Writing of Disaster, Writing of Hope

As a professor of literature, I tend to pay special attention to what my son is reading in school.  I wish I could say I paid attention to what he reads at home, for pleasure, but the truth is that he does not read for pleasure.  He reads on assignment, and that’s it.

So what is he reading, in his typical 9th grade American public high school?

So far this year he’s read 1984, Lord of the Flies, and Night. Now he’s reading a contemporary novel, How the Light Gets In, by a British author, M.J. Hyland, billed as a 21st century girls’ version of Catcher in the Rye.

In short, it’s been one depressing, upsetting book after another.  Thought-provoking would be the kind term to use, but it saddens me to recognize that generally speaking, “serious” literature is about the things that frighten us.

And it’s not just in literature that this is true.  In pop culture too, the violence that plays out over and over in every form of media entertainment is catering to what seems to be a human need to imagine and play out in fantasy our deepest fears.

Almost all science fiction series and movies that try to imagine the future show us disasters and social dystopias.  These are considered “realistic” (a positive attribute), as distinct from “utopian” scenarios (dismissed as unrealistic, hence not to be taken seriously).

As a parent, a teacher, and a member, like you, of the transitional generation on this planet, I worry about our apparent addiction to what 20th century philosopher Maurice Blanchot called “the writing of disaster.”

Certainly I have not shied away, in my own career, from making myself aware of the ugly side of human experience.  I have studied human rights abuses of every stripe and geographic origin, including sexual abuse, torture, war and genocide.

I have confronted the grotesque truth of the devastation we humans are wreaking on non-human animals and on our planetary environment—the chemical poisoning of air, waters, earth, along with the life forms that inhabit these strata; the factory farms; the mountaintop removal, clear-cutting and strip-mining; the plastics pollution of the oceans; and on and on.

I don’t bury my head in the sand, by any means.

But I question the wisdom of inundating our imaginations, especially those of young people, with violent stories.

Whether they’re historical like Night or futuristic fiction like 1984; whether they’re video game scenarios like GTA or Call of Duty; or TV series, movies, or the daily news—if all we see in virtual reality is human beings being violent, doesn’t this begin to affect the way we understand ordinary reality?

Doesn’t it make us more guarded with each other, less likely to trust, less likely to build community and bring out the best in each other?

Mary Pipher

Mary Pipher

In preparation for my new class this spring, “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice,” I’ve been re-reading Mary Pipher’s 2006 book Writing to Change the World. Mary Pipher, you may remember, is the psychologist who wrote Reviving Ophelia, a book from the late 1980s that provoked a major surge of attention to the way American girls self-sabotage as young teens, and what societal factors made their swan-dive of self-esteem more likely to occur.

In recent years, Pipher has become an environmentalist, leading the charge in her home state of Nebraska against the Keystone XL.  Although the pipeline is not dead yet, it has at least been re-routed away from the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region.

In Writing to Change the World, she offers a how-to book for those, like me, who see writing as one of the best tools to raise awareness about the issues that matter most.

Pipher writes: “The finest thing we can do in life is to grow a soul and then use it in the service of humankind.  Writers foster the growth of readers’ souls, and the best soil for growth is love.  Writing can be love made visible….This is our challenge: to cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy and still manage to do our share for this beautiful broken planet of ours” (241-2).

However, it seems to me that the kinds of writing we are consuming as a culture, and especially what we’re feeding to our young people, will neither “cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy” nor inspire us to take arms against the sea of troubles that is our planet today.

On the contrary, the dominant narratives I see, at least in American culture, are violent, cynical and despairing, showing us the worst of humanity rather than enticing us forward with dreams of what could be.

I’d like to see the start of a new global literary movement of change narratives in every genre aimed at holding a positive mirror up to human nature, giving us examples of the good we have done and the good we are capable of doing if we draw on our positive qualities—our ability to love, to nurture, to steward, to protect.

Even our oh-so-human violence has a place, if it is used to protect rather than to abuse and wreak wanton havoc.

