Monthly Archives: October 2012

He’s No Coach Taylor: Mitt Romney and Friday Night Lights

As someone who counts getting escorted out of an auditorium by Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s hired goons as one of my proudest moments, I never thought I’d admit to having something substantial, even intimate, in common with Mitt Romney. But as it turns out, the Republican presidential candidate and I are both fans of the TV series Friday Night Lights (2006-2011), a gritty, realist drama centered on a high school football team and the largely working-class residents of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. What more, we both find inspiration in a motto that “Coach” Eric Taylor, with a combination of unwavering determination and tenderness, utters to his team at the end of every pre-game locker room huddle: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” Indeed, in the final stretch of completing my Literature PhD last summer, the slogan stared back at me from the wall in front of my desk. In the midst of tearful frustration and paralyzing anxiety, Coach Taylor was there, Zen-like, to help me get my head back in the game.

So imagine my dismay when a friend shared an article describing how Romney, high off his “victory” in the first presidential debate, adopted a slightly amended version of Coach Taylor’s motto — “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, America Can’t Lose” — as the official home-stretch slogan of his campaign. I was hardly the only person shaken up by Romney’s appropriation of the Friday Night Lights motto. Peter Berg, the series creator, immediately sent Romney an angry letter accusing him of having plagiarized his expression. “Your politics and campaign are clearly not aligned with the themes we portrayed in our series,” he further explained. Unmoved by Berg’s request that he “come up with (his) own slogan,” Romney continues to feature the line on his Facebook page and in campaign materials. His campaign website even encourages visitors to “Support America’s Comeback Team” by ordering a $10 set of red, white, and blue rubber bracelets with the motto emblazoned on each one.

My personal stake in Romney’s use of “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” lies not just in my appreciation of a show containing some of the most respectful, affirming representations of working-class people since Roseanne. I also wrote a dissertation chapter focused on what I’m calling the Friday Night Lights “franchise” of texts: the 1990 sports journalism classic by Buzz Bissinger (who, in a disappointing yet intriguing twist in this saga, is voting for Romney); the 2004 film, also directed by Berg, based on Bissinger’s book; and the TV series inspired by the book and film. I wrote about these texts because I needed to reckon with something from which, as a working-class girl from a sports-obsessed small town, I fled: the kind of “small-minded” people who turned their children into heroes on the football field only to watch them take their place on the assembly line — or, more bleakly, the cell block — after graduation. What I observed in these texts, however, was how small-town high school football can function as a collectively owned asset — an ever-growing “archive” of moments demonstrating the inherent worth of members of that community — with which to counter constant exposure to the unstable, exploitative labor conditions created by unregulated free-market capitalism. Football, in other words, is a matter of working-class dignity. As one coach from Bissinger’s book put it to his young team: “Later on in life they can take your money away from you, they can take your house, they can take your car, they can’t take this kind of stuff away from you, something you’ll always have and always be proud of.” Any way you look at it, Romney and his ilk are the “they” to whom this coach is referring.

The main source of my anger over Romney’s use of the “Clear Eyes” slogan — a slogan belonging to those small-town working class kids and the Coach they respect, who respects them back whatever their circumstances — is the entitled smugness with which he just reaches out and takes. This theft reflects the general attitude of the corporate class toward the world they inhabit and the policies they promote to sustain their right to take. Cutting taxes for the wealthy while raising middle class taxes to pay for such cuts, as Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan would do, is a particularly frightening example of this “we take what we want, no apologies” outlook. As we learned from the 2008 mortgage crisis and corporate bailouts to follow, the economic system is designed to insulate the takers from any potential repercussions associated with their greed.

That greed is especially insidious when cast as an appeal to the very “heartland” working people who will be most affected by the taker’s anti-labor, social contract gutting political moves. One of the most haunting moments from Bissinger’s book comes when he cites a few lines from George Bush senior’s 1988 Republican National Convention acceptance speech. Hot on the tail of an enthusiastically received campaign stop in Midland, Texas, where he once briefly lived, Bush reminisced:

Now we moved to West Texas forty years ago, forty years ago this year. And the war was over, and we wanted to get out and make it on our own… We lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us, worked in the oil business, and then started my own.

