Of all the outlandish and absurd claims Donald Trump has made in the months since he announced his candidacy for president, the most recent -- that the news media and global elite are conspiring to rig the election against him -- is one that we take most umbrage with. Who are we? Two English professors at a community college who have spent the last year studying and teaching the difference between conspiracy theories and institutional critique.
As avid readers of Thomas Pynchon and viewers of The Wire, we’ve developed a pedagogy that asks students to analyze how institutions might or might not be illegitimate or criminal. And to us, Donald Trump’s claim seems weak. Where’s his corkboard? Where are his out-of-focus black-and-white photos? Where is his string connecting the evidence?
Yet, he’s right to focus our gaze on institutions. There are legitimate critiques to be made about the many forces, institutional and otherwise, operating against all of us. Having institutional knowledge and the ability to understand what competitive forces exist is required of any educated person. Polls have shown that Donald Trump’s largest support block are those with just a high school education. Those are, in fact, our students who have just enrolled in our English 101 composition classes.
It is dangerous to confuse comparatively uneducated with not smart. One doesn’t need a college degree to suspect and know that often, as Hillary Clinton has said, “the deck is stacked.” And many educated as well as uneducated people are likely to propose sweeping generalizations like Donald Trump -- such as “it’s all rigged” -- as evidence for their opinions.
But when we teach the difference between conspiracy theory and institutional critique to our students -- when they practice institutional analysis with corkboard, photos and string, and when they write essays that must have credible sources -- they are more likely to understand that social justice and consequential critiques are possible only if we study the details.
In our classes, most students grasp how a former House majority leader is profiting by doing things like trying to help drug companies avoid paying federal taxes. They also get how he may only be a piece of a larger problem, both in the way tax avoidance is lobbied for in this country and how an entire industry of consultants’ sole purpose is to help companies become more efficient at avoiding paying taxes.
They grasp the injustice when they uncover that there have been little to no consequences for financial institutions after the 2008 economic meltdown. They understand how police departments often reveal information about wrongdoing only in the wake of protests or public outcry. They understand that the complexity is vast, but in order to be authors of consequence, they need to have coherent evidence of the contrary. Stating that the system is “rigged” is a lie that becomes the truth by the power of acquiescence.
In their own investigations, our students have outworked Trump in articulating and supporting claims of institutional criminality. They have identified and investigated organizations and conspiracies that range from the local, like a Queens, N.Y., Wing Stop or Popeyesfranchise, to the global, like corrupt government contracting in India and Italy. It’s unpredictable which institutions students will choose to investigate: the New York Police Department, for-profit universities, the Iranian leadership. But, if there is some suspicion of injustice, our community college students are on the case.
They have, on their own initiative, cold-called whistle-blowers at animal rescue agencies, walked into police stations and asked for the names and ranks of the precinct’s officers, and interviewed anonymous informants. In short, they have done the work of heroic investigators, the kind you would hope an engaged citizen in a democracy would undertake.
With those projects, students are engaging in the kind of work we witness in binges of popular television crime shows like Breaking Bad or True Detective, where investigators tack photos, maps, names, evidence to corkboards, office walls -- whatever they can find -- to allow viewers to vicariously sense that, yes, the rapidly connecting world that feels beyond our comprehension is being pieced together one bit at a time.
We ask, why leave these problems to television fantasy? Why not ask students to make sense of senselessness as an exercise of critical citizenship? Why not expect the same of our public figures?
In other words, if Donald Trump were a first-year community college student, all signs indicate he’d be a lazy one. We’d send him back to do more research. He has made a claim, but his critique would be classified as an empty conspiracy. If he presented this claim that it’s all “rigged,” we’d say, Mr. Trump, show us your corkboard, your photos, your documents, your works-cited page. Show us some work. You will not pass unless you do.
Jed Shahar and Benjamin Lawrance Miller are assistant professors at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.
It was a debate moment that historians will surely return to -- like Richard Nixon’s sweaty brow and George H. W. Bush’s impatient glance at his watch. When Donald Trump lost composure and interjected “such a nasty woman” (twice), the game was over. Respect for women? Please.
From mocking disabled people to stigmatizing immigrants to encouraging violence against one’s enemies, the Trump campaign has indulged in a startling variety of transgressions of normal political discourse. The Clinton campaign’s counterpoint “when they go low, we go high,” suggested by the extraordinarily popular first lady, seems to be more about political advantage than moral elevation.
