Are the Voters to Blame?

“Throw the bums out!” So say plenty of disgruntled voters in the face of government shutdowns, filibusters, and obstructions in recent years. Polls show that approval ratings for Congress are hovering around 15%, near their all-time lows. Over 70% say they want a turnover in Congress, and a majority of the polled commonly include their own representative in that judgment. The people are angry, if not furious, over the state of things in Washington, feeling themselves to be victims of flawed politicians and flawed government.

But an odd contradiction arises. In the midst of all the voter unrest, Congress seems to be as entrenched and immune to change as ever.  Mostly the same politicians keep getting elected. Judging from the return of many of the worst offenders, accountability for bad governing practices does not seem to hold at all. If the voters truly wish to throw the “bums” out, why do they keep returning them to office?

Barney Frank in a recent article takes an unusual tack on the issue by focusing a critical eye on voters themselves. He argues that American voters are largely to blame for the virtual absence of political accountability.  He sees an increasing cynicism and negativity in the voters’ view of government, a decline in the belief that government “works” or plays a constructive role in their lives. This negative view of government creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that “government doesn’t work.”

Far from causing voters to cast out the worst of the misbehavers in Congress, the attitude perversely causes them to reinforce the dysfunctional state of affairs. It motivates ideological voters “who don’t mind shutting down what seems like a failed system,” to vote for extremists. At the same time, it discourages many disillusioned voters who “care about cooperation,” from voting at all. This syndrome is notably reflected in off-year elections such as in 2010 and 2014, when far-right voters far outnumbered moderates.

This should concern progressives, especially as they head into a critical election. Right-wing Republicans have been very successful in pushing their theme of failed government. It is a sad fact that politicians who proudly boast about “starving the beast” and shutting down government should be able to carry out their agenda with virtually no fear of consequences at the polls. Indeed, the Republican right continues to reap the benefits of this strategy. Government as an evil institution that needs to be curbed and humbled, except in its military/police role, has become one of the most successful frames in modern political history.

The remedy for this situation is by no means quick or easy. Frank himself says simply that voters need to change their behavior: namely, show up and vote for “candidates actually willing to do the hard work of governing.” But such a change of behavior requires education, mobilization, and leadership on the part of the progressive community. Convincing people that they can make government responsive to their needs and promote justice is the crucial issue. Let’s show how it can be done!

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How Not to Govern: U.S. Highways and Infrastructure the Victim of Ideology

Once upon a time, government investment in the nation’s infrastructure was a bipartisan thing. Democrats saw such investment as encouraging jobs, the Republicans saw it as helping business, and everybody agreed that it strengthened the nation. This view has been shared by both parties throughout our history. Democrats were largely responsible for TVA (Franklin Roosevelt) and mass transit (Lyndon Johnson). Republicans had their hand in the Transcontinental RR (Lincoln), the Hoover Dam (Hoover), and the national highway system (Eisenhower). All political actors assumed that maintaining and upgrading the nation’s infrastructure was a basic government responsibility.

In today’s world all of this has changed. Even as railroad accidents occur with increasing frequency and bridges and highways beg for attention, we see Congress failing to deal with long-term infrastructure needs. While the media generally attributes such gridlock to “political dysfunction,” as if nobody in particular or everybody in general is to blame for it, the reluctance to address the problem is clearly rooted in the new anti-government worldview of today’s Republican Party. Under Tea Party influence, the GOP has lost its taste for many of the federal government’s basic tasks.

The recent legislative record on infrastructure is plain for all to see. While the Obama administration, backed by broad constituencies including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the right and the AFL-CIO on the left, has been pushing hard to deal with infrastructure, recalcitrant conservatives have foot dragged on the issue ever since taking control of the House of Representatives in 2010. They have ruled out deficit financing in spite of its likely stimulative impact and the advantage of financing at today’s bargain rates. They have refused, in line with oft repeated anti-tax declarations, to consider raising the federal gas tax to re-energize the Highway Trust Fund, the main mechanism for transportation spending. And they have shown little interest in a proposal to close a tax loophole, one that currently allows multinationals to escape paying U.S. taxes, for raising money for infrastructure. Vague talk of establishing a reserve fund to deal with infrastructure, but with no idea on how to fund it, is the closest Republicans come to dealing with the problem.

With such impediments, the best Congress can do is to offer stop-gap measures. What funding there is tends to be ad hoc and month-to-month (one writer  compares the process to an individual refilling his gas tank “one gallon at a time”). This unpredictable process is in contrast to the traditional custom of making commitments over periods of five or more years, considered essential for planning large-scale projects. The current approach has taken an obvious toll. A graph of domestic infrastructure expenditures over time shows a steep drop of around 20% since 2010. The World Economic Forum accordingly ranked U.S. infrastructure no higher than 16th in the world in 2014, down from 5th in 2002. The American Society of Civil Engineers currently gives it a grade of D+.

Democrats are not the only ones who are frustrated. A few Republicans still willing to grapple with the problem have run out of patience with their own party faithful. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman, Senator James Imhofe, calls his refusenik colleagues in the House “a bunch of demagogues down there, Republicans who were trying to say oh we can’t do this, we can’t spend all this money.'” It is not often that Imhofe contradicts his own party, but on this issue he states the obvious: “Clearly this is something we ought to be doing.”

Is there any prospect of a reasonable solution? In the short-term, that seems very unlikely. Though the Republicans are undoubtedly motivated by various political factors, their position is basically ideological. It is driven by that hoariest of right-wing tenets, that government can do no good and needs to be hog-tied. This belief leads naturally to what the party faithful call the “starve the beast” strategy, i.e. shrink government by starving it of revenue. Depriving government of the funds to do its job is a win-win for ideologues. It offers government on the cheap, with multiple tax-breaks for those who mostly don’t need them, while confirming the narrative that the government is incompetent and unable to do its job. The inability to maintain the sinews of America’s economy can be considered chapter one of that narrative.

