Politics

Fear of Being Liberal

Last week, I watched the Democratic National Convention.  For the first time in what seems like many years, the party I follow and support inspired me.  I turned the television off each night feeling hyped up and even more ready to support Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency.

Yet something did not sit well with me.  I thought her acceptance speech on Thursday night was superb.  It was the type of intelligent, thorough speech that I have come to expect from her, to the point where the English teacher part of my brain clicked into gear and gave her an A+ according to my rubric.  MSNBC’s after-speech commentary group, however, seemed less impressed.  They called it a “good closing argument” but didn’t like how much of it was a response to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech from a week earlier–you know, even though the person who closes second always has the luxury of tearing apart the argument the other side just made.  The other complaint was that it did not appeal to Republicans and was “too progressive.”

Now I guess I should set aside that  had she done exactly what the commentators were criticizing her for not doing, they would have criticized her for not being progressive enough or not directly addressing Donald Trump.  Picking things apart to get an audience reaction is what cable news talking heads do.  But the “too progressive” comment bothered me because it made me think about how for a long time I’ve hidden my own liberalism.

Okay, I haven’t exactly hidden it away and pretended to have conservative views, making my support for abortion rights my dirty little secret or anything.  It’s more like I was a liberal hiding in plain sight.

I grew up in an extremely white, extremely middle class town on the South Shore of Long Island that while not wholly conservative, has its fair share of conservative-minded people.  I went to a Jesuit college in Baltimore.  I teach in a rural and “red” county in Central Virginia.  This means that many members of my family, some of my friends from high school and college, and many of the members of the community in which I teach are conservatives.  If you combine that with my general non-confrontational nature (read: I don’t like to upset people or get them mad at me), I tend to keep my mouth shut when it comes to politics.  And I’m especially quiet at work–yes, I will put a bumper sticker on my car for the candidate I support, but I only volunteer my political views if asked and even then, I don’t say much.

There is so much wrong with those last two sentences that I don’t even know where to start.  Okay, I want to start by apologizing, but I’ll hold off because i think a diagnosis would work better.  I’m quiet because of a combination of a few things:  fatigue from years of having my conservative friends imply that I don’t like America because I never liked George W. Bush and I didn’t support the Iraq War; years of hearing tales of teachers fired for their views or because they spoke up; people above and around me making blanket statements about having to “watch what we say;” oh, and that one time I did get into a political argument with a student and two of his friends went to guidance and said that I “made them uncomfortable” in class (the student simply came to me and we talked it out).

I have, for so long, been a fraud.  I have encouraged students to speak their minds and yet am a wimp about speaking my own.  i have repeatedly qualified or apologized for my political views so that I would not be accused by a student or parent of pushing “liberal indoctrination.”  I have kept my mouth shut in the name of being polite while so many others just went off without any regard.  And I even feel uneasy writing this because it is  whining from the very seat of privilege.

And yet, I worry about my fellow teachers as we head back to school in a very heated election season.  I have no problem calling out those students who are bigots or racists–I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again–but what about the student whose views are opposed to mine but clearly based on inaccuracies micsonceptions fed to them by their parents or friends?  Can I fully engage them in a debate without being sent to the principal’s office for making them feel “uncomfortable?”  And even if I do, then, so what …?  Some of the best teachers I ever had were the ones who shook up my views just enough to make me think twice about who I supported or what I believed.  I never considered it “liberal indoctrination” just like I don’t think it’s “liberal indoctrination” to offer up diversity in authors read in class.  And I don’t think that my views are “controversial” because they don’t line up with a section of the community.

Over the course of four nights in Philadelphia, I watched so many different people speak and cheer.  I heard the concerns and the voices of so many who didn’t look like me or lead lives like mine.  And I walked away thinking that not only this is the America that I feel proud to be a part of, but this is America and I’m proud to be an American.  That is neither a liberal nor controversial view or an opinion to be afraid of, and while I don’t think it should be a challenge to show it, I know I should be ready to accept that challenge.

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Heroes? It’s not that simple.

soldier

A couple of weeks ago, amidst the coverage of the death and funeral of Whitney Houston, a friend of mine posted a picture to Facebook that I’m sure has been shared and re-shared a few times. The picture, which I’ve included at right, is of a soldier handing a kid a flag that was obviously draped over a casket and the caption reads “Tell Me Again how Whitney Houston inspires you and is a hero.” I know why it’s made the rounds–it was meant to help those clicking on it gain perspective because we put our entertainers (whether they be singers, actors, or athletes) on a pedestal more than our “everyday” heroes such as policemen, firefighters, or soldiers, but since I am soulless and dead inside I found myself rolling my eyes.

