Rich Gibson Speech at Rouge Forum, Detroit March 2 2007

Good morning. I’d like to continue the Dance of the Dialectic that Wayne Ross initiated this morning, observing how things change, how we can look into history for not only perspective, but the possibilities to leap out of our current conditions. Endnote

Our immediate situation is, after all, pretty grim. We are about to observe the fourth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. According to the recent Harvard report, more than 655,000 Iraqis are dead, and hundreds of thousands of children remain malnourished, that the result of the decade of embargo, coupled with the invasion. More than 3,000 US troops are dead, ten times that officially wounded, and probably fifty times that unofficially demolished—and an untold percentage of the 115,000 US mercenaries in Iraq looking at ruined lives. And, as their elites did not win quickly, the US public has turned on Bush, not an indicator of, mainly, intelligent rejection, but fickleness that could be quickly turned by a victory somewhere else.

But, simultaneously, we can look to history as, on March 17, the same date as the Iraq invasion, we can look to the 136 anniversary of the Paris Commune, that historic moment when the people of Paris, having witnessed their Emperor lose a war to the Prussians, rose up in their city, used the arms the Emperor had provided them, and set up a model government that serves as a North Star for radical movements today; a decidedly secular government that used the churches as school, a government rooted in a relation of equality and democracy, in which equality dominated, a government where people could directly elect, and recall their representatives who would make no more than the average wage, a government that addressed the likely beginning point of exploitation, sexism, with real suffrage. The Paris Commune was crushed but its lessons stand today, far more significant than anything any Euro-American leader has said in the last decades.

Let us remember Freud writing in 1930, on the abyss of fascism: “Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating each other to the last man.”(1930, Civilization and its Discontents).

Let me add a poem that I coauthored, perhaps a better word is helped to memorize, with the prisoners still held in a 17th century jail, incarcerated since the 1983 invasion of Grenada:

            “Life travels upward in spirals.

            Those who take pains to search the shadows,

            of the past below us, then, can better judge the tiny arc

            up which they climb, more surely guess

            the dim curves of the future above them.”

We live in a time when personal choices are no longer personal, but social, when most peoples’ choices are actually a matter of picking between very limited options, and when the cause and effect linkages of decisions can no longer glide along in a relatively prosperous imperial world. Rather, decisions shatter the glass wall between good and evil, between progress and barbarism, life and death. This is an epic period in which we define ourselves. Who are we and what is it we shall do?

Freud was not far off in 1930. In 1998, a year after we formed the Rouge Forum (yes, we are ten years old now), I wrote in the social studies journal, “If you are a middle school teacher, you are looking at the soldiers in the next oil war.’ It was not hard to guess the dim curve of that future, though I never foresaw the billionaire’s terrorist criminal act of September 11, 2001. I am not Cassandra, gifted with knowledge of the future, but cursed in that no one would believe her. I have no crystal ball, but it was easy to see this war coming, if not that attack.

Now, as in 1930, we are at another historical juncture. The possibility of a world-wide caring community of equals is overwhelmed by the possibility of financial collapse and world war–the present culmination of the failures of capitalism, a system that has nothing to offer anyone any more.

How we reach into the gap between what ought to be and what is, how we search in the spiraling shadows of the world of things and ideas, will set up how we answer some vital questions that must be posed to any teacher, to any organizer, interested in social change, or social justice:

Why is it so easy to turn some people into instruments of their own oppression, and why do others resist? Or, put another way, What is it that people need to know, and how do we need to come to know it, in order to create the action that can lead us to the community we can now only imagine?

Let me offer an example that has enough historical distance that it is unlikely to offend anyone, or at least not northerners. Remember Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg? Gettysburg was the highwater mark of a lowlife movement to preserve slavery and racism, led by the criminal plantation owner Robert E. Lee, routinely portrayed in US textbooks as a great gentlemen, accomplished general, and tragic figure. Actually, he was an incompetent slave-owner, a waster of men, an enemy of all who were not of his birthright. And, it is a great historical irony that the Union Army had the sense to turn his plantation into what is now Arlington cemetery.

