Beware the Bastards: On Freedom and Choice

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. 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

Based on “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, the cult science fiction film They Live focuses on the main character, Nada (Roddy Piper), who discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal to him that aliens are controlling the human race.

In the real world, the trick is not finding a pair of enlightening sunglasses to expose the alien overlords but to recognize the bastards we have chosen to rule over us—because the bastards controlling the U.S. are really easy to see.

Here’s one:

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And here’s a whole room full:

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The masking, you see, is not taking on human form to hide alien bodies, but the use of words that appear to say one thing while actually meaning something entirely different.

The trick in the real world is not visual, but verbal.

So we have Ryan on Twitter:

And Vice President Pence:

O, happy freedom! And glorious individual responsibility!

Let us, of course, step back and note that our federal political leaders are overwhelmingly white and wealthy men who have healthcare, retirement/pension, and daycare all provided for them at tax payers’ expense—although every one of them due to their wealth are free to take the individual responsibility to choose to pay for those luxuries that they are denying everyone else.

*

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred (June), the eponymous handmaid of the tale, reveals that “[t]he circumstances have been reduced” (p. 8) for the younger women of Gilead, a post-apocalyptic theocracy of sorts. These seemingly fertile women have become extremely precious for the survival of the white race and paradoxically the embodiment of a perverse slavery for procreation.

Atwood has written at length about being indebted to George Orwell—those who control language control everything and everyone—and that her speculative novel includes a quilting of human actions drawn directly from history, not fabricated by Atwood.

How have humans kept other humans in literal and economic bondage? Often by exploiting token members of the group being exploited.

Thus, in The Handmaid’s Tale, a few women are manipulated to control other women. 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)

Throughout the novel, readers must navigate how Offred (June) weaves the overlap of her own original ideas and vocabulary as that intersects with the propaganda of Gilead:

Will I ever be in a hotel room again? How I wasted them, those rooms, that freedom from being seen.

Rented license. (p. 50)

“Freedom” and “license” are exposed as bound words, the meanings contextual.

As Offred (June) continues to investigate rooms, she discovers a powerful but foreign phrase:

I knelt to examine the floor, and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

I didn’t know what it meant, or even what language it was in. I thought it might be Latin, but I didn’t know any Latin. Still it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by that very fact, and it hadn’t been discovered. Except by me, for whom it was intended. It was intended for whoever came next. (p. 52)

The power to control language includes defining words, but also denying access to language—forbidding reading and writing, literacy, to those in bondage.

And then, Offred (June) 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)

And from that previous life of “ignoring” the other since it wasn’t about them, Offred (June) finds herself the procreation slave of a Commander, in “reduced circumstances” where she realizes: “There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (p. 94).

Her previous life of “ignoring” has been replaced by something seemingly more awful, but nearly exactly the same as she explains about the Ceremony: “One detaches oneself” (p. 95).

Even in Gilead, Offred (June) again becomes the other woman, lured into an infidelity characterized by playing Scrabble with the Commander, who reveals to her that Nolite te bastardes carborundorum is slang Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (p. 187).

Adolescent language as rebellion has become a life-or-death slogan for Offred (June).

As her relationship with the Commander becomes increasingly trite and complex, Offred (June) declares, “Freedom, like everything else, is relative” (p. 231).

*

It is 2017, and many are living lives by ignoring because it just doesn’t seem to be about them.

Detached, unwilling to look or listen carefully—skipping along to the hollow mantras of “freedom,” “choice,” and “individual responsibility.”

As with Offred (June), this is no longer an adolescent joke; it is the only real option we have.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

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Know-Nothing Follies, American Style

Some time in the 1980s while I was teaching high school English in rural upstate South Carolina, my home town, a student turned in an essay about Pink Floyd, a group my students knew I liked.

The student’s essay raved about Pink Floyd—as a person, not a group. The irony of this, of course, was totally lost on the student. [1]

Throughout my 30-plus years teaching, I have encountered dozens of smug, cavalier know-nothings like that student. Too uninformed to even be able to conceive that their ignorance is entirely transparent.

