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:

3f3943d8-cea4-4f6b-96ac-3c25fd3ef24e

And here’s a whole room full:

donald-trump-signing201

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.

 

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]

seuss-america-first

The “R” Word as Taboo in Twenty-First Century U.S.A.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a not-too-distant dystopia in which Atwood explores the rise of a theocracy as a sanctuary for the declining white race; the work is a tour-de-force confrontation of sexism and misogyny as well as dramatization of the relationship between power and language, including the power inherent in what humans name* and what humans taboo.

The central handmaid of the tale, June/Offred, narrates her own journey through hell that includes being assigned to a Commander who monthly is charged with attempting to impregnate his handmaid in what this new nation of Gilead calls the Ceremony, infusing the act with religious and official overtones.

However, June/Offred characterizes the Ceremony with a disturbing and clinical precision:

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (p. 94)

Many aspects of this passage are worth emphasizing, but let’s focus on the importance and value in June/Offred naming accurately this awful thing happening—and not ignore the weight of taboo language (such as the word “fucking”).

“I have guarded my name as people/ in other times kept their own clipped hair,” opens Barbara Kingsolver’s poem, “Naming Myself,” “believing the soul could be scattered/ if they were careless.”

Here too are the intersections of naming, gender, and power: why must women abandon their names in the legal/religious act of marriage while men retain theirs?

Kingsolver’s speaker, like Atwood’s narrator, both uses and values language as power—guarding a name and naming.

#

The election of Donald Trump as the president of the U.S. comes in the wake of Trump making inflammatory comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and women. Nonpartisan and measured assessments of Trump’s words rightly label them as racist, xenophobic, and sexist/misogynistic.

The rise of Trump as a political leader has exposed the lingering taboo in the U.S. for naming racism, even when there is direct evidence of racist language and behavior and especially when that racism is coded (getting tough on crime, building a wall, evoking the specter of terrorism).

Serious public debate has parsed making the distinction between Trump being a racist and Trump courting and/or attracting racists, such as being endorsed by the KKK, neo-Nazi organizations, and the white nationalist movement.

A perverse shift has occurred, in fact, from the mislabeling of Barack Obama’s being elected president as proof that the U.S. is a post-racial society to Trump’s rise asking the U.S. to reconsider what counts as racism.

Trump personifies the triple-Teflon of being white, male, and affluent, most notably in the power of those attributes to deflect the label “racist.” As Trump himself asserted defiantly:

I can never apologize for the truth. I don’t mind apologizing for things. But I can’t apologize for the truth. I said tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that’s true. And it’s happening all the time. So, why, when I mention, all of a sudden I’m a racist. I’m not a racist. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.

Trump’s own strategy frames his words and behavior as “truth,” therefore not “racist.”

The election of Trump grounded significantly on white voter support, including a majority of white women, adds another layer of tension in that if Trump has voiced racism and/or practiced racism, how complicit are voters as racists themselves?

In short, are the approximately 25% of eligible voters who supported Trump racists? And if so, who can name that racism?

#

A valued colleague who is a rhetorician posted on social media his argument that white liberal elites, especially, should stop naming people as racists—pointing to the overwhelming evidence that the approach is ineffective.

Faced with evidence of racism, whites tend to emphasize their own personal struggles, and many whites now believe racism toward whites trumps racism toward blacks.

Systemic racism (distinct from individual racists) tends to be much harder for many in the U.S. to name or confront. For example, the political and media perpetuation of black-on-black crime is enduring despite the fact that all crime is mostly intra-racial—the white-on-white crime rate is nearly identical to the black-on-black crime rate.

To approach this in Trump-logic: black-on-black crime rates are true; therefore, referring to them cannot be racist.

But even the racism that can be named in the U.S. is reduced to the most extreme and even cartoonish version that Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “oafish racist”:

Cliven Bundy is old, white, and male. He likes to wave an American flag while spurning the American government and pals around with the militia movement. He does not so much use the word “Negro”—which would be bad enough—but “nigra,” in the manner of villain from Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill. In short, Cliven Bundy looks, and sounds, much like what white people take racism to be.

