The True Meaning of Labor Day

  Labor  

For America’s workers, it’s a reminder of the struggles we have won—and those that lie ahead.

Photo Credit: Nic Neufeld / Shutterstock.com

To many Americans, Labor Day has become an important way to send off the slower pace of summer and usher in the hustle and bustle of fall. To our nation’s working families, this Labor Day means so much more.

It is an important moment to reflect on the courage of the working people who brought us Labor Day and the many working benefits we enjoy today. It is also a pivotal time to take stock of where our families, our economy, and our democracy are heading.

Today, America finds itself in a position of incredible challenge. Half of all Americans now make less than $15 an hour. Of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in America, eight are service sector jobs that pay $15 an hour or less.

Service sector jobs are the heartbeat of our economy and our communities, from the folks who care for the elderly and our children, to those who cook and serve our food, to those who clean and secure our offices. Moving our economy forward must include making service jobs into good jobs with wages that you can raise a family on.

That’s why this Labor Day, the American people are sparking a new movement, joining together for an economy and democracy that works for everyone.

Fast food workers have joined together to fight for $15 an hour. They have been joined by home care workers who are calling for $15 an hour for all caregivers. Just last week 27,000 Minnesota home care workers joined together in union, determined to raise wages and fight for quality home care for our seniors.

Working people in Seattle fought for and won a $15 minimum wage for 100,000 people, and other cities are poised to do the same. Across our nation adjunct professors, airport workers, security officers, hospital workers, Wal-Mart workers and other service sector workers are standing up and sticking together.

All told, 6.7 million workers have achieved better pay since fast food workers began striking less than two years ago, either through states or cities moving to raise minimum wages or through collective bargaining. These brave workers are building the momentum to raise wages and get our economy roaring again.

Yet the prosperity of our nation and growth of our economy depend not just on economic justice. A vibrant economy cannot exist without vibrant American communities steeped in the fundamental American principles of liberty and justice for all.

The taking of Mike Brown’s life in Ferguson, Missouri only weeks ago reminds us that social and economic justice must go hand in hand for America to thrive. To solve these issues, we need opportunities for all Americans to fully participate in our economy and improve the quality of life for their families.

That’s why we must also fix our broken immigration system and uphold and protect civil rights and democratic participation for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.

We must remember that America is a nation founded on the dreams of immigrants. Today the opportunity to achieve the American dream is jeopardized by a broken immigration system and a Congress that refuses to fix it. The time has come for us to free those immigrants who exemplify the promise of America from the shadows and bring them into the light of our economy and society without fear.

When working people stick together, we have the strength to ensure that both our democracy and our economy continue to grow and progress. When America’s working families rise, America rises.

This Labor Day, we have so much more to celebrate than just the end of summer. So many brave Americans are uniting to raise wages, raise our communities and raise America. Their efforts and successes are shaping up to be the largest, boldest and most inclusive movement by and for working people that modern America has even seen.

I believe in a rising America, where together we can create an economy that works for everyone and a democracy where everyone has a voice.

Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union.

 

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Netanyahu indicates Gaza ceasefire paves way for wider war

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By Jean Shaoul
1 September 2014

Speaking on Israel’s Channel 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his most expansive explanation thus far for agreeing an “indefinite ceasefire” in Gaza.

Netanyahu has faced sustained criticism from within his Likud party and his coalition government for calling off military action short of his declared intention of obliterating Hamas and without consulting his security cabinet.

He has also incurred the hostility of those Israelis who felt revulsion at the brutality of the military operations whose cost they will bear in the form of higher taxes and cuts in public services. On Sunday, Netanyah announced plans to slash government spending by 2 percent in order to finance the $2.5 billion Gaza assault. Education funding will be hardest hit.

Opposed by both sides of the political spectrum, the prime minister has seen his support in the opinion polls fall from 63 to 38 percent in just a few weeks.

