Beware the Bastards: On Freedom and Choice

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Eugene V. Debs: Statement September 18, 1918

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

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

Here’s one:

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And here’s a whole room full:

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

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

So we have Ryan on Twitter:

And Vice President Pence:

O, happy freedom! And glorious individual responsibility!

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

*

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

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

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

Thus, in The Handmaid’s Tale, a few women are manipulated to control other women. The handmaid’s are trained by Aunts, who instill the propaganda:

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

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

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

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

Rented license. (p. 50)

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

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

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

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

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

And then, Offred (June) explains about her life before Gilead:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

 

8 January 2016: “Quite an experience to live in fear isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave”

Blade Runner is a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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The film is my favorite film, although the adaptation is quite distinct from the novel—also a wonderful work itself.

Today, 8 January 2016, marks the birth of replicant Roy:

Roy

Roy’s final monologue is a powerful and currently relevant statement, notably—”Quite an experience to live in fear isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave”:

The use of androids-as-slaves as a metaphor for the human condition is also in the science fiction section of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

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wage slaves

(from Academia and the American Worker: Right to Work in an Era of Disaster Capitalism?)

Another brilliant, but ignored, science fiction examination of our slavery to time is Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011), a powerful confrontation of how capitalism turns most people frantic so that a few can live in luxury.

When science fiction is set in the future relative to the publication or release of the original work, rarely is the work intended to be predictive—but often, the work is intended to tell us important things about the human condition and any now by taking us to places that seem unlike our now.

Roy as an enlightened android—more enlightened than the humans who created him to be a slave—ends his haunting monologue with “Time to die.”

I think this is intended so that we seek ways to live better, freer.

Enjoy the four-disc collector’s edition of Blade Runner.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? also is available as a graphic novel series.

Students, Not Standards: Calling for Solidarity in 2016

Many years ago, I was sitting in the last class session of the capstone secondary ELA methods course as part of my M.Ed. The guest speaker that day was my high school English teacher, the man responsible for my primary career path, Lynn Harrill.

Lynn was friends with the professor, who was then working at the state department of education, I believe.

Toward the end of the class, the professor asked what we wanted our students to know when they left our classes. That question was followed by lingering silence.

Ever the eager student, I said, “I want them to know themselves,” and I caught a glimpse of Lynn smiling widely.

Of course, that is what Lynn had taught me, although most people probably assumed it was reading and writing Lynn had so expertly given his students (which, by the way, was also true).

This moment—one of a very idealistic and naive young teacher, me—comes back to me often, and despite my many failures as a teacher, that grounding goal has always guided me. Not to be simplistic, but I teach students—that’s why I teach.

While reading Four Stories That Homework Tells Children About School, Learning, & Life, I was struck by “STORY #3: School Is More Important Than Other Pursuits/Interests/Activities.”

And now I have to investigate that memory again.

Yes, Lynn Harrill changed my life by being my sophomore and junior English teacher in high school. He was gracious, kind, and encouraging to a deeply insecure and anxious teen (me) who had decided he was a math and science person—because that is what school had told me.

Junior high English classes had been mostly draconian English teachers, grammar book exercises, and diagramming sentences. The “English” content of those classes was easy (I made As), but I loathed it all, even the texts we were assigned to read (much of which we did not read).

Now, before I launch into whining, let me be clear that my story is about how school failed me—but that because of my tremendous privilege (white, male and—according to traditional schooling and standardized tests—high verbal and mathematical intelligence), the consequences of those failures were miniscule. I attended college and continued to make As (easily), leading to an MEd and EdD.

I share this, then, not to bemoan poor pitiful me (or to brag), but to highlight that schools often fail students in ways we do not acknowledge and that the consequences for those students who need schooling most are monumental.

While I was begrudgingly playing school and succeeding, at home I was engaged in a rich array of hobbies and interests that school not only ignored, but also indirectly refuted (even Lynn told me as a 10th grader I needed to stop reading science fiction [SF] and start reading real literature such as Fitzgerald).

