Teaching in the Time of Trump

Dear Reader,

I have taken a sabbatical from the blog for a few months now – in all honesty, the pernicious political climate defeated any desire I had to put together my thoughts for a blog post. Every idea I started with turned angry, and I generally believe anger is an impotent emotion.

angry trump
Trump speaks to supporters – photo by Politico

I am hardly alone in feeling the negative vibe in the air – most people in our society (70 % according to recent polling) feel that the country as a whole is more negative since the last election.  As the saying goes, the speed of the group is equal to the speed of the leader. You could restate this as the tone of the group is set by the tone of the leader. The leader’s tone is dangerous, angry, toxic. Horrible.

It has not been easy to resist the tone.  It has especially been a challenge at work, in the classroom.  How does one teach in the time of Trump?  It’s not easy.  First and foremost, we have to tolerate things we disagree with and realize that opinions about Trump run a full spectrum.  Despite how I feel about Trump, I have to model tolerant disagreement. Second, we have to acknowledge that everything we talk about in the classroom connects to the world around us, and the students certainly feel impacted by what’s going on out there.  Nothing feels quite normal to students these days.  They have anxieties and insecurities that get expressed in class discussion and in their writing. My students worry about their Muslim neighbors, their immigrant classmates, their LGBTQ friends, themselves. As much as we’d like to, we can’t shut the door and pretend that the world doesn’t exist; we have to talk about it. The only good way I can think to let the world in is by not focusing on Trump so much as what we read can teach us about ourselves. After all, even though a person like Trump seems new and unique in time, in truth he is not new but rather a regression.  We can learn lessons from stories, plays, novels, and poems that show us who we do – and don’t – want to be. These past few months, I have found some solace in knowing that the things we study teach us about why truth matters, why bullies can’t win, what happens when we demonize others, and what happens when we fight for the best version of ourselves.

One of the classes I teach is called Ethics in Literature, and one of the things we confront in this course is the idea of what is true. There is a dangerous way of thinking out there in the world that says, “If it feels true to me or if it confirms what I believe, then it must be true.”  In current political discourse, this is what is know as “Alternative Facts.”  In plain truth, alternative facts are lies.  One of the lessons we learn in ethics is that thinking so doesn’t make it so. “Many people are saying” is not a rational argument, and when we talk about big questions of right and wrong, objectivity is essential.  Here is an example: Person A thinks chocolate ice cream is the best.  That thinking expresses an opinion about ice cream.  Is chocolate ice cream the best?  Not according Person B who loves vanilla ice cream.  Can they both be right? Ice cream is a low-stakes argument.  But what if we apply that same process to a moral question? Moral questions can’t be decided based on a mere difference of opinion or preference.  It may be Person A’s opinion that pursuing stem-cell research is wrong because it makes him uncomfortable, but that is not enough to declare it morally wrong. Moral questions require justified thinking, not just opinion or preference. And saying something like “stem-cell research is wrong because I think it’s messing with the natural order” is not a rational, justified argument.  It may be how Person A feels, but that does not make it true.  There really is a difference between facts and feelings, and one of the most important things we can teach students is to believe in the independent objectivity of facts.

As we read Macbeth, we see what happens when we give way to our darkest impulses, when we seek to win at all costs even at the expense of other people. The witches set the tone for this early on by declaring that “fair is foul and foul is fair.”  Macbeth is a bully who decides to trash and destroy everything in his path. He wants power, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it.  The gluttonous desire for power is all consuming, as he ultimately realizes that he is “in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should [he] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” – in other words, he is in over his head. The paranoid pursuit of power leads him to threaten and murder everyone he perceives as a threat in order to try and maintain his grasp on the throne. Ultimately, the bully defeats himself as everyone turns against Macbeth, refusing to accept his fatalistic vision. Shakespeare’s dark play shows us that ambition alone does not make a great leader, and while it may inspire fear, it will never inspire love, admiration, greatness, or loyalty.

macbeth
image from BBC

When we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we learn that how we treat others matters. When Victor’s creature wanders out into the world, he is not a monster.  The creature seeks love, acceptance, and understanding.  He looks for a place to belong.  But it is his difference in appearance and manner that ultimately creates fear in others.  Society can’t handle his difference, and they take out those fears on the creature.  The creature learns that he is “solitary and abhorred” – alone and hated.  This leads him to feelings of “hate and revenge” – the creature learns to treat others the way he has been treated.  At one point, the creature tells Victor, “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” The lesson is simple: when faced with someone different from our norm, someone outside of our comfort zone, we can treat them with respect and create better humans, or we can create monsters. Sometimes, for all the talk of America being “a great melting pot,” we sure do seem to resist people who are different from our norm.  Too often we regard each other with suspicion and derision – and the monsters we really create are ourselves.

