An Agenda for Occupy Wall Street

Published: The Newark Star-Ledger (October 14, 2011)

The pundits are claiming that Occupy Wall Street lacks a coherent agenda. I have one for them that can be summed up in two words: Rebuild America.

Although Occupy Wall Street’s anger has been targeted at the American plutocracy (a term best defined by Theodore Roosevelt as “government by men very powerful in certain lines and gifted with the ‘money touch,’ but with ideals which in their essence are merely those of so many glorified pawnbrokers”), it would be a mistake to assume, as many right-wingers have done, that this movement is driven by a desire to wage war against a particular class. People are taking to the streets not because they wish to punish the wealthy for being successful, but because the working class is being deprived of the opportunity to achieve similar success.

Millions of Americans are struggling desperately to obtain full-time work at a living wage, finding again and again that the jobs they need don’t exist. The argument that putting more money in the pockets of big business and the wealthy creates jobs has been discredited by the fact that both groups are richer than ever before while unemployment remains chronically high. At a time when so much of our infrastructure is crumbling and so many nascent industries are calling out for cultivation, the obvious answer is an ambitious government program that invests money in developing our nation while simultaneously putting people back to work. Because such an endeavor would cost a great deal and America can’t afford to further increase its dangerously large deficit, the only fiscally sound way for this to happen would be to raise taxes on the wealthy. Unfortunately, a seemingly impenetrable coalition of libertarians and conservatives, buttressed by the strong financial backing of plutocrats like the Koch brothers, is preventing such tax increases from being implemented.

This is where Occupy Wall Street has stepped in, and this is why I propose that their agenda consist of three parts:
Related coverage:

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1) They should define their cause around the passage of the American Jobs Act. For one thing, it is far more difficult to propose new measures than it is to exert pressure behind initiatives that already exist. What’s more, this is a bill that would actually go a long way toward fulfilling many of America’s needs. It would invest billions in construction projects and infrastructure improvements, thus strengthening our society while lowering unemployment, as well as protect the jobs of our teachers, police officers, and firefighters and expand the private sector workforce by making it illegal for businesses to discriminate against the unemployed.

2) Republicans and tea party members claim that infrastructural programs are both socialistic and fail to create jobs. Because history proves the lie to such assertions, it is vital for Occupy Wall Street to wield this tool to its advantage. It must be pointed out that programs such as the ones they propose have a distinguished history in America, tracing back to the origins of our republic and being supported by presidents like George Washington (the Post Office Act of 1792), Abraham Lincoln (the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862), Franklin Roosevelt (the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935), and Dwight Eisenhower (the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956). On each occasion these programs were remarkably successful at not only employing large swathes of the population, but at developing our nation and increasing its prestige in the world community. Even Obama’s stimulus bills accomplished more than their critics wish to acknowledge. Although unemployment had been rising at a catastrophic rate of 0.4 percent per month between the month of the Wall Street meltdown (September 2008, when it was at 6.2 percent) and the month Obama’s policies could take effect (May 2009, when it reached 9.4 percent), it stabilized between 9.4 and 10.1 percent as a result of the first stimulus bill. After Obama attached a second stimulus to the Bush tax cut extensions, it fell to between 8.8 and 9.4 percent, where it has remained ever since.”

3) They must work to reelect Barack Obama. While many of the criticisms of his presidency are legitimate, it is clear that he is trying to define the election of 2012 around the American Jobs Act. If he is defeated, there can be no doubt that whichever Republican replaces him – be it Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, or anyone else – will oppose not only that specific bill but all other internal improvement measures that follow the tradition of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. If Obama wins, on the other hand, the fact that his victory will have been built around job-creating internal improvements will compel him to push for that agenda. This is a rare perfect storm of political opportunity, and Occupy Wall Street should take advantage of it.

Because we live in a culture that focuses on sound bytes instead of sophisticated arguments, even a movement as admirably diverse as Occupy Wall Street needs to find a simple way of summing up its position. While many of the current slogans are effective, there is one that truly captures not only the spirit of the movement, but the policies which it should support.

That slogan, once again, can be summed up in two words: Rebuild America.

Matthew Rozsa is a graduate student in history at Rutgers University-Newark. He will be starting a doctoral program in history at Lehigh University in January.

Civil Rights History in High School Education

Published: The Express Times (October 3, 2011)

Can you identify the source of this quote?

“We conclude that in the field of public education separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

If you can’t, don’t worry. Not even today’s high school students are expected to know that it came from the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In fact, when 12,000 12-graders last year took the National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. History Exam, all they were asked to do was identify school segregation as the problem being addressed in that passage.

It didn’t matter. Even after being given several hints (including extra sentences from the excerpt and the detail that it had been written in 1954), only 2 percent of the test-takers could provide a correct answer.

Unfortunately, a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center made it clear that this is hardly an isolated instance of historical ignorance. As the report points out, “across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history.”

And before you go about laying the blame below the Mason-Dixon Line, the reality is that the South far surpasses any other section of the country when it comes to this subject, with nine of the 12 states that scored the highest in civil rights history coming from the former Confederacy. New Jersey, on the other hand, received a score of 15 percent on civil rights topics, earning it an ‘F.’ Pennsylvania’s ‘F’ was even more embarrassing, as it came with an abysmal score of zero.

