It's been interesting to watch the reactions to the death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro over the past few days. Cuban exiles, the ones actually oppressed by the dictator and who fled to America for freedom, seem to be celebrating, while those who never lived under his authoritarian regime sing his praises. Professors talk of his valiant battle against capitalism, while multi-millionaires like Colin Kaepernick extol his "funding" of government programs. But one of my favorite television shows recently explored life in Cuba for those trying to provide for themselves and their families, trying to create opportunities for prosperity. This episode of CNBC's The Profit aired two weeks ago, so check On Demand to see the show in full. It's one that should be watched by everyone in favor of increased regulations and those who don't realize the power of government to squelch creativity, initiative, and success. Here's a little taste...
A fellow teacher and I had a discussion the other day about the odd prevalence of students wanting to start essays with quotes. It seems that they have gotten quite comfortable opening their papers with "So and so once said...insert quote here." I don't know if high school teachers are telling them that this is a good idea or if students aren't sure what else to say at the top of the page, but I have a general rule in my writing courses that we should almost never start essays by quoting someone else. I say almost never because, as with most things related to English, there isn't always a rule that applies to all situations. If a particular student is particularly sharp and has a very particular reason for using a particular quote, then I'm open to it, and other teachers probably should be as well. But here's my main reason for outlawing this introduction: it's your paper, and we want to hear from you.
You as the author have tremendous power. You have produced a work of value (hopefully), and you have a captive audience. Your ideas are literally right in front of our faces. And you want to relinquish that power by letting someone else step on your toes and have the first word? No way!
You are in charge. Whether you are making an argument or explaining how to do something or are just offering some interesting information, you are the boss of that topic. We need to hear your voice right from the start. Tom Brady doesn't walk onto the field for a game-winning drive and decide to let someone else throw the ball for a while. He is the quarterback on the field, and you are the quarterback on the page. Be clear, be strong, and get your ideas into our brains.
We certainly can use other people's words during other parts of the essay, as research support or as points of comparison to our language, but the first person we need to hear from is you. So, the next time you sit down to write an essay, put the borrowed quotes aside for a while, and write like a boss by running the show from the very first sentence.
And by the way, in case you were wondering, the very same rule applies to the conclusion of the essay as well. You should always have the first and last word.
A great reminder from one of American literature's most famous voices that we shouldn't give thanks on only one day a year...
When we discuss presidential history, we often ascribe the highest status to those leaders who “accomplished” the most. They led us during wartime or depression, enacted new policies or expanded American influence. They left a signature upon the office, as well as the nation. But what if we’ve been measuring presidential “success” all wrong? What if some of those “accomplishments” were never in the presidential job description in the first place?
Historian Brion McClanahan flips our understanding of what makes a great president in his new book 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America (and four who tried to save her). McClanahan starts his analysis from a pretty crazy perspective—get this: the presidency should follow the rules of the Constitution. Therefore, many of the leaders in our nation’s history, in order to “accomplish” things, acted outside of their legal authority. McClanahan ultimately offers the unique thesis that maybe we should be many judging presidents inversely from previously considered assessments: those who did the most may be our some of our worst, and those who did the least may be some of our best.
The strongest aspect of this book is its commitment to a principled stance. Readers may not like his particular position, but at least he is consistent. And that consistency makes him quite fair to all political parties—he doesn’t pick sides. The Constitution is the only side he cares about. Therefore, presidents of all stripes are criticized, and in the final chapters, presidents from both sides of the aisle are praised and held up as hopeful models for future governing.
What readers will notice in many chapters is how similar the motives are for executive power. Though the Constitution clearly states that the president is not a legislator, time and again throughout our history certain leaders have claimed an ambiguity of the legal language or a privilege behind the elected office to propose actions beyond their intended authority. And the same ideas continue to reappear. See if you can guess who said the following:
“Our minimum wages are far too low....Some of our natural resources are still being wasted....Proper medical care is so expensive that it is out of reach of the great majority of our citizens....Our schools, in many localities, are utterly inadequate....Our democratic ideals are often thwarted by prejudice and intolerance.”
Barack Obama? Hillary Clinton? Elizabeth Warren? Bernie Sanders? Were these arguments part of the most recent election cycle? Nope. This quote is from the 1949 State of the Union address by President Truman. This reminds us that no matter how much money is spent on these initiatives, and no matter how much people talk about plans for improvement, it will never be enough. These arguments will be with us forever. And none of them are part of presidential responsibility according to the Constitution.
In contrast to the urge for overreach of so many of our leaders, McClanahan offers some differing views by those who more closely adhered to Constitutional law. Regarding how the government spends exorbitant amounts of money, one president said, “The public Treasury, which should only exist as a conduit conveying the people’s tribute to its legitimate objects of expenditure, becomes a hoarding place for money needlessly withdrawn from trade and the people’s use, thus crippling our national energies, suspending our country’s development, preventing investment in productive enterprise, threatening financial disturbance, and inviting schemes of public plunder.” Did some crazy, Tea Party, anti-government, right wing extremist say this? Actually, it was Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1887.
