Comments Shared with my Colleagues on the Responsibility of the Intellectual

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible

Since this is a voluntary gathering of concerned faculty, I am going to risk assuming we are here mostly in solidarity.

None the less, I recognize I am offering at least two controversial points and asking that you afford them your immense breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your patience.

First, while it is now popular in this time of Trump for pundits and the media to wring their collective hands about post-truth and fake news, my opening controversial claim is that despite that attention, neither of these is something manufactured by Trump, and fake news is not the primary problem.

Please consider this Twitter exchange between me and Juana Summers, a well-respected journalist at NPR in 2014, the time of the exchange., and now with CNN:

Summers represents here a tradition that journalists and educators, including professors, assume a neutral pose, honoring a call that they remain apolitical.

In that context, let me ask you next to consider an article published in the New York Times  just a week before Trump’s inauguration: In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.

The headline and the article itself are mainstream media, not fake news; yet, what that distinction reveals is that our day-to-day public discourse is often indistinguishable from the click bait and false content we are lamenting in fake news.

O’Connors article cites a study from the USDA, which along with this being in the NYT, appears to be credible and compelling.

However, Joe Soss, writing in Jacobin and professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, has exposed that O’Connor’s article badly misrepresents the USDA study and expresses instead ugly stereotypes about people in poverty, what many in the public believe about people depending on food stamps.

So my first controversial claim, which leads into the second, is that public discourse has crossed the Bigfoot line. While there is a spectrum from fake news (entirely false and created to generate clicks online and thus revenue) to mainstream journalism, virtually all of that fails policy and the public because of traditional and misguided commitments to neutrality, objectivity.

There was a time when the National Enquirer depended on a facile commitment to report without unpacking the credibility of the person making a claim; thus, “Hiker has close encounter with Bigfoot!”

Might we imagine that journalist deflecting: “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the hiker is credible”?

In that era, mainstream media mostly refused to cross that Bigfoot line. But today, major media outlets are debating if journalists should report “Trump makes claim X” or “Trump makes false claim X”—or even more astounding “Trump lies.”

So I want to end with my second controversial claim.

If you google “fake news,” you are likely to read about a Davidson College graduate, and for us, this may trigger our own Yik-Yak founders.

I think this is not a trivial connection as we gather in our concern as university faculty, intellectuals, serving the liberal arts and our disciplines.

Across our campus, across our disciplines, the liberal arts is an argument that each of our fields is one way of coming to know the human condition. From biology to religion, from economics to philosophy, from psychology to education, and everything in between, we are carefully considering not only what knowledge exists, but what knowledge matters.

Our collective knowledge, or collective pursuit of knowledge, is more likely to serve us well than any one alone.

And then, there is the whole world beyond our beautiful fountains.

Therefore, when Donald Trump says torture works, or when his final TV ad in SC blatantly falsified data on the employment and crime rates, I think about fake news, hot new smartphone Apps, and the failures of mainstream media—each of which fails us if we resist looking at this world informed, if we pretend we can be apolitical, if we close our eyes to larger questions of ethics and morality.

The responsibility of the intellectual—and that includes us—is not about taking a neutral pose, but about speaking beyond those fountains, about modeling what it means to be well informed, to honor the truth, as difficult as at that is to attain, and to model for everyone what it looks like to work in the service of humanity, and not simply to say what you are paid to say, not simply to advocate for your own self-interest.

The responsibility of the intellectual is inescapably political, even as we pledge rightfully to be non-partisan.

Now, I end by appealing as an old English teacher, a writer, must—through metaphor.

Activist historian Howard Zinn’s memoir argues that the human condition is a moving train, and any of us who choose to sit quietly are in effect endorsing where that train is heading.

And thus, as Zinn believed and practiced, ours is always a political act—whether in our passivity or our action.

The responsibility of the intellectual?

For me, it is acknowledging that you cannot be neutral on a moving train, and I must add, you must not be neutral on a disaster-bound train—so I urge that we express our concern as action, informed and ethical.

