There was a fantastic review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ouvre in the summer edition of Dissent by Sarah Jones. This was by no means the first time the author’s name has come up for me. She has been in the background of my political consciousness for some time, peeking out most recently with this piece and and the interview of Kim Stanley Robinson that was on the antifada earlier this year.
So, I was excited to dig into a copy of The Dispossessed, Le Guin’s 1974 SciFi classic last weekend after wrapping up the sometimes sentimental collection of short stories by Toshio Mori in Yokohama, California. It is always reassuring to me to be reminded that brilliant artists such as Le Guin have always been wrestling with ideas like the abolition of state-violence, sexual liberation, and radical forms of education and government. I expect to continue being inspired by what has started off as a genre-defying bit of genre-fiction.
Le Guin’s work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living.
I am just beginning to dive in to some of the details of this ongoing series of actions in Hong Kong. But I am excited to have been able to use a bilingual interview with an activist (Agnes Chow Ting) spokesperson for the “Scholarism” group in Hong Kong for one of my English expression classes. Scholarism eventually merged into the Demosisto group which is I believe at the center of the current actions. It was a bit of a sensitive issue in class because there is one student who is Chinese in that class and I wasn’t sure how she would react. Japanese media (and as a result, my students) tend to focus on the unrest as a means to criticize the Chinese government in a kind of superior jingoistic fashion. And my Chinese student has often But I think I made it clear that the reason why I brought this text into the class was out of respect for the Chinese student activists and their connecting politics with their education in a meaningful and powerful way.
Exactly what is the connection between education and radical politics in this situation is still something I want to investigate. Obviously the connection that this NYTimes headline suggests of a 1-to-1 process of “radicalization,” doesn’t ring true because it ignores the underlying contexts of that education as it takes place. Anyway, more soon…
We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree – on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication.
I kept hearing again and again about this 2013 essay on some of the socialist podcasts I subscribe to– The Majority Report family of podcasts, but also Chapo Trap House, and Best of the Left too. The Antifada podcast has aparently created a vampire-centric spin-off inspired, in part, by this article as well. I’m glad I finally got a chance to read it. Though I am unfamiliar with the particular comedian and the imbroglio that was the impetus for the article, it certainly seems to ring true. The final caution about how social media ought to be used for revolutionary aims is particularly clarifying. And Mark Fisher’s call to resist the erasure of class in whatever form that erasure may take is essential.
Some readers seem surprised by the fact that I’m heartbroken and outraged about Trump’s victory.
“It’s not pronoiac to be so sad and angry,” one person said.
To correct that misunderstanding, here’s a relevant passage from my book Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia:
Pronoia is fueled by a drive to cultivate happiness and a determination to practice an aggressive form of gratitude that systematically identifies the things that are working well. But it is not a soothing diversion meant for timid Pollyannas strung out on optimistic delusions.
It’s not a feel-good New Age fantasy used to deny the harsh facts about existence. Those of us who perceive the world pronoiacally refuse to be polite shills for sentimental hopefulness.
On the contrary, we build our optimism not through a repression of difficulty, but rather a vigorous engagement with it. We understand that the best way to attract blessings is to grapple with the knottiest enigmas.
Each fresh puzzle is a potential source of future bliss — an excitingteaching that may usher us to our next breakthrough.
Do you want to be a pronoiac player? Blend anarchistic rebelliousness with open-hearted exuberance. Root your insurrectionary fervor in expansive joy instead of withering hatred. Enjoy saying “no!” but don’t make it the wellspring of your vitality. Be fueled by blood-red yeses that rip against the grain of comfortable ugliness.
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“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”― Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light
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The wise Charles Eisenstein writes: “We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. Some may cling to it all the more desperately as it dissolves, looking perhaps to Donald Trump to restore it, but their savior has not the power to bring back the dead.”
“Neither would Clinton have been able to preserve America as we’d known it for too much longer. We as a society are entering a space between stories, in which everything that had seemed so real, true, right, and permanent comes into doubt.”
“For a while, segments of society have remained insulated from this breakdown (whether by fortune, talent, or privilege), living in a bubble as the containing economic and ecological systems deteriorate. But not for much longer.”
“Not even the elites are immune to this doubt. They grasp at straws of past glories and obsolete strategies; they create perfunctory and unconvincing shibboleths (Putin!), wandering aimlessly from ‘doctrine’ to ‘doctrine’ – and they have no idea what to do.
“Their haplessness and half-heartedness was plain to see in this election, their disbelief in their own propaganda, their cynicism.”