I was collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of Marvel comic books. I was voraciously listening to popular music and studying the lyrics. And I was doing the same with comedy albums, mostly George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

My reading life, as I noted above, was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, and whatever works were prompted by my mother’s SF film fascination. I fell in love with The Andromeda Strain because of the film, and much of my formative life was driven by the five Planet of the Apes films and TV’s Star Trek.

My response to the real literature endorsed by Lynn was tepid (but always the mama’s boy, I did as teachers told me to do), but my life was irrevocably changed when he also recommended writers I would never be assigned in the rural South of the 1970s—notably D.H. Lawrence.

Well, damn, I thought. This is literature?

My journey from student to teacher began in my sophomore year of high school as I began to untangle the false narratives school had taught me and came to embrace the authentic narratives of my real life, my real Self, outside of school.

More than a decade into my teaching career (in the position Lynn left at my high school) and in the same doctoral program Lynn had completed, I finally discovered critical pedagogy as the complete vision of student-centered teaching and learning I had been haphazardly practicing.

Regretfully, my entire career as an educator (18 years as a high school ELA teacher and then 14 more years, and counting, as an English educator and first-year writing professor) has occurred under the antithesis of student-centered critical education—the high-stakes accountability movement.

All of which, ironically, I have been prepared for by the very reading material school marginalized, science fiction and dystopian fiction.

Standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability fail students, fail teachers. They conspire to do exactly what homework accomplishes in story #3 above.

I cannot step away form this: I must teach those students placed in my care, and that duty requires me to find out who they are, what they know, and what they want so that we can work together so that they find who they are and who they want to be.

So, I wonder with the new year, and the allure of resolutions—who is with me in 2016? Can we make this about students and not standards, not tests?

See Also

Doubling Down (Again) by Reverting, Not Changing: The Exponential Failures of Education Legislation

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

Beware the Technocrats: More on the Reading Wars

I Don’t Need Standards To Teach, I Need Students

Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

UPDATED: The Martian: Allegory of Whose Lives Matter

[Spoiler Alert: This post begins at the end of Andy Weir’s The Martian. Those who have not read the novel or watched the film are duly warned. Also, profanity.]

UPDATE: In the wake of the Brock Turner rape case and verdict—in which the judge and Turner’s father are more concerned about Turner than his victim—I am moved to suggest that the examination of The Martian below serves as a powerful allegory for rape culture in the U.S. as a subset of how white male lives matter above everyone else’s. As well, this novel speaks to the Baylor University scandal.

See also: Wealthy Teen Nearly Experiences Consequence and College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed (when parody is true and thus less funny).


As I was reading Andy Weir’s The Martian, I had an increasingly uneasy feeling—but not the one I assume Weir intended.

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Weir’s novel gained popularity when made into a film starring Matt Damon.

The uneasiness came in part from my realization that I did not like the main character marooned on Mars, Mark Watney, growing to complete dislike when near the end as Watney is nerd-whining, he hopes that if he survives, his notoriety will finally snare him plenty of women.

But the greater part of the uneasiness came from not worrying about Watney’s suvival—or moving methodically from each intricately detailed disaster and then to the miraculous Watney solution (science!)—but from stepping back from the novel’s premise into the real world to ask, How much money do we spend to make clear whose lives matter in the U.S.?

And then the novel ends with a final log entry from Watney, an entry that confirms my uneasiness:

The cost of my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?

Well, okay. I know the answer to that. Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for century. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true. (pp. 368-369)

This motif of how much a society will spend to save a life has also been applied to Matt Damon, star of the film; it costs $200 billion to save him in The Martian and $1 trillion in all his movies. Appears in Hollywood, this is a bit of a joke.

