Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us: “For the American Right, the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy”

William F. Buckley, I suppose, would have wanted to be remembered as a powerful and charismatic public intellectual for conservatism and one of the foundational thinkers in the late 20th-/early 21st-century formation of conservative thought and the current Republican Party.

While Buckley failed as a political candidate and may in many ways be lost to history, his goals have been mostly accomplished—creating a Republican movement that succeeded in significant ways from Ronald Reagan’s rise through the election of Donald Trump, with only minor detours for centerists such as Bill Clinton (anti-welfare and “tough on crime” advocate) and Barack Obama.

What did Buckley envision?

His was a political ideology that shifted the 1950s Republican moderates and liberals to a reactionary party grounded in (when convenient) libertarian principles and Christian values that stood firm against the rising tide of Brown v. Board (school integration) and the Civil Rights Act of the mid-1960s as well as the violent civil rights movement swelling from the 1950s into the 1970s.

Buckley repeatedly argued that Black people killed during the Civil Rights Era had provoked the violence, for example. He was a “know your place” sort of racist.

Buckley held firm throughout his public career that Southern whites had the right to their beliefs, even if those beliefs were racist, and that the federal government must not impede on those rights (Constitutionally wrong, was his thin argument), even if those efforts sought to gain the full rights of Black people.

Yes, Buckley was a racist, the sort of racist who admitted racism was a plight on humanity and the U.S., but he argued, it was a plight that must be allowed to play out somewhat organically and not spurred by the influence of government mandate (whether through the courts or legislation). Buckley was also the sort of racist who claimed whites were superior to Black people at the moment, even as he wasn’t going to argue directly there were genetic differences (although he was fine with letting such claims linger).

Buckley rarely even flinched and sometimes eagerly trafficked with those who did make much more gross and hateful claims—George Wallace, James Jackson Kilpatrick, etc.

In Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us, using the James Baldwin/Buckley debate as the crux of his examination, Buccola draws a powerful conclusion about Buckley’s impact on U.S. politics: “For the American Right, the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy” (p. 365).

The line from Buckley to the Reagan Revolution and then to the current Trump administration is straight and direct. For those who want to claim that Trump is an aberration, a distortion of modern/contemporary Republicanism, Buccola’s book is a harsh slap in the face.

Trump and the current Republican Party is at least a logical conclusion to what Buckley and other conservatives started in the 1940s-1950s.

Buckley mastered what we now see as typical Trumpisms: claiming belief trumps evidence, cozying up to blatant racists for partisan political expediency, making sweeping ideological claims about “the individual” while refusing to recognize the inequities that weigh on real individuals (especially if those individuals are not white), resorting to American exceptionalism and framing any enemy as being “anti-American,” promoting boot-strapping over government intervention, and refusing to acknowledge one’s own enormous privilege while also claiming great accomplishment from hard work and intellectual superiority.

In short, Buckley wrote Trump’s playbook, although Trump is a slightly more buffoonish version of Buckley, himself a stylized character, more theater than substance despite Buckley’s penchant for arcane vocabulary.

However, I must stress here that despite my initial focus on Buckley, Buccola’s outstanding scholarship and compelling writing has one star: James Baldwin.

From The Atlantic: James Baldwin, right, discusses a civil-rights incident with Bayard Rustin, left. (AP)

Just as Baldwin was often the complicated and complicating moral compass while he was alive, Baldwin provides not only context, but the moral counterbalance to Buckley’s inexcusable dispassionate dogmatism.

As someone who has often written about and teaches from Baldwin, I recognize in Buccola an essential primer on Baldwin’s evolving thought throughout the key decades surrounding the Buckley debate in 1965.

Readers witness Baldwin being smeared as a communist (and his explanations to the contrary), labeled “anti-American” (although he repeatedly argues that to criticize the U.S. is to love it), provoked to pick sides between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Baldwin resisted, praising both men but cautioning against the dangers of any strict obligations to organized religion), and characterized as a leading cause of racial violence (maybe the central target of Buckley’s “blame the victims” campaign).

