With a dominant performance in the Super Tuesday elections, Donald Trump seems more unstoppable than ever in his quest for the Republican nomination. We assembled our writers for a roundtable discussion tackling the Trump phenomenon. What does the unprecedented rise of real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump mean for politics in our time?
Can Trump’s rise be explained as simply the result of a party base exhausted after fifteen years of foreign militarism and domestic economic stagnation? But why have they embraced the xenophobic nationalism of Trump rather than, say, the socially democratic message of Bernie Sanders? Are Trump’s politics only a nastier version of mainstream Republican ideas, or does he represent something truly different, an unhinged force unlike anything we’ve ever seen in this era of the Super-PAC election?
Mark McConaghy: There is one interpretation of Trump’s rise to power that deserves close scrutiny. It is, to my mind, quite dubious, but it deserves to be interrogated none the less, because it’s how Trump is being presented by many members in the right-wing media. The argument goes: in some instances, Trump can actually be seen as a teller of truths.
The early revelatory moment in his campaign came when he stood on stage at the Reagan library during a debate and, turning to all the candidates around him, said: they’re all bought, everyone of them. I am the only who doesn’t take corporate donations here, because I don’t need them, and thus I am beholden to no one. As for the rest of them- they’re just puppets of the Koch brothers or the oil lobby or Wall Street or whomever else backs them.
There is no doubt that many viewers felt a rush of pleasure when Trump made such an intervention. While we all knew (or should have known) that, after the Citizens United Case, politicians are completely beholden to their campaign contributors, it is still a thrill for a Republican presidential candidate to stand on a debate stage and announce it for all the world to see. And the candidates could not really rebut him. What were they going to say? They don’t have super-PACs?
Trump’s first stroke of genius was to announce publicly, for the viewing audience at home, the old David Simon truism, which is even more true today than it was fifteen years ago: the system is rigged. This is the illusion of choice. None of these guys are going to represent anybody but their financial masters. They are puppets.
He follows this up with an even more powerful call: I am the only one who can help you because I once was the puppet-master…and now I’m going to turn everything I know about the dirt and grime and filth of the system and use it to actually help the public. But to do that you have to give me power- one I can yield alone because I actually do stand with you, precisely because my wealth allows me to stand above and outside corporate America itself. The irony is rich indeed: it’s precisely because he’s so corrupt that he can actually take on a corrupt system.
For whatever else you want to say about Trump, he did reveal in that moment the absolute farce American democracy has become.
There’s a reason why the Republican establishment is so against him, and it’s not because of his stance on immigrants. When you combine his blunt honesty over campaign finance with his skepticism over the value of “free trade,” his repeated refusal to accept the loss of manufacturing jobs, his opposition to TPP, his opposition to the war in Iraq, and his antipathy for the Bush dynasty, you get a wild-card populist that the corporate elite cannot control. Also, he doesn’t have a christian conservative bone in his body (he would be the rare Republican who would not make pro-life discourse a large part of his administration).
In this sense, his economic and foreign-policy tendencies actually shade into Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn territory.
Regarding the ban on muslim immigration, of course it was appalling and shameful. But, let’s be clear: Trump was only stating publicly what every other candidate was hinting at in one way or another. All of them urged a temporary-stoppage to all refugee processing in the wake of San Bernardino.
After two decades of bombing, occupation, and embargoes, America desperately needs to rebuild its relationship with the Islamic world. Trump’s demagoguery will only make that more difficult. But Trump simply made clear what every other Republican candidate was actually saying in their dog-whistle. At least Trump was honest about the limits of his tolerance.
So here’s the question: is Trump’s xenophobia unique to his own campaign, or is it simply the bread-and-butter of Republican discourse? If so, why is the Republican base so drawn to him? Is it this blunt honesty about his own intolerance, his gleeful exposing of the corruption of the electoral system all around him?
Sean Callaghan: Trump telling the truth. Oof.
The argument basically amounts to the idea that Trump is “speaking truth to power.” Let’s follow the wolf down the rabbit hole, because the phrase “speaking truth to power” was originally coined, ostensibly anyway, during the 50s by Quaker groups reacting against the drive towards the Cold War. It was a pacifist’s position emphasizing the effectiveness of truth to intervene on the violent consequences of this new kind of war that would put everyone at risk. Fast-forward to 2016 and we find ourselves in world where those same words now function to reveal the warped and twisted nature of the US political landscape. Oh, how far they’ve come! What are the conditions that make it possible for power to speak truth to itself? Well, first power needs to be so corrupt that even someone as egregiously mercenary as Trump can “trump” his own hypocrisy by speaking the truth about corruption because he’s been party to it all along. There’s a nice bit of moebius logic for you.