Republican Calvin Coolidge, in discussing the role of government in people’s personal lives, said in 1923, “There is no method by which we can either be relieved of the results of our own folly or be guaranteed a successful life. There is an inescapable personal responsibility for the development of character, of industry, of thrift, and of self-control. These do not come from the Government, but from the people themselves.” Coolidge was following the Constitution, which guarantees people’s right and obligation to take care of their own lives and not rely on government for everything. What a weird idea, right?
Readers may be surprised to find some of their most beloved icons on the “screwed up America” list, and I won’t tell you who they are, but that is exactly what we need in our study of history. We must not place people on pedestals without closely examining their character and adherence to both moral and legal standards, specifically those founded in perhaps the world’s most important document, the U.S. Constitution. Whether they have been Democrats or Republicans, presidents from all perspectives have had positive and negative influences on the development of our nation. And McClanahan fairly critiques all of them. If you are looking for a new way—and, yet, a comfortably traditional way— of understanding the role of executive office, give this book (and our Constitution) a try.
Back in the late 1980s and early 90s, Vinny Pazienza was one of the best boxers in the world. The street-wise kid from Rhode Island became the lightweight and then junior middleweight champion. Then, at the height of his career, he was involved in a brutal car accident that left him with a broken neck and a fear that he may never walk again. In just 13 months, Pazienza (“The Pazmanian Devil”) was back in the ring and competing for yet another title. His remarkable story is portrayed in the convincing new film, Bleed For This, with the youthful Miles Teller as the hard-as-nails fighter.
Teller actually looks more comfortable in the ring than Mark Wahlberg, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michael B. Jordan—all actors with more obvious athleticism—in each of their recent boxing films. Teller has the strut and the mouth, and he moves well on the canvas. Who would’ve thought that the star of a few moderately successful teen films and a movie about an elite conservatory musician would be a worthy tough guy? Teller’s partner in the ring, Aaron Eckhart (as trainer Kevin Rooney) is superb, as he disappears into the role in his first scene. As the world-weary drunk who bucks convention and suggests Pazienza move up to a more natural weight class, Eckhart proves his mettle as a corner man and shows us some acting chops that have been missing from his other roles.
And that is where the strength of the film lies: its actors. Because much of the film has Pazienza in a spine stabilizing halo, the action and intensity standard in so many boxing films is subdued, and characters are allowed to develop. The pace is a bit slow after the accident, but it’s well done. Director Ben Younger takes on the required boxing clichés as well as he can, but the film departs from those comforting tropes in a few important ways. I’m not saying they are quality choices, but they are choices nonetheless. The ubiquitous training montage receives quieter treatment as Pazienza delicately and secretly lifts weights in his basement. There is no real love interest to spur the fighter forward; Pazienza is his own motivator. The film’s ending is almost anti-climactic, as there is minimal musical presence, and an awkward denouement, though valuable in its message, removes much of the excitement we had been hoping to release. With many cutaway reaction shots during the fight scenes, we often lose the emotional impact of being in the ring, of taking those punches with our protagonist. Younger, who directed the excellently edgy Boiler Room back in 2000, may have missed some opportunities to tease out our suspense and enthusiasm, and one can only wonder how a different director may have tackled this biopic.
The theme of the film is clear and powerful. Pazienza tells Rooney, who pleads with him to rest and heal and think about a life other than boxing, “The thing that scares me about quitting? It’s so easy.” He’s right. Anyone can quit. It doesn’t take talent, or toughness, or intelligence, or ambition to quit. And Pazienza’s reason for living, rightly or wrongly, is fighting. There is nothing that will stop him, not even a frightening and tragic car crash. We may think he’s crazy, but he sure does prove a point.
Bleed For This is ultimately a better story than it is a movie. But like Pazienza himself, though it may not be the greatest ever, it’s certainly respectable.
Many are raising a concern over the proliferation of "fake news" these days, particularly in light of the surprising election results of last week. But those calling for more regulation of what gets written, posted to social media, or disseminated in other ways need to be not only concerned about such a proposal, but to look at history.
Benjamin Franklin, one of the wisest people in American history, was a huge fake news writer! As someone who teaches Franklin's writings, I love showing my students the many pieces he published (usually under a host of different pseudonyms) with the purpose of raising legitimate concerns not discussed in other public forums, criticizing those in power, or simply to give readers a dose of colonial humor. Did Franklin completely fabricate certain stories? Absolutely, yes! Was Franklin successful? Of course! Did it harm the country? No way!
Yes, the media landscape is more than a little different than it was in 18th century Philadelphia, but the reason for publishing remains the same: give readers ideas to consider. Whether in objective journalism or subjective editorials, more content is better. We know it can be confusing to sift through endless articles, links, blogs, tv channels, and tweets. But less is never the answer when it comes to information accessibility. Even if it's bad information, it's up to us as smart readers, thinkers, and consumers to seek out alternatives for comparison.
