The Public University in an Age of Alt-Facts: Remarks on Receiving a Higuchi Award

Brief remarks on the university in an age of misinformation, delivered today when I received a Higuchi Award.


It’s a great honor to be joining Professors Christer Aakeröy, Judith Carta, and Randolph Nudo in receiving recognition for our research. It’s especially meaningful to be receiving this recognition right now, at a moment when facts and the notion of policy based on facts are being pushed aside in favor of — oh, let’s call it alt-truth. As I’m sure you know, the incoming presidential administration has nominated a climate-change-denier to head the EPA. And yet, here we are today, honoring scientists, as we should be — honoring a pioneering scholar in rehabilitation medicine, and an international leader in crystal engineering and supramolecular chemistry. light bulbMeanwhile, in decisions being made outside of our hallowed halls, the nominee to oversee our nation’s public education system wants to dismantle it, replacing it with unregulated, for-profit charter schools. And yet we’re here today honoring a national leader in early childhood special education. As we should be. This incongruity between what we’re celebrating now and what we face in the very near future makes the Higuchi Award feel even more special — a bright light in the gathering darkness.

I have been feeling lately — and I would imagine that my fellow Higuchi honorees may share this feeling — that our work has become much more urgent than it was before November 9th. My next book — which is on racism in children’s literature — will appear a few months into an administration with a White supremacist Attorney General, a White supremacist Senior Advisor, and an Islamophobic National Security Advisor.1 As we’re entering this period of backlash, I continue to believe that diverse, inclusive children’s literature is one of the best places to imagine a better future. Stories we encounter when we are young, when we are selves in the process of being formed, have a lasting impact on the people we become. Stories tell children that they belong (or don’t belong) not only to a broader community of readers, but also in their neighborhoods, their schools, and their country. As we face a concerted federal effort to revoke civil rights, we can — and we must — nurture a new generation that is less susceptible to bigotry and the many wounds it inflicts. That’s something we can do in children’s literature, and anywhere in higher education.

Whatever our role in the university system, I think we now must imagine ourselves as keepers of values that we probably have taken for granted. We know that evidence-based reasoning, that carefully tested knowledge, that peer-reviewed scholarship best serves the public interest, and we will need to defend this value repeatedly over the next four (and possibly eight) years. We know that, to create new knowledge, we will also disagree, but that we will do so with civility and respect for those we disagree with. This value — of respectful disagreement and the compromises that may result — we will also need to defend, and to model for our students. We know, too, that knowledge is created by people of all races, genders, sexualities, abilities, and faiths (or absence of faith). Indeed, intellectual labor thrives in diverse communities such as those at KU and K-State. We will need to defend this value, too.2

So. Thanks to KU and the Higuchi family for supporting these values by supporting our research. My personal thanks to Jim Guikema for assembling my nomination, to Elizabeth Dodd for her support, and to Karin Westman for her love, encouragement, and extraordinary patience over the past 23 years. And thanks to all of you, not just for coming today, but — through your roles in Kansas higher education — for continuing to work for a state, a country and a world where research matters, where facts matter, where education matters, and where all of us can receive the same inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Thank you.

— Philip Nel, Univ. of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 13 Dec. 2016


Endnotes

  1. Scott Pruitt is EPA nominee; Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education nominee; Jeff Sessions is Attorney General nominee; Steve Bannon is Senior Advisor; Gen Michael Flynn is National Security Advisor.
  2. Third paragraph draws from Greg Downey, “The presidential election of 2016 and the values of a research university.” Greg Downey 9 Nov. 2016.

Final note

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t post something as (frankly) inconsequential as a thank-you-for-this-award speech. But, in these dark times, I have been finding it helpful to read others’ affirmation of our core values. We need to keep speaking out. We need to affirm our shared humanity, our belief in civic discourse, our certainty that facts matter. It is in this spirit that I’ve decided to post these remarks.

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Surviving Trumpism. Restoring Democracy.

With apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,…

How does an unhinged, thin-skinned, son of a Scots and a

Klansman, born into privilege and wealth,

a thug who loves only himself,

his money and his station,

become the next leader of this nation?

There are many reasons, including the false equivalency of the media (Clinton’s emails being equivalent to dozens of Trump’s disqualifications), FBI Director James Comey’s late-breaking vague “emails” allegation, racism, sexism, anger at neoliberalism, the rise of fake news, people’s tendency to vote on feelings rather than on policy, the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act (and the voter suppression it has enabled), lowest voter turnout since 2000, and several others.1

But the questions we face now are how can we understand this next phase, and most importantly what can we do?


proposed Trump logo, satirically created by Sam KuoRise Up

If you have ever asked “Why didn’t people protest and stop Hitler’s rise to power?” you now have an opportunity to answer that question for yourself.  What will you do now?  President-Elect Trump ran an openly bigoted campaign, calling Mexicans criminals, alleging that Muslims are terrorists, arguing for racist profiling, and bragging about committing sexual assault.  Now, after the election, hate crimes are on the rise, and he is assembling an administration to enact his plans. What will you do?


White people need to step up

As you might imagine, the less a person looks like me (straight White man), the more she or he is frightened right now. So, I am reaching out to all of my friends, colleagues, and students — but especially those who are most vulnerable. I talked to my students Thursday (these were my first post-election classes), and told them that if they need to talk, I will listen.  If they need to cry, I have tissues.  If they need help finding resources, I will help them.  I told them that, whoever they voted for, I know — from our conversations over the semester — that they know we’re all part of the same human family. And so I told them to look out for each other, and especially for those who don’t look like me. If you see someone getting harassed, this is the time to step up.

This is especially the time for White people to step up — and not only because White people elected Trump. Yes, I know, if you’re a White person reading this, you’re probably not one of the people who voted for the angry talking yam. But if you have White privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, class privilege, the privilege of being abled, any unearned privilege at all, you need to use that privilege to stand up for others. Indeed, the more privilege you have, the greater your obligation to use it.


This Is Not a Drill

There are already reports of hate crimes and racist graffiti around the country.  This is likely to increase under a Trump presidency.  As long as I live in this country, I will defend all people’s rights to life, liberty, and happiness.  All people must be treated fairly under the law.  All people must feel safe.  I will defend those values until my dying breath.  I will never yield.  I invite you to join me.

But be aware of what you’re signing up for. Given bigots’ propensity for violence and the widespread availability of firearms, opposing the coming tyranny is likely to place us in harm’s way. We may be shot. We may be jailed. We may be harassed. The NSA, the FBI, and the CIA will soon be working for Donald Trump.  I understand why people may hope that Herr Gropenführer’s openly racist and sexist campaign rhetoric was merely bluster and that he will govern differently than he campaigned.  But autocrats — and he campaigned as an autocrat — tend to follow through on their threats.  It would be naïve to hope that President Trump will adopt values that differ markedly from Candidate Trump.

But we must not stand by while fascists threaten our fellow citizens. Silence is complicity. We must not be silent. We must stand and fight.


If you see something, do something.

If you hear words that are racist, homophobic, sexist, Islamophobic, call it out for what it is. If you see someone getting harassed, intervene. Maeril has created an excellent bystander’s guide to Islamophobic harassment which is a model we can adopt to oppose any type of harassment.

http://maeril.tumblr.com/post/149669302551/hi-everyone-this-is-an-illustrated-guide-i-made

Go to her Tumblr post to read more about it.


We must not normalize Trump.

This is not an ordinary transfer of power, in which one party’s candidate takes office after the other party’s candidate loses. The President-Elect is openly disdainful of democratic norms and social norms. As president, his hatred, his lack of regard for anyone but himself, his sexism, his bigotry, his mendacity will all begin to seep into the body politic, gradually undermining democratic institutions.

CNN: The Alt-Right Man for the Job?Stay outraged. Do not adopt polite euphemisms that disguise oppression. Language risks normalizing tyranny.  I saw a CNN headline yesterday on potential Trump Chief of Staff, an anti-Semite and spouse-abuser: “The Alt-Right Man for the Job?”  The “Alt-Right” is White supremacists’ term for themselves.  It’s not a joke. Whomever wrote that headline is colluding with the fascists.  To call Trump’s proposed Environmental Protection Agency head Myron Ebell a “climate contrarian” or “climate skeptic” is to propagate a lie. Climate change is real. If the human race is to have a future, we need to combat it as aggressively as we can. Mr. Ebell is an anti-science, conspiracy-theorist who is funded by the coal lobby. He’s a professional saboteur, and a crackpot.

