There is an old Jewish tale that says the fate of the world rests on 30 just and honest human beings. Without these people, everything that we know and love will collapse. And here’s the kicker: No one knows who these people are–not even the 30 just and honest people themselves. And consequently, we must all act as if we ourselves are one of those 30 just people, whose very existence makes it possible to repair the world (“tikkun olam”) — just in case we turn out to be one of those very necessary people.
Clearly we lost one of the 30 on Friday afternoon, when RBG died. Now we must all step up to the plate, because it may be that we ourselves are called on to replace her and be one of the 30 just men and women in the world whose very existence holds evil at bay.
It’s time to get to work, everyone. Live your ideals and your beliefs every day. Be like RBG.
The debate over whether to open schools is revealing an important question that has lurked just below the surface for a generation–indeed, perhaps for as long as free public education has existed in the United States: what is the purpose of our schools? Is it to teach people crucial skills and allow them to acquire important knowledge, or is it rather to provide a holding tank, a safe and dependable place for a part of the population that cannot yet care for themselves?
Some teachers take umbrage at the thought that K-12 schools are used as childcare centers; they say that they are not babysitters, and that the push to open schools is an attempt to get the economy going again by providing workers with childcare that is not otherwise available to them. There is truth in this assertion. But universities, too, have been used for the last fifty years as childcare centers of a sort, places where a group of people is deposited under the guise of acquiring a higher education until they are ready to enter the workforce, or until the working world is convinced to let them in. Our educational institutions, in other words, have been, at least for the last fifty years, both places of learning and care facilities at the same time.
It’s best if we accept this dual role of educational institutions, rather than rail against it. A K-12 school can be both a place where education occurs as well as a place where parents can send their children for safe care (school shootings and pandemics aside). A university or college can be a place to teach important skill sets, including knowledge that is difficult to acquire on one’s own, as well as a place where young adults are sent while they wait their turn to enter a work force that isn’t quite ready for them yet. This leads to the question of opening the schools: are they essential for our country? In the short-term, the answer is a resounding “yes”: providing such a safe space is essential in order to run the economy we’ve grown used to, one in which financial necessity compels parents to scramble to find childcare, as well as one in which young adults require an expensive university education merely to snag an entry-level job in a field that becomes outmoded within years.
In this sense, teachers and professors are indeed essential workers; they are, in fact, babysitters. (Note that I do not say “mere” babysitters. The term itself is a demeaning one, indicating that a caregiver’s job is completely passive, but anyone who has ever been around young children knows this is far from the truth. I will leave that topic for future post, however. At any rate, babysitting is at least as important a role in our society as being a university professor, perhaps much more so.) But at the same time they are caregivers, teachers are also purveyors of knowledge and skills, and we need to keep both functions in mind as we think about the job they do.
I’ll be honest: I can see no clear solution as to whether schools should be opening up in a few short weeks. Sadly, we have completely squandered the time we bought back in March, when schools were summarily shut down in order to stem the spread of Covid-19. We did not stop the disease from spreading, which is bad, but what is even worse is that we completely failed to create a workable plan for re-opening schools and instead just held our breath, hoping that the pandemic would simply die down or fade away. It didn’t have to be this way; the complete lack of leadership at the federal level is to blame for this awful situation. During this time, other countries’ schools have created solutions that we can learn from, and we must study them closely to find our own, but here is one simple takeaway: flexibility is the key to fighting this pandemic. As argued in Tomas Pueyo’s important article published the early days of the pandemic, we need to shift between strict containment measures, including lockdowns, and loosened restrictions, again and again until Covid-19 becomes manageable. This demands that we act with flexibility, becoming responsive to the current situation.
And here we find a heartbreaking irony: flexibility is precisely what is lacking in the educational institutions we have come to rely on for childcare. And this in turn is a direct result of the binary role of schools in our society and our unwillingness to recognize it. In other words, what matters in childcare is dependability, after all; we need to know that our children have a safe place to go with someone watching over them whenever we need to be at work. But as far as education goes, flexibility is the most important thing. If one learning method doesn’t work, a good teacher always has a host of other methods to try out. Learning itself has to be flexible, because knowledge is acquired through a series of attempts, failures, and (hopefully) successes; a good education should always provide its student with the ability to be flexible. In other words, critical thinking, simply described, is the ability to see a problem in a variety of ways in order to solve it. Flexibility, elasticity, and adaptability are excellent things in education, however unwelcome they may have become in the working world (or the political world, for that matter). I would even argue that ignoring the role of flexibility in education has actually led to the demise of its effectiveness in our country, as we came to rely on testing and objective-chasing rather than more organic approaches to teaching, but that, too, I will have to leave for another post, or to another blogger.
