“This American carnage”: Trumplandia and the Ultimate Rise of “Careless People”

Do an Internet search for “carnage” now and the first matches are from Trump’s inauguration speech, in which he invoked “[t]his American carnage” to launch into his standard use of false claims to speak to his misinformed and misguided base.

Setting aside whatever anyone may assume is Trump’s intent—if “intent” even is applicable anymore—this use of “carnage” sends a message I am certain is lost on Trump and his “America first”/”Make America Great Again” crowd.

A century ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby dramatized a scathing message that the American Dream was a wonderful ideal that Americans mostly allowed to slip through their fingers, as novelist John Gardner examined:

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

Gatsby is new money in the novel, and portrayed by the mesmerized narrator Nick as the embodiment of the American Dream, as “cheap streamers in the rain”; Gatsby’s money is ill-got and he is a very delusional man.

Having taught the novel for nearly two decades, I think far too often studying the novel (what we do in formal schooling, as opposed to reading the work) becomes lost in idealizing the novel’s technical achievements against the rules of New Criticism (much as Nick idealizes Gatsby)—and as a result, we are apt not to pay adequate attention to the carnage.

The Great Gatsby is a novel about carnage as much as a work deconstructing the American Dream.

By the end, we are confronted with Myrtle left like an animal run over and ripped apart in the middle of the road and with George committing suicide after shooting and killing Gatsby floating alone in his opulent pool.

Among the dead, the common denominators are Tom and Daisy, who Nick comes to understand while talking to Tom:

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…. (p. 179)

While Daisy and Tom Buchanan flee, essentially unscathed, to Europe, the images of Myrtle dead in the road and Gatsby face-down in his swimming pool haunt Nick’s final lines of Fitzgerald’s so-called American classic:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (p. 182)

In the days after Trump’s inauguration and his pronouncement about “carnage,” if you are looking for the U.S., there it is—Myrtle’s corpse in the wake of Daisy driving a gold Rolls Royce, Gatsby and George Wilson both dead at George’s disillusioned hand.

Myrtle and George as the slaughtered white working class who attract our sympathetic but myopic gaze—let us not ignore that The Great Gatsby is a very white novel, itself a demonstration of how we whitewash even in art.

Trumplandia, however, is all too real and is a free people’s abdication to the ultimate rise of “careless people” who depend on our being as mesmerized by their wealth and delusional as Nick.

“[G]reed and pompous foolishness,” Garnder’s words, ring now in the wake of the grand and dishonest pronouncement of “this American carnage.”

We cannot claim we haven’t been properly warned.

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

Some in the public thinking business have posited that Donald Trump is not a half-cocked loon, but a brilliant manipulator of the media, and thus the entire U.S., over which he now presides.

Their basis for these claims is showing how he has artfully shot out Tweets perfectly timed to overshadow, these pundits argue, more substantive issues that the media should be addressing.

While I am not sure if I buy these pronouncements about Trump, I am certain about the power of distraction.

While the same punditry setting out to deconstruct Trumplandia claims that fake news is itself the distraction, as Sarah Kendzior confronts, the histrionics about fake news are distracting us from a very real and very ugly truth: having crossed the Bigfoot line, mainstream media, not fake news, spawned Trumplandia.

Let me illustrate.

Consider the lede from Woman A Leading Authority On What Shouldn’t Be In Poor People’s Grocery Carts:

With her remarkable ability to determine exactly how others should be allocating their limited resources for food, local woman Carol Gaither is considered to be one of the foremost authorities on what poor people should and should not have in their grocery carts, sources said Thursday.

From 2014, this is satire from The Onion, a publication in the broad family of fake news (although satire has not the malicious intent of the more recently purposefully placed fake news designed to be click-bait and make money).

What this satirizes, however, is incredibly important since it challenges the mostly misguided and nasty stereotypes that many if not most Americans believe about people who are poor: it is the fault of the poor, laziness, that they are impoverished, and thus, they do not deserve the same things hard working people do deserve (as in luxuries such as sweets).

We might argue that no reasonable person would believe a story from The Onion to be true, but it happens, and well before all the hand-wringing about fake news and presidential politics.

Yet, what is far more disturbing is that despite concurrent charges the sky is falling because the expert is dead, the U.S. still functions with an expert class of media, the primary cable news networks such as Fox and CNN as well as the last surviving newspapers, notably The New York Times.

While many may cast aspersions on the “liberal media,” most people remain solidly faithful that the NYT is reporting credibly.

And here is the irony: the NYT and mainstream media are overwhelmingly meeting the standards of mainstream media, and those standards of “both sides” and objective journalism are far more harmful and dangerous than fake news.

Just one week before Trump’s inauguration, the NYT published In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda, which in only a few days prompted this from state government:

A lawmaker in Tennessee wants to ban people from using food stamps to buy items that have no nutritional value. The bill was proposed by Republican Rep. Sheila Butt [1]….

House Bill 43 would prohibit people from using food stamps to purchase items high in calories, sugar or fat, according to the Tennessean. That would include soda, ice cream, candy, cookies and cake.

