“The genocide continues”: Kamp Armen under threat

By Joris Leverink On June 3, 2015

Post image for “The genocide continues”: Kamp Armen under threatIn Turkey the cultural genocide of minority groups continues. Now, a Gezi-like resistance movement tries to turn the tide and build a common future.

The spirit of resistance has taken root in Tuzla, a wealthy, beachside suburb on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Getting off the bus, an hours’ drive from the Bosporus a series of spraypainted signs direct one past gated communities and celebrity villas to a hidden plot of land where once the songs and laughter of hundreds of Armenian children brought live to a now derelict and partially demolished school building.

‘Welcome to Camp Armen’ reads a sign at the entrance in both Turkish and Armenian. A narrow driveway covered by flags from Nor Zartonk a political association founded by Armenians which fights for minority rights in Turkey – and flanked by walls covered in political slogans leads to site where for almost one month people have successfully resisted the destruction of the former Tuzla Armenian Orphanage.

On May 6 – a mere two weeks after the 100th commemoration of the Armenian genocide – bulldozers arrived at the site of the abandoned school building and immediately set to work in demolishing the structure. One entire wing was leveled before local activists who had been warned by sympathetic construction workers that were building a villa next door arrived on the scene and threw themselves in front of the machines to try and safe what was left of the school.

Camp Armen being demolished.

A threat to the state

The Tuzla Armenian Orphanage, or Camp Armen as it was commonly known, was built in 1963 on a plot of land newly bought by the Gedikpasa Armenian Church. It was started as a summer school where Armenian language and culture was kept alive. The children carried rocks and sand from the nearby seashore, and helped with the construction of the building itself. Trees were planted and a vegetable garden was created.

“We were making cheese, yoghurt and butter. There was always something to do,” remembers Garabet Orunüz, who spent his youth in the camp. “This was our home, and we were doing everything with our love. We were enjoying it.”

For twenty years the camp provided a home for Armenian children. Some of them were orphans who spent several years living at the camp, and some of them were from Anatolia, from small villages were there was little or no chance to be educated in the traditions of their people, who came just to spent the summer months.

In 1983 the camp was closed because of rumors that at the camp Muslim children were converted to Christianity and a slander campaign in which the school was pictured as a training ground for terrorists. The property rights of the land were returned to the formed owner based on a 1974 high court ruling which stated that minority foundations cannot own property.

This racist policy came into effect after the military coup of 1971. Minority foundations came to be seen as a threat to the unity of the state, and it was made illegal for them acquire any real estate, either through purchase or inheritance. The line was drawn at 1936, when a new law forced all minority religious foundations to register their property. All the properties acquired by these foundations after 1936 were declared illegal under the 1974 ruling, and either confiscated by the state or returned to their former owners – as was the case with the plot where the Armen Camp had been built.

A photo of Camp Armen with a number of the students

Lessons learned

One of the most famous students of the school was Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian editor and journalist who was assassinated in Istanbul in 2007. Dink was very dedicated to the camp where he spent a large share of his youth and also met his wife, Rakel Dink. Before his death he had plans to make a documentary and write a book about the camp, but he never managed to realize this. In response to the seizure of the land he wrote the following:

They seized the fruit of the sweat of the 1500 children who grew up here. They stole our child labor. They could still have my blessing if only they had continued our place as an orphanage for poor children, a camp for the needy or challenged youngsters of whatever identity. But grabbed by a handful of villains as it is, I deny them the blessing of my labor.

Between 1983 and now the building has remained vacant, except for a single warden who lived on the property to protect it from thieves and vandals. In that time it has changed owners half a dozen times – increasing the value of the land with every sale – but none showed any particular interest in it. Until one month ago, when the current owner of the land, Fatih Ulusoy, decided to demolish the school and use the plot to construct sixteen villas.

As soon as the news broke that the school was under threat, a call for solidarity was shared via social media. Activists, campaigners and sympathizers rushed to the scene where they managed to convince the operator of the bulldozer to lay down his work. They then occupied the building, and set up tents in the former garden of the school. An average of twenty people is guarding the site around the clock, but on weekends these numbers rise as many people come and show their solidarity.

