A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Missing the Point of the Flux Capacitor

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

In 1982, 406 of 415 voters selected Hank Aaron to be a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That made Aaron a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but as the career home run leader at the time (he hit 755 home runs), one wonders how or why nine voters did not select him. Truly, you can’t please everyone.  Which is exactly what I thought when reading Sheila Benson’s 1985 review of Back to the Future for the Los Angeles Times (‘An Underpowered Trip Back to the Future’). The film’s score at Rotten Tomatoes is just under Hank Aaron’s Hall of Fame voting percentage (96% compared to 97.8%), but Benson thinks it is “big, cartoonish and empty,” showing she missed the point entirely.

For Benson, the film’s premise is good but the execution lacks nuance. She chastises Michael J. Fox’s performance as “dangerously low on subtlety,” thinks Marty McFly’s mother having the hots for Marty has “a faintly rancid taste,” and complains that “an all-black band could never have played a small-town high school dance in 1955.”  Most importantly, Benson believes that when it comes to the plot and Marty McFly’s attempts to return to 1985, “there is, unfortunately, never a second’s doubt that he’ll manage any of these feats.” Essentially, then, Benson is upset over what she deems the unreality of the fun.

By focusing on the reality of the film, though, Ms. Benson completely misses its goals, holding it to standards it never sets for itself. In watching Back to the Future dozens of times (no hyperbole used), I have never once wondered whether Marty McFly would accomplish any of his tasks. Instead, I have always delighted in how he accomplishes them. I have never stopped to wonder whether it is possible to drive a car at 88 mph and hit a wire at the precise moment a bolt of lightning charges it, or whether a man can dangle off a clock face and catch a heavy cable by his wool trousers, or how a 50 year old man can still be 50 years old 30 years later. Instead, I have gloried in watching Doc Brown prevent Marty from being erased from existence. Similarly, I have never been foolish enough to view the film’s 1955 setting as historical artifact. McFly journeys not to the real 1955 America but to an idealized stereotype of it—where every building houses a successful business, where kids play in the town square, and where black Americans are on the verge of breaking free from their historic mistreatment. It’s intentional nonsense, which is why its not being the real 1955 never bothers 96% of viewers, and why Marty McFly’s not being subtle is not the point (Did she notice Doc Brown? The director was clearly not chasing subtlety). The point is that Marty is witty and spunky and fun. And that Doc is brilliant and loyal and significantly off-kilter. And that they’re both easy to root for. Amidst all that, we don’t imagine Marty will be stuck forever, we just wonder how he’ll work his way out.

In this 1985 review, Shelia Benson admits that for her the film contained early promise, and she hoped it might be “another ‘Buckaroo Bonzai.’” This, unfortunately for Benson, reveals precisely how off her calculations were. Though I grew up in the 1980s, I had to google Buckaroo Bonzai to know what it was (a sci-fi film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, released in 1984). But Back to the Future? Oh, I think we all know what that is, just like all baseball fans know who Hank Aaron is: one of the all-time greats.

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Trump’s Tyranny of the Mind

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

It is easy to find anti-Trump messages these days, particularly if one is roaming through late night TV comedy. But such left-leaning comedians’ objections to Trump are not surprising—how many of them would admit to supporting anything President George W. Bush did, for example? More surprising—and, to my mind, more significant—is the continued vehement objection to President Donald Trump from more conservative sources, like Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush. In a recent column for the Washington Post (“How Trump Broke Conservatism”), Gerson characterizes President Trump’s manner of arguing as an assault on truth. According to Gerson, Trump’s strategy is to “First, assert and maintain a favorable lie. Second, attack and discredit sources of opposition. Third, declare victory based on power or applause.” In other words, Gerson is saying, Trump chooses not to persuade based on argumentation or truth but on assertion and power. Gerson fills a paragraph with classic examples, including President Trump’s claim during the presidential campaign that President Barak Obama had wiretapped his campaign headquarters and his claim that President Obama is Kenyan.

Gerson’s theory about Trump’s argumentation is extremely useful because it illustrates how the President is not engaging in debates and logic as they are traditionally thought of, but instead using the logic of power. It is a logic we’re familiar with but also one which most people know to be problematic and morally suspect. It reminds me of an old ESPN advertisement for NBA games, where the ESPN announcers are traveling the country in an RV with NBA players. In one clip, two announcers are taking on Shaquille O’Neil at Scrabble. Shaq finishes a move and earns 29 points for “Shaqtastic.” The camera shows us the board, which is full of words built out of Shaq’s name (“Shaqattack,” “Shaqesque”). “How did you get so many Q’s?” Stuart Scott asks, to which Shaq replies with the brusque authority of a 300 pound, seven foot man: “Don’t worry about it.” There is a pause, and then he smiles to say, “My turn again!”

The audience laughs because Shaq’s power, which they had watched him use to move other 7 foot men around a basketball court like they were kindergartners, was completely inappropriate at the Scrabble board. Yet if the situation were real, what could two puny TV announcers have done to prevent it? After all, Gerson reminds us, “The alternative to reasoned discourse is the will to power,” and Shaq’s on-camera (and on-court) persona embodies the will to power.

Gerson’s commentary is light on ideas for how to prevent this “tyranny of the mind,” but his words are themselves a beginning. In the make believe world of that ESPN RV, to call Shaq a bully and a cheat would have brought consequences in the RV—possibly painful ones–but it also would have ended the parody of a Scrabble game. Michael Gerson’s columns have surely lost him prestige in the current Republican party, but he’s decided the consequences are worth exposing the parody.