Sunday, October 9, 2016

What I Would Say To My Students

If the majority of you could vote, and you had the will to do so, I would feel much better about November.

Unfortunately, even the certain knowledge that the "right" candidate would win the Presidency this year, couldn't set me wholly at ease. The good intentions of a voter cannot account for the reality of elected officials, or the reality of the state we all suspect is looking to screw us. 

It's not my job - in fact, it's against the purpose of my job - to tell you what to think, who to follow, and who to vote for. But it would be immoral not to be honest with you about where I see this country is going (to say nothing of the world), and more so to deny where we've already come to.  I'll do my best in the classroom; if any of you should stumble upon this essay, I hope you will find it more useful.

Many of you know, or suspect, that you live in a medium tainted by political propaganda.You may not know it at a conscious level, but you've learned to suspect that official narratives can be manipulative and self-serving, that authorities can be wrong (deliberately or mistakenly),and that issues can be much more complicated than they appear. Much of what is not criticized or questioned is actually an illusion.

Unfortunately, the people who are most willing to "disillusion" you have only their own illusions to offer in their place. At a fundamental level, this is inevitable. If the veil could really come down, we would have torn it off the rings centuries ago. It's not that we prefer the veil of our illusory worldviews, but rather that in a practical sense there is nothing else to see.

At that fundamental level, people have lived in the illusions of their own worldviews for all of human history. Perhaps there have been prophets and seers who truly could perceive the world as it "really" is. In your life, you're more likely to encounter a series of alternative perspectives. Many of these will be illogical, unscrupulous, and sinister. They will also be dangerously appealing.

Let's get specific: I'm talking about the outrageous pet theories of racists, bigots, and misogynists. I'm talking about the people who cast aspersions on the characters of innocent Jews and Muslims; who proudly ignore the slow, tortuous genocide of indigenous people; who regard Africans, Latinos, or Romani people as racially dishonest and criminal; who interpret poverty and opulence as outward manifestations of human worth; who equate desperate need with greed, and aggressive greed with an admirable intelligence; who peddle inane theories about the size of women's brains and their fitness for an undomesticated existence; who obsess over the harmless sexual practices of their neighbors, and insist on policing and demeaning their habits, activities, and genitals; who treat children and women as a kind of property, to be "protected" or "targeted" in a proud struggle between men; who submissively revere power as expressed through arbitrary violence and self-destructive behavior; who muse on the possibility of improving the world by mutilating or murdering people they deem inferior, defective, or unproductive.

I'm talking about ideas which are repeated so easily, by people so parochial they hardly know why parochialism should be a problem, that the average listener may not even perceive their full implications. Lift up your eyes, and you'll find yourself engulfed in a sea of such nonsense. Or maybe you won't - I don't pretend to know how the veil looks from where you're standing.  Whatever your eyes see, I only hope you are listening too.

Now, this is the section where I tell you what to think, who to follow, and who to vote for.

In November of 2016, the voters of the United States will have their choice of being led by a woman with a problematic history of secrecy, obscurity, and inconsistency (the sins of a career politician); and a man who thinks that being rich and famous gives him the right to treat women and girls like toys. More broadly, Donald Trump sees all people as a means to an end, granting them conditional respect as human beings only to the extent that they resemble him, enable him, and embody his prejudices. Hillary Clinton is also ambitious, arrogant, and occasionally dishonest. However, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - in her history to indicate she is prone to the kind of cartoonish corruption which Trump openly aspires to.

There are basically three reasons why Trump has a chance of becoming the next President of the United States. Accounting for these reasons here cannot change the underlying reality. But for your own sake, you should study them, and understand them well.

First, the political system of the U.S. is highly polarized, and strongly favors two dominant political organizations over any upstart rivals. This is not to say that a third party candidate cannot become President, because if that candidate were to win a majority of votes in the electoral college that is exactly what would happen. But constitutional, psychological, and economic factors have conspired to turn Presidential elections into a bipolar tug-of-war, so that a third party candidacy can really only affect the outcome by sapping the strength of one side relative to the other. A vicious cycle maintains the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats on the White House, and Donald Trump is the Republican Party's duly chosen candidate this year.

