As an English teacher, I’m often asked about the practical value of studying literature. The question itself is a telling insight into how our modern society thinks about education, and its purposes; it implies that any line of study that does not develop obviously profitable and therefore marketable skills may not be worth pursuing. This mindset sees education as mostly a financial proposition, and thus merely a matter of garnering credentials for some lucrative future professional career. Given the costs of tuition, one can hardly blame parents and students for thinking in such terms.
But as a defender of the faith, and for other reasons, I of course want to encourage all students who are interested to pursue a humanities education. So the default (and defensive) response I usually offer in these moments is something about reading comprehension and cogent analytical writing as essential career skills. And indeed those talents are useful and worth cultivating.
But whenever this discussion arises, my mind travels to an offhanded remark once made by maybe the smartest person I’ve known. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t read fiction,” he once said to me. And that sentiment gets at what I really want to say in these moments.
So indulge me in this elaboration, because I think I know what my friend meant. Reading fiction, and analyzing what the College Board identifies as the “big ideas” of literature, is an invitation to engage more deeply with life itself.1 Let’s consider these separate parts of the whole. Narration prompts us to ponder the importance of perspective and voice. Characters are obviously essential to any story, and character analysis allows us to observe and sometimes enter the lives of others, to examine and potentially empathize with what underlies a person’s desires, fears, actions. Setting gets us thinking about how crucial circumstance can be, how a particular time and place might influence events even more than human agency. Identifying structures and themes gets us thinking about patterns and intention, and the many ideas and emotions that we all share in experiencing as people.
All of this in turn strengthens our sense of common humanity; this is the moral benefit of reading literature.
There’s a societal benefit to this as well. As great literature cannot be reduced to a single interpretation, the literary student understands how reality too resists oversimplification. How many great stories tell of man’s failed attempts at mastery? How many protagonists attempt to assert or impose the supremacy of reason, might, science, or technology, only to be humbled by an irrational, chaotic, and ambivalent world? Think of the broad implications of a humble society versus an arrogant one. Which would you rather live in?
Ultimately, what the humanities do is equip you to think your way through life and the world in which we live. If we do not see the value in that, perhaps we need to reassess what we consider valuable.2
With a return to the classroom looming, I find myself thinking about the purpose and aims of my work. And of course the inescapable topic in education right now is the right wing hysteria touched off by “critical race theory.” I’m using quotation marks here because what is being attacked is not “critical race theory,” but the notion of students confronting race and racism in America’s past and present at all. Under the terms of these bans we are seeing proposed and passed in states around the nation, teaching the works of Martin Luther King Jr and Frederick Douglass would violate the law. You could even, under these laws, argue for the banning of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, if you bother to read it.3 So really, what these bans represent is the growing strain of anti-history in reactionary circles.
Underlying these bans is the ludicrous presumption that teachers have the capacity to indoctrinate students with their preferred political ideologies. This has long been a talking point with any panic about the classroom; it is bemusing to anyone who has actually tried to teach a class.
Think of your favorite teacher. What did you learn from this person? What do you remember from their class? Most likely, you remember a moment of kindness or generosity; you remember a personality, a disposition, a way of being the teacher had that was unique and still resonates. What I bet you remember less are any theories, concepts, terms, or ideas the teacher schooled you in.
Think, more broadly, about your education, by which I mean your development as a person from youth to maturity. How big of a role did school play? It played one, to be sure, but how do you think its influence compares to, say, the influence of your parents, your friends, the media and entertainment you consumed, vacations you took, jobs you worked, and so on? Many factors that inform the development of a person, and school is just one of them.
This is not to diminish the influence of teachers, and indeed, the best teachers might change and even inspire students in profound ways. But indoctrination is beyond any teacher’s pay grade, and besides, that is not the aim. A memorable adage I learned in grad school is that teachers don’t care what students think, but rather how well they think. The job is to pose questions, not give answers. Good teachers aim to get students thinking, and the conclusions they arrive at are their own. And the notion, which these bans suggest, that students are vulnerable to indoctrination is an insult to their intelligence.
It’s a core tenet of this newsletter that history never repeats, but it does often rhyme. In this instance, the rhyme is with McCarthyism. The parallels and similarities are obvious and overwhelming. I have long felt that the McCarthy Red Scare era is one of the more instructive periods in American history. While most Americans today know how McCarthyism ended ingloriously, we’d be mistaken if we looked at the era as a triumph. It was not. McCarthy, Hoover, and other powerful actors had free reign to harass and even destroy citizens’ lives for half a decade. The same potential for destruction exists right now. This is a dangerous moment.
I recently read an essay by Mary McCarthy from 1953, “The Contagion of Ideas”, originally a speech delivered to the American Federation of Teachers during the height of the Red Scare (Mary was no relation to Joe). If we were to insert “critical race theory” for every mention of “communism”, the essay would read as though it were written today. Towards the end, McCarthy writes of Americans,
As the richest nation in the world, we have developed the psychology of rich people: we are afraid of poverty, of “agitators,” of any jarring notes in the national harmony.
