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Against Cynicism

scout and the mob

 

Like many other people, I have been very worried about the direction we’re going–not just the United States, but the world in general. Populism–which in its most innocuous form is little more than cheering for the home team but which can be so much more insidious and damaging–is on the rise, and partisanship seems to have infiltrated many western governments, causing us to question the efficacy of democracy itself. Couple this with the imminence of climate change, and the future of human civilization seems dire indeed.

So I understand why many of us might live in a state of worry, of fearful suspense. I know how it feels to wake up each morning, wondering what new terrible thing has happened while I slept, and how it feels to wait impatiently for the slow-moving wheels of democratic rule to right themselves, and to hope for a period in which government works for its citizenry rather than for corporations and billionaires. I, too, have lost hope at times, allowing myself to be convinced that the struggle against injustice and oligarchy is fruitless; like so many other people, I have frequently succumbed to cynicism and inertia, telling myself that any action is doomed to failure.

But that attitude is wrong. I know that now. More importantly, I feel it’s my duty to lead a crusade against this type of cynicism, even if I do so all by myself.

If you’re reading this blog post, excellent. We can work together. On the other hand, if this essay slips unacknowledged into cyberspace, read by no one at all, so be it–that doesn’t matter. The struggle is important, and it must be waged, even if by only one person, and even if I myself am that person. What follows, then, is my small own contribution in the war on cynicism–my manifesto, if you like.

The time for idle anger is over. The time for pessimism is past. We do not have the luxury to sit back and watch knowingly as the world falls apart, nodding as we say, “Of course, we always knew it would be this way. The system is rigged.” Whether it is or is not rigged is beside the point. This is a question that can be debated by future historians, much like the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Saints and scholars can debate such a question; they have that luxury. But we no longer have the luxury to debate whether government is or is not effective. We have to act, and we have to act now, if we want to save our way of life.

And actions start with beliefs, primarily the belief that when we act, our actions have effects. I believe–rather, I know, with certainty–that they do have effects. At the local level, our actions, indeed, our mere presence at meetings and councils do have an effect; I have seen this demonstrated in the past year in my role as a city councilmember. Government, at least at the most local level, works–but only if we work hard at it by electing the right people and by holding them accountable. In short, democracy is not compatible with either cynicism or complacency; yet throughout much of the last generation, our citizenry has been guilty of both these things.

Why? Because cynicism is easy. Cynicism is seductive. Cynicism is cool–so cool, in fact, that many voters in 2016 agreed that “draining the swamp” was the best thing going for a candidate who had no other ideas or attractions. So here is my advice: do not give in to the lure of cynicism. It leads nowhere but to the self, to an inflated view of one’s own cleverness and perception, to a self-satisfied egocentrism that congratulates itself on seeing the worst at all times, in all places. 

Close to the climax of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch prevents a lynching from happening merely by demonstrating her own naive lack of cynicism. As the crowd of angry white men encircles Atticus, who is guarding the innocent Tom Robinson in his cell, Scout does more than anyone else to quell the murderous mob and send it home. Her simple, naive words, her attempt to connect with Mr. Cunningham on a human and neighborly level, represent a belief in innate goodness and the power of community, and  it is just enough to disarm a group of angry men bent on taking the life of an innocent African-American man. (Click here to watch this pivotal scene; my apologies for the commercial at the beginning.)

That Tom Robinson ends up dying at the end of the novel for a crime he didn’t commit is part of To Kill a Mockingbird’s tragic impact. As readers, perhaps we can be cynical about that tragic message; but as actors, as characters in our own human drama and, most of all, as real-life community members, we cannot afford such cynicism. We must be like Scout if we want to survive.

Reader, I implore you: give up your cynicism. Today, I ask you to believe in something grander than your own cleverness in discovering the duplicity of others, and to act in good faith, even though no discernible good may come out of your actions in your lifetime. Be naive, if you have to. But say good-bye to cynicism today, this minute. I am certain the generation that comes after us will thank you for it.

 

 

 

 

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On Finally Reading Paradise Lost

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Illustration from Wikimedia

Although I’ve never been to a literary cocktail party, I have a certain game I imagine playing at one. (The truth is, I’ve never been to any kind of cocktail party, which is somewhat disappointing. As a youngster, I’d imagined that cocktail parties, like falling into a pit of quicksand, would be a regular part of adult life, and that I would be expected to know how to behave in both situations. Obviously, I was misinformed.)

At any rate, the game goes like this. A bunch of well-read people get together and confess what books they should have read but never have. It would, for those of us who teach literature for a living, be a daring game, one in which public humiliation might lie in wait for us. Who would want to admit, for example, that they had never actually read The Grapes of Wrath? Might the heavens open up, allowing peals of scandalized laughter to descend, if one were to admit, in public, that one’s copy of The Sound and the Fury had never actually been opened? It seemed to me an amusing game to play in my mind, something like Truth or Dare for grown-ups. In an alternate version of the game, I imagine myself going through life with a large deck of cards, each of which has a title printed in large, Gothic letters on its back declaring my inadequacy: Catch-22. Slaughterhouse Five. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ulysses. The list goes on and on.

