Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Death of Why?: An Interview With Author Andrea Batista Schlesinger

The phrase “knowledge is power” is a cliché in our culture. Yet as often as we hear it from others or speak it ourselves, how often have we contemplated the process of acquiring knowledge? Is there a blueprint for obtaining knowledge and wisdom? Are we encouraging children to be intellectually curious or merely teaching them that every question has an instant and obvious answer?

In her book, The Death of Why?: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy (Berrett-Kohler Publishers), New York City policy expert Andrea Batista Schlesinger writes that,
“Why is the first question most children ask. With this question we express, to the delight and chagrin of our parents, our power.

In my life, questions have always been power. Asking them enabled me to overcome the challenges I faced as a young woman sitting at tables where I didn’t automatically belong.”
Although only thirty-two, Schlesinger has operated in the arena of policy debates locally in New York City and nationally for over a decade. Since 2002, Schlesinger has applied her background in public policy, politics, and communications to transform the Drum Major Institute (“DMI”) into a progressive policy think tank with national impact. During her tenure as Executive Director, DMI created its Marketplace of Ideas series which highlights successful progressive policies from across the country and launched two public policy blogs that reach several thousand readers a day; and embarked on a national program to nurture careers in public policy for college students from underrepresented communities.

Recently, Schlesinger took a leave of absence from DMI to serve as a senior policy adviser to the re-election campaign of New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg – a decision that is controversial among New York City liberals like myself. Prior to joining DMI, Schlesinger directed a national Pew Charitable Trusts campaign to engage college students in discussion about the future of Social Security and served as the education adviser to Bronx borough president and mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer.

The one life lesson Schlesinger has learned above all others in her career and promotes passionately her book is that questions equals power. It is Schlesinger’s contention that our culture promotes instant answers at the expense of inquiring.

With this book, Schlesinger has four primary objectives:

1) Convince readers of the importance of inquiry in our democracy;

2) Illustrate how the very institutions that should be encouraging inquiry such as schools, the media, and government, the Internet are instead undermining intellectual curiosity in our society;

3) Inspire readers with hopeful examples of people working to restore inquiry to its rightful place of importance;

4) Convey a sense of urgency among citizens to develop effective “habits of the mind” and not be easily seduced by instant easy sound bite answers to complex challenges such as global warming.

Death of Why, is a well researched and scrupulously sourced eleven chapters and 215 pages of text. Where Schlesinger’s book is especially provocative is when she takes bloggers like me to task for engaging in robotic group-think and avoiding engagement with people possessing different viewpoints.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said that,
"The road to wisdom is asking 'why'? Andrea Batista Schlesinger has been asking 'why?" and supplying her own bright and thoughtful answers for long enough so that some of us suggested she write a book. It's foruntate for all of us that her answer was 'why not!'"
The publisher of The Nation, Kathleen vanden Heuvel added that,
"From her start in politics as a teenager Andrea Batista Schlesinger has asked the important questions. Now she asks her most important: are we teaching young people to value inquiry, and if not, what hope can we have for the future of democracy?"
Schlesinger graciously agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me this afternoon about her book. She was engaging and assertive in a conversation that was just over forty-six minutes. Among the topics discussed and debated is her contention that we’re ideologically segregated, her argument that the Internet has reinforced a destructive group think mentality in our society, her advocacy for civics education and objection to teaching “financial literacy” in public schools and we closed by discussing her decision to join Mayor Bloomberg’s re-election campaign as a senior policy adviser.

Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes Store by either searching for the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Ultimate Organizer: An Interview With ACORN's Founder Wade Rathke

It seems no matter which political party in America holds the majority, a Washington/Wall Street corporate centric axis dominates policy making. Indeed, Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin recently observed that banks, “Frankly Own the Place.” Among liberal-progressive activists like myself, this condition has facilitated a confrontational mindset.

Our experience suggests that the power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few will not be voluntarily relinquished. Hence, everything from healthcare reform to bankruptcy protection for aggrieved homeowners is perceived by many of us as a high stakes pitched battle between struggling families and feculent corporate behemoths. Although activism has certainly facilitated important victories on behalf of working people, fighting for economic justice often seems analogous to climbing an endless wall.

Veteran activist Wade Rathke has been steadily climbing that wall on behalf of working people for forty-years. As the founder of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform (“ACORN”), Rathke has a unique perspective about what community organizing strategies work best to empower working people that are struggling to save and accumulate wealth. Rathke is also an assertive advocate for welfare benefits on behalf of people out of work. He’s both won and lost more than his share of battles. Both he and ACORN have the battle scars of scrutiny liberals typically receive from standing up for America’s poor and disenfranchised.

In Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign To Save Working Families, (Berrett-Koehler), Rathke writes,
“We need to create a national economic and political consensus that increasing family income, wealth and assets is not `welfare’ or an entitlement ‘give-away’ program but an investment in the public good and well-being.”
His book is an accessible thirteen chapters and 171 pages of text presenting his blueprint to organize regular folks to win economic and political power. Rathke’s book also contains revealing anecdotes about ACORN’s negotiations with corporate entities such as H&R Block and their bank, HSBC, to end the predatory practice of Refund Anticipation Loans. Perhaps the most compelling topic in his book is covered in chapter nine when Rathke laments how millions of citizens eligible for Food Stamps, Medicaid and the State Children Health Insurance Program (“SCHIP”) are disenfranchised from participating in the very programs designed to help them.

Rathke has remained involved with organizing activities after leaving ACORN in 2008. He is the founding board member of the Tides Foundation as well as the chief organizer of SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans and publisher of Social Policy magazine. He posts regularly at the Chief Organizer blog.