Netanyahu’s remarks, formulated as a response to his right-wing critics, were a tacit admission that Israel is preparing to take its place in wider US-led war plans nominally targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In bellicose language Netanyahu said of Gaza, “I never removed the goal of toppling Hamas, and I am not doing that now… I cannot rule out the occupation of Gaza. I don’t know if we will get to that. I thought the best thing is to crush them.”

Cabinet members—Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan—would have been secretly pleased that they did not have to vote on the issue, he added.

Turning to the regional situation, Netanyahu identified the scope of his military ambitions, declaring, “I am preparing for a reality in the Middle East that is very problematic.”

“I look around and see al-Qaida on the fence, ISIS moving toward Jordan and already in Lebanon, with Hezbollah there already, supported by Iran,” he elaborated.

He identified the possibility of new diplomatic and military alliances emerging. There were, he said, “not a small number of states who see the threats around us, as threats to them as well and as a result do not see Israel as an enemy, but as a potential partner.”

Netanyahu did not specify which states he was referring to, but events leading up to his about-face indicate that he acted under order from Washington and after receiving supportive assurances from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. Indeed his comments came after US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a piece for the New York Times, called for a “global coalition” against Islamic extremists who are “perilously close to Israel.”

The Obama administration’s preparations for a wider war in Iraq and Syria to protect its geo-strategic interests in the energy-rich region and contain and isolate Iran, Russia and China requires precisely such a diplomatic cover in the form of a new “coalition of the willing.”

For this reason, the US, which had initially backed the war, determined the 50-day war in Gaza had become a destabilising factor, having provoked a growing protest movement against Israeli brutality that made it impossible for the US to clothe its regional ambitions in the garb of humanitarianism.

Moreover, the Arab regimes could not be seen supporting a military campaign in Iraq and Syria at the same time as they left the Palestinians to Israel’s tender mercies.

Regionally, Israel’s war on Gaza relied above all on Egypt’s military dictator General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and his sponsors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who supported it in order to isolate and militarily weaken Hamas, which rules Gaza. Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot of Egypt’s now banned Muslim Brotherhood, which is anathema to most of the Arab bourgeoisie and the Gulf monarchs—with the exception of Qatar—because as a rival capitalist party it challenges their commercial interests and political domination.

The war on Hamas was also seen as a means of isolating Iran, which, despite its recent falling out with Hamas, was obliged to make a show of support.

The Egyptian regime patrolled the Sinai border to prevent militant groups launching attacks alongside Hamas. It sealed the Rafah crossing to prevent Palestinians fleeing the Israeli military or seeking treatment in hospitals in Egypt or medical delegations and aid convoys reaching Gaza.

Above all, al-Sisi provided a crucial cover for Israel’s air and ground assault by brokering a ceasefire proposal after discussion with Saudi Arabia, the Arab League and Washington that was initially rejected by Hamas. A key element of the proposal was the end of Hamas’ rule in Gaza and return of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) to the territory after being expelled in 2007 following a coup by Hamas, the victor of elections in January 2006 in the West Bank and Gaza. Egypt insisted that it would not reopen the Rafah crossing until it was guarded by the PA, under the control of strongman Mohammed Dahlan, Israel’s preferred successor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

While demonstrations in support of the Palestinians took place around the world, they were outlawed and suppressed in the Arab countries, including the West Bank, fueling the antipathy of the Arab masses towards their rulers. Such conditions would have made it impossible to mount a military campaign to protect US and Sunni Arab interests in Iraq against the encroachment of ISIS. Initially supported and trained by the CIA, Turkey, Jordan and Israel as a proxy force to overthrow Assad, ISIS has now captured whole swathes of Iraq and Syria, threatening Baghdad as well as the Jordanian monarchy, another US client regime.

As a result, Israel came under sustained pressure from the US, with the backing of the Arab regimes, to call a halt to the war. Saudi Arabia sent a team of ministers to Qatar to try and end its support for Hamas, while Jordan’s King Abdullah brokered secret talks between Netanyahu and Abbas in Amman, their first meeting since September 2010.

