Can Scholars Be Too Literal in Post-Truth Trumplandia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can scholars be too literal in post-truth Trumplandia?

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

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

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Centering Whiteness and “Green Book”: A Reader (Updated)

The Oscars as an event represents the failed obsession in the U.S. with celebrities, but it also has become a powerful and disturbing window into how too often those with the most power are unable to address race except in terms of centering whiteness.

Once I challenged Green Book on social media, several white people rushed to support the film, often, they argued, because it includes excellent acting.

My essential claim, however, was expressed as the following:

Green Book centers whiteness to appear to care about blackness, as a condition of caring about blackness.

Black Panther centers blackness.

This isn’t about being perfect on race but about a fundamental difference.

I also must note that the same white people who rush to support Green Book also embraced equally racially flawed films such as The Help and The Blind Side (see also Radio and Driving Miss Daisy).

Embracing uncritically Green Book and rejecting criticism of the film are the result of “white fragility,” as Robin DiAngelo explains:

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including:…

  • Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

White savior narratives and framing the value in blackness only in relationship to whiteness are, disturbingly, the essence of Hollywood “diversity and inclusion.” [1]

How many white people claiming quality acting in Green Book also rushed to support the Netflix series Luke Cage, also well-acted, notably by Mahershala Ali?

Or Black Panther?

Luke Cage and Black Panther center blackness, mostly resisting to suggest these narratives mattered only in relationship to whiteness.

Blackness must not be rendered invisible or unspeakable, but allowing blackness to be seen and spoken only if and when whiteness acknowledges it is not the providence of celebration, not any real sort of advancement.

Green Book is essentially a film version of Columbus claiming he discovered a land already inhabited by native peoples, erasing them and their narratives, their history and destiny.

I offer here a reader, primarily for white readers of this blog, and ask that those of us who are white learn to listen and see (actually re-see) the world without centering our whiteness.


[1] Or as well the garbled cultural appropriation fetish, such as Whiplash.

Downloadable file

See Also

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

What’s Wrong with Journalism?: Fake News and Much More

“The German journalism world is grappling with the implications of a shocking scandal at Der Spiegel,” explains Jeff Jarvis, adding:

But the Germans are digging deeper into the essence of journalism, questioning the perils of the seduction of the narrative form; the misplaced rewards inherent in professional awards; the risk to credibility for the institution in the time of “f*ke news;” the need for investigative self-examination in media; and more.

Amy Orben offers an excellent argument that this recent crisis of journalism has much to reveal about similar problems in academia:

And then Nikole Hannah-Jones unmasks a central problem with the analysis posed by Jarvis:

This recent scandal in Germany, Jarvis notes, has already played out in high-profile cases in the U.S. well before the hand wringing began about fake news in the wake of post-truth Trump.

While recognizing and confronting post-truth politics and media as well as fake news are urgent needs, especially for educators, neither the failures at Der Spiegel nor the pervasive elements of fake news and post-truth politics are really anything new.

What’s wrong with journalism?

The norms and traditions of journalism are at the core of that answer—both-sides journalism as that flawed pursuit of objectivity has intersected with press-release journalism that has evolved due to the corrosive elements of the market.

Not to oversimplify, but due to those market forces, mainstream journalism has moved from one norm of lazy journalism (both-sides faux objectivity) to a new norm of lazy journalism, crossing the Big-Foot line.

As media has contracted, fewer outlets staffed by fewer and fewer journalists, the essential flaws of journalism have been magnified. One of those flaws exposed has been journalists as generalists, not expert in the fields they cover.

Media outlets desperate for traffic push journalists to seek out topics that are compelling, and then those journalists approach topics as they have been trained to do—seeing everything as having both sides that are equally credible (or at least those journalists believe they have no role in determining credibility).

So on balance, Jarvis, as Hannah-Jones confronts, misreads the problem with journalism and wallows in the tired call for traditional norms.

But as Orben notes, the complex picture of what is wrong with journalism can also be placed at the feet of academia where traditional and current norms are essentially as problematic.