My point here is simply this: it isn’t necessarily bad for education to serve as child (or young adult) care, but not recognizing and accommodating this dual nature of our educational institutions will lead us to make faulty, even disastrous, choices as we move forward to confront our new future.
This pandemic, awful as it is, may well have good consequences. One of them, I hope, is the bright light it shines, often harshly, on the institutions and traditions we’ve come to accept so blithely through the years. Though it may be painful in the beginning, we can work to make these institutions work for our society much better than they have in the past. But the first step, as always, is to see things as they are, and in this case, we must accept the idea that schools have been necessary in this country not only because they teach the skills and knowledge that citizens of a democracy must have, but also because they provide childcare to people who need to work and otherwise could not afford to do so. Let us look at the situation clearly, transparently, and earnestly: only then can we hope to meet the challenges that face us in this difficult and unprecedented time.
Usually, I am not one to make grand claims for my discipline. There was a time, back when I was a young graduate student in the 1980s, that I would have; perhaps even more recently, I might have argued that understanding ideology through literary theory and criticism is essential to understanding current events and the conditions we live in. But I no longer believe that.
Perhaps in saying this publicly, I’m risking some sort of banishment from academia. Maybe I will have to undergo a ritual in which I am formally cashiered, like some kind of academic Alfred Dreyfus, although instead of having my sword broken in half and my military braids ripped to shreds, I will have my diploma yanked from my hands and trampled on the ground before my somber eyes. Yet unlike Dreyfus, I will have deserved such treatment, because I am in fact disloyal to my training: I don’t believe literary theory can save the world. I don’t think it’s necessary that we have more papers and books on esoteric subjects, nor do I think it’s realistic or useful for academics to participate in a market system in which the research they produce becomes a commodity in their quest for jobs, promotions, or grant opportunities. In this sense, I suppose I am indeed a traitor.
But recently I have realized, with the help of my friend and former student (thanks, Cari!), that literature classes are still important. In fact, I think studying literature can help save our way of life. You just have to look at it this way: it’s not the abstruse academic research that can save us, but rather the garden-variety study of literature that can prove essential to preserving democracy. Let me explain how.
I’ll begin, as any good scholar should, by pointing out the obvious. We are in a bad place in terms of political discourse–it doesn’t take a scholar to see that. Polarizing views have separated Americans into two discrete camps with very little chance of crossing the aisle to negotiate or compromise. Most people are unwilling to test their beliefs, for example, preferring to cling to them even in the face of contradictory evidence. As social psychologists Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris point out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.” They use the term “cognitive dissonance,” which means the sense of disorientation and even discomfort one feels when considering two opposing viewpoints, to explain why it is so hard for people to change their ideas.
To those of us who study literature, the term “cognitive dissonance” may be new, but the concept certainly is not. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, in an essay which is largely forgotten except for this sentence, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” (“The Crack-Up,” Esquire Magazine, February 1936). In addition, cognitive dissonance isn’t that far removed from an idea expressed by John Keats in a letter he wrote to his brothers back in 1817. He invents the term “Negative Capability” to describe the ability to remain in a liminal state of doubt and uncertainty without being driven to come to any conclusion and definitive belief. Negative capability, in other words, is the capacity to be flexible in our beliefs, to be capable of changing our minds.
I believe that the American public needs to develop negative capability, lots of it, and quickly, if we are to save our democracy.
But there’s a huge problem. Both Fitzgerald and Keats believe that this function is reserved only for geniuses. In their view, a person is born with this talent for tolerating cognitive dissonance: you either have it–in which case you are incredibly gifted–or you don’t. In contrast, Aronson and Tavris clearly believe it’s possible to develop a tolerance for cognitive dissonance: “Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty…” While their belief in our ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and to learn from it is encouraging, it is sobering that they do not provide a clear path toward fostering this tolerance.