Is it nice to hear him call out the other GOP members for their own hypocrisies and lies? Sure. Does this make Trump’s position laudable in any way shape or form? Absolutely not!
His is a common tactic used by savvy used-car salesmen. Tell the customer how all the other used-car salesmen just want to sell you a lemon, and then leverage this position to sell them an even bigger lemon. The “good” salesman isn’t the same as all the others. He’s worse, because he drives a wedge between reality and perception. We drive off the lot with a Pinto seconds from bursting into flames, and we feel good about it! Smiling right up until our whole world goes up in a puff of smoke. But that’s not the scary part, because with the sociopathic nature of the good car salesman, there’s the danger he might just sell you the Pinto just to prove to himself that he can.
This is what I think is exceedingly troubling about Trump. He can speak truth to power because he sincerely doesn’t care one way or the other. He is happy to be a hypocrite because he doesn’t see anything wrong with his own hypocrisies, so long as it gets him what he wants. And who knows what kind of crazy hides under that awful toupee.
What fascinates me, still, is the fact that there is a large part of the US public that takes him seriously. Enough to win him the republican nomination. I think, should Bernie Sanders or Hilary Clinton take the US presidency, we will look back on this and wonder/laugh at how bad things had become to make someone like Trump seem legitimate.
If Trump wins, I may just consider moving to the mountains, because things will be going from bad to downright apocalyptic.
Mark McConaghy: Hmm….I think we can go farther than the standard “Trump would bring the apocalypse down on the world” position. Of course he may do so, but that still wouldn’t get us any farther in understanding why people were drawn to him in the first place. As cultural critics our role is to go beyond mere denouncement of things we don’t like. Instead, we must work to understand how cultural texts and figures operate- the effect they have on people, why they produce certain emotions and certain behaviors, what kind of politics they enable.
So the question still remains: why is the Republican “base” (whatever that term signifies) so drawn to this demagogue?
If you want to simply critique Trump for his positions on immigration, the Middle East, or illegal immigration, that’s fine, but then you have to critique the entire Republican Party. Because Trump’s views are nothing but blunter renderings of ideas that are basically mainstream to most Republicans. Remember, all of the candidates were in favor of a ban on muslim refugees of some sort after San Bernadino; all of them joust with one another to prove how “against amnesty” they are on the issue of illegal immigration; and all of them express unreserved support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, unreserved support of the Bush administration’s policies, and unreserved enthusiasm for more continued militarism abroad (with the exception of maybe Rand Paul).
So if Trump is “radical” or “extreme,” he in fact only serves to highlight the general extremism of the entire party. This is a point that Noam Chomsky has made: yes Trump is abhorrent, but how is he really any different than any other Republican?
The reason why Trump inspires such devotion in his followers, the reason why he may actually end up winning the nomination despite the objections of the entirety of the Republican establishment, is the sheer anarchic joy he inspires when he bluntly says the truth in front of the entire party apparatus.
What do I mean by this? Tell me you don’t enjoy watching Trump in the following clip.
Trump absolutely destroys Jeb Bush when he points out that his brother lied to the American people to get them into the war in Iraq: there were never any WMDs in Iraq, the administration knew that, and they insisted otherwise. The war destabilized the entire region, creating the conditions for the rise of ISIS as an anti-colonial movement of regional liberation.
Stop for a moment to consider what you are witnessing. The leading Republican contender for president is standing on a stage and denouncing all of the BS, all of the patriotic mythology, that the party has told itself about the Bush presidency and the “War on Terror” and America’s role in the world. Trump even denounced Bush’s incompetence leading up to 9/11- making the very important point that the Bush administration was warned before the event that an attack was imminent and they did not take the threat seriously.
Think of the explosion of party doctrine that Trump embodies: I’m not going to play your ideological games because I don’t take your money and I don’t have to put up with your BS. This is why people love Trump, why he has galvanized new voters and energized old-time Republicans…because he strips away the lies that people always knew the party told them but could never quite publicly articulate. Now they have a politician who will stand up there and utter, publicly, the words they knew to be true in their hearts all along.