And in time, we had six children; moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house, and lived the dream—high school football on Friday nights…

There’s so much taking going on here. Bush, a Yale graduate and banker’s son, takes hardship, takes struggle.  With the slippages of a clever speechwriter, he turns a one-room “shotgun house” into a densely populated shack (did they really have six children before moving out?). From shotgun to duplex to house, he takes upward class mobility, that story, for his own. And, like Romney, he takes “the dream” of small-town high school football.

Romney is not only taking Coach Taylor’s motto. Like Bush, he is making a grab at working-class identity. In a cover photo featured last week on his Facebook page, Romney’s back is turned to the camera, rain pouring down his jacket in a nighttime scene reminiscent of Coach Taylor’s many contemplative looks across an empty field. Since we don’t see Romney’s face, there is little to distinguish him from a Coach whose sincerity, humility, and finely-tuned force of character mark him as a man that anyone — even a feminist agitator like myself — would follow.

Bush and Romney want access to those moments of greatness beneath the lights not just as admirers, but as participants in the collective authoring of the American story: “making memories,” as the series’s Silverado-driving fullback Tim Riggins would put it. However disingenuous a performance, Bush senior was telling communities like Midland, “Not only do I value the dream that you’re living, but I’ve lived it too — I’ve made those memories. Your story is my story.” The irony, of course, is that the archive of community memories granting value to working-class experience is especially important in light of conservative economic policies that leave working people with so few stable assets to hold onto, things they can’t take. Plumbing small-town high school football for political capital is an attempt to destabilize something that remains a small but deeply meaningful source of self-empowerment for the working class.

In one of the series’ most memorable episodes, Coach Taylor walks slowly through the locker room at halftime of the first game played by the East Dillon Lions, the inexperienced, poorly equipped team with which he has been saddled. As he regards his battered team — his quarterback has a badly sprained ankle; one of his fullbacks is spitting blood — a look of sad resignation crosses the Coach’s face. He walks back to the field, ready to do what he must: forfeit the game in order to keep his vulnerable players from further harm. Coach Taylor knows that for his team to stand a chance of eventual success, players must have their health, decent equipment, and any other resources he can provide.

Contrast that with another Romney attempt to channel the Coach. Last week, he staged a touch football game between his campaign staffers and members of the press corps. Romney’s advice to his team? “Figure out which of their players is best and take them out early… That’s right, don’t worry about injuries guys, this counts. Win.” Coach Taylor leads with a community-first ethos that Romney, with his instinct to “take out” anyone standing in the way of his personal win-loss record, could not fake if his life depended on it. Responding to the slogan drama, one popular Friday Night Lights fan blog gives it to him straight: “Hey Mitt: You, sir, are no Coach Taylor.”

Sara Appel

Sara Appel is a Visiting Research Scholar in the Program in Literature at Duke University.

The New Precariat and Electoral Politics

During the Presidential campaign, Americans have heard endless discussions about unemployment. But neither candidate has said much, at least not directly, about precarious employment or about the new precariat – that growing group (some would even say the growing class) of workers in temporary, part-time, and/or contingent work that often doesn’t pay a living wage.

Who is the precariat? According to Guy Standing, the author of The Precariat: the New Dangerous Class, all of us could be.  For now, the precariat involves largely women, the young, the disabled, retirees forced back to work, former prisoners, and migrants. It also includes large numbers of formerly middle-class professionals, skilled and semi-skilled people who have been displaced by economic change. While each of these groups has gotten some attention, Standing argues that as a group, the precariat is still “a class in the making,” united by an overwhelming sense of insecurity and vulnerability.

The growth of the precariat has its roots in globalization and technological change, which flooded flexible labor markets and advanced international divisions of labor.  These conditions coincided with changes in government regulation, corporate restructuring, reduced access to and distribution of social programs, and the creation of coercive social policies such as workfare, mass incarceration, and means testing.

Historically, precarious employment was associated with the informal economy.  But with economic changes in the last several decades, informality has moved beyond traditional practices of black market exchanges or services such as day care or tutoring. As workers have been displaced from the formal economy, many are turning to consulting, internships, and subcontracting to find contingent and intermittent work. In general, more and more people are involved in unregulated work characterized by irregular employment, short job ladders, substandard wages and working conditions, and increased stigmatization. During the current economic crisis, with declining standards of living and loss of public assistance, the new precariat – like the old precariat — survives by working longer hours, holding multiple jobs, and when possible relying on the kindness and generosity of friends and family.

