler about how “socialist” America is becoming really need to reread the Bible.

Let me direct them to the Gospel of Luke, chapter three, verses 7-14

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (NIV) (emphasis mine)

Granted, this is John the Baptist speaking, not Jesus, but Luke left it in, and really, Jesus gave John His seal of approval, so I think we should take this as, well, as Gospel.

Admittedly, as I tell my students, it’s tough to use the Bible to support an argument, because it’s so contradictory, but we’re talking about basic tenants of Christianity here. I do realize Jesus himself said, “The poor you will always have with you,” but the end of the sentence was “but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11 NIV).  He was responding to a very specific incident.  Here’s the context for those who like to see it:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matt 26:6-13, NIV)

In his comments about the poor, Jesus was echoing the Old Testament in his speech to his followers:

“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deut 15:11, NIV)

A lot Bible quotes, perhaps, but a national commentator just called the head of the Roman Catholic Church a Marxist.  I’m thinking someone doesn’t understand Christianity. Still, when I was in grad school, at a Catholic college, one of my favorite professors, Sister Francine Dempsey, CSJ, mentioned in class that someone once said that the only place Marxism would ever work was in a monastery.

Think about it.

What Marx says about wealth, while political and overtly anti-religious, is basically the same as the message of John the Baptist and his cousin, Jesus.  But they are speaking from a place of Love.  We share because we’re all brothers and sisters, and we love our brothers and sisters.

So I can see why Mr. Limbaugh was confused. Marxism/Christianity. Rather close. (can you hear my heavy sigh?)

And Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to condemn unchecked capitalism. In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Church’s Social Teaching), Pope John Paul II (you know, that Nazi-fighting, freedom fighting guy?) wrote:

The tension between East and West is not in itself an opposition between two different levels of development but rather between two concepts of the development of individuals and peoples both concepts being imperfect and in need of radical correction.

(you can read the entire encyclical here)

This wasn’t the first time Pope John Paul went after unchecked capitalism. In 1984, in a speech to fishermen in Canada, he said

The fishing industry has also been concentrated more and more in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Around the globe more and more small or family fishing concerns lose their financial independence to the larger and capital intensive enterprises. Large industrial fishing companies run the risk of losing contact with the fishermen and their personal and family needs. They are exposed to the temptation of responding only to the forces of the marketplace, thus lacking at times sufficient financial incentive to maintain production. Such a development would put the security and distribution of the world’s food supply into ever greater jeopardy, if food production becomes controlled by the profit motive of a few rather than by the needs of the many.

It’s actually a pretty kickin’ speech, and you can find the the entire text at the Vatican website.

And Pope John Paul II was pretty consistent in his economic message throughout his papacy.

Can you imagine Mr. Limbaugh trying to get away with calling Pope John Paul II a Marxist?

So just what did Pope Francis say that has put everyone’s knickers in a twist?

Here are some key passages I found on the website Aleteia:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us. (54)

Oh my! That’s the same song I’ve been singing for years.  I’m really starting to like this guy.  And then there’s this:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule. (56)

Some might call hypocrisy here, as the Church doesn’t pay taxes and is incredibly wealthy. But he also called for reform:

“Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” (32)

So, a start.

I despair of America sometimes, where we’re going, what we’re becoming, and I think the reason Rush Limbaugh’s comment goaded me into writing was that it exemplified the ignorance of so many Americans I meet.  As a professor, a teacher, I spend my professional life removing ignorance. But willful ignorance? That’s my nemesis. And since I’ve returned to America the level of willful ignorance I’ve encountered is dumbfounding.

I do have so much to say, and hopefully at least over the Thanksgiving   break I will be able to carve out some time to write.

It’s Thanksgiving in America, the time we set aside to be grateful for our bounty.  To those who celebrate, I wish you a wonderful day full of beautiful memories.

October 3, 2013

Still Hoping for Power to the People

“We want to empower our people; we want to strengthen them; we want to provide them with the kind of qualifications that will enable them to build up their own country themselves.” ~ Aung San Suu Kyi

When Aung San Suu Kyi said these words, she was referring to the people of Burma, but I think this is what we should want for people in all places.  But instead of empowerment, much of American culture (and I’m speaking as an American–I know it’s similar in other places) sets out to disempower the people.

