Our nation’s war on the young (June 28, 2022)

Here’s a dispatch from the site of Florida’s 2022 AFL-CIO COPE and Biennial Convention, where Susan served as one of this year’s AFT delegates.

I began writing this post from a hotel room just outside Disney Springs in Orlando and in the now notorious Reedy Creek Improvement District. (If you aren’t familiar with what’s happened in the last three months regarding Disney and  Reedy Creek and its conflicts with Florida’s governor, the Wikipedia page gives a good summary, with links to earlier stories).

It was here, surrounded by dedicated activists from our nation’s great tradition of organized labor struggle, that I learned of the new revelations in Thursday’s testimony at the January 6 Congressional hearings and the Supreme Court’s decisions to both strike down New York state laws regulating the carrying of concealed weapons— as a CNN report notes, “law enforcement officers have told us time and again that allowing more guns into public places will make their jobs harder and more dangerous, but that’s exactly what that ruling does”—and reverse nearly a half-century of legal precedent and progress in fundamental human rights with the long expected overturning of Roe v. Wade. (I talked about the anti-life views of so many anti-choice and anti-abortion conservatives in a prior post, June 19, 2020. The same point is now highlighted on the NARAL website.)  

Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, concisely summarizes the latter ruling in this way: “The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is the culmination of a powerful, concerted movement to ensure that politicians control women’s bodies. Today’s decision flies in the face of the global progress to expand human rights protections for all people. While other countries have embraced the opportunity to expand human rights protections, the United States is a growing outlier with its efforts to deny basic human rights to more than half of the country’s population.” 

To the list of those identified by Huang for whom this ruling will have especially “serious, long-term consequences”—including women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, those residing in the Deep South, and people living in poverty—I would add the community of the young, all those just commencing on or in the earliest days of their journey in the world.  These rulings represent the latest front of an increasingly authoritarian, anti-democratic, and nihilistic assault on our nation’s democratic values by a militant gerontocracy—“government based on rule by old people”—and their enablers. A few years ago, the self-proclaimed “sexagenarian” Timothy Noah archly observed, “Somewhere along the way, a once-new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (not men and women; that came later) became a wheezy gerontocracy. Our leaders, our electorate and our hallowed system of government itself are extremely old.” By 2022 it has become clear, we need to change this state of affairs and change it soon. 

Disney is by no means a bastion of progressivism. This is especially the case in its treatment of the workers in its far flung theme park empire: “Disneyland employees report high instances of homelessness, food insecurity, ever-shifting work schedules, extra-long commutes, and low wages. While there is national attention on the minimum wage with successful local efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than 85% of union workers at Disneyland earn less than $15 an hour.” (For a more detailed study of these issues, I’d also recommend Andrew Ross’s latest, Sunset Blues: The Failure of American Housing [2021]. Andrew generously came to visit UF last spring to talk about both his book and the current student debt crisis.)

However, in a sign of the times in which we live, and especially after recent legislation in Florida aimed at restricting free speech and academic freedom in our schools and universities (for a bit more on the roots of these changes, see my post from November 8, 2021), Disney World now feels like one of the more open and welcoming places remaining in our state. 

Moreover, in a move that has further enflamed some of Disney’s far-right critics, in its recent Marvel universe blockbuster, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness— which we watched shortly after our return from Orlando— the character America Chavez (played by Xochitl Gomez) sports a flash jean-jacket with a progress pride pin near her left shoulder, a move praised by Sasha Misra of Stonewall: “You can’t be what you can’t see, and this sign of acceptance and inclusion will mean so much to LGBTQ+ people around the globe.” It turns out the character comes from an anti-Trump-verse where she is raised by two mothers and speaks Spanish as her first language. This resulted in the film being banned in Saudi Arabia, leading Dr. Strange himself (Benedict Cumberbatch) to comment: “We’ve come to know from those repressive regimes that their lack of tolerance is exclusionary to people who deserve to be not only included but celebrated for who they are, and made to feel a part of a society and a culture and not punished for their sexuality.”

