Tag Archives: margaret atwood

In God We Trust?

Writing about her The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia”:

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen if we don’t pull up our socks.

Atwood’s now contemporary classic reads as a brilliant hybrid of George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—”dire warnings” about the allure and dangers of totalitarian theocracies.

Literature, in fact, comes back again and again to warnings about fanatical and fundamentalist religion, especially as that intersects government and politics.

Powerful in its concision and word play, e.e. cummings’ satire of pompous political patriotism begins, “‘next to of course god america i/ love you'”—weaving a stump speech both garbled with cliches and distinctly lucid in its pandering.

The last line (“He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water”), the only words not being spoken by the unnamed politician, comes after the dramatic rhetorical question: “‘then shall the voice of liberty be mute?'”

Like Atwood, Orwell, and Miller, cummings is offering his warning about draping ourselves in the flag while simultaneously thumping the Bible.

In God We Trust?

Having been born, raised, and then living and working my entire life in South Carolina, I have mostly existed in a default culture of Southern Baptist religiosity, a fundamentalist view of scripture.

I have witnessed and continue to witness religion used both as a rod and as a water torture: at once a blunt and instant tool of judgment and a relentless, although only a drop at a time, force for keeping everyone in line.

And that line is decreed by God, so they say.

However, this is not something exclusive to the South—although many continue to rely on scripture to justify corporal punishment and even misogyny in my homeland.

The history of the South, too, offers countless and disturbing “dire warnings”: justifying slavery with scripture and the historical roots of Southern Baptists as a result.

But fundamentalism in the South and the dramatic consequences may mask the thread of those same beliefs running throughout the nation. Consider “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the place of prayer in public schools.

The public is mostly misinformed about all of these, but easily swayed by the political implications of invoking “God.”

“God” on currency and in the Pledge (as a Cold War political ploy) represents a political manipulation of religion (using religion to score political points), as the history of how each occurred reveals. But prayer in public school may be the best example of the problem.

Formed under Ronald Reagan, the committee eventually drafting what is called A Nation at Risk included Gerald Holton, who has revealed Reagan’s “marching orders” for the report:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom [emphasis added]. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.

When the president of the U.S. misrepresents a fundamental issue, when virtually no one (media, etc.) holds the president accountable for the misrepresentation, and then when that inaccurate claim remains powerful for decades (until today), we would be careless to suggest that the danger of religion and politics is simply a vestige of the backward South.

Neither prayer nor God has ever been removed or banned from public schools. In 1962, forced prayer was ruled unconstitutional—which ironically seems to be the sort of law the Libertarian-leaning streak in the U.S. would embrace. Yet Reagan Democrats and Tea Partiers are the exact national demographics calling for “religious freedom” legislation, much like the redundant and unnecessary legislation guaranteeing students the right to pray in public schools.

“Freedom To and Freedom From”

“Religious freedom”?

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia,” Atwood’s narrator, Offred/June, recounts. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

Women training women, Atwood dramatizes, is about control—control of their bodies and control of their minds, which includes controlling language.

“We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice,” Offred/June adds.

Again, I live in SC, a “right to work” state, so I am attuned to the Orwellian language gymnastics so wonderfully emphasized in Atwood’s novel, echoing Orwell’s “dire warnings”:

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometer away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape….

The Ministry of Truth—Minitrue, in Newspeak—was startlingly different from any other object in sight….From where Winston stood is was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:




Therefore, I am skeptical—if not cynical—about the proposed “religious freedom” law in Indiana. I am also disturbed that this is occurring in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Indiana, and as Garrett Epps discusses, there are important connections to Indiana’s law and SC:

Until the day he died, however, [Maurice] Bessinger insisted that he and God were right.  His last fight was to preserve the Confederate flag as a symbol of South Carolina. “I want to be known as a hard-working, Christian man that loves God and wants to further (God’s) work throughout the world as I have been doing throughout the last 25 years,” he told his hometown newspaper in 2000….

That’s a good background against which to measure the uproar about the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by Governor Mike Pence last week. I don’t question the religious sincerity of anyone involved in drafting and passing this law. But sincere and faithful people, when they feel the imprimatur of both the law and the Lord, can do very ugly things.

Being reared in the fundamentalist South, I was given mostly a negative education in morality—all that I was determined not to do and be.

My moral compass has come from literature instead—Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and Kurt Vonnegut.

These calls, then, for “religious freedom” ring Orwellian, not about “freedom” at all but about the sorts of cancerous marriages between religion and politics already played out time and again in the U.S. to deny marginalized groups what those in power enjoy as if such is ordained by God.


“Do you know what a humanist is?” writes Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country:

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.

I am compelled to suggest that the question is not, In God we trust?

We must be very cautious about anyone who speaks in God’s stead; we must adopt Vonnegut’s stance toward our fellow humans.

Indiana should feel the consequences of humans’ inhumanity toward humans—a great irony is that this wrath appears to be the Invisible Hand of Capitalism—and like great literature, Indiana’s political hubris and indecency must fulfill Atwood’s recognition of the power of “dire warnings.”

Indiana, pull up your socks.


Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby

Gender Problem in Academia Tip of Iceberg

Readers often find the concluding section of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tales, titled “Historical Notes,” somewhat disjointed—if readers continue to the section at all.

While these final pages are important to helping readers understand many of the nuances of the narrative constituting most of the novel, “Historical Notes” is also a brutal satire on academia, spurred by Atwood’s own troubling experiences with graduate school that exposed to her a stunning level of patriarchy and misogyny common in universities in the early 1960s.

Nearly five decades later, Roxane Gay, novelist and author of Bad Feminist, details her own experiences of being marginalized, of feeling as the Other in higher education, first as a graduate student, like Atwood:

At both my master’s and doctoral institutions, I was the only black student. Any success I achieved only spurred me to work harder and harder so I might outrun whispers of affirmative action and the arrogant assumptions that I could not possibly belong in those institutions of supposedly higher learning.

Like many students of color, I spent a frustrating amount of time educating white people, my professors included, about their ignorance, or gritting my teeth when I did not have the energy. When race entered class discussions, all eyes turned to me as the expert on blackness or the designated spokesperson for my people. When racist “jokes” were made, I was supposed to either grin and bear it or turn the awkward incident into a teachable moment about difference, tolerance, and humor. When a doctoral classmate, who didn’t realize I was in hearing range, told a group of our peers I was clearly the affirmative-action student, I had to pretend I felt nothing when no one contradicted her. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are dreadfully common, banal even, for people of color. Lest you think this is ancient history, I graduated with my Ph.D. in December 2010.

And then as faculty:

Today, I teach at Purdue University, where in the semester I write this, I have no students in either of my classes who look like me. I have yet to see another black faculty member in the halls of my building, though I know some exist. I previously taught at Eastern Illinois University, where, in my department, I was one of two black faculty members, one of only five faculty of color in all. The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is the price of exceptionalism—you will always be the only one or one of a few. There are no safe harbors. There are no reflections of your experience.

While Gay highlights racial inequity and Atwood has confronted gender inequity, these experiences reflect systemic failures in higher education—ones that impact those of us who come from working class backgrounds as well.

So when I read Curt Rice’s Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried, I had multiple response to his opening claim:

Young women scientists leave academia in far greater numbers than men for three reasons. During their time as PhD candidates, large numbers of women conclude that (i) the characteristics of academic careers are unappealing, (ii) the impediments they will encounter are disproportionate, and (iii) the sacrifices they will have to make are great.

First, since my own university is currently conducting a gender equity study spurred in part because a disproportionate number of women faculty have left over the last few years, I strongly agree with the premise that women faculty are justifiably rejecting higher education, notably for the three points identified by Rice

Further, however, the recognition of the gender problem and then the likely responses to that problem both remind me of the recent thirty-year cycle of public school reform.

In both contexts, the problem is misidentified and then the solutions remain trapped within marginal policy tinkering.