In July, 1863, Lee ordered General Picket to send about 12,000 white peasants, some of them without shoes, to attack the union lines. Between Pickett’s men and the union lines was a field about a mile wide with grass between ankle and knee high, a slight incline. The confederate peasants could see the union sharpshooters lined up behind large boulders, and they had to know that they would face the grapeshot of many cannons. Some confederate vets had to know that Lee’s cannon attack on the union lines had failed as he lacked the sense to triangulate his guns. So, those southern peasants knew they were going to walk into hell. And they did it, again and again.

The confederates marched out in straight horizontal lines. The first line never made it to a fence that was about two-thirds of the way across the field. They were blown to smithereens before the fence. The second line, marching shoulder to shoulder like the first, almost made it to the fence–blown to smithereens. The third line made it to the fence–blown to smithereens. The fourth line crossed the fence and approached the union lines, to be hit by grapeshot–blown to smithereens. The fifth line, marching over the bodies of their thousands of wounded and dead, still shoulder to shoulder, actually made it to the union lines and breeched them, but got blown to smithereens.

Lee ordered Pickett: “Send more men.”

Pickett: “But General Lee, I have no more men.”

At least one-half of Pickett’s men died, fighting for a cause that really opposed their own interests. They had nothing to gain from slavery, nor racism, but they followed Lee, not only a Master to the various forms of slaves on the battlefield, but an inept Master. Rather, they did not follow him. He told them what to do, and then watched-- somewhat like the billionaire terrorist bin Laden.

Why did Lee’s peasant army not just turn around and shoot Lee and Pickett and walk home? They would have been far better off and that example was enacted about 100 years later by US troops in Vietnam, when there were over 500,000 recorded mutinies, and more than 1,000 instances of, “fragging,” men shooting or blowing up their own officers.

Why is it so easy to turn some people into instruments of their own oppression, and why do others resist? Or, put another way, What is it that people need to know, and how do we need to come to know it, in order to create the action that can lead us to the community we can now only imagine?

Part of the answer to that question is organization, but organization not only steeped in what I’ll loosely call class consciousness, but consciousness that is also driven by critical analytical curiosity–able to leap beyond class consciousness, to historicize it, and to reflect back on it, connecting the past, present and future. Since consciousness must be tested against something, I will suggest that we can look to an ethic of equality, steeped in history, that serves as a good guide.

We now stand on the brink of the emergence of fascism, the violent, nationalist, irrational, sexist, racist rule of the rich–bent on perpetual war. What to think, what to do?

As to the past, the Rouge Forum was born ten years ago inside a fight against racism and nationalism in the National Council for the Social Studies. That battle was followed by a meeting of about 300 people here at Wayne State University, an action oriented gathering of cultural activists like Josh White, educators, students, kids, professors, and even school principals. That meeting was characterized as a “72 hour long mass conversation.” Lifelong friendships, a vital ethic of participation in the Rouge Forum, were born there.

Since then the conversation in education in the US has never been able to be quite the same. While we have not been able to overturn the vapid discourse of colleges of education, we did challenge it at every chance, and the north stars of class, race, sex/gender, and internationalism can not be disregarded without dread of criticism from the awake members of the Rouge Forum

We have quite a bit to our credit, for a small quasi-organization of volunteers with no money, no titled executives, no heros, no institutes, no foundation grants, nor buildings named for us, and no arms that I know of.

We were the first to publicly note the dramatic shift in North American life, with deindustrialization shattering not only the factories, but the industrial working class itself (with plenty of help from the Quisling union leadership).

We recognized the strategic and tactical significance of this move which meant that schools, not industrial institutions, would be the central organizing point of North American and maybe European life. And, given that youth are typically the initiators of social change, if not the completers, that meant education workers would be positioned in a key choke point of social justice. One in four people in the US have a direct connection to schools. 49 million youth are in public schools, ½ of them draft eligible in the next 4 years. There are more than 4 million classroom educators organized into unions, some of the worst unions in the US, but unionized none the less.

To our credit, we urged people into organizing in schools, mostly around two issues, high-stakes standardized tests, and the militarization of schooling.

We were the first in analyzing why schooling exists inside a capitalist world, at least the first to question the public nature of a segregated apartheid school system, and to couple that analysis with, not the Bowles and Gintis closed circle, but a practical path of resistance in which people could not only take control over their own education and lives, but they could reflect back on what they did with others who had similar concerns.

We have a decade of experience with test boycotts, school walkouts, teach ins, work-ins, freedom schools, conferences, study groups, movie clubs, leafleting, debates, guerrilla theater, and so on. No other group has ever done what we have done, not in North America, not ever.