Yesterday I spoke of our broken educational system. I do often wonder quite seriously how much is done deliberately. We have a popular culture that glorifies ignorance, stupidity, vapidity and violence. We undermine authority figures in almost all genres of entertainment. Authority isn’t a bad word, but if we teach people it is, no one will want it or seek it other than those who turn it into a bad word through their actions.

This post started on my other blog, but as often happens when I’m thinking about things that are important to me, it spills onto this one.

I’m deeply disturbed by the state of America right now. Not just the current crisis, but by all the factors that brought us here: poor education, weapons of mass distraction, selfishness and even a sense of ennui in so many people. Working hard for too little money, scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck dulls the mind to other things.   According to a report released last year, over two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.  It’s hard to think about eroding freedoms when you’re worried about missing work and getting pay docked.

This is a trend that must be reversed.

I teach to empower people, but as much as I want to give my students the tools they need to take control of their own lives, true control, free from the overbearing corporate influences playing on people today, no one can be empowered with the desire to wield power.

So many people are perfectly willing to abdicate responsibility for their own lives. This is a sad way to live.

Actually, as I tell my students, this can be a fine way to live. Nothing is your fault when it fails and no hard decisions need to be made. Multitudes aer plenty happy in this kind of life.

Those who want to live freely know that they must have power over themselves. And as Francis Bacon famously wrote, “Knowledge is power.”

Societies have changed radically in the past. All things are cyclical. When I call for change, people tell me, “You can’t change anything. This is the way it is now. It is what it is.”

Lie. That’s a lie sold to us by people who don’t want change. We can turn this around, hopefully. It will not be easy, but it can be done, but only if people want to be empowered.

 

September 2, 2013

A Call for Labor

Because today is Labor Day, I want to make a plea for those who would labor in this country but who can’t. I want to make a plea to bring manufacturing back to America.

We keep saying the jobs of the future are in technology. Many of them are. And factories don’t need as many people as they used to before robotics. But because Americans want to buy cheap, cheap, cheap, we’ve taken bread out of our neighbors’ mouths.  And hurt the country in the long run.

Why should a company pay a living American wage to a craftsman or a worker when work can be done in a developing country by someone with no union, no laws protecting workers? I may be thought naive because I’m going to answer, “it’s the right thing to do.”

Our country prospered when our working class prospered. When a “working man” or in many cases a working woman, could support a family with an honest wage. I hear many people blaming the unions. Hogwash. Unions got you a weekend and safe working conditions. Unions make sure you’re compensated if you’re injured at work.  Is there corruption in unions? Yes. Is there anywhere humans are that does not have corruption? No. Unions, churches, governments, corporations. It’s humans who are corrupt, not unions.

Since I’ve been back in America, I’ve gone through countless small appliances, clocks. chairs, the list can go on and on. Things break. They just stop working. I’m not saying one country or another is doing shoddy work, and I often think, in my paranoid moments, that companies do it on purpose to up their bottom line. But I know I would rather pay more for something that will last than keep throwing things in the trash. Living in a disposable world is wrong on so many levels.

But I’ve started to look at labels very carefully. I’m buying more things built in Germany, Switzerland and England because I want better quality. Yes, I’m paying more, but in the long run, I am sure I will save money.  I would rather buy things made in America in order to support my fellow Americans. But I can not find them!

I’ve said it before, more than once. If a clever person opened a factory here and made kitchen appliances, he or she would make a mint. Yes, I would pay twice as much for an American made toaster. I did it already for an English made one.

Not everybody wants to go to college.  Not everybody wants to work in an office. I’ve never worked in a factory, but I’ve worked in a factory lunch counter. It was not pleasant. It was hard work. But it was 9-5 with a regular and good paycheck.  The more skilled workers got paid more, which makes sense, but they had jobs. Now the jobs are gone.

Don’t tell me that working for a subpar wage with no health care or retirement benefits at a big box store is less stressful or easier on people.

My late father-in-law was a machinist in a mill. He and my mother-in-law raised nine kids on his paycheck. It was tight. Very tight. He supplemented his income with providing much of his own food with gardening, hunting and fishing, but his children were fed, educated and went on to good lives. But there’s no mill anymore for any of them to work in. The area they live in has been hit hard economically, and not just in this century. Things were getting bleak there in the 80s and they’ve never truly bounced back.

