14 June 2017 Reader

How to Call B.S. on Big Data: A Practical Guide, Michelle Nijhuis

Mind the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, articulated by the Italian software developer Alberto Brandolini in 2013: the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it. Or, as Jonathan Swift put it in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”Plus ça change.

Who Is Dangerous, and Who Dies?

ERROL MORRIS: I found an innocent man who came very close to being executed. [Adams’s execution was scheduled for May 8, 1979, but Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. ordered a stay only three days before he was to be strapped into the lethal-injection gurney. Ultimately, the court overturned his death sentence, but not his conviction.] I uncovered all of these appalling details 30 years ago and then opened up a newspaper recently and read about Buck. It’s as if nothing ever happened. That’s both depressing and infuriating. Mitt Romney, when he was governor of Massachusetts, was told that the death penalty is problematic because it’s fallible. You could execute an innocent person, and given our current state of knowledge, there is really no way to bring them back. Once executed, they stay executed.

CHRISTINA SWARNS: And so what was Romney’s reply?

ERROL MORRIS: He said: Oh, that’s simple. We’ll just make it infallible. We’ll make it foolproof. You said it’s fallible. We’ll just fix that.

Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich, Richard V. Reeves

So imagine my horror at discovering that the United States is more calcified by class than Britain, especially toward the top. The big difference is that most of the people on the highest rung in America are in denial about their privilege. The American myth of meritocracy allows them to attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system. At least posh people in England have the decency to feel guilty.

In Britain, it is politically impossible to be prime minister and send your children to the equivalent of a private high school. Even Old Etonian David Cameron couldn’t do it. In the United States, the most liberal politician can pay for a lavish education in the private sector. Some of my most progressive friends send their children to $30,000-a-year high schools. The surprise is not that they do it. It is that they do it without so much as a murmur of moral disquiet.

Beneath a veneer of classlessness, the American class reproduction machine operates with ruthless efficiency. In particular, the upper middle class is solidifying. This favored fifth at the top of the income distribution, with an average annual household income of $200,000, has been separating from the 80 percent below. Collectively, this top fifth has seen a $4 trillion-plus increase in pretax income since 1979, compared to just over $3 trillion for everyone else. Some of those gains went to the top 1 percent. But most went to the 19 percent just beneath them.

50 years after the Loving verdict, a photo essay looks back on their love, Priscilla Frank

Monday, June 12, marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which quashed anti-miscegenation laws in 16 states around the nation, ushering restrictions against interracial marriage to the wrong side of history.

The date is now remembered as Loving Day in honor of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple who defied the state’s ability to dictate the terms of their love based on their skin color. Mildred, who was of African American and Native American descent, and Richard, who was white, wed in 1958 in Washington D.C., because interracial marriage was illegal in their native rural Virginia, as well as 15 other Southern U.S. states.

When the Lovings returned to Virginia, however, local police raided their home one early morning after being tipped off by another resident. They declared the Lovings’ marriage license invalid within the scope of the state, placing the couple under arrest.

What counts as language education policy?: Developing a materialist Anti-racist approach to language activismNelson Flores and Sofia Chaparro

Abstract: Language activism has been at the core of language education policy since its emergence as a scholarly field in the 1960s under the leadership of Joshua Fishman. In this article, we seek to build on this tradition to envision a new approach to language activism for the twenty-first century. In particular, we advocate a materialist anti-racist approach to language activism that broadens what counts as language education policy to include a focus on the broader racial and economic policies that impact the lives of language-minoritized communities. In order to illustrate the need for a materialist anti-racist framing of language education policy we provide portraits of four schools in the School District of Philadelphia that offer dual language bilingual education programs. We demonstrate the ways that larger societal inequities hinder these programs from serving the socially transformative function that advocates for these programs aspire toward. We end by calling for a new paradigm of language education policy that connects language activism with other movements that seek to address societal inequities caused by a myriad of factors including poverty, racism, and xenophobia.

