Editorial: First as Farce, then as Tragedy... How Arne Duncan, the Chicago Boys, and 'Race to the Top' will make Barack Obama a one-term President

Now that Barack Obama has made every right wing fantasy preached by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan into national policy, it's time to note that with the choice he made in advocating "choice" (in the Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand senses) instead of public service and the public good (in the traditional American model) President Obama has also chosen to alienate the majority of the nation's teachers in a way that will, a few years hence, cost him his presidency.

Two years before he was elected President, Barack Obama was a U.S. Senator from Illinois and a powerful presence in the Chicago Democratic Party. On November 6, 2006 (above), Obama gave his enthusiastic endorsement to Todd Stroger, who was at the time a candidate for President of the Cook County Board. At a huge "Labor for Stroger" rally at Chicago's Plumber's Hall on November 6, 2006, Obama was a headliner speaker on Stroger's behalf, and showing his loyalty to the Chicago and Cook County Democratic Party. At the same time, he endorsed Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's reelection bid and praised Daley's "school reform" leadership. During the two years following "Labor for Stroger," the narrative about Barack Obama left out much of his political history, including the fact that he was a mainstream Daley Democrat from Chicago, both as a member of the Illinois State Senate and then as U.S. Senator from Illinois. Above, many of the Chicago politicians who helped Obama into office were arrayed around him while be praised Todd Stroger on the eve of the 2006 election. Included in the photograph above are John Daley (a Cook County Democratic Ward Committeeman and County Board Commissioner), Mayor Richard M. Daley, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Stroger, and Congressman Luis Gutierrez. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The "change" that people were in tears about in Chicago's Grant Park following Obama's election victory in November 2008 did not include launching or sustaining two imperialist wars. Nor did it mean handing the nation's predatory banks the keys to the federal treasury.

Did American turn out in unprecedented numbers so that Barack Obama could repudiate single payer health care and made sure that Big Health and Big Pharma continued to control the health services of all Americans — and continued to hold on to their "right" to profit even at the expense of the health and well being of millions of poor and working people? And, finally, did millions of public school teachers work for the election of Barack Obama so that their president could throw them under the Chicago Plan to decimate America's public schools?

The answer to each of those questions is a resounding "No!"

But somehow, in the ten months between the Obama election and the opening of schools for the 2009-2010 school year, Barack Obama has proposed to decimate the nation's public schools (i.e., for those without a dictionary, destroy one out of every ten) — and thereby alienate the majority of the people who put him in power -- the nation's teachers, and other members of the working class. A massive program of privatization, union busting, and teacher bashing was not the "change we can believe in" that American teachers brought to the White House as a result of their work and their contributions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America.

The selection of Arne Duncan as U.S. Secretary of Education was not simply a personal choice, as some media accounts put it. The Duncan appointment, like Obama's other cabinet appointments, was an endorsement of the most conservative wing of the Democratic Party and a repudiation of most of the people who had worked the hardest across the country to actually elect Obama. The largest single professional group at the 2008 Democratic Party convention consisted of teachers, virtually all of whom were members of the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers.

After accompanying Todd Stroger into the "Labor for Stroger" rally at Chicago's Plumbers Union Hall on November 6, 2006, Barack Obama joined other Democratic Party leaders in enthusiastic support for Stroger (above, speaking). One of the things that was carefully brushed aside during the 2008 Democratic Party primary campaign in many places was the fact that Barack Obama had always been a reliable ally of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (above, standing beside Obama on the left of the photo), never opposing Daley's massive privatization of public schools or the other components of Daley's fraudulent takeover of the nation's third largest school system. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.During his years as "Chief Executive Officer" of the Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan had not simply been anti-teacher. Duncan had created the largest network of non-union privatized public schools in the USA prior to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, which gave the Bush administration the green light to bust the New Orleans teachers' union and privatize a large part of the New Orleans public schools. Beginning slowly in 2002 with the closing of Dodge, Terrell, and Williams elementary schools, Duncan embarked on a carefully executed strategy of scapegoating public school teachers for all of the problems of urban America, and firing the teachers who had long served in the nation's most challenging segregated inner city public schools.

Karl Marx wrote in the 1850s that history repeats itself, but satirized the cliché by noting, "First as tragedy, then as farce."

In the case of the Obama administration's education policy, it could easily be argued that the farce of the years of George W. Bush preceded the tragedy now unfolding under the administration of Barack Obama. Barack Obama's role during the November 6, 2008, "Labor for Stroger" event was not merely to be one of the Democratic Party leaders to endorse Todd Stroger that night, but to be in the forefront of showing people that Obama's charisma was part of Stroger's appeal. Todd Stroger (above right, smiling with eyes closed) arrived at Plumbers Hall on Chicago's west side that night accompanied by two U.S. Senators, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Since the Duncan team — a group we'll be referring to in the years ahead as "The Chicago Boys II" — took over the U.S. Department of Education in January, they have been making a farce of the hopes of all those who worked for "change" and fought against the absurdities of the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" approaches to public education.