The other day, I began to work at removing one of the cards from my deck of failure. This did not occur, however, as a determined plan at self-improvement. I am far beyond that stage in my life, having settled into a lazy, perhaps defeatist, sense of who I am and what I can do. Rather, it all began with an invitation to visit a friend’s high school classroom to discuss a play I’d written about C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. The class had been reading The Screwtape Letters, and, to prepare for my visit, I reread the book.

Lewis was a gifted satirist, there’s no doubt about it. His characterization of Screwtape, the devil who gives advice to his nephew Wormwood, instructing him on how to secure the soul of his “patient,” is brilliant, and I found myself wondering how he had been able to create such an enjoyable character out of a devil. The answer came quickly enough: Lewis had, after all written a short book called A Preface to Paradise Lost He must have known the poem intimately. And, although I’d never read Milton’s epic poem in its entirety, I’d read bits of it–enough to teach it to college sophomores in the British Literature survey classes I regularly taught. (Another guilty confession: I’ve taught the poem, yet never read all of it.) I guessed, and I think I’m right, that Lewis’s depiction of Screwtape owes a good deal to Milton’s depiction of Satan.

But the question remains: why had I never read Paradise Lost? After all, I’d been teaching it for decades. The omission is nothing short of scandalous. Actually, back in graduate school, I had tried to sign up for an entire class on Milton, but the class was oversubscribed, and we students were required to apply to take it by submitting a letter stating why we thought we should be allowed into it. My letter simply said I knew next to nothing about Milton, that I expected that I would have to teach his work, and that I thought that was a good enough reason to be admitted to the class.

It wasn’t.

And so I never read the whole poem. It turns out that I had gleaned enough information from my own undergraduate days to fumble through a few class days on Paradise Lost when I began to teach English literature, and so I just relied on that. Over the years, a colleague introduced me to a few of Milton’s poems (notably “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”), and then, much later, gave me his Milton texts when he retired and cleaned out his office, but they stayed on my shelf, treasured more because they reminded me of my colleague than for any interest I had in reading them.

And then one of my former students took a class on Milton, and suggested we read Paradise Lost together. Neither of us had the time, however, and the plan fell by the wayside. But apparently the idea stayed with me, because last week, as soon as I finished The Screwtape Letters, I dove into Paradise Lost, forcing myself to progress through it. I was helped by the fact that I was teaching Shakespeare, so the language wasn’t nearly as foreign as it could have been. When I found my attention wandering, bored by elaborate rhetorical constructions and erudite footnotes, I read Milton’s words out loud, and this kept me on track. I kept plodding through the poem, line by line, book by book, not worrying whether I was understanding all of it. I studiously ignored the footnotes, for the most part, but read my colleague’s hand-written marginal notes with affection.

And now I can say that I have read Paradise Lost, and that it wasn’t all that bad. I enjoyed parts of it. I hated the parts that were clearly anti-feminist, wishing someone else–maybe Ursula LeGuin or Virginia Woolf?–had dared to write Eve’s side of the story, since Milton had covered Adam’s point of view so thoroughly and unfairly. But as for filling in this gap in my education, I don’t feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The heavens did not open as I finished reading the last lines of the poem. The Angel Raphael did not come down and pat me on the back. Nor did the archangel Michael arrive with a flaming sword to celebrate my victory over the text. I simply read about Adam and Eve departing Eden, sighed, and closed the book.

Did I learn anything? Just this: those things we put off because they seem too difficult are often not that difficult after all. Perhaps other people want to make us feel that they are difficult so as to make themselves feel smarter, or more worthy, than we are. In all likelihood, they aren’t. But I realize now that reading is a skill that we must train for–much like long-distance running– and I believe that as a society our reading endurance is steadily declining. We are clearly losing the taste for, and consequently the ability to, read long and rambling texts, settling instead for shorter and easier ones, and this will have serious consequences for our intellectual and public life in the coming years. Nevertheless, I believe that if we tackle our reading with confidence and optimism–if we keep to our task, pushing forward one line, even one word, at a time–we can make it through even the densest of texts.

The best part of the whole experience is that I’m now ready to discuss Paradise Lost with my former student. And for this, rather than for finally reading the whole poem, I think C.S. Lewis would be proud of me.

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Mere Democracy

In 1952, OxforC.s.lewis3d don C.S. Lewis, famous now for having written his seven-book series about Narnia, published a book called Mere Christianity, which remains one of his most popular works. Lewis himself was no theologian; although he had a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Oxford in 1922, he never pursued the study of it, focusing instead on English literature. As a scholar, he is remembered for his contributions to Renaissance and medieval literary studies, not for his forays into theology. In fact, some critics find fault with his works on Christianity; while it is true that he successfully boiled Christian theology down to its most important features, his simplification of difficult concepts may have gone too far for some heavy-hitting theologians. And yet despite these criticisms, Mere Christianity is celebrated and beloved today for being the book that brought countless non-believers to accept Christianity.