UNDER CONTRACT CFP: Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America

Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America

Co-editors P.L. Thomas and Christian Z. Goering

UNDER CONTRACT:

Critical Media Literacies and Youth series[1], Sense Publishers

Series Editor, William Reynolds

Rationale

In the fall of 2016, just after the U.S. elected Donald Trump president, a black female first-year student submitted an essay on the prospects for Trump’s presidency. The course is a first-year writing seminar focusing on James Baldwin in the context of #BlackLivesMatter; therefore, throughout the course, students have been asked to critically investigate race, racism, gender, sexism, and all types of bias related to the U.S.—through the writing of Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, Teju Cole, and Arundhati Roy, among others.

The student’s discussion of Trump’s policies, however, were hyperlinked to Trump’s campaign website. Discussing the draft with the student revealed that the current post-truth America is a significant issue among youth who seem unable to distinguish between facts and so-called fake news.

To blame youth for this lack of critical media literacy seems misguided since the mainstream media itself plays a significant role in misinforming the public. For example, as a subset of the wider media, edujournalism represents a default lack of critical perspective among journalists.

Claims by mainstream media are impressive:

Education Week is the best independent, unbiased source for news and information on pre-K-12 education. With an average of 42 stories posted each weekday on edweek.org, there is always a news, multimedia, or opinion piece to keep you up-to-date on post-election changes in policy, and to help you become a better practitioner and subject matter expert.

The reality is much different. When journalists at Education Week were challenged about their lack of critical coverage of NCTQ, Juana Summers Tweeted, “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the study is credible.”

In other words, mainstream media are dedicated to press-release journalism and maintaining a “both sides” stance that avoids making informed decisions about any claims from their sources—including the campaign of Trump.

This volume, then, seeks contributions that address, but are not limited to, the following in the context of teaching and reaching youth in the U.S. about critical media literacy:

  • Unpacking the lack of critical perspectives in mainstream media.
  • Examining “post-truth” America.
  • Confronting issues of race, racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia as related to the media.
  • Exploring the promises of the New Media as a haven for truth.

Contributions should seek ways to couch chapters in practical aspects of teaching and reaching youth in the U.S., but can reach beyond the traditional classroom into youth culture as that intersects with critical media literacy.

UPDATED CALL:

We have room for about 3-5 more chapters. Please send a proposal ASAP (by April 1) or a full chapter draft within the following guidelines:

Submit 5000-6000 word chapters by June 1, 2017. (double-spaced, APA 6th, please)

To: paul.thomas@furman.edu and cgoering@uark.edu

Mss guidelines:

  • Minimal formatting as we have to prepare a camera-ready manuscript.
  • 12 pt, New Times Roman font, double spaced, 1” margins
  • Format block quotes and hanging indents with the Word ruler (NOT return/tab)
  • Do NOT use auto-formatting citation Apps
  • Do NOT use Word templates for header or anywhere in the mss

Chapters returned for revisions by August 1, 2017.

Final Chapters due by September 1, 2017.

Proofs to authors by October 1, 2017.

Book published in fall 2017.

Please include the following information with proposals or draft chapters:

  1. Your commitment to follow through and meet the deadlines as stated.
  2. All contact information (email address REQUIRED) for each author of your chapter.

[1]

cmls-2-copy

The Bootstrap Lie and the Politics of Privilege

This is going to be difficult and uncomfortable.

I invite you, then, to be patient while I start with something slightly less uncomfortable but just as difficult.

The tragic but real story of Pat Tillman is many things—one of which is a complete unmasking of how powerful and dangerous cultural mythologies are and how often our cultural mythologies prove to be both false and serving the interests of privilege (primarily white, male, and wealth privilege).

Tillman believed in the sacred duty of a person to serve his country, and then, in that service, Tillman not only lost his life, but also had his death story fabricated to perpetuate the very false myth that failed him.

Those with power sullied Tillman’s legacy to reinforce that the false myth of patriotism could be preserved in the service of their power — and were willing to sacrifice anyone buying the myth.

Again, that is a very hard discussion, a nearly impossible reality to recognize and digest.

But this is even more difficult because it entails race and racism as well as the very ugly stereotypes the U.S. perpetuates and embraces about people in poverty.

And as a very privileged and successful white man, I am walking onto very thin ice by confronting and naming black leaders who, as I will outline, represent a tragedy similar to Tillman’s.