However, there is more indirect truth in the satirical The Onion article than in the NYT article, as Joe Soss reports:

In a New York Times story over the weekend, Anahad O’Connor massages and misreports a USDA study to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes about food stamps. For his trouble, the editors placed it on the front page. Readers of the newspaper of record learn that the end result of tax dollars spent on food assistance is a grocery cart full of soda. No exaggeration. The inside headline for the story is “What’s in the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household? Lots of Sugary Soda,” and the front-page illustration shows a shopping cart containing almost nothing but two-liter pop bottles.

Yes, the key words above are “misreports” and “stereotypes.”

Soss explains:

Let’s be clear here: this is nonsense. It’s a political hack job against a program that helps millions of Americans feed themselves, and we should all be outraged that the New York Times has disguised it as a piece of factual news reporting on its front page.

There are two major problems here. First, O’Connor misrepresents the findings of the USDA report. Second, O’Connor’s article is a case study in the dark arts of making biased reporting appear even-handed. Let’s start with the facts.

Not as sexy, and not what the general public believes, the USDA report actually has a much different message:

A November 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture examined the food shopping patterns of American households who currently receive nutrition assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) compared with those not receiving aid. Its central finding? “There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized.”

Vallas and Robins note as well that the NYT/O’Connor misreporting is about more than feeding misguided stereotypes about people in poverty:

Beyond the article’s inaccuracies, there is a broader problem with this kind of reporting. It reinforces an “us versus them” narrative—as though “the poor” are a stagnant class of Americans permanently dependent on aid programs. The New York Times’ own past reporting has shown that this simply isn’t the case. Research by Mark Rank, which the paper featured in 2013, shows that four in five Americans will face at least a year of significant economic insecurity during their working years. And analysis by the White House Council on Economic Advisers finds that 70 percent of Americans will turn to a means-tested safety net program such as nutrition assistance at some point during their lives.

Now if we return to our current gnashing of teeth about the rise of fake news and the death of the expert, we should be confronting a couple far more pressing facts:

  • Mainstream media are mostly conducting press-release journalism; are often bending to the market and not reaching for truth, justice, and the American way; and fail our democracy because of traditional norms of objectivity and “both sides” journalism.
  • The public in the U.S. is not anti-expert, but seeking the appearance of expertise [2] that confirms what they already believe—even when what they believe is total hogwash, and worse (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.).

Maybe we have a really ugly paradox here also: publications like The Onion and satirical programming such as work by John Oliver and Saturday Night Live are serving the American public and the ideal of democracy and freedom far better as fake news than even the so-called best mainstream media are doing.

Satirists are not bound to simplistic conventions of objectivity (ironically, to be neutral is to endorse the status quo), and are critical instead. Journalists refuse to embrace the power of a critical free press, and thus, are eager to blame fake news, to use it as a distraction.

Finally, then, we must wonder with the recent revelations about plagiarism by Monica Crowley, a popular rightwing expert, if O’Connor merely cribbed his NYT expose from The Onion, where three years ago they fabricated:

“All that junk she’s buying is just loaded with sugar, too,” said Gaither, identifying with uncanny speed another critical flaw in her fellow shopper’s grocery selection. “No wonder her kids are acting out like that.”…

“The other day, I saw a woman who bought a box of name-brand Frosted Flakes because, apparently, the generic kind wasn’t fancy enough for her,” said Gaither, swiftly and decisively calculating that bagged cereal would have cost half as much. “And guess who’s going to be paying the difference in the end?”

A speculation that does make sense because reading The Onion is far more entertaining and informative than plowing through a government report.


[1] I know this appears to read like a piece from The Onion, but Republican Rep. Butt is real; The Onion would have used Ophelia Butt.

[2] Consider that the century-old debate between Creationism and evolution has morphed into the rise of Intelligent Design (replacing creationism) as pseudo-science to battle with traditional science, evolution.

Half of a Yellow Sun: Adichie’s Historical Parable of Race, Class, and Politics

In her Author’s Note for Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recognized scholars, her parents, and other family members for helping her fictionalize the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70; telling, I think, is this: “In particular, Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn and Flora Nwapa’s Never Again were indispensable in creating the mood of middle-class Biafra.”

Powerful throughout Adichie’s gripping and sharp novel is her weaving together the significance of race, class, and politics—tribalism and race, race and class, and then intellectualism in the context of both race and class.

All of this as well is wrapped in examinations of the power of both language and dialect.

Adichie soars in her deft handling of characterization and narrative against her historical and political purposes.

But the West and especially the U.S. are now probably mostly ignorant of this bloody conflict, although my entry into it is rooted in Kurt Vonnegut’s New Journalism, “Biafra: A People Betrayed,” originally published in April 1970 for McCall’s and then collected in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons.

Vonnegut tells a story of Biafra as a witness, a white ally of sorts angry in the opening of his piece at slights such as calling Biafra “a tribe” and recognizing how Nigeria/Biafra were pawns in international games:

Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.