I am not interested in Mere Christianity for its Christian message, however, but rather for its ideological goal and impact. I believe that what Lewis did for Christianity–boiling it down to its major premises, its essential elements–is a brilliant tactic and could, if used correctly, help save civilization as we know it. In short, I want to urge one of my readers to write a similar book. This book, however, would be called Mere Democracy.

Why is such a book needed? The answer is obvious: in the wake of decades of corruption, party politics, winner-take-all contests, and win-at-any-cost stratagems, American democracy is ailing. Indeed, some pundits have even declared it dead. Lewis probably feared the same end for Christianity, yet, instead of giving up, he set to work and succeeded in revitalizing the Christian religion with his book.

What would Mere Democracy look like? Here’s my idea: It would be a modest book written in plain language that spelled out the basic tenets of democracy. Rather than providing a lengthy history of democracy and a comparison of different types of government, Mere Democracy would explain to the masses–to those very people who should be safeguarding democracy–what democracy looks like without the corrupting shadow of gerrymandered districts, unlimited corporate lobbying, and mindless populism. It would work to educate and inform, in plain language, those people who are put off by elitism, arrogance, and entitlement. In short, Mere Democracy would spell out the very least a society must do in order to remain democratic. In doing so, it would of course be incomplete and reductive; in its drive towards simplicity and clarity, it would not satisfy political scientists or sociologists; but it could, like Lewis’s book, help millions of people see their world in a new and vital way and convert them into a new understanding of the best form of government humanity has yet discovered.

Somewhere in the blogosphere today is the person who could write this book. Is it you? If so, I urge you to get started. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but the clock is ticking, and we’re running out of time.

 

 

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To Be Read Before the Midterm Elections

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This year, my husband and I decided to host a foreign exchange student. “If a kid wants to come to the United States in these dark days,” we told each other, “let’s do all we can to show him or her that we are not the nation we appear to be under the present regime. Let’s welcome that kid with open arms and praise the bravery that brought him or her here.” And so hosting a foreign exchange student became part of my own private resistance to the 2016 election.

We were so enthusiastic, in fact, we offered to host two students. After all, our house is fairly big, we live quite close to the high school, and, most of all, our youngest son was a foreign exchange student in 2015, and I felt that it was my karmic duty to reciprocate in some way.

Our international experiment, as I called it, did not go well–but more on that in a later post. We are down to one foreign exchange student now, and things are going much, much better, but that’s not what this post is about. What I want to discuss here is something I’ve learned from being a host parent of a European teenager, a discovery that I think needs to be shared with other Americans. And I also want to share something that I’ve learned about myself.

Here is my discovery: Europeans do not understand what is happening here. They do not know how much we despise the present regime; they do not understand that we feel our country has been commandeered by a power elite that is aiming to enslave our population through hatred, racism, ignorance, and overpowering greed. They understand that Trump has a lot of opposition, but they do not comprehend the ways in which an outdated system of voting was manipulated (in all likelihood with foreign help) in order to take over our government. According to our student, who is admittedly young but was chosen by the German government to study our culture and government while on a scholarship here, the Women’s March in protest of the inauguration was not a focal point in European news, and pussy hats are virtually unknown there. The massive resistance that is part of our everyday lives simply isn’t understood in Western Europe.

We have tried to explain certain things to her. We have said that Trump’s election was so shocking and horrifying to us and to our friends that we did not leave the house for several days. We have compared the night of his election to the day on which JFK was assassinated: a moment which showed just how awful Americans can be and how easily our hopes for the future can be wiped out. We have explained that we are afraid to watch Tuesday’s election returns for fear that the 2016 election might have been a signpost for the future, and not a terrible accident, a result of complacency, laziness, and foreign interference.

I think she is beginning to understand. But more importantly, we have begun to understand, too. We understand now that the rest of the world thinks we just made a mistake in 2016, that Americans did something stupid and inexplicable–after all, our nation has done that so often. We are beginning to see that our sense of despair and anger, our horror at Trump’s policies and the Republicans’ willingness to comply with them, is not registering across the Atlantic. Our government has been hijacked, we tell our student, but she is only beginning to understand that.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned something about myself as well.

I love my country. Of course, I am not always proud to be an American. For forty years, I have criticized the United States; I have never withheld judgment on what I see as a culture overpowered by greed, smug ignorance, and rapacious, unfettered capitalism. I know our faults and our flaws, many of which go back to the days of the Puritans, resulting in the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, and the wholesale oppression of minorities. Clearly, our history contains many things to be ashamed of.

But there are things to be proud of as well: NASA, baseball, multicultural neighborhoods that are teeming with people of all ethnicities and languages, Muslims coming forward to help Jews, Jews coming forward to help Muslims, people protesting the actions of a cruel and oppressive government by massing in the streets, in airports, and at border resettlement centers. Last night, during dinner, I shouted the word “jazz!,” to the surprise of everyone at the table, then explained that it’s the one, truly original American art form. It’s a contribution to world culture that all Americans can be proud of.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to explain both to my student and to myself why I am afraid to watch the election returns on Tuesday night. Will I be overcome by despair again? Will I have to throw up my hands in disgust and say that as a country we deserve what we vote for, that our grand experiment in democracy is finally over? I’m not sure how I’ll bear that, considering how awful November 7, 2016, was for me.