Next, before I become more pointed, my caveat here is that I offer this as a witness in the tradition of James Baldwin, to whom I will return at the end. These are critical views of the world that I have learned by listening carefully, by setting aside my own urge to mansplain, whitesplain—to be the authority.

I am not the authority, but I am a diligent student.

To be considered:

Lawyer Michelle Alexander has detailed a disturbing dynamic: many black communities have advocated against their own best interests by embracing the “get tough on crime” myth perpetuated in the service of privilege. Alexander’s best example, I think, is that police often sweep black neighborhoods (are often invited to do so by blacks themselves), but choose not to do similar sweeps in white and affluent areas such as college campuses—although both are likely to have recreational drugs being used and sold.

Critical educator Chris Emdin, writing on his Instagram page, confronts a parallel paradox in education: “Black teachers with white supremacist ideologies [are] just as dangerous as white folks who don’t understand culture.” From Geoffrey Canada to Steve Perry to Joe Clark—many black educators have embraced the essentially racist “no excuses” ideologies that target black, brown, and poor children while perpetuating that the problems with educating these children lies in deficits of the children, and not any systemic forces. Education designed to correct, “fix,” fundamentally broken children (racial minorities, impoverished children) is inherently racist and classist.

Scholar Stacey Patton advocates against corporal punishment, specifically addressing how many blacks have internalized racist demands that the black body be punished, reaching back to U.S. slavery. As Patton explains:

Dr. Stacey Patton: People think that hitting a child is a form of teaching. We think it will protect them.  And people grow up to invert the violence they experience as children as something that was good, particularly in African-American culture.  As a people, we attribute our success to having had our bodies processed through violence and quite frankly what it does is confirm a long-standing racist narrative about Black bodies. The only way to control us, the only way to make us “good,” law-abiding, moral people is with a good whupping. It seems that we unconsciously agree with that narrative.

Alexander, Emdin, and Patton represent a much larger body of work that recognizes how often privilege recruits outliers of marginalized groups in order to distort those outliers as proof of false myths, specifically pointing to any successful black person as proof that the bootstrap myth is real, that we have achieved a meritocracy.

Popular culture is filled with examples—O.J. Simpson, Ben Carson, Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, just to name a few who have become spokespersons in the service of privilege, who, as Emdin notes, are “just as dangerous.”

So here is the very hardest and most uncomfortable part, forced by the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, an ideologue billionaire hell-bent on perpetuating the choice myth that serves only people like her at the expense of marginalized people, especially children who should not have to wait for the Invisible Hand and who should be served immediately by leaders of the wealthiest country in human history.

Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) has eagerly supported DeVos within his own unwavering advocacy for choice, often invoking that poor and minority families and children deserve the same choices as white and wealthy families and children.

Scott has sold his political soul (much like Clarence Thomas) to an ugly and harmful bootstrap myth, as expressed on his biography page:

An unbridled optimist, Senator Scott believes that despite our current challenges, our nation’s brightest days are ahead of us. As a teenager, Tim had the fortune of meeting a strong, conservative mentor, John Moniz. Moniz helped instill in Tim the notion that you can think your way out of poverty, and that the golden opportunity is always right around the corner. The American Dream is alive and well, and Tim’s story is a concrete example of that.

Scott is an outlier, and his story of success is commendable—except it is an ugly thing to hang one’s success over the heads of others, demanding that their not reaching a similar success is simply due to not “think[ing] [their] way out of poverty.”

No, the American Dream is not alive and well:

access-to-good-jobs-race-gender

At the same levels of effort, women and racial minorities remain disadvantaged by systemic forces that work against them; these inequities are not the result of the ugly “laziness” myth about black, brown, and poor people that lies underneath the bootstrap myth, the rugged individual myth, the meritocracy myth.

The free market and all sorts of choice are crap shoots, and they are in no way mechanisms for equity, for justice.

Scott’s “notion that you can think your way out of poverty” is a slap in the face of adults and children who are already working and trying as hard as they can, and worst of all, this bootstrap mantra maintains the very systemic forces it refuses to recognize.

