Teaching Profession Opinion

Don’t Write Off Everyone in the Tea Party

By Deborah Meier — May 15, 2014 3 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Mike Klonsky today.

Dear Mike,

You make a good argument, Mike. You mostly persuade me. But ...

Your argument is weakened by citing the situation in Chicago where, you claim, we don’t need the Right and allying with Tea Party types might actually weaken us.

It’s often, as you know, a local-by-local situation. I’m not mostly talking about formal alliances, but whether one “welcomes” individuals who do not share our agenda. No one stops them from joining with us under our banners, you might reply.

But how one words one’s banner—chants and slogans—makes it easier or harder to widen one’s net. I’ve been involved with causes that, in retrospect, carefully crafted their banner to be sure only the pure of mind would join us.

I still hold out hope that many of those who have been attracted to the Tea Party (et al) hold fears that are legitimate, and that I share. It means not writing them all off. I, too, fear the government AND the corporate elites. They are often one and the same.

I like localism because it provides a break on central power and because it’s where ordinary people can practice democracy. Modern technology makes this even more imperative. It has become easier to imagine—ala science fiction—real dystopias. Ditto for privacy, which is as essential to democracy as institutional transparency is. Can there be a more dystopian idea than claiming corporations are people or that the state must know all?

I suspect that you and I, case by case, might reach the same conclusions. But having spent a good part of my life in small sectarian milieus (in which I learned a lot of value), I know how easy it is to see diluting our truth as the main danger.

The trade union movement was particularly successful in creating a space where a wide range of views could join together in solidarity around workplace issues. This solidarity over time affected how people viewed each other’s other beliefs, created a greater tolerance for difference, and built a broader movement for change—above and beyond the workplace. That’s what’s missing today.

My gut dividing line is: Are you for or against the right of working people to organize and make demands—with all the tools that a century of struggle won for them, and that have been eaten away. But if I’m making an alliance against high-stakes testing et al, I’d even put that in second place. High-stakes testing tied to federal monies is what makes the common core an important issue. There are unenforced common cores I could easily support. My “common core” ? That schools’ must demonstrate that their pedagogy and curriculum do not work to undermine democracy, equality, and human solidarity. For this they must remain public. But, yes, sometimes one might have to bring in “the troops.”

But, critical to what I think I’m arguing about is how we confront disagreements—in civil society and in educational settings. It’s too easy to ignore families who fundamentally disagree with us without seeing the damage it causes. I was grateful in the end that our school attracted, for very interesting reasons, Christian fundamentalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, et al. Even as teachers. It made for a livelier school and more interesting classrooms. Of course, I hoped, that our tolerance and respect for differences would have an impact on them rather than vice versa. (It probably occasionally worked both ways.) It certainly changed my knee-jerk reaction to the labels I had so easily applied to others.

We need to frequently ask ourselves, would a family or student who disagreed with me feel free to bring up their views? Are there families who hear stuff from their kids that make them wary of the school’s mission?

We know that racial and ethnic minorities have had good reasons to be wary—even well-meaning schools. But we’ve sometimes been less thoughtful about those whose politics and biases we dislike. How to deal with that is a question progressive schools need to address, too.

That was also behind the demand by sponsors of some of the marches and rallies we participated in to limit the slogans waved up before the TV cameras and to adopt a few slogans as representative of the marchers as a whole.

We’re talking about a general stance that has to be argued out over and over again around specific situations. There are, perhaps, no universal answers. It’s what made Mission Hill (and Central Park East) such exciting places ... because we had to think and rethink these issues over and over. We made mistakes, but they led to powerful responses that challenged and strengthened us.

It would have been fun to have had you on the staff, or as a family member at Mission Hill school, Mike! Imagine what kids could learn by listening to us argue.


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