Few people seem to be turning to college campuses lately for moral elevation. Videos go viral of undergraduates screaming their demand for a peaceful home, while deans make a virtue of their commitment to academic freedom by undermining their faculty’s ability to prepare students for disturbing content. Absolutist rhetoric circulates easily at our universities when they should be cultivating subtle analysis and nuanced interpretation.
Some have pointed out that coarse political discourse goes way back in American history and that Trump is following in the footsteps of other titans of transgression. Politicians have said the darnedest things for a long time, we are told, and the Trump campaign’s invective is not actually as unusual as today’s oversensitive onlookers like to claim. The same might be said of our campuses, which have long been hotbeds of contention.
Back in the 1970s there was a Saturday Night Live routine, “Point/Counterpoint,” in which Dan Aykroyd would turn to fellow commentator Jane Curtin and exclaim, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” The funny part of this bit was that it was hard to imagine anyone on a real news show ever saying something like that as a prelude to articulating a disagreement.
Over the last decade, however, we have grown accustomed to the rabid fulminations of talk radio and to cable news pundits cultivating personae of perverse aggressivity. And now we have been treated to the spectacle of political candidates commenting on penis size, assaultive groping and vicious denigrations of the physical appearance of women. Today the Dan Aykroyd line would not be so funny because it would not be so preposterous.
The expectation of excoriation has become a fact of public and academic life -- with consequences in the civic realm. Disagreements -- be they on social media or at the neighborhood watering hole -- can get nasty very quickly. And it’s sticks and stones as well as words. Americans are killing one another at alarming rates in disputes over everything from what to play next on the jukebox to the best car brands. A verbal shot can have an awful counterpoint when somebody has a pistol tucked into his belt -- whether he’s in a bar or a classroom.
Although this growing barbarism is much remarked on in the political realm, when it comes to colleges we hear about a very different kind of concern: political correctness on campus. Somehow, the enforced niceness of PC culture is dangerous because it protects “coddled” millennials from having to challenge their own assumptions. While the rest of the country is engulfed in a dangerous war of words, campuses are accused of caring too much about triggering painful memories and providing safe spaces. This fantasy about PC culture has been weaponized in the current electoral campaign, so that all kinds of assaultive speech (and worse) are celebrated as evidence that candidates aren’t caving in to political correctness.
When you spend time on college campuses, however, you find plenty of debate that is actually substantive -- about the role of systemic racism in our institutions, about the possibilities for meaningful work after graduation, about the struggle for transparency in our public institutions. Transparency in particular is a key value for many students across the country, and this often leads to controversy because privacy is also a value they cherish.
That said, undergraduates today are often repulsed by official politics, and they are too likely to be cynical about the possibilities for building responsive institutions that can support the most vulnerable or empower the most innovative. It’s been observed that they are no longer inspired by abstract calls for “free speech” or by warm and fuzzy talk about “diversity and inclusion.” No wonder nihilism seems to be making a comeback among those who want to show how sophisticated their suspiciousness has become. If you’re really smart, the thinking seems to be, you won’t believe in anything that promotes possibilities for change. “We won’t get fooled again!” is the defensive cry of those afraid of being disappointed if they seek to engage with anything beyond themselves and their immediate peer group. Disillusionment is harder to mock than idealism and is in great supply on our college campuses.
It’s less risky to undercut an opponent’s stand than to take a stand of one’s own, and mocking the commitments of others from a distance is the safest route of all. Proposing practical programmatic change in areas like refugee resettlement, mass incarceration, the minimum wage or gender equality may indeed lead to social media storms of abuse from the alt-right or from a holier-than-thou left. That doesn’t make the proposals bad or good, but it does make it easier to propose nothing at all.
What’s most worrisome about the normalized nastiness is that it will surely discourage even more people from participating in public life, regardless of political persuasion. Nobody likes being called a racist, a loser, a fascist or even a neoliberal. And nobody enjoys being the object of mockery that is eminently retweetable.
The solution isn’t censorship or pious calls for more civility. Nor is the solution “rising above it all” to a “know-it-all position” that is smugly pessimistic because it is “all so smart.” The solution is to keep engaging on issues and proposing ideas that address real problems with full knowledge that one will be attacked for doing so. Fear of attack is no excuse for the failure to take a stand.