Egypt again played a crucial role. Al-Sisi brokered a “peace deal” which is no different in its essentials from the July proposals, thereby sidelining Qatar and Turkey, the main sponsors of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas’ acceptance of the terms of the deal meant opposing Khaled Mershaal, its political bureau chief in Qatar, jeopardising Qatar’s financial and diplomatic support. But, in the final analysis, Cairo was more important: Hamas’ very existence depended upon the lifeline provided by Egypt—the Rafah crossing.

Talks are to begin in one month’s time over the release of hundreds of Hamas prisoners rounded up in the West Bank following the killing of three Israeli settler youths in June, and the construction of a port and international airport in Gaza. But Netanyahu has demanded Gaza’s demilitarisation and said he will not accede to the Palestinians’ demands.

The US is to resume arms shipments to Israel, after the Obama administration had earlier called a halt to the delivery of new materiel to Israel without the explicit approval of the White House and State Department. This could be an occasion for the start of a massive increase in military aid for Israel from the US, in line with Netanyahu’s call in his interview for increases in the defence budget. Indeed the Israel Defence Force needs a massive one-off sum of 9 billion NIS ($2.5 billion) just to pay for the war, and an additional 11 billion NIS for its 2015 budget.

“GRAPES OF WRATH” AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

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In a Labor Day weekend mood, I watched “Grapes of Wrath” again this evening.  Labor Day is, after all, a celebration of the American labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers.  “Grapes of Wrath” portrays familiar themes in the American worker experience:  be it displaced farmers from Oklahoma to baristas and Twitter people with degrees, there is a continual struggle between workers and those with wealth desiring cheap, easily manipulated, labor.

The wealthy pretty much got their way in the States until the Depression (rich people gambling to get richer) fueled the re- balancing of the worker/owner relationship — more in favor of the worker– under FDR, and his New Deal.  This balance, which was great for the overall health of the country, continued through LBJ and the Great Society.  Now things are going the other way, with the wealthy neoliberal controller classes producing a political and economic system that assures their success no matter which of the two political parties wins.  Reagan, Clinton, Bush and now Obama dismantled the Great Society, fought to break the worker unions, and deregulated banking and other entities once deemed “public trusts.”  The resultant series of economic crises and bursting bubbles destroyed the working and middle classes and threatens to remove whats left of the social safety nets.

Tom Joad’s famous final speech (excerpts below) to his Ma in the movie “Grapes of Wrath” powerfully expressed the thoughts and yearnings of the Depression-period worker and resonates with the increasingly disenfranchised workers of today.  The American revolutionary, Tom Joad, espousing collective action that creates change, is a familiar subplot in the American drama.  What distresses me about this speech is Tom’s dream to spread wealth more justly “…if all our folks got together and yelled…”.  In this 21st century people yell for a few months (Occupy) and the illusion and control by the owners returns.  In the age of the “meh generation” and Ayn Rand the notion of a collective soul is anathema.

 

Tom Joad: I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…

Ma Joad: Tommy, you’re not aimin’ to kill nobody.

Tom Joad: No, Ma, not that. That ain’t it. It’s just, well as long as I’m an outlaw anyways… maybe I can do somethin’… maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if they ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear, Ma. I can’t. I don’t know enough.

Ma Joad: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?

Tom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

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Ohio charter schools seek to strip public education of constitutional protection

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By Nancy Hanover
28 August 2014

In a statewide effort with national implications, for-profit charter schools and the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are attempting to amend the Ohio State Constitution. Those positioned to cash in financially are seeking to eliminate the requirement for a “thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”

The constitutional provision, adopted in 1851, provided the strongest possible mandate for the development of uniform public schools throughout the state. Eleven other US states have similar constitutional requirements to make “thorough and efficient” provisions for public schools, with eight others requiring a “general and uniform” system of schools.

Leading the effort to legally renounce Ohio’s current commitment to public education is Chad Readler, chairman of both the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools and the education committee of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission (OCMC), created by the state’s legislature in 2012. The Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools, created in 2006, is composed of 200 charter schools and was funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation.

