Can Scholars Be Too Literal in Post-Truth Trumplandia?

Recently, I was invited to join a class discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in a local International Baccalaureate (IB) high school class. For many years, I taught the novel in my Advanced Placement course, and in 2007, I published a volume on teaching Atwood’s writing.

During the discussion, one very bright and engaged student eagerly noted that Atwood evokes elements of communism in her novel. The use of the term “communism” prompted me to offer a gentle reframing—that the student probably was recognizing elements of totalitarianism, elements often blurred into the mainstream American pejorative use of the word “communism” (see also “socialism” and “Marxism”).

This is an important moment, I think, in understanding how academia works: Language and the teasing out of ideas are often laborious, if not tedious. While teaching first-year writing especially, but in most of my courses, I stress that college students need disciplinary awareness—how each discipline functions and why—and typically emphasize that academics are prone to carefully defining terms, and then holding everyone to those precise meanings.

Political, media, and public discourse, however, tend along a much different path. Language and terminology are treated with a cavalier disregard for meaning. Misusing a term or making a false claim is quickly glossed over before railing against the initial false claim.

Because of that gap between academia and the so-called real world, some educators and scholars call for the importance of public intellectuals grounded in academia. Public scholarship, however, remains controversial within the academia and tends to be received with disdain and condescension by politicians, the media, and the public.

It is at those last two points that I want to emphasize why Sam Fallon’s The Rise of the Pedantic Professor has been so eagerly embraced by some in the academy and many in the public sphere. At its core, Fallon’s argument poses this:

To read the work of humanities scholars writing for a general audience is to be confronted by dull litanies of fact: a list of the years in which Rome’s walls were breached by invaders (take that, Trump), an exhaustive inventory of historians who have dunked on Dinesh D’Souza, a bland recounting of witch-hunting in 17th-century New England.

These public humanities scholars, Fallon argues, “tend to collapse discursive arguments into data dumps,” and are failing their mission with “academic literalism.”

In the traditional norms of the academy, Fallon’s charges reinforce arguments that scholars should remain (somehow) above activism and public engagement, often expectations for being apolitical, objective, or neutral. Fallon also is providing ample fodder for politicians, the media, and the public who marginalize professors and scholars as merely academic, pointy-headed intellectuals making much ado about nothing.

As an educator, scholar, and writer, a career spanning four decades, I have strongly rejected both of these norms, and I have increasingly recognized that public work by scholars is far more important than our traditional scholarship, which is often behind paywalls and read by only inners, if at all.

I think that the gap between the academy and the public not only can be bridged in terms of how we navigate language and ideas, but it must be bridged—especially now that we have entered post-truth Trumplandia.

Consider the current uses and framing of the terms “socialism” and “infanticide.”

The bright IB student mentioned above is a typical example I confront in all of my students, and throughout public debates, especially social media.

While I absolutely recognize that academics can be pedantic, so precise that all meaning and discourse are rendered meaningless to day-to-day existence, I believe Fallon is making a serious mistake of extremes: Academics have obligations to their disciplines and the public, but their public discourse must always remain in any scholar’s lane while balancing the norms of disciplinary discourse with public accessibility.

Do some academics fail at this tightrope act? Of course.

But words matter, and starting with jumbled terms and meanings serves no one well. The public academic is poised to slow down debate while also clarifying what exactly we are saying in terms of cultural ideologies and public policy.

Doesn’t it seem important to confront that a significant numbers of voters in 2016 angrily voted against Obamacare while themselves benefitting from the Affordable Care Act—casting votes grounded in a garbled and self-defeating state of not knowing what terms mean?

Doesn’t it seem dangerous for one political party to drum up fear of infanticide, when infanticide isn’t occurring? Wouldn’t this country benefit from a fact-based (even literal) discussion of women’s health and reproductive rights, prenatal care, and abortion?

I find it troubling that all throughout formal education from K-12 through undergraduate and graduate education, we hold students to higher standards of discourse than we do politicians and the media.

