Americans are less free in 2023 than just a couple years ago.
While some may see Florida’s assault on books, school curriculum, and higher education as an aberration, censorship, bans, and curriculum gag orders are increasingly common across the US, as reported by Eesha Pendharkar:
This is the third year in a row in which Republican lawmakers have increased their legislative efforts to restrict LGBTQ students’ rights and curtail lessons, books, and other materials about LGBTQ people.
“There certainly seems to be renewed energy around passing censorship legislation around LGBTQ identity, which is law really only in one state,” said Jeremy Young, the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America.
“But that’s likely to increase dramatically this year.”
Since 2021, lawmakers in 22 states have introduced 42 bills with language and restrictions similar to those in the “Don’t Say Gay” measure, formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law. Since the start of this legislative session, 26 of those bills have been introduced in 14 states that use the same language as Florida’s law, with many imposing more severe restrictions compared with the original bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed in 2022.
Republicans and conservatives have launched a campaign to ban books, censor ideas and topics in schools from elementary school through higher education, eradicate academic freedom, and indoctrinate children by seizing control of education through legislation.
These legislative attacks target the LGBTQ+ community, minoritized races, the legacy and history of racism in the US, and everyone who embraces a pluralistic democracy.
As I drove from Upstate South Carolina to Chicago, I watched as billboards offered a refrain about “real” and aspects of religious faith that are not real, or at best cannot be proven real.
I always imagine the same sort of signage about Harry Potter novels: “Harry Potter is real.” “Hogwarts is real.”
There is very little real difference among all sorts of fantasy writing along with the mythologies and stories throughout the Bible; yes, fictional narratives can be powerful in terms of themes and motifs that add meaning to our human condition, but the compulsion to render them (falsely) as “real” actually erodes that power.
But this compulsion that these myths and stories must be factual, real, literal (when, again, they either are not real or simply cannot be proven real) is something rarely challenged or interrogated because belief is so pervasive in how humans function.
This claim of “real” ultimately is a veneer designed to give the myths more weight, more power, because the real intent of these myths is control.
Gilles Deleuze examined the shift from societies of discipline to societies of control, targeting specifically “prison, hospital, factory, school, family” as structures under perpetual reform.
The narrative driving this should be familiar to everyone: “Institution A is failing and thus must be reformed.” Somehow this is a compelling narrative even though it falls apart under its own weight since the perpetual cycles never fully demonstrate the source of the failure and then any set of reforms always lead to yet another round of crisis: “Institution A is failing and thus must be reformed.”
As a educator in the US for the forty-plus year accountability era, I have witnessed that the perpetual state of reform is not about reform at all, but about control (both political and market interests being served).
If schools are always failing (and by direct and indirect implication) then teachers are always failing, students are always failing; therefore, top-down authoritarian mandates are needed to right the ship, to “fix” schools, teachers, and students.
Deleuze’s examination is a subset, I think, of an even larger force in US culture, mythologies of control.
From Christian myths to rugged individualism, boot strapping, and the American Dream, these mythologies of control serve authoritarian structures by maintaining a culture of failure and fear among most people who feel compelled to conform to these unrealistic mythologies.
The consequences of failing to acknowledge and reject mythologies of control are watching as the US morphs from the Trump era into the era of DeSantis, who has embraced the logical next steps after Trump’s jumbled attack on the 1619 Project: Political control of education is one of the ultimate goals of authoritarianism.
Dismantling schools/universities and gutting libraries have been made possible by decades of education bashing begun under Reagan and then almost gleefully embraced by Democratic and Republican leaders.
The failing schools myth, the incompetent teachers myth, and the failing students myth are little different than the false but pervasive high-crime myth that political leaders and the media repeat endlessly, despite evidence to the contrary.
Americans embrace our disproportionate police state and prison culture because a mythology of control about crime maintains irrational public fear and promotes a willingness to sacrifice Other People (disproportionately Black and brown).