Education reform, for example, has focused mostly on the achievement gap (occasionally acknowledging the relationship between poverty and measurable academic achievement, but primarily in order to note poverty is not an excuse) and then has addressed that problem by a recurring cycle of the same types of reform—accountability based on new standards and new high-stakes tests.

That process fails because the core problem, poverty, is marginalized by both how the problem is defined and what steps are taken as solutions; the process ultimately fails because we refuse to identify systemic problems and refuse to offer systemic solutions directly confronting those weaknesses.

This, of course, is the same critique I have of now (belatedly) recognizing the gender problem (or race problem, or class problem) in academia and the likely response: how do we hire more women, how do we insure equitable pay and promotion for women, etc.

Now to be clear, those policy issues must be addressed, but I suspect when and if they are, the consequence will be that systemic problems in academia will be left untouched.

As a tenured white and male faculty member now submitting my dossier for full professorship, I recognize that academia is too often a glorified fraternity, steeped in secrecy and academic hazing.

The structures remain hierarchical, the policies continue to be cryptic, and the entire process for hiring, evaluation, tenure, and promotion appear capricious—and often are capricious—despite there being very formalized steps, mountains of paperwork (literally paper), and arcane systems of titles, committees, and traditional norms of scholarship.

As just one example, high education functions under an unwritten (although often expressed in veiled ways) “know your place” policy aimed at junior faculty. For people who already live in marginalized situations due to gender, race, or class, this dynamic is especially corrosive.

It is not surprising that women are rejecting the Social Darwinism and hierarchical silencing in academia; what is surprising is that not everyone is rejecting these norms.

Just as education reform is committed to a flawed hope that reforming schools will eradicate crippling inequity, poverty, racism, and sexism in the U.S., addressing gender inequity in academia will too fail if we see the solutions as only policy reform—if we point to more women hired, higher salaries and more promotions for female faculty without taking any real steps to dismantle and then rebuild an enlightened and equitable academy.

Again, as with education reform, let’s address inequity at the policy level in academia—inequity related to gender, race, class, and any marginalized status—but let’s also not allow those reforms to replace the greater need to confront the systemic failures of academia that manifest themselves as gender, race, and class inequities.

Atwood’s novel ends with a keynote speech by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto of Cambridge University. His final words are grand, and empty in the way scholars often are: “As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes,” for example.

But the most powerful aspect of this talk is possibly the most subtle—Pieixoto ends his talk with a question, one that rings as mere rhetoric as no one responds, no one is likely allowed to respond: “Are there any questions?”

If we are serious about gender equity, for example, in academia, we must ask women academics and scholars what the academia should look like, not simply give them raises and promotions in hopes that we have solved the problem.

We must ask, we must listen, and then we must act. Otherwise, we are saying that we really do not take gender inequity seriously (again).


REVIEW: An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

Toward the final pages of Roxane Gay‘s An Untamed State, the primary narrator, Mireille, admits about her response to the earthquake in Haiti in the wake of her own personal horror of being kidnapped and repeatedly raped and tortured over thirteen days of captivity: “We sent money instead and it was then I felt like a true American” (p. 345).

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

When Margaret Atwood writes about Canada, she is also writing about the U.S. When Atwood writes about women, she is also writing about men. And in both dualities, Atwood writes about the intersections, Canada/U.S. and woman/man—as Classen and Howes explain:

From Atwood’s perspective, Canada has traditionally occupied, and internalized, the position of the female in relation to the dominant, male land to the south (Atwood 1982: 389), and so the figure of the female is well suited to represent the Canadian character. As Rosemary Sullivan writes in her biography of Atwood, within Canada “national identity and gender were both predicated on second-class status” (Sullivan 1998: 128).

In fact, in many of Atwood’s poems and stories, the context for the exploration of dualism and borders subtly shifts back and forth from the personal or the interpersonal to the national (Hutcheon 1988).

In Gay’s novel, readers find a parallel to Atwood’s dualities as Gay confronts both Haiti and the U.S. through a personal hell experienced by Mireille who personifies some deeply ugly Truths: when poverty and privilege intersect, violence occurs; when males and females intersect, violence occurs; in both dynamics, as Mireille concludes, “Girl children are not safe in a world where there are men” (p. 344).

An Untamed State: Of Mind, Body, and Nation

My entry point to Gay’s writing was “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We.” The story reached out from the computer screen and demanded that I find more by Gay to read so I ordered An Untamed State the same day after exploring Gay’s web site.

That first story struck me with Gay’s use of voice, genre manipulation, and tone; I was lost much of the story until the end, which pays off brilliantly.

My experience with the novel confirms my initial attraction to Gay’s gifts, but the novel presents a paradox: The story is so brutal, it is nearly unreadable, unbearable, and the story is so brutal, I never wanted to put the book down until I reached the last word.

I am prone to placing books on my bookshelves in ways that honor how I feel about those books. I will slip An Untamed State beside Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy because at their cores these works are about what Mireille (again at the end of the novel and after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti) proclaims:

There was an earthquake….It was a new sorrow, a fresh break in an already broken place. The tents are still there, providing no shelter. Women are in even more danger. There is no water. There is no hope. My parents survived and for that I was grateful, in spite of myself. My father’s buildings stood strong while the rest of the country fell. I imagine he is proud of his work, these standing monuments of his resolve. (p. 344)

The most powerful motifs of the novel are weaved into the passage above, exhibiting a simplicity that masks the weight the novel carries from the very title itself. “An Untamed State” speaks to Haiti as country, especially as that contrasts with the U.S. and as privilege and poverty are dramatized in Mireille’s parents (their gated estate in Haiti) and Mireille’s captivity once kidnapped, and to the fragility of Mireille’s mental and physical states.

“Forgive me for my father’s sins”

Gay’s narration mixes time and perspectives with both a suddenness and grace that left me as conflicted about the style, structure, and point of view as I was about the content, Mireille’s kidnapping, the repeated scenes of rape and torture, and the tension Gay creates with her characters and her themes. For example, what am I to do when the kidnappers and rapists express valid confrontations about the violence of inequity?

Within the first few pages, the dominant motif is established, as Mireille offers the first flashback embedded in her coming to consciousness in captivity:

We sat on our lanai, illuminated by paper lanterns and candles, all of us drunk on the happiness of too much money and too much food and too much freedom. (p. 10)

This passage echoes for me the opening of Chapter III in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champaign and the stars. (p. 39)

But in Gay’s novel, the opulence and decadence are framed against Mireille’s story of being grotequely tamed, her nightmare of awareness germinated in her native Haiti: “There are three Haitis—the country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew” (p. 11).

Also in those first few chapters, I came to recognize that the chapter numbering was tallying—I, II, III, IIII, IIII …—a subtle technique that reveals the fact of Mireille’s many states of captivity: captive to her father’s privilege and arrogance; captive to her native Haiti; captive to her existence as a woman; captive to her life as a Haitian married to a pale American; captive for 13 days to kidnapping, rape, and torture; and then captive to her history for the entirety of her life.

An Untamed State is a compelling novel and deserves your time if you love to read well crafted stories and characters, but the work is also a brave and piercing spotlight on the violence of this world bred by socioeconomic and gender inequity. Gay focuses those messages, in part, on Mireille’s father:

My father does not understand obstacles, doesn’t believe they exist. He cannot even see obstacles. Failure was never going to be an option. He often says, “There is nothing a man cannot get through if he tries hard enough.”

He built skyscrapers….My father said, “There’s no telling how high a man can reach if he’s willing to look up into the sky and straight into the sun.” (p. 32)

The father’s discourse is steeped in the sort of rugged individualism mythology at the core of the U.S., is paternalistic and chauvinistic, and is ironic in its embracing of a concluding image of self-induced blindness.