“We didn’t give the park, and we won’t give our school!”, is written on one of the banners, in a clear link to the Gezi Park resistance that kicked off in Istanbul two years earlier. The occupiers claim they have learned a lot from the Gezi resistance, in terms of organization, tactics and solidarity. Özgür Atlagan, one of the activists, explains: “We reacted so quickly because of the experience that we acquired during Gezi. Everything we do here, cooking, cleaning, organizing forums, they are the habits that we learned in the park.”

The resistance seemed to be successful when Ulusoy publicly announced that he would return the land title to the Gedipasa Armenian Church. This announcement was widely covered in the media as a victory for the Armenians and their sympathizers, and the ruling AKP didn’t waste any time in claiming that they had played a key role in the negotiations. However, more than one week after the deadline, the title deeds have still not been transferred, and activists on the scene are afraid their case is being used for propaganda in the upcoming elections.

“The genocide continues”

Genocide continues

“The genocide continues!” reads one of the largest banners hanging from the school’s walls. Just two weeks before the occupation of Camp Armen started this very same banner was used by the activists of Nor Zartonk at the 100thcommemoration of the Armenian genocide. When Alexis Kalk, a founding member of the organization, was asked by one of his comrades which banner to bring to the school site, he only thought for one second before replying: “the one about the genocide!’

“For us, the Armenians who live in Turkey, the genocide really continues. There are many different tools that can be used in a genocide; economic pressure; cultural degradation; forced assimilation. This country has never been punished for the crimes it committed, and so it doesn’t hesitate to repeat them again.”

Garabet Orunüz, the old student of the school couldn’t agree more. In his view the closure of the school back in 1983 was part of what he calls a ‘cultural genocide’. “What was the place for us? Our home. What were we learning from there? Our language, our religion, our culture. So, when they close this place they deprived us of all these things. This is a cultural genocide.”

The hopes and dreams of all those who have a part in the resistance have one thing in common, and that is that they would all like to see the school being restored in its original function. As a place were cultures and traditions are being kept alive, and not exclusively Armenian. The plan is to turn the school into part orphanage, part summer school for children from all different religious and ethnic backgrounds across Turkey to come together, learn to respect each other and make the hate and racism that has been guiding the actions of the rulers of this country for so long history.

The different backgrounds of the occupiers — there are Armenians as well as Turks, Kurds, Alevis and a number of foreigners — and the amount of solidarity they received from groups as diverse as the Anarchist federation, the Kazova workers and the Jewish community, gives rise to the thought that in resisting this latest chapter of the ongoing cultural genocide one of the most important aims has already been achieved. Once again, just like two years ago during the occupation of the Gezi Park there is unity in resistance, solidarity across socially constructed boundaries and a shared belief that despite a divided past there is hope for a common future.

The struggle at Camp Armen continues.
Stay up to date on the latest developments via their website or Facebook page.

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist, editor for ROAR Magazine and columnist for TeleSUR English.



Despite surplus, California governor releases austerity budget


By Dan Conway
23 May 2015

California Governor Jerry Brown released the so-called May Budgetary Revision on May 15, outlining proposed state spending for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. The measures included in the May Revision are typically adopted in the enacted state budget.

The May Revision incorporates larger than expected state income and capital gains tax revenue. It uses the expanded revenue not to restore past cuts but to create new school privatization schemes, expand the state’s rainy day budget stabilization fund and to otherwise insure continued hardship for the working class.

California is the most populous state in the country and also the poorest. According to the official federal poverty measure, which is based on an annual income threshold of three times the cost of basic nutritional requirements, the state’s poverty rate is 16 percent meaning 6.1 million residents are poor. Nearly 2.5 million of these have incomes less than half of the official poverty line and half of both these groups are children.

Using the US Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, however, which also factors in the price of other basic necessities such as shelter, clothing and utilities, California is the most impoverished state in the country with nearly a quarter of the state’s 38 million residents, or 8.9 million people in poverty.

The administration of Governor Jerry Brown has mercilessly used state budgets to impose austerity on the working class. Said Brown upon assuming office after a nearly 30 year absence, “If you’re looking for frugality, I’m your man.”

Brown has enacted massive cuts to the CalWorks Welfare to Work program, SSI recipients, funding for AIDs education and research and numerous other critical programs for the most vulnerable sections of the population.