It also bares repeating here that on some domestic cultural issues Trump isn’t really an extremist at all. He has called gay marriage “the law of the land”; he avoids any discussion about issues of abortion; and in past debates he even defended Planned Parenthood as “doing a lot of good things for women’s health.” In terms of economics he talks, like Sanders does, of bringing back manufacturing jobs, investing in infrastructure, and closing the loophole for capital gains taxes.
There’s no doubt that Trump, like all Republicans, have bad economic ideas and a reductive worldview. But the real reason why he is so scary to so many people is that he upends the rules of public discourse; he is an anarchic energy coursing through the electoral process and, by extension, through the body politic. He is apt to say anything, to support any policy, at any given moment; he blows up the idea that our politicians should be scripted, cautious, non-human in their polish…Trump is human, which can be very ugly, very racist, very discriminatory at times. But he is not a robot. When people look him, they see “one of us.” When they look at the others, they see nothing but handlers, donors, and talking points.
The robotic fakery of the political process is under complete attack…and that’s why he inspires so much love and devotion.
One can only hope that Bernie Sanders, another candidate who is utterly authentic, but one with actually productive ideas, will beat Trump. Both of them have put the normal rules of political discourse under target. The results are thrilling to watch.
James Poborsa: I’m fine for opting out of this Trump discussion – I have nothing but contempt for that braggadocious, bloviating orange windbag. If Anthony Burgess were still around, he’d probably call him a stinking splotch of ‘eunuch jelly’ encrusted on a throwaway curb-side couch cushion. That said, I think it speaks to broader political divisions in America, and the dangerous long term effects of a partisan media sphere. I bet even Fox news is reeling from the direction their viewers are taking vis a vis the Trump phenomenon, even though he is a beast they have callously built up over the years.
Sean Callaghan: As is our constant in these conversations, I both completely agree with Mark that we must go beyond the usual critique of this thing that James so eloquently termed the “braggadocious, bloviating windbag” (James always has a way with words). At the same time I completely disagree that we should treat him as someone providing a more entertaining version of standard Republican dogma. Funnily enough, after I read Mark’s response, Obama took to the airwaves reiterating the same position, stating “Trump says in more interesting ways what the other candidates are saying as well.” I think there are times when we need to push the conversation beyond these kinds of sound bites to consider that the US may be dealing with something qualitatively different from anything they’ve dealt with before.
That what we’re all seeing with the success of Trump in the Republican primaries is the triumph of a once defunct category: the triumph of evil.
I’m not one to use this term blithely. More often than not, notions of evil are used to obliterate the complexities of a particular issue to cast whatever opposition might exist into a caricature-like simplification. We state “Hitler was evil” and completely efface the more disturbing possibility that someone who committed such horrendous acts was in fact more like the rest of us than we are willing to admit. It’s easier to believe Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, (dare I add Mao to this list?), were “evil” than confront the far more disturbing and complicated truth that they were merely human, and so required the complicity of people just like us to enact their horrible crimes. Evil, as Eichman taught us long ago, wears a banal mask. When it’s a matter for the history books, the appearance and enunciation of “evil” thus marks acts of forgetting that I think are dangerous for those of us who want to guard against the re-production of past genocides and structurally guaranteed mechanisms of violence.
But we are not talking about history. Trump is right here in our faces bloviating poisonous rhetoric about Muslims, Mexicans and the “proper” way to be an American citizen. Normally, this would mark him as one more nutcase spreading his own brand of fear-mongering on Fox TV, but this is not a normal situation. We’re talking about the leading GOP candidate in the primaries vying to be the next leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world.
If we can’t begin mobilizing a word like “evil” now to distinguish a very real danger in the world, then the word itself is useless and should be torn out of our dictionaries.
The question, though, should be what do we mean when we mark someone like Trump as “evil.” Here’s where we must step delicately through our definitions, because designating Donald Trump, the man, as “evil” would be a pointless act of name-calling that would simply arm naysayers with an easy weapon. “Sticks and stones,” Trump supporters would say, and they’d be right. Because the US voting public is looking at giving this man access to some very powerful sticks and stones, and words, once he acquires this access, really will not harm him.
