Monday, September 22, 2014

More shifting alliances -- TPM edition

As mentioned before, when it came to the politics of the education reform movement, the big story four or five years ago was liberal support for what would normally be seen as conservative principles like privatization, deregulation and the need to limit the power of unions (discussed at great length here). Today, the big political story is the increasing number of prominent liberals who are breaking with the reform movement. Given that context, this exchange at Talking Points Memo takes on special significance.

For a while now, Conor P. Williams has been the de facto education guy for TPM. His schtick is to attack critics of the movement, usually by misrepresenting their positions or just make broad attacks on their character. This is often followed by an extended lament over how negative the reform debate has gotten due to all those mean people on the other side. Williams represents a sizable chunk in my to-write pile but I keep putting it off because it's just so much work correcting one of his columns.

The picture that went with Williams' essay on Common Core critics.

As far as I could tell, Williams was the voice of TPM when it came to education, which is one of the things that made this recent piece by Sabrina Joy Stevens so surprising. The tone is polite but the effect is devastating. Not only does Stevens point out the essential hypocrisy of Williams' calls for a more elevated tone, she gets at perhaps his greatest journalist offense, his habit of omitting relevant but inconvenient facts and context (for example, check out how he covers the D.C. cheating scandal when discussing the fall of Michelle Rhee).
Yet, both the more strident vitriol aimed at Brown, as well as Williams’ critique of these attacks, miss the real issues that we should discuss when considering the dangerous movement Brown leads.

As someone who has been subjected to sexist and racist attacks from “both” sides of the education debate, I agree there’s no room for oppressive behavior in this conversation — regardless of the feeble denials and/or justifications the offenders and their protectors try to offer. But it’s also important not to overlook the many substantive reasons why people object to how figures like Rhee (now Johnson) and Brown choose to participate in this debate. The ignorance that animates any sexist or racist insults directed at both women doesn’t erase the rhetorical and material harm both have caused in the course of their advocacy.

Michelle Rhee Johnson was primarily disliked because of the actual things she did — some of which were overtly and personally cruel, such as the humiliating decision to fire someone on camera. We’re talking about a person who chose to launch her media career as D.C. schools chancellor with an direct attack on teachers, posing for the cover of Time Magazine with a broom — strongly insinuating that many of her employees were not people, but trash she intended to sweep away.

Similarly, Brown began her new incarnation as an education “reformer” two years ago by launching an emotionally-charged smear campaign against organized teachers. Since kicking off her latest effort, she has reportedly bullied and undermined the ability of a grassroots parents organization to carry out an independent legal effort on behalf of their own children — allegedly interfering with their ability to retain desired counsel in order to strengthen her own position at the forefront of the legal assault on teachers’ due process rights in New York state. (It’s worth noting that these attacks constitute a very serious, material abuse of her class and racial privilege that has real consequences for its targets. That should concern Williams and others at least as much as the sexist jibes aimed at Brown on Twitter and elsewhere.)
If TPM continues running voices like Stevens, Williams' approach will no longer be viable. His is not a style that stands up well to knowledgeable dissent.

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