It seemed that there was some kind of fallacy at work—likely of the logical, but perhaps, also, literary variety and of which textbooks in most disciplines warn students, lest they lose the argument or the patient or the poem—in the prevailing thinking about the election inside the Academy. The result of the election, or at least its relevance, it seemed, needed to be graded and assessed in accordance with a rubric influenced, if not created, by the predominant political attitudes of its professoriate. Moreover, to the extent that the election’s result was addressed in classroom conversations in the months that followed, it seemed students needed subtle and not-so-subtle articulations of ground rules based on a criterion that assumed opposing viewpoints, no matter how sincerely held, be deemed unacceptable. To give this promotion, encouragement and, sad to say, modeling of one-sidedness the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it was bedded on the oft-made claim that students’ minds have been “rewired” by the plantations on which they now cede most of their time and attention and that, therefore, the very nature of education, the way teaching, that is, is done, had to be changed, too, to resemble the feeds, or troughs upon which all of us now so mindfully graze. And so perhaps the thinking that professors must compete with all other forms of one-sidedness by modeling one-sidedness themselves, whether or not partaking of any kind of fallacy, was most certainly a form of malpractice, for while it is without doubt that our students arrive on campus with all kinds of expertise on the brands they desire—from feeds to fantasies to friends—education, presumably, is also about the education of this desire, and bestows a widening of perspective to include, among other things, responsible civic engagement, in which professors, in contradistinction to being dispensers of their own opinions, are called on to be models of unbiased inquiry.
The most important kind of learning is learning how to learn, and our opinions, though immensely valuable to ourselves, nonetheless, in our students’ lives, have a limited shelf life, while the critical skills of learning and thinking, not to mention engaging with the other side—learning, that is, in some sense, as well, the capacity for empathy—lasts a lifetime. Tragically, the election’s result seems to have placed us in the paradoxical position of encouraging students to opt in to a vision of education that may place limits on their lives when, after all, education is, at bottom, a syllabus not for the closing, but for the opening of the heart.
While we will never know if classes all over the country would have been canceled if the other candidate had won, we do know that the results, no matter the victor, were the culmination of a national campaign that was based and covered on the assumption that turnout alone would be determinative, that demographics alone mattered, and which, of course, carried with it the hidden assumption that there was no baseline commonality, outside of geographic markers, common to all Americans. America as an idea, as a concept, it was assumed, then, was merely a term of art and had no real meaning. America as an idea was, or had become, impossible. This implication, hidden from its purveyors by their own confirmation biases, made it difficult for anyone, but most diabolically, when expounded inside the classroom—where confirmation bias is, of course, the greatest crime—for young people to see the commons. Resources cannot be shared if they cannot be seen, and in America, some of those resources—most of them, in fact—lie outside the universe of one’s own perspective. Cultural resources, to thrive, must be shared with strangers.
The Academy may assume that the commons is merely a rhetorical category and like every Platonic form or, fast-forwarding 2,500 years, every American constitutional principle, a vessel whose meaning, presumably, varies with circumstance, and that any assertion of a citizenry with a baseline commonality outside of geography or demography is naïve, or noxious, or, as it would be put today, sort of naïve, or sort of noxious, as this “sort of,” which is now ubiquitous and has come to modify almost every and any kind of word or phrase or, worst of all, articulation of an idea, might be justified by the relativism of our so-called “post-truth” world were it not so overused, and therefore merely the herald of the solipsism inherent in whatever follows it and, tragically, when coming from a professor, often heralding the abandonment of his or her sacred duty to teach how to think, not what to think, how to write, not what to write. Even if, after all, as John Cage observed, “each something is a celebration of the nothing that supports it,” our students must at least learn to be nimble.
The “sort of” that now stands before almost any and every statement, unwittingly, but very effectively, undermines whatever follows it, by conveying not a principled relativism, but its opposite, and when, as it often is, coupled with “there is no doubt” or “make no mistake,” a complete, utter, immovable and unalterable self-regard, its partisanship completely cancelling out the commitment to relativism to which it might have been credited. The “sort of” is almost always attached to a profession, moreover, of the moral high ground and, combined with the incompetent thinking and poor epistemic hygiene it almost always heralds, it cannot be defended as a linguistic enactment of the post-modernist credo meant to deodorize us of authoritarian one-way thinking, or as just a verbal tic signaling awareness that everything is surface and perspective, and therefore any point of view offering itself as moral would be a lie. As professors, we should know that the absence of community is often predicated on a failure of language, and we now find ourselves complicit in having participated in creating the commodious vacuum our students find when they step away from their feeds and into the public square.