The new budget does not restore a single dime to CalWorks despite the fact that 1.2 million impoverished Californians already use the program. 900,000 of those dependents are children. To qualify for the CalWorks Grant, recipients must receive an annual income of less than 50 percent of the federal poverty line and thanks to cuts imposed by Brown and Governor Schwarzenegger before him, CalWorks recipients receive $180 per month less, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 2008.

Funding will also not be restored to cuts made to the state’s Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP) program that provides payments to the disabled. The program has been cut to the legal minimum of $156 per month per recipient and cost of living adjustments or COLA, typically tied to the rise in the state’s Consumer Price Index, have not been restored.

The budget also maintains a ten percent cut to Medi-Cal, the state-subsidized health insurance program. The cut was enacted at the same time that the income threshold for Medi-Cal eligibility had been raised as part of the state’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. This was meant to insure that more workers would be forced to move onto the Medi-Cal rolls in a time of diminishing benefits. Under Brown, the Medi-Cal program no longer offers dental and vision services.

The only areas in the state budget that will see a significant increase in funding are in public education and in the state’s rainy day fund, which itself is meant to capture increased revenues and insure that they are not used to restore prior cuts to social programs.

Passed by state voters in 2014, Proposition 2 sets aside 1.5 percent of general fund revenues to the rainy day or state budget stabilization account. It also requires an additional transfer of capital gains tax revenues exceeding eight percent of general fund revenues to the account.

Half of the existing rainy day fund balance may be used to pay down outstanding state debt, while the remaining balance may only be used in cases of emergency if the state is running a budget deficit.

Because of the release of a portion of the existing rainy day account in the May Revision, there is now a $6.1 billion increase in funding for Public Education compared with the 2013-2014 school year, provided that these provisions in the Revision are included in the enacted budget.

As made explicitly clear in the terms of the Revision, the majority of the overall education spending will be directed towards the newly-created Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Under the terms of the LCFF, local school districts receive a certain amount of funding per student with those districts with a higher percentage of disabled, minority or immigrant students receiving higher funding.

Those districts can spend the money as they see fit provided that they implement “reforms” tied to standardized testing, Common Core Evaluation standards and show significant improvement in performance on those tests and other key areas each year. An example of measurable improvement would be a one percent increase in high school graduation rates each year for eight years.

To the extent that such measures cannot be realized, districts so affected would not only lose LCFF funding but would potentially fall victim to pro-charter school conversion measures such as the so-called Parent Trigger law. Under this reactionary law, a “failing” public school can be converted into a private charter operation if a majority of parents support it.

The open backing by state government of private charter schools is also made abundantly clear in the May Revision’s lack of funding for traditional public schools. Despite the overall Proposition 98 funding increase, funding for traditional public schools is decreased by $224 million in the Revision.

Also, while Cost of Living Adjustments remain in place for LCFF programs, traditional public schools will see a COLA decrease from 1.58 percent to 1.02 percent or $22.1 million.

The California Community College System (CCC) will also see a significant reduction in traditional funding as a result of the governor’s May Budget Revision. Traditional Proposition 98 funding to the CCC will be reduced by $156.1 million and COLAs are likewise to be reduced from 1.58 percent to 1.02 percent. Energy efficiency projects at CCC in the midst of one of the largest droughts in state history are also to be reduced by $825,000.

In addition to a meager $75 million expenditure to increase full time faculty, the May Revision provides $626 million to repay outstanding state debt and also to implement plans for curricula redesign and start up costs to expand the career and technical education programs and reorient the community college’s overall educational missions accordingly.

$30 million is also designated towards creating “student success outcome” plans at CCC. These are designed to provide funds to underrepresented student groups to maintain “equity,” the current political buzzword employed as a smokescreen to distract attention from overall diminishing funding levels for education.

The CCC is the largest network of state community colleges in the country, with more than 2.3 million students enrolled.

The Brown administration also reached a well-publicized agreement with the University of California (UC) Board of Regents, freezing state tuition for the next two years in exchange for reducing course loads and the amount of time it takes for students to complete their degrees. Out of state tuition will continue to increase by as much as eight percent per year.

UC enrollment rates are at their lowest levels ever as more students apply for the same number of slots available. Enrollment rates at the UC are half of what they were in the mid-1990s even though the number of academically qualified students has not declined accordingly.