As a Haitian embodying the Great American Myths, Mireille’s father embodies the “no excuses” and “grit” ideologies found in current education reform discourse and policies in the U.S.:

Growing up, my father told my siblings and me two things—I demand excellence and never forget you are Haitian first; your ancestors were free because they took control of their fate.. When he came home from work each night, he’d find us in our corners of the house and ask, “How we you excellent today?”…If he disapproved, he’d remove his glasses and rub his forehead, so wearied by our small failures. He would say, “You can be better. You control your fate.”…

It was easy for my father to overlook the country’s painful truths because they did not apply to him, to us. He left the island with nothing and returned with everything—a wife, children, wealth. (pp. 35, 36-37)

In the wake of her father’s arrogant idealism, however, is the living death of Mireille—reduced to a shell of herself, sated only by hunger like a Kafkan nightmare, and left always a captive, mostly of her being a woman and the unfortunate child of privilege in a violently untamed state.

Readers are not left only with these tragedies, although the counterweight to the consequences of the sins of the father don’t quite equal out despite the novel’s final word being “hope.”

Mireille and her mother-in-law form over the course of the novel a compact built on basic human kindness; in fact, the word “kindness” rises to the level of refrain throughout the last third of the novel.

But it is a kindness shared by battered women risen from the ashes of a man’s razed world.

The reader learns of Mireille’s last moments with the Commander, the lead kidnapper who brutalizes her, in the final chapter of the novel when Mireille utters to him, “‘Forgive me for my father’s sins'” (p. 363).

Heavy with this novel, I put it down recognizing that like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, Mireille’s father, a man of privilege, and Mireille’s captor, a man of poverty, walk away from their carnage, but I fear Mireille’s plea rings louder in my ears than in the ears of either of these men, these sinners.

College Athletes’ Academic Cheating a Harbinger of a Failed System

Margaret Atwood’s narrator, June/Offred, characterizes her situation in the dystopian speculative world of The Handmaid’s Tale:

Apart from the details, this could be a college guest room, for the less distinguished visitors; or a room in a rooming house, of former times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. This is what we are now. The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances….

In reduced circumstances you have to believe all kinds of things. I believe in thought transference now, vibrations in the ether, that sort of junk. I never used to….

In reduced circumstances the desire to live attaches itself to strange objects. I would like a pet: a bird, say, or a cat. A familiar. Anything at all familiar. A rat would do, in a pinch, but there’s no chance of that. (pp. 8, 105, 111)

In her reduced circumstances as a handmaid—her entire existence focusing on becoming pregnant by a Commander to whom she is assigned, potentially a series of three before she is cast aside as infertile, thus useless—June/Offred’s fantasies about her Commander turn murderous:

I think about how I could take the back of the toilet apart, the toilet in my own bathroom, on a bath night, quickly and quietly, so Cora outside on the chair would not hear me. I could get the sharp lever out and hide it in my sleeve, and smuggle it into the Commander’s study, the next time, because after a request like that there’s always a next time, whether you say yes or no. I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hand. (pp. 139-140)

The novel reveals no evidence that June in her life in “former times” has been anything other than a relatively typical young woman with a family and a normal life. Atwood asks readers to consider her reduced circumstances (ones she does not create, ones she has no power to change alone) and how they shape the individuals in this disturbing Brave New World.

Atwood’s “reduced circumstances” are a narrative and fictional examination through a novelist’s perspective—a thought experiment replicated in the graphic novels and TV series The Walking Dead, as the comic book creator Robert Kirkman explains: “I want to explore how people deal with the extreme situations and how these events change [emphasis in original] them. I’m in this for the long haul.”

Research on human behavior has revealed, as well, that the same human behaves differently as the situations around change, what Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much define as “scarcity” and “slack.” The “reduced circumstances” of The Handmaid’s Tale, then, is a state of “scarcity,” and poverty is one of the most common types of scarcity:

One cannot take a vacation from poverty [emphasis added]. Simply deciding not to be poor—even for a bit—is never an option….

Still, one prevailing view explains the strong correlation between poverty and failure by saying failure causes poverty.

Our data suggest causality runs at least as strongly in the other direction [emphasis added]: that poverty—the scarcity mindset—causes failure.(pp. 148, 155)

Given that we hold highly negative stereotypes about the poor, essentially defined by a failure (they are poor!), it is natural to attribute personal failure to them….Accidents of birth—such as what continent you are born on—have a large effect on your chance of being poor….The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place. Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed. (pp. 154, 155, 161)

We are faced with a perplexing problem that sets up a clash between a powerful cultural ideal (the rugged individual and the allure of individual accountability) against a compelling research base that, as Mullainathan and Shafir offer, suggests individual behavior is at least as likely to represent systemic conditions, and not individual qualities (either those that are fixed or those can be learned, such as “grit”).

Although they may seem unrelated narrowly, two academic cheating phenomena are ideal examples of this perplexing problem—attempting to tease out individual culpability from systemic forces.

One consequence of the high-stakes era of accountability in public education has been the seemingly endless accounts of cheating on high-stakes testing; the most notorious being the DC eraser-gate under the reign of Michelle Rhee but also scandals such as the one in Georgia.

Academic cheating by college athletes has also been exposed recently, notably associated with the University of North Carolina. But college athletes cheating to remain eligible is not anything new; for example, Florida State University has received similar criticism for ignoring or covering up the academic deficiencies of athletes in the past.

It is at this point—the academic cheating and dodging of college athletes—that I want to focus on the concept of “reduced circumstances” and “scarcity” in order to consider where the source of these outcomes lie.

A few additional points inform this consideration.

First, college athletes at Northwestern University are seeking to form a union so that they can gain some degree of autonomy over their circumstances as college athletes—circumstances dictated by the NCAA. This move by athletes themselves appears to match a call by Andre Perry, his being specifically about graduation rates:

Black athletes have no choice but to play a major role in their own success. They must take full advantage of the scholarships afforded to them in spite of the climate. But some athletes have to pay a political price to force institutions to cater to black males’ academic talents. Graduation is a team effort, but black athletes must flex their political muscle to pave a way from the stadiums in January to the graduation stages in May.

Perry’s argument is one that focuses on individual agency and the athletes’ ability to rise above “the climate.”

However, David Zirin, discussing a Meet the Press examination of the NCAA and the circumstances of college athletes, seeks a systemic focus:

Yet far more glaring than the content of the discussion was what the discussion was missing. This is not surprising given the parties sitting around the table, but there was zero discussion about how institutionalized racism animates the amassed wealth of the NCAA, the top college coaches and the power conferences. It does not take Cornel West to point out that the revenue producing sports of basketball and football are overwhelmingly populated by African-American athletes. The population of the United States that is most desperate for an escape out of poverty is the population that has gotten the rawest possible deal from an NCAA, which is actively benefiting from this state of affairs….

The issue of the NCAA is a racial justice issue.

The public and the media, I believe, have already sided with blaming the athletes as well as blaming a failure of leadership and accountability among coaches and university administration, including presidents.

For example, the media has rushed to identify a student paper (a bare paragraph) as an example of the cheating at UNC, a claim now refuted by the whistleblower in the scandal, Mary Willingham. That rush and misrepresentation highlight, however, where the accusatory gaze is likely to remain—on the student athlete as culpable, on the coaches, professors, and universities.

As Zirin asks, what will be missing?

Few will consider that the academic scandal among student athletes at UNC—like the cheating scandals on high-stakes tests in public schools—is powerful evidence of a flawed system, one that places young people in “reduced circumstances” and then their behavior is changed.

As I have argued before [*see the entire post included below] (from a position of my own experiences as a teacher and scholastic coach and as someone who advocates for student athletes), school-based athletics in the U.S. corrupts both sport and academics. The entire scholastic sports dynamic is the essential problem.

There simply is no natural relationship between athletics and academics, and by creating a context in which young people are coerced into academics by linking their participation in athletics to their classroom achievement, we are devaluing both athletics and academics.

So I see a solution to the tension between Perry’s call for athlete agency and Zirin’s call for confronting systemic racism: We must address the conditions first so that we can clearly see to what extent individuals can and should be held accountable.

