Category Archives: Trumplandia

Republicans Usher in the Land Free from the Truth: Free Speech v. Free Markets

We know of course there’s really no such thing as the “voiceless.” There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.

Arundhati Roy: The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture

Labeled as “surreal” by Emilia Petrarca, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R – Georgia) wore as “censored” face mask while speaking from the floor on Congress.

First, we must recognize that statistically no one in the U.S. has the sort of access to a bully pulpit that a member of Congress has (535 out of 330 million people), and then, we must consider whether Greene is incredibly dishonest, spectacularly ignorant, or both.

After the insurrection at the Capitol by rightwing domestic terrorists supporting Trump—and emboldened by Trump and many Republicans in office—conservatives and Republicans across the U.S. have evoked “censorship,” “First Amendment,” and “freedom of speech” tirades in response to Trump being banned from several social media platforms as well as many Republicans losing followers on those platforms.

Here is the disturbing thing that Greene represents among conservatives and Republicans: There appears to be the same sort of dishonesty/ignorance running rampant because there is essentially no relationship between private businesses and free speech guaranteed in the Constitution since the First Amendment is about the role of government in protected speech.

Let’s not forget very recent history when Republicans and conservatives scrambled to support the right of companies not to serve or even hire LGBTQ+ individuals (recall the wedding cake).

Private companies banning anyone is not an issue of free speech grounded in the First Amendment since government plays no role in that, and (ironically), anyone losing Twitter followers is a consequence of market forces, how the free market works.

In the jumbled surreal-reality of Republicans, it seems they want some entity (the government?) to monitor the free market so that all voices are heard—regardless of truth and irrespective of inciting violence (seemingly now, conservatives support yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater).

As a writer, I have been submitting letters to the editor and Op-Eds to local, state, and national media for decades; most of those submissions are rejected. Is that censorship? A denial of freedom of speech? A breech of my First Amendment rights?

Of course not.

It is the free market—as right-wingers would say, the marketplace of ideas.

There are some really important and likely disorienting elements to this jumbled message created by Republicans and conservatives.

One seems to be why does Greene (and Trump, et al.) lie and misrepresent to the American public as agents of the government with impunity? In other words, what is the role of truth in governing?

Free speech and the First Amendment have continued to be areas of debate in the U.S. in terms of inciting violence and pornography, and we must admit that free speech is not a clear-cut or absolute thing even when recognizing only the role of government.

The level of lies and disinformation under Trump, I think, now calls for a serious interrogation of what free speech allows in those contexts—especially in terms of elected and appointed members of the government.

It seems obvious that agents of government must not incite violence or promote false information.

When people with power (from the wealthy to police to elected officials, including the president) function above truth and the law, it is unlikely that free speech matters for anyone.

A second element that is being almost entirely ignored because of the lies and ignorance on the Right is the question of free speech and the free market; in other words, we are not confronting the role played by private companies in whose voice is amplified and whose voice is muted or ignored.

Twitter bans and people losing followers on Twitter are not the purview of government, and both exist in the mechanics of the free market—which many of us on the Left have warned are amoral dynamics.

Supply and demand left unchecked has nothing to do with ethical or moral concerns. There is a demand for child sex trafficking, for example, and without government intervention (a moral/ethical imperative), it would flourish within the parameters of those consumers.

Many aspects of the U.S. function this way without being so immediately disgusting and inhuman—and thus, remain unchecked.

Those of us on the Left, as well, recognize the amoral aspect of the market and therefore call for universal healthcare, for example, since market forces are inappropriate for determining who does and does not receive medical care.

Trump sycophants such as Greene are backing themselves into some complicated ideological and political corners since their outrage over social media is challenging the efficacy of the free market (misidentified as free speech because of their dishonesty/ignorance).

While I see no hope that Republicans have any interest in the truth—or freedom of speech—I think that this nonsense from the Right offers yet another opportunity for people in the U.S. to reconsider the relationship between government/democracy and capitalism.

Despite a related lie from the Right, we Leftists are rarely calling for full-blown socialism or communism; we are, however, arguing that far too much of human dignity and freedom is left to the free market—such as healthcare—and the whims of the states—such as women’s reproductive rights.

Should we be concerned that Twitter and Facebook banned Trump, and that Parler was de-platformed?

I suspect we should, but not because these events have violated the First Amendment.

The problem is us and the lack of political will in the U.S. to reconsider our overblown commitments to the free market at the expense of democracy and truth as well as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking in the Era of Trump and TikTok

While it now seems like generations ago, in the spring of 2008, I joined other faculty at Furman University in an organized protest labeled “We Object.” Through the university’s connections with FU graduate and former governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford, George W. Bush was invited to speak at commencement.

Recent university tradition was to have two students speak, but did not include outside speakers. None the less, students and the community (overwhelmingly conservative) seemed to welcome the opportunity to have a two-term Republican president speak to graduates.

The protest took many forms, including reaching out to the media, posting an official “We Object” statement, and wearing a “We Object” shirt, revealed from beneath professor’s gowns during the speech.

I did not yet have tenure as an assistant professor, but I was active in the organized resistance that included a wide range of reasons why professors were objecting. I attended meetings, helped with the statement, and provided interviews to the media (I did not stand and protest during graduation, however).

One aspect of that spring that now looks like a harbinger of the world in which we live today was an Op-Ed published by two conservative professors in political science. In that piece, they discounted the professors protesting as postmodernists.

Two problems stand out from that commentary. First, as is typical of conservative thinkers, they either did not understand postmodernism or willfully misrepresented postmodernism in order to have a strawman to attack. Second, when those of us protesting gathered after the piece was published, we uniformly confirmed that not a single one of us considered ourselves postmodernists (an intellectual movement now well in the past, supplanted by the ever-inane, in fact, post-postmodernism).

Conservatives have long posed postmodernism as a full rejection of truth/Truth (which it isn’t), but the great irony of being falsely slandered as postmodernists is that we objecting were all doing so on very clear ethical grounds.

A logical and dangerous extension of postmodernism’s challenge to the nature of truth/Truth is, of course, that there is no truth; many academics quickly rejected that path. In its purest form, however, postmodernism attempted to emphasize that truth/Truth is never objective but always a pawn of those in power.