Do not adopt the language of your oppressors.  Monitor your own language, listen skeptically to others — especially to the media’s.


Phone and write your representatives as often as you can.

Your representatives need to hear from you. Don’t waste time with Tweeting and Facebook.

The most effective things you can do are (1) phoning them and (2) writing a “snail mail” letter to them.  Send these to the district (state) office, rather than to DC.

Emily Ellsworth, who worked in Congress for six years, explains it all in this Twitter thread.

What should you focus on?  Professor and political strategist Lisa Corrigan made these suggestions on Thursday:

  1. Ironically, the neocons will have to moderate him or coalitions between outraged non-Tea Party Republicans and Democrats will work to stall his bumbling policy initiatives in Congress. This doesn’t leave a ton of room for Democratic Party maneuvering.
  2. Campaigning is not governing. He said a bunch of dumb shit that will not come to pass, even though it freaks you out.
  3. The backlash against him as a president will increase in the first two years, so down ballot Dems in Congress will have a huge opportunity in 2018. Send them money early and often. Trump will be a huge target.
  4. Obama has 100 days to ram through a bunch of executive orders, which is what I would advise him to do.
  5. And dude needs to get Merrick’s confirmation done. ASAP. It looks like that *might* be easier now that the GOP is freaked about a Trump presidency. Or not. Because #gridlock.
  6. The Democratic Party doesn’t like the evangelicals but there will be lots of them who are not supportive of Trump’s worldview and a political revolution, if it happens at all, will come from the evangelicals. They have the money and the organizations.
  7. Democrats need to talk about a new vision for American labor. NOW. And use it as a competing frame.
  8. If Dems give up education, all is lost.

For coping under a Trump presidency, my advice would be to focus on items 3 (supporting down ballot Democrats in 2018), 6 (finding common ground with evangelicals), 7 (new vision for American labor), and 8 (education).  Focus your energy here.

And remember: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. More voters opposed Trump than supported him.


The Cycle of Progress, Backlash and Progress

In the U.S., backlash follows progress just as surely as night follows day. In response to the racial egalitarianism that inspired the Civil War and Emancipation, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws terrorized African Americans for another century.  After the Civil Rights Movement comes the Nixon Administration.  After our first Black president, a president endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.safety pin, designed by Sam Kuo

This does not mean “Oh, history moves in cycles, and will thus move us back in the direction of equality.”  We move towards equality when people fight for it.

In other words, sure, wear that safety pin as a gesture of solidarity.  But we need more than gestures.  We need action.  Now.


Join the Movement

Trump’s elevation to the highest office in the land took many of us White people by surprise because we like to think that most — not all, but most — White people are better than that.  We like to think that we’ve become a less racist society, that White supremacy is on the wane, that the future will be brighter. This is a mark of our White privilege.

5’7″ Black Male (@absurdistwords on Twitter) has a great thread on this subject, written the morning after the election.  As he says,

I’m talking to you now surprised white people. I wanna bring you in for an empathy moment.

This feeling you have right now. Amazement that the country could be so short-sighted, that it could embrace hate so tightly? Welcome.

This despair and dread you feel. The indignation, the bewilderment, the hurt, powerlessness, the fear for family and livelihood? Welcome.

That knot in your stomach, that feeling of heartache? That uncertainty about your safety? The deep sense of fundamental injustice? Welcome.

For many marginalized people, this spike in distress you feel this morning is what we feel EVERY morning.

That feeling of “How could they possibly…?” is precisely what we feel with every incidence of excused violence, disenfranchisement, denial

I do not say this to diminish what you feel today. What you feel is real and valid. I’m giving you an opportunity to truly empathize.

For it is the lack of that empathy that allowed America to shrug as the marginalized shouted warnings.

Today the imaginary wall that divides your experience from ours has come down. You have the chance to commune with the rest of us.

So, to those calling to start an anti-Trump movement, a better option is to join those already fighting oppression.  Rather than building a new pro-democracy from the ground up, get connected with those groups already doing this work.


Here are some organizations to join and to support

Jezebel has compiled a list of “A List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support.”  Here are a few highlights (plus one not included), but follow the link for the full list.

For those with the means, I challenge you to follow my friend Katherine Fusco’s lead, and choose your organizations, and then commit to give regularly. Can you commit to $5 a month?  Great.  How about $10?  Even better.  If you can sign up for a recurring contribution that will help the organization by giving it an ongoing source of income.

As long as there has been oppression in the U.S., there have been organizations fighting that oppression.  Join them.


We Have Been Here Before…

Americans like to think of their country as a democracy that offers equal opportunity to all comers.  However, for most of its history, the United States has been a White supremacist police state that treated women as second-class citizens.  The last fifty years have been an aberration, not the norm.

Thomas JeffersonOur first president owned human beings.  Our third president both owned human beings and raped them. (News flash: a slave cannot grant consent to the person who owns her. We can call Sally Hemings the “mistress” of Thomas Jefferson, but what that means is that she’s the woman he raped repeatedly.)  Our twenty-eighth president, Woodrow Wilson, segregated the federal government, thought segregation was good for Blacks, and was a Ku Klux Klan apologist. Upon seeing the classic racist film Birth of a Nation (in which the Klan are the heroes), Wilson remarked, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

President-Elect Trump wants to institute a nationwide “stop-and-frisk” policy — which is both a proven failure from a police standpoint, and actively racist.  He ran an openly racist campaign, calling for mass deportations.  He is not the first racist president.

This is also not the first time that freedom of speech and of the press will come under attack.  We need only look to the Sedition Act of 1918, or to McCarthyism, and to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

There are historical precedents for a lot of what we’re about to experience.  But not everything…


… And We Have Not Been Here Before.

He is the first actively megalomaniacal president to have command of the nuclear arsenal, and a vast surveillance apparatus. He is the first president to lack experience in government or the military.

As far as I know, he’s the first demagogue president. He called for his opponent to be jailed, and twice insinuated that she be assassinated. He believes in revenge.  The most powerful person in the world is a vengeful man who admires dictators. This is very, very dangerous.


How to Survive Autocracy

Protesters outside Trump Tower the day after the election, New York City, November 9, 2016

Indeed, as I write these words, I wonder whether it’s safe for me to write these words. Come January, we will have a president who ran as an autocrat (“I alone can fix it”), spoke disdainfully of freedom of speech, and maintains an enemies list. However, his incredibly thin skin also makes it impossible to gauge what may set him off.  Just about any form of criticism seems to anger him.

Though I have not lived under autocracy before, I am becoming more aware of how even implied threats curtail freedom of expression. Though this criticism may later place me at risk, I think it’s better to speak up than to stay silent.

I would, though, advise you to study Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.”  Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who has opposed Putin.  She knows what she’s talking about.

Here are her main points:

  • Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.
  • Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
  • Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.
  • Rule #4: Be outraged. If you follow Rule #1 and believe what the autocrat-elect is saying, you will not be surprised. But in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.
  • Rule #5: Don’t make compromises.… In an autocracy, politics as the art of the possible is in fact utterly amoral. Those who argue for cooperation will make the case, much as President Obama did in his speech, that cooperation is essential for the future. They will be willfully ignoring the corrupting touch of autocracy, from which the future must be protected.
  • Rule #6: Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump certainly will not, and Trumpism, to the extent that it is centered on Trump’s persona, will not either. Failure to imagine the future may have lost the Democrats this election.

But read the whole thing.  You’ll need this.  We will all need this.

While I’m offering advice on what to read, follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter and read everything she writes. Kendzior is a journalist and an expert on authoritarian states.  Here’s her piece from the morning after the election: “A fascist’s win, America’s moral loss.”