Despite Vonnegut’s romanticizing, his self-centered report on Biafra carries a recognition of Nigerians and Biafrans as sophisticated people in the way the West likely assumed they were not. But his story is ripe with contradiction:

I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.

I will follow Miriam’s example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.

There is always something unnerving about Vonnegut’s flippant and darkly humorous tone and his subject matter; in this way, despite his being a white Westerner of privilege, Vonnegut reporting on Biafra seems about right as that circumstance can.

Vonnegut’s WWII bitterness fits the horrors of this civil war: “The Fathers are now being deported forever. Their crime: compassion in time of war.”

As a primer for reading Adichie, Vonnegut’s essay confronts children suffering from kwashiorkor, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the politics of oil, and “the arrogance of Biafra’s intellectuals.”

Also as in Adichie’s novel, Vonnegut highlighted the light against the dark.

This:

A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own, perfectly naturally.

The families were rooted in land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.

Against this:

Palm oil, incidentally, was one of two commodities that had induced white men to colonize the area so long ago. The other commodity was even more valuable than palm oil. It was human slaves.

Think of that: slaves….

What did we eat in Biafra? As guests of the government, we had meat and yams and soups and fruit. It was embarrassing. Whenever we told a cadaverous beggar “No chop,” it wasn’t really true. We had plenty of chop, but it was all in our bellies.

Vonnegut had two agendas, common in his fiction and nonfiction: decry war without being simplistic or naive and champion his great Idealistic dream of large communities, families.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as Nigerian, a woman, and a writer has agendas also.

Unlike Vonnegut’s paternalistic outsider witnessing, Adichie dramatizes her witnessing as James Baldwin envisioned, a lived witnessing as well as a writer’s witnessing to raise the voice of the unheard.

The servant Ugwu framed against the scholar/intellectual Odenigbo and Olanna, from wealth and privilege, draw the reader into the realities and horrors of race, social class, and personal as well as partisan politics.

As in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children, Adichie demonstrates that even in the pursuit of good and freedom, the world is mostly hellish for children and women—violent, rapacious, indiscriminate.

Half of a Yellow Sun works as a parable, then, as it works as a historical novel; this story is an enduring and damning story about human failure, the flaws of men and the wars they demand, the addictive and corrosive influence of power and the frailty of the weak in the path of that power.

Along with Gay’s and Yuknavitch’s novels, Half of a Yellow Sun sits well also with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar—all resonating as parables and historical witnessing.

Beware war and good intentions, these writers implore.

Words matter, they also intone.

Humans are a mess of pain and suffering, they ultimately lament.

I feel no need to walk through Adichie’s novel here, but I do want to stress that along with its historical significance, Half of a Yellow Sun speaks eerily to now for those of us in the U.S.

Adichie recognizes the chasm between intellectuals and so-called common people while she is deft at exposing the hypocrisy and foolishness found in all people; she does not demonize or idealize any of the many ways people are distinct in this novel, how people truly were separated in the years of the war: within and among races, educated and superstitious, idealistic and cynical.

As I often do now, as I read Adichie I heard James Baldwin’s warning about the great human failure:

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

Adichie’s novel is bursting with “refusals”—political propaganda, interpersonal dishonesty and infidelity, and self-delusion—all of which confront today an already free people who are careless with that freedom and insensitive to suffering on our own soil and throughout the world.

I do not here wish to cross the line Vonnegut may well have crossed, making the plight of Biafra about him.

Adichie’s novel deserves your time as a novel, it deserves your time as a powerful unmasking of an ignored moment in history, but it also can serve you as you navigate the U.S. in the present.

After almost dying as a conscripted soldier, Ugwu exclaims to another servant: “‘There is no such thing as greatness.'”

Damning and bitter, yes, but a warning we should heed none the less.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left exists in some substantial and influential way in the country.

The Truth about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left does not exist in some substantial and influential way in the country. Period.

The little lies that feed into the Big Lie include that universities and professors, K-12 public schools, the mainstream media, and Hollywood are all powerful instruments of liberal propaganda.

These little lies have cousins in the annual shouting about the “war on Christmas” and hand wringing by Christians that they are somehow the oppressed peoples of the U.S.

These lies little and Big are a scale problem in that the U.S. is now and has always been a country whose center is well to the right, grounded as we are in capitalism more so than democracy.

The U.S. is a rightwing country that pays lip service to progressivism and democracy; we have a vibrant and powerful Right and an anemic, fawning Middle.

Wealth, corporatism, consumerism, and power are inseparable in the U.S.—pervading the entire culture including every aspect of government and popular culture.

The Left in the U.S. is a fabricated boogeyman, designed and perpetuated by the Right to keep the general public distracted. Written as dark satire, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle now serves as a manual for understanding how power uses false enemies to maintain power and control.

Notably during the past 30-plus decades, conservative politics have dominated the country, creating for Republicans a huge problem in terms of bashing “big government.”

But dog-whistle politics grounded in race and racism benefitting the Right and Republicans have a long history.