There are only so many tech jobs that can open up.

We’re being sold the story that we live in a service economy. That the jobs have moved overseas and there’s no getting them back. Why not? Prices will go up if people get paid a living wage. Americans have to say well, I will pay $6 for quality that will last instead of $1 at the dollar store. I’m no stranger to dollar stores. But how many times have I thrown out things in a matter of months and then had to replace it?  That’s false economy.

I feel like I’m on a soapbox right now. There are so many issues that are part of this problem. But I know there are people who want jobs and we keep telling them: “There are none. Learn a new skill.”  We have the factories, shuttered, many being turned into luxury housing for those in the professions. Housing is good. But so are jobs. Why repurpose a factory into housing when we could reopen it and start bringing in jobs?

I’m not an economist, so what the hell do I know? I read, though. I know history, though.  We see what happened to Detroit. We’re at a crossroads. Time to start a revolution in thinking about this country. Americans have to wrest America back from corporations and governments, local, state and federal, that pander to their needs.

August 21, 2013

Free Might Not be Better

I saw a tweet today, and it prompted me to write. The tweet said, “It’s this simple #education should be #free #strikedebt” But as an educator, and as someone who has lived in places where education is free, I know it’s really not that simple.

First, education is not free. You may want to screw capitalism, young tweeter, and yes, your professors are usually rather idealistic, but I have to eat, too. I need to pay my rent, get healthcare, and buy clothes. Researching isn’t cheap. I must get paid. And I’ve invested years and hundreds of thousands of dollars into my education. I have loans, too.  So first you must pay us. And then there’s the equipment, the buildings, all the things that make up a university. It all must be bought and maintained. Running a university is an expensive endeavor.

So free education is actually paid for through taxes. That’s the whole idea of state schools.  In fact, I work for a public college.  And here’s part two of the “not simple” part.

Once upon a time, CUNY was free. If admitted, one earned a top class education for the price of books and supplies. An excellent deal.

The kicker was not everyone got in. And not everyone got into his or her first choice.  My mom was a top NYC high school student, graduated Long Island City High School, class of ’50. She had her heart set on going to Hunter College. But Hunter only accepted X number of women (it used to be a women’s college) from each of NYC’s high schools based on the woman’s class standing. Mom was X-1. She missed getting in by a less than a full point on her average. She went to her next choice, Queens College, but she still talks about missing Hunter with regret.

This still happens in countries with free education. Not everyone gets in. There aren’t free options for everyone. Students get in based on academic merit. In some countries, especially Asian, there’s a national exam and students get placed into a university and a major based on numerical test results.  In other places, students’ high school transcripts are the main bulk of the determination of if and where they get in.

Students who don’t get into a free education can still go to school, but they choose private options and pay.

CUNY did have open admissions for free for almost a decade, but the financial realities ended that in 1976. Open admissions also meant remedial classes were instituted. These are intensive classes with more hours than regular classes, and they are very expensive. I teach remedial or developmental or pre-credit (pick your label–they mean the same), and I believe in the rightness of having them. If high schools aren’t doing their job, my colleagues and I will do it. I’ve had students in my remedial classes go on to graduate from the community college I teach in and transfer to NYU, Columbia, Yale and all of the CUNY senior colleges, which are some of the best schools in the world.  Proud doesn’t even begin to cover it.

But. And there’s always a but. But the drop out/failure rate in those remedial classes hovers around 50-60%. I start each term with 28 and end with 12-15, or in a good term, 16. And not all of the 16  pass the class. They just finish it, often passing the second time they take it, if they haven’t lost the desire.

That’s a lot of money. Yes, these students are paying tuition, but one subsidized by the state and city. I have also taught at a private school, and earning an associates there costs about $20,000. Currently an associates at a CUNY school is $8400. And most of the students have financial aid, so they are paying substantially less than that. That’s a heavy subsidy, and that’s the tax burden.  Someone is paying that money, just not the students or their parents.

So, free education is great, but it closes the path of education for many people. That’s a negative.