Both the flawed norms of objectivity and the corrosive impact of market forces are what’s wrong with journalism. And thus, the solutions are quite complex and include the following:

  • Solutions must resist both the veneer of objectivity as the path to Truth while rejecting the post-truth claim that there is no truth or that truth is driven by a cult of personality (the enormity of who makes the claim driving what is “true”). Humans are incapable of being objective and claims of Universal Truth are mostly lazy depictions of normalization (power portrayed as “normal” or “right” instead of acknowledging that “might makes right”). However, to reject objectivity and to become skeptical of Universal Truth is not abdicating that humans are capable of warranted assertions (a concept found, at least, in William James and John Dewey).
  • Warranted assertions of what is true at any moment in the accumulation of evidence must allow a wide range of different ways of knowing. In other words, privileging only the classic scientific method (in which, for example, controlling variables in order to make causal claims renders the evidence so unlike reality the conclusions are both scientifically true and real-world irrelevant) is no more valuable than lazy and careless uses of narrative. That humans have developed many different disciplines is testament to how complex knowing the world is. This so-called crisis in journalism, then, cannot be resolved by narrowing how we know; but must be a call to expanding how we know the world.
  • Something not examined as fully, I think, as necessary is the role of expertise and then who communicates that expertise to the non-expert and how that expertise is communicated. The who is difficult to resolve, but journalism needs an influx of disciplinary experts also trained in journalism. The generalist approach is defunct. The how is far less complex—although it requires a shift in norms. Neither scientific objectivity nor narrative, for example, are essentially “good” or “bad.” Both can be applied well or flawed. The pursuit of knowledge and truth must have a fidelity sought by the scientific method, but communicating knowledge and truth from expert to non-expert must be compelling and rich in a way that narrative fulfills.

There is a big picture issue here, ultimately.

What’s wrong with journalism is actually a subset of what’s wrong with human understanding.

This may be a chicken-and-egg dilemma in that revolutionizing journalism could change human understanding, but changing journalism may not come until human understanding shifts.

I am not sure how to resolve that but I am certain we cannot see the crisis in journalism as an excuse for nostalgia for a good old days of journalism that never existed or the fatalism of post-truth politics.

Truth is attainable, but to reach it is a complicated journey we have mostly not acknowledged yet.

Dare the School Build a New Social Order?: A Reckoning 86 Years Later

The candidacy seemed at the time nothing more than sideshow, perverse reality TV, and then Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president, prompting many pundits to note that as a death knoll for the Republican Party.

Yet, Trump was elected president.

During the primaries and throughout his run against Hillary Clinton, Trump proved to be relentlessly dishonest, a liar. However, mainstream media avoided calling a lie “a lie,” including major media outlets directly arguing against such language. President Trump hasn’t budged from overstatement, misleading statements, and outright lies.

Notably, major media publish Trump’s lies as if they are credible, despite fact-checking exposing lie upon lie upon lie.

Early on, many opposing Trump called for media simply to call out the lies. Here is the truly bad news, however.

During my Tuesday role as caregiver for my 2-year-old grandson, I flipped through my cable channels during his nap for a brief reprieve from NickJr. I paused on CNN, even though I loath all of the 24-hour news shows.

What caught my ear was that the newscaster was repeatedly calling Trump our for lies, using the word “lie”—over and over. This, I felt, was a real new normal I had called for, but never expected.

Next, the newscaster replayed a segment from the day before focusing on a fact checker of Trump’s many, many lies. The fact checker noted a truly disturbing fact: Trump’s supporters, he explained, recognize that Trump lies, but doesn’t mind the lies; in fact, Trump’s supporters revel in those lies because, as the fact checker emphasized, this drives liberals crazy.

It is here that I must stress two points: (1) It appears those of us believing that exposing Trump as a liar would somehow derail his presidency were sorely mistaken, and (2) we are now entering a phase of U.S. history in which the long-standing slur of “liberal” is code for taking evidence-based stances, especially if those evidence-based stances swim against the current of American ideology and mythology.

Let me offer a couple example.

In my own public and scholarly work, contexts that prompt responses that discount me as a “liberal” (with false implications that I am a partisan Democrat), I have made repeated and compelling cases against corporal punishment and school-only safety measures.

Neither of these issues is both-sides debates since the research base is overwhelmingly one-sided.

