What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”

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Toxic Masculinity, Predatory Men, and Male Paralysis

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

This is my sixth decade as a human, as a white, straight male.

Here I want to attempt confession, possibly seeking greater understanding, but fully aware of the huge complexities of making these claims, raising these personal struggles in the context of my many privileges.

I am treading lightly but committed to rise above the problematic satire of Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs”—which both speaks to me and makes me cringe:

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

My formative years over the 1960s and 1970s were spent in the redneck South. Just as I was reared to be a racist, I was taught very clearly to objectify women, even as that was tempered in my immediate family by direct and indirect messages about respecting and loving women/girls.

Growing up, I was a Mama’s boy, I was very close to my sister (my only sibling), and I had strong and warm relationships with aunts and my maternal grandmother.

As a so-called pre-sexual boy, then, I genuinely learned to feel deep and healthy affection for women/girls—to whom I have always been drawn more strongly than any male bonds.

As a teen, however, I was significantly enculturated into objectifying women, sowing the seeds for potentially behaving in ways that fed into and participated in predatory masculinity and even the various degrees of rape culture.

My classroom was, at first, superhero comic books and then soft-core pornography (such as Playboy and Penthouse)—but the wider popular culture was always reinforcing the worst possible models for how men treat women.

But as all this colored my attempts to be a sexual person, seeking out romantic relationships throughout high school and college, I was also being shaped in how I interacted with the world aesthetically, notably in that I was actively teaching myself visual art by drawing from both comic books and nude photography in the euphemistically named men’s magazines.

One can see a theme in my adolescent artwork:

Storm

Storm from the X-Men

Vargas

I shifted from comic books to men’s magazines and copying the objectifying artwork of Alberto Vargas, popularized in Playboy.

As a teen and young man, I was certainly trapped in very unhealthy but subtle patterns that could only be overcome by gaining critical awareness over my mid-20s into and my mid-30s (when I completed my doctoral program).

Some of that critical awareness was powerfully acquired through my commitment to learning from and teaching important literature such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Margate Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as poetry units I taught on Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.

Ultimately, writing an educational biography grounded in feminist theory stands in hindsight as the crowning experience as I approached 40 for a healthy awakening into fully appreciating toxic masculinity, predatory men, objectifying women, the male gaze, and rape culture.

Just as I would explain about my racial awareness, my sexual and gender awareness remains a journey, and as such, I find myself often paralyzed because, as a man, I represent still the potential for abuse through my status, the threat men pose for women in a society that continues to objectify and marginalize females—especially in terms of failing to listen to women who risk telling of their experiences with predatory men and rape culture.

My adult life has been spent as a partner, friend, parent, grandparent, teacher, and coach—all requiring me to monitor my status of power granted by being male and by my professional and familial positions in relationship with females.

As a coach and teacher, I have been (and continue) to be prone to call young women “darling” in casual moments—rightfully prompting some of my closest friends and colleagues who are women to call me on the language, the positioning.

I remain aesthetically drawn to photography and artwork of women nudes—entirely unsure if I can disentangle my toxic past from what I consider non-objectifying appreciation of art.

And so, as I noted above, I stumble toward 60, a man with good intentions who understands that is never enough; I am often reduced to paralysis in how to navigate the world in ways that are equitable and healthy for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class.

I am genuinely terrified of ever making any woman/girl feel discomfort because of my masculine presence, my inadvertent gaze, my language, or the implicit threat of my status in relationship to her.

Often these days, I must confront these tensions as I snuggle with my granddaughter who I dearly want to grow up with healthy views of gender and sexuality, who I want to avoid any sort of predatory world.

My daughter was raised without corporal punishment, and now her children have been gifted that same dignity.

I work hard to practice what I preach and feel I make contributions small and even large to a kinder and more compassionate world—a world in which women and children need not ever fear men.

But even the best men walk in the wake of the worst men have given this world—the worst men continue to give to this world, and the women and children who must suffer for that.

Each man must moment by moment examine how he is culpable, where and how he stands in this world in relationship to women and children.

The dilemma of navigating the world as a man is couched in the unearned privilege, the potential for an abuse of unearned power that shouts out “First, do no harm.”

For a man committed to that, however, how does he live a full life without being paralyzed by the worst of being a man, behaviors that often go unpunished and even masked to protect some men from consequences.

How does any man avoid paralysis reading about the Stanford rape case or the stories of women as victims of predatory men?

This remains a rhetorical question for any man with an ethical imperative for his life—not a question for any woman or any child to offer their compassion.

For any man, for each man, this is ours to confront, to answer, and to act.

As long as men hold most of the power that shapes the world, it is ours to build a consensual environment in which human dignity supersedes the brute force of power.

Between acquiescing to the basest of male behaviors and paralysis is the true way, about which Franz Kafka wrote: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.”

Pause. Listen. Look carefully before taking any step.


For Further Reading

Experts in the FieldBonnie Nadzam

Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, and More on Assault and Harassment

The Predatory Men of Academic Creative Writing, John Warner

“He knows, or thinks he knows”: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World

True Detective: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World, pt. 2

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

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?

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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.”

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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.