It seems simple enough, but if student athletes were not required to achieve certain academic outcomes (attendance, grades, graduation), then there would be no need to cheat. Hold athletes accountable for that which is athletic, and then hold students accountable for that which is academic. But don’t continue to conflate the two artificially because we want to create the appearance that we believe academics matter more than athletics (we don’t and they aren’t).

In conditions of scarcity—demanding of anyone outcomes over which that person has no control or no hope of accomplishing without a change in systemic conditions (such as academic outcomes an athlete is not prepared or able to accomplish or closing an achievement gap between populations of students)—the same person behaves differently than if that person were in a condition of abundance or privilege, “slack” as Mullainathan and Shafir call it.

Let’s turn to The Walking Dead, a world created by Kirkman, as he explains, in which “extreme situations…change” people.

In season 4 episode 14, “Look at the Flowers,” Carol, who has already demonstrated her ability to take extreme measures in “reduced circumstances” (season 4 episode 2, “Under My Skin”), offers another example paralleling June/Offred, as Dalton Ross explains:

If you thought Carol had a zero-tolerance attitude when she killed and burned two bodies back at the prison to stop the spread of a deadly virus, tonight she went truly sub-zero. The insanity began when little Lizzie stabbed and killed her sister Mika to prove that she would come back to life, leaving Carol to knife Mika’s brain to stop her from coming back as a zombie. She and Tyreese then had to decide what to do with Lizzie, with Carol saying that, “We can’t sleep with her and Judith under the same roof. She can’t be around other people.” And with that, Carol walked Lizzie outside, told her to “look at the flowers,” and then put a bullet in her brain.

Two children die, one at the hands of Carol, and that scene reminded me immediately of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, when George shoots his best friend Lenny.

After Lenny has killed Curley’s wife and run away to the hiding spot he and George have already designated, George finds Lenny:

George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was business-like. “Look acrost the river, Lennie, an’ I’ll tell you so you can almost see it.” (p. 103)

George and Lenny are hired hands, workers, pursuing their own American Dream. That pursuit has been difficult, including George trying to overcome Lenny having the mind of a child guiding the powerful and large body of a man. And it is in this final scene that George, like Carol, finds himself in “reduced circumstances.” While Lenny gazes across the river, George tells the same story he’s told hundreds of times, about the farm they will buy and the rabbits Lenny will tend as his own, and then:

And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie’s head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand, and he lay without quivering. (p. 105)

Cultural assumptions are powerful lenses for judging outcomes.

If we assume the “dumb jock” stereotype to be true, we point our fingers at the student athletes as cheaters and allow our gaze never to consider that the entire system is failing those student athletes.

If we assume people in poverty are lazy (and use that as a mask for lingering racist stereotypes of African American and Latino/a students and people), we point our fingers and say they simply aren’t trying hard enough; they need “grit.” And we fail to recognize and confront the pervasive racism, classism, and sexism that constitute the “reduced circumstances” of their lives.

Of course, college athletes should not be cheating to maintain their access to participating in sports, but it may be important to consider who is responsible for putting them in that situation to begin with—and who benefits most from maintaining that system.


*An Honest Proposal: End Scholastic Sport in the U.S. (originally posted at Daily Kos 14 August 2011)

While teaching the introductory education course at my university, I have taught many of our athletes, and they often immediately make an extra effort to engage with me once I explain to them that I was a high school English teacher for 18 years, including many years as the head soccer coach for the boys and girls teams. I also tell them that my wife is a P.E. teacher as well as a varsity/junior varsity volleyball coach and varsity assistant/junior varsity head soccer coach.

My daughter was an elite high school and club soccer player throughout her academic life as well.

One semester, a young man from England sat in my class as a member of the university’s soccer team. He was a popular and thoughtful young man whose British accent garnered him a good deal of attention, but I was most struck by his willingness to discuss how the U.S. and his native England approached education and sport differently.

Soccer is an interesting sport through which to view those differences since, as this young man personified, many soccer athletes come to the U.S. for their education after they have come to terms with their not attaining the professional career they had been striving to achieve.

Yes, this young man was older than his peers and viewed sport in the U.S. as a ticket to education, but he was quick to note that he thought the direct connection between education and sport in the U.S. is ridiculous; no such connection exists in many countries outside the U.S. where sport is a club, not scholastic, activity.

And when I saw a recent story at Education Week titled “NCAA Approves Higher Academic Standards for Athletes,” I immediately thought about my soccer student from England, and I have been mulling this for some time: It is time we stop not only the charade that is “higher standards for student-athletes,” but also the corrosive connection between education and team sport.

The education reform we should address and never even mention is ending scholastic sports entirely in the U.S.

First, at the philosophical level, by creating an artificial relationship between academics and athletics (consider the unique leverage we use athletics for to coerce children to engage in their academics), we are devaluing both.

If academics truly matter, then why are we spending so much energy bribing and manipulating students to take their studies seriously?

And if athletics are truly less important than academics (along with band, chorus, art, drama, etc.), then why are so many professional lives spent in fields connected to athletics?

The truth is that academics and athletics are valuable in and of themselves, and that no real relationship exists between the two. Children and adults should be allowed and encouraged to engage in either without being held hostage to artificial guidelines—such as grade and graduation requirements for student-athletes in K-12 or college athletics.

In my life and career as an educator, I have witnessed hundreds of young people with gifts and passions that are daily trivialized and dampened because the adult world has fabricated coercive and dishonest mechanisms to shape children in ways that conform to false cultural narratives (high school algebra matters more than basketball, for example).

I have taught students gifted in art, who suffered in real ways taking required math courses; I have taught gifted athletes who were banished from sport teams due to grades, withering in classes and filled with resentment instead of being inspired to turn to their books because their sport was taken away; and I could make a list like this that goes on for pages.

It is both dehumanizing and dishonest to use sport to coerce children and young adults to suffer through the academics that we have deemed essential for them.

Now, on a practical level, athletic teams associated with schools and colleges are at the heart of the culture in the U.S.—parallel to the love and affection for local soccer clubs in England, for example.

I think that cultural aspect of scholastic sport matters and can and should be preserved, but that this is also corrupted by the dishonest and manipulative political game of claiming to have high standards for student-athletes when we know that at all levels these claims are little more than wink-wink, nod-nod.

My solution, then, is to end all scholastic sport in education throughout the U.S. and replace that with a club system that includes schools and colleges fielding club teams.

At the K-12 levels, club teams could be sponsored by any school that wishes to sponsor a team, and these teams would be delineated by age groups—common in club sport—but the schools would not be required to monitor their athletes’ grades or anything related to their schooling (just as we do not require any businesses to monitor their teen employees). In fact, the club associated with the schools would not have to include only students from that school.

K-12 schools would likely focus on community athletes, many of which will be in their schools, but the removal of the false connection between any student’s ability and desire for either schooling or sport would eliminate huge and tedious bureaucracy; corrosive tension among students, coaches, and educators; and superficial and erroneous cultural messages about “what matters.”

Here is also another important and practical matter related to scholastic sport—the inordinate amount of funding and time spent on managing athletics and athletic facilities at the school level. When we alleviate schools of scholastic sport, we also shift facilities to the club level, where public and private entities who wish to preserve sport can step in and assume these responsibilities.

At the college levels, colleges and universities would also field club teams—which could continue to be monitored by the NCAA—but their players would be drawn into those clubs for athletic purposes only, likely as a stepping stone to professional teams. Colleges and universities would be free to offer scholarships to those athletes wishing to attend college, but this would be purely within the purview of the colleges/universities and the athletes who wish to gain an education.

The end of scholastic sport is an end to hypocrisy, it is an acknowledgement that sport and academics both matter, and it is an education reform we never mention but could implement immediately with positive outcomes for everyone involved.

So-called high academic standards for student-athletes are not about students, athletes, or any sort of respect for the academic life. So-called high academic standards for student-athletes are more political pontificating and, worst of all, more of the tremendous coercion practices at the heart of a misguided American culture that claims one thing—the pursuit of individual freedom and democracy—while instituting another—the codifying of indoctrinating and manipulating the country’s children through our foundational institutions.