Corporal punishment is not an effective discipline technique, and it creates violent youth and adults. A powerful body research prompted by the school shooting at Columbine and including studies by the Secret Service reject school-only safety measure such as security guards, surveillance cameras, active-shooter drills, and metal detectors, all of which are not deterrents and may even create violence.

Therefore, to embrace evidence-based positions on corporal punishment and school safety is the liberal or progressive (seeking change) stance, while the traditional or conservative (maintaining established practices) positions (ignoring the evidence) cling to corporal punishment and fortifying schools while refusing to address the wider influences of communities and our national mania for guns.

Let’s consider that last point more fully next.

There is an unpopular and upsetting fact driving why school-only safety measures are futile: K-12 and higher education are essentially conservative.

Despite political and popular scapegoating of all formal education as liberal, the evidence of nearly a century reveals that all forms of school more often than not reflect the communities and society they serve. In no real ways, then, do schools meet the former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s hollow mantra that education is the great equalizer, some sort of silver bullet for change.

Evidence shows that at different levels of educational attainment, significant gaps persist among racial categories and those gaps are even more pronounced once race and gender are included (see p. 34).

In the 1930s, a golden era for idealism about communism and socialism in the U.S. after the stock market crash, major educational thinkers such as John Dewey (a socialist) and George Counts championed the potential for progressive education (Dewey) to shape U.S. democracy, and then for social reconstruction (Counts) to reshape the nation, as Counts detailed in his Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932).

As an early critical voice, Counts spoke to the educational goals that appealed to me as I eventually found critical pedagogy in my doctoral program and doubled down on my early commitment to be the sort of educator who fostered change with and through my students.

Yet, here I sit in 2018, 86 years after Counts’s manifesto. And the U.S. is being led by a pathological liar supported by more and more people who directly say they don’t care about lies or evidence because it makes liberal mad.

This is the pettiness our country has wrought, despite more people today being formally educated than at any time in U.S. history.

My 35 years and counting as an educator, part as a high school teacher and now in higher education, have been a disappointing lesson that answers Counts’s titular question with a resounding “no.”

I shared with my foundations education class the proofs of a chapter I have prepared for a volume now in-press, Contending with Gun Violence in the English Language Classroom. I then briefly reviewed the evidence against in-school safety measures, prompting a student to ask what, then, should we do in schools.

Address our larger gun culture and violent communities, I explained, reminding the class that I have stressed again and again that they need to understand at least one essential lesson from our course: Schools mostly reflect communities and society, but they simply do very little to change anything.

I don’t like this message, but it is evidence-based, and I suppose, a liberal claim.

For many years, I have quickly refuted those who assume I am a partisan Democrat (I am not, never have been). I also have rejected labels of “liberal” and “progressive” for “critical” and “radical.”

But I feel the time is ripe for re-appropriating “liberal” when it is hurled as a slur.

In Trumplandia, to be fact-free is to be conservative, traditional, and to acknowledge evidence is to be liberal, progressive.

This is what the evidence reveals to those of us willing to see. Everything else is a lie.

There’s both sides for those who want it.


Recommended

College campuses are far from radical

Misreading the Reading Wars Again (and Again)

Here is some incredibly bad edujournalism: Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?

And the summary blurb beneath the title takes that to truly awful:

Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught. But many educators don’t know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail.

Now, let me offer a brief rebuttal.

First, the claim that we are not teaching reading as we should is well into its twelfth decade of crisis rhetoric. But the classic example rests at mid-twentieth century: Why Johnny Can’t Read.

That blather was a lie then and it remains a lie today.

I invite you to peruse the work of a literacy educator who taught from the 1920s into the 1970s and left behind decades of scholarship: Lou LaBrant. But the short version is the reading war claim that we are failing reading instruction is a long history of false claims grounded in selling reading programs.

Now let’s be more direct about the bad journalism.

This article cites thoroughly debunked sources—the National Reading Panel (NRP) and a report from NCTQ.

The NRP was a political sham, but it also was not an endorsement of heavy phonics. Please read this unmasking by an actual literacy expert and member of the NRP, Joanne Yatvin: I Told You So! The Misinterpretation and Misuse of The National Reading Panel Report.