Few people outside of Chicago would have suspected that the election of Barack Obama would usher in national policies against public education which were worse than those of George W. Bush, Rod Paige, and Margaret Spellings. But by the time Obama and Duncan announced the "Race to the Top", thousands of teachers (soon to be joined by millions more) were realizing that the "Race to the Top" would be far worse than "No Child Left Behind." Few people familiar with Chicago can honestly say they are surprised. The Obama Plan for Education is simply a rehash of the Daley Plan for Education, which was very very comfortable with George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind. To compare Obama to Bush is almost heresy today, but within a year or less it will go down easier with more and more people.

But is "tragedy" the right word? For those who have studied classical tragedy, yes. And in the sense that Marx's quip defined, but obversely. The Bush reality, delusional in so many ways, was a farce, tragic for millions, but not for its protagonist. There were tragedies during the eight years of the presidency of George W. Bush, certainly. And those tragedies were not just for the hundreds of thousands killed and the millions who have suffered because of the imperial wars the Bush administration foisted on the world — and especially on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Pat Tillman being killed by friendly fire during the Bush mess in Afghanistan, that was tragedy. A great man brought down by one of his gifts. George W. Bush making a hash of the most powerful office in the USA and making a mockery of the nation — farce. But it's now time to compare and contrast Bush and Obama, so we will begin a process that will envelope many over the next couple of years. If George W. Bush was a limited man of limited gifts who came to power because he could access unlimited resources — befriended by those with gold, not those of the gods, as the Greeks might have it — so Barack Obama was a man with gifts that could only be attributed to the gods themselves. Bush, the limited man with limited gifts but because of family and economic class, access to unlimited wealth and power.

Obama, the man with unlimited gifts but severely limited wealth and power, of a lower economic class (at least in that part of his roots which were in the USA). And when that man is brought down by those very gifts, therein can lie tragedy.

Much more about these ironies as the "Race to the Top" and the unfolding of the tragedy of Barack Obama unfolds on the rest of us. Obama's place in history, his choices, and ours

Barack Obama earned himself a place in history the moment he was elected President of the United States, as all but the insane will admit. He was also one of the best educated men — in all senses of the term — to have walked into the White House, although his Ivy League pedigree was far from what guaranteed that he would also hold that honor. Numerous Presidents before him shared his one Alma Mater (Harvard), including, most recently, John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush. He was also not the most recent president with strong ties to Columbia University. Obama earned his BA there; President Dwight D. Eisenhower was head of the place before he went into the White House. No, Obama's education consists not only of his training at two of the nation's most prestigious (and expensive) universities, but also from his wide-ranging knowledge and interests. He is neither shallow, like his predecessor, not narrowly trained, like some of the military men who have previously sat in the same seat of power.

It's possible, then, that Obama has read, and understood in context, the whole quotation from Karl Marx that begins this editorial. In its fullness it reads as follows:

Hegel remarks somewhere[*] that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851[66] for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language..." (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Chapter One).

Were it possible that the current President of the United States wanted to take a day off from his chores and put aside the burdens of power (and the arrogance of power he's assuming with each passing day), he might want to truly take a vacation and read or re-read some of the books he once treasured. Barack Obama is one of the few occupants of the White House, at least in this century, who might have read the classic works of socialism and Communism, for example, in their original form and context, and not in some Bowdlerized abridgments as part of some "Masters of Deceit" class on how you could become a better anti-Communist.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama is unlikely to do that.

Were he to do so, and join that reading with some of the classics of tragedy, he might do well not only to re-read Aristotle on tragedy, but some of the more complex tragedies of Shakespeare, like Othello and Lear. He might think of how a blindspot (and the manipulation of lesser men) can undo a noble and courageous career, leaving the protagonist to say, with the ultimate understatement, "I have done the state some service..."

Or to note, with Lear in the storm, that those who flatter you are not your best advisors.

And for one last aside from history and literature, the precise quote from Shakespeare:

"Soft you; a word or two before you go.

I have done the state some service, and they know't.

No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice..." (Othello, the final scene).

We'll probably never know.

We do know that Barack Obama chose to manipulate, then snub, the teachers of America, then to make cynical common cause with their leaders as if he did not know that their rank-and-file usually question and often despise them.

And now we know that he has cynically joined forces with those who want to extend and expand the despised "No Child Left Behind," as if a "rebranding" of the entire edifice of testing and destruction, of privatization and manipulating, and finally of the attacks on democracy, public education and our children, could be somehow solved by some cheap tricks from Madison Avenue and Obama's media conjurers.

It's more than that, and he missed it. Now it's too late for the President, but far from too late to save the public schools and public school children of the USA. 


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