In God We Trust?

Writing about her The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia”:

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

Atwood’s now contemporary classic reads as a brilliant hybrid of George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—”dire warnings” about the allure and dangers of totalitarian theocracies.

Literature, in fact, comes back again and again to warnings about fanatical and fundamentalist religion, especially as that intersects government and politics.

Powerful in its concision and word play, e.e. cummings’ satire of pompous political patriotism begins, “‘next to of course god america i/ love you'”—weaving a stump speech both garbled with cliches and distinctly lucid in its pandering.

The last line (“He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water”), the only words not being spoken by the unnamed politician, comes after the dramatic rhetorical question: “‘then shall the voice of liberty be mute?'”

Like Atwood, Orwell, and Miller, cummings is offering his warning about draping ourselves in the flag while simultaneously thumping the Bible.

In God We Trust?

Having been born, raised, and then living and working my entire life in South Carolina, I have mostly existed in a default culture of Southern Baptist religiosity, a fundamentalist view of scripture.

I have witnessed and continue to witness religion used both as a rod and as a water torture: at once a blunt and instant tool of judgment and a relentless, although only a drop at a time, force for keeping everyone in line.

And that line is decreed by God, so they say.

However, this is not something exclusive to the South—although many continue to rely on scripture to justify corporal punishment and even misogyny in my homeland.

The history of the South, too, offers countless and disturbing “dire warnings”: justifying slavery with scripture and the historical roots of Southern Baptists as a result.

But fundamentalism in the South and the dramatic consequences may mask the thread of those same beliefs running throughout the nation. Consider “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the place of prayer in public schools.

The public is mostly misinformed about all of these, but easily swayed by the political implications of invoking “God.”

“God” on currency and in the Pledge (as a Cold War political ploy) represents a political manipulation of religion (using religion to score political points), as the history of how each occurred reveals. But prayer in public school may be the best example of the problem.

Formed under Ronald Reagan, the committee eventually drafting what is called A Nation at Risk included Gerald Holton, who has revealed Reagan’s “marching orders” for the report:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom [emphasis added]. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.

When the president of the U.S. misrepresents a fundamental issue, when virtually no one (media, etc.) holds the president accountable for the misrepresentation, and then when that inaccurate claim remains powerful for decades (until today), we would be careless to suggest that the danger of religion and politics is simply a vestige of the backward South.

Neither prayer nor God has ever been removed or banned from public schools. In 1962, forced prayer was ruled unconstitutional—which ironically seems to be the sort of law the Libertarian-leaning streak in the U.S. would embrace. Yet Reagan Democrats and Tea Partiers are the exact national demographics calling for “religious freedom” legislation, much like the redundant and unnecessary legislation guaranteeing students the right to pray in public schools.

“Freedom To and Freedom From”

“Religious freedom”?

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia,” Atwood’s narrator, Offred/June, recounts. “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.”

Women training women, Atwood dramatizes, is about control—control of their bodies and control of their minds, which includes controlling language.

“We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice,” Offred/June adds.

Again, I live in SC, a “right to work” state, so I am attuned to the Orwellian language gymnastics so wonderfully emphasized in Atwood’s novel, echoing Orwell’s “dire warnings”:

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometer away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape….

The Ministry of Truth—Minitrue, in Newspeak—was startlingly different from any other object in sight….From where Winston stood is was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. (p. 7)

Therefore, I am skeptical—if not cynical—about the proposed “religious freedom” law in Indiana. I am also disturbed that this is occurring in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Indiana, and as Garrett Epps discusses, there are important connections to Indiana’s law and SC:

Until the day he died, however, [Maurice] Bessinger insisted that he and God were right.  His last fight was to preserve the Confederate flag as a symbol of South Carolina. “I want to be known as a hard-working, Christian man that loves God and wants to further (God’s) work throughout the world as I have been doing throughout the last 25 years,” he told his hometown newspaper in 2000….

That’s a good background against which to measure the uproar about the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by Governor Mike Pence last week. I don’t question the religious sincerity of anyone involved in drafting and passing this law. But sincere and faithful people, when they feel the imprimatur of both the law and the Lord, can do very ugly things.

Being reared in the fundamentalist South, I was given mostly a negative education in morality—all that I was determined not to do and be.

My moral compass has come from literature instead—Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and Kurt Vonnegut.

These calls, then, for “religious freedom” ring Orwellian, not about “freedom” at all but about the sorts of cancerous marriages between religion and politics already played out time and again in the U.S. to deny marginalized groups what those in power enjoy as if such is ordained by God.

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“Do you know what a humanist is?” writes Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife.

I am compelled to suggest that the question is not, In God we trust?