NCTQ is a partisan think tank exclusively committed to discrediting teacher education. Their reports, when reviewed, are deeply flawed in methodology and typically misread or misrepresent research in order to reach the only conclusion they ever reach—teacher education is a failure! (Like reading instruction, apparently, has always been.)

I offer here one example of why no NCTQ report should be cited as credible: Review of Learning about Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know. (See also GUEST POST by Peter Smagorinsky: Response to the new NCTQ Teacher Prep Review.)

NCTQ lacks credibility, but the organization has learned how to manipulate the current state of press-release journalism that simply publishes whatever aggressive organizations are willing to feed journalists desperate for click bait.

As well, the article plays the usual game of misrepresenting whole language and balanced literacy. A more accurate explanation of whole language and balanced literacy exposes a really ugly reason some are so eager to trash both and endorse phonics: the former are not tied to (lucrative) reading programs, but phonics is a veritable cash cow for textbook companies and the testing industry. (Note the NRP and NCLB directly led to a textbook scandal under the Bush administration.)

Although I tire making this point, no one in literacy recommends skipping direct phonics instruction. WL and BL both stress the need for the right amount and right time for direct phonics instruction (depending on student needs) and recognize that most students eventually need rich and authentic whole reading experiences to grow as readers (not phonics rules, not phonics worksheets, not phonics tests).

Finally, however, is the real paradox.

Formal schooling has likely never taught reading well. Little of that has to do with teacher education or teacher buy in. Again, see LaBrant’s work from the 1920s into the 1960s and 1970s; she laments the gap between good research and practice over and over.

Of course, the key point is why are we failing our students and everything we know about teaching reading?

One powerful reason is the accountability movement grounded in standards and high-stakes tests. Reading instruction (like writing instruction) has been corrupted by the all-mighty tests.

Test reading is reductive (and lends itself to direct phonics instruction, hint-hint), but it is a pale measure of deep and authentic reading, much less any student’s eagerness to read.

Because of the accountability movement, then, and because of high-pressure textbook reading programs, we have for decades ignored a simple fact of research: the strongest indicator of reading growth in students is access to books in the home (not phonics programs).

I want to end by addressing the real scapegoat in all this—teacher education.

Full disclosure: I have been working in teacher education for 17 years, after 18 years teaching high school English in public school.

But, I am the first to admit teacher education is quite bad, technocratic, bureaucratic, and mostly mind-numbing.

Teacher education, however, is not the problem because whether or not we are teaching reading research and practices correctly is irrelevant; teacher candidates overwhelmingly report that once they are in the classroom, they are told what to do and how—what they know from teacher education is tossed out the window.

The article is not a powerful call, then, for teaching students to read. It is a standard example of really bad edujournalism.

Ironically, a bit of Googling and reading could have alleviated much of that, but I guess we are asking for too much and may want to blame teacher education and teachers for those journalists’ inability to read.

Recommended

Whatever Happened to Scientifically Based Research in Education Policy?

Corporations Are Behind The Common Core State Standards — And That’s Why They’ll Never Work

Mainstream Journalism Can’t Handle the Truth

Soon-to-be former Associate Editor of The State (Columbia, SC), Cindi Ross Scoppe noted in her good-bye column:

Newspapers the nation over are making a rapid transition into an all-digital future, and right now, there’s not a huge market online for fact-based opinion journalism, particularly when it isn’t extreme, or at least aligned with one side in our culture wars. People like me the nation over are trying to find ways to maintain their integrity, and their pragmatism, while creating a stronger following, and I wish them nothing but the best with this. Unfortunately, the next round of layoffs came too soon for me.

Mainstream journalism, notably the traditional newspaper, is in rapid decline. Scoppe’s departure is yet one more example of the actual human cost of media contracting.

Having placed a number of Op-Eds with The State, I have interacted with Scoppe for many years. On balance, I would place her in a small percentage of journalists about whom I am mostly positive, keeping in mind that I regularly criticize both mainstream journalism broadly and edujournalism narrowly as deeply flawed.

I have, in fact, stated bluntly that even so-called good journalists and good journalism leave a great deal to be desired. Journalists remain steadfast in their commitment to both-sides journalism, and the entire media field/industry is every day more deeply entrenched in press-release journalism out of necessity.