The difficulties scholars have writing for a broad audience, Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost

Scholars have insights, experience and research that can help the public navigate the contemporary world, but scholarly work all too often goes unseen. Sometimes it gets sequestered behind exorbitant paywalls or prohibitively steep book prices. Other times it gets lost in the pages of esoteric journals. Other times yet, it’s easy to access but hard to understand due to jargon and doublespeak. And often it doesn’t reach a substantial audience, dooming its aspirations to impact public life.

How can scholars write for wider audiences without compromising their lives as disciplinary researchers?

The Confederate flag largely disappeared after the Civil War. The fight against civil rights brought it back, Logan Strother, Thomas Ogorzalek, and Spencer Piston

But what is less well-known is the actual history of these symbols after the Civil War — and this history sheds important light on the debate. Confederate symbols have not always been a part of American or Southern life. They largely disappeared after the Civil War. And when they reappeared, it was not because of a newfound appreciation of Southern history.

Instead, as we argue in a newly published article, white Southerners reintroduced these symbols as a means of resisting the Civil Rights movement. The desire to maintain whites’ dominant position in the racial hierarchy of the United States was at the root of the rediscovery of Confederate symbols.

Pride or Prejudice: Racial Prejudice, Southern Heritage, and White Support for the Confederate Battle Flag, Logan Strother, Spencer Piston, and Thomas Ogorzalek

Abstract: Debates about the meaning of Southern symbols such as the Confederate battle emblem are sweeping the nation. These debates typically revolve around the question of whether such symbols represent “heritage or hatred:” racially innocuous Southern pride or White prejudice against B lacks. In order to assess these competing claims, we first examine the historical reintroduction of the Confederate flag in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s; next, we analyze three survey datasets, including one nationally representative dataset and two probability samples of White Georgians and White South Carolinians, in order to build and assess a stronger theoretical account of the racial motivations underlying such symbols than currently exists. While our findings yield strong support for the hypothesis that prejudice against Blacks bolsters White support for Southern symbols, support for the Southern heritage hypothesis is decidedly mixed. Despite widespread denials that Southern symbols reflect racism, racial prejudice is strongly associated with support for such symbols.

The Tribalism that Divides: “the victims of the Us v. Them years/Wrecking all things virtuous and true”

Jonna Ivin’s long-form effort to understand the rise of TrumplandiaI Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump—investigates an important question about political allegiances in the U.S.:

There is an unavoidable question about places like Benton County, a question many liberals have tried to answer for years now: Why do poor whites vote along the same party lines as their wealthy neighbors across the road? Isn’t that against their best interests?

The election of Trump has spurred a seemingly endless debate about -isms: racism and nationalism prominent, but rarely evoked but enveloping of both, tribalism.

Of these three -isms, discussions of racism remain taboo, sparking often white denial; nationalism draws both support and criticism; yet, as I noted, tribalism tends to be unspoken in the context of the U.S.

As a life-long U.S. citizen old enough to have witnessed the irrational national hatred of the USSR and Russia morph into a right-wing embracing of Russia based significantly on race, I am struck now by the tribalism central to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a fictional examination of the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70.

“In 1967, Colonel Ojukwu declared that Eastern Nigeria would be known as the Independent Republic of Biafra. The main intentions of Colonel Ojukwu were to break away from the dictatorship of the Northern Nigeria Military who were immensely discriminating the people of Southern and Eastern Nigeria.” Cole Kirkpatrick

Adichie dramatizes the power of language, education, and tribes to drive power distributions. However, the U.S. version of tribalism is segregation—both de jure and de facto—that tends to fall along racial and economic lines.

Trump and his administration has fueled a growing genre of which Ivin’s essay is among the more powerful, although ultimately inadequate—the best trying to deconstruct white voters (often narrowed to working class and/or poor white voters), but the worst masking apologist journalism uncritically blinded by its own whitewashing.