We must be very cautious about anyone who speaks in God’s stead; we must adopt Vonnegut’s stance toward our fellow humans.

Indiana should feel the consequences of humans’ inhumanity toward humans—a great irony is that this wrath appears to be the Invisible Hand of Capitalism—and like great literature, Indiana’s political hubris and indecency must fulfill Atwood’s recognition of the power of “dire warnings.”

Indiana, pull up your socks.

Recommended

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby

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George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The stories themselves, literally, are powerful and engaging or George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would not have endured as they have as literature people read again and again—and possibly should read again and again.

However, ultimately, 1984 is not about the future (especially since we have long since passed the future Orwell may have envisioned), and The Crucible is not about the past (although Miller built his play on the very real and troubling history of Puritan witchcraft hysteria). These works are about the complicated present of both authors’ worlds as that speaks to the enduring realities of the human condition.

All of that may seem weighty stuff to step into a look at what appears to be a children’s book, but the paragraphs above should be more than a hint that looks can be deceiving—and enlightening.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, written by George Saunders and wonderfully illustrated by Lane Smith (whose It’s a Book I cannot recommend highly enough), is a fanciful and satirical tale that proves in the end to be an allegory of scarcity and slack—a perfect companion read to Ursula K. Le Guin’s allegory of privilege, “The One’s Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Realizing that the Human Heart Is Capable

“Ever had a burr in your sock?” sets the story in motion—one sentence centered on the page over a giant question mark. It is an opening worthy of a child and all of us who cling to the wonder of childhood.

While Le Guin is often described as a science fiction writer, in her work I recognize the blurring of genres that joins science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy; it is that “other world” about which Le Guin and Margaret Atwood appear to argue, and it a stark but rich other world Saunders conjures and Lane pictures.

The story of Frip involves three houses for three families, all with children at the center. The houses are distinguished with primary colors—child-like blue, green, and red—but Lane’s artwork adds the ominous to Saunders’ seemingly simple narrative tinged with more than a bite of satire. The illustrations echo the haunting works about and for children found in Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton.

“Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea.” (p. 6) Artwork by Lane Smith

A child standing precariously close to the end of a slanted cliff over an angry ocean catches the eye on page 7 and then the crux of the story pulls you back to the text on page 6:

Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea. Frip was three tiny goat-yards into which eight times a day the children of the shacks would trudge with gapper-brushes and cloth gapper-sacks that tied at the top. After brushing the gappers off the goats, the children would walk to the cliff at the edge of town and empty their gapper-sacks into the sea. (p. 6)

Gappers, orange burr-like creatures with many eyes and the size of a baseball, come to represent throughout the story the power of the systemic inevitable: The presence of the gappers determines the lot of the families (and their goats), but most of the people in the tale remain unable to see beyond their own fixed and mostly misguided worldviews.

“A gapper’s like that, only bigger, about the size of a baseball, bright orange, with multiple eyes like the eyes of a potato.” (p. 2) Artwork by Lane Smith

When the gappers cling to the goats of all three families, there is an ironic appearance of equality among them. But when the fortune of one family shifts, the gappers fulfill their name by creating the gap:

So that night, instead of splitting into three groups, the gappers moved into one very large and impressive shrieking group directly into Capable’s yard. (p. 12)

Before this shift in how the gappers behave, of course, the three families are not equal because Capable is an only child living with her father and who has lost her mother. Capable works as all the children are expected to work (removing gappers in a daily Sisyphean nightmare of chores) and seeks to serve the needs of her grieving father, who along with his grief is a prisoner of nostalgia:

“I myself was once an exhausted child brushing off gappers. It was lovely! The best years of my life. The way they fell to the sea from our bags! And anyway, what would you do with your time if there were no gappers?” (p. 11)

This nostalgia masking an unnecessarily burdensome childhood, however, is but one ideology weighing on Capable because as soon as the other two families are relieved of gappers on their goats, those families reveal themselves to be very much like the people of Le Guin’s Omelas:

“It’s a miracle!” Mrs. Romo shouted next morning, when she came out and discovered that her yard was free of gappers. “This is wonderful! Capable, dear, you poor thing. The miracle didn’t happen to you, did it? I feel so sorry for you. God has been good to us, by taking our gappers away. Why? I can’t say. God knows what God is doing, I guess! I suppose we must somehow deserve it!” (p. 17)

Capable becomes the sacrificed child, and despite her misfortune, the relieved families read the events as their merit (and of course the ugly implication that Capable and her father deserve the burden of the gappers).