As a result, Brown, together with UC Board Regent and former Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano are blaming the lack of UC access on unmotivated students who are taking too long to finish their degrees and are simply taking advantage of too many opportunities to educate themselves. As such, course credit requirements will be reduced and entire classes eliminated to push through UC students more quickly.

Similar measures would also be implemented at the larger California State University system (CSU) under the terms of the May Revision.

As the state faces a $72 billion liability for retiree health care, a major overhaul in how public pensioner health benefits is also now underway. This would involve state workers pre-funding their benefits, changing from a pay-as-you-go method towards paying into a prefunded, interest-accruing trust fund. The cost of this fund would largely be borne by state workers themselves.

Workers would not only have to rely on a static, inadequate funding source to pay for increasing medical costs when they retire, the minimum amount of time these workers must have on the job to even be eligible for the program is a full thirty years.

Perhaps the most significant portion of the May Revision is what it portends for future state budgets.

The introduction to the May Revision reads, “Despite stronger revenues, the budget remains precariously balanced and faces the prospect of deficits in succeeding years. The state has hundreds of billion of dollars in existing liabilities, such as deferred maintenance on its roads and other infrastructure and its unfunded liability for future retiree health care benefits for state employees and various pension benefits.”

There can be no doubt that future budgets will include further measures to address these “liabilities” at the expense of the working class. In this, the trade unions, including the SEIU and California Teachers Association will be willing partners.

While the most vulnerable sections of the population are being squeezed California is now home to 131 billionaires, nearly a quarter of all US billionaires and more than any other nation except for the US as a whole and China. This small collection of individuals has a combined wealth of $560.1 billion, more than the GDP of 49 countries including Argentina, Poland and Taiwan.



How Austerity Killed the Humanities

Not long ago, the Right fought viciously over the teaching of the humanities in American universities. Now conservatives are trying to eliminate them altogether.


Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, debates over the humanities were a major component of American political discourse. On the one side were conservative traditionalists who believed that all American college students should read the Western Canon—the greatest books of the Western mind since Aristotle—as a foundation for democratic living. On the other side were academic multiculturalists who believed that a humanities education should be more comprehensive and should thus include texts authored by minority, female, and non-western writers.

Those debates of the ‘80s and ‘90s were heated. Indeed, they were a major front in what came to be known as “culture wars” between merciless foes. Yet all sides in these culture wars believed a humanities education—history, literature, languages, philosophy—was inherently important in a democratic society. In short, the humanities were taken for granted. In our current age of austerity, this is no longer the case. Many Americans no longer think the humanities worthy of public support. This is especially true of conservatives, who in their quest to cut off state support to higher education have abandoned the humanities entirely.

Take the state of Wisconsin, for example. In early February, Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker drafted a draconian state budget that proposed to decrease the state’s contribution to the University of Wisconsin system by over $300 million over the next two years. Beyond simply slashing spending, Walker was also attempting to alter the language that has guided the core mission of the University of Wisconsin over the last 100 years or more, known as the “Wisconsin Idea.” Apparently Walker’s ideal university would no longer “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses” and would thus cease its “search for truth” and its efforts to “improve the human condition,” as his proposed language changes scrapped these ideas entirely; the governor’s scaled-back objective was for the university to merely “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

When a draft of Walker’s proposed revisions to the Wisconsin Idea surfaced, outraged Wisconsinites (including some conservatives) compelled the governor to backtrack. Yet Walker’s actions are consistent with recent trends in conservative politics. Republicans today are on the warpath against education—particularly against the humanities, those academic disciplines where the quaint pursuit of knowledge about “the human condition” persists.

In 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed a law making it more expensive for students enrolled at Florida’s public universities to obtain degrees in the humanities. As Scott and his supporters argued, in austere times, they needed “to lash higher education to the realities and opportunities of the economy,” as Florida Republican and State Senate President Don Gaetz put it. In other words, a humanities degree, unlike a business degree, was a luxury good. Even President Obama joined this chorus when he half-joked recently that students with vocational training are bound to make more money than art history majors.

Such anti-intellectualism, a strong animus against the idea that learning about humanity is a worthy pursuit regardless of its lack of obvious labor market applicability, has deep roots in American history. President Theodore Roosevelt advised that “we of the United States must develop a system under which each individual citizen shall be trained so as to be effective individually as an economic unit, and fit to be organized with his fellows so that he and they can work in efficient fashion together.” Contemporary conservatives are thus merely following the crude utilitarian logic that has informed many politicians and educational reformers since the nation’s first common schools.