We worked, unknowingly but simultaneously, with Dave Hill and Glen Rikowski in England, in developing a deep answer to the question, “What value, or surplus value, do teachers create?”

We answered that question with a careful examination of the market that is schooling, and our conclusions should serve as a beacon for some time to come.

We were the first group to tie the predecessors of the No Child Left Behind Act to the desperate efforts of elites to regain control of what people know and how they come to know it, all forms of knowledge, to recreate the slavish citizen warriors of Pickett’s Charge through regimented curricula and racist anti-working class high stakes exams which eradicate curiosity and wisdom itself–and we offered a plan to outfox the destruction of wisdom.

We were, and still are, the only group in the US that has had the limited courage needed to link an intensifying international war of the rich on the poor, and within that inter-imperialist wars, and rising racism, segregation, inequality, irrationalism, the fear of sexuality, and demands to regulate the school curricula, high-stakes standardized exams, the militarization of schooling, and resistance, real class struggle.

We stood on the shoulders of people we admired and looked further into the future. We appropriated work from Fredy Perlman and Guy Debord, and placed them as a direct challenge to North American educators. One of our founders rose in the midst of a boring meeting of the executive committee of the national council for the social studies and said, “this is all bullshit, we should be reading Marx and making class war.” We put Marx back in the center of education and labor discourse. And to our credit, we actually understood Marx, Perlman, Debord; we were not just trying to stake out a market for publishing and to build an entrepenuereal cabal around them unlike the celebrities of most of what really is not-so-critical pedagogy.

We built alliances with the Whole Language Umbrella and the Whole Schooling Consortium, built joint conferences, and above all made close personal friendships. And we had fun.

When the criminal terrorist act of September 11th happened, we set up the Rouge Forum “No Workers Blood For Oil” web page. That page, now a model for other groups, has become a research base of the key events since 9/11. It gets about 32,000 hits a month, so many that our server routinely gets overburdened and shuts down. Now, our work is read all over the world. We have Rouge Forum members in Indonesia, Malaysia, Latin America, India, China, Japan, Grenada, Canada, and even Brooklyn.

What we have done, small as we are, with but about 4400 people on an email list, with only volunteers, and no money, has mattered.

We connected education and labor. We demonstrated not only how teachers are workers, but how the teacher union leadership live off the wages of imperialism, how the $450,000 salary of Reg Weaver of the National Education Association is built precisely on the money the Empire offers him to betray not only the his members, but the entire working class, through his vile sense of unionism in the interest of US elites, in the interest of imperialism, and specifically with his linkage of NEA, and the AFT, to the National Endowment for Democracy and the American Institute for Free Labor Development, both arms of the CIA, and to the CIA itself, involved in, for example, the recent CIA led failed coup in Venezuela. We exposed how the union leaders believe that they themselves, if not their members, believe they will do better if the workers of the world do worse, and we helped inspire the wildcat strikes, like the Detroit teachers strikes of the last decade, that made those mis-leaders irrelevant.

We were the first to pick up where the civil rights movement left off, where the anti-apartheid South Africans left off, and to try to establish freedom schools in the midst of strikes and boycotts. While our success at that has been minimal, it is to our credit that we have tried, that we have researched the possibility, and that we have some plan of action that no one else even has.

We were the first, and are still really the only, organization to urge, and to organize, direct action boycotts of high-stakes tests all over the US, and particularly here in Michigan. We shut them down, and defended our activists who were attacked for that.

We recognized that an injury to one really does only go before an injury to all and we tied that, perhaps, to the comment the character named Tuco in the movie, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, “he who double crosses Tuco, and lets Tuco live, he knows nothing, nothing, about Tuco.” No one has ever attacked one of our gang and not felt double barreled pain, eventually.

But we never focused on vengeance. We established an ethic that recognizes that friendship and mutual respect can arch over, transcend, the necessity of criticism and critical reflection of practice. Perhaps we have been fairly good at that because we have a very long term outlook, a strategy that says we want to forge a mass of class conscious people willing to take serious risks, make sacrifices, for the common good. That, of course, is a distant beacon, but it allows us to test our own work against an ethic, and a vision, that helps us avoid some of the bickering that is probably underpinned by opportunism in other groups. We have learned to live with a patient sense of urgency.