Like J.D. Vance’s deeply flawed Hillbilly Elegy, Ivin’s piece is a sympathetic read of whites in the U.S., although much more blunt than Vance about the fact of racism running through angry poor whites, captured in her refrain: “I’m just a poor white trash motherfucker. No one cares about me.

As someone with white working-class roots nurtured in racist soil who eventually focused a great deal of scholarship and professional work on the intersections of inequity (poverty and racism) and education, I recognize that while poverty can and should unite, individual and systemic racism trumps common economic interests among impoverished whites in the U.S.

Yes, Ivin asks the right question, noted above, but her piece ultimately fails because it balks at holding poor whites accountable for being coerced into racism by the power elites; Ivin seems to see only two options: sympathy for poor whites or demonizing poor whites.

And, Ivin’s essay devolves into a Bernie Sanders plea, Sanders and his campaign a model of the ultimate failures of whitewashed socialism.

Partisan politics, like religion, is trapped in tribalism, subsets of the larger urges toward creating us versus them* in everything humans touch. Ivin and others seeking to understand angry white voters simply fail to address that ultimately those committed to tribalism (as nationalism and racism) above all else must be confronted, and held accountable.

Yes, the power elites who speak to and prime tribalism are the core problem, one that must be dismantled. Yet, to continue to sympathize with angry poor whites as if they remain more important than racial minorities is to whitewash that poor whites benefit from white racism (in the judicial system, for example), and that even though poor whites are pawns of political elites, they have the potential to assert their autonomy in order to acknowledge systemic racism and then reject racism in order to form economic solidarity.

So allow me to end with the sort of distinctions we need instead of clamoring to understand the angry poor white character.

Recently, I was confronted by a fellow academic who argued that whites voting in majorities (both men and women) for Trump cannot be called racist unless we also label as racist overwhelming majorities of blacks voting for Barack Obama.

This proves to be a false analogy if we step back from simple race to inspect the intent behind the votes. One of the most powerful aspects of Ivin’s essay is that she unpacks the racial and then racist motivations historically of many whites, again even as they are being baited by people with power.

There is much to suggest that Trump support is grounded in white fear of losing the exact privilege they deny ( a fear masked as “traditional values” and other nationalistic/tribal language); conversely, black support of Obama or other so-called progressives is a quest for equity.

“Conservative” (a tribal urge) is to keep things as the are; “progressive” is to seek change, ideally change for the benefit of all.

While demographics of  partisan political support are racial, we must confront that racial can be racist (white support of Trump) or about equity (black support of Obama).

Trump support among whites is a contemporary example of the historical pattern Ivin exposes, notably instilling fear of black men in poor whites during reconstruction: “Religious and political leaders began using a combination of fear, sex, and God to paint a chilling picture of freed angry Black men ravaging the South.”

The Lost Cause Worse Than Slavery
Thomas Nast
October 24, 1874
Reproduced from Harper’s Weekly

Trump’s dog whistles about Mexicans and terrorists, and getting tough on crime (code for policing blacks) are warmed over racism from the late nineteenth century—tactics that have worked for more than a century for political and economic elites.

Trumplandia is nothing new, and white angst need not be examined in order for us to understand it. These are all old hat for the U.S.

What would be new is an honest confrontation of tribalism in the U.S. and an honest effort to dismantle systemic racism in the name of social and economic justice.


* “Ignoreland,” R.E.M.: “These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v. Them years/Wrecking all things virtuous and true.”

Black Power and the Rise of Trumplandia

During my formative years of the 1960s and 1970s, the political unrest driven by race and racism churned somewhat innocuously for me in the dim background. Several aunts and an uncle lived in Asheville, North Carolina, and their school lives were punctuated with protests, my mother receiving frequent updates by phone as we lived about an hour and a half south of there in South Carolina.

The working class white racism of my family and being a son of the recalcitrant South significantly skewed the ongoing version of history occurring around me—the othering of black people (protests in Asheville were always “riots”) and the discrediting of the Civil Rights movement and its black leaders.