Ending scholastic sport is the first step toward honoring sport, academics, and the humanity of the youth of our free society.

Tone, pt. 4: Dystopian Fiction, Passion, and the Education Reform Debate

Two early scenes in Shaun of the Dead require viewers to understand zombie narrative tropes in order to achieve the film’s satirical intent—distinguishing Shaun of the Dead from the zombie horror films it skewers: Shaun makes nearly identical trips from his apartment to a local convenience store, the first involving a normal day and the second after the (unknown to him) zombie apocalypse.

Throughout the film, a running joke involves that humans are pretty much zombies as a modern condition; this is achieved through the zombie-like movements by the surrounding characters, even when characters are not zombies. But during the parallel scenes, Shaun does not immediately recognize the before and after (including bloody handprints and slipping on a bloody floor at the convenience store the second time) because he hasn’t yet had the possibility of zombies enter into his consciousness.

In The Walking Dead (AMC series), viewers are often manipulated by the characters’ ability (and inability) to recognize and distinguish both zombies from living humans and whether or not zombies are animated. This recognition plot element is played out in the film version of World War Z as well as Zombieland—the former, serious zombie horror and the latter, another satire in the tradition of Shaun of the Dead.

Other sub-genres, such as superhero comic book narratives, depend on the recognition plot element as well; Unbreakable examines in sort of a meta-analysis of who constitutes the hero and who constitutes the villain in superhero comic book narratives:

Elijah Price: Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I’m not a mistake! It all makes sense! In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero. And most times they’re friends, like you and me! I should’ve known way back when… You know why, David? Because of the kids. They called me Mr Glass.

Running through this recognition plot element is a message: To the uninformed, to the novice, to the unsuspecting, opposing forces (even though one may be “good” and the other, “bad”) may appear to be identical.

Dystopian Fiction, Passion, and the Education Reform Debate

Science fiction (SF), especially dystopian SF, and fantasy often work on two levels—the primary narrative serving as an imagined and metaphorical canvas allowing the author to analyze and critique the very real world. Zombie narratives are often commentaries on consumerism, for example.

Dystopian novels—such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tales—provide readers a psychic distance that contributes to their being able to re-see aspects of the normal real world that are often clouded by living in those moments. Atwood explains, in “Writing Utopia” included in Writing with Intent, that she did not manufacture the atrocities in The Handmaid’s Tale, but instead weaved real-world events into one imagined narrative. Orwell’s 1984 accomplishes much the same effect.

Writers of SF and dystopian fiction realize that there appears to be something anesthetic about the news and history; therefore, they reach for the readers’ heart, souls, and minds through hyperbole.

SF writers, in fact, are often deeply passionate people, almost single-mindedly driven to expose the wrongs they render metaphor in their writing. It seems likely, as well, that their novels and films come off far less looney than when they speak directly about the causes they champion in their fiction.

Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam trilogy, I believe, remains far more socially embraced and possibly considered than when Atwood the person holds forth in public about genetically manufactured foods, climate change, or other topics quickly dismissed by the general public as looney left-wing conspiracy theories. (Barbara Kingsolver exists both as a beloved novelists and as a looney left-wing ideologue, only distinguished by her novelist persona and her speaking or writing essays as a living, breathing real person.)

And that brings me back to the education reform debate, played out primarily on social media, and the problem of tone (see my previous three posts on tone: part 1, part 2, and part 3).

The Recognition Plot Element and the Education Reform Debate

Let me start with an example.

At his Living in Dialogue blog (Education Week), Anthony Cody posted Chicago School Rations Bathroom Visits to Help Prepare for Common Core Tests—in which Cody shared a memo from a school instituting new restroom policies and linking those policies to “maximiz[ing] student learning and reduc[ing] the loss of instructional time.” The memo also explains the new policy has additional benefits:

Have students fill in the “time out” and “time in” and then turn the pass in to the teacher when finished. This will help them practice the CCS of telling time with both digital and analog clocks.

I have written an extended blog about this memo, connecting it to David Kaib’s analysis of misguided outrage—Kaib’s about outrage targeting David Brooks, the columnist, and mine about knee-jerk outrage over the restroom policy as a single incident at the exclusion of confronting  systemic and historical hierarchical structures mis-serving students.

By the time I finished that blog, Ken Libby on Twitter and Sherman Dorn commenting at Cody’s blog had challenged that the headline and blog were misleading—Dorn stating directly:

This is petty bureaucracy (even if some students abuse hall passes). There is NOTHING in this that justifies the policy based on CCSS or testing — the mention of standards towards the end is silly, but not as silly as the headline here. [1]

Unless I am completely misreading people, by the way, this disagreement among Cody, Libby, and Dorn is not among people committed to dramatically different ideologies; I suspect that all three seek very similar conditions for students, teachers, and public schools.

This is a clash over tone, a real-world cautionary tale about recognition plot elements.

A few years ago, the Common Core debate was far less complicated in that the players in the debate were fewer, the power balance was terribly skewed (toward those designing CC, mostly because few people even knew about CC), and the debate was relatively insular.

As we slide into 2014, however, CC debates are much more public, and far more players are involved. Possibly the oddest and most complicated reality of the change is that two very different camps have gained fairly high profiles refuting CC—what I have labeled Libertarian Reformers and Critical Reformers.

A Tea Party-like, libertarian (popular, not pure) voice has begun to grow among parents, the public, and far right politicians, rejecting CC as (among other things) communist propaganda written by Bill Ayers (villain), brainwashing by the Obama (villain) administration, and Big Government (villain) corrupting children in the U.S.

Critical reformers are mostly educators and scholars who challenge CC as inseparable from high-stakes testing, driving huge costs (and corporate profit) associated with new standards and tests, and instrumental in corporate takeover and privatizing of public schools—with Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee as the “villains.”

If we pause, then, and consider the lessons of SF and dystopian fiction—to the uninformed, to the novice, to the unsuspecting, opposing forces (even though one may be “good” and the other, “bad”) may appear to be identical—the entire tone (and related “hyperbole” argument) debate now must be viewed in a new light. As Diane Ravitch has addressed, will CC challenges have unintended consequences?

To the uniformed public, foaming at the mouth about the socialist Obama is indistinguishable from foaming at the mouth about evil genius and billionaire Gates (the general public sees Mr. Burns from The Simpson, I suspect). As I have discussed time and time again, evidence is relatively inconsequential in the education reform debate—again because determining the credibility of evidence asks a great deal of an audience.

If we become perplexed about why demonstrably untrue narratives (Bill Ayers did not write the CC) exist nearly on equal footing with evidence-based challenges to CC (Gates and his funding have had a disproportionate impact on CC adoption, as well as influence over a number of education policies not supported by the research base, such as VAM and merit pay), we must confront the recognition plot element.

From a distance, or through uniformed eyes, the looney and the passionate look the same, and most people don’t have the time or inclination to get closer to make a distinction.

While I remain firm in my previous examinations of tone—raising the tone complaint tends to show that someone doesn’t wish to address the substance below the tone—and I do not discredit the possibility that hyperbole and metaphor can be accurate and effective, I now have to acknowledge that those positions mean little if my audience cannot distinguish me from Glenn Beck.

I want to end by returning to Cody’s blog post and the complaints from Libby and Dorn. In my opinion, all three are in part correct.

Many of us who embrace evidence-based challenges to CC have and do reach in our passion to make our (to us) credible case against CC; Cody’s headline may in fact do just that, reach—especially if his blog post suggests that CC is uniquely causing what Dorn accurately calls “petty bureaucracy.” As my blog post connected to Cody’s piece explains, “petty bureaucracy” reaches far back before CC—although my years teaching all fell under the current accountability era in education.