Weir’s novel is mostly compelling for the quick read and science, but Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain does some of the same techniques, and much better. All in all, Weir’s novel is an interesting idea not fully formed as art—somewhat because of a lack of craft, but mostly because it appears Weir, Watney (and all the characters), and the intended audience suffer from a complete lack of critical awareness—punctuated by Watney’s hokey claim about our “basic human instinct to help each other out.”

The big problem with The Martian is what Robin James calls the “white interpretive horizon”; in the novel/film, that means Watney embodies all that is glorious about the Great White Male. What Watney represents is the vapid Ayn Rand rugged individual myth that is as thin a veil of white privilege as the rigged tarp ripped free when Watney launches away from Mars. And with a significant edit, we must confront that our “basic human instinct” is to help those who look like us—but not other people’s children.

The “white interpretive horizon” is so entrenched in popular culture that films such as Gravity contort the female lead into, well, the Great White Male. And of course, Hollywood can turn anyone into a hero (as long as he is white).

James builds to this conclusion, highlighting, I think, the essential failure of The Martian:

Both Trump’s conservativism and “Hello”’s liberalism expect everyone in the universe, and the universe itself, to reflect their interpretive horizon back to them because this horizon is “natural”; other horizons are disgusting or hilariously awful. This is no mere naturalistic fallacy, which assumes that natural means good. Shaped by the lived experience of white people and whiteness, these horizons are themselves white. Both fandoms treat whiteness as the natural foundation of their respective communities, and this common white supremacy is what makes liberal “Hello” fandom as dangerous as reactionary Trump fandom. We need to disrupt neoliberal white supremacist interpretive horizons in the same way #BlackLivesMatter interrupt Trump rallies.

Writing a year ago about the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice by a police officer, Charles Blow admits:

An extended video released last week of the shooting death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland appears to show an unconscionable level of human depravity on the part of the officer who shot him, a stunning disregard for the value of his life and a callousness toward the people who loved him.

And thus: “His black life didn’t seem to matter. But it does.”

As I finished The Martian, the Tamir Rice narrative continued, darker but just as predictable as the Watney story. Kirtsen West Savali reported:

Today, a grand jury in Cleveland, Ohio does what this system does. They put an exclamation point on the statement that black lives don’t matter. That black children do not matter. That being young, black and free is a crime punishable immediately by death.

For over a year, there has been a chorus of people demanding some semblance of justice for 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s family, without daring to acknowledge that impossible hope that flickers each time another black person falls victim to state-sanctioned terror.

Let’s set aside the thought experiment of a Great White Male marooned on Mars for a moment. I simply do not doubt we’d spend billions to save that astronaut as it plays out in the fictional world.

Instead, let’s try another thought experiment.

How much money are we willing to commit to saving one black male in any city across the U.S.?

But this isn’t even a thought experiment. We have already spoken.

The U.S. spends billions and billions to wage war, drop bombs from drones killing men, women, and children who are simply victims of geographical proximity (and are overwhelmingly brown and “not Christian”).

All the while the political and public will resists increasing minimum wage, welfare, or any use of funds that would prove that black and brown lives matter right here on our own fertile soil.

Blow ended his piece with: “The world must be made to acknowledge that Tamir Rice’s life mattered.”

And more, I’d argue—to prove lives matter by preventing the seemingly inevitable lives cut down literally by bullets but figuratively because Watney’s claim about our basic instinct is the stuff of the “white interpretive horizon”; in other words, bullshit.

See Also

What to do when you’re not the hero any more, Laurie Penny

The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.

NCTE 2014: “Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

[At the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English Annual convention—themed Story As the Landscape of Knowing and held November 20-23, 2014, in Washington DC—Renita Schmidt (University of Iowa), Sean Connors (University of Arkansas), and I will be presenting as detailed below; I offer our proposal as a preview and hope you can join us as we need to raise our voices for both libraries and literature.]

“Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

Panel presentation, 75 mins

2014 NCTE Annual Convention - Participant Announcement copy

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”*

P. L. Thomas, Furman University

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” Lou LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy). Also, LaBrant (1949) identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16). This opening talk of the panel will focus on the importance of access to books and libraries as an antidote to “costume parties”—highlighting the work of LaBrant and Stephen Krashen as well as the speeches and writings of Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury as life-long proponents of libraries.

