Monday, March 19, 2018

How to Oppose White Supremacists Without Becoming a Monster, Yourself by Steven Singer

Originally posted at:

There is a danger in opposing white supremacists.

In confronting such an odious set of beliefs, you can justify suspending your own strongest held moral convictions as a necessary end to defeating their prejudices.

It’s easy to see how this might happen.

When hearing an ignorant troll like Richard Spencer arrogantly spouting warmed over Nazi propaganda, it is quite natural to wish to issue a rebuttal in the form of your fist.

You can follow the logic all the way from your heart to your knuckles.

Your thought process might go something like this:

This fool is so enamored with violence, let him suffer the consequences of it.

But that is conceding the point.

That is giving the white supremacist his due. It’s entering his world and playing by his rules.

Oh, I’m sure it’s satisfying, but it’s the wrong way to respond.

However, on the other hand one can’t simply smile and nod during Spencer’s tirade and then expect to reciprocate with an academic treatise.

No cogent, logical, professorial come back is going to counter the purely emotional arguments made by white supremacists.

They are stoking fear and hatred. Logic is useless here.

So what are anti-racist anti-facists like ourselves supposed to do when confronted with people like this?

We have to walk a razor’s edge between two poles.

I know that’s paradoxical. But it’s true.

As Vienna-born philosopher Karl Popper put it in The Open Society and Its Enemies, unlimited tolerance leads to the destruction of tolerance.

If we tolerate the intolerant, if we give them equal time to offer their point of view and don’t aggressively counter their views, they will inevitably resort to violence and wipe our side out.

This doesn’t mean immediately punching them in the face or violently attacking them. For Popper, we should let rationality run its course, let them have their say and usually their ideas will be rejected and ignored.

However, if this doesn’t happen and these ideas start to take root as they did in Nazi Germany (or perhaps even today in Trump’s America), then Popper says we must stop them by “fists or pistols.”

In short, Popper writes:

“We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Popper believed in the free expression of ideas, but when one of those ideas leads to violence, it is no longer to be tolerated. Then it is outside the law and must be destroyed.


What then do we do with our commitment to nonviolence?

Do we reluctantly agree to push this constraint to the side if push comes to shove?

No. This is the other pole we must navigate between.

On the second to last day of his life, April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech stating his unequivocal commitment to the principal of nonviolence:

“It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

The next day he was shot to death. These are among the last words he spoke in public.

That King was to be martyred in the cause of justice would not have surprised him.

He knew that his continued efforts to fight for human dignity would probably result in the premature ending of his life someday. He knew all that yet he still prescribed nonviolence.

There was simply no other way for him to exist.

Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced Dr. King and our American fight for civil rights with his own nonviolent revolution in India, went even further.

At the start of WWII, he wrote that the British should lay down their arms and let the Nazis invade the United Kingdom without offering any violent resistance. They should even let themselves be slaughtered if it came to it. He made similar remarks to Jews facing the Holocaust.

That’s pretty extreme.

But can you imagine its effect?

No one followed Gandhi’s advice. We fought the Germans in WWII and won. We crushed their pathetic thousand year Reich and threw their prejudiced ideals on the trash heap of history.

The scared and ignorant have rooted through the trash and recycled those same odious ideals.

The war ended, but the battle goes on.

Would that have happened had we met violence with nonviolence?

I don’t know the answer. No one does.

But it respects an important point – we can’t ultimately fight our way to peace. Not without killing everyone else. And then why would the solitary survivor wish to live?

There is an inherent flaw in humanity that continually incites us to kill each other.

We can never have true peace unless we find a way to stamp out that flaw.

Nonviolence is the closest we’ve ever come to finding a solution.

So there you have it, the Scylla and Charybdis of our current dilemma.

We must not tolerate the intolerance of the white supremacists. But we must also not allow our opposition of them to change us into that which we hate.

I know it sounds impossible. And I certainly don’t have all the answers about how we do it.

To start with, when white supremacists advocate violence of any kind, we must seek legal action. We must use every tool of the law, the courts, and law enforcement to counter them.

This requires political power. We must organize and keep them politically marginalized and weak.

We must take every opportunity to speak out against white supremacy. We must continue to make their ideal socially and culturally repugnant. At the same time, we must also reach out to them in the spirit of healing and loveWe can’t give up on them, because they, too, are our brothers and sisters.

Yet if they resort to violence, we can feel justified in protecting ourselves and those they wish to victimize.

But the keyword here is “protect.”

We should go no further. We should not attack.

I know that is a hard line to walk.

Maybe it’s not even possible. Still, we must try.

It might feel satisfying to punch a Nazi. Heck! I’m sure it would. But we cannot allow ourselves to become like them.

Because the real enemy is not them.

It is their fear and ignorance.