Resisting Tyranny is Patriotic

Superman PSA, c. 1950

I have continued wearing my Clinton-Kaine pins in public because I want other anti-fascists to know that I’m with them. So far, I have not been challenged, but when I am I will say:

I wear these because I’m a patriotic American. I support all people’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All races, all religions, all genders, all sexualities. Whether they’re immigrants or native born.  Whether they’re abled or disabled.  Throughout his campaign, our president-elect has actively opposed these American values.

If they say, yeah but Trump has a black man and a woman in his cabinet, then I say:

they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Nearly all of his top picks are White men. Also, news flash: racism doesn’t only infect White people. It seeps into the minds of all of us. The person who says things like “I am the least racist person you’ll ever meet” is either lying to you or unaware of how racism works.

Fighting Trumpism is inherently patriotic. Remind people of this at every turn. You are the patriot.


Struggle is more reliable than hope

It’s hard to be hopeful right now. The mood resembles the days after September 11th 2001, with one crucial difference: the terrorists will now be running the government.  We know that things are about to get much, much worse — but we don’t quite know how.  We’re falling and have no idea when we’ll reach bottom, or even where the bottom is.

But do not give in to despair.  Join the struggle because struggle is more reliable than hope. Struggle gets things done. Struggle organizes. Struggle makes the phone calls. Struggle votes. Struggle stands up for the marginalized.  Sure, it’s nice to feel hopeful. Hope offers the warm illusion of that things will get better. It’s a nice feeling.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)However, things will get worse more rapidly than we realize. Hope is a luxury. Struggle is a necessity. Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it best in his eloquent, necessary Between the World and Me:

So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

And in that struggle, remember that you have allies. As Hillary Clinton’s campaign advised us, we are stronger together.


Take care of yourself, too

Watch Luke Cage or whatever your current favorite show is. Watch your favorite comedians or news/satire shows. Exercise. Take a walk, go for a run, play basketball, swim, do yoga. (I find that I feel a bit better when I exercise regularly.) sbtPray or meditate. The meditation app “Breathe” can be calming. In sum, turn to your wellness strategies — or devise some soon.

For me, the bright moments in this election’s aftermath have been all the supportive people in my community — here in Kansas, across the country, and around the world. As Clinton’s victory began to slip away on election night, I started getting texts and emails, with more arriving the following day. My friends and colleagues have been reaching out to each other, caring for each other.  We have each other.  We support each other.

An election like this shatters whatever faith I have left in humanity, and so it’s been vital to hear from good folks. The task now is to gather these bright fragments, and guided by them, stagger forward into the looming darkness.

We will prevail.  We have to prevail.  There is no other option.

Any suggestions?  Anything I’ve left out above?  Please feel free to add it below.

Thanks for reading.

Now, let’s get to work.


THE SOLE ENDNOTE:

1. I didn’t want to make “the reasons Trump won” the main focus of this piece, but here’s brief note on possible causes for any who may be interested.

  • False equivalency: The media peddled the Clinton email story as if it were somehow equivalent to Trump pathologically lying about everything, swindling people at Trump University, failing to pay contractors, claiming to have written books (The Art of the Deal) that he didn’t, bragging about committing sexual assault, calls to assassinate his opponent, his racist “birther” b.s., his Islamophobia, etc. etc. When voters got unmediated Clinton, her poll numbers went up. For instance, after each debate, her poll numbers improved.
  • FBI Director James Comey’s statement about emails that he (too late) recanted tipped the scales in Trump’s favor.
  • White people/Racism. White working class voted for Trump, Black working class did not. White women voted for Trump, women of color did not. That Trump’s racism did not immediately disqualify him says a lot about the electorate.
  • Men/Sexism. If Hillary Clinton were on tape, bragging about (let’s say) “cock-grabbing,” her campaign would never have recovered. There are many other examples of the double standard to which she’s been held, but this is the most symptomatic.
  • The working class feels left behind because, on some level, they know that neoliberalism is a con. It doesn’t deliver prosperity to everyone. Hillary Clinton moved further to the left (thanks to Bernie Sanders), but she’s neoliberalism personified. I’ll take neoliberalism over fascism any day. But White working class voters were unimpressed.
  • Fake news. There are people who believe that Hillary Clinton killed Vince Foster, that climate change is a hoax, that our southern borders are porous, that Obama is a Muslim, that Obama was born in Kenya, etc. And they can point you to many on-line sources to “verify” their fanciful notions. Social media just accelerates this misinformation avalanche. The Left and the Right dont actually agree on the same set of facts
  • People vote on feelings rather than facts. If you look at Trump’s website, there aren’t a lot of specific policy details there. If you look at Clinton’s, there’s an abundance of them.
  • Thanks to the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Republican efforts at voter suppression (having fewer polling places in minority neighborhoods, resulting in long lines, for instance) are deterring voters.
  • Voter turnout was low. I wouldn’t venture to predict how much of this was due to voter suppression (it may be quite a small number), but 47% of eligible voters failed to vote
  • Did 3rd-party candidates have an impact? Given the tight margins, it’s probable that they did, but that’s hard to prove: we don’t know which way their votes would have gone or if they would have turned up at all.
  • Could she have run a better campaign? Actually, I think she did as well as she could — a data-driven campaign and on message (just like the candidate). She brought in high-powered surrogates, including the Obamas themselves. Campaigned hard. Listened. But the data was off. She should have campaigned in Wisconsin. She should have done more in Michigan. But hindsight is 20-20.
  • Should the Democrats have nominated Bernie? Now, that’s the $50,000 question, isn’t it? I think Trump’s better at channeling populist anger than Bernie. Bernie actually has some policy solutions, of course, but he’s also a Socialist Jew. Given the prominence of anti-Semites like Steve Bannon in Trump’s campaign (and Trump’s own racism), you can bet Trump & co. would have used that to delegitimize his candidacy. The answer is: we don’t know. Sanders might have succeeded. And he might not.
Image credits: Alt-Trump logo & safety pin by Sam Kuo.

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Election 2016 in Picture Books; or, What Will We Tell the Children?

Children's picture books about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

This election. You’re tired of it. I’m tired of it. And… it’s finally over. Today. Or, at least we hope it will be resolved today. Given that Mr. Trump has vowed only to accept a Trump victory, it may not be resolved today. Either way, the 2016 U.S. Election is one for the history books — and for children’s books. We have yet to read the children’s book about this presidential contest, but four picture books on the candidates offer a first draft of history for younger readers.

A few months ago, I was talking to a German reporter about picture books on presidential candidates — he was genuinely surprised that there were already children’s books about Clinton and Trump. After all, neither had yet attained the office! But it didn’t surprise me. During the 2008 presidential election, there were twelve juvenile titles about then Senator Barack Obama — two of them picture books. During that same election, there were five books for young readers about Senator John McCain — one of those, a picture book (My Dad, John McCain, by his daughter Meghan).

Kathleen Krull and Amy June Bates, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight (2015)This year, we already have three picture books about Hillary Clinton  — one of which, Kathleen Krull and Amy June Bates’ Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight (2015) has been updated since its initial appearance in 2008. The other two are new for this election: Michelle Markel and LeUyen Pham’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls are Born to Lead (2016) and Jonah Winter and Raul Colon’s Hillary (2016).  On the Republican side, there’s just one: Michael Ian Black and Marc Rosenthal’s A Child’s First Book of Trump (2016), which might also be called an adult satire masquerading as a children’s book.

Michael Ian Black and Marc Rosenthal, A Child's First Book of Trump (2016)Or it might not. Representing the American Trump (as Black calls him) requires a journey into areas where most children’s books fear to tread.  Lucky for Black and Rosenthal, they created the book before the emergence of the tape in which Trump bragged about committing sexual assault, before he was openly flirting with using nuclear weapons (and encouraging their proliferation), before he challenged the patriotism of a Gold Star family, before he went on a late-night Twitter rant against a former Miss Universe, before he (twice) suggested that his supporters assassinate Hillary Clinton, and before he said he would only accept the election results if he won.  Writing a Trump picture book now — even a picture book for adults — would be much more challenging.