While the growth of the precariat creates real social and economic challenges for workers in the informal economy, in places like Youngstown, where the cost of living is low, some mostly younger adults are making a virtue of the situation. As cultural anthropologist Hannah Woodroofe has argued, Youngstown is becoming home to increasing numbers of highly individualistic, anti-materialistic, entrepreneurial adults with episodic employment in largely deregulated work environments. While some define themselves as entrepreneurs, many also see their rejection of materialism as providing a measure of freedom and dignity that challenged capitalist and “older parental” values surrounding work.

Their economic conditions are anemic and often do not reflect their education and experience (many have college and even graduate degrees). They don’t earn much and have little savings, health care, or pension benefits. Their work experiences and the difficulties they’ve had in finding jobs in the formal economy have reduced their expectations about the future.  They have internalized their economic insecurity, and their personal lives tend to mirror their work lives, with contingent and episodic relationships and living situations. Many embrace sustainability and green values, starting urban farms or homesteading in abandoned houses.  Others are part of a contingent creative class, doing freelance work in the arts, web development, and education, but because of the precarity of their work, they don’t make the kinds of stabilizing contributions to the local economy that Richard Florida predicted.  Some just want to be left alone, comfortable with their inexpensive lifestyles.

Just how big is the new precariat? It’s difficult to measure, but the Federal Reserve Board of Cleveland suggests that the ‘Great Recession’ has resulted in increases in self-employment, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 35 million people work part time.  While the data on how many people have precarious employment is far from definitive, the precariat clearly seems to be large and growing.

That suggests that the new precariat could have a significant impact on the election. Most of them don’t believe that the government or other institutions can do much to ameliorate their situation.  Many consider themselves to be small business people. As Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett have suggested, “Republicans have turned small business into a catch-all group the way ‘working class’ once served that function for the left.” That suggests that the precariat may be persuaded by campaign rhetoric about taxes and economic development.  On the other hand, many see themselves as anti-capitalist, committed to green values and social justice. So will they vote like those who share their educational backgrounds, who are more likely to be politically independent and have socially progressive leanings, thus revealing themselves to be the fallen faction of the middle class?  Or do they, like much of the old white working class, vote on the basis of economic aspiration?  Or does the precariat now include so many Americans, from diverse backgrounds and in varied situations, that their political views can’t be easily predicted?  In 2012 in states like Ohio, the new precariat could determine the presidential election and America’s future.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Vandals in a Steel City School District

If you weren’t sure, let me remind you, Pittsburgh is a 21st century city that still has a rusty, bricked out, working-class soul. I know this because I live here, but also because I finally saw the agit-prop-weepy that is Won’t Back Down, a film about a charter school take-over of a failing school in Pittsburgh’s impoverished Hill District using a special kind of law that we don’t have here in Pennsylvania (yet—and hopefully we never will) called the “parent trigger” law.

In Won’t Back Down, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a working-class single mom of a 3rd grade girl with dyslexia. Jamie works two jobs—at a car dealership by day and at a bar by night. Jamie is earnest, irrepressible, and hot. You see a lot of Jamie’s flat midriff and perky cleavage, even when she is delivering lines that could have been written by Sarah Palin: “You know those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies? They are nothing compared to me.”

The truck that is crushing Jamie’s daughter Malia is a bad teacher at a school that has been failing for 19 years, Adams Elementary. The bad teacher is a stout middle-aged white lady who shops for shoes online and fiddles with her iPhone while Malia is getting roughed up and ridiculed in the classroom. The bad teacher is, of course, a union stalwart and has been “tenurized.”

When Jamie realizes how bad it is at Adams she tries (and fails) to secure one of three slots at the awesome new Rosa Parks charter school. Then she tries (and fails) to negotiate installment payments with a local Catholic school. Then she tries (and fails) to get Malia into a different classroom at Adams, one taught by Viola Davis’s character, Nona Alberts, the self-described “first black Stepford wife” who is going through a wrenching divorce. Nona is almost as checked out as the bad white teacher, but Jamie sees a spark in Nona’s dead eyes and begs her to help her take over the school using the parent trigger law (referred to as a “fail safe” law in the film).