It is extremely important, however, to recognize that these myths are made more powerful and compelling because of foundational myths such as Original Sin, “hell is real,” and the relentless myths of rugged individualism and boot strapping.
Florida has reduced their education system to these myth by directly rejecting even discussing systemic forces such as racism.
Anyone who doubts that reform and religious narratives are about control must unpack why authority always resorts to banning books, censoring ideas, and taking full control of education.
Mythologies of control are dehumanizing, and there are far more compelling narratives. Kurt Vonnegut explains:
My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
And yet, you will not see humanists purchasing billboards announcing “Billy Pilgrim is real.” “Tralfamadore is real.”
The call to behave decently, well, it is enough and fabricating ways to coerce that behavior simply destroys the very thing that makes being human being human.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson argued, to abdicate our mind is to abdicate our full humanity:
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,–“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.
Simultaneously, I became a reader and collector of superhero comic books by Marvel. At the core of superhero comics—both the problem with and within the sub-genre—is the moral and ethical elements of vigilanteism and the tension between the rule of law and justice.
Virtually every superhero narrative is directly or indirectly addressing that moral dilemma, but many superhero characterizations have alluded to the real-world conflict between Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence as a path to justice and Malcolm X’s embracing “by any means necessary.”
Too often those allusions are simplified if not ham-fisted; consider for example Professor X and Magneto in both films and print comic books.
One of the better efforts to interrogate the role of violence in seeking justice, I think, is the Daredevil/Punisher arc in the Netflix Daredevil series. It is “better,” I think, because the characterizations of both Daredevil and the Punisher are messier and slightly more realistic than print comic books.
Issue 7 opens by framing the Punisher, Frank Castle as a murderer, insane, and a pawn of The Hand:
This framing complicates both the act of vigilanteism as well as the different moral imperatives that guide Daredevil and the Punisher. For Daredevil, he must see himself as substantially distinct from the Punisher in mentality, intent, actions, and outcomes; remember, Daredevil has evoked that he knows the mind of god:
Another excellent complication in issue 7 is the role of free will , a tension that rests at the center of faith, religion, and perceptions of g/God: If g/God is all powerful and all knowing, where does that leave human free will?
Daredevil, of course, must believe simultaneously in a world of god and that he has free will to behave in ethical ways, with moral imperatives that the Punisher chooses to ignore.
And here this issues evokes a powerful and, again, complex examination of the rule of law:
This is the sort of nuanced distinctions Martin Luther King Jr. made during his non-violent protests:
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
Man-made law versus the law of God as well as the purposes and consequences of laws/breaking the law sits at the center of Daredevil’s quest continued in issue 7:
Directly and indirectly, Zdarsky has been exploring the tensions between capitalism/materialism and socialism/spirituality; here, the police state is framed as a tool of capitalism (“protecting property over people”), thus justifying Daredevil’s lawbreaking.
The code of ethics for the Fist becomes “help people” and “violence when necessary”:
While the narrative so far of Daredevil v7 has focused almost entirely on a new iteration of Daredevil, issue 7 reminds us that Matt Murdock is an (at least) equal partner in the quest for justice:
Daredevil as “decent superhero,” and Matt Murdock as “damned good lawyer” (with the added ironic layer of “damned”).
Bullet proves to be an important character in the Daredevil/Punisher dynamic because he adds complexity and confrontations to their differences and ultimately introduces important elements, a child and overt references to socialism/capitalism (linked to the philosophies of Jesus and property over people in the storytelling):
What and who is being consumed in capitalism/consumerism and who is allowed to go hungry —these social commentaries hang over the more melodramatic aspects of superhero narratives.
While great efforts (especially by Daredevil) are made to distinguish Daredevil from the Punisher, we learn that their common ground is children:
The issue ends by returning to enduring Biblical questions about the sin’s of the father and the sins of the son as well as the pervasive presence of evil.
Readers are now poised to watch mere mortals battle in the names of god and evil, and we must wonder if any real distinction exists when violence is always an option.