While Baldwin sought always to live the life of an artist, he was drawn time and again into his role as public intellectual, journalist, practitioner of the jeremiad, public speaker, and debater.

Even Malcolm X was apt to warn others that Baldwin was always his own man—so what he said and when he said it remained Baldwin’s.

Guiding Baldwin was his own conception of love:

In order to achieve freedom of this sort, Baldwin contended, we must love one another. His understanding of love was deep and complex, and the love he prescribed was difficult and often unsettling. To love someone, he explained, is to deny them “spiritual and social ease,” which “hard as if may sound,” is “the most important thing that one human being can do for another.” Love requires us to force each other to confront the delusions that we rely on to avoid taking responsibility for our lives. “Love takes off the masks,” Baldwin declared, “that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” (From The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola, p. 163, quoting from Baldwin’s “Down at the Cross,” pp. 335, 341)

And that commitment rested against Baldwin’s consternation about white America:

“There are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it … [and] how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here.” … “I am terrified,” [Baldwin] said, “by the  moral apathy, the death of the heart that is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I am human …. And this means that they have become … moral monsters.” (p. 186)

Ultimately, Baldwin had the irrefutable last word on race in the U.S.:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,’ but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie. (On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin, Los Angeles Times, 1979)

And as Buccola quotes Baldwin talking to “students at Cambridge”:

What is happening in the poor woman, the poor man’s mind. They have been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation which is like a heavenly revelation: at least they are not black. (p. 259)

Yet, Buccola paraphrases Baldwin arguing “most white Americans live in a state of denial” (p. 347).

Buccola makes a deeply compelling choice by framing the racial/racist history of the U.S., and how that drives and intermingles with U.S. partisan politics as well as media, with one moment in U.S. history—when Buckley and Baldwin directly debate “the motion of the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro” (p. 376; note that this volume includes the most intact transcript existing of the debate, another gem of this book).

These two men, born within a year of each other although Baldwin was in Harlem and Buckley, in extreme wealth and privilege, are not mere tokens of history, but valid voices of the current tensions in a country that wants to call itself free and equitable but often, like Buckley, refuses to acknowledge our sins (as Baldwin did) or do anything about them.

Reading Buccola’s extended exegesis of the debate, I am reminded of comedian George Carlin: “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

And, of course, more Baldwin: “The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something we do not understand and do not want to admit” (“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” 1948).

In the Epilogue, Buccola shares Baldwin’s recollection of Buckley avoiding an elevator packed with Baldwin and his Black friends:

“He will say, of course, if challenged, that the elevator was crowded, but I remember the split second—the twinkling of an eye—in which he looked at me and he saw me looking at him. Okay. But I [emphasis in original] would have gotten on the elevator.”

Racist. Liar. Coward. These are the words that came into Baldwin’s mind when he thought of Buckley. (p. 361)

Apt words, chilling words, that serve us, sadly, now.

Unsweet Tea: On Tokenism, Whiteness, and the Promise of Culturally Relevant Teaching

I stood as I have many times in front of the two tea dispensers at a chain sub sandwich shop. But this time, I was suddenly struck with the choice I always make—the “unsweet tea.”

Medium Freshly-Brewed Iced Tea Unsweetened

I was born, raised, and have lived my entire life in the Deep South. My mother made tea that would rival pancake syrup and trained my sister and me in the meticulous ritual of steeping tea bags and then pouring the hot tea over a huge mound of processed sugar.

The tea pot was dedicated only to steeping tea, and the tea jar and the giant plastic sugar spoon were sacred as well.

Once I left home, my mother flirted with sun tea, but the syrup-sweet tea of my childhood later became my defining feature of what could rightfully call itself The South. When ordering tea, The South hands you sweetened ice tea; hot tea or tea without sugar are not even mentioned, or considered.

So with a great deal of shame, I must admit that only a week or so ago I was truck with the absurdity that is “unsweet tea,” which of course is just tea.

The “unsweet” is a necessity only because “sweet tea” in South Carolina is the norm, the default, what has been rendered invisible and simultaneously right.

