About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Reading Dante in the Age of Trump

            Soon after the election of Donald J. Trump, the sales of novels depicting life in a totalitarian state—Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—shot upward, with George Orwell’s 1984 going to #1 on Amazon. (It’s still at #3 as I write this.) People are trying to make sense of the mess we’re in and turning to fiction as one source of understanding. Me, I’m looking back through my battered copy of the 14th Century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, a three part epic poem depicting Dante’s allegorical journey through hell, then purgatory, and finally into paradise. During his spiritual quest, Dante also comments on the politics and political figures of his native Florence, so with apologies to my distant countryman, I’m going to join him in The Inferno and indulge in a great guilty pleasure by imagining the punishment awaiting some of the key players in contemporary American politics. Donald Trump, his cabinet, and his advisors present so many threats to all that’s holy that in addition to political action we need to draw on every artistic and cultural resource at our disposal to give us clarity and hope. If we’re forced to gambol on the edge of the abyss, let’s use every dance move we got.

            Hell consists of nine concentric circles located deep within the earth: Abandon all hope ye who enter here. Each circle is the realm of a particular sin—lust, greed, violence, treachery—with each descending circle representing more and more grievous evil until, finally, there is the center of hell where in the lowest depth, Satan is frozen eternally in ice, futilely beating his massive wings.

            Part of Dante’s poetic genius is that the punishment he creates for each of the sins is a physical analogue of the sin itself, and he renders the sights, sounds, and smells of the physical with grisly vividness. Gluttons, for example, wallow for eternity in a freezing slush of the rotted garbage their earthly indulgence produced. Fortune tellers and diviners (part of the circle of fraud) sought in life the unnatural power of foretelling the future, so in hell their heads are twisted forever backward, their eyes blinded by tears “that [run] down the cleft of their buttocks.” You get the idea.

            In my Trumpian Inferno, there will be a special circle for the president’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and his counselor, Kellyanne Conway. These three long-time Republican operatives were each critical of Donald Trump during the GOP primary—Conway called him “a man who seems to be offending his way to the nomination”—but made their peace with the devil in exchange for power and limelight. Through an endless flow of double-talk, re-direction, avoidance, and flat-out lying, this unholy trio has thrown into fast-forward the degradation of our political language. For eternity, then, let them each be bound to podiums jammed close together in the blinding light of a press conference, repeating face-to-face ad nauseam and ad infinitum the blather that has become their stock-in-trade.

            Chief strategist Steve Bannon who revels in provocation and shock-and-awe strategy would be buried forever in the middle of a vast desert, just enough below the surface that his endless flailing and blustering produces the tiniest puff of sand, seen by no one, not ever, affecting nothing at all.

            And down in that icy pit of hell where Satan intensifies the frigid winds of his damnation through the endless flapping of his wings, down in that cold darkness will be Mr. Trump himself. For well beyond the end of time, every gilded object that surrounds him in life will fade to dull gray. The buildings that bear his name will crumble. A giant screen will broadcast his personal wealth, repeatedly diminishing to zero for all eternity. There will be three people at his rallies, the strapped-to-their-podiums trio of Spicer, Conway, and Priebus, a number too low to make the news. Dante’s hell is full of monstrous creatures who bite and claw at the damned. Whenever our president utters words like “huge,” “beautiful,” “fantastic,” a giant winged demon will rip them from the air, for he has rendered these words meaningless.

            We could go on. The former nominee for Secretary of Labor, Andy Puzder, couldn't take the heat, but his sins might still condemn him to forever and ever flip burgers or clean toilets for less than minimum wage. I invite you to join me. Pick your least-favorite member of the Trump playbook and escort him or her to the vestibule of Dante’s hell.

            One thing, however. As we stand at the threshold of the underworld indulging in our fantasized retributive justice, I wouldn’t want us to lose sight of a sobering, all-too-real fact. There are people close to President Trump, chief strategist Bannon foremost among them, whose view of this actual world we inhabit right here and now exhibits troubling parallels to Dante’s medieval allegory. Mr. Bannon, a thrice-divorced ultra-conservative Catholic, sees the world in Dantesque extremes, apocalyptic, the monumental clash of good and evil. In Bannon’s eyes, we live in a time of dark chaos that through a purgative catastrophe—one he desires—will lead to a new world order. Donald Trump has moved this kind of thinking from the fringes of our society to the center of the White House: Steve Bannon sits on the president’s National Security Council, the smell of brimstone in the hallway outside his office.

            Over the year, I’ll be writing further and less figuratively about the terrible damage being done to our civic language and democratic institutions. But for now… Ms. DeVos? May I escort you through this gateway, please?

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