But I also believe that the requirement for a college education in this country is out of control. Some companies now will not hire someone as a word processor, mail clerk or office assistant without a college degree. This is madness.  A college degree now holds the weight of a high school diploma when I graduated. Something is wrong with this picture.

In the countries I have lived in with free or incredibly inexpensive public education, college is not required for career and life success. In America we have devalued college educations by making them required for everything.  But that’s a blog for another day.

So, it’s not so simple. Free education is a wonderful and worthy idea, but nothing is free. What are we willing to trade for it? Higher taxes? Less access to higher education?

I do realize the counter argument: we could afford to provide education to all students if we stopped the war and ended the military build up. Totally agree, but I live in the real world. Don’t always like it, but so it goes. I do think the war will end. Eventually. But obviously the war is still rewarding, somehow, somewhere. I don’t see it, but then I don’t play in that schoolyard, so to speak.

I admire the young debt strikers, honestly I do. The student debt crisis in this country is the next financial disaster. It’s bigger than the housing debacle, and it’s not going away.

But as a thinker, I do not like reductionist arguments. Granted, Twitter isn’t the place for nuanced argument, but things saying things are simple when they are not is never a good start to a conversation.

July 10, 2013

Past Wisdom

Looking through some inspirational quotes today, I found this:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” Franklin D Roosevelt

When I read it I thought, “Oh dear. How will this decade, this century so far, be judged?”  We’ve done a very good job adding to the abundance of a few, but we’ve actually made it harder for those who have little.

That’s just not right. Now of course, I am the result of two generations of Roosevelt Democrats. Perversely, I actually like his cousin Teddy better and will occasionally call myself a Roosevelt Republican (which, by the standards of today’s GOP, means not a Republican at all), but I do think FDR’s administration tried to do something to help people.

My mom’s cousins and my great uncle were in the Civilian Conservation Corps, giving them work during the Depression. Social Security was introduced making retirement easier for many of my older relatives who would have ended up living in poverty once they could no longer work.

But now I live in an America where corporations have the rights of  people, very rich people, even though America was never supposed to be an oligarchy. I have a government that bails out banks and huge corporations because they are “too big to fail,” while saying those corporations should be allowed free reign to drive the economy. Make up your mind, corporations. Do you want federal help or freedom? If the free market says you fail, why then you should fail. Companies have failed since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Why not now?

Like many Americans I have reached a tipping point. I’m well beyond the “last straw” phase. The camel’s back was broken years ago, so now each fresh illustration of a world gone mad just pushes me further into despair.

Today’s Washington Post headline: “Wal-Mart says it will pull out of D.C. plans should city mandate ‘living wage'” summed it up for me. Wal-Mart has done more to ruin this country than I care to think about. People who work there full time still need government assistance. It destroys local businesses and has forced many American manufacturers to either move to China in a bid to keep costs low or plain put them out of business.

The 2oo5 documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price pointed out some of the problems caused by this behemoth but it’s not the only critic. Google “Wal-Mart dangers” and you will find articles from the New Yorker, BusinessWeek and MSN Money, a report from 60 Minutes from 1996 as well as reports from a number of watchdog groups. But the mainstream media seems to be aware of the threat Wal-Mart poses. But Americans still flock there to save a few dollars, dollars that then flow back out of their pockets to support Wal-Mart through taxes and lost opportunity.

Six years ago I started this blog to chronicle my return to America after 12 years abroad. I have gone from happy to be back to wanting to leave more than anything. This kills me because I truly love my country. But I had a better life in the three other countries I’ve lived in. Since I’ve been back it’s been six years of working part time or temporary jobs because in spite of my PhD, 23 years of teaching experience (during which I’ve won teaching awards), there are few jobs to be had. Twice I’ve had to turn down college teaching positions because I couldn’t afford to live on the salaries offered.

One college president even told me, “This is really a position for someone who has someone else in the household bringing in a second income.” Yes, truly, that was said to me.  And this was not at a small, private college. This was at a state school.

I’m looking for positions in other fields, but it’s not easy. I send out over 75 job applications a year–sometimes closer to 150. (The real lesson here is not to earn a PhD in the humanities. Seriously.)

Oh, America, what’s to become of you? Have we taken nothing from the past? The path we are on is not a viable one.  What is my son inheriting?