This will not long remain the case, however, if Ron DeSantis, Florida’s current governor and one of the leading contenders for the 2024 Republican nominee for President, has his way. DeSantis’s repressive regime has in recent months worked very hard to make Florida more like Saudi Arabia, signing into law the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans public school teachers from initiating classroom discussion concerning sexual orientation or gender identity (“During a press conference ahead of signing the law, DeSantis said teaching kindergarten-aged kids that ‘they can be whatever they want to be’ was ‘inappropriate’ for children'”); removing dozens of math textbooks from classrooms; passing laws to prohibit whatever they determine to be “woke ideology”; and even threatening to block performance funding to universities if they don’t “comply with the state’s new instructional guidelines outlined in the ‘Stop Woke Act’.” (In an email message accompanying the link to a video designed to explain the new laws to its faculty, the University of Florida’s current Provost noted that “It declares certain types of instruction to be ‘discriminatory’ as a matter of state law.”) All of this leads me to suspect that the recent Disney ad I included at the opening of my post could be read as a subtle nod to the twitter tag first attached to him in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, #DeathSantis. After all, DeSantis is now very much a fully operational (Death) “Star” of the Party. And his menace is just as great as that of his predecessor and one-time mentor Trump. 

Shortly before our departure for Orlando, I had the honor to present a YouTube keynote talk at the “Conference of Science Fiction, Utopias, and Dystopias: Relationships in Crisis,”  organized by the Laboratory of Studies of the Novel (LERo) at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. My paper is entitled “A Future Worthy of Her Spirit: Parents, Children, and the Neoliberal University in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun.” (For a recording of the full talk, you can go to this site.) I ended my presentation with these words (all you need to know here is that Rick and Paul are two central characters in Klara and the Sun):

Let me conclude with Paul’s brief observation concerning Rick: “Rick’s turned into a fine young man. I hope he’s able to find a path through the mess we’ve bequeathed to his generation” (232).  These sentiments apply equally to Ishiguro’s Josie, and to my children Nadia and Owen, and indeed so many of the students I, and I hope many of you, have had the great privilege to encounter in recent years. This then may be the most important lesson of Klara and the Sun for those of us who have bequeathed to their generation such a mess of the planet: the time is long since passed for us “normal kids” to stop telling a younger generation how they should be, and instead begin to listen to their ideas of how we all together could be. 

As so many commentators have noted in various ways, the events of late last week have shaken our democracy to its very core— and if Clarence Thomas gets his wish, state legislatures will soon be empowered to strip away any rights that challenge his deeply patriarchal and intolerant version of Christianity. One reporter in the state whose senior senator is Mitch McConnell—who as much as anyone is the mastermind of what Jennifer Rubin refers to as the current court’s “war on modern America”—points out, “Theocracy may be too weak a word to describe what’s coming down the pike.”

All of this brought to mind one of the most celebrated passages in Marx’s writings, from the opening chapter of the 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte (1852):

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day—but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long Katzenjammer [confusion] takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out: 

Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

Here is the Rose, here dance!

As you may recognize, Marx’s final lines refer to an equally well-known passage from the Preface to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1820): 

This treatise, in so far as it contains a political science, is nothing more than an attempt to conceive of and present the state as in itself rational. As a philosophic writing, it must be on its guard against constructing a state as it ought to be. Philosophy cannot teach the state what it should be, but only how it, the ethical universe, is to be known.

Ιδού Ποδός, ιδού και το πήδημα
Hic Rhodus, hic saltus. 

To apprehend what is is the task of philosophy, because what is is reason. As for the individual, every one is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes. If a theory transgresses its time, and builds up a world as it ought to be, it has an existence merely in the unstable element of opinion, which gives room to every wandering fancy.

With little change the above saying would read:

Here is the rose, here dance

The barrier which stands between reason, as self-conscious Spirit, and reason as present reality, and does not permit spirit to find satisfaction in reality, is some abstraction, which is not free to be conceived. To recognize reason as the rose in the cross of the present, and to find delight in it, is a rational insight which implies reconciliation with reality. This reconciliation philosophy grants to those who have felt the inward demand to conceive clearly, to preserve subjective freedom while present in substantive reality, and yet thought possessing this freedom to stand not upon the particular and contingent, but upon what is and self-completed.

While concurring with Hegel for much of what he has to say here, Marx parts company with Hegel’s call for a “reconciliation with reality.” A note in the indispensable online Encyclopedia of Marxism suggests that Marx’s citation prefigures his later “maxim in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859): ‘Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation!’”

