For What It’s Worth

What have I been up to, nobody asks? For an hour or so yesterday morning, here’s where I was:

The protest took place across the street (in an Approved Protest Zone, natch) from this:

The “grand opening” of this $200-something-million dollar building–planned on the promise of state funding that largely never materialized (the absence of which necessitated a giant loan that drove up the cost of the building considerably) and with hopes that it will be a model of the kind of partnership with business that is supposed to save universities from the precipitous loss of state funding (a decline actually only made steeper by privatization, but that’s another conversation)–provided the occasion to protest a just-expired-with-no-request-from-upper-administration-for-the-board-to-vote-on-an-extension classroom mask mandate: no masks and no vaccination requirement in the middle of a pandemic does not exactly seem like Precision Health. Of course, stuck far across the street thanks to rules restricting protest created after the campus protests of 2015 got nationwide attention and not the good kind, the Coalition of Graduate Workers and a few fellow travelers were easily ignored by the administrators, state politicians, and local businesspeople celebrating this future white elephant, back-slapping while they schmoozed on the grave of public higher education.

The state politicians who were asked to stand and be recognized would not characterize the occasion in this way, just as the members of the administration and the local business community wouldn’t. Who wouldn’t support advances in medicine (though of course many of them didn’t)? What could be better than private support, for everything, always? And many of them would hear the protests and commentary such as this, should it ever reach them, as ingratitude and disloyalty and more evidence of why, as in 2015, faculty and students can’t be trusted to have a say in the way public universities are run. And not a few of those would have feelings best expressed by some of the vocally disapproving who drove by, including the young gentleman who gunned his engine after shouting “this isn’t California” at us and the slightly older truck driver who tossed his paper mask out the window with a laugh. The politics that have contaminated public health and resulted in untold additional unnecessary deaths and long-term illness, like the politics that have so harmed the standing of higher education and the treatment of workers–this way of seeing the world, this morphing of the already unjust country-club conservatism into the deadly far right we have today–has become a pandemic. And if it doesn’t kill us, there’s no escaping that we will be seeing long-term effects.

Among these effects we can count last week’s passage of a bill that would effectively gut tenure in the Georgia state system and the new addition to the collected rules and regulations of the Missouri system, snuck in under cover of the alleged COVID-caused need for pay cuts, that essentially strips away the protections of tenure. We can also count the astroturf “movement” noisily imposing itself in state houses and school boards across the country, fighting against critical race theory, which they don’t understand and don’t care to, as long as they can paint those who want to teach the unsightly history of race in this country as, well, disloyal ingrates.

I wrote this tweet the other day, thinking not of my university administration’s decision not to protect its workers and students because (we are left to assume) the political cost would be too great but of all of the other ways in which the educational and scholarly missions of higher ed were being undermined and faculty pointing that out were being made to feel disloyal and ungrateful:

For what it’s worth, the same goes for countries. (And, as was pointed out to me, this is true for students and alumni, staff and retirees, librarians and university press workers.) Under the current ideological undertow we’re experiencing, in which the outgoing tide of the far right attempts to pull us under as it goes, there’s no such thing as loyal dissent. “If you don’t like it here, leave” is somehow still a thing people think and say. What if we said, with patience but with volume, If you love it here and don’t like what’s happening, work to change it. If you value the university and its workers and feel they are being undervalued and mistreated, fight for them. If you love the country and don’t like what it’s becoming, fight for it. We can say these things. We should say them as often as we can, in public. We should speak up for public goods–for public education, not just higher but primary and secondary. We should speak up for all of the things that should be public goods–health, education, workers’ rights. Because really, it, all of it, is about public health in the end.

Signs

Tonight a neighbor sent a group text to say that she had been out walking her dog and had seen an unfamiliar pickup truck drive up and down our dead-end street, removing Black Lives Matter signs from the front yards. A number of us texted back that our signs were gone. One neighbor’s front-door camera captured a short movie of the truck rolling down the street while somebody ran from sign to sign, pulling them out of the lawns. The neighbor who’d seen this happen was rattled–it was later in the evening, the street was dark–and I imagine we all were, hearing about it. When I went outside to check on our sign, I walked up and down the street, and I don’t know what I expected to see, but everything looked different.

Last night at my city’s school board meeting, the agenda for which included a vote on extending the mask mandate, the board president had to ask police to clear their meeting room after the board’s rules of decorum for public comment were violated. The woman whose behavior led to the meeting being stopped is anti-vaccine and anti-mask, as her frequent comments on the city health department’s social media posts have made plain. She’s captured on the livestream of the meeting wearing a thin blue line t-shirt and a Trump mask. On local radio this morning she repeatedly claimed that she was being “silenced.” Her shirt and mask spoke volumes.

Not to put too fine a point on it: these events are signs of the times. The country is falling apart. The worst president we’ve had could be back in the White House in four years, if he’s not in jail. There are governors who are mandating that there be no mandates in their states, trading the safety of their constituents for their votes. It’s just a few feet of ground in the culture war the GOP is fighting nationwide, from the Capitol to local school boards. Schoolteachers are being told they can’t teach the history of race in the country. Texans are being deputized to arrest fellow Texans if they exercise their right to make their own reproductive health care decisions. The battles in this war are less and less tactical and more and more scorched earth. It’s far from inconceivable that the peaceful transfer of power will be a casualty, and with it, our democracy.

Signs matter. In times like this, they matter even more. Two strangers came on my street tonight and stole my sign out of my yard, and did it up and down the block. This isn’t just an annoyance or even a disconcerting violation of my property. In the words of the woman who disrupted the school board meeting, it’s an attempt to silence. I know that people on both sides of the cultural divide (I was going to say widening cultural divide, but I don’t actually think that’s true) have signs that proclaim their beliefs, and that many on both sides believe that what their signs say is correct. I also know that, despite the disingenuous cries of cancel culture, the right in this country wields the rhetoric of silencing far more frequently and viciously than the left, and that it’s not just a tactic, it’s the point. The Attorney General of my state would like to make the teaching of whatever he wants to pretend is critical race theory illegal. He’s sending a signal to voters that he’ll work to silence the voices talking about race in America, in the past and the present.

Some see yard signs and t-shirts and bumper stickers as empty gestures, signals of virtue but hardly action. The shadowy figures seen in my neighbor’s front-door camera recording must think otherwise or they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of stealing our signs. Just like the neighbor who just texted us to ask if anybody knows where to buy more signs so we can get them back up.