“For many of us it’s become safe to retreat into our own bubbles,” President Obama pointed out in his farewell address, “whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.” When there are no shared goals, no common visions, but in their place only the exaltation of personal preferences which are, of course, our students need to learn, only accidents of their time and place, and when, moreover, we unleash our preferences on them, and the temptation to propagandize overcomes the responsibility of midwifery—that is, when we insert false certainty instead of helping students become aware that real answers are not readily available, that they will have to come up with their own answers—the directives inserted into the classroom, no matter how well-intentioned, are dangerous. No wonder we are now seen as merely service providers, dispensers of grades, no different than dispensers of any other product. No wonder we are no longer seen as mentors.
We may very well be right in being disappointed about the result of the election but that is irrelevant, at least in the classroom, where it is for our students now to figure out their lives. If a miracle can be degraded, that is, mismanaged to fit the parameters of the very degradation it was meant to save, if a miracle can be downgraded into a drop-down menu from animating principle through the tyrannic labels of functionality into a mere brand, a word without signifier, and therefore, a functional emptiness, it is the miracle of our commons, whose spiritual contract is up for renewal every four years, and which now has more in common, given the cul-de-sacs of moral preening, where many of us were expressing our gratitude on Thanksgiving Day by uninviting each other over political views, with other fancy pants words dressed up by marketers, or public relations experts, like “water closet”, “chamber pot,” “commode,” and “oval office” The largeness of the miracle requires a corresponding largeness of spirit for reception of the miracle, because once received, it is fragile, and needs to be, if not revered, at least husbanded, and to do this, the first Furies that need to be recognized, as Aeschylus implies in the Eumenides, where the first court, the Areopagus, was created, and from which Milton drew his Areopagitica, that gave us the first great argument supporting freedom of the press, and from which we draw our First Amendment, are the furies within ourselves.
If it is not obvious that we have redrawn the public square to the perimeters and fears of our own heads (a wall with Mexico, baskets of deplorables), the election and its aftermath was like a magic potion, a pair of x-ray glasses, a drop of tincture, whatever metaphor you choose, but “without a doubt,” as everyone says these days before making a dubious assertion, a transparency overlaid that made the heretofore invisible visible, and therefore something, surprisingly enough, if we would only step away from our form-fitted feeds for a moment, for which we should be feeling the warmest gratitude, for it laid bare something that had existed before it and that had, perhaps, caused it: Our republic is now even more fragile than it was before because it has been feeding and, ouroboros-like, devouring itself, on outrage, the very outrage, moreover, that does not allow for the development of the listening ear in the next generation and that our commons requires. It seems we have finally learned that it is our commons that is in danger because many of us are selfishly unaware of the conditions outside our own environs and—since we don’t talk to one another, since listening is a lost art—that “we” are no longer We (the people). It is our commons that needs rebuilding, and the first step we need to take is to realize that the only triumph over the barbarian that needs to take place is the triumph over the barbarian within ourselves.
We may disagree about who we are and who we have been, and we may not be able to find any common ground or shared moral commitments, but that is not our problem. It would be great progress if we could reach that point. But we haven’t and we may never again if we continue to do battle with our own hallucinations of “the other side,” never having cared enough to encounter that other side in the flesh. The sleep of reason produces monsters. As President Obama said in his farewell address, without a willingness to admit new information and to concede that one’s opponent might be making a fair point, we will make “common ground and compromise impossible.” The commons, however, is the one concept that allows for the coming together of everyone because the commons itself takes no position; the price of admission is only the willingness to look for common ground in the structure that has been made for the American experience, but that can disappear if not modeled for the next generation. And if professors abandon their duty, it cannot only disappear, it can be replaced.
And since we have reached a point in our country where, to borrow the title of John F. Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning volume describing acts of valor and bravery important to the nation, a genuine profile in courage today would, astoundingly, be simply to listen, without preconceived bias, to an opposing point of view—where even professors, championing every kind of diversity, every kind of tolerance, except the kind that, for educational purposes, is the most important, implies that the recent criticism of our elites, and of our meritocracy itself, and the credentials gained for entry, may be merited, because it confirms a sense that there is, among us, a creeping prioritization of jargon-spouting over critical thinking, which, in a democracy, where the title “citizen,” as President Obama said in his farewell, is “the most important office,” is fatal, because it does not leave open the possibility that the country shares a core set of values that runs deeper than demographics, and having given ourselves our “post-truth” excuse, we have also now given ourselves license to take our own subjectivity for that truth.