The  note then continues:

So Marx evidently supports Hegel’s advice that we should not “teach the world what it ought to be,” but he is giving a more active spin than Hegel would when he closes the Preface observing:

For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known.

The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

The opposition Marx sets up in this passage is already beautifully articulated in his early „Die Thesen über Feuerbach“ (1844). There Marx writes, „Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern.“ (The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”) Crucially, Marx also always stresses that such radical change should not be dictated by these philosophers; rather philosophers—read in our case, intellectuals, teachers, and even bloggers—should take their lead from those most endangered by the world that is. For us living today that would very much include all those whom Brecht names die Nachgeborenen, those who are born after us, or the generations to whom we have bequeathed such a mess.

How we arrived in this intolerable situation is brilliantly summarized in the unlikely place of last season’s finale of The Simpsons, which first aired May 22, 2022.  In response to the episode some far-right commentators have called for a further boycott of Disney (not very effective if my observations of the last few days are any indicator), purportedly to teach them “that re-writing history to score political points isn’t acceptable.” The ironies in such assertions, especially in light of the January 6 hearings, are rich indeed. The Simpsons episode is entitled “Poorhouse Rock,” and features guest appearances by Hugh Jackman as the singing janitor-narrator and none other than former Secretary of Labor, Professor Robert Reich. 

The episode very well could have been written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil:

Wer seine Habsucht zeigt,

Um den wird ein Bogen gemacht.

Mit Fingern zeigt man auf ihn,

Dessen Geiz ohne Maßen ist!

Wenn die eine Hand nimmt,

Muß die andere geben;

Nehmen für geben, so muß es heißen, Pfund für Pfund!

So heißt das Gesetz!

(To those who show their greed,

People give a wide berth.

With unfriendly fingers they point at the one,

Whose greed is beyond measure! 

What one hand takes,

The other must give; 

In the measure you give, it will be given to you, pound for pound! 

That’s the law!)

Or, perhaps more appropriately in the US context, Marc Blitzstein:

That’s thunder
That’s lightning
And it’s going to surround you
No wonder
Those storm birds
Seems to circle around you
Well you can’t climb down and you can’t say no
You can’t stop the weather
Not with all your dough
For when the wind blows
And when the wind blows
The cradle will rock

In another wonderful convergence, in Tim Robbins’s film The Cradle Will Rock (1999), based in part on the events surrounding the June 16, 1937 premiere of Blitzstein’s musical, the role of Blitzstein is played by long-time Simpsons voice actor Hank Azaria. (I’ve written about the film in an essay published in the collection Literary Materialisms [2013]edited by Mathias Nilges and Emilio Sauri.)

For those of you who missed it and don’t have access to the full Simpsons episode, I’ve provided links in three parts to its extraordinary final song sequence entitled “Good Bye Middle Class.” Part 1, in which Reich makes his appearance, offers an intelligent and accessible thumbnail history of the post-war U.S. as well as the neo-conservative and neo-liberal assaults on the achievements of the Great Society. (For a valuable reading of the connections between the Supreme Court’s recent sledge-hammer blows to democracy and the long wave of transformations in U.S. life that began in 1981, see Heather Cox Richardson’s June 24, 2022 “Letter from An American.”) Part 2 provides a short bridge, where Bart tries to imagine paths out of his, and his generation’s, predicament (the young today “recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals”). 

Part 3 brings it all home by exposing the ways the right-wing media’s blatant lies (re-writing history to score political points is never acceptable) fuels the growing paranoia and nihilism of the gerontocracy, whose votes played an important role in bringing about the current mess: “The average age of  Members of the House at the beginning of the 117thCongress was 58.4 years; of Senators 64.3 years.” Indeed, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito would have fit right into the crowd pictured near the song’s conclusion. 

As the episode makes clear, neither of the possible solutions taken up by Bart—to literally “burn it down” or to be among the “last men standing” in the middle class as the planet continues to burn for everyone else— will solve the colossal challenges of the present moment.  But what this episode, as well as the events of the past few days, so powerfully remind us is that we once again stand at a crossroads in the nation’s and along with it the planet’s, history. It’s here then that we must dance. The storm birds are circling and the wind blows more fiercely every day. In the end, “What you give out will come back to you—full circle” (Luke 6:38, First Nations Version).  

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