 

February 5, 2013

Americans are getting to me

Walking home from class today, I realized that I was in trouble. I’ve been saying “Americans” a lot. As in “Americans are strange,” “Americans are screwed up,” and “I don’t get Americans sometimes.” This worries me because as my friend has pointed out, “Sweetie, you are American.” And this is my trouble. I’m starting to feel very alienated in my own country.

It might be because this term I have had two Europeans in my class, reminding me of what I left behind, but I don’t think that’s it.  This has been building. The sorry state of my profession in this country has been eating at me for a while.

I went to the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) annual conference in January. The MLA is my professional organization, and to hear modern language professors from all over America discussing the de-professionalization of the profession, the overuse of “contingent labor” (that’s a pretty phrase for underpaid part-time workers, mostly without benefits, who are the mainstay of college faculties all over the country), and the alarmingly poor job market, well, let’s just say I realized I should have gone to law school. Or med school. Or done anything else.

Alternately, I could be a literature professor and be well paid and respected. I just have to leave America. Again.

I think this might be part of my problem. I’m gearing up to leave again.  It’s not set in stone that I’m leaving, but I’m definitely looking at options. In order to leave, I have to remember all the things that bother me about America in order to make the leaving easier.

And I have to say, after five years back, I’ve had a good long look at the fruits of American education. The majority of students I have in class are truly not prepared for the work they are expected to do in college, so I spend my days teaching 6th-10th grade level skills.

I still teach one course a term in Sweden, and my student exams from that course are often better than the papers I get from my native students.  This breaks my heart.  It’s not that I begrudge my Swedish students their skills. But I am brokenhearted that what was once one of the top educational systems in the world is now broken. It’s not broken beyond repair, but I honestly believe the entire system needs to be dismantled and then rebuilt.

But even if we did that, it still wouldn’t work. Our society is broken, as well. There is precious little respect for teachers and education in this country. Oh, we say we respect teachers, but ask any teacher, at any level, and listen to what he or she thinks of the respect we receive. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Yeah, right.  People laugh, but they think that. We’re either inspired selfless zealots who teach to change the world, or we’re losers who can’t make it elsewhere.

Granted, I teach in New York City, mostly in community colleges, so I’m not getting the top of the high school classes, but I’ve taught at “big name” schools here in New York City, as well, and frankly, I’m not impressed.  So I’m back at the community college because I have a union supporting me (I’m part of the contingent labor force), and at least I think I’m making a big difference in people’s lives.  Whatever gets you through the night, right?

So maybe alienated isn’t the right word. I’m angry. I’m angry with the state of my profession, the students’ lack of preparation, the full-time salaries being offered that won’t even support me in New York City, the seeming waste of my education.  But I’m alienated, as well. How can I live in a country that thinks like this? How can something so precious, education, be so disregarded?

Hopefully, this is the beginning of me doing some serious writing about American society. I feel a strong need to write, to chronicle what is happening.  American education is on the edge of a huge change.  Thomas L. Friedman’s essay in the New York Times last week, “Revolution Hits the Universities” sparked much discussion with my co-workers, and that’s just the beginning. The Broad is back, but for how long? I spent 13 years out of America. Was that too long? Is it time for the Broad to be Abroad again?  Time can only tell.

November 7, 2012

Is it all over but the shouting? Reality bites

Victory went to Obama last night, as everyone is sure to know by now.  I knew when people outside my apartment building starting hooting and hollerin’. I was working against a midnight deadline, so I quickly checked CNN online, told my son the result, and went back to work.

I was hoping that once the election happened, it would end: the sniping, the nastiness, the general eight-year-old behavior.  Ever the optimist, that’s me.  I had “sworn off” Facebook for NaNoWriMo but between disseminating Sandy information and the election, it’s been difficult.  Today I just realized how easy it will be.

A big question of the election was “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” No. No I am not. I am actually slightly worse off. So I should have voted for Romney with that logic, but then he has a pretty negative view of public education, and I teach for a city university, so that probably would not be in my interest.

Job creation is “goal #1”. Sure. Who is going to create university jobs? Universities have discovered the joy that is “contingent faculty”. We’re replaceable cogs in a wheel, hired when there’s need.  There’s always need. In all of the places I teach, contingent faculty out number full time faculty.  We’re cheaper. So I work for three different schools. I teach the equivalence of one and a half full time positions and get paid less than a full timer.

