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.