Rand Richards Cooper
Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.
By this author
When I was a small boy, my father liked to thrill me with an adventurous game. Coming home from the Little League field or an errand to the hardware store, he’d let me ride in the trunk of his black Corvair, challenging me to guess when we were home by reckoning the pattern of turns I could feel. He’d throw in a detour or two to make the game harder, as we called back and forth to one another through the dashboard panel: this being a Corvair, with its rear engine, the trunk I was riding in—the trunk my father, a physician, felt comfortable stowing me in—was in the front.
Can we say that Americans in 1965 were a tad less safety-minded, automotively, than they are today?
The end of my father’s and my heedless little game, and of his owning that car, was already in sight. For that year—in fact, fifty years ago today—a brash young Connecticut lawyer named Ralph Nader published a muckraking broadside, Unsafe at Any Speed, that skewered General Motors, and the Corvair in particular, for its appalling safety record. When the dust settled, Nader had forged a role for government in automobile safety and all but singlehandedly fashioned the concept of public-interest activism.
While last week I mused about the future legacy of the current president, news stories this week, including a front-page article in the Times, detail the crumbling reputation of a former one. Woodrow Wilson, 13th president of Princeton University and 28th President of the United States, turns out to have expressed – and enforced -- racist sentiments that were widespread in his day. Should Princeton strike his name from places of honor on campus?
As the Times reports, a group of Princeton students calling itself the Black Justice League recently put up posters highlighting racist remarks made by Wilson, demanding that the university “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson” – and, more concretely, that it find a new name for its renowned Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, as well as for Wilson College, a residence hall on campus. Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber agreed to discuss these demands with university trustees, and meanwhile promised to remove a mural of Wilson from the residence hall dining room – and has caught flak from culture warriors who see such responses as craven capitulation.
I’ve addressed this topic twice before in this space – once concerning symbols of the Confederacy and the controversy over Calhoun College at Yale, and again concerning Lord Jeffery Amherst, the mascot of my alma mater (update: last week, according the Times, the Amherst faculty voted unanimously to jettison Lord Jeff). But the renaming movement extends well beyond campus brouhahas over political correctness. It points up the challenge of how a society goes about altering its memorials to reflect evolving beliefs and changed politics. And that’s a fascinating subject.
So I’m at a golf fundraiser earlier this fall for a scholarship in the name of a beloved high-school classmate who died of cancer some years back. Before teeing off, a group of us chatted pleasantly... until we lurched onto politics, and one of my old friends, a bright and cheerful person and successful money manager in her mid-50s, observed that in her opinion, Obama has been a terrible president – “the worst president in my memory, anyway.”
Really, I wanted to say; does your memory not extend seven years? But I am not notably equable in such discussions, and there at the country club, at a fundraiser to endow a scholarship for students of color (our late friend was African-American), I didn’t feel like engaging in a pitched battle over the merits of first black President in U.S. history. I did however humbly promise Jane that I would at some point send her an email “conclusively refuting your appraisal of Obama.”
So, Jane, let me take out the three-wood and take a swing at it.
I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but got distracted by more controversial subjects. So let me gratefully relapse into the unexceptionable task of recommending a terrific young novelist. I hadn’t heard of Evie Wyld until last winter, when I joined a public radio discussion of novels featured in the 2015 Tournament of Books. In a competition that included bestselling author David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and Marlon James’ Brief History of Seven Killings, Wyld’s dark-horse novel, All the Birds, Singing, won a lot of fans.
Wyld, who is thirty-five, grew up in Australia and in London, where she went to university and where she currently runs a small bookstore. Her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin literary award (the biggest literary prize after the Nobel), and won her a place on Granta Magazine’s list of Best Young British Novelists. All the Birds, Singing won her another slew of awards. Still early in her career, she’s shaping up to be the kind of writer who gets great reviews, racks up prizes, and sometimes doesn’t sell very much. But Anthony Doerr was that kind of writer, too, until he wrote All the Light.
All the Birds, Singing is the rare novel that’s artfully constructed, trenchantly insightful about human nature and predicaments, and deeply moving. All that, and it’s a mystery, too. Wyld interweaves two first-person narratives told by the same woman, Jake Whyte. One strand, in the present day, details the attacks made by a mysterious predator on Whyte’s sheep on the remote island farm off the coast of England, where she is living alone and lonely, for reasons that are themselves a mystery, in her middle age. The second strand takes up her story at some much earlier date, years ago in Australia, where we find her working as a roustabout sheep shearer in a team of traveling farm workers. The temporal structure of the novel is notably intricate: the present section, in England, is set in the past tense, and its events proceed forward in a conventional manner; the past sections, in Australia, are set in the present tense, and proceed backward – digging, bit by bit, deeper into Jake’s suffering past, in which she has been homeless, endured other bitter hardships I will not disclose here, and received dreadful wounds on her back. What are these scars? Why did she flee home?
