A Home in the Digital World
October 31, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
In August 2017, over 40,000 Bostonians marched on Boston Common to tell a small gaggle of nearly incoherent hard-right louts that they were not welcome in our city. Especially in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the murder of a left-wing counterdemonstrator by a young Nazi. At the time, I was concerned that by drawing too much attention to the tiny affair, protestors risked giving the local hard right more power than they deserved—and helping them grow their numbers in the process. But I understood why so many people reacted so viscerally to it, and supported their decision to call what turned out to be one of the largest political actions of any kind in Hub history against it.
With Saturday’s slaughter of 11 older parishioners at a Jewish house of worship in Pittsburgh by a heavily armed, raving anti-Semite—literally screaming for the death of all Jews—we’re not precisely entering a new era. After all, we’ve seen a number of mass shootings by the same kind of white guy in the brief period since Boston’s big protest against hate. Including the killing of two African-Americans in a Louisville, Kentucky Kroger supermarket just three days before the Steel City incident. But events are starting to look increasingly similar to the dawn of an earlier era. The Nazi era. And any moderately well-educated adult that failed to hear the shattering glass of Kristallnacht in the bullet casings that hit the floor of the Tree of Life synagogue as the killer pumped lead into the bodies of innocents has learned precisely nothing from history.
So, I think it would have been appropriate for Bostonians from all walks of life to call an even larger rally this week than last year’s to take up an old slogan, “Never Again,” in memory of the honored dead of Pittsburgh. And to put all latter-day Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists on warning that we will not allow them to take control of Boston, or Massachusetts, or the United States.
However, the Red Sox won the World Series the day after the attack. Making it less likely that the kind of rally we need—a show of force that would inspire people around the nation—will happen here in this critical moment.
Which is a pity. Since this is one killing spree that we can absolutely blame President Donald Trump for instigating with his disgusting and completely fallacious attacks on the caravan of asylum-seeking refugees fleeing government persecution in countries like Honduras and poverty in general.
As Adam Serwer put it in an excellent Atlantic piece (“Trump’s Caravan Hysteria Led to This”), “The Tree of Life shooter criticized Trump for not being racist or anti-Semitic enough. But with respect to the caravan, the shooter merely followed the logic of the president and his allies: He was willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent an ‘invasion’ of Latinos planned by perfidious Jews, a treasonous attempt to seek ‘the destruction of American society and culture.’
“The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election.”
So Trump needs to pay a political price for his propagandizing in the service of increasing the right-wing turnout on the sixth of November. And a lot of big protest rallies—perhaps galvanized by a successful Boston action—right before one of the most important elections in decades would have gone a long way toward exacting that price where it hurts him the most.
But it was not to be this time around. Which is OK. As there is a lot more that people of good conscience can do to deflect the rise of the hard right before they become strong enough to take more direct and long-term control of significant American political institutions… and start legally murdering their opponents in great numbers. Because if there’s one attribute that Nazis and fascists and white supremacists have in common, it’s a thirst for the blood of their many enemies. As such, they must be defeated politically—and defeated definitively—by people from across the compassionate political spectrum to forestall that possibility from ever becoming a reality. While they are still a small force relative to the population.
Before I continue, though, let me just lay out a couple of ideas that are important to any discussion of defeating the hard right.
First, the perpetrators of the recent wave of deadly attacks on African-Americans and now Jews (and other targeted groups) aren’t crazy. Sure, they have psychiatric issues. Lots of people do. But they’re generally quite clear about what they’re doing and why. And they are not lone nuts. They are soldiers. Even if they’re not members of a hard-right organization.
Second, the attacks these killers are carrying out are not random. Even if, as with the recent massacre, some of them seem to be done on the spur of the moment. They are part of a strategy. The killers are not generally the authors of that strategy. Hard-right leaders are. The strategy and the tactics that comprise it are laid out every day across thousands of channels of communication—most obviously social media discussions. The basic directive of the strategy is to attack “soft targets”—unarmed people who are members of groups deemed enemies by Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists. To kill as many of those people as possible. To spread fear in those enemy communities and beyond. And, most importantly, to encourage an armed response from those communities and/or their allies.
