A Teacher's Writes

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

Tag: politics

Satire as a Narrowing Agent

“Does anyone know where my needle nose pliers are?”

I had not seen them since my children borrowed them. They had been making ornaments, I think–I don’t really know what they were doing but it involved wire and beads–and I hoped they hadn’t forgotten where they were.

“I put them away last time I used them,” my son declared with total confidence. He is eight-years-old and possesses an appetite for projects. I once walked into the garage to find wood and nails scattered across the ping pong table and my son far away, involved in something else. “This is not a work bench,” I explained after I caught up with him, speaking like a hotel clerk to a foreigner.

For this inquiry about the pliers, we were sitting at the dinner table, and in my disbelief at my son’s response my next words slipped from my lips as easily as unconscious thought. “Right. Like that’s ever happened.”

I mumbled the phrase quietly enough that he didn’t hear me, but his twelve-year-old sister did. She hears everything. And she remembers everything. And that is the problem.

Actually, the problem is multi-layered. The first problem is that my son is just like me. My primary difficulty with his taking and losing my things is that I am usually taking and losing my things; I don’t need his help at being foolish, and when he supplies it, I feel like I’m losing the game in a blow-out. Any frustration I harbor toward my son is frustration that, upon reflection, I harbor with myself. But even if I’m justified in my frustration toward him, even if I wasn’t carrying a log in my own eye, what does my comment accomplish? Does mocking my son motivate him to change?

So I’m ultimately wrong to complain and criticize him. But compounding my wrong is that while my son never even heard me criticize him, my daughter did. Thus, my complaint colored my daughter’s attitude toward her little brother, because she then knew he had frustrated Daddy, that his indifference about losing track of the pliers was Irresponsible.

I’ve been considering this exchange recently as I’ve contemplated the nature of criticism in our American moment, particularly our favorite style of criticism, satire.

It’s not possible to keep up with all the satirical barbs aimed at the current federal administration, though it looks like Americans are trying, since Stephen Colbert is riding his satirical wit to a resurgence, Trevor Noah is using Trump critiques to grow his audience, and The Atlantic is devoting repeated commentary to Saturday Night Live’s artistic choices for skewering the President and his administration.

It’s SNL that got me thinking, because Melissa McCarthy has begun portraying Sean Spicer. I know a bit about Spicer, but I have never watched him work with the press. I know lots of people have taken on watching news as a part-time job, as Tom Papa amusingly observes, but if I get to that point I will question what I’m doing with my life–what would Henry David Thoreau think of my watching a television with Sean Spicer on it? I’m not going to do it.

For me, therefore, SNL’s skits are coloring my perception of Spicer without my having engaged the real person. I’m consuming the satire without knowing thoroughly what is being mocked. And while the skit might also spur me to look into the man’s work, I admit it frames my view of him–will I ever see the real Spicer without feeling like he’s imitating SNL?

In his essay “On Satire,” Aaron Belz shares the insight of Henri Bergson, a French modernist philosopher, who points out that the context for comedy is “our ‘life in common.’”

What I wonder when watching McCarthy play Spicer or listening to Colbert’s live specials is how broad this common life is that I’m sharing. Is my absorbing the satirical version of reality without substantial reference to the original narrowing the breadth of my common reference? Am I cutting myself off from others via satire?

I’ve always been an apologist for satire, justifying Mark Twain’s work, for example, “as a corrective of human vice or folly” (to pull from M.H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms). In this sense, I realize I’ve portrayed satire as a tool for unity, describing satirical jabs as attempts to bring people back to a common and more virtuous vision.

I have therefore seen myself positively in Belz’s further explanation of Bergson’s idea: “One important way we know that we’re living life in common is that we laugh at the same things. We also recognize error together. The joke itself, the thing that causes laughter, is incongruous, but its very existence suggests deeper congruity and agreement.” In this way, the joke I share reveals my agreement with those laughing and those joking, so satirical jokes confirm our common vision and encourage unity.

But now I’m wondering what kind of unity it encourages. Is the satire I’m reading or watching reclaiming stray members through winsome persuasion or tightening the circle against infiltration?

Jordan Peele, a contemporary master of satire, suggests that the dark element inside humans gives us “the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.” What if our satire is, then, an act of sorting? Of setting borders of congruity and establishing the side of the mob? Are satirists encouraging wayward sheep to return to the fold or establishing which sheep are allowed in the flock?

