Twitter, Trump, and Trivialization

electric-companyFrom what I have seen and gathered, Twitter can be a quick and efficient way to spread information. But it also invites one-off, irresponsible, incomplete comments that gain momentum as they go.

Mitchell D. Silber, former director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department (and now Executive Managing Director for Intelligence and Analytic Solutions at K2 Intelligence), explained the relation between social media (particularly of the Twitter variety) and acts of hatred and violence: “You started out with the hostile tweets. You moved to the bomb threats against JCCs and other institutions, and now you have a physical manifestation at the cemeteries with the gravestones knocked over.” (This quote is from yesterday’s New York Times article “Threats and Vandalism Leave American Jews on Edge in Trump Era” by Alan Blinder, Serge F. Kovaleski, and Adam Goldman.)

I do not know that Twitter is influencing any of the recent killings, bomb threats, cemetery desecrations, or other acts. But a medium that encourages fragmented, sensationalist, extreme expression cannot be helping the situation. Twitter has actually replaced other kinds of online conversation; people go there first for their updates and reactions.

Now we have a president who thrives on Twitter—who may even owe his electoral victory to his relationship with the tweet. In October 2015, Michael Barbaro explained (in another New York Times article) how Trump used the medium to promote himself and cut others down:

On Twitter, Mr. Trump has assembled an online SWAT team of devoted (some say rabid) supporters who spring into action with stunning speed. In a pattern that has played out over and over, he makes a provocative remark, like one about Mrs. Fiorina’s face — “Would anybody vote for that?’’ — and hundreds of thousands of strangers defend him, spread his message and engage in emotional debates with his critics, all the while ensuring he remains the subject of a constant conversation.

Yes, this is the style of our chief executive. The danger lies not only in the meanness of his remarks—which is appalling—but in the lack of reason. He maintains these qualities of speech both online and offline. About the vandalism of the Jewish cemeteries, he reportedly told the state attorneys general that the threats and destruction might be a politically coordinated effort to “make people look bad.”

That is not even a statement. It is a half-hint. Is he saying that someone did this to make him look bad? Or does he mean something else? Where are these words coming from? Who are the “people” to whom he refers? Presidents throughout history have exploited the vagueness of language, but this goes beyond vagueness; while making little sense, it also trivializes what has happened and sheds responsibility.

Such trivialization aids the violence even if it doesn’t cause it. If you reduce an act of violence to a vague handful of words, you encourage others to respond in kind. Those upset by these events but trying to make sense of them may end up spending hours clicking tweets and links, becoming, as Jesse Singal puts it, “click-zombies,” instead of putting their efforts into clearer speech).

If headstones are being toppled, people are being killed for their race and origin, community centers are receiving bomb threats, cars and buildings are being spray-painted with Nazi graffiti, and our most popular social media sites are set up for wrist-jerk responses, then not only our language but our places of speech are crying for repair.

Image credit: From an the PBS program The Electric Company (still image taken from video).

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

A New Role for the U.S. Department of Education

serlioPresident Trump suggested during his campaign that he would get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. His nominee for secretary of education, Betsy Devos, calls for more “local control,” charters, and vouchers; in addition, she intends to end the Common Core initiative.

I have criticized Obama’s “Race to the Top” program and many aspects of the Common Core–but I see a different and more promising role for the Department of Education. Here are some things that it can do if it stays intact.

First, it can seek out, vet, and publish the best curricular materials from schools and colleges around the country–so that, for instance, someone teaching Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or someone introducing students to statistics, can easily access a curriculum map, texts, questions, problems, and more. The schools and teachers whose work was published would be duly acknowledged and honored.

Second, it can initiate nationwide discussions that cut through typical ideological divides. Regardless of where people stand on issues such as charters, unions, testing, and “grit,” they can come together to discuss, for instance, the teaching of algebra or medieval history. These discussions would kindle public interest and stimulate additional dialogues.

Third, it can do its usual work: conduct, analyze, and disseminate research; oversee and award grants; and support the implementation of federal education law. This work would be substantial and ongoing–but the curricular work and the nationwide discussions would illuminate and elevate the rest.

Why bother?  someone might ask. Why not leave it to local entities to figure out their own curricula? Surely there’s enough published online that they won’t have trouble gathering resources.

Well, a lot of the material currently online is junk. Also, a lot of good work never gets posted publicly online, as schools see no benefit in posting it. Many curricula exist just as rough drafts (at best), since people are too busy during the year to revise them. Also, a curriculum does not tell you much, unless you know the subject matter. Since schools have such different bases of knowledge, one school’s curriculum might not even make sense to others.

By honoring schools with outstanding curricula, the Department of Education could create an incentive for them to polish and develop their  work. In addition, it could help supplement and interpret such curricula. It could work with education schools to include some of the works and topics in their education courses. Some items in the curricula could become topics of nationwide conversation.