If the difficulty is ideology, then no amount of reasonable talk and negotiation will end the political dysfunction we have experienced in the last half dozen years. The end will come when citizens decide they have had enough and vote accordingly.

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Liberty, Libertarianism, and Solar Power

Self-described libertarians David and Charles Koch consistently present themselves as defenders of freedom and choice. Thus Americans For Prosperity, the Kochs’ political arm, states on its website that “free markets make free and prosperous people” and that its objective is “getting government to clear the way for every American, not just special interests.”  The linkage between liberty and libertarianism is conveyed as a kind of unwritten law.

There are times, however, when Koch rhetoric seems to collide with Koch interests. A good example is the Koch brothers’ current resistance to the solar energy industry. With a major stake in oil and gas, the Kochs see solar as a potential competitor in the energy market. Watching as solar has become more cost-competitive and increasingly popular with users in recent years, they and their allies in the utility industry have sought to impede the new industry in a number of states. The controversy has led to a stand-off between pro- and anti- solar forces.

The controversy is especially heated in sunbelt states where solar power would seem to be an obvious alternative. The issue takes different forms in different states. In Arizona, for example, where consumers with solar panels on their rooftops seek to sell back their energy on the grid, the issue is whether  participants should pay for this convenience with hefty fees. In Florida, where solar is less developed, it is whether the utilities should be able to maintain a monopoly over the types of energy available. In all cases the issue boils down to openness to competition and the availability of choices for individuals and small businesses.

The Koch brothers’ anti-solar stance raises obvious questions about the consistency of their libertarian principles. How could the defenders of “laissez-faire” become major foes of competition? The preferred line of argument taken by the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is to emphasize the federal subsidies received by the renewable energy industries, a fact that apparently makes them less than legitimate entrepreneurs and unworthy of support. But an obvious rebuttal is that oil and gas companies hardly fare better on that score. While the renewable technologies have received government aid of late for reasons of national interest, the oil and gas industries have been subsidy hogs for generations, receiving a bonanza that makes solar and wind subsidies seem like a pittance. Even now, according to Politifact, oil and gas are granted almost three times more federal aid than solar. Solar’s subsidies are somewhere around five percent of the total federal energy allotment.

The incoherence of the AFP position has eroded Koch support in many quarters. Ideological rhetoric tends to lose its sway when things that immediately affect people’s lives are at stake? The traditional face-off between liberals and conservatives has been largely defused on solar energy matters as a result. Instead, alliances have been forming between liberal green groups like the Sierra Club and Green Peace and conservative groups like Conservatives for Energy Freedom, Tea Party Network, and TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar Won’t be Killed). In Florida, a conservative organization called Floridians for Solar Choice heads a broad coalition that is working to put a proposal on the 2016 ballot to allow energy choice in Florida. The organization makes no secret of its desire to transcend party labels and appeal to the broad populace.

By demonstrating a tin ear on a popular issue, the Koch brothers risk far more than the loss of a few conservative allies. Their ideology itself is on the line. If libertarianism can be used as a tool for billionaires who value freedom and free markets only when it benefits their bottom line, how credible is it as a political creed?

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A Defender of Public Education Who Spent Time on the Other Side: Diane Ravitch Critiques Corporate-Style Reform

Diane Ravitch is perhaps America’s leading defender of public education. A 76 year-old educational historian, she heads the Network for Public Education (NPE), an organization of parents and educators “to strengthen our public school system.” Ravitch is an indefatigable publicist and author who believes that public education is “an essential institution in a democratic society.” She is skeptical of top-down corporate-style reform, coercive testing regimes, and “school choice” that shunts resources away from public education.

Ravitch has not always been a stalwart advocate of public schools. As she openly admits, she underwent a change of heart. Her mutation, however, was not so much a slide from one position to another as a round-trip journey back to her original starting point. She began as a devotee of public education (she was a product of the Houston public school system), studying and writing about its history and development. Changing course in mid-career, she found herself drawn to a reform agenda that disparaged the “public” aspect of schooling, emphasizing markets, industrial-style accountability, and incentives. Only at the end of her career did she reassess her views and return to her original position as a defender of democratically-based public education.

If  education reform turned out to be a questionable detour for Ravitch, what attracted her to it in the first place?  Certainly the disappointing achievement levels of some American public schools, notably in poor neighborhoods, were hard to ignore. Selective comparisons with foreign education systems often suggested that the United States was falling behind the rest of the world (although the comparisons were often misleading or untrue, as shown recently in Ravitch’s book, Reign of Error). There was also a perception, sometimes fair and sometimes not, that teachers’ unions were self-absorbed and unresponsive to the challenges faced. Ravitch, whose major work was in developing school curricula and standards, was as aware as anyone of the need for improvement.

In 1991, she was asked by Lamar Alexander, George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, to work under him in developing voluntary national education standards. Although she had doubts about working under a Republican administration, the job description seemed generally non-partisan and supportive of traditional public school systems. With that understanding, she took on the assignment.

While at the Department of Education, however, Ravitch became involved in more than just curricula and standards. She was increasingly exposed to the “reform” ideas of her conservative colleagues. It was, as she confesses in the opening pages of The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), a subtle kind of co-optation. She began to see market mechanisms as something that could improve education by making it more efficient. Corporate business principles, data collection, incentives, sanctions (“consequences”), along with national standards, seemed to be rational, acceptable means to bring this about.

After her stint with the Department of Education, Ravitch intensified her reform activities. She worked with conservative foundations like Olin, Fordham, and the Hoover Institution to devise ways to “remake” the American school system in market-friendly ways. Education reform became a movement with a cast of committed players, including billionaire philanthropists like Gates, Bloomberg, and Walton, well-funded politicians from both parties, and entrepreneurs eager to make money in the new frontier of prepping, testing, data-collecting, and school administration. Governors George W. and Jeb Bush experimented with new approaches in the late 1990s, paving the way for President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. NCLB introduced testing and tough sanctions for teachers and schools that didn’t measure up to federal requirements. Meanwhile it loosened restrictions on charter schools ready to step into the gap.

