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.

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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

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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

“We’ve Done It, Or We’re Doing It, Or We Could Start Doing It Tomorrow”

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Trump rightwing women

(From upper-left to lower-right) Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (credit), Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter (credit), Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (credit), and Kellyanne Conway (credit).

Some often muse whether life imitates art or if art imitates life.

For Margaret Atwood, the debate is more nuanced and about genre: “The Handmaid’s Tale…is set in the future,” Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia.” “This conned some people into believing it is science fiction, which, to my mind, it is not.”

What may seem like a trivial distinction—something merely academic—is incredibly important to Atwood, and to anyone reading this novel (or more recently, viewing the Hulu series):

But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some point in the past, or that it is not already doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. Nothing inconceivable takes place, and the projected trends on which my future society is based are already in motion. 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….

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen to us if we don’t pull up our socks. (pp. 93, 94)

What might these dire warnings entail in 2018 Trumplandia? At least two come to mind: The manipulation of women to control women and the threat of theocracy to a democracy.

“Puritan New England was a theocracy, not a democracy;” Atwood explains, “and the future society proposed in The Handmaid’s Tale has the form of a theocracy, too, on the principle that no society ever strays completely far from its roots” (p. 97).

These words should be echoing in the background each time we hear or read “Make America Great Again” since Atwood warns, “But true dictatorships do not come in in good times. They come in in bad times, when people are ready to give up some of their freedoms to someone—anyone—who can take control and promise them better times” (p. 98).

Two aspects of Atwood’s speculative Republic of Gilead should give us pause in fact: “biblical justification” and:

Woman’s place, in the Republic of Gilead—so named for the mountain where Jacob promised to his father-in-law, Laban, that he would protect his two daughters—woman’s place is strictly in the home….How do you get women back in the home, now that they are running around outside the home, having jobs and generally flinging themselves around? Simple. You just close your eyes and take several giant steps back, into the not-so-very-distant past—the nineteenth century, to be exact—deprive them of the right to vote, own property, or hold jobs, and prohibit public prostitution in the bargain, to keep them from hanging out on the street corners, and presto, there they are, back in the home. (p. 99)

And, as Atwood’s dystopia dramatizes, create a hierarchy of women so that they become consumed with controlling and resisting each other—while failing to see the higher hands of men controlling the entire puppet show.

Dire warning?

Like the legitimate and illegitimate women of Gilead, enter the women of Trumplandia: Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway—quoting scripture, invoking the sacred nature of Law, and routinely lying with well-manicured hair and the sort of make up rendered illegal in Atwood’s dystopia.

“At the front of The Handmaid’s Tale there are two dedications,” Atwood notes, detailing:

[T]he American Puritans did not come to North America in search of religious toleration, or not what we mean by it. They wanted the freedom to practice their religion, but they were not particularly keen on anyone else practice his or hers. Among their noteworthy achievements were the banishing of so-called heretics, the hanging of Quakers, and the well-known witchcraft trials. I get to say these bad things about them because they are my ancestors—in a way, The Handmaid’s Tale is my book about my ancestors—and the second dedication, to Mary Webster, is indeed to one of these very same ancestors. (pp. 96, 97)

“Half-Hanged Mary” is Atwood’s poetic recreation of Webster’s monologue throughout her being hanged as a witch, an act that, remarkable, ended with her surviving: “Under the law of double jeopardy,” Atwood adds, “you couldn’t execute a person twice for the same crime, so she lived for another fourteen years” (p. 97).

In the poem, Webster narrates:

I was hanged for living alone,
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a sure-fire cure for warts;

Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there’s talk of demons
these come in handy.

And then about her hanging:

The men of the town stalk homeward,
excited by their show of hate,
their own evil turning inside out like a glove,
and me wearing it.

The men shouting the authority of God attempt to execute Webster—a woman, and poor—while “The bonnets come to stare,/ the dark skirts also.”

Yet Webster implores:

Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.

In a gathering like this one
the safe place is the background,
pretending you can’t dance,
the safe stance pointing a finger.

Does life imitate art, or art, life? And as Atwood suggests, when art is drawn from life, why do we resist the dire warnings?

Biblical justification and the sacred rule of law by a people shouting “Make America Great Again” over the cries of children behind chain-linked fences after being pulled from their parents’ arms.