I also have little patience for people who cannot accurately define “socialism,” “communism,” or “Marxism,” but feel compelled to reject these ideologies with unwavering certainty.

It seems, in fact, that no one can be too literal when most public discourse wallows in the mud of being both wrong in the use of language and dishonest in the ideologies and arguments being made for promoting public policy that directly impacts how any of us navigate our lives.

If we need more evidence, the rising public responses to the new tax codes pushed through by Republicans and Trump offer a jumbled and disturbing picture.

Many tax-paying U.S. citizens have a weak understanding of taxes, one oversimplified as the “refund” (let me nudge here: this isn’t any different than oversimplifying and misusing “socialism”).

Many in the U.S. should be angry about the new tax code, but most complaining about the consequences of those changes are doing so in ways that are lazy and simply flawed.

If we backed up this outrage over lower tax refunds, we could have a much more substantive and possibly effective discussion about payroll deductions (most were reduced under the tax changes, thus people received more money per check over the year, which itself would lead to lower refunds), tax burdens among different income brackets, and the needlessly complex industry of preparing and submitting our taxes.

Not unrelated, Republicans have misrepresented calls for 70% marginal tax rates for the very wealthy (about 16,000 Americans out of 127 million households)—again an effective strategy because most people do not understand the literal (and tedious) reality about how marginal tax rates work.

And this brings me back to Atwood’s novel and the class discussion.

Much of Atwood’s work as a writer is about language, the use of language to control and the possibility of language to unmask, to liberate not only ideas but people.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, a few select women control other women through language manipulation. The handmaid’s are trained by Aunts, who instill the propaganda:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)

But it may be more important here to emphasize Atwood’s examination of how Gilead came about. Offred explains about her life before Gilead:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories. (pp. 56-57)

This is a novel about people being cavalier about language and thus about the human condition. This novel is a call for the dangers of not being literal enough.

Humanities professors wading into the public debate and their “dull litanies of fact” are simply not the problem facing us today.

Can scholars be too literal in post-truth Trumplandia?

O, hell no, and beware anyone who would argue otherwise.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

The Man in the High Castle and Cat’s Cradle in Trumplandia

At the very naive age of 21, I fell in love with Blade Runner (1982), unaware at the time that it was a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? My formative years had been spent on science fiction B-movies my mom adored and Marvel comic books, but I remained then still only engaged with genre as a fan.

Many years later, I read Electric Sheep, and was mostly underwhelmed with Dick as a novelist while recognizing his gift for ideas*, much of which was mined by what would become a Ridley Scott modern classic and cult hit.

I just finished my second Dick novel, having begun several of them over the years but finding it difficult to stay connected. The Man in the High Castle has gained a new life with the amazon serial adaptation, and I decided to give his work another shot.

Similar to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale being resurrected through serialization, Castle seems perfect for our time in Trumplandia. Many in the U.S. fear the rise of totalitarianism, but there also is an important new recognition of the fragility of truth and facts.

I must admit that once again I was underwhelmed with Castle as a novel; the central idea—an alternate history in which Germany and Japan win WWII—however, is incredibly compelling as a thought experiment.

The characters, I feel, aren’t themselves very compelling, and the main woman, Juliana Frick, especially felt superficial, even trite at times. Yet, about a third of the way into the novel when Germany is suffering a crisis of leadership, an exchange between Juliana and her mysterious lover, Joe Cinnadella, essentially solidifies why this novel speaks so powerfully now:

high castle

It is here that I read Castle as a much more political and economic narrative version of Albert Camus’s The Stranger captured in Meursault’s musing in prison:

Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)

Dick forces the reader to see that any of us can easily see our side as always in the right and the other side as always in the wrong; this Nazi/communist duality framed in the novel ultimately is revealed as a false dichotomy in the sense that no option had any real moral superiority.

When is war, or even politics, not a gruesome real-world version of the ends justify the means?

And that thematic element prompted also in my mind Kurt Vonnegut.