 The iconic aliens of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Fivemarvel at the idealistic delusion of the human race when challenged by Billy Pilgrim about free will:
“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”
If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.
Kurt Vonnegut himself would likely burst into a raspy laugh, a smoker’s laugh, at the arbitrary importance associated with today being the 100th year from his date of birth, 11 November 1922.
This was a man who stumbled through WWII, but somehow not only survived the war but also rose out of the ashes of the fire bombing of Dresden, an experience that would serve as the basis for his most celebrated novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
That novel helped Vonnegut rise once again, but this time out of obscurity, a struggling writer and former POW who chose art as his vocation after returning to his post-war life. His anti-war message resonated with what would become his foundational base of readers, college-aged students, then a time of heightened anti-war sentiment around Vietnam.
Yes, Vonnegut gradually became another old white man of the canon, and he appealed often to young white men of a certain privilege (a contemporary of sorts with J.D. Salinger with whom Vonnegut likely shared many ardent fans).
But the dark humor combined with the deceptively simple idealism of his novels, short stories, and essays have continued to resonate. In my opinion, his work justifies that Vonnegut still matters—or better phrased, that Vonnegut should still matter. And here, again deceptively simple, are three reasons why:
Vonnegut confesses in the blurring of genres that were his novels—autobiography quilted with fiction—that being anti-war was nearly as futile as being anti-glacier, that begging for kindness mostly fell on deaf ears, and that evoking Jesus to make his arguments even as he rejected God and religion failed to convert those flush with missionary zeal.
Yet, he persisted.
Like George Carlin, however, Vonnegut became increasingly cynical and angry as he aged.
Turning to essays mostly in his later years, Vonnegut wrote snarling political rants that none the less had the same allure of his fiction. He had little patience for Republicans or most Americans’ careless disregard for how humans are slowly but surely destroying the only planet that we have.
Again, I remain convinced we should heed Vonnegut’s many valuable warnings and messages—notably the ones above. But possibly most important of all is this from his opening chapter, The First Amendment, of Palm Sunday:
[NOTE: Reposting from 2015 to commemorate year 100 of Kurt Vonnegut's birth 11 November 1922]
i found myself sitting in my office
suddenly crying April 11, 2007
having just learned Kurt Vonnegut died
& this lingered for days & days
sudden sweeping tears & anguish
for this man i never met or knew
except for words that poured into print
then more than four years later
i sat in my bed reading his biography
"He died April 11, 2007" its last sentence
& again tears filled my eyes & my chest heaved
although this is the only way biography can end
(i toyed with reading it backward page by page
like Billy Pilgrim watching the movie of war)
but this second time was in the shadow
of the absence of you
my realization that you were not there
& you would never be there again
although you still walk this earth
having chosen to set me aside for another life
this second crying is selfish & empty
like the refrain of loneliness
running though Vonnegut's life
like a blue thread in a black black cloth
I had dinner and a few beers with a former student recently. Although he is about two decades younger than me, we share a hometown and grew up in the same neighborhood. And after I had moved out during young adulthood, as a child, he often spent time at my parents’ house, just playing and hanging out.
He’s worked all over the world and has been living in Europe for more than 15 years. Our conversation drifted to our hometown and his perception of living in Europe instead of near where he grew up. Eventually, he asked how some people “get out” of small hometowns, escape the trap of narrow-mindedness—what I referred to as provincialism.
We share a strong discomfort with conservative and fundamentalist thinking even though we were raised in that environment, which continues to this days in our hometown. His question reminded me of one of my favorite lyrics from The National: “How can anybody know/ How they got to be this way?”
Especially as a teacher, I have found teaching siblings complicates any solid answer to his question since two people raised in the same home and town can turn out to be very different people. We catalogued several people also from our community who, like us, no longer conform to the mold of our upbringing, trying to understand why some people change and others remain frozen in the provincialism of their upbringing.