In response, public school advocates have emphasized that since US federal law does not enshrine education as a fundamental right, weakening or eliminating state constitutional strictures is a core attack. One of the chief effects of the constitutional change would be to block the use of the courts to enforce public rights or to provide oversight of educational standards, of particular importance in the state of Ohio.

The OCMC’s proposed changes to Article VI, Section 2 remove the passage stating “The General Assembly shall make such provision, by taxation, or otherwise … [as] will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state” and substitutes “The General Assembly shall provide for the organization, administration and control of the public school system of the state supported by public funds …”

This Orwellian “modernization” serves the profit interests of charter operators in two ways: by eliminating the requirement of a system of public schools throughout the state and by discarding the thorough and efficient” standard.

Bill Phillis, longtime executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, said the change would virtually eliminate public accountability for school funding. “The ‘thorough and efficient’ standard has held the legislature’s feet to the fire for 160 years. Without a standard, public education could be diminished markedly and citizens would have no viable recourse via the courts,” he said.

In fact, historically the courts have relied upon the Ohio Constitution’s “thorough and efficient” language to require significant funding increases and other improvements for Ohio’s poorest school districts. A series of decisions, known as DeRolph, began in 1991 and were battled out in the courts for 12 years.

The stage was set when, in 1994, Perry County Court Judge Linton Lewis, Jr. ruled that “public education is a fundamental right in the state of Ohio” and that the state legislature had to provide a better and more equitable means of financing education.

Attorney Nick Pittner, who argued the DeRolph case for 500 poorer districts, pointed to children in the Appalachian-area of Vinton County, where the school had no cafeteria and they therefore had to cross a busy highway to eat at a diner, and to another school, where scaffolding was erected to prevent children from being hit by bricks falling from the walls.

In the 1997 DeRolph I ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court returned to the constitutional issues, stating “ …The delegates to the 1850-1851 Constitutional Convention … were concerned that the education to be provided to our youth not be mediocre but be as perfect as could humanly be devised. These debates reveal the delegates’ strong belief that it is the state’s obligation, through the General Assembly, to provide for the full education of all children within the state.” He summed up, stating, “The facts documented in the record lead to one inescapable conclusion — Ohio’s elementary and secondary public schools are neither thorough nor efficient.”

In fact, DeRolph did lead to billions of additional state funding dollars for education in the form of building construction and renovation for over 1,000 school buildings for kindergarten through 12th grade. These new buildings “wouldn’t be there without ‘thorough and efficient,’” Phillis pointed out.

Three subsequent high court rulings in 2000, 2001 and 2002 affirmed the unconstitutionality of Ohio’s school-funding system due to inequality across districts. Eventually the court backed down, stating that Ohio had made a “good faith effort,” thus reversing the earlier rulings.

Nevertheless, the court rulings and above all the constitutional mandate remain a thorn in the side to those forces attempting to institute market-driven education throughout the state. The deliberate and systematic defunding of public education and the parallel rise of charter chain schools have dramatically intensified education inequality in the state.

Presently, 45% of the state’s school children receive free or reduced school lunches (often used as a poverty benchmark), and in seven counties (Champaign, Coshocton, Crawford, Defiance, Greene, Miami and Medina) the child poverty rate has increased 90% or more in the last decade.

Heavily hit by deindustrialization and the 2008 crash, state funding for education in Ohio has been systematically cut. The state model forces school districts to make up the difference through their own tax levies. While business taxes have been cut, the burden of school funding has been shifted to homeowners, rising from 46% of the total in 1991 to a whopping 70% today.

Who are the heavyweight drivers and potential beneficiaries of the constitutional rewrite? They are the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Ohio’s wildly profitable charter school chains. A notorious corporate “reform” group (also spearheading the national assault on public workers’ pensions), ALEC seeks to “replace” public schools with “private market-driven education thrift stores.” Education historian Diane Ravitch observed, in an apt phrase, ALEC “owns the Ohio legislature,” providing statistics on the number of Ohio legislators who are members of ALEC, on ALEC “scholarships,” or attending ALEC conferences.