“When even the custodians of the story no longer believe the story, you know its days are numbered. It is a shell with no engine, running on habit and momentum.”
I’m not naïve. In my years on the planet, I have witnessed and experienced the atrocities of racism, misogyny, homophobia, militarism, nativism, plutocracy, hate-mongering, and bigotry of many stripes.
Since I was 16 years old, I have fought these evils. That’s why I have had knives brandished at me by bigots — bottles thrown at me and insults hurled at me. While participating in political protests, I have been tear-gassed and clubbed by police. I have felt the barrel of a cop’s gun against my head, and have been strip-searched and harassed by law enforcement officers.
And much, much more. I won’t mention here all the abuses I’ve seen directed at gay, female, black, Hispanic, or impoverished people I care about.
And yet I am finding it a challenge to fully integrate the fact that 60 million Americans just voted for a person whose own words have revealed him to be a racist, misogynist, homophobic, militaristic, plutocratic hate-mongerer. I’m heartbroken. My grief and anger are deep.
I’m open to the possibility that some redemption will ultimately emerge from this tragedy, even it takes decades. I will search for and work to create that redemption.
But for now it’s my duty to explore the teachings of this pain.
One thing that’s important to my process is to ask whether my perceptions of Trump’s dangerous intentions are real. Am I projecting my fears onto him? Have I been fooled into exaggerating his terror? So far, my answers to those questions is “No.” I invite you to send me good evidence to the contrary.
Here are compilations of the evidence Trump himself has provided:
A voice in my dream said to me: “I believe redemption will come from this disaster — that the Trump election is a desperation move to preserve a dying paradigm. And I affirm that the work to birth the new paradigm requires me to steadfastly practice the seemingly impossible discipline of love.”
Here’s how I replied to the voice in my dream: I agree. But we also need the fuel of our anger. Which is why I’m meditating on these questions:
How do we summon the right blend of practical love and constructive anger?
How do we refrain from hating other people even as we fight fiercely against the hatred and danger they have helped unleash?
How do we cultivate cheerful buoyancy even as we neutralize the bigoted, autocratic poisons that are on the loose?
How can we be both wrathful insurrectionaries and exuberant lovers of life?
How can we stay in a good yet unruly mood as we overthrow the mass hallucinations that are metastasizing?
In the face of the danger, how do we remain intensely dedicated to building beauty and truth and justice and love even as we keep our imaginations wild and hungry and free?
Can our struggle also be a form of play?
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A reader who is upset about my outrage at the election results sent me this meme: “Believe there is good in the world.”
Here’s my response: For more than a decade, I have been a tireless advocate for the importance of believing there is good in the world. But if we believers in the world’s wonder and glory fail to identify and acknowledge the world’s suffering, our advocacy is empty and feeble; our credibility is zero.
To celebrate the good — indeed, to create and cultivate the good — we must deal regularly with the darkness.
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MORE PRONOIA RESOURCES:
In the California race to replace retiring Senator Barbara Boxer, Kamala Harris, daughter of Indian & Jamaican immigrants, was voted the nation’s first Indian-American and second black female Senator.
In Oregon, Kate Brown was the first openly LGBT person to be elected to a US governorship.
Lisa Blunt Rochester earned Delaware’s sole seat in the House of Representatives, becoming both the first woman and the first African-American to represent Delaware in Congress.
In Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, a former refugee, is the first Somali-American Muslim woman elected to a state legislature.
Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada is the first Latina elected to the Senate.
Tammy Duckworth took back Obama’s Senate seat in Illinois.
In Florida, Stephanie Murphy was the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress, defeating a 23-year Republican incumbent.
Pramila Jayapal will be the first female Indian-American Congressional Representative. An immigrant from India at 16, she was elected to represent the Seattle area on a Bernie-Sanders-style platform.
In NJ, Josh Gottheimer, first time Democratic candidate, beat Representative Scott Garrett, seven-term Republican incumbent and one of the most conservative Tea-Party-aligned members of Congress.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio was ousted in Arizona.
A woman handily won the popular vote for President of the United States.
(Note: I endorse these because I like them. They aren’t advertisements, and I get no kickbacks.)
Please tell me your own nominations for PRONOIA RESOURCES: Truthrooster@gmail.com.
One wintry mix of a morning, while I was in training to be a substitute teacher, I saw a textbook that was being used in an 11th-grade English class. The class was studying transcendentalism, and the students were required to read excerpts from an essay called “Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was an unmethodical writer with low, puffy sideburns who liked to work himself up into paragraphs of rapture. When it came time for him to write an essay or give an oration — about nature, say, or self-reliance — he combed through his voluminous journals and pulled out choice bits that were more or less on topic, and he glued them together with some connective prose. For instance, in “Nature,” Emerson writes: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball.”