Logic dictates I leave my profession. I’m trying.  After 23 years as a university professor, as an award winning teacher of excellence, I’m trying as hard as I possibly can to find a full time job.  Thanks to misconceptions about my profession, I’m not having much luck.  And I really don’t see how the president of the United States is going to help with that.

Somber thoughts.  Four years ago, I felt more hopeful, I admit. But then I’d only been back in the US for a little over a year.  I hadn’t realized then that moving back to my home country had been a mistake.

I never thought I’d leave the US to live overseas, but when I graduated with my PhD, I couldn’t find a job.  Things were hard in the profession, I was a single mom, and I thought, “what the hell?”  So off I went.  I almost came back three years later, but then I fell in love and married a European and moved there.  But then things happened, and I ended up back here. At the time, I wanted to return. It was good to be back with my family and friends.  

But the quality of life I had in other countries, no matter how dire things were (and at times they were dire indeed), was almost always better than my life here. This breaks my heart.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so somber lately. So sad, really.  I’ve realized that I cannot live successfully in my own country.  It’s not that I’m bad at my job. I turn down part time work every term since I can only teach so many classes according to union rules.  But I can’t find that elusive full time position.

I’m giving it another seven months. Then who knows? The Broad might be abroad again.

May 5, 2011

We live in interesting times

After I had gone to bed on Sunday, I got a text message. Grumbling at inconsiderate students, I decided it would be best to check it since I was mostly awake.

“Osama bin Laden is dead. Prez about to speak” read the text from my sister.

I immediately put on the computer and the TV and called my son out to watch.  And history unfolded itself in front of my eyes for the second time in a weekend, but this was much more somber news.  I’ve been meaning to write about it since it happened, but I have no time. I work 70 hours a week, sometimes more. Leaves little time for thinking much less writing.

So many emotions. I teach many vets and active service people, so my first thoughts went to them. Maybe they weren’t part of the raid, but they played their roles in the War on Terror.  I have students who are in Afghanistan, so of course I worry but my overwhelming emotion was pride–I’m proud to be their teacher because they are the best. All of them have volunteered to face a danger most of us cannot conceive of ever facing, and while they are at it, they earn their college degree.

I watched the president’s speech. I liked it. I followed Twitter. I was disgusted by tasteless jokes and impressed by deep thoughts that can be conveyed in 140 characters. The talking heads came on right after the speech, and I pretty much tuned them out. The 24/7 news cycle has destroyed thought in this country, at least, probably elsewhere, as well.  

Because I live in NYC, local news programs had many of the WTC victim’s family members. Each one spoke movingly. Almost all said this was a time for somber reflection not jubilation, a sentiment I share.  I watched till 1AM, but since I get up at 6, I soon had to force myself to bed.

The next morning, reaction in my classroom was mixed. Relief, joy, fear, disinterest, disbelief.  As a whole, I think that matched the rest of the country.

Today President Obama came to NYC to visit Ground Zero. He also visited a fire station in my neighborhood that lost every man on duty that morning.

All week I’ve been wanting to write, but now when I’ve carved out a little time to do so, nothing is coming. Sitting here I realize I feel numb, and I don’t know why. I think in part it’s attributable to this being the last two weeks of classes, so work has become intense. I’m tired from a year of teaching, exhausted from having to work three jobs to survive. I’ve come to the conclusion that while it’s a good sense of closure for the families that bin Laden is dead, I’m far more concerned with America’s crumbling economy and wealth inequity, and to be honest, my own state of underemployment for the past three years.

I have two students facing eviction next week–just in time for finals. Many of my students have just learned that due to budget cuts they won’t be able to finish their degrees on time.  They are more real to me than someone a half a world away.

There is much to think about, of course, and for someone who sincerely cares about America, this numbness is a frightening, much more frightening than any terrorist threat.  

 I know I’m not saying anything of value here, but I couldn’t let this momentous event pass uncommented upon. I couldn’t come back in a few weeks and write about something without pausing to at least mention something so important here in America. 

Good riddance to bin Laden.

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