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January 1999, Volume 6 Nr. 5, Issue 65

Politics

I admit it. Contrary to the acquired wisdom of the past few decades or so, I smoke a good cigar from time-to-time. It is one of my small pleasures in life, to occasionally visit the folks at the "Pipestudio" in Manchester. Elliott Nachwalter is proprietor of the Vermont Northshire’s first and only fine cigar emporium with a walk-in humidor.

Fine stogies from the world over can be found in a large room where almost a half-dozen cigar aficionados can simultaneously and comfortably peruse the finest broad leaf hand-made tobacco products. There are Punch Rothschilds, La Fleur Dominica Jocko Perfecto natural and maduro, Indios Puros, Havachi, etc., brands. I take some small pride in having introduced Elliott to the Jocko Perfecto which has become a very popular cigar.

Once in a while I splurge and buy a Cohiba. These pricey long leaf filler tobacco cigars hand-made in the world famous Cuban tradition, alas, do not come from Cuba. Even the name "Cohiba", Cuba’s most famous, has been expropriated and resettled in other countries such as the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras. Dozens, if not hundreds, of cigar brands and labels routinely smoked by pin-striped men of corporate persuasion proudly display some pseudo-Cuban connection. Perhaps, it is sheik for capitalists to smoke commie-inspired stogies?

The truth is that while I live in the "freest" country on Earth I cannot enter Elliott’s store and purchase a fine Cuban cigar. Cuban cigars are in fact, stogies-non-grata in the United States. They are contraband. That is, it is illegal to sell or otherwise be in possession of Cuban cigars. To import, carry or heaven forbid, smoke a real Habanos is to defile the Cuban Democracy Act by trading with the enemy or giving its economy the benefit of the free enterprise system. Are not the working and the wonders of the free market a thing of beauty to behold?

Everyone who knows the least bit about fine cigars also knows how to acquire a Cuban. They are of course available in Mexico, Canada, the Bahamas, etc. Who would have thought that Canadians, for example, would have freedoms to exceed those of United States Citizens. Then again, they do have universal health care. This issue however, is not about cigars. It is about politics.

A Few Moments

On the last day of the first work week of the last year of the 20th century I was having a conversation about Cuban cigars in a connecting hallway between two buildings on our high school campus. There were four of us. Shortly into the conversation about the availability of Jesse Helm’s most despised symbol of Socialism and Bill Clinton’s accessory to crime, a colleague made mention that it had taken me only a few minutes to shift the conversation from cigars to politics. It only seemed natural when talking about Cuban cigars to talk about Cuba. And, it is difficult to talk about Cuba without talking about politics. Perhaps, it is difficult to talk about anything without being political.

People go out of their way in their attempt to avoid politics (or so they think). As a consequence, conversations become shallow, little exchange of opposing opinion takes place and opportunities to learn from one another are abrogated by the non-indulgence into the possibly controversial. Many people somehow convince themselves that by not talking politics they are distancing themselves from it.

In our New Age-inspired, modern, need to feel good and not make others feel bad or uncomfortable world, we pretend that our relationships with each other are sterile, so sterile as to not infect and more importantly, so as not to be infected. We become politically antiseptic and irrelevant.

Blowhards

There is, however, no such thing as being non-political. To be non-political is, well, a political act. To not act politically is to be metaphorically speaking, dead, for the personal is the political, and the political is the personal. The only way to truly become non-political is to die, to cease to exist, to not have the capability of affecting a room of people by the mere act of walking into it for the added presence of one more human being alters the dynamics and quality of reality ever so slightly by their mere presence.

The human brain is an incredible computer, often running on auto-pilot acting unconsciously. As such, the central processing of the cerebrum, cerebellum and medulla oblongata along with the senses produces a CPU like input-processing-output cycle. Entering a room is to be seen. Seeing is input and the one seeing is affected and responds. The often unconscious recognition of the new player in the room alters the perceiver in subtle ways that affect demeanor, thinking, attitude, posture, position and policy. It may, and often does, elicit an internal dialogue with the self regarding the intruder. Thus, to be alive is to be political. Welcome to the political world of life. To deny being political is to negate life and its potential and possibility. It is to be numb.

An even more important question revolving around avoidance of the political is, what are we protecting ourselves from? Why do we hide under the facade of do nice and rock no boats when, hard as we try, we cannot obliterate from ourselves the fact that the world is not always nice, and, that the boat we are in is traversing stormy waters? We may ignore foul weather, nor take other action, but, that does not mean that we will not be affected.

Nina Eliasoph, in her book "Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life", presents a fascinating and well-done study of Americans (who as an anonymous amazon.com reviewer describes) swallow apathy "as a product, rather than a default mode." Eliasoph,

...shows, convincingly, how the dynamics within groups vitiates any substantive political conversation, and even steers conversation to the lowest common denominator, rewarding blowhards.

