Fragmentary thoughts on politics

People analyze Trump supporters as though they’re hanging on his every word and willing to defend his every lie, but that describes only a small hardcore faction that spends too much time on line. In reality, most of them are just not paying close attention and don’t need to do much more than deploy the standard “liberal media bias” narrative — wherein anything that sounds too “extreme” must be made up because it can’t possibly be that bad — to keep the cognitive dissonance levels down. It’s not about consciously buying lies, it’s about maintaining plausible deniability through ignorance — and that may be a tougher problem. It’s not even about convincing them of the truth, it’s about convincing them that they could potentially have access to the truth and, even worse, be held responsible for finding it.

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The talk of “treason” leaves me cold. Trump is showing less concrete deference and servility toward Russia than every president in my lifetime has shown toward Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example. This is rhetoric that will backfire on the left, just like making the cruelty of child separation be about the sanctity of “family.” And there is also the fact that people are bizarrely using this as an opportunity for redbaiting, as though Putin is a continuation of the USSR — when in reality, he is the kind of right-wing strongman that Marxist theory predicts as the outcome of a failed left project. Not to mention the lionization of the American national security apparatus. I am all for removing Trump by any possible means, but my God, my God. There is no future down this path.

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The irony of the present moment is that the right is more internationalist than the left, where the debate is centered on economic nationalism and reclaiming the power of the nation-state. Again, there is no future down this path.

Whiteness is the crisis

A lot of times, when governments do horrible things, they can point to some kind of crisis. Maybe there is a war or insurgency going on. Maybe they are in the midst of an economic collapse. Maybe there is a major crime wave underway. In those kinds of circumstances, government officials feel entitled and even obligated to take extreme measures to get things back to normal. Sometimes they use the crisis to do something they wanted to to anyway, as with the Iraq War, but sometimes they are acting out of genuine fear and panic.

What we are seeing at the border today is not like that. The U.S. is in a state of undeclared war around the world, as it almost always is, but there is no substantial foreign threat to the U.S. mainland and no attempt to even claim that there is one. There are still economic problems, most notably wage stagnation, but unemployment is very low, the stock market is still booming, and the Global Financial Crisis is ten years in the rearview window. There is no evidence of an increase in attempted undocumented border crossings, nor of any crime wave associated with undocumented immigrants — just the opposite, in fact, as immigrants commit fewer crimes per capita than good old native-born Americans. Nor are we coming off a period of lax enforcement of immigration law, as Obama (shamefully, in my view) stepped up deportations to an extreme degree. And yet here we are, witnessing children, even infants, being torn from their parents for what amounts to a minor misdemeanor.

From any reasonable viewpoint, this policy is completely gratuitous cruelty. Yet from the unreasonable viewpoint of the racists in charge of our federal government there is an emergency underway: the U.S. is in danger of losing its white identity. Continue reading “Whiteness is the crisis”

Paying attention is the hardest thing

I don’t think we need to get better at listening to each others’ opinions and viewpoints. We need to get better at not presuming to have opinions and viewpoints on every single thing in the world — and to get better at not assuming that the things people say amount to opinions and viewpoints. We don’t even need to get better at suspending judgment, because that presupposes that the goal of a conversation is a judgment.

We just need to get better at paying attention to things and finding ways to talk about what we see when we pay attention to things.

How might this work in a political context? I haven’t talked to a Trump supporter about the separation of children at the border, but I can vividly imagine how it would go — they would keep throwing excuses and distractions at the wall until either something stuck or they wore me out (most likely the latter). All of that would be to avoid confronting the simple fact of what is happening: agents of the government are stealing away the children of immigrants, making no effort to keep track of them or guarantee their safe return, and sticking them in ad hoc camps. That is what is happening.

“But it’s Obama’s fault, because he made the policy.” Fine, but this is what your guy is doing now. “He’s just following the law.” He has a majority in both houses of Congress — he could change the law if he wanted to. “It’s all part of a negotiating strategy to get a better immigration policy.” Yes, but it’s ruining lives, probably irrevocably, in the meantime. “It’s their own fault for breaking the law.” This was never a consequence of breaking that law before. Does it seem proportionate?

I’m not sure I want to change their opinion or persuade them to vote for a Democrat or whatever, so much as to force them to actually face the fact of what is happening. That would at least give me some information — if they can see the horror, then there may be some hope for them; if they can stare down what is happening and say it’s worth it, then they are lost. We can’t tell a person is lost simply from the fact that they are spouting the talking points, because it is a very human (though very selfish) thing to want to look away from something terrible like this and especially to try to avoid any complicity or blame. This is what I mean by not assuming that the stupid things they say amount to “opinions” that we must counter or take seriously — they aren’t EVEN opinions yet, they are ways to avoid confronting the situation and forming an actual opinion.