Among the charter operators, the key players in Ohio are William Lager and David Brennan, as well as the publicly-traded national online charter K12. The biggest charter in the state is Lager’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a cyber or online-only charter that enrolls 14,486 students statewide, netting about $64 million annually. ECOT schools are rated academically near the very bottom of 613 districts in the state. Lager has contributed $1 million to state politicians since 2001, according to Ravitch.

David Brennan’s White Hat Management operates 30 schools in Ohio and is the largest chain school, collecting about $100 million annually from state coffers for his for-profit charter empire.

Brennan and his family have donated millions of dollars to state politicians including Governor John Kasich. White Hat lobbyists have played significant roles in directly writing charter legislation. Brennan’s cyber charter, Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy, graduates a scandalous 35.9% of its students. His Alternative Education Academy had a 22.8% graduation rate.

The Ohio charter industry has also been characterized by outright criminality. In June, 11 FBI agents raided Horizon Science Academy charter school in Cincinnati as part of a federal investigation into sexual misconduct and test tampering at the 19 schools managed by Concept Schools. The Dayton location of the chain has also been accused of discriminating against black students, falsifying attendance records and hiding sexual misconduct. 6,700 Ohio students attend the various Concept Schools academies.

Not surprisingly, given the role of ALEC and charter school operators in crafting state legislation, Ohio’s lax regulations hold the state’s 391 charter schools to lower performance standards than traditional public schools. Despite these diminished expectations, the state has closed 157 charters for lack of academic achievement since 2000.

The threat to eliminate state constitutional protection of public schools signals the fact that profit interests are already dismantling large swathes of public education in this country, if not its entire edifice, in the interests of monetizing education. Public education—like the right to municipal water, utilities or health care—is no longer considered by the ruling elite to be necessary for the masses of people, particularly if it can instead be packaged and sold at a profit.

The official cover-up of social and political issues in the police murder of Michael Brown

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27 August 2014

Thousands of workers and youth participated in funeral services for Michael Brown on Monday, an expression of widespread outrage over the police murder of the unarmed 18-year-old. However, the funeral service itself, attended by three representatives of the Obama administration and presided over by Democratic Party operative Al Sharpton, was a thoroughly establishment, right-wing affair.

The aim of the ceremony, paid for and run by Sharpton’s organization, was to obscure the class issues raised by the killing of Brown, legitimize the de facto imposition of martial law in Ferguson, Missouri, and channel social opposition back behind the political establishment.

The ruling class responded to the spontaneous eruption of protests over the killing of Brown with a two-pronged strategy. First, the repressive apparatus of the state was mobilized, including militarized SWAT teams toting automatic weapons, driving armored vehicles, and firing tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bags at peaceful protesters. More than 200 people were arrested in the police crackdown.

Ferguson became a test case for imposing police-state conditions on an American city in response to social unrest. Journalists were threatened, arrested and assaulted. The National Guard was called in. A curfew was imposed and the constitutional right to assemble was effectively suspended under the “state of emergency” declared by Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat.

Sheer repression did not suffice to silence the protests, however. Hence the second prong of the ruling class strategy. Figures such as Sharpton along with local preachers and Democratic Party politicians were mobilized to promote racial politics and direct the protests along safe channels. The Obama administration sent Attorney General Eric Holder, an African American, to Ferguson, and Governor Nixon appointed Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, also an African American, to head up the police response.

This dual strategy found expression in the funeral eulogy delivered by Sharpton—both in what he said, and what he did not say. The one-time FBI informant spoke not as a partisan of the workers and youth of Ferguson, but rather as an emissary of the capitalist state, i.e., of the very forces that killed Brown and sought to crush the subsequent protests.

Most significant in Sharpton’s remarks was the absence of any reference to the social and economic issues underlying the killing of Brown (and hundreds of other police killings across the country) and the mass repression that followed. There was no mention of the unemployment and poverty that characterize Ferguson and cities throughout the country, nor was there any reference to the immense social inequality that drives the ruling class to employ increasingly violent means to suppress social anger and unrest.