These on-going contractions require fewer and fewer journalists to do more and more. Journalists as generalists (their expertise is journalism, lacking content expertise in the topics they cover), then, simply try to keep their heads above water even when they are faced with a rising tide they have never navigated before.

I paused at Scoppe’s “[p]eople like me the nation over are trying to find ways to maintain their integrity, and their pragmatism.” I am deeply torn between recognizing Scoppe as a very good journalist with genuinely good intentions (in my opinion) and also being able to see that her “pragmatism” (and journalistic code that includes both-sides reporting and a naive pledge “to express my political opinions, with no allegiance to any person or political philosophy,” or seek ways not to be political) more often than not trumped that integrity.

Let me give an example that I think reflects the much larger problem in journalism and news reporting across the U.S.

Scoppe and The State have remained supporters of current South Carolina governor Henry McMaster, calling him the best candidate and even praising him for having integrity.

Yet, McMaster is a strong Trump ally and a shameless NRA candidate. In short, McMaster isn’t a candidate with integrity. His partisan politics are an affront to the high percentage of black and brown citizens of SC as well as to the large percentage of the state that lives in mostly ignored poverty.

This state-level example is not much different than The New York Times remaining unwilling (unable?) to call Trump and his administration liars. The so-called newspaper of record is mostly concerned about White House access.

The truth that mainstream journalism cannot handle is that journalism is its own worst enemy. Journalists are trained to avoid taking ethical stands, to refuse to make evidence-based decisions about credibility and validity.

Mainstream media are complicit in how the U.S. has become a political joke throughout the world.

Chris Cuomo, for example, on CNN plays the role of “journalist holding the administration’s feet to the fire,” but continues to give Kellyanne Conway airtime.

The ugly truth that mainstream journalism cannot handle is that there is no journalism—only theater.

The U.S. has a faux-billionaire reality-TV star as president. The media created him and the media are playing right along to keep this sinking ship afloat.

Like universal public education (which journalists have covered badly for more than a century and a half), the free press is essential to a free people.

Like universal public education, the free press is mostly a deeply flawed—and failing—experiment in democracy since both are deeply tainted by the free market.

However, universal public education and the free press are not the problem. We have failed them; they haven’t failed us.

Education and journalism are both inherently political. Yet formal schooling and the mainstream media function with false expectations that teachers and journalists remain apolitical.

Education and journalism are both inherently ethical pursuits. Yet formal schooling and the mainstream media function with false expectations that teachers and journalists skirt moral and ethical pronouncements.

One of the greatest risks teachers and journalists can take that can directly threaten their careers is to be activists, the highest form of political and ethical behavior.

The activist is one who seeks to garner power to confront the entrenched power of the status quo in the pursuit of change, change that bends the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

Many teachers (and professors) and journalists are in separate boats that are both none the less sinking.

And the harsh truth is that they have created the holes themselves by conforming to the traditional expectations that teachers and journalists simply allow the world to continue as it is.

Don’t be political and surely don’t take any ethical stand in your roles as teachers and journalists.

Almost daily, I see The New York Times begging for subscriptions to keep journalism alive while they refuse to call a lie “a lie.” And while their Op-Ed page devolves more and more into something many of us find hard to distinguish from The Onion.

Maybe journalism deserves to be razed since it can’t stop itself from throwing gasoline on the dumpster fire that is U.S. politics and disaster capitalism.

Maybe we must let this all burn to the ground and hope for a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a new version of a critical free press that can handle the truth.


See Also

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

Free Speech, Free Market, and the Lingering “Rigid Refusal”

In the documentary Corridor of Shame, which explores the historical inequities of school funding in South Carolina along lines of race and social class, Senator (R, SC) Lindsey Graham claims while speaking at MLK Day in 2005: “We have a disparity of funding in a region of our state…. The reason we have disparity in funding is not cause we are prejudiced at the governmental level. It’s because we collect taxes based on property value. And our property value in those counties are pretty low because there’s no industry.”

Graham’s denial of systemic racism represents what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “elegant racism” while confronting the “oafish racism” of Cliven Bundy and former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling:

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. 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.

Graham acknowledges inequity, but uses “prejudiced” instead of “racist,” and casually rejects systemic racism.

