Teaching and the Election: What about a Teacher’s Political Views?

There have been many days this fall when I have been glad that I am currently not teaching. I would find it hard not to share my passionate support of Barack Obama and my intense disdain for the negative and cynical campaign being run by John McCain, Sarah Palin and their Republican supporters. I would have a difficult time staving off the questions that I know my students would ask me about McCain’s choice of a woman for a running mate, or her fractured syntax ( I taught English) or the current trend towards hate mongering that is happening at Republican rallies. Yesterday, for instance John McCain admonished one of his supporters who referred to Obama as an Arab, lecturing them about respect. This from a man who is running adds calling Obama a liar and dangerous for the country.

Should teachers engage with their students about their political beliefs? Should we pretend not to have views? Can fair and open dialog occur in a classroom only if the teacher remain “neutral?” There are some who would say, “Absolutely.” Still I wonder. If the purpose of the dialog is a true inquiry into the impact of language and rhetoric of politics, can a teacher stay out of the fray? For instance, were I teaching right now, I would have started the year with George Orwell’s 1984 — the book already assigned as summer reading for seniors. In years past when I taught that book, we spent several weeks analyzing all different types and examples of propaganda — learning the tools of the propagandist and becoming able to recognize them in advertisements and political posters and speeches. There are many books and websites that a teacher can use in developing lessons about propaganda including this one entitled Propaganda in the classroom.

Last year when I taught 1984, I took the students to see Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker at the Free Library where he talked about the history of profanity, its uses and purposes and how it relates to the ways our brains function. We also listened to his talk about thought and language

In a recent interview on NPR, Pinker analyzes the language of the current financial crisis and presidential campaign. This too could/should be the stuff of a contemporary English classroom that has meaning for the students and connects to issues and events that impact their lives.

What is problematic for me as a recently retired teacher and one who has always been open and transparent with my students about my beliefs, how could I in good conscience not point out the ways in which the McCain campaign has gone beyond the pale in using language to incite fear and hatred among his base supporters? I years past, I have been outspoken in my commitment to anti-racism and social justice. I have selected texts by African American and Native American writers and I have been vocal about the rights of women. I have attempted to “walk the walk” in my work as an educator as well as “talk the talk.”

One time in the faculty room, during a casual political discussion, a neo-conservative colleague dismissed my ideas as ” flakey liberal nonsense.” Not quick on my feet when insulted publicly, I did not respond immediately. I found the colleague later and told him that I resented being called flakey and that I came to my political beliefs through lived experience and hard thought inquiry and that I expected to be treated with respect in the faculty room and elsewhere when engaging in political discussions. I told him his characterization was dismissive, disrespectful and diminished me as a woman and thoughtful professional. To his credit, he truly heard me and I wish that I had had the quickness of mind to have responded in this when in front of my peers.

Recently, on a professional email list serve of the Philadelphia Writing Project, I posted a message attacking John McCain and his cynical choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate. I was inspired to write the post after others had posted about the double standard of white privilege being enacted in the campaign against Barak Obama. Here is a link to the essay and a complete copy of the essay is included at the end of this entry.

In response to the conversation about language, race and privilege that ensued after the original posting, I wrote a response on September 17th which I called “and then there’s the gender thing.” Here it is verbatim below.

And while we’re talking about privilege let’s look at the twisted way in which the Republican ticket has tried to hijack the gender issue and distort it to suit them. Has anyone wondered why we haven’t heard much about John McCain’s first wife? I did a google search last night and found minimal hits, most of them linking to the same story from a British newspaper.
When John McCain was imprisoned in Hanoi, his young, beautiful,swimsuit- model wife and mother of three children ( two from a former marriage whom McCain adopted and a daughter Sydney) was in a horrific car accident. She sustained serious injury to her legs and underwent 23 operations. She became disabled and disfigured and gained a lot of weight. When McCain returned to the US, he did not remain faithful to his wife. While he was still married he met and proposed to Cindy McCain, a wealthy, young, slender woman.
One of the sites I visited questioned why there is so little information about Carol Shepp (a former Philadelphian). Given the amount of press, time and government investigations that were dedicated to John Edwards’ and Bill Clinton’s affairs one has to question how the Republican party continues to characterize themselves as the party of “family values” and John McCain as a man of “character.”
There is nothing unusual about powerful, driven and narcissistic men shedding their aging wives and trading them in for newer models. In fact, I wonder, would everyone be so turned on by McCain’s choice of running mate if she looked like Hillary Clinton or Eleanor Roosevelt?
It is laughable to assert that a man who abandoned his disabled first wife after she lost her model good looks and hot body, who married a young daughter of a rich beer distributor and who selected a former beauty queen as a running mate for vice president could possibly understand the issues important to women in this country.

Within minutes of posting this message, I was attacked by a colleague on the list-serve calling me “low down” and “uneducated.” She called upon the others on the list serve to censure me and keep me or anyone else from posting “personal” attacks on the candidates private lives. In response, I reminded her that the candidates had made their private lives public, introducing themselves and their families to the world through biographical videos shown at their respective political conventions. ( It is important to note that Carol Shepp McCain was not included in McCain’s biographical video.) I also wrote that it is imperative for literacy teachers to be able to analyze the powerful ways in which narratives can be used and abused.

The conversation continued on the list-serve for several days with most people making public posts that supported my right to express my opinion in that way on this forum. Some wrote passionate posts railing against the Republicans and George Bush. Others wrote measured responses about the issues. Still others discussed the nature and parameters of free discussion among a community of professionals during a volatile political time.