But what if the opposite happens? How will I manage a blue victory, given that the thought of millions of people coming out to vote in the midterm elections to show they are not sheep, that they believe in right and wrong, that they will not be complicit with a government that is irresponsible, ignorant, and self-serving–how will I cope, given that this possibility also overwhelms me with emotion? Since the mere thought of this possibility makes me tear up–I can be very sentimental when confronted with evidence that human beings can be kind and decent–I think that either way, I might be in for some kind of an emotional collapse on Tuesday night.

(I will just add here that there’s another, minor, concern, of mine, too: I’m running for local office, and I will be watching election returns on Tuesday night to learn the results of my race. But the stakes are so much lower for that race that I am not expending much thought on it.)

So here’s to all of you out there who, like me, regard Tuesday’s election with an uneasy mixture of heavy dread and stubborn, overpowering hope. Let’s remember that we can take our country back and set it on the right path again. If we get out in strength on Tuesday, maybe that will be the very first step to re-fashioning our country into the nation we want it to be, the nation it needs to be.

Godspeed to us all.

 

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Some Advice for Dark Days and Troubling Times

Sleep eluded me for most of last night. Fear kept me awake–fear for my country, for myself, for my loved ones. Our democracy is in serious danger, and I am not sure what we can do to save it.

Our democratic institutions have been hijacked by politicians who believe in victory at any cost. In recent years, it has become more important to win at politics than to make good policies. And winning today means completely annihilating one’s opponent: no compromises, no concessions, no happy mediums.

When this kind of winning becomes the norm in politics, democracy loses. It’s as simple as that.

What can we do about this? Robert Reich urges us not to lose hope, and gives us 10 good reasons for his optimism. But this isn’t enough for me.

So I’ve made up a new political theory and I am acting on it. It goes like this: when the higher levels of government turn toxic, citizens must engage in local politics. Though we may feel like it, we gain nothing by withdrawing completely; in fact, doing so ensures that we leave government in the hands of those least competent to operate it. Instead, we should put our effort into protecting the very lowest,  most local, democratic institutions we have: city councils, county commissions, township boards.

In short, I believe that if we build our dedication to democracy from the bottom up, we may be able to save it.

To do this, we have to make certain that no race is ever uncontested. Democracy only works if we safeguard it, and one important way to protect it is to make sure that the electorate always has a choice between candidates. An election is not an election unless at least two candidates run.

I thought I would never enter the political arena again, but when I realized that my ward risked having an uncontested election for city council representative, I agreed to run. I felt it’s the right thing–indeed, the only thing–for me to do, considering my strong beliefs on the matter.

Whether I win or lose is not the point. The point is to get involved and to stay involved. In the weeks since I’ve worked on my campaign, I’ve learned a lot about my city’s government. I like what I see. It works. It functions as a democracy, although it would function even better if more people got involved and were interested in the issues it faced.

Will I be disappointed if I lose the election to my worthy opponent? I’m sure I will be, at least a little. But I will also be somewhat disappointed if I win. After all, serving in any public capacity is a lot of work and responsibility. As a city council representative, I could alienate some of my friends and neighbors because of the positions I take on issues, and I would hate to do that, so losing the election would not be the worst thing to happen to me. But either way, win or lose, I know that come November 6, I will have done my civic duty.  And that’s something I urge every single one of my readers to do as well.

Certainly these are dark and scary days for American democracy. But we can’t give up. We have to remember that engagement and action can help us save our democracy and ultimately our way of life.

So go learn about your local government. Volunteer for a committee. Attend a meeting or two. Or five or six.

The democracy you save may be your own.

 

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Six Rules for Reading (and Enjoying) Julius Caesar

I have always assumed that the best example of my argument that most people get Shakespeare plays all wrong would be Romeo and Juliet. But I have to admit I was mistaken. In fact, I think it is safe to posit that no other Shakespeare play is so maligned and misunderstood as Julius Caesar.

I think this is largely due to the way we teach the play in the United States. Of course, because we do teach the play in high school, Julius Caesar has always gotten tremendous exposure: almost everyone I’ve met has been forced to read the play during their high school career. In fact, I think it’s still on high school reading lists today. But that’s probably also exactly why it’s so misunderstood.

I’m not blaming high school teachers, because by and large they’re told to teach these plays without any adequate preparation. I suppose if anyone deserves blame, it’s the colleges that train teachers. But all blame aside, before I talk about what a great play it really is, and what a shame it is that most people summarily dismiss  Julius Caesar without ever really considering it, let’s look at why this has happened.

julius_caesarFirst of all, it goes without saying that making someone read a play is not a great way to get him or her to like it. Especially when that play is over 400 years old and written in (what seems to be) archaic language. But a still greater problem is that there is a tendency to use the play to teach Roman history, which is a serious mistake. (American high schools are not alone in this; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, criticized the play for not being realistic in its portrayal of Roman politics back in the early 1800s.) In short, far too many people associate this play with a bunch of men showing a great deal of thigh or swathed in endless yards of material, flipping their togas around like an adolescent girl tosses her hair over her shoulder. It’s all too distracting, to say the least.