We must not abandon the public sphere to those who have successfully polluted it. It has always taken courage to take a public stand, and courage is still the best counter to nastiness.
One detail from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia stuck with me after reading it long ago, and it’s come to mind with some regularity over the past few months: on More’s imaginary island, anyone who aspired to high office was judged to be, for that very unreason, unfit to hold it.
This fall happens to be the book’s quincentennial. More sent the manuscript to his friend Erasmus in September 1516, and it was in print by the end of the year. That the anniversary coincides with an exceptionally nasty and spirit-blighting American presidential election seems providential, as if to confirm that the Utopians were definitely on to something.
Apart from the systemic ban on political ambition, my only other recollection of Utopia was that it was a bit dull. The sole thing that kept me going was the adolescent conviction (long since abandoned) that starting to read a classic implied a commitment to finishing it, come what may. So when I returned to the book recently, it was without fond associations -- and no expectation at all of laughing, since its satirical quality had gone right over my head.
The title is a pun in Greek: More’s ideal society is a good place (eu-topia) that’s also no place (u-topia). The play on words, while minimally hilarious, hints that the author is working in the same ironic vein as Erasmus had just a few years earlier in The Praise of Folly. There, everything people treat as important, dignified or admirable is shown to be evidence of human foolishness at work. More’s detailed picture of a happy, harmonious, prosperous country serves to highlight the corruption and irrationality of the social and political system 500 years ago -- with every reason to think things would only get worse.
Utopia opens with a reference to Henry VIII, then reigning as “the unconquered King of England, a prince adorned with all the virtues that become a great monarch,” which certainly seems prudent. (Henry did eventually have the author executed, but not for his literary efforts.) The narrator and a friend are joined by one Raphael Hythloday, a learned and widely traveled gentleman, who has some experience with royal failings. Those occupying the throne tend to be “more set on acquiring new kingdoms, right or wrong, than on governing well those they possess,” for example. Influence on the court comes from “only those for whom the prince has much personal favour, whom by their fawning and flatteries they endeavour to fix to their own interests.” His complaints are broad enough to limit how much offense they might give to any particular sovereign.
The narrator and his friend try to persuade Hythloday that his wisdom and experience should be put to use in changing the system from within -- that is, by becoming a courtier. He refuses on the grounds that any reforms he might propose would meet with “proud, morose and absurd judgments” by those with a vested interest in the status quo.
Things are better organized in Utopia, a land somewhere beyond the equator where Hythloday lived for five years. His listeners prevail upon him to describe the place -- and so he does, at some length. The prolonged explanatory monologue became a standard element of utopian fiction; in this, the genre’s foundational work, it fills the remaining two-thirds of the book.
It’s a communist manifesto, minus any process of historical change in getting there. On Utopia there is no private property, no poverty and very few laws. The inhabitants exchange houses every 10 years and dress in simple, standardized clothes. They are industrious and work at the jobs for which they are suited by talent and temperament. Money is not used except in one emergency situation we’ll consider. The Utopians are pagans but well behaved. “One of their most ancient laws,” we’re told, is “that no man ought to be punished for his religion.” Before being married, a couple sees each other naked at a public ceremony; this may be shocking to Christendom but it prevents unwelcome surprises.
Whether More was advocating the policies and arrangements that his traveler described -- or even considered them realizable or desirable -- has been a matter for much subtle argument. (Given More’s subsequent persecution of Protestants, the religious pluralism in Utopia was never more than a thought experiment.) But what struck me while rereading the book was More’s consistent sense that social inequality and moral viciousness are as linked as chicken and egg.
“Pride, that plague of human nature,” says Hythloday, “… does not measure happiness so much by its own conveniences, as by the miseries of others; and would not be satisfied with being thought a goddess, if none were left that were miserable, over whom she might insult. [Pride] thinks its own happiness shines the brighter, by comparing it with the misfortunes of other persons; that by displaying its own wealth, they may feel their poverty the more sensibly.”