Know-nothings often surround themselves with know-nothings, and the resulting echo chamber is truly stunning. They find themselves clever, and cool; they are ultimately self-perpetuating, and self-sustaining.

Young males often fall into this trap as a pursuit of coolness to hide their insecurities; young women are drawn to feigned know-nothingness as a ploy to attract guys, also a defense against insecurity.

Many if not most grow out of the know-nothing-as-cool/attractive phase.

But enough don’t that the know-nothings have now elected the master of know-nothing president, and that know-nothing president has surrounded himself with know-nothings to run the country.

The great irony of the culture of know-nothingness is that these people are compelled to appear knowledgable while having no capacity for knowledge.

The evidence is easy to confirm:

  • Trump completely oblivious to who Frederick Douglass is.
  • SOE Betsy DeVos’s Tweet misspelling W.E.B. Du Bois, and then misspelling again in the apology.
  • Trump’s inauguration poster using “to” for “too.”
  • The GOP Tweeting a false quote attributed to Lincoln.

These examples from our political elites have their roots in right-wing radio where Rush Limbaugh often holds forth quoting Shakespeare’s “brevity is the soul of wit” (clueless that this is the comment of a buffoon, not a pearl of wisdom) and repeatedly calling Ayn Rand “Anne.”

Here are the remnants of know-nothings to add to the culture of lies and the flippant serial plagiarism that characterize Trump and company.

And as a result of this flurry of know-nothingness, post-truth, and fake news, many have begun to turn to literature, from George Orwell to Margaret Atwood.

While I appreciate the focus on dystopian science fiction that addresses the power of manipulating words, facts, and truth—see Orwell and Atwood—many are glossing over the importance of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which dramatizes the normalizing of the know-nothing culture that now controls our country.

I highly recommend Amusing Ourselves to Death: Huxley vs Orwell, a careful side-by-side graphic comparison of the work by these two authors from Neil Postman who argued in favor of Huxley’s warnings being more apt.

Huxley, the graphic notes, envisioned a people distracted by pleasure, reality TV replacing the urge to read or to seek knowledge.

Huxley recognized the bankruptcy of over-stimulated consumers, bathed in the glow of screen after screen and the incessant access to information.

Huxley feared how truth and fake news would blur in the collective consciousness of a people who just want to have fun—orgy-porgy.

Huxley drew on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, titling his novel in a way that is ominous and satirical since Miranda is deluded by her idealism: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,/ That has such people in’t!”

Imagine, then, that the know-nothing student in my class trying to curry favor without making any real effort had been the son of a racist millionaire who left him a huge inheritance and a cushy leg up on a career as a huckster.

He could have been well on his way to the presidency.

See Also

Rethinking Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ in Trump’s America, Henry Giroux


[1] Note: “The name is derived from the given names of two blues musicians whose Piedmont blues records Barrett had in his collection, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.”

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Once I posted a reader for Trumplandia, based on the increased sales of George Orwell’s 1984 as well as the related thought pieces on important texts from Orwell and other writers, I was not surprised by the expected response calling for teachers and classrooms to be somehow politically neutral.

I have rejected this idea often, focusing on Howard Zinn’s brilliant metaphor of being unable to remain neutral on a moving train. Both calling for no politics in any context and taking a neutral stance are, in fact, political themselves—the former is a political strategy to deny some Others their politics while imposing your own and the latter is the politics of passively endorsing the status quo (in a society where racism and sexism, for example, continue to thrive, being neutral is an indirect endorsement of both).

Education and journalism—universal free public education and the free press—share many important and disturbing qualities: they are essential to the creation and preservation of a free and equitable people, they remain mostly unachieved in the U.S. in practice because they are often the tools of powerful people and forces who distort their ideal contributions to democracy and equity, and at the heart of that failure (we have failed them; they have not failed us) is the shared traditional code of education/teachers and journalism/journalists assuming neutral poses, being forced into a state of objectively presenting both sides in a fair and balanced way.

Particularly in the post-truth times we now find ourselves—and I argue we are here because of our failures in education and journalism—demanding that educators and journalists remain neutral is not the right goal and not actually how either functions.