Trump, the man, is a person just like everyone else. He has his faults and strengths, his foibles and noble intentions. We do not want to rob him of his complexity. Trump the politician, on the other hand, is something else. This thing we watch on TV, moved by demagogic urges and the logic of sound bites, is a thing of our own creation. This evil is ours, and ours because of what we have let happen to the field of political, intellectual and cultural discourse in our world.
We have been too lax with the logic of hate and fear and cynicism and it’s time we stop dilly-dallying with our own complicity to these violent narratives. It’s time we draw our line in the sand and say, “no, absolutely not!” We don’t want to be the proverbial frog in the pan, slowly boiled in hate because we’ve become too used to its rhetoric.
Is Trump a racist? Yes. Is he a warmonger? Yes. Is he a demagogue willing to say anything to get what he wants? Yes. Is he a bully who will stop at nothing to get his way? A resounding, yes!
That being said, can we blame him for believing what he does, saying what he does?
He is only doing what we as a members of his shared cultural and political landscape have provided room for him to do. Each time we back down and say “well, at least he’s entertaining” or “it’s not like what he’s saying isn’t a widely held belief” is the moment we compromise ourselves, our own cherished beliefs in things like social justice, civil rights and the rule of law.
I worry that what we’re experiencing these days is something like a reversal of that ole Marxist nugget from The Eighteenth Brumaire, “first as tragedy, then as farce.” Our own accepted cynicism for the play on politics has us start with farce – because we are in a place where we can no longer believe politics offers any legitimate space for the promotion of social justice, the protection of rights and laws. We bring these words up in conversation with a smirk as though we’re in on the joke. We don’t see the deep relationship this kind of farce has always held with tragedy. In fact, this newest brand of tragedy strikes me as the more poignant – because we should’ve known better, if only we weren’t blinded by our own desire to snigger with everyone else.
I am without humor when it comes to Trump. Where else is this farce of politics to go except tragedy, when our lack of belief and conviction gets inverted back on us and we – this powerless we, whose number continues to grow while the market continues to foment a takeover by monied elites – suddenly discover the joke we smugly accepted as reality was in fact the phantasm hiding a much harsher tragedy in the making. Trump’s last act tragedy will be our undoing.
The antidote to this miasma of cynicism in our political sphere may just be a return to defunct categories like good and evil – a reinvention of their terms, stripped of their religious ties to manicheanism, so we can train ourselves to recognize a real danger lurking in plain view.
Trump is evil, but his evil is the symptom of a much larger, systematic problem that has penetrated our media, our politics, our culture. My one minor contribution to a theory of politics would be to say that politics is always a matter of being, but a being that is multiple and fluid. The danger I see in Trump is that he threatens to turn a cultural trend into the very precept defining our existence – his hatred is the expression of a logic that has seeped into our pores; it soaks our bones, and weakens what should have been an adamant resolve to fight to protect the good and sacred work of the civil rights movement, third wave feminism, anti-colonial lawmakers. His spectacle is a magic show meant to distract us as he conditions reality to operate uniformly according to his own narcissistic market logic.
I don’t care that he only repeats in bombastic terms what the other republican members are saying with less panache. In this we need to follow Mcluhan and assert once more that the medium is the message. His is a rhetoric of demagoguery that preys on our continued laxity for cynicism. We need to puncture the windbag as only a first step towards cultural healing.
That’s why I feel compelled as though by a categorical imperative to denounce everything he stands for, everything he says. Trump the politician is evil, regardless of the decency that may be the man, and once we finally admit this, once we puncture the sickly air of misanthropy that clouds our better judgments, then we can start having a real conversation about social justice, about racial and gender equality, about a politics of peace.
Until then, we only help promote the Trumps of the world in their gradual drift closer to the eventual tragedy waiting for us once their punchline has been forgotten and the smirk has withered off our mouths.
Mark McConaghy: Sean, that was a powerful analysis of Trump, and I’m not going to diminish it by saying too much in response. That analysis should stand, in my opinion, as the definitive response to the Trump phenomenon.
You are absolutely right- I and so many others have been downplaying the true threat that Trump represents to our sense of the political. While his content is the same as other republicans, the medium is entirely different: brash, angry, cavalierly delightful in the suffering of others, brazenly 19th century in his ethnocentrism, yet deliriously amped up to the sensibilities of the reality television age.