In their quest to hold CC critics accountably, Libby and Dorn, I think, also reach: “There is NOTHING in this that justifies the policy based on CCSS or testing,” complains Dorn. Nothing? Even though CC is directly mentioned in the memo?

CC is not an apocalyptic plot to devour our babies and children (although that may make a damn fine dystopian novel or film), but neither is CC some innocuous and inconsequential minor issue.

I agree with Libby and Dorn that CC did not cause that restroom policy, but I am convinced—based on about 2 decades of teaching in the first part of the accountability era—that standards and testing are routinely used to justify a whole host of detrimental policies and behaviors that constitute the status quo of much that is wrong with traditional public schooling—such as enforcing dehumanizing restroom policies for children and justifying that by claiming teaching, learning, and yes, even test scores, are sacred.

I do not pretend to speak for anyone else, nor do I hope to tell others how to conduct themselves, but I have been learning a valuable lesson over the past year, a lesson about the recognition plot element.

Yes, my passion has often made me indistinguishable from the looneys. That’s on me.

Passion, confrontation, and a style prone to metaphor, if not hyperbole (English major, of course), have clearly distinguished me from CC advocates. But at what cost, if I come off as half-cocked and rabid, no different than Beck asserting CC is a Marxist plot by Obama?

And thus, as a SF and dystopian fiction devotee, as a serious and dedicated public scholar, I have to consider the lesson before me: to the uninformed, to the novice, to the unsuspecting, opposing forces (even though one may be “good” and the other, “bad”) may appear to be identical.

[1] The exchange beneath Dorn’s initial comment is also illustrative of the recognition plot element:


1:28 PM on January 5, 2014

Sherman, I think what you are pointing to is that this communication memo is wrong on many levels. I have trouble with giving very young children (this is a Prek-8th grade building) incentive to NOT use the bathroom.

I believe using the principal’s CCSS justification in the headline was Mr. Cody’s way of pointing out the silliness. Are we on the same page, or have I misread your comment?

Sherman Dorn

1:55 PM on January 5, 2014


It’s clear from the headline and the bold-faced intro remarks that Anthony Cody really is trying to claim that CCSS is responsible for this memo. That claim holds no water, at least by this memo.


2:39 PM on January 5, 2014

Ah, I take it in reverse. The principal wants to mandate something ridiculous so uses CCSS as justification for his actions. Not the other way around.

Sherman Dorn

10:11 PM on January 6, 2014

Yep, that’s how I see it.

King’s Next Shining Novel: More “True History of the Torrance Family”

Stephen King’s career reminds me of the career of Kurt Vonnegut in three ways: (1) they suffered the negative consequences of being associated with writing genre fiction, (2) they are often devalued as being too popular to be credible “literary” authors, and (3) as many popular writers are, they are often associated with one work—King with The Shining and Vonnegut with Slaughterhouse-Five. King, as well, has been further marginalized by the stigma that being prolific means a writer can’t possibly be high quality.

Doctor Sleep, Stephen King

With Doctor Sleep, then, King takes on some monumental challenges since this 2013 novel is a sequel of possibly his most treasured work, The Shining, from 1977. King confronts the task of writing a sequel, as well as the weight of the popular film adaptation, in a concluding Author’s Note:

Did I approach the book with trepidation? You better believe it. The Shining is one of those novels people always mention…when they talk about which of my books really scared the bejeezus out of them….

I like to think I’m still pretty good at what I do, but nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare, and I mean nothing, especially if administered to one who is young and impressionable….

And people change. The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining, but both remain interested in the same thing: telling a kick-ass story. (pp. 529-530)

Like many people, I was first drawn to King’s The Shining after seeing the 1980 film adaptation made popular by Jack Nicholson’s role. While I am certain I read the novel, I also realize I tend to recall more vividly the film version (the culturally iconic “Here’s Johnny!” and “Redrum”), which King warns about in a parenthetical comment in his Author’s Note: “If you have seen the movie but not read the novel, you should note that Doctor Sleep follows the latter, which is, in my opinion, the True History of the Torrance Family.”

I should also add that I am no fan of King’s primary genres, such as horror, and have not been an avid reader of King over the years. During a couple summers in the early 2000s when I was an instructor in a regional National Writing Project institute, we assigned King’s On Writing, solidifying my argument that King remains a writing treasure as well as a writer’s writer, one who informs what we know and understand about the craft of narrative.

In 2013, I had bought several King novels, deciding once and for all to spend more time with his work because an avid reader I trust deeply is a devoted King fan, but had yet to find one that grabbed me. Then I came across Adam Roberts’s Best science fiction books of 2013, in which he praised Doctor Sleep along with Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam.

Although not intended as a book review, I want to offer first that Doctor Sleep delivers on King’s stated goal, “telling a kick-ass story.”

Dan Torrance is a fully developed and compelling character as a haunted adult, and his new shining companion, Abra Stone, is equally engaging as a child character replicating but also expanding some of the power found in Danny as a child in The Shining. If you are looking for a novel worthy of your commitment as a “ling-distance reader,” this is more than worthy of your time and investment.

But there are two aspects of the work I want to highlight beyond a recommendation.

First, as a regular and enthusiastic beer drinker who knows the horrors of alcoholism among men on my mother’s side of the family, the most haunting aspect of the novel is the examination of alcoholism and the personal yet not idealistic dramatization of Alcoholics Anonymous. At over 500 pages in hardback, the book took several days to read and it bore into my thoughts deeply and pervasively, making me contemplative about even raising a pint of beer with a meal.

The weight and terror associated with the life of alcoholism are rendered far more frightening in this work than the vampire-like threat of the True Knot. For readers, the damage done by alcoholism is real, and the damage done to humans in its wake, including children, haunts Dan and the reader as powerfully as the apparitions expected in a King work of horror.

Many so-called types of genre fiction—such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror—incorporate social commentary through allegory. In Doctor Sleep, King does not hide his examination of alcoholism, however, beneath a metaphorical veneer; instead he pairs the twin demons of alcoholism and the supernatural—resulting in a work that may be more disturbing in the real rather than the imagined.

The second powerful aspect of the work involves the relationship between being a child and also being vulnerable because of that mere status as well as because of nearly debilitating fears that you are alone because you are different.

Much of Doctor Sleep for me is about childhood, itself a scary thing. When Dan as a struggling adult crosses paths with Abra, their shared shining creates a compelling look at how any child and all humans must come to terms with the Self, even or especially when that Self feels or is dramatically unlike social norms or what appears to be normal: “’I’m okay,’ [Abra] said. ‘Really. I’m just glad not to be alone with this inside my head’” (p. 236). You don’t have to have the shining to understand Abra’s relief.

Even as Abra finds solace in her connection with Dan—and their shared shining—she remains a victim of her own anxieties, especially as she feels compelled to hide her differences from her parents in order to protect them.

Abra also has a terrifying connection with a murdered boy—again speaking to both the fragility of being a child in a harsh adult world and the weight of isolation and bonds that are beyond any person’s control. This connection is stunning and, like the focus on alcoholism, haunts the reader:

They cut him up and licked his blood and then they did something even worse to him [emphasis in original]. In a world where something like that could happen, mooning over a boy band seemed worse than wrong. (p. 209)

Abra’s story is more than the narrative of a paranormal girl; it is the story of the collision between childhood and adulthood, and the potential of that childhood and even children being left in the wake. Again, this very real element is somehow much more terrifying than the supernatural.

King’s noting he is a different man than the one who wrote The Shining informs the big picture about Doctor Sleep since this novel of horror has a compassionate and soothing narration to it—the gift of a master storyteller—that keeps the reader somewhere between Abra’s anxiety and the eternal drift into slumber—both the daily ritual of sleep and the inevitable exit from this mortal coil.

Yes, Doctor Sleep is “a kick-ass story,” but it also much more; it will not soon leave you once you’ve returned to, or entered for the first time, the Torrance Family Album.

Our Dystopia Is Now: The Circle (Eggers) and Feed (Anderson)

For twenty-first century readers and students, George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 poses, I think, a temporal paradox.