Even though it misses some of Mr. Trump’s more recent offenses, A Child’s First Book of Trump does not shy away from his tiny hands, his anxiety about “the size of [his] manhood,” his need to attach his name to products of dubious merit, his fixation on always “winning,” or his obsession with TV coverage. “Now, where does it live?” Black asks of the Trump. “On flat-screen TVs! / It rushes toward every camera it sees. / It thrives in the most contentious conditions / And excretes the most appalling emissions.”

Michael Ian Black and Marc Rosenthal, A Child's First Book of Trump (2016)

The ersatz Seussian verse is no accident. Black represents Trump as a con-artist straight out of Seuss. In A Child’s First Book of Trump, Trump’s personality is part unreformed Grinch and part Sylvester McMonkey McBean, the salesman who profits from the Sneetches’ prejudice (in Seuss’s The Sneetches). Visually, Rosenthal depicts the Trump as an oversized yam with a comb-over.  He’s a compelling character for a children’s book: an ego that is both inflated and fragile; a volatile, impulsive personality; a pathological need for attention. He is the shining example of how not to behave. He is not even a “he.” He is an “it,” a non-gendered, primal, howling ball of need.

Jonah Winter & Raul Colon, Hillary (2016)Where Black and Rosenthal can draw upon the ready-made caricature of the man himself, the creators of the Hillary Clinton books face the challenge of both presenting a complex, multi-dimensional adult, and finding a clear narrative through-line. For the latter, all three underscore Clinton’s life and work as a feminist achievement, illustrating her Wellesley commencement speech, as well as her work as a lawyer, First Lady, U.S. senator, 2008 presidential candidate, and U.S. Secretary of State.

Michelle Markel and LeUyen Pham, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead (2016)The feminist narrative is compelling: it gives her struggle a sharp focus, and invites readers to root for her as she surmounts (or does not surmount) tough odds. When the story of the 2016 campaign gets added to revised editions of these books or told in new books, a feminist emphasis will contrast decisively with her opponent’s prolific misogyny. Indeed, in these children’s books of the future, Mr. Trump’s sexist thuggery will make him a convenient foil for Secretary Clinton.

In the current editions, the feminist emphasis sometimes risks oversimplifying. While I understand Krull’s desire to wrest a moral from each moment of Clinton’s life, the homily on every two-page spread feels condescending, as if the book doesn’t trust readers to make sense of the narrative. After a teen-age Hillary writes to NASA to volunteer to be an astronaut, the agency turns her down: “But it was 1961, and some paths were still closed to women, such as the job of astronaut.” On the same page and in a cursive script, the book adds “Take a deep breath, look ahead, and keep trying to fly.”  If these inspirational moments admirably address a lack of heroes for girls, they also insist upon the book’s authority, denying readers the pleasure of drawing their own lessons from its story.

Kathleen Krull and Amy June Bates, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight (2015)

Aided by the expressive faces and body language in Pham’s artwork, Markel’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead offers the sharpest focus on her subject’s battle against institutional sexism. Nearly every two-page spread confronts the double standard that Hillary has faced throughout her life. While campaigning with Bill, the narrative observes, “She wasn’t frightened of the cameras and reporters. But she couldn’t believe how people criticized her — in ways they’d never criticize a man.” By delivering this critique via free indirect discourse (third person closely aligned with first-person perspective, Hillary in this case), Markel softens the didacticism, while still highlighting the considerable gender bias — which, as Samantha Bee and others have pointed out, has been a dominant theme of the 2016 campaign.

Winter and Colón’s Hillary manages the feminist message subtly, via compelling anecdotes that speak for themselves. Visiting Egypt as Secretary of State, Clinton stands poised behind a podium, heedless of the men who point and shout at her. Winter’s narrative reports: “In Egypt, where women do not have as many rights as men, she gave a speech that called for equality between men and women. She was challenged by men in the audience: how dare she come to Egypt and tell them what to do? Hillary did not back down.” The sharpness of Winter’s text and warmth of Colon’s artwork (a mix of watercolors, colored pencils and lithograph crayons), taken together, conveys just the right mix of toughness and compassion.

Jonah Winter & Raul Colon, Hillary (2016)

The books about Hillary steer clear of Bill’s infidelities. On the one hand, this seems fair: his philandering is not her fault, and so need not be part of her story. On the other, it seems a lost opportunity: her ability to stick with a wayward spouse would offer some insight into their relationship. The sole book about Donald also omits his three marriages, many affairs, and avocational groping. Here, the omission is a flaw: Trump’s view that women are objects tells us much about his character, and should be included. It could serve as a cautionary tale for young readers, telling boys how not to behave, and all children about the type of boy they should avoid.

When picture-book creators of the future (or these authors, in revised editions) tell the story of this election, they’ll face the challenge of including language and behavior typically excluded from works for young readers, where pussy-grabbing typically refers to picking up a cat and not to sexual assault.  It’s quite possible that children’s books about the 2016 election will land on the American Library Association’s Banned Book List.

However, if that proves to be the case, then so be it. Lying to children does not help them understand the world in which they live. The truth is that, in 2016, the Republican Party nominated a thin-skinned, unhinged, narcissistic, sociopathic, misogynist, racist, conspiracy-theorist-spouting con artist. Most members of his party were the contemporary equivalent of good Nazis: they professed disagreement with some of his statements, but otherwise endorsed their candidate. Should Mr. Trump win, children’s books about this election will be shelved next to children’s books about the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Stalin, and other authoritarian rulers.  The books will be cautionary tales about how fascism can ransack democracies.

If Secretary Clinton wins, the U.S. will have at least won an electoral victory over an aspiring tyrant, even though he, his followers, and the party that nominated him will not have disappeared.  Discovering how to lead Trumpites and Trump-supporting Republicans back to democracy will be one of the major challenges of a Hillary Clinton administration.

As I write these words in the earliest hours of November 8th, we do not yet know the election’s outcome — though polling suggests that Secretary Clinton will prevail, thanks in large part to high voter turnout among Hispanics, African Americans, and other minoritized groups.  Indeed, in the grandest of ironies, all those whom the U.S. has historically treated badly — if they vote in sufficient numbers — will save America from itself.

And that’s a story worth telling.


Other posts about the 2016 U.S. Election:

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Children’s Lit vs. Brexit

According to my unscientific survey, most creators of children’s literature and YA literature thought that Britain should remain in the European Union. They did not see the EU as without problems, but rather understood that remaining a member was far more advantageous than leaving. Here, then, are a few responses to the Brexit vote. I’ve gathered some from Oliver Jeffers, Malorie Blackman, Lucy Coats, Neil Gaiman, John Green, Guus Kuijer, Andrew Prahin, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Stephen Savage, Bob Shea, and G. Willow Wilson. UPDATE: Added Patrick Ness and Michael Rosen.

Did I miss any of your favorites?  Let me know, and I’ll add them.

Oilver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers, Brexit

Source: Jeffers’ Instagram.

Malorie Blackman

Lucy Coats

Neil Gaiman

John Green

Guus Kuijer

According to Google Translate, this is: “I believe that Britain is falling apart. So sad!”

Translation, courtesy of Vanessa Joosen: “I finally understand that being a patriot means you don’t want to belong to anything.”

Google Translate: “The North Sea remains as narrow though. Though ..”

Google Translate: “The gray establishment outstrips the young people”

Google Translate: “Go out of Twitter: ‘Twixit’? Worth considering.”

Patrick Ness

This last one is a response to Mr. Trump’s characteristically idiotic statements, made just after he landed in Scotland:

There are more Brexit-related Tweets in Ness’s feed.

Andrew Prahin

Philip Pullman

The following day, Pullman published an editorial, “on the 1000 causes of Brexit,” which includes two paragraphs that I’m excerpting primarily because they offer the strongest parallels to the U.S. media’s complicity in facilitating the rise of America’s fascist orange dumpster fire:

Then there is the tendency of our broadcast media to be seduced by strong personalities. The oafish saloon-bar loudmouth Nigel Farage was indulged with far too many appearances on Any Questions and Question Time. Producers seem to have felt his dog-whistle racism to be amusingly transgressive.