The More Books the Better!: Library Books as Boundary Objects To Build Strong Girls

Nita Schmidt, University of Iowa

Libraries provide stories for helping us understand who we are and who we might become. Sometimes, those stories take us to places we cannot imagine and we need more stories to resolve the tension. Libraries provide the books that become boundary objects or, as Akkerman and Baker (2011) describe, artifacts that work as mediators during times of discontinuity. Drawing on sociocultural theories of learning (Gee, 1996; Wenger, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978), this paper will discuss the ways an after school book club works with 4th – 6th grade girls to consider new perspectives. Book club members visit the library every month, read books with strong female protagonists, discuss topics in the books that relate to the real lives of the girls, and help the girls start their own personal libraries to encourage girls to begin to see themselves as successful young women in a complex global world. A bibliography will be provided.

Speaking Back to Power: Teaching YA Literature in an Age of CCSS

Sean Connors, University of Arkansas

If, as the narrator of John Green’s (2009) Paper Towns suggests, imagination is the machine that kills fascists, then literature, as English teachers and librarians know, is the engine that drives it. Despite the current education reform movement’s insistence on reducing the study of literature to a set of narrowly defined, measurable skills, and arguments which associate “close reading” and “textual complexity” with canonical literature, educators who value Young Adult fiction know that, like literature for adults, it is capable of creating a space for readers to examine complex issues related to race, class, gender, etc. This presentation calls on educators to recast arguments for teaching YA fiction in an age of CCSS by foregrounding its ability to encourage critical thinking. The presenter will share examples of (and guidelines for producing) student created digital book trailers that, rather than promoting books, instead “speak back” to oppressive ideologies featured in them.

*Portions adapted from the following blog posts:

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

“Fahrenheit 451” 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?”

Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different”

References

Akkerman, S.F. & Baker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132-169.

Bradbury, R.  Fahrenheit 451, 60th anniversary edition.

Fahrenheit 451: 60th Anniversary Edition

Neil Gaiman lecture in full: Reading and obligation — http://readingagency.org.uk/news/blog/neil-gaiman-lecture-in-full.html

Gee, J.P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourse. New York: Routledge.

Green, J. (2009). Paper towns. New York: Speak.

Krashen, S. (2014, January 4). The Spectacular Role of Libraries in Protecting Students from the Effects of Poverty. http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-spectacular-role-of-libraries-in.html?m=1

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice, learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Whence Come “The Leftovers”?: Speculative Fiction and the Human Condition

Nora Durst finds herself at the intersection of something routinely normal for middle-class Americans living in the comfort of suburbia and distinctly otherworldly at the same time in Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, his 2011 novel venturing into speculative/ dystopian fiction.*

The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta

Visiting the mall with her sister during the Christmas season, Nora confronts the sudden disappearance of her entire family several years before on October 14, when millions of people also vanished in the Sudden Departure that prompts many to believe the world has finally experienced The Rapture:

Her heart was still racing when she stepped inside, her face hot with pride and embarrassment. She’d just forced herself to make a solo circuit of the big Christmas tree on the main level, where all the parents and kids were waiting to meet Santa Claus. It was another holiday challenge, an attempt to face her fear head-on, to break her shameful habit of avoiding the sight of small children whenever possible. That wasn’t the kind of person she wanted to be—shut down, defensive, giving a wide berth to anything that might remind her of what she’d lost. A similar logic had inspired her to apply for the day-care job last year, but that had been too much, too soon. This was more controlled, a one-time-only, bite-the-bullet sort of thing. (p. 193)

This moment for a fictional woman who has lost her family, has lost everything, is the essence of Perrotta’s mix of dark satire and moving authenticity about the human condition. But it also leads me to move beyond the book and consider what dystopian fiction, what speculative fiction offers readers that proves time and again to be so compelling.