Dire warnings we either cannot see or will not see: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).

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My Life in Trumplandia Began in 1961

My first jobs were at the country club where my mother worked and on the golf course where we lived—a working-class family of rednecks who saw building a house there as making it, achieving the American Dream.

On rainy and cold days, all the pro shop and greens-keeping workers mulled around the club house. I vividly recall one of those days when a member of the grounds crew explained to me in careful detail that black people (he preferred the racial slur) were the consequence of Cain being banished for murdering Abel and then mating with apes.

It’s biblical, he proclaimed.

This experience, I must emphasize, was not an outlier. This was normal for my life, having been born in 1961 in Woodruff, South Carolina.

Such blatant and casual racism was pervasive among my white family, friends, and community.

So Roseanne Barr’s recent racist Twitter rant and the entire rise of Trumplandia—these are not in any way shocking while they are incredibly burdensome, a heaviness that will never approach the weight carried by those who are the targets of racism and bigotry but that certainly drags me closer and closer to fatalism.

I also know fatalism quite well.

In my late teens and throughout college and young adulthood, my relationship grew increasingly antagonistic with my father, often punctuated with heated arguments spurred by his racism.

Over years of arguing, I simply gave up, became a quiet and passive visitor to my parents’ house. Increasingly, I called fewer and fewer times; I visited almost exclusively on required holidays.

The ennui was the tension between the natural love felt for parents—and the incredible debt I felt to the many sacrifices they made for me—and the inexcusable ideologies my parents espoused, often relentlessly.

My parents were Nixon apologists, faithful Republican voters their entire lives.

They also were increasingly strapped for money, and their last decades were characterized by heart disease and just surviving the consequences of being working-class children of the 1940s-1950s (smoking and eating as many Southerners did).

My parents were the poster-couple for self-defeating politics, decades before the mainstream media became obsessed with understanding the disenfranchised white voter. And finally, my parents paid the ultimate cost for grounding their political and economic lives in racism.

At the very least, a healthcare system connected to universal insurance and a robust social safety net would have extended my parents’ lives, lives that ended very badly and with their life’s earnings nearly exhausted.

The house that represented their achieving the American Dream is the very last thing remaining—a depressing monument to their stubborn self-defeating ideologies, their racism.

Our last decade together is the most depressing. My daughter dated, married, and then had a daughter with a black man.

I am now the grandfather of two biracial grandchildren.

It wasn’t a hard decision, but it was hard—to give up on your parents as you recognized this family of yours deserved your complete devotion. Passive and silent were none the less complicit.

Everyone in my immediate family, except me, became entirely estranged from my parents as I attempted to meet some extreme minimum obligations as my father’s health deteriorated dramatically, and then my mother had a stroke.

The last six months of my parents’ lives thrust them once again into the center of my life, the fatalism to which I had resigned myself set aside as their reduced circumstances demanded we all recognize their essential humanity despite their own role in having come to these unnecessary and desperate ends.

No one wants to admit their parents are flawed or even horrible people—just as most white people do not want to admit they are complicit in white privilege and racism.

My parents’ deaths during the beginning of the Trump administration carry an awful symbolism in the same way my parents’ house does now as we rummage through all my parents’ stuff—throwing away most of it—in preparation to sell this crumbling statue dwarfed by the desert of their tarnished beliefs.

I carry in my 57 years another layer of exhaustion at the mainstream media trying to understand Trump voters—white angst grounded in the racism that social norms refuse to acknowledge—and the current wrestling with Barr, including some who are calling for explaining her rant as somehow connected to her mental health.

That layer of exhaustion has the face of the grounds crew member explaining to me that black people came from Cain mating with an ape; it has the face of hundreds of white people in my family, my community.

I do not need anyone to explain this to me. It is my life.

A life already well acquainted with fatalism resting against love and deep appreciation, a life rendered heavy, nearly too heavy to carry, certainly too heavy to move.

Yes, I gave up on changing my parents’ minds, shaking their souls in the name of human dignity as I looked into the eyes of my grandchildren.

How, then, to make strangers see the inhumanity in their racism, see their hatred and bigotry as self-defeating as well as entirely unwarranted?

Fatalism is a powerful narcotic.

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