What follows from this shift in fate is the central story of Frip with Capable as our main character. The message becomes clear, and Saunders and Lane make the ride one you’ll want to visit again and again. If you are lucky, the book could become one of those read alouds requested by son or daughter, or by a classroom of children.

And while I will leave the rest of the story to you, I think it is necessary to note here that this allegory is both a cautionary tale about how we view children and childhood as well as a brilliant call to reconsider how we view education and education reform.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The U.S., like the characters (except for Capable) in Saunders’s story, is tragically blinded by a belief in cultural myths that have little basis in evidence: That we live and work in a meritocracy, that competition creates equity, that children need to be “taught a lesson” about the cold cruel world lest they become soft, and such.

As a result of these beliefs, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for children—or to be more accurate, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for other people’s children, as Capable personifies.

Here, then, I want to make the case that The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a powerful allegory of scarcity and slack as examined by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan and Shafir detail that the conditions of poverty, scarcity, so overburden people psychologically, mentally, and physically that their behavior is often misread (poor people are lazy, poor people make bad decisions, etc.). In Saunders’s story, scarcity and its burden are portrayed by the gappers, and readers witness how the coincidence of the onslaught of the gappers changes the families involved. In other words, the behavior of people is determined by the environment, and not by the inherent goodness or deficiencies of any individual.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip goes further, however, by showing that one person’s scarcity (Capable) allows other person slack: privilege is built on the back of others, and those conditions are mostly arbitrary. While Mullainathan and Shafir argue that the slack enjoyed by those living in relative privilege provides the sort of cognitive space needed to excel, Saunders speaks to more than the slack enjoyed by the two families relieved of gappers and the compounding scarcity suffered by Capable (her lot in life and the addition of the gappers):

“And the men succeeded in lifting the house and moving it very very close to the third and final house in Frip, which belonged to Sid and Carol Ronsen, who stood in their yard with looks of dismay on their nearly identical frowning faces.” (p. 23) Artwork by Lane Smith

  • Capable represents a counter-narrative to claims that impoverished children lack “grit.” As her name suggests, this child is more than capable, but the world appears determined to defeat her.
  • Capable also embodies Lisa Delpit’s confrontation of “other people’s children”—that those with privilege (slack) are willing to allow one set of standards for other people’s children (often living and learning in scarcity), standards they will not tolerate for their own.

As I stated in the opening, allegory seeks to open our eyes by diversion, creating an other world that helps us see both the flaws with our now and the enduring failures of humans to embrace our basic humanity, a failure Capable teeters on the edge of making herself but cannot:

And [Capable] soon found that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.

That is, it was fun at first, but then got gradually less fun, until it was really no fun at all. (p. 70).

In the end, it is this sort of charity, this sort of recognition of the community of humanity, a call for the kindness found in Kurt Vonnegut’s similar mix of dark humor that Saunders appears to suggest we are all capable.

Companion Reads for The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde (1891)

“The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Lisa Delpit

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit

“NPR Whitewashes ‘Grit’ Narrative” 

Competition: A Multidisciplinary Analysis, Wade B. Worthen, A. Scott Henderson, Paul R. Rasmussen and T. Lloyd Benson, Eds.

The Analogy, Hyperbole Problem: “With explanation kind” (Tone, pt. 5)

Prologue

I am a child of literature, more specifically of science fiction.

As a result, I am also a child of allegory, metaphor, and the richness of layered language.

Smitten as a reader, I eventually—and predictably—looked in the mirror and saw a writer. For almost four decades now, I have been chasing that image in the mirror, that writer I hope to be.

So when I write—mostly non-fiction, mostly essays addressing issues related to education, poverty, race, and class—I am channeling the science fiction novelist I long(ed) to be. Some Vonnegut, some Atwood, some Bradbury—laced with Ellison and cummings and Dickinson as well as Salinger and a relentless pursuit of Baldwin’s passion, bravery, and incisiveness.

So in my blogging and scholarship, I am apt to confront the conditions of teachers as worker in the context of Cloud Atlas‘s thematic exploration of slavery, calling the current state of workers in the U.S. “wage-slavery.”

I write as I live—with anger and passion.

But I also write as I live—in a constant state of critical reflection. My anxieties are many, but one constant is the anxiety that I have failed the ultimate goal in some small or even significant way.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. [1]

Nancy Flanagan has recently blogged about Monstrous Labels (see Part I and Part II), raising hard questions about the sorts of analogies and hyperbole that exist in the education reform debate. Flanagan is confronting another aspect of the tone debate I have been wrestling with for some time [2]:

Clearly, everyone who writes about the existence and meaning of cultural holocausts–including The Holocaust–must bow to the experience of the ones who lived it. Our only possible ethical response, however, is to try to take the sacrifices made in humanity’s historical tragedies and make them sacred, through remembrance and honor.