Rathke agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me about his book and among the topics covered is the meaning of citizen wealth, why economic justice has lagged behind expanded civil liberties for minorities and women, the methodology of ACORN’s approach to fight H&R Block’s predatory practices of Refund Anticipation Loans, the criticisms ACORN and the Community Reinvestment Act have received about the housing crisis and his belief that worker/labor organization is imperative for all segments of society. Our conversation was twenty-eight and a half minutes.

Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost the Itunes Store by searching for either the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.”

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sunday Summer Musings

As regular readers of this blog have noted to me via email, I have posted infrequently in recent weeks. Although I’ve conducted podcast interviews with interesting subjects and have more scheduled over the summer, personal matters have required my attention. Hence, I haven’t been able to comment on recent events. Some of you have emailed asking if I’m doing OK. Rest assured, I am fine and this has only been a temporary respite from blogging. Like many of you, I have been following current events both nationally and internationally as well as locally in my home state. A few observations and thoughts below:
  • Curiously, the lack of coherent conservative political opposition is undermining the progressive cause and reinforcing the Washington/Wall Street axis. President Obama and much of the Democratic Party appears content to remain risk averse, hoard political capital as “Blue Dog” Democrats such as Evan Bayh and Max Caucus continue to be whores for the private insurance industry and the moneyed interests. With the Republican Party in disarray, the Obama administration has no incentive to go beyond the political fifty-yard line and transform America from a corporate national security state to a society that facilitates broad based prosperity for real entrepreneurs and wage earners. Meanwhile, the corporate press falsely portrays the national debate as between the “liberal” Obama administration and “mainstream” critics. Sadly, and it pains me to write this, enablers of America’s modern gilded age have merely hit the “reset button” with the Obama administration. I like Al Franken and I’m happy he will finally take his rightful place as Minnesota’s junior senator. But that magical sixtieth vote will not transform the landscape all that much. As Illinois Senator Dick Durbin candidly put it earlier this year, the banks “frankly own the place.”
  • In my opinion, Bernie Madoff is a scapegoat for the crimes on Wall Street. Madoff will spend the rest of his days in prison and deservedly so. I have no sympathy for him. However, the looters at Goldman Sachs, Citicorp and A.I.G. are just as guilty if not more so than Madoff. Yet they’re benefiting from billions of dollars subsidized by taxpayers as state and municipal governments barely hang on. It seems to me that Madoff as the public face of Wall Street’s crimes is enabling plutocrats in Washington and the financial services industry to avoid accountability and needed restructuring of our economy. Two decades ago, Michael Milken became the public face of Wall Street’s excess and nothing changed. If Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and the administration’s senior economic advisor, Timothy Geithner have their way, the Wall Street/Washington axis will continue to conduct business as usual. Their so-called “reforms” are cosmetic only and will not facilitate the systemic change our economy so desperately needs.
  • Enablers of the Washington/Wall Street axis are the cozy relationship between “journalists” and the lobbyists of corporate America. The recent news about the Washington Post selling access to corporate lobbyists simply reinforces what the American people have sensed in their guts for a long time: the “truth” is purchased, packaged and sold. Americans across the political spectrum know this intuitively and that as much as anything explains the decline of traditional media in the Internet age. To some degree this is regrettable because nobody exposed local corruption better than those old time city newspapers with reporters mining sources among the worker bees at city hall. Also, the Internet and blogs are hardly a panacea of journalism. Regardless, the Washington/Wall Street access can only be broken from outside and that means we the people have to become our own journalists.
  • It seems that the real conflict in Iran is between their security forces and factions among the clerics. The valiant protesters are really pawns for the real power struggle-taking place. Even so, hopefully the people who bravely stood up and risked their lives represent a window into the future. Presently though, Iran appears poised to become more of a traditional military dictatorship and less of a theocracy. How events in Iran will transform the Middle East is hard to say but there does appear to be a thaw in American/Syrian relations. The State Department has hoped to exploit potential rifts between Iran and Syria for years even as the Bush administration behaved like a bull in a China shop and the fallout from Iran's presidential election has given the West at least a modest diplomatic opening.
  • I’m gratified American troops are finally withdrawing from Iraq and that Vice President Biden has advised the Iraqis we won’t be expending more blood and treasure to police sectarian violence. Sadly, those resources will likely be redeployed in the Afghanistan/Pakistan theater. Unless vigorous diplomacy with NATO powers or the upcoming summit in Russia can facilitate greater logistical support, an overextended American military is more vulnerable than ever to the burdens of empire maintenance in the name of national defense.
  • I can’t begin to articulate my disgust over events in Albany with the state senate. Much of my activism last year was dedicated to enabling Democrats to finally take the majority. Painfully, their political incompetence as well as Governor David Paterson’s feckless leadership has effectively ended those reformist aspirations from 2006 when Eliot Spitzer was elected New York’s chief executive. With respect to who controls the state senate there is the 2010 census at stake and that means repercussions for the House of Representatives as well the power dynamic in Albany. For the people of this state it’s not just about reform or which party controls Albany. It’s being able to earn a living wage, afford healthcare, have access to affordable housing and good public schools. Unfortunately, New York's political leadership has shown that the Big Apple is a Banana Republic. Hopefully, the chaos between Democrats and Republicans will strengthen the leverage of New York’s Workers Family Party as they represent the interests of New York’s struggling wage earners. Now more than ever Democrats need the support of the WFP and they have much work to do to earn it. As for Eliot Spitzer, tempermentally flawed as he is, I would gladly take him back and would even be willing to pay an "escort tax" to make it happen!