We have been kind to most of those in education who divert the path of education activism, like the postmodernists who hide behind a mask of obtuse language, really doing nothing but saying “what about me?” creating a new religion. We have been good to those who pretend to be education reformers, but who live off foundation grants and never say anything truly penetrating, or radical, about education and social change. We have been especially y nice to the right wing of multiculturalism which uses pluralism as a disguise for their hothouse of nationalism, racism, and poverty pimping–like the grotesque opportunist James Banks, who, in a National Council of Social Studies meeting, spoke bitterly in opposition to a Rouge Forum initiative for free tuition, “because it might hurt our wages.” Banks now has whomped up a solution to imperialist war and racism: cosmopolitanism. If the Iraqis were just more cosmopolitan, they could probably get it right. For that, he got a standing ovation at NCSS–proof of the ignorance or innocence–you choose--of much of the professoriate.

We have been good to those former liberals with bombs, now liberals without bombs, Billy Ayers, Mike Klonsky and the fraudulent Small Schools movement which just ties teachers to their bosses under a not-so-new rubric, and does nothing at all about the social relations of exploitation, racism, segregation , and inequality outside schools, thus failing to address Jean Anyon’s obvious comment, “doing school reform without doing social and economic reform in communities is like washing the air on one side of a screen door, it just won’t work.”

But Ayers and Klonsky never cared about that. Starting in their terrorist Weatherman days, they have always been mainly concerned with building and re-enriching their already rich selves. They oppose building a curious, critical mass class conscious movement as such a movement would never tolerate their disingenuous maneuvers to maintain both popularity and privilege. Like the terrorists with bombs they once were, they now seek to replace a mass class conscious movement, not with bombs this time, but with themselves, guiding people into the cul-de-sac of their mis-leadership.

Like the obtuse postmodernist Henry Giroux, these two and their allies stand like armed Paris Hiltons of the counterfeit educational left.

We should call an end to our silence on the traitors in our midst. The Irish Michael Collins recognized the destructive nature of traitors and police agents, and he knew what to do about them, and we should too.

We have been rightly harsh to those who are clearly on the other side, those with no pretense like the founders of the Michigan Meap–the Big Test in this state which seeks to inculcate the values of slave owners: loyalty and obedience. We have disrupted their meetings with guerilla theater actions like MEAP bingo, by declaring a 19th Core Democratic Value (bribery), led MEAP walkouts and boycotts, and we have nearly ridiculed them into submission, if not out of their stretch limos. Endnote

But let us go back to Freud to set up a fast examination of our present context.

“Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating each other to the last man. “

Our current context is this:

An international war of the rich on the poor,

within that national wars based on inter-imperialist rivalry,

within that appeals to nationalism, uniting people against false claims of united national interests when the very real divide is social class,

Within that, rising irrationalism, like religious mysticism,

and rising racism, often born from religion, segregation to the point of incarcerating 2.1 million,

Rising inequality as the rich grow much much richer, the working classes get laid off and poorer,

A media and cultural concentration on spectacles, like Anna Nicole, football, Judge Judy, while the question, “what war?” can be easily asked as war is on page five of USA Today,

Constant surveillance into every aspect of life,

The eradication of what were once limited liberties won by the industrial and earlier, even pre-industrial working classes, like the end of habeas corpus,

Massive indebtedness within the US, and between the US and, especially, China,

Nearly shocking imperial overstretch, with 739 permanent bases around the world

and a secret military budget,

A military fully exposed as weak, incompetent, and cowardly, but stretched so thin that a draft is surely on the horizon,

Rising imperial rivals like Russia and China who also desperately need that oil, the cheap labor, and markets, of the world and especially the Caspian and Middle-East regions,

A government fully exposed as an executive committee, and weapon of violence, of the rich.

And, as before, we are at a pivotal point in history, with financial and military crises at hand–handmaidens to the emergence of fascism.

There is resistance, as people must fight to live, even if they do not fully grasp the nature of their fight, and thus fail to take matters in their own hands, trust the wrong people, like their corrupt union leaders, and therefore lose. That happened to the California Grocery Strike, the general strike of immigrant workers last Mayday, the Detroit teachers’ wildcats (which showed that the only illegal strike is a strike that loses) and many others, all described in Rouge Forum publications like our weekly update to 4400 subscribers.