In other words, postmodernism posed that truth/Truth is almost always what people in power say is truth regardless of empirical evidence (truth couched in power versus truth gleaned from evidence).

While scholars in philosophy, literature, and the arts had moved through and past postmodernism in many ways, this moment in 2008 certainly was a harbinger for the conservative and popular bastardization of postmodernism by Trump and the youngest generations in the U.S.—fake news and the power of social media to create (distort) truth/Truth.

The paradox of Trump is that he has become the embodiment of “there is no truth except what I declare is true” (even when those claims are baseless and repeatedly self-contradictory). Yes, Trump’s appropriating “fake news” to prop up his pathological lies and power-mania are exactly the worst of problems with truth/Truth that postmodernism was confronting.

Even Trump’s use of the term “fake news” is itself false (an ignorant or willfully planned use similar to the one used by the two conservative professors), but Trump’s mendacity and megalomania have both spoken to and emboldened a much wider and more insidious faction of the U.S. who function with the same sort of misguided approach to truth/Truth as Trump.

Not so long ago, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh seemed like mostly harmless sideshows, things of a very small minority of people in the U.S.

In 2021, Parler and Breitbart have far surpassed what was once rightwing media—and then there is QAnon.

Just as there was a logical and dangerous natural conclusion to postmodernism, there is now a very real and dangerous outcome of simplistic approaches to critical thinking as well as honoring the democracy of ideas.

The Right in the U.S. has leveraged challenging any and every idea, fact, and authority into a chaos that allows even a greater concentration of power among very few (mostly white and male) Americans.

Republicans have aligned themselves with both Evangelical Christian conservatism and authoritarianism; democrats have increasingly become the party of ethical challenges to the status quo (a party that at least pays lip service to gender, race, and sexuality equity).

Trump’s “fake news” ploy is a scorched-Earth policy for political and financial gain.

What has happened, however, in the wider society is much more disturbing in the sense that we can see some possible end to Trump as president.

Here is just one odd and troubling example: Young people (often expressed on TikTok) in the U.S. do not “believe” in Hellen Keller.

Writing on Medium, Isabella Lahoue concludes:

Maybe we [Gen Z] don’t believe in her [Hellen Keller] because we’re growing up in a world of fake news. We know the power of manipulation and lies in the media, and we’re losing faith in the sources everyone once trusted. There’s too much data and too many lies circulating for us to process and believe it all….

We don’t have to believe in Helen Keller, and it shouldn’t be surprising if we don’t. The world we were born into makes us profoundly different than other generations, and hopefully, it will also make us into change agents.

The Generation that Doesn’t Believe Helen Keller Existed by Isabella Lahoue

In 2021, then, there are now at least three Hellen Kellers: the historical Keller (the radical socialist and activist), the myth of Keller as rugged individual [1] (the distorted version often taught in school through The Miracle Worker), and the “fake news” Keller who did not (could not?) exist.

At the root of this is critical thinking, how formal education fails to teach it by mis-teaching it (see here and here).

Questioning authority and hearing all sides have long been a part of American culture.

Like postmodernism, “critical” is too often misunderstood and almost entirely absent from formal education.

Traditional schooling has reduced “critical thinking” to skills (such as HOTS, high-order thinking skills). This approach reduced being critical to a checklist of skills and a mechanical approach to interrogating texts and ideas.

But while education has been lazy and superficial in its approach to being critical, popular culture has gone off the rails, specifically because of the power of social media to allow and foster insular communities in which that community establishes truth/Truth and controls what counts as evidence (Facebook, Twitter, reddit, etc.).

To be blunt, the anti-vaccination movement has gone mainstream—and widespread [2].

Since the insurrection at the Capitol, I have circled back to 2008, when I was mis-labled a postmodernist.

Not a postmodernist, I am a critical educator, my work grounded in Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy.

Unlike those who suggest I believe there is no truth/Truth, my critical teaching and writing are a pursuit of both truth/Truth and that which is ethical and moral.

Critical thinking, then, is not about rejecting truth/Truth, but acknowledging that truth/Truth is always couched in power. Critical thinking, then, is not about hearing all sides, but recognizing that it is a complicated but necessary thing to recognize what is credible and what is not when interrogating a text or idea.

Critical think allows anyone to realize that Hellen Keller was a real person, a complicated human made exceptional due to challenges beyond her control. But critical thinking also allows anyone to know that rugged-individual Keller is in many ways a lie, part theater and part ideological myth-making—and that Keller denial is a dangerously frivolous thing (several magnitudes less so but overlapping with Holocaust denial).

Critical thinking allows anyone to realize there is a wide and complicated gray area between “Believe no one” and “Listen to everyone.”

Those two extremes, in fact, have joined hands and are poised to destroy democracy and the sort of slow and painful arc of history reaching for justice on a darkening horizon.

If and when Trump leaves office, and if and when he fades from public spaces, we will still have TikTok (or something like it) and Parler (or something like it) and tens of millions of people who don’t believe in Keller but do believe Trump (or someone like him).

It is again a critical time for truth/Truth.


[1] See also how Pat Tillman suffered a similar fate, being misrepresented for ideological/political purposes.

[2] I recommend A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon by Rabbit Rabbit as one interesting look at how this happen with QAnon.

Bully

TV shows and movies throughout the 1970s and 1980s, if my memory serves me well, tended to fall back on a predictable and likely lazy portrayal of bullies; beneath their abusive and violent exteriors hid a deeply insecure but ultimately redeemable human.

In the real world, however, the United States has elected a bully and conman president. The first presidential debate of 2020, in fact, put that harsh truth on display as well as offering ironic proof of the power of white male privilege.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden demonstrated the extremely low bar for white men with wealth and power. As I watched the circus between the conman clown and cartoonish career politician, I thought about “no excuses” charter schools where mostly Black and brown students are compelled to make eye contact, walk in straight lines, and conform to the most rigid rules of civility and behavior.

The expectations for the weakest among us in the U.S. are infinitely higher than for the most powerful—as demonstrated by Trump’s bullying and Biden’s doddering.

Let me be clear, my concern about the Trump/Biden debate is not a both-sides complaint. While Biden is a deeply flawed candidate and person, Trump is in a deplorable class all by himself.

The ultimately irony of Trump’s bullying and blatant racism on display at the debate is that it comes on the heels of the Trump administration claiming that anti-racism education is indoctrination and Nikki Haley’s celebrated claim at the RNC that the U.S. isn’t a racist country.