“‘When Bokonon and McCabe took over this miserable country years ago,’ said Julian Castle, ‘they threw out the priests. And then Bokonon, cynically and playfully, invented a new religion’” (p.172)—opens Chapter 78 of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

Bokonon has created a religion “‘to provide the people with better and better lies’” (p. 172), foma, and a central aspect of that strategy involves the orchestrated war between the government of San Lorenzo and the religion, Bokononism:

“But people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.” (pp. 174-175)

The false choice between McCabe and Bokonon in this other world created by Vonnegut happens to represent well the delusion of choice that exists in the U.S. McCabe/Bokonon reflect the false choice currently in the U.S. between Republican/Democrat; it’s a fake fight, and a false choice.

However, I must qualify that it has been a fake fight and false choice until the era of Trumplandia.

The policy and ideological differences among Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama are quite small—even as some of those policies have profound consequences for individuals in the U.S. and abroad.

The partisan political arena, like McCabe and Bokonon, have been compelled for political reasons to make those small differences seem dramatic, often resorting to the sort of hyperbolic language that stretches credulity.

Obama, for example, is no socialist, no communist. Obama is a centerist, a bit moderate and even liberal in his rhetoric, but he is not so far away from George W. Bush that they couldn’t reach out and dap.

This false chasm between Democrats and Republicans has perpetuated a standard cultural and political ideology for decades, a state of perpetual war and an economic system that feeds the wealthy on the backs of workers and the demonized poor.

The norm of hyperbolic partisan rhetoric now has dire consequences as some seek to confront a new norm in Trumplandia, a more insidious assault on truth with even more far reaching negative consequences for much of the U.S. and even many beyond our borders.

Evoking words such as “Nazi” and “fascism” are no longer vapid hyperbole, but those markers fail to resonate among many who have been numbed by partisan hyperbole and hate-mongering along party lines.

George W. Bush was mostly mainstream U.S. politics and ideology, despite the histrionics from the Left. Obama was mostly mainstream U.S. politics and ideology, despite the histrionics from the Right.

There is almost nothing mainstream or normal under Trump, although we are hesitant to admit that this new extreme has most of its roots in mainstream Republican politics that has depended on racism and misogyny for decades.

As a former high school English teacher, I am now deeply concerned that it will not be fake news that sinks this ship, but our inability to distinguish between hyperbole and honest but blunt language.


* I can draw a parallel with a difference here. I love Milan Kundera as a powerful philosophical author, but I find Kundera a much more compelling storyteller.

Could Self-Outing by MAGA Crowd Have a Silver Lining? (Or Were We Deplorables All Along?)

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

“Harlem,” Langston Hughes

Growing up and then teaching high school English in my small Southern hometown had one unhealthy consequence. I lead an ideologically closeted life until I was in my early 40s.

Rumors and direct confrontations colored my daily life as a public school teacher for 18 years. He’s an atheist and Are you an atheist? swirled around me as ever-present as oxygen—or as suffocating as a lack of oxygen.

I dodged and deflected as much as I could, but the stress, especially in the first several years, was overwhelming.

After teaching a bit over a decade, I entered a doctoral program and discovered my teaching philosophy matched a rich body of thought, critical pedagogy. That meant I was part of a Marxist tradition.

This revelation made complete sense.

As an undergraduate, I had found, read, and meticulously annotated a copy of The Essential Marx: The Non-Economic Writings, focusing on the education and religion sections.

Marx

My copy remains a testament to a naive and yet critical young man who circled “ossify” because I am sure I had no idea what that word means.

It took more than 15 years, but because of graduate school, I recognized myself as a person and an educator as well as potential scholar in critical pedagogy, traced back to my initial attraction to Marx’s idealism.

Fast-forward to 2002, four years after I completed my EdD. I found myself invited to interview for a university position abruptly available during the summer.

I had been an adjunct at several local colleges and lead instructor for the Spartanburg Writing Project, housed in a local university, for many years; however, I walked into the interview with an idealistic view of higher education and a determination that I would teach at the university level out of the closet, with ideological and professional freedom.

