Category Archives: Dissent

What—Me Worry?

CL50915When the person likely to be the next U.S. Senate Environmental Committee chair wrote a book called The Great Hoax denying global climate change, maybe it’s time to address a new strain of anti-intellectualism… delusion.

American ambivalence about intellect isn’t new. From the beginning Americans have favored plain-speech and uncomplicated thinking. They’ve always believed in simple answers to every complex problem. Trusting in fresh perspectives, putting aside received truths to encounter issues anew, that produces answers. The utopian “City on the Hill” faith in the possibility of starting over created the constitution.

However, the founding fathers, for all their flaws, were no dummies. They were subtle men whose elegant (and inelegant) solutions arose from rumination, deliberation, persuasion, and resourcefulness. They embraced complexity and kept up with the political science and regular science of their day.

They did not, as some do now, solve problems by denying they exist and vilifying any “overthinker” or “alarmist” who looks too closely.

Social scientists can offer decades of research on interdependent causes of poverty, and still some Americans cut through “all the crap” with the real truth—that some people don’t take advantage of opportunity. Graphs depicting the imbalanced distribution of wealth inspire yet another rags-to-riches tale, and, if social scientists unfavorably compare economic mobility in America to almost everywhere else, someone will assert the possibility, no matter how remote, is all that’s important. And, because if you work hard you should get ahead, those left behind must not have worked hard enough. They ought to blame themselves, the thinking goes, so helping them, giving them “handouts,” only saps their will to try harder. Cite economists who explain the mechanisms of inherited wealth and the game of musical chairs everyone else plays, and you’ll be accused of fomenting class warfare, plotting to rob the deserving, being a socialist. The deserving believe in “the market,” as a counterbalance to (and not a manifestation of) human greed—no regulation or redress is necessary.

Americans untroubled by economic inequality are equally prepared to discount social inequality as a vestige of bad old days now gone. The mountain of statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrating white privilege, they judge, only rationalizes indolence. Some go as far as to say the problem of race in America is solved, and any talk about persistent intolerance—surrounding class, creed, and sexual orientation—only reignites dead flames. It seems as long as you believe you are not personally (or at least not obviously) racist, sexist, and bigoted, these issues don’t exist. And expressing desire for equity elicits petulance. Pundits cry they’re not only blameless but also oppressed.

Though in scientific circles, human causes for climate change are rarely debated, some Americans choose to believe we know nothing and can know nothing about greenhouse gasses and the melting ice caps. They treat scientists with disdain, either correcting them (very slowly, as they would a child) with fundamentally flawed conceptions of the physical world or, alternately, declare, “I’m not a scientist” to turn ignorance to their advantage. Both responses share a view of science as evil and/or unintelligible—sorcery, not one of humanity’s best methods of seeking truth.

The catalog could go on: Gun control, environmental regulations, banking abuses, corporate tax loopholes, and healthcare divide along similar lines with some seeking to study problems and devise solutions and others carping there IS no problem. If anything needs to be done, the carpers say, it’s rolling back the meager amelioration managed so far.

To be fair, sanctimony exists on both ends of the political spectrum. The left dismisses opposition as much as the right. Neither listens to the other. Most Americans, left or right, read and watch only what echoes their viewpoint, facts be damned. Worse, Americans’ healthy appetite for drama has inspired the creation of loud and insistent megaphones to shout half-truths and whole lies. Subtlety and intellectual rigor aren’t, everyone knows, very sexy.

The conservatives’ position seems more dangerous, however. It’s much too easy for them to get away without persuasion or policy. In making ignorance and denial viable political stances, they’ve institutionalized distrust of scientists, economists, environmental experts, social scientists, and intellectuals devoted to study, discovery, and—let’s be direct—reality.

And, in the process, their delusion has infected the general electorate with a nearly nihilist sense of hopelessness. How do you argue with someone who believes there’s nothing to argue, who vows nothing is known conclusively, who says nothing can be done, and, moreover, should be done?

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Critiquing the Critic

MTE5NTU2MzE1ODYyNjMxOTQ3I value critics, but some take the job—and themselves—so seriously they go beyond illuminating their subject. Instead, they hint at their superior understanding. They assume awareness greater than those they criticize. They sound smug or condescending or dismissive and thus elicit criticism themselves.

In these publicity-hungry, hot-headed times, we’re accustomed to vehement critics. How valuable can a half-hearted viewpoint be, after all? Yet egotism often poisons criticism. Confidence helps, but self-assurance without self-awareness reveals ignorance akin to the cluelessness it denounces. Instead of discernment, the critic’s motives come first. Yet fighting over rectitude rarely convinces anyone. It rarely exposes something hidden and important. I wish all our social critics were a little less vociferous, but I prefer Jon Stewart’s dissections to Sean Hannity, Bill Mahr and Bill O’Reilly’s rants.