So, in order to set us back on the right track and get more people to read this fine play,  I’ve made a little list of rules to follow that will help my readers get the most enjoyment, emotional and intellectual, from the play.

Rule Number One: Forget about Roman history when you read this play. Forget about looking for anachronisms and mistakes on the part of Shakespeare’s use of history. Forget everything you know about tribunes, plebeians, Cicero, and the Festival of Lupercalia. The fact is, the history of the play hardly matters at all. Rather, the only thing that matters is that you know in the beginning moments that Caesar will die and that, whatever his motives and his character, Marcus Brutus will pay for his part in Caesar’s assassination with his own life and reputation.

Rule Number Two: Recognize that this is one of Shakespeare’s most suspenseful plays. Our foreknowledge of events in the play, far from making it predictable and boring, provides an element of suspense that should excite the audience. Here we can point to Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, in which he explains that it’s the fact that the audience knows there’s a bomb hidden under a table that makes the scene so fascinating to watch, that makes every sentence, every facial expression count with the audience. It’s the fact that we know Julius Caesar is going to die on the Ides of March that makes his refusal to follow the advice of the soothsayer, his wife Calpurnia, and Artemidorus so interesting. We become invested in all of his words and actions, just as our knowledge that Brutus is going to lose everything makes us become invested in him as a character as well. A good production of this play, then, would highlight the suspenseful nature within it, allowing the audience to react with an emotional response rather than mere intellectual curiosity.

Rule Number Three: Understand that this play is, like Coriolanus, highly critical of the Roman mob. Individuals from the mob may be quite witty, as in the opening scene, when a mere cobbler gets the better of one of the Roman Tribunes, but taken as a whole, the mob is easily swayed by rhetoric, highly materialistic, and downright vicious. (In one often-excluded scene–III.iii–a poet is on his way to Caesar’s funeral when he is accosted by the crowd, mistaken for one of the conspirators, and carried off to be torn to pieces.) It’s almost as if this representation of mob mentality–the Elizabethan equivalent of populism, if you will–is something that Shakespeare introduces in 1599 in Julius Caesar, only to return to it nine years later to explore in greater detail in Coriolanus.

Rule Number Four: Recognize that this play, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, is misnamed. It is not about Julius Caesar. It’s really all about Marcus Brutus, who is the tragic hero of the play. He is doomed from the outset, because (1) it is his patriotism and his love of the Roman Republic, not a desire for gain, that drives him to commit murder; (2) he becomes enamored of his own reputation and convinces himself that it is his duty to commit murder and to break the law; (3) he falls victim to this egotism and loses everything because of it. Audience members really shouldn’t give a hoot about Julius Caesar; he’s a jerk who gets pretty much what he deserves. But Brutus is a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, a character whose every step, much like Oedipus, takes him further and further into his own doom. The soliloquies Brutus speaks are similar to those in Macbeth, revealing a character that is not inherently bad but rather deficient in logic, self-awareness, and respect for others. In fact, in many ways, it’s interesting to look at Julius Caesar as a rough draft not only of Coriolanus but of Macbeth as well.

Rule Number Five: Appreciate the dark comedy in the play. Shakespeare plays with his audience from the outset, in the comic first scene between the workmen and the Roman Tribunes, but another great comedic scene is Act IV, scene iii, when Brutus and Cassius meet up before the big battle and end up in an argument that resembles nothing more than a couple of young boys squabbling, even descending into a “did not, did so” level. This scene would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high, and if we didn’t know that disaster was imminent.

Rule Number Six: Experience the play without preconceptions, without the baggage that undoubtedly is left over from your tenth-grade English class. Once you do this, you’ll realize that the play is timely. It explores some really pertinent questions, ones which societies have dealt with time and time again, and which we are dealing with at this very moment. For example, when is it permissible to commit a wrong in order for the greater good to benefit? (surely Immanuel Kant would have something to say about this, along with Jeremy Bentham). How secure is a republic when its citizens are poor thinkers who can be swayed by mere rhetoric and emotionalism instead of reason? What course of action should be taken when a megalomaniac takes over an entire nation, and no one has the guts to stop him through any legal or offical means?

In the end, Brutus’s tragedy is that he immolates his personal, individual self in his public and civic responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is the inability to understand this sacrifice and the conflict it creates, not the play’s historical setting in a distant and hazy past, that has made it inaccessible for generations of American high school students. Too many decades have gone by since civic responsibility has been considered an important element in our education, with the sad but inevitable result that several generations of students can no longer understand the real tragedy in this play, which is certainly not the assassination of Julius Caesar.

But perhaps this is about to change. In the last few months, we’ve been witnessing a new generation teaching themselves about civic involvement, since no one will teach it to them. And as I consider the brave civic movement begun by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I am hopeful that from now on it’s just possible that reading Julius Caesar could become not a wasted module in an English class, but the single most important reading experience in a high-school student’s career.