So here’s where the study of literature comes in. In a good English class, when we study a text, whether it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Beowulf, students and teacher meet as more or less equals over the work of literature in an effort to find its meaning and its relevance. Certainly the teacher has more experience and knowledge, but this doesn’t–or shouldn’t–change the dynamic of the class: we are all partners in discovering what the text has to say in general, and to us, specifically. That is our task. In the course of this task, different ideas will be presented. Some interpretations will be rejected; some will be accepted. Some will be rejected, only to be later accepted, even after the space of years (see below for an example).
If we do it well, we will reach a point in the discussion where we consider several differrent suggestions and possibilities for interpretation. This is the moment during which we become experts in cognitive dissonance, as we relish interpretive uncertainty, examining each shiny new idea and interpretation with the delight of a child holding up gorgeously colored beads to the light. We may put a bead down, but it is only to take up another, different one–and we may well take up the discarded bead only to play with it some more.
The thing that makes the study of literature so important in this process is that it isn’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things. To my knowledge, no one has ever been shot for their interpretation of Hamlet; the preservation of life and limb does not hang on an precise explanation of Paradise Lost. If we use the study of literature as a classroom designed to increase our capacity for cognitive dissonance, in other words, we can dissipate the highly charged atmosphere that makes changing our minds so difficult. And once we get used to the process, when we know what it’s like to experience cognitive dissonance, it will be easier to for us to tolerate it in other parts of our lives, even in the sphere of public policy and politics.
If I seem to be writing with conviction (no cognitive dissonance here!), it’s because I have often experienced this negative capability in real time. I will give just two examples. The first one occurred during a class on mystery fiction, when we were discussing the role of gossip in detective novels, which then devolved into a discussion on the ethics of gossip. The class disagreed violently about whether gossip could be seen as good or neutral, or whether it was always bad. A loud (and I mean loud!) discussion ensued, with such force that a janitor felt compelled to pop his head into the classroom–something that I had never seen happen either before or since then–to ask if everything was ok. While other teachers might have felt that they had lost control of the classroom, I, perversely, believe that this might have been my most successful teaching moment ever. That so many students felt safe enough to weigh in, to argue and debate passionately about something that had so little real importance suggested to me that we were exercising and developing new critical aptitudes. Some of us, I believe, changed our minds as a result of that discussion. At the very least, I think many of us saw the topic in a different way than we had to begin with. This, of course, is the result of experiencing cognitive dissonance.
My second example is similar. At the end of one very successful course on Ernest Hemingway, my class and I adjourned for the semester to meet at a local bar, at which we continued our discussion about The Sun Also Rises. My student Cari and I got into a very heated discussion about whether the novel could be seen as a pilgrimage story. Cari said it was ; I vehemently disagreed. The argument was fierce and invigorating–so invigorating, as a matter of fact, that at one point a server came to inquire whether there was something wrong, and then a neighboring table began to take sides in the debate. (For the record, I live in Hemingway country, and everyone here has an opinion about him and his works.) Cari and I left the bar firmly ensconced in our own points of view, but a couple of years ago–some three years after the original argument occurred–I came to see it from Cari’s point of view, and I now agree with her that The Sun Also Rises can be seen as a sort of pilgrimage tale. It took a while, but I was able to change my mind.
It is this capacity to change one’s mind, I will argue, that is important, indeed, indispensable, for the democratic process to thrive.
In the end, it may well be that the chief contribution that good teachers of literature make to culture is this: we provide a safe and accessible place for people to learn what cognitive dissonance feels like, and in doing so, we can help them acquire a tolerance for it. This tolerance, in turn, leads to an increase in the ability to participate in civil discourse, which is itself the bedrock of democratic thought and process. In other words, you can invest in STEAM classes all you want, but if you really want to make people good citizens, do not forget about literature courses.
In view of this discovery of mine, I feel it’s my duty to host a noncredit literature class of sorts in the fall, a discussion-type newsletter that covers the great works of English literature–whatever that means–from Beowulf to the early Romantic period, in which discussion is paramount. If you’re interested or have suggestions, please let me know by commenting or messaging me, and I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop.