And if we’re honest, we hold the same disease deep inside our own hearts.

We cannot defeat racism and prejudice unless we overcome our own flawed humanity.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Why Support The Strike Of Jersey City Teachers? by Lois Weiner

              For some, the decision to support workers who strike is a given.  We defend the right to join a union and exercise the right to strike in every country,  as a human right. Defending the rights of workers to organize and withhold their labor when they need to use this weapon is as much a social justice issue as  fighting racism,  battling sexism, or protecting immigrants from deportation.

               The Right has been able to erode these ideas, through its use of brutal force in breaking unions, its control of the corporate media, and its purchase of politicians in both parties.  Powerful elites have pushed the story that public employees and their unions are selfish, lazy, and care only about themselves, the public be damned.  But public employee unions have handicapped themselves in fighting these attacks, acting as if two decades of Right-wing propaganda can be ignored. 

               The Jersey City teachers are on strike over hikes in health care costs that have cut deeply into their real wages.  Their union, the JCEA, (Jersey City Education Association) an affiliate of NJEA (the New Jersey Education Association) has said their struggle is about quality health care being a right. It is.  Jersey City teachers have a right to quality, affordable health care. So do residents of Jersey City, many of whom are low-income people of color, who have the same right.  But they don’t have employers that provide affordable health care, and that’s the reason our present system of benefits being linked to employers is morally and politically wrong.  Labor for Single Payer healthcare observes “The time has come to take healthcare off the bargaining table by making it a right for everyone in America.”  I hope the JCEA will say this loud and clear:  “Public employees are fortunate to have access to healthcare that they/we and everyone else deserves – and we will fight hard for "single payer" so that our students and their parents have what we all need."  I also hope that in the next contract the union will demand improvements in teaching conditions that directly affect their students.  I know JCEA members care about this. Their union needs to find ways to fight for improvement in the classroom in contract negotiations.  
               Why support the Jersey City teachers in their strike? First, an injunction has been issued against their strike, demanding they return to work on Monday. This injunction is a violation of a fundamental human right, and for that reason alone we should support the strikers.

               Second, the attacks on teachers unions have been orchestrated by the wealthy and powerful to give them control over what our kids learn. By destroying  teachers unions , the Right gets a powerful triple whammy: it weakens public employee unions and labor as a whole;  it removes the most powerful impediment to its dream of destroying school boards and democratic control of public education;  and it removes the obstacle to profits from privatization of  education. 

       The Right doesn’t want teaching to be a career for our kids. It wants a revolving door of low-paid, minimally trained workers who will teach to tests (tests corporations create and parents and teachers have no power to review or revoke) so as to produce a docile workforce that will not stand up for its rights.

               For teaching to be a profession and career, we have to pay salaries that keep people in the job and give them supports to do their job well. Kids who most need experienced teachers are the ones most hurt by teacher “turnover” and “shortages,” conditions that wealthy districts avoid by paying their teachers well and giving kids access to support services.  Though the union itself hasn’t said it, this strike is about the dignity of teaching as a profession, and our obligation to protect teaching as a career. 

               If residents of Jersey City want children to be taught by people who are knowledgeable, caring, seasoned, and aren’t afraid to speak up when they see something not right in the school, they’ll support Jersey City teachers who are on strike.  I do.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Respecting Student Free Speech Was Hard for Adults During Today’s School Walkout by Steven Singer

The kids are all right. It’s the adults you have to watch.

The walkout planned nationwide to protest gun violence today on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting came to my western Pennsylvania school – and we weren’t ready for it.

In fact, up until today no one had mentioned a thing about it.

I had asked teachers if they wanted to do something and was told it was up to the students to lead.

I had asked the high school student council if they were interested in participating, but there wasn’t much of a response.

Then this morning in the middle school where I teach, there was an impromptu two minute meeting where we were told some kids might walk out and that we should just let them go.

Their right to free speech would be respected and there wouldn’t be any penalty for participating.

However, as a teacher, I was instructed not to bring up the subject, not to allow discussion and only to attend if all of my students decided to go.

That’s a hard position to be in.

It’s like being put in a metaphorical straight jacket.

But I tried.

When my 7th grade kids came in, they were all a buzz about something and I couldn’t really ask why.

The suspense was broken with a sledge hammer during second period when one of my most rambunctious students asked if he could use the restroom at 10 am. That was over an hour away.

I told him he couldn’t reserve an appointment for a bathroom break but he could go now if he wanted.

Then he explained himself. At 10 am he was walking out.

The room exploded.

They had heard about the nationwide walkout at 10 – the time of the Parkland shooting. They knew kids all across the land were leaving class for 17 minutes – 60 seconds for each life lost in the shooting.

But that was pretty much it.

