Is it possible for a nation to eat junk food and watch TV for half a century without consequences?

From the “Decline of Western Civilization” Dept, North American Division.

The Founding Fathers feared direct democracy, and referred to it as “mob rule.” Recent events may tend to increase our sympathy for such an elitist and decidedly old-fashioned idea. We may also pause for a moment to appreciate the ironic role played in these events by the Electoral College, which was invented by those same Founding Fathers both to satisfy the fears of slave-owning states that they would be outvoted by “free” states, and to prevent “the mob” from making a populist demagogue their President.

We have had Presidents on television for a while, but now we have our first Television President. A man who doesn’t, and quite possibly cannot, read. A man who watches TV addictively, and has even confessed in an interview that he gets his information about foreign policy by watching television. A man whose core support comes from people who seem to be equally addicted to watching television, and equally allergic to reading, and whose view of the world often has the same relation to reality as popular TV programs.

How long will it be before someone seriously suggests reviving literacy tests for voter registration—not as a tool to stop African-Americans from voting, but as a tool to prevent the utter destruction of the nation by millions of people who depend on TV for their information?

In the past, dynasties and monarchies declined and fell when their leaders became corrupt, decadent, and weak—but there was always a group of new, vigorous leaders at hand who sooner or later took power and restored order. What happens in a democracy when a substantial portion of the electorate declines intellectually, and morally? We take it as a commonplace that some “developing” nations are not ready for democracy because too many of their people are uneducated, and therefore unprepared to function as well-informed voters. We accept the idea that such nations require authoritarian government, at least for a while.

By that logic, wouldn’t a nation whose people, in significant numbers, lack the education and knowledge to function as citizens—who function, essentially, as a mob—wouldn’t such a nation also require authoritarian rulers?

Finally, if we accept the claim that large numbers of Americans are now ignorant, misinformed, and incapable of intelligently discussing economics, foreign affairs, and social policy, how in the world could this have happened in “the greatest nation on earth”? I can think of numerous factors that probably helped bring us to this sad condition. But let historians charting the decline of the United States note that while the seeds of decay were planted when the economy was hijacked by the military-industrial complex, the final collapse was precipitated by two generations of Americans filling their bodies with sugar-laced junk food, and their minds with the stupidities of television.

The Television President was elected, after all, by the Television Nation.

Pay no attention to that babbling head up on the screen!

Someone with talent in the visual arts should produce a parody of the famous scene from The Wizard of Oz in which Toto pulls back the curtain that has been hiding Professor Marvel as he works the controls to produce the phantasmagoric speaking head of the Wizard. Marvel sees Dorothy and her friends looking at him, panics, and then cries desperately into his microphone, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

In the parody I imagine, the speaking head, of course, is Mr. Trump, mesmerizing the nation with his buffoonish, button-pushing tweets. Unlike Professor Marvel, Trump has an assistant in this task: the irrepressibly dishonest Kellyanne Conway. Behind the curtain of Trump’s carnival show is a whole collection of men who will be doing the real work of his administration, and it is those people who we should be attending to, not the bubbling, blathering head that is Donald Trump, or his deliberately provocative spokesperson, Conway.

The media have, so far, been unable to break the Pavlovian cycle in which Trump tweets and they rush to thesauruses searching out fresh synonyms for outrageous, untrue, and offensive. It is their job, of course, to report the President’s words, but the real problem, as has been the case all along, is that Trump is great for their ratings, i.e., his mouth is money in the bank for them. If in the meantime the country is being liquidated by the men behind the curtain, well, that doesn’t make such good copy. That doesn’t generate many clicks.

It is up to all of us, therefore, to deny Trump the attention he craves, and to instead keep our focus on the work being done behind that curtain. Don’t share or re-post or comment on the latest blast of verbal garbage from our President. Instead, seek out news of what his cabinet officials, his other appointees, and his Republican allies in the Congress are doing. Share, re-post, and comment on those news items.

Pay no attention to that babbling head up on the screen.

