September 23, 2015

Schools are an obvious venue for the creation of a public space, a site of freedom. People are coming together, searching for something better, deciding what we value, what we hope to pass on, who we want to be. But schools are seldom constructed as sites of freedom nor places for the practice of freedom.

An urgent challenge to teachers is to see each student as a three-dimensional creature — a person much like themselves — with hopes, dreams, aspirations, skills, and capacities; with a body and a mind and a heart and a spirit; with experience, history, a past, a pathway, a future. This knotty, complicated challenge requires patience, curiosity, wonder, awe, humility. It demands sustained focus, intelligent judgment, inquiry and investigation. It requires wide-awakeness since every judgment is contingent, every view partial, every conclusion tentative. The student is dynamic, alive, in-motion. Nothing is settled, once and for all. No view is all views and no perspective every perspective. The student grows and changes — yesterday’s need is forgotten, today’s claim is all-encompassing and brand new. This, then, is an intellectual task of serious and huge proportion.
As difficult as this challenge is, it is made tougher and more intense because teachers typically work in institutions of hierarchy and power, command and control, where the toxic habit of labeling kids by their deficits has become the common-sense and a common-place. The language of schools is too often a language of labeling, a language of reduction, a language lacking spark, dynamism, imagination, or the possibility of freedom. Whatever the labels point to—even when glimpsing a chunk of reality—are reductive and over-determined in schools. In this way they represent un-freedom—repression, coercion, entanglement. The thinking teacher needs to look beneath and beyond the labels, to reach toward freedom.
Another basic challenge to teachers is to stay wide-awake to the world, to the concentric circles of context in which we live and work. Teachers must know and care about some aspect of our shared life — our calling after all, is to shepherd and enable the callings of others. Teachers, then, invite students to become somehow more capable, more thoughtful and powerful in their choices, more engaged in a culture and a civilization. More free. How do we warrant that invitation? How do we understand this culture and civilization?
Teachers choose — they choose how to see the world, what to embrace and what to reject, whether to support or resist this or that directive. As teachers choose, the ethical emerges. James Baldwin says:
The paradox of education is precisely this–that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it–at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

Teachers are the midwives of hope or the purveyors of determinism and despair. In Beloved, Toni Morrison’s searing novel of slavery, freedom, and the complexities of a mother’s love, School teacher, a frightening character with no other name, comes to Sweet Home with his efficient, scientific interest in slaves and makes life unbearable for the people there. School teacher is a disturbing, jarring character for those of us who want to think of teachers as caring and compassionate people. School teacher is cold, sadistic, brutal. He is all about control and management and maintaining the status quo. He and others like him are significant props in an entire system of dehumanization, oppression, exploitation. They show us teaching as un-freedom, teaching linked to slavery.
Toward the end of Amir Maalouf’s dazzling Samarkand, a historical novel of the life of Omar Khayam and the journey of the Rubiayat, Howard Baskerville, a British school teacher in the city of Tabriz in old Persia at the time of the first democratic revolution, explains an incident in which he was observed weeping in the marketplace: “Crying is not a recipe for anything,” he begins, “Nor is it a skill. It is simply a naked, naive and pathetic gesture”. But, he goes on, crying is nonetheless important. When the people saw him crying they figured that he “had thrown off the sovereign indifference of a foreigner”, and at that moment they could come to Baskerville “to tell me confidentially that crying serves no purpose and that Persia does not need any extra mourners and that the best I could do would be to provide the children of Tabriz with an adequate education”. “If they had not seen me crying”, Baskerville concludes, “they would never have let me tell the pupils that this Shah was rotten and that the religious chiefs of Tabriz were hardly any better “.
Both teachers show us that teaching occurs in context and that pedagogy and technique are not the well-springs of moral choice. Teaching becomes the practice of freedom when it is guided by an unshakable commitment to working with human beings to reach the full measure of their humanity, and a willingness to reach toward a future fit for all.
In a Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines creates a riveting portrait of a teacher locked in struggle with a resistant student, wrestling as well with his own doubts and fears about himself as a teacher and a person, and straining against the outrages of the segregated South. Grant Wiggins has returned with considerable ambivalence to teach in the plantation school of his childhood. He feels trapped and longs to escape with his love, another teacher named Vivian, to a place where he might breathe more freely, grow more fully, achieve something special. He had told his elderly Tante Lou, with whom he lives, “how much I hated this place and all I wanted to do was get away. I had told her I was no teacher, I hated teaching, and I was just running in place here. But she had not heard me…”.
The story begins in a courtroom with Tante Lou and her lifelong friend, Miss Emma, sitting stoic and still near the front. Emma’s godson, Jefferson, had been an unwitting participant in a failed liquor store stick up–his two companions and the store owner are dead–and as the sole survivor he is convicted of murder. The public defender, pleading for Jefferson’s life, plays to the all-white jury with zeal:
“Gentlemen of the jury, look at this-this- this boy. I almost said man, but I can’t say man…I would call it a boy and a fool. A fool is not aware of right and wrong…
“Do you see a man sitting here?…Look at the shape of the skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand–look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence?…A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited form his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa–yes, yes, that he can do–but to plan?…No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans…A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton…That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder. He does not even know the size of his clothes or his shoes…Mention the names of Keats, Bryon, Scott, and see whether the eyes will show one moment of recognition. Ask him to describe a rose…Gentlemen of the jury, this man planned a robbery? Oh, pardon me, pardon me, I surely did not mean to insult your intelligence by saying ‘man’…

