It is the end of the month, and as I click on what appear to be important articles in my social media feed, you, The New York Times, alert me that I have exhausted my free access to your news and commentary, including options for subscribing to your publication.
For a long time now, those messages have, frankly, irritated me because I have been blogging extensively as an educator about how your publication as a leader in mainstream media as well as other highly regarded outlets such as NPR and Education Week has been using my field of education as toilet paper.
Mainstream media consistently misrepresent the quality and problems with public education and teachers; routinely honor reform advocates, politicians, and organizations/think tanks with essentially no credibility; and remain trapped in vapid “both sides,” so-called objective, and press-release journalism.
Since I am just a blogger, only an 18-year veteran of public school teaching, and a current college professor and scholar of education, race, and poverty, I realize you really do not care about my informed positions, but since you are soliciting my money and my support, let me simply remind you here of some of my work highlighting your truly careless and harmful reporting:
- UPDATED: Mainstream Media in (Perpetual) Crisis: More Education Meat Grinder
- The New York Times in an Era of Kool-Aid Journalism
- Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia
However, I am not addressing this open letter to you, The New York Times, to rail yet again about your failures as a major aspect of the free press in the U.S.
For the first time, when you blocked access to an article and waved your subscription options before me, I paused because unlike NPR, you have done something that many are calling “bold,” but is actually what you should have always been doing: In a Swirl of ‘Untruths’ and ‘Falsehoods,’ Calling a Lie a Lie, Dan Barry.
If I may be so bold, let me counter your solicitation of my patronage with a request of my own.
The New York Times, as major voice in a fading field, could you please acknowledge the failure of mainstream media, a failure far more damaging than fake news, and along with your commitment to name lies as “lies,” could you please take a foundational stand for moving mainstream media in the U.S. toward rejecting “fair and balanced” and then embrace the tenets of being a critical free press?
Again, as a lowly blogger/educator/scholar, I know my voice really doesn’t matter, but I have laid out this problem often:
- When Fake Is Real and Real Is Fake: More on Crossing the Bigfoot Line
- Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy
- U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press
- My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2
- Invoking “Oliver Rule (Expanded)” for Education Reform Debate
- O, Free Press, Where Art Thou?
I am very cautiously willing to crack open the door I have long ago closed about the failures of mainstream media, beholden to our consumer society, because of your willingness to do something that any ethical person would do—confront lies, especially from the highest levels of our society.
But as I detail above in a recent blog, about the same time you made your stance about lies, you published a truly awful and harmful article about people living in poverty and depending on government assistance.
It was a hate piece that feeds the very lowest stereotypes (hint: lies) about poor people as well as triggering racism; others as I link in my piece have shown that the article was both filled with gross stereotypes and factually misrepresented the study it cited.
So, thank you for pointing out Trump’s lies, but as I was admonished as a child, when you point a finger at someone, three are pointing back at you.
Will you simultaneously clean your own house, become a leader for your field in the pursuit of a critical free press, as you challenge the current administration?
If yes, I will eagerly open the door, and subscribe with glee.
Sam Waterston: The danger of Trump’s constant lying
Once I posted a reader for Trumplandia, based on the increased sales of George Orwell’s 1984 as well as the related thought pieces on important texts from Orwell and other writers, I was not surprised by the expected response calling for teachers and classrooms to be somehow politically neutral.
I have rejected this idea often, focusing on Howard Zinn’s brilliant metaphor of being unable to remain neutral on a moving train. Both calling for no politics in any context and taking a neutral stance are, in fact, political themselves—the former is a political strategy to deny some Others their politics while imposing your own and the latter is the politics of passively endorsing the status quo (in a society where racism and sexism, for example, continue to thrive, being neutral is an indirect endorsement of both).
Education and journalism—universal free public education and the free press—share many important and disturbing qualities: they are essential to the creation and preservation of a free and equitable people, they remain mostly unachieved in the U.S. in practice because they are often the tools of powerful people and forces who distort their ideal contributions to democracy and equity, and at the heart of that failure (we have failed them; they have not failed us) is the shared traditional code of education/teachers and journalism/journalists assuming neutral poses, being forced into a state of objectively presenting both sides in a fair and balanced way.
Particularly in the post-truth times we now find ourselves—and I argue we are here because of our failures in education and journalism—demanding that educators and journalists remain neutral is not the right goal and not actually how either functions.
In fact, education and journalism are always political, and in most contexts, educators and journalists routinely break the rule of neutrality—and thus, when anyone wags a finger and exclaims “We must be fair and balanced! Show both sides!” the truth is not that educators or journalists are being ideological or biased, but that someone in power feels that his/her politics is being challenged.
