News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How to exterminate the middle class

It is happening in our time with a vengeance.  But people have been so pummeled and besieged by the forces that connive their oppression that they cannot grasp what is happening.  

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau warned us about it a century and a half ago.  It is when language gets detached from actual events that have occurred or are taking place around you.  It is a definition of insanity.

While the voices that presume to interpret the world for us talk of the decline of the middle class, class warfare, the things that threaten us, they speak in terms that misidentify, by intent or ignorance, what is actually taking place to push the middle class into a subservient state.  

There are two major fronts in the assault on the middle and lower economic classes, both of which are designed to push that mass into a lower cultural class that is too mentally benumbed to understand what is happening to it, and rendered too impotent politically to do anything about it if they did. Those assaults are on education and organized labor, the two major resources that have allowed people to rise up economically and culturally.  And those assaults are conducted by detaching words from their history, from the facts they were intended to described.

  Emerson said it this way:

A man's power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language.

When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise,--and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not.

George Orwell took up the idea in his examinations of how language can be used politically to deceive and condition people until they are in a state of unquestioning mindlessness in which they accept political propaganda as representing reality.  He says, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”  And, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

For the sake of keeping language useful and usable, Orwell recommended fixing on the primacy of facts in a way that kept corrupted language from entering the process through which people perceive what is going on around them: "Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning."

[A good analysis of how language is used in another country to induce a paralyzing insanity is here in regard to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.]

From the inception of America, education and learning has been regarded as essential to democracy.  As rural communities took shape, one of the first things people did was to provide for schooling for their children.  Churches and one-room school houses were built as soon as people constructed shelters for themselves.  In the formula of reading, writing, and arithmetic,  the study of language constitutes two-thirds of the curriculum.  There is a reason why elementary schools were called grammar schools. And people who rose into leadership and shaped America were those who were educated through an intense immersion through the study of language.  Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln were self-educated, but exhaustively read.  They understood language and used it in ways that built an America based upon the realities of the forces that confronted people.  Thomas Jefferson was more formally educated, but his directed education consisted of exhaustive reading, and he accumulated a personal library that rivaled those of the higher education institutions of the early years of the nation. 

The idea of public education was to create a constituency of citizens in which each individual was able to participate by understanding their circumstances and articulating their concerns.  Students were taught and drilled in the constructs of grammar and the formulas of mathematics in ways that related to their application to their daily lives.  For many, their basic education whetted their appetites for greater knowledge and skill, as they wanted to learn more about the world in which they lived. They wanted to exert more control over their lives and participate at a higher level in the national life. 

A factor that never  occurred to Emerson but became a major theme of Orwell's was how electronic media would intrude and control people's perception of the universe.  Emerson advised people to form an original relationship with the universe, a relationship that was not mediated by political or religious figures.  Orwell advocated essentially the  same kind of relationship, but saw vast dangers in a culture in which people became habituated and dependent upon media as their point of  contact with the universe.  If the media became largely composed of propaganda, which it has, the people who depended upon the media would have their perceptions shaped and controlled by those who use the media for just that purpose.  We call it spinning, but we tend to ignore the fact that almost everything we read and hear in what purports to be news is spun.  Reporting which is devoted to a exposition of the facts seldom occurs in the contemporary media.

The media was not the creation of a government devoted to controlling people.  It is the creation of a corporate world which used advertising to get people to buy its products and shape its behavior to to serve its interests, and advertising is the  source of income for the media.  Therefore, advertising has become the primary and controlling purpose of the media, and it controls the content.  Nothing is to interfere with the advertising messages.  Politicians trying to sell themselves to the public have appropriated the media as primarily the conveyor of propaganda. Political strategists find that they can control what a large portion of the populace thinks and knows.  People can be conditioned to believe what the conditioning messages tell them, not what the facts reveal.  Politicians will perversely repeat false statements in contradiction of the facts, knowing that a media-besotted populace will absorb the repeated falsehoods as beliefs. 

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the recent Republican propaganda fests which are so facetiously referred to as debates.  Exchanges of personal accusations and misrepresentations are not debates.  While there have been some feeble attempts to check the facts for the exchanges, there is no attempt by journalists as a whole to report the facts.  Rather, the focus is on the squabbling and rancorous exchanges of the candidates.  

One of the areas of fact that has been almost obliterated by propaganda in the media is education.  There is endless jawing in the media about what is wrong with education and how to fix it, and there is no doubt that American public education is facing some problems.  But there is no reporting on what is working in education to give a larger context of what the problems are and where they occur.   An occasional piece of reporting does occur in the parts of the news media which still indulge in reporting, but such reporting gets lost in the incessant recitations of banalities from those who wish to control education and reduce its essential role in the American promise.  One such report which focuses on what is affecting education comes from The New York Times:

Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.

...We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race.

In the discussions about what ails education, we are besieged with repetition of the stupidly annoying cliche that "you can't improve education by throwing money at it."  And thus, those who strive to gain political dominance by preventing learning avoid addressing the real problem in education:  the distribution of wealth and opportunity.  No one, in my hearing, has ever recommended throwing money at education.  Many people have  advocated insuring that the money is adequate and spent intelligently on programs that have some educational efficacy.  