All across the U.S., then, “unsweet tea” in The South is a less controversial entry point into how whiteness works as the norm, the invisible, and the right.

Whiteness as the normal and as the invisible drives the greatest bulk of privilege in the U.S., but once that whiteness and privilege are exposed, confronted, white fragility is the response, as Robin DiAngelo (2011) details:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. 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.

White fragility as a response to naming and confronting privilege as well as racism is extremely powerful because that response is clinging to an entrenched norm with incredibly long and anchored roots.

Despite claims that formal public education works to change students and thus reform society, schools most often reflect and perpetuate privilege and all sorts of inequities and norms. Thus, education—teachers/teaching, curriculum, testing, discipline, dress codes, etc.—tends to work in the service of whiteness.

Just as whiteness must be exposed and confronted in society, education that is liberatory and life- as well as society-changing must be willing to commit, as Gloria Ladson-Billings explains, to culturally relevant teaching:

A hallmark for me of a culturally relevant teacher is someone who understands that we’re operating in a fundamentally inequitable system [emphasis added] — they take that as a given. And that the teacher’s role is not merely to help kids fit into an unfair system, but rather to give them the skills, the knowledge and the dispositions to change the inequity. The idea is not to get more people at the top of an unfair pyramid; the idea is to say the pyramid is the wrong structure. How can we really create a circle, if you will, that includes everybody?

Instead, Ladson-Billings laments:

I find that teachers often shy away from critical consciousness because they’re afraid that it’s too political [emphasis added]. A perfect example for me is some years ago when Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, that district in Ferguson sent out a directive that teachers not talk about this. This is exactly what kids are talking about every single day, because at night when they go home and turn on the news, their streets are flooded with protesters, and they need an adult to help make sense of this. But the school has said, “No, you can’t talk about this.”

One result of teachers and schools self-regulating in the service of whiteness, privilege, and inequity is tokenism—viewing culturally relevant teaching through a deficit lens isolated on Black and Brown students or students living in poverty; and selecting curriculum, materials (texts, programs, etc.), and events that highlight diversity and multiculturalism,

but [as Ladson-Billings explains] what research has found is just changing the content is never going to be enough, if you are pedagogically doing the very same things: Read the chapter, answer the questions at the back of the book, come take the test. You really haven’t attended to the deep cultural concerns. What happens is school districts want you to do just that — teach exactly the way you’ve been teaching, just change the information [emphasis added]. That does little or nothing to increase engagement, and it certainly doesn’t help kids feel any more empowered about what they’re learning.

Whiteness, like sweet tea in The South, is ubiquitous in the U.S.—but whiteness desires to remain invisible as it drives privilege for some and further entrenches inequity for others. White fragility is the only consequence of rendering whiteness visible so that it can be eradicated.

This confrontation of whiteness is the duty of white people, and that must not be dulled by tokenism and self-regulation.

Recognizing that “unsweet tea” is just tea serves as a powerful example of the importance of naming as a first step to exposing in a journey to eradicating whiteness and privilege.

Genuine and robust culturally relevant teaching does offer a promise to move beyond whiteness and to quell white fragility, as Ladson-Billings argues:

When we do this work, there are certain baselines that people have to have. Number one, they have to believe that racism is real, and number two, they have to believe that they may be acting on it….

The most segregated group of kids in the country are white kids. We never refer to their schools as segregated. We refer to black and brown kids as going to segregated schools.

So, integration in which kids of different races and ethnicities have an opportunity to fully participate in the life of the school is what I would hope to see.

De-centering whiteness proves to be a bitter drink for white people who are too often compelled to respond with white fragility or tokenism.

Now, whiteness must seek ways to work against itself, making whiteness visible, centering it one last time in order to recenter our society and schools in ways that are equitable.


See Also

The female price of male pleasure

Isn’t This What School Should Be About?

My chest swelled and I cried when I opened the text: “Her artwork is displayed in the hallway.”

Skylar 5K artwork

“Her” is my granddaughter, Skylar, in her first few weeks of 5K in the rural primary school serving my hometown. Skylar is biracial and her parents are divorced; her school sits in a relatively high-poverty area of Upstate South Carolina, about the 11th most impoverished state in the U.S. and a deeply inequitable state by economics, race, and gender.