As the exposed tax returns have confirmed, Trump is mostly a conman not a gifted businessman. But more significantly his art of the con depends on his faith in bullying, a faith built on decades of evidence that those tactics do in fact work—because people who can benefit from tolerating the orbit of Trump are more than willing to suffer and fuel his bullying.

Conmen and bullies cannot survive, however, unless we allow them to exist. While those TV shows and movies of my youth seem naive and unrealistic, they did often expose the power of confronting bullies in order to disarm them.

One way Trump has survived and thrived is because pop culture and the media have been complicit in his bullying and lies.

After the debate, for example, The Washington Post offered a headline noting Trump had depended in “false facts” because the mainstream media refuse to use the word “lie” just like the media continue to suggest that using the word “racist” when warranted is somehow disrespectful.

Here is a missed lesson from the debate.

Debates are formal and structured arguments, events based on decorum and mostly academic expectations for discourse, argument, and facts.

Trump has spent his entire life existing in an ideology outside the parameters of rules, laws, and ethics/morality. As has now been reported, for example, Trump considers those who have died in the military to be “suckers” and “losers.”

To Trump, anyone who plays by any rules is a sucker and a loser.

Functioning outside the expectations of decency has allowed Trump to lie, project, gaslight, and bully his way to celebrity status and ultimately the White House.

It isn’t that Trump is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers (a characterization Trump would love to foster) but that Trump is stealing at poker while using a marked deck when almost everyone else refuses to admit that he is cheating.

For all his bumbling and loss of composure, Biden was correct to call Trump a clown, and despite the delicacies of proper behavior, to tell Trump to shut up. But most importantly, Biden hit the core of Trump by repeating that Trump cares only about Trump, and is willing to sacrifice anyone, including the U.S. public and even his own family.

Every Trump business scam is a monument to himself.

While it is true Trump is a racist, that likely sits inside a much larger fact that Trump considers everyone else to be suckers and losers, including his evangelical base (which he also mocks behind closed doors as he does the military).

There is no credible way to justify Trump as bully in chief, yet more than a third of the U.S. continues to support and even revel in his bullying.

Trump is a referendum on the American character, which is once again being exposed for its very worst qualities. The U.S. had to fight a war to end slavery, waited over 140 years to allow women to vote, and held out almost 190 years before acknowledging equality for Black Americans.

However, this is not an after-school special, and Trump is not redeemable.

The real question is whether or not the U.S. is redeemable, and I have my doubts.

The Politics of Capitalism in Trumplandia

In the idealism of youth, I came to believe deeply in the power of education to transform not only individuals (as it had done for me) but also society. More than a decade before I discovered my intellectual home, critical pedagogy, I was compelled by John Dewey’s philosophy of education, democracy, and their relationship.

This idealism was tinted with a naive lack of awareness about my own privilege and the corrosive power of systemic inequities driving racism, sexism, classism, and many other social biases. I was raised in a home, community, and region of the country steeped in rugged individualism and bootstrap narratives among working-class (and racist) whites.

Over the course of my first decade-plus of teaching, I certainly could see that I was shaping individual lives, but I grew increasingly skeptical of the revolutionary power of education to transform society.

By the spring of 2005, then, after I had secured my doctorate and moved from K-12 to higher education, I sat in a hotel room in New Orleans watching George Carlin talk about being a non-voter. I recognized that day my skepticism had turned into full-blown cynicism, and I then joined the ranks of non-voters who argued there was little discernible difference between the two major political parties in the U.S.—and that the U.S. had no real organized Left with political power.

I had spent nearly all of my adult life as an impotent voter since I lived in South Carolina, a monolithically Republican state where many Republican candidates run unopposed. Very few people I voted for were ever elected, and almost all of those “for” were in fact more votes “against” Republicans and conservatives.

Soon after I became a non-voter, the U.S. elected Barack Obama. I conceded that Obama’s election had very important symbolic power since he stood as the country’s first Black president, but I spent a great deal of scholarship and public writing criticizing the failures of the Obama administration that were indistinguishable from the George W. Bush era.

The election of Trump, however, and the sudden and awful deaths of both my parents brought into full relief that voting has the most dire consequence, even when the two political parties are nearly identical.

In hindsight, I began to recognize that while Obama’s policies were often inadequate (the Affordable Care Act) and even regressive or harmful (most the of the education agenda), the Obama years did create the atmosphere in which the country became demonstrably more progressive—expanding marriage to gay Americans and allowing the decriminalization/legalizing of marijuana, for example.

But the most profound evidence I witnessed for recognizing the consequences of the democratic process was my parents, lifelong Republicans who voted repeatedly against their own self-interests as working-class and aging (chronically ill) people.

I am not sure if they were avid supporters of Trump, but I am certain they would easily be counted among those more than tolerating Trump, mostly to stick it to the liberals.

I also know that their political commitments brought them early and truly awful deaths in an uncaring system they refused to challenge.

While I am not and have never been a Democrat, I have been more partisan politically active during this primary season, advocating for voting for women as well as calling for anyone with moral grounding to abandon Trump and his Republican base. In the wake of the South Carolina Primary and Super Tuesday, however, I find myself creeping back to the cynicism I recognized in 2005.

I have watched as large groups of people have continued, like my parents, to vote against their self-interests and even against their stated policy commitments. For example, the exit polls from Super Tuesday show the following:

 

Yet, Joe Biden, distinctly not supporting Medicare for All or anything like universal health care, garnered similar support percentages to the contradictory level of support for abandoning private insurance (which Biden endorses).

Much of these contradictions lie in the South, which I have long described as self-defeating. And even as Biden’s record on race and racism are deeply scarred by his rhetoric and his support for harmful, racist policies (such as mass incarceration and the war on drugs), voters who are Black have significantly supported Biden and reveled on social media that Sanders got burned on Super Tuesday.

My critical pedagogy calls for me to resist fatalism, but the hope expressed in Paulo Freire and others is often very hard to hold onto. As an academic, then, I am left with trying to understand and not simply, once again, to abandon our democratic process.