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad.

What Trump represents, however, is more insidious:

The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

The racism of Trump and emboldened by Trump sullies the “elegant,” but it certainly meets Coates’s recognition of “plausible deniability.”

#

Finally, let’s return to June/Offred, being fucked, but not raped because “[t]here wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.”

In a free society, black and brown people find themselves in a parallel circumstance to June/Offred, the victims of racism even though “[t]here wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.”

And as my colleague noted, victims of racism certainly find value in naming racism and racists.

The problem my colleague raises, however, is among white allies to those victims of racism; if it is ineffective for white allies to name racism, to name racists, what is our obligation as allies against racism and inequity?

To suggest that racism and racists do not exist until acknowledged by whites is a nasty dose of paternalistic racism. To tip-toe around racists for fear of offending them and entrenching racism further also seems like a slap in the face of black and brown people living the very real consequences of racism and the “rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

As a very privileged ally to everyone marginalized by racism (as well as sexism/misogyny, xenophobia, and all sorts of bigotry), I believe I must listen to black and brown voices, but I also must use my privilege to amplify (not confirm) those voices—to stand beside and behind, but never to speak for.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when even the oafish racist was not called to account; therefore, I am convinced that a key step to erasing elegant racism, systemic racism, is to have the courage to call racists “racists” regardless of the evidence that those rightly labeled “racists” will not change.

I am taking this stand because I am not sure our goal is to change individual racists, but to change the greater capacity of the larger population who have yet to confront their culpability in elegant/systemic racism, and thus to create a critical mass in the name of equity that will eradicate racism over time.

In the most profound and bitter sort of appropriateness, the U.S. has elected the very worst and most perfect leader of, as Trump would say, the truth about the U.S.—which is that we are a racist, sexist/misogynist, and xenophobic people, drunk on consumerism and negligent in our humanity for each other.

With that before us and named, let us hope we can confess our sins, do our penance, and create a more perfect union.


* Dare we call fascism “fascism”? No, this isn’t the 1930s – but yes, this is fascism, James McDougall

Dark Mourning in America: “The world is at least/fifty percent terrible”

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

Although humans appear ultimately incapable of listening to and then acting upon our great capacity for art—which is an extension of our great capacity for compassion, love, and good—literature may offer some solace in a time when the US has announced itself still a racist, sexist, and xenophobic people, hiding behind the codes of “conservative,” “family values,” and “Christian nation.”

How low do people have to stoop before they have their Lady Macbeth moment:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?–Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.

Shakespeare’s dramatization of guilt and being complicit is, let’s not ignore, an allusion to Pontius Pilat and the “assassination” of Jesus:

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” [Matthew 27:24, NIV]

If we can have that moment in which we admit, confront, and atone for our responsibility in the evil that humans do, we must finally listen to James Baldwin:

rigid-refusal

And to Langston Hughes:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

And face our children with our failures, against which Maggie Smith struggles:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children….
The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children….
Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children.

The US and its majority white population have the greatest opportunity before them, a free and powerful nation of riches, and daily, that opportunity is squandered because of our “rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

The US is undeniably inequitable, and to balance among gender, race, etc., we have only two options: to take away or to give to—but in either case, white privilege is erased and white sensibilities are challenged.

There is no evidence the white majority has the ethical backbone to make changes for equity or even to tolerate them.

On a dark mourning in America, I recommend reading or rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—a sobering imagining of the worst of white responses to the rise of the Others they have created.

We are now on that path, and it is ours to make the decision to turn around or move forward into that oblivion.

How We Live, How We Die: On Touch, Intimacy, and Loneliness

“One day in April—” begins John Gardner’s tour-deforce short story, “Redemption,” “a clear, blue day when there were crocuses in bloom—Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother, David.”

A farming accident comes to define Jack, who at 12 decides he is evil and, as a result, removes himself from all of humanity, especially his remaining family—the parents being particularly devastated by the death of the seven-year-old David.

