Archive for April, 2015
It’s Monday, and I’m sitting in the office eating yogurt and otherwise doing nothing, since I’ve already taken care of all of my actual work, but it’s office hours, so…
Anyway, the title of this post is the title of a book by Mark Zubro.
If you’re reading me on FB as well as here, you already know that I gave this book a strong recommendation, and I’m going to stand by it here. It’s very well written. It’s very well plotted. The narrator and his partner–the two main characters of the series–are very attractive as characters, and I would definitely read other books in this series.
And that’s about as good as it gets for a recommendation, at least from me.
And it doesn’t really bother me that the narrator and the book are highly partison Democratic. I read lots of highly partisan books from lots of different points of view.
But I did have a problem with this book that is at least partly a result of the partisanship, so let me see if I can explain it.
All the Republicans in this book are highly stereotypical–the problem is that they’re a conglomerate of four or five different stereotypes all mashed into one.
There is the murder victim, Edgar Grum, who manages to be racist, sexist, homophobic, fat, stupid, vile, obsessed by guns and ridiculously rich all at the same time.
At least I think he was supposed to be ridiculously rich. The thing about the money kept going in and out of focus. On the one had, his family is the Great Power in the fictional county in Wisconsin where the book is set, capable of controlling everybody’s life and employment.
These days, that takes A LOT of money, and Zubro indicates several times that they have it.
But body weight follows social class, not political ideology. Rich right wing Republicans tend to be thin, not fat, and not even Rush Limbaugh let himself get the kind of obese that would make it difficult for him to move around a room. Your average fatso Republican is lower middle class, not rolling in dough.
And Edgar is the stupidest (but not the fattest) of the lot, but the rest of his family isn’t much in the brains department, either.
And that poses another problem.
You really just can’t sit on your ass and get or stay rich. The Grums have a family trust. The idea is that they must have inherited what they had. And that’s fine, except that if you’re dumb enough, you can lose it all damned fast.
And Edgar was dumb enough. He was losing millions on a nearly daily basis and sucking at least one of the brothers into the vortex with him. If these people aren’t depleting their assets at a rapid rate, we’re back to assuming that we have the kind of money that would virtually guarantee that they would weigh what they do.
And then there are the motivations, which are opaque, and not just on the part of the Republicans.
To begin with, there’s Veronica, the victim’s wife and the sister of the narrator. The narrator and his partner are gay men. Their families, including Veronica, are fine with this. Veronica herself is fine with this. Edgar acts like she’s a two year old in a Victorian novel, not letting her work, have her own bank account or know anything about the money.
And she married this guy, why?
And she stayed with this guy, why?
I’m sorry. Love is not enough of a motivation. It really isn’t. Any woman of the kind Veronica is supposed to have been before her marriage a) would only have married the idiot if she got really drunk one night in Vegas and ended up at the Elvis chapel; b) would have thrown the ass out on his ear three days later; and, c) if he refused to go, would have shot him.
But motivation is missing on the part of most of the Republicans, too.
Why do the Grums despise Tom and Scott?
Why are they always snarling and bullying everyone?
I’m sorry. Hate is no better than Love as a motivation.
Certainly people do things out of love or hate, but that love or hate has to be in context. And with the exception of Edgar himself, there is no context here. The Grums do everything they do out of hate, and they hate because they’re hateful people.
They also treat their employees in ways that would end them up with no decent help in any normal part of the country. The only people who would put up with the kind of crap they’re supposed to dish out are the kind who have nowhere else to go, and it’s not that hard to move to Milwaukee from the fictional Harrison County.
And then, of course, there’s religion. Or sort of religion. The Grums are all loudly and obnoxiously “religious” in the sense that they pray at the top of their lungs at the drop of a hat, but it’s impossible to figure out from that what it is that they actually believe in. If anything. My impression is that they don’t believe in anything much. The religion thing is just another form of bullying.
There are some outliers, of course–a pair of super super super rich brothers, who seem to be based on the Kochs (VERY loosely) and whose motivation is Money–but the partisanship extends to both history and wishful thinking.
Our narrator is willing to accept that the Daley machine rigged the Chicago vote for JFK, but he’s quick to point out that he’s heard they learned how to do this from secret Republican maneuvers that haven’t gotten as much publicity.
And then the book takes place during a recall election in Wisconsin, which is so close that “of course” the Republicans steal it–except that the Scott Walker recall election in Wisconsin, which took place in the same time frame, wasn’t actually close at all, and he had an even bigger majority when he ran for reelection.
I don’t think Mark Zubro knows why people vote Republican, or why they resist the government recognition of same sex marriages, or why they go to church and what they find there.
And I am me, and being me I am unusually sensitive to things like point of view.
But this would have been a better book, and the Democrats would win a lot more elections, if Mark Zubro and his friends would actually listen to their opposition and learn to understand what is actually going on.
Because if you think it’s all about love and hate and greed–yeah, it doesn’t make any sense.
It’s halfway through the term, and students are now comfortable enough with each other and with me that they’ve started doing something I never know how to handle–they’ve started giving out personal (sometimes VERY personal) information about themselves.
