Lessons of 2017

  1. Isolation is bad.

Why have I not written in over a year? Isolation. Not talking about the Joy Division song, though of course that could apply. Isolation. For whom would I write, if I am cut off from any audience? If you are reading this, I hope we’ve talked in the past year, but there’s every chance we haven’t, or have only done so sporadically.

I should state that I have not been completely isolated. I have one comrade  with whom I’ve been able to talk to about the broad picture; one colleague at work I can talk to candidly about union questions; one colleague I can talk to in my department; one colleague (who lives at a distance) with whom I can discuss my particular discipline. And of course, one other adult at home with whom I can share all of this. But two do not make a crowd, much less any form of organization.

On the one hand, it would be easy to chalk this up to working harder and being buried in family responsibilities, both of which are true. But it’s also a political question. This year has been a year of duck and cover for people on the left, and the role of the Democrats and their Russian nonsense has not helped. It has, in fact, increased the level of isolation and disorientation of those on the real, practical left. Of course, the sectarians, in whose ranks I used to count myself, continue to cheerlead the liberal “resistance”, while failing to lead any of it.

And this is where I fall into a reflection on sect life. I cannot now imagine ever going back to it, and I’ve started to question why I ever thought it made sense. Hindsight, I suppose. Not quite regret, but a sense that this framework was radically flawed, even though it provided a sense of connection. I always felt connected to a larger struggle, to a larger human organization—I now think it was largely a scam to harvest unpaid labor from willing idealists distributing and selling literature for those who reaped the (non-profit!) benefit. And that perhaps makes the current isolation worse, because it’s more natural, more common. Many more people must feel isolation like this.

A plan to break out of this isolation? I have not yet a clue.

 

  1. Negotiations, pragmatism, democracy: a difficult equation.

I think I did the wrong thing. Did I do the wrong thing? I think I did, though likely anyone in my union would either say no, or say yes for the wrong reasons.

I took part in contract negotiations, even as I had misgivings from the beginning. Let me state quite clearly that I do not, in any way, suspect the intentions of my fellow negotiators, nor would I ever want to imply that they had ulterior motives. Furthermore, the product of the negotiations—the contract we approved—was, as an expression of prevailing wages and conditions, what could be expected. Albeit limited and flawed in certain respects, but not far behind the prevailing contract provisions throughout the state.

What bothered me was the process. Though in form it did not break any particular rules of democracy, in essence it was extremely undemocratic. Pragmatism ruled the day: get the job done! Get it done as efficiently as possible! The effect: we are less prepared than ever to lead our union into a collective action, because we have reinforced the notion, common among our members, that the union will “do it for me”.

The difficulty that I had—should I disagree openly with the whole process and remove myself from the negotiations? The problem here was that to do so on a principled basis, but without a clear counter-proposal for action, would simply have discredited me as a crank and an ideologue in the eyes of my fellow union members. And this is the other side of the equation: ideologues don’t win elections, and they don’t sign contracts. Their ideas have to be strictly aligned with a pragmatic plan of action, one that is well-known and supported by masses of people. A proletarian pragmatism, which is only possible when the masses (in this case, the critical mass of my union members) are mobilized, ready to fight, or better yet—already in action. Unfortunately, for all of my union experience, the opposite has been true. Bourgeois pragmatism wins the day.

In the event, I had neither a clear plan of action, nor a mass base for that plan. It was a question my union ally and I debated: are we isolated? Are we unrepresentative of the mass of union members? Are we in the wrong spot altogether? I fear that the answer to these questions is likely “yes”.

There is much more to be said about this, but mostly in a form that will make sense to my fellow union activists. That, I have not yet achieved. I’ve talked about it for some time, but with no action to back it up—and I think I will need help from comrades and friends before any draft becomes a solid document.

The final thing to say here is that I am always concerned that I’m doing the wrong thing vis-à-vis my principles. I think here that I likely did the wrong thing, getting myself into the wrong situation, where the context was all wrong to begin with. This is probably why revolutionaries largely need to hold back—and if they don’t, then to retreat and draw the right lessons and reorient. Still working on it.

 

  1. Fiction can be good.

I read two particularly good books this year. I think I read a few in between them as well, but these two stood out. And (gasp!): one was fiction. In English.

I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. No, I did not see the TV series of the same that came out this spring, while I was reading it. But I devoured a fiction book, and it was good. The basic concept is the story of Shadow, an unlikely hero; and Mr. Wednesday, the old Norse god Odin, shipwrecked for an eternity in America. And as it turns out, America is not a hospitable place for gods of any sort. The novel took several turns back and forth between the fantastical and the utterly familiar, particularly if you’ve spent any time in the Midwest. It was a good escape, and that is not something I usually turn to books to find. I may have to do more of it in the future.

The other book was Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. This is not fiction, and it is not for the faint of heart. It is a straightforward look at the varieties of trauma, from veterans to adult survivors of catastrophes and assaults, to children. In my life, I have come to know so many people who have survived through traumas, and particularly those they suffered in childhood. As adults, they try so hard to keep it together, but then one triggering event brings it all crashing down. I had been reading articles for some time on trauma and its after-effects, but this book brought it all together. And what’s so heavy for me is that I see these symptoms now in so many of my students, I cannot even keep an accurate count.

The book follows Dr. van der Kolk’s experience. He seems to have been in the right place at the right time, for decades on end. He begins with returning Vietnam Vets and the recognition of PTSD in the DSM, the APA’s official list of diagnoses, in 1980. But the exploration of PTSD goes much further, and he talks about developments in the use of drugs (which he’s quite skeptical of), neuroscience, and new therapeutic techniques.

