Grant Gallicho March 7, 2011 - 9:00am
The comment of the weekend was brought to you by dotCommonweal contributor unagidon, who helpfully outlined the evolution of the Right's recent antiunion memes. Be sure to read the whole thing, and the thread where it was posted.
The creation of memes in our current politics is an interesting one because it fits so well with communication via the Internet.Lets review. This all started in Wisconsin with a governor saying that it was essential to break public sector unions (and not just the teachers union) in order to deal with a budget deficit. This was the original story; that it was about the deficit. There was a great deal of push-back with this, both locally and nationally. So the good reason to break the unions started to change. We have seen a number of these floated in these discussions here. Shall I list some of them?1. We have been told that unions are a means to funnel public tax dollars into politicians pockets, because unions demand dues which come from tax paid salaries, then the union then uses some to support their favorite politicians. This failed to become a meme when it was pointed out that, because union members are paying dues out of their own pockets, the implication is that tax payers have some kind of right to tell public sector workers what to do with their own money.2. Public sector unions, because they amount to monopolies hold the public hostage with their ability to strike. This failed to become a meme when the public sector unions didnt use this supposed massive power of theirs to fend off the governor of Wisconsin. If they could extort their wages from the tax payer by striking, they why arent they extorting their very existence?3. The above attempt at a meme broke into two more memes:a. Unions in general are too strong in the United States andb. Unions are not necessary any more in the United States because hardly anyone is in them any more any way.I have seen both of these theories, which contradict each other, being used by people even here in the same post.4. Union workers use their power to extort higher than market rate salaries. This didnt turn into a meme, because the general public thinks that some public workers (like police and firemen) hardly make enough now. So this meme morphed so that it was specifically the teachers who make too much. Why pick on the teachers? Because there is a common misconception in the general public that being a teacher doesnt require a lot of qualifications. First, the level of education of teachers in our system is similar to the general level of education of much of the population, many of whom make less than teachers. Second, teachers are teaching young people. So how hard can third grade math be? Third, anyone with a child is going to have contact with teachers. This creates the additional element of people having a hard time seeing their (tax) money go to pay people who appear to be having an easier time then the people paying them through taxes. But this didnt turn into a meme either, because a) not all the teachers make the big bucks b) lots of people have teachers in their families and c) lots of people also think that teachers salaries are not in fact too high.5. The salary thing did for a while look like it was going to be a good meme, especially when it was combined in one of its variants, then went something like Teaching is a calling and teachers are public servants. They teach because they love to. Why should we have to pay them too?. It fit in with the governor of Wisconsins own meme of defending the tax payer against greedy union worker. There were lots of people who think that they could teach if they really wanted to, so why should teachers get what they dont? And, very importantly, teachers teach children. So finding something wrong can be about saving the children. And excellent element for a meme, because it puts opponents in the position of having to attack children. And what kind of evil people do that? The problem was, the connection between teachers and salaries is a tax and wage issue, not a save the children issue. Children arent directly affected by how much their teachers make. At least not in the way that.6. hiring practices do. So this became the meme. There are so many anecdotes on the Internet about bad teachers not being fired (and in fact, everyone can probably recount some personal anecdote about this). Their job protections come from the unions. It was hard to criticize this meme, because the critic could easily be pushed back into a defensive position. (So you approve of retaining bad teachers? So you are willing to sacrifice the precious resource of our young helpless children just to protect a greedy corrupt union?) Another plus for well read partisans is that the unfire-able bad teacher problem has been going on for years, ever since NCLB started to fail all over the place. This gives the meme depth, as though it is part of a bigger ideological struggle between concerned conservatives and corrupt labor lovin liberals. So this meme seems to be sticking. It had a little head, a little heart, and it makes the people who might have seem greedy and envious themselves when they were pushing the other memes now sound like righteous child defenders. Amen.A meme is a pre-packaged cultural snippet that seems very clear and self contained. It looks black and white and it makes the other side look vicious, greedy, and stupid. Its function is to translate a complex situation into a pseudo-moral situation for the purposes of political manipulation. Both the right and the left use them and they are particularly common in religious discussions. They have become especially popular with the rise of the internet because they are so short that they can even be tweeted and they seem so complete that a person who uses them can sound like he knows what he is talking about. But they are a scourge that makes us ever more stupid every time we use them.
We've just published unagidon'sWeb-only article that asks, Why are public-sector unions so different? (Hint: they're not.) Don't miss it.