In fact, education and journalism are always political, and in most contexts, educators and journalists routinely break the rule of neutrality—and thus, when anyone wags a finger and exclaims “We must be fair and balanced! Show both sides!” the truth is not that educators or journalists are being ideological or biased, but that someone in power feels that his/her politics is being challenged.

Let me illustrate in both education and journalism, starting with the media.

As I have noted before, when we compare the Ray Rice inspired public debate about domestic abuse to the Adrian Peterson motivated public debate about corporal punishment, the unbiased press myth is completely unmasked because domestic abuse (men hitting and psychologically abusing women) was entirely examined throughout the media as wrong (no pro-abuse side aired) while that same media almost exclusively presented corporal punishment as a debate with a fair and balanced presentation of both sides to adults hitting children.

What is clear here is incredibly disturbing: The media, in fact, make decisions about when to honor credible positions, when to reject or even not cover invalidated and unethical positions, and when to shrink back into the “both sides” cover.

While decades of research and the same ethical concerns about power and abuse related to rejecting domestic abuse entirely refute corporal punishment, the media have chosen to remain neutral on a moving train aimed at the health and well being of powerless children.

In other words, when media shirks its role in creating and maintaining a free and equitable people behind its tin shield of objectivity—think about always framing evolution or climate change as debates, as if “both sides” are equally credible when they are not—this is a dishonest pose because the media routinely take sides.

Finally, I want to highlight that education represents this same dishonest dynamic—claiming to be apolitical, or aspiring to be apolitical, while often taking sides.

Unless I am misreading the current mood of the country, the rise of interest in 1984 and other works of literature similar to Orwell’s is along a spectrum of concern about to fear of the rise of fascism and totalitarianism. Concurrently, with the public discussions about fake news and post-truth, we are experiencing a renaissance in examining how power and language are inseparable.

So what does it mean when teachers call for presenting both side of this debate when we bring politically charged novels by Orwell or Margaret Atwood into high school and college classes?

Before answering, let me offer a few examples from typical lessons found in high schools for virtually every student.

Both the Holocaust and slavery in the U.S. are taught as foundational content in anyone’s education; these are disturbing topics, and hard issues.

When we teach the Holocaust, notably through Night by Elie Wiesel in an English course, do we rush to have students read Hitler’s Mein Kamft to fairly represent both sides, treating each position as morally equivalent, allowing our students to choose whichever position she/he wishes?

When we teach U.S. slavery, possibly having students read Frederick Douglass, do we also find eugenicists’ and racists’ declarations demonizing blacks to fairly represent both sides, treating each position as morally equivalent, allowing our students to choose whichever position she/he wishes?

As in the media, educators at all levels routinely take sides—the answer to the two questions above reveal.

And thus, returning to the push back to my Trumplandia reader, I am lost on how or why educators would find ways to present pro-fascist ideas to balance literature study about the threats of fascism and totalitarianism.

Using Orwell and all sorts of powerful literature to help students on the cusp of or early in their roles as active participants in a democracy to better read the world and better act on that world in informed and ethical ways is the very essence of politics, one not corrupted by simplistic partisan politics of endorsing Democrats [1] or Republicans (which is worth resisting in education and journalism).

In 2017, the U.S. and even the entire world are faced with whether or not we truly believe in freedom and equity, whether or not we are willing to invest in the institutions that can leverage both that freedom and equity—institutions such as formal education and the media. And we have been here before, in the same words and the same actions. [2]

If the answer is yes, then our resolve must be linked to demanding that our teachers and journalists are grounded in taking informed and ethical stands, not the dishonest and uncritical pose of objectivity.

As I have shown above, neither is really being neutral now, but instead, pulling out the objective card only when it serves the interest of the status quo.

Critical educators and critical journalists must not serve the whims of power and money, and must be transparent in their pursuit of credible evidence and ethical behavior.

To frame everything as a debate with equally credible antithetical sides is dishonest and insufficient for the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Teachers and journalists are always political agents; both professions must choose in whose interest they are willing to work.