“What justice would there be to take this life? Justice gentlemen? Why I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”

But it’s no good. Jefferson is sentenced to death. He has only a few weeks, perhaps a couple of months, to live. As devastating as the sentence is, it is that last plea from the public defender — that comparison of Jefferson to a hog — that cuts most deeply. “Called him a hog,” says Miss Emma. And she turns to Grant Wiggins: “I don’t want them to kill no hog”. She wants Grant to visit Jefferson, to teach him.
Wiggins resists: “‘Yes, I’m the teacher,’ I said. ‘And I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach…They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store’”. More than this, Wiggins is shaken by the challenge and the context. He explains to Vivian:
“The public defender, trying to get him off, called him a dumb animal,” I told her. “He said it would be like tying a hog down into that chair and executing him — an animal that didn’t know what any of it was all about…Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know — prove to these white men — that he’s not a hog, that he’s a man. I’m supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God?”…

“What do I say to him? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?”…

“Suppose…I reached him and made him realized that he was as much a man as any other man, then what? He’s still gong to die..so what will I have accomplished? What will I have done? Why not let the hog die without knowing anything?”

Miss Emma and Tante Lou, along with their preacher, insist that Grant join them in their visits to Jefferson. It is an alliance filled with pain and tension — Grant has refused to go to church for years and, outspoken in his agnosticism, is looked upon by the elderly trio as, in turn, the devil himself and Jefferson’s best hope. The sheriff doesn’t want Grant visiting, “Because I think the only thing you can do is just aggravate him, trying to put something in his head against his will. And I’d rather see a contented hog go to that chair than an aggravated hog”. Grant is haunted by the memory of his own former teacher, a bitter man: “You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away — peel — scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years. You’ll see”. The former mentor’s message is that nothing a teacher in these circumstances does can matter, can make a difference. Worse than that, Jefferson himself is wracked with hopelessness; he is uncooperative, resistant: “It don’t matter..Nothing don’t matter” he says, as he refuses to eat unless his food is put on the floor, like slops for a hog.
Grant begins by simply visiting Jefferson, being there, speaking sometimes, but mostly just sitting in silence. Witnessing. He brings Jefferson some small things: peanuts and pecans from his students, a small radio, a little notebook and a pencil. He encourages Jefferson to think of questions and write down his thoughts. And sometimes he accompanies Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and the reverend to the dayroom for visits. There he walks with Jefferson and talks to him. This monologue begins with Grant encouraging Jefferson to be kind to his grandmother, to eat some of the gumbo she has brought:
“I could never be a hero. I teach, but I don’t like teaching. I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the south today. I don’t like it; I hate it…I want to live for myself and for my woman and for nobody else.

“That is not a hero, a hero does for others…I am not that kind of person, but I want you to be. You could give something to her, to me, to those children in the quarter…The white people out there are saying that you don’t have it–that you’re a hog, not a man. But I know they are wrong. You have the potentials. We all have, no matter who we are…

“I want to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be. To them, you’re nothing but another nigger–no dignity, no heart, no love for your people. You can prove them wrong. You can do more than I can ever do. I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nothing else–nothing about loving and caring. They never thought we were capable of learning those things. ‘Teach these niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers’. And I went along, but hating myself all the time for doing so…

“White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth–and that’s a myth. The last thing they want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth…

“..all we are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, [is just] a piece of drifting wood, until we — each of us, individually — decide to be something else. I am still that piece of drifting wood…but you can be better. Because we need you to be and want you to be…”

He looked at me in great pain. He may not have understood, but something was touched, something deep down in him…”

After Jefferson is electrocuted, a white deputy sheriff drives out to bring the news to Grant:
“He was the strongest man in that crowded room, Grant Wiggins,” Paul said, staring at me and speaking louder than was necessary. “He was, he was…he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Tell Nannan I walked.’ And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked”…

“You’re one great teacher, Grant Wiggins,” he said.