They didn’t know what it was that kids were protesting. They didn’t know why they were protesting. They just knew it was something being done and they wanted to do it.

It was at this point I took off my metaphorical straight jacket.

I couldn’t simply suppress the talk and try to move on with the lesson – on propaganda, wouldn’t you believe!

We talked about the limits of gun laws – how some people wanted background checks for people wishing to purchase guns. We talked about regulating guns for people with severe mental illnesses, criminal backgrounds or suspected terrorists. We talked about how there used to be a ban on assault weapons sales and how that was the gun of choice for school shooters.

We even talked about what students might do once they walked out of the building.

They couldn’t just mill around for all that time.

Since we were in the middle of a unit on poetry, someone suggested reading poems about guns and gun violence.

Students quickly went on-line and found a site stocked with student-written poetry on the issue – many by students who had survived school shootings.

I admit I should have checked the site better – but we had literally minutes before the walkout was scheduled to take place.

Some of the poems contained inappropriate language and swear words. But they were generally well written and honest. And the kids liked them.

I let them print a few that they wanted to read aloud at the demonstration.

They were actually huddled around their desks reading poetry and practicing.

They were really excited about the prospect of standing up and being counted – of letting the world know how they felt.

One student even wrote her own poem.

She said I could publish it anonymously, so here it is:

“Pop! Pop! Pop!

Everyone crying, calling their parents, saying their last goodbyes.

Screams echo throughout the building.
Blood painting the white tiles.
Bodies laying limp on the ground
Screams of pain
Bullets piercing our skin.

Yelling and sobbing increase.
We are escorted out.

‘Is this what you wanted?’”

I barely had time to read it before the time came.

Students stood up and were confused by the lack of an announcement.

But this was not a sanctioned school event. If they took part, they were on their own.

It was my smallest class and several kids were already absent.

They all left and were immediately met by the principal and security. To their credit, the adults didn’t stop them, but they told them not to put their coats on until they were outside and to otherwise quiet down.

I made sure to emphasize that anyone who wanted was welcome to stay in class. But no one did.

After the last child left, I grabbed my coat and followed.

When I got to the front of the building I was surprised by the lack of high school students. There were only a handful. But there were maybe 50 middle school kids.

When the principal saw all my students had decided to participate, he asked me to stay in the lobby. He said it wasn’t necessary for me to attend.

That was hard.

I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be insubordinate, either.

My students were expecting me to be there. They were expecting me to help guide them.

So I stood in the doorway and watched.

Students did as I feared; they pretty much milled around.

A few of my students held their poems in hand and read them quietly together but there were no leaders, no organization.

After about 5 minutes, the adults pounced.

The resource officer criticized them since their safety was more at risk outside the building than in class. Administrators chastised the collective group for having no plan, for only wishing to get out of class, for not knowing why they were there and for not doing anything together to recognize the tragedy or the issue. They said that if the students had really wanted to show respect to those killed in Florida they would have a moment of silence.

The kids immediately got quiet, but you can’t have a 17-minute moment of silence. Not in middle school.

I saw some of my kids wanting to read their poems aloud but too afraid to call the group’s attention to themselves.

And then it was over.

The whole thing had taken about 10 minutes.

Administration herded the kids back into the building early and back through the metal detectors.

I can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity.

I get it, being an administrator is tough. A situation like today is hard to stomach. Kids taking matters into their own hands and holding a demonstration!?

We, adults, don’t like that. We like our children to be seen and not heard.

We want them to do only things that will show us in a better light. We don’t like them taking action to fix problems that we couldn’t be bothered to fix, ourselves.

But what right do we have to curate their demonstration?

If they wanted to mill around for 17 minutes, we should have let them.

Better yet, we could have helped them organize themselves and express what many of them truly were thinking and feeling.

If I had been allowed out of the building, I could have called the assembly to order and had my kids read their poems.

But doing so would have been exceedingly dangerous for me, personally.

I can’t actively defy my boss in that way. It just didn’t seem worth it.

If we had had warning that this might happen and planned better how to handle it, that also might have been an improvement.

Imagine if the school had sanctioned it. We could have held an assembly or sent a letter home.

The teachers could have been encouraged to plan something with their students.

Obviously if the students wanted to go in another direction, they should have been allowed to do so.

But these are middle school kids. They don’t know how to organize. They barely know how to effectively express themselves.

Regardless of how we, adults, feel about the issue, isn’t it our responsibility to help our student self actualize?

Isn’t it our responsibility to help them achieve their goals?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a crazy hippie.

Maybe I’m some radical anarchist.

But I’m proud of my students for taking a stand.

It was unorganized and a mess.

Yet they stood up and did something we, the adults, really weren’t that keen on them doing.

Their message was a muddle.

But they had something to say.

They just haven’t figure out how to say it yet.