The neutral pose by either is to take a seat on the train, to keep eyes down, and to allow the train to rumble along as if the tracks are not leading to a cliff.

Pretending that cliff isn’t now on our horizon will not stop the train from crashing on the rocks of the coming abyss.


[1] My political work is not partisan, for example, as I have been warning about the Orwellian failures of political parties for many years; see Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures by Paul Thomas.

[2]

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A Reader for Trumplandia

My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World, Andrew Postman

‘It will be called Americanism’: the US writers who imagined a fascist future, Sarah Churchwell

George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Is Suddenly a Best-Seller, Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura

Orwell’s “1984” and Trump’s America, Adam Gopnik

1984, George Orwell

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The Orwell essay that’s even more pertinent than “1984” right now, Maxwell Strachan

Politics and the English Language, George Orwell

Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics, Alexandra Alter

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

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It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis

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Newt Gingrich: Margaret Thatcher is the real model for the Trump presidency

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd

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1987’s “Document” feels especially applicable to America in 2017, Annie Zaleski

On Jan. 20, Paste ran a clever article titled “An Inaugural Day Message via the Words of R.E.M.” The piece creates a narrative about politics and life by jumbling together and rearranging phrases culled from the Athens, Georgia, band’s song lyrics. Workload-wise, the 2400-word piece is impressive; mixing and matching sentiments from a 30-plus-year career certainly isn’t easy….

The last record R.E.M. released via I.R.S. Records — and the first LP the band recorded with producer Scott Litt — “Document” addresses the corrupting nature of money; political witch hunts concerning free speech; circumstances that are both bewildering and unprecedented; and economic and employment oppression. Appropriately, the record’s music is glinting and electrified, and nods to post-punk, folk, funk and fiery rock ‘n’ roll….

In 2003, Stipe admitted that “Disturbance at the Heron House” is his “take” on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”…

“That song is so fucking political, and it’s so appropriate to what’s going on right now,” he told Filter. “Like, the kind of arrogance that some of the policy makers and world leaders are carrying with them right now is, I think, reflective of the very worst of the United States. It’s that teenage arrogance, as a young country, the know-it-all-kind of thing. That makes me crazy.”

R.E.M. – Disturbance At The Heron House (see also here)

Animal Farm, George Orwell

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Additional Recommended Texts

Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler

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Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins

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Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

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Educators (Still) Have No Political Party

NOTE: Below is a repost from 23 August 2012 with small edits. With great regret, I see no reason to write something new since the Chicago mayoral election and the announcement of Hillary Clinton entering the presidential election have offered clear proof educators still have no political party. I do, however, offer some important additions after the repost from W.E.B. Du Bois and George Carlin. I recommend them highly.

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Educators (Still) Have No Political Party

For about thirty years now, public education as well as its teachers and students have been the focus of an accountability era driven by recurring calls for and the implementation of so-called higher standards and incessant (and now “next generation”) testing. At two points during this era, educators could blame Ronald Reagan’s administration for feeding the media frenzy around the misleading A Nation at Risk and George W. Bush’s administration for federalizing the accountability era with No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—both under Republican administrations.

For those who argued that Republicans and Democrats were different sides of the same political coin beholden to corporate interests, education advocates could point to Republicans with an accusatory finger and claim the GOP was anti-public education while also endorsing Democrats as unwavering supporters of public education. To claim Republicans and Democrats were essentially the same was left to extremists and radicals, it seemed.

As we approach the fall of 2015 and the next presidential election, however, educators and advocates for public education have found that the position of the extremists—Republicans and Democrats are the same—has come true under the Barack Obama administration.

Educators have no political party to support because no political party supports educators, public education, or teachers unions.

Democrats and Republicans: Our Orwellian Future Is Now

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

1984, George Orwell

Behind the historical mask that Democrats support strongly public education and even teachers specifically and workers broadly, the Obama administration has presented a powerful and misleading education campaign that is driven by Obama as the good cop and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the bad cop. Obama Good Cop handles the discourse that appeals to educators by denouncing the rising test culture in 2011:

What is true, though, is, is that we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic.

