James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Monday, March 07, 2011

The time to fight is now

“Heaven ne'er helps the men who will not act” -- Sophocles

One of sharpest of the many good and original signs held by participants at a pro-union rally Feb. 26 at the Minnesota Capitol was this: “There's oil in your tea.”

It goes directly to the greatest irony of all the apparent ironies in our escalating war between informed citizens and the irrational deniers of fact who have been suckered into helping the financial aristocracy – including oil barons such as David and Charles Koch -- destroy our poor and take down our middle class.

Wisconsin is the present focus of the conflict, but the war is going on all across the northern two-thirds of the country. (The super-rich won easily, long ago, in the deep South and parts of the West; what's going on there is just a mopping-up and maintenance operation.)

The spectacle of millions of Americans fighting with passion and rage against their own interests, as well as the interests of everyone who isn't very rich, all but paralyzes many liberals and even sane conservatives.

“They can't be serious,” some folks say. “They don't understand what they're doing.” “Don't they get that they'll be ruined along with the rest of us?”

In truth, it is stunning to be faced with such total lack of logic, such complete absence of what we (ironically) call common sense as we see in the signs of tea party ralliers who tell us to “Keep government out of my Medicare.”

If you can't argue facts, since facts they don't like don't exist for the suckers of the far right, and you can't use logic, a concept they never grasped, how do you fight for sanity in government and fairness in politics?

Some gentle types, taking a lead from our craven “Capitulation Are Us” president, want to have a “dialogue” with the dummies rather than fight, hoping that calm discussion will change the minds of at least some of those who worship at the feet of Glenn Beck and believe that the “Tea Party” is a popular uprising of patriots.

Some think it's a matter of “framing” the issues in a way that will be understood by the boobs.

Well, let's grant that Democrats, to whom many liberals unfathomably still look for help, are lousy at explaining or selling good policy. Even if they could (or wanted) to do that job, it wouldn't win this culture and class war, or even keep us in the battle.

People you see carrying the tea party-type signs, the counter-demonstrators (few as they are) in Madison, those who plug in endless “unions are rotten relics of the past” comments on online discussion boards and write searing letters to editors about the “laziness” and general uselessness of all government employees are not even slightly touched by reason.

They know what they know and that's what they know, even if it is the most extreme nonsense.

That is because the things that motivate them, folks, are fear, envy and worship of those who are rich – the latter a true American religion, more deeply held than the Christianity that many loudly and mostly falsely profess.

(How many of the radical right's leaders, clergy and politicians, have been caught almost literally with their pants down in the past decade or so, or with their hands in the till, or both, and how many of those same clergy and pols have devoted themselves to cheating and grinding the poor into the dirt, contrary to what the Bible says were Christ's teachings?)

One of the most effective tactic of people like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – demonstrably a characterless cheat*, by the way – and his owners, the Koch brothers, is to fan the flames of envy that some people feel for others.

Envy, I learned long ago, is a powerful human characteristic.

I worked once for a very small daily newspaper in a small town in the heart of farm country. Something I learned there, and have confirmed over and over in the ensuing 50 years, is that rural people are sure that the people in cities are cheating them. They believe deeply -- although it is demonstrably the reverse – that cities are sucking up their tax dollars while they get nothing back from their states or the states' metropolitan areas.

People in “red” states, where Republicans rule, believe down to their toes that people in “blue” states – where Democrats tend to win elections – are gobbling up their tax dollars when, in fact, the numbers show that states like California and Minnesota pay more in taxes than they get back in government services and people in places such as Mississippi and Tennessee get far more in public money than they pay in taxes. It's been that way for many decades; we in the “liberal” states subsidize the redneck states.

People who are barely literate and work, if they're lucky, at strictly physical jobs, are angry that educated professionals make more money than they do. Lots of people are mad as hell that teachers earn middle-class incomes (in some areas; that's often not true in country towns). And – partially because the right wing propaganda mill has been beating out this theme for decades – a great many Americans are absolutely sure that all government employees are grossly overpaid.

That Barack Obama committed a shameful act of politicial theater by freezing the pay of federal employees confirmed to many that they were right in that belief.

And so there is support for Scott Walker and his counterparts in Ohio, Texas, New Jersey and elsewhere when they set out to destroy the unions of government employees. There is enthusiasm for the idea of unilaterally breaking employee contracts and cutting pensions that people have worked for and counted on for decades. There is joy at the idea of destroying public unions – and thus, inevitably, all unions.

And the lies are believed.

I'd guess that a substantial majority of Americans believe government employees are paid considerably more than their counterparts in private employ for the same work at the same levels of education. It's flatly not true – public employees, in fact, make almost 25 percent less, on average, than those of comparable education and experience, than do those who work for businesses.

In many cases, public employees have had their unions negotiate better pensions than their privately employed counterparts, and they have paid for those pensions through lower take-home pay. (Although their total earnings, including pensions and other benefits, still are generally lower than those of corporate employees.) And now the right wing wants government bodies to break the deals and cut the pensions. Contracts? They're only to be honored if they're between rich guys – and you can't count even on that.

