Speech to SUNY Faculty Senate

October 27, 2007
We are in a time of grave crisis in our country. I suspect that is clear to everyone here. And it would be a grievous mistake to think that New York State, or any state, can somehow magically insulate itself from the crisis of our country. Our country’s crisis is also our state’s crisis. I returned recently from the biennial WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions) Conference in DC – and there were women state legislators from 41 states there and they were all saying the same thing – “we don’t have enough money for our schools and for health care and for our cities and roads and bridges.” Believe me, it’s not just New York, in spite of what the papers tell you.
There is a long reading list now which chronicles the debacle. To cite a few: The Revolt of the Elites and the Abandonment of Democracy, by Christopher Lasch, The Twilight of American Culture, by Morris Berman, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast, Broken Government, by John Dean, The Assault on Reason by Al Gore, Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (with her adapted short piece “Disaster Capitalism” in the October 2007 Harper’s), The End of America, by Naomi Wolf, some that are specific to the Iraq War, such as Fiasco, by Thomas Ricks, and The Greatest Story Ever Sold, by Frank Rich. Every day seems to bring a new book. And then there are the magazine articles, films, not to mention the ubiquitous and sanity-destroying emails illustrating the growing crisis.
What exactly is the crisis? Sometimes it’s hard to ferret-out the most critical – obviously global warming, the most pressing issue for us to address, the war in Iraq, a close second – but these continuing disasters are but two of the manifestations of the serious decline in democratic values and practice in this country. Several of these books lay out the dangerously close alignment or “merger between corporate interests and the government” as Thom Hartmann of Air America puts it -- evidence of a growing fascism. I haven’t been able to bring myself to use that frightening word yet, but I hear more and more people asking whether we are seeing a creeping fascism in our country. One college professor of my acquaintance pointed out that he thought the recall election of Gray Davis in California was fascistic, engineered as it was by a billionnnaire businessman and Member of Congress, Darrell Issa. Mr. Issa spent $1.6 million of his own money, paying people to run a petition drive that required fewer than 100 signatures (under a 1921 law) to put a proposition on the ballot to oust a democratically-elected Governor. Was that corporate or wealthy interests running over democratic government? Another friend said his parents lived in Germany in the 1930’s, now they are living live here in the US, and they are saying that there are many similarities between our time and those. As I say, I haven’t been able to bring myself to say our government has become fascistic, perhaps because it’s just to painful to face, but I’m very worried about the trends I see.
While some had seen the signals earlier of the decline of democracy, much earlier, the disaster in New Orleans finally hit it home for most Americans, at least temporarily. Let’s be clear about what happened in 2005. Our federal government, the government of the wealthiest country in the world, let a major American city, an important historic city, go under water, with more than a thousand people dying in the immediate aftermath. Our federal government had not spent the $1-2 billion to fix the levees protecting the city, in spite of repeated, clear warning from the Army Corps of Engineers and from the state and city that they could fail, though we have now spent about $450 billion in Iraq, with that price-tag going up to $611 billion if the President gets his latest requests to Congress. As the fatal disaster in New Orleans unfolded, President Bush continued to play a guitar at a fundraiser in California, Vice-President Cheney signed the purchase offer for a $3 million home in Maryland and Condelezza Rice shopped for Ferragamo shoes on Madison Avenue. Have we ever seen such elites, removed from the problems of Americans in great need?
At that moment, many Americans intuitively understood – because they saw it with their own eyes – the pictures on TV made it unavoidably clear -- something was very wrong. In spite of all the rosy, optimistic reports from Wall Street about how well the economy was doing – stocks up – wealth growing – the Bush administration could not harness the resources to rescue about 1000 Americans from dying in the flood -- in fact, they didn’t seem particularly interested in trying to harness the resources to help. Sean Penn couldn’t harness enough resources either, but at least he was in there trying to help people, while the infamous Michael Brown, head of FEMA, was on email asking a colleague which shirt he should wear for his TV appearances. People started asking what kind of democracy we have that seems to care so little about its people who were in such dire trouble. Was ours still a “government of the people and for the people?” I say people saw the problem “temporarily” because our focus has shifted. Few are watching as our taxpayer dollars go to private corporations who are building casinos and luxury housing (while tearing down thousands of units of desperately-needed public housing) with illegal immigrant labor and prison labor, while the residents of New Orleans go jobless (see The Nation Sept 10/17, 2007).