While I admit satire makes me laugh, I need to ask if it is accomplishing good. Is it pushing me to love my neighbor, or is it pushing me to think he’s a moron?

With those needle nose pliers, I soon came to my senses and realized I should not be angry with my eight year old; I am sorry I was critical of him. My concern now is how my criticism affected the way my daughter thinks of her little brother. Have I encouraged her to love him? I don’t think so. Satire rarely accomplishes that.


Two ideas on justice and judges

These are two ideas that strike me as pertinent and connected.

It has long been frustrating to me that the only criterion by which Americans — almost without exception — evaluate judges is: Did he or she make decisions that produce results I’d like to see? Virtually no one asks whether the judge has rightly interpreted existing law, which is of course what the judge is formally required to do. Americans — again, almost without exception — want judges to be politicians and advocates. The idea that a judge should strive to interpret existing law regardless of whether it does or doesn’t promote politically desirable ends never crosses anyone’s mind, and if by some strange chance it did, the person whose mind was so crossed would reject the proposal indignantly. Americans in this respect resemble toddlers and their own President: they evaluate everything in terms of whether it helps or hinders them in getting what they want.

This devaluation of interpretation amounts to a dismissal of the task of understanding: everything that matters is already understood, so the person who would strive to understand is not only useless, but an impediment to the realization of my political vision. To the partisan, the absence of partisanship is always a sin, and perhaps the gravest of sins.

Alan Jacobs

To be sure, most people . . . tend to be intensely interested in justice when it is for themselves. It is the notion of justice for all that is missing from much of our public discourse.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion

Barton Swaim’s insightful analysis of Trump’s new political rhetoric

There’s something intrinsically false about the rhetoric of healing and unity, no matter who it comes from. A friend of mine, a professor of English with left-of-center tendencies in politics, likes to say that “the rhetoric of consensus is always coercive.” Any time you talk about what “we” believe as Americans — what “this country” was founded on, who “we are” as a nation — you’re forcing a certain kind of unity that many of your listeners, maybe most of them, are excluded from. The rhetoric of consensus may be appropriate on occasions of high ceremony — an inauguration, a State of the Union address — but otherwise it sounds false and cheap to everybody but the winners.

Barton Swaim. I’ve been reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well with my students and he castigates politicians for using overly-flourished language that hides meaning. It’s the same criticism George Orwell exposed in “Politics and the English Language,” the classic (and just) description of political discourse. But it’s been interesting to read these charges this year, because Donald Trump’s approach has disposed of the usual dressed-up political language. He’s not using faux-sophistication to blur his meaning, nor is he using the approach Barack Obama preferred, the language of unity and eloquence (which, as Swaim points out above, possesses its own implications).

But that is not to describe Trump’s language as more revealing or specific. When he says, “The thing I’m doing, I’m cutting taxes big league,” he’s not hiding behind sophistication or eloquence. Yet neither is he using concrete or specific language. Does “big league” mean anything in particular? To say John Lewis is “all talk” and “no action” certainly lacks sophisticated eloquence and common respect, but isn’t it also meaningless invective? That is, what would the “action” be that would gain respect in this context? Isn’t Lewis’s action in creating a federal health care system exactly what Trump is trying to undo?

Trump’s approach is no more honest than the classically lambasted political discourse, but it is completely different, and I find that Zinsser and Orwell’s indictment of political language, if applied to Trump, are off target. It’s one reason I’m enjoying Barton Swaim’s commentary so much this political season. He is no Trump fan, but he’s tracking Trump’s rhetoric and attempting to articulate what is going on and why, in its own way, it is working.

One reason, he points out (in the article referenced above and in others), is Trump’s approach is markedly different than what we’ve grown used to.

We’ve allowed politics to take up emotional space in our lives

I think we’re actually in a time of intense political isolation across the board. I’ve been speaking across the country for the year leading up to the election, and I would be doing these events, and without fail, the last questioner or second-to-last questioner would cry. I’ve been doing political events for a long time, and I’ve never seen that kind of raw emotion. And out of that, I came to the conclusion that politics was causing a deep spiritual harm in our country. We’ve allowed politics to take up emotional space in our lives that it’s not meant to take up.

Michael Wear, in an interview with The Atlantic

Michael Gerson’s Astute Criticism of the Religious Right

Much of the religious right’s criticism of President Bill Clinton’s character was a ploy. Franklin Graham now argues that because Abraham lied, Moses disobeyed God and David committed adultery, Trump should get a pass, not just on his personal behavior but also on his deception, cruelty and appeal to bigotry. It is a non sequitur revealing the cynical subordination of faith to politics.