In the textbook, next to this passage, there was a brief assignment printed in the margin. It said: “Review the elements of transcendentalism listed on Page 369. Which aspect of transcendentalist thought is reflected in Lines 12-19? Explain your answer.”
Isn’t that just about the most paralyzingly unrapturous question you’ve encountered in any textbook? “Explain your answer.” No, thank you. I will not explain my answer. My answer is my answer. I am a transparent eyeball. I am a huge, receptive visual instrument with a flexible lens, and I’m taking in the infinitude of all space and time and dragonflies and owls and life and roadkill and hydrogen gas. I am nothing and everything. I am bathed in air. I’m a carefree, happy huge shining slimy eyeball of weird wonderment. I can swivel in any direction. Any direction I look, I will find something interesting.
That’s the extremely interesting thing: Everything is interesting. Potentially. Sometimes it may not seem so. You may think a certain thing is completely without interest. You may think, or I may think, eh, dull, boring, heck with it, let’s move on. But there is someone on this planet who can find something interesting in that particular thing. And it’s often good to try. You have to poke at a thing, sometimes, and find out where it squeaks. Any seemingly dull thing is made up of subsidiary things. It’s a composite — of smaller events or decisions. Or of atoms and molecules and prejudices and hunches that are fireflying around in unexpected and impossible trajectories. Everything is interesting because everything is not what it is, but is something on the way to being something else. Everything has a history and a secret stash of fascination.
That was the basic idea behind the alternative public high school I attended in Rochester. It was called the School Without Walls — no walls because it’s a big world out there, and life is the great tutor. It was founded by a wonderful, jittery, smart, chain-smoking man named Lew Marks. We called him Lew. He was the principal. Everyone went by first names. Lew had been a hotshot English teacher but wanted to be part of a revolution in education, so he hired nine teacher-coordinators and set the thing up, and the school district said O.K. There was no entrance exam. A lot of people wanted to get in to the School Without Walls after they read about it in the newspaper, so the school held a lottery, and I was one of the lucky ones. I was there on my first day of ninth grade, on the very first day of the school’s existence, in September 1971. Every Wednesday, Lew held something called Town Meeting, where the whole school, all 125 of us noble savages, would meet with him and the other teachers and discuss the philosophy of education, the meaning of life and the problem of applying to college sans G.P.A.
We could do whatever we wanted at S.W.W., academically speaking: There were no grades and no attendance requirements. I read Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon” in a utopian-literature class taught by a shy volunteer with rimless glasses (“Erewhon” is “nowhere” spelled backward, sort of), but I stopped going — there’s only so much utopian literature you can take. My friend Steve and I took a physics class with a blind genius in his dorm room at the University of Rochester — laundry everywhere, socks, underwear. He dictated long equations, his sad blind eyes zigzagging as we hurried to keep up. (Steve became a neurologist.) I spent hours, days at the piano, noodling around, and I took a biology class, which met in a lab in a community college on the outskirts of town. Sometimes it took an hour and a half to get there by bus. The school gave us bus tokens, and some of the kids asked for three times as many as they needed and resold them. When the token budget got out of control, Lew clamped down: “I’m trusting you to ask for the tokens you actually need.” I stopped attending the biology class when we were supposed to dissect fetal pigs.
Sometimes, while eating a grilled-cheese sandwich at a downtown lunch counter at 2 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, when most of the city’s 16-year-olds were sitting in big brick schools, I wanted something more. I wanted to be forced to take final exams. I wanted to be lectured to, really taught a lesson, in the basic sense. Only once did it happen. One afternoon, near the end of the day, Bob, the history teacher, suddenly stood up, went to the blackboard and gave a virtuosic half-hour lecture on the movement of barbarian tribes, the Saxons and the Visigoths and the Huns, with arrows indicating where they migrated. That one history lecture was a revelation. After I went to college and married and had a family, I would wistfully watch John Hughes movies or shows like “Freaks and Geeks” and dearly wish that I had gone to a normal high school, with sports and debate clubs and junior proms — and valedictorians and salutatorians, homerooms and cliques, funny men in the back row, announcements on the loudspeaker, shouts in the halls, bake sales, lockers. There were no lockers at School Without Walls, no little sets of gills on the doors so the air could sneak in and out. I wanted to have had a locker.