Hillary-haters are part of a long history

. . . you don’t like weak women

You get bored so quick

And you don’t like strong women

‘Cause they’re hip to your tricks . . .

—Joni Mitchell, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”

Hillary Clinton is far from the first strong woman in public life to be slandered relentlessly by her political opponents and those offended by feminine leadership. Let us take a brief tour.

Wu Zetian (624 – 705) was the only female emperor of China. Despite being a strong ruler who governed well, her reputation as a scheming, ruthless woman willing to do anything to gain and keep power overwhelmed her accomplishments.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 – 1204) was Queen of France, then Queen of England, and the mother of three kings of England. She was highly educated, and played an important role in the political and military struggles during the latter part of Henry II’s reign as King of England. In the popular imagination, however, her reputation was formed by fanciful stories of her leading a group of decadent nobles in scandalous sexual practices, and a vicious rumor that she had murdered one of Henry’s mistresses.

Isabeau of Bavaria (1370 – 1435) became Queen of France at the age of fifteen when she married Charles VI. Caught up in vicious power struggles when Charles’s mental illness left him unable to rule, Queen Isabeau was accused of about every crime possible, including adultery and witchcraft. This reputation lasted until 20th-century historians reviewed the evidence and discovered that she was intelligent, well-educated, pious, devoted to her children, and an effective ruler in her husband’s place.

Catherine de Medici (1519 – 1589) was Queen of France from 1547 to 1559 and played a leading role in the Byzantine power struggles among the French nobility during the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants. Though clearly no better or worse than the Bourbons and Guises and other rivals for power, Catherine—as not only a woman but a foreigner, being the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici of Florence—got most of the blame for a host of poisonings, assassinations, and political back-stabbings.

Catherine the Great (1729-96) ruled Russia for more than thirty years. Compared with other Russian emperors, she was clearly above average as a reformer and a supporter of Enlightenment ideals. Like her male counterparts, she took lovers, but the stories told about her falsely accused her not just of licentiousness, but of perversion. These slanders culminated in the rumor that she died from a stroke suffered while attempting to have sexual intercourse with a stallion.

Empress Dowager Cixi of China (1835 -1908) was a remarkable woman who began her imperial career as a lowly concubine but ended up as the mother of the heir to the throne and, as Regent, the nominal ruler of China for decades. Surrounded by powerful factions in a dying empire, Cixi successfully navigated among them but was slandered as vicious, sexually perverse, manipulative, extravagant, power-hungry, and so on.

So is Hillary the devious, lying, scheming, ambitious, ruthless harridan that the Republicans say she is? Sure. And do you know the story of the servant girl that Cixi murdered by throwing her down a well?

Abiqua Academy High School: First Semester Report

Down the hill on Bates Road, off Liberty Road in the suburban farmland south of Salem, Oregon, you will find the former site of Rosedale Elementary School. The Rosedale building, along with a row of portable classrooms behind it, is now occupied by Abiqua Academy’s pre-K to Grade 8 students and teachers. West of the […]

Welcome to Human Rights Camp

Camp Director:

All right, folks, settle down there. I want to welcome you all to Human Rights Camp. You will all say that you are not here by your own choice, but we know that’s not true. Each of you has chosen to commit gross violations of human rights, despite repeated complaints, criticisms, and remonstrations […]

Medicare for everyone!

Let’s imagine that, somehow, Americans reached agreement that universal, single-payer health care is the way to go. How could it be implemented? Clearly, the transition would have to be managed in stages. It might seem logical to gradually lower the eligibility age for Medicare—say, five years of eligibility every twelve months. In the first year, […]

Advice I Wish I’d Been Given 50 Years Ago

Use a water flosser. I hate using dental floss. My hands are too big to fit into my mouth, the floss keeps getting stuck between my teeth, and in the end I just don’t do it. The water flosser, on the other hand, is quick and easy and it’s right there by the sink […]

Memo to the Baseball Hall of Fame

As a lifelong baseball fan I have concluded that continuing the current system of voting players into the Hall of Fame has become such a fiasco that it should be discontinued.