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. confronted Barry Goldwater’s tactics foreshadowing Trump’s strategies and rise:

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism…On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

Malcolm X held forth in more pointed fashion, but with the same focus:

Well if Goldwater ever becomes president one thing his presence in the White House will do, it will make black people in America have to face up the facts probably for the first time in many many years,” Malcolm X said. 

“This in itself is good in that Goldwater is a man who’s not capable of hiding his racist tendencies,” he added. “And at the same time he’s not even capable of pretending to Negroes that he’s their friend.” 

The Civil Rights icon concluded that should Goldwater be elected, he would inspire black people to fully reckon with “whites who pose as liberals only for the purpose of getting the support of the Negro.”

“So in one sense Goldwater’s coming in will awaken the Negro and will probably awaken the entire world more so than the world has been awakened since Hitler,” he said.

Mentioned above, the annual panic over the “war on Christmas” is a distraction from the fact that Christmas serves consumerism, the Right, and not religion—keeping in mind that Jesus and his ideology rejected materialism and espoused moral and ethical codes in line with socialism and communism/Marxism.

What remains mostly unexamined is that all structures are essentially conservative—seeking to continue to exist. Power, then, is always resistant to change, what should be at the core of progressivism and leftwing ideology.

Marxism is about power and revolution (drastic change, and thus a grand threat to power), but suffers in the U.S. from the cartoonish mischaracterization from the Right that it is totalitarianism.

So as we drift toward the crowning of the greatest buffoon ever to sit at the throne of the U.S. as a consumerocracy posing as a democracy, Education Week has decided to launch into the hackneyed “academics are too liberal and higher education is unfair to conservatives” ploy.

At the center of this much-ado-about-nothing is Rick Hess playing his Bokonon and McCabe role:

I know, I know. To university-based education researchers, all this can seem innocuous, unobjectionable, and even inevitable. But this manner of thinking and talking reflects one shared worldview, to the exclusion of others. While education school scholars may almost uniformly regard a race-conscious focus on practice and policy as essential for addressing structural racism, a huge swath of the country sees instead a recipe for fostering grievance, animus, and division. What those in ed. schools see as laudable efforts to promote “equitable” school discipline or locker-room access strike millions of others as an ideological crusade to remake communities, excuse irresponsible behavior, and subject children to goofy social engineering. Many on the right experience university initiatives intended to promote “tolerance” and “diversity” as attempts to silence or delegitimize their views on immigration, criminal justice, morality, and social policy. For readers who find it hard to believe that a substantial chunk of the country sees things thusly, well, that’s kind of the issue.

Conversational and posing as a compassionate conservative, Hess sprinkles in scare quotes while completely misrepresenting everything about which he knows nothing.

This is all cartoon and theater.

The grand failure of claiming that the academy is all leftwing loonies is that is based almost entirely—see the EdWeek analysis—on noting that academics overwhelmingly identify as Democrats.

However, the Democratic Party is not in any way a substantial reflection of leftist ideology. At most, we can admit that Democrats tend to use progressive rhetoric (and this is a real characteristics of professors, scholars, and academics), but that Democratic policy remains centrist and right of center.

A powerful example of this fact is the Department of Education (DOE) and Secretary of Education (SOE) throughout George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.

For the past 16 years, education policy has been highly bureaucratic and grounded almost entirely in rightwing ideology—choice, competition, accountability, and high-stakes testing.

The only real difference between Bush’s SOE and Obama’s SOE has been rhetoric; yes, Duncan, for example, loved to chime in with civil rights lingo, but policy under Obama moved farther right than under Bush.

Now, let me end here by addressing the charge that college professors are a bunch of leftwing loonies.

I can do so because I am the sort of dangerous professor Hess wants everyone to believe runs our colleges and universities—poisoning the minds of young people across the U.S.

I can also add that I spent 18 years as a public school teacher before the past 15 years in higher education.

In both so-called liberal institutions—public education and higher education—as a real card-carrying Lefty, I have been in the minority, at best tolerated, but mostly ignored and even marginalized.

Public schools are extremely conservative, reflecting and perpetuating the communities they serve. In the South, my colleagues were almost all conservative in their world-views and religious practices.

My higher education experience has been somewhat different because the atmosphere has the veneer of progressivism (everyone know how to talk, what to say), but ultimately, we on the Left are powerless, unheard and often seen as a nuisance.

Colleges and universities are institutions built on and dependent on privilege and elitism. As I noted above, colleges and universities are not immune to the conservative nature of institutions; they seek ways to maintain, to conserve, to survive.

Colleges and universities are also not immune to business pressures, seeing students and their families as consumers.

Do professors push back on these tendencies and pressures? Sure.

But that dynamic remains mostly rhetorical.

The Truth is that colleges and universities are centrist organizations—not unlike the Democratic Party and their candidates, such as Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Some progressives in the U.S. play both sides to sniff at the power on the Right, and then the Right uses that rhetoric and those veneers to prove how the Left has taken over our colleges/universities, public schools, media, and Hollywood.