But it was not always thus. During the 1980s and 1990s, prominent conservatives like William Bennett, who served in the Reagan administration as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then as Secretary of Education, argued that every American should have an education grounded in the humanities. This surprising recent history is largely forgotten, and not only because most conservatives now dismiss the value of the humanities. It is forgotten because the arguments forwarded by Bennett and his ilk came in the context of the traumatic culture wars, when left and right angrily battled over radically different visions of a humanities education.

Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

As a leading conservative culture warrior, Bennett held a traditionalist vision of the humanities. He believed the Western canon—which he defined in the terms of Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience”—should be the philosophical bedrock of the nation’s higher education.

“Because our society is the product and we the inheritors of Western civilization,” Bennett matter-of-factly contended, “American students need an understanding of its origins and development, from its roots in antiquity to the present.”

Most academics in humanities disciplines like English and history, in contrast, took a more critical stance towards the Western canon. They believed it too Eurocentric and male-dominated to properly reflect modern American society and thus revised it by adding books authored by women and minorities. Toni Morrison was to sit alongside Shakespeare. As literary theorist Jane Tompkins told a reporter from The New York Times Magazine in 1988, the struggle to revise the canon was a battle “among contending factions for the right to be represented in the picture America draws of itself.”

Many college students agreed with the canon revisionists. In 1986, Bill King, president of the Stanford University Black Student Union, formally complained to the Stanford academic senate that the university’s required Western Civilization reading list was racist. “The Western culture program as it is presently structured around a core list and an outdated philosophy of the West being Greece, Europe, and Euro-America is wrong, and worse,” he contended, “it hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized.” Stanford students opposed to the Western Civilization curriculum marched and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go,” and the academic senate approved mild changes to the core reading list that they hoped would satisfy the understandable demands of their increasingly diverse student body.

A sensationalist media made Stanford’s revisions seem like a proxy for the death of the West. Newsweek titled a story on the topic “Say Goodbye Socrates.” University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal editor in 1989—two years after his book, The Closing of the American Mind, made a rigorous if eccentric case for a classic humanities education rooted in the Western canon—in which he argued the Stanford revisions were a travesty: “This total surrender to the present and abandonment of the quest for standards with which to judge it are the very definition of the closing of the American mind, and I could not hope for more stunning confirmation of my thesis.”

Bloom believed that a humanities education should provide students with “four years of freedom,” which he described as “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.” Liberals and leftists might have been sympathetic to such an argument had Bloom not dismissed texts authored by women, minorities, and non-westerners as lacking merit compared to the great books authored by those like Socrates who composed the Western canon.

In retrospect, these culture wars over the humanities are rather remarkable artifacts of a history that feels increasingly distant. Whether Stanford University ought to assign John Locke or the anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, a debate that played out on The Wall Street Journal editorial page in 1988, would be nonsensical in today’s neoliberal climate marked by budget cuts and other austerity measures. Now Locke and Fanon find themselves for the first time on the same side—and it’s looking more and more like the losing one. On the winning side? Well, to take but one example, Winning, General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s breezy management book, which is widely read in American business schools. Sadly, even the almighty Western canon, revised or not, seems feeble up against Winning and the cult of business. Conservative defenders of the humanities are voices in the wilderness. The philistines are on the march.

The culture wars over the humanities that dominated discussion of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s had enduring historical significance. Shouting matches about academia reverberated beyond the ivory tower to lay bare a crisis of national faith. Was America a good nation? Could the nation be good—could its people be free—without foundations? Were such foundations best provided by a classic liberal education in the humanities, which Matthew Arnold described as “the best that has been thought and said”? Was the “best” philosophy and literature synonymous with the canon of Western Civilization? Or was the Western canon racist and sexist? Was the “best” even a valid category for thinking about texts? Debates over these abstract questions rocked the nation’s institutions of higher education, demonstrating that the culture wars did not boil down to any one specific issue or even a set of issues. Rather, the culture wars often hinged on a more epistemological question about national identity: How should Americans think?