Printers’ Row, the book supplement associated with The Chicago Tribune, recently started a new feature called “Time Machine” offering old Tribune reviews of famous books. The first entry was H. L. Mencken’s response to The Great Gatsby, which I encountered with some skepticism. I mostly admire Fitzgerald and the novel, and the little I’ve read from and about Mencken fills me with ambivalence. Sometimes he’s witty, incisive, and unstinting. Sometimes he’s sarcastic, biting, and petty. And this review evoked both reactions—demonstrating, for me, when criticism does and doesn’t work.

In this case, I should say, “Doesn’t and does,” for Mencken swings his sword wildly in his opening before calming down to say something valuable. He calls the novel “No more than a glorified anecdote,” and writes off Gatsby as “a clown” and the other characters as “marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” In the end, he says, “The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.”

Maybe Mencken wanted to launch with a blast of his characteristic vitriol, but he seems so self-satisfied. As muscular as Mencken’s prose is and as much as I get his perspective, he speaks to those who enjoy (as Warren Buffet put it), “Interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Granted, that’s most humans, but you either revel in his savagery or put the review aside immediately. If you’ve read the novel and agree, fine. If you haven’t, the critic’s snark is all you get. Illustrating broad proclamations is tricky, nigh impossible. Yet, if proof is impractical and explanation superfluous, only empty assertions remain.

Many of our pundits, politicians, and television personalities operate similarly. No longer inhabiting a three or four network world, we all have our shows. Whether to the left or right side of blue or red, you need never challenge prior conclusions. You can luxuriate in the affirmation of your disgust. Meanwhile, thought and self- examination suffer. Mencken described the U.S. as a “boobocracy,”  ruled by the uninformed. We’re no longer quite that (because it’s hard to be uninformed in a nation saturated with media), but we can bask in the sneering certainty of the critics we accept, which may be worse.

Mencken’s appraisal of Fitzgerald improves after his initial salvo, not because he begins to give the book some credit—Mencken continues to assert rather than demonstrate or prove—but because he uses the book to address the practice of writing, a subject bigger than the author, the novel, and the critic.

At first, Fitzgerald chiefly receives faint praise for improvement. According to Mencken, Fitzgerald’s earlier writing was “Slipshod—at times almost illiterate” and “devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words.” Then, however, Mencken stops punching Fitzgerald, whose progress is, to Mencken, “Of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start out with popular success.” Mencken’s point also stops being personal. It tackles artistry and success, how the latter blunts the ambition of the former. The popular author who has “Struck the bull’s-eye once” may stop learning new techniques, Mencken says, and undergo, “a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.”

Which seems, to me, wise and well-put. Mencken is no longer talking about Fitzgerald at all, but about the temptations and pitfalls of popular fiction. Fitzgerald is the opposite of Mencken’s scenario, a talentless author who achieves success and then labors to improve. He is the exception to a rule. Having dropped insults, Mencken also abandons dismissing The Great Gatsby and turns to what’s in it. He notes Fitzgerald’s interest in the elite’s “Idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality.” Mencken’s statement that “These are the things that go into his [Fitzgerald’s] notebook,” marks a shift toward description and criticism’s real power, its capacity for careful observation and valuable distinctions.

I wish all criticism were so thoughtful as those last few paragraphs and that all critics might leave off hollering to speak in more audible tones. I know that’s less entertaining, and maybe it’s our nature to slip into ad hominem. Yet, to me, criticism seems most effective when it’s respectful. Critics don’t have to love everything—that’d be a different evil—but it’d be nice if they made their work about their subject and not about self-righteousness.

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Another Exchange

800_Bare-Bulb-400x320I thought it might be fun to try something dark and Kafkaesque. I was wrong, but, nonetheless, here’s another twenty minute fiction…

The inspector says, “No good fortune eliminates life’s little troubles,” and, with that, breaks another finger on the accused’s left hand. The force—he knows from experience—is big enough, and the responding howl will diminish into a whimper before long.

When silence settles again, he readdresses the accused and says, “You couldn’t have expected anything else.” Really, expectations are immaterial—the inspector stopped thinking of justice as more than fiction long ago—but the statement sits in the script he’s built over years.

“Do you want something to drink?” he asks.

Perhaps the inspector pours too fast, but the accused doesn’t expect alcohol, and what he doesn’t spray across the room dribbles down his chin, pink with his own blood and thicker than it ought to be.