Usually, still, Skylar climbs onto my lap or beside me on the couch, just to be physically against me; I often hold tightly one of her small feet or she hooks an arm through mine as if we are tumbling through space and she needs to make sure we are tethered together forever.

This past weekend I watched her play at a bounce house and party facility, there for my grandson’s (Brees) third birthday party. Skylar ran with earnestness to maintain pace with a some of the children, her friends, but balked at a few of the bounce houses.

She stood nervously at one before turning to me and asking, “Is it dangerous in there?”

At another bounce house earlier, she initially refused to go in, shuffling up against my legs and softly telling me she didn’t like it. Later, she scrambled in, and as she had on another trip there, became trapped so an older boy went in to help her.

She crawled out crying.

As I looked at this artwork of hers, I was reminded of the weekend party, the bounce houses and peer pressure that proved to be nearly unbearable delight and fright for my dearest granddaughter who I love far too much.

When my daughter began to light my grandson’s birthday cake, Skyler warned her to move the cake back with “Remember. Safety first.”

Skylar, you see, already exhibits some of the anxiety and hyper-awareness I know all too well. She is a deeply sensitive child who is powerfully drawn to and deeply wary of the world she inhabits.

She inspires in me as my daughter did the urge to lift her into my arms and hold her close to me. Forever.

Of course, that is not love and that is not even remotely desirable since it would be an act (literally or metaphorically) of denying this beautiful girl her full and complicated life.

As my existential self-education taught me, our passions are our sufferings; if we seek ways not to suffer, we then must abandon our passions.

My precious Skyler will hurt in her life, be disappointed in very real ways. That’s being fully human.

I am disappointed and even angry, however, that she like all children in the U.S. is being handed a country that remains far too calloused about children, girls and women, and the many inequities that much of the country simply pretends do not exist.

I am disappointed and even angry, however, that the schooling she can expect is almost never like her artwork being displayed in the hallways but more like a prison, or a hospital.

As I told a class last night, her 3K, 4K, and 5K experiences already contain assessments of her “readiness” and how well she meets standards—and ultimately, she must meet the demands of being on grade level for that most important grade of all, third.

Many loving, kind, and gifted teachers will work uncritically as agents of this terribly flawed educational system even as they show her their love and kindness. School, then, will be one of the things I cannot protect her from, one of the things that will hurt her.

Despite Skyler’s disadvantages of race, gender, and a fractured family, she has what Barbara Kingsolver calls a “family fortune” in the love and care offered by both sets of grandparents and access to race and economic privileges in that extended family.

I often look at Skylar and Brees, recognizing that Skyler will mostly be viewed as white (although people routinely mention her tan, even in the dead of winter) and Brees will mostly be viewed as black.

Sky and Brees

Their lives will remained colored by the centering of whiteness in the U.S., again something I cannot protect either of these children from.

Skylar will be pushed a little, or even a lot, behind boys just because she is a girl, and will likely grow up to earn a fraction of those some young men who more often than not are just a fraction of her.

So my heart ached at the bounce houses as I walked around just to keep an eye on her, just to be there when she wanted to say she was feeling shy or afraid.

And I cried when I saw the artwork now hanging in her school.

I am trying very hard with my grandchildren and reminded of the speaker in Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”:

…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. I am trying
to sell them the world.

And then the end of Smith’s poem, mixed as it is with tortured optimism:

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

As I look at the artwork of a 5-year-old child, I am left with a question as well: Isn’t this what school should be about?

Rednecks, Hillbillies, and Crackers

Before my father graduated high school, he had a full set of false teeth. Finding—and later being able to afford—dentures that fit well were an important part of his life for sixty years.

Once his health began to deteriorate nearly as precipitously as his bank account in the last several years, that final set of dentures, lower quality and cost, made him look even less like himself than the disorienting transformation from aging and ill health—both making him enlarge, barrel-chested and swollen, as he simultaneously shrank in stature.