Just as the education reform movement was reaching critical mass, however, Diane Ravitch began to feel uneasy. Her qualified reaction to the implementation of NCLB and subsequent reforms was perhaps at first just scholarly skepticism. But it was a skepticism that grew over time as she learned to separate the hype from the less flashy empirical results of the new reform movement. Charter schools, she found, were on average little better, and often worse, than the public schools they were replacing. The same was true in the case of for-profit schools and other “school choice” options being offered. Tests offered by private firms like Pearson, ostensibly to enhance accountability, had become “mechanistic” as she saw it, having little to do with encouraging creative education or even of measuring teacher ability. And standards of accountability that were fiercely applied to public institutions were not maintained for private ones, indicating a double standard.

Ravitch also became troubled by the elitism and lack of transparency that  defined the new movement. Its supporters made little attempt to conceal their disdain for professional teachers and the unions that represented them. Most had never been involved with a public school or taught in a classroom. Whether technocratic like Education Secretary Arne Duncan or brash like Superintendent Michelle Rhee and Governors Cuomo,  Brownback, and Walker, their approach was consistently dictatorial and top-down. Reformers wanted instant results by means that were often not developed in field trials or otherwise empirically verified. Decisions about the fate of schools were invariably undemocratic and opaque, leaving parents, teachers, and local communities voiceless.

Ravitch’s well-argued criticism of the reform movement is not heard in many quarters. The overly positive narrative about education reform continues to be pushed by cheerleaders in the business community, the media, and the political establishment. In pure dollar terms, the vested interests fighting for it are gigantic. Still, for those protesting out-of-control privatization and political high-handedness, there are plenty of green shoots to be encouraged by. There is a growing refusal by citizens to tolerate the over-testing and the corporate-style solutions being foisted on them from on high. And there is increasing appreciation for traditional community-supported schools where parents and teachers play an active role. It needed a truth-teller like Diane Ravitch, who spent years in the belly of the beast, to help provide a vision and a spark.

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Anti-Sharia Fever in Texas: This is How It Starts

The mayor of a mid-size Texan city has emerged in recent months as the newest face of Islamophobia. Aligning herself with extremists hostile to Islam, Mayor Beth Van Duyne of Irving, Texas has helped to fan fears about a Muslim arbitration panel serving the region’s Muslim community. She and her allies have framed their stance as a response to the so-called threat of Muslim law, called Sharia, to America’s constitutional order. The events in this case provide an example of how anti-Muslim sentiment arises in a community and comes to shape the political landscape.

Mayor Van Duyne first became involved with the Sharia issue following the appearance of a right-wing news article about the Islamic Tribunal of Dallas, an organization the mayor apparently took an interest in because one of its arbitrators lived in her own city of Irving. The article, appearing on January 28 at and authored by anti-Muslim activist Pam Geller, presented a slippery-slope argument. ” ‘Voluntary’ Sharia Tribunal in Texas: This is How it Starts” its headline ran, with scare quotes around the word voluntary.  The article suggested that the tribunal was deviously hiding its true purpose of “creating a parallel legal system” in conflict with U.S. law.

It’s hard to figure what exactly prompted the Geller article since the tribunal was similar in nature to arbitration panels of other religions, allowed under the First Amendment, and had conducted itself without controversy for several years. Established as a non-profit in 2012, it dealt with community-related issues having to do with divorce, contracts, and religious affairs.  The tribunal’s website made clear that its proceedings addressed the needs of Muslims who wished to remain within the bounds of Islamic custom and were voluntary and non-binding. The website noted three times for emphasis that its rulings honored local, state, and federal law.

Nonetheless, in her first public statement on the issue, made on Facebook on February 6, Mayor Van Duyne echoed Pamela Geller’s alarmist assumptions. She stated that she or the city of Irving had never “condoned, approved, or enacted the implementation of a  Sharia Court in our city,” implying that something inappropriate or illegal might have occurred. A few days later on the Glen Beck Program, Van Duyne made specific claims. She stated that the tribunal was a “court” in its own right rather than an arbitration panel as indicated on its web page and that it was “bypassing American courts.”

Van Duyne’s statements, unfortunately, do little to clarify the issues. “Bypassing American courts,” far from being something insidious, is what religious arbitration panels, long sanctioned under U.S. law, have always done. Federal and state courts have little interest in becoming entangled in the religious matters arbitrated by such panels (of course, when asked to deal with complaints by religious plaintiffs seeking redress, the courts do not and cannot apply religious law when that law is inconsistent with existing  state and federal law). As for the distinction between “court” and “tribunal,” the semantics are hardly as clear-cut as Van Duyne suggests. Arbitration tribunals are commonly viewed as the same as religious “courts” applying religious law. In Dallas, for example, a Catholic “court” run by the Diocese of Dallas and a beth din, or rabbinical “court,” operate freely, both virtually identical in function to the Muslim tribunal (which could also call itself a “court” if it wanted) a few miles away.

If Van Duyne’s response to the Muslim case in Dallas is ill-informed, it is not isolated or unusual. Van Duyne knows she can count on ample support from others in her area hostile to Islam. Most notably, she has reinforcement from the Texas legislature, dominated by conservative Republicans, which is now considering a restrictive bill addressing the same issues about courts and law.

The bill in question, sometimes referred to as American Laws for American Courts (H.B. 562), would ban the use in U.S. courts of foreign laws that violate “fundamental” rights guaranteed by the U.S or Texan constitution.  The bill is similar to bills attempted recently in other states targeting Sharia by name but found unconstitutional. The present legislation has been scrubbed clean of all such sectarian references (the object of concern is now “foreign” law), although the bill’s sponsors have made little effort to hide their anti-Muslim leanings. Critics of the bill consider it not just inflammatory but unnecessary, since there are no known examples of foreign laws violating fundamental rights, and there are ample protections against such occurrences (e.g., Article  VI, Clause 2 of the Constitution). Indeed, legal experts have pointed out that “there is no mechanism by which any foreign criminal or civil code can trump U.S. laws.”