Billionaires from Trump to DeVos are spreading cultural lies, and they depend along the way on recruits into these narratives, recruits—as Alexander, Emdin, and Patton reveal—who may even look just like the people being cheated.

And so I will end by coming back to Baldwin, whose legacy is being renewed, and whose message still resonates as Rich Blint concludes:

As the latest entry of the brilliance of James Baldwin on film, I Am Not Your Negro (along with Baldwin’s scathing account of American film-making, The Devil Finds Work) lays bare the rhetorical and imagistic sleight of hand that enables the fiction and terror of race in American life to persist with such a renewed and deadly power. As he suggests, the extent to which we truly wrestle with our psychic need for the myth of the “nigger,” will determine the future of the country. It is still the only song left to sing.

GUEST POST: Bigger than Sputnik, Christian Z. Goering

GUEST POST

Bigger than Sputnik: How Betsy Devos’ Nomination for Secretary of Education just Saved Public Education

Christian Z. Goering

Most people are familiar with American educational history to the point to remember that the Soviet launch of a satellite into space in 1957 before the launch of a US satellite struck great fear that our country was falling behind and thus needed to double down on our efforts, especially those in education. This little blinking light meant the Cold War could be lost and the years after Sputnik were marked by the National Defense of Education Act in 1958 and an onslaught of programs designed to improve teaching and learning and strengthen our system of public schools. A friend who began teaching in 1963 often shared with me the different ways in which he benefited from this urgency—paid summer workshops for teachers, support for graduate degrees, and just plain old-fashioned support for education.

I’m going to be bold in predicting that Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education will be remembered as a watershed moment in educational history, the point in time where public education was saved. I believe Betsy is bigger than Sputnik.

Before you rush to think otherwise, I don’t believe Ms. DeVos has any business leading the US Department of Education. Her religious adherence to the school choice movement, one I believe is designed to tear down (not improve) our system of public education, is single-handedly a disqualifier. The comment about bears and the fact that she has zero experience ever working inside a school of any kind seems like enough further evidence that she has no business setting foot in the Department of Education, much less leading it. When then President-Elect Trump passed on Michelle Rhee—the former Chancellor of the Washington D. C. schools and arguably the most hated educator in America—to instead nominate billionaire DeVos, it seemed apparent that only the most non-logical and most offensive choice was the goal. In this case, President Trump went too far.

While I’d love to tell you that Betsy DeVos is the worst nominee for President Trump’s cabinet and to place all of the blame for this nomination squarely on the President’s shoulders, she’s not and that wouldn’t be fair. Rather, a hefty amount of blame must be placed at the feet of the Democratic party, which over the past twenty years has increasingly drifted towards the school choice movement, interestingly one of the few areas of agreement in our divided country. Following eight treacherous years for public education under President George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind, Barack Obama gave legitimacy and real teeth to the failed policies of his predecessors. The name and shame, test-punish-rinse-repeat cycle did nothing for our education system. What’s worse is that President Obama provided funding for the biggest expansion of school choice in our nation’s history. His picks for Secretary of Education were both unqualified and considered by teachers to be outright attacks on our sensibility of what education actually is and isn’t. So, a hearty “thanks Obama” is in order.

How’s Betsy bigger than Sputnik, one might ask? She has singlehandedly united the Democratic party against the destructive school choice movement, one they almost universally supported previously and she has unified teachers and public education groups for a cause like I’ve never seen. She’s such a bad nominee for this position that she’s taken the place of a satellite blinking across the night sky. As a teacher, I’m looking towards Satellite DeVos with renewed hope and a sort of religious reverence.

Even school choice magnate Eli Broad came out to denounce her nomination. This guy drinks school choice Kool-Aid out of a platinum cup for breakfast and he’s against her? Anyone interested in perpetrating the school choice ruse is likely screaming from their rooftops or smashing their heads against a wall. BB (Before Betsy) everything was sailing through a dark night sky towards unprecedented spreading of vouchers and charters and the opportunity for the greedy to make money off of our nation’s most vulnerable—our school children. The Democrats were shamefully sitting at the same gilded table as the Republicans, no difference in their vision for education. AB (After Betsy), I project a future where public educators are again valued and where programs are initiated to support teaching and learning, a return to doing what is best for all of the students, a vision lost over the last couple of decades. I project a future in which the Democrats are stronger than ever supporters of public schools, unflinching and unwilling to accept anything less than the best for all of our nation’s students, especially not risky and fraudulent school choice schemes.