A few paragraphs later, she gives this interpretation:
(I)f we are particularly sensitive about our schools, it is because we fear that children, with their natural lack of bias, their detached and innocent faculty of observation, will be all too ready to prick up their ears if they hear our society criticized, even implicitly, in the “tone” of a teacher’s voice. Our children, we feel, may listen to her more than they will listen to us, because they have already noticed the injustices of our society and want to know the why of it, instead of being told that ‘God made it that way.’ People with bad consciences always fear the judgment of children.
In 1955, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee4 heard a rhyme of their own in the Red Scare with another event in American history: the hysteria over teaching evolution in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925. They memorialized it in Inherit the Wind. The real-life trial took place in Tennessee, where a law had been passed making it illegal to teach the theory of evolution in public schools. One hundred years later, Tennessee is still banning theories.5
If we go back further, we see echoes of the notorious “gag rule” of the 1830s and 40s, when Southern representatives banned discussion of slavery on the House floor.
In the past I’ve written about the right wing political tactic of astroturfing. To refresh, astroturfing is the manufacturing of public outrage; it’s when a formerly obscure issue, position, or belief is disseminated in the right wing media ecosystem and is then adopted by the loyal masses. In other words, it’s activism from the top down, rather than the bottom up.
It does not surprise to learn that the “critical race” furor is yet another example of astroturfing. To fully appreciate the consequences, I particularly recommend this story of how the manufactured outrage divided a community.
As the next school year nears, we know which voices will be loudest. There will hardly be a district or school in the nation that is untouched. My hope is that administrators and all reasonable parents and community members can see it for what it is, and will stand ready to protect the educators who will undoubtedly face the upcoming hostility.
With that, let’s return to some of the central characters and themes of our ongoing collective narrative.
Back in January, I wrote of the simple imperative for the nation in the aftermath of an insurrection to hold transgressors accountable. Today, hundreds of people who participated in the insurrection are currently being prosecuted. This is good. But it’s notable that few who incited the event are facing similar, or any, consequences.
It is an ongoing failure of our society and our politics that the ruling elite hardly ever have to reckon for their wrongdoing. This happens to be a central theme of The Great Gatsby, captured in one of the novel’s most famous lines, when narrator Nick Carraway renders this final judgment on the overprivileged Daisy and Tom Buchanan:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
It has now been nearly 100 years since this novel was published, yet the character of Tom Buchanan in particular reads to me as startlingly relevant. The scion of a Lake Forest inheritance, he gains entrance to Yale on the strength of his athletic ability and family wealth—certainly not for what Nick generously terms his “simple mind.”6 In the first chapter, Tom embarrasses his dinner guests with a sputtering explanation of how the “other races” of the world are scheming to overthrow white supremacy. That this all occurs in the splendor of Long Island luxury surely signals Fitzgerald’s contempt for the paranoia, racism, and insecurity that can pervade many minds among the American elite.
Similarly, I recently watched The Damned (1969), an Italian film that tells of how an elite German family, dynastic captains of industry, react to the rise of Nazism. The family’s patriarch hates the Nazis—they’re upsetting the old order of things, and they’re brazen in manners. But he dies early in the film, and it becomes clear that to his progeny (decadent, amoral, and entitled), the Nazis represent only power, and this proves the ultimate attraction. I was again reminded of Tom Buchanan: Tom and Daisy do not love or even seem to like each other, but they are loyal to each other as unspoken members of a “secret society” of entrenched money and power which each of them sees reflected in the other.
It does not take much of an imagination to see the inheritors of Tom Buchanan in today’s young Republican elite. I imagine Josh Hawley (Stanford, Yale) and Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard) are familiar with The Great Gatsby.
Six months ago, Hawley and Cruz both fanned the flames of insurrection. Since then, neither has been removed, or even censured, and it seems we’ve lost the moment for anything like that. Hawley and Cruz have simply continued as sitting U.S. senators. Like with Donald Trump, it will be left to voters to remove them from public office. Unlike with Trump, they’ll likely survive. They will continue smashing up things.
I could go on with the other dominant and emerging figures of the reactionary right. One needs only a cursory glance at the careers of Tucker Carlson, JD Vance, or Mike Flynn—scorned by the establishment they so desired to conquer, consumed with bitterness, they now exact their revenge. Then there’s House backbench noisemakers like Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, and Madison Cawthorn, each of whom led troubled, obscure lives before finding new identities as MAGA personalities. It does not take much to see what bonds these people is unreconciled hurt and resentment.
On his inimitable podcast, comedian Marc Maron has been saying of late that the one benefit of the pandemic is that it’s shown us who we all really are. Now we at least know where everyone stands, Maron tells us. And now I suppose we know who are really the worst among us. I speak, of course, of the people who over the past year threw childish fits over any measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, and are now refusing the vaccine that will bring the pandemic to an end. These were the same folks who tried to make the minor inconvenience of wearing a cloth mask over your mouth and nose seem like the kind of historical injustice that sparks revolutions.