1984, George Orwell

Orwell’s “other world” appears simultaneously a horrifying totalitarian future possibility for humanity as well as a technological mutt of what someone in the past speculated about the future (consider the pneumatic tubes).

As I read The Circle by Dave Eggers, I began to imagine that my experience with this novel published and read in 2013 was repeating what readers during the late 1940s and early 1950s (especially British readers) may have felt turning the pages of Orwell’s Big Brother nightmare, a Kafkan dark satire of their lived England.

The Circle, Dave Eggers

My reading experience with The Circle has at least two problematic elements.

First, I read about a third of the novel before I lost interest and picked up Feed by M.T. Anderson, which I read completely before returning to and finishing The Circle.

Feed, M.T. Anderson

And second, I never felt fully engaged with The Circle because I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel details that our dystopia is now.

Both The Circle and Feed provide readers with a genre carnival of sorts—dystopia fiction, young adult fiction, science fiction, and speculative fiction. But I struggled with The Circle in ways that I did not with Feed, despite my usual measured disappointment with many young adult novels.

Since Adam Bessie has explored the importance of Feed, especially as it informs education reform, I want to examine more closely The Circle in the context of Feed as well as my struggles to engage fully with Eggers’s important novel.

Just past the middle of The Circle, I began to see that Eggers’s dystopia is a contemporary 1984. When the main character, Mae, serves the will of the Circle by producing three slogan (Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, Privacy Is Theft), Orwell’s “War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength” echoed in my mind’s ear.

I feel compelled to place The Circle, then, within a dystopian tradition including 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—speculative works that weave contemporary social satire (albeit very dark satire) with imaginative logical extensions of what if that holds up one possible future for humankind. [1]

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

While The Circle reminds me of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale [2]—including the slogans above alluding to 1984 and elements of zealotry along with totalitarianism’s dependency on currency manipulation (Atwood’s prescience about debit cards) shared with The Handmaid’s Tale—Eggers’s other world is not removed nearly as far from the reader as in Orwell’s and Atwood’s novels.

Since I use and know a great deal about google, Twitter, and Facebook, the Circle as a speculative logical extension of our real-world social media feels less speculative than our dystopia is now.

For the privileged in 2013—and those on the edge of privilege wanting in—smartphones, tablets, and computers connected through the Internet have blurred almost every aspect of the human condition—social with professional, entertainment with commerce, etc.

We don’t flinch when google completes our typing as we search the web or when gmail reads our emails in order to push product banners. We reduce our conversations to 140 letters with glee and among hundreds, even thousands of people we have never met in person. We retweet, favorite, and like (verbing all the way) while double posting on Twitter and Facebook—even clicking “like” under a Facebook post about the death of a dog, or a grandmother.

So when Eggers introduces the more fantastical elements of the novel, and there are some, I remained fixated on my lack of compassion for Mae and my inability to shake the feeling that Eggers is simply cataloguing the world the privileged have created, the lived world of the privileged in 2013. (I must add that The Circle and Feed focus on main characters who are compliant “insiders” of the dystopia, and both have sacrificial radical characters. I found Mae in The Circle really hard to embrace, but did feel compelled by Titus in Feed. I had the same bland response to the radical in The Circle, while caring deeply for Feed‘s Violet, my favorite character of the two novels.)

So far, I suspect, my view of The Circle may feel like less than a ringing endorsement; however, I do believe The Circle is a 1984 for our time, an important and insightful work. Let me, then, offer a few reasons why.

At its essence, The Circle is the fictionalizing of concepts explored in Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze: surveillance, “infinite examination,” “societies of control.” While Foucault and Deleuze are inaccessible in many ways for the general public, Eggers’s other world, even as close as it is to now, is stark in its clarity. At times, The Circle reads with the same sort of dispassionate camera feel that Ernest Hemingway uses in “Hills Like White Elephants.” In both works, there lies the danger that readers will fail to confront what has been placed before them—that the dispassion will read as endorsement or at least could be embraced by the readers.

While true of any artwork, Eggers allows readers to close The Circle in much the same mindset as Mae (Book III is a mere three-pages long in its twist-style ending).

As with Feed, The Circle also speaks directly to education reform, particularly as that overlaps with our current era of mass incarceration (see Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era):

  • With fervor, the possibility of the Circle’s role in education is championed—and the discussion sounds eerily close to home:

“That’s the idea,” Jackie said. “…[S]oon we’ll be able to know at any given moment where our sons and daughters stand against the rest of American students, and then against the world’s students.”

“That sounds very helpful,” Mae said. “And would eliminate a lot of doubt and stress out there.”…  “And it’ll be updated how often?”

“Oh, daily. Once we get full participation from all schools and districts, we’ll be able to keep daily rankings, with every test, every pop quiz incorporated instantly. And of course these can be broken up between public and private, regional, and the rankings can be merged, weighted, and analyzed to see trends among various other factors—socioeconomic, race, ethnicity, everything.” (p. 341)

  • In possibly the most disturbing section of the novel, the Circle is characterized as a potential law enforcement tool that can erase crime and racial profiling, by color-coding everyone on the ubiquitous monitors invented by the Circle: “The three men you see in orange and red are repeat offenders” (p. 418). This plan, however, works under the assumption that previous arrests are fair, themselves not the result of race or class bias.

In the end, The Circle is a warning shot about the end of privacy, universal surveillance. If readers feel uncomfortable while reading with their smartphone dinging nearby, it is likely because our dystopia is now, and The Circle is a nearly 500-page pamphlet saying, Welcome to the Machine:

[1] I highly recommend Atwood’s essays—”Writing Utopia” and “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections”—in Writing with Intent and In Other Worlds for Atwood’s brilliant confrontations of science fiction and speculative fiction genre(s). See also Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction: Challenging Genres.

[2] I wonder what the fascination is with red covers and dystopian literature…

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

“Fahrenheit 451” 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?”

“Sometimes writers write about a world that does not yet exist,” Neil Gaiman begins his Introduction to the 60th Anniversary Edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

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.

Like Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, Gaiman’s clarification about the purposes of science fiction/speculative fiction builds a foundation for reading (or re-reading) Fahrenheit 451 as well as for considering why Bradbury’s novel on book burning endures.

Sixty years ago in October 1953, Fahrenheit 451 was published. In the fall of 2013, the novel reads as an eerie crystal ball—despite Gaiman’s caution: the pervasive Seashells like iPod earbuds, wall-sized monitors and reality TV.

Yet, upon re-reading this anniversary edition, I am less interested in Bradbury’s prescience about technology and its role in isolating humans from each other, and reminded—as Gaiman suggests—of what matters.

Fahrenheit 451: 60th Anniversary Edition

The enduring flame of Fahrenheit 451 is perfectly stoked by Gaiman, in fact:

A young reader finding this book today, or the day after tomorrow, is going to have to imagine first a past, and then a future that belongs to that past.

But still, the heart of the book remains untouched, and the questions Bradbury raises remain as valid and important.

Why do we need the things in books?…Why should we read them? Why should we care?…

Ideas—written ideas—are special….

This is a book about caring for things. It’s a love letter to books, but I think, just as much, it’s a love letter to people….

Yes, Gaiman is a writer’s writer so he is naturally suited to understand Bradbury as well as marvel at the magic of Fahrenheit 451. But there is more.

This anniversary edition includes not only Gaiman’s new Introduction but also a concluding section—History, Context, and Criticism. The opening piece by Jonathan R. Eller explains, “Bradbury virtually lived in the public libraries of his time.” And later in a transcript of an audio-introduction, Bradbury adds:

When I left high school, I began to go to the library every day of my life for five, ten, fifteen years. So the library was my nesting place, it was my birthing place, it was my growing place. And my books are full of libraries and librarians and book people, and booksellers. So my love of books is so intense that I finally have done—what? I have written a book about a man falling in love with books.