Learning to talk to each other like human beings

In the last week of the senior capstone class, I suggested that one of the most important things we do at Shimer is develop the habit of actually talking to each other like human beings. Not spouting off opinions, not yelling at each other to beat everyone into submission, not positioning and posturing and signaling, above all not trying to “win” at something or avoid admitting we were ever wrong, but actually talking — about something of substance, which we have all done some work toward understanding. We’re not perfect. It doesn’t always come together. Personal conflict and fatigue and flagging interest all work against us. But every day, in every class, we try to learn how to talk to each other like human beings, and after four years of doing that every day, in every class, everyone gets at least a little better at it.

Every morning when I read the news and the inane commentary on it and the clever but ultimately unsatisfying riffs and jokes on it all, I become more convinced that we all need to learn to talk to each other like human beings. I’m not going to claim that it’s the most revolutionary thing or the most important thing — but it’s a necessary thing, if we don’t want to trust our fate to the loudest and most brutal person on “our side.” Maybe that will work, but it probably won’t, and when it doesn’t, we won’t have any way to figure out what went wrong and what we can change.

The Decline of the West

In the New York Times, David Leonhart worries that Trump is consciously attempting to destroy the West. Now I have no great affection for the Western alliance or the global free trade regime — and in any case, the Bush years teach us that neither can do much to restrain US excesses. So I could see a kneejerk case to root for Trump’s bull-in-a-China-shop routine.

The problem is that Trump is trying to construct a world order that doubles down on everything that is worst about the NATO-IMF-World Bank regime and gets rid of even the faintest illusion that some kind of ideals may be remotely involved in any of it. You may say that the Trump version has the virtue of being honest, but I wonder how “refreshing” or “clarifying” that honesty feels to the inmate of an ICE concentration camp.

It’s similar to the delusion of a left-wing version of Brexit — it’s not that I am rooting for the EU as such, but the people who are in a position to administer the alternative are psychotic austerians who want to use “freedom” from the EU to brutalize immigrants and turn the UK into an open-air work camp for the poor.

Education that works

As I may have mentioned before, I am Assessment Czar at the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. (It’s an unofficial title, so I feel like I can choose the exact wording.) It is not a job anyone really relishes, and in fact I only got into it because I was scared the accreditors would shut us down while everyone else (understandably) dragged their feet on it. Over time, we committed to a very large range of assessment tools, many of which were probably not very meaningful, but our core rubrics on writing and discussion skills demonstrated something that we already knew: our program works.

Students of all ability levels who stick with it grow as writers and discussion participants. We were initially suspicious that the upward trend reflected the weaker students dropping out, but when we controlled for students who participated in every checkpoint exercise, the result was the same. One of my colleagues often reminds us that Shimer is not an honors program, though the things we do — small classes focused on discussion of important primary materials — are usually reserved for honors students or at least upper-level students.

It works because it is intensive — they are immersed in an environment where they have to figure out how to learn and grow in a student-driven classroom. It works because it is systematic — our curriculum has a structure with built-in checkpoints. And it works, above all I think, because we know our students — the same cohort of student is in continual contact with the same group of faculty members, who all share the same goals and standards (though admittedly students do sometimes think we are radically and inexplicably different).

Much of what we do is contrary to the trends of higher ed. At most schools, students at the lower levels are taught by contingent faculty who are treated as disposable — and though they typically do a great job, they simply can’t build relationships with individual students over time. At most schools, at least until a student has chosen a major, individual courses are treated as isolated monads with no particular relationship with one another, as departments are forced to compete for students. And building a structured core curriculum in a school that hasn’t already inherited one seems impossible due to the endless (justified!) arguments about ends and means that would surely result, even if everyone put aside anxieties about turf, etc.

At the same time, our apparently old-fashioned approach does cohere with the skill-based orientation of contemporary higher ed. We are teaching them flexibility and exploration more than we are expecting them to memorize lines from the Iliad, for instance — and anecdotally, I have often experiened better educational outcomes by using texts that would not normally fall under the heading of “Great Books.” It is important that we share a central canon that spreads through the curriculum, but its contents are to some extent arbitrary, and certainly we have learned that its boundaries can be flexible. This leads me to think that our approach could also be beneficial in a more conventional disciplinary context, if people could break the spell of “coverage” — something that we have had to do in recent years as we saw that we could never include materials of greater diversity if we were quick to insist that a student “had to” get certain texts.

I’m having trouble figuring out how to wrap this up other than to say: we are doing something that works, and we are doing it in a way that is not conservative or backward-looking. We are doing it off in a little corner and it is hard to get people to see and understand what we are doing, but we are doing it, and it works, and it should be a model for others.

Sustainability

I had trouble sleeping last night, and it feels like it is happening more often over time. Looking back, the last three years or so have been a near-constant ramping-up of stress caused by the instability of Shimer College, then the uncertainty of the merger process with North Central, and now the ongoing complications and obstacles integrating into our new setting. Early on, I had stomach problems that have since levelled off to manageable levels, but sleeping difficulties have taken their place. Last night in a Facebook post, I quoted Regular-Sized Rudy from Bob’s Burgers: “I don’t express this enough, but this is literally killing me.” It was not solely as a joke.

Continue reading “Sustainability”