Mitch McConnell said last week he was “perplexed” by the vaccine hesitancy among many of his constituents. Even for McConnell, this was pretty rich. After all, these followers are simply imitating his own actions over the past decade by refusing to cooperate with anything for which a Democratic president might get some credit. That the United States is the country that developed the vaccines a not-insignificant number of its citizens then subsequently refuse, thus unnecessarily prolonging a pandemic, is a state of affairs that pretty well sums up the times. If you find yourself a political bedfellow with these folks, perhaps reconsider.
Speaking of the Senate,
the filibuster remains the central obstacle to restoring the U.S. Senate to some kind of functioning life. I will not rehash all the ways Krysten Sinema’s defense of the filibuster is wrong, as others have done that easy work. But I will highlight the unmissable irony of Sinema’s supposed longing for bipartisanship is that the filibuster completely undermines it. To take one highly notable recent example: the vote to establish a Senate commission on the Capitol insurrection was 54-35 in favor, with 6 Republicans joining 48 Democrats. In other words: bipartisanship.7 But because of the filibuster, it failed. And it takes a tortured rationale to explain why legislation that has 54 votes in favor to 35 against ought to fall short of passing.
One last character analysis: I think we can see where the Sinema8 saga is headed. If she holds firm on the filibuster, thus undermining the Biden agenda and playing no small role in further imperiling American democracy, Democrats will have no choice but to primary her. If that is successful and she is defeated, she will then fall back on a lucrative career as a fixture on the right wing media circuit, where she can opine on how the “intolerant left” has “taken over” the Democratic Party. You can hear all the talking points now. In the meantime, so long as no federal action is taken to counter the GOP’s compromising of elections in states across the nation—not just who gets to vote but who does the counting—each coming election will once more see American democracy hanging by a proverbial thread. That is a tension that cannot last.
If you read one article: In my last post I linked to Rebecca Traister’s masterful Andrew Cuomo piece. This time I am recommending another tour de force in the field of contemporary political profile writing: “The King of Little England”, by Fintan O’Toole. The subject here is Boris Johnson, who, despite an ongoing pile-up of scandals, betrayals, and ineptitude, continues to reap the rewards of the modern realignment in British politics.
On the subject of British politics, one of the fascinating political narratives of the age is how and indeed if the Labour Party can recover and return to power. I’ve taken to reading a recent acclaimed biography of Clement Atlee to better think about this subject. One thing it seems the party will need to do is find leadership from outside London—Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, seems a likely candidate. Keir Starmer, whom I’ve always liked, is probably not the answer.
What I’m Reading: Rather hilariously, I keep ordering books I’m eager to read while the responsibilities of co-parenting an infant child essentially prohibits me from doing so. But I have found refuge in the shorter form of the essay, and I’ve been looking at selections from David Bromwich’s Writing Politics: An Anthology.9 Speaking of masterful political writing, included in this collection is George Orwell’s “Looking Back on the Spanish War.” It’s easy to take for granted just how great of a political essayist is Orwell. But what a voice, what a mind: sharp, principled, completely without illusion. A sample:
It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘science’. There is only ‘German science’, ‘Jewish science’ etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five.
Oh and I can’t leave out this timeless gem:
Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question.
It is never a bad time to brush up on your Orwell.
This thread really stuck with me. A perfect summation of how trolling and contrarianism—performative activities that require an audience—are central to Republican identity.
What I’m Listening to: This is not new, but a shoutout to the incredible archive of BBC 4’s long-running In Our Time. I have a recurring nightmare wherein Melvyn Bragg pesters me to clarify or elaborate on what I’ve just said.
What I’m Watching: I just finished the four seasons of French comedy/drama Dix Pour Cent (English title Call My Agent) on Netflix. Somewhat relatedly, something I find genuinely inspiring these days is Paris’s ongoing liberation from the urban tyranny of automobiles. In weary times, one takes heart that Paris is making the necessary transformations to remain a special place in the world. But only if they also ban leaf blowers.
Fiction is also entertaining, let’s not discount that!
I am closely paraphrasing and linking to the ideas of Mark Carney, whose current political overtures I’m pretty taken with. Carney could potentially be Canada’s next PM. Read more on him here, and seek out his book, lectures, and interviews.
Yep. That’s his name.
Between 2009 and 2014, 43 percent of white students admitted to Harvard were either athletes, legacies, faculty kids, or the offspring of major donors. (Source: https://www.nber.org/papers/w26316)
Both Trump impeachments were also bipartisan.
While not as severe as the MAGA personalities I mentioned before, that Sinema was once a Green Party activist and is now trying to claim the mantle as Champion of Bipartisanship is highly dubious, and betrays the instincts of a grifter.
The Mary McCarthy essay referenced earlier is also in this collection.