And in the meantime, keep your minds open! Cognitive dissonance, uncomfortable as it is, may just be what will keep democracy alive in the critical days to come.
Sam Cooke. Scroll down to link to “A Change is Gonna Come”
Although it sounds strange to say it, I am optimistic today. Of course, being in quarantine, my optimism comes and goes in erratic waves–often I am depressed, and worried, and downright frightened about the future. But this morning, I can see a silver lining, and I want to take a moment right now to share it with you, my readers.
I am more hopeful about the survival of the human race today than I was a week ago. Now this may seem strange when we consider that we are facing a pandemic that threatens a large portion of our population. I am terrified that deaths will start to climb fast in the United States, as they have elsewhere (is anyone else addicted to the worldometers coronavirus site)? It’s a scary time to be alive, there’s no doubt about it. But I need to share with you that this morning, I see some real hope for our future.
In the last week, we’ve seen sweeping change occur in the blink of an eye. We’ve seen schools close, athletic events — both professional and amateur — cancelled, and even restaurants and bars shut down. All of this has happened voluntarily, so to speak. No one’s out protesting in the streets about these closures, because we all know it’s necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Strangely enough, these changes have happened at the behest, not of the federal government, but of state and local governments. I applaud the courageous governors who have made these tough decisions, just as I deride the lack of leadership at the federal level. I am proud of our local community leaders, too, who are stepping up and not only following but also preparing to enforce these new rules, should any enforcement be necessary. In the last week, the federal government has become, a kind of inconsequential afterthought, a lazy bystander watching all these changes take effect. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to say that Washington has become irrelevant in the past last week.
And this is why I am optimistic. For eight years now, on and off, I’ve worked for change. I realized long ago that if the human race is to survive the threat of global climate change, we will have to make drastic adjustments in the way we live. During most of that time, I have been pessimistic about the possibility of enacting any change. To put it bluntly, in the eight years I’ve been working for systemic change, I’ve been able to achieve very little: the sum total of my labors at this point is getting myself elected to my tiny community’s city council and, if I am to be honest, this blog. It’s not much; in fact that’s a pitiful list of accomplishments. But this past week I have seen that change is possible, and that’s what gives me hope on this cloudy, cold spring morning, sitting at my desk in the middle of a pandemic.
Look at it this way. We are entering a very frightening period. Things are changing every moment. But the point is, we are capable of change. By the time we get through this coronavirus crisis, each one of us will have changed. More importantly, the country as a whole will change, too. Look at how much we have already changed in the span of a week. In a year’s time, we will be a more collective society, one in which we look out for each other even in the midst of isolation. We will begin to rebuild our federal government, which has been systematically dismantled over the past forty years, because we see now how very much we need it. We will create a global health system that works to prevent pandemics, that stops infectious disease before it can gain a toe-hold. We will change in other ways, too, which no one, especially me, can predict.
This shift will not happen all at once. In fact, it may not happen in my lifetime. But my children, who are young adults, are watching this change, this revolution, occur in real time. And because they are experiencing sweeping changes now, they will know throughout their lives that radical change is a real possibility, one which doesn’t rest on the charisma of one political candidate or another, but on a society of intelligent and educated people who heed scientists, and which is motivated not by profits but by safeguarding the lives of those they love. This generation and the next will remember these lessons, gaining important knowledge about the flexibility of the society they live in, and that knowledge will guide them into the future.
Change isn’t always good, though, and we should prepare ourselves for the probability, indeed the certainty, that things will get much worse before they get better. As the federal government rebuilds itself, it will make mistakes. Personal liberties have already been curtailed, and that is a serious matter. But sacrifice is often necessary for survival. By the time we emerge from this crisis, everyone–Republicans and Democrats alike–will look a whole lot more like Socialists, and that’s a good thing. We are experiencing a powerful correction, one which is painful now, but which just might allow us to make it into a future that requires nimbleness rather than ideology, that places the value of human lives higher than that of profits.
So that’s why I’m optimistic on this cold, gray morning. Perhaps it’s also because I’ve received proof of the kindness of strangers in the face of this crisis: James, from the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, has read my blog and offered to replace my poor little knitting bag as soon as he is able to get back to the Museum. That’s a wonderful story–and right now, there are millions of stories like that happening all over the world. Focus on these stories, readers, whenever you need a break from the news.