But nowhere is the disjuncture between language and factual realities more exemplified than in the South Dakota legislature which is advancing education legislation based upon an absurd disjuncture between the language of the bill and the reality of education.  It is a case-in-point of a legislature that is reacting to its own fabricated political language and acting upon it as if it is reality.  The Governor claims that education in South Dakota is failing and he proposed some actions which he says will correct those failings.  The actions are not directed, however, at determining where and why aspects of education seem to be ineffective.  They are totally aimed at disenfranchising teachers by eliminating due process as a condition of their employment and to reduce their status to that of bonded servants who have no professional status or rights in the work the place.  The premise is that the problems in education are bad teachers and the solution is to be able to fire teachers at will.  On framing this legislative assault on education, teachers were conspicuously left out of any consulting process.  The condemned did not have the chance to testify in their own behalf.  Or to introduce knowledgeable materials on delivering and organizing pedagogy.  The representatives of education involved in promoting the legislation were those with demonstrated loyalties to the political forces in power.  The few true educators who were allowed to testify against the legislation were dismissed as inconsequential.  The entire process was a massive application of political propaganda with careful safeguards against factual and knowledgeable information. 
 Testimony on the education bill in South Dakota was reduced to the fatuous absurdity of the the all-male panel in the U.S. House testifying on contraception.  Language disassociated from empirical human experience and need gushed forth like the language of Shakespeare's idiot, signifying nothing.  

The legislation is designed to enforce a conditioning of students by teaching to test objectives and rote, uncritical, memorization.  Students who do not  demonstrate sufficient conditioning through standardized tests will be presumed to be insufficiently indoctrinated and programmed by their teachers.  The teachers will be fired.  Teachers whose students show the results of intense conditioning will be rewarded with bonuses.  And thus, the education system will be "improved" by transforming it to meet the political agenda of subjugation. 

Nationally, the discussion of education harps incessantly about bad teachers.  And nationally the proposed action is to remove their collective bargaining rights, which establishes by contract the compensation and the working conditions.  What is conspicuous in the the constant maligning of education is the absence of any  acknowledgment of where it works and is successful.  And just as conspicuous by its absence is any definition of what is being cited as bad teaching.  The language upon which so much energy and attention is being expended has no grounding in what is actually taking place in our schools.  The focus on school failures is on the inner city schools, which are plagued by the problems of the disparities of economic resources.  Teaching children who come to school from dysfunctional homes, who are ill-fed and are the products of a culture of deprivation do not respond to the the traditional theories and practices of pedagogy.  Teachers who spend their days combating insolence and insurrection do not have much time and opportunity to deal with subject matter.  A typical solution is to create charter schools which are given the luxury of choosing which students they deign to teach, which are, of course, the most tractable and motivated, leaving the public schools to deal with the accumulated discontent that possesses so many students.  The critics of education insist that great teachers are the solution to the problems in schools and they should be rewarded with bonuses while the others are put on the firing tracks.  No one has acknowledged what happens to earnest and competent teachers after a few years of being unable to teach because of children who are in no mental state to be receptive to learning.  

The South Dakota Governor and legislature has committed itself to compounding the conditions for education failure while totally ignoring its successes.  It is so wrapped up in its corrupted language, which proceeds more out of the racial and class resentments of those who deny the enforced inequalities of the dominant culture that it cannot perceive or deal with some harsh realities of how and why education seems to be faltering.  It takes refuge in trite irrelevant slogans about throwing money at education an purging it of all the bad teachers.  

The problem is not bad teachers, but bad legislators and bureaucrats who have a political agenda of making education an indoctrination process that ranks students and teachers by some set of criteria that has no relationship to the processes of learning.  It is an agenda of designing a class of bad teachers and students who will be dismissed to the human refuse pile.  The cogent study of language is dispensed with because teachers or students who might connect language to the actualities of their situations are a threat.

While a provision to take away collective bargaining rights of  teachers was proposed, but rejected, the fact is that collective bargaining is a farce in South Dakota.  Because of the vagaries of state law, school boards can refuse to consider teacher proposals and finally impose a contract of its own devising on the teachers.  This has been done repeatedly in both K-12 and higher education negotiations.  The objective of those states that are taking away collective bargaining rights and states like South Dakota which allow imposed contracts is prevent teachers, the educational laborers, from having any voice and influence on education.

The attacks on labor are directed toward the same agenda.  With all the ranting about union bosses, there is no talk of collective bargaining being a process that gives each side a chance to air grievances and propose solutions.  The last thing those who hope to be included in the ranks of the 1 percent want is for the people they wish to oppress to have any power. 

Class warfare?  Hell yes.  A political idea has possessed conservative America.  It's called fascism.  And to realize it as the ruling political force, education and labor must be suppressed.  That's why all the talk is about eliminating and intimidating teachers, eliminating labor unions, and not about what is actually working and not working in education or how to give working people the benefits of their work.  The middle class is an obstacle to those who wish to live in the manor houses.  

And the key to eliminating the middle class is through the corruption of the language.  Right now, it is about as corrupt as it can be. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States