But that is a Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Left does not exist in any substantial way, except as a boogeyman controlled by the Right in order to serve the interests of those in power.

“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true,” Bayard Rustin warned.

Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle dramatizes this warning, and 50 years ago King and Malcolm X challenged us to see beyond the corrosive power of dog-whistle politics.

When the Right paints educational research as the product of corrupted leftwing scholars, you must look past the harmful foma and examine in whose interest it is that market-based education reform survives despite the evidence against it.

To paraphrase Gertrude from Hamlet, “The Right protests too much, methinks,” and we have much to fear from all these histrionics.

From Sports Fanaticism to Plagiarism: This Week in What Is Wrong with Education

In the fall of 1984, I entered the field of education as a high school English teacher, assigned the exact room in which I had been a student and where my mentor, Lynn Harrill, had taught before moving on to a district-level job.

Oddly, 18 years later, I transitioned to higher education after completing the same doctoral program as Lynn; the odd part is that I again filled the position Lynn left to return to public education. My office then and now was designed by Lynn as the education department was moving into a new building just as he left and I was hired.

Over my 33 years as an educator, I have acquired expertise and experience in two fields, education and English, and in two levels of formal education, K-12 public and university/college.

I entered education because I recognized early that although I excelled in and benefitted greatly from education, formal education was deeply flawed. Most of the good in formal education survived in spite of the system—because of wonderful teachers who somehow rose above the system and because some of us had privileges that allowed us to excel, again, in spite of not because of.

From about the fall of my junior year of college on, however, I knew that formal schooling tended to reflect and perpetuate the very worst of our society; that although education could be revolutionary and transformational, it often was not.

My career as an educator also began almost exactly at the genesis of the accountability era that has been an epic failure because the political prognosis of educational failure was completely wrong and thus the cures have all been disastrous.

Formal education at all levels in the U.S. suffers from the corrosive influences of privilege and inequity, and since those with power benefit mightily from that privilege and inequity, they will never (and probably are not able to) address those genuine failures—what I would phrase as: We have failed formal education; formal education has not failed us.

The week leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017 has been illustrative of the kinds of problems with education that the powers-that-be are apt to ignore and reject, and these examples have come in an unlikely pair: Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney and Monica Crowley, who is poised to serve in the Trump administration.

Swinney, as Dave Zirin unmasks, represents an “obscene amount of entitlement” because in the U.S. scholastic sports and coaches enjoy a perverse and warped degree of fanaticism; Zirin continues:

Here is someone working on a refurbished plantation who makes millions of dollars off the sweat and head injuries of overwhelmingly black, unpaid labor, and yet when asked about the Black Lives Matter movement in September, he said, ”Some of these people need to move to another country.”…

College football is a septic tank of entitlement. It’s a fungal culture created by the head coaches of Big Football. Dabo Swinney is the very embodiment of that culture: adrift, clueless, and filthy rich.

Quoted in Zirin’s piece, Clemson assistant professor Chenjerai Kumanyika has confronted his university, the football program at Clemson, and Swinney; as well, Kumanyika has a unique perspective he has shared on Facebook:

Clemson University as a public institution founded in and remaining mostly resistant to moving beyond its racist roots (see AD Carson and Clemson’s Tillman Hall and the Tragedy of Southern Tradition), the National Champion Clemson football team, and Swinney are all powerful examples of the veneers that exist to mask what the powers-that-be claim to be about and what they truly are about.

Let me stress here that Clemson University, Clemson football, and Swinney are not unique, not the worst, and certainly not outliers. The point here is that this is what education is in the U.S.

Hypocrisy is rampant not only in claims about student-athletes but also in the unholy alliance between athletics/coaches and Christianity.

From Zirin to Kumanyika to professor Louis Moore (and many others), scholastic sports has been confronted as a contemporary obscenity in which mostly white men accumulate great wealth and power on the backs of mostly black males—only a very few of which ever gain access to some of that wealth, too few are afforded the educations they are guaranteed, and way too many suffer great physical injury.

Coaches like Swinney and Nick Saban are multi-millionaires, and are allowed to hide behind sanctimonious rhetoric about grooming young men, offering educational opportunities to disadvantaged athletes, and instilling moral fiber through (as Swinney does) coercing players to be baptized and attend church services (again in the context of a public university).

I grew up in a small rural town in the South where the head football coach was God, and a truly despicable person. Decades before the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky revelation, I witnessed and lived how a person can be lionized and simultaneously daily behaving in ways that were inexcusable around young people.

Scholastic sports at all levels, “septic tank[s] of entitlement,” are systemic problems that create and enable people such as Swinney—again as a notable representative of the systemic inequity, not as the only one, not as a person to be vilified solely for who he is and what he reaps.

The sacred coach dynamic ultimately exposes how those in power live by one set of rules even as they impose upon those beneath them a much more stringent code.

And in that context we have the new brazenness of Trumplandia that flaunts that fact in the faces of everyone throughout the U.S.—personified recently by Monica Crowley who continues to succeed and looks to be a part of a presidential administration even though she is a serial plagiarist.