My father was a rough and rambunctious 1950s redneck growing up, losing teeth a few at a time from playing sports and the occasional fight. His dentist eventually decided to pull the last few and fit him with false teeth.

My mother, my sister, and I, then, never knew my father when he had teeth.

This was part of my 1960s childhood, a redneck life in Upstate South Carolina, my father’s home town. It seems fair to say that my mother was, as a North Carolinian raised mostly in Lexington and Lumberton, a hillbilly of sorts.

But theirs was no mixed marriage.

In fact, it took me many years, and well after I had moved out, to recognize the nuances of my parent’s slightly different Southern drawls and vocabulary. Both of my grandfathers had been painfully quiet men, although my maternal grandfather was equally painful in the slowness of his speech when he did (rarely) speak.

So I needed some distance to begin to acknowledge that this SC/NC couple had families who were often as unlike as like each other.

When my parents died a couple years ago, with those deaths shrouded in the ugliest possible consequences of an inadequate and inhumane healthcare system, I was pushed further into more fully and openly interrogating my redneck past.

Recently, I have been confronted, first, with Season 2 of Mindhunter focusing on the Atlanta child murders and the series’s characterization of KKK members, Georgia crackers, and next, with Ozark‘s fascination with distinguishing between rednecks and hillbillies.

 

Over the years, I have been exasperated often with the portrayal of white Southerners in the media, entertainment, and even popular memoirs (such as Hillbilly Elegy and Blood Done Signed My Name).

Those representations range along a spectrum of cartoonish to romanticized that deeply distorts both the humanity of those of us from the South as well as the many serious flaws that do persist among poor and working-class white Southerners.

As a lifelong Southern redneck who grew into social awareness and continues to wrestle with that redneck past against a deeply held moral imperative toward social justice, I am constantly faced with a paradox—seeking ways to defend the accurate, complex, and often deeply flawed white Southern characterization while in no way defending its historical and current racism, sexism, and homophobia.

I cannot express often enough the tragedy that is the self-defeating South.

With this newest focus by the two series above on redneck, hillbilly, and cracker, I have been thinking about my toothless father and the ugly stereotype of the toothless redneck/hillbilly/cracker.

The broader stereotype of white southerners is that we talk grammatically incorrect (therefore, we are stupid) and we are often poor.

These stereotypes expose deficit and misguided perceptions of both language and poverty, but it is the “toothless” slur that draws my attention now.

I hear fairly often about poor Southern whites that they have less sense than teeth, or something like that. And while watching Ozark fumble through their interest in distinguishing between rednecks and hillbillies, I have for the first time more clearly considered how damning the “toothless” slur is.

Being toothless among the poor has its roots in all sorts of inequity, mostly that poor and working-class Americans too often do not have access to affordable healthcare (including dental) or healthy food.

The “toothless” slur ignores that inequity but certainly reinforces the rugged individual myth: If only poor white trash would take care of their teeth!

Toothlessness is their shame, both cosmetic and as a sign of carelessness (if not the real ugly floor of all poverty shaming, laziness).

More recently than this Southern stereotype, this shaming of rednecks regardless of region, is the toothless meth addict, a characterization again grounded in shaming and perpetuating that the addict is solely to blame for the consequences of the addiction.

Watching both Mindhunter and Ozark, I think of my immediate family as well as the many, many rednecks of my life lived in SC. But I also have come to think very often of my toothless father.

With his better quality dentures and his crewcut, my father struck the pose of the handsome, hardworking white man of the mid-twentieth century South. He also believed in all of the great American myths about rugged individualism and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps as well as the ugliest racist and classist narratives that were ever-present in his community.

My father and mother did everything they could to maintain the veneer that they had no past in being poor and they were not working-class, but middle-class.

IMG_0716

Keith, Rose, Paul, and Eydie Thomas— the family.

Their paradox was that they did in fact have a hand in their own disturbing dying days that were greatly accelerated and worsened by a harsh society and inhumane government that they endorsed until their last breaths.