Then, “black power” existed for me in two forms—pop culture versions of blaxploitation media, including Luke Cage, Hero for Hire and Shaft, and real-world protest such black gloves and fists raised, John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

Introduced in June 1972, Marvel’s Luke Cage embodied some of the best and worst aspects of how pop culture addressed race and racism.

Shaft became iconic pop culture in the U.S., first released in 1971.

Black power as black protest in my home, and I suspect all across my community, was met with disdain, posed as offensive, not heroic.

After the election of Donald Trump as president, many have continued to scramble to explain the rise of Trumplandia, often falling into two opposing camps—one arguing Trump’s support is because more people were hurting under Obama than the pundits ever admitted and the other demanding that we admit Trump’s rise was fueled by racism, now neatly cloaked in terms such as “nationalism” and “alt-right.”

I am of the second camp because the data are overwhelmingly compelling about how white men and women voted for Trump in large percentages:

We stand in 2017 continuing a corrosive tradition confronted by James Baldwin—”this rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

“White” remains unspoken as the normal, as the given, and then any excuse is embraced in order to ignore the lingering weight of racism in the U.S.

As might be expected, “black power” in 2017 is before us in the form of economic power, a rising economic autonomy by blacks that likely played a major role in motivating Trump’s supporters who seek to keep the U.S. white.

Two recent controversies may serve as evidence of this: LaVar Ball creating a a sports brand around his soon-to-be-drafted son, Lonzo, and former president Barack Obama’s speaking engagements and fees.

The backlash against both Ball and Obama are interesting and telling since the critics are often those who elected Trump—a bravado and hollowness that dwarf anything Ball has said or done—and who worship Ronald Reagan—who earned millions speaking in Japan after leaving office.

The problems are not bravado, self-promotion, or capitalizing on political careers; the problems are when blacks seek the same avenues as whites to fortune and power.

Moments of this racial anger occurred under George W. Bush as well when his administration sought to dismantle affirmative action, racial preferential treatment for college admission; although Bush himself had benefitted from legacy admission to college.

Trump’s wealth and political success began with an inheritance, one that he has squandered and continued to grow on the backs of others, at the expense of others. Trump now right in front of the entire world works daily to pass on that unearned privilege to his family.

But we are somehow offended by Ball and Obama’s speaking fees—somehow offended that these black men are doing exactly what the capitalistic American Dream says we are supposed to do.

And swirling around all this are black superheroes returning to pop culture prominence—Luke Cage on Netflix and The Falcon as well as the Black Panther in the Marvel film universe.

And just as it did when I was growing up, as long as these black heroes generate money for the right people (“right” means “white”), all is good.

But those same people paying to watch black superheroes, as my family did about Carlos and Smith, turn their scorn on #BlackLivesMatter, rigidly refusing to look at themselves.

Twenty-first century black power is LeBron James, who demands not only the wealth he earns but the power to control that wealth.

Trumplandia is a self-defeating racist response to black power, one that is a real-world dystopia not far removed from another message of pop culture begging for our viewing dollars, The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu.

We must admit black power spawned Trumplandia, a white fright, and we can only hope, in part, black power will be able to dismantle it.


Top Democrats are wrong: Trump supporters were more motivated by racism than economic issues, Mehdi Hasan

Race, Religion, and Immigration in 2016 | Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, John Sides

Ultimately, the 2016 campaign helped make attitudes related to immigration, religion, and race more salient to voter decision making in a way that many other attitudes were not. This was particularly consequential for Clinton because a substantial number of white Obama voters had less favorable views of immigrants, Muslims, and black people. Of course, these attitudes were not the only thing associated with how people voted in 2016. Moreover, the findings I have presented here characterize the entire sample of white voters; they are not an account of how any single voter, or every voter, made his or her choice. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that, compared to the 2012 election, the 2016 election was distinctively about attitudes related to racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

Economic Anxiety Didn’t Make People Vote Trump, Racism DidSean McElwee and Jason McDaniel