Other signs abound: Sandra Day O’Conner, retired Supreme Court Justice, has been out on the lecture circuit talking about the slide to “dictatorship”. She is referring specifically to the attack on the judiciary, with judges and members of their family being killed, in Atlanta and Chicago, and many more getting death threats.
But I think it’s clear that the repeated over-stepping of Presidential power – signing statements, violations of the Geneva Convention in regard to torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, violating our Bill of Rights, also negates the power of the legislature, as well as the courts. The neo-cons – Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld, Feith, et. al., are well on their way to achieving the “unitary President” – the old name was “King” or “Queen” -- and literally destroying what is left of democratic government in this country.
“So, how are things in Albany, in the State of New York,” I am often asked. Sometimes I am asked this right after the person has just spent several minutes lamenting and cataloguing the frightening state of affairs in Washington and around the world. Does anyone think New York, or any state, could be immune from the same climate as the country as a whole? As I said, our country’s crisis is also our state’s crisis. Obviously, the erosion of democracy and the lack of response from our federal government to people in need, sometimes in dire need, affects all states. (Today it’s fires in CA – is FEMA responding?) But the crisis is actually accentuated in New York, because New York is Number 1 in the Wealth Gap – we have more wealthy people and more poor people than any other state, but like all states, we have a regressive tax structure. The top 1% of New Yorkers (those earning an average of $1.6 million), pay out 9% of their income in state and local taxes. After the federal offset, the effective tax rate is only 6.5%. For families in the middle, those earning between $27,000 and $44,000, the tax rate is 11.9% before the federal offset and 11.6% after, nearly double the effective rate the wealthiest pay. But the tax rate on the poorest New Yorkers – those earning less than $15,000, is the highest of all, at 12.6%. Just as Washington cut largely upper income and corporate taxes, so did New York. Over the past 15 years or so, we’ve cut the upper bracket of both corporate and individual income taxes from 15% to less than 7%. For awhile, Governor Pataki boasted that New York had cut taxes more than all the other states combined had cut taxes. He stopped saying that before long, perhaps because it begs the question: “Where are all the good jobs that we were told that tax-cutting was going to produce?” We are now losing to the state coffers about $16 billion every year due to the tax cuts of the 90’s.
It started in Washington though, where the reigning philosophy since the 80’s has been anti-government, pro-privatization. While I’ve been told it actually started back in the 50’s, my earliest memories of the anti-government/privatization drive began with Ronald Reagan, famously telling us “Government is the problem”. He asked Grover Norquist, to found Americans for Tax Reform in 1985, from which platform, he regularly opined that the private sector is the best way to provide for the needs of people – it does a better job and does it more cost-effectively. The federal government wastes your money. The decisions about which programs are needed should be left to local governments – where they understand better the local problems and they don’t waste as much money. It sounded good at the time. What they didn’t tell us is that local governments only have regressive taxes to work with – the sales tax and the property tax, and we would get tapped out quickly in spite of the many unmet needs in our midst.
Norquist later started the Club for Growth and continued to work very hard, in a concerted way – with his famous Monday morning meetings in DC. The neo-cons, neo- liberals, whatever the label – I’m more and more calling them the “nihilists”, because I think people who are avoiding the issue of global warming are nihilists – they did their best to persuade us that government was indeed too big and wasteful. They told us over and over that being a consumer was better than being a citizen. Bush said it, most shockingly, when, at the start of the invasion of Iraq, he said, in essence: “No sacrifices are needed – just keep shopping”. In addition, he proposed and got passed huge tax cuts, mostly going to the wealthiest Americans. Never before in American history had tax cuts been enacted during a war. Bush says this is a war for civilization, but we don’t need to raise taxes to pay for it. These tax cuts, 50% of which went to the top 1% of Americans, were on top of huge and similarly distorted tax cuts enacted during the Reagan and first Bush Administrations. (see Sharing the Pie and Robbing Us Blind, by Steve Brouwer)
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the Iraq War is being fought with borrowed money. If President Bush gets his latest request of $46 billion, the total war cost, all adding to our debt, will go to $611 billion. You may recall, we were told it would cost $40 billion, much of that coming from Iraq’s sale of its own oil. When our federal government is spending $520 billion this year on our military budget alone and another $190 billion this year in Iraq, ($710 billion total this year spent on our military budget) one begins to understand why the country is a little cash-strapped.
That cash-starved federal government has, in turn, shrunk its assistance to the states – its unrestricted revenue-sharing, support for education, both higher and lower (the famously underfunded No Child Left Behind), transportation, housing, law enforcement, etc. States are increasingly on their own, without the protection or assistance of the federal government. And because of the downward pressures of globalization, each state, each Governor, is competing against every other state for business, and therefore very reluctant to raise taxes, for fear of driving business out. That’s where we are right now; this is where we’ve been going for about 20 years now.
