Hollywood’s latest ode to the “empowering” nature of privatizing the public is called “Won’t Back Down.” The drama, which stars a host of fabulous actors known for portraying strong women – Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter – opens Friday in theaters throughout the United States.
In a nutshell, the film functions as a powerful propaganda piece on behalf of the neoliberal, or market-driven, education reform movement in the United States, which is usually – and misleadingly –called only “education reform.” It pursues neoliberal aims under the guise of ideas that resonate with parents, like “school choice,” which implies spending public money on private school vouchers and privately managed charter schools and forcing parents to choose from a “marketplace” of schooling options. The end game? Replacing traditional public schools with private and charter institutions over time.
On the almost immediate heels of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, which enjoyed widespread public support, the film demonizes teachers unions by casting them as the cause of “failing” schools. That particular talking point is old news among the reform crowd, but it’s not the only thing this movie is pushing. Co-producer Paul Anshutz and his Walden Media (which also produced the pro-charter documentary “Waiting for Superman”) have taken things a step further this time: That is, they romanticize so-called “parent-trigger” laws, more extreme “school choice” reforms approved in three states that allow parents to band together, fire staff and administrators – and hire a private charter company to take over the school. It means parent empowerment for a minute, at least until the unelected charter management takes over and parents are stripped of power once and for all. Immediate gratification traded for disempowerment down the line.
I will say this for my fellow Americans: We can be a pretty slow – and painfully naïve – lot sometimes, and we’re not so good at connecting dots or comprehending bigger pictures. You might think we’d have learned a lesson or two about how unfettered markets in late capitalism exacerbate class division, suffering and inequality in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Or that we’d be seriously questioning their implications for a functioning democracy since the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling. Or that thirty years into the corporate attack on our schools, we’d have noticed that it’s exacerbating a new segregationist ethos – not Brown v. Board of Education, or even Plessy v. Ferguson (the ruling that called for racially segregated “separate but equal” schools) – since we’ve dispensed with trying to talk about equality in education, or equality at all, anymore.
Shimer College theologian Adam Kotsko describes that eerie “calm confidence [that] attends” a “cultural presupposition of our age: that all of life should and inevitably will become a market.” He’s right. As a culture, we’re far more concerned about gay rights, reproductive rights and other so-called “family values” issues than we are about our economic system and its discontents. And we tend not to understand how any of these “family values” issues are intertwined with our economic system and said discontents. Gay marriage and reproductive rights, we are told, are political and civil rights (“first generation rights,” in UN parlance) – that is, rights of speech and rights over one’s person – that cannot be denied based on our common humanity. As Americans, these are our favorite rights. That restrictions on gay marriage and reproduction are more dangerous for poor people than others (i.e., Upper middle class LGBT folks can access first-rate legal help to defend their rights, and the well-off can often travel away from their homes to access family planning.) is rarely explored.
But start talking about “second generation rights” – which include social and economic rights like, say, worker protections and collective bargaining, or a robust social safety net to help people live through crisis, and you risk being called a “socialist.” And this in a nation where a majority of citizens claim to follow a man-God who told his disciples to “sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” These social and political rights? We have an overwhelming tendency to blame folks who need help accessing them, and even the most literal of Biblical literalists will take pains to explain how that thing about how it’s harder for a “camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven” should be understood in historical context.
As a nation, we’ve been allowing our government – and its moneyed interests – to dismantle the social safety net that was developed in a period of post-Gilded Age idealism. That that social safety net never became nearly as robust as that in any other industrialized country has never really been a worry for the masses. Not even as we descend into what looks increasingly like another Gilded Age. These days, we’re more likely to vote based on our beliefs about “family values” issues than anything else – and to be fair to us, politicians in both parties give us few other ways to differentiate between them.
It’s not entirely our own doing, of course. When our political and pundit classes won’t explain these things to us; and when we operate under the weakest labor protections in the developed world; and when we don’t have time to teach ourselves political economy and post-Marxist theory; and when reality TV-style discourses of “gaffes” and “secret videos” replace serious political engagement; and when many of us work two or three jobs just for food and shelter – well, you can’t expect us all to have an advanced understanding of what ails us. You can’t even expect many of us to have that.
And you certainly can’t expect us all to grasp why transforming life into a marketplace is dangerous for democracy. Here – as happens often – I find myself resonating with Kotsko’s take on the CTU strike: “It’s hard for me to avoid fatalism. It’s hard for me not to assume that any victory will be temporary and will only delay the inevitable.”
At the end of the day, as much as I’ve always distrusted Marx’s positivism, I always thought his promise that capitalists would ultimately serve as their own “gravediggers” made intuitive sense. This, even though I certainly don’t think a Marxist “revolution” is in America’s future. But I keep wondering: How much degradation is enough? When do we stop buying the promise – advanced in “Won’t Back Down” – that the hand starving us is the only one that can save us?
This is the moment at which the rules of journalism require me to spit out some sort of platitude about how we can decide as a culture to stop this process of privatization. We can step up our fight and stop the rich from stealing our collective future. We can start thinking in terms of public – not merely individual – good again. And of course it’s always possible. But who has the time?