What are our choices? Here is my analysis as best as I can offer now:

  • Elizabeth Warren is a Capitalism Idealist (Active). Her position is that we must repair the damage we have done to capitalism. This idealistic view of capitalism holds that when it works properly, capitalism works for all people in a free society, and her belief in capitalism requires an academic (and legal) approach to repair and maintain the best capitalism has to offer (a rising tide lifts all boats).
  • Joe Biden is a Capitalism Idealist (laissez-faire). His stance is that capitalism will correct itself if leaders are decent people (“decent” as code for idealized paternalism). He and his supporters are arguing not really for policy, but for replacing Trump (not a decent leader) with Biden (because he is, they claim, decent). This position concedes that capitalism needs some sort of moral rudder, but Biden’s “nothing will change” claim reflects his laissez-faire approach to leadership in a capitalist society.
  • Mike Bloomberg is a Capitalism Individualist (authoritarian like Trump). Billionaires by virtue of their enormous wealth are uniquely qualified to manage capitalism (like a rodeo cowboy who can ride a bull the longest). This perspective also concedes a “bull in the china shop” possibility for capitalism when it isn’t well managed by those with expertise in strong-handed management.
  • Bernie Sanders is a Social Democrat (but not a socialist). His skepticism of capitalism holds that it is inherently amoral/flawed. Citizens in a democracy must protect themselves against capitalism, and protect capitalism from itself, with robust public institutions. This is a public before private stance.
  • Barack Obama is a Capitalism Pragmatist. In many ways, his approach to capitalism and leadership is a blend of Warren and Biden’s idealism, but Obama is uniquely likable. Capitalism and government can, it seems, be judiciously guided by charism and personality—as long as the biggest boats enjoying the rising tide are not rocked too much (see Biden).

Smarter people than me in terms of political science have noted that a great deal of voting is driven by fear, both fear cultivated by politicians (see Trump) and existential fear experienced by voters who are more comfortable with the known bad than the unknown that may be better (this includes the worst aspects of racist voters embracing the known of their racial hierarchies).

Sanders and his policies are not as likable as Obama nor as known as Biden’s. Warren has proven in the wake of Hillary Clinton that women have a tremendous hurdle to jump in presidential politics; Kamala Harris and Cory Booker highlighted that race and gender are enormous hurdles as well.

Among these candidates we can see the corrosive impact of fear grounded both in ideology (the unknown and misunderstood specter of “socialism”) and bigotry (sexism and racism).

But there is more as well, I think, in terms of the cult of personality in politics. Too often we become trapped in supporting and voting for candidates while not focusing on policy.

I am weary of participating in the partisan politics of personalities, but I am trying to resolve myself to remain committed to the politics of policy, advocating and using my privilege in the service of the following policies:

  • Universal single-payer health care
  • Student loan forgiveness and universal publicly funded K-16 education
  • Protecting and expanding women’s reproductive rights
  • Marijuana legalization/decriminalization (reparations to those incarcerated and released)
  • Ending mass incarceration
  • Reversing Trumpism 
  • Expanding workers’ rights

I am certain that re-electing Trump works against these commitments, but I am hard pressed to imagine how electing Biden serves them much better.

The Politics of Blind Faith

Image result for trump 2020 fuck your feelings

Recently, after driving over twelve hours, much of that through darkness and light snow across Kentucky and Indiana, from South Carolina to Wisconsin, I sat the next day around 6 AM in a Starbucks across from the convention center where I would be presenting later that morning.

I was exhausted and quite cold after walking from my hotel in downtown Milwaukee.

One other man was already sitting in the coffee house connected to another hotel. As I sat near him, I heard him talking and laughing on his cell phone. He was loud and clearly from Wisconsin by the sound of his voice.

His animated conversation focused on Trump’s recent firing of people who testified against him in the impeachment hearings. This man and the person her was talking to were exuberant about Trump’s behavior, including a discussion of Trump carrying his revenge even further.

I held my tongue and tried to ignore his loud and adolescent joy, but I could not help being disturbed that I had traveled so far across the U.S. only sit beside a person who, except for his accent, could have been having this same exchange in my home state of SC.

And this joyous glee over bullying among Trump supporters is a constant refrain on social media, mostly among conservative Christians who are included in my connections because I was born, grew up, and then taught in a deeply conservative and small Southern town until I was a couple years past 40.

While there is a range of evidence and informed opinions about who supports Trump and why, a combination of white people, racists (conscious or not), and Christian conservatives form a significant portion of the solid Trump base.

What these groups have in common is a sense of impending loss of a status or “values” that many of these people feel define the U.S. Where there is dominance or privilege, many Trump supporters believe that dominance or privilege has been earned.

Compounding these feelings, of course, is that Trump supporters include people experiencing some sort of hardships, often job insecurity or loss as well as deflated wages.

For a working-class white person recently laid off, being told this person benefits from white privilege is a very hard pill to swallow. There is a kind of pale hypothetical for a person to understand life would have been even harder had they not been white and/or male.

It becomes safer to say that Trump support is mostly visceral and emotional—often a type of blind faith in ideals and rhetoric.

Trump speaks to those ideals and uses the rhetoric that engages that base; whether or not Trump’s claims are factual becomes irrelevant, including whether or not Trump actually embodies those ideals or practices the rhetoric.

Trump the bully can lambast others for bullying with impunity among that base. Any effort by those outside the Trump circle to discredit Trump’s claims or expose his hypocrisy falls on deaf ears among those supporters.

This Trump moment is ongoing and possibly far too of the moment for some people to interrogate it in the way I have above. Few people are able to step back from believing all Trump criticism is simply partisan politics.

A few days after I returned from Milwaukee, however, I watched Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (Netflix).

Late in the documentary, a lawyer for one of Bikram Choudhury’s accusers keeps referring to Bikram as both an idiot and incredibly self-assured and arrogant. A friend watching with me asked who that reminded me of, and of course, we both mentioned Trump.

If you want to understand Trump’s appeal and how otherwise reasonable people can fall victim to that appeal, I recommend watching this documentary—although (spoiler alert) the outcome for Bikram isn’t all that encouraging for those of us hoping Trump suffers the consequences he deserves.

And I am currently reading The Girl Who Lived Twice (David Lagercrantz after Steig Larsson’s The Millennium Series) where a passage speaks to both Trump and Bikram: “It had been an awful day, and she had just been talking to an idiot of a policeman who, like most idiots, thought he was a genius” (p. 67).