Yet, simultaneously, Secretary Duncan Bad Cop was endorsing and the USDOE was implementing Race to the Top, creating provisions for states to opt out of NCLB, and endorsing Common Core—each of which increases both the amount of standardized testing and the high-stakes associated with those tests by expanding the accountability from schools and students to teachers.

Under Obama, Democratic education policy and agendas, embodied by Duncan, have created a consistently inconsistent message. During his campaign mode for a second term, Obama once again offered conflicting claims about education—endorsing a focus on reducing class size (despite huge cuts for years in state budgets that have eliminated teachers and increased class size, which many education reformers endorse) and making a pitch to support teachers unions and even increasing spending on education, leading Diane Ravitch to ponder:

Well, it is good to hear the rhetoric. That’s a change. We can always hope that he means it. But that, of course, would mean ditching Race to the Top and all that absurd rightwing rhetoric about how schools can fix poverty, all by themselves.

Throughout his presidency, Obama’s discourse has been almost directly contradicted by Duncan’s discourse and the USDOE’s policies. Obama tended to state that teachers were the most important in-school influence on student learning while Duncan tends to continue omitting the “in-school” qualifier, but these nuances of language are of little value since the USDOE under Obama has an agenda nearly indistinguishable from Republican agendas:

  • Incentivizing all states to adopt CC and the necessary increase in testing and textbook support (and thus, profit) to follow.
  • Endorsing market dynamics and school choice by embracing the charter school movement, specifically charters such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) that practice “no excuses” ideologies for school reform and school cultures.
  • Criticizing directly and indirectly public school teachers and perpetuating the “bad” teacher myth by calling for changes in teacher evaluations and compensation, disproportionately based on student test scores.
  • Funding and endorsing the spread of test-based accountability to departments and colleges of education involved in teacher certification.
  • Funding and endorsing the de-professionalization of teaching through support for Teach for America.
  • Appealing to the populist message about choice by failing to confront the rise of “parent trigger” laws driven by corporate interests posing as concerned parents.

If my claim that Republicans and Democrats are different sides of the same misguided education reform coin still appears to be the claim of an extremist, the last point above should be examined carefully.

Note, for example, the connection between the issues endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and the anti-union sentiment joined with endorsing the next misleading Waiting for “Superman”Won’t Back Down.

The Democratic National Convention was home to DFER, Parent Revolution, and Students First to promote Won’t Back Down as if this garbled film is a documentary—including a platform for Michelle Rhee.

There is nothing progressive about the education reform agenda under the Obama administration, nothing progressive about the realities behind Obama’s or Duncan’s discourse, nothing progressive about Rhee, Gates, or the growing legions of celebrity education reformers.

If the Democratic Party were committed to a progressive education platform, we would hear and see policy seeking ways to fund fully public schools, rejecting market solutions to social problems, supporting the professionalization of teachers, embracing the power and necessity of collective bargaining and tenure, protecting students from the negative impact of testing and textbook corporations, distancing themselves from Rhee-like conservatives in progressive clothing, and championing above everything else democratic ideals.

Instead, the merging of the education agenda between Democrats and Republicans is Orwellian, but it real, as Ravitch warned early in Obama’s administration:

This rhetoric represented a remarkable turn of events. It showed how the politics of education had been transformed. . . .Slogans long advocated by policy wonks on the right had migrated to and been embraced by policy wonks on the left. When Democrat think tanks say their party should support accountability and school choice, while rebuffing the teachers’ unions, you can bet that something has fundamentally changed in the political scene. (p. 22)

Still today in 2015, educators have no political party to support because no political party supports educators—and this is but one symptom of a larger disease killing the hope and promise of democracy in the U.S.

This tragic fact is the inevitable result of the historical call for teachers not to be political. Now that educators have no major party to support, the failure of that call is more palpable than ever.

Both the faux “not political” pose and playing the partisan political game fail educators, public education, and the democratic hope of the U.S.

Why I Won’t Vote, W.E.B. Dubois, The Nation, 20 October 1956

In God We Trust?

Writing about her The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia”:

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen if we don’t pull up our socks.