Allies like young left-wing activists who sometimes put on on masks and try to defend vulnerable communities. Often called “antifa” rightly or wrongly. And demonized by right-wing pundits up to and including Trump as some kind of massive army ready to undermine the very foundations of our republic. Which is purest fantasy. But absolutely a truism in current right-wing circles… be they hard or soft.
The goal of the strategy is to trigger a civil war. Which the hard right—being armed and trained and having infiltrated the military and many police forces for decades—fully expects to win. Once it’s won, democracy can be replaced with dictatorship. And the bloodbath they so desire can begin.
To stop that strategy from succeeding, the overwhelming majority of Americans and immigrant residents that are not on the hard right must out-organize them politically. And here we arrive at the work that everyone can do. Whatever walk of life you come from. Whatever your background is. Whatever age you are.
Study. If you don’t have a basic grounding in history and politics relevant to the fight at hand, get one. If you’re rusty, brush up. We have lots of great public libraries and bookstores in the Boston area. Use them. Look for works by academics and researchers recognized as experts in their fields. If you need suggestions, ask librarians and bookstore clerks. If you need formal instruction, and you’re not a student, enroll in courses at adult education centers and community colleges. If that’s too expensive—or as an adjunct to coursework—form study groups with friends, read key texts together, and discuss them.
Organize. Either start or join political groups that are committed to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and tolerance for the broad array of political, economic, religious, social, and cultural views that don’t involve slaughtering other people. If you’re launching one in your community, and you already started a study group, you can build your organization out of that. It’s also great to start chapters of existing organizations. Definitely don’t “reinvent the wheel” unless you have to. Whether you decide to work with an existing political party or start your own is purely up to you. Political groups can do a lot of useful work outside of political parties. You can also both join or start a political party and join or start extraparliamentary political organizations. Just don’t spread yourself too thin.
Educate. You’ve got some knowledge. You’re doing political organizing. Now get out there and talk to as many people as you can. Hold public educational events on important issues of the day. In election years, hold candidate forums and panel discussions on referendum questions. The important thing is that you don’t just do this in neighborhoods already friendly to your core ideas. Go to places that the harder edge of the right wing is known to dominate. Talk up your positions. Spread the word that there is more than one way to think about the world. Also, work with democracy-friendly media outlets (like BINJ and DigBoston). Write opinion pieces for publication. Get on talk shows. Start your own news outlets if necessary. At least a blog and a podcast can be a great start. Use social media judiciously. Build an audience carefully, and encourage its members to join your organization.
Debate. This is key. Constantly engage in debate with the broad right wing. You may not exactly win hearts and minds every time. But you may very well stop run-of-the-mill conservatives from turning into hard-right fanatics. You will also learn more about their ideas in conversation than most anything you could glean from your readings. And you will learn to better express your own ideas through practice under some duress.
Mobilize. Defend and expand democracy through direct political action. Hold rallies, marches, and pickets against the hard right. Don’t let vulnerable communities struggle alone. Join with them. Work with them. Meet the threat of violence with determined nonviolence. Then beat politicians that support the hard right at the ballot box.
Build. Establish small- and large-scale institutions that enshrine democratic values and make them part of everyday life. Social clubs. Sports facilities. Cultural centers. Institutes. For the long haul.
In short, create the more democratic society that you want to live in. Run the hard right to ground with the force of your ideas and the people you mobilize politically. Not with guns. Make it impossible for Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists to find significant audiences for their rhetoric of hate for the foreseeable future. And you will have won.
We will all have won.
NOTE: Since this article went to press, a rally has been called for tomorrow (Thursday, November 1) at 6pm at the New England Holocaust Memorial next to Faneuil Hall. Boston Shiva: Rally Against Antisemitism and White Supremacy. Full info here: https://www.facebook.com/events/330051917546731/. Check it out!
