Must-Read from Mickelson on the Fundamentalist Traits of “Teacher Unionists” (with apologies to Woody Guthrie)

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Do you ever read a piece and think, “I wish I’d written that?” Lynnel Mickelson, who describes herself as a progressive Democrat, wrote a great essay yesterday that provoked that reaction in me. As a homegrown progressive Democrat myself – my first memory of political activism was going with my mom to a little office in Queens, NY where we stuffed envelopes for the George McGovern campaign and our household davened to Albert Shanker –I struggle to reconcile my deep reverence for teachers with some of the crap excreted  by current labor leaders these days.

My parents died young but they’d struggle also.

Mickelson, who grew up not as a left-leaning Jew like me but as a fundamentalist Baptist, is well-versed in the “classic traits” of those whom she calls “fundies”:

[[O]pponents can’t just wrong about things—they must have evil intent too. Hence, gays are trying to destroy the family; feminists hate men; liberals want everyone’s hunting rifles and so forth.

After college, Mickelson recounts, she thought she was done with fundies, that is, until she started working on education reform and studying “teacher unionists.” And there she was, back with the fundies. She lists the qualities that fundamental religious leaders and union leaders have in common. Read her annotations, but here’s her basic list:

1) Frame issues as stark series of either-or choices with apocalyptic endings.
2) Demonize opponents.
3) Deny or dismiss data that challenges their worldview.
4) Resist any change to tradition, even if this means disenfranchising entire groups of people.
5) Represent a constituency that is mostly white, middle-class, middle-aged and nostalgic for a supposedly better past that should be “reclaimed.”

She writes,

And yes, I know. Comparing the teachers’ unions to Christian fundamentalists is pure heresy among Democrats. Which is why I spent years trying to ignore the similarities. I was so committed to the idea that my political tribe should be fundie-proof. 

But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck….If the teacher’s union frames issues like fundies; if it demonizes foes, denies data and tries to disenfranchise people like fundies….well, the union is certainlyacting like a fundamentalist movement. And even though the union operates on the left side of the political spectrum, it’s getting very similar results to what’s happened on the Republican side.

Indeed, we hear these quacks from the California to the New York island as school choice advocates are demonized; higher standards and assessments are characterized like a denoument from the “Walking Dead”;  data that contradicts perceived notions is dismissed;  the benefits of maintaining tradition outweighs innovations that benefit poor minority students; and the loudest quackers are white and well-to-do.

Mickelson asks, “How do you change a fundamentalist culture?  It’s damn hard because the whole point of fundie culture is to block any change. But the first step is acknowledging how nutty it is and then start building an alternative one.”

She doesn’t know how to get there. I don’t either. But never has the ironies and self-serving tenets been presented more clearly.

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1 Comment

  • kallikak, September 9, 2015 @ 5:04 pm Reply

    Message to all those perplexed about how to deal with teachers' unions: bargain with them—fairly and firmly—in good faith.

    We do not have a culture of hard bargaining among NJ school boards. We need to cultivate one to bring our operating costs in-line with the public's capacity to pay. We also need to end pandering in the Legislature.

    If these tasks are not within our capacity as citizens of this state, then we are lost—regardless of how we label our approach to public schooling.

    Ms. Mickelson can call herself whatever she wishes, but where I come from in the Midwest, she'd be known as a union-buster plain and simple.

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