Perhaps we should be grateful to have reached the point where, like the tragic hero, we are able to look up to the heavens and say, “My god what have we done?” The day after the election, President Obama performed his constitutional duty less by meeting with the offending, or pleasing, President-elect, and transmitting the state secrets, than by reminding partisans that we had just finished an intramural game. Perhaps he knew, by using a sports analogy, that the young needed to be not so much reminded of this but, sadly, informed of it, because they had not heard it from those responsible for informing them. From many of us they heard variations of “Not my president,” for like the “man carbuncular” in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, our “vanity require[d] no response,” and by letting our opinions stand in for teaching, by punishing, as we do, students for plagiarizing a line (a line, moreover, created in response to a pre-determined rubric), and yet oblivious to the reality that they might be plagiarizing their lives from our drop-down menus of acceptable and unacceptable opinions, we are doing them a disservice, for it leaves them incapable, and worse, with no inclination to cross over and understand others. We will have succeeded at creating a helpless generation, a learned helplessness, however, for which we could have honestly patted ourselves on the back because it will be an educated helplessness with an expertise, like ours, for expressing grievance, making arguments ad hominem, begging the question and employing false analogies without even the hint of awareness that we are doing these things—an original legacy, no doubt, a Frankenstein created at last, and because factory made, everywhere reproduced.
As we are experts at, if nothing else, offenses and umbrages taken, and our students, on their attention plantations, where the algorithms are shaped to ask where there are like-minded people, or on college campuses where exposing oneself to an opposing point of view is no longer necessary, where indeed it is now cast as dangerous, where we have created echo chambers of supposed safety while all along the real danger goes unnoticed, for rather than avoiding the evil, this is the very thing that creates the evil, it is the source of the evil, not the antidote to the evil. If there is no commons—that is, if the term is meant only to denote demographic and geographic realities, public spaces become, paradoxically, places where there is nothing for anyone to see. If the only thing modeled is the sacredness of our own point of view, then the person who feels belittled and ignored, who can be swayed towards bad things, who is susceptible to evil, as well as the person predisposed to evil, will simply feel empowered to reproduce what everyone else is already doing, acting out, like everyone else, his own certainty, just like his role models who, when confronted with the call of the commons, feel no awe and, therefore, no inclination towards altruism or cooperation, no shrinking of the ego, no transcendence of their own particular brands, their own particular ambitions, who can turn away from the call of the commons because they are certain of their own judgement, hear the call of their own conscience, and like all things about which we teach, about which we think, the subject matter becomes ancillary to our interpretation of it—and the commons, rather than a destination, becomes the starting point that ends at the dead end of looking into the funhouse mirror of self-satisfaction and self regard.
It is American literature that teaches evil is always born of context. It develops unchecked because, being part of the context, no one sees it. It sits inside the community—and in the current environment where the commons, the public square, and the importance of civic engagement, civil conversation, is not even factored in, when one’s own feelings, and one’s own preferences, are privileged over all else (even though they exist and owe their existence to the presence of others with their own points of view)—and it creates an environment in which the vortex, the Malebolge (the pit that, in Dante’s Inferno, includes the promoters of discord), moves from a discrete and identifiable entity outside the circle to the inside where it becomes invisible, and the commons becomes the nothing in commons. And while one could quibble with the word evil—the word, perhaps, seems too theological—it is, whatever name we call it, that phenomenon which is most dangerous to our democracy.