The Melania Trump speech has already contributed to the new normal that ethical boundaries do not matter to Trump, the Republican party, or his supporters.

Trump embracing Crowley, defending her against “fake news,” and the high likelihood she will not suffer much for these transgressions are no longer surprising.

As with Rand Paul and Joe Biden, the real world’s response to plagiarism is more about privilege than about any real ethical code—one that academics at all levels claim.

More urgent and more telling from the Crowley story are that a major publisher and a major university failed to catch her plagiarism.

Andrew Kaczynski, Chris Massie, and Nathan McDermott’s Trump aide Monica Crowley plagiarized thousands of words in Ph.D. dissertation is particularly damning—but again, not really about Crowley or Trump or the complete lack of ethical grounding in the U.S.

This is a parallel and ugly narrative about privilege and inequity, parallel to the fanaticism about scholastic sports.

Higher education often wraps itself in claims of academic and ethical rigor, but Crowley’s dissertation and the ability of CNN to detail it when the awarding university did not are where we should be focusing now.

From student-athletes to amateurism to academic integrity (do not forget the University of North Carolina)—there is a colloquial way to explain how Swinney and Crowley reveal what is wrong with education: it is all bullshit.

Bullshit shoveled by the powers-that-be who are created by and profit from the privilege and inequity built into and perpetuated by institutions such as formal education.

To Kill a Mockingbird, White Saviors, and the Paradox of Obama and Race

White progressives, academics, and book lovers were all atwitter on social media because in his farewell address, Barack Obama quoted from literature:

obama-af-tkam

Similar to my concern about Michelle Obama’s recent comments on education and teachers, my response to this excitement was tempered:

 

During the praise tour for the Obamas, I have taken this stance on social media:

Praise for Michelle and Barack Obama has begun as Obama’s presidency comes to an end. That praise poses a few problems:

Praise is warranted, must be supported against the inherent racism that demands perfection from minorities and not from white males.

However Michelle and Barack have allowed, supported policies that contradict the often wonderful rhetoric, notably about education.

Michelle’s recent praise of teachers and the power of education is hard to let lie since Obama’s 8 years have been horrible for education.

The policies and rhetoric from the DOE/SOE have been horrible for black, brown, poor students since they have fed deficit ideology.

Let us be careful to honor but not idealize, not gloss over the failure of policy beneath the veneer of rhetoric.

Here, I want to deal directly with the paradox of race surrounding Obama’s presidency as that is reflected in Obama’s choice to quote Atticus Finch and not, for example, the essays of James Baldwin or the literature and public commentary of Toni Morrison.

This is offered specifically to white people, in the context of my awareness and rejecting of whitesplaining, and as an ally to all people seeking racial equity in a country that denies its racism daily.

Also this is informed by the wide spectrum of reactions to Obama and his role in confronting racism in the U.S. Black academics and intellectuals are not uniform in how to assess Obama, not uniform in either praise or criticism of Obama.

A powerful touchstone for Obama and race/racism in the U.S. has been Ta-Nehisi Coates’s My President Was Black.

Tressie McMillan Cottom and William A. Darity Jr. have challenged both Coates and Obama.

Cottom offers a wonderful and nuanced response, but concludes:

The essay is also infuriating. It attributes so much of Obama’s improbable presidency to his inimitable faith in white Americans’ higher self, something I can only describe as Obama’s painful rejection of black folks’ agency. The theory that Obama could be elected president because his white family had imbued him with an authentic love for and faith in white people that the typical black American does not have is intuitive but wrong. I suspect, given Obama’s own words over hours of conversations with Coates, that he believes he really does have some special insight into white people’s better angels. Nothing is more emblematic of the problem with this theory than Obama’s assessment of Donald Trump’s election chances to Coates: “He couldn’t win.” Obama’s faith in white Americans is not better insight into their soul where, presumably the mythical “racist bones” can be found. Obama’s faith, like the theory that it made Obama’s presidency possible, misunderstands race as something black folks can choose without white folks’ assent. White voters allowed Barack Obama because they allowed him to exist as a projection of themselves. It is seductive to believe Obama could shape that in some way, much less control and direct it. But, as Coates details in painful case after case of political obstructionism among Democrats and Republicans during the first black president’s terms, Obama never had the ability to shape white people’s attitudes. White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.

But Darity is more pointed:

I had a queasy feeling about Barack Obama’s candidacy from the moment I heard his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that lifted him into national prominence, a speech that Coates summarizes in the profile. Toward the end of the speech Obama observed that black families in urban centers realized “that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn … that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” “The acting white” libel—a myth that will not die—argues that low school performance for black students is a product of a culturally based black opposition to high academic achievement.

Among these many diverse and brilliant voices—and the rhetorical legacy of Obama—I feel both nervous about expressing and compelled to address how Obama choosing Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird to quote offers yet another reason to believe Cottom’s “White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.”