During my sample lesson with faculty observing, I shared with the class that I am a Marxist as part of the discussion, fleshing out the terminology embedded in “critical pedagogy” and “critical literacy.” Later in a debriefing at the end of the day of interviewing, one future colleague leaned in close to me and whispered that I might want to avoid disclosing to students I was a Marxist if I joined the department.

I did move to the university, but I resisted that warning. All my classes hear often that they are learning through a Marxist instructional lens. I have nothing to hide, and I feel no shame for my ethical grounding.

My students also learn that ideology drives all teaching and learning. Objectivity and neutrality cannot exist in human interactions. I also warn that while my classes are transparent, they have experienced many courses in which educators mask and even deny ideologies.

Over the past couple years, an entirely different sort of transparency, or public outing, has occurred in U.S politics among Trump supporters. Hats and bumper stickers now gleefully celebrate what had mostly been unspoken or even unspeakable in the twenty-first century:

deplorable

Disregarding that many are now openly confessing their nationalism, racism, sexism, and bigotry, self-outing has become a mainstream part of Republican pride and evangelical zeal.

While not uniquely contentious, current public and partisan bickering and animosity include a disturbing pattern of making false equivalencies. Activism among people from marginalized statuses are in no way the same as neo-Nazi and white nationalist rallies; the former is calling for equity for all (in other words, it is progressive) while the latter seeks to maintain an inequitable status quo (in other words, it is conservative).

The political and ideological division in the U.S., I fear, has no potential for being resolved. That is, I deeply doubt that the MAGA/deplorables energized minority will ever throw up their hands and declare their ideologies as morally bankrupt as they are.

The new Trumpublican movement is paradoxically very much American (who the country has been and remains in practice) and anti-American (antithetical to the ideals the country claims to embrace).

So despite my skepticism bordering on cynicism, I hope that the MAGA/deplorable boldness shakes the core of the centrist punditry that enjoys a hollow and provable false refrain: “This is not who we are.”

During the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas (both like Trumpublicans paradoxes of who America is and claims to be), this is who we are:

Just 7 years old, Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin was picked up by U.S. authorities with her father and other migrants this month in a remote stretch of New Mexico desert. Some seven hours later, she was put on a bus to the nearest Border Patrol station but soon began vomiting. By the end of the two-hour drive, she had stopped breathing.

Jakelin hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for days, her father later told U.S. officials.

If not for MAGA/deplorables, the U.S. would likely remained trapped, as Yeats wrote, here: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

So we are now confronted with the consequences of the passionate worst.

Since the worst seem dedicated to self-outing, the best face an opportunity, not to change anyone’s minds, hearts, and actions, but to rise above as an energized majority.

This is the ideal to which democracy aspires; this is the sort of thing one might expect from people who claim they are a Christian nation.

What remains is whether this is the “deferred” potential of the American character. Or if we were actually deplorables all along.

Why I Am Not a Christian

She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing, [writes Bokonon].

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Born and raised in the Bible Belt, I have almost six decades of experience with the social anxiety associated with confessing that I am not a Christian.

The paradox of this anxiety, I suppose, is that the particular type of Christianity I have lived among in South Carolina is strongly grounded in witnessing and being very cheerfully public about one’s faith. “Let us pray” not as invitation but as directive.

As a public school teacher for 18 years, I was under the added weight of fearing that I would be outed in ways that threatened me socially and professionally. But when I moved to higher education, I really felt no more comfort in expressing my lack of faith—even as I was often directly asked by students, even though it was a professionally safe place to be honest.

In fact, it has always been far easier to share with students my communist/socialist/Marxist leanings than to say simply, “I am an atheist.”

The personal recognition wasn’t an easy journey, but during college, including reading and re-reading Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” and a significant amount of existential philosophy, I came to terms with ethical and moral groundings as well as being entirely comfortable with those ideals being in no way connected to God or organized religion.

