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
In recent years, the troubled writer has been a theme in movies as disparate as Wonder Boys, Adaptation, The Door in the Floor, Sideways, and The Squid and the Whale. The writer-protagonists of all these films are fictional, and it’s easy to understand why. Taking on the biopic of a famous real-life writer means tangling with a well-established public image; exploring an unknown gives a director more freedom.
This country is so wildly diverse, with so many subcultures, values, backgrounds and personal styles, that sometimes you just shake your head. Or at least I do. Rarely do I feel more foreign in my own land than during my chance encounters with a particular type of fellow American: the casual conversational divulger. I’m talking about the person you’ve just met, who for some unaccountable reason tells you everything – that solitary sailor, as Tom Waits sings, who spends the facts of his life like small change on a stranger.
With summer waning and kids back at school, I find myself lamenting the restricted lives American children lead these days, and the disappearance of what’s been called “the free-range childhood.” In my mid-fifties and with a nine-year-old daughter, I’m both old enough to remember the old regime of childhood and contemporary enough to be complicit in the new one. Though I wince to admit it, I’m as culpable in the demise of the free-range childhood as any other parent.
But first: do you remember what it was like, that kind of childhood and that kind of summer? Out the back door, grab your banana bike, zoom off into the street. Pull a wheelie or two out of pure exuberance. See if Ricky or Chip or Craig are around. Start a game of tackle football in someone’s yard. Scavenge wood for a tree fort. Ride down to the cove at the foot of the street and chuck rocks in. Whatever.
The free-range childhood is my mother, shouting from the porch, Be back by five! I don’t have a watch, but I’ll know from the slant of the sun. Plus, she has a bell she rings, and I’ll hear it and lope home, like a hungry dog, for dinner. The free-range childhood is long, aimless days – blank slates on which you and your pals would scrawl the messy, adventuresome script of childhood.
In today’s childhood, however, everything is planned in advance, and there’s very little “whatever.” One day last weekend our daughter had exhausted her screen time, had read for two hours, and was climbing the walls. We hadn’t scheduled anything for her. So what was she supposed to do? I wanted to tell her, Just go out exploring! You’ll find someone! But I didn’t, because it doesn’t work that way any more.
Toward the end of the comments on my post about Donald Trump, both Tom Blackburn and Jean Hughes Raber—excellent correspondents both!—express fatigue and bafflement at the concept of political correctness, with Jean insisting that “I don’t know what it is.” So...here we go!
I know Commonweal readers can happily live without my take on Donald Trump. But The Donald can’t restrain himself, and neither can I. Trump is pure fodder for cultural and political commentary, a phenomenon crying out for explanation. Why Trump, why now?
One can explain his candidacy as the apotheosis of politics-as-entertainment (as Matthew Sitman did on this site two weeks ago) or as the ultimate coarsening of civic discourse. There’s also Americans’ complicated, paradoxical attraction to über-wealthy politicians, our belief that to be unbuyable is to be incorruptible. By extension, since Trump already has celebrity, voters can assume that he isn’t just trying to pull a Huckabee, parlaying visibility into a job and money. And, as many have noted, there’s the candidate’s deft channeling – and stoking – of white working-class disaffection.
But there’s more to the Trump phenomenon than all that. Commentators seem specially irked by the man, especially those who try to apply conventional rules of politics -- or civility. Charles Blow’s recent dyspeptic column, titled “Enough is Enough,” expresses disbelief and no small measure of outrage at the durability of Trump’s candidacy. Reminding readers that “this man is not worthy of the attention he’s garnering,” Blow blames confreres in the press for “drooling over the daily shenanigans of a demagogue,” pronounces himself “disgusted at Trump’s contempt and the press’s complicity in the shallow farce that is his candidacy,” and vows henceforth to stop paying attention.
The column cites a Politico article listing Trump’s most inflammatory remarks over the years. Trump’s “vilest hits,” as Blow calls them, include the following: “The only guys I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day.” “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’” “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market.” “The concept of global warming was created by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” “Jeb Bush has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife.”
Everyone involved in politics is dumbfounded by the failure of such explosive pronouncements to sink Trump’s candidacy. After the Megyn Kelly blowup, many predicted that Trump he was through. After the gratuitous insults to John McCain’s war record (“I like people who were not captured”), people really thought he was through (New York Post headline: “Don Voyage!”). And yet he lives to calumniate another day. How? How does a candidate taken to task by a female journalist for calling women pigs and dogs respond by charging her with being unbalanced by menstruation – or slander the patriotic sacrifice of a documented war hero – and survive?
An op-ed in today’s Times discusses the ever-controversial Common Core educational standards currently in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Politically, the Common Core has proved to be the mother of all strange-bedfellows issues, with both the left and the right roundly condemning it – for completely different reasons. The left sees Common Core as part and parcel of an excessive emphasis on testing and on linking those test results to teacher evaluations. It worries that the standards are too challenging, and that high rates of failure will afflict minority and under-resourced children. A popular blogger here in Connecticut, Jonathan Pelto, has made a career out of opposition to the Common Core, routinely calling it “child abuse.”