To solidify her position, Van Duyne has been actively ginning up support for H.B. 562. On March 19, at an open meeting of the Irving City Council, she  persuaded a majority of its members to join her in publicly endorsing the legislation. Many members of the Muslim community attending the meeting showed obvious dismay at the outcome. Van Duyne claims, in response, that her support for the bill has nothing to do with Islamophobia. Why in the world, she argues, would anyone oppose anything that supports following the Constitution?

But for American Muslims, there are reasons enough. The “American Laws for American Courts” brand of legislation has long been a key instrument of the anti-Muslim movement in the United States. It is based on a template devised by an organization called the Center for Security Policy (CSP), a neo-conservative group that takes a militant stand against world Islam (it calls itself “Special Forces in the War of Ideas”). CSP’s current general council David Yerushalmi, a right-wing Israeli who helped launch the anti-Sharia movement in  2006, believes that Islam is “inherently seditious” and that Sharia is a “criminal conspiracy” against the U.S. government.

Bills modeled on CSP’s American Laws for American Courts are controversial not simply as instruments of fear mongering. If passed, they could also cause measurable harm to the U.S. legal system because they sow confusion and raise the possibility of wasteful litigation. The American Bar Association asserts that the language in such bills is likely to “have an unanticipated and widespread negative impact on business” both in individual states and in foreign commerce. Moreover, many of such bills “would infringe federal constitutional rights, including the free exercise of religion and the freedom of contract.”

It is still too early to estimate the overall impact of the controversy in Texas. But for the 5o,000 or so Muslims living in the Dallas area, these have not been easy times. Feeling stigmatized, the community has had to fight back to counter accusations and suspicions.

As for H.B. 562, it looks like the bill will breeze through the conservative Texas legislature, even though it may face some speed bumps later on in court. But whatever its ultimate fate, the bill, helped along by the controversy in Irving, seems already to have achieved a central objective: ratcheting up anti-Muslim fears.  As Mr. Yerushalmi admitted several years ago, referring to similar legislation, “If this thing passed in every state without any friction, it would not have served its purpose. The purpose was heuristic–to get people asking this question, ‘What is Shariah?’ “

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How Education Reform Has Turned into a Privatization Movement

When the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) was announced in 2009, it seemed relatively uncontroversial. Supported by the National Governors Association, CCSSI was promoted to establish uniform standards in reading and math for grades K-12 across the nation. It was signed on to by numerous academics, politicians, and philanthropists, and faced little opposition beyond the predictable far-right anti-government crowd.

As it has moved toward implementation, however, the initiative has become immersed in controversy. The growing discord has come about for two main reasons. Most notably, the idea of standards was combined with the idea of intensive testing to measure student progress and determine the future of schools and teachers. In the words of David Kirp, who writes on education policy, “a conversation about pedagogy” devolved into “an ideological and partisan debate over high-stakes testing.” In addition, along with the emphasis on measurement came a focus on the marketplace for solutions, a development with weighty implications for America’s public education. As educational historian Diane Ravitch puts it in her recent book Reign of Error, “what began as a movement for testing and accountability has turned into a privatization movement.”

The Obama administration, apparently eager for corporate support, bought into this testing and market-oriented agenda from the outset. Following in the footsteps of George W. Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy but with more zeal for national uniformity, it made its Race to the Top program the solution to lagging schools. Under the terms of Race to the Top, states were required to commit to a rigorous standards-and-testing formula in order to compete for special government grants. In line with the pro-market outlook, they were required to increase the number of charter schools and commit to closing and replacing low-performing public schools rather than working to improve them.

Common Core Advocates

The strong lean toward testing is seen in the approaches of Common Core’s main implementers. Arnie Duncan, current Secretary of Education and promoter of Race to the Top, is an outspoken fan of accountability tied to high-stakes testing. Duncan has been successful at getting Congress to follow his lead by emphasizing the need for numerical measurement and quick results. David Coleman, who oversees the formulation of the Common Core standards and is often referred to as the “architect of Common Core,” shares Duncan’s data-driven outlook. Closely tied to educational consulting firms and the testing industry, Coleman brings a technocratic viewpoint to the program.

The Common Core initiative also has major support in the private sector. It receives funding from captains of industry like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomburg, and backing from pro-business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) founded by Jeb Bush. Desiring to streamline education, these promoters favor an educational system that focuses on teaching measurable workforce skills, as opposed to teaching creative thinking within a broad curriculum.

Not surprisingly, they also disapprove of public schools, which they view as inefficient from a market standpoint because they are answerable to local communities and staffed by professionals who are not easily controlled. Jeb Bush, an avid privatizer, refers disdainfully to public schools as “government-run monopolies” and “government schools” that need to be challenged or replaced by other alternatives. He views Common Core testing as a means of discrediting public schools, a “truth serum” that will open parents’ eyes to their inadequacies. The goal for him and other privatizers is a competitive landscape that would include a much larger role for vouchers, for-profit schools, and mass-marketed technologies such as data gathering/testing systems and online education to replace classroom learning.

Common Core Critics

While the top-down approach promoted by Duncan, Coleman, Gates, and Bush goes down well in the Beltway and the boardrooms, it has yet to find wide acceptance among the nation’s teachers and parents: teachers who are forced to teach a stripped-down curriculum and parents who once saw high-stakes testing as an abstract issue affecting only poor folks but must now deal with it on their own doorstep. Common Core has thus ignited a robust counter-movement that defies political labels, mobilizes local activists on both the left and right, and places people as incongruent as Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers under the same banner.