My former student is very clear that the key for him was being an exchange student in Europe during his junior year of high school; his worldview changed once he had lived a different view of the world. I credit my education, especially literature, but it is the same dynamic—being exposed to different views of the world.
“The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance,” begins “The Words of My Mouth” in a June issue of English Journal. “Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues—all of these may be evils in the English classes as others.”
That opening builds to this key question: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings?”
This essay is by Lou LaBrant and was published in 1946. LaBrant was vividly aware of the threats to freedom in the context of WWII and Nazi Germany, but her essay resonates today because of the threats from within the US, the Republican assaults on academic freedom, books, and individual choice by weaponizing “pornography,” “grooming,” “Critical Race Theory,” and any word or phrase to impose a narrow view of the world onto all of us.
“Not one facet of human experience will serve to insure the kind of society we need so desperately, and all aspects of living affect all others,” LaBrant warns.
The role of education, she emphasizes, must include: “A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of anything.” At the core of racism, sexism, and all types of bigotry and hate, LaBrant recognized the need to challenge the power of “word magic,” the belief that uttering something makes it so, gives it power.
In 1950, LaBrant returned to this topic, focusing on students as writers:
[Students] should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what they say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word-magic. (p. 264)
Over the past few years, I have made long trips from South Carolina into the Midwest, specifically Ohio and Wisconsin. Each time, I find the persistence of what is stereotypically “Southern” into the region that we in the South would classify as the “North” (which is everything outside of the Deep South, including Virginia and Texas). Fundamentalist billboards condemning homosexuality and abortion as well as huge signs quoting scripture line highways all through rural America.
These 8-10 hour drives left me certain I was not making just the specific trip I was on (conference presentations) but was destined for the flaming pits of Hell. Although I am a white straight man, I strongly believe in the rights of all people regardless of racial identification, gender, sexuality, religion (or not), etc., because I very much believe I deserve the same sort of freedom to fully be the human I have come to know that I am.
I also know that for women to be fully human, body autonomy is essential and that includes abortion rights.
Like Kurt Vonnegut, I am a humanist:
My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife [emphasis added]. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
To me, this is a foundational commitment to the country’s claim of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How can any of us be happy if we are required to conform to a narrow mandate of ways of being determined by a few in power based on a provincial view of the world?
My gender identity and sexuality are who I am, and right for me, but that means nothing for anyone else. I want my ways of being to be honored; therefore, I believe I am obligated to honor that for everyone else.
As my former student can attest by experience, people have even more freedom in countries other than the US; Americans do not have a monopoly on individual freedom and certainly not communal support for those freedoms (universal healthcare contributes to individual freedom, for example):
[I]t seems to me that the myth, the illusion, that this is a free country, for example, is disastrous….
There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it—and almost all of us have one way or another—this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.
The hostile environment in the US today fostered by conservatives is also eroding those freedoms day by day; people are less free in the US than 6 months ago, and we are very likely on the precipice of the erasing of even greater freedoms in the coming months.
The Republican agenda of rolling back freedoms and rights as well as increasing bans and censorship is an agenda grounded in provincialism, which, as I have observed, seems to be rooted in rurality, the isolation of people creating an isolation of worldview.
We know rural America is red and urban American is blue, but I think we fail to examine fully why this is the case. For me, my former student’s experience illustrates the dangers of narrow thinking when you have limited experiences and why a cosmopolitan worldview is a doorway to expanding how you think and your ability to have empathy for people who appear to be unlike you.
I use “appear” because, for example, a gay person and a straight person have different sexualities but share the need for having that sexuality honored. That is our commonality.
Yet, democracy is failing us in the US because those who want to use their political power to control have the same rights to vote as those who want to use their political power to insure everyone’s freedoms and ways of being.
And in 2022, those voting to control seem to the have the upper-hand, not because there are more of them but because the system has been gamed to favor them and they often have the greatest passion for asserting their control. Sadly, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).
Some see their ideologies and beliefs as baseball bats; others see them as safety nets. In a democracy, those votes are equal—and the humanity of individuals hangs in the balance.