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
September 12, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
So you’re a first-year undergraduate. You’re in college to cram your head full of knowledge, true. But you’re also there to build your personal network. Because the friends and allies you make while taking courses could very well stay with you for your whole life. And the stronger you build this interlocking web of connections, the better your job prospects (and existence in general) will be. The best way to do that—the most lasting and meaningful way—is to graduate. Everyone who does so has a profound experience in common. A strong bond forged in the fires of a seemingly endless series of term papers, labs (for you scientists), crits (for you artists), and exams. You get through that together, you can do anything… together.
However, to graduate you need to meet the standards of the people who stand between you and your degree of choice: your professors. And it may seem to students new to higher education that the profs hold all the power in the relationships they have with you and your classmates.
Two considerations should mitigate this concern. First, some professors—the best of them—will become part of your network. Help you get jobs, get into grad school, and so on and so forth.
Second, you are living in an era where professors have less power in the academy than they’ve had since the Renaissance (American higher education being based, as it is, on older European models). You see, if you had been a college student in, say, Italy in the 16th century, you (being a rich male, as you would have had to be) would essentially be hiring older (also male, but often pretty broke) scholars to teach you what you wanted to study. The universities of the period were basically groups of students paying groups of professors to teach them. Each group had certain rights and responsibilities, and power on campus was distributed between them.
In the intervening centuries, professors seized more and more control over higher education—culminating in the mid-20th century when they pretty much controlled the academy from top to bottom. Most of them were granted “tenure” by their colleges, guaranteeing them a permanent job in the interest of academic freedom.
Fast-forward to today, and many professors—at least at the undergraduate level—have fallen upon hard times. Over the last half century, American higher education has become more and more corporatized. Colleges today are run like businesses. And many are big businesses indeed. Campus administrations have professionalized. Most key staff are no longer professors, but specialists trained to run universities along capitalist lines.
One important job these administrators have is to keep students relatively happy—while extracting the federally guaranteed student loan money most bring with them. The better to convert them to donors after they graduate and become alumni.
Unsurprisingly, as time has gone on, administrators have sucked up larger and larger portions of college budgets. So, less and less of most schools’ budgets are being spent on professors. Causing faculty power to decline. Thus, in today’s higher ed establishment, a smaller and smaller percentage of professors are tenured faculty with good salaries and lifetime sinecures.
A slightly larger percentage of lower-paid professors are tenure-track faculty spending several years at the mercy of their administrations and tenured colleagues in hope of landing a rare tenured professorship. And the vast majority of faculty are adjuncts—contract professors who, at many institutions, don’t know whether they’re going to have enough courses from semester to semester to pay their rent and keep food on the table. Unless they unionize (a movement that’s spread across public universities in the last quarter century and is gradually taking hold in private ones), the amount of money they get per course can be very low indeed and job security will be nonexistent. Yet even when unionized, adjuncts have trouble making ends meet.
And where does all this leave an enterprising student like yourself? In a bit of a catbird seat, if you know how to manage your profs.
Doing that involves four simple steps. The first three are practical tactics you’ll want to focus on with your most helpful professors. And the fourth is a “nuclear option” you can deploy if you’re unlucky enough to get a bad teacher while completing your undergraduate coursework.
1) Do what your professors ask you to do
If you want to convert your professors from indifferent functionaries to active allies, you’ve got to get their attention. In a good way. And how best to get a prof’s attention? Follow directions carefully. Give them what they ask for in homework assignments, papers, and tests. Don’t go overboard. Good professors understand you have other courses. Just do what they want you to do, the way they want you to do it. Right there that puts you in the top 10 percent of students in a typical undergrad class. Particularly with adjuncts who have very little time to spend with each student, since they need to teach as many courses as possible—sometimes at more than one school—to attempt to make a living wage. The less work you make for professors, the more they will be pleased with you. The more pleased any faculty member is with you, the better your educational experience is going to be.