Gardner’s story guides the reader through Jack’s hell, which is not the accidental killing of his brother but ostracizing himself from human contact, human interaction, the intimacy of others.

And as powerfully as he crafts the first sentence, Gardner ends the story symbolically: “Then the crowd opened for him and, with the horn cradled under his right arm, his music under his left, he plunged in, starting home.”

Beautifully and tenderly, but without sentimentality, the story ends with “home,” and marks Jack’s redemption as his return to necessary community of other people, notably his family, in order to be fully human, in order to live.

#

As a high school English teacher, I was fortunate to teach advanced students American literature during their sophomore year and then have the same students again in Advanced Placement Literature their senior year. We read and studied Gardner’s “Redemption” in 10th grade, and it laid important groundwork—the power of craft as well as the central themes—for investigating Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood’s speculative fiction, a dystopian novel, focuses on Offred (June) as the titular handmaid of the tale about a not-so-distant future in which a theocracy arises out of the militant overthrow of the U.S.

Offred (June) is forced into isolation as a handmaid: fertile women assigned to Commanders and designated to repopulate the theocracy, the Republic of Gilead.

Without her husband and daughter, and sequestered in the Commander’s home until each Ceremony (intercourse with the Commander while lying back between the legs of the Commander’s wife) intended to impregnate her, Offred (June) confesses:

Or I would help Rita make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of touch. (p. 11)

Her loneliness gnaws at her throughout the novel, which includes a recurring motif of touch:

I wanted to feel Luke [her husband] lying beside me. I have them, these attacks of the past, like faintness, a wave sweeping over my head. Sometimes it can hardly be borne. What is to be done, what is to be done, I thought. There is nothing to be done. They also serve who only stand and wait. Or lie down and wait. I know why the glass in the window is shatterproof, and why they took down the chandelier. I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me, but there wasn’t room. (p. 52)

For Offred (June), to touch is to live, and to be denied touch is to die—drawn as she is to suicide.

Later, she admits while recalling “[l]ying in bed, with Luke, his hand on my round belly”:

If I thought this would never happen again I would die.

But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s a lack of love we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere. Who knows where they are or what their names are now? They might as well be nowhere, as I am for them. I too am a missing person. (p. 103)

Touch, intimacy, love—these are essential for being fully human, to live.

Ultimately, this lack of touch, intimacy, drives Offred (June) past her own humanity to a violent inhumanity as she fantasizes:

I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands. (pp. 139-140)

An inverse of Jack’s killing his brother driving him to believe himself evil and to isolate himself from others, Offred (June) suffers a forced seclusion that breeds at least disturbing urges toward murder.

And as she confronts, becoming a “missing person.”

#

“American men,” writes Mark Greene, “in an attempt to avoid any possible hint of committing unwanted sexual touch, are foregoing gentle platonic touch in their lives. I’ll call it touch isolation.” [1]

Greene offers a historical perspective on the culturally shifting attitudes toward platonic touching between men that has been rendered taboo due to the rise of homophobia in the twentieth century. Greene also notes how touch is common between adults and babies, but for boys, that intimacy is gradually replaced “with the introduction of [a] ‘get tough’ narrative.”

Addressing the taboo of touch in schools, Jessica Lahey asks, Should Teachers Be Allowed to Touch Students?:

The sensory experience of touch can’t be divorced from the emotional experience, [David J. Linden] explained, because the way humans perceive touch depends on its social context. An arm thrown over your shoulders by a domineering boss is perceived very differently than an arm thrown around your shoulders by a trusted friend, for example. “The sensation is perceived differently because the emotional touch centers in the brain are receiving signals about social nuances, even if the touching is identical,” and these nuances, Linden explained, are one of the reasons it’s so hard for schools to create rules governing touch.