And one more thing–if you find this post helpful at all, feel free to share it on your own social media page. Who knows? It could help someone who needs a dose of old-fashioned optimism.
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.
As Americans wake up this morning to news of not one, but two, mass shootings, we know several things will happen in their wake. There will be many sad posts and tweets offering thoughts and prayers about this “tragic event,” much to the disgust of the people who have been arguing for gun control and reinforced regulations for decades now. (I put the words “tragic event” in quotations only because it seems that a true tragedy has an element of unpredictability in it. But Americans have lost the right to call these shootings “unpredictable.” They are now the norm, rather than the exception, and if there’s anything that should terrify us into action, this is it.) There will be renewed hand-wringing and protests as well. Perhaps these things will have an effect, but I worry that they won’t–not until we revolutionize the way we think about our political responsibilities.
In other words, I am arguing that these shootings are the result of the failure of democracy. And by failure, I don’t mean that people aren’t getting out and voting–that’s just part of the problem, although a very big part of it. Obviously we need to get voters activated so that we stop electing people who are creatures of large PACs like the NRA, who do not get their marching orders from shadowy figures donating to campaign election committees who then lurk in the background, controlling the politicians they’ve bought. We need to stop these things from happening, but we will not be able to until we face a hard truth: that voting for a candidate, no matter how decent and credible, will not be enough to correct this problem. And if we do not correct this problem, if we do not clean up our political environment, we will destroy it, just as we are destroying our natural environment.
Yet I believe we can solve this problem. The solution will come, however, only if people get out of their comfortable chairs, off their well-padded behinds, and become politically active. They will have to act, and they will have to act now. It will be tremendously difficult, but without a revolutionary shift in our attitude and behavior, our way of life is toast, and we may as well utter a few thoughts and prayers for democracy itself.
I get it: politics are dirty. They’ve always been dirty. But if we simply accept this situation without fighting it, we will be compelled not only to endure it, but to add to it, to reinforce the dirtiness, the graft, the corruption that’s taking hold of our state and federal governments and choking the life out of them. I know what I’m talking about. When I ran for office in 2012, I saw the look on people’s faces when I knocked on doors to introduce myself. It amounted to a couple of sneering questions–“what’s in it for you? Why would you do this?” These people never had the guts to state their questions outright, and I was too inexperienced at politics then to say, “Nothing. Nothing is in this for me. In fact, it’s costing me a good bit of money, as well as time spent with my family. But I’m doing this because I believe in democracy, and because I believe that it’s important for every citizen to do what she can to make democracy work.” To be honest, my own mother was averse to me running for office. I think she was somewhat ashamed of me, in fact. I will put it this way: if I had gone on a weekend bender, gotten drunk, stripped off my clothes and jumped into the fountain at the center of town, I think she would have had something like the same attitude. “Lord knows why she’s doing this–maybe she’ll get it out of her system,” she would say, shrugging her shoulders. Now, as much as I love my mother, this attitude is what is killing our democracy. Sure, there are corrupt people in politics. But they’re there because we have a hands-off, holier-than-thou attitude; heaven forbid we should sully our own pure hands by digging in and confronting the dirt in our political system. After decades of shrugging our shoulders and turning our backs to the corruption, we have gotten what we deserve: a filthy mass of self-serving bureaucrats who are lining their pockets, amassing more and more power, and doing whatever is required to to protect their interests–and all at the expense of the citizens of this country.
When will it stop? The answer is simple. This outrage will stop only when enough people stand up and decide that they are tired of it. Protests are good, but they are not enough. Voting is good, too, but it’s not enough, either. The situation will change for the better only when enough good people run for office, when they enter the halls of government to find that things are surely not perfect, but that they are not inherently evil or corrupt, and that with hard work and serious effort–and by this I do not mean just sticking a sign in our lawns or donating money to a candidate, although those things are important, too–we can change the face of politics in this land. If we work hard, and if we work together, we can make it an honorable thing to run for election. We can make running for office every bit as worthy of respect as winning an election. So here’s my short answer to the problems we face today: we need more good people running for office, and to make this happen, we have to learn to respect those people who do run. After all, we thank armed service members all the time for doing the jobs they do. Yet without good people in government, what is there for them to defend? A flag? An economy? A culture that is so emptied of ethics and decency that all that matters to it is winning, at whatever cost?