2) Give your professors good evaluations
Every semester, at most colleges, your administration will ask you to give a fairly comprehensive evaluation of each course you take. This, in effect, allows you to evaluate your professors’ performances. What most students don’t know is that faculty are usually shown the evaluations—minus their students’ names. And what even fewer know is that many faculty members can tell which students gave which evaluations. Meaning they know who trashes them, and who praises them. So, be sure to mention something in your write-up that will help your professors know which eval came from you. Don’t be too glowing in your praise. But be fair. They will be much more likely to become your allies going forward if you are.
3) Help your professors with their careers
Professors, especially adjuncts, are always looking for chances to stand out from the pack. In hopes of getting more secure long-term employment. Or, if they already have tenure or are tenure-track (or at least have a solid union contract), in hopes of getting the types of “gold stars on their foreheads” that lead to better gigs. Those desired promotions come by making administrators like deans and provosts happy. And stuff like winning grants for flashy research projects is exactly the type of thing that makes such top dogs happy in today’s academy. Because it makes them look good to their higher-ups: campus presidents and boards of trustees. Given that, if your professor mentions an opportunity to assist them with some grant writing or research work or preparing for a big conference or whatever—and you can spare some time—help them out. Don’t be a suck-up or teacher’s pet. Don’t jump on every opportunity that presents itself. That can backfire, or become inappropriate in any number of ways. But maybe once a semester do them a solid. That’s the kind of thing that leads to a long-term connection and adds professors to your personal network.
“But surely,” you’re now thinking, “every professor isn’t good.” Isn’t helpful. Some professors are, in fact, obstacles that could stop you from getting your degree and solidifying your all-important personal network of classmates and good faculty.
Correct. In a system of higher education where most professors didn’t get any practice teaching unless they were in the minority of graduate students that decided to be teaching assistants instead of research assistants, bad teachers are an unfortunately common fact of college life.
And here’s where your newfound knowledge of the falling status of professors comes into play.
4) The enemy of your enemy is your friend
If you have a bad professor… and I don’t mean a professor that makes you work for your grades. Those are generally the good ones. I mean if you have a professor who is feral. Arbitrary and capricious in their teaching method and in their treatment of students. Someone who gets off on giving low grades because they think they can do so with impunity. If you get a teacher like that, do not waste too much time complaining to them directly. Nasty professors are inclined to think they’re better than you—even if you make more money working at Starbucks than many of them make as academics. So they’ll tend to ignore your protestations. Better to try a different tack. Remember how administrators have steadily taken control of today’s corporatized academy? And how they want students to be happy? You go complain to them. To the highest level administrators that will sit down with you. In person. And encourage your classmates to do the same. And keep doing it. If enough people complain, and the complaints are legitimate, it will negatively affect problem professors’ careers. To forestall that—and being unable to retaliate since the eyes of the administration are on them—said profs will likely moderate their behavior. And you will have won.
Have a great school year, folks. Study hard, don’t party too much, be decent to your fellow beings, and you’ll be fine.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He has also been both an adjunct and a “regular” professor at some college or other. And helped organize faculty unions at same. He has degrees and stuff.
Photo by Chris Faraone
February 6, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
So you went to one of the recent big anti-Trump actions, and you want to become a progressive activist. Not just vote every year or two. Great. But there are dozens of major left activist organizations and hundreds of minor ones working on a host of issues at all levels. Which one to join?
Politics is a minefield. No two ways about it. And the group (or groups) you choose to work with will determine both the course of your life going forward and, in some sense, the fate of the nation. How do you even begin to decide?
I recommend starting with a gut check. What issues are most important to you? Do you want to take on a big fight like getting Trump and his rogue’s gallery of white nationalists out of power? A smaller fight, like expanding public transportation in your region? Or a huge fight, like saving humanity from global warming?