The woman who wrote the initial response to my post about McCain finally wrote that she was withdrawing from the conversation – that she hadn’t meant to incite “World War III” and would no longer share her thoughts with this group.

I wonder if I would have posted such a response if I were still teaching. Interesting the woman who objected to my post teaches at the school where I taught for ten years before retiring. How would this whole thing have played out had we had to see each other every day and teach the same students?

Would I have been able to refrain from making comments about McCain’s cynical choice of a female running mate? Would I have been able to refrain from sharing my own story of how my father abandoned my mother with 3 small children and left us to fend for ourselves and that I think those kinds of decisions in a person’s life DO matter and DO show what they are made of.

Can one teach with integrity if one must hide her deepest most sacred values of fairness and honesty and her disdain for hypocrisy and rhetorical manipulation?

Today as the election has become even more heated and dirty than it was less than a month ago, I am relieved for the moment that I am not in the classroom and can feel free to express myself.

SNCC: White Privilege and the Election

Essay by Tim Wise

For those who still can’t grasp the concept of white privilege, or who are
constantly looking for some easy-to-understand examples of it, perhaps this list
will help.

White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and
everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal
matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because “every
family has challenges,” even as black and Latino families with similar
“challenges” are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters
of social decay.

White privilege is when you can call yourself a “fuckin’ redneck,” like Bristol
Palin’s boyfriend does, and talk about how if anyone messes with you, you’ll
“kick their fuckin’ ass,” and talk about how you like to “shoot shit” for fun,
and still be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great son-in-law
to be) rather than a thug.

White privilege is when you can attend four different colleges in six years like
Sarah Palin did (one of which you basically failed out of, then returned to
after making up some coursework at a community college), and no one questions
your intelligence or commitment to achievement, whereas a person of color who
did this would be viewed as unfit for college, and probably someone who only got
in the first place because of affirmative action.

White privilege is when you can claim that being mayor of a town smaller than
most medium-sized colleges, and then Governor of a state with about the same
number of people as the lower fifth of the island of Manhattan, makes you ready
to potentially be president, and people don’t all piss on themselves with
laughter, while being a black U.S. Senator, two-term state Senator, and
constitutional law scholar, means you’re “untested.”

White privilege is being able to say that you support the words “under God” in
the pledge of allegiance because “if it was good enough for the founding
fathers, it’s good enough for me,” and not be immediately disqualified from
holding office–since, after all, the pledge was written in the late 1800s and
the “under God” part wasn’t added until the 1950s–while believing that reading
accused criminals and terrorists their rights (because, ya know, the
Constitution, which you used to teach at a prestigious law school requires it),
is a dangerous and silly idea only supported by mushy liberals.

White privilege is being able to be a gun enthusiast and not make people
immediately scared of you.

White privilege is being able to have a husband who was a member of an extremist
political party that wants your state to secede from the Union, and whose motto
was “Alaska first,” and no one questions your patriotism or that of your family,
while if you’re black and your spouse merely fails to come to a 9/11 memorial so
she can be home with her kids on the first day of school, people immediately
think she’s being disrespectful.

White privilege is being able to make fun of community organizers and the work
they do–like, among other things, fight for the right of women to vote, or for
civil rights, or the 8-hour workday, or an end to child labor–and people think
you’re being pithy and tough, but if you merely question the experience of a
small town mayor and 18-month governor with no foreign policy expertise beyond a
class she took in college–you’re somehow being mean, or even sexist.

White privilege is being able to convince white women who don’t even agree with
you on any substantive issue to vote for you and your running mate anyway,
because all of a sudden your presence on the ticket has inspired confidence in
these same white women, and made them give your party a “second look.”

White privilege is being able to fire people who didn’t support your political
campaigns and not be accused of abusing your power or being a typical politician
who engages in favoritism, while being black and merely knowing some folks from
the old-line political machines in Chicago means you must be corrupt.

White privilege is being able to attend churches over the years whose pastors
say that people who voted for John Kerry or merely criticize George W. Bush are
going to hell, and that the U.S. is an explicitly Christian nation and the job
of Christians is to bring Christian theological principles into government, and
who bring in speakers who say the conflict in the Middle East is God’s
punishment on Jews for rejecting Jesus, and everyone can still think you’re just
a good churchgoing Christian, but if you’re black and friends with a black
pastor who has noted (as have Colin Powell and the U.S. Department of Defense)
that terrorist attacks are often the result of U.S. foreign policy and who talks
about the history of racism and its effect on black people, you’re an extremist
who probably hates America.

White privilege is not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is when asked by a
reporter, and then people get angry at the reporter for asking you such a “trick
question,” while being black and merely refusing to give one-word answers to the
queries of Bill O’Reilly means you’re dodging the question, or trying to seem
overly intellectual and nuanced.

White privilege is being able to claim your experience as a POW has anything at
all to do with your fitness for president, while being black and experiencing
racism is, as Sarah Palin has referred to it a “light” burden.

And finally, white privilege is the only thing that could possibly allow someone
to become president when he has voted with George W. Bush 90 percent of the
time, even as unemployment is skyrocketing, people are losing their homes,
inflation is rising, and the U.S. is increasingly isolated from world opinion,
just because white voters aren’t sure about that whole “change” thing. Ya know,
it’s just too vague and ill-defined, unlike, say, four more years of the same,
which is very concrete and certain.

White privilege is, in short, the problem.

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