I’ll sign off with one final thought. The next time a political aspirant calls you or appears at your door or in a televised debate, instead of sneering, instead of wondering what their “real” motivation is, take one small step: thank them for their time and their service. It’s a small step, but maybe, having taken it, you might just feel yourself motivated to take another one and do more to save our democracy.
Because, as I’ve said before, democracy was never meant to be a spectator sport.
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.
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.
Sketch by Harry Furniss (1910). Image scanned by Philip V. Allingham and located on the Victorian Web
Last night, in shameful parody of democratic rule, the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping tax bill that undercuts the middle and lower classes, eviscerates health care, and attacks education–all while giving more money to the very entities that need it least: the wealthiest portion of the population and the corporations they control.
Instead of analyzing how this happened, or why the people we elect have sold us out to the people who keep them in office–their political campaign donors–I will make some grand generalizations here to shed light on how the United States has become what it is today, on December 2, 2017: a plutocracy.
Let’s start with history: in the late Bronze Age (1200 BC or so), the growth of powerful societies was carefully controlled by a simple custom. Simon Stoddart, Fellow of Magdalene College, Oxford, speaking on In Our Time, a BBC 4 radio podcast, explains that in these societies, “it was not permitted to become too powerful,” and if a king did attain too much wealth, he was expected to throw a huge feast to dispense his wealth, or even bury excess wealth in a hoard. Doing this would gain the king prestige and restore economic balance to the region, but it would also lead to some instability in succession, because great wealth could not be inherited. Yet the custom was apparently practiced by European Bronze Age societies as a levelling mechanism, to prevent one person or family from becoming too powerful.
Now why on earth would a powerful king consent to this kind of rule? The answer is simple: it was the custom of the time–he could not avoid doing so. And why was there such a custom? My guess is that early societies, living close to nature, observed a natural balance in the world they lived in, and they knew that no good could ever come from upsetting this balance. Think of it this way: early societies observed first-hand what happened if there were too many lambs born in a certain year, or if too much rain fell on crops–or if one man became too powerful.
Human societies unlearned this lesson when they became less reliant on the natural environment they inhabited. By the early modern age (1500 or so), people were beginning to control nature to meet their needs. Transportation was easier, so if you depleted your farm’s soil, you might move to another one. You could drain bogs to make more arable soil on which to grow more crops and raise more livestock. You could even, as so many people were beginning to do, move to the city and try your hand at making a living completely divorced from the cycle of nature.
By the late 1700s, we see the beginnings of the massive growth in urban areas that will characterize the world we live in today. It is no coincidence that we also see the rise of capitalism–as a philosophy and as a practice–at this time. And while the idea of capitalism is based on balance–the invisible hand adjusting the scales–it’s clear now that such an invisible hand was more wishful thinking than reality.
My point is that we have lost any notion of the need for balance in our political and economic systems. We have forgotten that when the very wealthy take more than they can possibly use, they leave other people in penury. Certainly the wealthy people have forgotten this law of nature and are simply grabbing all they can while the grabbing is good. The real problem is that too many people in the United States have identified with those wealthy people (how this has happened is interesting but must wait for another post), trusting that if the very wealthy are taken care of, they will be taken care of, too.
This tragically flawed logic is like thinking that in a shipwreck, if a powerful and athletic man manages to secure a place on a lifeboat, he will always make room for–in fact, he will always exert himself to save–the women, children, and less fortunate men who are still waving from the deck as it sinks below the waves. But here’s the problem: exerting oneself to save others demands a strong sense of either ethics or altruism, both of which seem to be lacking in the American upper class.
I don’t have any answers or solutions to offer. We live in dark and troubled times. To say that I despair for my country is not an exaggeration. Indeed, I never knew how much love I had for this country, this grand and imperfect experiment in democracy, until last year, when I witnessed what I think now might be the first chapter of its descent into decay and destruction. Last night, while we were sleeping, we may well have seen the second one.
But I do know one thing: one way or another, balance will be re-established. It may be a somewhat orderly process, in which case we will see a great deal of corrective legislation coming from a newly elected Congress in the early months of 2019…. Or it may come after a long, destructive, and painful struggle, with lives lost and ruined in the process.