My short response is Obama has been successful and effective (admitting reasonable people may disagree about what “effective” means) because he is the type of person who knows to quote TKAM when trying to persuade whites about the need to overcome racism.

My longer response must address why white people are so enamored with Finch and TKAM: Like Obama, it is a middle-class and respectable way to confront something very ugly and likely not to be changed by that politeness.

With the controversial posthumous publishing of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, most people fell prey to the debate about Finch as a racist in that pre-quel and ignored the long critical examination of TKAM and Finch as a failed work on race and racism that is enduring because white privilege loves the white savior narrative, which is the foundational element of TKAM (see Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s Walking in Another’s Skin: Failure of Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird).

“In many ways, Atticus’s subtle racism in Mockingbird is the story’s brilliance,” explains Catherine Nicols.

That “subtle racism,” notes Jennifer Polish, appeals to the Left:

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is widely valorized as a “progressive” book. And this is the larger problem with the book and with Atticus’s character and racism—Atticus was always positioned as a white savior.

And Osamudia R. James adds the need to re-consider TKAM (a call that may be equally relevant to how we praise and critique Obama):

Atticus Finch presented an enduring model to which many white liberals still cling. But besides being a fictional character, Atticus Finch is a myth. And a dangerous myth because he keeps good white liberals from reconsidering the fact that they live in white neighborhoods; from challenging administrators about the racial segregation of their children’s schools or white supremacy advanced in the curriculum; or from acknowledging how they benefit from a system that keeps people of color laboring in their homes but excluded from their social and professional spaces. Like Finch, it is sufficient that they simply “do their best to love everybody.”

James concludes then:

It would be easier to ignore “Watchman” and stick to white saviors and the triumph of individual values over structural oppression. But if we choose this account, racism is not overcome, black children still encounter anti-blackness at their schools, and whites – despite their individual goodness – remain complicit in it all.

Ironically, I guess, the debate around Lee’s Watchmen failed to prompt either an impactful reconsideration of TKAM or race/racism/white privilege (see here and here also).

It now seems unlikely that Obama’s presidency (at least a significant symbolic moment in race for the U.S.) or the rise of Trump and the concurrent normalization of white supremacy will prompt an impactful reconsideration of race/racism in the country either.

In fact, it seems that the circumstances have been reduced so that we must cling with glee in some way to Obama’s anemic confrontation of race tempered by the conventional expectations of respectability governed by white privilege.

Just as the white savior myth needs to be retired from literature and pop culture, the role of white privilege must be eradicated, allowing the equity of all spaces for everyone.

I am skeptical that appeasing white privilege is the course needed for that to occur.

I am nervous about incrementalism—the belief that Obama is a necessity along the path to racial equity.

I am fearful that Obama’s symbolic and rhetorical moment in history has spawned the worst sort of backlash, one we could not have imagined—or one that whites were unable to imagine while mired in the white savior myth, the lie of post-racial America, and the delusion that systemic racism is not fed by virtually every single white person.

Despite the good that Michelle and Barack Obama have fostered for this country, today we are still being asked to tip-toe around the sensibilities of racists—not to call racism “racism,” racists “racists.

This I am certain is not progress.

 

On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing

“The cause for my wrath is not new or single,” wrote Lou LaBrant in 1931, targeting how too often the project method engaged students in activities other than literacy.

This sharp critique by LaBrant has always resonated with me because even though I am now a teacher educator and have been a teacher for well over thirty years, I have always balked at pedagogy, instructional practices of any kind but especially those driven by technocratic zeal.

As one example, literature circles as an instructional structure represents the essential problems confronted by LaBrant about 86 years ago: the instructional practice itself requires time to teach students how to do the practice properly, and thus, “doing literature circles” becomes a goal unto itself and as a consequence subsumes and/or replaces the authentic literacy goals it claims to seek.

Further, many instructional practices border on being gimmicky because they are constructed in such a way to facilitate that anyone (regardless of expertise and experience) can implement them in the role of “teacher.”

For a while now, I have been contemplating the tension within teaching writing (composition) between those who teach writing as teachers and those who teach writing as writers.

I certainly default to the latter, and am drawn often to John Warner‘s public examinations of his teaching of writing (see below) because he also teaches writing as a writer.

Warner’s pieces about grading contracts and de-grading his first-year writing course have come when I am beginning my English/ELA methods seminar and wading into how my candidate must navigate ways to seek authentic practices in the context of the real world of teaching that often models for her teaching writing as a teacher, as a technocrat.

Here, then, I want to pull together a few concepts that I think are at their core related to LaBrant’s “wrath” and my rejecting of technocratic instruction—writing workshop, cognitive overload, and creative writing.

Warner in blog posts and on Twitter questions his commitment to writing workshop, and offered that he has abandoned the term “workshop” for “laboratory.”

In one response, I mused that this all depends on what we mean by “writing workshop.”

Teaching about and practicing writing workshop for me have always been grounded in Nancie Atwell’s use of Giacobbe—that writing workshop incorporates time, ownership, and response.