Second, Americans have increasingly grown frustrated with the state of their country and its role in the world. They come by this frustration in many ways, but they mostly come by it honestly. The truth is, as a global super-power with an imperial (and expensive) military, an economic regime that encourages a huge gulf between the rich and the poor, and a continuing history of brutish racial oppression, there is a lot to be frustrated with. American voters are savvy enough to know that the two-party system and its conventional politicians are in large part responsible for this. Trump is unconventional enough to appear, in some circles, as a viable protest candidate.

Third, Donald Trump has shamelessly rooted his politics in prejudice and reaction. He aspires to lead the United States as a paragon of masculine power, respected for his wealth, physical prowess, sexual boldness, and his brash self-confidence. This is not necessarily a losing strategy in a country inhabited by millions of men who resent the erosion of traditional masculinity. Neither is it necessarily unwise to disparage religious and ethnic minority groups in a land full of paranoid white Christians, accustomed to being treated as "real Americans" and surrounded by those they see as usurpers and impostors. Trump affirms their parochial anxieties, and declares that he has the macho strength of will to put everything back in its "right" place.  Even as he is the candidate of radical change, Trump is also the candidate of traditional hierarchies and vulgar parochialism.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has nominated someone who largely stands with the political establishment, even as she upends traditional notions about the suitability of women for leadership. Under the administration of Hillary Clinton, the United States will not become a paradise of economic and social equality; neither will it cease in its role as a global empire, terrorizing foreign people with drones and manipulating the affairs of other nations. There is always hope that it may become marginally better, but a message like that does not inspire in so visceral a way.


I am voting for Hillary Clinton because I believe she is good enough: she is the best candidate the nominating process has produced, third parties included. I believe there is symbolic value in voting for a woman, even if she is not an avatar of feminist ideological purity. I believe that many people in this country could face grave danger if she loses, from Trump himself or from the reactionary politicians who take advantage of his rise. She doesn't represent everything I want in a candidate, but her opponent represents everything I do not want.  I must oppose him, and the best way I can see to do that is to support Clinton.

Most of you cannot vote in this election, but if our Constitution continues to operate for the foreseeable future, you will have the opportunity to vote in others. I can't foresee what those elections may look like, or what the candidates of the future may offer you. But this election may offer important lessons, which you would do well to learn.

Democracy is not just a mechanism for assigning power to individuals. It is also an ideology, a system of values. It is one which the United States, for all its faults and hypocrisies, has professed to support. It is a rebuke to tyranny and a defense of ordinary people, a declaration that they can manage their own interests responsibly. If you believe in these values, do not support a candidate whose only constant political value is "strength".

Democracy is only possible in a system that is ruled by laws. The laws of the United States are often confused and cruel in their execution, but in being ruled by them we at least are not ruled by the whims of a contemptuous dictator. Laws can be changed without bloodshed, but when a leader has no respect for law or custom, there is no guarantee he will not use naked violence to get his way. If you believe in the rule of law, do not support a candidate who sees it as an inconvenience or a joke.

It is possible to change the worst aspects of our political situation; however, it requires hard work and a concerted effort among responsible and motivated people. Resist the urge to treat any candidate, no matter how anti-establishment, as a savior who can fix everything in a few short strokes. Instead, look for candidates for Congress and the Presidency who will take responsibility for improving our infrastructure and our society. Do not support candidates who are wantonly irresponsible in all aspects of their lives.

Lastly, remember that even if politics seems alienating and irrelevant to your life, the outcomes of elections matter dearly to a lot of people. The rights of women, people of color, immigrants, the poor, gender and sexual minorities, and people with disabilities, are considered to be expendable in a society that does not care about the people behind those generic labels. If you care about the rights and the welfare of your neighbors, do not support a candidate who treats them with contempt, or open hostility.

Our politics work best when more citizens are engaged with them. But they will never work perfectly, and the United States may soon have its day of reckoning for its mistakes and its errors. For now, the best we can do is to try and govern ourselves with dignity and wisdom, to compromise when we must and defend what really matters.

Most of all, remember that world is always more than it seems to be. If you doubt your own judgment, take a good long time and listen.

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