All of which may explain why, several years ago, when it occurred to me to write a meditation on American education, I thought: I really need to become a substitute teacher. Like many a think-tank learning theorist, I hadn’t spent a single day in front of a K-12 class. When I first described my substitute-teaching plan to my son — who was in high school at the time — he said: “Dad, don’t do it. They’ll destroy you. They’ll crush you.”
I taught all ages, from kindergarten to high school; I taught remedial classes and honors students. One day we factored polynomials, another day we made Popsicle-stick bird feeders for Mother’s Day, another day it was the Holocaust. Sometimes I substituted for an “ed tech” — a teacher’s aide whose job was to shadow kids with A.D.H.D. or dyslexia, or kids who simply refused to do any work at all. I was a bungling substitute most of the time; I embarrassed myself a hundred different ways, and got my feelings hurt, and complained, and shouted, and ate espresso chocolate to stay awake. It was shattering, but I loved it. After a while, I stopped being so keen on developing my grand treatise on educational theory, and instead I found that I enjoyed trying to keep a class going and watching it fall apart. I liked listening to students talk — even when they were driving themselves, and me, bonkers. The result of my 28 hellish, joyous days of paid work (I made $70 a day) was a book, more chronicle than meditation, called “Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids.”
The teachers left me daily assignments called “sub plans” to follow — which I clutched throughout the day until they became as finely crumpled as old dollar bills — and mostly what the sub plans wanted me to do was pass out work sheets. I passed them out by the thousands. Of all the work sheets I passed out, the ones in high school were the worst. In my experience, every high-school subject, no matter how worthy and jazzy and thought-provoking it may have seemed to an earnest Common Corer, is stuffed into the curricular Veg-O-Matic, and out comes a nasty packet with grading rubrics on the back. On the first page, usually, there are numbered “learning targets,” and inside, inevitably, a list of specialized vocabulary words to master. In English it’s unreliable narrator, or ethos, or metonymy, or thesis sentence. This is all fluff knowledge, meta-knowledge. In math, kids must memorize words like apothem and Cartesian coordinate; in science they chant domain! kingdom! phylum! class! etc., etc., and meiosis and allele and daughter cell and third-class lever and the whole Tinkertoy edifice of terms that acts to draw people away from the freshness and surprise and fantastic interfused complexity of the world and darkens our brains with shadowy taxonomic abstractions. The instantly forgettable gnat-swarm of word lists is useful in big-box high schools because it’s easier to test kids on whether they can temporarily define a set of terms than it is to talk to them and find out whether they have learned anything real and thrilling about what’s out there.
All teaching takes a toll on what’s taught, but high school is wondrously efficient at making interesting things dull. So why are kids forced to go? Well, one reason has to do with child-labor laws. In the middle of the 19th century, kids in most states could stop going to school after eighth grade, once they had learned to read and do a little arithmetic, and they got jobs. They worked on farms or in dark satanic mills, and one by one the states made laws (or began to enforce existing laws) that said that young people had to stay in school so their morals wouldn’t be corrupted and they wouldn’t languish in ignorance and be roped into a life of labor from dawn to dusk and die of consumption before they reached 30. So the government built high schools, lots of them, and the number of kids in high school burgeoned, and blossomed, and ballooned. By 1940, there were five times as many high-school graduates as there were before the labor-law reforms. It was a huge change all over the country, and it required discipline. Squads of truant officers would go sniffing around finding kids who were evading high school, and they threatened parents with fines or even jail time and got them to comply.
What happens if you suddenly have millions of kids in high school who would have been working under the old laws? You have to hire more teachers, and you have to figure out what they’re going to teach. You then get endless debates about cultural literacy — about what subjects should be required. Should everyone in high school learn Greek? What about Latin? What about sewing? Or needlepoint? Cursive? And the schools became bigger. The local schoolhouse went away, and the gigantic brick edifice on the edge of town took its place. James Conant, a president of Harvard, decided in the 1960s that the ideal high school should have at least 750 students. That’s a lot of students — it’s a battalion of students, in fact — and that’s perhaps where it all began to go wrong. The regional schools became meatpacking plants, or Play-Doh fun factories, squeezing out supposedly educated human beings, marching them around from class to class — bells bonging, punishments escalating, homework being loaded on. And yet the human beings who were marching from class to class weren’t being paid. “Review the elements of transcendentalism listed on Page 369.” Oh, and do it for free.
