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.

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

Becka said that spelling was not reading: reading, she said, was when you could hear the words as if they were a song. (p. 297)

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

“How did Gilead fall?” Margaret Atwood asks in the Acknowledgements, noting that The Testaments, set 15 years after the main action of The Handmaid’s Tale but drafted 30-plus years after that novel, “was written in response to this question” (p. 417).

Even a writer of Atwood’s talent and success probably could never have imagined that Handmaid has become the cultural and political touchstone that has occurred with the rise of Trump and the popular Hulu series.

Those who found Handmaid in the late 1980s to be powerful then and an extremely compelling work of fiction may be skeptical about Atwood’s very late return to this now modern classic. For both the newly converted and the long-time fans of Atwood, I want to assure you all that this much delayed sequel pays off quite wonderfully.

I came to Atwood as a teacher—specifically high school Advanced Placement Literature and Composition—and then as a scholar. I have also grounded a tremendous amount of my academic and public work in Atwood’s fiction and non-fiction.

With efforts here, then, to avoid as much as possible spoilers, I want to highlight a few of the ways in which Atwood maintains elements from Handmaid while also extending her writer’s urge to connect literacy with empowerment and attaining ones full humanity.

The Testaments offers the narratives of three women—notably including Aunt Lydia from Handmaid. In both novels, as is common with Atwood’s fiction, the narrations are both lending a voice to those often unheard or silenced and working as meta-narrations about the nature of truth when stories are told, retold, and examined (both novels end with Gilead being  the focus of academic scholarship).

Much of Atwood’s fiction is an exploration of what it means to tell and retell stories.

Names and renaming are also prominent in the sequel, dramatizing the power of names and (re)naming as those processes disproportionately impact women in the service of men and patriarchy.

Handmaid details the end of the U.S. and how Gilead comes into being, although much of that is limited to what Offred could have known as a handmaid. Then, many of the finer details are revealed in the Historical Notes, a scholarly examination of Gilead well after its fall.

Testaments broadens the perspectives by including one voice from an inner woman of power, a woman mostly trapped in the upper levels of the Gilead machine, and another view from outside (Canada) that is both somewhat naive and deeply cynical.

These testaments piece together a well established Gilead for the reader and also document the theocracy’s final days. Some of the most compelling elements here are the full development of Aunt Lydia and the careful examination of two characters being groomed to be Aunts (after narrowly avoiding being wed to Commanders).

Part XVII: Reading Room serves as an excellent example of where Atwood excels in combining many of the thematic and narratives elements of her dystopian speculative novel. Aunts are women designed within Gilead to control other women; Aunts are embodiments of a sort of paradoxical authority, including their legal access to reading and writing.

In their journey to becoming Aunts, Agnes and Becka—who have bonded over their fears of being married to a Commander—take on a mentee (Agnes)/mentor (Becka) relationship since Becka has learned to read and write well ahead of Agnes. The motif of reading and writing is emphasized near the end of the novel, and Gilead, I think, to highlight the power of language.

Agnes struggles:

My reading abilities progressed slowly and with many stumbles. Becka helped a lot. We used Bible verses to practise, from the approved selection that was available to Supplicants.. With my very own eyes I was able to read portions of Scripture that I had until then only heard. (p. 297)

These scenes reminded me of Atwood’s deft use in the original novel of Commanders reading scripture to the Wives and Handmaids, with the reader alerted to what Becka soon reveals to Agnes:

The day came when the locked wooden Bible box reserved for me would be brought out to the Reading Room and I would finally open this most forbidden of books. I was very excited about it, but that morning Becka said, “I need to warn you.”

“Warn me?” I said. “But it’s holy.”

“It doesn’t say what they say it says.” (p. 302)

This echoes in Handmaid when the Commander reads the Bible before the Ceremony with Offred:

The Commander pauses, looking down, scanning the page….We lean toward him a little, iron fillings to the magnet. He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it once….

For lunch it was the Beatitudes….They played it from a tape….The voice was a man’s….I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. (pp. 88-89)

In both novels, Atwood reveals that whoever controls the word maintains power. These novels should remind readers that throughout history, learning to read has been carefully controlled—who is allowed, who is not, and who remains so burdened with living that to read seems a luxury.