I would like school curricula to stop replaying the horrific stories of our past—or at least, to balance these negative stories with narratives that give students some positive, hopeful models of human beings as well.

Trying to “grow a soul” in today’s social climate is like trying to grow a plant without sunshine.

Writers, let’s take on the challenge of using our gift with words to change the world for the better.  Let’s be the sunshine, not the shadow.

Spiderweb

Let’s Face It, Charity is Not Enough

When I was a kid, I didn’t read “the funny pages” of the newspaper; in fact, the only newspaper that came into my parents’ home did not stoop to such trivia.  We read, exclusively, The New York Times.

I remember the first time—it must have been around sixth grade—that I happened upon “The Neediest Cases” articles in The Times.

The stories hit me like a ton of bricks.

Comfortably ensconced in my parents’ Park Avenue apartment, I had no idea—no idea—that just a few blocks away, on the other side of the 96th Street divide between the wealthy Upper East Side and dirt-poor Spanish Harlem, ordinary people just like me and my family were living in abject poverty.

With a kind of morbid fascination, I read about the kids whose parents were locked away in prison; the kids whose parents were drug users; the kids whose parents were homeless, sleeping in the dark, rat-infested recesses of the infamous New York City train tunnels.

Unknown-2Every article ended with the same words: Give to The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

This went on year after year.  Every year there were more “neediest cases,” each one more dire and depressing than the last.

Eventually I began to actively avoid reading those pages in December.  The contrast between the clean, glowing, opulent New York I knew and the dark, dank margins of poverty I was reading about was just too much for me to take.

And it was clear to me, at least on a subliminal level, that giving to the Neediest Cases Fund did not accomplish much—not if every year the need continued, unabated and even growing worse.

 

This week I opened my Ipad while still in bed and found myself drawn, despite myself, into a Neediest Cases article on 21st century media steroids—complete with an elegant magazine presentation and fabulous photographs of the squalor of homelessness.

It was the story of a 12-year-old girl named Dasani (after the bottled water), the oldest child of two methadone-dependent former addicts.  Unemployed and homeless, the parents live in a single room in a mouse-infested city shelter with their seven children, from Dasani on down to an infant.

As with the 19th century New York tenement photographs of Jacob Riis, the pictures themselves tell a powerful story.  Dasani is still full of optimistic determination to succeed at school; she hasn’t yet been beaten down, like her sad-faced mother.

I can just imagine Park Avenue New Yorkers—at least The New York Times readers among them—reaching in droves for their checkbooks to send some relief to Dasani and her family.

It happens every time there is a story about a disaster or a particularly shocking needy case.  Wealthy people open up their wallets and give what they can.

But the need goes on, and on.

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

What will happen to Dasani’s little sister, the one who is legally blind?  What will become of her rambunctious little brothers?  What will prevent them from following the same path that ensnared their parents, drug addiction born of desperation?  What will keep them out of prison and make them into the productive citizens our society claims to admire?

 

When I was a girl, I naively believed that the “neediest cases” were an aberration.  I thought that most people lived the way I did, in comfortable security.

In fact, it’s the other way around in our America.  More and more Americans are falling into poverty day by day.  Our minimum wage cannot sustain a family, not even with both parents working.  We don’t have decent health care or child care for lower income working people.  Food pantries are scarcely able to keep up with the need, as food prices continue to rise.

There are 22,000 homeless children in New York City alone, according to The Times.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 1,168,354 homeless students, a figure that many believe to be an underestimate.

It’s outrageous that the richest, most powerful nation on Earth is willing to allow more than a million of its children to go homeless year after year.

We spend billions on nuclear weapons annually, which Lord knows we do not need and cannot use.  This taxpayer money could provide a stellar education for all American children—not just the ones who are fortunate enough to live in a wealthy school district.

Dasani and her siblings have as much right to the American dream as any other American child.

Donating to the charities that hand out teddy bears at Christmastime is just not enough.

The great activist Eve Ensler wrote in her latest memoir that she “despises charity.”

Why?  Because it doesn’t go far enough.

It’s a sop to the consciences of those who give, without addressing the root causes of the need in a way that might actually alleviate it in the longterm.