Let me illustrate in both education and journalism, starting with the media.
As I have noted before, when we compare the Ray Rice inspired public debate about domestic abuse to the Adrian Peterson motivated public debate about corporal punishment, the unbiased press myth is completely unmasked because domestic abuse (men hitting and psychologically abusing women) was entirely examined throughout the media as wrong (no pro-abuse side aired) while that same media almost exclusively presented corporal punishment as a debate with a fair and balanced presentation of both sides to adults hitting children.
What is clear here is incredibly disturbing: The media, in fact, make decisions about when to honor credible positions, when to reject or even not cover invalidated and unethical positions, and when to shrink back into the “both sides” cover.
While decades of research and the same ethical concerns about power and abuse related to rejecting domestic abuse entirely refute corporal punishment, the media have chosen to remain neutral on a moving train aimed at the health and well being of powerless children.
In other words, when media shirks its role in creating and maintaining a free and equitable people behind its tin shield of objectivity—think about always framing evolution or climate change as debates, as if “both sides” are equally credible when they are not—this is a dishonest pose because the media routinely take sides.
Finally, I want to highlight that education represents this same dishonest dynamic—claiming to be apolitical, or aspiring to be apolitical, while often taking sides.
Unless I am misreading the current mood of the country, the rise of interest in 1984 and other works of literature similar to Orwell’s is along a spectrum of concern about to fear of the rise of fascism and totalitarianism. Concurrently, with the public discussions about fake news and post-truth, we are experiencing a renaissance in examining how power and language are inseparable.
So what does it mean when teachers call for presenting both side of this debate when we bring politically charged novels by Orwell or Margaret Atwood into high school and college classes?
Before answering, let me offer a few examples from typical lessons found in high schools for virtually every student.
Both the Holocaust and slavery in the U.S. are taught as foundational content in anyone’s education; these are disturbing topics, and hard issues.
When we teach the Holocaust, notably through Night by Elie Wiesel in an English course, do we rush to have students read Hitler’s Mein Kamft to fairly represent both sides, treating each position as morally equivalent, allowing our students to choose whichever position she/he wishes?
When we teach U.S. slavery, possibly having students read Frederick Douglass, do we also find eugenicists’ and racists’ declarations demonizing blacks to fairly represent both sides, treating each position as morally equivalent, allowing our students to choose whichever position she/he wishes?
As in the media, educators at all levels routinely take sides—the answer to the two questions above reveal.
And thus, returning to the push back to my Trumplandia reader, I am lost on how or why educators would find ways to present pro-fascist ideas to balance literature study about the threats of fascism and totalitarianism.
Using Orwell and all sorts of powerful literature to help students on the cusp of or early in their roles as active participants in a democracy to better read the world and better act on that world in informed and ethical ways is the very essence of politics, one not corrupted by simplistic partisan politics of endorsing Democrats  or Republicans (which is worth resisting in education and journalism).
In 2017, the U.S. and even the entire world are faced with whether or not we truly believe in freedom and equity, whether or not we are willing to invest in the institutions that can leverage both that freedom and equity—institutions such as formal education and the media. And we have been here before, in the same words and the same actions. 
If the answer is yes, then our resolve must be linked to demanding that our teachers and journalists are grounded in taking informed and ethical stands, not the dishonest and uncritical pose of objectivity.
As I have shown above, neither is really being neutral now, but instead, pulling out the objective card only when it serves the interest of the status quo.
Critical educators and critical journalists must not serve the whims of power and money, and must be transparent in their pursuit of credible evidence and ethical behavior.
To frame everything as a debate with equally credible antithetical sides is dishonest and insufficient for the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Teachers and journalists are always political agents; both professions must choose in whose interest they are willing to work.
The neutral pose by either is to take a seat on the train, to keep eyes down, and to allow the train to rumble along as if the tracks are not leading to a cliff.
Pretending that cliff isn’t now on our horizon will not stop the train from crashing on the rocks of the coming abyss.
 My political work is not partisan, for example, as I have been warning about the Orwellian failures of political parties for many years; see Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures by Paul Thomas.
George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Is Suddenly a Best-Seller, Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura
Orwell’s “1984” and Trump’s America, Adam Gopnik
1984, George Orwell
The Orwell essay that’s even more pertinent than “1984” right now, Maxwell Strachan
Politics and the English Language, George Orwell
Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics, Alexandra Alter
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis
On Jan. 20, Paste ran a clever article titled “An Inaugural Day Message via the Words of R.E.M.” The piece creates a narrative about politics and life by jumbling together and rearranging phrases culled from the Athens, Georgia, band’s song lyrics. Workload-wise, the 2400-word piece is impressive; mixing and matching sentiments from a 30-plus-year career certainly isn’t easy….