Either way, fasten your seatbelts, Americans. It’s going to be a bumpy night.
French Resistance Fighters putting up posters. Image from “History in Photos” Blog (available here)
It’s been a year now since the election, and here I am, still fighting off a sense of futility and hopelessness about the future. During that time, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Accord in an astounding demonstration of willful ignorance about climate change, suffered a spate of horrific mass murders due to lax gun laws, and threatened nuclear war with North Korea. Suffice it to say that things are not going well.
But I should point out that the emphasis in my first sentence should be on the word “fighting,” because that’s what I’m doing these days: in my own small way, I’m waging a tiny war on some of the ignorance and egotism that seems to be ruling my country these days. Somewhere (I can’t find it anymore, and perhaps that’s just as well), the French novelist Léon Werth said that any action taken against tyranny, no matter how small, no matter how personal, helps to make things better. I’ve taken his words to heart, and I’m using this space to take stock of what I’ve done in the last year. I do this not to brag–far from it, because I know I’ve done far too little–but to remind myself that although I feel powerless too much of the time, I am not quite as powerless as I seem.
Let me begin, however, by saying what I haven’t done. I have not run for office. I did that in 2012, perhaps having had an inkling that things were not going well in my part of the country, but I was crushed by an unresponsive political system, apathy, and my own supreme unsuitability for the task. I am not ready to run for office again. In fact, I may never be ready to run again. I did write about my experience, however, and over the past year, I have encouraged other people, specifically women, to run for office. I’ve talked to a few activist groups about my experiences, and perhaps most important of all, I’ve donated to campaigns.
The thing I’ve done that merits any kind of discussion, however, is what I would call “resistance teaching”: going behind the lines of smug, self-satisfied ignorance, and using any tools I have to fight it. I still believe, naive as I am, that education can fight tyranny, injustice, and inequality. So I have engaged in a few activities that will, I hope, result in creating discussions, examining benighted attitudes, and opening up minds. I haven’t done anything too flamboyant, mind you–just a few actions that will hopefully develop into something more tangible in the months to come.
Here is my list:
In spite of feeling gloomy about the future, I’ve continued with my writing, because I felt that even in difficult times, people should concentrate on making art. I self-published my second novel, and I wrote about it here, explaining why self-publishing can be an act of resistance in and of itself.
I began to translate a novel about WW I, written by Léon Werth. I am now nearing my second revision of the translation. I have submitted a chapter of it to several fine magazines and received some nice rejection letters. I will be using my translation to present a short paper on WW I writing and Hemingway at the International Hemingway Conference in Paris this summer.
I’ve traveled–quite a bit. I went to Italy, to Wales, to France, to Dallas, to Boston, and some other places that I can’t remember now. Traveling is important to open up barriers, intellectual as well as political. For example, in France I learned that while we Americans thought of Emmanuel Macron as a kind of savior for the French, he was viewed with some real skepticism and even fear by his electorate. Sure, he was better than Marine LePen–but he was still an unknown quantity, and most French people I met expressed some degree of hesitation about endorsing him.
I directed a play for my community theatre group. Although it was hard and very time-consuming, I discovered that I really believe in the value of community theatre, where a group of individuals come together in a selfless (for the most part) effort to bring the words and ideas of a person long dead back to life. So what if audiences are tiny? It’s the work that matters, not the reception of it.
I gave a talk at the C.S. Lewis Festival, which you can read here. It was fun and stimulating, and I remembered just how much I enjoy thinking and exploring literature and the ideas that shape it.
All of these things are fine, but I think the most important thing I’ve done in the past year is going back into the classroom again, this time as a substitute to help out some friends, but also to engage in what I think of “resistance teaching.” As a substitute professor, as a lifelong learning instructor, I can engage students and encourage them to think without being bound by a syllabus or any other requirements. I can get behind the lines of bureaucratic structures and work to create an atmosphere of free discussion and intellectual exploration. It is small work, and it may not be very effective, but I have taken it on as my own work, my own idiosyncratic way of combating the heartless ignorance, the dangerous half-assed education that prevails in our society.
I have always loved the idea of Resistance Fighters. I just never thought I’d be one myself.