Analysis | Racism motivated Trump voters more than authoritarianism, Thomas Wood

Trumpism: It’s Coming From the Suburbs, Jesse A. Myerson

NEW RELEASE NOW AVAILABLE: United We Stand Divided We Fall: Opposing Trump’s Agenda – Essays on Protest and Resistance

United We Stand Divided We Fall: Opposing Trump’s Agenda – Essays on Protest and Resistance

Full List of Contributing Authors

Yohuru Williams: Yohuru R. Williams is Professor of History and Author of Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights Black Power and Black Panthers in New Haven

Denny Taylor: Denny Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Literacy Studies, Novelist, Children’s Author, and Founder of Garn Press

Jonathan Foley: Jonathan Foley is a World-Leading Environmental Scientist and Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences

Charlene Smith: Charlene Smith is a Journalist, Documentary Film Maker, Author and Biographer of President Nelson Mandela

David Joseph Kolb: David Joseph Kolb is a Prize Winning Reporter, Editor and Columnist, and Author of Devil Knows: Tale of Murder and Madness in America’s First Century (Garn Press)

P.L. Thomas: P.L. Thomas is a Recipient of the NCTE George Orwell Award and Author of Beware the Roadbuilders and Trumplandia (Garn Press)

Jennifer C. Berkshire: Jennifer Berkshire is a Writer, Editor, and Author of the Have You Heard Blog and Co-Host of its Weekly Podcast on Education in the Time of Trump

Morna McDermott: Morna McDermott is Professor of Education and Co-Editor of Testing Our Courage: United Opt Out and the Testing Resistance Movement

Steven Singer: Steven Singer is a Public School Teacher, Education Advocate and Author of the Gadfly on the Wall Blog

Russ Walsh: Russ Walsh is a Public School Teacher, Literacy Specialist, Curriculum Supervisor and College Instructor, and Author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education (Garn Press) and the Russ on Reading Blog

Katie Lapham: Katie Lapham is a NYC Public School Teacher and Author of the Critical Classrooms, Critical Kids Blog

Anne Haas Dyson: Anne Haas Dyson is Professor of Education, a Recipient of the NCTE Outstanding Educator of the Year Award, and Author of Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum (Garn Press)

Esther Sokolov Fine: Esther Sokolov Fine is Professor Emerita of Education, Former Elementary School Teacher in Downtown Public Housing Communities and Alternative Programs, and Author of Raising Peacemakers (Garn Press)

Vanessa Barnett: Vanessa Barnett is School District Arts Program Coordinator, University Arts Instructor, and Museum Arts Consultant

Carolyn Walker: Carolyn Walker is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, poet, and creative writing instructor nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and Author of Every Least Sparrow (Garn Press)

Steve Nelson: Steve Nelson, Head of Calhoun School 1998-2017 in NYC, one of America’s most notable progressive schools, and Author of First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk (Garn Press)

George Lakoff: George Lakoff, Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, is a World Renowned Linguist Integrating Studies of Social Issues and Politics from a Neural Linguistics Perspective

“Ignoreland” Realized: Trumplandia 2017

Bertis Downs, lawyer and everything-man for Athens-based group R.E.M., asked on social media what Automatic for the People song is most under-appreciated.

As this album approaches its 25-year anniversary—and in the weakening wake of the band calling it a day—we may be hard pressed to argue that any song on that collection is more relevant than “Ignoreland.”

The career of R.E.M. has some relatively clear eras—the independent phase spanning the 1980s, the popular phase associated with the Warner Brothers contract and the 1990s, and then the post-Bill Berry R.E.M.

It seems fair to argue that Automatic represents what makes R.E.M. an elite example of how a group can achieve significant popularity while maintaining artistic independence and credibility. In short, this is a beautiful album that may in fact have a collection of songs that are all under-appreciated.

