Arizona Wen Zi Yu

University teachers are at the brink of becoming an endangered species in Arizona. Entire non-tenured groups of teachers have already received their termination notices. Thousands are disappearing. Gloom and outrage are palpable in the hallways and in online exchanges.

Arizona’s legislative leadership is controlled by Tea Partiers. Following November’s congressional elections, they have super-majorities that will render opposition irrelevant.   It turned out to be an illusion to believe that Arizona was changing under Janet Napolitano during her governorship.

Arizona higher education is the major target of Governor Jan Brewer and her state legislature allies who talk about ‘administrative surplus’ at universities.  Two years ago nearly two thousand staff and contingent faculty were laid off at my university prior to arrival of stimulus monies.

The state budget situation is even worse today.  Now the state’s executive and legislative leaders present a false dichotomy between higher education and health care, or between universities and K-12 education.

These rationalizations are mere excuses.  There is class warfare in Arizona between its rampant, angry, far-right majority and its small liberal-left centers in Tempe and Tucson.  This is a multi-front class war: the larger one is between this same suburban Anglo majority and the Hispanic community, with its perceived invading and allied brown-skinned masses surging across the state’s southern border.

But humans trudging across deserts looking for work or sitting packed into trafficker houses do not have a state budget line that can be cut.  So it will be the public universities – the home of the resident intellectual class – that will see its budget disappear.

In a state where it is acceptable to attack ethnic minorities – recent state legislation bans the teaching of ethnic studies in high schools – then academics who study ethnic cultures and the educational institutions that harbor them will be treated like ethnic minorities.  Arizona’s right-wing has no ideological commitment to public education in any case, believing that education is private consumption and that students and their families should pay for university education rather than taxpayers.

In Ming and Qing dynasty China there were imperial edicts for wén zi’ yù.  The phrase translates roughly as ‘speech crime.’  Under this policy the writings of intellectuals were inspected for sedition, with imprisonment, exile or execution as punishment.  Even suspicious phrases in a poem might lead to beheading, not only for the poet but also for the poet’s family under a theory of collective responsibility.

Arizona-style wén zi’ yù relies on budgetary beheading of suspicious universities and their public intellectuals.  The corporate makeover of the state’s public university system does not disguise the fact that its faculty still constitutes a center of opposition to the Know-Nothing ethnic divisiveness and ultra-patriotism that prevail in Arizona politics today.  A price will be paid for that opposition.

This assault on education emerges from a clear social context.  Arizona has become a leader of the far-right in US politics, with neo-fascist politicians such as state senate president Russell Pearce and ever-popular Maricopa county sheriff Joe Arpaio.  They set the style that many lesser local lights imitate.  Given the popularity and proliferation of neo-fascist politics, it does not surprise that new state senate president Pearce numbers an actual Nazi – J.T. Ready – among his friends.

The term ‘neo-fascist’ is harsh but accurate.  Neo-fascism is characterized by elements of nativism, racism, authoritarianism, brutal and corrupt police tactics, deformation of legal systems, and the use of state institutions to crush political opposition.  All of these elements have a notable strength in Arizona politics at present.

Arizona’s now-infamous Senate Bill 1070 – pushed through by Russell Pearce — mandates that local police act to enforce federal immigration law and has drawn ferocious criticism for its animating xenophobia and racism.  Barack Obama condemned it as lacking “basic fairness.”  Los Angeles cardinal Roger Mahoney, no liberal, condemned the law’s provisions for demanding “papers” and charged that Arizona was “reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques.”  Some have called the law a modernized Chinese Exclusion Act and, to the outrage of Arizona politicians, the Chinese government has cited SB 1070 as an example of US human rights violation.

The police tactics of far-right politicians such as Joe Arpaio and former Maricopa County prosecutor Andrew Thomas against local conservative and centrist politicians are now the subject of federal grand jury hearings on abuse-of-power charges.  Local judges and county supervisors who were targeted for criminal investigations because they opposed budget demands by Arpaio and Thomas have filed civil suits of their own.  In 2008 Arpaio’s deputies made middle-of-the-night arrests of Phoenix New Times owners after the newspaper ran critical cover stories on the sheriff.  This too is the subject of a civil lawsuit.

Arizona has turned into a morass of nativist, racist and authoritarian political initiatives and practices that become embroiled in civil rights lawsuits.   Education is inextricable from this political context.

The coming several years under this new far-right state government will see proliferating attacks on education budgets, freedom to teach, tenure, and academic freedom, alongside deteriorating educational quality.   The effective privatization of the public university system will gain momentum as state financing evaporates.

Public education has been an historical bulwark of democracy.  Neo-fascism operates by inverting democratic institutions to achieve undemocratic ends.  These attacks – Arizona-style wén zi’ yù – are as much about nationalism and patriotism as about taxes and budgets.  They aim at fundamentally altering the relationship of education to democracy, a change that will emphasize cheap low-quality and technically-oriented education.  Universities, from a neo-fascist perspective, are anti-patriotic institutions that provide salaries for undeserving subversive intellectuals.

Some faculty are already looking for positions in other states and there is predictable gossip about an academic brain-drain leaving Arizona.   A few faculty may leave for better positions; some may join the struggle for Arizona education; some may accommodate to pay the rent; many will lose their jobs whatever their preference.

The real opposition will come from our students, those among them who demand intellectual engagement and enlightenment from their education. One of my best former students spent months camped in a tent outside Senator John McCain’s office demanding passage of the DREAM Act to enable undocumented people such as himself to gain a path toward legal residency and citizenship, an effort blocked by the US senate Republicans.  That student and others like him will not be silenced; they will not stop demanding social justice.  Some of Arizona’s best teachers are and will be on the streets protesting.

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