As I teach my young writers, a good researcher never only reads one source. If he is truly interested in learning something new, he will investigate other options. Censorship, even if it seems logical and worthwhile, is never the answer. Even amid the mess, your audience will find you--that's how freedom works. Write something better. Be more convincing. Have a stronger, clearer voice.
Take a lesson from Benjamin Franklin, one of the most prolific American writers of all time. He wanted people as educated as possible, and sometimes great education is gained from satire, or even completely inaccurate information. If you're frustrated at what people write, do as Franklin did: write more.
There are people on Earth, right at this moment, who don’t have words for colors. They literally think blue and green are the same thing because they don’t have two separate words for them. Some don’t have words for numbers. Some don’t have words that indicate past or future verb tenses. Consequently, even after millennia of human advancement, some groups haven’t progressed because they haven’t created words that would allow them to progress. Imagine how difficult life would be if your brain couldn’t comprehend the difference between five berries and twenty berries. How do you trade or keep track of supplies? Imagine not having words for what may happen next month. How do you plan anything or work together as a group? Some cultures who don’t have past tenses are lucky to remember a single grandparent out of four, since age and history have no meaning. How do you develop long-term relationships or learn from previous mistakes? The human brain creates its world by giving it words. For many, life itself is only as good as the language available to explain it.
So is it language that defines civilization? Or is it science, the ability to discover such complexities of life, that defines us? This is the debate that is played out in the new science fiction film, Arrival. When 12 alien ships suddenly appear in various locations around the globe, each nation must figure out how to deal with its intruder individually and determine the intent of the collective. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor and translation consultant who is asked by the U.S. military to decipher communication from the visitors. Physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) is brought in to provide scientific perspective. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) attempt to follow political protocol while uncovering the mystery of why the aliens have arrived and what they may want from us. As the world frantically awaits the potential destruction of life as we know it, Banks takes time to learn from the visitors, and in the process, learns something even more important about herself.
Many alien invasion stories throughout cinematic history have aimed for political parallels, and this one does as well. With questions so present in our minds of how America should respond to refugees, immigrants, terrorists, or anyone else that may come to our shores, Arrival offers a clear message for confronting Others. Communication first, rather than force, should be our modus operandi. The allegory in place here borders on heavy-handed, but it’s understandable.
It is in the way that Banks approaches her task of reaching out to the aliens that makes this film so unique, and so special. Banks shows her colleagues, and the audience, the value of language—how words and phrases change our perceptions of reality. So Banks works to speak to, and listen to, the aliens. She begins like a parent would with a child, with concrete words such as “human” and “walk,” and then moves to more complex elements like pronouns, prepositions, and words that have multiple meanings. The film’s tension is increased when the word “weapon” appears, and we have to consider that the word could imply a threat of violence, but it may also simply mean a tool. Recognizing the aliens’ meaning of the word, and this applies in our own lives, can be the difference between life and death. Taking the sci-fi genre out of the realm of deafening explosions and complex spaceships and into a lesson on grammar is daring, to say the least, but it is a brilliant deconstruction of not only the film genre, but of human interaction itself.
Director Denis Villenueve (Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy) is known for pushing audiences to explore moral and psychological questions, to reconcile their sense of reality with a world that doesn’t always match their perceptions. The film avoids the spectacle of the modern sci-fi genre—no intergalactic battles, no harrowing escapes or cartoonish CGI. The special effects employed are effective, yet subtle, and are not for visual amazement, but for advancing character. Even the aliens here (called heptapods), though we never see a face or anything resembling anthropomorphic qualities, seem to have personalities that pierce through the communication barrier and effectively display the “friend or foe” dilemma of the film.
Villenueve focuses on Adams’s face more than any other image, inviting us to witness her mental struggle, as well as participate with her in solving this existential mystery. Adams is our conduit to this other world and into our own. We are shown that Banks has lost a daughter to illness in recent years, and she continues to carry the pain with her. Her memories aid in her connection to the aliens, the passion for reaching out, learning, and understanding written across her face. And her present reality is shaped by events on the timeline of life. She must determine the meaning of free will and what consequences her choices hold. Banks’s struggle is our struggle, and Adams allows us to identify with her on a fundamentally human level. Adams continues to show herself as one of the best actresses in Hollywood today, and her quiet portrayal of a desperate mother/researcher raises our respect for Banks in ways that an overly expressive performance never could. She is able to say more with a longing look than with any tearful breakdown. Adams, surrounded by males in a traditionally male-dominated genre, carries the film on her shoulders effortlessly.
The film does fall into some unfortunate stereotypes, with some clear socio-political messages mixed in: there is a comment about a particular brand of news coverage, a caricature of talk-radio, and the persistent theme of military and political personnel only wanting to blow stuff up. That only intellectuals can save the world is an increasingly common vision in both Hollywood and beyond. The sad irony, of course, is that if the aliens of Arrival greeted us with laser cannons (as in Independence Day, War of the Worlds, etc.) instead of ink blots, those same intellectuals would scream at the failure of the military to protect us. Villenueve doesn’t dwell on these elements, but they are hard to ignore.