Since my college years overlapped with the rise of the Moral Majority and Religious Right, that disconnect wasn’t even complicated. The most passionately Christian people of my community growing up and then the most vocal Christians in the public and political spheres of the Reagan era confirmed for me that I had zero interest in such anger, hatred, and most of all, hypocrisy.

I have taken comfort instead throughout my adult life in literature—works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which directly interrogate all the ways I find religion, and Christianity, more apt to be a bludgeoning device than a balm.

Religious text as a tool for authority, religion as the opiate of the masses—as Emily Dickson wrote as a contemporary of Karl Marx:

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

In 2018, with Donald Trump courting and maintaining the passionate support of the religious right, specifically evangelicals across the South, and with the South Carolina summer primaries in which Republicans run aggressive TV ads shouting “100% pro-life” and images of candidates in front of NRA rallies and holding (even shooting) guns, I have never been more confident in why I am not a Christian.

During this time of Trumplandia, as well, one of the most devout and moral people I know happens to be a Muslim—whose faith is routinely and grossly demonized by Trump and his Christian base.

Christianity is rarely about love and charity, but often about tribalism and the calculated use of higher authority to maintain or gain power.

The narrator in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night argues:

“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” I said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.

“It’s that part of an imbecile,” I said, “that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”

As I grow older, it becomes more and more imperative that I seek a moral and ethical life—something I equally recognize as incredibly hard to achieve as a mere human among humanity, as we are all so flawed, so fragile, so unwilling to sacrifice and risk in the name of the hypothetical Other, the faceless and nameless human we choose either to treat as our brother/sister or to leave mostly ignored in the basement closet.

Christianity, I fear, too often allows the worst in us to thrive instead of inspiring us to be the loving community we are capable of being.

Love, community, and holding sacred all humans’ dignity—these are what matter to me, and why I am not a Christian.

I, Marxist

It is not for the theater alone, but the theater itself would justify the moment in each class I teach when I out myself as a “communist” (pausing, then clarifying the whole communist-socialist-Marxist mess that most Americans cannot untangle).

And that comes early so that I can punctuate about once a class period a key point with “Here is the communist propaganda of the day.” Eventually, this prods laughter when at first there were silent faces, eyes down, of utter fear.

In almost all of my courses, we back up and reconsider terms such as “theory,” “hypothesis,” “belief,” “objectivity,” and of course the cursed trinity, “communist-socialist-Marxist.” What is interesting as well is that most of my students are as ill-informed about “capitalism,” “democracy,” and “republic” as they are misguided about the Red Scare.

While I remain resistant to any and all labels (see this about my born-again agnostic confession), I am, in fact, more or less a Marxist, with the caveat that the term itself and the ideologies surrounding it are contentious, at best.

I was never an Ayn Rand simpleton (excuse the redundancy), but in my early life as a would-be intellectual/academic (my teens), I was powerfully drawn to American Romanticism’s star-struck gaze on the individual—the stuff of the three-name bullshitters, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (for whom I still have some affection, by the way).

But my twenties and thirties included a great awakening that ran through John Dewey (rejecting the either/or thinking of society v. individual) and directly into Paulo Freire, a (the?) patron saint of educational Marxists.

The boy-to-man transition can be a slow one, but I eventually shrugged off my idealizing the individual and demonizing the collective (damned Society), and came to a much more nuanced understanding of the moral and ethical implications (or absence thereof) inherent in the rugged individual myth and the larger consumerism/capitalism norm of the good ol’ U.S. of A.

This transition, I realize, is part of a personal journey to an ethical way of being, and thus, I had to reject rugged individualism and capitalism (consumerism) for their amorality; I had to embrace Marxism for its moral imperative.

Of course, I realize that “moral” and “ethical” are social constructions, not some objective thing handed down by G(g)od; however, I think humans can create norms that seek ways to honor the collective and individual good.

I am still traversing along Dewey’s call to reject the either/or—despite the wealth of post-apocalyptic science/speculative fiction (that I love) grounded in the evil collective assaulting the idealized indivdual. See Winston’s head trapped in the cage under the threat of loosed rats.

