Does the Right Know its Left from its Right?

Ummm...wasn't it the Right who invented this slogan?

An old member of the Industrial Workers of the World once remarked, “The most revolutionary idea in the world is a long memory.” A confession: I had a really bad short-term memory lapse recently and got sucked into a Facebook debate. How could I have forgotten that people who post to Web forums only want to engage in name-calling, not discuss topics of substance? Luckily my long-term memory is sharper. It goes back to the 1960s and it tells me that the American political Right is suffering from severe historical amnesia.

The issue at had was an announcement that President Obama planned to deliver a television address for American school children. Facebook posted a poll question asking whether the president should be allowed to do this without parental permission. Roughly two of three respondents vehemently opposed to Obama’s plan. Most couched their responses in high-toned principles about protecting parental rights, guarding against propaganda, and allowing children to have politics-free childhoods but you can count me among the cynics who say that’s was just sophistry used to mask ideological biases. The speech came and went and no American children were harmed in its deliverance. What did critics think the president was going to tell kids? That they should use drugs? That they should tell mommy and daddy they’re not eating their vegetables until they support a national health care plan? That kids should look at death notices and register to vote Democratic under those names? Let’s get real. Obama delivered a platitude-laden speech about staying in school, working hard, and how education will help them attain their dreams. One could have predicted nearly every line of this speech if, for no other reason, because it has been given by every president since Teddy Roosevelt.

What was more distressing was the anti-government rhetoric that flew fast and furious on the Internet. To hear libertarians, Republicans, and assorted right-wingers rant you’d think that ayatollahs controlled America. You'd also suspect that the American government was a vast conspiracy designed to oppress Americans, steal their paychecks, and force them onto communist gulags. Anyone has the right to believe these things, but the very act of holding such views is an intellectual contradiction for the Right. It is the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution that provides for freedom of belief, a document that is totally unenforceable unless guaranteed by a strong government. A government-backed Bill of Rights is an essential difference between the United States and, say, Somalia.

The right to redress grievances is also an American right. We need not approve of everything government does—I certainly don’t—but there is a world of difference between disliking government action and disapproving of the very concept of government. Here’s where my long memory comes into play. Back in the Sixties anti-war and civil rights protesters faced signs advising “America: Love it or Leave it.” They were called “radicals” for suggesting reform, but only a small far-Left fringe ever advocated overthrowing the government itself. So why is the Right getting a free ride on its anti-government rant? What it espouses is far more revolutionary than what the bulk of what the Sixties’ Left wanted. Isn’t it time to label the Right’s rhetoric “anarchist,” “anti-American,” and "treasonous?" Let’s break out the Mogadishu real estate ads and suggest that those who hate government move there. I hear housing prices are cheap.--LV



Lots of folks are buzzing about the decision of Cushing Academy’s headmaster to empty the school’s library of all of its books. Twenty thousand volumes have gone out the door of the Massachusetts prep school’s library to make way for a half million dollar “learning center” where reading will be done on Kindles, giant TV screens, and computers. Fully wired study carrels designed to accommodate laptops sit where the stacks were once located, and the former reference desk is now a coffee shop outfitted with a feature that practically begs for lampoon: a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

Cushing’s decision has met with both applause and derision. Some have hailed Headmaster James Tracy as a cutting-edge visionary who has the courage to ride the winds of change. The death-of-print crowd has, in essence, embraced Bob Dylan’s dictum “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Book lovers reacted to Tracy’s decision with scorn, contempt, and sadness. A dear friend wept when she heard the news; like many, she has an emotional attachment to books. Tracy hardly helped matters when he dismissed books as “an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.” (One can only hope his technological savvy is greater than his flair for public relations!)

Here’s another take. Yesterday I taught my first class in a new course I’m teaching on the history of utopian experiments in America. I’ve spent much of the summer reading­—both in electronic and is processed pulp form—futurist visions. That experience confirmed a deep suspicion: that everyone who predicts the future gets it wrong. The most famous American vision was that of Edward Bellamy, whose 1887 novel Looking Backward predicted what the city of Boston—90 minutes from Cushing Academy--would look like in the year 2000. Bellamy was amazingly prescient and anticipated many things that did not exist in his world: radio, credit cards, shopping malls, e-shopping…. Pretty good, yes? But here’s what he got wrong: everything else! Boston was supposed to be a perfect society that had banished crime, divorce, poverty, unemployment, sexism, racism, and inequality. I was in the area last weekend and insofar as I can tell, Bellamy struck out on those prognostications.

Examples such as this make me suspect that Tracy has placed Cushing Academy on a runaway track to nowhere (or Erewhon for those who get the reference). He presumes that he has seen the future and knows where it will lead, quite a gamble given the speed with which technology changes. What if, just five years from now, Kindles, flat-screen TVs, and Web browsers are as obsolete as, say, scrolls before books? Presumably people will still enjoy cappuccino, but that might be all that’s left of Tracy’s brave new world.

Should Tracy have catapulted Cushing’s library into the future? For embracing the inevitability of change Tracy deserves kudos, but his true arrogance was not in being so mean to books, rather in assuming that he knows what tomorrow will bring. If hubris strikes him down, it will be because he violated a very old proverb: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. I first encountered that phrase in an old book.


If Unions are Outmoded, So are Human Rights

What can you do if your boss is Attila the Hun? For most Americans the answer is "nothing."

In Georgia, state officials unilaterally decided that all teachers would be furloughed for three days and some fulltime school staff would be made part time. In Florida, a roofer was dismissed from his company for having the temerity to take an exam to get licensed to do what he was doing! The salaries of Missouri Nextel workers are pegged to sales, but queries are routinely redirected to a “call gate” that prevents the person who initiated the sale from closing the deal. An Arizona trash hauler with nineteen years of outstanding service was terminated by a new supervisor who suddenly discovered that the employee was a trouble maker.

What all of these cases have in common is that there was no oversight over the actions of the employers; they were free to act as their whims dictated. The other common denominator is that none of the workers was unionized and thus had zero recourse. It gets bleaker. An MSNBC report reveals that employers have been emboldened by the recession: 78% of those surveyed reduced health care benefits for employees, 72% cut them for employee dependents, 43% reduced employer contributions to retirement funds, and 44% have reduced the amount of employee paid leave. A Yahoo lead story—your source for all that is hot and trivial—dispenses advice on “How to Keep Your Job and Your Sanity.” The gist of it is: suck it up and kiss ass.

As Labor Day 2009 approaches I hear anew the cry that unions are a relic of the past. According to this logic, once upon a time unions were a needed counterbalance to the power of industrial tyrants, but the disappearance of blue-collar work and the rise of a post-industrial economy have closed the books on the Dickensian abuses of the past. It would seem not. The robber barons of old have nothing on some of the heartless little Napoleons of today. (Check out the Website “America’s Worst Employers.”) That would explain why a whopping 60% of Americans approve of labor unions. The fact that a scant 12% of employees belong to one suggests that access is the problem, not ideological discord or anachronistic union practices. In all, an additional 60 million more workers would like to be in a union.

Belonging to a labor union isn’t a panacea for all employment woes—witness the cuts just absorbed by unionized American Airlines flight attendants—but the mere act of holding a union card makes one 28% more likely to have an adequate health care plan, and wages are roughly 20% higher than those of workers in comparable non-union jobs. Most of all, belonging to a union gives a voice to those who would otherwise be powerless. Standing up to arbitrary power—what could be more American than that?