“A shame” the inspector mutters. He half-expects the accused to say the same in unison—some relief might be welcome—but somehow that never happens.

“Can’t you speak?” he asks instead.

The accused’s crime remains unnamed, needs no name. The way of things places them in these roles, and they act. Outside this room, the inspector hears birds, their song filling the lapses between sobs and heaves of breath sawing the air. A gust stirs the leaves. Sunlight surges and fades as clouds pass.

“You might as well,” the inspector says, “it doesn’t matter.”

The accused is mute. It’s the nature of an accused to be so. Some transcendence would be nice but, to the inspector, it’s all so predictable—the questions, the answers, the inevitable. Sometimes, he finds himself suddenly as here-and-now as the accused, but the inspector slides into another moment, no second persisting long at all.

“Listen,” the inspector says, “We only want something, anything you can give.”

The accused may be unconscious—so hard to distinguish—and that’s fine with the inspector. The best time for acquiescence is exhaustion. Accept a reality other than your own and you shall be freed.

“Yes,” the accused whispers.

The rest joins history.

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No Us Without Them (and vice versa)

771px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(detail)_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

–Chinese Proverb

This morning, I bought a French Press coffee maker and wondered at the many tongues of its instructions. Some future alien archeologist might find the guide useful… and not just to make coffee. The Rosetta Stone seems mundane in comparison.

“How far we’ve come!” I’d like to crow—barely a word remains untranslated, and humans have rendered thoughts in scores of languages. I wish I felt as good about understanding, which lags so conspicuously. We trade words in one tongue for another—what was meant, and whether we hear and accept it, are bigger issues.

I’ve read science fiction centered on the impossibility of understanding between earth and extraterrestrials, but I always regarded that as speculation—writers ask, “What if frames of reference were so different as to be irreconcilable?” More and more, however, that what-if seems allegorical, not theoretical.

Consider war and what atrocity might be happening right this instant at the point of a knife sharpened too keenly or a gun loaded and unsafetied, its very existence daring its user to pull a trigger manufactured for that specified purpose, to impose some perceived right.

Humans are awful to one another, too stubborn to admit being one species. Maybe we are capable of just as much love, empathy, and understanding as hate. Maybe I should overlook our appalling cruelties and look for common kindness and common courage.

Sincerely, I’d rather believe in humanity, but resentment seems to matter most these days—along with selfishness, lack of foresight, deliberate denial of alternate perspectives, inexhaustible efforts to preserve self-regard, and the hegemony of our own type. Some say, “I want to change the world,” “I want to love everyone,” and “I want to help.” Meanwhile others live according to “We have ours (or want ours). The rest be damned.”

And, as much as I’d rather not, I participate. The other day, visiting with a like-minded friend, I waded knee-deep in bile and heard myself railing against corporate culture. “They don’t acknowledge anything but profit!” I said, and, “How can they be so focused on abstractions and ignore the real and genuine people—with families—standing right there?”

Luckily, I had no rock, club, or bazooka. I’m not above indulging in antagonism, humanity’s true universal trait. Like everyone else, I’d love to claim the title, “The Good Guy,” but that’d be self-serving.

In our overheated media greenhouse, it’s hard not to be contentious, and crowding has us fighting over resources and territory and—especially—rectitude, the space we want most. We crave reassurance we can’t exist without defeating or denying someone else. Anything considered “A common cause” or “mutually beneficial” drowns in skepticism and laughter.

We cry, “Beneficial to whom?” and too often mean, “How does that benefit me?”

The only solution I see is another science fiction plot—reversing Babel and plunging the planet into amnesia so profound that—even if we can’t overlook visible and audible divisions of language and geography and race and bent—we could reconsider everything that, right now, feels too important to put aside… sometimes seemingly virtually everything. Then we might restart. But I’m not sure how the story would end. Forgetfulness and forgiveness aren’t human gifts.

Idealists—how I wish I were one!—will say love is potent, equally embedded in every human heart. I’m optimist enough to yearn they’re right, but, after our well-recorded and well-noted history of animosities, oppressions, class warfare, bigotry, and grand (plus petty) violence, how do we make today new?

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Not the Post-Independence Day Message You Hoped For

superman-citizenship-1303916053While visiting Canada two summers ago, I learned Superman renounced his American citizenship. Apparently—I don’t follow Superman anymore—he wanted to be a citizen of the world instead of belonging to one nation.

Or so he said. Was he just being politic, eluding the fall-out from admitting he no longer felt proud of being from the U.S? Judging his feelings by my own, I wonder, was it really Superman’s queasiness about “The American Way”? Could he no longer group America with “truth” and “justice” as he once did?