Instead, Sharpton devoted much of his remarks to vile slurs against African-American youth in general and the protesters in Ferguson in particular. He complained that too many people are “sitting around having ghetto pity parties.” Celebrating the fact that a section of African Americans like himself have “got some positions of power,” he denounced those who “decide it ain’t black no more to be successful.” He continued, “Now you wanna be a n****r and call your woman a ho.”

These foul remarks, dripping with contempt, were combined with an open defense of the state. “We are not anti-police, we respect police,” proclaimed Sharpton. The murder of youth like Brown is the product only of a few “bad apples,” he declared, which can be corrected with measures like hiring more African-American police officers.

While avoiding any criticism of the massive military-police response to the protests over Brown’s killing, Sharpton repeated all the tropes used by the state to justify its repression. He bemoaned the fact that Brown’s parents “had to break their mourning to ask folks to stop looting and rioting,” adding, “Michael Brown must be remembered for more than disturbances.”

The use of the word “disturbances,” part of the lexicon of the police and military, is significant, carrying with it the implication that the protests were illegitimate. The police repression, Sharpton implied, was a necessary response to violence by the protesters.

He made no mention of the connection between domestic repression and the waging of aggressive wars abroad, ignoring the fact, noted by many Ferguson workers and youth who spoke to the World Socialist Web Site, that even as the National Guard was being deployed to Ferguson, Obama was once again ramping up the US military’s involvement in Iraq.

Sharpton’s support for the police crackdown reflects what he is: an agent of the state and representative of a section of the corporate establishment and upper-middle class that has amassed great wealth even as the great majority of the population, including African-American workers and youth, has seen its living standards plummet. This privileged and corrupt social layer has long promoted identity politics to conceal the basic class divide in society and sow divisions within the working class.

In particular, Sharpton spoke as a representative of the Obama administration. He has developed the closest ties with administration officials, coordinating his actions and remarks with the White House. This is an administration that has intensified the assault on the working class and overseen an enormous growth of social inequality, while increasing the militarization of the police.

The financial aristocracy reacts to any expression of social opposition with repression. In the 1960s, the ruling class responded to urban uprisings with violence, but that was followed by pledges to address inequality and poverty and the implementation of limited social reforms. Today, the ruling class has nothing to offer but more repression.

The events in Ferguson are an expression of the explosive character of social relations in the United States. The financial aristocracy is petrified over the revolutionary implications of the open emergence of class conflict. Hence the resort to violence on the one hand and reliance, on the other, on Sharpton and other so-called “civil rights” leaders to complement state terror with diversions and lies.

Andre Damon

Letter To The Millennials

A Boomer Professor talks to his students

Written by

  • Director, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Producer, “Mean Streets”, “The Last Waltz”, “Until the End Of the World”, “To Die For”

So we are about to embark on a sixteen-week exploration of innovation, entertainment, and the arts. This course is going to be about all three, but I’m going to start with the “art” part — because without the art, no amount of technological innovation or entertainment marketing savvy is going to get you to go to the movie theater. However, I think there’s also a deeper, more controversial claim to be made along these same lines: Without the art, none of the innovation matters — and indeed, it may be impossible — because the art is what gives us vision, and what grounds us to the human element in all of this. Although there will be lectures, during which I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned about the way innovation, entertainment, and the arts fit together, the most crucial part of the class is the dialogue between us, and specifically the insights coming from you as you teach me about your culture and your ideals. The bottom line is that the world has come a long way, but from my perspective, we’re also living in uniquely worrisome times; my generation had dreams of how to make a better life that have remained woefully unfulfilled (leaving many of us cynical and disillusioned), but at the same time your generation has been saddled with the wreckage of our attempts and are now facing what may seem to be insurmountable odds. I’m writing this letter in the hopes that it will help set the stage for a truly cross-generational dialogue over the next sixteen weeks, in which I help you understand the contexts and choices that have brought us where we are today, and in which you help me, and one another, figure out the best way to move forward from here.