Pretty damn hard to resist this warning, but it’s hokum, mostly, especially since this sort of propaganda by Randian capitalists and aimed at demonizing the government is a distortion of a more credible warning about totalitarianism, something more likely when government is corrupted by corporations (not the implied message that government is the inherently corrupt force in the universe).

Thus, my Marxism runs toward the recognition (the paradox) that if we do value individual freedom and the so-call free market (insert sarcastic cough here), the path to those ideals begins with insuring the robustness of the public good first.

Randian capitalists preach that the free market comes first, as the sacred Invisible Hand—while public institutions (gasp) are to be tolerated only and always under a skeptical gaze.

As ideologies, both of these approaches are idealistic, and possibly inherently unattainable.

I remain with the Marxist camp because it is the moral idealism against the amoral idealism of Randian capitalism.

I am willing to concede that having two or three competing pharmacies facing off across the street and corners from each other can work to depress prices—possibly more so than depending on the usually bungled bureaucracy of government to serve the people well (here, read some Kafka).

But the public good will not be served by Walgreens and Ekerd alone in terms of just what pharmaceuticals they sale; in fact, if anything, the U.S. is a horrible parable about the failure of allowing the market to drive the selling of medicine. (Consider Tamiflu, which is mostly sold to create profit for drug companies, but likely is not close to being cost effective or curative for patients).

The free market spawned Viagra and Cialis, we must consider, but cancer is left to private non-profits begging for people to be decent, and, human.

Charity.

So to stand before my students and confess “I, Marxist,” is no mere theater, although it serves that well also.

It is, in fact, an act of confessing my own moral imperative as a teacher, and a human—as flawed as all that is.

It is a defiance in the wake of all the cartoonish Red baiting that has characterized the U.S. for more than a century.

And I persist, although “I’m not sure all these people understand.”

The Vulnerable Are Expendable in the Free Market

…[T]hey all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin (p. 282)

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:25-37

I am driving my deceased father’s truck, the bed loaded with toys and my grandson in the extended cab, to Goodwill before dropping off my grandson to be watched while I go to my mother’s former assisted living facility to remove all of her things, mostly clothes and her recliner.

My mother is lying in the hospital oncology wing with, as we are just informed, hours or days to live.

Since my one sudden hard cry the morning the doctor told me on the phone about my mother’s cancer, I have been mostly numb, or empty, functioning through, along with my nephews, the necessary burden of managing my mother’s affairs as her body gradually shuts down.

As I leave her things crammed into two large black trash bags beside the recliner separated into two parts, I have a near-moment of tears as I pause to look into the living area of her house, the home I lived in from the age of 10 into my early 20s. My nephews have cleaned the area to an eerie tidiness that never existed when the house was lived in.

The finality of that tidiness, that emptiness, that none of us would ever live there again—this rekindled the sadness that has been resting beneath the necessary resignation that allows the living to navigate the dying.

My mother actually left us when she suffered a stroke about six months ago—with this day just one week from my mother’s birthday, a woman born on Friday the 13th.

Over that half year, she has been nearly in constant poor health, in and out of hospitals. And if possible, our experiences with the current healthcare system and the inexcusably inadequate Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance charade have been nearly as low a level of hell as being told my mother has stage 4, incurable, cancer.

To add insult to injury, these experiences with my parents’ failing health and their dying has coincided with a Republican-led federal government working furiously to dismantle the anemic Affordable Care Act, demonized as Obamacare, mostly with claims that the free market would be better suited to care for the vulnerable in our country that shamelessly waves flags and calls itself a Christian nation.

Of course, those making these claims and creating laws and policy all are wealthy and have all the essentials that their laws and policies deny everyone else, especially the vulnerable:

[M[ore than 80% of the officially poor are either children, elderly, disabled, students, or the involuntarily unemployed (while the majority of the remaining officially poor are carers or working people who didn’t face an unemployment spell). I bring up these 80%+ because these are the classic categories of people that are considered vulnerable populations in capitalist economies. These are the categories of people that all welfare states target resources to in one form or another, the good ones very heavily.