Instead, the Hall should be a museum of baseball history, full stop. Everyone in, no one out. Fans will always debate whether this player […]

La Mère Bourgeois

In the summer of 1989 my bride-to-be and I drove my battered Renault 5 through France. We chose the smaller roads, and stayed in municipal campgrounds, preferring to spend the little money we had on food instead of lodging. On arrival at one such campground I parked the car near the entrance and walked over […]

Old-fashioned printing and book-binding

This wonderful brief video on Facebook shows clearly how printing presses worked in the days of hand-set type, and how the pages were then turned into books.

A few key points are missing, however.

Notice how the letters must be placed backwards in the press. Notice why the printing press was called a “press.” The […]

Terrorism, Racism, and Healing the Body Politic

If you ask Chinese people to compare traditional Chinese medicine with Western medicine, they will say that Western medicine is very strong and works quickly, while Chinese medicine is gentle and works slowly. Western medicine works quickly, but it only treats symptoms; Chinese medicine aims to restore health to the body by addressing the weakness […]

Looking for a College or University

1. Think about where you want to go. West Coast? East Coast? Midwest? South? Canada? Overseas?

2. Think about how big a school you want.

3. Do you prefer to live in a small town, a medium-sized city, or a large urban area?

4. Strongly consider a small, liberal arts college. Such schools exist only […]

My graduation speech

I’ll begin with a story.

One of my former university professors came to see me years ago for advice about starting a garden in his back yard. As we talked, I realized that he had no interest in gardening: he only wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. So I said to him, “Find a really […]

A passion for reading

Paul Graham: “What Doesn’t Seem Like Work?”

Another nice little essay by Paul Graham. As always, he is interested in what typically goes unnoticed. This one may help you—if you are young enough—think about what sort of career would suit you.

http://www.paulgraham.com/work.html

Daniel Willingham on “learning styles”

For years teachers have been told, with great assurance, about “learning styles”. Daniel Willingham provides a welcome splash of cold water on these ideas. Have a look at his “Learning Styles FAQ”.

History

Reading history reminds us how briefly we appear on the stage of life. The king of a great nation who reigns for thirty years and lives more than twice that long seems a minuscule blip in the stream of time. How much less are we, leading our quiet lives in peaceful obscurity.

New job! or, T.S. Eliot Rides Again

I am delighted to announce that beginning in the fall of 2015 I will be teaching in the new high school program of Abiqua Academy in Salem, Oregon.

I began my teaching career in 1980 at South Salem High School, but the opportunity to return to Salem 35 years later has come as a complete […]

Research: what are ‘credible sources’?

Students doing research for an Extended Essay, or in preparation for an IB English Interactive Oral, or for any other research project, need to use credible sources.

But what exactly is a credible source?

Basically you are looking for information written by someone who has some special training or expertise in the subject you are […]

Open letter to former students

UPDATE, October 30th: great news! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

 

I will be leaving China this coming summer and moving on to a new job beginning in August 2015. Under Chinese law, I cannot be issued a work visa if I would turn 65 during the upcoming year. Since I will celebrate my […]

Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story

In the summer of 2011 came an email message from one of the first students I taught, way back in 1983 in a suburban public high school. Kathy had found me through a classmate’s Facebook page, and wanted to let me know what she had been doing for the past quarter-century.

Honestly, I remembered very […]

NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing

From the National Council of Teachers of English, November 2004.

Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers. People learn to write by writing. Writing is a process. Writing is a tool for thinking. Writing grows out of many different purposes Conventions of finished and […]

The hazards of sitting

Evidence is mounting that sitting for long stretches of time — in a car, at a desk, or on the couch — is bad for our health. A sedentary way of life and spending hours sitting down seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. . . . Research by Dr. […]

Dear Google: an opportunity I hope you can’t refuse

I have a little project for you—a chance to do some real good in the world.

I teach high-school English. I know that my students need to read as much as possible, but I also know that reading alone will not give them the high-end vocabulary they will need for maximum success in school—for that, […]

Writing advice from great writers

1. Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice to Writers

2. George Orwell’s Five Rules for Effective Writing

3. William Strunk’s Elements of Style (Chapter III is the most important)

That’s a good start.