And there is the matter of whether the theory Banks presents fits with scientific reality. Saying there are some plot “holes” might be a little harsh, but there are certainly elements that are left unexplained. This linguistic equation is underdeveloped in some respects, and there is a glitch in the narrative that nearly ruins this story (for me, anyway), but much of the film’s flaws are forgivable due to the intent of the endeavor and the execution of the production. Renner feels underused here, but Whitaker and Stuhlbarg are solid, as they continue to be two of the best character actors working today.
I appreciate a film that tries hard to offer something new, especially in a well-worn genre. This film demands a fair amount of mental stamina from the audience—it is rather slow moving and the physics and linguistics implications will rattle brains long afterward—but it is well worth the journey. Arrival is a fraction away from being one of the best films I’ve seen in the last two years. It is smart, challenging, and brave enough to tell a science fiction story with character and nuance rather than showy visuals. And it gives us the ultimate reason for studying the Humanities: they transcend humanity.
On this day in 1851, Herman Melville's masterwork, Moby Dick, was published in New York by Harper & Brothers. Though the quest for determining the Great American Novel will never cease, my vote has always gone to this book. I usually tell my students when teaching it, if there were some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe in which all books were destroyed, and we had to save only one in order to recreate the American literary canon, I would save Moby Dick. It has everything: adventure, science, religion, philosophy, economics, sociology, history, and almost anything else you can think of. It explores themes of good and evil, friendship, humanity versus nature, and questions of purpose and place in the world. It is everything that other books try to be.
Yes, it is long and tedious in places, but it is done with great intent, and that is quite different than books that are long and tedious on accident. It was intended to be the definitive book on the sea; it ended up being the definitive book on books. The book itself is a monster, and like a sea behemoth on the deck of the Pequod, Melville's life experiences and immense knowledge of whaling are splayed open on the pages. The first paragraph is perhaps my favorite opening paragraph in any novel. It is immediately funny and filled with an identifiable yearning in the hearts of all people--to escape, to explore, to endeavor beyond ourselves and our circumstances. The sea calls out to Ishmael, and we all want to respond.
Like many pieces of literature in history, along with other forms of art, this book went unnoticed for many years. It was a huge flop until after Melville's death, when it was suddenly rediscovered and studied more closely in schools and among the general public. During his lifetime, Melville only received about $1,000 in total earnings from the book's publication. I wonder what he'd think of it now.
Overcome your fears, and take a crack at Moby Dick during your holiday break.
Let me begin this letter by stating my own frustration with the recent presidential election. Mr. Trump was not my preference for the office, and I understand much of the frustration spreading across the country and in our universities. This election has been unlike any other, and everyone will have to deal with the shock for quite some time.
But I'm even more bothered by the reactions to the election that have presented themselves in classrooms, specifically by teachers. Yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education ran pieces in which professors the following morning "didn't know how to get up and teach" their respective courses. Another professor "spent most of the day figuring out how she would face her class." One English teacher was supposed to introduce Emily Dickinson this week, and instead she "felt an obligation to create a safe space for her students to talk about the election." Funny, I don't remember Emily Dickinson being a part of the Trump campaign. The teacher decided to probe students' emotions and ask "questions about how socioeconomic groups were dealing with the results of the voting." And she "felt a responsibility to start more robust discussions of race, racism, Islamophobia, and misogyny." As someone who teaches the poetry of Ms. Dickinson, I'm assured Islamophobia was never on her radar.
Inside Higher Ed also ran pieces about distraught teachers. One professor said, “I don’t feel I can have or lead a civil discussion about the election. … I decided not to lecture or follow my original plans for today's classes." She also sent messages to students to "hang in there, do the minimum, don't overdo today, and go home as soon as you can." Because whenever life gets frustrating, it's always a good idea to do the minimum and go home early.
Reading of these teachers in our nation's higher education institutions makes me ashamed to consider myself a colleague.
These teachers claim that they are placing their students' needs to vent frustrations above academic priorities. And this may be a valid perspective--outside of the classroom. Unless you teach political science, government, and maybe history, diving into controversial political discussions is probably an inappropriate use of precious class time and even more precious tuition dollars. Chat after class, invite students to your office, go hang out in the cafeteria--these are great opportunities for sociopolitical contextualizing of current events. And it is this access to different minds and voices, along with the freedom to express a variety of views, that make college such a valuable part of our national fabric. But this type of reactionary rhetoric and endless navel-gazing only hinders our more immediate purpose as educators and diminishes our respectability in the broader culture.
If I were a parent spending $40,000 per year to have my child educated in literature, biology, computer science, or other fields, I would be mortified to learn professional educators don't feel like showing up to their place of employment (likely funded by taxpayers, by the way) and teaching the content for which the students signed up to learn. If my child were to go to a job interview at a marketing firm and have to tell a potential boss, "I didn't really learn how to run an advertising campaign in my business classes, but I did get a chance to talk about my emotions a lot," I would demand my money back.