And so Agnes gains a sort of consciousness along with gaining literacy: “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others” (p. 299).

As Becka cautioned, Agnes confronts that “[t]he truth was not noble, it was horrible”:

This is what the Aunts meant, then, when they said women’s minds were too weak for reading. We would crumble, we would fall apart under the contradictions, we would not be able to hold firm.

Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightness and especially the truthfulness of Gilead’s theology. If I’d failed at perfection, I’d concluded that the fault was mine. But as I discovered what had been changed by Gilead, what had been added, and what had been omitted, I feared I might lose my faith. (p. 303)

This awakening in Agnes born of her learning to read and write leads to a larger theme for Atwood: “Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories” (p. 307).

And in Testaments, “Beneath its outer show of virtue and purity, Gilead was rotting” (p. 308).

As compelling as Atwood’s motifs are in their deconstructing of history and the present, The Testaments if no mere “protest novel,” which James Baldwin rejected, explaining:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality….

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in the insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended. (pp. 17-18)

Atwood doesn’t stoop to simple Continue reading

The King’s English, Social Media, and the Digital Era

Jeff Somers poses about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

Collective cultural memory suggests Fahrenheit 451 is about censoring books…. But dig deeper into Bradbury’s own discussions about his novel (and carefully reread the text) and you’ll see the author was really obsessed with the encroachment of technology, especially television, on the tradition of the written word. Bradbury positions the burning of books as a symptom of what’s happened to society, not the cause—he’s much more interested in the erosion of critical thought and imagination caused by society’s consumption of media.

This argument frames the dystopian novel as a powerful and prescient commentary on the nature and status of language in our current era of social media (Twitter, etc.) and digital text (from Kindle to the Internet).

Bradbury explained that his novel is about “”being turned into morons by TV.”

Even as some wring their hands about the death of print, we mostly in 2019 take that print for granted, rarely, I think, considering the importance of the printing press to the development of humanity, and even thought itself.

The importance of fixed language, or the possibility of fixed language, began with the printing press, and then Bradbury imagined a logical conclusion well past his lifetime—one in which other forms of technology dwarfed communication as print did.

At the end of the novel, readers discover that people have memorized books, becoming organic, living Kindles, of sorts, to preserve the fixed nature of language. Before print, narratives flourished in oral forms, the tellings and retellings perpetuating and changing those narratives along the way.

I suspect the sky is not falling in terms of print text now because I recall while teaching high school English that the same sort of doom’s day warnings sprang up in the era of MTV and music videos. Videos, some warned, would not just kill the radio star, but were going to kill print.

English teachers were urged to pivot away from so much focus on print text, writing, and toward video communication; watching was the new literacy. Unlike Bradbury, these fear merchants failed to anticipate messaging over computers, the growth of email, and the advent of text messaging on smart phones and social media—all of which reshaped and propelled the importance of keyboarding and text (even as much of that is virtual).

The world shifted rather quickly away from music videos (MTV morphed into reality TV), toward cell phones with miniature keyboards (think BlackBerry), and then touchscreen cell phones with integrated keyboards (even the iPad has bowed to the market popularity of having a keyboard).

Print—fixed language—is an enduring aspect of human communication, and humanity itself, it seems. But the printing press and making language somewhat permanent resulted in another often ignored development—the rise of prescriptive rules for language (grammar, mechanics, spelling, and even style).

The rise of what many call simply “grammar books” because of their use in formal schooling reveals more about power than language itself. Proper use of language in English once carried the term “the King’s English.” It is there we should pause for a moment.

Linguistics professor John McWhorter has leveled a critique of Donald Trump, not so much for his presidential politics as for his language, notably on Twitter.

“The president of the United States has many faults, but let’s not ignore this one: He cannot write sentences,” McWhorter begins before cataloguing a pretty hefty list of Trump’s unusual uses of language on social media—odd capitalization, garbled spelling (apparently not copyedited by anyone), and typos.