 

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The Ideological Work of Television and the Zombie Apocalyse

I have long argued that television programs, particularly situation comedies, perform an important piece of ideological work in our culture. Far from being pure entertainment, they introduce ideas that society may not want to confront. Of course, no one who can remember All in the Family or Murphy Brown will dispute this; but we may well be surprised to realize that television has always done this, even from its earliest days.

The two examples I have chosen to demonstrate this theory come from The Honeymooners (1955) and Bewitched (1964-1972). Back in the 1950s and ’60s, these sitcoms had to code their messages, making them available only to subtle and clever television viewers. In fact, the entire premise of both series rests on the implicit understanding that while women may have to kow-tow to their husbands, they are in fact the brains in their marriages. After all, Samantha is presumably all-powerful, yet she chooses to remain with the awkward and pouty Darren. Alice Kramden’s situation is less enviable–she is constrained by the 1950s dictum that proclaims women to be subservient to their husbands–but at the same time, she demonstrates to herself, to Ralph, and most importantly, to the audience, that she is in fact much more capable than Ralph and that he is head of the household only because of society awards him this position.

Ideological work is hidden, or coded, in early sitcoms, but it’s still there. For example, in The Honeymooners, in Episode 4 (“A Woman’s Work is Never Done”), Alice decides to get a job after Ralph berates her for not being able to keep up with the housework, while telling him it’s easier to work outside the home than within it. Ralph ridicules the notion, but Alice succeeds quite well, and even earns enough money to hire a maid to carry out the household chores, a maid who turns out to be so efficient and sarcastic that Ralph begs Alice to quit and return to being a homemaker. The message here, years before either That Girl or The Mary Tyler Moore Show appear on television, is that women can indeed be successful in the professional world. This message might have been too revolutionary to appear without coding, but it is delivered nonetheless through this subtle means.

Perhaps more interesting is Episode 7 of the first season of Bewitched (“The Witches Are Out”), in which Darren’s work on an advertising campaign that features witches is critiqued by Samantha as being clichéd and, even worse, rife with prejudice. She takes to the streets to spearhead protests against the campaign, joining a picket line, clearly reflecting the actual protests that were taking place in 1964, when this episode first aired. Since it was too dangerous to talk openly about racial prejudice, the show used a fictional prejudice–against witches–that the viewers would still understand, though perhaps unconsciously.

Neither of these episodes were intentional about their ideological work: in early situation comedies, these shows’ writers merely reflected and refracted the social reality they observed. In other words, during the early years of television, shows didn’t consciously represent the women’s movement or the civil rights movement. They simply reflected and displaced the social trends that were present at the time of their creation and presented them in a non-threatening, palatable form for their viewers.

But by the mid-1970s and beyond, television changed and became more outspoken, taking on a more direct role in society, and at the same time becoming much less afraid to stand on a soap-box. The velvet gloves came off, and we grappled openly with all sorts of issues, from bigotry (All in the Family), to homosexuality (Will and Grace). However, I believe that television still uses coded messages from time to time, and I think I’ve found an example of one genre that horrifies me, and not for its intended reason.

Since the mid 2000s, zombie-themed shows and books have proliferated. I first noticed a fascination with zombies among my students in about 2005, and I found it strange that a genre that had lain dormant for so long was coming back to life (pardon the pun, please). Since then, we’ve had World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and The Walking Dead. Ever the cultural analyst, I wondered what this preoccupation with zombie infestation might represent: just what kind of ideological work is it performing? At first, I thought it might indicate a fear of contagion, of a swift-moving and deadly pandemic. After all, we’ve seen, in the last twenty years, outbreaks of swine and bird flu, SARS, and Ebola. It would certainly make sense for a fear of virulent and lethal illness to express itself as a zombie invasion.

But recently it dawned on me that the imagined zombie invasion might represent something far worse: an invasion of migrants. And, before you dismiss this idea, let me pose a question: Is it possible that the populist rhetoric directed against immigrants is connected, through a subtle, ideological sleight-of-hand, to the rise of the zombie genre in film and television?

After all, so much of zombie plots resemble the imagined threat of uncontrolled immigration: the influx of great numbers of threatening beings who are completely foreign to our way of thinking, who are willing to fight for resources, who will not give up easily, who make us just like them–and who must be destroyed at any cost. I think it’s just possible, in other words, that the present social climate of suspicion, of protectionism, of hostility towards outsiders, has been fostered and cultivated by our ideological immersion in the genre of the zombie plot. Again, as with early television situation comedies, I don’t think this is an intentional linkage on the part of the writers; but intentional or not, the ideological work gets done, and suddenly we find our culture and civilization hostile to the very force that made us what we Americans are.

About ten years ago, I had a student who adored horror films and books. I asked him how he could stand to be made frightened by what he loved and spent so much time on. His answer haunts me today: “This isn’t what frightens me,” he said, pointing to a Lovecraft novel. “What frightens me is the day-to-day things, such as how I’m going to pay my rent.” In the same vein, I’ll end by asking this question: what if the really frightening thing about zombie shows isn’t what happens to their characters, but what happens to us when we watch them?