A large portion of the country doesn't have a very high opinion of us. They say we are intellectual elites who aren't really governed by the rest of the working world. They say we lack ideological diversity. (And as IHE admits, there are nearly twelve times as many people on one side of political debate as the other.) They say colleges have become venues for ideological indoctrination. When we spend time lamenting a particular political result, and it interferes with our professional performance, aren't we proving all those people right? That we care less about education, skill development, and career preparation than we do about displaying and protecting our own worldviews?
The best way to approach political frustrations is to play the opposite game. Let's imagine if back in 2008, students across the country showed up to class angry about Barack Obama winning the presidency over John McCain. What if they were concerned about his domestic and foreign policies, that healthcare costs were going to rise and terrorist cells would multiply (both of which actually ended up happening); or that they were scared of his plans to "fundamentally transform America" because he and his wife "have never been proud of our country." Would we have stopped our classes and talked through students' emotions? Would we have consoled them if they cried tears of disappointment? We probably would've said one of three things: "Stop whining--your racism is showing." "What a new president says and what he actually does is rarely the same because he has to deal with Congress and a variety of other people." "He just got elected two days ago, so let's wait and see how all this develops." From what we see on websites like the Chronicle and IHE, however, along with the countless twitter feeds that have been circulating, we would never have given voice to those students' concerns or sympathize with teachers who didn't want to get out of bed the next morning. If Mrs. Clinton would have been elected this week, would we provide comfort to Trump supporters, create safe spaces, or open dialogues with them?
Mrs. Clinton said in her concession speech, "We owe [Trump] an open mind and a chance to lead." President Obama said this week, “We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading this country. Everybody is sad when their side loses an election. But the day after, we have to remember that we’re actually on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We’re Americans first. We’re patriots first.” Whether those sentiments are genuine or not can only be known by the two them, respectively. But are we in academics forging forward with optimism? Are we living up to the "tolerant" and "open-minded" ideals we espouse so often?
As professionals, our job is to show up every day and do our best to provide students the information and skills they need to be successful in this world. Certainly there are many of you who believe these lamentations are helping to do just that. But when we behave in one way, without ever considering an opposing view, we are demonstrating the monolithic nature of campus ideologies. When we constantly hear that the divide between political beliefs is larger than ever, these actions only exacerbate that problem. The country is witnessing, at our universities, the very hegemony we claim to be struggling against.
I understand there are concerns about what a Trump presidency will look like, and that there may eventually be policies that adversely affect both students and teachers. But let us not be distracted from our daily calling. As an English professor, I believe in English, not politicians. I believe in the power of language and the beauty of literature. I believe in well structured essays that make clear arguments. I believe in uncovering the humanity within the pages of history, how people of all types have overcome hardships, lived virtuously, and inspired others. I believe that the study of English transcends the debates that divide us and offers us opportunities to achieve our better selves.
I have no problem getting out of bed each day, no matter who is in office. In fact, I haven't uttered a word of the election results in any of my courses, and all of them have run smoothly. When something stressful comes up in my life, I look forward to putting a smile on my face and saying, "Good morning everybody, let's dive into some Faulkner/Cather/Douglass/Marquez/Austen today!" Students take their cues from their teachers. If teachers are focused on the task at hand, their students will follow. If teachers are the cause of distraction, their students will also follow. I will continue to do my job teaching reading, writing, logic, literature, communication, and research. And I don't need to think about either of this year's terribly flawed candidates to do so.
We are the adults. Let's get to work.
It was a weird and wild Election Night, and many of us are bleary eyed from watching the coverage of one of wackiest events in American history. We now live in a world in which a man with no record in political office and no military service, and whose only accomplishment in the last ten years is hosting a tv game show, is the most powerful person on the planet.
Since this isn't a political blog, what can an English Champion take away from this interesting cultural turn?
One of the daily battles I face with my students when they write papers is to avoid making generalizations. I find that my students, who abhor labels in their personal lives, often, with complete obliviousness to the irony, love labeling others, particularly those with whom they tend to disagree. "Older generations fight against equality and want America to return to the past." That is an actual quote from a recent student paper. Such a claim assumes all older people (without defining what "older" means) behave monolithically and that all young people hold the implicit righteous position. Offering prejudgments and broad presumptions about people is a bad way to go through life, and it's a terrible way to be a research writer. And this election was filled with sweeping assumptions about the candidates themselves and about how voters would actually respond on the ballot at crunch time.
We were all so wrong in so many ways, myself included. I assumed that people would get in the polling booth and, even though they didn't particularly like either candidate, turn to someone they at least recognized as having political experience. Though some of the polling appeared to be close, I thought the Trump support was mostly hype, and Hillary Clinton would win in a landslide. We all make guesses, but it's when we view the world entirely by way of those guesses that we can get ourselves into trouble. Being an ideologue is a tricky habit to break, and it leads us to view our fellow humans without their innate complexity. It lumps everyone together and leads to accusations and assumptions. We think we know people when we probably don't.
Here are some things we generalized about in this election:
Donald Trump is a misogynist. (read: Women should hate him.)