From that evidence, McWhorter proclaims: “Trump’s serial misuse of public language is one of many shortcomings that betray his lack of fitness for the presidency.”

While some may find—as I do—McWhorter’s critique linguistically prudish, the stale prescriptivist rant, he makes two important, although complex, points: “Trump’s writing suggests not just inadequate manners or polish—not all of us need be dainty—but inadequate thought” and “One must not automatically equate sloppy spelling with sloppy thinking.”

I fear many people will not read McWhorter’s analysis as carefully as he intended, so I want to emphasize his use of “suggests” and “not automatically.”

Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings played thoughtfully with capitalization and lower case letters. William Shakespeare manufactured quite a few words.

While there certainly is a case to be made for standardizing language to aid communication, the automatic and abrupt association of so-called nonstandard language in print form with “inadequate thought” is very dangerous.

If we return to the rise of “the King’s English,” we must be reminded that prescribing rules was far more often about power than the linguistic integrity of any language. Early grammar texts for English imposed (without any real linguistic justification) mathematical concepts onto language (no double negatives!) and wrestled English into Latin constructs (do not split infinitives!) because English was viewed as inferior as a language.

But even more important in that process is that “the King’s English” was mostly an effort to fix, make permanent, the ruling class’s language, one honed through formal education and in the privileged context of access to print text (which was incredibly expensive). Literacy was a wedge among the so-called classes, notably a mechanism used to leverage power in the balance of those already in power.

There is more to the politics of “the King’s English” also; the direct connection between the so-called use of proper English and moral character. The earliest cases for correct use of language was an argument that proper language reflected a person of high moral character as well as the inverse. Of course, this was gross propaganda to portray the ruling class as deserving their privilege and the poor as deserving their poverty.

So I am left with a predicament in terms of McWhorter’s analysis of Trump’s use of language, especially as Trump represents the state of language in an era of social media and digital text.

I am not buying McWhorter’s prescriptivist bent even as I recognize we must critique and then reject “Trump’s serial misuse of public language” as an issue of dishonesty and “inadequate thought.”

If Trump himself or someone on his staff suddenly found the impetus to copyedit Trump’s public rants on Twitter and elsewhere, that would in no way abdicate Trump’s lies and abuse of status and power.

To nitpick about Trump’s so-called correctness in matters of mechanics, grammar, and style is too much like those concerned with Trump’s ill-fitting suits and his god-awful hair and orange skin-glow.

Trump ascended to the highest office in a free country, mainly as a careless business man and reality TV star—more bravado than anything else.

There’s too much of substance we must be confronting instead of the surface where he has flourished.

Playing grammar Nazi with Trump’s Tweets is a simplistic distraction from the very real threat of Nazis in 2019 America.

Nero fiddled, Trump (more reality TV star than business man) Tweets (badly). But, you know, the fires.

Daredevil in Trumplandia: “The Kingpin’s weakness is vanity”

The humanities have a long history of being discredited in the U.S. as impractical majors in college. The good ol’ U.S. of A. tends to calculate investment and return at a very simplistic level to determine when the cost of a college major can be linked directly to earnings in a career.

Business majors are destined to make bank, goes the investment/return narrative, but what you going to do with an English major?

Current times are particularly hard for the humanities, especially literature as a track of English as a major.

Here is the real-world irony in the era of Trumplandia: With Donald Trump at the center of 17 investigations, some have questioned why Trump would have pursued the presidency, which clearly opened the door to exposing his criminality.

The explanation lies, you guessed it, in literature.

While many of us found Greek and Shakespearean tragedy serious drudgery in our formal schooling, these dramas told a tale all too familiar: How the mighty are destined to fall because of their unbridled hubris, excessive pride.

Trump born into excessive and ill-got wealth has skirted along his entire life—cut to the scene where young bone-spurred Trump skips past active duty in war—without consequences for his greed, arrogance, and (to tick another work of literature) his pathological mendacity. (See also, like a good parallel subplot in Shakespeare, the Brett Kavanaugh saga.)