The last record R.E.M. released via I.R.S. Records — and the first LP the band recorded with producer Scott Litt — “Document” addresses the corrupting nature of money; political witch hunts concerning free speech; circumstances that are both bewildering and unprecedented; and economic and employment oppression. Appropriately, the record’s music is glinting and electrified, and nods to post-punk, folk, funk and fiery rock ‘n’ roll….
In 2003, Stipe admitted that “Disturbance at the Heron House” is his “take” on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”…
“That song is so fucking political, and it’s so appropriate to what’s going on right now,” he told Filter. “Like, the kind of arrogance that some of the policy makers and world leaders are carrying with them right now is, I think, reflective of the very worst of the United States. It’s that teenage arrogance, as a young country, the know-it-all-kind of thing. That makes me crazy.”
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Additional Recommended Texts
Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler
Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
I am at the annual South Carolina Council Teachers of English conference in Kiawah, SC.
This has become the “Glad You’re Alive Tour” since this conference is composed of dozens of my friends and colleagues, most of whom know about my recent car/bicycle accident but haven’t seen me in person since then.
Today is also day 2, year 56.
As I challenged myself in my most recent poem: “who writes about turning 56?”
I am not entirely sure what has spurred this burst of narcissism, this navel-gazing—aging or the accident, or some combination.
Both, I am sure, have flashed mortality before me more brilliantly than ever. The consequences of that are paradoxical, an urgency to notice every moment and a dull realization I am now confronted with way too much time far too often.
The persistent back-handed compliments of my adult life have revolved around how much I accomplish, the praise a thin veil for the nudges that something must be sacrificed to write and publish so much.
But few people ever saw the full experience of me who writes every day and then also cycles 10-15 hours a week, all year, for about 30 years.
The very perverse secret to my productivity has always been that I cram so much into every day that it forces me to be efficient and productive. My motor runs far too high, and I suffer for that with trouble sleeping and pervasive anxiety.
Day 2, year 56 also marks a little over a month with a fractured pelvis, a mostly stationary life that now has huge chunks of time that once was devoted to my bicycle.
I am not a stationary person. I am not one who enjoys free time.
This has been the sort of hell on earth that my existential leanings recognized was the human condition, but this experience has kicked my ass with a vengeance.
The greatest insult added to injury has been that my only refuge for exercise has been riding the recumbent stationary exercise bicycle in the past few days.
I detest exercise bicycles. I loathe exercising inside.
My life as a cyclist has had life-giving qualities I have recognized only in hindsight.
The constant motion of cycling and the hours cycling requires are irreplaceable balms for my OCD and ADHD.
And cycling outside, in the most glorious thing of this world, the sun, is my only real defense against depression. I probably have seasonal affective disorder, and nothing keeps me closer to the boundaries of happiness as sunshine does.
As awful as the exercise bicycle is, this has relieved the pain that has plagued me since being hit by the car, and I also have begun to sleep better (although I have never slept well).
Here at the conference, my return to exercise has been interrupted again, although only for a couple days, but I feel the same creeping anxiety that has defined my life for 30 years when I fear I cannot ride my bicycle as planned.
So I am here on my “Glad You’re Alive Tour,” and the thing that I know has changed in my life is I notice people looking at me as I never have before.
It began in the ER when family arrived.
Maybe it was the accident, or growing older, or a combination of both—but I see other people and myself now in ways that are more distinct.
Anxiety, you see, is being always prisoner to what may come next, to be alienated from the moment.
Day 2, year 56, and I am now being newly introduced to the moment.
The moment yesterday morning when I found on Facebook the video of my granddaughter posted by my daughter in which Skylar is telling me happy birthday, that she loves me.
After a horrifying nose bleed on the morning of my birthday, I sat on the couch and cried hard.
I am not sure I know what to do with that, but I am more eager than ever to try.
The accident has lowered the bar, people are glad I am alive, and I am filled nearly to bursting that they are glad and that I too am glad to be here.
Some in the public thinking business have posited that Donald Trump is not a half-cocked loon, but a brilliant manipulator of the media, and thus the entire U.S., over which he now presides.
Their basis for these claims is showing how he has artfully shot out Tweets perfectly timed to overshadow, these pundits argue, more substantive issues that the media should be addressing.
While I am not sure if I buy these pronouncements about Trump, I am certain about the power of distraction.
While the same punditry setting out to deconstruct Trumplandia claims that fake news is itself the distraction, as Sarah Kendzior confronts, the histrionics about fake news are distracting us from a very real and very ugly truth: having crossed the Bigfoot line, mainstream media, not fake news, spawned Trumplandia.
