I admit to being, at any given time, mostly unaware of what goes on in the world aside from those parts of my daily life that require interaction beyond my students, colleagues, family, and two adoring cats. I’m always shocked to learn — usually from my students or parents, and only occasionally from my cats — about some of the more disturbing things that go on in the outside world. Obscene car crashes on I-95 or gang violence don’t surprise me, but the pretense of absurd arguments put forward as serious political discourse does. As a result, I pay less and less attention to the pretense of political discourse in our society, and for practical reasons concern myself entirely with whether or not the new I-95 express lanes will improve my life, whether or not unpasteurized dairy is gross or healthy, or whether or not I’m getting my purl stitch right.
I’m occasionally made to feel guilty about my utter lack of involvement in the World-at-Large, and sometimes I go along with it. I think about whether or not I really ought to be using my intelligence to make a difference (which I occasionally believe I am by teaching), to take seriously my social responsibilities, and to seek out ways to improve our world (or at the very least prevent it from going to shambles because of other people’s ineptitude). Whenever I encounter such feelings, I’m unwillingly excited to think carefully about how it is I went from being a politically and socially active teenager (who protested things I couldn’t even be bothered to properly understand), to a political and social philosopher (who thought work in theory would make a difference in practice), to a politically indifferent community college professor (who wants sushi for lunch). How did I go from a person who cared immensely to being a person who cares very little, and hopes only that the impending economic crisis leaves me with the ability to feed myself, my cats, and possibly my family?
This is especially true as we approach the Big Election. I’m called upon – by my family, by my friends, by the media, by Hollywood celebrities, by strangers in the street, by my students, sometimes by my cats – to fulfill my civic responsibilities and vote for the next president of the United States (and maybe some other pesky little things, like, you know, whatever that other stuff on the ballot is).
Every four years, I sit watching the show of propaganda-masquerading-as-arguments and tolerating other people’s complete lack of ability to recognize B.S. with bipartisan-neutrality; but this year is something special. It’s like the Circus came to town, but this time they brought King Kong and Nessie with them. I’ve never seen such a show – or such a fiction.
This may be the most important election “since 1932.” And it may “determine the future of our country” or what have you, but for some reason, when I ask what these same people, who sit around and guilt-trip me about my total lack of interest in Sarah Palin’s newest cute colloquialism or Barack Obama’s latest Noun-Turned-Propaganda strategy, plan on doing at the city, state, and local level to save and preserve their communities, people turn vicious, like an injured cat lashing out at anything it fears.
The truth is that we are all fully responsible for the present crisis for precisely this reason. We are responsible for it because we did what we are going to do once our new president – whosoever it may be – is elected, exactly the same thing we have done in the last dozen or so election cycles. We will vote for president and promptly forget for the next three years and ten months that we have any civic obligations at all. We will forget to hold local politicians, let alone state and federal politicians, accountable. Those fingers which type e-mails to politicians so fervently now will atrophy from disuse and those dozens of political blogs attempting at fame will lay dormant. No one will stand in the halls of the workplace and argue over a city commission’s negligent use of funds, or a state senator’s taking bribes from lobbyists. We’ll go about our business as usual, and that business is ignoring our politicians and hoping this just turns out okay.
Do I think this is right? Do I think this is how it ought to be? Absolutely not. But I recognize the phenomenon of subversion from within when I see it well enough. A democratic system like ours works well only with a low threshold of free-riders. Once we cross that threshold as a group, though, the only defensibly rational strategy is to defect. And pretending to co-operate for two months a year isn’t an attempt to reverse the subversion. It’s an attempt to alleviate one’s own guilt at defecting. And it’s completely inauthentic.
So what does it mean to be authentic about our civic responsibilities? It means acknowledging when an activity is a denial, and when fervor is guilt. It means recognizing that, as it was put by a particular comic-book-turned-movie-character, “If you are looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.”
We are fervent about electing a president, and indifferent to everything else. But because of our indifference to everything else, our fervor about the presidential election is wasted energy, its irrational, it’s nothing but an emotional lidocaine, applied to the surface of our civic failure.
To acknowledge that civic failure is to acknowledge a real wound. To acknowledge what we have done wrong, and what we do wrong, is only the beginning of a long process of political re-awakening that will have to happen to really change this country. As they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step.
For us – as participants in the education system – I firmly believe that we can begin political change, that we can reverse the subversion that’s taken place, that we can become authentically political, and that our most useful tool to do so is the Faculty Union.
The University is the guardian of our democracy, inasmuch as a democracy can only work with a well-informed citizenry. As faculty, we are the core and the heartbeat of the University system. When a faculty protects itself, it protects – by extension – the staff and the students of the academic institution.
Good faculty unions hold politicians accountable. They provide a venue for participation in local, state, and federal politics. They raise funds to provide the only meaningful communication with legislators. Your e-mail alone doesn’t do much, but a union’s contributions or endorsements do. And, yes, faculty unions provide us with the opportunity to levy our power during presidential campaigns. They provide us the opportunity to really make a difference, to really matter in the grand political scheme of things.
For the first time since I was an uninformed kid protesting anything I was handed a sign for, I feel like my participation matters, that I am doing something politically useful, that I am meeting a civic responsibility, and that I am doing it through my union.
So, I’m engaging a reverse guilt trip. Whenever the presidential election is mentioned – especially as it relates to the future of public education – within your college or university, I beg you to ask your friends, classmates, professors, colleagues, and co-workers if s/he is a member of the faculty union. If you are not, join. Encourage them to join. Real change – authentic change – sincere change – sound change starts somewhere, and that is not solely in the ballot box once every four years. It is in the halls of an academic institution that protects its faculty and its students, that raises its voice together, that organizes to protect each other, and that teaches people how to think, how to fight, and how to demand more than what they are given. The single most gratifying experience I have every had as a professor came when I asked my students to discuss the arguments from a critical perspective during a presidential debate. The realization that they were being told nothing of import, nothing of interest, and nothing that really mattered changed forever the way they saw American politics. Maybe it changed them enough to demand more. But I know that without protection for academic freedom, and protection for the discipline of philosophy, it is possible that one day our subject will be banned, removed, and deleted from the University just as it was from our K-12 system. The ability to think will no longer be taught at the college level, just like it is not taught at the high school level.
Students, this affects you, too. Understand that students at an institution are protected inasmuch as their faculty are. Unprotected faculty lose academic freedom, the right to innovate, the right to publish, research, create, and teach openly. Unprotected faculty have no guarantees for their future, and must prioritize food on the table over freedom in the classroom.
And, of course, I need not remind staff, graduate students, and non-permanent faculty that this affects them as well. Historically, where full-time faculty are protected, protection for others follows. My own institution – Miami Dade College – is an excellent example of this. Historically, whatever annual salary increase is offered to the faculty is offered to all full-time staff. Where other institutions did not even give faculty raises during this crisis, Miami Dade College gave faculty a 3% raise, and gave all full-time staff an equivalent raise.
I’m not willing to put a bumper sticker or a lawn sign out about my choices for the presidential election. But I am willing to proudly advertise my union membership with United Faculty of Miami Dade College. I meet my civic responsibilities in the most authentic way I can, even if it is a small way, and I don’t need false fervor to do it.
A faculty union membership is an authentic form of perpetual political participation and activism. Voting once every four years for president, and forgetting about your civic responsibility for the next three years and ten months is not. To protect democracy — what little of it is left, in any case — we must first protect the institution of education, which is at the very core of a democratic society.