That’s an enormously difficult thing to do, fraught with false equivalencies and cultural misappropriation. But is it wrong? When you’re faced with what Jeff Bryant–correctly, in my opinion–labels an “existential threat” to an essential cornerstone of democratic equality, public education, is it immoral to call up the spirit of other existential threats to democracy, other weapons of human destruction?

On Twitter, Flanagan engaged Jose Vilson about the problems with misappropriations, further emphasizing how efforts to stress the importance of education reform issues to a lay public is fraught with substantive dangers and unintended consequences—ones that often serve to work against the good intentions of those making their cases.

If I have learned anything from committing to my own blog space and actively participating on Twitter and in the public sphere, my resistance to bowing to tone complaints and my effort to engage the public effectively are often now at odds because of the rising and stringent misinformed voices that too often are indistinguishable from informed voices (and I am pointing a finger here at me).

To put it briefly, if I can be mistaken by the public as little different in substance and tone for Glenn Beck or Michelle Malkin, I have failed miserably. That failure rests on my belief that expertise and experience are often lacking in deciding education policy, and therefore, I want to offer a voice of expertise and experience clearly distinguishable from the Beck/Malkin populism and libertarian fear-mongering.

So Flanagan’s question and Vilson’s warnings about misappropriations are important and powerful—and ultimately troubling.

All along the ideological spectrum, education reform commentary includes direct and indirect references to the Holocaust (and even Hitler), U.S. slavery, child abuse, and prisons—just to name a few analogies and uses of hyperbole.

In my 30+ years of teaching, I have heard numerous students call school prison; that may be one of the most common analogies uttered by students (even those not in schools with armed police and metal detectors).

In light of Flanagan’s question and Vilson’s warning, then, when I confront my own work—in blogs and scholarly publications—I must begin to examine more closely the very thin line between illuminating analogy and misappropriation. Here, then, are some guiding ideas and questions for keeping the discourse from failing our goals despite our good intentions:

  • Invoking or comparing a contemporary situation to a historical scar of the magnitude of the Holocaust or U.S. slavery (just to note two) likely fails both that magnitude and the importance of the contemporary situation.
  • When tone complaints come from people of privilege, I will not allow the conversation to start with tone. When tone and misappropriation concerns are raised by marginalized and oppressed groups, the concern must be addressed.
  • That said, it is not the responsibility of marginalized and oppressed groups to police inappropriate tone or misappropriations. That is the responsibility of everyone making public claims and commentary. For me, this is my responsibility—one I have stumbled over, I am sure, but one that I can make amends for from this moment forward.
  • Hindsight is 20/20 so the power of analogy and hyperbole is to force people to take off contemporary blinders in order to see (this is the power of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984—and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). But we must always ask: At what cost this analogy, this hyperbole? In short, if the contemporary situation is as dire as we recognize, we must seek ways in which to demand attention for that in its own right.
  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Epilogue

Is the use of high-stakes testing in kindergarten child abuse?

Are zero tolerance policies, police in the hallways, and metal detectors creating schools as prisons?

Is mass incarceration the New Jim Crow?

Have U.S. workers been reduced to wage-slaves?

I think we must all ask ourselves at what cost are we making these claims, and we must be able to see and hear these claims through the eyes and ears of those who may not immediately see the difference between what we hope to accomplish and those who hold up posters of George W. Bush or Barack Obama as Hitler.

When people see no difference, we have lost something very important, and something precious.

When we offend the marginalized and oppressed as if they do not exist, we certainly have little room to criticize anyone about anything.

The privilege of having a voice must be tempered with humility, by honoring the dignity of everyone and by having the empathy to walk in someone else’s shoes, to live in someone else’s skin, to honor someone else’s past.

It may be best when we seek the truth that we also include “With explanation kind.”

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — (1263)

by Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

[1] Possibly one of the best passages from a novel is “‘Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs'” from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

[2] See for example:

Tone, pt. 1: Does Tone Matter in the Education Reform Debate?

Tone, pt. 2: On “Hostile Rhetoric,” Laziness, and the Education Debate

Tone, pt. 3: Mirror, Mirror

Tone, pt. 4: Dystopian Fiction, Passion, and the Education Reform Debate

The Socialist Objective: “I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity”

Under a pen-name for a newspaper in 1943, George Orwell wrote about Christmas, veering into a declaration of the Socialist objective, predating by many decades Kurt Vonnegut’s career of making similar and powerful claims about the need for human kindness:

The Socialist objective is not a society where everything comes right in the end, because kind old gentlemen give away turkeys. What are we aiming at, if not a society in which ‘charity’ would be unnecessary? We want a world where Scrooge, with his dividends, and Tiny Tim, with his tuberculous leg, would both be unthinkable. But does that mean we are aiming at some painless, effortless Utopia? At the risk of saying something which the editors of Tribune may not endorse, I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue.

