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More on Moral Purity, Political Sectarianism And Talking To Bill Gates

Some additional thoughts, responding to the comments below.

1. It seems that a number of the comments on Bill Gates simply reassert, without logical argument or supporting evidence, what is actually put into question by my original blog post — that Gates and Sam Walton of Wal-Mart are both of the same cloth, the sworn enemies of teachers, unions and public education who seek our destruction. In fact, the contrast between the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation is instructive in this regard. The Gates Foundation has spent billions on efforts to improve district public schools, while the Walton Foundation has spent not a dime on district public schools — all of its education money goes into charter schools in ways clearly designed to establish them as an alternative, non-union system of schools. The Gates Foundation record on working with teachers and unions is mixed, but it does include support for efforts, such as pre-Joel Klein New Century Schools in NYC, which where done through collaboration with teachers and unions; the Walton Foundation record is ideologically driven and is involved in education solely for the purpose of pushing an anti-union, privatization agenda — in order to pursue its agenda against the American labor movement. While I am entirely in favor of a passionate commitment to our current struggles, we are even more desperately in need of an unsentimental political analysis which understands and acts on just this sort of distinction between a Gates and a Walton. Rhetorical broad brushes are no substitute for critical thought.

2. There is no question that teachers, unionists and advocates of public education have very real policy differences and a different vision than Gates. The issue here — and at the AFT convention — was not whether we should abandon our differences, but whether we should have a conversation with Gates about both our differences and our commonalities. It is, I would insist, the central hallmark of a sectarian politics that it fears and avoids dialogue with those with whom it disagrees, and that is precisely why in its never ending quest for moral purity, it becomes a politics of self-marginalization. To the extent that we adopt such a politics of self-marginalization, we will be doing real harm to ourselves at a most critical time.

3. A politics which indiscriminately draws “line in the sand,” as if having “lines in the sand” were an end in itself, is a politics which sets itself up for defeat after defeat. “Lines in the sand” must be carefully drawn, and one better be damn sure there is a good prospect of successfully defending such a line before it is drawn.

4. Once one opposes “politics” to the act of “standing up for what we believe in,” one ensures that this “standing up” will become morally pure AND politically ineffectual statements of abstract principle. Politics is about the power to realize that part of our  beliefs and visions which is possible in a given context. We should be the progressives, the left wing, of what is possible in education.

5. My post made no reference either to the Chicago Teachers Union or to the “walkout” against Bill Gates at the AFT convention, but since they have been introduced here as red herrings, it seems necessary to clarify these issues.

The UFT reached out to our Chicago sisters and brothers at the AFT convention, and worked positively and constructively with them to have their voice heard and included on important issues such as closing schools. We will continue to work in that same fashion with them.

The issue of the “walkout” was much more than how one felt about Bill Gates — a question on which there were a range of different opinions. It was perhaps even more an issue of the norms of civility and respectfulness that delegates expect from each other in our proceedings and deliberations. In a hall of thousands of delegate, barely two dozen people “walked out” — and a good portion of this number were not even elected delegates to the convention. The AFT convention has a long tradition of respect for dissent, for the right of a minority — even a minority of one — to be heard in debate and discussion. But the delegates understood that the “walkout” was not dissent, but a fizzled attempt at disruption, not about a right to be heard, but about a failed attempt to silence.



  • 1 Tom
    · Aug 3, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Your analysis is not entirely incorrect; it just doesn’t apply to the situation we’re in.

    We didn’t get here because unions didn’t negotiate enough. We got here because while we were engaged in thoughtful give and take, the bad guys were creaming us with exactly the “broad rhetorical brushes” that you criticize. “Accountability.” “Teacher effectiveness.” “Unions oppose reform.” They keep it simple, and keep on saying it.

    What has marginalized us is that we have NOT put out a clear, compelling message of our own. We will stay marginalized until we do.

    Finally, to equate standing up for what you believe with political ineffectiveness is utter nonsense. Throughout our history, standing up for what you believe is what’s gotten it done.

  • 2 Celso Garcia
    · Aug 3, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    The death of union ability to have true power was when the AFL-CIO because of internal politics did allowed chapter after chapter to lose their ability to strike. Now we can be bullied and as we have all noticed we negotiate our rights away slowly but surely. How can we negotiate with big money? Is it ok for the leadership to negotiate our rights away eventhough the Unions members will be destroyed. The morale within the UFT rank and file is low.Many people will just agree to agree but many members keep saying that the union is weaker then they have ever seen it. We are all like punching bags for everyone to attack. We invite Gates and Walton to speak but will they listen or they already drew their lines in the sand. That means we will concede and give up many rights that will get members telling me that the union does not help them when they need the help the most. Many members will not speak out because in the end they will be flying solo. I draw my line in the sand to not sell out to big money if I know they are out to harm our kids and our members. Remember the wolf wears sheeps clothing.

  • 3 Akademos
    · Aug 4, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Okay, I hear you Leo. I think you’re underplaying how harmful Gates is and has been, but I’m not going to waste my time dragging in evidence. In spirit, I agree. Talk, please, talk; don’t collude, don’t sellout.

    I saw Mulgrew on NY1 refusing to even entertain questions about tying teacher evaluation to exam scores (What garbage they are, and have pretty much always been! And what a setup for high schools. How do you achieve consistent progress with students when you are teaching content several years beyond their average grade level?). Two days later, I believe, a secret deal is struck to allow it. When asked why there was no debate or discussion over it, the answer was, “We’re the leadership. We don’t have to discuss it.” [paraphrased] (And then look at what RW did for Rhee.)

    Maybe it was a good deal considering what could have been. Maybe not. The point is that what you’re talking about, politics of trust, engagement, etc., is within a context of high suspicions of egoism, selling out, collusion, and stupidity.

  • 4 Bob Calder
    · Aug 5, 2010 at 11:42 am

    I got up and walked out of a meeting where an executive of a major polluter was being allowed to facilitate a retreat at a private school’s alumni association. As a former president of the organization, I felt it was worthwhile to refuse participation.

    I have never been invited back to an event in an official position and I no longer have any influence whatsoever.

    Would I do it again? Yes. It was the late 80’s and I felt positive ethical influence on the student population was lacking. I would do it a hundred times.

  • 5 jd2718
    · Aug 7, 2010 at 10:43 pm


    you wrote “There is no question that teachers, unionists and advocates of public education have very real policy differences and a different vision than Gates.”

    Was there any substantive part of Gates’ speech with which you differ?


  • 6 Leo Casey
    · Aug 8, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    From memory, without looking at the text, there were at least two points:
    1. his advocacy of individual merit pay,
    2. the inordinate emphasis he placed on standardized test scores in evaluating teachers.

  • 7 jd2718
    · Aug 8, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    Neither of those were in the text.

  • 8 Tom
    · Aug 9, 2010 at 9:43 am


    We need a much broader critique than that. The more we keep picking at specifics, the more people feel that the basic idea is okay.

    In the wake of the latest test results, parents and citizens want to know what’s going on. Saying that “Testing is okay, but we need balance” is not politically effective.

    Instead what people should hear is: The DOE’s policies haven’t worked. It’s time to stop pouring all our money, time, and talent into testing kids, and start using it to help them.

    This position–which is more or less the consensus of educators on every blog I see–would make sense to the public; give us something to be FOR; show that the union cares about students, not just its members; and take us off the defensive.

    The question now before the City is, Where do we go from here? The union needs to have a clear, positive answer; otherwise we will continue to be defined by our opponents.