Keeping in mind that universal themes in literature are deeply problematic, we have abundant evidence that motifs such as the dangers of excessive pride are at least enduring, and for good reason.

Recently, I have been reconnecting with one of my favorite comic book superheroes, Daredevil.

Season 3 of the Netflix series, despite all the flaws in this adaptation and the original comic book created in 1964 by Stan Lee, Bill Everett, and Jack Kirby, represents what makes Daredevil compelling—the complex investigation of justice in the context of both human and spiritual justice. S3 draws on Frank Miller’s “Born Again” (1986) while maintaining the Netflix toned down approach to superhero narratives.

Matt Murdock as righteous lawyer and simultaneously the morally ambiguous vigilante Daredevil (the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen)*, at its best, is a much more powerful and compelling examination of justice than, for example, Batman.

While the religious debates in S3 are key elements of why I am drawn to Daredevil, picking up the Conclusion to The Death of Daredevil (612) serves well my point above about the value of literature and the enduring motif about the folly of excessive pride.

Charles Soule (writer) and Phil Noto (artist) dramatize the Murdock/Daredevil duality well as Murdock seeks Daredevil as a witness to remove Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin as mayor of New York.

Four pages provide a thinly veiled indictment of not only Fisk/The Kingpin, but also Donald Trump.

When Murdock confronts the district attorney, we witness how political might trumps ethics and even the law:

DD 612 3

Murdock’s idealism is highlighted in his plea: “But Wilson Fisk is a criminal. He does not deserve that office.” And this exchange also addresses how those connected to an administration are themselves complicit; as Murdock asks the question often repeated in the real world of Trumplandia:

Can you really keep working for an administration you know is illegal and corrupt at its core when you know there’s a way to take it down?

Yes, it’s a risk. But even if you lose it all, you’ll go out as who you are, not the compromised shadow of yourself the Kingpin’s hoping you’ll be.

It is, however, Fisk on the witness stand and then alone in his office that speak directly to Trump:

DD 612 5

DD 612 6

DD 612 4

Murdock/Daredevil narrates the scene and notes:

I can hear Fisk’s heartbeat. Slow, steady. He’s not afraid. He’s like me that way.

He’s not afraid of anything, and you can’t make him afraid. That’s not the way you beat him. That’s not his weakness.

The Kingpin’s weakness…is vanity.

Fisk as an allegory of Trump is yet another tale of excessive pride, hubris.

Not afraid and certain he is above accountability, Fisk storms from the stand: “Enough. This is a farce, and I will not stand for it any longer.” Might we hear “fake news” in the background?

The dynamic page with Fisk being introspective precedes his being removed from office. It appears the fantasy world of comic books still clings to some sliver of justice even as the real world seems unable or unwilling to take such stands against criminals in office.

However, this is only appearances as there is a twist; justice, you see, is no more simple in Daredevil than in our real world of Trumplandia. The battle between good and evil is never-ending, and more things than justice seem blind—and paralyzed.

The Death of Daredevil ends: “I cannot see the light. So I will be the light. I am Daredevil. And I am not afraid.” And let us not forget, walking unafraid is a trait shared by our so-called heroes and so-called villains.


* Season 2 effectively challenges Murdock/Daredevil’s righteousness with The Punisher, and others, noting little difference among Daredevil, The Punisher, and Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin.

See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2019). From Marvel’s Daredevil to Netflix’s Defenders: Is justice blind? In S. Eckard (ed.), Comic connections: Building character and theme (pp. 81-98). New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Thomas, P.L. (2012). Daredevil: The man without fearElektra lives again; science fiction.  [entries]. In Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Heroes and Superheroes. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.

Could Self-Outing by MAGA Crowd Have a Silver Lining? (Or Were We Deplorables All Along?)

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

“Harlem,” Langston Hughes

Growing up and then teaching high school English in my small Southern hometown had one unhealthy consequence. I lead an ideologically closeted life until I was in my early 40s.

Rumors and direct confrontations colored my daily life as a public school teacher for 18 years. He’s an atheist and Are you an atheist? swirled around me as ever-present as oxygen—or as suffocating as a lack of oxygen.