In sum, on our credit side, we have established the Rouge Forum as the only schools-based organization that can be taken seriously as a vehicle for social change, an organization that has a broad enough analysis, strategy, and tactics that it can unite people of a fairly wide variety of perspectives, from soldiers in Iraq to anarcho-communists, from grassroots organizers to left wing democrats and Greens, pacifists and cultural activists.

We demonstrated that school workers, students, parents, and community activists do not have to be missionaries for capitalism, and schools its churches, but that we can understand and transform the world.

We have shown that we are willing to sacrifice to build the Rouge Forum, combating opportunism. We hold open conferences, publish, and not only urge action, we lead it. At the same time many of us try to teach well, to study hard, to write and publish books and articles, we maintain families, and have lives.

We have shown, I think, that the Rouge Forum is the only organization in North America that can be taken seriously as a vehicle that can initiate, and sustain social change. We need to underline that.

But, again, the crux of the matter is class consciousness, critical analytical curiosity, and a commonly understood ethic of equality, tied to organization because without organization there is nothing. And we need to be self-critical about how we have done with that so we can do it more, and better. Just as we cannot create what ought to be from anything but what is, we cannot build a more powerful movement without a better organization, getting beyond shortcomings we can recognize.

Nor can we build a better organization by whistling by the graveyard of the US public and private education workforces. If we take a static view, the main tendencies among teachers, and especially professors, are opportunism (sacrificing the many for the few), racism (not surprising in an apartheid work force), ignorance (it is not hard to recognize that high-stakes tests are more than child abuse, but a form of alienation in which the more teachers do it, the more they themselves lose, the more isolated they get from the people they need most—poor wand working class parents and students, and then the more their wages and benefits will get attached to the test scores, meaning teachers in the most exploited districts will lose their health benefits first, with others to follow), so, yes, ignorance—and fear, a culture of fearful subservience.

Announcing fear, subservience, racism, ignorance, and opportunism among teachers does not distinguish them much from the rest of the population, but since what school worker matters so much, it is worth noting–but only as a starting point for analysis and transformation.

What can we take up at this conference, and especially on Sunday, that we can do better inside the Rouge Forum? We have gone along fairly well for a decade with an informal leadership group based largely on the view that whoever has an idea should go do it, and get some help. We did all of the above based on that. But there are clearly problems with that. The egalitarian spirit that set a non-structure up can become a very hard to uncover structure, and it can become taxing for newcomers to see where they might fit.

That may be part of why we have been stuck at 4400 email subscribers for about 4 years.

We can have an open structure where people can come in, see fairly quickly where they might best be able to display talents that they may not be able to display at work, and then see how they can contribute even more. We need a leadership council, perhaps with seven people (three regional coordinators, two at large coordinators, and two international coordinators) as firsts among equals, a group that meets regularly, probably online. We need to be easy to see, but hard to catch.

The leadership council MUST seek to be far more diverse and international than the teacher work force, including youth and community people.


We need an organizational structure where people around the RF can take charge of their own work locally. Local chapters, study groups, movie and discussion groups, groups that take our ideas into community peace and justice coalitions. We need chapter leaders who can be found on the www site, and a way for people to just introduce themselves and become chapter leaders.

We need to make decisions about our communications. We published hard copies of the Rouge Forum News for about six years. Rather, Amber Goslee, Greg and Katy Queen did, until it became too much, too expensive and too exhausting. Since then we maintained our online Rouge Forum News, and shifted a lot of our written work to Substance News, heroically produced by George Schmidt in Chicago. I think that is a good move, but we need to decide that collectively.

We need to maintain our general course, seeing the high-stakes exams and the military as key choke points in schools, to continue our efforts to study freedom schooling, but also to expand our work in communities, in antiwar demonstrations that have Rouge Forum contingents, in immigrant-worker rights demonstrations, and in demonstrations (and in coffee houses) at military bases.

But we need new thinkers, new actors, particularly young activists and scholars who can see that this struggle will last the rest of our lives.

“Life travels upward in spirals. Those who take pains to search the shadows, of the past below us, then, can better judge the tiny arc up which they climb, more surely guess the dim curves of the future above them.”

We can understand and change the world.

What better way is there to live?

Don’t forget to smash the state.

All the best