I can’t be as diplomatic. Aside from wishing—almost involuntarily—for my fellow Americans’ good fortune in international sporting events like the World Cup, aside from feeling special affection for those who risk their lives for American ideals, I’m not patriotic. Oh, our history includes grand aims. Our founding principles inspire me, and our experiment in representative democracy evinces noble intentions, maybe the most enlightened espoused up to that point. Our people, despite seemingly insurmountable struggles and a system increasingly rigged against them, remain determined to make the American Dream true. And many Americans affirm my hopes for altruism and self-sacrifice.

Yet recently I’ve felt ashamed. It isn’t just that we’ve cheapened liberty by transmuting it into the freedom to profit or that we’ve placed the needs of the quite well-off above others, it’s that we’re duplicitous, espousing values we don’t follow—consciously (and seemingly systematically) informing the disenfranchised the system is working just as it ought to, was meant to.

Harsh, I know, likely to land me on an NSA list, but idealists make great cynics. The business of business dominates American discourse. The corporation is not just a citizen but the first citizen. Shareholders and employers eat first, and employees are force-fed a steady diet of cant. “You’re lucky to be working,” they’re told and “we can’t afford to raise minimum wage.” Meanwhile CEOs net in an hour what the average worker makes in month. The brave few who, Oliver Twist-style, step forward to ask for more receive cold comfort. “If we allow unions or pay you more,” they hear, “we’ll go out of business, and your job and everyone else’s will be gone. We’re all in this together, right?” We can’t even tax those who benefit from short-changing others because, despite considerable contrary statistics, they’ve renamed themselves “job creators.”

In the past, Americans asked government to protect them, and the president and congress served to monitor and police industry and curb the excesses of capitalism. Many politicians are still at it, but others say social programs and the muscle of government won’t help, that, in fact, any restriction or handout is bad for U.S. citizens. What Americans need, they say, is “opportunity” and opportunity arises from unregulated growth and tough-love self-reliance. Yet, in American English, opportunity often translates as looking away. “We need less government!” shout those who ought to know better. A cursory scan of American society tells us the majority (which we pretend is our most wise and reasonable perspective) doesn’t stand a chance against the moneyed interests of the self-interested and self-absorbed. Though materially and statistically well-off, this minority shouts at each infringement on their right to amass more. They purchase megaphones to assure they drown everyone else out. They’ve set aside their life rafts, after all.

The Canadian newspaper that brought me news of Superman’s ex-pat status included a point-by-point analysis of how difficult it is to rebuke American citizenship. Perhaps Superman could grease legal wheels, but I suspect more and more Americans feel as trapped as I do. Our nation can’t acknowledge the need for reform, much less create it. We’d rather watch fireworks, charge the iPhone to our credit card, and congratulate ourselves for pretty ideas that, each year, vanish from our reality.

Someone made money on those fireworks, the same way they made money on that patient or that student loan or that prisoner or that gun or that access to oil or that foreign invasion or that special amnesty from pursuing higher ideals and caring for others. I don’t know how Superman feels, but being born here doesn’t inspire me to love that.

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To Continue

mouth_speaking_by_naraosga_stockHere’s another odd 20 minute (or so) fiction…

He continued, not with the speech he planned but with a test. He wondered how long his audience might listen. He began conventionally enough—a joke to loosen them up and gain their acceptance, an anecdote familiar and just a touch strange, like food you think fresh that nonetheless gives off a whiff of earthy decay. Most laughed, only a few uncomfortably, their heads tipped too far back, their eyes clenched.

He meant to tender their common humanity, the currency of every soul present, but he also meant to say he wasn’t of them exactly and soon might turn on them. When he began to twist his words, to tighten his syntax into baroque skeins of language, their attention relaxed. He started to confess—tales of indiscretion too complicated to follow and yet too plain not to feel. He unreeled a scroll of shame, and some people looked up from their laps. Some looked down. They crossed their legs. They angled away.

Yet, at three quarters of an hour, most remained. Some, elbows on knees, tilted forward as if the slightest provocation might lift them and send them to the exit.

“I’m apt to cry at odd intervals,” he heard himself say and then made good on the statement, choking as he trudged through halting incoherence. One or two people slipped into the aisle.

“I want to say what I’ve always meant to,” he said, and more faces, pained with civility, glanced back at him. Some offered sympathy, so he directed his stare toward those, curling his lip as if somewhere between cackling and tears.

The small fraction still there couldn’t stay much longer, or, of necessity, they’d remove themselves some other way, listening to internal alternatives, lists of tasks unperformed, conversations revised, fantasies.