But in our current age of austerity, Americans are not asked to think about such questions at all. Neoliberalism is fine with revised canons—with a more inclusive, multicultural vision of the humanities. But neoliberalism is not fine with public money supporting something so seemingly useless. American conservatives have abandoned their traditionalist defense of the Western canon in favor of no canon at all.


Andrew Hartman is associate professor of history at Illinois State University and author, most recently, of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars.



State funding for higher education in US slashed by 20 percent since 2008

By Evan Blake
14 May 2015

State spending on higher education across the United States has fallen precipitously in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, according to a study published Wednesday by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

On average, states are spending $1,805, or 20 percent, less per student than before the recession. Five states—Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—slashed their higher education funding by more than 35 percent since 2008, with Arizona cutting its spending by an astronomical 47 percent.

Decades-long cutbacks in state and federal funding for higher education have been used to justify massive increases in tuition, combined with budget cuts to educational and other services at public colleges and universities.

The CBPP report highlights the cumulative impact of this process, noting, “In 1988, public colleges and universities received 3.2 times as much in revenue from state and local governments as they did from students. They now receive about 1.1 times as much from states and localities as from students.”

Simultaneously, wages have stagnated or declined for the vast majority of workers, so that, “Since 1973, average inflation-adjusted public college tuition has more than tripled—increasing by nearly 270 percent—but median household income has barely changed, up merely 5 percent.”

The report added, “Tuition jumped nearly 28 percent between the 2007-08 and 2013-14 school years, while real median income fell roughly 8 percent over the same time period.”

As a result of budget cuts, tuition at universities in Arizona has skyrocketed by an average of 83.6 percent since 2008. In five other states—California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, and Louisiana—the cost of tuition has increased by more than 60 percent, while every state has seen a marked increase in average tuition since 2008.

The CBPP report notes, “Annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has risen by $2,068, or 29 percent, since the 2007-08 school year,” while at the same time colleges have “cut faculty positions, eliminated course offerings, closed campuses, shut computer labs, and reduced library services, among other cuts.”

The CBPP report corresponds with the findings of another recent study on higher education by Mark Kantrowitz, a writer for the college advice website Edvisors. Kantrowitz found that the average college graduate in 2015 has accumulated over $35,000 of student-loan debt, almost thee times the amount of debt for a college graduate in 1995.

As states and the federal government have demanded ever-deepening austerity, college students are forced to rely on student loans. Roughly 71 percent of all 2015 graduates will have to repay some type of student loan, compared to 64 percent 10 years ago and less than 50 percent in the mid-1990s.

Parents of college students are often forced to take out additional loans, with roughly 17 percent of 2015 graduates’ parents also saddled by their children’s student loan debt. The average parent who takes out a student loan for a 2015 graduate has incurred $30,867 of debt, up 4 percent from $29,684 in 2014.

Newly-issued student loan debt is expected to reach a record $68 billion this year for undergraduates and their parents, more than 10 times the total in 1994 and an enormous addition to the ballooning $1.2 trillion total student loan debt in the U.S.

The only states that have increased funding for higher education since 2008 are Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota, which respectively rank 50th, 49th and 45th in total college enrollment. With a combined enrollment of roughly 118,000 students, these states account for a mere 0.6 percent of the total college student population in the U.S.

The defunding of higher education is a component part of the broader drive to dismantle public education in the U.S., as the American ruling class moves to claw back the gains won by previous generations of workers.

The Obama administration has played a central role in this assault, enforcing a 12 percent cut to Title 1 funding geared toward low-income schools, while providing $248 million in charter school funding and $378 million for standardized testing to further justify the firing of teachers and closure of public schools. A 2014 CBPP report found that 54 percent of K-12 public schools in the U.S. saw rising class sizes for the 2011-12 school year.



In kitsch we trust: lies, euphemisms and politics

By Chris Wright On May 8, 2015

Post image for In kitsch we trust: lies, euphemisms and politicsCollateral damage, regime change, right-to-work: nice words covering up nasty truths, depoliticizing social reality and camouflaging power structures.

Artwork by Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung

In a popular video on YouTube, George Carlin aims his caustic wit at the dread political scourge of euphemisms. “I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language,” he kicks off his rant.