Atwood’s now contemporary classic reads as a brilliant hybrid of George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—”dire warnings” about the allure and dangers of totalitarian theocracies.

Literature, in fact, comes back again and again to warnings about fanatical and fundamentalist religion, especially as that intersects government and politics.

Powerful in its concision and word play, e.e. cummings’ satire of pompous political patriotism begins, “‘next to of course god america i/ love you'”—weaving a stump speech both garbled with cliches and distinctly lucid in its pandering.

The last line (“He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water”), the only words not being spoken by the unnamed politician, comes after the dramatic rhetorical question: “‘then shall the voice of liberty be mute?'”

Like Atwood, Orwell, and Miller, cummings is offering his warning about draping ourselves in the flag while simultaneously thumping the Bible.

In God We Trust?

Having been born, raised, and then living and working my entire life in South Carolina, I have mostly existed in a default culture of Southern Baptist religiosity, a fundamentalist view of scripture.

I have witnessed and continue to witness religion used both as a rod and as a water torture: at once a blunt and instant tool of judgment and a relentless, although only a drop at a time, force for keeping everyone in line.

And that line is decreed by God, so they say.

However, this is not something exclusive to the South—although many continue to rely on scripture to justify corporal punishment and even misogyny in my homeland.

The history of the South, too, offers countless and disturbing “dire warnings”: justifying slavery with scripture and the historical roots of Southern Baptists as a result.

But fundamentalism in the South and the dramatic consequences may mask the thread of those same beliefs running throughout the nation. Consider “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the place of prayer in public schools.

The public is mostly misinformed about all of these, but easily swayed by the political implications of invoking “God.”

“God” on currency and in the Pledge (as a Cold War political ploy) represents a political manipulation of religion (using religion to score political points), as the history of how each occurred reveals. But prayer in public school may be the best example of the problem.

Formed under Ronald Reagan, the committee eventually drafting what is called A Nation at Risk included Gerald Holton, who has revealed Reagan’s “marching orders” for the report:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom [emphasis added]. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.

When the president of the U.S. misrepresents a fundamental issue, when virtually no one (media, etc.) holds the president accountable for the misrepresentation, and then when that inaccurate claim remains powerful for decades (until today), we would be careless to suggest that the danger of religion and politics is simply a vestige of the backward South.

Neither prayer nor God has ever been removed or banned from public schools. In 1962, forced prayer was ruled unconstitutional—which ironically seems to be the sort of law the Libertarian-leaning streak in the U.S. would embrace. Yet Reagan Democrats and Tea Partiers are the exact national demographics calling for “religious freedom” legislation, much like the redundant and unnecessary legislation guaranteeing students the right to pray in public schools.

“Freedom To and Freedom From”

“Religious freedom”?

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia,” Atwood’s narrator, Offred/June, recounts. “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.”

Women training women, Atwood dramatizes, is about control—control of their bodies and control of their minds, which includes controlling language.

“We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice,” Offred/June adds.

Again, I live in SC, a “right to work” state, so I am attuned to the Orwellian language gymnastics so wonderfully emphasized in Atwood’s novel, echoing Orwell’s “dire warnings”:

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometer away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape….

The Ministry of Truth—Minitrue, in Newspeak—was startlingly different from any other object in sight….From where Winston stood is was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. (p. 7)

Therefore, I am skeptical—if not cynical—about the proposed “religious freedom” law in Indiana. I am also disturbed that this is occurring in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Indiana, and as Garrett Epps discusses, there are important connections to Indiana’s law and SC:

Until the day he died, however, [Maurice] Bessinger insisted that he and God were right.  His last fight was to preserve the Confederate flag as a symbol of South Carolina. “I want to be known as a hard-working, Christian man that loves God and wants to further (God’s) work throughout the world as I have been doing throughout the last 25 years,” he told his hometown newspaper in 2000….

That’s a good background against which to measure the uproar about the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by Governor Mike Pence last week. I don’t question the religious sincerity of anyone involved in drafting and passing this law. But sincere and faithful people, when they feel the imprimatur of both the law and the Lord, can do very ugly things.