This pulls into the dynamic, I think, a key component of how blind faith allows people to be duped by idiots—authority.

The policeman’s idiocy is buffered by his authority the same way Trump’s privilege and smoke-and-mirrors wealth and celebrity buffer his idiocy.

Organized religion (and cult-like situations such as Bikram’s yoga empire) breeds into people a vulnerability to authority to which they must defer through blind faith.

“It’s God’s will” is a powerful cover that preys on human vulnerability; even when a rational person sees through this ploy, it takes a great deal of courage to confront “God’s will.”

Bikram has been credibly accused by many women of sexual abuse and assault. Watching these women detail those assaults and having remained in his circle, watching men collapse into tears over coming to accept Bikram’s atrocities over their faith in Bikram—these speak to the problem faced with refuting Trump and changing the minds of his faithful supporters.

Like Trump, Bikram remains in power over the fake empire he has created.

Trump benefits from both the flaws inherent in the cult of celebrity that pervades the U.S. and the vulnerability of people raised to have blind faith in authoritarian leaders who use compelling rhetoric and speak to traditional ideals—even when the leader is a hypocrite and the ideals are hollow or false.

To rightfully call that leader an idiot suggests something as awful about those supporting an idiot—and there is little to suggest those followers are compelled in any way by such truth.

As a complicated understanding of Trump and his supporters become clearer, I am less and less optimistic that such a phenomenon can be overcome with truth or by reaching out to Trump’s base.

Before leaving for Wisconsin earlier last week, I was at one of my favorite places to eat when a man and wife with their two young children walked in.

The man had on a T-shirt: Trump 2020. Fuck Your Feelings.

A nuclear All-American family.

He and the gleeful man in the Milwaukee Starbucks would be quick friends.

What are we to do?

Trumpublicans and the Gotcha Politics of the Right

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.

And even then, we were warned about the consequences of such an unhinged president: Trump couldn’t be prosecuted if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, lawyer claims.

We aren’t quite there, but we are pretty damned close.

The U.S. Senate, with a majority of Republicans, will insure that Trump takes one more step toward that hypothetical, except slightly reversed here as Trump is dodging the impeachment bullet.

Beware looking too hard and cheering too loudly for our current McCabe/Bokonon—Pelosi, the speech shredder, versus Trump, the high school bully.

This is by far the worst reality TV yet, and as Trump himself believes, there appears to be no promise of it being cancelled any time soon.

I’d stay away from Fifth Avenue, in fact, just in case.


See Also

Harrison Bergeron 2016

American Emperor: The Harrison Bergeron Presidency

Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us: “For the American Right, the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy”

William F. Buckley, I suppose, would have wanted to be remembered as a powerful and charismatic public intellectual for conservatism and one of the foundational thinkers in the late 20th-/early 21st-century formation of conservative thought and the current Republican Party.

While Buckley failed as a political candidate and may in many ways be lost to history, his goals have been mostly accomplished—creating a Republican movement that succeeded in significant ways from Ronald Reagan’s rise through the election of Donald Trump, with only minor detours for centerists such as Bill Clinton (anti-welfare and “tough on crime” advocate) and Barack Obama.

What did Buckley envision?

His was a political ideology that shifted the 1950s Republican moderates and liberals to a reactionary party grounded in (when convenient) libertarian principles and Christian values that stood firm against the rising tide of Brown v. Board (school integration) and the Civil Rights Act of the mid-1960s as well as the violent civil rights movement swelling from the 1950s into the 1970s.

Buckley repeatedly argued that Black people killed during the Civil Rights Era had provoked the violence, for example. He was a “know your place” sort of racist.

Buckley held firm throughout his public career that Southern whites had the right to their beliefs, even if those beliefs were racist, and that the federal government must not impede on those rights (Constitutionally wrong, was his thin argument), even if those efforts sought to gain the full rights of Black people.

Yes, Buckley was a racist, the sort of racist who admitted racism was a plight on humanity and the U.S., but he argued, it was a plight that must be allowed to play out somewhat organically and not spurred by the influence of government mandate (whether through the courts or legislation). Buckley was also the sort of racist who claimed whites were superior to Black people at the moment, even as he wasn’t going to argue directly there were genetic differences (although he was fine with letting such claims linger).

Buckley rarely even flinched and sometimes eagerly trafficked with those who did make much more gross and hateful claims—George Wallace, James Jackson Kilpatrick, etc.

In Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us, using the James Baldwin/Buckley debate as the crux of his examination, Buccola draws a powerful conclusion about Buckley’s impact on U.S. politics: “For the American Right, the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy” (p. 365).

Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, and C. Dickerman Williams in Firing Line (1966)
From IMDB: Ronald ReaganWilliam F. Buckley, and C. Dickerman Williams in Firing Line (1966)

The line from Buckley to the Reagan Revolution and then to the current Trump administration is straight and direct. For those who want to claim that Trump is an aberration, a distortion of modern/contemporary Republicanism, Buccola’s book is a harsh slap in the face.

Trump and the current Republican Party is at least a logical conclusion to what Buckley and other conservatives started in the 1940s-1950s.

Buckley mastered what we now see as typical Trumpisms: claiming belief trumps evidence, cozying up to blatant racists for partisan political expediency, making sweeping ideological claims about “the individual” while refusing to recognize the inequities that weigh on real individuals (especially if those individuals are not white), resorting to American exceptionalism and framing any enemy as being “anti-American,” promoting boot-strapping over government intervention, and refusing to acknowledge one’s own enormous privilege while also claiming great accomplishment from hard work and intellectual superiority.

In short, Buckley wrote Trump’s playbook, although Trump is a slightly more buffoonish version of Buckley, himself a stylized character, more theater than substance despite Buckley’s penchant for arcane vocabulary.

However, I must stress here that despite my initial focus on Buckley, Buccola’s outstanding scholarship and compelling writing has one star: James Baldwin.

From The Atlantic: James Baldwin, right, discusses a civil-rights incident with Bayard Rustin, left. (AP)

Just as Baldwin was often the complicated and complicating moral compass while he was alive, Baldwin provides not only context, but the moral counterbalance to Buckley’s inexcusable dispassionate dogmatism.

As someone who has often written about and teaches from Baldwin, I recognize in Buccola an essential primer on Baldwin’s evolving thought throughout the key decades surrounding the Buckley debate in 1965.

