Irving Howe, well-known literary critic and chronicler of Jewish-American history, was the founder and long time editor of the democratic left journal Dissent and one of America’s leading social democrats. During and immediately following the 1960s, he used to quip that if he watched too closely all of his critics who moved from his far left to his right with breath-taking speed, he would have whiplash. Indeed, some of these folks specialized in launching simultaneous political attacks on Howe from his left and his right.
I was reminded of Howe’s dry humor on this subject when I read the comments of Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham on the “branding problem” of teacher unions. Rotherham seems to thinks that it is big news that Eric Alterman “doesn’t like teacher unions.” In point of fact, this is a rather old story, since Alterman has adopted a “lefter than thou” attitude toward teacher unions for many years. He is particularly appalled by the fact that teacher unions here in New York do not adopt a narrowly partisan and ideological stance in elections, and that we endorse incumbents from across the political spectrum — including Republicans and pro-corporate Democrats — when they take supportive stands on the educational, labor and human rights issues which are important to us as an institution. Alterman is of the view that teacher unions should always endorse the most liberal and left of the candidates, even when that candidate has no reasonable prospect of success and their opponent has been supportive on key issues for teacher unions.
New York teacher union leaders do not view the union as a stage on which one acts out personal political dispositions or asserts one’s personal political principles, but as a stewardship for the interests of teachers, of public education and of the youth we teach. That means that on occasion the union takes institutional positions in elections that do not necessarily conform with the personal political views of its leaders, let alone the political stances of Eric Alterman. For us, this is a question of political strategy, of how we advance the interests entrusted to our care, and not a question of political principle.
Precisely because we view our electoral stance as a question of strategy, we understand it is a debatable issue. As conditions and circumstances change, strategies should adapt and change. Reasonable cases can be made for a variety of approaches, and it would be a foolhardy leadership that did not continually assess the efficacy of any strategy it used to reach its institutional goals. We have no difficulty engaging on the substance of the question. If there were to be a substantive debate on that matter, an enlightening exchange could be had.
But Rotherham’s citation of Alterman’s comments studiously avoids the substance of the political differences between Alterman and teacher unions. That is all the more remarkable in this context, because he comes out of the Democratic Leadership Council, widely understood to be the main voice and vehicle of pro-corporate Democrats — the Eduwonk blog began as the educational voice of the DLC’s thinktank, the Progressive Policy Institute. His views of the substantive question would be much closer to the teacher union position than to Alterman’s stance, and insofar as he differed with us, it would be from our right rather than our left. For example, he has been a consistent supporter of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, while the Connecticut Federation of Teachers endorsed Ned Lamont in the recent election. It is hard not to feel a little of that Howe whiplash in the face of his citation of Alterman.
Moreover, this particular example fits into a pattern of Rotherham regularly citing criticisms of teacher unions without engaging the substance of the issues behind the criticisms. If there is a real political difference, by all means let’s debate it. But that’s not what’s happening. If Edwize or the AFT’s NCLBlog made it a practice of publishing every one line swipe at the DLC — and there is a great deal more of that discourse than criticism of teacher unions out there in the blogosphere, as even a casual visitor to Daily Kos or TPM Cafe knows — the message we would be sending is that we were on a political vendetta, not that we were looking to engage in a political discussion. When one is as keen on the politics of perception and branding as Rotherham is, he should realize that the perception problem is his own. Brander, heal thyself.