We always wondered what we would do when we were faced with the forces that Benjamin, Lu Xun, Ding Ling, Arendt, Adorno, Brecht, Kitaro Nishida, etc. had to face in their own times: when the reactionary movement is truly upon you, do you have the ability to recognize its true seductions? How do you reject it entirely, even if it seems banal (or in our case devilishly humorous)? What side of history are you going to stand on?
I completely understand what you mean when you speak of Trump arising from “a place where we can no longer believe politics offers any legitimate space for the promotion of social justice, the protection of rights and laws.”
But here’s the question. If Trump represents a grave threat precisely because he would reset our politics to a position where savage cynicism is its emotional center and philosophical marrow…what the hell do we do about it? What tools do we have to fight against the evil that is within ourselves?
It’s not a question of mere denunciation. Bernie Sanders has spent the last year, in as visible a way as possible, talking about “the sacred work of the civil rights movement” and “third wave feminism,” with a massive does of social democratic discourse thrown into boot, and still the forces of reaction amass stronger every day.
It’s not as if in the information age people can’t get access to progressive ideas, and it’s not as if those ideas haven’t been shown to work in countries as diverse as Sweden, Canada, China, Chile, and beyond. It’s not that people are blinded in some kind of ideological false consciousness: they know what the alternative argument looks like and they chose not to follow it. If they did, Bernie would be leading a massive movement for revolutionary change and we could do away with what Trump represents once and for all.
So why do people choose Trump rather than Bernie? Should we attribute this to the legacy of anti-socialist pedagogy in schools? To the mass-media “consensus” in America that the free market is the best system in human history? Certainly, those are part of the equation. But they can’t be all of it, can they?
Do we really just need to “educate” the people more?
Such a solution smacks me as far too elitist, as if the educated few simply need to do a better job of explaining what “progress” looks like to the uneducated, rural bumpkins. No, the intellectuals can’t save us now. Take academia as an example. It is a space that breeds precisely the kind of cynicism that Trump feeds off of. Indeed, it’s made all the more insidious because the academy passes itself off as radical and progressive. Every book promises to “radically rethink” a field, a problem, a discourse, providing some “revolutionary” intellectual critique which will, somehow, lead to revolutionary politics. Meanwhile, the professors buy houses, embrace bourgeois normalcy, and lock in six-figure salaries through the tenure process, while the real labor of grading, tutorial teaching, and direct student engagement is downloaded onto the academic industrial reserve army: graduate students and sessional instructors.
If your own institutional life is based upon such violent inequality, how could you possibly have the right to speak about equality, justice, and emancipation? If “radical” thought was all that was needed to bring social justice into the world, the Verso catalogue would have long ago been enough to get us to the socialist paradise.
Nothing is more dangerous then delusions of enlightenment. The old networks are flawed: academia, publishing houses, state governments (bought by special interests), the school system (underfunded, way too many students), and the media (defined by the “consensus” ideas that have pushed the world to where it is today).
I will borrow the words of the contemporary Chinese intellectual Sun Ge (孫歌) to articulate what I feel is needed now. Sun Ge has devoted her scholarly life to building transnational dialogue amongst the societies of Asia, particularly the complex historical zones of Japan, China, Taiwan, Okinawa, but also Korea, India, Pakistan, and others. She has tried to build an alternative way of thinking about community than the one offered by liberal capitalism, and she has sought to reject the defining logic of Euro-American history: that the West can impose its own vision of modernity on the rest of the world in one universalizing sweep of ideological and material triumph.