It used to be that when people saw a group of their neighbors get raises or improved pensions through collective bargaining, they figured they'd get the same improvements before long. But we've been hammered with right wing “everyone for himself” propaganda for so long that now a majority get angry when someone else's situation improves. “If I don't have it, nobody should get it,” is the obvious popular attitude.

OK. That's envy.

The fear that drives people to support the right-wing plutocrats comes from many places, in many forms, as everyone likely to read this already knows.

Americans love to think we're all cowboys – independent, smart, strong and brave.

Somewhere in the back of our heads, most of us know that the majority of Americans are, in fact, ignorant of the world and constantly afraid.

Think about it. We've been under “orange alert” for most of the past 10 years. Polls show that many Americans are willing to give up Constitutional rights and freedoms to be “safe” from terrorists, although we've had only one genuinely successful attack in this country by foreign terrorists – and that could have been prevented under existing law and rule if the Bush administration had done its job.

Huge numbers of Americans are afraid of immigrants, not for the generally stated reasons, obviously, but because the immigrants are in some way “different.” They're black or brown-skinned, or follow a religion that is considerably different from Methodist, Baptist or Roman Catholic, or simply have different cultural mores. We've never been comfortable with “different,” and many of us are truly frightened by the fact that the country no longer looks as it did 40 years ago.

Ye, gods! A black man, a black family, in the White House! That alone makes many people fairly wet their pants in fear, and it doesn't matter what he stands for (or doesn't).

It's enough to make millions set their jaws and do whatever the big money manipulators tell them to do to “win back our America.”

And here's another truth seen as blasphemy in ostrich America: Many Americans really, deep down, don't want their kids to do better than they have done in life.

I discovered that truth while working on the Minnesota Daily, the daily student newspaper at the University of Minnesota, roughly fifty years ago, and have heard it confirmed repeatedly ever since.
(See essay below this one.)

The fight in the states between right-wing operatives such as Karl Rove and financial aristocrats such as the Koch brothers and their foot-kissing servants such as Scott Walker on one side and the people who work for a living on the other has awakened some people from their television-induced comas, and the will to survive has brought some of those people to cast aside their fear, but most people in this country are just digging deeper into their holes at this point.

We've heard quite a lot over the past years about how those good folks in North Dakota and the Minnesota prairies and Kansas simply are not liberals and how we have to pet them and curry their manes to get them to vote for Democrats such as right wing Rep. Collin Peterson, from Minnesota's seventh district, and, yes, corporate servant Barack Obama. And never mind that such people sell us out time and again to big money interests. Somehow a Democrat who takes away our ability to buy our own homes or is eager to kill contractually negotiated pensions is supposed to be better for us than a Republican who does the same thing.

Nuts to that.

We need to do a hard sell of the facts. We need to rub the noses of the tea partiers and their sympathizers in the messes they have helped to create and show them that if they buy garbage they eat garbage. We have to counter the massive, hugely expensive propaganda campaigns of the super rich who intend to own this country, including all of its people, very soon.

The battles taking place in Wisconsin and elsewhere now give us an opportunity to counter the lies – to make some points even through the dimwitted oafs of the corporate press. But we also have to spend – to donate to the outfits that now are running television ads in Wisconsin to counter the ads bought with Koch money. We must give through the nose to other, similar campaigns. And we have to stand up and be heard, in local groups, at social occasions, anywhere we can get an audience of one or more.

This is it, I think -- the last chance or pretty close to it.

To hell with those nice, dim relatives in North Dakota and Kansas, folks. Raise your voices to be heard by people who can still think, and who can see, or be shown, that the present fight is their fight. Win a few battles, and then the facts will seep through to those who are, for now, so frightened of change they cannot think.

*In case you missed it, which is more than likely, given how little coverage it has received: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gives a variety of excuses for having left Marquette University as a young man without getting a degree. The truth, as was recently reported by Truthout and other organizations, is that he was “asked to leave” the school before his senior year. The reason was that he cheated and defied campaign rules while running for student government president at the university. One of the things he did was have some of the similarly unethical punks who worked on his campaign pick up and throw away almost all of the copies of the school's student newspaper when it endorsed his opponent.
This leopard is still wearing its original spots.

Tea partiers to kids: Don't get uppity

It is truly strange to see crowds of middle class Americans out to commit economic suicide by fighting for the very rich plutocrats who are carving away their freedoms and draining their pockets.

But, then, there are many puzzling aspects to the “tea party” phenomenon.

One of the overlooked questions that nagged at me until very recently is the fact that most of those who have been bamboozled by right wing propaganda seem entirely unconcerned that their children and grandchildren are being priced out of a college education. None of the corporate “news” media have asked any of the suckers about that, to my knowledge.

In fact, second-rate and even third-rate colleges already are beyond the means of millions of Americans, and the genuinely good universities are priced so far beyond the ability of most people to pay that they are now pretty much reserved for the rich -- and a few awesomely brilliant scholarship kids, of course.

No one, least of all university administrators, even remembers the purpose of land-grant universities and how they came to be. I don't hear anyone asking why schools that cannot exist without billions of tax dollars are being priced so that the majority of young people can't afford them.