Every day something like 16 million high-school students get up at the crack of dawn, slurp some oat clusters while barely conscious, hop on a bus, bounce around the county, show up and sit in a chair, zoned out, waiting for the first bell. If they’re late, they are written up. Even if they don’t do much academic work, they are physically present. Their attendance is a valuable commodity, because if students don’t attend, teachers and guidance counselors and principals and textbook makers and designers of educational software have no jobs. A huge lucrative industry is built around them, and the students get nothing out of it but a G.P.A. They deserve not to have their time wasted.
And it is wasted, as everyone knows. Teachers spend half their time shouting themselves hoarse, and young adults are infantilized. Their lives are absurdly regimented. Every minute is accounted for. They sit in one hot room after another and wait for each class to end. Time thickens. It becomes like saltwater taffy — it becomes viscous and sticky, and it stretches out and it folds back on itself through endless repetition. Tuesday is just like Wednesday, except the schedule is shuffled. Day after day of work sheets. By the time they graduate, they’ve done 13 years of work sheets. When they need to go to the bathroom, they have to write their name on a piece of paper by the door. If they hide in the bathroom, they’re in trouble. Whole hierarchies of punishment for scofflaws arise — school-supplied iPads are restricted, parents are called on the phone, in-school suspensions are meted out.
What makes all this almost tolerable is the kids themselves. They find ways to make it entertaining. They discover friends and co-conspirators. They rebel. They interrupt one another constantly in search of some tiny juicy Jolly Rancher of surprise. They subvert the system. They learn to lie convincingly to avoid work. The teacher’s aide (sometimes it was me) says, “Are you all caught up?” Kid: “Yep.” Aide: “Did you do that BrainPOP about the flipflap of the doodlesquat?” Kid: “Yep, handed that in yesterday.” One young man I talked to seemed unusually intelligent but downcast. I asked him how he survived his days. He pulled out his earbud, and he said one word: “music.”
To find their way in American life, high-schoolers need to be able to speak English, to read, to listen to and respect other people’s opinions, to have a command of the basic elements of courtesy and, to a lesser extent, to write. (They do not need to know how to write a thesis sentence. More injury is done to high-school essays by the imposition of the thesis-sentence requirement than by any other means. The trick, kids are sometimes told, is to begin with a word like “although.” No.) It’s also useful to know how to add and subtract and do percentages, how to measure dimensions, and how to read graphs. Beyond these basics, there’s a vast, beautiful, glittering midden of applied and miscellaneous knowledge — of natural science, history, material science, design, music, tradecraft and artistic dexterity — and because everything is potentially interesting, everything is potentially worthy of study, and arguing over the fine-grained specifics of the standard curriculum is a waste of time.
Let’s end homework forever — just end it now — and open up more daylight hours for life’s inexhaustible succession of microlessons. Knowing how to paddle a canoe, or fix a faucet, or work a cash register, or bake a coffeecake, or comfort someone who is unhappy, is much more important than knowing the names of the six kingdoms of living organisms, or the layers of the atmosphere, even if you’re going to become a naturalist or an atmospheric physicist — and paddling and faucet-fixing and cash-registering and cake-baking and the offering of sympathy, like most memorable proficiencies, happen best when they’re voluntary, after school is out.
Emerson would have liked the School Without Walls. Its motto, although it had no motto, could have been “Self-Reliance.” Now that I’ve spent time teaching in a regular high school, I’m hugely grateful to Lew Marks — who died in 2010 — and the institution he created. (It’s still going, by the way.) The school respected us and trusted us. It was a sort of nowhere Utopia — a big, soft, stretchy packet of temporal freedom within which to be bored and idle and sleep late and watch reruns of “My Three Sons” and daytime talk shows and stare through the curtains out the window, and smell the curtains, which had a deep dusty smell, and learn one of the profound lessons of life, which is that all education is self-education. Nobody needs you to do anything, so that anything you do has to come from yourself.
The B61 Model 12, the bomb flight-tested last year in Nevada, is the first of five new warhead types planned as part of an atomic revitalization estimated to cost up to $1 trillion over three decades. As a family, the weapons and their delivery systems move toward the small, the stealthy and the precise.
This is disgusting! ‘Small and ‘precise’ apparently means the ability to kill only a few thousand people at a time instead of a few hundred thousand. These new bombs will supposedly be able to be “dialed down” to 2% of the level of destruction of Hiroshima. As if this somehow approaches some magical threshold where killing innocent people becomes ethical!
Also, if the people involved in creating these new bombs recognize, as they seem to do, the necessity for “dialing down” the destructive power of these weapons to near zero, why is it such a difficult leap to outlawing them altogether?