But when we read The Hunger Games, we learn that we should not pit ourselves against each other. When we do that, we play the evil leader’s game. President Snow wants people from the various districts to distrust each other, not to talk to each other, and not to help each other. He wants them to see their survival as dependent on the demise of others. Peeta and Katniss refuse to conform to the image of “good tributes” in that while they understand they may have to sacrifice their lives, they refuse to sacrifice their character.  Their resistance is shown in small and big ways.  For example, on the eve of the games, Peeta says, “I want to die as myself” in the arena.  He does not want to fundamentally alter who he is for the sake of the game.  Snow is hoping that the tributes will all behave viciously toward one another once the games are underway, confirming the worst narrative Snow has tried to construct about the people from the districts.  It is a small act of rebellion on Peeta’s part to fight for his character in the face of a truly horrible fate.  In a much larger act of resistance, Katniss shows compassion to her ally, Rue.  When Rue is mortally wounded, rather than run away to save herself, Katniss stays with Rue so she doesn’t have to die alone.  Her rebellion is shown in the way she prepares a funeral scene for the fallen tribute and honors Rue’s district in an unprecedented show of solidarity.  What Collins’ book tries to show is that cooperation is how we win, and we must fight to stay true to ourselves even when circumstances try to force us to act in ways that hurt others. We must always search for and nurture the better parts of our nature – and that is the only way we really win, the only way to make ourselves great.

When we studied John Rawls’ theories on social justice, my students did an exercise where they created an ideal society behind their own veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance assumes that you don’t know who you will be or what place you will have in society, so in creating society, the goal is to try and set it up as fairly as possible for everyone. I challenged them to think affirmatively – create the society they want by deciding on what was good. The point of the exercise was to discover what things we truly value. Their list was encouraging: they want freedom, they want justice, they want equality, they want peace, they want respect, they want education, they want opportunity. What is made plain by the list they created is what they don’t want: prejudice, injustice, inequality, fear, disrespect, lack of education, and lack of opportunity.

The exercise could be easily dismissed by saying it’s too idealistic, but during this week where we have celebrated the anniversary of our nation, it’s fair to point out that the Declaration of Independence was pretty idealistic too. America was a dream. It took some work to get it going, and we are still wildly imperfect. Does that mean we should cease to try?  Perhaps the most essential benefit of studying the humanities is that art, literature, and philosophy help us understand how much bigger the world is.  Too often, we are locked within a selfish bubble, only concerned with what is immediate to us. This isolationist thinking is dangerous. As much as anything else, my goal as a teacher is to say simply this to my students: try. Try to imagine the world you want to live in. Try to figure out how you can go about creating it.  Try compassion.  Try to live with honesty and dignity. Try to treat others the right way, to earn respect by giving it. Try to be the person you think you should be, even when it’s hard. Try in small ways and in great ways. Change happens in depressingly slow ways sometimes, but then sometimes it makes massive leaps. But none of it happens if we don’t try and just pretend that everything is normal, everything is okay.

This is how I have learned to teach in the time of Trump.

© Ryna May 2017

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FrankenTrump

“I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.” – Mary Shelley

Today’s Republican party has created what you might call the abominable candidate, Donald Trump.  In the tradition of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, this primary frontrunner is a conglomerate of the worst possible parts of a person – racism, xenophobia, willful ignorance, entitlement, and bravado all wrapped up in one very ugly bully.