In the environment in which every sentence begins along the lines of “there is no doubt” and “make no mistake” we can hear the linguistic incarnations of Yeats’s “the worst are full of passionate intensity,” and in such a linguistic petri dish, evil, or whatever word you choose to name it, can be born, because when Narcissus sees only his own reflection and everyone “finds their voice” by finding the group, news feed or algorithms professor who they have “learned” to seek out on the sole condition that he look, think or believe just like them the commons disappears and is supplanted by a contempt and condescension toward any and everyone outside their narrowly drawn (because it is demographically based) circle. The proliferation of school shootings in recent decades is an extreme but not unrelated example, existing along the same continuum that defines an atomized age where conversation consists of listen to me, I am not going to listen to you and which is, in the end, totalitarian, because what is learned at 18 years of age can become, in a decade, a way of being that is impossible to opt out of. “Silence is only frightening,” observed William S. Burroughs, “to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”
Is it, therefore, really for the best to malign voters with our contempt for the character traits of their candidate? Many poets, for example, responded to the hypothetical question of whether they would read their work at the inauguration, the only time their craft is offered a national TV and radio audience, with, according to the Washington Post, “unequivocal” noes. The “unequivocal” says it all, of course, as in their minds (souls?) it is presumably unlikely that the 60 million people who voted the other way have, in their own lives, reckoned with questions of truth and purpose and transcendence, experienced joy and tragedy, or have been moved by beauty. Is it because poetry today is not about these things, or that these things are sometimes subordinated to editorializing about them, that the American poet has been unable to form a genuine community, one, that is, that includes non-practitioners? Wouldn’t it be better—as poets, anyway—to try to understand, or at least listen, before passing judgment, before preening our own righteousness at all the “special inauguration” and “RE-Inaugural” poetry readings dedicated, ironically, to “re-inaugurating commitment to the fundamental principles of democracy, ” and therefore, like many poetry readings today, less about poetry, than about eliciting the tell-tale nods of recognition, the knowing chortles and “been there, done thats,” which will no doubt be replicated nearby at their more overtly political counterparts’ “Un-Inaugurations” and “Anti-Inaugurations,” which will have similar sloganeering, just without the line breaks?
Is it really a candidate who has given license to hate or did we have something to do with it by setting up our own algorithms of exclusion so that the emboldened perpetrators of hate have only ever been encouraged to encounter like-minded people? And how then do we learn to have civil conversations on college campuses that are presumably the training grounds for the public square in a culture in which James Baldwin’s “as much truth as one can bear” has become as much righteous indignation as one can dish out? This has become the guiding principle, tragically, not only of our politics, but our literature, too, because no matter who won the election, the divide was already cultural, all sides having decided in advance what was right and what was wrong, performing only the second half of Baldwin’s equation—criticizing the country, but not first trying to understand the country criticized. When the only thing that matters is narrative, literature and poetry, far from being exulted, are murdered. Narratives, even the most high-minded, by presupposing their own truth before examination, become everything, and therefore, nothing.
“We have a vision for the country, it is just not yours,” headlines a literary editor’s roundtable under the heading “Not my President.” This is not a “vision,” it’s a position; if it is any kind of “vision,” it is a di-vision, for a “vision” that does not include everyone labors under the mistake that including everyone is inconsistent with moral force when, in fact, it is the very font of moral force—”Love conquers hate,” if the signs at the rallies are to be taken seriously. The great artist interrogates him or herself and knows that while the love of others must be boundless, the love of self is demonstrated in self-criticism. Literature does not happen without the search for one’s own blind spots and therefore, for the artist, too, ethics is the first sin, because any relationship which ethicizes is, in the end, on the side of the very domination it condemns. Ethical reticence is, on the other hand, highly aesthetic. A literary blog entitled “Our America” that does not include, in its intended readership, all Americans, is not literary.
This “vision” of literature, where navel-gazing is assumed co-equal to insight, is consistent with a “vision” of the commons that is assumed co-equal to public relations, where the priority and promotion is of oneself, and therefore consistent with a “vision” of the country that partakes of the very thing it decries, the very crime it condemns, because the degradation of common endeavor is co-equal to the degradation of equality. There is no commons in such a “vision,” just the authoritarianisms of the “visions” we accept and the “visions” we decry, and when these two “visions” meet—if narcissi can truly meet—we see that neither is real, the one is not art, the other is not community. Instead both represent the recycling and marketing of visions without their creation and therefore are merely products that can be consumed just as our feeds are consumed—mindlessly, at our troughs, chewing our cud—where no attention need be paid because no attention was paid in their fashioning.
As writers, we are meant to be witnesses, and instead, like everyone else today, we have become spokesmen, and public readings have become venues for the telltale appreciative chortles of the audience—the point made, point taken knowing nods that have come to characterize the American poetry reading. This is a spiritual environment in which a young person’s sensibility, and therefore, also, the commons in which it would be created, cannot develop. Our public spirit, our most precious commodity, the ability, that is, to refrain from shouting out our self-interest and instead, once in a while, at least, to transcend it, to follow Pascal’s logique du coeur as well as the original co-responsibility of every person, or, as Max Scheler articulated it, the salvation “of the whole of all realms of persons,” is a muscle that must be developed over time. It is a skill meant to be taught, if nowhere else, in American schools. The skill required to see others as they are is linked incontrovertibly to teachers modeling that skill in words and actions that refrain from all forms of confirmation bias, begging the question, hasty generalizations and ad hominem attacks because students’ sensibilities are not to be traded like currencies but must be arrived at—each individually—and the task, therefore, of the professor, is not to provoke assent to a common love for a brand or a band of believers on Facebook because, when this happens, our students, like the narrator in Naguib Mahfouz’s “Half a Day” “make friends [only]with such as were to be my friends” and become, in the end, only factory products.