Similarly, Boris Johnson, a liar, a cheat, a man said to have betrayed a journalist to someone who wanted to beat him up, a shameless opportunist, an idle buffoon, to name but a few of his disqualifications for high office, was flattered over and over again by programmes such as Have I Got News For You. Without the completely needless exposure these two gained from the generosity of TV and radio, they would have found it harder to spread their lies and not-even-quite-covert racism during the referendum. They’d have been starting from a different place.

In the next paragraph, he identifies David Cameron’s “flippant, careless, irresponsible” decisions as the “immediate cause of the disaster.”  Read the entire piece at The Guardian.

Michael Rosen

You can read Michael Rosen’s modest proposal, “Time to cull old people,” on his website.  It begins like this:

Good evening

on what is a historic moment in history,

a truly momentous moment

and I want to take this opportunity to discuss something

which up until now has been swept under the carpet:

old people.

Quite frankly there are too many of them.

I’m going to say it simply

and you can quote me on this:

there are too many old people in Britain today;

we can’t cope

they’re putting pressure on our public services,

they’re forcing wages down through doing low-paid jobs
and volunteering all over the place;they’re hanging about on street corners
talking to each other in their own odd ways
they go to their own special places
segregating themselves off from the rest of us

failing to integrate.

As I say, read the rest of it on his website, and remember that it’s satire — specifically, a commentary on the fact that those in favor of Brexit were older, and that a lot of the pro-Brexit rhetoric was anti-immigrant.

J. K. Rowling

Stephen Savage

Bob Shea

G. Willow Wilson


Credits: Thanks to Vanessa Joosen for translating one of Guus Kuijer’s Tweets, to Lara Saguisag for pointing me to the responses from Michael Rosen and Patrick Ness, and to Poushali Bhadury for pointing me to Philip Pullman’s Guardian piece.

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How Do We Stop the Trump on the Stump? The Truth Is in Seuss!

Many have likened Donald Trump to a “schoolyard bully.” Back in September, Mr. Trump even admitted that his own campaign rhetoric had been “a little childish.” To best understand a candidate who addresses voters at a fourth-grade level, we need the stories of one of our most plain-spoken political analysts — Dr. Seuss. These four Seuss books best explain Mr. Trump’s character, and offer insight into how to prevent him from conning his way into the presidency.

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)At first, the Trump on the stump may seem like the Cat in the Hat. He refuses to play by the rules, and disdains the advice of the political establishment (represented by the fish in Seuss’s story), but he’s very entertaining. He knows some new tricks — a lot of good tricks. Perhaps he should not be here, but — wait — he’s going to show us another good game that he knows? And it’s going to be amazing, fantastic, tremendous, hugely classy? The Trump, like the Cat, is disruptive and exciting. However, as Robert Coover’s satirical novella The Cat in the Hat for President (1968) points out, nominating Seuss’s Cat for president would be very risky. While an unpredictable clown can be fun to watch, he’s dangerous to put in charge.

Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches (1961)Of Seuss’s many con-artist characters (the Cat, the Grinch, the Once-Ler), Sylvester McMonkey McBean is the most Trumpish. A businessman, McBean makes his money by exploiting the prejudices of the Star-Belly Sneetches and the Plain-Belly Sneetches. To the excluded Plain-Belly Sneetches, he says: “I’ve heard you’re unhappy. But I can fix that.” He insists, “I have what you need,” and promises “my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed!” After the formerly star-less have all paid for stars on their bellies, McBean then turns to the original star-bellied group, and offers to remove their stars. So begins an “Off again! On again!” race in which Sneetches alternately pay to gain and pay to lose stars, until they all run out of money. Seated in a car now overflowing with bags of their cash, McBean drives away laughing.

Like McBean, Trump is adept at exploiting the hatreds of his constituents. According to him, Mexicans are “criminals” but also “good people.” Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S. but also are “wonderful people.” Oh, and Islam “hates us.” He flaunts his racism less out of conviction and more because he knows that manipulating people’s prejudices will help him sell himself as the solution.

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)As Ezra Klein observes, Donald Trump has “the demagogue’s instinct for finding the angriest voice in the crowd and amplifying it.” This talent makes Trump an ally of the kangaroo from Horton Hears a Who! (1954). While Horton the elephant works to save the Whos, the kangaroo rallies the mob that nearly kills them. Her delight in encouraging violence echoes that of Trump, who has said of one protester “I’d like to punch him in the face.” When two of his followers attacked a homeless man, Trump excused their behavior by noting that his supporters were “very passionate.” At rallies, Trump condones violence against his opponents.

Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle (1958)The kangaroo, the Cat, and McBean all illuminate aspects of the Trump psyche, but, to glimpse a Trump presidency, we need look to Yertle the Turtle, the despotic reptile who loves to brag about all he owns: “I’m king of the butterflies! King of the air! / Ah, me! What a throne! What a wonderful chair!” If Trump delivered one of his “I’m really rich” speeches in anapestic verse, he would sound just like Yertle. Seuss wrote Yertle the Turtle (1958) as an anti-fascist parable, in which the turtle king represented Hitler. Trump is not Hitler, but he is an authoritarian bully who scapegoats society’s vulnerable. He rejects democratic institutions — many of his proposals (such as the mass deportation of Muslims) are unconstitutional. Like Yertle, Trump is interested only in his own power, and not in his constituents’ welfare. In Seuss’s book, Yertle quite literally builds his empire on the backs of his citizens. This, too, is how Trump operates, and is what a Trump presidency would look like.

At the end of each Seuss story, the villain either fails or changes. Led by Mack’s revolutionary “burp,” Yertle’s subjects topple their king, freeing themselves and relegating Yertle to “King of the Mud.” In Horton Hears a Who!, the kangaroo changes her mind, recognizes the Whos’ humanity, and vows to protect them. The Sneetches (1961) ends with the Sneetches poorer, but wiser, having learned “that Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” But what will be the end of Trump’s story?

Will the Trump on the stump make us all chumps?

Or will people wise up, and send Trump to the dump?

There’s no land of the free in his presidency.

Only anger and threats, bluster and bigotry.

If the Trump’s demagoguery wins in the fall,

Then a new idiocracy threatens us all.


I wrote this about a month ago, & pitched it to Buzzfeed & Politico, but got no response. In one version, I opened with a reference to Jimmy Kimmel’s December 2015 clip, in which he presents an ersatz Seuss children’s book as a commentary on Mr. Trump. I offer it here as a little bonus material.

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Created Equal: The Planned Integrated Community of Village Creek, Conn.

Village Creek: Shelley Shaw and Ellen Dewhirst, 1960For America’s Independence Day, here’s a little-known chapter in the history of American anti-racism. Following the Second World War, progressives founded a dozen planned integrated communities across the country. While working on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, I learned about one of those communities — a section of Norwalk Connecticut directly adjacent to where Johnson and Krauss lived, and where they both had several friends. Its name is Village Creek.  It was and is a fully integrated community. Here’s how it began.

In 1948, city planner Roger Willcox was looking for a home within commuting distance from New York.  He and about thirty other people, most of whom were veterans and sailors, wanted waterfront property where they could raise their families and go sailing. As Willcox recalled, when discussing the kind of community they would like to have, they decided that “one of the basic principles” was that there should be “no discrimination because of race, creed or color. The world is made of all colors, creeds, and if we’re going to build a community that we want families to grow up in, and have it recognized in the world, it ought to represent the kinds of people who live in the world.”1 In July of 1949, when they bought the land just across the creek — Village Creek — that would become the Village Creek cooperative neighborhood, they drew up a covenant prohibiting discrimination “on account of race, color, religious creed, age, sex, national origin, ancestry or physical disability.”2

Village Creek: map of lots, 1952

To ensure that it would remain an interracial community, the rules of the Village Creek Home Owners Association specified that Village Creek had to be one third black-owned and two-thirds white owned. To keep the ratio intact, anyone wishing to sell their property had to sell it back to the community. When one of the former residents told me about this ratio, I thought, “Ahh, they’re keeping it two thirds white to placate the whites in the surrounding community.” He said, no, “if we didn’t have this covenant, then if anybody wanted to sell, the real estate agents would immediately go to a black family and say you can move in here because there’s a lot of black people living here. And, of course, then it would start to become a black community. The whites would move out.” And the whole point was to keep it integrated.3