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Anthony Trollope wants to know: Are you a Liberal or a Conservative?

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Anthony Trollope. Image from Wikipedia

There’s a lot of ink being spilled right now about the failure of liberal democracies, and I am guilty of pouring some of it myself. But it might be helpful to go back to redefine the two terms which invest so much of our discussions and arguments these days.

What, exactly, is the difference between liberal and conservative thought?

I’m not satisfied with responses that point to contemporary political positions: they are too fraught with bias, and thus don’t yield a reliable answer. In order to provide such a good answer, then, we will need to go back and define the terms themselves, to think about what it really means to be a liberal or a conservative.

And this proves quite tricky–so tricky, in fact, that although I first asked myself this question back in the 1980s, I have never been able to come up with a good answer. But thankfully, I don’t have to, because it turns out that Anthony Trollope provided an excellent answer back in 1876.

In his novel The Prime Minister, the Duke of Omnium, who is serving as the ineffective prime minister of Great Britain in a coalition government (and who fully realizes that nothing of consequence will be accomplished during his term of office) pauses to consider why people align with either the Liberal or the Conservative Party. In Chapter 68 (it is a very long novel), entitled “The Prime Minister’s Political Creed,” the duke questions his colleague Phineas Finn about why he is a liberal. (The duke, while obviously an aristocrat, is somewhat paradoxically a member of the Liberal Party.) In doing so, he reveals why he himself is a liberal:

I began life with the misfortune of a ready-made political creed. There was a seat in the House for me when I was twenty-on. Nobody took the trouble to ask my opinions. It was a matter of course that I should be a Liberal…. It was a tradition of the family, and was as inseparable from it as any of the titles which [we] had inherited…”

But now, at the apex of his political career, when he realizes that he will soon have to resign as prime minister, the duke thinks about what makes him a liberal. He begins by explaining what he considers conservative thought: the idea that God has fashioned the world in a certain way, and it is up to man to maintain that structure. The liberal thinker, says the duke, works to improve the world in order to reach a millenium (which I take to mean a Utopian period of human existence) in which the social and political order is perfected. However, this millenium, he says, “is so distant that we need not even think of it as possible.” He goes on to tell Phineas, “You are a Liberal because you know that it is not all as it ought to be.”

I think there’s quite a lot to learn from this chapter, even after though more than a century has passed since its publication. First of all, many of us begin our adult lives as liberals or conservatives simply because we have been handed those labels and told that they belong to us. Perhaps our parents were conservatives, so we identify as one–or perhaps we go the other way, rebelling against our parents and their beliefs. But I think it would be better for us, like the Duke of Omnium, to stop and think about why we behave as we do, and why we believe the things we believe.

When you simplify the issue as much as possible (I realize the danger of simplistic analysis, but it is sometimes worth the risk), the difference between the Liberal thinker and the Conservative one, as Trollope’s novel portrays it, is this: the conservative view holds that things were better in the past and should be maintained that way, while the liberal view holds that, however things were in the past, they are highly imperfect in the present and should be improved–and although a state of human perfection, while theoretically possible, is light years away, this is no reason to shirk the work involved in getting there.

In other words, the conservative view looks to the past, wanting to keep things as they are: stable, predictable, and functioning. After all, the past got us to the present, so it must work. The liberal view, in contrast, looks to the future, with a supreme confidence that improvement is possible in the human condition.

I endorse neither views at this point. I just want to posit a new way of looking at these terms to help open up a badly-needed space for discussion.

… But I also want to say that Anthony Trollope totally rocks the Victorian novel.

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The End of Democracy

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Chief Petoskey might agree that democracy is a failure.

It may be my bad luck, and my generation’s bad luck, to be alive at a time when we are witnessing the limits of democracy. We’ve had a good run–over two hundred years now–but it may be time to call it a day and start over with some new form of government.

I suppose I am as patriotic as anyone. There are two times in my life when I felt tears well up in my eyes solely because of my pride in being an American. One was after a three-week trip to Iceland, Scotland, and England in 1996, when I returned with my young family to Houston Intercontinental Airport. Waiting in customs, I noticed a babble of languages, and looking around, I saw myself surrounded by people of color, dressed in a variety of ways, many with headscarves or turbans. At that time, it was easy to imagine that these people, if not Americans themselves, would be welcomed as visitors to the United States, or perhaps as potential citizens. That was enough to make me sentimental about the diversity of my country, to be thankful to live in a country that valued all people.

(I will pass over for now the very real possibility—indeed, the near certainty—that this was simply a fiction, even at that time. My belief, however, was real enough to draw tears of pride from my eyes, which of course I quickly wiped away.)

The second time I became emotional with pride in my country was in about 2003 or 2004, when, as a union member from the local community college I stood in solidarity with nurses who were striking at the hospital. I was proud to do so—it is our right as Americans to stand and protest, as so many of us have recently found out. I was proud to be a citizen of a country that allows its citizens to congregate for such a purpose, despite the inconveniences that may be caused by it.