Our “public discourse” is, and to some extent always has been, polluted by an epidemic of euphemisms. This category overlaps with the category of political correctness, but it typically serves rightwing, not leftwing, ends. It also overlaps with kitsch, the category that Milan Kundera brilliantly analyzes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kitsch is “the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”

The essence of this definition applies equally to euphemisms. Both kitsch and euphemisms serve to shield us from unpleasant truths — in other words to disguise reality.

Kitsch is everywhere where fake prettiness — or pretty fakeness — silences authenticity. It is at social gatherings, cocktail parties, academic conferences; it saturates interactions between salespeople and customers, and inspires the decor of every shop in the mall. It is the impulse that sustains the tourism industry. It is the regulating principle of institutional norms, whether in the intellectual, the political, the cultural, or the business world.

Kitsch is what coheres a consumer capitalist society, with its ubiquitous product-advertisements and self-advertisements (for the self has become but a product to be sold). In fact, power-centers in any advanced society will impose a regime of political and ideological kitsch on the population, for power has to lie in order to extract some semblance of consent from its subjects.

Kitsch, in short, while pretending to exalt all that is wonderful and pleasant in life, manifests the anti-human. Where social atomization happens, so does kitsch. Where power happens — and bureaucracy, and the state, and “the free market,” and atomizing totalitarian tendencies of whatever sort — so does kitsch. And in the realm of political kitsch, the use of euphemisms is indispensable.

George Carlin mentions a few. Consider the evolution of the old, honest, direct World War I concept “shell shock”. In World War II shell shock morphed into the more innocuous term battle fatigue, then during the Korean War it was called operational exhaustion, only to become post-traumatic stress disorder in the Vietnam era, or simply PTSD now. So, from shell shock to… an acronym.

This history exemplifies the role of power-structures in the ideological sphere, namely, to squeeze the life out of life — and out of language, and out of dissent, and out of anything that can potentially disrupt the smooth functioning of institutional relations. This is as true of academia as of politics. The imperative is to propagate appealing myths at all times; but if it proves necessary to acknowledge the existence of something negative, at the very least change its name so that it becomes inoffensive and boring. (Ideally, put a positive spin on it as well, so the bad thing magically becomes good.) Eradicate every vestige of humanity; that is the imperative.

We can all easily think of examples. Torture is enhanced interrogation; slaughtered children are collateral damage; a coup d’état is regime change; terrorism we carry out is counterterrorism; invasion of another country is self-defense; destroying a country is stabilizing it; and imposing reactionary regimes on hapless populations is spreading democracy.

Job-destroyers are job-creators; the right-to-scrounge is called the right-to-work; the destruction of public education is “education reform”; destroying social programs and the welfare state is “austerity”; massive corporate welfare is the free market; workers’ mutually destructive competition for jobs and wages is a flexible labor market; renting yourself to a corporation is finding employment; police terrorism is called unnecessary force. The list could go on for pages.

But it isn’t only current political realities that are whitewashed. Rather, a country’s entire history is effaced, replaced with a mess of kitsch and euphemisms. This may be a truism, and we may know it, but it remains very difficult to extricate ourselves from all the subtle wordplays and techniques of indoctrination that have been used to make us think well of our society and its history.

For instance, the recently published book The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward Baptist, at times may well strike the reader with the force of revelation, while simultaneously embarrassing him for having overlooked the truths it brings to light. Why do we use such bland terms as plantations and slaveholders? Because they’re euphemisms — though we don’t even know it.

Plantations were simply slave-labor camps, and we should follow Baptist in consistently calling them such. (The word “plantation” is actually appealing, quaint, pretty, conjuring images of a lovely countryside ruled benevolently by a paternalistic lord.) “Slaveholders” were enslavers, and we should call them such. Slaves were constantly tortured; that was part of their daily routine, to force them to work harder and submit to white supremacy. Half the country was a torture machine for slave labor, while the other half financed and profited from it.

The kitsch exists on a broader scale too. As Baptist makes clear — and as we all should have explicitly recognized long ago — slavery was not some marginal, economically backward thing; it was the very foundation of the modern American economy and the global industrial economy. It was an astonishingly efficient and effective way of producing cotton, such that from the perspective of economic logic it was irrational for slavery to be made illegal. Nothing is more modern than slavery and the economically productive dehumanization it entails.