Readers witness Baldwin being smeared as a communist (and his explanations to the contrary), labeled “anti-American” (although he repeatedly argues that to criticize the U.S. is to love it), provoked to pick sides between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Baldwin resisted, praising both men but cautioning against the dangers of any strict obligations to organized religion), and characterized as a leading cause of racial violence (maybe the central target of Buckley’s “blame the victims” campaign).

While Baldwin sought always to live the life of an artist, he was drawn time and again into his role as public intellectual, journalist, practitioner of the jeremiad, public speaker, and debater.

Even Malcolm X was apt to warn others that Baldwin was always his own man—so what he said and when he said it remained Baldwin’s.

Guiding Baldwin was his own conception of love:

In order to achieve freedom of this sort, Baldwin contended, we must love one another. His understanding of love was deep and complex, and the love he prescribed was difficult and often unsettling. To love someone, he explained, is to deny them “spiritual and social ease,” which “hard as if may sound,” is “the most important thing that one human being can do for another.” Love requires us to force each other to confront the delusions that we rely on to avoid taking responsibility for our lives. “Love takes off the masks,” Baldwin declared, “that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” (From The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola, p. 163, quoting from Baldwin’s “Down at the Cross,” pp. 335, 341)

And that commitment rested against Baldwin’s consternation about white America:

“There are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it … [and] how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here.” … “I am terrified,” [Baldwin] said, “by the  moral apathy, the death of the heart that is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I am human …. And this means that they have become … moral monsters.” (p. 186)

Ultimately, Baldwin had the irrefutable last word on race in the U.S.:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,’ but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie. (On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin, Los Angeles Times, 1979)

And as Buccola quotes Baldwin talking to “students at Cambridge”:

What is happening in the poor woman, the poor man’s mind. They have been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation which is like a heavenly revelation: at least they are not black. (p. 259)

Yet, Buccola paraphrases Baldwin arguing “most white Americans live in a state of denial” (p. 347).

Buccola makes a deeply compelling choice by framing the racial/racist history of the U.S., and how that drives and intermingles with U.S. partisan politics as well as media, with one moment in U.S. history—when Buckley and Baldwin directly debate “the motion of the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro” (p. 376; note that this volume includes the most intact transcript existing of the debate, another gem of this book).

These two men, born within a year of each other although Baldwin was in Harlem and Buckley, in extreme wealth and privilege, are not mere tokens of history, but valid voices of the current tensions in a country that wants to call itself free and equitable but often, like Buckley, refuses to acknowledge our sins (as Baldwin did) or do anything about them.

Reading Buccola’s extended exegesis of the debate, I am reminded of comedian George Carlin: “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

And, of course, more Baldwin: “The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something we do not understand and do not want to admit” (“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” 1948).

In the Epilogue, Buccola shares Baldwin’s recollection of Buckley avoiding an elevator packed with Baldwin and his Black friends:

“He will say, of course, if challenged, that the elevator was crowded, but I remember the split second—the twinkling of an eye—in which he looked at me and he saw me looking at him. Okay. But I [emphasis in original] would have gotten on the elevator.”

Racist. Liar. Coward. These are the words that came into Baldwin’s mind when he thought of Buckley. (p. 361)

Apt words, chilling words, that serve us, sadly, now.

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

Becka said that spelling was not reading: reading, she said, was when you could hear the words as if they were a song. (p. 297)

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

“How did Gilead fall?” Margaret Atwood asks in the Acknowledgements, noting that The Testaments, set 15 years after the main action of The Handmaid’s Tale but drafted 30-plus years after that novel, “was written in response to this question” (p. 417).

Even a writer of Atwood’s talent and success probably could never have imagined that Handmaid has become the cultural and political touchstone that has occurred with the rise of Trump and the popular Hulu series.

Those who found Handmaid in the late 1980s to be powerful then and an extremely compelling work of fiction may be skeptical about Atwood’s very late return to this now modern classic. For both the newly converted and the long-time fans of Atwood, I want to assure you all that this much delayed sequel pays off quite wonderfully.

I came to Atwood as a teacher—specifically high school Advanced Placement Literature and Composition—and then as a scholar. I have also grounded a tremendous amount of my academic and public work in Atwood’s fiction and non-fiction.

With efforts here, then, to avoid as much as possible spoilers, I want to highlight a few of the ways in which Atwood maintains elements from Handmaid while also extending her writer’s urge to connect literacy with empowerment and attaining ones full humanity.

The Testaments offers the narratives of three women—notably including Aunt Lydia from Handmaid. In both novels, as is common with Atwood’s fiction, the narrations are both lending a voice to those often unheard or silenced and working as meta-narrations about the nature of truth when stories are told, retold, and examined (both novels end with Gilead being  the focus of academic scholarship).

Much of Atwood’s fiction is an exploration of what it means to tell and retell stories.

Names and renaming are also prominent in the sequel, dramatizing the power of names and (re)naming as those processes disproportionately impact women in the service of men and patriarchy.

Handmaid details the end of the U.S. and how Gilead comes into being, although much of that is limited to what Offred could have known as a handmaid. Then, many of the finer details are revealed in the Historical Notes, a scholarly examination of Gilead well after its fall.

Testaments broadens the perspectives by including one voice from an inner woman of power, a woman mostly trapped in the upper levels of the Gilead machine, and another view from outside (Canada) that is both somewhat naive and deeply cynical.

These testaments piece together a well established Gilead for the reader and also document the theocracy’s final days. Some of the most compelling elements here are the full development of Aunt Lydia and the careful examination of two characters being groomed to be Aunts (after narrowly avoiding being wed to Commanders).

Part XVII: Reading Room serves as an excellent example of where Atwood excels in combining many of the thematic and narratives elements of her dystopian speculative novel. Aunts are women designed within Gilead to control other women; Aunts are embodiments of a sort of paradoxical authority, including their legal access to reading and writing.

In their journey to becoming Aunts, Agnes and Becka—who have bonded over their fears of being married to a Commander—take on a mentee (Agnes)/mentor (Becka) relationship since Becka has learned to read and write well ahead of Agnes. The motif of reading and writing is emphasized near the end of the novel, and Gilead, I think, to highlight the power of language.