I am not concerned, however, that I am in fact going to hell for wanting individual freedom for everyone regardless of their ways of being, regardless of how their gender, sexuality, or whatever appears the same or different from mine.
The irony is that Republicans are creating hell on earth for all of us right here in the US; they are proving Sartre right: “Hell is other people.”
And because of the failure of democracy, there is no exit.
The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes it way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice art at any deep levels. The impulse to create begins—often terribly and fearfully—in a tunnel of silence.
It is the morning of November 11, 2021, and I spend some of that time creating gentle memes to post in honor of Kurt Vonnegut’s day of birth:
I wanted to highlight Vonnegut’s career-long plea for a secular kindness, rooted in his faith in humanism, and I have long admired Vonnegut as an anti-war crusader.
Celebrating the birthday of a person after their death is always bittersweet, but on this morning, the act was awash in a very ugly sort of irony. As I loaded The State (Columbia, SC) web page, I saw this as the lead story:
My home state of South Carolina is heavily conservative—first to secede and uniformly conservative in politics throughout the decades of Democratic control of the South and then Republican in the wake of Strom Thurmond changing parties and later Ronald Reagan leading a conservative Christian shift in the South.
Gov. McMaster is not often “first to” about anything, but he is an uncritical and resolute soldier in the Republican culture war regardless of what that means.
Vonnegut—while alive and since his death—has often had his works challenged and even banned; one of the most enduring things he ever wrote, in fact, was a response to censorship:
In October of 1973, Bruce Severy — a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota — decided to use Kurt Vonnegut‘s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school’s furnace as a result of its “obscene language.” Other books soon met with the same fate. On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn’t receive a reply.
Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.
I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?…
If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us….
If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.
Some parents and political leaders on the Right have mistaken Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a manual for partisan politics instead of, as Neil Gaiman (born a day before Vonnegut 38 years later) explains in the 60th anniversary edition of the novel:
This is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted….
People think—wrongly—that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t; or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it….
What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future but the present—taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place. It’s cautionary.
Fahrenheit 451 is speculative fiction. It’s an “If this goes on…” story. Ray Bradbury was writing about his present, which is our past.
In my early days as a public high school English teacher, I had a book challenge targeting John Gardner’s Grendel, but it was clearly mostly about attacking me as a young teacher. While I think we are careless and even cavalier in the U.S. about any parents’ right to control what their children read and learn, I experienced first-hand the power of a few parents to determine what all students read and learn.
I must return to Vonnegut here and stress, “If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.”
Removing books from libraries, banning books from schools, and book burnings are never justified; these are acts of tyranny, of fascism—and not in any way a gesture of what we like to call “American.”
There is no individual freedom without the freedom of the mind. Banning a book is closing the mind.
Six o’clock, TV hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn Lock him in uniform, book burning, blood letting Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate Light a candle, light a votive, step down, step down Watch your heel crush, crushed, uh-oh This means no fear, cavalier renegade and steering clear A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline
Like “Ignoreland” (an often under-appreciated, if not ignored, track from R.E.M.’s 1992 album, Automatic for the People), “New Test Leper” offers a powerful and disturbing commentary on the state of the U.S. in 2021, a country still trying to stay afloat in the wake of the Republican Party revealing its true self under the leadership of Donald Trump.
The 25th anniversary release of New Adventures in Hi-Fi provides fans new and old an opportunity to reconsider one of the band’s finest albums (I am leaning toward anointing NAIHF as its finest album).
When the album was first released, I was drawn to several songs—”New Test Leper,” “Undertow,” “Leave,” “Be Mine,” and “Electrolite.” In fact, I have long included “Electrolite” among my favorite songs by R.E.M., lyrically as well as the performance of the song.
After the anniversary edition was announced, songs were slowly released in remastered and alternative version, including two of my favorites, “Leave” and “Be Mine.”