Eliot Rosewater in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater implores:

Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (p. 129)

With both Orwell and Vonnegut, we should hear echoing behind their words, Eugene V. Debs, from his Statement to the Court (September 18, 1918):

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….

I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all…

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence….

I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.

When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

Our Dystopia Is Now: The Circle (Eggers) and Feed (Anderson)

For twenty-first century readers and students, George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 poses, I think, a temporal paradox.

1984, George Orwell

Orwell’s “other world” appears simultaneously a horrifying totalitarian future possibility for humanity as well as a technological mutt of what someone in the past speculated about the future (consider the pneumatic tubes).

As I read The Circle by Dave Eggers, I began to imagine that my experience with this novel published and read in 2013 was repeating what readers during the late 1940s and early 1950s (especially British readers) may have felt turning the pages of Orwell’s Big Brother nightmare, a Kafkan dark satire of their lived England.

The Circle, Dave Eggers

My reading experience with The Circle has at least two problematic elements.

First, I read about a third of the novel before I lost interest and picked up Feed by M.T. Anderson, which I read completely before returning to and finishing The Circle.

Feed, M.T. Anderson

And second, I never felt fully engaged with The Circle because I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel details that our dystopia is now.

Both The Circle and Feed provide readers with a genre carnival of sorts—dystopia fiction, young adult fiction, science fiction, and speculative fiction. But I struggled with The Circle in ways that I did not with Feed, despite my usual measured disappointment with many young adult novels.

Since Adam Bessie has explored the importance of Feed, especially as it informs education reform, I want to examine more closely The Circle in the context of Feed as well as my struggles to engage fully with Eggers’s important novel.

Just past the middle of The Circle, I began to see that Eggers’s dystopia is a contemporary 1984. When the main character, Mae, serves the will of the Circle by producing three slogan (Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, Privacy Is Theft), Orwell’s “War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength” echoed in my mind’s ear.

I feel compelled to place The Circle, then, within a dystopian tradition including 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—speculative works that weave contemporary social satire (albeit very dark satire) with imaginative logical extensions of what if that holds up one possible future for humankind. [1]

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

While The Circle reminds me of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale [2]—including the slogans above alluding to 1984 and elements of zealotry along with totalitarianism’s dependency on currency manipulation (Atwood’s prescience about debit cards) shared with The Handmaid’s Tale—Eggers’s other world is not removed nearly as far from the reader as in Orwell’s and Atwood’s novels.

Since I use and know a great deal about google, Twitter, and Facebook, the Circle as a speculative logical extension of our real-world social media feels less speculative than our dystopia is now.

For the privileged in 2013—and those on the edge of privilege wanting in—smartphones, tablets, and computers connected through the Internet have blurred almost every aspect of the human condition—social with professional, entertainment with commerce, etc.

We don’t flinch when google completes our typing as we search the web or when gmail reads our emails in order to push product banners. We reduce our conversations to 140 letters with glee and among hundreds, even thousands of people we have never met in person. We retweet, favorite, and like (verbing all the way) while double posting on Twitter and Facebook—even clicking “like” under a Facebook post about the death of a dog, or a grandmother.

So when Eggers introduces the more fantastical elements of the novel, and there are some, I remained fixated on my lack of compassion for Mae and my inability to shake the feeling that Eggers is simply cataloguing the world the privileged have created, the lived world of the privileged in 2013. (I must add that The Circle and Feed focus on main characters who are compliant “insiders” of the dystopia, and both have sacrificial radical characters. I found Mae in The Circle really hard to embrace, but did feel compelled by Titus in Feed. I had the same bland response to the radical in The Circle, while caring deeply for Feed‘s Violet, my favorite character of the two novels.)

So far, I suspect, my view of The Circle may feel like less than a ringing endorsement; however, I do believe The Circle is a 1984 for our time, an important and insightful work. Let me, then, offer a few reasons why.

At its essence, The Circle is the fictionalizing of concepts explored in Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze: surveillance, “infinite examination,” “societies of control.” While Foucault and Deleuze are inaccessible in many ways for the general public, Eggers’s other world, even as close as it is to now, is stark in its clarity. At times, The Circle reads with the same sort of dispassionate camera feel that Ernest Hemingway uses in “Hills Like White Elephants.” In both works, there lies the danger that readers will fail to confront what has been placed before them—that the dispassion will read as endorsement or at least could be embraced by the readers.