Once you’ve thought deeply about where your political interests lie, search for organizations that are taking on the issues you care most about. Look hard. Do deep web dives. Ask everyone you trust that shares your values. Then ask yourself a series of questions like the following:
1) Is the group run democratically? Far too many activist organizations—especially on the national level—are not. If all edicts in the group seem to come from top officials, and none of the important decisions are made by the members, you’re probably barking up the wrong political tree.
2) Is the group led by elites? Look at the staff, elected officials (if any), and board. Do you see lots of rich people and CEOs? Lots of Ivy League connections? Lots of big (and therefore corporate) foundations? And you’re a progressive and want to rein in corporate power? Find another group.
3) Is the group’s membership and (more importantly) leadership diverse? Do you see people who look like you and a broad array of your friends in the organization? If not, you may want to look elsewhere.
4) Is the group’s agenda transparent or opaque? What does the organization stand for? Is it developing its own positions democratically, or does it seem to be taking marching orders from some unseen higher level? Always look for a clear statement of its politics, values, and action plan—and an indication of who calls the shots in the group. Such information should be front and center in outreach materials, websites, and social media presences. If it’s not, keeping moving.
5) Is the group connected to the Democratic Party? You’ll need to think very carefully about this question, because it determines where you’ll come down in the debate on the future of the American left. Do you want to be connected to the populist left wing of the party? The neoliberal corporate wing of the party (that got the country into the mess we’re in)? Do you want to break with the party and form a better left party? Or join the extra-parliamentary left that doesn’t believe in electoral politics at all? Definitely study before you leap.
6) Is the group purely reactive? Does it engage its members in political discussion and debate, determine a strategy, take action, analyze the action, course correct, and move on to achieve meaningful political change. Or does it follow various dog whistles from powerful societal institutions and various media without really developing its own analysis, and encourage members to endlessly engage in aimless street protest. Eschew, if the latter.
7) Is the group a cult? A loaded question, yes. But one worth thinking about. Political cults do exist. If any organization you approach starts putting super heavy pressure on you to join them, to spend all your available waking hours working for them for free, and to disassociate from your friends and family … run.
Otherwise, if you don’t see a group you like, start your own! In general, keep your head about you and use your common sense. Avoid well-off wannabe revolutionaries, radical chic hipsters, and faux radicals who encourage your mouth to write checks to cops, intelligence agencies, and the military that your ass can’t cash, and you’ll be fine. Have fun fighting the power. And let’s be careful out there.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.
Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
September 29, 2016
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Last week—as is the case many weeks every fall and spring in Boston—notices of small scripted protests by an array of area progressive nonprofits, unions, and student groups got me thinking about the rut the anti-corporate American left has been stuck in for decades. Most especially about the damage done by the habit of ineffectual symbolic political action on a host of important issues. Combined with tailing after a corporate-dominated Democratic Party establishment. Which, time and time again, ignores or actively betrays its base on key issues like jobs, education, healthcare, global warming, and military spending. As it’s done during the current presidential race.
But what if there was a way to change the whole political game for the oppositional left? After all, we almost saw such a tectonic shift happen this year with the Bernie Sanders campaign. There have also been glimpses of a more vibrant, creative, and successful progressive politics from the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements over the last five years. What if left activists could get back to a mass politics that can really win solid victories for working families?
The way forward, it seems, is not yet to be found on our shores. However, it might be on view in the United Kingdom … where Jeremy Corbyn just won yet another vote to remain the leader of the Labour Party.
Who is Jeremy Corbyn? Think of him as the Bernie Sanders of the UK. But one who has gotten a good deal farther politically than the original Sanders has to date. In his context, being the leader of the Labour Party is kind of like being the head of the Democratic National Committee. Except that the levers of actual power are more built into the Labour Party structure than the Democratic Party structure. And the party sits within a parliamentary political system where its leaders have a lot more control over what their elected officials do than their American counterparts. At the same time, Labour members get to vote directly for their party leaders—unlike Democrats. So when a socialist like Corbyn wins leadership elections twice in under a year and a half, it means that he has the power to help spark changes in his party of the type that Sanders can only dream of presently.