Music washes away my worries: composing and editing

Composing and editing are two distinct processes. Students staring at blank screens or blank sheets of paper are usually trying to compose and edit at the same time. It doesn’t work.

Composing is the messy, chaotic process of figuring out what you want to say. It’s like being sent to the attic to find something. […]

My Suzhou

 

Originally published in International Schools magazine and aimed at teachers considering a move to China.

The classical gardens, first. Master of the Nets is my favourite: small, but it has all the elements. Not gardens in the Western sense, but homes for the well-to-do, built around a central pond. In a classical garden, art […]

Remembering Anne Osman

Ten years ago I heard of the passing of Anne Osman, my friend and colleague from Casablanca American School, where I worked from 1986-89. Today I came across this piece that I wrote about Anne. It was published on an earlier version of this web site but was somehow lost in the move. This seems […]

Dear Maury

A letter to Maury Wills. For those who don’t know, Maury Wills played shortstop on the great Dodgers baseball teams that featured Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the 1960s. In 1962 Wills stole 104 bases, breaking Ty Cobb’s 1915 record for steals in a single season.

Dear Maury,

I was following reports about […]

The Intentional Fallacy: it doesn’t matter what the author intended

First: we can never know what the author intended. Even if we ask the author in person, we cannot know whether the answer we hear is sincere, or truthful. It gets worse: the author himself cannot know with certainty what impelled him to write this or that. Why did I eat oatmeal for breakfast? […]

Toni Morrison on teaching literature

I’ve always thought the public schools needed to study the best literature. I always taught Oedipus Rex to all kinds of what they used to call remedial or development classes. The reason those kids are in those classes is that they’re bored to death; so you can’t give them boring things. You have to give […]

Aristotle on happiness

Bacterial Hosts

Q: What portion of the human body consists of human cells? A: About the amount from the knee of one leg down to the foot. The rest is bacteria.

This reminds me of commercial television. We commonly regard TV as a medium of art and communication financed by advertising. Actually, however, it is an advertising […]

‘Hamlet: The Happy Ending’

Some of my students were devastated to discover that Hamlet dies at the end of the play, so I have obliged their tender sensibilities with this additional scene. —etm

—————————————————————————

Scene: Wittenberg. A room in an inn.

HORATIO But how is this possible?!

HAMLET ‘Season your admiration’, good friend. In short, by a hair’s breadth […]

Ugly word of the day: “societal”

From DailyWritingTips.com:

What’s the difference between social and societal? Not much, but enough that you may become the victim of social stigma if you ignore subtle societal signals.

Societal is the pedantic alternative to social. . . .

I couldn’t agree more, having read hundreds of teeth-grating essays filled with “societal” this and “societal” […]

People are animals, too

In 1968 millions of people were outraged when anti-war activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya announced that a dog would be burned alive on the UC Berkeley campus to protest the use of napalm (jellied gasoline, for you youngsters out there) in Vietnam. No dog was harmed: Kuromiya’s point was that Americans were less concerned about the Vietnamese […]

Shakespeare changes your brain

“How Shakespeare Changes Us”, at lit-hum.org. The first comment is worth a look, too.

Good Advice About Bad Writing

“Good Advice About Bad Writing”, from DailyWritingTips.com.

Brief, clear, and to the point.

A Slow-Books Manifesto: Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

From The Atlantic, a piece worth reading by Maura Kelly. Here’s a taste:

Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories […]

Ray Bradbury in the ‘Paris Review’

Anyone interested in writing, anyone interested in science fiction, anyone interested in Ray Bradbury who just died at the age of 91, anyone interested in much of anything will find lots to think about in this wonderful interview with Bradbury from the late 1970s, rediscovered and printed in the Paris Review in 2010. Among other […]

Good Habits, Good Students

"It’s simply awesome and highly inspirational. Thank you so much for this book." —Student in Grade 9.

Click here for info. Available now from most online booksellers or by special order from your local bookshop.

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