So I’m very pleased that Governor Spitzer has said he will implement the Court of Appeals ruling of 2003 (which the Assembly Majority has supported all along). The court ruling said that we must get more funding to our state’s many underfunded schools (500 of the 700 schools in the state) -- $7 billion over four years, benefiting schools and children all over the state, including here in Upstate New York and in this Assembly district. But I am now quite worried, because we have recently learned that we have a $4 billion budget gap going into the next budget cycle, and the Governor recently told the Business Council, the voice and lobbying arm for the largest corporations in the state, that he would not raise state taxes. Now, I was an English major, not a Math major. Maybe there’s some new Math I don’t understand, but I can’t figure out how we’re going to get a budget that continues that commitment to “lower ed”, without gutting health care, never mind any other pieces of the budget, such as SUNY.
But returning to the big picture, Norquist and others like him couldn’t have “succeeded” to the degree they have without the ready assistance and collaboration of the media. The New York Times columnist, Frank Rich, spoke last week at Cornell. He essentially summarized his new book, in which he tells the shameful and depressing history of the “selling” of the Iraq War to the American public, making note of Andrew Card’s telling statement that “you don’t roll out a new product in August.” They would wait until the September to start really selling the war to the public. Rich is one of the first mainstream commentators to focus on the prominent and critical role of the mainstream media, which, in the words of the Indian writer, Arundati Roy, “faithfully amplified the propaganda” of the right –wing and the Bush Administration.” Rich implies what Lasch and Berman had already spoken of – that part of the right-wing project to destroy government entails turning citizens into consumers. The word “citizen” says that we see ourselves as having some power – the power of one voice, the power of one vote, with both the right and duty to participate in government decision-making. Joined together with our fellow citizens, we have the power to change how things are, the power to improve our lives through the action of our government. The right-wing, aided and abetted, by the mainstream media, largely owned now by some of our biggest corporations, has almost succeeded in turning us completely away from being citizens and into consumers.
But if you go back and look at our founding documents, you will not find the word “consumer”. You find “the People”, “mankind” “citizen”, never “consumer”. As a former English teacher, I am struck by the change in the words we are using. Our vocabulary has shrunk – lots of talk of “work”. We’ve all become little worker bees. Work, work, work – it certainly suits the privatization/corporate agenda perfectly. More work from workers, more profits for corporations. Where have the other words gone? Learning, Culture. Reading. Thinking. Discussion. Debate Participation. Voting. The words of citizenship. We need to bring them back. We need to DO them and to make them important again.
The Berman book, The Twilight of American Culture, says we are in an inevitable decline, a new dark ages is upon us. All we can do is to try to preserve a part of our culture that we care about, as the monks of the Middle Ages preserved the culture of Greece and Rome in the monasteries of Ireland until the Enlightenment allowed for their re-emergence. But I am not without hope that we can still turn things around if enough of us challenge the dominant paradigm, as they say.
Leaders in the alternative media have been seeing the collusion between the corporate-owned media and the right-wing propagandists for years – journalists such as like Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and Greg Palast of the BBC. But, of course, they have been dismissed by the elite opinion-makers as un-American or crazy, in the standard right-wing smear campaign, and so were marginalized. Frank Rich painted a sorry picture, a worrisome picture, of where we are at this moment in history, and tacitly posed the question: Besides the disdain of many Americans for this President and regret over this war, have Americans really learned anything? I have put it slightly differently: “Do we understand how we got to this place? Has there been any deep learning, if you will?”
“What can we do now?” asked a member of Rich’s audience. Rich is a keen observer and a brilliant wordsmith and one of my heroes, but he is not a politician or political activist, so his response was uncharacteristically weak, I thought. He said something like, “I don’t know. I guess make sure that your own members of Congress are doing everything they can to oppose these trends. That’s the point at which I wanted to run up to the stage, thank Mr. Rich for his wonderful work, and take the mike to answer. Yes, people should be concerned about their own representatives, but there’s so much people can and must do.