Village Creek: children playing, 1953 or 1954

At the time, integrated communities such as Village Creek were virtually unheard-of: this was the first in Connecticut, and, at the same time it was founded, across the United States veterans with similar goals were creating eleven other co-operative communities — some integrated, some simply co-operatives. Although Johnson and Krauss approved of Village Creek (and likely would have bought there if it existed when they moved to Connecticut), many Norwalk residents were suspicious. Detractors called it “Commie Creek” and claimed that the houses’ roofs were designed to guide Soviet bombers to New York City.4 But Village Creekers united against such adversity. When local banks refused to underwrite mortgages on Village Creek homes, Village Creek property owners either built their houses themselves or sought mortgages from New York City banks. When real estate agents would not show Village Creek houses to white families, Village Creekers helped sell houses by word of mouth.5

Although it was not “Commie Creek,” Village Creek did attract many progressive residents. Philip Oppenheimer, one of Village Creek’s founding members, met other founding members through their mutual support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign.6  Some other early residents included Doxey Wilkerson, African-American professor of Education and Daily Worker columnist; Frank Donner, civil liberties attorney, AFL-CIO lawyer, and active critic of Anti-Communist witch hunts; and Antonio Frasconi and Leona Pierce, artists who (along with their two children, Pablo and Miguel) would become friends of Johnson’s and Krauss’s.

Village Creek: Leona Pierce, Antonio Frasconi, Yolanda and Doxey Wilkerson, 1987

When Village Creek parents wanted to set up a cooperative nursery school for their children, they asked Norma Simon to help her do it. Norma — whose students inspired Krauss’s A Very Special House — and her husband Ed had moved up to the area in 1952. She had attended the Bank Street School, and by 1952 was teaching at the Thomas School in Rowayton. Norma Simon, with the help of her husband and Village Creek parents, transformed the basement of Martin and Sylvia Garment into the Community Cooperative Nursery School — which would become another place where Ruth Krauss would visit, talk with children, listen to children, make notes, and transform their ideas into children’s books. Founded on Bank Street principles, the Community Cooperative Nursery School was a progressive nursery school; enrolling the children of Village Creek, it had black children, white children, and children of many nationalities. Suspicious of its liberal founders, detractors dubbed it “the Little Red Schoolhouse.”7

In a way, this was hardly surprising, since such detractors also thought that all Village Creekers must be Communists, and even went so far as to say that the modern architecture of Village Creek houses were in fact signals to enemy planes. Norma, whose first children’s book (The Wet World) was published in 1954, soon discovered that her association with “the Little Red Schoolhouse” led to an unofficial blacklist: a PTA would invite her to speak, discover that she was director of the school, and, instead of accusing her directly, would then phone up to say, sorry, but the meeting had been cancelled, no need to come.8

That’s a bit of Village Creek’s early history, most of which had to be cut from my biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012). To the best of my knowledge, no one has written about these post-war utopian experiments. Here’s hoping someone reads this post and writes a full history, or a children’s book. 65 years after its founding, Village Creek is still going strong.

Notes

  1. Roger Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  2. Roger Willcox, “President’s Report: Welcome to our 50th Anniversary Celebration.” Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 1.
  3. Martin Garment, telephone interview with the author, 24 Sept. 2002.
  4. Philip Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000. p. 13.
  5. Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  6. Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 13.
  7. Norma Simon. Telephone interview with the author. 20 June 2002; Martin Garment, telephone interview, 24 Sept. 2002.
  8. Simon, telephone interview, 20 June 2002.

Further Reading

Source for photographs

Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000

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Freedom of Speech in Kansas: What Next?

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineIn light of the Kansas Board of Regents’ decision to double down on its repressive social media policy, people keep asking me: What next?

First, we may have lost this battle, but that doesn’t mean we’ll lose the war. In any case, opposing injustice does not mean that you’re going to win every time. The Kansas Board of Regents have established themselves as enemies of freedom of speech, and of higher education. They don’t feel compelled to listen to the faculty and staff they ostensibly govern, but governance without consent of the governed doesn’t work well in the long term. Stable governance requires credibility. The Board has abdicated its credibility and its responsibility.

Second, the policy remains so absurdly broad that we can either muzzle ourselves or keep speaking up. I’m not particularly good at muzzling myself. (Have you noticed?) And I’m not going to waste my time policing my speech for its loyalty, its harmonious content, its ability to impede discipline, or whether it furthers the “best interests of the university.”

hourglassThird, time is our most precious resource. The Regents have wasted thousands of hours of our time. It’s now clear that they convened the workgroup merely to offer themselves cover for their assault on academic freedom. They can say: See? We followed procedure. We listened to the workgroup. Look! Here’s their language in our policy!  What they don’t say, of course, is that they’re merely stapling language affirming academic freedom onto a policy that revokes academic freedom. To waste so much time simply to create a rhetorical cover story is unforgivable. It’s also very clever — they’ve played us well. We assumed they’d act in good faith, when they have never had any interest in acting in good faith. In acting in bad faith and wasting our time, they’ve revealed their true colors. And they’ve persuaded thousands of faculty and staff members that they should never trust the Regents again.

Fourth, back when the Regents announced this policy, I began de-affiliating myself from Kansas State University in all of my social media profiles. It would be too labor-intensive to remove all references to Kansas State University from my blog, but I altered this blog’s “About Philip Nel” page so that it redacts the university’s name. I removed the @KState tag from my Twitter account, deleted Kansas State University from my Facebook page, from my GooglePlus account, and from my Amazon.com author page. I will ask my publishers to remove references to Kansas State University from my future published work, and have stopped providing it for the “About the author” section of any articles I publish. I’ll never be able to fully dissociate my public self from my employer: a quick Google search will reveal where I work, and, when I give a talk, promotional materials invariably name my employer. However, I’ll do my best to minimize my public connection to Kansas State University.

Books written or edited by Philip Nel, as of 2013In the past, Kansas State University’s Division of Communications and Marketing have appreciated it when my work was cited in the media, or when I’ve appeared in the media, or when something I’d written received media attention. Indeed, because I’ve known this, I’ve always asked that my affiliation with Kansas State University be mentioned. And I’ve let them know about any such media attention. But I’ve stopped letting them know about my accomplishments. A book of mine recently won some awards; another has been nominated for a different award. I’ve added those accolades to my CV (which, yes, also identifies my university affiliation), but have otherwise kept that information to myself. And, when interviewed by the media, I will ask that I be identified as the author of whatever the most relevant of my books might be (Dr. Seuss: American Icon for a story on Seuss, say). If universities in Kansas want to benefit from social media, then they’ll need a social media policy that affirms academic freedom.

In any case, if I work for a place where everything I say in public can be used as grounds for my dismissal, then why would I want to be known as a Kansas State University Professor? People will pity me because I work at a place where freedom of speech is no longer allowed. I don’t want to be pitied. I have a reputation to protect, too.

Fifth, there is much that Kansas universities can do to protect faculty and staff against the tyranny of the Regents. We can adopt our own social media policies, modeled on the workgroup’s excellent revision — policies that affirm academic freedom rather than police the content of speech. And we can find creative ways to resist. For example, what the heck would loyal, harmonious, disciplined speech look like? The Regents have declined to offer examples of either appropriate speech or inappropriate speech. Why not have a contest, calling for creative responses (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama) to this puzzling question?  We could make it a statewide event, and publish the winners. It could even be an annual contest.  Another example: we could have one day each semester on which everyone sends out via social media a provocative idea. We can use Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, or whatever the current social media platform is. We could send out provocative ideas from any discipline. It would be fun and educational. Yet another example: what about a conference in which we invite people from other places where academic freedom has been under attack (South Carolina, Colorado, Saskatchewan, etc.)?  That’d be a great way to educate people about freedom of speech.

There are many possibilities!

In light of Wednesday’s decision, we — the faculty, staff, students of Kansas universities — are demoralized. We are down. But we are not out. This fight is not over. It is just beginning.

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The Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline: The Mixes

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineBecause every revolution needs a soundtrack, I assembled a couple of CDs of songs for the drive to and from Topeka, for yesterday’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting. True, the drive is not in fact that long (only an hour each way), but creating playlists is a form of thinking. It’s something I do for fun. Really.