I believe my parents represent a fair claim that in the free market, being sick and dying are extremely (and unnecessarily) expensive, and if you happen to not have the capital, being sick and dying are incredibly undignified experiences no person really deserves.

To survive her stroke, my mother was airlifted to a nearby larger hospital, a life-saving transfer costing tens of thousands of dollars. That life-and-death moment involved doctors and family having to discuss and calculate the insurance implications, ones that linger for months since the second hospital, unlike the first, no longer accepts my mother’s supplemental policy.

That hellish (and unnecessary) scenario has repeated itself multiple times since then: my father’s death beside my mother in a rehabilitation facility, my mother being forcibly discharged from that facility and denied the high-level rehab her doctors requested, my mother being placed in assisted living, and then the multiple hospital stays leading up to her now lying in Hospice.

My mother’s death will come similar to my father’s—with only a few thousand dollars to her name.

White and working class, my parents grew up and graduated in the idealized 1950s, married in 1960, and gave birth to their obligatory two children in 1961 and 1962. They were the embodiment of aspirational, reaching hard and often for the white-washed American Dream without a hint of skepticism, without any recognition that promise was never really being extended to people not like them.

Dad worked his ass off, and mom raised me and my sister until we were in elementary school, when she re-entered the work force herself. All of that good old American work ethic was aimed at buying the largest lot at a new golf course just north of my hometown where they eventually built their dream home; it cost less in 1971 than the first Honda Accord I bought new, but that house also has more square footage than the home I own now—although my annual salary among the professional class my parents only dreamed about (and lived vicariously through) is many times more than my father’s best annual income.

My parents were politically conservative like much of the South in the latter half of the twentieth century, and therefore, I lived through Watergate, for example, in a household where my parents routinely ranted against the liberal media and felt compassion for the Dan Rather-crucified Richard Nixon.

And for all of their adult and married lives, my parents worked, my father grinding himself into an early grave, I believe. Both also smoked, as people did then, and for my mother, those 3+-packs a day were certainly the root of her dying breaths being taken in the coming days.

And what have my parents reaped for being obedient soldiers for the free market and the American Way? Truly awful final days on this planet because healthcare is a nightmare and the insurance maze is worse than anything Dante could have imagined.

My parents voted solidly Republican their entire lives, and were very much like the white majority that elected Trump. Like those deplorables, that ideological commitment eroded virtually every aspect of their dignity as their grew old and unhealthy.

Yet, this government that they hated, voted against, is all that sustained them toward the end, through publicly funded programs—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

My nephews and I have been scrambling over these six months to protect and preserve their dignity, if not their lives, but it has been an exhausting fight—one that people in the medical field shake their heads about, powerless it seems, and one that people in the insurance game on the distant other ends of phone calls simply just don’t give a damn about.

For all my parents’ faults, and there were many, I can’t imagine they deserve this, being among the vulnerable in the U.S. who are expendable in the free market because they passed their time to be productive.

The vulnerable, you see, in a free market always become the faces of takers, and no market likes takers who no longer produce.

That market was free, in fact, to squeeze the lives out of my parents and then toss them aside when nothing was left.

It is here I must add—imagine how this is amplified, magnified for others among the vulnerable who do not enjoy the privileges my parents had, being white and achieving a pretty solid middle-class living during the golden years of their productive lives.

Yes, my parents suffered the Libertarian delusion that their material achievements were mostly their hard work and solid character, but despite that delusion, they did work hard, and they did deserve better at the end.

Because almost everyone deserves better than the Social Darwinism of the free market; children do, the infirm do, the elderly do, carers do, the working poor do, and even the lazy and the meek do simply by being human.

The problem? This is the sentiment of a socialist, a humanist, and (here is the Big Reveal) Jesus Christ himself.

Here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. we won’t be having any of that bullshit; you know, respecting the basic human dignity of every living being.