As Coates explains, whites in the U.S. are more apt to acknowledge oafish racism while almost always employing elegant racism, such as denying systemic racism; therefore, Graham’s obfuscation is a powerful and effective political ploy, especially in the South.

In the matter of a few days recently, this distinction has played out in a public way with the NFL instituting a new policy about players protesting during the National Anthem and Roseanne Barr having her ABC sit-com canceled after a racist outburst on social media.

The NFL Anthem policy and Barr’s show cancelation have two important elements in common: what they represent in terms of how the U.S. confronts and understands racism, and how many in the U.S. have a deeply flawed understanding of free speech.

First, when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated protests during the National Anthem, the public and political response has tended to misrepresent the actions. Kaepernick and other players were protesting systemic racism, inequitable policing of blacks often resulting in death, during the Anthem.

Notably, Barr’s oafish racism, comparing a person of color to an ape, has resulted in a similar outcome for Barr and Kaepernick—the loss of work—although the former is a racist and the latter is protesting racism.

While Kapernick and other protesting NFL players have been condemned for being political (disregarding they are taking credible stands against a reprehensible social reality), Barr has a history of being bigoted.

Writer Roxane Gay has examined that history and then the recent cancelation, in fact.

Also significant about these two situations is that the new NFL policy does in fact limit when and how NFL players can express themselves, but Barr was perfectly free to share her comments, with an incredibly wide audience.

That comparison leads to the now common aspect of the public discussion of Barr’s cancelation, claims that they are about free speech: Since the NFL and ABC are not the government, neither of these situations is an issue of free speech.

As Katherine Timpf explains:

First of all, this is in no way a free-speech or First Amendment issue. The First Amendment protects us from facing consequences from the government over our speech, not consequences from our peers or our employers. Yes, what Barr said, although abhorrent, absolutely was constitutionally protected speech, and, of course, it should be. After all, giving the government the power to decide what is and is not “acceptable” speech would be giving the government the power to silence whatever kind of speech it felt like silencing, which would be very dangerous indeed. Anyway, the point is, a free-speech-rights violation would be someone trying to, say, arrest Barr for her comments, not firing her for them. Her rights were in no way violated in this case. ABC simply exercised its own rights as a private company to decide whom it does and does not want to associate with, and it’s my view that no one should blame its executives for making the decision that they made.

Therefore, the NFL policy on the National Anthem and the cancelation of Barr’s sit-com are not about free speech but the free market. Both the NFL and ABC are hedging that their actions preserve their audiences, their bottom line.

And what those concerns about their audiences reinforce is that the public has a much lower tolerance for oafish racism (Barr) than for confronting elegant racism (NFL protests). The NFL believes its audience either denies or cannot see systemic racism, and thus does not support the so-called politics of NFL players who protest while ABC feels that continuing to give an oafish racist a major platform will erode their audience.

Here is where we must confront the problem with trusting the free market since doing the right thing is linked to the moral imperative of the majority, the consumers. Currently in the U.S., that majority remains insensitive to systemic inequity and injustice; therefore, elegant racism survives—even bolstered ironically when oafish racism is shamed and seemingly blunted.

When each oafish racist is given their due, those denying systemic racism have their worldview confirmed since they see individual punishment as justice.

These actions by the NFL and ABC reflect that in the U.S. whites are still in the early adolescent stage of racial consciousness. Being able to confront oafish racism isn’t even fully developed yet.

Many in the media called Barr’s slurs “racially insensitive,” showing the same sort of refusal to call a lie, a lie that now characterizes mainstream media. But a few in that media are calling Barr’s words “racist,” and ABC folded under the weight of that fact—although we should be asking why Barr had this second chance considering her history of bigotry.

As a people, white America is not adult enough, however, to move past finger-wagging at oafish racists and to acknowledge systemic racism because, as Coates recognizes, “to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.”

James Baldwin’s “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” remains a chilling warning then: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.”

That anything, as the NFL and ABC have exposed, is racism—the cancer destroying our democracy and our free market.

As consumers, we have a moral obligation to tell the NFL it is wrong; we will not stand for systemic racism. And we must tell ABC that canceling Barr’s sit-com is a start, but it isn’t enough.

As citizens, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of the voting booth—something we have failed to do yet in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

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