Most assumed women would not only support Clinton as a show of female unity, but that they would never vote for Trump, who has said and done truly vile things toward women. The facts? America's largest voting bloc, white women, voted as a majority for Trump. While Clinton won women as a whole, she basically won by the same margin as Obama--the female candidate didn't extend the female vote. Ultimately, women didn't much care that Trump is a pig as much as we thought they would.
Donald Trump discriminates against Latinos. (read: Latinos should hate him.)
Trump ran his campaign on building a wall on the border, deporting millions of illegals, and seeming to push away Latin voters as often as possible. The facts? Trump actually did better with Latinos than Mitt Romney did four years ago. Yes, Clinton still won by a wide margin, but Trump is not as despised as everyone thinks.
Donald Trump is a racist. (read: Blacks should hate him.)
Trump tried desperately to appeal to African Americans, but no one thought it would make a difference. But, as above, Trump did better among this group than Romney did. Again, minorities have long been committed Democrats, but Trump cut into that discrepancy more than anyone would have guessed.
Republicans are the party of the rich and elites. (read: Working-class people should hate him.)
Trump is a billionaire, and he acts like it. But what does "elite" really mean and who is included in that group? The facts? Clinton won wealthy voters, and she also won highly educated voters (those with graduate school experience). This, to the surprise of many, is a common trend that no one talks about. "Elites"--often those who are smart and rich--tend to vote Democrat, and that once again held true this time around. Though Clinton did well with working class people, Trump did enough to pull out the win.
Money ruins politics. (read: Cronies control elections and government policy.)
Hillary Clinton and her husband are the most influential, connected, and wealthy people in the world of politics. That is not an exaggeration. They are the essence of cronyism. She had the richest donors, the most famous celebrities, and the strongest super-pacs at her disposal. And she just got beaten somewhat handily by a guy who had a fraction of her resources and staffing. Perhaps people speak louder than money.
Christians are moralists who dislike those with differences. (read: Religious people should hate Trump.)
Trump is a casino-owning, gay marriage-supporting, thrice-married, foul-mouthed bully who should have no appeal for Christian voters. The facts? Evangelicals voted for Trump at a higher rate than they did for Romney. That's right--the most clean-living guy to probably ever run for president (solid family man who doesn't drink, swear, or speak ill of anyone) did worse than Trump with religious value voters. Christians proved in this election that they judge major values more than personal character flaws. They considered more deeply issues like abortion and future Supreme Court nominees than the superficialities of the candidate. Turns out Christians might be quite accepting of people who don't agree with them all the time. We'll have to see if that was a wise decision on their part, but it's interesting nonetheless.
And the most incorrect generalization of the election:
Republicans won in 2016. (read: Blame them for the results and the consequences to follow.)
Yes, there were a lot of red states on the map last night, but here's the thing: Republicans did exactly what they've always done, and in fact, they even did less. The numbers are still coming in, but it looks like Trump will end up short of Romney's total in the popular vote. That means there wasn't a groundswell of energized Republicans who slammed the door on Hillary Clinton. Republicans turned out less than they did four years ago. The deciding number in this election wasn't Trump's total; it was Clinton's. Clinton received several million fewer votes than Obama did in 2012, especially in those vital swing states. If Democrats would've simply supported her the way they did Obama, she would have won big. Republicans didn't win this election; Democrats lost it.
Like many Americans, I don't have much respect for the winner this year, and I will go through the next four years wondering how in the heck it came to this. But the world will go on, and my life probably won't be overly affected by this election. The lesson here, for the country and for students out there, is don't make broad assumptions, and definitely don't let them govern your daily lives. Don't allow your worldview to be distorted by vague generalities. You don't know as much about people as you think you do. And you shouldn't disregard the incredible uniqueness of each individuals by judging them as faceless blocs who can't make up their own minds. Perhaps being so wildly wrong this election will encourage journalists, pundits, and other media voices to tone down the rhetoric and generalizations, and simply let people make decisions they think are best for their own lives.
Thank goodness it's all over. But then again, I'm assuming the race for 2020 will begin by the end of the week. Has Elizabeth Warren declared her candidacy yet?
Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of soldier Desmond Doss and his conviction not to carry a weapon into war. The film's brutality is juxtaposed with Doss's respect for human life, showing us that there are always two sides to every conflict and how often our judgments of others can be wrong. While the goal of war is to win by killing and destroying, another victory can be obtained by preserving life.
Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a young southerner who decides to enlist in the army in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack and the increasing U.S. involvement in WWII. Doss wants to participate, as he feels it unfair that other boys are off to fight in his place, so he joins with the goal of becoming a medic on the battlefield. Doss is also newly married to nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), and he knows that leaving for war carries a high probability that he won't return. Because his platoon doesn't trust him to fight valiantly and protect his fellow soldiers, Doss faces resistance before ever meeting a real enemy. His commanding officers, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), try to get Doss to quit and return home, but Doss stands his ground, always refusing to pick up a rifle. While serving on the front lines in Okinawa, at a point of insurgence called Hacksaw Ridge, Doss and his unit face an unrelenting Japanese force. This is where his morality is put to the ultimate test, as he remains defenseless throughout the entire bloody battle. But when he single-handedly saves the lives of 75 fellow soldiers during the fight, by treating their wounds and dragging them to safety and toward a return home, Doss becomes the hero of his unit and symbol for all who believe in peaceful service.