While true of any artwork, Eggers allows readers to close The Circle in much the same mindset as Mae (Book III is a mere three-pages long in its twist-style ending).

As with Feed, The Circle also speaks directly to education reform, particularly as that overlaps with our current era of mass incarceration (see Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era):

  • With fervor, the possibility of the Circle’s role in education is championed—and the discussion sounds eerily close to home:

“That’s the idea,” Jackie said. “…[S]oon we’ll be able to know at any given moment where our sons and daughters stand against the rest of American students, and then against the world’s students.”

“That sounds very helpful,” Mae said. “And would eliminate a lot of doubt and stress out there.”…  “And it’ll be updated how often?”

“Oh, daily. Once we get full participation from all schools and districts, we’ll be able to keep daily rankings, with every test, every pop quiz incorporated instantly. And of course these can be broken up between public and private, regional, and the rankings can be merged, weighted, and analyzed to see trends among various other factors—socioeconomic, race, ethnicity, everything.” (p. 341)

  • In possibly the most disturbing section of the novel, the Circle is characterized as a potential law enforcement tool that can erase crime and racial profiling, by color-coding everyone on the ubiquitous monitors invented by the Circle: “The three men you see in orange and red are repeat offenders” (p. 418). This plan, however, works under the assumption that previous arrests are fair, themselves not the result of race or class bias.

In the end, The Circle is a warning shot about the end of privacy, universal surveillance. If readers feel uncomfortable while reading with their smartphone dinging nearby, it is likely because our dystopia is now, and The Circle is a nearly 500-page pamphlet saying, Welcome to the Machine:

[1] I highly recommend Atwood’s essays—”Writing Utopia” and “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections”—in Writing with Intent and In Other Worlds for Atwood’s brilliant confrontations of science fiction and speculative fiction genre(s). See also Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction: Challenging Genres.

[2] I wonder what the fascination is with red covers and dystopian literature…

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Medicating ADHD in the Brave New World of High-Stakes Accountability

Miranda: O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206

—–

Utopias seem much more attainable than one may have previously thought. And we are now faced with a much more frightening thought: how do we prevent their permanent fulfillment?…Utopias are attainable. The way of life points towards them. But perhaps a new century will begin, a century in which intellectuals and the educated class will find means of preventing utopias, and we will return to a non-utopian society, which may be less perfect, but will offer more freedom.

—Nicolas Berdiaeff

My love of science fiction (SF) has its roots firmly in Marvel comic books from the 1970s and the SF novels of Arthur C. Clarke and Niven/Pournelle. When I became acquainted with what teachers called “good” and “real” literature, I was immediately drawn to George Orwell and Aldous Huxley as anointed SF writers.

As an adult, I am the sort of SF reader who treasures Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood, and if I am pushed, I have to admit I value Orwell more as an essayist than novelist and always enjoyed Huxley’s Brave New World over 1984—believing both works are brilliant, but preferring BNW as a reader.

The opening passages are two foundational quotes behind the message of BNW, the Shakespeare the source of the title and the Berdiaeff a nod to Huxley’s parody of utopian fiction.

In his Foreword to the Perennial Classic edition of BNW, Huxley explains:

But Brave New World is a book about the future and, whatever its artistic or philosophical qualities, a book about the future can interest us only if its prophesies look as though they might conceivably come true….The theme of Brave New World is not the advancement of science as such; it is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals. (p. ix)

Beyond purpose, Huxley continues, speculating about “A really efficient totalitarian state”

would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude. To make them love it is the task assigned, in present-day totalitarian states, to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors and schoolteachers….The great triumphs of of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing. Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about the truth. (p. xii)

SF, at its best, however, is not predictive, but cautionary; as Neil Gaiman has reminded us, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.” Thus, Huxley warns:

Round pegs in square holes tend to have dangerous thoughts about the social system and to infect others with their discontents….In conjunction with the freedom to daydream under the influence of dope and movies and the radio, it will help to reconcile his subjects to the servitude which is their fate….Indeed, unless we choose to decentralize and to use applied science [1], not as the end to which human beings are to be made the means, but as the means to producing a race of free individuals, we have only two alternatives to choose from: either a number of national, militarized totalitarianisms…or else one supra-national totalitarian. (pp. xiii, xiv)

And then, Huxley conclude: “You pays your money and you takes you choice” (p. xiv).

The speculative and cautionary possibilities found in SF rarely come to fruition in the real world in the dramatic ways of novels or films (or in the somewhat looney ways political factions rant and rave in public discourse). So it seems likely that we are apt never to listen or to act in ways that we should and could.