Let me illustrate.
Consider the lede from Woman A Leading Authority On What Shouldn’t Be In Poor People’s Grocery Carts:
With her remarkable ability to determine exactly how others should be allocating their limited resources for food, local woman Carol Gaither is considered to be one of the foremost authorities on what poor people should and should not have in their grocery carts, sources said Thursday.
From 2014, this is satire from The Onion, a publication in the broad family of fake news (although satire has not the malicious intent of the more recently purposefully placed fake news designed to be click-bait and make money).
What this satirizes, however, is incredibly important since it challenges the mostly misguided and nasty stereotypes that many if not most Americans believe about people who are poor: it is the fault of the poor, laziness, that they are impoverished, and thus, they do not deserve the same things hard working people do deserve (as in luxuries such as sweets).
We might argue that no reasonable person would believe a story from The Onion to be true, but it happens, and well before all the hand-wringing about fake news and presidential politics.
Yet, what is far more disturbing is that despite concurrent charges the sky is falling because the expert is dead, the U.S. still functions with an expert class of media, the primary cable news networks such as Fox and CNN as well as the last surviving newspapers, notably The New York Times.
While many may cast aspersions on the “liberal media,” most people remain solidly faithful that the NYT is reporting credibly.
And here is the irony: the NYT and mainstream media are overwhelmingly meeting the standards of mainstream media, and those standards of “both sides” and objective journalism are far more harmful and dangerous than fake news.
Just one week before Trump’s inauguration, the NYT published In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda, which in only a few days prompted this from state government:
House Bill 43 would prohibit people from using food stamps to purchase items high in calories, sugar or fat, according to the Tennessean. That would include soda, ice cream, candy, cookies and cake.
However, there is more indirect truth in the satirical The Onion article than in the NYT article, as Joe Soss reports:
In a New York Times story over the weekend, Anahad O’Connor massages and misreports a USDA study to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes about food stamps. For his trouble, the editors placed it on the front page. Readers of the newspaper of record learn that the end result of tax dollars spent on food assistance is a grocery cart full of soda. No exaggeration. The inside headline for the story is “What’s in the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household? Lots of Sugary Soda,” and the front-page illustration shows a shopping cart containing almost nothing but two-liter pop bottles.
Yes, the key words above are “misreports” and “stereotypes.”
Let’s be clear here: this is nonsense. It’s a political hack job against a program that helps millions of Americans feed themselves, and we should all be outraged that the New York Times has disguised it as a piece of factual news reporting on its front page.
There are two major problems here. First, O’Connor misrepresents the findings of the USDA report. Second, O’Connor’s article is a case study in the dark arts of making biased reporting appear even-handed. Let’s start with the facts.
Not as sexy, and not what the general public believes, the USDA report actually has a much different message:
A November 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture examined the food shopping patterns of American households who currently receive nutrition assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) compared with those not receiving aid. Its central finding? “There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized.”
Vallas and Robins note as well that the NYT/O’Connor misreporting is about more than feeding misguided stereotypes about people in poverty:
Beyond the article’s inaccuracies, there is a broader problem with this kind of reporting. It reinforces an “us versus them” narrative—as though “the poor” are a stagnant class of Americans permanently dependent on aid programs. The New York Times’ own past reporting has shown that this simply isn’t the case. Research by Mark Rank, which the paper featured in 2013, shows that four in five Americans will face at least a year of significant economic insecurity during their working years. And analysis by the White House Council on Economic Advisers finds that 70 percent of Americans will turn to a means-tested safety net program such as nutrition assistance at some point during their lives.
Now if we return to our current gnashing of teeth about the rise of fake news and the death of the expert, we should be confronting a couple far more pressing facts:
- Mainstream media are mostly conducting press-release journalism; are often bending to the market and not reaching for truth, justice, and the American way; and fail our democracy because of traditional norms of objectivity and “both sides” journalism.
- The public in the U.S. is not anti-expert, but seeking the appearance of expertise  that confirms what they already believe—even when what they believe is total hogwash, and worse (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.).
Maybe we have a really ugly paradox here also: publications like The Onion and satirical programming such as work by John Oliver and Saturday Night Live are serving the American public and the ideal of democracy and freedom far better as fake news than even the so-called best mainstream media are doing.
Satirists are not bound to simplistic conventions of objectivity (ironically, to be neutral is to endorse the status quo), and are critical instead. Journalists refuse to embrace the power of a critical free press, and thus, are eager to blame fake news, to use it as a distraction.