I dodged and deflected as much as I could, but the stress, especially in the first several years, was overwhelming.

After teaching a bit over a decade, I entered a doctoral program and discovered my teaching philosophy matched a rich body of thought, critical pedagogy. That meant I was part of a Marxist tradition.

This revelation made complete sense.

As an undergraduate, I had found, read, and meticulously annotated a copy of The Essential Marx: The Non-Economic Writings, focusing on the education and religion sections.

Marx

My copy remains a testament to a naive and yet critical young man who circled “ossify” because I am sure I had no idea what that word means.

It took more than 15 years, but because of graduate school, I recognized myself as a person and an educator as well as potential scholar in critical pedagogy, traced back to my initial attraction to Marx’s idealism.

Fast-forward to 2002, four years after I completed my EdD. I found myself invited to interview for a university position abruptly available during the summer.

I had been an adjunct at several local colleges and lead instructor for the Spartanburg Writing Project, housed in a local university, for many years; however, I walked into the interview with an idealistic view of higher education and a determination that I would teach at the university level out of the closet, with ideological and professional freedom.

During my sample lesson with faculty observing, I shared with the class that I am a Marxist as part of the discussion, fleshing out the terminology embedded in “critical pedagogy” and “critical literacy.” Later in a debriefing at the end of the day of interviewing, one future colleague leaned in close to me and whispered that I might want to avoid disclosing to students I was a Marxist if I joined the department.

I did move to the university, but I resisted that warning. All my classes hear often that they are learning through a Marxist instructional lens. I have nothing to hide, and I feel no shame for my ethical grounding.

My students also learn that ideology drives all teaching and learning. Objectivity and neutrality cannot exist in human interactions. I also warn that while my classes are transparent, they have experienced many courses in which educators mask and even deny ideologies.

Over the past couple years, an entirely different sort of transparency, or public outing, has occurred in U.S politics among Trump supporters. Hats and bumper stickers now gleefully celebrate what had mostly been unspoken or even unspeakable in the twenty-first century:

deplorable

Disregarding that many are now openly confessing their nationalism, racism, sexism, and bigotry, self-outing has become a mainstream part of Republican pride and evangelical zeal.

While not uniquely contentious, current public and partisan bickering and animosity include a disturbing pattern of making false equivalencies. Activism among people from marginalized statuses are in no way the same as neo-Nazi and white nationalist rallies; the former is calling for equity for all (in other words, it is progressive) while the latter seeks to maintain an inequitable status quo (in other words, it is conservative).

The political and ideological division in the U.S., I fear, has no potential for being resolved. That is, I deeply doubt that the MAGA/deplorables energized minority will ever throw up their hands and declare their ideologies as morally bankrupt as they are.

The new Trumpublican movement is paradoxically very much American (who the country has been and remains in practice) and anti-American (antithetical to the ideals the country claims to embrace).

So despite my skepticism bordering on cynicism, I hope that the MAGA/deplorable boldness shakes the core of the centrist punditry that enjoys a hollow and provable false refrain: “This is not who we are.”

During the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas (both like Trumpublicans paradoxes of who America is and claims to be), this is who we are:

Just 7 years old, Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin was picked up by U.S. authorities with her father and other migrants this month in a remote stretch of New Mexico desert. Some seven hours later, she was put on a bus to the nearest Border Patrol station but soon began vomiting. By the end of the two-hour drive, she had stopped breathing.

Jakelin hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for days, her father later told U.S. officials.

If not for MAGA/deplorables, the U.S. would likely remained trapped, as Yeats wrote, here: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

So we are now confronted with the consequences of the passionate worst.

Since the worst seem dedicated to self-outing, the best face an opportunity, not to change anyone’s minds, hearts, and actions, but to rise above as an energized majority.

This is the ideal to which democracy aspires; this is the sort of thing one might expect from people who claim they are a Christian nation.

What remains is whether this is the “deferred” potential of the American character. Or if we were actually deplorables all along.