Michael Gerson

How likely is it I’d vote for Trump? I like what Alan Jacobs says.

We all know what Trump is: so complete a narcissist that the concepts of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are alien to him. He knows only the lust for power and the rage of being thwarted in his lust. In a sane society the highest position to which he could aspire is apprentice dogcatcher, and then only if no other candidates presented themselves.

If you put a gun to my head and told me that I had to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I would but whisper, “Goodbye cruel world.” But if my family somehow managed to convince me to stick around, in preference to Trump I would vote for Hillary. Or John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi. In preference to Trump I would vote for the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson, or for that matter that of Julius Caesar, who perhaps has learned a thing or two in his two thousand years of afterlife. The only living person that I would readily choose Trump in preference to is Charles Manson.

Alan Jacobs

More time in school will hinder the education of the entire person

I try very hard not to pay attention to politics. To this particular area, I aspire to the example of Benjamin Franklin, whose behavior during floor debate in the Continental Congress is captured wonderfully by David McCullough in John Adams:

Franklin wanted independence . . . But [he] had no liking for floor debate. He was patient, imperturbable, and at times sound asleep in his chair. Never would he argue a point. Indeed, it was rare that he spoke at all or ventured an opinion except in private conversation. (92)

Take the health care debate as an example. My opinion is set, my senators’ votes are set, I am not going to be given a chance to vote directly, and getting upset about what I see in the news will only raise my blood pressure. Thus, I refuse to follow the details and I will not discuss it with you or almost anyone else.

Yet I do pay a passing bit of attention, and I recall hearing sometime near the beginning of the school year that President Obama had expressed an opinion in favor of longer school hours. With a quick search I found on ABC News a summary of his comments and those of his staff:

Obama and Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school.

“Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here,” [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan told the AP. “I want to just level the playing field.”

The reason, then, appears to be that everybody else is doing it, though to be more specific, the reason given is that the people with higher test scores are doing it:

Researcher Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution looked at math scores in countries that added math instruction time. Scores rose significantly, especially in countries that added minutes to the day, rather than days to the year.

There are other factors in all this, including the social justice idea of raising test scores for students in low socioeconomic situations:

Disadvantaged kids, on the whole, make no progress in the summer . . . Some studies suggest they actually fall back. Wealthier kids have parents who read to them, have strong language skills and go to great lengths to give them learning opportunities such as computers, summer camp, vacations, music lessons, or playing on sports teams.

“If your parents are high school dropouts with low literacy levels and reading for pleasure is not hard-wired, it’s hard to be a good role model for your children, even if you really want to be”

Yet deep in the recesses of my brain, I recall reacting to such opinions as a parent who is highly involved in the lives of his children. “You think your government school is better at raising my children than me? How dare you take my children away from me even more than you already do?” Alternatively, I thought, “Why would you penalize those of us who can raise our children in constructive homes by pulling them out of them even more?”

But those reactions are simply rants. Better expressed is the opinion of Susan Schaefer Macaulay, who points out in For the Children’s Sake that children are persons, whole persons, and should be treated as such. I’d venture to connect the dots for her by saying that when we focus our efforts in schools entirely upon reading and math skills  as represented by standardized scores, the way folks like Education Secretary Arne Duncan seem to be doing, we are ignoring most of the person.

One of Macaulay’s points is that play is a crucial piece for developing the full “riches of humanness” (21). Her opinion arises out of Charlotte Mason’s observations about the critical nature of play: “Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair” (21). The danger of removing independent play or structuring children’s play is that “the child of today has the rich creative play-response crushed out” (22).

The kind of play Macaulay encourages, and the kind of play children cherish most, is independent and creative. The most important element to such play is time, and more hours in school is highly unlikely to produce it.

School hours are like a monster (however excellent that school may be), gobbling up the child’s treasure of time. [Providing ample time] is often easier home-based than institution-based. There should be space, and lots of free time. (22-23)

I will not reveal my opinions on health care, but I will admit that I reject few ideas as thoroughly or soundly as the idea that more time in school will improve our children. It may raise their test scores, but the cost of such high scores will be not be calculable.

I find myself revisiting the wonderfully evocative scenes of The Sandlot and wonder if the children of our test score-junkie culture will squeeze the imaginative lives from them “forever . . . forever . . .”

Thanks for reading.