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen protests, but I haven’t taken part in them. I’ve supported them, but I have not been able to make myself participate in them. During the Women’s March, I stayed home, dissolved into a teary mess most of the day. But these were not tears of pride. Perhaps there was some pride mixed in, and admiration for the women who dedicated themselves to the cause, but there was also a feeling of profound despair at the need for such a march. It was the same thing with the March for Our Lives. What a beautiful expression of solidarity, but why should the people of this country need to march in order to protect our children, in order to stand up against an organization that should have no part in our electoral process, to protest the very electoral process that has been shown to be corrupt—not only because of foreign interference, but because of outrageously large campaign donations that fund and sway our elected officials?

Don’t get me wrong. To those of you who are participating in these movements, I want to say that I admire and love you for what you are doing. Yet I cannot help but feel that the need for such movements marks the decline of democracy, the end of this glorious experiment in civic rule that began over 200 years ago.

(Again, I will pass over the fact that this glorious experiment probably started, as so many others have, with the desire for personal gain on the part of the architects of the experiment.)

Democracy cannot work when it is corrupted by the desire for financial gain. It cannot work when the electorate is divided along the lines of hard-held, incontestable beliefs that brook no argument or discussion. It cannot work when our elected officials are, like the people who elect them, small-minded, fearful, and utterly dependent on large corporations who try to direct every facet of their lives and thoughts and are free to do so if they spend enough money on licit and illicit media campaigns.

Recently, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens called for the repeal of the Second Amendment. It may in fact be time for such a step. But I fear it may be time for a more drastic step: to admit that our democracy, such as it is, has failed, and that it is time to go back to the drawing board to find a new, more equitable, more humane way of living together in this world that we have created for ourselves.

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How I Became a Writer, part 1

I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a writer. Perhaps I didn’t care about writing back when I was too young to understand what being a writer meant–before I’d really learned to read, in those days when, as a young child, I read only the books  that were placed in my willing hands, those rhyming, oddly illustrated children’s books that were so common in the 1960s. It’s quite possible that back then I didn’t have a hankering  to join what I have come to consider the Great Conversation, that I was content to look and pass, not feeling compelled to offer something–some small tidbit at least–to the exchange of stories and ideas that has gone on for centuries now.

My first memory of reading was from the Little Bear books, which my father, an accountant, got by the cartload, since he worked for the publisher (I think?). I am confused about this, however. It’s just as likely that we had a surplus of these books laying around our house. I was the youngest of three children, after all, so it makes sense that children’s books would pile up, and that they would be handed off to me. I don’t remember actually learning to read, but I do remember the laughter that ensued when I tried to sound out “Chicago,” as well as having to struggle with the word “maybe,” which I pronounced incorrectly, with the accent on the “be” and not the “may.”

But these books certainly didn’t enchant me. That would have to wait for some years. In the meantime,  I remember seeing a copy of Julius Caesar on our dining room table, with its cover illustration featuring a lurid, bloody toga attracting more than a mere glance at it, and although I didn’t try to read Shakespeare’s misnamed tragedy, it couldn’t have been mere coincidence that I became enamored of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra, to such an extent that I would wrap myself in striped beach towels and stomp through our Brooklyn duplex declaring, in all seriousness, “I wish to be buried with Mark Anthony.” My elaborately crafted Cleopatra-fantasy imploded, however, when I convinced my second-grade class to put on a short play about Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony. (Is it possible that I wrote the play myself? That seems unlikely, but I cannot imagine that many age-suitable plays on that subject were available.) I was over the moon–until I got the news that I was to play Julius Caesar. And that was the end of that fantasy, much to the relief of my family.

The books that did grab my attention were a set of great books that my grandmother had20171225_142442 bought for her two children back in the 1930s: a set of all of Dickens, all of Twain, and some odds-and-ends, such as William M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, as well as a full set of encyclopedias. (I still have a few of the Dickens works, but most of the books were destroyed in a flooded warehouse back in the 1990s.) I am sure that my grandmother’s purchase was an investment in wishful thinking: I would swear an oath that neither my uncle nor my father ever read a word of these books. I am equally sure that I, feeling sorry for the books (which is something I still do–and explains why I sometimes check out books from the library that I have no interest in but will read because I think someone should pay them some attention), picked a few of them off the dusty shelf one summer and began to read them. I remember reading, and delighting in, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad long before I ever read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.

As the youngest child in the family, I was frequently left to my own devices, and that was fine with me. But I think I might have been a little lonely, a little too strange for children my own age, and this was something that my parents wouldn’t have noticed, not back in the 1960s and ’70s, when there was less attention placed on the lives of children. So it’s natural that the books became my friends. When I visited my father after my parents got divorced (there was no joint custody back then, which was delightful for me, as it meant that I was able to stay with my father in NYC for a huge swath of the summer vacation), I started reading through the set of Dickens. In doing so, I found a whole new set of friends and family. Even today, when I open a Dickens novel–any Dickens novel–I feel like I am at a family reunion full of quirky, oddball relatives. It is a wonderful feeling.

This oddly rambling blog post is doing a fine job of explaining how I became a reader, but it is completely missing what I set out to do: explain how I became a writer. That, I can see now, will have to wait for another post.

 

 

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