Viewing Pleasantville in Trumplandia

Twenty years ago, we could marvel at Pleasantville for its technology, the allegorical take on racism and censorship, and the acting brilliance of lesser-known (then) Reese Witherspoon, Tobey Maguire, Joan Allen, and William H. Macy.

Viewing the film in 2018 includes a somber recognition of a young Paul Walker and Jane Kaczmarek before Malcolm in the Middle. But it may be the character of Whitey (David Tom) and watching the overt racism, near-sexual assault of Betty Parky (Allen), and rioting scenes that take on more than a critical reconsideration of mid-twentieth century America and force us to re-see in this film in contemporary Trumplandia:

Whitey, not so subtly, utters “colored girlfriend”— about Margaret (Marley Shelton)—with sneering disgust and leads a group of young men taunting Betty, until Bud (Maguire) steps in and asserts his full humanity (something that appears to be at the root of what characters turn from black-and-white to color) by knocking Whitey, bloodied, to the ground:

Image result for pleasantville whitey

In the wake of Trump being elected president, viewing this film—and rewatching Breaking Bad, for example—exposes how whiteness works often to center itself regardless of the context.

Walter White, in Breaking Bad, is a white man who is doing well—a teaching career with a stable family and home—but feels wronged by fate (others more successful in the career he leaves behind) and nature (diagnosed with cancer). This entire series centers White (whiteness) and his not-so-subtle libertarian ideologies in the same way the mainstream media now center so-called white rural Americans (the narrative goes) paralyzed by economic fear.

While Break Bad is far more problematic in its depiction of fragile masculinity and racism, Pleasantville in the context of Trumplandia comes off now just a bit lazy.

The allegory of race remains itself powerful, but fragile masculinity is allowed to play as a joke, the white men who resist change in the TV sit-com are buffoons—a stark contrast to the genuine pain demonstrated in the more compelling existential angst in the outlier white man, Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), and powerfully in Betty:

The near sexual assault of Betty and the riot scene must be reconsidered as very damning messages about white and male fragility—dramatic harbingers of the #MeToo movement and the right-wing violence in Charlottesville, VA, in August 2017.

Yes, Pleasantville works as something of an allegorical take on social change and the scar of racism in the U.S. But it also unwittingly embodies some of the consequences the U.S. now suffers from failing ever to confront directly that calls for tradition tend to be grounded in maintaining the worst sorts of bigotry—racism and sexism.

And while I think Whitey remains an increasingly significant character as we rewatch Pleasantville now, I also want to focus on the Mayor, Big Bob (J.T. Walsh)—a couple speeches specifically.

As a political leader, Big Bob’s rhetoric demonstrates the use of language as a veneer, as Big Bob argues: “Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant. Now, it seems to me that the first thing we have to do is to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.”

The “pleasant/unpleasant” dichotomy is quite sordid underneath the term. “Pleasant” is women knowing their place, and a community with no “coloreds.”

And as I noted above, many of the scenes depicting white male fragility are played for laughs, hyperbolic concerns about dinner not being on the table or clothes ruined while ironing:

Yet, Big Bob’s discourse even against the cartoonish solidarity of these men watching their world’s change is illuminating:

My friends, this isn’t about George’s dinner. It’s not about Roy’s shirt. It’s a question of values. It’s a question of whether we want to hold on to those values that made this place great. So, a time has come to make a decision. Are we in this thing alone or are we in it together?

While some criticized Alice Walker for an uncharacteristically happy ending in her The Color Purple, we should not be surprised Pleasantville as a fantasy and comedy allows all these heavy issues to resolve with a bit of light-heart “aw-shucks” in a final park bench scene where Betty moves from George to Bill (note that the film remains mired in the importance of women in conjunction with some man):

The narrative, in hindsight, of Pleasantville is incomplete, but we are disturbingly equipped now to decode it. Part of that decoding must be that the narrative the mainstream media is feeding us isn’t incomplete; it is dishonest and lazy.

The white male fragility that created Trump and now is actively emboldened by Trump is not the buffoonery of the film. It is deadly serious and it must not be ignored, or simply explained away.


See Also

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

Jeff Daniels and Tobey Maguire in Pleasantville (1998)

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