Silencing resistance

Apr 30, 2024
Illustration of a man with a flag of words and inscriptions in his hands, symbolizing the protest movement, the movement of revolution and social justice. Image:iStock/Rustic

Those with a dedicated interest in maintaining the status quo fear education in the wrong hands. America’s current moment illuminates trends in Australia’s education: from the draconian repression of US student protests against the probable genocide taking place in Gaza to the Republican campaign to destroy public education, we must take note.

Campus protests against the war in Gaza have been troubling university administrators. At a Columbia University protest in January, for example, figures reputed to have links to the Israeli Defence Forces are alleged to have been responsible for a “chemical attack” on students protesting for peace in Gaza. The university initially responded by condemning the student protesters.

The protest movement has exploded this week after Columbia and several other institutions escalated their repression of protest. Student editorial boards at the universities condemned the actions. At NYU, 128 students, staff and community members were arrested. The college had constructed a plywood wall around students to keep the protest from even being visible.

The attacks on non-violent speech have resulted in students across the nation setting up encampments, occupying buildings and ignoring demands to leave. Now, staff at the University of Texas Austin are striking against the militarised response to peaceful, planned protest. City police and state troopers with tear gas and guns were deployed against students who had organised a day of teach-ins, pizza and an art workshop.

It is becoming clear that in America, there is no protected way to protest America spending tens of billions to enable the destruction of the Palestinian people and society without being depicted as a supporter of terrorism. This is despite the fact that many (sometimes most) of the protesting students are Jewish. Their bloc is a valued component of the coalition. When students resisting peacefully are carried away by police or banned from their college campuses as a result, these protesting Jewish students are certainly not made safer.

Protest is labelled “antisemitic” because, it appears, Palestinian lives are worthless. While economic sanctions were the peaceful protest that helped bring down South African apartheid, the same tool being used against Israeli apartheid is punished.

Neocon warmonger now journalist David Frum tweeted that student debt forgiveness must be denied those protesters obstructing others’ learning. As commenters pointed out, this made clear the Right Wing interest in using chilling measures to suppress student dissent and to enforce compliance. The rich do not need debt forgiveness; as usual, their speech is elevated.

Part of the problem lies in university administrators being terrified of losing their jobs because of the threats by politicians and donors if they do not shut down protest supporting Palestinians.

A group of Jewish faculty members at Columbia rejected the Congressional attack on the university’s leader as a “weaponisation of antisemitism.” They also condemned it as part of “a wider effort to caricature and demonise universities as hotbeds of ‘woke indoctrination.'”

Educational opportunities at the primary and secondary levels have been revolutionised by public education, but that revolution is now troubling Republican thought leaders. Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders in her executive order to stop the teaching of Black history (misleadingly referred to as “critical race theory”) emphasised that education must be to prepare students to “enter the workforce.” Understanding the lasting impacts of a segregated nation might lead to workers questioning their conditions. Ignorance is powerlessness.

Huckabee Sanders is just one of many Republicans dedicated to dismantling public education to replace it with (religious) private education. Ascendant Christian Nationalism has meant that a narrow moral education is taking over from other concerns.

The unifying message is the fear of free speech, despite the First Amendment. In the country that treats its constitution as sacred, the forces of the Right are frightened of the change that might be ushered in by youth challenging dogma, whether in class projects or university protests.

Many of the figures that have held power in conservative governments of recent years lived through the 1968 era of youth revolution. That moment of turmoil and rejection of the status quo was terrifying to those holding firmly to the venerated past.

Political descendants such as Tony Abbott, who began university in the late 70s, pitched themselves as right wing brawlers against such “communist” infiltration. News Corp journalist Greg Sheridan left his junior seminary because its “social activism” disturbed him and went on to fight “communism” at university instead. Issues of justice continue to be labelled “communism” by such figures.

It is common in our flawed democracies for those in power to allow debate and protest about topics that have not troubled them overly, such as marriage equality or what time nightclubs close. It provides a useful distraction and outlet for the public to feel its voice is heard and even incremental change made.

Issues that might impede core projects are treated in very different ways altogether. Profits – whether in resource extraction or in the military-industrial complex – are sacrosanct. As the climate crisis begins to destroy Australian lives, state governments are dramatically escalating repressive laws to crush protest. The right-wing architecture of influence galvanised to prevent the Voice to Parliament in case it obstructed or delayed mining projects.

Under Whitlam, university education was made more available, more stimulating, and free. Bob Hawke enabled the foot-in-the-door introduction of Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberalism; as part of that, he was the prime minister who reintroduced a barrier payment to education through HECS. Coalition governments have continued to damage education quality and attempt to raise its cost.

Now a medical degree is costing students $366,739 dollars at a moment when a fifth of junior doctors are considering leaving the profession. Monique Ryan MP is leading a campaign to tackle the crippling nature of HECS debt, where an Australian earning $60,000 a year will “see their debt increase by $1,177, despite having paid off $1,200 over the year.” The debt burden is a powerful tool to control the citizenry.

As for public schools, the huge disparity in subsidy continues under the ALP. While 98% of private schools are overfunded, only 1.3% of state schools are fully funded. Our schools don’t enable social mobility; inequality is entrenched.

State schools and overburdened teachers here are decried as “woke” by right-wing activists, echoing their American models.

If children aren’t told that jarrah and karri forests in Western Australia are dying, mountain ash forests in Victoria are dying, snow gum forests in the high country are dying, the Great Barrier Reef is dying, maybe we can pretend there is no climate crisis underway.

Private school children, one presumes, have enough investment in the status quo to deserve such disproportionate sums.

John F Kennedy warned in 1962, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Vested interests plan for there to be no protest at all, no matter how many lives its absence will cost.

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