Here, I think, another important connection between Gaiman and Bradbury highlights why Fahrenheit 451 endures: Both men are readers, the type of readers who love the idea of books, love specific books, and recognize the human dignity represented by the free access to books.

Like Bradbury, then, Gaiman has a life-long love affair with libraries:

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books.

I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less and more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight year old.

But libraries are about Freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st Century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them.

For those of us who share this love of books and the “[f]reedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication,” then, that Fahrenheit 451 endures is both wonderful and chilling.

If the novel had been published October 2013, I suspect it could have just as easily been applauded as a stark mirror of our present disguised as a futuristic dystopia:

“Jesus God,” said Montag….Why doesn’t someone want to talk about it! We’ve started and won two atomic wars since 2022! Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumors; the world is starving, but we’re well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?

And then Montag recalls a brief encounter with an old man:

The old man admitted to being a retired English professor who had been thrown out upon the world forty years ago when the last liberal arts college shut for lack of students and patronage.

Fahrenheit 451 ends with Montag as a criminal on the run who finds himself on the outskirts of the town among refugees, mostly outcast professors.

If a reader picks up Bradbury’s novel today, and then turns to her iPad to read the online blog The Answer Sheet at The Washington Post, she may read this:

The discussion of why the humanities matter has picked up steam since The New York Times published a piece last week suggesting that even some top institutions are increasingly anxious about the proliferation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors.

Meanwhile, they report a declining interest in topics like French literature.

Only eight percent of students now major in the humanities, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, down from a peak of more than 17 percent in 1967. The trend is worrisome, and plenty of college presidents have come to the defense of the humanities; views of all kinds have since been published….

Tolstoy endured. Will the liberal arts?

From Aldous Huxley to Ray Bradbury to Neil Gaiman—and countless authors and readers alike along the way—Fahrenheit 451 should leave us all with Shakespeare ringing in our ears:

Miranda: O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t. (William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206)

Fahrenheit 451 remains a warning we need to heed, but likely won’t—once again: Be careful what brave new world we allow to happen when we aren’t paying attention.

Time as Capital: The Rise of the Frantic Class

Imagine a world where time is capital.

This is the dystopian future of 2161 brought to film by Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011)—triggering some powerful parallels to Logan’s Run (both the original novel from 1967 and the film adaptation in 1976).

Both Logan’s Run and In Time expose the human condition in terms of age and mortality—in the first, life ends at 30, and in the latter, people stop aging at 25, but at a price, which involves time.

Science fiction (SF) as a genre presents us with allegory in the form of other worlds, as Margaret Atwood argues, and speculations, but the most engaging aspect of SF for me as a fan and teacher is when SF unmasks universal and contemporary realities by presenting those other worlds.

One of the recurring messages of SF is the crippling inequity that continues to plague human societies, such as the haunting and sparse Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” that forces reader to admit privilege exists on the backs of the innocent and oppressed.

The world of In Time presents an apparent meritocracy in which all people are given life until 25, when they stop aging but an embedded clock starts ticking forcing everyone to earn time in order to live. This deal with the devil positions all labor as literally necessary to live and puts banks at the center of who survives.

The Frantic Distraction of Surviving

Americans’ faith in a meritocracy is often expressed in claims of the U.S. being a post-racial society as well as a classless society. Like the Hunger Games trilogyIn Time highlights class distinctions as people are segregated in Time Zones. Eventually, the narrative brings together the two main characters, Will Salas from the ghetto and Sylvia Weis from the affluent zone, New Greenwich.

Due to both personal tragedy and a huge gift of time from a stranger, Will confronts the norms of this dystopia while being hunted by a Timekeeper, Raymond Leon. One scene, I think, deserves closer consideration.

When Will travels from the ghetto through several Time Zones (incrementally costing him more and more time) to New Greenwich, he steps out of the cab and immediately begins jogging, a habit common in the ghettos since almost everyone is living, literally, from paycheck to paycheck (or under the weight of time loans, loan sharks, or pawn shops) until he notices that in New Greenwich people are eerily casual. This distinction comes up again when he is eating breakfast and the waitress notices that he isn’t from New Greenwich because he does everything fast.

People in the ghettos, what can reasonably be called the working class and the working poor, lead lives that are so frantic that no one has the time to confront the inequity of the society, and because of the segregated society, these frantic workers have little insight into the lives of privilege, casual lives, that Will witnesses for himself and the viewer.

Also worth closer consideration is the role of the Timekeeper, Leon, who presents a truly complex character who functions under a code of ethics that is perfectly ethical within the norms of the culture, but ultimately self-defeating and dehumanizing. Timekeepers enforce the laws, primarily couched in time as capital, but because of their close proximity to crime, they carry with them only small quantities of time, thus leading frantic lives very similar to the working class/poor they help keep both in line and frantic.

Ultimately, Will exposes truths that challenge the norms of this society, truths that are in fact just as relevant to the world we now inhabit:

• Will discovers that time is not a limited commodity; there is plenty of capital, but the privileged create scarcity to keep the masses frantic, and distracted.

• Timekeepers as a police force are unmasked as not seekers of justice (Leon admits this directly), but as agents of the privileged.

• The moving target of the free market is exposed as not so much “free” but an arbitrary mechanism that puts most people in a life like caged gerbils on running wheels. Interest rates and prices incrementally increase daily as the workers accumulate time. The system is designed to keep workers trapped in their roles as workers.

• And privilege, as Le Guin’s story shows, is always at the expense of others, captured by this exchange from In Time:

Sylvia Weis: Will, if you get a lot of time, are you really gonna give it away?Will Salas: I’ve only ever had a day. How much do you need? How can you live with yourself watching people die right next to you?

Sylvia Weis: You don’t watch. You close your eyes. I can help you get all the time you want.

In effect, while the details may be exaggerated, the lessons learned by Will are disturbingly relevant to contemporary Americans, as much as how it informs us as workers as it highlights that education reform is more concerned with producing workers than proving all children with equity, liberation, and autonomy.

Frantic Students, Frantic Workers: The Rise of the Frantic Class

The frantic state of being among the working class and working poor of In Time is a perceptive dramatization of the American worker, increasingly stripped of rights as unions are dismantled and the essentials of human dignity (income, health care, retirement) are further tied to being employed.

But the allegorical messages of In Time also speak to how and why current education reform claims and policies are designed to appease corporate needs for frantic workers.

One characterization of U.S. public education today is well represented in this dystopian world—frantic.

Current corporate education reform is built on implementing national standards designed to continue the historical call to incrementally increase both expectations and outcomes (the target for success in education has always been a moving target) so that students, teachers, and schools are always under duress, always falling short, always so frantic that no one can pause to question, challenge, or do anything other than comply.

Imagine a world where time is capital, where all of any person’s time is spent compiling time, a fruitless cycle of acquisition, of seeking to comply with the mandates none of the masses have chosen for herself/himself.

But you don’t have to imagine this.

This frantic world of In Time is the frantic existence of the American worker, and this frantic world is being fed by the corporate takeover of public schools where accountability, standards, and testing have reduced teachers and students to gerbils on running wheels.

In 2012, workers, students, and teachers are the frantic class; like Will, we don’t have time:

Will Salas: I don’t have time. I don’t have time to worry about how it happened. It is what it is. We’re genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. The trouble is, we live only one more year, unless we can get more time. Time is now the currency. We earn it and spend it. The rich can live forever. And the rest of us? I just want to wake up with more time on my hand than hours in the day.

The rising frantic class is necessary for the privileged few, the 1% controlling both manufactured austerity and the perpetually moving targets of success.While universal public education was created to feed the promise of the American Dream, the current corporate takeover of public schools is driving the American Nightmare of the frantic class.

We don’t need a movie to see that.

Related Poem

“the world”

Related Blogs about SF

Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: Allegory of Privilege

Whence Come “The Leftovers”?: Speculative Fiction and the Human Condition

Calculating the Corporate States of America: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

educator, public scholar, poet&writer – academic freedom isn't free