The growing economic inequality of American life has been a bugbear of mine for a long time – friends tire of my diatribes on the subject – and I’m glad it has finally made its way into the mainstream political conversation. Now even Republican presidential candidates are talking about it. Of course, they are often talking about it in the way that a card sharp talks about his hand – to obfuscate, that is, and not to elucidate. (The excellent New Yorker writer George Packer writes about the conservative engagement with inequality here.)
Most change happens incrementally, and the change in the past thirty years in the economic realities that sort out Americans has been gradual enough that it’s been hard to feel unfolding. But the numbers truly are astonishing: 45 million Americans live in poverty; and working and middle-class wages have stagnated even as income and wealth has flowed massively upward, concentrating 54% of total American wealth in the upper 3% percent and yielding in that fertile stratum, like some wacky proliferation of hothouse flora, whole new subspecies of the merely wealthy, the very wealthy, the super wealthy, and the colossally wealthy. These distinctions can seem mystifying to the rest of us. What does it mean to live in a country where the top ten percent have three times the collective wealth of the other 90%? Numbers don’t lie, but they can be hard to parse.
The human toll these changes have taken is registered in startling new research by two economists showing that death rates among less-educated middle-aged white Americans are not decreasing, but rising significantly – and not because of heart disease or cancer or diabetes or the other usual killers, but rather “by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”
DotCommonweal readers may be forgiven for thinking that I’m obsessed with this topic, but events keep conspiring to focus public attention on the subject of political correctness and campus speech codes. And each time they do, I recall Jean Raber’s post to one of my earlier entries, in which she asked, in effect, What do people mean when they refer to “political correctness?”
What they mean is being amply illustrated on campuses this fall. I’ve already written about the turmoil at Wesleyan University, where students effectively sought to shut down the school paper after it ran an op-ed, written by a 31 year old undergraduate and Iraq War vet, critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently I wrote about various campus dust-ups over the issue of Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation.
Now Halloween is gone, but the Boo! controversy is continuing to convulse Yale University with events politically lurid enough to have been torn from the pages of a Tom Wolfe novel. The flap began when several students at one of Yale’s residential colleges complained to their house masters about what a downer it was to receive guidelines from Yale’s administration concerning Halloween costumes. Yale undergraduates live in dorms known as colleges; the residences have live-in advisors – typically faculty members – who play an in loco parentis function. The masters at Sillliman College are Nikolas and Erika Christakis; he is a physician and sociologist, she is a lecturer in childhood development and education. After fielding the complaint from dorm residents about the Halloween costume guidelines, she sat down and composed a lengthy and conspicuously thoughtful email in which she essentially agreed with them that the University should relax and, well, let Halloween be Halloween. Speaking, she said, as a child development researcher, she asked aloud, “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?” and argued for basing costume decisions on individual prudence rather than administrative fiat. “[I]f you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended,” her email counseled. “Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” She sent the email to residents of Silliman.
And then all hell broke loose.
In Italy a few weeks ago I had an afternoon to tour the Tuscan city of Siena. I spent almost all of it in the cathedral. Its overwhelming beauty held me captive.
Architecturally, the Duomo combines Gothic and Romanesque themes, including the hallmark black-and-white striped campanile, a square bell tower with pyramidal roof ornamentation. That zebra-striping -- black and white are the colors of the coat of arms of Siena -- continues in the cathedral’s gaudy interior with the marble columns of its towering nave arcades. The decorative ornateness of the place is mind-blowingly, excessively, even dizzyingly gorgeous, like a hallucination.
I craned my neck to take in the hexagonal dome with its trompe l’oeuil coffers, painted in blue with golden stars, far far above. Standing here you’re surrounded by a space so opulent, so stocked with artistic riches, you hardly know where to turn first. There is the altarpiece sculpture of St. Paul, by the young Michelangelo (who cast the face of Paul after his own likeness). Donatello’s bronze statue of St. John the Baptist is set in the eponymous cappella located in the left transept. Opposite, in the right transept, I spent half an hour sitting silently in the luminous Chapel of the Madonna del Voto, taking in the sculptures by Bernini and the painting of the Madonna supported by gilded bronze angels against a backdrop of brilliant blue lapis lazuli.
