Kicking the Tires on Democracy: Wisconsin & Labor

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The surface of conservative arguments for ending collective bargaining in Wisconsin and other states is as deep as  a worn tread. GOP politicians all over the country, including Scott Walker, have been peddling the “pre-owned automobile” of a utilitarian argument in a crisis. “We need the tools,” they keep repeating like a FOX News talking point, to fix the economies of states that are going broke. The conservative constituency, however, while happy to ride in that motor vehicle, quickly in argument rolls out an even more venerable means of transportation, the used car of opposing labor rights in themselves. We might more reasonably think it a covered wagon: there is no right to collective bargaining, in the public or private sector. That’s what conservatives still, really believe, after all these decades, but unlike forty years ago, they have achieved great successes in rolling back those rights in the private sector. Now they want to finish unions off all together. Most conservative politicians don’t want to state that openly. But all one need do is read the comments at blogs and news sites, the conservative tweet streams, and the underlying reality – the bald tire – is quickly reached.

I wrote on Saturday about the conservative blogger with whom I had a brief exchange via Twitter about collective bargaining rights. She claimed there was no such right, I asked her what she meant by “right,” and she went with legal. She is a Wisconsinite who was speaking specifically of Wisconsin. I proved her wrong, which shut her up, but did not elicit an acknowledgment of her error, or, based on the evidence I observed, alter her thinking in any way. What are facts?

The amusing conceit of this blogger, repeatedly stated in her communications with me and her compatriots, is that liberals are emotion-driven people who do not think logically and who are impervious, in their pathetic human empathy, to facts. This is observably the predominant conservative caricature of liberals. In truth, I suspected even then, this blogger did not mean legal right, but natural right, of the kind to which people usually refer when they are not limiting themselves to discussion only of American constitutional democracy.  Natural rights are a whole other order of discussion. The present situation, however, is that someone not trained to make that mental distinction as part of her thought process is caught up in a whole culture of patronizing contempt and demeaning caricature around issues and ideas about which she currently cannot make knowledgeable and critical distinctions and inferences. And her commitment to her ideology is such that, just in the manner of those she cartoons and derides, facts do not alter it.

Here is what Martha Nussbaum had to say in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty about her 2010 book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities.

RFE/RL: You argue that a successful, long-term democracy depends on a citizenry with certain qualities that can be fostered by education. Could you outline those qualities and describe how schools can foster them?

Martha Nussbaum: Sure. There are three that I focus on. The first is the capacity we associate in the Western tradition with Socrates, but it certainly appears in all traditions — that is, the ability to think critically about proposals that are brought your way, to analyze an argument, to distinguish a good argument from a bad argument. And just in general, to lead what Socrates called “the examined life.” Now that’s, of course, important because we know that people are very prone to go along with authority, with fashion, with peer pressure. And this kind of critical enlivened citizenry is the only thing that can keep democracy vital.

And, of course, that is a capacity that all human beings are born with in some form, but it really needs to be trained. And I think it can be trained from very early in a child’s education. There’re ways that you can get quite young children to recognize what’s a good argument and what’s a bad argument. And as children grow older, it can be done in a more and more sophisticated form until by the time they’re undergraduates in universities they would be studying Plato’s dialogues for example and really looking at those tricky arguments and trying to figure out how to think.

And this is important not just for the individual thinking about society, but it’s important for the way people talk to each other. In all too many public discussions people just throw out slogans and they throw out insults. And what democracy needs is listening. And respect. And so when people learn how to analyze an argument, then they look at what the other person’s saying differently. And they try to take it apart, and they think: “Well, do I share some of those views and where do I differ here?” and so on. And this really does produce a much more deliberative, respectful style of public interaction.

via ‘There Is No Values-Free Form Of Education,’ Says U.S. Philosopher – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty © 2011.

There are two arguments underlying what Scott Walker, in Wisconsin, and the Koch brothers everywhere are trying to do in effectively destroying organized labor by outlawing collective bargaining. One – the argument that politicians for the most part are not making – is the claim that there is no “right” of collective bargaining. The other is a utilitarian arugment – the “we need the tools” argument. That’s the one you hear from every Republican governor and every conservative pol with a mic in his face. That’s the one I’ll deal with tomorrow.


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