Finally, then, we must wonder with the recent revelations about plagiarism by Monica Crowley, a popular rightwing expert, if O’Connor merely cribbed his NYT expose from The Onion, where three years ago they fabricated:
“All that junk she’s buying is just loaded with sugar, too,” said Gaither, identifying with uncanny speed another critical flaw in her fellow shopper’s grocery selection. “No wonder her kids are acting out like that.”…
“The other day, I saw a woman who bought a box of name-brand Frosted Flakes because, apparently, the generic kind wasn’t fancy enough for her,” said Gaither, swiftly and decisively calculating that bagged cereal would have cost half as much. “And guess who’s going to be paying the difference in the end?”
A speculation that does make sense because reading The Onion is far more entertaining and informative than plowing through a government report.
 I know this appears to read like a piece from The Onion, but Republican Rep. Butt is real; The Onion would have used Ophelia Butt.
 Consider that the century-old debate between Creationism and evolution has morphed into the rise of Intelligent Design (replacing creationism) as pseudo-science to battle with traditional science, evolution.
The Women’s March over inauguration weekend in 2017 spurred a great deal of activism across the U.S. and throughout the world.
However, similar to Bernie Sander’s campaign, the Women’s March exposed a problem since data on Trump’s election show that white women, who seemed to constitute the bulk of the march, voted for Trump in a majority:
Throughout my social media feeds, black women scholars and activists noted that if white women had voted as black women did, there would be no need for the march:
As well, if anyone is willing to listen and to listen seriously, racially marginalized groups have explained that this new normal under Trump is a multiple generations long reality for them; see Paul Beatty: ‘For me, Trump’s America has always existed.’
The question before us: Is the current move to resist Trump the result of a privileged class responding only when consequences affect them?
More evidence of this disturbing probability has been revealed when Trump voters continue to rail against Obamacare (assumed that is for the Others) and simultaneously embrace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), under which they are covered.
Now consider Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Politics of Memory in which Ruth Ben-Ghiat offers another incredibly damning observation:
The founding moment of this era came one year ago, when Trump declared at a rally, “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.” Trump signaled that rhetorical and actual violence might have a different place in America of the future, perhaps becoming something ordinary or unmemorable. During 2016, public hatred became part of everyday reality for many Americans: those who identify with the white supremacist alt-right like Richard Spencer openly hold rallies; elected officials feel emboldened to call for political opponents to be shot (as did New Hampshire and Oklahoma State Representatives Al Baldasaro and John Bennett, among others); journalists reporting on Trump and hijab-wearing women seek protection protocols and escorts. The bureaucratic-sounding term many use for this, “normalization,” does not fully render the operations of memory that make it possible. Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.
Trump’s pronouncement may have seemed extreme, but it has mostly proven to be accurate.
At the core of this disturbing reality may be several factors: a cultural norm of self-first thinking, a garbled understanding of government and public institutions, and thus a poorly steered democracy that fails to function as a democracy for the equity of all.
If we return to considering who and why protests emerged after Trump’s election, and factor in how misinformed many Trump supporters have proven to be, we can conclude that being misinformed and self-first is a tragic combination.
However, the U.S. breeds self-first (and self-only) thinking by falsely claiming the country is already a meritocracy (it isn’t), and combining that with a blind commitment to competition, a society grinding up its citizens in Social Darwinism.
To view life as a competition is antithetical to democracy and equity for all.
The dirty little secret of social justice and fighting for equity is that those with privilege (and all the power) will necessarily lose their advantages when equity is achieved; in other words, there is no way to avoid the “winners” (who now believe they win because of their effort and not their privilege) viewing equity for all as a loss for them.
Therefore, the current winners-from-privilege are the most vocal proponents of universal competition and the eradication of government as intrusive and totalitarian.
The racial tension spurred by the Women’s March highlights how we have yet found a common ground to honor the plights of the marginalized, to fore-front those historically ignored voices, and then to behave with empathy for anyone, regardless of the consequences to the self.
There is a reason the powerful elites vilify communism, socialism, and Marxism—all of which are grounded in ethical pursuits of equity, all of which call for revolution based on the exact empathy competition destroys—and conflate “government” with totalitarianism to mask the potential for public institutions to ensure equity:
I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. (Eugene V. Debs: Statement September 18, 1918)
A new American revolution requires empathy, a groundswell of people who believe and act as Debs expresses above.
If any white people, including the uprise of white women marching, fear the specter of Trump’s administration, they have now experienced the fact of life for many “deliberately silenced [and] preferably unheard”—black, brown, poor, born outside of the U.S., LGBTQ+, Muslim, etc.
A people dedicated to community and collaboration, and not competition, a people grounded in empathy and not “me first” or “me only”—these are the soldiers ready for a new revolution in which equity for all can be realized.