But what has struck me deepest is returning to “New Test Leper,” a narrative song that sits firmly in the talk-show era of the 1990s while also serving as not just a warning about but a prediction of the country the U.S. was becoming and now has become.
Michael Stipe, as the primary lyricist, has written a number of songs about gender and sexuality, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, his own sexuality was often the focus of rumor and public debate (situations Stipe brushed off as not so provocative by noting he often performed in make up and skirts).
“New Test Leper” certainly represents Stipe’s deep awareness of Otherness, but the song also focuses on the consequences of being othered in the context of American religiosity and the lurid nature of sensationalistic talk shows of the late twentieth century (which morphed into equally lurid so-called reality TV).
The opening stanza establishes the narrative situation, the talk show, and the tension between religiosity (the false and often hypocritical realities of Christians) and the non-religious speaker who, ironically, quotes Jesus (a recurring move by notable humanist author Kurt Vonnegut):
I can’t say that I love Jesus That would be a hollow claim He did make some observations And I’m quoting them today “Judge not, lest ye be judged” What a beautiful refrain The studio audience disagrees Have his lambs all gone astray?
The reason the speaker is othered and on display remains ambiguous, a powerful decision by Stipe that allows the song to speak to the larger horrors of being judged by social norms, such as the superficial Christianity of the U.S. The speaker could be gay, trans, a racial minority, etc.
Two images of the song reinforce the negative consequences of being outside cultural norms: first, the allusion to David Lynch’s Elephant Man, “‘I am not an animal,'” and second, the haunting refrain as allusion to Biblical Jesus as the defender of outcasts, “Call me a leper.”
This public confrontation between the speaker and audience, made more tense by the Biblical and pop culture allusions, leaves the speaker deflated and questioning their efforts to be heard against the din of public opinion:
“You are lost and disillusioned” What an awful thing to say I know this show doesn’t flatter It means nothing to me I thought I might help them understand What an ugly thing to see
It is, however, the final verse that speaks to where the U.S. has found itself culturally and politically. While the song was released during the Clinton era, the U.S. was still under the weight of the Reagan/Bush years, a political movement that cemented the marriage of Christian conservatives to the Republican Party (see Buccola’s brilliant analysis of the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, which outlines how that marriage developed decades before the Reagan revolution and the rise of the Moral Majority).
The final verse answers the question from the first verse, “Have his lambs all gone astray?”:
When I tried to tell my story They cut me off to take a break I sat silent five commercials I had nothing left to say The talk show host was index-carded All organized and blank The other guests were scared and hardened What a sad parade What a sad parade
Yes, we must admit, Christian conservatives have strayed so far from Jesus as to be nearly unrecognizable as the ambassadors of kindness the words ascribed to Jesus implore over and over, and those of us who recognize that are left shaking our heads and concluding, “What a sad parade.”
In 2021, we are faced with a disturbing 30-40% of Americans just like the imagined studio audience of this song, and Fox News along with several podcasts attracting millions of listeners are driven by “talk show host[s]…index carded/All organized and blank” (from Tucker Carlson to Joe Rogan).
Imagine the speaker as a teacher accused of teaching Critical Race Theory and the audience filled with conservatives shouting faux outrage over something they know nothing about—except we do not have to imagine.
Art often has the capacity to step back and criticize the Now of the creation; exceptional art also serves as warnings, even predictions—although by the time we realize that, we failed to heed the warning and may be too late.
I feel resigned and deflated, like the speaker in “New Test Leper,” and it has become harder and harder to cling to Vonnegut’s belief if humans would just listen to Jesus (and not Christianity or the church) we could save humanity:
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
Having come (very) late to Stranger Things, this was one of my first thoughts when Lucas sets off on his own to find the gate (S1E6).
Since Stranger Things is a pop culture referential series, my experience includes immediately thinking of WandaVision (also referential and driven by pastiche) and how Stranger Things includes more than a passing debt to superhero narratives, along with gaming culture as well as the broader 1980s TV and movie references.