Next came a long deconstruction of everything he’d said so far. He doubled back to explain his opening joke as if they’d been too dull to understand and had only laughed not to be left out. He insulted himself by critiquing every loose trap he’d set. He repeated himself nearly exactly, just differently enough to enhance their now mutual agony. He could be quite savage and was quite practiced at it. Were he nice he might have spared them, as—now—when they turned woeful eyes in his direction, begging for mercy.

Never has anyone spoken so long for so little purpose and with so little pleasure. He told them so, but many had gone, sighing to lead the way. The audience thinned to just a few stalwarts and a few curious. A child remained and watched him as if he were a circus act hypnotizing in its mystery. For that child, he felt some warmth and paused between sentences to give him a sliver of a smile.

Someone thought to clap then, someone who must have hoped to force him to conclude. But he shouted over the gathering noise. Their anger followed. Some shouted “Get off!” and others hurled more complicated messages. He blocked them out. He continued.

Almost two hours in, he saw a few sleeping forms and no eyes at all. As they woke and stumbled out, as the auditorium finally emptied entirely, he kept talking, barely listening himself.

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Grubbing, Categorized

midnight_oil_SSI warn you, I may sound mean-spirited. We teachers pride ourselves on hope and, even in the inkiest darkness, look for light. You may not believe me, but there’s light here too… in the perverse hope these cynical appraisals of students arise not from their character, but from us—from me—and expectations we perpetuate.

This post started with a student in one of my first years of teaching, one of the most diligent and conscientious I’ve ever met, a model of exhaustive effort. She’d never think of merely meeting expectations and added her own requirements to whatever rubric I created. She labored as if she were digging to escape her own grave and looked at me as an acolyte might, scrutinizing each gesture and murmur, every hint of expectation.

Yet she enjoyed almost nothing. Little of her industry seemed to spring from a desire to learn. The final mark measured her achievement and stood as its solitary value. Marks—evaluations intended to affirm her successes and motivate growth—became another reckoning. If she didn’t do as well as usual, she felt worthless. If she did well, she worried about the next assignment.

Though she’s an extreme example, her perspective lurks everywhere, and I can’t help blaming grades. My experience in independent schools, schools filled with ambitious students, teaches me that grades affect every aspect of students’ lives. Some of the people I teach transcend grades—they are the rarest, most beautiful birds—but the rest fall into broad types, sometimes into more than one type depending on the term’s progress:

The Glad-Handers learn, perhaps at home, that having a warm relationship with teachers assures positive results and so hang out after class to ask another question, offer another response, check-in on the instructor’s interests. As endearing and charming as these students are, you wonder where they fall on the faking-to-making scale. And you never know.

The Shotguns seek subjugation. Enough information, verbiage, and will, they believe, will subdue a teacher. Volume, volume, volume evinces hours of elbow grease and midnight oil. Finesse doesn’t fit this student’s modus operandi nor do focus, purpose, and spirit. The aim is to be undeniable, diligent enough to be deemed worthy of an A, despite the absence of interest or curiosity.

The Accountants possess the finesse the Shotgun lacks and know exactly where they stand numerically, doling effort according to a desired result. If the situation in one class demands an 85.5 to maintain the current mark, the accountant turns to more vulnerable averages. Schooling is a zero-sum game—with only so much effort to give—so Accountants think strategically.

The Scavengers add and subtract points on a test or quiz to find mathematical errors. Catching a mistake or debating an evaluation erodes a teacher’s resolve and yields incremental advantages. And extra credit or revision or corrections are golden. Even when the original outcome is outstanding, extraordinary, impressive, Scavengers want any point available. Nothing can remain unclaimed.

The Righteous rely on emotion. Ultimately, the Righteous say, education isn’t about numbers but opportunities. “Don’t you know,” they ask (or their parents ask), “how ambitious I am, what schools I aspire to?” Only monsters deny hope, and so each situation demands reconsideration: is this mark something a Teacher can live with… because Teachers are in the business of encouragement… right?

As I said, cynical. Fortunately I’m not describing everyone, not even—on a good day—a majority. Yet few students escape altogether. At some time or another, marks lead them into one of these roles.

And I, as the point carrier, reserve the greatest censure for myself. We teachers made this game. We enforce its rules. We call scores and standards and admission—and other extrinsic rewards—the greatest goals. We offer few terms besides the numerical and alphabetical.

Marks have only abstract value, but we’re petrified of what students might do—more accurately, might not do—if we give grades up and say learning is intrinsically satisfying, fun. We state (over and over, more to ourselves than to them), “You do know, don’t you, that learning, and not a grade, is the point?”

Then we hand them a report card.

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