He also spends a significant portion of the book on the effects of traumatic and adverse experiences on children. Here is a hidden crisis, an epidemic denied by official society (including and especially the APA), the disease of child abuse. Childhood traumas are not just awful and traumatic; they impact the development of children’s brains in ways that will shape their entire adult lives. I have seen this in so many adults who seem to carry bad luck with them everywhere, who always do or say the wrong thing at the wrong time, who can always have strange physical ailments popping up even when everything else seems basically put together, who suffer from depression and chronic autoimmune disorders all at the same time. What if we identified the real causes of these problems and treated them properly, and from a young age? Dr. van der Kolk and others actually proposed a diagnosis of Developmental Trauma Disorder, only to have the APA reject the proposal.

As infuriating as this was—and he does not mince words in his condemnation of an organization that has consigned millions of children to bad diagnoses and inappropriate treatments—he also understands the question of trauma as a social and political question. Social, because our society lacks the empathy and the structures necessary to heal traumatized individuals. Political, because our governmental institutions are run by people who value profit over people, who enact budget cuts that further harm those who are most susceptible to trauma. There is much more to say about this book, and I think it would be quite useful as part of a study group that also took up Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. My only regret about this book: that I did not read it along with others. Now I can only recommend it!

 

  1. Listening to the news is good, even if the news is bad.

This year, I assigned my upper-level students to listen to the Journal en Français Facile on Radio France Internationale. So, I started to listen to it on a daily basis, initially so that I could verify that they heard what they reported. I quickly got into the routine, and felt much more connected to the world as a result of it. I used to follow events, because I was selling propaganda about them on a weekly basis. It was, quite honestly, mechanical and manipulative: I had a reason for following events. I also had a group to discuss them with, and that it still somewhat lacking. But now I feel much clearer on what is actually happening in the world, even if I don’t have a facile explanation followed by a recruitment pitch. I have also started listening to Radio Canada, and reading the Guardian Weekly. If nothing else, I at least have some grasp on the world once again. But then the news lately has not been all that good. Quite the opposite. In fact, what I’ve found is that…

 

  1. Fascism is the new normal.

“C’est bien d’une lepénisation des esprits dont il faut parler.” –from an article I read in 2013 (can’t find the source now…)

“Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.”  –Leon Trotsky, “What is National Socialism?”, June 10, 1933

Nothing is quite so shocking as undiluted racism, and nothing so disquieting as the indifference of the multitude, encouraged by the official pronouncements of self-proclaimed “liberals”.

Trump’s America has made teaching harder in new ways. The Trump phenomenon has brought to the surface a new, virulent form of racism among young white students, particularly boys (though it is certainly not limited to the cis-het-male gender). It has made schools a harsher place for students of color, for gay, transgender and gender-non-conforming students, and for girls. It has had a chilling effect on teachers, even as we scream inside over things we have no power (at least as individuals) to change. It is no longer possible to close the classroom door and leave the nastiest bits of social decay outside. We are confronted on a daily basis with a revitalized far-right and its impact on the minds not only of young people, whose naïveté and honesty give it a pure and frightening expression, but also of other adults, whose cynicism makes it chillingly real.

Leaving out the details, as I and others have been instructed NOT TO TALK ABOUT IT, let’s just say there was an incident this fall. Nazi propaganda. Flat-out white supremacism. Beyond the initial shock that I and others felt, what followed—what was much more insidious—was the response from (white) adults in the building. (Because they’re all white.) This consisted of two elements: 1) the apparently willful ignorance and indifference of a significant portion, likely a majority, of our school community to the presence and effects of this everyday racism on our students of color; 2) the official position of silence—and really, of silencing—on the issue of racism in our school. It took a while for there to be any acknowledgement that something amiss had happened, and only then in the form of “we’re sorry if anyone was offended”, the ultimate non-apology. Meanwhile, the rifts between people who once spoke easily and in a friendly manner are now palpable every day in the hallway.

When Obama was elected, I was in an organization that spent quite a bit of time denying the racist backlash, and (more particularly) denying that it was a sign of a right-wing America, much less and right-ward shift in American (and world) politics. Now, it’s obvious that the election of the first Black president was the cue for an emboldened racist right, which provided the conditions for resurgent fascism worldwide. In America, those conditions are linked with a history of suppression of people of color, through slavery, segregation, immigration controls, all for the end of labor discipline. Put these conditions into a school, turn up the volume on white ignorance and butthurt, and you see what’s going on today. It’s chilling and unsettling. It’s hard not to fall into a pessimism in these conditions. But it’s also not a situation that will change unless we find ways to challenge it directly.

 

  1. Fight for yourself.

This is the last lesson of 2017, and it’s one that will require elaboration going in to 2018. It may be that my stuck position in my union has amplified this point for me, beyond what is necessary more broadly in society. But it also bears repeating that nothing improves for people who do not advocate for themselves. It’s hard, especially in the era of Trump, in a time when Nazis march without their KKK robes, when all the world seems to be headed to hell. It’s also hard when we have very few examples over the past generation and a half of successful movements from below. There is much in the discourse surrounding racism and homo- and transphobia that says that oppressed individuals shouldn’t have to explain their oppression to others who don’t face it. And there is a deep tradition in the union movement of waiting for other people (generally union officials, sometimes politicians) to “do it for me”. But there will be no progress in struggles if people who are facing adversity—whether in the form of racist treatment (or dismissal), or in the form of unfair, brash, and uncaring treatment from the boss—don’t start to fight for themselves, whatever the consequences may be. If we fight, there will always be resistance from our oppressors. But it we don’t fight, they will always win. The odds are never in our favor, but that’s not a reason to take up the struggle.

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
This entry was posted in Analysis, Musings and Questions. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Lessons of 2017

  1. ralfforchewn says:

    Brian, I just saw this. I will get back to you on this. Fyi, I think it’s a real good piece. rf

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