Since Corbyn first ran for Labour Party leader last year—on a platform well to the left of Sanders that calls for an end to austerity policies that hurt working people, renationalizing the once-public UK rail system, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and refusal to support Clinton-style “bomb diplomacy” (sorry, “humanitarian intervention”) in the Syrian war—he has increased the number of voting party members and supporters from 200,000 to over 600,000. Even while fighting a running battle with the corporate-backed acolytes of the neoliberal warmonger Tony Blair for full control of the party. Many of those new members are disenfranchised young voters of the same type that supported Sanders.
What Corbyn is doing with those young folks is fascinating. Upon winning his second leadership election by 61 percent last week, he didn’t talk about beating the ruling Conservative Party in the next general election. Instead he’s planning to deploy the growing militant grassroots of his party to win political victories in advance of the next election. Which looks like a completely different strategy than the one Sanders is taking post-primary—so far focusing his new Our Revolution organization on electing more progressive Democrats to office. Even as that party remains in full control of its Clintonite corporate wing. [Although in recent days, Our Revolution is starting to sound more like Corbyn’s similar Momentum organization—which is all to the good, and perhaps unsurprising given that the two insurgencies have long been in touch.]
And what issue is Corbyn focusing on? Public education. Namely stopping the Conservatives from increasing the fairly small number of UK public exam high schools known as “grammar schools.” He is calling for the large socialist camp coalescing around Labour to defend the egalitarian tradition of quality public education for all in Britain. Rather than allow the grammar schools to continue cherry-picking middle and upper class students, and helping them get into elite universities over the heads of working class students. Thus attempting to perpetuate the ancient British system of class privilege in education long after it was formally constrained. The Labour left is also likely to push to end the charter school-like “academy” (or “free school”) system that is allowing corporations to run many public secondary schools in Britain. Lining their pockets, threatening unionized teachers, and further limiting opportunity for working class students in the process. The Conservatives, for their part, plan to expand the academy system to 100 percent of secondary schools and many primary schools besides. If allowed to proceed unchallenged.
Street protests are absolutely part of what the reviving Labour Party and its allies are doing to challenge the corporate wing of their own party and the Conservative Party. Plus, Corbyn supporters have the possibility of leading their party to victory in a future general election, and starting to implement significant democratic socialist reforms thereafter. Echoing their predecessors in Labour leadership at the conclusion of World War II. Reforms like massive public jobs programs, building lots of good public housing, expanding government-funded lifelong educational opportunities for all, deprivatizing the still-impressive UK national health system, rolling back the assault on unions—while cutting the military budget and raising taxes on the rich and the corporations to pay for it all.
So their protest campaigns against conservative policy initiatives are not limited to small numbers of people waving signs and chanting slogans at the wealthy and their minions in business and government like latter-day Don Quixotes. Corbyn and his supporters are taking control of the Labour Party away from its discredited neoliberal leadership and using it to build a democratic socialist movement in the UK. That very project has been attempted in the Democratic Party before by movements like the Rainbow Coalition – and has been crushed every time. Based on that kind of experience, some American leftists feel that the structure of the party precludes such maneuvers from succeeding. A position potentially strengthened by Sanders’ dispiriting loss in the primary—after what was arguably the strongest attempt to take over the Democrats from the left in history.
Positioning the left—the actual left—for political victory in the US will therefore be extremely difficult. No two ways about it. And it’s not clear whether trying to commandeer the Democrats like Corbyn’s movement is doing with the UK Labour Party or building up small left-wing formations like the Green Party into a national powerhouse or some combination of the two strategies will lead to the desired outcome.
But one thing’s for sure. Corbyn’s success is built on grassroots activism. If we’re going to see similar successes for the American left at the national level, progressive nonprofits, unions, and student groups in cities like Boston will have to do better than calling sporadic underattended rallies, marches, and teach-ins—coupled with desultory lobby days where their peonage to the Democratic establishment is generally on display to their detriment. And start winning real political battles instead of scoring points on phantom targets.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.
Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.