The funny thing about kitsch, though, is that sometimes the truth is buried in it, peeking out ironically, only requiring a bit of excavation. Barack Obama, Marco Rubio and their ilk are right: America is an exceptional country. No other country was founded on, or owes its prosperity to, wholesale genocide of the native population together with centuries of enslavement of human beings. (It’s exceptional in other ways too, though they probably aren’t what Obama has in mind.)

It’s hard to look at one’s own country semi-objectively, because one is immersed in a miasma of kitsch and euphemisms. They are absolutely everywhere; they are the air we breathe as citizens, workers, and consumers. But if we can cut through the thick poisonous atmosphere of deceit and indoctrination, we may find that everything is upside down, and appearance is the opposite of reality.

We may find that in our society, as in a stagnant pond, the scum floats to the top. We’ll realize, with the historian Albert Prago, that “in an amoral society, the amoral man is best qualified to succeed.” Perhaps we’ll learn to look with contempt on the leaders and the “successful” — the institutionally obedient, the non-questioners, and the greedy, the vulgarly ambitious, the rich — and admire the downtrodden for their struggles and their stoic survival.

So, whenever a person in a position of authority opens his mouth, we should ask: “What is the reality that is being kitschified here?”

Chris Wright is a doctoral candidate in U.S. labor history, and the author ofWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States and Notes of an Underground Humanist. Visit his website here.



The Big Shift Needed for Humanity to Protect the Earth: Restore the Commons

On Earth Day, let’s talk about making the commons the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life.

Photo Credit: Garry Knight/Flickr

At a time when ecological destruction is more dire than ever, the work of protecting the planet depends on dreamers just as much as of scientists, activists, public officials and business leaders.

Earth Day, when millions of people voice support for environmental causes, is the perfect time to recognize this. While it’s critical to wrestle power away from those who believe that corporate profits are all that matter, we won’t achieve a sustainable, just future without serious attention to imagining a different kind of world. That’s why it’s great to see artists playing an increasingly active role in the climate justice movement today.

What bold blueprints for a green planet will arise if we unleash the full power of our idealism and ingenuity? What visions of new ways to lead our lives would turn the public’s indifference about climate change into enthusiasm for building a society that is more sustainable and fair for all?

The focus for most people’s dreams would be the familiar places they love—neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, villages and countryside. Think what could happen if we declared these places commons, which belong to all of us and need to be improved for future generations. Citizens would stand up, lock arms with their neighbors and demand new political and economic directions for our society. They would open discussions with business leaders, government officials, scientists and design professionals on how to create resilient, equitable, greener communities. But the conversation wouldn’t stop there. We’d plan for less carbon and waste and poverty, but also for more fun and joy and conviviality—which are equally strategic goals.

The chief obstacle to taking action on climate change and global inequality is fear of the economic sacrifices involved for people who are relatively well off today. The decline in the West’s material consumption could be more than compensated for by a richer life filled more human connections and natural splendor. We can look forward to a world with more congenial gathering places like parks, plazas, museums, playing fields, ice cream parlors and cafes—lots and lots of cafes. Millions of acres and hectares of pavement would be torn up and transformed into gardens, performance spaces, amusement parks and affordable housing.

Cities would be greener. Suburbs would be livelier. Rural communities would be more robust. You’d see folks of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities as well as social and political inclinations sharing the same spaces, talking with one another even if not always agreeing. In short, the world would be a lot more interesting for everyone. I can’t think of many folks—from free market zealots to ardent political organizers, religious fundamentalists to confirmed hedonists—who wouldn’t jump at the chance to experience more pizzazz and spirit of community in their lives.

But the biggest change we’d see if the commons became the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life would be felt in our own hearts and imaginations. These days, most of us experience modern life as a fragmented and alienating, which makes us retreat into ourselves as a defensive posture. We feel a growing sense of loneliness—quiet desperation in Thoreau’s phrase—that renders us passive and withdrawn at a time when it’s more important than ever to reach out.

Creating stronger, friendlier, more engaged communities is not a sideshow in the urgent cause of saving the planet. It is a central strategy. Because when people connect, roll up their sleeves and get down to work protecting the places they care about, anything is possible. There’s a whole world of people out there ready to dream big and then put it into action.

Jay Walljasper is a writer and speaker who explores how new ideas in urban planning, tourism, community development, sustainability, politics and culture can improve our lives as well as the world.