Huxley, I think, was in many ways speaking to this—“The Not-So-Hidden Cause Behind the A.D.H.D. Epidemic”:

Between the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012, people across the United States suddenly found themselves unable to get their hands on A.D.H.D. medication. Low-dose generics were particularly in short supply. There were several factors contributing to the shortage, but the main cause was that supply was suddenly being outpaced by demand.

The number of diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has ballooned over the past few decades. Before the early 1990s, fewer than 5 percent of school-age kids were thought to have A.D.H.D. Earlier this year, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 11 percent of children ages 4 to 17 had at some point received the diagnosis — and that doesn’t even include first-time diagnoses in adults. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them.)

That amounts to millions of extra people receiving regular doses of stimulant drugs to keep neurological symptoms in check. For a lot of us, the diagnosis and subsequent treatments — both behavioral and pharmaceutical — have proved helpful. But still: Where did we all come from? Were that many Americans always pathologically hyperactive and unable to focus, and only now are getting the treatment they need?

Probably not. Of the 6.4 million kids who have been given diagnoses of A.D.H.D., a large percentage are unlikely to have any kind of physiological difference that would make them more distractible than the average non-A.D.H.D. kid. It’s also doubtful that biological or environmental changes are making physiological differences more prevalent. Instead, the rapid increase in people with A.D.H.D. probably has more to do with sociological factors — changes in the way we school our children, in the way we interact with doctors and in what we expect from our kids.

As disturbing as this is, the final paragraph of this article may be the most significant:

Today many sociologists and neuroscientists believe that regardless of A.D.H.D.’s biological basis, the explosion in rates of diagnosis is caused by sociological factors — especially ones related to education and the changing expectations we have for kids. During the same 30 years when A.D.H.D. diagnoses increased, American childhood drastically changed. Even at the grade-school level, kids now have more homework, less recess and a lot less unstructured free time to relax and play [emphasis added]. It’s easy to look at that situation and speculate how “A.D.H.D.” might have become a convenient societal catchall for what happens when kids are expected to be miniature adults. High-stakes standardized testing, increased competition for slots in top colleges [emphasis added], a less-and-less accommodating economy for those who don’t get into colleges but can no longer depend on the existence of blue-collar jobs — all of these are expressed through policy changes and cultural expectations, but they may also manifest themselves in more troubling ways — in the rising number of kids whose behavior has become pathologized.

The rise of ADHD diagnoses and medications has run concurrent to the accountability era in education, sharing the same thirty-year history. O brave new world of high-stakes accountability and the ADHD medication needed to make the students love their servitude to the tests…

[1] Paul Boyle, “A U.K. View on the U.S. Attack on Social Sciences,” Science, 341 (August 16, 2013), p. 719.

Truthout: The Education Games: Reform as Doublespeak

Although we currently live in a world informed by George Orwell’s dystopian unmasking-as-novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, we seem unable to acknowledge that the Ministry of Peace is actually waging war.* In our current education reform debate, educators must come to terms with Orwell’s recognition of the essential nature of political speech:

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language–and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind [emphasis added]. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase…into the dustbin where it belongs.

Currently, The U.S. Department of Education is the Ministry of Peace, and from the USDOE, we are facing doublespeak that thinly masks the de-professionalizing of teachers and the dismantling of public education—all in the name of reform under the banner of “hope and change.”

“One Need Not Swallow Such Absurdities as This”

One consequence of calling for educators to be apolitical is that the education reform debate remains in the hands of the inexpert and that reform is allowed to maintain and perpetuate the status quo. Here, however, I want to call for educators to expose and reject the doublespeak driving the education agenda under President Obama and personified by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan by addressing four key areas of that debate: (1) high-stakes standardized testing, (2) Common Core State Standards (CCSS), (3) expertise in education, and (4) claims based on ends-justify-means logic.

High-stakes standardized tests. The doublespeak around high-stakes standardized testing is one of the most powerful weapons used today by Duncan. The Obama administration has produced mountains of evidence that claiming to reject and decrease testing is a cloak for the inevitability of more testing and more corrosive accountability for teachers. But that debate is masking a deeper problem with confronting high-stakes standardized tests: Many educators are quick to reject the high-stakes element while adding that standardized testing is being misused. And here is where educators are failing the debate.

The high-stakes problem is the secondary problem with standardized testing. Yes, high-stakes create inexcusable outcomes related to testing: teaching to the test, reducing all course content to what-is-tested-is-what-is-taught, reducing teacher quality to test scores, reducing student learning to test scores, and cheating. But rejecting or even calling for removing the high-stakes ignores that standardized tests are flawed themselves. Standardized tests remain primarily linked to the race, social class, and gender of students; standardized tests label and sort children overwhelmingly based on the coincidence of those children’s homes.