Agnes struggles:

My reading abilities progressed slowly and with many stumbles. Becka helped a lot. We used Bible verses to practise, from the approved selection that was available to Supplicants.. With my very own eyes I was able to read portions of Scripture that I had until then only heard. (p. 297)

These scenes reminded me of Atwood’s deft use in the original novel of Commanders reading scripture to the Wives and Handmaids, with the reader alerted to what Becka soon reveals to Agnes:

The day came when the locked wooden Bible box reserved for me would be brought out to the Reading Room and I would finally open this most forbidden of books. I was very excited about it, but that morning Becka said, “I need to warn you.”

“Warn me?” I said. “But it’s holy.”

“It doesn’t say what they say it says.” (p. 302)

This echoes in Handmaid when the Commander reads the Bible before the Ceremony with Offred:

The Commander pauses, looking down, scanning the page….We lean toward him a little, iron fillings to the magnet. He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it once….

For lunch it was the Beatitudes….They played it from a tape….The voice was a man’s….I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. (pp. 88-89)

In both novels, Atwood reveals that whoever controls the word maintains power. These novels should remind readers that throughout history, learning to read has been carefully controlled—who is allowed, who is not, and who remains so burdened with living that to read seems a luxury.

And so Agnes gains a sort of consciousness along with gaining literacy: “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others” (p. 299).

As Becka cautioned, Agnes confronts that “[t]he truth was not noble, it was horrible”:

This is what the Aunts meant, then, when they said women’s minds were too weak for reading. We would crumble, we would fall apart under the contradictions, we would not be able to hold firm.

Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightness and especially the truthfulness of Gilead’s theology. If I’d failed at perfection, I’d concluded that the fault was mine. But as I discovered what had been changed by Gilead, what had been added, and what had been omitted, I feared I might lose my faith. (p. 303)

This awakening in Agnes born of her learning to read and write leads to a larger theme for Atwood: “Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories” (p. 307).

And in Testaments, “Beneath its outer show of virtue and purity, Gilead was rotting” (p. 308).

As compelling as Atwood’s motifs are in their deconstructing of history and the present, The Testaments if no mere “protest novel,” which James Baldwin rejected, explaining:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality….

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in the insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended. (pp. 17-18)

Atwood doesn’t stoop to simple Continue reading Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

The King’s English, Social Media, and the Digital Era

Jeff Somers poses about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

Collective cultural memory suggests Fahrenheit 451 is about censoring books…. But dig deeper into Bradbury’s own discussions about his novel (and carefully reread the text) and you’ll see the author was really obsessed with the encroachment of technology, especially television, on the tradition of the written word. Bradbury positions the burning of books as a symptom of what’s happened to society, not the cause—he’s much more interested in the erosion of critical thought and imagination caused by society’s consumption of media.

This argument frames the dystopian novel as a powerful and prescient commentary on the nature and status of language in our current era of social media (Twitter, etc.) and digital text (from Kindle to the Internet).

Bradbury explained that his novel is about “”being turned into morons by TV.”

Even as some wring their hands about the death of print, we mostly in 2019 take that print for granted, rarely, I think, considering the importance of the printing press to the development of humanity, and even thought itself.

The importance of fixed language, or the possibility of fixed language, began with the printing press, and then Bradbury imagined a logical conclusion well past his lifetime—one in which other forms of technology dwarfed communication as print did.

At the end of the novel, readers discover that people have memorized books, becoming organic, living Kindles, of sorts, to preserve the fixed nature of language. Before print, narratives flourished in oral forms, the tellings and retellings perpetuating and changing those narratives along the way.

I suspect the sky is not falling in terms of print text now because I recall while teaching high school English that the same sort of doom’s day warnings sprang up in the era of MTV and music videos. Videos, some warned, would not just kill the radio star, but were going to kill print.

English teachers were urged to pivot away from so much focus on print text, writing, and toward video communication; watching was the new literacy. Unlike Bradbury, these fear merchants failed to anticipate messaging over computers, the growth of email, and the advent of text messaging on smart phones and social media—all of which reshaped and propelled the importance of keyboarding and text (even as much of that is virtual).

The world shifted rather quickly away from music videos (MTV morphed into reality TV), toward cell phones with miniature keyboards (think BlackBerry), and then touchscreen cell phones with integrated keyboards (even the iPad has bowed to the market popularity of having a keyboard).

Print—fixed language—is an enduring aspect of human communication, and humanity itself, it seems. But the printing press and making language somewhat permanent resulted in another often ignored development—the rise of prescriptive rules for language (grammar, mechanics, spelling, and even style).

The rise of what many call simply “grammar books” because of their use in formal schooling reveals more about power than language itself. Proper use of language in English once carried the term “the King’s English.” It is there we should pause for a moment.

Linguistics professor John McWhorter has leveled a critique of Donald Trump, not so much for his presidential politics as for his language, notably on Twitter.

“The president of the United States has many faults, but let’s not ignore this one: He cannot write sentences,” McWhorter begins before cataloguing a pretty hefty list of Trump’s unusual uses of language on social media—odd capitalization, garbled spelling (apparently not copyedited by anyone), and typos.

From that evidence, McWhorter proclaims: “Trump’s serial misuse of public language is one of many shortcomings that betray his lack of fitness for the presidency.”

While some may find—as I do—McWhorter’s critique linguistically prudish, the stale prescriptivist rant, he makes two important, although complex, points: “Trump’s writing suggests not just inadequate manners or polish—not all of us need be dainty—but inadequate thought” and “One must not automatically equate sloppy spelling with sloppy thinking.”

I fear many people will not read McWhorter’s analysis as carefully as he intended, so I want to emphasize his use of “suggests” and “not automatically.”

Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings played thoughtfully with capitalization and lower case letters. William Shakespeare manufactured quite a few words.

While there certainly is a case to be made for standardizing language to aid communication, the automatic and abrupt association of so-called nonstandard language in print form with “inadequate thought” is very dangerous.

If we return to the rise of “the King’s English,” we must be reminded that prescribing rules was far more often about power than the linguistic integrity of any language. Early grammar texts for English imposed (without any real linguistic justification) mathematical concepts onto language (no double negatives!) and wrestled English into Latin constructs (do not split infinitives!) because English was viewed as inferior as a language.