Well informed opponents of Common Core like Diane Ravitch present a persuasive case against its rationale and effectiveness. First of all, they challenge the assumption that American education is “broken,” a mantra of the reformers. She maintains that it may be broken in certain distressed urban and rural areas, which need to be addressed, but it is internationally competitive in most places. Ravitch relates, for example, that four states agreeing to international testing (Massachusetts, Minnesota, Indiana, and North Carolina) recently ranked alongside the top nations in the world. Massachusetts’ black students scored as well as students in Finland and Israel! In her eyes, the exaggeration of America’s “brokenness” has created a crisis mentality leading to the current testing frenzy.

Second, the regimented testing of the sort now promoted does not necessarily measure what is important. The testing is typical of an industrial model where efficiency and measurable results are valued above all else. Such a model is problematical in a context where personalized, creative learning is meant to take place. Neither Duncan nor Coleman, it turns out, has had any  experience teaching in a classroom or shown interest in incorporating the advice of teachers and parents in their formulations. Amazingly, the one-size-fits-all standards have been launched on a nation-wide basis without first being field-tested in trials where their ramifications for overall learning could be observed.

There is, in fact, little evidence that the scores in ballyhooed, high-stakes tests are a reliable measure of teachers’ skills or real learning in the classroom. Testers who rely on them to shut down lagging schools, almost always in areas of economic distress, typically minimize how poverty, family dysfunction, and lack of pre-school preparation influence student performance and behavior. Focusing primary blame on teachers who take the challenging jobs at such schools would seem perverse and self-defeating. While charter schools are often portrayed as the magic solution, it turns out that when they face the same problems of poverty, they perform, on average, at the same low level on tests as the schools they replace.

The Case of Michelle Rhee

The case of Michelle Rhee, who reigned as Washington D.C.’s School Commissioner from 2007 to 2010, is instructive. Duncan and Coleman adulate Rhee for her apparent willingness to stand up to the forces of inertia. Under her hard-nose tenure, schools lived or died by the test, teachers were fired by the hundred, and new charter schools popped up like mushrooms, with accolades from Time Magazine and the national media. But observers like Diane Ravitch have shown that test scores and outcomes in D.C. have not appreciably changed after years of having Rhee and her like-minded successor, Kaya Henderson, in charge. Moreover, the darkest aspect of Rhee’s tenure is generally ignored or forgotten, that is, the ugly testing scandal under her watch that put her most lauded examples of school success in question. High-stakes testing provided the seeds of its own undoing: when reputations and careers are at stake, people cheat. Rhee has portrayed herself as the champion of accountability, but she has never publicly accepted responsibility for her own failures. Her story, in a nutshell, is the story of over-hyped school reform.

The Key Issue

It is difficult to predict the future of Common Core. The interests fighting for it seem irresistible, fortified by both establishment consensus and tons of money. The Obama administration is still full-speed ahead with the idea, and the Democratic Party, historically the friend of teachers and public schools, seems perversely attracted to technocratic solutions. Aligned against Common Core are activists right and left but most significantly those most affected by the changes, teachers and parents. Now that testing, with all of the stress, hijacked curriculum, and punctured feelings it brings, has found its way into their local schools, their anger is palpable, and legislators are feeling the heat.

The key issue, however, will not be what happens to the Common Core standards and the testing regime that goes with them. These almost certainly will be modified or softened by legislators to accommodate the popular will. Far more consequential will be the fate of the privatization agenda that so many Common Core proponents have a stake in. If this agenda is implemented, it augurs a bleak future for our public schools, which have historically been a key ingredient of American democracy. It is time for progressives to get involved in their support and make a difference.

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Climate Change Denial on the Right Reinforced by “Worldview” Assumptions

Even as we hear reports of 2014’s being the hottest year on the record books, the climate change deniers show no signs of disappearing. In defiance of accumulating evidence and even the changing sentiments of their Republican constituents, GOP lawmakers continue to show little interest in addressing climate warming. Their bland concession that climate change was “real” in a recent Senate amendment to the Keystone Pipeline bill amounted to pure gamesmanship since it lacked any admission of human involvement or responsibility.

While the energy industry has been prominent in opposing constructive action on the issue, the Christian Right, a major constituency in today’s GOP, plays a key reinforcing role. By forcefully promoting a worldview that invalidates any empirical evidence at odds with its biblical assumptions, it provides an irresistible justification for inaction.

To get some idea of these assumptions, one has only to listen to Republican Denier-in-Chief, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Chairman of the Senate Committee of Environment and Public Works. In his interviews and speeches, Inhofe makes no attempt to hide the biblical basis for his thinking. He declares that God is the dominant player when it comes to anything related to planet earth (“God’s still up there”) and that secularists make the mistake of inflating their own importance in affecting events. He dismisses human-caused climate change as a false theory (a “hoax” in his words) advanced by statists and secularists who embrace a pernicious, materialistic worldview. And he claims that by worshipping nature instead of God, these false prophets practice idolatry.

Such thinking has long informed the Christian Right’s approach to climate change and the environment. For years it has sought to confront and disarm the issue by advancing its own ultra-conservative approach to it. Back in 1999, several movement leaders initiated the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (later renamed the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation), a coalition bent on applying biblical principles to environmental problems. Led by Calvin Beisner, a Christian theologian with minimal background in science, it holds that the Bible provides detailed answers to any questions that might arise about the planet.

Biblical Dominion and Stewardship

Beisner and his theological allies, no surprise, insist upon a narrow, literal reading of  Scripture when framing discussions of environmental policy. At the heart of their viewpoint is God’s “Dominion Mandate” of Genesis 1:28, a verse that calls for humans to take dominion over the earth, and to fill and “subdue” it. They interpret the Mandate as broad sanction for bringing wilderness under cultivation and exploiting the earth with minimal restrictions. This reading suggests it is the clear duty of Christians to take the side of human producers, developers, and populaters against the claims of environmentalists. While the Cornwall Alliance speaks of  “stewardship,” it does so largely in terms of human use and development (an echo of the conservative “Wise Use” movement of the 1980s and 90s).

