I’m Okay, Thainks

I’ve been at WOMAD for the last three days collecting signatures on a Green Party petition opposing government plans to privatize four of New Zealand’s state owned energy companies. Most people sign – well aware of the sad and embarrassing results of earlier privatization exercises (including the bank and railroad that failed and had to be rescued by the government).

When people don’t sign, a common response is “I’m okay, thanks.” It doesn’t mean they disagree with the petition. What it means is that they’re making a clear choice not to involve themselves in the political process. Marxist psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich argues in the Mass Psychology of Fascism that disengaging from the political process is an active choice to a strong external authority. It relates to peoples’ lack confidence in their own ability to make responsible decisions.

Signature gatherers

Signature gatherers

Where Have I Heard This Before?

I used to get the same “I’m okay, thanks” during my 14 years as a single payer activist in Washington State. There this response had quite a different meaning. It was a typical reaction from union workers and professionals who had good health insurance through their employer and saw no reason to reform the health care system. They were also afraid any change might leave them worse off.

In fact, this attitude – and not insurance and drug company opposition – was the largest single obstacle we faced.  People simply couldn’t grasp the extreme danger of allowing health insurance companies to corporatize health care – that once we allowed health care to become a profit-making commodity, insurance companies would jack premiums up exponentially while shifting medical costs were shifted back to patients . And that even people with good coverage would have no safety net if they lost their job or if they or family member developed a serious illness that required extensive treatment.

With the economic downtown, our predictions came true – as thousands of Washingtonians who rejected our single payer petition joined America’s 50 million uninsured.

My Kids Are Okay, Thanks

Curiously I run into a similar response from parents who, frightened by the chaos in many public schools, have opted to enroll their kids in privately run charter schools. Their kids are doing fine, so they see no problem with the massive attack by Republicans and conservative Democrats on public school, teachers and teachers unions. In fact many of these parents argue that teachers should be sacked and schools closed if they don’t do a proper job of educating kids.

The problem, as with single payer movement, is convincing them that there’s an agenda behind the charter school movement – namely the privatization of education – spearheaded by people who don’t see education as a basic human right, but as a potential profit-making commodity. While their own children may have lucked out in securing free placement in a privately run charter school, their grandchildren and great grandchildren may not be so fortunate. Moreover if we allow our neighborhood public schools to close, they won’t have that option, either.

Once charter schools cease to be under public control, there’s absolutely nothing to stop the people who run them from charging fees and tuition, as occurs in many third world countries. It’s a pattern we see repeatedly, when neoliberal institutions like the IMF and World Bank force debtor nations to privatize education in the name of “structural adjustment.” If we fail to defend the right to free public education, we will become like India and other third world countries where only children of well-off families learn to read.

The Dilemma of Being a Progressive Parent

I totally understand the dilemma parents face in ensuring their kids acquire a strong education to prepare them for college and a career. I faced it myself in deciding to keep my own daughter in public school, when I knew she would get a far better education at the private school Bill Gates attended. I could only make that decision by assuming an active role in her progress and school board campaigns and by making a big stink at PTSA and school board meetings when I saw wrongheaded decisions being made.

Liberal and progressive parents always walk a fine line between helping their kids prepare for their future and fighting (in view of global warming and the vicious attacks on the working class, democracy and civil liberties) to ensure that they even have a future. Nevertheless there are some very powerful people seeking to do away with the right to free public education. No matter what type of school our children attend, we need to support public schools and stand with teachers and other public services workers who are under attack.

Making a collective stand in Wisconsin

Making a collective stand in Wisconsin

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