Our Speculative World, “Off-to-the-Side”

Margaret Atwood has provided her readers four brilliant dystopian/speculative works of fiction—which she often uses to ague against simplistic labels such as “science fiction”: The Handmaid’s TaleOryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. In “Writing Utopia” (from Writing with Intent), Atwood clarifies her distinction about genre, specifically about science fiction:

I define science fiction as fiction in which things happen that are not possible today—that depend, for instance, on advanced space travel, time travel, the discovery of green monsters on other planets or galaxies, or that contain various technologies we have not yet developed. But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some time in the past, or that it is not doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. . . .So I think of The Handmaid’s Tale not as science fiction but as speculative fiction; and, more particularly, as that negative form of Utopian fiction that has come to be known as the Dystopia. (pp. 92-93)

Atwood has also turned to considering science fiction, speculative fiction, and dystopian fiction more fully in her In Other Worlds, where she writes about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go:

Ishiguro likes to experiment with literary hybrids, and to hijack popular forms for his own ends, and to set his novels against tenebrous historical backdrops….An Ishiguro novel is never about what it pretends to pretend to be about, and Never Let Me Go is true to form. (p. 168)

And Perrotta’s dystopia can be described in much the same way; it isn’t “about what it pretends to pretend to be about”—which may be just that thing that makes the hard-to-explain genres of science fiction, speculative fiction, and dystopian fiction so hard to explain.

“I Can’t Look at Everything Hard Enough”

I found reading the passage about Nora quoted above nearly as overwhelming as the experience appears to be for Nora herself. I began to think about my own daughter, Jessica.

Jessica, the three-year-old, is gone, disappeared, seemingly instantaneously, lost forever.

Jessica, the twelve-year-old, gone.

Jessica, the nineteen-year-old, gone.

My daughter is alive, now twenty-five, married, and expecting her first child, a daughter, but the scene with Nora in Perrotta’s world “off-to-the-side,” as Atwood describes Ishiguro’s dystopia in Never Let Me Go, is not about what might happen, not a speculative work about the possibility of The Rapture.

Perrotta is offering his readers a timeless message, one found in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. As Perrotta explains about the relationship between Our Town  and his novel:

This was part of the challenge of The Leftovers, as I wrote about characters left behind in the wake of the disappearances. The last moments of the disappeared people became supercharged with significance—even though that was not a special day, even though they disappeared while doing ordinary things. You might say the line from Our Town—“choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough”—helped inform these histories, because I looked to simple, everyday moments. Nora’s daughter spills some juice, so she goes into the kitchen for some paper towels—when her daughter disappears. Jill is in the room with an old friend of hers watching a YouTube video, and suddenly the friend is gone. So, cleaning a spill or watching a dumb video: It’s the through minutiae of everyday life these moments come alive.

In Wilder’s play, Emily grows from childhood to falling in love to marriage and to her own too-early death. By the final act, Emily views her life in replay from beyond and exclaims: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

She then turns to the Stage Manager and asks, distraught: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

And this is the very real and starkly True center of Perrotta’s pervasive dark satire and insightful authenticity as a novelist staring at and then breathing life into the human condition, masked as fantastic events that are unimaginable, except for those who look at everything hard enough and pause to realize life every, every minute.

* Reposted from Daily Kos 20 October 2011, Whence Come “The Leftovers”?: Speculative Fiction and the Human Condition, slightly revised. See The Leftovers series adaptation from HBO.

Debating the Gates Moratorium, Or Life among the Roadbuilders

As a lifelong fan of science fiction (SF), I want to start by invoking a SF convention that never gets old: time travel (but I’ll spare you the whirlwind prestidigitation mastered by Kurt Vonnegut, who married time travel and non-linear narrative in Slaughterhouse-Five).