“I’m not great. I’m not even a teacher.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You have to believe to be a teacher.”

“I saw the transformation, Grant Wiggins,” Paul said.

“I didn’t do it.”

“Who, then?”

“Maybe he did it himself.”

“He never could have done that.

I saw the transformation. I’m a witness to that.”

A Lesson Before Dying is a story of teaching as the practice of freedom. Every teacher appreciates the irony of teaching what we ourselves neither fully know nor understand. Each of us can remember other teachers who counseled us not to teach, and each of us recognizes the resistant student, the student who refuses to learn. And we can each uncover moments of intense self-reflection, consciousness shifts, and personal growth brought on by our attempts to teach.
Many teachers also know what it means to teach against the grain. Against oppression, opposition, and obstinacy. Against a history of evil. Against glib, common-sense assumptions. When the sheriff compares education to agitation, and the teacher to an organizer “trying to put something in his head against his will,” one is reminded of Frederick Douglass’ master exploding in anger when he discovers that his wife has taught the young Douglass to read: “It will unfit him to be a slave.” One is reminded as well of the charge “outside agitator,” hurled by the bosses at the union organizer, or by the college trustees at student radicals. When the sheriff grins at Wiggins for giving Jefferson a journal, because a hog can’t write authentic thoughts or experience real human feelings, we are in a familiar space. And when Jefferson writes in the journal, “I cry cause you been so good to me Mr. Wiggin and nobody ain’t never been that good to me an make me think I’m somebody”, we recognize something close-in about teaching, too. Both Grant and Jefferson begin as isolates, solitary men, each facing a profound and troubling crisis in his life. It is through their coming together, and through their reluctant but inevitable relationship with the aspirations of a larger community, that each is transformed. Their ability to name a barrier, to resist and then transcend it, brings them into a public space, a site of freedom.

Bert on Bernie (once again)

September 19, 2015

I have a few more thoughts on “Left Organizing within the Sanders Campaign.” There is motion. There are crowds. The crowd, of course, is made up of individuals with different motives, resources, understandings and many other unique attributes. The Brownian trope applies. Individuals are moving, bumping into people and into ideas. Sanders supplies his talking points. As I said earlier, I am glad that he is inserting these social democratic (not socialist as he himself admits ) ideas into the crowd. Except for the experienced Democratic Party (left liberal) adherents and adherents of other political trends, members of the crowd are people less invested in politics, certainly less invested year round. We know something about this crowd from a recent Guardian YOUGOV poll.

Potential Bernie Sanders voters break down this way by age:   69% are from 18-44,  35%are from  45-60+. So his potential voters are clumped in the younger population. In the same poll, likely Sanders voters broke this way ideologically: 36% liberal, 18% moderate, 17 % conservative. So, a lot of pretty young people, clearly w/o social democratic politics.

What does a left organizer do? By left in this arena, I mean anyone from social democrat out. As I tried to get at in my earlier thoughts on the Sanders campaign for us, we must join in. To stand aside is to say we have enough people  with us on our side. We are ready to take over. The great mass of Americans understands and is organized into a mighty movement. A dream. A fantasy. For now. Where there are crowds in motion, whether at a rally or at a small house party or a District meeting, we must be there. Or give up this motion to the centrists who, you can be sure will be there.

We go. We join or join in. We work putting up lawn signs or peopling a lit table at a supermarket. We talk about what we believe. If Sanders doesn’t understand Chavez, we explain. If Sanders wants to tax the hell out of the rich we cheer. If Sanders ‘campaign people send down dicta(talking points) we send  back up, our corrections and/or additions that we will use to produce local lit. It’s a day by day experiment. When to go along to get along. When to challenge. When to just go out for a beer. When to bring around a list of community run projects and try actively to get folks to sign us. Every day is new. Every conglomerate of people is different waiting for our input. Can you find people farther along and form a grouplet within the crowd? Maybe, maybe it is a good idea. Maybe it might not be. On this level-tactics, practice/thoughtful experiment has to be in the lead. Strategy is clear. Add to the leftness of the crowd by active organizing from within. And this strategy is valid whether or not Sanders wins, loses and turns asks his people to go with Hillary or he runs as an independent. We are where we need to be doing the organizing that always needs doing. Bert Garskof

Yale University, Monday, 9/21/2015

September 18, 2015

The PUBLIC ENEMY (a nod to my last memoir) tour and road show rolls on:
Yale University, New Haven CT.
Monday, September 21, 7:30 pm
Linsly-Chittenden Hall, room 102
The Yale Political Union Debate
RESOLVED: “Reject market-based school reform.”
I’m taking the affirmative, and I’ll kick it off with a 25 minute speech.
COME if you can!