Of course, writing workshop also typically involved peer and teacher-student conferencing as well as a number of other strategies such as read alouds and examining model texts.

So, although I do not wish to put words in Warner’s mouth, I believe he and I share a skepticism about writing workshop when “doing workshop” becomes so time consuming and complex that the pursuit of workshop replaces students actually doing the very messy and unpredictable task of writing, composing.

This is again the technocratic trap of instructional strategies of all kinds.

For the teaching of writing, something Kurt Vonnegut claimed could not be done, this trap is more common than not, particularly because teachers are often under-prepared as teachers of writing and teachers who are not writers (most ELA/English teachers, I would suspect) dominate who is charged with teaching writing.

Technocrats have ruined concepts such as the writing process, conferencing, and workshop by scripting and work-sheeting them into practices anyone can implement.

The teaching of writing requires teacher expertise and a high level of teaching as a craft—but fastidious attention to doing workshop or intricate peer-conferencing or mandating students demonstrate the writing process or essay templates ultimately fails fostering young writers.

Concurrent with the problems inherent in technocratic pedagogy is failing to consider the importance of cognitive overload when students are developing complex behaviors such as writing or reading.

Each of us has a limited amount of cognition we can devote to behaviors. When something becomes “second nature,” we then free cognition space. For me in the past year or so, returning to mountain biking has exposed this dynamic since road cycling had become “natural” to me, but mountain biking demanded so much purposeful thinking, I was constantly bumbling and frustrated.

Few truisms mean more to me as a teacher of writing than paying attention to (thus, avoiding) cognitive overload when your main instructional goal is fostering students as writers.

For example, if the topic or writing form is too demanding for students, they will often devote less or nearly no energy to writing itself. Many of us as teachers have read garbled essays by students, blaming the students instead of recognizing that we have asked them to do more than they were capable of doing concurrently.

For this reason, I stress the need to use personal narrative (because the content of the writing is an area of student expertise) as one foundational way to help students focus on craft and authentic writing forms.

K-12 students and first-year undergraduates, I think, need some careful consideration of cognitive overload as they acquire writing craft, and for first-year undergraduates, as they become more adept at the nuances of disciplinary writing in academia.

Avoiding technocratic pedagogy and cognitive overload, then, share the need for the teacher to keep primary the goals of learning; if we are fostering writers, we need to be sure time and effort are mostly spent on writing—not doing a pet instructional practice, not acquiring some disciplinary knowledge.

Finally, as I was discussing avoiding cognitive overload with my ELA/English methods student, I had her reconsider her plan to have students write short stories as the composition element in her short story unit this coming spring.

Just as I balk at technocratic pedagogy, I struggle with asking K-12 students to write fiction and poetry—primarily because these are very demanding forms of writing that encroach on my concern about cognitive overload; student must have both high levels of writing craft and the ability to fabricate narratives in order, for example, to write short stories.

As a high school English teacher, I found that students often reached for derivatives of derivative fiction in order to have something for characters and plot in their original short stories; for example, a student would write about an ER doctor as a main character (he or she always committed suicide at the end), drawing from almost entirely what the student knew about ERs from the TV show ER.

I made my case about cognitive overload, and then, she and I brainstormed what to have students write instead of their own short stories during her short story unit.

First, I asked her to reconsider her definition of “creative writing” being limited to fiction and poetry. I prefer LaBrant’s definition:

For in truth every new sentence is a creation, a very intricate and remarkable product. By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product. (p. 293)

This pulls us back to honoring the broad concepts of writing workshop above, focusing here on “creative” being linked to student choice (ownership) over what s/he writes about and what form that writing takes.

Next, we brainstormed the possibility of asking students to write personal narratives while also emphasizing that their original personal narratives would have in common with the short stories they are studying—craft elements.

Students could focus on organizational techniques in narratives, for example, while reading fiction, and then, incorporate that craft in their own personal narratives.

I have examined here ways to rethink writing workshop, cognitive overload, and creative writing so that we forefront our writing goals when teaching writing and guard against technocratic and reductive instructional strategies that can mask our own expertise and experience as writers.

From LaBrant to Warner, we can unpack that teachers of writing are often working from places of fear—fear about losing control, fear of not being adequately prepared to teach writing, fear students will not write if given choice and freedom.

However, “I have heard many teachers argue that, given a free hand, pupils will write very little,” LaBrant explained. “I can only say that has not been my observation nor my teaching experience…” (p. 299).

And then Warner: “With the de-graded contract, students are writing more, and more importantly feel free to take risks in their writing.”

Our antidote to these fears is trust, and then the willingness to honor for ourselves and our students the value in risk.

Teaching writing like writing itself is fraught with fits and starts as well as failure. Trying to control those realities results in either masking them or destroying the greater goal of fostering writers.


For Further Reading

Grading Contract Journey Part I: First-Year Writing | Just Visiting, John Warner

Grading Contract Journey Part II: Fiction Writing | Just Visiting, John Warner

Thinking Context: No More Writing, John Warner

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writingThe English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.