Perhaps, Eliasoph has something here. In my daily encounters within my professional teaching life I am more apt to hear conversation regarding the weather than the illegal bombing of Iraq or about sports than the imploding world system of capitalist finance (and the impending effect on the participants 401K plans). It is as if we have purchased the well inculcated package that to be apathetic is somehow to be America, that to constantly entertain ourselves even in the smallest ways in place of thinking or being involved with the big picture is to be part of the "now generation" where we perpetually "deserve a break today." How sad.

Thus, the trivia blowhards revel in their apathy, talking about the weather with the utmost confidence that every day will have some. Their conversations could easily become part of the script for the movie "Groundhog Day" where everyday is February 2 - all to the rejoicing of the status quo in power who have through creative advertising sold them the product of apathy as a rewarding neo-feel-good substitute for action.

Eliasoph further suggests that apathy requires much energy and much attention to the ever present changing situation in order to trigger a personal defensive and non-political response (which in reality is just as, if not more, political). It may, in fact, be less political to be consciously political.

Educators as Politicians

Educators might not want to believe it but, teachers are politicians. For example, slamming a student for being a few seconds late to class is, though unpopular, acting politically. It is adhering to established policy. Allowing students some leeway in entering a class after the late bell without penalty is not only breaking the rules but, acting politically by setting differing policy. Altering policy is acting politically. I often wonder how colleagues who let their students in late, while I take the heat from mine who seldom get away with it, reconcile acting politically in the classroom with then avoiding politics in the larger world? Is it a matter of adopting personal preference politics whenever suitable? Or, is it selective recognition of the political based upon an absence of other than comfortable or controllable possibility. It is one thing to act politically when one has control, status, skill or knowledge over other. It is another when one does not.

Many educators see administrators as people who have control over them. For the politically timid, this prevents goods ideas from coming forward, often, precisely, at the time when they are most required. Better to not rock the boat than to fall out.

Neil Postman writing in his new book, "Technopoly" claims that the technological and the traditional world are at odds with each other with the former much stronger than the latter. Postman writes,

Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy...Will the widespread use of computers in the classroom defeat once and for all the claims of communal speech? Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of virtue?

Imagine, if you will, in any secondary school in America who has adopted technology on a massive (including financial) scale, the raising of a voice in opposing in order to protect and reinforce the traditional. Such boat rocking is quite intimidating and hardly likely to take place by the politically avoiding. It is, however, desirable and necessary. Thus, it will most likely be, the almost-always political individual who will dare to speak, the one often labeled as radical or subversive.

Neil Postman rocked the boat. In "Teaching as a Subversive Activity" and "The End of Education" he encourages and shows us how. He imagines aloud and politically heralds what schools could be about. He says,

What this means is that at its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living. Such an enterprise is not easy to pursue, since our politicians rarely speak of it, our technology is indifferent to it,
and our commerce despises it.

And, I might ad, our present-day teaching stays away from it like the plague. The water is, after all, wet, overboard.

Postman suggests three gods which have acquired allegiance within our schools. They are,

  • Economic utility: students are to acquire the skills to make money while in school.
  • Consumerism: accumulate the toys, keep the economy going by adhering to buy, buy and buy!
  • Technology: if it’s there, use it, and then, get some more.
  • Separatism: guarantees cultural exclusivity.

The latter is obvious to me in the rare conversations that I have with coworkers who are more than ready to casually bomb Baghdad or commit troops to Kossovo while not being able to find either on a map nor have any knowledge of their respective history, culture or suffering. But, I might add, they know well the statistics of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. Let’s talk about that.

When it Suites Us

My teaching career spans 28 years. During that time I have taught in the military (US Navy), a Catholic high school, a public junior high school and a private independent high school. In those almost three-decades, the topic of vouchers has surfaced from time-to-time. Never has the topic however, been so often discussed and debated as now. Since I presently teach in a private and independent school it is amazing to see how many of my colleagues support vouchers. When I taught in the public schools most opposed vouchers. Most of my friends who presently work in public schools or who send their children to them are also opposed to vouchers. These proclaimed unpolitical folk easily join the ranks of the political when their vested interest is at stake only to drop out when it suits them for either reasons of discomfort or disinterest. This suggests, however, that their being non-political is disingenuous at best and selectively self-deceptive at the least.

All of this simply returns to the original premise that hard as we try we cannot escape the perhaps unpleasant conclusion that if we breathe we are being political. We breathe someone else’s polluted or clean air depending upon the other’s activities, laws or situation in proximity to our own. Our paycheck is affected by someone else’s thinking, action or decisions. Our children’s lives are affected by whether we vote, whom we vote for and for whom we choose to volunteer our time and activism in order to elect, or for that matter, for whom we choose to do nothing. Our smile or lack thereof, is political. Our politics is not a matter of choice, but, rather, a matter of degree. The energy spent to futilly avoid being political would be much better spent embracing the political in an attempt at making the world a better place through discussion, dialogue, debate, action and yes, disagreement.