Do an Internet search for “carnage” now and the first matches are from Trump’s inauguration speech, in which he invoked “[t]his American carnage” to launch into his standard use of false claims to speak to his misinformed and misguided base.
Setting aside whatever anyone may assume is Trump’s intent—if “intent” even is applicable anymore—this use of “carnage” sends a message I am certain is lost on Trump and his “America first”/”Make America Great Again” crowd.
A century ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby dramatized a scathing message that the American Dream was a wonderful ideal that Americans mostly allowed to slip through their fingers, as novelist John Gardner examined:
That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)
Gatsby is new money in the novel, and portrayed by the mesmerized narrator Nick as the embodiment of the American Dream, as “cheap streamers in the rain”; Gatsby’s money is ill-got and he is a very delusional man.
Having taught the novel for nearly two decades, I think far too often studying the novel (what we do in formal schooling, as opposed to reading the work) becomes lost in idealizing the novel’s technical achievements against the rules of New Criticism (much as Nick idealizes Gatsby)—and as a result, we are apt not to pay adequate attention to the carnage.
The Great Gatsby is a novel about carnage as much as a work deconstructing the American Dream.
By the end, we are confronted with Myrtle left like an animal run over and ripped apart in the middle of the road and with George committing suicide after shooting and killing Gatsby floating alone in his opulent pool.
Among the dead, the common denominators are Tom and Daisy, who Nick comes to understand while talking to Tom:
I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…. (p. 179)
While Daisy and Tom Buchanan flee, essentially unscathed, to Europe, the images of Myrtle dead in the road and Gatsby face-down in his swimming pool haunt Nick’s final lines of Fitzgerald’s so-called American classic:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (p. 182)
In the days after Trump’s inauguration and his pronouncement about “carnage,” if you are looking for the U.S., there it is—Myrtle’s corpse in the wake of Daisy driving a gold Rolls Royce, Gatsby and George Wilson both dead at George’s disillusioned hand.
Myrtle and George as the slaughtered white working class who attract our sympathetic but myopic gaze—let us not ignore that The Great Gatsby is a very white novel, itself a demonstration of how we whitewash even in art.
Trumplandia, however, is all too real and is a free people’s abdication to the ultimate rise of “careless people” who depend on our being as mesmerized by their wealth and delusional as Nick.
“[G]reed and pompous foolishness,” Garnder’s words, ring now in the wake of the grand and dishonest pronouncement of “this American carnage.”
We cannot claim we haven’t been properly warned.
In her Author’s Note for Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recognized scholars, her parents, and other family members for helping her fictionalize the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70; telling, I think, is this: “In particular, Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn and Flora Nwapa’s Never Again were indispensable in creating the mood of middle-class Biafra.”
Powerful throughout Adichie’s gripping and sharp novel is her weaving together the significance of race, class, and politics—tribalism and race, race and class, and then intellectualism in the context of both race and class.
All of this as well is wrapped in examinations of the power of both language and dialect.
Adichie soars in her deft handling of characterization and narrative against her historical and political purposes.
But the West and especially the U.S. are now probably mostly ignorant of this bloody conflict, although my entry into it is rooted in Kurt Vonnegut’s New Journalism, “Biafra: A People Betrayed,” originally published in April 1970 for McCall’s and then collected in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons.
Vonnegut tells a story of Biafra as a witness, a white ally of sorts angry in the opening of his piece at slights such as calling Biafra “a tribe” and recognizing how Nigeria/Biafra were pawns in international games:
Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.
Despite Vonnegut’s romanticizing, his self-centered report on Biafra carries a recognition of Nigerians and Biafrans as sophisticated people in the way the West likely assumed they were not. But his story is ripe with contradiction:
I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.
I will follow Miriam’s example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.
There is always something unnerving about Vonnegut’s flippant and darkly humorous tone and his subject matter; in this way, despite his being a white Westerner of privilege, Vonnegut reporting on Biafra seems about right as that circumstance can.
Vonnegut’s WWII bitterness fits the horrors of this civil war: “The Fathers are now being deported forever. Their crime: compassion in time of war.”
As a primer for reading Adichie, Vonnegut’s essay confronts children suffering from kwashiorkor, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the politics of oil, and “the arrogance of Biafra’s intellectuals.”
Also as in Adichie’s novel, Vonnegut highlighted the light against the dark.
A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own, perfectly naturally.
The families were rooted in land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.
Palm oil, incidentally, was one of two commodities that had induced white men to colonize the area so long ago. The other commodity was even more valuable than palm oil. It was human slaves.
Think of that: slaves….