When faced with a relentless embrace of market individualism in her own country, Sun Ge has argued that Chinese intellectuals need to abandon their own material privilege and re-engage deeply with the subaltern members of their own societies. As Sun Ge put it recently in an interview,
现在学术面临最大的瓶颈是，包括历史和现状分析，都是从概念出发，从概念进入状况，有了概念，大家才能彼此辨认嘛…可是紧要问题不是彼此辨认，而是我们怎么锻炼自己，培养一种能力，在那些没发归类的现象里边，去寻找那些最重要的部分。。。我觉得中国知识分子要做的第一件事，是放下架子，让自己当老百姓，学学山后的那些农民. 中国美院的许江校长说，美院的山后住着一些农民。这些农民说，美院校区里面这些房子，好看不好用. 我们要锻炼这样的一种观察力.知识分子要民众化，不是毛泽东时代说的我们要向工农兵学习，和那个含义不太一样。但是向工农兵学习，如果学对了，你就真的会成为好的知识分子, 我觉得这是最根本的. (See 孫歌：亚洲的苦恼：从万隆会议到“一带一路,” 中国会产生新的国际主义吗? http://www.jiemian.com/article/267121.html)
The greatest bottleneck that academia confronts today, in its analyses of both historical and contemporary [phenomenon], is that everything begins from concepts, we enter into concrete situations from concepts. Once you have a concept, everyone can then mutually categorize one another…Yet the most crucial question is not whether we can categorize one another, it is whether we can train ourselves, whether we can nurture a kind of force, finding the most important elements within phenomenon that we today still do not know how to classify…I believe the first thing that Chinese intellectuals have to do is to let go of their frameworks and make themselves commoners (让自己当老百姓). They need to study the peasants on the other side of this mountain. The head of the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts, Xu Jiang, told me that some peasants live on the other side of this mountain. These peasants say that the campus buildings are nice to look at but not very useful (好看不好用). We need to develop this kind of observational ability. When I say that intellectuals must “massify” themselves (民众化), I am not talking about the Maoist period slogan: learn from the workers, peasants, and soldiers (向工农兵学习). What I am gesturing to is not exactly the same, though if you do learn well from the workers, peasants, and soldiers then you will truly become a good intellectual. I feel this is absolutely essential.
What I believe Sun Ge means when she says that intellectuals need to “make themselves commoners” is that they need to give up the pretensions, the narcissism, that feeds the academic project (and that is the secret co-conspirator of Trump’s own market culture). To do so, they need to strip themselves of their labels, their security, their bourgeois status, and throw themselves into actual social work in concrete settings. Only in that way can they get close to the new social movements that are generating emotion and commitment among young people, and that alone offer some hope out of our current impasses.
Black Lives Matter is, currently, the most important example of such a movement. It is not a movement of identity politics, though it is often misrepresented as such. Rather, it presents a critique of the fundamental political economy that Western societies, particularly America, were built upon and continue to sustain. In one simple phrase, it has galvanized the imagination of an entire generation to overcome modern legacies of human enslavement.
What is needed now is that we, as commoners (and not as condescending writers/publishers/teachers/experts/policy analysts), embed ourselves within concrete social spaces, fling ourselves deep into social interaction outside of institutional life, and try to actualize progressive ideas in a variety of lines of flight as powerfully as we can. Of course we can’t do away with all institutions, but we should not think for a moment that solace can be found within them.
And being truly progressive means a commitment to actualizing progressive ideas. What this would mean, for academics, is to genuinely revolutionize the spaces they currently operate within, making their own lives just in the process. As a start, the university can be made free, open, and welcoming to all who want to learn (rather than accepting only those whose institutional qualifications and financial resources make them “model” students). What would a university who accepts all, shares all, lives together with all look like?
To overcome evil, do we not need to learn from the observational eyes of the peasant other, and to unlearn the vanity, narcissism, and viciousness of Trump, which is nothing other than the vanity, narcissism, and viciousness within ourselves?
Sean Callaghan: Mark, I will try to resist turning this into a yes-fest, but I couldn’t help nodding my head through your whole reply. I have to admit feeling some trepidation after I sent my Trump response, worried I had pushed from the critical to the straight up vulgar, but then you hit on exactly the thoughts that were running through my head – it was exactly Benjamin¹ I was thinking of, and Tosaka Jun,² thinkers who very literally and brutally felt the reactionary forces there in front of them, and were moved to act, and think as an extension of these acts.
On reading your response, I began to wonder what it would mean to concretize this impulse. This is the point of our website. Not simply to think a critique of the moment, but chart alternative political or philosophical paths to another world. I immediately began to think about education.
The public system, from my vantage point in BC (which was recently a stage to acrimonious battles between the Teacher’s Union and the BC government leading to a prolonged teacher’s strike), has been severely compromised by a number of forces – privatization, the bureaucratic mentality and bourgeois morality. Thinking on our discussion, I started to wonder what it would mean to create a school that embodied all the social mores we wanted to promote. Because schools – high schools, elementary schools – are like small, fashioned worlds that are meant to train our youngest when they are most open to adaptation (and inculcation) into the ethical and social networks that will be our society. I think the slow compromise of standards and goals in these mini-worlds over the last few decades has given rise to the problems we see now.