It is always the few, who through their activism, affect the many. It is always the many who do little or nothing who complain the most. Activism is socially responsible living. Rosa Parks was an activist. Look at what she accomplished, one individual ready, prepared and able to rock the boat. Activists create tools for building new paradigms. This is what Rosa did. Those who complain or who are unhappy are more apt to realize alternatives through working toward the implementation of new paradigms, of working for change.

The Internet activism homepage [http://www.connix.com/~harry/ activism.htm] declares,

Learning is cornerstone to rethinking society... Oppression is not something that is forced upon a people by a nameless, faceless government. Oppression is the deliberate result of the individual actions of individuals acting in the name of the state.

Oppression is the status quo that develops because too many good people remain uninvolved under the guise of being non-political. This oppression is further taught through the purchased apathy of educators who accept the trinkets of capitalism’s and pseudo-feudalism’s perks while touting the merits of the system, a system whose adherents are ever so vocal at claiming is quickly sinking. To these smug fellowmen I offer the option: if one is to get wet as a consequence of a sinking ship or of falling out of a rocking boat then, why not rock the boat? The former is a sure route to having to swim while the latter just might cause those responsible for sinking the ship to fall overboard in our place.

Patriotism

Patriotism is the action that rocks the boat. Rosa Parks was a patriotic woman. Patriotism is not the lump in the throat that develops when the flag goes by and the jets fly overhead when the national anthem is being played. Patriotism is not, "America - love it or leave it." Rather, it is, "America - change it or lose it." Emma Goldman wrote,

We Americans claim to be a peace-loving people. We hate bloodshed; we are opposed to violence. Yet we go into spasms of joy over the possibility of projecting dynamite bombs from flying machines upon helpless citizens. We are ready to hang, electrocute, or lynch anyone, who, from economic necessity, will risk his own life in the attempt upon that of some industrial magnate. Yet our hearts swell with pride at the thought that America is becoming the most powerful nation on earth, and that it will eventually plant her iron foot on the necks of all other nations.

In the Persian Gulf War of 1991 most Americans felt it patriotic to display a yellow ribbon in support of the war. A few refused and protested and in turn were ostracized by their friends, family and coworkers. Today, we know that our government lied about many aspects of that war including the cause of Gulf War syndrome which has adversely affected the lives of tens of thousands of our soldiers and killed many more in Iraq. Was the war necessary?

Today, on an almost daily basis, people, mostly children are dying in Iraq. Is it patriotic to let that happen? Is it patriotic to blame a dictator whom we put into power in the first place and supported for many years without taking responsibility? I don’t think so. Patriotism is saying "no" to the patriots who manipulate us with the lump in our throats and the institutionalized numbness to death toll figures and statistics.

Habanos

Habanos is the name given to a good Cuban Havana cigar. Someday, I will walk into Elliott Nachwalter’s Pipe Studio cigar emporium and I will buy a Habanos cigar. When that day comes, the Cuban people (regardless of what many Americans may think of their government) will, hopefully, no longer be the subjected to the longest and immoral economic and war-like blockade ever imposed against a people by a superpower. The way to achieve that is through action. This is the course necessary for any oppression to be lifted. Though cigars are a trivial issue, the underlying politics preventing their purchase are not. Thus, silence is oppressive and is, politics as usual. It is time to change that.

Quotes

(Activists) These are the people that in the end will bring victory for sanity and common sense in our accommodation to the world that surrounds us.

  • Rachel Carson

Patriotism, is the last resort of scoundrels.

  • Dr. Johnson

My definition of a free country, the right to feel safe while being unpopular.

  • Adlai Stevenson

If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.

  • James Madison

My idea of an agreeable person is a person who agrees with me.

  • Benjamin Franklin

What a waste it is to lose one's mind, or not to have a mind...how true that is.

  • Dan Quayle

The great mass of people . . . will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.

  • Adolf Hitler

The United States has much to offer the third world war.

  • Ronald Reagan

Bibliography

Avoiding Politics : How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (Cambridge Cultural Social Studies). 
[http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/052158759X/o/ qid=919001854/sr=2-1/002- 6435312-6945247
]

Goldman, Emma. Patriotism, A Menace to Liberty. Internet. 
[http://metalab.unc.edu/cmc/mag/1995/ mar/hyper/npcontexts_119.html]

Kaplan. Nancy. Computer Mediated Communications Magazine. "What Neil Postman Has to Say..." 
[http://metalab.unc.edu/cmc/mag/1995/mar/hyper/ npcontexts_119.html]

Stedman, L. Book Reviews. "The End of Education by Neil Postman."
[http://laplaza.org/~lan/ended.html]

1999 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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