What did we eat in Biafra? As guests of the government, we had meat and yams and soups and fruit. It was embarrassing. Whenever we told a cadaverous beggar “No chop,” it wasn’t really true. We had plenty of chop, but it was all in our bellies.
Vonnegut had two agendas, common in his fiction and nonfiction: decry war without being simplistic or naive and champion his great Idealistic dream of large communities, families.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as Nigerian, a woman, and a writer has agendas also.
Unlike Vonnegut’s paternalistic outsider witnessing, Adichie dramatizes her witnessing as James Baldwin envisioned, a lived witnessing as well as a writer’s witnessing to raise the voice of the unheard.
The servant Ugwu framed against the scholar/intellectual Odenigbo and Olanna, from wealth and privilege, draw the reader into the realities and horrors of race, social class, and personal as well as partisan politics.
As in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children, Adichie demonstrates that even in the pursuit of good and freedom, the world is mostly hellish for children and women—violent, rapacious, indiscriminate.
Half of a Yellow Sun works as a parable, then, as it works as a historical novel; this story is an enduring and damning story about human failure, the flaws of men and the wars they demand, the addictive and corrosive influence of power and the frailty of the weak in the path of that power.
Along with Gay’s and Yuknavitch’s novels, Half of a Yellow Sun sits well also with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar—all resonating as parables and historical witnessing.
Beware war and good intentions, these writers implore.
Words matter, they also intone.
Humans are a mess of pain and suffering, they ultimately lament.
I feel no need to walk through Adichie’s novel here, but I do want to stress that along with its historical significance, Half of a Yellow Sun speaks eerily to now for those of us in the U.S.
Adichie recognizes the chasm between intellectuals and so-called common people while she is deft at exposing the hypocrisy and foolishness found in all people; she does not demonize or idealize any of the many ways people are distinct in this novel, how people truly were separated in the years of the war: within and among races, educated and superstitious, idealistic and cynical.
As I often do now, as I read Adichie I heard James Baldwin’s warning about the great human failure:
This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.
Adichie’s novel is bursting with “refusals”—political propaganda, interpersonal dishonesty and infidelity, and self-delusion—all of which confront today an already free people who are careless with that freedom and insensitive to suffering on our own soil and throughout the world.
I do not here wish to cross the line Vonnegut may well have crossed, making the plight of Biafra about him.
Adichie’s novel deserves your time as a novel, it deserves your time as a powerful unmasking of an ignored moment in history, but it also can serve you as you navigate the U.S. in the present.
After almost dying as a conscripted soldier, Ugwu exclaims to another servant: “‘There is no such thing as greatness.'”
Damning and bitter, yes, but a warning we should heed none the less.
The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left exists in some substantial and influential way in the country.
The Truth about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left does not exist in some substantial and influential way in the country. Period.
These little lies have cousins in the annual shouting about the “war on Christmas” and hand wringing by Christians that they are somehow the oppressed peoples of the U.S.
These lies little and Big are a scale problem in that the U.S. is now and has always been a country whose center is well to the right, grounded as we are in capitalism more so than democracy.
The U.S. is a rightwing country that pays lip service to progressivism and democracy; we have a vibrant and powerful Right and an anemic, fawning Middle.
Wealth, corporatism, consumerism, and power are inseparable in the U.S.—pervading the entire culture including every aspect of government and popular culture.
The Left in the U.S. is a fabricated boogeyman, designed and perpetuated by the Right to keep the general public distracted. Written as dark satire, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle now serves as a manual for understanding how power uses false enemies to maintain power and control.
Notably during the past 30-plus decades, conservative politics have dominated the country, creating for Republicans a huge problem in terms of bashing “big government.”
But dog-whistle politics grounded in race and racism benefitting the Right and Republicans have a long history.
The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism…On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.
Malcolm X held forth in more pointed fashion, but with the same focus:
“Well if Goldwater ever becomes president one thing his presence in the White House will do, it will make black people in America have to face up the facts probably for the first time in many many years,” Malcolm X said.
“This in itself is good in that Goldwater is a man who’s not capable of hiding his racist tendencies,” he added. “And at the same time he’s not even capable of pretending to Negroes that he’s their friend.”
The Civil Rights icon concluded that should Goldwater be elected, he would inspire black people to fully reckon with “whites who pose as liberals only for the purpose of getting the support of the Negro.”
“So in one sense Goldwater’s coming in will awaken the Negro and will probably awaken the entire world more so than the world has been awakened since Hitler,” he said.
Mentioned above, the annual panic over the “war on Christmas” is a distraction from the fact that Christmas serves consumerism, the Right, and not religion—keeping in mind that Jesus and his ideology rejected materialism and espoused moral and ethical codes in line with socialism and communism/Marxism.