Not all Bible-believing Christians accept this cramped interpretation of stewardship. Moderate evangelicals tend to endorse an active form of it in line with the idea that God put humans in the Garden of Eden to till and “keep” it (Genesis 2:15). Organizations like the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) call for a nurturing approach to the earth called “Creation Care.” Appealing to their fellow evangelicals’ sense of social responsibility, they focus on corrective action to address large issues like species extinction, deforestation, and climate change.

But biblical conservatives will have none of this. For Cornwall supporters, stewardship is a  limited form of responsibility that is personal and local, to be approached in the light of biblical maxims about husbandry and private property management. Significantly, they almost always view it as excluding governmental or collective action to address broad environmental challenges. Matters such as multiple source pollution and global warming, which involve complex causes and indefinite moral responsibility, go far beyond the literalist biblical model.

It’s easy to see why the Cornwall stance reinforces dogmatic complacency among conservative evangelicals. Human action without God’s direct biblical guidance is seen as illegitimate because it demonstrates human arrogance and does not take the world as God has given it. As Beisner stated a few years ago to a congressional committee, “the biblical worldview sees Earth and its ecosystems as the effect of a wise God’s creation and . . . therefore robust, resilient, and self-regulating, like the product of any good engineer.” Scientific warnings about global warming and other systemic threats are seen not only as baseless or greatly exaggerated, but as an implicit affront to the Almighty.

An Unholy Alliance

Given its strong propensity for inertia, it is hardly surprising that the Cornwall Alliance finds the big energy producers and corporate fat cats its natural allies. It turns out that Cornwall has long been tied to the energy industry through strong collaborative networks. Most notably, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), which in the past has been heavily funded by Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and others in the carbon-energy business (its funding currently is not divulged), has often used the same resources and personnel as the Cornwall people. Together they have lobbied against carbon-emission legislation and prosecuted climate science in the court of public opinion.

It is possible, of course, that with mounting evidence of climate change, the deniers can be pressed to modify their opposition. In the case of corporate groups, where cynical self-interest seems to prevail over all else, one can hope that realism will eventually take hold. Exxon is an example of a corporation that, under pressure, has recently come around to accepting the reality of human-caused climate change (although one waits to see a shift in behavior). Unfortunately, the biblical deniers present a tougher nut to crack. Following the stern logic of their Christian ideology, they unswervingly insist that sacred doctrine trumps even the best empirical evidence. To combat this stance, progressive critics need to put more effort into exposing and  deconstructing the worldview that lies behind it.

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Cuba and the Freedom to Travel

Where exactly does the United States stand on one of our basic freedoms, the freedom to travel? The question is relevant because of the enormous ambiguity of the U.S. government on this issue since the beginning of the Cold War. It is especially pertinent today as Congress prepares to discuss whether to rescind the nation’s 50+ year ban on travel to Cuba.

Freedom of travel has always been recognized as one of our basic freedoms. As early as 1215 A.D., the Magna Carta stressed the right of all citizens “to go out of our kingdom and return safely . . . unless it be in time of war” (Article 42). Four centuries later, Grotius stated in one of his classic treatises on international law, Freedom of the Seas, that “every nation is free to travel to every other nation, and to trade with it.” The concept of free travel, although not always followed, was taken as an ideal for enlightened nations.

The need to defend the freedom of travel became especially urgent in modern times with the rise of hyper-nationalism and totalitarianism. Realizing this, the international community moved to enshrine the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), signed by most of the world’s nations in 1948. The document, drafted by the UN Commission on Human Rights made up of 18 members from different countries and chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, contained a specific section on freedom of travel, Article 13. The Article put the issue simply: “1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. 2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

At the time of the UDHR, the United States embraced the freedom to travel without restriction. Supporting the idea at the onset of the Cold War was a way of showing the world the contrast between the United States and the Soviet Union, which de-emphasized the rights of the individual vis-à-vis the state. Thus during the U.N. Commission’s deliberations, when the Soviet delegate, Alexei Pavlov, argued that the freedom to travel should be qualified by the phrase “in accordance with the established laws of that country,” he met with firm opposition from Eleanor Roosevelt and other delegates in the Western camp. Any qualification on something as important as the right to travel degraded its status as a “fundamental right.”

Indeed, American jurisprudence at that time tended to treat the right to travel as a protected constitutional right. For instance, in Kent v. Dulles (1958),  the U.S. Supreme Court understood the right to travel as a liberty that could not be taken away without due process under the Fifth Amendment. The Court described the right as “deeply engrained in our history” and “as close to the heart of the individual as the choice of what he eats, or wears, or reads.”  Curtailing the right could be justified only under the most extreme conditions, namely “imminent danger to the public safety.”

Within a few short years, however, the United States abruptly changed its tone. With the rise of a government it did not like in its own backyard, the freedom of Americans to travel soon became much less “fundamental” than previously stated. President John F. Kennedy announced prohibitions on travel to Cuba for the first time on February 8, 1963, following the enforcement of a commercial embargo on the island a year earlier. The decision followed several key events, including Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs operation to overturn the Cuban government in April, 1961, Castro’s request for Russian help, and the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. The Kennedy administration justified its travel restrictions by taking an expansive view of the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, which “empowered the president to prohibit commercial transactions with a foreign nation during times of war or emergency.” The U.S., of course, was not at “war” with Cuba, and its relations with the island, however unpleasant, seemed to fall well short of the definition of “emergency.”

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court took a basically passive role toward this abridgment of rights, a sad indication of the highly charged emotions of the time.  In two challenges  to the travel restrictions (Zemel v. Rusk, 1965, and Regan v. Wald, 1984), the Court basically gave the President and Secretary of State the power, with virtually no restrictions, to make decisions about Americans’ right to travel abroad. The hawkish Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s opinion in the early 1960s that travel to Cuba might involve the U.S. in “dangerous international incidents” was enough to persuade the justices. Some 20 years later in a similar case, the Rehnquist Court carried this deference towards executive power even farther, asserting that matters relating to the conduct of foreign affairs should be “largely immune from judicial inquiry or interference.” This was equivalent to saying that the right to travel was no longer a constitutionally protected right.