The most common personal revelation by far concerns kids coming out to the class as gay. This is seldom an actual universal revelation. One student told the class that she was married to the woman she had been partners with for 15 years, meaning that although the class may not have had a clue, pretty much everybody she knows outside of class almost certainly already new.
These are by far the easiest kinds of revelation to handle. I don’t have to worry that my married student is going to get into any kind of trouble for saying what she’s said about her private life. Her behavior is entirely legal. The only thing that’s likely to change in her behavior in the class is that she’ll be more straightforward about te examples she gives when she rights, not trying to disguise the exact nature of them.
What I find a lot less easy to handle are the revelations of things that are illegal. I start every term off explaining to them that they shouldn’t use English class as a place to confess to felonies, but they do it anyway.
Some of this is about drug use, and that isn’t too bad. I’m not going to turn them in, and if anybody else tried to the accusation wouldn’t get very far. You’ve got to actually catch people using or carrying drugs to arrest them, and the chances that somebody else in the room would know enough about any classmate to give the police dates and times and everything else that would be needed is fairly slim.
The category of crime that gets me most jumpy is something else: immigration status.
School is in a small central Connecticut city with a large Latino population, and like cities with large Latino populations elsewhere, it has a good sized subsection with immigration status problems out the wazoo and back again. And because of that, the students in my classes are likely to be either the relatives of illegal immigrants, or illegal immigrants themselves.
I am told that this should not be the case, since undocumented imigrants can’t get into schools and colleges, which normally require copies of a birth certificate for admission. In point of fact, it happened all the time, even before this last year, when the state legislature began issuing drivers’ licenses to undocumented workers and students.
Part of the reason for this is that Connecticut takes a let-’em-all-in attitude to immigration. We took about 2000 of the children from Central America during the crisis at the border last summer. The admissions people at the college where I teach tend to approach the problem with the attitude that there has to be some way to allow anybody who wants to attend school to attend, and they’re usually successful.
My ideas on what to do about the immigration problem are screwed around like a pretzel, but none of the pretzel parts gives me any problem with the admissions process here. One of the things I like about this place is that we take all comers (open admission–only a high school diploma required, and sometimes not even that) and let them all take their shot. The vast majority of our students flunk out or drift away, but we’ll always welcome them back, and every once in a while we have absolutely huge successes.
The problem is that being in this country illegally is a crime that is very different than other crimes. In the aggregate, deportions are proportionately rare. And general enforcement efforts are damned near nonexistent. Particular enforcement efforts are something else again. They almost always hinge on information provided by the general public.
And there is where I run into my problem.
I make a point of telling my students not only not to admit to felonies in class, but specifically not to blurt out their own or their relatives’ immigration status. It doesn’t matter. Such a revelation surfaces at least once a term, and sometimes it gives impetus to five or six more from other people, as if we were in an encounter group instead of a classroom.
And all it takes is one kid able to Google the proper phone number and make the call.
I have no idea is this has ever happened to any of my students or former students. If one of their classmates did make the call, it would take long enough before the charge was investigated that they’d be out of my room and I’d know nothing about it.
The situation still bugs me, though, because it can be very dangerous–it is very dangerous. My students come from every racial, religious, ethnic, and social group you can think of–yes, even from the rich-family went-to-expensive-prep-schools class. They come with all sorts of different political and social ideas. A yes, at least some of them think that all illegal aliens should be rounded up and deported, en masse, right this minute.
So yes. I’d be very surprised if none of my students ever had made that call.
And the proper course is definitely to discourage such self revelation as much as possible.
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to see such self revelations coming. In fact, it almost never is. Kids rarely tell immigration stories on themselves when we are discussing immigration. In fact, for reasons that should be clear by now, I tend to avoid discussions of immigration.
One way or the other, though, at the end of every term, I find myself wondering if some student hasn’t gotten himself (or his parents or his siblings or his aunts and uncles) into trouble because, in my classroom, he was comfortable with me.
Because that’s the bottom line here, the thing that keeps me jumping around.
If you’re going to teach students who have been largely “unsuccessful” in their previous academic lives, who are the ones who came out of high school convined they were stupid, worthless, losers, who struggled through English and algebra barely understand one out of every four words–
If you’re going to actually teach those people and not just pass them through the meat grinder one more time–
Then the very first thing you have to do is get them to relax.
They walk into your classroom encased in a defensive wall around them that would have been decisive at the Battle of the Bulge. You’ve got to get that wall down before they’re going to be able to understand you–about to understand even something so minor as “put your name at the very top of the paper.”
That wall doesn’t always come down, but when it does it comes all the way down, ka-thunk.
Once the inhibitions are gone, they’re gone.
And students aren’t thinking of other students in the classroom. They’re thinking about the teacher, and what the teacher will think. To students, all but very bad teachers own their classrooms. It’s the teacher and no one else that they concentrate on. It’s the teacher’s opinion and no one else’s that they think will matter.
Only sometimes, that turns out not to be true.
If you’re looking for some kind of a grand resolution here, there isn’t one. I have no idea what to do about any of this. I don’t even know if anything can be done.
But today, I’m very depressed about it.