Small Towns Need Schools

In recent blogs, I have mentioned Thomas Frank’s book What’s The Matter With Kansas? that argues rural residents in states such as Kansas and Oklahoman vote against their own financial and personal interests when they vote for Republican political candidates on both the state and national level.

Frank argues that by joining the conservative juggernaut, these rural residents ensure their school systems are closed or under funded, their small towns are pushed to the point of financial collapse, and their children have no future in the place in which they were raised.

This paradox between people living and thus promoting small-town, rural values and life yet consistently voting for the elimination or financial weakening of small towns and schools is the contradiction that has created the red-state/blue-state dichotomy and has now given the Republican party a clear mandate to destroy rural America.

Frank asks the question, “Why?” Frank asks this question of Kansans. I ask the question of Oklahomans. “Why?”

I think about Frank’s book again because of a recent proposal floated by the Oklahoma GOP to consolidate rural schools. The GOP-sponsored proposal, House Bill 1783, proposes the state create a special commission that would submit a list of school districts that could be consolidated.

As you know, Oklahoma voters recently gave the Republicans a majority in the House for the first time in eighty years so this proposal has a fair chance of being passed. Local schools are the focal points of many rural communities in Oklahoma. If the school are closed, the town simply dies in some cases. Thus, in a larger sense, Oklahoma voters, under the Republican banner and its Orwellian ideology, are demanding we abandon small towns in the state in order to provide more money for larger cities.

The school consolidation issue has a long and tortuous history in Oklahoma, but it has always been a conservative platform in terms of its ideological foundation.

So why would someone in a small Oklahoma town vote to ensure their local schools are closed by either voting for Republican state legislators or supporting overall conservative ideology by supporting Republican candidates for national office?

Is it the influence of the conservative media on both the state and national level, from the propaganda of The Daily Oklahoman to the hate-speech and racism of Rush Limbaugh ? Is it that so-called cultural issues, such as gay marriage, trump the personal financial interests of rural voters? (In other words, do Oklahoma rural voters really care more about whether a gay couple can get married than their own children’s futures?) Is it conservative and reductionist emotional appeals to nationalism or patriotism?

Or are many rural voters simply the continuing dupes, chumps, and rubes of an elite, wealthy Republican aristocracy that manipulates them into voting against themselves?

The only thing I know for sure is that until Oklahoma rural voters get back to the progressive roots and platforms upon which this state was created, they will reap what they sow: the slow, painful death of their communities.

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History Is Plural. Get Over It.

During the last twelve years, I have taught a college course titled Protest Literature that deals with the American history of protest from the country’s revolutionary inception through the counter-culture movement in the 1960s to the globalization and war protests of today.

In the course, students and I first grapple with how an American mythology was created by such documents as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and then we note how the mythology and rhetoric (not always a “true,” stable set of facts, but an arguable history) has influenced literature and politics for more than two hundred years in this country.

What clearly emerges each time I teach the course is the prevailing tension between those people in our country who believe these documents have plural meanings subject to interpretation when applied to contemporary times and those who present themselves as strict interpreters of the founding fathers but who really just distort the meaning of the documents into simple and deceitful emotional appeals. (I am not speaking of my students here, but of two distinct political camps in this country.)

These deceitful emotional appeals reinforce the reductionist and purely celebratory American history now taught in many elementary and high schools in Oklahoma. I make this claim based on personal anecdotal evidence and from seventeen years of talking to Oklahoma university students about their earlier educations.

Essentially, the emotional appeals work like this these days: The founding fathers were simple, great men who loved America and were truly patriotic to only one cause, the creation of the United State of America. They were fundamentalist Christians, strict creationists, who hated Europeans like the French and Germans, and, oh yeah, the British, too, but do not think about that very much right now. They wanted everyone to own a gun.

And on and on it goes. It is all rubbish, of course. Thomas Paine, for example, ultimately became an atheist, and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the DOI, was a deist. And we have argued for years in this country what the DOI signers might have meant by “all men are created equal.” Did they mean women, too? Did they mean their own slaves, too? Does it matter?

I bring this issue up as a prelude for more criticism of The Daily Oklahoman, which has been another major culprit in dumbing down our state’s students since the now-deceased Edward L. Gaylord decided that as the state’s richest aristocrat he would use his monopoly to stifle any dissent to his immoral and deceitful interpretations of the founding fathers.

Unfortunately, his daughter, Christy Gaylord Everest, continues the newspaper in his hate-mongering and reductionist tradition. The Oklahoman has done more to impede educational progress in this state than any other institution, person, or ideology in the state’s history. And no amount of Gaylord money, not $22 million, not $5 billion, donated to the University of Oklahoma or wherever will erase that enigma.

What The Daily Oklahoman has done for years on its editorial page, and in their story selection and in their distortion of the news, is to tap into the watered-down historical and literary education of the state’s students even as they argue educational standards should be improved.

Yet the last thing any business manager of The Oklahoman would wish for would be an educated state population. The newspaper is sure to lose even more readers that way, and the business manager is sure to lose her/his job.

So I get to these old but valid arguments in our state’s history today via a recent editorial in The Oklahoman, which on its surface seems innocuous enough but upon closer scrutiny reveals the trademark rhetorical deceit and subterfuge of its editorial writers.

In the January 25, 2005 editorial titled “Done deal: Route chosen for 1-40 is best,” The Oklahoman argues that those who oppose the planned route of the new 1-40 alignment through the city should quit protesting even if the alignment does preempt another proposed plan to form a light-rail system in the city.