What do you mean by “outstanding”? someone else might ask. Your idea of “outstanding” might differ from other people’s.

Yes, but I see ways to cut through these shells of opinion. By “outstanding” I mean, in this context, intellectually sound and rich. An outstanding curriculum honors the subject matter, considers it from different angles, and helps students understand, interpret, and question it.

I have been in the room when a colleague taught memorable lessons on Hamlet. They stood out for their close attention to Shakespeare’s language, the subtle combination of exposition and open discussion, and the quality of questions. Such lessons, if published, would inspire others; before long, there would be not only a repository of excellent Hamlet materials, but a lively nationwide discussion of Hamlet itself.

Yet another person might comment: “The idea of nationwide discussion sounds great, of course, but is this really the government’s business?” To this I answer: Why should a federal department (especially a department of education) not initiate lively and vigorous public discussion? Doesn’t that enhance democracy itself? It would not be the sole locus of such discussion, but it would set an example.

In short, the U.S. Department of Education could help promote intellectual vitality in the schools and beyond. Some may say, “This will never happen.” Well, it probably won’t happen in the next four years, but that does not render it impossible for all time. With all the talk of educational innovation, why not try the most interesting of all: the public study and discussion of works and ideas?

Image credit: Frontispiece for Sebastiano Serlio’s Book of Antiquities.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means

Every once in a while I read a book that both meets and lifts my intellectual yearning. David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking is such a book.

Bromwich shows how both the static right of American politics and the self-contained left of American higher education, both the “culture of assent” and the “culture of suspicion,” reinforce group thinking and impede thoughtful intellectual discourse. First published twenty years ago, the book gives more insight into the problems of education today than many a recent work I have read.

It is Bromwich’s careful and discerning argument that distinguishes this book from most. He makes illuminating distinctions between seemingly similar assertions. He disassembles and examines many oft-bandied catch phrases and terms (such as “values” and “mass culture”). It is easy enough to say that the right and left are insular and misguided; it’s another matter to explain how. Bromwich’s explanation unsettled me in the best of ways, as it made me reconsider some of my own assumptions.

He distinguishes between (a) studying tradition in order to adopt a set of pre-established views and (b) studying tradition in order to think about it independently and take part in conversation about it. He shows how George F. Will and other self-proclaimed conservatives not only differ fundamentally from Edmund Burke, whom they regard as a predecessor, but do not merit the claimed inheritance.

He shows the deep problems (not just the immediately obvious ones) with the trend toward teaching mass culture in literature departments–which occurs in a larger context of “professionalization.” The one who “specializes” in mass culture has the triple advantage of supposedly relating to the people, being unassailable by colleagues, and having a claim to a “marginal” field.

I was fascinated by his commentary on Burke and Mill (and Hume and Butler) and by his analyses of literary study and the change it has undergone. I bring these up in the same sentence because some of the dangers of which Burke and Mill warned became the reality of the literary academy. As it replaced the study of literature with the study of theory, the literary academy lost both its “historical imagination” and the experience needed for attentive reading.

One of Bromwich’s most intriguing observations occurs on p. 130, when he writes, “Dependence and group-narcissism are the paralysis of genuine scholarship; but scholars, like citizens, to whom that seems a healthy state of things will always invoke the argument of growing solitude.” (He then quotes Nietzsche to provide the source and original context of the phrase “growing solitude”). Indeed, those who welcome group thinking tend to be the very ones who suggest that there’s too much solitude. Solitude, Bromwich suggests, is in part a discipline of the mind: the ability to work without regard for popularity or immediate approval.

Occasionally I find myself disagreeing with Bromwich or disputing his reasoning–but that’s a sign of a book that has me thinking along with it, replying to it, questioning it. Something would be wrong–and counter to the book’s spirit–if I accepted everything in it without question. For instance, Bromwich objects to the conformism inherent in the phrase “we need,” but I see room for this phrase, provided one uses it judiciously. Bromwich is right, but I’d qualify his point.

One of my favorite passages is in the third chapter, where Bromwich states that “conversation offers a place for coming to know something quite different from what one had known before.” Reading the book was a conversation of this kind, a conversation I have longed for. I had just been remarking how rare the art of conversation has become–how frequently and unabashedly people interrupt each other, switch topics, or reduce an exchange of ideas to “whatever.” Politics by Other Means invites the reader to the best kind of conversation, the kind that transforms at least one of the participants. I hope to continue this conversation by reading the book again.

Note: I posted this commentary on Amazon and Goodreads as well as here. Also, in the fourth paragraph, I changed “neoconservatives” to “self-proclaimed conservatives,” since Bromwich does not use the former term in reference to George F. Will.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.