Doss's religious faith, which has guided him to a belief in non-violence, is challenged throughout the film, and we are able to see how such a strict code must be enacted in a world that rarely offers or allows for moral certitude. We see him struggle to develop relationships and convince others that his belief is not craziness or cowardice, but a true commitment to a life-affirming principle. Garfield shines most in his performance during Doss's court martial for refusing to follow orders. His reasoning is heartfelt and logical, and even if we have doubts about his ability to fulfill his faith, we are convinced he will gladly live and die to try.
The film's high point is when the unit is mowed down by the Japanese who have secured an elevated and hidden position. Many of Doss's mates are killed instantly, but those wounded are left behind. As the unit retreats down the cliff, Doss stays to rescue the fallen. And he does so in a clever fashion that shows not only his bravery, but his intelligence as well. He maintains the prayer throughout the night, "Please Lord, just help me save one more." This is certainly the most incredible and inspiring part of the film, and it makes up for most of the problems found along the rest of the way.
Like many war stories, there are quite a few cliches here. There's the obligatory "We're gonna get you home" lines, the bully in the unit who is a bully for absolutely no reason, as well as the roll call of diverse infantrymen--with names like Tex and Hollywood and accents from New Jersey and the Old South--just to remind us that people from all over the country fought side by side. There's also some clunky dialogue, a few odd cuts where we wonder if there would have been a better take to use, and pacing that feels forced, as the first half of the film covers many years, while the last half covers mere days. Yes, background is important, but the film could trim twenty minutes off the front and wouldn't be worse for it.
Ultimately, besides Doss, the most important person in the creation of this film is Gibson. He's tackled violence and faith brilliantly in his other films, but this one is not quite up to that level of quality. Gibson has never been a subtle director, but his guidance here feels so intent on showing us violence that he seems to assume we wouldn't understand Doss's peaceful stance without it. The action is gruesome, and perhaps necessarily so. But one has to wonder how this film could've been handled by a director with more nuance. I don't know if it would better, but I think it could be different in a good way.
The message of the film is what viewers should take away, rather than any ideas on acting or direction. There is an inherent conflict in the film that must be reconciled. This is a war film that emphasizes not fighting, while simultaneously showing us that defeating evil can only be done through violence (as the conclusion of the film clearly shows). Doss's respect for life is admirable, but as one character rightfully tells him early in the film, you don't win wars by not fighting. However, I think the valuable takeaway from Hacksaw Ridge is how we view service. Doss shows us that everyone can serve, even if one doesn't believe in killing. His unshakable commitment to faith, and also to the country, is an important one that should inspire us all. It's understandable to disapprove of war, and we should all respect human life. But it's how we demonstrate those views that can shape the world. Fighting is sometimes necessary, but firm principles are always necessary.
I was watching an old episode of Seinfeld this week, and an odd thought hit me: do I love this show because it is legitimately funny, or does my nostalgia for it make me think it's funnier than it actually is? After all, my teenage years were formed by watching the show every Thursday night and then discussing it with my buddies the next morning at school. Am I simply reliving that joy and over-estimating its quality? The episode I was watching is nearly 25 years old. Virtually no other sit-com from that era still makes me laugh the way Seinfeld does. Try it yourself--go watch some old sit-coms from previous decades. They are mostly terrible and leave you thinking, "Why in the world did I used to find that funny?" But Seinfeld breaks through those historical barriers, at least for me. And the episode I saw the other night, and specifically this scene from it, proves why.
This scene does something remarkable, I believe. It is not only funny for Seinfeld aficionados; it's objectively funny, which is incredibly rare. Any person would fine this humorous, regardless of other comic tastes. The hypothetical premise, deciding to turn in a friend for murder, is based in seriousness, yet we know such a question is absurd on its face because no sane person would ever actually contemplate a potential murder and subsequently have this conversation. But the humor of this scene isn't just based in absurdity. We see that by moving from the hypothetical ("would you?") and its applied subjunctive verb to the present tense ("you are supposed to be") and then to the past tense ("I thought I did"), an entire history of this murderous plan has played itself out grammatically. The speed at which it moves from casual conversation starter to stressful reality (that, in their minds, has already happened) heightens the absurdity from broadly silly to specifically funny.
The specific nature of the scene's humor is further amplified by the characters of Jerry and Kramer. As we see George exit, we already know he is morally ambiguous with most of his life decisions. Therefore, his commitment to abet a murderer isn't really a surprise. Jerry is often caught in the middle of his friends' moral dilemmas, and he often plays the neutral stand-in for the audience to relate to. But here, he appears to be more in agreement with George, which surprises us. And our surprise is further enhanced because Kramer is often so unpredictable, we are never quite sure where he will stand. Yet, in this scene, he is the most morally responsible of the bunch. Since he is such an eccentric, seeing him as the upstanding citizen and abiding by a firm morality is another level of absurdity. We don't expect it, so it's funny. And it gives yet another layer to the complexity of Kramer's odd persona.