Black Lives Matter! (again)

September 17, 2015

Pay attention white people!
When I say—as I did in a talk yesterday at the university—that Black Lives Matter, I’m saying something positive and generous and restorative. Don’t be silly or stupid or defensive or reactionary: I’m not—and no one else is—saying ONLY Black Lives Matter. I’m following the lead of the brilliant young African American activists who are pointing to an obvious fact and putting it on the front page: in these United States Black lives have historically been devalued and exploited through law and policy and politics and practice. That fact is an attack on all humanity, and that fact is what all of us must confront and destroy if we hope to be whole and free.
Black Lives Matter!

My Friend Bert Garskoff feels the Bern

September 3, 2015

Each presidential campaign raises the same questions. Do we ignore? Burn our ballots? Join in the hope of being for once politically relevant? Support Ralph? Sit on our hands?

I think that if we think of ourselves as organizers rather than activists we can see a way for us to approach the issue of 2015, to Bern or anti-Bern.

I know of course that the US is not a true democracy. Even within the limits on true democracy built into its framework, it is not a democracy. I know it was never intended to be. I know political parties, campaigns, voting are all shams designed well to keep people from thinking about real democracy.

And again, of course, the Sanders campaign has all of the above limitations and illusions.

I know that a realer, if not perfect democracy is theorized and practiced in innumerable anarchist and other local community organizations and projects. But, I also know that we (anarchists) need to talk to people other than ourselves if we are to grow, if we are to become a significant movement.

Sanders promulgates democratic socialist (not socialist, I think) ideas and programs. It is a good thing that these progressive ideas are injected by Sanders as inoculation for  the otherwise neoliberal dogma of Hilary’s campaign

. Certainly among the Sanders supporters there are many who will flock like liberal sheep to Hilary once the Bern burns out. However, I believe that among the Sanders supporters there are thousands who are dissatisfied, who are disgruntled, but who do not have a coherent left analysis, who therefore are open to our ideas as they weren’t before they got involved in the Sanders surge. These seekers will be open (certainly many of them) to ideas from the Left of Sanders

We must think as organizers. Yes, demonstrate, fight in the streets but spend some time and energy going to places where the Sanders campaign has gathered a crowd or a meeting but go not to disrupt, disrupting there would show how true we are to our knowledge, to our anger, to our need to show “them” us. But, what does this do? Doesn’t it drive away people, many of them young people who don’t (yet) have our understandings?

So I think that we should jump in the water. After all, the anti-war multitudes of the 60s and 70s were only disgruntled, dissatisfied people and without a coherent left analysis, yet we jumped in. Why? Because a movement can only be built on motion. Motion is people open, people leaving their normal placid acceptance if only a little, if only briefly. So, things swirled. Liberal anti-war marches. My collective would go, stand alongside the marchers with paper Viet Cong flags and pins, encouraging people to wear the flags. We gave maybe a thousand away. A good left action. We also had leaflets with our analysis of the war on Vietnam. Many people took those. Good. Better than if we had stayed home.

So, why don’t  we joined a Sanders local campaign or go to a mass rally? If it seems right, we could have leaflets about participatory democracy compared to the top down structure of the campaign. We could have lists of places and projects where anarchists and others are working with people in projects that are using anarchist and community participatory ideas and vision. Places where Bernie supporters might get involved once they knew about them.

We might talk after the meeting with anyone who will sit down with us.

We can’t only act on our own readiness. (Burn the Ballot for example)  We have to be organizers, which means we have to work with where people are at both geographically and intellectually/emotionally. To play this role, that of an organizer, we have to be honest about where we are at personally. We have to be ready to explain why we are there. And we especially have to be the first there to do the necessary work and among the last to leave. That is we have to be a real part of the campaign. I for one can do that honestly, even as I might talk with people about something better because I am truly happy that the Sanders campaign exists to open up the social democratic program. People should expect these things to be there for them and they are not. Hearing Sanders say they should expect these programs as their right can only make at least some of not many open to other strategies we can provide our ideas only if we are there.