Throughout their independent years as playing so-called college alternative rock, R.E.M. developed a reputation as a political band; Michael Stipe’s lyrics unpacked as such, even when they remained elliptical and more evocative than declarative, and then band mates themselves politically vocal and active beyond their music.

R.E.M. fandom seems to fall along the three eras above, with some clinging to the independent 1980s band but balking at popular R.E.M. and then abandoning post-Berry R.E.M. However, “Ignoreland” in many ways is a powerful link between the independent and popular phases.

From 1987, Document lays the groundwork for “Ignoreland” with “Exhuming McCarthy,” pop-song catchy and politically scathing. A compact distant cousin to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “Exhuming McCarthy” takes aim at the Reagan administration as a manifestation of all-that-is-wrong with U.S. corporate-capitalism as well as the need to keep the public afraid of creeping threats such as the 1950s Red Scare echoed in Reagan’s “Tear down this wall.”

It is damned hard to find better pop-culture political literature than “Look who bought the myth/ By Jingo, buy America.”

The U.S. did just that for twelve years—eight of Reagan and then four more with George W. Bush, who appears in “Ignoreland” with equally incisive lyrics: “How to walk in dignity with throw-up on your shoes.”

A great bittersweet reality of my life is that I no longer can anticipate a new R.E.M. album, no longer feel that rush of the first listen to unpack what I knew would be something that would make me a different person, a happier person.

I recall that first listen to Automatic and how I marveled at “Ignoreland”—what felt to me as a writer, a teacher, and a part of the political Left to be a perfect metaphor for the U.S.

The politics of ignoring reality—tremendous and grinding inequity—in the glare of rhetoric about the American Dream captured in e.e. cummings’s “‘next to of course american i.”

As in “Exhuming McCarthy,” cummings confronts U.S. jingoism—”by jingo by gee by gosh by gum”—linking the paradox of extremely inward-gazing nationalism and the simultaneous failure of the American character unmasked by James Baldwin: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us.”

“Ignoreland” begins causticly and rings as if written in recent months: “These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v. Them years.”

The rise of Reagan/Bush is detailed twenty-five years ago by exposing divisive politics, sword rattling, and hollow promises of trickle-down economics. But “Ignoreland” also warns about the failure of media, predating significantly the recent hand wringing about fake news: “The information nation took their clues from all the sound-bite gluttons/ Nineteen eighty, eighty-four, eighty-eight, ninety-two too, too.”

The U.S. as a media-centric people who are paradoxically, again, un-/misinformed—Stipe’s catalogue also triggers George Orwell’s 1984, a work recently regaining popularity along with other works of dystopian science fiction because Orwell focused on how often those who control language control everything:

TV tells a million lies
The paper’s terrified to report
Anything that isn’t handed on a presidential spoon

If we truly want to know how we have arrived here, what I have christened Trumplandia, the bread crumbs of that decline can be followed through “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Ignoreland” to finding ourselves in the witch’s cauldron.

Trumplandia is a people willingly filing into what was sold as a Jacuzzi, only to find ourselves the meat of a meal to feed the 1%.

To ignore—this must not be ignored now. It is an act of will, a decision.

I argued during the presidential election of 2016 that voters had to compromise their morals to vote for Hillary Clinton, but to vote Trump was a complete abandoning of any moral grounding.

To vote Trump is the ultimate act of ignoring found in the majority of white women voting for a misogynist, in the religious Right voting for a serial adulterer, and in the media happily skipping along hand-in-hand with a pathological liar.

Twenty-five years ago, “Ignoreland” captured the toxic mix of political anger and political resignation:

If they weren’t there we would have created them
Maybe, it’s true
But I’m resentful all the same
Someone’s got to take the blame

Trump ascending and fabricating an administration of billionaires, “Ignoreland” realized because we chose the road of least resistance—we created them.


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:

donald-trump-signing201

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

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

So we have Ryan on Twitter:

And Vice President Pence:

O, happy freedom! And glorious individual responsibility!

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rented license. (p. 50)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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