In real life no group of parents has (yet) successfully used this law, but that doesn’t stop Jamie and Nona.  The next thing we know, they are knocking on doors and getting parents to sign petitions.  They get teachers to sign as well, which is tricky, because if the parent trigger law goes into effect, the teachers will forfeit their union membership at the resulting charter school. Jamie’s new boyfriend, who teaches music at her daughter’s school, argues in favor of his union, explaining that teachers need to be protected against low wages and preferential treatment. In another scene, one of the union officials (played by Ned Eisenberg) points out that teachers’ unions are under attack, and that parent trigger laws are aimed straight at organizations like the AFT. He is right, but unfortunately, Won’t Back Down is part of that attack.

The movie shows that pulling the parent trigger is pretty hard. Jamie and Nona have to get 51% of the parents Adams elementary (400+) to sign waiver forms. This takes hours of door knocking in the graffiti slathered tenements of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It also takes a widely publicized and well-attended rally, which, as one blogger has pointed out, probably cost more than $3,000 to mount. They have to persuade a reluctant school board to hear the case, and, then, they have to get the school board to vote for their scheme.

After the school board vote (SPOILER ALERT) the film has an impossibly happy ending, in which Malia can miraculously read, and the new charter school (though no one ever utters that word) is filled with rainbows, streamers, butterflies, and song.

Won’t Back Down is not your garden variety Hollywood feel-good edu-flick. It was produced by 20th Century Fox in conjunction with Walden Media, which also produced the controversial union-bashing Waiting for Superman and is bankrolled by gajilloinaire Phillip Anschutz. In addition to funding challenges to climate change and evolution science, over the last 10 years Anschutz has donated at least $210,000 to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, dedicated to the eradication of unions. The fact that Won’t Back Down had the least profitable opening ever for a film that opened in 2,500 theaters is, at least, some comfort.

Won’t Back Down is relevant to us those of us in Working-Class Studies because its producers are part of a movement to privatize, corporatize, and monetize public education. I have been watching this movement storm into Pennsylvania over the last few years under the cover of governor Tom Corbett, whose campaign was bankrolled by an entourage of for-profit charter school financiers, and PA’s Republican/ALEC controlled state legislature.

Won’t Back Down doesn’t ask the question that many of us have been raising:  do charter schools improve education? Here in Pennsylvania, Corbett’s administration has been giving charter schools a pass, making it easier for them to meet federal standards, even though a recent Stanford CREDO survey found that “[c]harter schools…in Pennsylvania on average perform worse than traditional public schools…”

So why do charters appeal to poor and working-class parents—especially in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? As one Philadelphia blogger argues, charters use false advertising to trumpet the benefits of charters schools for inner city children; they “discriminate by playing by their own rules,” such as “counseling out” children with learning difficulties or behavioral problems; and charter school drain money, great students, and highly involved parents from the public schools.

In recent years public schools, public school teachers, and teacher unions have been under constant assault. The rhetoric of failure is rampant, though some argue that it is No Child Left Behind that has failed, and not the schools or the teachers themselves. In a recent poll, for example, three quarters of Americans report being satisfied with their own child’s school, but rate public education in general below 50%.

Are schools failing our children? Or are we failing our schools? In the last two years Corbett has cut more than a billion dollars from the Pennsylvania education budget, forcing hundreds of high performing schools to cut or end art, music, band, and, in the case of my own children’s school, science. Thousands of us in PA have been fighting back. One especially active parent, Susan Spicka, is running for the state legislature, while others have been rallying, pressuring our reps, calling out the governor, and fundraising like crazy in our own schools.

Through these actions, I have been reminded that we already have a kind of parent trigger law. It’s called democracy. Organizing on behalf of public education is as hard as trying to get 400+ parents to sign a parent trigger waiver—and most days, even harder. If you want to see what it looks like in Pittsburgh, check out Yinzercation, an education blog that puts the Pittsburgh fight in the context of the larger state and national issues. Our fight is about protecting public schools and strengthening communities. As Garrison Keiler has argued, “when you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.”

Won’t Back Down is a rallying cry for the foes of public education—the vandals—and they had better be warned that our public schools are not for sale. I am going to keep fighting for public schools because it is the right thing to do: for my children—and for all of the children for whom public education is still a vital civil right.

Kathy M. Newman