State universities, like private colleges, are increasingly only for the very well off, and rapidly headed for the status of rich-kid sanctuaries.

(Land grant colleges-- most of which now are universities -– were established by acts of Congress in 1862 and 1890. Essentially, under those acts the federal government gave states land which the states could develop or sell to raise money to endow colleges. The colleges were to specialize in agriculture, science and engineering, but the missions were greatly broadened over the years. The land-grant laws have been revised at least 20 times to give the schools more breadth and depth. Many, probably most, state universities, including my alma mater, would not exist were it not for those laws. The endowments still function.)

People with little money are shunted into community colleges, which, to be blunt, are basically trade schools for people who will, if they are lucky, get middling white collar jobs and never advance beyond the office equivalent of foreman. (I know: It's another truth we're not supposed to recognize.) A few very sharp individuals will transcend that arc, of course, but that doesn't change the basic facts.

If things had been in the 1950s as they are now, neither I nor a majority of my closest friends of similar age would have obtained college educations.

But the people who ride buses chartered by the Koch brothers and carry signs calling Barack Obama a Nazi very obviously don't give a damn about education.


I recently remembered something I learned when I was a 19- or 20-year-old student at the University of Minnesota.

One of the many myths of this country is that Americans want their kids to do better in life than they have done.

As Ira Gershwin put it: It ain't necessarily so.

The fact is that a whole lot of people, generally from blue-collar communities and, especially, rural areas, emphatically do not want their offspring to advance substantially, either socially or economically. They won't often admit that, but it's a truth I learned from the offspring of blue collar families, and rural people, of my generation. And from their parents.

Periodically, I do a little asking around to see if that has changed. It has not.

(I come from an entirely blue-collar family, by the way, and my parents were skeptical about my going to college, mainly but not entirely because even at the very low cost of a public university in those days, money was a very big issue. I paid at least 90 percent of my own living and university expenses through part-time and multiple summer jobs; that is impossible for a poor kid today, no matter how hard he or she works.)

My curiosity about lack of parental support among my poorer fellow students began when I had ingested several newspaper stories, printed over a couple of years, that included comments from people in rural areas about how they really didn't want their children to go to the big bad University of Minnesota and their fears about those children taking on the ways of the city and losing their “good, small-town values.”

It was a topic that showed up with surprising frequency in stories originating in what Minnesotans call “out state” areas -- that is, outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

So I asked quite a few of the many “out state” kids I knew at the university whether the newspaper stories showed an attitude really held by their parents and people in the communities where they were raised.

My fellow students were surprised by the question; the affirmative answer was so obvious, they thought, that it amounted to a universal truth. It was something a majority of them had to contend with.

Many parents from rural Minnesota towns such as Crookston and Fergus Falls and Montevideo were willing to have their kids attend one of the little public colleges in those or other small towns. Those with money often were willing to pay to send their kids to very expensive but academically superior small colleges in yet other small towns – Carleton, say, or St. Olaf – especially if they were run by religious denominations. A lesser number would even sanction the substantial and growing St. Cloud State University or University of Minnesota-Duluth, with or without a fight first.

But the University of Minnesota's main campuses in the Twin Cities? A whole lot of parents fought against that, often to the point of saying they'd rather the kids didn't go to college at all. And some, of course, just thought that small or big, cheap or expensive, college was “a waste of time,” and would “do more harm than good.”

I pushed on the questions when I visited friends out state, or took long weekends in the country, and when I had a summer job in a small town. People, including parents of my fellow students, quite readily confirmed what the students already had told me: College in general “made kids think they're better than their parents,” and “made them get above themselves.”

Attending big schools that pushed general scholarship, as opposed to just career training, meant that kids “lost their good small-town values” and “forgot their religion” and “taught them to sneer at morality,” and the like.

That has changed some, of course, as people have seen more of the world, mainly through the eyes of television. But those attitudes and that fear of the wider world and wider knowledge still are common. And, as the world seems every more frightening to people who want nothing to change, resistance to knowledge and education seems to be regaining much of the power it lost in the 20th century.

It's a scary world to people who think American should be always white, that power belongs in the hands of white men, and that old-time Christian religion should be forever followed by all Americans.

And then, of course, there is the dirty little secret that has existed all along, certainly since long before I became a freshman at the University of Minnesota: A surprising number of people are jealous of their kids who learn more and earn more; and they take their kids' new lives as a rejection of themselves and their way of life.

That's what I came to understand after much questioning and prying into the thoughts and feelings of others. Also, of course, education tends to scatter families; the kids move to where the jobs are.

Though they sometimes won't admit it, some people are happier when the young don't go off to learn different things and to be taught to accept other values and other ways of living. Those who worry that decent health care for all is “communist socialism” and are horrified to see a black man who is not the butler in the White House are almost sure to be the same people who want their kids to stay home and stay ignorant.

Kids can't afford college? That's good.

One more thing: I've traveled extensively much of my life, and something else I know that applies here: Minnesota is, and long has been, less provincial in many ways, including those discussed here, than most of the deep South, or Kansas, or much of the West. And pockets of such anti-learning bias can be found in every state.