I am a child of the 1960s and 1970s, but the love affair Stranger Things has for the 1980s speaks to vivid elements of my young adulthood spent navigating marriage, fostering a career, and fathering my only child in 1989.
The power of this series and the enduring elements of pop culture in the U.S. have been confirmed for me as I continue to make asynchronous connections (Stranger Things as the child of The X-Files and Mayor of Easttown).
Even though I haven’t watched the show until mid-2021 (I just began Season 2), I do have a good deal of fringe knowledge about the series and essential spoiler knowledge that likely dulls some of the tension created in the show when watched in real time.
I know, for example, certain characters persist even when they are put in serious danger in the first season. In S1E6 mentioned above, whether the show’s creators intended this or not, having a lone Black character placed in danger triggers one of the worst aspects of pop culture, linked to Star Trek (redshirt characters) and the use of “throw-away” characters that are too often Black and other racial minorities.
And like Mare of Easttown, Stranger Things represents a much larger problem in the U.S.—the eternal whiteness of the pop culture mind.
Also like Mare of Easttown, Stranger Things has a white people gaze that is strongly linked to white people dysfunction and the ever-creeping danger surrounding children (mostly white).
Eleven is remarkably frail (the camera work shifting from her intense face to her full-bodied spindly self is excellent), and fantastically powerful (at great expense to herself).
But the white problem in Stranger Things (Indiana) also sits beside the superhero genre obsession with white Middle America (see also the whiteness of South Park in Colorado and Mare in Pennsylvania).
Superhero narratives in the world of comic books are grounded in (and recursively obsessed with) origin stories, and the origin story of the superhero narrative serves an important purpose as I navigate Stranger Things.
I was a comic book collector throughout my teen years, the 1970s, and although the rise of the MCU is relatively recent, I have always felt comic book narratives have been incredibly important contributors to and reflective of pop culture in the U.S.
These origins are steeped in a singular American Dream by men of aspirational backgrounds, and they seem to have chosen white Middle America as their only template; just think of Superman, an alien expelled from his home planet and landing in the Great Farm Land (Smallville) to be raised by an earnest working class white couple.
This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (p. v)
I think Vonnegut has a point not only for anyone (especially children and teens) existing in the so-called “real world,” but especially for those imagined worlds, the ones that seem struck in time and place—and race.
The many powerful themes of Stranger Things driven by the stellar acting must not be reduced to the simplistic “universal” praise—although childhood and the dangers of being a child or teen are shared among viewers regardless of race, etc.
Nancy Wheeler, for example, is yet another spindly white girl/young woman (like Eleven) who directly personifies Vonnegut’s warning; Jonathan Byers confronts her about pretending to be someone she isn’t in Season 1.
Her experiences are valid, and even compelling—although they pale beside Eleven’s.
Ultimately, I am left uncomfortable that Stranger Things has fallen into the well-worn rut (from Superman to Mare of Easttown) because too many people continue to believe the viewing public has empathy primarily for the frailty of whiteness.
This is now the third installment that frames the presidency of Trump as a real-life Harrison Bergeron, the often misread totalitarian clown in Kurt Vonnegut’s eponymous dystopian short story.
For the U.S., February 4, 2020, now stands as the peak moment of converting the Republican Party into the Trumpublican Party. No longer are we citizens of this so-called free country confronted by empty-suit politicians or even an emperor with no clothes, but by the most brazen and crass reality that the very worst types of adolescents now run the country bolstered by a loyal base that revels in believing that being stupid is cool and that bullies are funny.
Two moments calcify this new reality of U.S. gotcha politics—Nancy Pelosi ripping up the State of the Union address behind Trump as he spoke and Trump awarding the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh.
Instead of using the Pelosi ripping meme either to demonize Pelosi (see Trump supporters) or to lionize Pelosi (see partisan Democrats), we would all be better served to pause at this reduction of democracy to the cult of celebrity that ultimately distracts from the real politics of government policies that directly impact people’s lives.