So keeping in mind that More himself was a lawyer, and a successful one, there’s a moral and satirical reason why Utopia has no attorneys: the inhabitants “consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters and to wrest the laws, and, therefore, they think it is much better that every man should plead his own cause …. After the parties have laid open the merits of the cause, without those artifices which lawyers are apt to suggest, the judge examines the whole matter, and supports the simplicity of such well-meaning persons, whom otherwise crafty men would be sure to run down …”
The Utopian policy regarding money allows More to score an especially sharp jab at pride and privilege. The Utopians accept that it’s necessary to keep a certain amount of gold and silver on hand, says Hythloday, in case they need it when dealing with other countries. But since they themselves judge the value of metals by their use, they have a much higher regard for iron. Rather than just pile up the gold in storage, however, they use it to make chamber pots and chains for criminals undergoing punishment. Likewise, they make practical use of jewels by giving them to small children as playthings.
A group of visiting dignitaries once wanted to overawe the Utopians with their power and wealth. And so they made their grand entrance, dressed to impress: “The ambassadors themselves, who were of the nobility of their country, were in cloth-of-gold, and adorned with massy chains, earrings and rings of gold; their caps were covered with bracelets set full of pearls and other gems -- in a word, they were set out with all those things that among the Utopians were either the badges of slavery, the marks of infamy or the playthings of children.”
More also ran diplomatic missions for England. He was on one to the Netherlands in 1515 when he started writing what became Utopia.The image of an ambassador decked out in fancy handcuffs and wearing, say, a solid-gold toilet seat around his neck is surprisingly broad for a writer of More’s learning and station; he clearly had mixed feelings about his own political role. But after 500 years, it’s still reasonably funny, and it puts the trappings of political ambition in a suitably critical perspective.
As discussed in Harper’s forthcoming book, Race Matters in College, college and university faculty members are the byproducts of their own educational experiences. Whether in K-12 schools, college or graduate school, too few of us were given sufficient opportunity to learn about race and racism or meaningfully engage with others from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
As a result, too little attention has been paid to the problematic and stereotypical ways we have been socialized to think about people of color. Naturally, the failure to challenge such biases prior to entering the professoriate has allowed prejudicial racial attitudes of some colleagues, particularly white faculty who are the overwhelming majority of college and university professors, to inform racist pedagogical practices in their classrooms.
The recent case involving a first-generation Latina student, Tiffany Martínez, at Suffolk University, is but one example. An accomplished undergraduate, published journal author and McNair scholar, Martínez wrote a personal blog post titled “Academia, Love Me Back.” In her heartfelt plea, Martínez first recounts an experience she described as both disrespectful and invalidating and then explains that a sociology professor accused her of plagiarism, not privately, but in front of the entire class. The professor’s claim was further illustrated by emphatic written statements on her paper such as “this is not your word” and “please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.”
One such comment was written in the margin near the word “hence,” which the professor had circled, an important detail, given Martínez merely used it as an appropriate transition to connect two related sentences. Was it that surprising to Martínez’s professor that she knew how to appropriately use a transitional word?
Although some may dismiss this as a minor incident, Martínez reminds us of the internalized racism and self-doubt resulting from years of educational violence. Like the many students of color from whom we hear similar stories in our campus climate assessments, what transpired for Martínez was yet another debilitating and painful experience of marginalization.
In this case, Martínez’s professor was in disbelief that a Latina student was capable of using language consistent with what is regarded as strong, academic and scholarly writing. Such disbelief is likely to have been informed by common stereotypical portrayals of Latinas with which Martínez’s professor was most familiar, which are unlikely to have been reflective of the intellectually rich contributions of Hispanic, Latina and Chicana scholars like Laura Rendón, Gloria Anzaldúa and many others. Instead of acknowledging that Martínez is as capable as her white peers, the professor assumed intellectual incompetence and publicly reduced her demonstrated genius to an act of theft. Such assumptions and actions were not only pedagogically irresponsible, but demonstrably racist.
It is imperative that our colleagues stop being surprised when students of color are able to thoughtfully articulate themselves in their writing and in class discussions. Such low expectations of students of color who have, at minimum, earned admission to our institutions effectively erases their demonstrated capabilities and ongoing potential to meet subjective academic standards.
Furthermore, it is categorically unfair that students of color are routinely targeted and attacked with allegations of academic dishonesty due to the limits placed on their genius by the white imagination. Not only are white students not subjected to the same scrutiny and humiliation by their same-race professors, but they are also regularly excused and validated when proven to have committed the very offenses that the academy abhors.
Charles H. F. Davis III is on the faculty in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Davis also serves as director of higher education research and initiatives in the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.