This seems a fair enough editorial stance but read how the newspaper approaches the issue: “Just as some people can't accept the re-election of President Bush, some opponents of the Interstate 40 relocation in Oklahoma City can't accept the planned route.”

And then this: “Remember the liberal advocacy group that was born during the Bill Clinton impeachment era, a group calling itself MoveOn.org? Its simple message to Clinton's political opponents was to move on. But the group itself has never been able to move on from the defeat of Al Gore by Bush in 2000.”

And finally this: “Those who can't move on find comfort in sharing their misery with others of like mind. It was their right to view the president's second inaugural as a national day of mourning. In the end, though, it signified nothing. Continuing to oppose the I-40 route is likewise pointless. Move on.”

There is nothing wrong, of course, with a newspaper taking a position about a local road project, but this type of deceitful, rhetorical transference is illogical and ultimately immoral. The two issues—Bush’s re-election and the road project--are totally unrelated.

Consequently, here is the underlying message of the editorial: If you oppose the new road plan (and I, personally, have no opinion on the matter) you are just like those sore losers who do not support President George Bush. You might even be a liberal and a progressive who voted for Al Gore or John Kerry. We do not need or want people like you to voice your opinions around here. The facts of the issue do not matter. Do not speak up. Do not get involved.

The editorial is angry and hateful, especially since it is about a local issue that obviously deserves some modicum of thought and consideration. It is dictatorial, mean and rude. It is illogical and irrational. More than that, it is tragic, on a small but symbolic level, because a entire generation of people in this state have either been marginalized or brainwashed by this immoral type of rhetorical rubbish produced by The Oklahoman.

Yet, on an even larger level, this editorial represents how you can get from simple, emotional, select, and narrow interpretations of our founding fathers’ initial documents and lives to the deceit and distortions of current conservative ideology and rhetoric. Why argue over facts or evidence about the I-40 relocation project or, say, the Bill of Rights or Jefferson’s views about slavery when you can tap into reductionist emotional appeals and clichés while counting on the consistent conservative indoctrination of your readership. This is how the right-wing argues, and The Oklahoman remains the provincial poster-child of narrow views and deceitful propaganda, which are embedded in even the most innocuous material it publishes.

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Okie Dilemma

The recent election and its ensuing fallout has left me confronting once again the issue of powerlessness of progressives and liberals in Oklahoma.

What is there to do? The election has brought home the fact that Oklahoma seems light years away from embracing policies and ideas that would help the state residents prosper. In fact, with the new Republican majority in the Oklahoma House, and with Tom Coburn in Washington, we can only expect the continuation of weird and radical pronouncements and proposed legislation.

All of it would be real funny if so much were not at stake.

I envision the Oklahoma Republicans will focus their attention on issues such as limiting women's rights over their own bodies, creationist disclaimers for science textbooks that contain theories of evolution, tax relief for the most wealthy in the state, and school prayer. Watch for Republican-sponsored legislation calling for a constitutional amendment limiting state budget growth.

The Orwellian-named Taxpayer Bill of Rights, along with other proposed lgeisiation, would ultimately cut public school funding at all levels and give major tax breaks to a relatively small group of wealthy people in Oklahoma.

In addition, U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, already considered a freakish, right-wing extremist by the national media, will undoubtedly continue to advocate killing doctors who perform abortions or talk about the takeover of Oklahoma public schools by lesbians.

The Daily Oklahoman, meanwhile, will continue its editorial distortions and omissions, ensuring its immoral, extreme views help keep the state's residents in the dark about the gutting of Social Security or the Iraq war. (Perhaps, we should rename the state Gaylordahoma. I wonder how much that would cost the Gaylord family?)

And, for the most part, Democratic leaders in Oklahoma will stay silent or join with the Republicans for the sake of ideology or expediency.

So, again, what is there to do?

Listen. If you are a progressive from Oklahoma, there is really no reason to get depressed. Like me, you are used to the contradictions and ignorance that fuel this state's politics and thus support the state's most wealthiest power brokers. You, too, have argued to no avail with those Okie right-wingers who have and will lose money, health benefits, and job opportunities under the current conservative juggernaut in the state and throughout the nation.

So what I urge you to do, if you have not done so already, is extract yourself philosophically from the one-party, conversative system in Oklahoma and, along with other progressives, try to create something new here. We sincerely have nothing to lose. We are already completely marginalized and under fire by the state's power structure.

The state Democrats will certainly want us to work within the confines and ideology of the party, of course. But if the national trend is for Democrats to become even more Republican-lite in face of the recent election, you can imagine what this means for the Oklahoma Democratic Party, which is headed by Jay Parmley. By all accounts, Parmley is a good man, but his public views are probably shaped far more by conservative legislators in his own party than progressive Democrats.

One good sign on the Democratic front is that Howard Dean has announced he is running for chair of the Democratic National Committee. But do not hold your breath. We saw how the party ostracized him during the campaign. Party leaders could do it again.

At my university, we have formed a progressive coalition, the UCOpc, and anyone who shares our ideas is invited to join. I imagine there are other such organizations popping up throughout the state at universities or at other institutions not completely taken over yet by the right-wing.

In addition, I plan to continue to argue with those Oklahoma conservatives who have been blinded by deceitful right-wing rhetoric. This rhetoric is based on appeals to nationalism, patriotism, and religion. These are powerful concepts that have never been based on logic or rationality, so it makes our task extremely difficult.

Yet our continuing commitment to the rules of evidence, rationality, cause and effect, logic, and truth is what will keep us sane in this state.

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