The use of language and characterization is brilliantly played out in this scene, and it's what makes most of the Seinfeld episodes so endlessly watchable, even after all these years. So I've determined that my nostalgia has not gotten the best of me, in this case anyway. Seinfeld is still the funniest show in tv history.
My main research interest has to do with the intersection of literature/film and economics. Rarely do I pay attention for opportunities to explore this dynamic in reality television, but that is just what happened last Thursday night on A&E’s 60 Days In. The show is based on several civilians volunteering to be admitted as prisoners in order to gain inside information for the sheriff and prison administrators. On last week’s episode, an important economic scenario presented itself.
One of the secret plants, Ryan, has been running a store where he trades daily food trays for commissary items (various snacks that are purchased from the outside). He observes another inmate, Justin, who has gone into debt with a fellow prisoner, JoJo. Justin has been borrowing food and is defaulting on his agreement to pay JoJo back. JoJo is now threatening violence upon Justin. As Emerson warned, “A man in debt is a slave.” Ben Franklin repeatedly wrote similar words. Justin, knowing he is running out of options, as he can’t figure out a way to repay and will surely face a brutal beating very soon, decides to ask Ryan for advice.
Ryan has been warned not to get involved with the personal dealings of the real inmates, as it could put him in danger as well. However, Ryan is pretty sharp (and more than a little brash) and decides to offer a few words to Justin anyway. His tip is right out of the free-market economics playbook. He tells Justin to restrict his eating for a few days and give his food to JoJo in an effort to pay back what he owes as quickly as possible. The sooner he can get out of debt, the sooner he can resume a somewhat normal existence in the jail. This will take discipline and sacrifice to basically survive on water and at most one small meal per day, but the ends justify the means. After all, he might be beaten within an inch of his life, so going hungry for a while is well worth it. Ryan has revealed the foundation of capitalism: it’s not spending; it’s saving. The more you save, the more opportunity is created for market efficiency when capital is invested at a later time.
We may be thinking that we have to eat on a regular basis to survive, that, like animals, our instincts rule our behavior. “But,” as Ludwig von Mises writes in Human Action, “it is different with man. Man is not a being who cannot help yielding to the impulse that most urgently asks for satisfaction. Man is a being capable of subduing his instincts, emotions, and impulses; he can rationalize his behavior. He renounces the satisfaction of a burning impulse in order to satisfy other desires. He is not a puppet of his appetites. A man does not...devour every piece of food that entices him....What distinguishes man from beasts is precisely that he adjusts his behavior deliberately. Man is the being that has inhibitions, that can master his impulses and desires, that has power to suppress instinctive desires and impulses” (16).
Humans always make choices. And making tough choices in the short term leads to better circumstances in the long term. “The postponement of consumption makes it possible to direct action toward temporally remoter ends,” Mises writes. “The sacrifice made by restricting consumption in nearer periods of the future is henceforth not only counterbalanced by the expectation of consuming the saved goods in remoter periods; it also opens the way to a more ample supply in the remoter future and to the attainment of goods which could not be procured at all without this sacrifice” (487).
Ryan is right: if you want to get out of debt, serious sacrifices have to be made. Being free from debt, and the punishment that accompanies it, is more valuable than whatever pleasure you may receive by satisfying your immediate desires.
Obtaining loans and going into debt is certainly common out here in the free world, but it’s just as common in America’s jails. Gaining credit from a lender was, throughout history, more of a private affair than it is today. Individual lenders and small banks only lent to those they knew carried minimal risk. They usually knew the person seeking funds, were familiar with their employment, knew their family or background, or at least knew someone who could vouch for them. As Henry Hazlitt writes in Economics in One Lesson, “Each private lender risks his own funds.... When people risk their own funds they are usually careful in their investigations to determine the adequacy of the assets pledged and the business acumen and honesty of the borrower” (42). With massive banks and credit agencies today, that risk increases exponentially because there is a decrease in personal accountability to the lender. If a faceless entity doesn’t know you, you don’t feel much pressure to pay them back. And that’s how we get financial crises like we experienced a few years ago.
It’s interesting how a prison actually handles loans and debt more rationally than we do on the outside. If you knew that the scary guy in the next cell was going to physically harm you if you didn’t promptly repay him what he has loaned you, you would be very careful about your monetary habits. And that is a smart way to stay alive. Yet in the free world, we just assume money will be given to us, and if we can’t pay, we simply sign a foreclosure or declare bankruptcy, and we often go on leading lives of financial recklessness. Sometimes being accountable hurts, but that’s what makes societies function. Strangely, as 60 Days In showed us last week, the most foolish among us—our nation’s criminals—are actually quite astute at regulating financial matters.
The next episode of 60 Days In airs tomorrow night.
Dr. Spivey is a college English professor and lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.