The standardized testing debate is the cigarette debate, not the alcohol debate. Alcohol can be consumed safely and even with health benefits; thus, the alcohol debate is about the use of alcohol, not alcohol itself. Cigarettes are another story; there is no healthy consumption of cigarettes so that debate is about the inherent danger of tobacco.

Educators must expose the double-speak calling for less testing while increasing the testing and the stakes for students and teachers, but we must not allow that charge to trump the need to identify standardized testing as cancerous, to state clearly there is no safe level of standardized testing.

Common Core State Standards. Few moments of double-speak can top Duncan’s recent comment about the CCSS: “The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally-imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy. The Common Core academic standards were both developed and adopted by the states, and they have widespread bipartisan support.”

Among a few othersSusan Ohanian and Stephen Krashen have spoken against the CCSS movement. But as with the high-stakes standardized tests debate, many educators have rushed to seek how best to implement CCSS without considering the first-level question: Why do we need national standards when the evidence shows that multiple standards movements have failed repeatedly in the past?

The current dytopian-novel-de-jure is The Hunger Games. Like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this young adult science fiction (SF) novel offers insight into defiance against compliance to power. Before they are plunged into the Hunger Games (a horrifying reality TV show), the two main characters, Katniss and Peeta, confront their ethical dilemma:

“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.

“But you’re not,” I [Katniss] say[s]. “None of us are. That’s how the Games work.” (p. 142)

One of the most relevant messages of Collins’s novel is that Katniss comes to understand Peeta’s critical nature, embracing that her agency is about rising above the Hunger Games, not simply winning the Games as they are dictated for her. For educators and professional organizations to justify supporting CCSS by demanding a place at the table, they are relinquishing the essential question about whether or not that table should exist.

And this is where educators sit with the CCSS: To implement the CCSS is for the Capitol to own us, to reject CCSS for our own professional autonomy is to be more than just a piece in their Games.

Expertise in educationThe Los Angeles Times has now been followed by The New York Times as pawns in the USDOE’s games designed to label, rank, and dehumanize teachers the way our education system has treated children for decades. Again, the pattern is disturbing since publishing VAM-related data on teachers creates a debate about the publishing of the data and ignores first-level issues. But in this case, another problem concerns who has the expertise to frame these debates.

As the backlash mounted against the NYT’s publishing teacher rankings, Bill Gates inexplicably rejected publishing VAM-data, and quickly all over Twitter and in blogs, educators began citing Gates’s criticism. And here is the problem.

Gates is inexpert about education; he has no credibility whether his claims are flawed (most of the time) or accurate (although only on the surface since we must ask why he makes these claims). Thus, if educators wish to claim our rightful place as the experts on education, we must not embrace the inexpert, ever. (And this overlaps with the testing dilemma; we must also stop referring to test data when it serves our purposes just as we reject test data when they are harmful.)

Doublespeak (think Doublethink and Newspeak from Orwell’s 1984) as a weapon of the political and cultural elite depends on masking the value of expertise. To expose that to sunshine requires that the expert remain steadfast in honoring who determines our discourse and where we acknowledge credibility and judiciousness.

The ends-justify-the-means logic. The ugliest and seemingly most enduring double-speak surrounds the rise of support for Teach for America (TFA) and Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charters schools—both of which promote themselves as addressing social justice and the plight of poverty. These claims often go unchallenged because both TFA and KIPP keep the debate on the metrics (the ends) and not the “no excuses” ideology (the means).

As long as TFA and KIPP keep the argument about whether or not their approaches raise test scores or graduation rates, we fail to examine the essential flaws in each: TFA creating leaders at the expense of children and schools trapped in poverty, and KIPP (and many charters) implementing “no excuses” practices that are re-segregating schools and perpetuating classist and racist stereotypes.

And this may capture the overarching issue with all of the four points I have addressed here: The ends do not justify the means.

As Orwell has warned, however, politicians craft their words regardless of political party to mask the means with the ends—”to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

It is now ours as educators to expose the double-speak of the education reform movement while also taking great care not to fall prey to the allure of that strategy ourselves.

About two-thirds into the narrative of The Hunger Games, Katniss is forced to confront the earlier discussion between her and Peeta because she has come to love one of her competitors, Rue:

It’s the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us….Then I remember Peeta’s words on the roof….And for the first time, I understand what he means.

I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I. (pp. 235-236)

Universal public education and the autonomy and professionalism of teachers in America are worth this same sentiment, and it is past time for our voices to be heard and our actions to matter.

Read at Truthout