There are only YouTube recordings below. Nearly all of these songs are commercially available — i.e., you can buy individual tracks via iTunes. (I think only the Steinski track at the very end is not on iTunes.  And the Public Enemy recording that opens the mix is not available as an individual track: you need to purchase the entire Do the Right Thing soundtrack.)


Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline Mix #1

1)     Fight the Power (Soundtrack Version)  PUBLIC ENEMY (1989)                  5:23

I used the version from the Do the Right Thing Soundtrack, which includes Take 6’s intro (of the fictional radio station’s call letters).

2)     Know Your Rights  THE CLASH (1982)                                                3:42

From the Clash’s final studio album, Combat Rock. (No one counts the later Cut the Crap — not even the Calash.) “You have the right to free speech… as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it!”

3)     1984  DAVID BOWIE (1974)                                                             3:27

From Diamond Dogs, which contains a number of songs written for an aborted stage musical of 1984.

4)     Exhuming McCarthy  R.E.M. (1987)                                                       3:22

This song appears on Document, and includes an audio clip from Joseph N. Welch’s famous “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” from the Army-McCarthy hearings.

5)     There Is No Time  LOU REED (1989)                                                 3:47

Lou Reed gets angry, on New York.

6)     Get Up, Stand Up  BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS (1973)                      3:19

7)     You Won’t Stand Alone (ska-sized)  D.O.A. (2004)                                  2:06

8)     Stand  SLY & THE FAMILY STONE (1969)                                            3:07

9)     Power to the People  CURTIS MAYFIELD (1974)                                  3:29

This is the demo version. I used the album version (from Sweet Exorcist).

10)   People Have the Power  PATTI SMITH (1988)                                      5:10

11)   Give the People What They Want  THE O’JAYS (1975)                           4:11

12)   The Stone (Revolution!)  RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR (2012)            3:10

13)   Revolution  NINA SIMONE (1969)                                                      4:41

One of the greatest Beatles covers. Indeed, “cover” is the wrong word. Simone transforms Lennon’s cynical anti-revolutionary song into a genuine call for revolution.

14)   I Fought the Law  DEAD KENNEDYS (1984)                                        2:19

In addition to changing the lyrics to “I fought the law / And I won,” the Dead Kennedys also include such new lyrics as: “The law don’t mean shit if you’ve got the right friends. / That’s how this country’s run” and “You can get away with murder if you’ve got a badge.”

15)   All You Fascists  BILLY BRAGG & WILCO (2000)                                  2:43

Woody Gurthrie’s lyrics, with Bragg’s vocals and Wilco’s music. Here’s a version with Billy Bragg playing the song on his own.

16)   This Land Is Your Land  SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS (2004)      4:37

Magnificent soul arrangement of the Woody Gurthrie classic. Here’s an acoustic version (though I put the original album version on the mix, of course).

17)   Woody Guthrie  ALABAMA 3 (2002)                                                  4:18

18)   People Gotta Be Free  KEB’ MO’ (2004)                                               3:46

Great cover of the Rascals’ original. I couldn’t find Keb’ Mo’s version on YouTube; so, here are the Rascals:

19)   International  JIM’S BIG EGO (2008)                                                    3:37

20)   World Upside Down  JIMMY CLIFF (2012)                                           3:10

21)   Talking Union  THE ALMANAC SINGERS (1941)                                  3:06

Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell — the Almanac Singers — recorded this song for their second record, Talking Union (1941; re-released with additional songs, 1955).  Written by Seeger, Hays, and Lampell, the song uses a “talking blues” style later adopted by Bob Dylan.

22)   Redemption Song  JOE STRUMMER & THE MESCALEROS (2003)           3:28

From his final solo record, the Clash’s Joe Strummer covers Bob Marley.

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline


Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline Mix #2

1)     The Preamble  LYNN AHRENS (1976)                                                 3:00

From Schoolhouse Rock!

2)     We the People  THE STAPLE SINGERS (1972)                                      3:52

Here’s a performance from Soul Train.

And here’s an excerpt from a promotional film.

3)     Fight the Power  BARENAKED LADIES (1993)                                     4:06

Barenaked Ladies cover Public Enemy! Yes, you read that correctly. It’s actually a great cover. Despite the occasionally goofy turn (“Nutty Buddy was a hero to most”?), I think they otherwise are quite in earnest. In some ways, you might see this as an antecedent to BNL’s “Fun and Games,” one of the most trenchant musical critiques of the Bush administration.

Recorded for Gordon, the cover appears on (of all places) the Coneheads soundtrack. Here are BNL performing it live, in 2009.

4)     American Idiot  GREEN DAY (2004)                                                    2:54

5)     My Favorite Mutiny  THE COUP feat. BLACK THOUGHT and TALIB KWELI (2006)                                                                                  4:36

Here’s the full version.

And here’s an excerpt from a live performance.

6)     I Predict a Riot  KAISER CHIEFS (2005)                                               3:53

7)     Harder Than You Think  PUBLIC ENEMY (2007)                                   4:10

8)     Seven Nation Army  THE WHITE STRIPES (2003)                                 3:52

9)     I Won’t Back Down  TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS (1989)        2:57

10)   You Haven’t Done Nothin’  STEVIE WONDER (1974)                           3:29

11)   Low Light Low Life  P.O.S. feat. DESSA (2009)                                      3:15

12)   Clampdown  THE CLASH (1979)                                                         3:52

“We will teach our twisted speech / To the young believers.” Ah, so many great lyrics in this one, from London Calling, which is (to my mind) the best Clash record.  “Let fury have the hour. / Anger can be power, / If you know that you can use it.”

13)   Freedom  JURASSIC 5 (2002)                                                             3:19

14)   This Little Light  MAVIS STAPLES (2007)                                              3:23

This appears on We’ll Never Turn Back, which — along with London Calling (see track 11, above) is one of my Desert Island Discs.  Here’s a live recording.

15)   Freedom  THE ISLEY BROTHERS (1970)                                             3:39

16)   I Should Be Allowed to Think  THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1994)            3:08

Begins by quoting Ginsburg’s “Howl.”

17)   Express Yourself  CHARLES WRIGHT & THE WATTS 103RD RHYTHM BAND (1972)     3:52

18)   Try This at Home  FRANK TURNER (2012)                                         1:53

19)   Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)  SHAD (2013)                                          3:32

Great song about education, immigration, family, and much more.

20)   Motion Movement  BLUE SCHOLARS (2004)                                       3:47

21)   You Can Get It If You Really Want It  DESMOND DEKKER (1970)         2:40

22)   You Get What You Give  NEW RADICALS (1998)                                5:02

23)   Silent Partner (Peace Out)  STEINSKI (2006)                                         0:52

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline

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The object of power is power: a report from today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting

“The object of power is power.”

— O’Brien, in George Orwell’s 1984

Some of the KSU contingent: (back row) Todd Gabbard, Joe Sutliff Sanders, Abby Knoblauch, Philip Nel; (front row) Elizabeth Dodd, Sierra Hale, and Lexiyee SmithTo support the basic right to freedom of speech and to stand up for academic freedom, faculty, staff, and students from Kansas universities attended today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting in Topeka, Kansas. The room was packed: standing room only.  The Board of Regents were cheerful, chummy, and completely indifferent to the rights of those whom they allegedly represent. They rescinded our rights to freedom of speech, but they did it with a smile. Fred Logan told us that the Regents respect us, and passed a policy that does not respect academic freedom.

He is a canny politician, and I could see him going places. I mean that both as a compliment to him and as a caution to the people of Kansas. In other words, I am being both sarcastic and completely sincere. Not only does Mr. Logan have the ability to say (with apparent sincerity) words like “respect” without actually meaning them, but the very first thing he did upon entering the room was come up and introduce himself to me. (I was seated in the front row.)

Fred Logan [smiling]: Philip Nel?  Fred Logan.

I stand up. We shake hands.

Logan: It’s nice to meet you.

Me: It’s interesting to meet you.

Logan: I’ve read what you’ve written about me, and I’ve looked at your website.  Don DeLillo?