Being reared in the fundamentalist South, I was given mostly a negative education in morality—all that I was determined not to do and be.

My moral compass has come from literature instead—Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and Kurt Vonnegut.

These calls, then, for “religious freedom” ring Orwellian, not about “freedom” at all but about the sorts of cancerous marriages between religion and politics already played out time and again in the U.S. to deny marginalized groups what those in power enjoy as if such is ordained by God.

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“Do you know what a humanist is?” writes Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife.

I am compelled to suggest that the question is not, In God we trust?

We must be very cautious about anyone who speaks in God’s stead; we must adopt Vonnegut’s stance toward our fellow humans.

Indiana should feel the consequences of humans’ inhumanity toward humans—a great irony is that this wrath appears to be the Invisible Hand of Capitalism—and like great literature, Indiana’s political hubris and indecency must fulfill Atwood’s recognition of the power of “dire warnings.”

Indiana, pull up your socks.

Recommended

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The stories themselves, literally, are powerful and engaging or George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would not have endured as they have as literature people read again and again—and possibly should read again and again.

However, ultimately, 1984 is not about the future (especially since we have long since passed the future Orwell may have envisioned), and The Crucible is not about the past (although Miller built his play on the very real and troubling history of Puritan witchcraft hysteria). These works are about the complicated present of both authors’ worlds as that speaks to the enduring realities of the human condition.

All of that may seem weighty stuff to step into a look at what appears to be a children’s book, but the paragraphs above should be more than a hint that looks can be deceiving—and enlightening.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, written by George Saunders and wonderfully illustrated by Lane Smith (whose It’s a Book I cannot recommend highly enough), is a fanciful and satirical tale that proves in the end to be an allegory of scarcity and slack—a perfect companion read to Ursula K. Le Guin’s allegory of privilege, “The One’s Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Realizing that the Human Heart Is Capable

“Ever had a burr in your sock?” sets the story in motion—one sentence centered on the page over a giant question mark. It is an opening worthy of a child and all of us who cling to the wonder of childhood.

While Le Guin is often described as a science fiction writer, in her work I recognize the blurring of genres that joins science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy; it is that “other world” about which Le Guin and Margaret Atwood appear to argue, and it a stark but rich other world Saunders conjures and Lane pictures.

The story of Frip involves three houses for three families, all with children at the center. The houses are distinguished with primary colors—child-like blue, green, and red—but Lane’s artwork adds the ominous to Saunders’ seemingly simple narrative tinged with more than a bite of satire. The illustrations echo the haunting works about and for children found in Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton.

“Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea.” (p. 6) Artwork by Lane Smith

A child standing precariously close to the end of a slanted cliff over an angry ocean catches the eye on page 7 and then the crux of the story pulls you back to the text on page 6:

Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea. Frip was three tiny goat-yards into which eight times a day the children of the shacks would trudge with gapper-brushes and cloth gapper-sacks that tied at the top. After brushing the gappers off the goats, the children would walk to the cliff at the edge of town and empty their gapper-sacks into the sea. (p. 6)

Gappers, orange burr-like creatures with many eyes and the size of a baseball, come to represent throughout the story the power of the systemic inevitable: The presence of the gappers determines the lot of the families (and their goats), but most of the people in the tale remain unable to see beyond their own fixed and mostly misguided worldviews.

“A gapper’s like that, only bigger, about the size of a baseball, bright orange, with multiple eyes like the eyes of a potato.” (p. 2) Artwork by Lane Smith

When the gappers cling to the goats of all three families, there is an ironic appearance of equality among them. But when the fortune of one family shifts, the gappers fulfill their name by creating the gap:

So that night, instead of splitting into three groups, the gappers moved into one very large and impressive shrieking group directly into Capable’s yard. (p. 12)

Before this shift in how the gappers behave, of course, the three families are not equal because Capable is an only child living with her father and who has lost her mother. Capable works as all the children are expected to work (removing gappers in a daily Sisyphean nightmare of chores) and seeks to serve the needs of her grieving father, who along with his grief is a prisoner of nostalgia:

“I myself was once an exhausted child brushing off gappers. It was lovely! The best years of my life. The way they fell to the sea from our bags! And anyway, what would you do with your time if there were no gappers?” (p. 11)

This nostalgia masking an unnecessarily burdensome childhood, however, is but one ideology weighing on Capable because as soon as the other two families are relieved of gappers on their goats, those families reveal themselves to be very much like the people of Le Guin’s Omelas:

“It’s a miracle!” Mrs. Romo shouted next morning, when she came out and discovered that her yard was free of gappers. “This is wonderful! Capable, dear, you poor thing. The miracle didn’t happen to you, did it? I feel so sorry for you. God has been good to us, by taking our gappers away. Why? I can’t say. God knows what God is doing, I guess! I suppose we must somehow deserve it!” (p. 17)

Capable becomes the sacrificed child, and despite her misfortune, the relieved families read the events as their merit (and of course the ugly implication that Capable and her father deserve the burden of the gappers).

What follows from this shift in fate is the central story of Frip with Capable as our main character. The message becomes clear, and Saunders and Lane make the ride one you’ll want to visit again and again. If you are lucky, the book could become one of those read alouds requested by son or daughter, or by a classroom of children.

And while I will leave the rest of the story to you, I think it is necessary to note here that this allegory is both a cautionary tale about how we view children and childhood as well as a brilliant call to reconsider how we view education and education reform.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The U.S., like the characters (except for Capable) in Saunders’s story, is tragically blinded by a belief in cultural myths that have little basis in evidence: That we live and work in a meritocracy, that competition creates equity, that children need to be “taught a lesson” about the cold cruel world lest they become soft, and such.

As a result of these beliefs, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for children—or to be more accurate, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for other people’s children, as Capable personifies.

Here, then, I want to make the case that The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a powerful allegory of scarcity and slack as examined by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan and Shafir detail that the conditions of poverty, scarcity, so overburden people psychologically, mentally, and physically that their behavior is often misread (poor people are lazy, poor people make bad decisions, etc.). In Saunders’s story, scarcity and its burden are portrayed by the gappers, and readers witness how the coincidence of the onslaught of the gappers changes the families involved. In other words, the behavior of people is determined by the environment, and not by the inherent goodness or deficiencies of any individual.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip goes further, however, by showing that one person’s scarcity (Capable) allows other person slack: privilege is built on the back of others, and those conditions are mostly arbitrary. While Mullainathan and Shafir argue that the slack enjoyed by those living in relative privilege provides the sort of cognitive space needed to excel, Saunders speaks to more than the slack enjoyed by the two families relieved of gappers and the compounding scarcity suffered by Capable (her lot in life and the addition of the gappers):

“And the men succeeded in lifting the house and moving it very very close to the third and final house in Frip, which belonged to Sid and Carol Ronsen, who stood in their yard with looks of dismay on their nearly identical frowning faces.” (p. 23) Artwork by Lane Smith

  • Capable represents a counter-narrative to claims that impoverished children lack “grit.” As her name suggests, this child is more than capable, but the world appears determined to defeat her.
  • Capable also embodies Lisa Delpit’s confrontation of “other people’s children”—that those with privilege (slack) are willing to allow one set of standards for other people’s children (often living and learning in scarcity), standards they will not tolerate for their own.

As I stated in the opening, allegory seeks to open our eyes by diversion, creating an other world that helps us see both the flaws with our now and the enduring failures of humans to embrace our basic humanity, a failure Capable teeters on the edge of making herself but cannot:

And [Capable] soon found that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.

That is, it was fun at first, but then got gradually less fun, until it was really no fun at all. (p. 70).

In the end, it is this sort of charity, this sort of recognition of the community of humanity, a call for the kindness found in Kurt Vonnegut’s similar mix of dark humor that Saunders appears to suggest we are all capable.

Companion Reads for The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde (1891)

“The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Lisa Delpit

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit

“NPR Whitewashes ‘Grit’ Narrative” 

Competition: A Multidisciplinary Analysis, Wade B. Worthen, A. Scott Henderson, Paul R. Rasmussen and T. Lloyd Benson, Eds.