Let me turn again to Vonnegut, his brilliant novel Cat’s Cradle, as I have discussed before:
Readers soon learn that Bokonon creates a religion “’to provide the people with better and better lies’” (p. 172), foma, and a central aspect of that strategy involves the fabricated war between the government of San Lorenzo and the religion, Bokononism. Readers discover that this plan fails:
“’But people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.’” (pp. 174-175)
The false choice between McCabe and Bokonon in the other world created by Vonnegut happens to represent well the delusion of choice that exists in the U.S. (not to be examined here, but McCabe/Bokonon reflect the false choice currently in the U.S. between Republican/Democrat; it’s a fake fight, and a false choice).
Pelosi and Trump are the current actors of the moment in the false war between Democrats and Republicans.
However, with Trump, we are not treading the same worn path, but down a newly cut road to hell.
I certainly concede that Trump is a disturbingly know-nothing anti-intellectual president, seemingly having no redeeming qualities that qualify him for this role as leader of the U.S. But many presidents have been noticeably less bright than even the average American—George H.W. and George W. Bush, for example.
And while it is true that Trump is also relentlessly crass and incapable of rising above his essential urge to lie and bully, Trump is no more crass and profane than other presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson.
We mustn’t also omit that Trump is a serial adulterer and abusive to women—not unlike Bill Clinton.
Trump is unique, though, in that his most crass and abusive qualities are front-and-center in his public and private lives; other presidents were able for much of their careers to be empty suits, presenting one mostly dignified persona in public while being vile men behind closed doors barricaded by a loyal machine.
Never just an empty suit, Trump is a totalitarian clown 24-7, much like the high school star athlete flaunting his free pass daily while coaches and administrators contort themselves to keep the player in school and eligible for the big game.
You see, for Republicans in 2020, there is only the ends—winning—regardless of the means—Trump in his disgusting and brazen role as the emperor with no clothes.
That brings us to the Medal of Freedom bestowed upon Limbaugh who recently confessed he suffers from advanced lung cancer.
Limbaugh himself has been a cancer on celebrity media and U.S. politics for decades. On the radio, Limbaugh seemed to represent the worst case scenario of the free market producing celebrity.
His racism, sexism, and general gluttony attracted U.S. conservatives, including a harbinger of things to come; the religious right also became ditto heads despite Limbaugh’s hedonism and (brazen and crass) unethical and immoral lifestyle.
Many, I think, would have never thought that the same dynamic that created and sustained Limbaugh would be how the U.S. elected Trump president in the wake of audio evidence of him making the infamous “grab them by the pussy” comment.
Trump awarding Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom has nothing to do with policy, Limbaugh’s contributions to the U.S., or even politics; this was just another way for Trump to play gotcha with so-called “liberals,” as a ploy to pander to Trumpublicans who revel in such high school idiocies.
Peak Trumpublican Party is upon us and everything has now been fully reduced to celebrity sport, including how the mainstream media (above the consequences of all this in many ways) cover the game without bothering to step back and make some effort to end the hollow us v. them distraction.
As a life-long resident of South Carolina, I have lived my entire adult life in a solidly Republican state; most of my trips to vote have been wasted time in which the vast majority of races had only one person running, empty-suit Republicans who somehow kept their clown selves mostly at bay while running for office (but not while in office).
So as I scroll through Facebook posts by a local news station, I read comment after comment about impeaching Pelosi, about the many crimes and failures of Obama, and about the wonderful state of the country because of Trump. SC political leaders recently called to name an interstate exchange after Trump, the pussy-grabbing president who treated Limbaugh equally to Martin Luther King Jr.
The State of the Union Address of February 4, 2020, was all theater, the most extreme and debased theater of the absurd, in fact.
Except there are real consequences to all the theatrics, Pelosi overacting just behind the orange menace spouting his usual litany of lies.
In January of 2016, Trump proclaimed, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Crass? Yes. Outlandish for a politician of this magnitude? Absolutely.