Me: Yes.

Logan: I read Falling Man, and I was thinking about reading White Noise next. Good choice?

Me: Yes. White Noise is a great choice. That’s the one to read.  [Pause.]  So, are you really going to go through with this policy? Or —

Logan: [Smiling, makes non-committal sound, walks away, waves, and takes his place at the Regents’ Desk of Governance.]

Hence, my first tweet:

And then, the meeting got underway.  

Kansas Board of Regents, at start of meeting, 14 May 2014 Regents’ Chair Fred Logan said of the revised social media policy, “I want to thank the members of the workgroup who worked on this. I in particular want to recognize the co-chairs of the group. They did spectacular work.” He added, “I also want to welcome and thank all the members of the faculty for coming.”

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineThat was just one of many examples where Mr. Logan said one thing, but the actions of the Regents conveyed a rather different message. The revised policy retains all punitive parts. You can still be fired for a broad array of vaguely defined speech, such as uttering something “contrary to the best interests of the employer.”  Presumably, a blog post (like this one) that is critical of the Kansas Board of Regents might be included in this restriction.  You can also be fired for speech that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary.”  This particular language, of course, inspired our “Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline” t-shirts. How would one go about measuring the harmonious content of speech? How might we determine whether speech is disloyal?  And as for impairing discipline, if I were to write that the Kansas Board of Regents have brought shame to the state of Kansas, and that all of them should resign effective immediately, is that a fireable offense?

Because they have done precisely that. In addition to all the negative national publicity this has already received, here’s a story from National Public Radio, this evening. National Public Radio: "In Kansas, Professors Must Now Watch What They Tweet" Kansas is already known for being anti-science (evolution? just a theory!). Now, Kansas is known for its opposition to freedom of speech. If you’re trying to attract top faculty to Kansas universities, you have your work cut out for you. When Fred Logan got to the social media policy, Emporia State University’s Sheryl Lidzy read — on behalf of the Kansas Council of Faculty Senate Presidents — a great defense of freedom of speech. It included such gems as this:

we fear that the most important point continues to be ignored. That point is this: a university system cannot properly function when external groups are allowed to influence university personnel decisions whenever they find certain speech to be objectionable. Because the punitive aspects of this policy create precisely this “heckler’s veto” scenario for controversial speech, we must once again respectfully request that the Board reconsider its determination that the disciplinary aspects of this policy are necessary and desirable.

As Prof. Lidzy read, Regents looked on, with — as my colleague Christina Hauck observed — expressions of “boredom and distaste” for the Faculty Senate Presidents. Kansas Board of Regents, bored, as they listen (or don't) to Council of Faculty Senate Presidents. Photo by Christina Hauck. Lidzy continued:

there are certain rights and responsibilities that are non-negotiable. However expedient it may seem at the time to surrender these cornerstones of the academic mission, there are certain principles that cannot be bargained away, because once they are conceded, the integrity of the entire enterprise is compromised. The freedom to speak without fear of reprisal is perhaps the ultimate example of a principle with which we are not at liberty to experiment and this is why we continue to oppose the punitive aspects of this policy.

The Kansas Board of Regents were unmoved. And yet Fred Logan said, “We have the utmost respect for faculty.”

I found these sort of responses fascinating. Throughout this process, the Board’s attitude towards faculty has been condescending, patronizing, even hostile. The policy itself establishes new ways to fire people, based on very broadly defined objectionable speech. However, Regent Logan says, “We have the utmost respect for faculty.” The vast gap between word and deed is truly breathtaking. This is why I think that Mr. Logan may have a bright future in Kansas politics. Directly after Professor Lidzy’s statement, Logan got up, and rushed over to give her an award for her service, which — he said — the Board very much appreciated.  Again, he is thanking her, even while he completely disregards what she has said.

At the meeting we also learned that the Moody’s downgrade of Kansas’s credit rating (thanks to Governor Brownback and the legislature’s fiscal recklessness) will result in higher borrowing rates for Kansas universities. As my colleague Don Hedrick pointed out after the meeting, the Kansas Board of Regents’ actions also downgrades the rating of Kansas universities.

The Regents passed their punitive social media policy. Of the policy, Fred Logan said, “This will be the strongest and most explicit statement on academic freedom that appears anywhere in our policy manual.” While it is true that the Regents did adopt the workgroup’s recommendations on language affirming academic freedom, it is also true that the Regents retained the original language eviscerating academic freedom. So, if this is their “strongest and most explicit statement on academic freedom,” that’s hardly a cause for rejoicing.

With smiles, conviviality, and bland affirmations of freedom of speech, the Kansas Board of Regents adopted a policy that tells faculty and staff: watch what you say. Of course, Kansas is merely part of a trend of cracking down on freedom of speech. South Carolina’s legislature has punished the College of Charleston for assigning a book, and installed a white supremacist as their new president. A dean at the University of Saskatchewan was just fired for speaking his mind. So, the Kansas Board of Regents are not unusual. They are normal. And they are the future. Indeed, to paraphrase George Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine sensible shoes stamping on a human face—forever.1

——

1. The actual line from Orwell’s 1984 is “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But the Kansas Board of Regents tends to wear sensible shoes, and not boots.


Update, 10:30 pm, 15 May 2014

in response to Nena Beckley’s comment below, I’ve added (in the comments) a link to the revised policy.  I’m also adding that information here:

Here’s some media coverage (updated 9:00 am, 16 May 2014):

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Kansas Faculty Senates ask Regents for “Freedom to speak without fear of reprisal”

University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, University of Kansas Medical CenterHere is the statement from the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents, read at today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting, about 20 minutes ago.


As the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents, it is our responsibility to express to the Board the concerns of the faculty we represent. When the Social Media Policy was introduced in December, we recognized that connecting terminations to faculty speech was extremely problematic, and we requested an opportunity for input and collaboration prior to its passage. This request was denied.

When the newly enacted policy predictably generated national attention and widespread controversy, we were pleased with the Board’s willingness to form a Work Group and revisit the policy. In light of the considerable distraction and backlash created by the policy, we requested a suspension of the policy pending the Work Group’s recommendations. This request was also denied.

When the Work Group’s extensive research failed to identify any university in the nation with a similarly punitive policy, we were hopeful that the widespread and enthusiastic support for the Work Group recommendations would persuade the Board to adopt an advisory policy that would align Kansas with best practices within higher education. Up to this point in the process, this request – like the others before it – has been denied.

Today, we stand before the Board, once again reiterating our unanimous opposition to the chilling effect created by the punitive aspects of this policy. Although we appreciate the creation of the Work Group, and the Governance Committee’s adoption of considerable portions of the Work Group proposal, we fear that the most important point continues to be ignored. That point is this: a university system cannot properly function when external groups are allowed to influence university personnel decisions whenever they find certain speech to be objectionable. Because the punitive aspects of this policy create precisely this “heckler’s veto” scenario for controversial speech, we must once again respectfully request that the Board reconsider its determination that the displinary aspects of this policy are necessary and desirable.

In conclusion, we accept the premise that the Board has acted in good faith and has endeavored to act in the best interests of the Regent’s universities. While we accept this premise, we disagree with the Board’s analysis of the universities’ best interests. In recent years, we have been asked to become more efficient, we have been asked to do more with less, we have been asked to undergo post-tenure review, and we have been asked to improve our standing among our peers across the nation. Believing that our advocates have our best interests at heart, we have willingly embraced all of these challenges, and have already begun to succeed on many fronts. Yet, there are certain rights and responsibilities that are non-negotiable. However expedient it may seem at the time to surrender these cornerstones of the academic mission, there are certain principles that cannot be bargained away, because once they are conceded, the integrity of the entire enterprise is compromised. The freedom to speak without fear of reprisal is perhaps the ultimate example of a principle with which we are not at liberty to experiment and this is why we continue to oppose the punitive aspects of this policy. This policy will continue to be plagued with controversy and opposition as long as it exists.

Because of these imperative principles, and because of practical concerns that this issue will continue to pose a distraction and a drain upon precious time and resources, we once again respectfully ask the Board to adopt the Work Group recommendations in their entirety.

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