Which is not to say I’m asserting that “we need to educate the people more.” Mark is absolutely right. This only leads to the promotion of elitist rhetoric. Rather, I would say we need to revolutionize subjectivity itself. And strangely, we’re at a time right now when that revolution is possible, because what’s happening is we’re seeing a mass of highly educated, over-trained graduate students heading out into the work force and finding no love from the university system. Imagine what would happen if you gathered a handful of these PhDs and plugged them into an institutional system that was not aimed simply at churning out good workers, but at revolutionizing subjectivity through the production of radicalized learning environments- at the primary and high school level!
Of course, this would mean constant confrontation with the uber-conservative middle class morality that constantly threatens primary and secondary education.
To give an example of the kind of conservative mechanisms that are in place to keep teachers in line, once you get your teacher certification, you are sent a monthly newsletter. One of the sections to which many teachers will immediately flip in this newsletter is the section on disciplinary measures. There, for our schadenfreude-like enjoyment, is a listing of all the most recent teacher infractions that resulted in formal disciplinary action, complete with the teacher’s name and a description of their transgression.
While I understand that the care of children in loco parentis is a huge responsibility and one that requires careful governance, I can’t see how this kind of Big Brother-like surveillance mechanism can help teachers feel free to take much needed risks in the classroom. I look at this section and worry that french philosopher Michel Foucault was more right than he himself was willing to admit. The classroom truly is an extension of the prison system. The ever-present danger is that we end up making our teachers inmates as well, if they end up too-restrained by a bureaucracy focused on discipline. I will forever hope, as a big believer in the power of education to transform society, that our elementary and high schools are more than this.
If we want to change our society, if we want to create a public that is smart enough to resist the demagogic pull of people like Trump, and all the other vulgar ideologues on both the right and left, then we need to place more trust in our teachers. This also means expecting more from them. Becoming a teacher should require more than a one or two year after-degree. We should be placing our best and brightest on the frontlines. Rather than paying six figure salaries to professors at the university level, we should be placing this money in primary and secondary education. This is not to say the university isn’t important. I am a product of that institution. I cherish my days as a grad student. But a university education is becoming an increasingly rarefied thing.
Public education is for everyone. It dips into our everyday and spreads itself across every possible social, cultural and economic stratum. If we’re serious about building better societies, then teachers must be seen as intellectual engineers tinkering away across these lines of differentiation. They should be at the top of the career food-chain, treated with respect and given every opportunity to succeed. Because teaching is freaking hard, and teaching well is possibly the hardest job of all. Because the classroom is one of the few places in which subjective transformation is allowed on a broad scale without the need for bloodshed.
If politics “is merely a continuation of war by other means,” to flip a well-known quote by Carl von Clausewitz, than education is the circumvention of war by peaceful means.
To bring us full circle back to our original conversation about Trump, all the above thoughts were aimed at concretizing a solution to our anxieties about a public that is in a reactionary freefall. Revolutionizing education is only one possibility.
I don’t think Trump will win his way to the presidency, which means we still have some time to fight the tides of “evil.” But that time is running out, because Trump is just a precursor to what I fear will be a still much darker trend.
¹Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a philosopher and early critical theorist. He is oft-cited for his considerations of a broad spectrum of topics including the nature of translation, new media, art, literature, politics. He came to a tragic end in the midst of the Second World War. As a French citizen of Jewish decent, he attempted to flee the encroaching horror of the camps in an attempted crossing of the border to Spain. Failing in this attempt and conscious of the brutalities that awaited him at the hands of the German army, he took his own life in the small town of Port Bou on September 27th, 1940.
²Tosaka Jun (1900-1945) was a Japanese Marxist philosopher. He was imprisoned, as were many outspoken critics of the Japanese Fascist government of his time, in 1938. He spent the next 7 years in jail until his death (of unknown circumstances) in 1945.
Sean Callaghan received his doctoral degree in modern Japanese literature from the University of Toronto, and his education degree from the University of Alberta. He is at work on short fiction and novel length prose pieces, while battling it out on the teaching front. He currently lives in Vancouver with his wife, daughter and mildly disgruntled guinea pig.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.
James D. Poborsa is a doctoral candidate in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. His current research extends beyond the history and politics of modern China to explore the cultural politics of transnational aesthetics at the intersection of intellectual history, political theory, and international relations.