These are the judgments of those on the left who view all school reform as an evil plot to break teacher unions and enrich corporate educational interests. The right, meanwhile, seemingly unaware that the Common Core was initially a Republican policy initiative, has subsumed the standards within the bugaboo of federal control, demagogically misconstruing Common Core as a kind of educational Obamacare -- yet another way in which a nefarious federal government seeks to control every aspect of our lives. And so the standards are sandwiched between darkly conspiratorial attacks from both political sides.
A lot of the fears strike me as misperceptions. The Common Core is like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: everyone has an opinion, but how many people have actually read the thing? You can go online and look at the standards. Like all bureaucratic documents they’re laid out in a bewildering panoply of sections and subsections. But individual standards seem sensible.
The riveting and painful news accounts of the St. Paul’s School rape trial are unusual only for being set at one of the most privileged and wealthy private schools in the country. But the story itself has been way too familiar in recent years on college campuses, where the issue of sexual assault has brought colleges massive protests, scrutiny from the federal government, and much institutional soul-searching. Our state university here in Connecticut settled for $1.3m with five plaintiffs who alleged that their complaints of sexual assault and harassment were ignored by UConn, and my alma mater, Amherst College, got a lot of press when a student’s harrowing account of date rape went viral three years ago. Some statistics suggest that as many as 1 in 5 female college students will be sexually assaulted during their college years.
This swirl of dismal realities led me to catch up on a book I’d meant to read when it came out last spring: Missoula, journalist Jon Krakauer’s account of several sexual assaults that occurred – or were alleged to have occurred – at the University of Montana. Krakauer first became known for Into the Wild, the story of a college kid who fled civilization to head out, alone and unaided, as far away as he could get - a tragedy that ended with his death from starvation in a remote reach of Alaska. Krakauer later became famous for his chronicle of a doomed Everest expedition, Into Thin Air, which again betrayed his fascination with the harshness of nature and those who choose to risk their lives in it.
Given these preoccupations, Missoula seems a strange book for him to have written, and maybe just a strange book, period. It’s part police procedural -- a kind of extended Law and Order episode -- part social-work trauma primer, and part indictment of the inadequacy of the police and criminal justice systems vis-à-vis victims of sexual violence. Krakauer reveals that the book’s origins lay in surprising revelations by a younger female friend about having been raped by an acquaintance years ago; stunned, Krakauer decided to educate himself about the subject. Looking for survivors who would tell him their stories, he set out “to comprehend the repercussions of sexual assault from the perspective of those who have been victimized.” The resulting book lies somewhere between lurid exposé and earnest advocacy journalism.
On a vacation at a ranch we met a family that included Harry, a three-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. He couldn’t yet speak words, and expressed himself via loud exclamations that sometimes ascended into a strange and unfamiliar kind of cackling laugh. The first time I heard it in the dining room, not seeing the source of the noise, I was startled and thought, What is that?
A new essay in the Atlantic is making the rounds among those interested in life on American campuses. “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, announces that “something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”
Lukianoff (a lawyer) and Haidt (a social psychologist) argue that in a misguided effort to create “’safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable,” colleges have embraced an ethic of “vindictive protectiveness,” attempting to safeguard students by punishing those—students and professors alike—who violate expressive norms derived from progressive political values. Such protectiveness, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, is a poor preparation for professional life. Worse, it “is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety.” Political correctness, in other words, may teach young people “to think pathologically.”
Essays of this type typically summon anecdotes to convey a dismaying sense of enforced conformity in the academy, and “The Coddling” doesn’t disappoint. There are the students who ask their law professor not to lecture on rape law, or even use the word “violate,” for fear of the distress it might provoke in class. Or those who call for attaching thematic “trigger warnings” to such books as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (racial violence) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny, physical abuse), “so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma.” Haidt mentions that in a class of his own, at NYU’s business school, he was discussing Odysseus and showed a painting of the Sirens—whereupon a student complained that the image of topless mermaids “was degrading to women, and that I was insensitive for showing it.” And then there was “Hump Day” at the University of St. Thomas, modeled on the popular GEICO ad, where the option to pet a live camel was deemed insensitive to people of Middle Eastern descent—and the group behind the event announced its cancellation because “the program [was] dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable and possibly unsafe environment.”
My wife and daughter and I spent two days at the Jersey shore. One afternoon the sun was fiery, the motel pool crowded. One family caught my attention. They were enjoying the pool—at least, Dad and the two little boys were. As they disported themselves, splashing and laughing, Mom was sitting in a chair alongside, looking on with a stony expression. She didn’t seem to be having much fun. Maybe it was because she was swathed in neoprene—a black dive suit that covered her from wrists to ankles. Plus a black head scarf covering her head and pulled close around her face.