And then, my colleague, Melinda Menzer, English professor and avid swimmer, blogged about searching the “swim” category in the menu of Sports Illustrated:

When I see the word “swim” on a sports website, I expect to find coverage of the sport of swimming. I’m crazy like that. But if you know anything about Sports Illustrated or their annual swimsuit edition, you can guess what I found: photos of models in bikinis, sitting on beaches and lounging in meadows and perching in groups on convertibles, but none of them actually swimming.

Further, she muses about her experiences with people talking about being hesitant to swim:

The whole matter wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that I know people — many people — who tell me that they don’t swim or that they feel uncomfortable swimming because they don’t want to be looked at.

It makes me very sad. I love swimming. I would like other people to love swimming. But these people don’t swim. And they are not unusual; Body Positive Athletes reports, “93% of people have identified a fear of judgement about their size, shape, or level of fitness as a barrier to starting physical activity.”…

I don’t know how to make uncomfortable people feel comfortable about putting on a swimsuit, how to combat our obsession about how we look and how other people look.

From touch taboos to paralyzing body image phobias—is this not the tyranny of the Puritanical James Baldwin deplored?

Are there not messages here about the power of radical love (self-love, love of others) that Baldwin dramatizes in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone?:

[S]ome moments teach one the price of the human condition: if one can live with one’s pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain.

There is a sadness to these questions, ones that remain with Baldwin’s words echoing in the background—words that seem not to touch us.

In his All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James BaldwinDouglas Field turns to Baldwin’s “Nothing Personal,” where Baldwin too seems resigned: “I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often” (p. 98).

In “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Baldwin acknowledges, “This rage for order can result in chaos, and in this country chaos connects with color” (p. 827). And then:

Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most powerful terrors and desires.

Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks—though we are rarely what we appear to be….

We are part of each other. (p. 828)

“[O]ur most powerful terrors and desires,” then, found in all we do not touch, cannot touch, and thus, loneliness.

#

Being Single Is Hard, writes Emma Lindsay.

In her confession about the challenges of being single, Lindsay is eventually drawn to touch:

But anyway, the part I actually find hard about being single is that I never get touched, and this is always overlooked and undervalued. This is where the myth of self sufficiency breaks down.

And here she begins to interrogate both language and the Puritanical roots of the U.S. Like Offred (June), Lindsay challenges the simplistic blurring of sex and intimacy, grounded in touch:

In fact, some of my friends started complaining that I was too independent (I swear, I can’t win) but, at the end of the day, I can’t touch myself. Or, I can touch myself, but it doesn’t have the same impact as when someone else touches me.

Did you chuckle to yourself when you read that because it sounded like I was talking about masturbation? That’s not a coincidence. That is part of the problem.

We don’t even value platonic touch enough for it to exist in our lexicon without a sexual overtone.

“I’m talking about affectionate touch,” Lindsay emphasizes. “And, it is completely reasonable to be afraid of not getting that.” And then she concludes: “Touch matters so much. Why do we keep acting like it doesn’t?”

#

Lindsay’s essay brought me to Baldwin and back to my high school students.

As we discussed The Handmaid’s Tales, one of the topics was the connection between words and the act of making ideas or actions taboo.

I would ask students what word(s) we used for men with many sexual partners, and usually “stud” or similar words were mentioned—and that these words connoted something positive, an accomplishment, a “score.”

I followed with what word(s) we use for women with many sexual partners, and we had many—”slut,” whore,” “tramp.” These, of course, are all negative, about the act of sex defiling the woman, ruining her (by implication “for other men”).

“i like my body when it is with your/body,” writes e.e. cummings in one of his many explicit and beautiful poems that celebrate love, sex, and intimacy without the taboos that render us unable to live, to be fully human. This is a celebration of the flesh otherwise demonized and shunned by social norms and religious dogma:

i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which I will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you

To touch, to be touched—gifts offered between and among, whether sexual, platonic, or unidentifiable intimacy.

We mortals in the flesh are only fully human in the flesh, pressed against the one we love so that we both may live.


[1] Adapted from an earlier blog post On Touch, Loneliness, and James Baldwin’s Radical Love 

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.

#

“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