False Dichotomies in Wisconsin and Beyond

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False Dichotomies in Wisconsin and Beyond

Bill Reck

We all knew it was coming, and the good folks at Fox News just could not help themselves. The pundits on America’s favorite (for one reason or another) “news” channel have responded seemingly instinctively to the recent uproar in Wisconsin. That’s right: governor Scott Walker’s attempt to end collective bargaining rights for public sector unions, thus effectively crushing them, and the uproar among citizens across the state can mean only one thing: unionized public school teachers at all levels, from kindergarten to university, are in it only for the money, so the rational capitalist answer must be to privatize education!

The treatment of public educators as lazy fat cats who seek only to get rich and also do not care about educating children is just one of many false dichotomies Fox News and the Right use to push this country’s concept of the public good into a tiny closet that only gets opened when militaristic goals must be met. Under the formulation of Right-leaning pundits, educators must either love children and accept what their authoritarian masters hand them, or they dislike children by pushing back against attempts to eliminate the autonomy and power that many educators cherish as the exchange for typically low salaries.

The proliferation of media and the popularity of Fox News present a problem for Americans paying attention to the situation in Wisconsin. Many Americans and Wisconsinites are currently aping the neoliberal (and neoconservative) nonsense peddled by the corporate media, as quick perusals through the comments sections on Milwaukee’s news websites shows citizens complaining about the great benefits public employees receive while also clamoring for the termination of teachers who dared to demand more than the scraps that would “trickle down.”

And they’re right on one point: public employees do have great benefits. But this is very much because of, not in spite of, unions. Additionally, the trade-off for public employees has always been that we accept lower pay for better benefits and bargaining rights. The false dichotomies between good teachers who obey and evil ones who fight, and between the public sector as drain and the private as productive, leave little discursive room for many people to think about the areas in between or outside. And the overwhelming bombardment of non-contextual news makes things worse. By presenting the discourse in such stark bifurcations, consumers of news and commentaries never think that perhaps the reason the benefits and the pensions of the private sector pale in comparison to the public has at least something to do with the near-consistent assault on private-sector unions over the past several decades and the subsequent decline of unionized members as a proportion of private sector employees. No mention is made among the citizenry or the media that private-sector workers should receive benefits and power similar to those of public workers.

The mass-mediated squabble between the public and private sectors presents something much more problematic, much more authoritarian. Instead of Americans recognizing that the “free market” seeks to drive down their wages and strip them of their humanity, citizens argue that the public sector should be forced down to the private. We scramble for the resources tossed down to us from our capitalist masters, and if as educators we do not like it, we must hate children or love money.

This is the problem with “free market” ideologies: they can only conceptualize the public good in economic terms. The pundits we see on cable news argue for the privatization of education as part of a profit-driven platform. Under this formulation, teachers’ unions keep poorly performing teachers working, so what is the harm in being able to fire these teachers while rewarding those who inspire?

And no sane person would argue against this. The only problem with it is that student achievement is heavily dependent upon factors external to the school, and capitalist doctrines consider programs such as welfare, unemployment compensation, or AFDC to be a drain on the public and discouraging to work ethics. In other words, the privatization of education, when coupled with the neoliberal notion that the public good is what derives from profit, leaves us with an education system that forgets the people least able to participate in the private educational market.

This is the point. Arguments for privatization of education leave us with no concept of togetherness or unity, no relationship to one another in a society increasingly atomized. The dualities that leaves us no choice between private and public, union member or free agent, also reflect the crafted confusion about the relationship between the government and its people. If we throw out the idea that education should be a public good, we also must confront difficult questions about the importance of nationality and government. With no public good outside of private profit, what is the point of the nation-state?

The public/private duality created by the media leaves the nation-state as defender of one thing within a society with a capitalist understanding of the public good: wealth. It does this through the use of one thing: the military. The end game of Fox News’s use of the protests in Wisconsin is to force Americans to accept militarization as the primary implementation of the public good. We have seen the problems with this approach to the notion of the public as, for example, Americans are forced to make false choices between supporting troops or opposing wars. More problematic is the link between wealth and force and the privatization of the military, as we have seen the injustices committed by Blackwater/Xe and the incredible waste of Halliburton/KBR.

The end game of constricting the notion of the “public good” could very likely be a society based even more so on intense competition with the backing of violent force, a huge problem in a country with children who grow up playing video games of fantasy warfare and with an astronomical (and embarrassing) incarceration rate. Will the only way out of poverty be, for example, to hire on with Xe? The national debate over Wisconsin has taken a predictable turn within the country’s mass media, but the long-term implications created by the media’s false dichotomies are incredibly dangerous for US citizens and humanity.

Bill Reck is a teaching assistant and PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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