It feels too much like a Poe short story, my being sometimes haunted by my father’s last pair of dentures that made him look cartoonish and pitiful, only a faint glimmer of the man I knew as a child. A powerful and all-too-happy young man who grew into massive forearms and a constant refrain of “If I was any better, I couldn’t stand it” to anyone who asked how he was doing.

Until that last pair of dentures, I had lived with a different image, one recreated by the telling of stories by my father.

When I was very young, my father was play-wrestling with my mom (they were very playful young adults, together and with my sister and me). My mom feigned that she was in distress and called for me to help her.

Just a child, I ran over and kicked hard at my father’s head. He turned away untouched, covertly removed his false teeth, and then rolled back to confront me with a huge toothless grin.

I screamed and cried, as my father told the story, while my mom and dad laughed.

This was my childhood, but I cannot tolerate the romanticizing of white Southerners anymore than I can stomach the petty stereotypes driven by poverty shaming.

I have loved my parents and family very deeply while also being very angry at them and my hometown for all the hatred and the self-defeating politics.

Over the last few years, the media have become obsessed with struggling whites all across the U.S. Many are rednecks, hillbillies, and even crackers.

There is so much white fragility on display that I recognize now even more deeply how whites resist equity and hard truths in the U.S. while always hiding behind a very large and starkly white banner. Maybe “Christian nation” or simply “U.S.A.”

Or the most disturbing and red “Make America Great Again.”

Yes, there are distinctions among rednecks, hillbillies, and crackers—but those really do not matter as much as what they have in common, an inordinate power linked to their being white and an irrational anger toward a world finding ways to expose those privileges so that we can end them.

And walking through that world, I am the son of a toothless redneck.

Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Teaching First-Year Students Includes More than Disciplinary Content, Skills

I have two vivid memories of my father—one when I was an older child, the other when I was a teen.

Walking down Main Street of my hometown, my father and I stopped to talk to an adult, and when I didn’t respond with the obligatory “yes, sir,” my father slapped me hard across the face.

Years later, my father was playing in a pick-up basketball game on our home court with my teenaged friends and me. During the game, I crossed the respect line with him and he turned to once again hit me hard across the face—in front of all my friends.

I was raised that children were to be seen and not heard, and all child interaction with adults had to include “sir” and “ma’am.”

Eventually as I grew into roles of authority—teacher, coach, and parent—I took on a much different lesson than my father had intended; I am extremely informal in my clothing and speech, and I avoid formal situations like the plague (because they literally make me feel ill, triggering my anxiety).

Especially as a teacher and coach, I have always worked very hard to treat children and young people with full human dignity and respect; that is something I always wanted as a young person, and those adults who showed me that respect remain important in my life.

In short, while I think all people regardless of age should treat each other with something like respect (for our collective humanity, but not roles such as authority), I also believe that anyone in a position of authority should earn the sort of trust that comes with that authority.

I don’t want students to respect me as their teacher simply because of my status, but because I have the qualities that position represents, characteristics that they in fact respect.

As the academic year is beginning again for many of us in all levels of education, these thoughts were triggered by a Twitter thread and a powerful piece on inclusive teaching.

The thread began:

And some of the replies include:

And then I added:

This exchange, I think, fits well with Sathy and Hogan’s framing of inclusive teaching:

Besides teaching content and skills in your discipline, your role is to help students learn. And not just some students. The changing demographics of higher education mean that undergraduates come to you with a wide variety of experiences, cultures, abilities, skills, and personalities. You have an opportunity to take that mix and produce a diverse set of thinkers and problem-solvers.

Teaching inclusively means embracing student diversity in all forms — race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic background, ideology, even personality traits like introversion — as an asset. It means designing and teaching courses in ways that foster talent in all students, but especially those who come from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Since I currently teach two first-year writing seminars and typically have several first-year students in my other courses—and I have been working directly in several committees on diversity and inclusion at my university—I see a strong connection between every professor’s role in teaching beyond what the academic obligations are in each course and the discussion of students emailing professors.

This is especially true for helping students transition from high school into higher education.

My university is a selective liberal arts college with a relatively homogenous student body, often white and relatively affluent.