Once upon a time (well, I must confess, I enjoy a bit of genre-splicing also), Bill Gates, billionaire and burgeoning education hobbyist, began tossing his considerable expertise (read: money) at small schools projects. Low and behold, Gates eventually looked at the research his own foundation gathered, declared the project a failure, and scuttled away—only to decide that the greatest scourge on the planet was the enormous number of “bad” teachers failing our children everyday!

Since we are now back in time (and you may notice a pattern here about history repeating itself, and such), let’s look at that Gates/small school dynamic as I blogged about this in April and May 2011:

And, Gates’s small schools experiment? While Gates himself declared the experiment a failure, Marshak explains that Gates’ small school experiment actually exposes Gates’ own inability to understand the education dynamics he claims to reform. But ample evidence reveals both that Gates is inexpert and remains unsuccessful as an education reformer. See here, here and here — including his failure to understand statistics and the charts he enjoys using to make his points here. (Accountability? Start at the Top, OpEdNews 11 April 2011)

Let’s do some truly basic math.

First, consider that Bill Gates, a billionaire whose wealth and success have been built on computer innovation and entrepreneurship, has been an education reformer for many years now–stretching back to a small schools focus:

“Bill Gates used to believe that one of the solutions to failing schools was to create smaller ones with 500 students or fewer. His foundation spent $1 billion toward this; seeing the opportunity to bring in private dollars, districts started shifting to smaller schools. Small schools became the big new trend. But then the foundation conducted a study that found that, by itself, school size had little if any effect on achievement. The foundation dropped the project and moved on to teacher reform, but by then some urban districts throughout the nation had changed to small–and more expensive to operate–schools.”

So the first formula is:

Gates initiative + Gates funding = abandoned schools in the wake of failure (with no consequences for Gates)

As the Los Angeles Times reports above, Gates is now focusing on teacher quality–including calls for teacher evaluations tied to test scores measuring student achievement against the common core standards.

This suggests a new formula:

Gates money + common core standards + testing industry = profit for Gates and testing industry at the expense of students, learning, and public education. (If There Remains Any Question, Daily Kos 1 May 2011)

Let’s return now to the present where the Gates machine has called for a moratorium on all that Common Core and VAM stuff because his own people’s research appears to refute what Gates has been pontificating about in the compliant media gaze that only Gates seems worthy of receiving (I hate to beat this to death, but do any of you see a pattern here?).

I want to offer now that this call for a moratorium is another teachable moment—those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and all that—and therein we have at least two important lessons:

First, Gates/small schools, Gates/VAM, and Gates/Common Core are all the same flawed dynamic in which political leaders, the media, and the public confuse wealth with expertise. Remove Gates’s billions and he would have zero credibility in any of these ventures—and I still maintain that the small school debacle is the most telling part of this story [1] because Gates misread his own research, declared erroneously the commitment a failure, and simply walked away leaving others to hold the bag (roadbuilder he has always been, roadbuilder he will always be).

And this leads to the debate and discussion that has blossomed from the Gates moratorium announcement.

So our second lesson is somewhat positive: If we could ever set aside confusing wealth with expertise, we may come to recognize that among educators, scholars, and researchers we already have a wealth of expertise that could better serve our goals of education reform.

And thus, I maintain my stance that the Gates moratorium is a sham, but I want to highlight here that within the credible responses to that moratorium call, we see how education reform should be debated by those who know the field:

And while I enjoy coming back to and finding new SF again and again, in education reform I am eager to step off the “Déjà vu all over again” merry-go-round.

Bill Gates, about that moratorium? No thanks. And while we are at it, no thanks to all the rest either.

If you’d stopped building your roads we never asked for right through the middle of our villages, we would have time to take care of business here, instead of constantly staying one step behind underneath the rubble of the disasters you create.

[1] Please read carefully Good Doubt and Bad Doubt from 2007 and Why Did the Gates Small-High-Schools Program Fail?: Well, Actually It Didn’t from 2010 for some really powerful time travel. And this is just must-read: Bill Gates should hire a statistical advisor.