Truth in a post-Citizens United v. FEC world

January 24th, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

CB022158I’ve tried to write this post a couple times, but I became so frustrated I had to backspace myself to zero and take a break. Rightfully so, most media outlets have been consumed by the death and destruction in Haiti to put this story on heavy rotation, but it hit me like a ton of bricks of dirty, corporate money and I’ve been trying to find a way to vent constructively about it.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this past week in Citizens United v. FEC that the government cannot ban political contributions by corporations in candidate elections. The New York Times did a great job explaining the story when it broke and there are a number of more in-depth articles and editorials on the far reaching impact of this decision from both sides of the aisle. I particularly like this one by David Kairys on Slate who calls the decision “misguided” saying “money isn’t speech and corporations aren’t people.” The short explanation is now corporations and organizations can give as much as they like in an election or buy as much airtime as they like. On the one side, people (mostly Republicans) say this is a win for First Amendment rights and free speech, calling the previous limits on corporate spending during elections “censorship.” On the other side, people (mostly Democrats), including the President, say it’s a win for corporations and special interests that want to keep their grips on the decision-makers in Washington.

At the risk of stating the obvious, business is a crucial part of this country and its people, but I think it too often weasels its way too far into public education. And with this decision business will have even more control over our government and in turn over those that make the decisions on education. But really, the money isn’t what I’m most worried about. Those decisions are far above my pay grade…especially considering I don’t even have a teaching job yet.

While driving down the interstate, I was listening to NPR coverage of the decision (you can listen to the same story here)). Rep. John Boehner, house majority leader and supporter of the decision, downplayed worries that it would make it more difficult to tell who and what corporate entities are backing major candidates in elections.

“Sunshine really does work if you allow it to,” Boehner said.

That may be true, but what percentage of the voting population is able to determine where money is coming from? And how many care enough to do so? There are great organizations and resources out offering services like searchable databases of campaign contributions, but often the people that visit are already those discerning, thinking individuals, or cynical ex-reporters like myself. What about those that want to care but don’t really know how to uncover the truth on their own?

My cooperating teacher had a great saying that she used often when we would eat lunch during our planning blocks, feeding our stomachs and our news addiction with CNN: “Only 5 percent of the population thinks,” she’d say. “The other 95 percent waits for someone to tell them what to think.”

Right now it’s even more important that we as educators focus on helping our students learn how to learn. They need to be able to answer their own questions without waiting for someone to tell them what to think because, more often than not, it will be a special interest-funded politician or extreme talking head (Glenn BeckKeith Olbermann…I’m looking at you guys). While at the annual NCTE convention in November, I had the pleasure of attending a great session with Kelly Gallagher. He talked about a lot of things, but one of his stories stuck with me about a student that wanted to know who “this Al guy” was that everyone was talking about…she was referring to Al Qaida. This student was getting ready to enter the world as a young voter and her knowledge of current events in this post-9/11 world clearly disturbed Gallagher as it did everyone else in the session.

“I want my students to know what a politician is saying,” Gallagher said. “But also what he’s not saying.”

And I think that’s the difference. Our students will need to be even more ready to think, discern and read between the lines. Politicians are the same now as they were a hundred years ago, I’m sure, but we have even more power to educate ourselves and demand that sunshine Boehner says works so well.

So, is it about free speech or is it about protecting democracy? To me, those issues are one in the same. The bigger issue is the background noise this adds to an already confusing system where two parties, glutted with corporate and special interest dollars, fight for 51 percent of the vote. Where does education fit into this decision? Trying to find the truth in politics seems daunting enough for me as a young voter, so I’m wondering how I will help students sift through it all?

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