Although I came from a working-class background, my students tend to function in ways that would make my father proud; they are quite deferent and formal with professors.

Unlike my own upbringing, their ways of navigating adults and people in authority have more to do with spoken and unspoken rules about social capital; none the less, they tend to do the face-to-face “sir” and “ma’am” routines flawlessly.

However, these students often have limited experiences interacting with teachers through email so the concerns raised in the Twitter thread are elements of my teaching I have had to develop once I moved from teaching high school English into higher education.

Here I want to emphasize that something seemingly as superficial as teaching students how to email professors can and should be a central lesson in fostering student awareness about diversity and inclusion.

As I noted in my Twitter response, I have been properly checked in the past about my own tendency to be informal. For women, people of color, and internationals, academia often remains a constant reminder that anyone not white and male exists in marginalized spaces.

Women faculty report often that students and others seeing them in their department spaces assume these women professors to be secretarial staff; people of color have reported equally erasing experiences with similar interactions.

The micro-aggressions of sexism and racism accumulate and overwhelm over time; these experiences do not envelope the profession and lives of white males, who receive immediate deference and assumptions of “Dr.” and “professor.”

The casual email to an early-career women professor sits in these moment-by-moment micro-aggressions while white men of academia can foster low-key and informal relationships both face-to-face and through email with their students; but the latter is one more example of the advantages of privilege.

Yes, I will talk to my first-year (and all) students about emailing their professors. I will couch that in discussing, for example, that student evaluations of teaching (a process first-year students also have little or no experience with) have been shown to perpetuate sexist and racist attitudes by students and then to further entrench sexism and racism (as well as xenophobia) in the academy through tenure and promotion processes.

We will address as well respectability politics and how to navigate that against the norms of student/professor interactions.

Class session will also include exploring “Ms.” versus “Miss/Mrs.” and the rise of gender neutral, singular uses of “they” and people’s pronoun preferences.

My broad goals as a professor in all of my courses attempt to meet Sathy and Hogan’s charge that our teaching is about more than disciplinary content and skills, and that our teaching must be for all students, not simply those who already match our biases and assumptions.

For me, then, I seek to raise my students’ awareness, as opposed to seeking ways for them to acquire a set of skills that I mandate for them.

I want my students to recognize that they are always political beings, interacting with and negotiating a world driven by power dynamics (many of which are historically and inherently inequitable).

Women, people of color, and internationals—whether students or faculty—cannot take vacations from who they are and how that status fits into a world normalized as white and male.

Those of us white and male, unless we make efforts to do otherwise, can function as if our privileges do not exist; they can be invisible to us.

I have deep and personal reasons for wanting my students to interact with me in informal ways that include all of us treating everyone with dignity and kindness. I still shudder a bit at “sir” and even “Dr. Thomas.”

Ultimately, I am not asking my students to adopt some mandate or even to take on a veneer with their professors. I am introducing my students to greater awareness about how all humans interact and how those interactions conform to (or resist) conventional assumptions—norms that are likely to be inequitable, likely to perpetuate sexism, racism, and xenophobia unless everyone becomes aware and actively resists those norms.

All of this, I think, speaks to the first “common question” about (resistance to) inclusive teaching answered by Sathy and Hogan:

I don’t teach about diversity. What does diversity have to do with my course, and why should I care? 

Some instructors make the mistake of equating inclusive teaching with introducing current events or “diversity issues” into, say, a math course. Of course you should offer diverse content, texts, guest speakers, and so on, where they’re relevant, and there’s been plenty of talk about that in academe. But when we talk about teaching inclusively, we choose to focus on the teaching methods that apply to all courses.

In short, all students and their teachers are always navigating political spaces in the formal classroom, and all teachers at every level are obligated to teach inclusively because of that reality.

The first-year student often walks, speaks, and writes through their lives thoughtlessly. My role as their professor is to give them the opportunity to pause, step back, and begin again with purpose and awareness—as a human who wants and deserves their humanity dignity and as a human seeking to live their lives in ways that honor that in everyone else.