So, essentially, in the span of a few years America went from being proud defender of freedom of travel, when it was able to wag its finger at the Russians, to being the most notorious abuser of it today. Nations around the world observe this casebook example of hypocrisy and condemn it every year in the United Nations by lopsided votes. Cuba itself has put America to shame by letting its own citizens travel freely. And as for Cuban dissidents whom America’s travel embargo is meant to give moral support to, even they seem to support an end to the U.S.’s dogmatic policy, believing openness and citizen contacts benefit everybody.

May the U.S. Senate, in its wisdom, end the hypocrisy by arriving at the same conclusion.

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Galt and God: Ayn Randians and Christian Rightists Expand Ties

Ayn Rand’s followers find themselves sharing a lot of turf with the Religious Right these days. The Tea Party, with its stress on righteous liberty and a robust form of capitalism, has been a rallying point for both groups. Still, the philosophical disharmony between Christianity and Objectivism (Ayn Rand’s philosophy) has presented problems for anyone seeking to straddle the two worldviews. Just ask Paul Ryan.

Congressman Ryan, a conservative Catholic, made no bones about his love for Ayn Rand’s signature novel, Atlas Shrugged, when he began his political career. The novel’s portrayal of heroic entrepreneurs fighting an evil government fit perfectly with Ryan’s ideal of conservatism. But a few years ago, the congressman began to feel pushback from traditional Christians who weren’t so keen on Ayn Rand’s theological views. How, they asked, could Ryan condone an atheist who dismissed religionists as ignorant and deluded? The upshot: Ryan began parsing his words in a hurry.

Judging from recent trends, however, the icy divide over the God issue shows clear signs of melt. Gradual movement toward accommodation is coming not just from Christians wishing to co-opt Ayn Rand’s capitalistic ethic, but from Randians seeking to expand their fan base.

Atlas Shrugged Redux

A hint of compromise from the Randian side was evident this fall with the rollout of Atlas Shrugged, Part III, the final film segment of the novel. Whatever the film’s cinematic defects–it has generally been panned by critics–the filmmakers have signaled an interest in reaching beyond the usual circle of devotees, realizing apparently that traditional Christians, a key conservative demographic, are good targets for Rand’s pro-capitalist message. John Aglialoro, the movie’s main producer and a trustee of the pro-Randian Atlas Society, seemed to have their sensitivities in mind in an interview with Forbes Magazine a while back. “Most people have a respect for spirituality, maybe even a yearning,” he stated. “There must be room in Objectivism for charity and benevolence.”

To be sure, the film, which shows captains of industry abandoning a society they dislike to its doom, doesn’t exactly exude “charity and benevolence.” But by emphasizing the human element of the novel and carefully omitting its attacks on religion, the movie clearly tries to broaden its appeal. John Galt, heroic rebel against government tyranny, is portrayed as a typical red-blooded American rather than the philosophical atheist of the novel. The filmmakers, moreover, reinforce his cred with the faithful by enlisting Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, both reliable Christians, to serve as fictional newscasters for his radio speech to the nation.

The film is not simply an anomaly. It is one example of many attempts on the right to bridge, or at least make more compatible, the two worldviews. The trend is evident not only in the world of pop culture, but in religion, public advocacy, and politics.

 A Quest for Common Ground

 Two Christian intellectuals, for example, have advanced the issue in public forums. Mark Henderson, author of The Soul of Atlas: Ayn Rand, Christianity, and the Quest for Common Ground (2013), approaches the problem in personal terms. He narrates how his two fathers (one biological, the other step) alternatively promoted Christian and Randian value systems as he was growing up. While the contrast initially resulted in confusion for Henderson, it eventually produced in him a parallel attraction for both viewpoints. Without ever reconciling them, he tries to show how a person might graft them together into an operable worldview.

David Kotter, an associate professor at Colorado Christian University, takes a more academic look at the issue, having authored papers comparing the outlooks of John Galt and Jesus Christ. One is aptly titled “Check Your Premises: Ayn Rand through a Biblical Lens.” Although aware of the discrepancies between them, Kotter finds much about the redemption theme common to both. Both figures are clearly in the business of saving mankind. In concluding, he writes: “The ideal man that Ayn Rand both created and desired bears an uncanny resemblance to Jesus Christ.” The blasphemy of the comparison does not seem to bother Kotter, a conservative Christian. Indeed, it strikes a similar chord among many of his peers. In February of last year, he and Mark Henderson contributed to an enthusiastic panel featuring the topic at an International Students for Liberty Conference sponsored by a Christian think tank, the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics (TIFWE).

 Vehicles of Collaboration

 TIFWE, founded in 2011, is a striking example of a Christian research organization promoting unfettered, Ayn-Rand-style free enterprise. Self-described as a “biblical advocacy think tank” aimed at fostering “biblical economic principles,” it advances the view that a pure kind of capitalism is consistent with God’s will, an approach that is actually well entrenched among conservative biblical Christians. The work ethic, so the argument goes, enables humans to glorify God’s Creation. What is noteworthy here is that TIFWE has close ties to not-so-Christian, libertarian entities. According to Sourcewatch, the think tank is affiliated with two Koch-controlled trusts and has a Senior Vice-President at Koch Industries as a trustee. The Koch brothers, needless to say, are well-known promoters of free market orthodoxy and fans of Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy.

Collaboration between Christian rightists and laissez-fair capitalists has been well evident in the political realm as well. The Tea Party has been a particularly useful vehicle for bringing the two groups together, as shown by the activities of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a group controlled by the Koch brothers and headed by evangelical conservative Tim Phillips. While AFP hews closely to an economic message, it knows how to appeal to a Christian audience. A recent example was the organization’s “Defending the American Dream Summit” in Dallas this September, which seemed “half sales pitch, half religious revival” to reporter Christopher Hooks.