When I was your age, I had my heart broken and my idealism challenged multiple times by the assassinations of my political heroes: namely, John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Many in my generation turned away from politics and found our solace in works of art and entertainment. So one of the things I want to teach you about is a time from 1965–1980 when the artists really ruled both the music and the film industries. Some said “the lunatics had taken over the asylum” (and, amusingly enough, David Geffen named his record company Asylum), but if you look at the quality of work that was produced, it was extraordinary; in fact, most of it is still watched and listened to today. Moreover, in that period the most artistic work also sold the best: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was without doubt the best record of the year but also the best selling, and The Godfather was similarly both best movie of the year and the biggest box office hit. That’s not happening right now, and I want to try to understand why that is. I want to explore, with you, what the implications of this shift might be, and whether this represents a problem. It may be that those fifteen years your parents and I were lucky enough to experience was one of those renaissance moments that only come along once every century, so perhaps it’s asking too much to expect that I’ll see it occur again in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I do hope it happens at least once in yours.

I spoke of the heartbreak of political murder that has permanently marked me and my peers, but we have also been profoundly disappointed by politics’ failure to improve the lives of the average citizen. In 1969, the median salary for a male worker was $35,567 (in 2012 dollars). Today, it is $33,904. So for 44 years, while wages for the top 10% have continued to climb, most Americans have been caught in a “Great Stagnation,” bringing into question the whole purpose of the American capitalist economy (and, along the way, shattering our faith in the “American Dream”). The Reagan-era notion that what benefited the 1% — “the establishment” — would benefit everyone has by now been thoroughly discredited, yet it seems that we are still struggling to pick up the pieces after this failed experiment.

Seen through this lens, the savage partisanship of the current moment makes an odd kind of sense. What were the establishment priorities that moved inexorably forward in both Republican and Democratic administrations? The first was a robust and aggressive foreign policy. As Stephen Kinzer wrote about those in power during the 1950s, “Exceptionalism — the view that the United States has a right to impose its will because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations — was to them not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.”

From Eisenhower to Obama, this principle has been the guiding light of our foreign policy, bringing with it annual defense expenditures that dwarf those of all the world’s major powers combined. The second principle of the establishment was that “what is good for Wall Street is good for America.” Despite Democrats’ efforts to paint the GOP as the party of Wall Street, one would only have to look at the track record of Clinton’s treasury secretaries Rubin and Summers (specifically, their zealous efforts to kill the Glass-Steagal Act and deregulate the big banks and the commodities markets) to see that both major parties are guilty of sucking up to money; apparently, the establishment rules no matter who is in power. Was it any surprise, then, that Obama appointed the architects of bank deregulation, Summers and Geithner, to clean up the mess their policies had caused? Was it any surprise that they failed? Was it any surprise that establishment ideas about the surveillance state were not challenged by Obama? The good news is that, as a nation, we have grown tired of being the world’s unpaid cop, and we are tired of dancing to Wall Street’s tune. Slowly, we are learning that these policies may benefit the 1%, but they don’t benefit the people as a whole. My guess is the 2016 election may be fought on this ground, and we may finally begin to see real change, but the fact remains that we — both your generation and mine — are right now deeply mired in the fallout of unfulfilled promises and the failures of the political system.

So this is the source of boomer disillusionment. But even if we are cynical about political change, we can try to imagine together a future where great artistic work continues to flourish; this, then, is the Innovation and Entertainment part of the course. It’s not that I want you to give up on politics — in fact the events of the last few weeks in Ferguson only reinforce my belief that when people disdain politics, their anger gets channeled into violence. But what I do want you to think about is that art and culture are more plastic — they can be molded and changed easier than politics. There is a sense in which art, politics, and economics are all inextricably and symbiotically tied together, but history has proven to us that art serves as a powerful corrective against the dangers of the establishment. There is a system of checks and balances in which, even though the arts may rely on the social structures afforded by strong economic and political systems, artists can also inspire a culture to move forward, to reject the evils of greed and prejudice, and to reconnect to its human roots. If we are seeking a political and economic change, then, an authentic embrace of the arts may be key. Part of your role as communication scholars is to look more closely at the communication surrounding us and think critically about the effects its having, whose agenda is being promoted, and whether that’s the agenda that will serve us best. One of the tasks we’ll wrestle with in this class will be how we can get the digital fire hose of social media to really support artists, not just brands.