What remains mostly unexamined is that all structures are essentially conservative—seeking to continue to exist. Power, then, is always resistant to change, what should be at the core of progressivism and leftwing ideology.
Marxism is about power and revolution (drastic change, and thus a grand threat to power), but suffers in the U.S. from the cartoonish mischaracterization from the Right that it is totalitarianism.
So as we drift toward the crowning of the greatest buffoon ever to sit at the throne of the U.S. as a consumerocracy posing as a democracy, Education Week has decided to launch into the hackneyed “academics are too liberal and higher education is unfair to conservatives” ploy.
At the center of this much-ado-about-nothing is Rick Hess playing his Bokonon and McCabe role:
I know, I know. To university-based education researchers, all this can seem innocuous, unobjectionable, and even inevitable. But this manner of thinking and talking reflects one shared worldview, to the exclusion of others. While education school scholars may almost uniformly regard a race-conscious focus on practice and policy as essential for addressing structural racism, a huge swath of the country sees instead a recipe for fostering grievance, animus, and division. What those in ed. schools see as laudable efforts to promote “equitable” school discipline or locker-room access strike millions of others as an ideological crusade to remake communities, excuse irresponsible behavior, and subject children to goofy social engineering. Many on the right experience university initiatives intended to promote “tolerance” and “diversity” as attempts to silence or delegitimize their views on immigration, criminal justice, morality, and social policy. For readers who find it hard to believe that a substantial chunk of the country sees things thusly, well, that’s kind of the issue.
Conversational and posing as a compassionate conservative, Hess sprinkles in scare quotes while completely misrepresenting everything about which he knows nothing.
This is all cartoon and theater.
The grand failure of claiming that the academy is all leftwing loonies is that is based almost entirely—see the EdWeek analysis—on noting that academics overwhelmingly identify as Democrats.
However, the Democratic Party is not in any way a substantial reflection of leftist ideology. At most, we can admit that Democrats tend to use progressive rhetoric (and this is a real characteristics of professors, scholars, and academics), but that Democratic policy remains centrist and right of center.
A powerful example of this fact is the Department of Education (DOE) and Secretary of Education (SOE) throughout George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.
For the past 16 years, education policy has been highly bureaucratic and grounded almost entirely in rightwing ideology—choice, competition, accountability, and high-stakes testing.
The only real difference between Bush’s SOE and Obama’s SOE has been rhetoric; yes, Duncan, for example, loved to chime in with civil rights lingo, but policy under Obama moved farther right than under Bush.
Now, let me end here by addressing the charge that college professors are a bunch of leftwing loonies.
I can do so because I am the sort of dangerous professor Hess wants everyone to believe runs our colleges and universities—poisoning the minds of young people across the U.S.
I can also add that I spent 18 years as a public school teacher before the past 15 years in higher education.
In both so-called liberal institutions—public education and higher education—as a real card-carrying Lefty, I have been in the minority, at best tolerated, but mostly ignored and even marginalized.
Public schools are extremely conservative, reflecting and perpetuating the communities they serve. In the South, my colleagues were almost all conservative in their world-views and religious practices.
My higher education experience has been somewhat different because the atmosphere has the veneer of progressivism (everyone know how to talk, what to say), but ultimately, we on the Left are powerless, unheard and often seen as a nuisance.
Colleges and universities are institutions built on and dependent on privilege and elitism. As I noted above, colleges and universities are not immune to the conservative nature of institutions; they seek ways to maintain, to conserve, to survive.
Colleges and universities are also not immune to business pressures, seeing students and their families as consumers.
Do professors push back on these tendencies and pressures? Sure.
But that dynamic remains mostly rhetorical.
The Truth is that colleges and universities are centrist organizations—not unlike the Democratic Party and their candidates, such as Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Some progressives in the U.S. play both sides to sniff at the power on the Right, and then the Right uses that rhetoric and those veneers to prove how the Left has taken over our colleges/universities, public schools, media, and Hollywood.
But that is a Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.
The Left does not exist in any substantial way, except as a boogeyman controlled by the Right in order to serve the interests of those in power.
“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true,” Bayard Rustin warned.
Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle dramatizes this warning, and 50 years ago King and Malcolm X challenged us to see beyond the corrosive power of dog-whistle politics.
When the Right paints educational research as the product of corrupted leftwing scholars, you must look past the harmful foma and examine in whose interest it is that market-based education reform survives despite the evidence against it.
To paraphrase Gertrude from Hamlet, “The Right protests too much, methinks,” and we have much to fear from all these histrionics.