Dr. Nagesh Rao is a professor of literature at the College. Nagesh, as he prefers to be called, is a proud member of the International Socialist Organization, and encourages his activist students to follow suit.
On The Perspective:
I like the name. In art, as in politics, perspective is about angles of view. To have a perspective is to identify your field of vision, to locate yourself in relation to the world around you. Often we mean it in an aesthetic sense, like in a painting.
For activists, a perspective is about defining and clarifying the existing political terrain. If you want to change the world, you need to understand it. To succeed, social movements require continual reassessment of the environment in which they exist. In other words, to effectively intervene in the world, we need a clear perspective to begin with.
On the divide in the Democrats, Obama, and the current political climate:
There is something going on, on this campus and others, among Democrats and independents who were looking to Obama for change. Many of them have begun to ask—what went wrong?
On the national political scene, you see all the fault lines beginning to emerge. On the one hand, you have Obama bailing out the banks and the auto industries and so forth, and doing nothing to stem home foreclosures…. So there’s a real sense of — they’ve given away trillions to corporations… where’s our bailout?
At the same time, if you look at the policies that have been pursued by the Obama administration, they’re not that different from Bush’s policies. On Guantanamo he’s been stalling, on civil liberties he’s been backtracking—for instance, he’s going to continue the “renditions” programs of the Bush years…. We had an editorial in the New York Times that says Sens. Barbara Boxer and John Kerry, who were supposed to put forward a climate bill, have decided to delay it another month. Which means that when the U.S. goes to Stockholm for the global climate summit later this year, there’s not going to be a plan. This is a stalling mechanism so corporations can continue to pollute the environment.
On healthcare, it’s clear that there is massive widespread support for healthcare reform, and yet the Democrats have allowed the agenda to be taken over by the far Right. The reason I’m saying they’ve allowed the Right to take it over is that the Democrats have not come out with any strong defense of state-run universal health insurance. Not being willing to defend a government program, they find themselves on the defensive; on the one hand, they give away billions to banks in the bailout, and yet they’re afraid to propose a government-funded healthcare system.
People can see the hypocrisy there. The “public option” that’s being offered is just a sop—and it takes more than a sop to actually energize people behind the plan. But it is enough for the kooky right wing to go nuts, to call it socialism, fascism, whatever. So it’s the spinelessness – no, the lack of principles – of the Democrats, in terms of standing up and demanding Single-Payer, that has given fuel to the Right.
I think people are beginning to see it, at colleges, workplaces, and neighborhoods… There are sections of those people—including students—who are saying… “I think Obama still can do it, but I don’t know if I want to wait.” And they’re turning instead to organizing, and mobilizing, as the way to get change.
I think the marriage equality movement has put protest as a way of changing things on the agenda again, and that is a very exciting development.
On the link between LGBT rights and economics:
Well, it might not be a mechanical link between economic conditions and social struggles. But if there are 1,300 laws that discriminate between gay couples and straight couples, and a whole slew of legislation that prevents LGBT couples from having the same benefits—spousal benefits, healthcare benefits— that’s an economic issue. Secondly, this time around, the LGBT movement, unlike, say, in the 1980s and 1990s, is not a corporate-dominated movement, but genuinely grassroots. It is a movement for civil rights that is drawing in not just middle-class professionals and the like. Its base is increasingly working-class. Thirdly, in a time of economic crisis, the far Right uses prejudice and hate to distract people’s attention from the real issues. Fighting homophobia and standing up for equality is therefore crucial to the process of building the solidarity we need to push back against the economic crisis.
On furlough days and the teacher’s union:
Students need to know that the “furloughs” are a farce. It’s basically a pay cut that faculty take, because we’re not allowed to take our furlough days on days that we teach. So essentially we continue to do the work that we do, and we take a pay cut. This is the pattern everywhere in higher education, and sadly the unions aren’t really doing anything to fight back.
[Taking teaching days as furloughs] has come up in conversation, but I don’t think people are ready to do that … it seems like too radical a thing to do…it’s almost like going on strike. People are not ready to do that, to a large extent, because we as union members are not organized. The membership of the union typically sees the union leadership as being the union. We expect them to do something when there’s a problem. But the fact is, unless the rank-and-file membership is organized before a crisis hits, when the crisis does hit it becomes very difficult to have any kind of response to it.
So typically what happens is this: The state is having a budget crisis, the union knows about it, we all know about it, and the union leadership only begins to call for some action or response or when it’s almost too late to do anything. Instead the union ought to be advertising and spreading information about our demands in the months or years before the crunch, before the contract deadline, before the budget vote, so that when the time comes we’re actually mobilized and organized enough to be able to take some action.
We stay quiet for three years, and then in the final year of the contract, there’s a panic. And then we usually give in to concessions, like we did in our last contract. We gave up 1.5% of our salaries for healthcare, which we shouldn’t have had to do.
On re-introducing Single-Payer to the healthcare debate:
The organized Left is too small right now to affect things on the national level. Can we win back the initiative on this? At the local level, I think we can. I don’t think the Left is organized enough around the issue. There are some groups coming together, but it’s at a very initial stage.
On maintaining continuity between activist movements:
This is where the centrality of political discussion, debate, theoretical development, intellectual understanding of history—of movements, of activism—becomes so crucial. Because if we’re simply going from one demonstration to the next, from one meeting to the next, from one movement to the next—if we’re not part of a political culture where these issues are constantly being talked about, debated, discussed, read about, and understood—then we run the risk of losing that memory. The memory of the movements is kept alive by the activists.