Thanks Betsy for being such an egregious choice for Education Secretary that you’ve united and revitalized the opposition to your broken ideas. If you are somehow confirmed, the unified force of all teachers—not just the Democrats—will have the brightest blinking light to look towards and know immediately what we need to work against.

U$A: Beware Capitalism as well as Fascism

Often accurately praised as a deft and almost idealizing satire of religion, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle also can serve as a fictional examination of political science.

Central to the politics of the novel is the fabricated tension among military, government (dictatorship), and religion (Bokononism):

“But people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.” (pp. 174-175)

The U.S. has existed for much of its history on a similar tension between democracy and capitalism, but other tensions have been incredibly important also, many of which are as fabricated as the one in San Lorenzo: the U.S. versus [insert foreign country/enemy], capitalism versus communism (McCarthy Era, arms race with Soviet Union).

With the election of Trump, many have raised concerns about the creeping threat of fascism, and then, some have countered that with arguments that Trump is not a fascist threat.

Lost in that debate, I think, is a very real and present danger: Trump is the logical consequence of the manufactured tension between corporate America and “government” (here, well represented by Bokononism).

For much of the existence of the U.S., the ruling elites of corporate America have created a public demon, “Big Government,” and used that mischaracterization of the democratic purposes of government to meet the very narrow needs of business leaders.

While fanning the flames of the general public’s hatred of the evil Big Government, corporate America has remained mostly unscathed, and then, as a result, the rise of Trump may be about fascism, or it may not be, but it is clearly about the ultimate triumph of naked capitalism and the end of democracy, even as weak as democracy has always been.

The problem with this is that we are now fully committed to an amoral way of being as a people. The rightful tension between capitalism and democracy, what was essential to our becoming a free and equitable people, depends on the moral imperative of democracy to guide the essentially amoral mechanisms of capitalism.

Government as a moral lever has ended slavery and child labor; has expended voting and marriage to all adults; and has corrected innumerable unethical and abusive elements that were created and sustained by naked capitalism.

Left without a moral barometer, heroine sales would be shaped by market forces to respond to heroine addicts; the same if true of snuff films, and the most abusive forms of pornography.

There is no market that would not be shaped by capitalism in ways that are “right” for that amoral paradigm: heroine priced at the level the market will bear, and so on with snuff films and child pornography.

Without the collective moral imperatives of a people—government—people become mere consumers at the whim of the Invisible Hand—and some become sacrificed along the way (slaves, children, women, etc.).

And here we are: Trump is the embodiment of naked capitalism, in which no moral standards exist, just ratings—the crassest reduction of market forces.

Trump’s administration is not a reality show, but an infomercial on replay, a shitty product that depends on the force of overstated (and false) claims that simply have to convince enough people to buy in to not only survive, but thrive.

But Trump has not caused this ugly erosion of a people; he merely represents who we are.

And who we are is a culture in which millionaire pro athletes enjoy the necessary tension between labor and billionaire owners through unions while the rest of the country sits by after electing Trump who is marshaling in the very real possibility of a national right to work law—a federalization of erasing the necessary tension between labor and owners.

All decent people should fear and work against the rise of fascism, but right now, the U.S. is experiencing the real and horrible consequences of abdicating our moral and ethical boundaries to the naked capitalism that is Trump, that is us.

We have become lost in very garbled ends and have completely ignored the means.

Government is rightfully the collective will of the people, a necessary moral and ethical check to the amoral forces of the free market, in which the “free” is not about liberty but about being free of any ethical concerns.

And thus, I see no need for fascism because there is no resistance; the fall of democracy in the U.S. serves the same interests whether by fascism or the slowly creeping cancer of naked capitalism.

The fall of democracy in the U.$.A. is about a people freely admitting we have no soul, no real concern for anyone except “me.”

The branches of government be damned; we have the Home Shopping Network, the foma of a lost people drunk on crude oil.