 A Rising Star

 Perhaps the most unexpected boost to the Randian-Christian courtship occurred this year in the Republican congressional primaries. A Christian academic with an affinity for Ayn Rand defeated one of the GOP’s major leaders in Congress. We refer, of course, to David Brat, the upstart winner over Eric Cantor (and over the token democratic opponent in November) in Virginia’s 7th congressional district.

Brat, an economist with a degree in theology, embodies a new type of politician who believes the two disciplines are intertwined. For him, religion is the handmaiden of economics. Brat considers Protestantism, which traditionally viewed economic pursuits as a valid “calling” in God’s eyes, a key factor behind the capitalist ethic (a theme introduced by sociologist Max Weber). In today’s world, he supports a rejuvenated form of free enterprise backed by religious faith. “We need to synthesize Christianity and capitalism,” he states in a recent paper.

The aim of the synthesis, it should be emphasized, is not to soften the edges of capitalism, but to make it more robust. Brat is clearly an advocate of a hard-nose Christianity that does away with sissy safety nets and irksome regulations. Charity by this view becomes a bit like a lecture on self-help.

With his strong views, Brat can be expected to strengthen the ranks of the hardliners in the new Congress. He will help to fill the brainpower void on the Republicans’ right flank and likely aid in fashioning an intellectual basis for radical Tea Party ideas, using biblical and right-wing economic justifications.

These developments should not be taken lightly. Anything that unifies extreme groups and reinforces their ideology should raise alarms. On the other hand, the Christian-Randian faction may also have some difficulty papering over a legacy of contradictions. In the heat of politics, such contradictions have a way of surfacing when least expected. Critics and parodists should be on the lookout.

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The Paranoid Mindset of the Religious Right and the “Worldview” that Fosters It

If one pays attention to the recent rhetoric of the Religious Right, one notices a predictable pattern. Not only does the movement loudly denounce things it doesn’t approve of, but it conjures up images of persecution. Its shrillness exemplifies a kind of paranoiac mindset. Some recent examples are typical: We are told that there is a “War on Christmas” aimed at the heart of Christianity; that contraceptives in medical plans pose a major threat to “religious liberty”; that marriage equality is tantamount to the destruction of Judeo-Christian marriage. In some cases the denunciations rise to demonization, as when anti-Muslim activists conjure up fears about “sharia law” to target Muslim citizens.

While cynical calculations undoubtedly underlie some of the inflated language, especially in the hands of Fox News and similar organizations, the theme of persecution seems to be an article of faith within the Religious Right’s subculture. To a large degree, religious rightists have come to believe they are the victims, or potential victims, of dark forces, often represented by humanists, feminists, gay activists, and others. Their fearful premonitions are not limited to a few discrete cases. They widely claim that ungodly forces are enveloping Christians on an infinite number of fronts. Indeed, they seem convinced that civilization itself is on the brink of doom.

This posture is similar in some respects to what Richard Hofstadter once called the “paranoid style” in politics. Hofstadter used the term to describe political scaremongering by McCarthyites and John Birchers at the height of the Cold War,  when fear overtook reality and created monsters in people’s minds. Hofstadter pointed out an unpleasant fact about this extravagantly defensive kind of behavior: it has a clearly aggressive aspect to it. Those who are obsessed by the threat of hostile forces often demonstrate an extreme form of intolerance. In an open society, their destructive impact is obvious.

A paranoid mentality is nothing new to the Christian Right. It runs through its history and is evident in its founding rhetoric. Francis Schaeffer, the movement’s main theologian in the 70s and early 80s, conveyed dire warnings to biblical Christians from the outset: America, he declared, was being overwhelmed by an ungodly, secular culture that was advancing relativism, tolerance, and humanism, along with societal evils like abortion. Schaeffer characterized it as it an all-encompassing “worldview,” a substitute religion promoted by secularists aimed at replacing Christianity.

Schaeffer was reacting, of course, to the increasing diversity of American society during and after the 1960s. Ours was a society in transition, one where people were challenging not only inequities like segregation and gender discrimination, but the governing Protestant, Anglo-Saxon order itself. While blacks, women, and ethnic and religious minorities all benefited from the expansion of new rights, Schaeffer and other conservative Christians took issue with the new trends because they failed to recognize conservative Christianity as the dominant referee of customs and morals. He thus found it easy to make secularism, a philosophy that guarantees a level playing field for people of all points of view but is often construed by religious majoritarians as anti-religious, the perfect scapegoat.

To confront what they called the “secular worldview,” the Religious Right responded by adopting an ideology called “Christian Worldview.”  The movement has since disseminated the ideology to a broad following. Based on a selective reading of the Bible, Christian Worldview promotes not just traditional Christian morality but a whole way of perceiving the world in biblical Christian terms. Advocates often equate it with what they call “Total Truth” because it is said to agree with God’s perspective rather than with flawed human reason.

The ideology fortifies its followers by providing an absolute guarantee of the certainty of their cause,  an ability to redefine the world (e.g., law, government, science, and history) in their own infallible terms, and a vantage point of presumed superiority from which to critique opponents. Believers are motivated by the looming presence of the secular enemy, which they see locking horns with them on a range of issues. The conflict becomes no less than a cosmic struggle between truth and error, a struggle fated to continue until the forces of either good or evil prevail.

Unfortunately, there seems little prospect that the ideology might evolve to reflect the norms of a tolerant society. Constructed as a response to perceived oppression, it makes civil engagement in the public sphere virtually impossible. Moreover, it does little to prepare its advocates for the push-back that inevitably comes from those they stigmatize, such as gays. Ironically, Christian worldviewers see such push-back as simply further confirmation of their own victimization. With their worldview locked firmly in place, they do not seem likely to abandon their persecution narrative any time soon.


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