Nope, we are all about the middle finger to the vulnerable who don’t have the common decency to pull on their bootstraps and all that.

A New American Revolution Requires Empathy: Equity for All Means Loss of Privilege for Some

The Women’s March over inauguration weekend in 2017 spurred a great deal of activism across the U.S. and throughout the world.

However, similar to Bernie Sander’s campaign, the Women’s March exposed a problem since data on Trump’s election show that white women, who seemed to constitute the bulk of the march, voted for Trump in a majority:

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Throughout my social media feeds, black women scholars and activists noted that if white women had voted as black women did, there would be no need for the march:

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As well, if anyone is willing to listen and to listen seriously, racially marginalized groups have explained that this new normal under Trump is a multiple generations long reality for them; see Paul Beatty: ‘For me, Trump’s America has always existed.’

The question before us: Is the current move to resist Trump the result of a privileged class responding only when consequences affect them?

More evidence of this disturbing probability has been revealed when Trump voters continue to rail against Obamacare (assumed that is for the Others) and simultaneously embrace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), under which they are covered.

Now consider Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Politics of Memory in which Ruth Ben-Ghiat offers another incredibly damning observation:

The founding moment of this era came one year ago, when Trump declared at a rally, “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.” Trump signaled that rhetorical and actual violence might have a different place in America of the future, perhaps becoming something ordinary or unmemorable. During 2016, public hatred became part of everyday reality for many Americans: those who identify with the white supremacist alt-right like Richard Spencer openly hold rallies; elected officials feel emboldened to call for political opponents to be shot (as did New Hampshire and Oklahoma State Representatives Al Baldasaro and John Bennett, among others); journalists reporting on Trump and hijab-wearing women seek protection protocols and escorts. The bureaucratic-sounding term many use for this, “normalization,” does not fully render the operations of memory that make it possible. Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.

Trump’s pronouncement may have seemed extreme, but it has mostly proven to be accurate.

At the core of this disturbing reality may be several factors: a cultural norm of self-first thinking, a garbled understanding of government and public institutions, and thus a poorly steered democracy that fails to function as a democracy for the equity of all.

If we return to considering who and why protests emerged after Trump’s election, and factor in how misinformed many Trump supporters have proven to be, we can conclude that being misinformed and self-first is a tragic combination.

However, the U.S. breeds self-first (and self-only) thinking by falsely claiming the country is already a meritocracy (it isn’t), and combining that with a blind commitment to competition, a society grinding up its citizens in Social Darwinism.

To view life as a competition is antithetical to democracy and equity for all.

The dirty little secret of social justice and fighting for equity is that those with privilege (and all the power) will necessarily lose their advantages when equity is achieved; in other words, there is no way to avoid the “winners” (who now believe they win because of their effort and not their privilege) viewing equity for all as a loss for them.

Therefore, the current winners-from-privilege are the most vocal proponents of universal competition and the eradication of government as intrusive and totalitarian.

The racial tension spurred by the Women’s March highlights how we have yet found a common ground to honor the plights of the marginalized, to fore-front those historically ignored voices, and then to behave with empathy for anyone, regardless of the consequences to the self.

There is a reason the powerful elites vilify communism, socialism, and Marxism—all of which are grounded in ethical pursuits of equity, all of which call for revolution based on the exact empathy competition destroys—and conflate “government” with totalitarianism to mask the potential for public institutions to ensure equity:

I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. (Eugene V. Debs: Statement September 18, 1918)

A new American revolution requires empathy, a groundswell of people who believe and act as Debs expresses above.

If any white people, including the uprise of white women marching, fear the specter of Trump’s administration, they have now experienced the fact of life for many “deliberately silenced [and] preferably unheard”—black, brown, poor, born outside of the U.S., LGBTQ+, Muslim, etc.

A people dedicated to community and collaboration, and not competition, a people grounded in empathy and not “me first” or “me only”—these are the soldiers ready for a new revolution in which equity for all can be realized.