The only form of imagination that matters, for American literature and the American commons, is moral imagination, the ability, that is, to walk in someone else’s shoes. From American literature we know that failure with honor, not the pursuit of success at any cost, creates the hero. From American literature we know that we need to be more afraid of our own anger than other’s hate. From American literature we know that when care is selective, when care is given to one group, but not another, there is no real care—and that this “expression” of care is nothing more than an excuse to get upset about how little control the caregivers have over their own lives. Our politics and our academy now model this selective care, along with its natural twin, hair-trigger outrage, and it is our citizenry who mimic it. It would be bad enough if it were simply the mimicry of children fighting like their parents, but because it has become inscribed into our institutions as a way of doing business, it has become, sadly, the American mimesis, on display in our art and our literature and our politics.
But perhaps the idea of America has not been abandoned: In the mimesis and Babel Tower of “sort ofs” and “there is no doubts,” so out of proportion to any reasonableness, one can hear, in their procession, the one thing all points of view have in common, and with it, hints of self awareness, and, most importantly, glints of self-criticism in the unconscious signals of bad conscience. Perhaps, then, we might find in them the starting point to go looking for hope, if, indeed, one can find hope in the very agents, signs and symbols of the phenomena from which we are trying to rescue ourselves. Perhaps it is a sign of our desperation that as our republic is being torn down by volley after volley of “there is no doubts” followed and unconsciously undermined by the “sort ofs” that always and invariably join them, that we turn to these incoming missiles for the solution to the problems they are causing. But we do so in the paradoxically hopeful sense of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall,” in which the poet’s perception of the young girl’s limitations, and by implication, the human race’s limited capacity for empathy, is the very agent of its deliverance, and so, in the same way, these “sort ofs” that now modify every and any kind of noun, verb or adjective at almost every level of academic, media, governmental and dinner party conversation might just be the very agents of our deliverance, for they are the one thing that we all have in common. They point to a bad conscience and suggest that, at some level, the speaker thinks the other side might have a point, and mean that at least the dialogue is taking place internally and suggest, furthermore, that the necessary American commons might actually be taking place, at least as rehearsal, if only internal rehearsal, and that out of this our public square might eventually be recreated and our commons and country renewed. And if the analogy with Hopkins becomes, happily, false (not that we call ourselves on false analogies these days) because for the poem the hope is for the next world, we can still say that the pangs of conscience which give rise to personal progress, and that we find in our literature, might also give rise to political progress.
So now moving away from the TV, from our feeds and their algorithms of exclusion, and standing by the window, looking out at the American road while listening with deep reverence to the whining, to the reflections of cowards, to the furious fusillade of equivocation that make up their Babel Tower of “sort ofs,” and resolving not to say goodbye to the commons, to the America that we are losing, but hearing, instead, in these “there is no doubts” and these “sort ofs” the Mercators that point to a way out, and by performing our one common office of citizen and asking “can these bones live?” is to see in these very acts of trampling the germs of progress, knowing that without them we might never have strived for the restoration of our institutions. To see, furthermore, in everyone, the resemblances for which the republic stands, the connections that create the republic, and in the proliferation of these very “sort ofs” and “there is no doubts” the horrible but tremendous final tremors of a time when not only nothing enchanted, but also, since these phrases prefaced almost every opposing opinion, to see in them the linking of our arms, our hands plunged deep in the commonplace’s coat of arms on the American road and on the lookout for the signs that say (because they are out there) “We welcome everybody,” is to perform, as President Obama said, our one common office of citizen. For “here [in America] is the hospitality,” as Whitman wrote in his Preface to Leaves of Grass, “which forever indicates heroes”—the pledge of allegiance, that is, to the people and things that we are not and that the commons requires, the miracle given us to learn that it is our interplay that is our binding-song, and the only true and promised land we may possess—our great inheritance and our great gift for the resolution of discord and the achievement of democracy.