But even more important in that process is that “the King’s English” was mostly an effort to fix, make permanent, the ruling class’s language, one honed through formal education and in the privileged context of access to print text (which was incredibly expensive). Literacy was a wedge among the so-called classes, notably a mechanism used to leverage power in the balance of those already in power.

There is more to the politics of “the King’s English” also; the direct connection between the so-called use of proper English and moral character. The earliest cases for correct use of language was an argument that proper language reflected a person of high moral character as well as the inverse. Of course, this was gross propaganda to portray the ruling class as deserving their privilege and the poor as deserving their poverty.

So I am left with a predicament in terms of McWhorter’s analysis of Trump’s use of language, especially as Trump represents the state of language in an era of social media and digital text.

I am not buying McWhorter’s prescriptivist bent even as I recognize we must critique and then reject “Trump’s serial misuse of public language” as an issue of dishonesty and “inadequate thought.”

If Trump himself or someone on his staff suddenly found the impetus to copyedit Trump’s public rants on Twitter and elsewhere, that would in no way abdicate Trump’s lies and abuse of status and power.

To nitpick about Trump’s so-called correctness in matters of mechanics, grammar, and style is too much like those concerned with Trump’s ill-fitting suits and his god-awful hair and orange skin-glow.

Trump ascended to the highest office in a free country, mainly as a careless business man and reality TV star—more bravado than anything else.

There’s too much of substance we must be confronting instead of the surface where he has flourished.

Playing grammar Nazi with Trump’s Tweets is a simplistic distraction from the very real threat of Nazis in 2019 America.

Nero fiddled, Trump (more reality TV star than business man) Tweets (badly). But, you know, the fires.

Daredevil in Trumplandia: “The Kingpin’s weakness is vanity”

The humanities have a long history of being discredited in the U.S. as impractical majors in college. The good ol’ U.S. of A. tends to calculate investment and return at a very simplistic level to determine when the cost of a college major can be linked directly to earnings in a career.

Business majors are destined to make bank, goes the investment/return narrative, but what you going to do with an English major?

Current times are particularly hard for the humanities, especially literature as a track of English as a major.

Here is the real-world irony in the era of Trumplandia: With Donald Trump at the center of 17 investigations, some have questioned why Trump would have pursued the presidency, which clearly opened the door to exposing his criminality.

The explanation lies, you guessed it, in literature.

While many of us found Greek and Shakespearean tragedy serious drudgery in our formal schooling, these dramas told a tale all too familiar: How the mighty are destined to fall because of their unbridled hubris, excessive pride.

Trump born into excessive and ill-got wealth has skirted along his entire life—cut to the scene where young bone-spurred Trump skips past active duty in war—without consequences for his greed, arrogance, and (to tick another work of literature) his pathological mendacity. (See also, like a good parallel subplot in Shakespeare, the Brett Kavanaugh saga.)

Keeping in mind that universal themes in literature are deeply problematic, we have abundant evidence that motifs such as the dangers of excessive pride are at least enduring, and for good reason.

Recently, I have been reconnecting with one of my favorite comic book superheroes, Daredevil.

Season 3 of the Netflix series, despite all the flaws in this adaptation and the original comic book created in 1964 by Stan Lee, Bill Everett, and Jack Kirby, represents what makes Daredevil compelling—the complex investigation of justice in the context of both human and spiritual justice. S3 draws on Frank Miller’s “Born Again” (1986) while maintaining the Netflix toned down approach to superhero narratives.

Matt Murdock as righteous lawyer and simultaneously the morally ambiguous vigilante Daredevil (the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen)*, at its best, is a much more powerful and compelling examination of justice than, for example, Batman.

While the religious debates in S3 are key elements of why I am drawn to Daredevil, picking up the Conclusion to The Death of Daredevil (612) serves well my point above about the value of literature and the enduring motif about the folly of excessive pride.

Charles Soule (writer) and Phil Noto (artist) dramatize the Murdock/Daredevil duality well as Murdock seeks Daredevil as a witness to remove Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin as mayor of New York.

Four pages provide a thinly veiled indictment of not only Fisk/The Kingpin, but also Donald Trump.

When Murdock confronts the district attorney, we witness how political might trumps ethics and even the law:

DD 612 3

Murdock’s idealism is highlighted in his plea: “But Wilson Fisk is a criminal. He does not deserve that office.” And this exchange also addresses how those connected to an administration are themselves complicit; as Murdock asks the question often repeated in the real world of Trumplandia:

Can you really keep working for an administration you know is illegal and corrupt at its core when you know there’s a way to take it down?

Yes, it’s a risk. But even if you lose it all, you’ll go out as who you are, not the compromised shadow of yourself the Kingpin’s hoping you’ll be.

It is, however, Fisk on the witness stand and then alone in his office that speak directly to Trump:

DD 612 5
DD 612 6
DD 612 4

Murdock/Daredevil narrates the scene and notes:

I can hear Fisk’s heartbeat. Slow, steady. He’s not afraid. He’s like me that way.

He’s not afraid of anything, and you can’t make him afraid. That’s not the way you beat him. That’s not his weakness.

The Kingpin’s weakness…is vanity.

Fisk as an allegory of Trump is yet another tale of excessive pride, hubris.

Not afraid and certain he is above accountability, Fisk storms from the stand: “Enough. This is a farce, and I will not stand for it any longer.” Might we hear “fake news” in the background?

The dynamic page with Fisk being introspective precedes his being removed from office. It appears the fantasy world of comic books still clings to some sliver of justice even as the real world seems unable or unwilling to take such stands against criminals in office.

However, this is only appearances as there is a twist; justice, you see, is no more simple in Daredevil than in our real world of Trumplandia. The battle between good and evil is never-ending, and more things than justice seem blind—and paralyzed.

The Death of Daredevil ends: “I cannot see the light. So I will be the light. I am Daredevil. And I am not afraid.” And let us not forget, walking unafraid is a trait shared by our so-called heroes and so-called villains.


* Season 2 effectively challenges Murdock/Daredevil’s righteousness with The Punisher, and others, noting little difference among Daredevil, The Punisher, and Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin.

See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2019). From Marvel’s Daredevil to Netflix’s Defenders: Is justice blind? In S. Eckard (ed.), Comic connections: Building character and theme (pp. 81-98). New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Thomas, P.L. (2012). Daredevil: The man without fearElektra lives again; science fiction.  [entries]. In Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Heroes and Superheroes. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.