Perhaps the most obvious problem with this widespread ignorance of civil rights history is that it neglects to recognize a large and important segment of the American community. With more than one-eighth of our population either wholly or partially of African ancestry, it is inexcusable for such a critical aspect of the black experience to be so inadequately taught.

What’s worse, a lack of understanding about the civil rights movement ultimately devalues the importance of race in other areas of our history.

For example, race impacted the debates at the Constitutional Convention (causing slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person when assigning congressmen), shaped regional economies during the antebellum period (causing the South to remain agrarian while the North was industrialized), gave birth to the Republican Party (as a vehicle for opposing the expansion of slavery), and, more than a century later, helped the GOP win social conservatives by nominating candidates who opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, including Barry Goldwater (who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional) and Ronald Reagan (who denounced the Voting Rights Act as “humiliating to the South”).

This dearth of historical knowledge also has far deeper social implications. In the absence of a more sophisticated understanding of civil rights history, Americans have been left with a simplistic “Hollywood” fairy tale, one in which the racists of the past are so blatant in their villainy that most of us can rest comfortably with the knowledge that no one outside of a fringe group could hold similar views today.

When the word “racist” is used to conjure up grotesque caricatures instead of flesh-and-blood human beings, then it becomes all too easy for people to insist that the term for such a bogeyman can’t possibly apply to police officers who racially profile African-Americans, shopkeepers who instruct their employees to trail black customers, and tea partyers whose intense hatred for our first black president is unusual even for the normally superheated world of American politics.

Until we remember that the racists of the past were men and women who – though willing to picket a desegregated school, cast a ballot for George Wallace, or raise hell when a black family moved into their neighborhood – were for the most part no better or worse than the rest of us, we will always be susceptible to repeating their mistakes.

Of course, this isn’t to say that race is the only area of history in which the public’s knowledge is woefully limited. From the religious right-wingers who claim America was founded as a Christian nation (and thus ignore Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists and Letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, as well as James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments) to the radicals of all stripes who wear the Guy Fawkes mask from “V for Vendetta” (without knowing that Fawkes’s goal was to create a Catholic theocracy in England), ignorance of the past can be seen in almost every aspect of our political life.

That said, because racism remains such a serious problem in America today, improving our knowledge of the civil rights movement seems like a particularly good place to begin correcting this deficiency.

Matthew Rozsa, who resides in Forks Township, is a graduate student at Rutgers University-Newark and will begin Lehigh University’s Ph.D. program in history in January. He can be reached at matt.rozsa@gmail.com.

Rick Santorum and Gay Rights

Published: The Morning Call (October 2, 2011)

In a recent interview with Politico, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum issued a scathing denunciation of Google. “If you’re a responsible business,” he remarked, “you don’t let things like that happen in your business that have an impact on the country.”

One might expect such strong words to be reserved for the greatest rascals of American capitalism – you know, like the Wall Street firms whose chicanery plunged our nation into its current economic mess, or perhaps the corporate executives who throw hardworking employees onto the unemployment rolls instead of accepting modest cuts to their own massive salaries. What could Google have done to provoke such a condemnation from the erstwhile senator?

To answer that question, one must look back to 2003, when an Associated Press reporter asked Santorum why he opposed gay rights:

“We have laws in states, like the one at the Supreme Court right now (a reference to Lawrence v. Texas), that has sodomy laws and they were there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, they (homosexuals) undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.”

And again:

“In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

While Santorum may think saying he only wants to protect family and marriage conceals the hatefulness of his views, history reveals that most advocates of oppression have come up with excuses for their prejudices. When Grover Cleveland spoke out against the right of women to vote, he claimed that he was motivated not by sexism, but by a desire to protect “the characters of the wives and mothers of our land.” Similarly, when George Wallace fought against integration, he spoke for millions of segregationists when he dismissed charges of racism as “fantasy” and insisted that they opposed civil rights measures because they would lead to “the destruction of the Constitution and our nation.”

In other words, Santorum wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activist Dan Savage, who decided that it was time to strike back against the bullies. Using humor as his weapon, he declared “Santorum” to be a new word and held a contest to see who could come up with the funniest definition. Thousands of submissions were considered, and when a winner was finally selected, a website was created to solidify its place in the American lexicon.

Because of its unprintable nature, I can’t tell you what definition Savage ultimately chose. Suffice to say that it became very popular, was viewed by millions of people, and has thus became the No. 1 hit whenever a Google search is conducted for “Santorum.”

That brings me back to the recent interview, in which Santorum demanded that Google exempt him from its search engine’s algorithm so that attention might be drawn away from Savage’s website. There is a comic irony in seeing a man who — though quick to brandish a laissez-faire philosophy when opposing regulations on businesses that would protect workers and consumers — doesn’t hesitate to call for interfering with the practices of one particular business because it is allowing him to be ridiculed.

In a way, this symbolizes one of the defining hypocrisies of the modern Republican Party, which supports the principle of “small government” when it is politically beneficial (such as by serving the financial self-interests of the base of rich donors referred to by George W. Bush as the “have mores”) but abandons it as soon as that is no longer the case (like when it angers homophobes). While Santorum may be unusually obnoxious, the sad truth is that his views on gay rights aren’t far removed from those held by most of his fellow GOPers. Even as we celebrate the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Santorum incident is a sobering reminder that we still have a long way to go.

Matthew Rozsa of Forks Township is a graduate student at Rutgers University-Newark and will begin Lehigh University’s doctoral program in history in January.