Structural changes are needed at every level of our society.  For starters, let’s do away with the policy that ties school district funding to property tax revenues.

American public schools should provide a level playing field for all children, regardless of where they live.

Next, don’t just warehouse poor families like Dasani’s in miserable rundown housing.  Give them jobs, give them respect, give them an incentive to work their way out of poverty.

At the very least, they could be organized to clean up their city-run housing, plant gardens and provide services to each other as a way to supplement their welfare checks.

Nothing breeds hopelessness faster than powerlessness, and charity perpetuates the illusion of powerlessness in its recipients.

Dasani’s resilience and determination, as brought to light in the outstanding reporting of Andrea Elliot and her photographer Ruth Fremson, needs no charity.  All Dasani needs is a fair chance.

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Why are we punishing America’s schoolchildren and their teachers?

Jonathan Kozol in action

Every stakeholder in the current Chicago teachers’ strike who has not visited an inner city Chicago public school should take the time to read Jonathan Kozol’s powerful book Savage Inequalities, which chronicles the author’s explorations of conditions in schools in poor and rich neighborhoods in a series of American cities.

“One would not have thought that children in America would ever have to choose between a teacher or a playground or sufficient toilet paper,” wrote Kozol back in 1991.  “Like grain in a time of famine, the immense resources which the nation does in fact possess go not to the child in the greatest need but to the child of the highest bidder—the child of parents who, more frequently than not, have also enjoyed the same abundance when they were schoolchildren.

“’A caste society,’ wrote U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel 25 years ago, ‘violates the style of American democracy….The nation in effect does not have a truly public school system in a large part of its communities; it has permitted what is in effect a private school system to develop under public auspices….Equality of educational opportunity throughout the nation continues today for many to be more a myth than a reality.’  This statement is as true today as it was at the time when it was written.”

And it remains true twenty years later.

The bedrock issue here is one of inequality, which is measured along multigenerational racial and class lines.  As long as we continue to link public school funding to local property taxes we are going to be perpetuating an entrenched system of race and class segregation, from which there is little chance for escape.

Kozol observed that kids in suburban schools, no matter what state, already have what the CPS teachers are begging for in the urban schools, and then some.

Is it right that kids from wealthy neighborhoods go to college while kids from poor neighborhoods go to jail?

Kids in poor districts need more help from the state, not less, than kids in wealthy districts.

Chicago is not the only place in America where our schools are failing our neediest children, it is just the only place in America right now where the teachers have been pushed so far that they are taking to the streets in protest.

The Chicago teachers’ strike is being presented in the media as a case of selfish, whining teachers walking out on their students because they are greedy for more money, or afraid of being held to high standards.

But when you listen to the teachers, parents and students who have managed to penetrate the media gatekeepers and make their voices heard, what you hear is not greed or shortsightedness, but deep concern for the health of the school system and the welfare of the children.

The teachers are asking for smaller class sizes (would you want your child in a kindergarten class of 45?); improvements in the crumbling physical plants of their schools, including libraries and playgrounds; and support staff for troubled students, including nurses and social workers.  They don’t want their evaluations tied so tightly to how their students perform on standardized tests, and they want to be given seniority preference if they are laid off because of a school closing.

I don’t hear anything unreasonable in these demands.

Has anyone on the editorial boards of the newspapers who have condemned the Chicago teachers’ strike, which include the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and the Washington Post, ever set foot in a Chicago public school?

I know for a fact that Mayor Emmanuel’s children attend private school, as did the Obama girls when they lived in Chicago.

President Obama and business leaders like to exhort American children to study hard and close the achievement gap between our country and others like China and India.

They need to put their money where their mouth is, and give our dedicated teachers the support they need to do the job right.

Sweet stirrings of a new world: fringe politics overturning the barricades

The venerable social critic Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker contrasts the Tea Party with the Occupy movement in this week’s magazine, and finds the Occupy movement lacking in precisely what has made the Tea Party so strong: a willingness to get involved in (and take money from) the established American political parties.

“Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are both protest movements, not interest groups,” Hertzberg says, “and while both are wary, or claim to be, of established political figures and organizations, each welcomes their praise, if not their direction. Both have already earned places in the long, raucous history of American populism. But only one, so far, has earned a place in the history of American government.”

Are we supposed to be proud that the Tea Party has “earned” an infamous place as the launching pad for the new cadre of rightwing Republican zealots who have spent their time in Congress obstinately shooting down and stampeding every effort by President Obama and the Democrats to steer this nation towards a more compassionate and forward-looking political stance?

In its few years of existence, the Tea Party has happily wormed its way into the main arteries of American political power.  Hertzberg offers an apt metaphor of this tea as a new wonder drug, “injected into the scarred veins” of the GOP, which has quickly become addicted to this mainlined source of entranced, stupified frenzy.

“Now the Democrats are hoping the drug might be available as a generic,” Hertzberg continues, eying the Occupy movement as a way to enliven its own moribund political base.

I firmly hope that the Occupy movement does not allow itself to be used in this way by the political establishment, and I think it’s a reasonable, if remarkable, hope.

Remarkable because for so long Americans have been asleep, indifferent or unaware of what Hertzberg calls “the astounding growth of what can fairly be called plutocracy.”

Why it took so long for the sleeping giant of American popular opinion to wake up is a question for historians of the turn of the 21st century to ponder.

Why is it that Americans have been voting against their own class interests so long?  Why is the persistent myth of American equality, liberty and justice for all so teflon-coated?

We all want to believe that our country represents the moral high ground in the world, and that our leaders in government are as invested in upholding our idealism as we are.

Our public education system, which is responsible for the education of a great portion of the 99%, aids and abets this self-delusion by giving students the most doctrinaire and uncritical version of American history and civics, and teaching docility and proficiency at standardized testing above all.

Our media doesn’t help much; with the exception of a few poorly funded but stalwart independent outlets, the vast social landscape of contemporary media is focused at best on distraction, and very often on outright deception.

Under the pressures of this kind of social conditioning, it’s remarkable that the young idealists in the Occupy movement have had such success in galvanizing the country to wake up, shake ourselves, and stare around us with new eyes.

Hertzberg obviously intends his column as a signpost for the Occupy movement, pointing towards Washington D.C. as a more important battleground than Wall Street.  “Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics,” he concludes; “the politics of America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system, the only one we have.”

Here is a glaring example of the kind of civics mis-education that has made our country so hard to reform over the years.

Who says our political system is limited to two parties?  Or at least, to the two parties we have now?

The Republicans and the Democrats have shown themselves to be chronically unable to lead this country out of the morass of special interests and ruthless corporate-driven capitalism that has bulldozed right over our cherished ideals of equality, not to mention the sacred ecological web that forms the real foundation of all our wealth and prosperity.

The Occupy movements are showing their intelligence in shying away from engagement with the established political system.  If anything, their political allies are more likely to be found in those perennial political organizations that have always camped out on the fringes of our electoral parks: the Green Parties or the Rainbow Coalitions.

Remember Ralph Nader, for example?  Remember how Big Media colluded with the established parties in denying so-called “outside” candidates a seat at the table at the televised Presidential debates?

This year the Ralph Naders of the political world have suddenly swelled their ranks dramatically, but without the figurehead of a single leader at the head of the crowd.  As Nader knows only too well, one man at the head of a true opposition movement is open to all the slings and arrows that the establishment can muster.  Even Gore and Kerry have felt the force of the muddy vomit pitched their way out of the far-right Republican swampland.

Far better for the Occupy movements to stay plural and collective, strong in the anonymity of the multitudes.  Those of us who are serious about doing more than simply rearranging the deck chairs on the great hulking Titanic of American politics realize that “America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system” is exactly what has to go.

OK, Hendrik, it may be the only one we HAVE HAD, but now the veil has been torn down, the people are awake, and we realize that another world is possible.  As Arundhati Roy famously put it, “on a clear day, I can hear her breathing.”

That clear day has dawned.

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