Boris Karloff in the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale.
Image from Mother Jones
As horrible as Trump is, he is the fitting harvest of all the acrid seeds sown by the most cynical and opportunistic people in the GOP in the last 50 years or so. Trump was sown by Pat Buchanan, Richard Nixon, Lee Atwater, and Ronald Reagan in their not-so-subtle race baiting that was so genteelly nicknamed the “Southern Strategy.” This strategy helped gradually convert the south to a Republican stronghold, primarily by appealing to deeply held prejudices among voters there through the use of coded language.  If you think that strategy is dead, then ask yourself why Trump had such a hard time rejecting the support of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan in the days leading up to Super Tuesday when several southern states were about to vote.

 

frankentrump
Image from The Denver Post
Trump was sown by the Tea Party whose incendiary rhetoric has led to moments like the one where Congressman Joe Wilson, with a stunning lack of decorum, yelled “Liar!” at the President during his State of the Union address.  From the Republicans in Congress, President Obama has faced blatant racism throughout his tenure.  They questioned his legitimacy because of his foreign-sounding name and the fact that he was born in Hawaii.  Yet somehow the party faithful can pretend not to know (or care) that one of the Republicans running now to succeed Obama, Ted Cruz, was actually not born in America, but in Canada.  Where are those “birthers” now? The behavior of these GOP leaders emboldens the members of the base.  Lack of courtesy, lack of respect, lack of decency abounds.  The loudest mouth wins.  Enter Trump.

 

“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” – Hosea 8:7

Trump was sown by the years and years of lip service the GOP gave to the concerns of religious voters.  In his article “Jesus is not a Republican” from The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2006), Randall Balmer makes the case that Republican politicians have repeatedly disavowed fundamental teachings of Jesus such as helping the poor, the use of torture, and the value of life all while courting religious voters.  The religious political machine has focused more on punishing those who are down on their luck, ridiculing and humiliating them, calling them “moochers” and freeloaders.  The machine has stood by while wars are prosecuted for false reasons and stood behind an administration that believes waterboarding is an ethical interrogation strategy.  Trump has called for a return to the use of torture, even as he has said, “beyond waterboarding,” which is horrible to imagine. That’s not a position consistent with valuing life, and Trump has backpedaled on that position somewhat, but he has also said that we should target the families of our enemies – their wives and children.  That’s something straight out of Macbeth, not the New Testament. We can’t pretend that these are Judaeo Christian values – they just aren’t.  But this is the man who would lead the Republican party.

“When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?” – Mary Shelley

 

lucy-football
Image from Slate.com
The chickens are coming home to roost.  The poor of the country, especially those in the south, are tired of Republican politicians taking their money and their votes and failing to deliver on any of their promises.  The religious right are sick and tired of seeing their social issues used as a political football.  Every four years, like Charlie Brown, they run out onto the pitch where Lucy waits, only to end up flat on their backs.  Good Grief!  Maybe not this year. You can’t blame voters for feeling that enough is enough and looking for an alternative, an outsider, a non-politician.

 

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example” – Mary Shelley

So where does this leave moderate Republican voters?  There are many of them who are people of good will who believe in things like small government at the federal level and a greater role for local governments and who have specific ideas about fiscal policy that don’t include destroying the middle class.  There are many moderate Republican voters who do not hate Mexicans and Muslims and who do believe in the American Dream that so many immigrants come here to find.  But this is not their Republican Party – for some time it has been slipping away. For years they have turned a blind eye while the party grew more and more extreme.  If Mitt Romney’s desperate speech doesn’t tell the truth of it, then I don’t know what else does.  It’s all hitting the fan now.  Fox News viewers can hardly stomach it anymore. The former nominee basically begged voters to go out and vote for anyone but Trump, betting on, hoping for a brokered convention where the delegates can rally together and choose someone more palatable. In doing so, the party will basically slap the face of their own voters, saying, in effect, thanks for voting – that’s cute, but we’ve got this from here. As I wrote a few months ago, this is a crossroads for the GOP as we know it.  Will they be defined by their new standard-bearer, Trump?  Or will they have the courage to watch the thing they gave their lives to, broken, and find a way to build it new? In a surreal moment at the end of the Republican debate in Detroit, after spending 2 hours slamming Trump and declaring him unfit and unqualified to be president, we watched as these same men, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich, all pledged to rally behind and support the eventual Republican nominee, even if that is Trump.  If that is true, they have no one to blame but themselves.

© Ryna May 2016