In 2011, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) gave a lecture at the British Film Institute. He said something both simple and profound:

People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos and the Internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.

It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that — at the very least — this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colorful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking, “What can we do to get people to buy more of these?

And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.

I think Charlie is right. People are starving, so we give them bread and circuses.

​ But I think Charlie is wrong when he says “there is no winning”. In fact I think we are really in a “winner-take-all” society. Look at the digital pop charts. 80% of the music streams are for 1% of the content. That means that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are billionaires, but the average musician can barely make a living. Bob Dylan’s first album only sold 4,000 copies. In this day and age, he would have been dropped by his label before he created his greatest work.

A writer I greatly admired, Gabriel García Márquez, died recently. For me, Márquez embodied the role of the artist in society, marked by the refusal to believe that we are incapable of creating a more just world. Utopias are out of favor now. Yet Marquez never gave up believing in the transformational power of words to conjure magic and seize the imagination. The other crucial aspect of Márquez’s work is that he teaches us the importance of regionalism. In a commercial culture of sameness where you can stroll through a mall in Shanghai and forget that you’re not in Los Angeles, Marquez’s work was distinctly Latin American. His work was as unique as the songs of Gilberto Gil, or the cinema of Alejandro González Iñárritu. In a cultural like ours that has so long advocated a “melting pot” philosophy that papers over our differences, it is valuable to recognize that there is a difference between allowing our differences to serve as barriers and appreciating the things that make each culture unique, situated in time and space and connected to its people. What’s more, young artists also need to have the sense of history that Marquez celebrated when he said, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” Cultural amnesia only leads to cultural death.

With these values in mind, my hope is to lead you in a discussion of politics and culture in the context of 250 years of America’s somewhat utopian battle to build “a city on a hill.” I think many in my generation had this utopian impulse (which is, it should be observed, different than idealism), but it is slipping away like a short-term memory. I did not aspire to be that professor who quotes Dr. King, but I feel I must. He said the night before he was assassinated, “I may not get there with you, but I believe in the promised land.” My generation knew that the road towards a better society would be long, but we hoped our children’s children might live in that land, even if we weren’t able to get there with you. It may take even longer than we imagined, but I know your generation believes in justice and equality, and that fills me with hope that the dream of some sort of promised land is not wholly lost. The next step, then, is to figure out how to work together, to learn from the past while living in the present moment in order to secure a better future, and I believe this class offers us an incredible opportunity to do precisely that.

So what are the skills that we can develop together in order to open a real cross-generational dialogue? First, I would hope we would learn to improvise. I want you to challenge me, just as I encourage and challenge you. Improvisation means sometimes throwing away your notes and just responding from your gut to the ideas being presented. It takes both courage and intelligence, but I’m pretty sure you have deep stores of both qualities, which will help you show leadership both in class and throughout the rest of your life. Leadership is more than just bravery and intellect, however; it also requires vulnerability and compassion, skills that I hope we can similarly cultivate together. I want you to know that I don’t have all the answers — and, more importantly, I know that I don’t have all the answers. I am somewhat confused by our current culture and I am looking to you for insight. You need to have that same vulnerability with your peers, and you also need to treat them with compassion as you struggle together to understand this new world of disruption. I know these four elements — courage, intelligence, vulnerability, and compassion — may seem like they are working at cross-purposes, but we will need all four qualities if we are to take on the two tasks before us. One of our tasks is to try to restore a sense of excellence in our culture — the belief that great art and entertainment can also be popular. The second task is for baby boomer parents and their millennial children to form a natural political alliance going forward. As I’ve said, I don’t think the notion that we will get to “the promised land” is totally dead, and with your energy and the tools of the new media ecosystem to help us organize, we can keep working towards a newly hopeful society, culture, and economy, in spite of the mess we have left you with.

This is, at least, the plan. Of course, as the great critic James Agee once said, “Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter.”

 

 

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