But the greatest treasure on offer in the cathedral is not overhead, nor surrounding you on all sides, but beneath your feet: 56 etched and inlaid marble panels that make up the cathedral’s floor. Most are kept covered during the year, except for a two-month period every fall. Timing is everything, and I lucked out.
Weeks ago I posted a pair of entries, one on campus political correctness and the other on the Confederate-flag question of expunging memorials now viewed as morally benighted. Two current news items bring these topics back to mind.
The first, explored in a Times article titled “Halloween Costume Correctness on Campus,” takes up the complexity of college trick-or-treating in an era of concern about “cultural appropriation.” Colleges have been informing undergraduates that when it comes to Halloween costumes, “Pocahontas, Caitlyn Jenner and Pancho Villa are no-nos” -- as are geisha girls and samurai warriors and just about any other get-up based on an ethnic, cultural or gender identity. Instead, students are being advised to opt for safe, non-human costumes: a cup of Starbucks coffee, to take one example, or a Crayola crayon.
The term “cultural appropriation,” the article explains, reflects the view “that the melding of cultures is often about which group has the power to take symbols, styles or language from another.” To that end, the University of Michigan posted a webpage advising against “the adoption of other cultural groups’ elements including clothing, symbols, art, music, religion, language, and social behavior,” in order to avoid “belittling the origin culture in a way that trivializes an entire way of life, turning it into an accessory or adopting it for entertainment.” The website suggests that you vet any proposed costume by asking yourself “How accurate and/or respectful is it to the culture/identity” it derives from. That’s a pretty high bar, and arguably a strange standard, to set for a costume extravaganza in which humor, excess, parody and fantasy are the goals. But concern about someone possibly taking offense is paramount on campus these days.
By way of illustrating cultural appropriation, the Times article refers to an imbroglio at the University of Louisville, where the university’s president and his wife hosted a Halloween party for guests dressed in sombreros, colorful ponchos and fake moustaches. A student newspaper called the costumes “racist,” and the University issued an apology. In a similar incident, two students at Clemson University recently complained about “Maximum Mexican Night,” at which Mexican food was served in the dining halls (and, again, staff wore sombreros and fake moustaches.) The university issued a statement apologizing for the event’s “flattened cultural view of Mexican culture.”
You know those exchanges with your child where you’re trying to make a point and your parental wisdom, impeccable though it might be, is not being embraced? Before you know it, you’ve landed in a gnarly little power struggle. In our family, the snafus tend to happen in the morning, when everyone is trying to eat, feed the dogs, get organized, and get going. Amid the melee patience wears thin, and a parent (well, this one anyway) can lose perspective.
A few weeks ago, my older sister was visiting when I had one of these minor blowouts with my nine-year old daughter. Larkin had dawdled and I was trying to get her out the door to school, when I saw that she had put on a pair of beat-up galoshes-like boots, in a dingy shade of purple, instead of her usual shoes. I told her to change them.
Why? she asked.
“They’re not school shoes,” I said. “They’re not even shoes. They look funky, and they’re too big for you, and they’re gonna be uncomfortable and probably too hot.”
“But I want to wear them. I got them at the tag sale last week and I love them!”
“Honey,” I said. “They’re not appropriate. You have a whole bunch of great shoes right here to choose from. Please take those off and wear something else.”
“But Dad. They are comfortable. And the only rule for shoes at school is closed toe. So they are appropriate. And I’m wearing them!”
A quietly provocative op-ed in the Times asks, “Are College Lectures Unfair?” Its author, journalist Annie Murphy Paul, pulls together several strands of research to argue that as a form of education, the lecture may be “biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent.”
The question being addressed is not whether lectures belong in college, whether they’re efficient or not, or cost-effective, or obsolete in this online age of Massive Open Online Courses. Not any of that, but rather whether the lecture format itself – developed over centuries and installed at the heart of Western models of higher education – favors some groups and/or types of students over others; whether it is inherently, structurally invidious. Ms. Paul writes:
a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.
Accordingly Paul advocates pedagogical approaches that de-emphasize lectures in favor of what she calls “active learning.” The “supports” she mentions as part of this approach include frequent quizzes; online “checkup” testing on key concepts before class, and various other methods of feedback and reinforcement deployed to help students “become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.” Well, who wouldn’t benefit from that? Indeed, Paul cites research showing that all students do benefit -- but that “women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.”
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