First, we all have to reclaim our own citizenship, most certainly the professorite must. Jefferson said, democracy was a “great experiment” and it would require “eternal vigilance”. How vigilant have we been? We all must read about the major issues of the day. We can’t take it all on, of course, but we can study at least one important issue – global warming, education, higher or lower, health care, globalization, etc. We must become informed and then use our voices as citizens, certainly the tenured professorite must. If not you, who? You must ask questions and then demand answers. Academics must read “outside their field”, and see their first obligation as citizens of this powerful country in which we live, responsible for our country’s political health and, with great urgency, the health of the entire planet. Niall Fergeson, the British historian who’s at Harvard and the Hoover Institute says, referring to the US, that “it’s very dangerous to be an empire, and not know that you’re an empire”). On global warming, the experts have made it clear that we are running out of time.
You may have noticed that when MIT’s Noam Chomsky has criticized US policies, the only response from his opponents seems to be that he is talking “out of this field”. “He’s a linguist,” they would say. “What’s he doing talking about US foreign and domestic policy?” They never spoke to the issues he raised. Don’t be dissuaded by such nonsense. Speak up. And you don’t have to be an expert before you do. Nobody knows everything about a topic.
We must also act. We can and should write letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, call or write your representatives and the President on issues you care about. Join a list-serve on-line and contribute to it. As Howard Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, titled his book: The Revolution Won’t be Televised. It’s happening on-line. People can also join political committees and help get good candidates elected. It’s important to send money of course, to candidates you support (we don’t yet have public financing of campaigns, though I and many others support it) and to organizations who are working at any level, local, state, national or international, for a cause you support. There are many groups doing amazingly good work to preserve our democracy.
We need to start talking about Real Tax Reform, at both the federal and state levels, a system in which the wealthiest Americans and New Yorkers pay their fair share. A strong democracy depends on a strong middle class, and our middle class is shrinking in both our state and country. In 2003 in New York, we enacted (over the Governor’s veto) a small 3-year increase in the state income tax, starting at $150,000 for married couples filing joint returns. This rate increase raised about $1.5 billion per year – with most of this additional revenue coming from taxpayers with incomes above $500,000 – and allowed New York to avoid the kind of counter-productive budget cuts that had prolonged New York’s recovery from the recession of the early 1990s. The Governor had argued that this rate increase would drive high income taxpayers out of the state, but the reality turned out to be much different: Between 2002 and 2006, the number of tax returns with income of $200,000 or more increased from 245,000 to 382,000, and the income of the top 1% of taxpayers increased from $167 billion to $320 billion. The Fiscal Policy Institute has determined that this increase was actually “good for the state” and clearly better than the alternative approach to balancing the budget that the Governor was recommending at the time.
Your elite position in the professoriate, whose much-vaunted and misunderstood tenure, seen by much of the public as a union perk, should come into play in the strongest possible way, as the platform from which you can speak truth to power. One of my English profs from my graduate school days at Geneseo, Calvin Israel, was fond of saying that “a tenured professor is the most powerful person in the world”. These times are the times, I believe, for which tenure was made and strengthened during the days of Joe McCarthy to protect academic freedom.
Your first job and that of educators in Pre-K to 12 is to prepare our students to be citizens in a democracy. Christopher Lasch talks about the need to encourage discussion and debate; without debate, he says, there is no impetus to learn. We want to learn and understand, Lasch says, in order to discuss and debate. Debate is the genesis for learning. Lasch postulates that such debate is often been actively discouraged, particularly at the elementary and secondary levels, when it should be encouraged. Perhaps every student should have to participate in a debate class. Maybe every year. We must make sure they are studying the liberal arts – literature, history, philosophy, the arts and social sciences, as well as economics, math and science, otherwise they will have no base from which to reason.
As James Madison, the father of our Constitution said in 1822, “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Prescient words from Madison – “farce and tragedy.” How many days have we felt as if we are living in the midst of both?
And if our students get most of their info from the mainstream media, rather than books, we must teach our students about the media. Perhaps a mandatory course in media literacy, that includes the issue of who owns the media and how that might affect both reporting and editorial opinion.
The question before us, I think, isn’t so much – “How do we fully regain the path to being the premier state university in the country, indeed in the world, that SUNY was moving toward becoming in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, though that is a very important question. I certainly want us to have that conversation and work toward that by increasing the funding for SUNY/CUNY in the state budget and making sure full-time faculty lines are restored and increased, upgrading and adding to our facilities, etc. But the more fundamental question is: How do we harness the considerable power of the SUNY faculty to fight against the decline of our culture and our democracy? It would be tragic, indeed, if we didn’t use the power we currently have to do this critical work because we felt we had to wait until we had more power and stature than we feel we have now. In the end, we are as powerful as we believe we are. I hope you will join with me and many others in the struggle to preserve a true democracy, if you are not already so engaged. You are much needed.