On Friday, my advanced English class began the same way it always does–with morning announcements. We also had video announcements that day, and those began the same way they always do, which is with a song played over a welcome screen. That day’s song was “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen and while it was playing I made a pithy comment about the announcements being useful for once because it tied into our discussion for the day, a wrap-up of All Quiet on the Western Front. After announcements were over and I could finally begin my lesson, I asked the class if they knew the song (most did) and if they knew how the song was ironic. A few did but most didn’t so I mentioned the story found in the lyrics about a vet who comes home from Vietnam and has very little to come home to, something that was very true in the 1970s and 1980s and is also true about Erich Maria Remarque’s novel about World War I Germany (I also mentioned how there’s a different version on Springsteen’s boxed set Tracks and I’ll be playing that tomorrow once I put it on my iPod), which is what makes All Quiet as relevant today as it was when the Nazis burned it in the 1930s.

The soldier, as I pointed out when we transitioned from talking about “Born in the U.S.A.” to Paul Baumer’s thoughts at the end of the novel, is human and that is the point that Remarque takes nearly 300 pages to make, after starting us off with an epigraph that is more like an abstract than anything else, saying that the purpose of the novel is to: “… try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” One of the class’s paper options will be to evaluate this statement and show how Remarque stuck to his stated purpose of showing war’s reality or veered off his path by writing something that was a protest. I focused more on the role of the soldier and view of the soldier, which Remarque doesn’t seem to take negatively or positively. He’s indeed cynical but more cynical to the nature of war itself and those who sent those boys off to war (represented in Kantorek, the main characters’ teacher, who spends his class time giving rousing speeches about serving the Fatherland) than he is toward the average soldier. In fact, if he has any feelings toward that soldier, it’s empathy (Remarque did serve and was wounded in World War I) and he obviously wants us to get inside the rather tormented head of that soldier, whom the generals and government think of not as a person but as an insignificant, replaceable number in a trench.

In fact, that insignificance hits home at the novel’s very end when Paul dies and his death isn’t even shown. There is just the following:

He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.

 

The two film adaptations I’ve seen (the Oscar-winning 1930 version and a 1979 TV-movie version starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine) both give some hint as to how Paul died in the form of an off-screen gunshot, but I think they actually take away from the impact of the ending. We’ve spent so much time getting to know this character and being in his head as he slowly grows more and more depressed to the point where he feels that the world away from the war is an unknown place that his death being described so vaguely and in such an after-the-fact way is a stomach punch (in fact, a couple of years ago a student asked, “Wait, he died?”). Furthermore, the fact that his death wasn’t even noted drives home Remarque’s point. If I were adapting this for another film, I’d end with where Paul is in chapter 12–sitting in a hospital garden and thinking–and then cut to a title card that quotes exactly what Remarque wrote.

But that’s beside the point. When I teach the novel, I mention propaganda and portrayals of soldiers in the modern-day media as well as back then. I show a military recruitment ad that they’ve all seen before and ask them to look at how military life and “the mission” is shown. We listen to songs from the era (“Over There” seemed to be special torture to them). We read poems by Edgar Guest and Wilfred Owen to get differing points of view. And to bring it back to my friend and her Facebook post from a couple of weeks ago, I try to get a discussion going about how it can be dangerous to put soldiers on a pedestal and automatically label them as “heroes” just for signing up.

That’s not to denigrate the men and women of our armed forces, however. I agree that those who were spit on after coming home from Vietnam have a right to be angry because that sort of disrespect is wrong (especially when those doing the spitting probably should have looked toward people in Washington, not some kid from Fresno). But when you do the opposite and genuflect toward every man and woman in uniform, you might be showing support but you might also be doing them a similar disservice because they are not people but soldiers–or as the thousands upon thousands of faded and peeling yellow-ribbon magnets I’ve seen on our highways in the last decade say, “the troops.” It’s a way to think about them without actually having to really think about them. Three-hundred pages about a soldier, even if he is fighting a war 100 years ago and for a country we fought against in that very war, hopefully gives students some more perspective and moves them away from the bumper-sticker politics that so infests our national conversation. It’s not an easy task, as students often balk at lengthy literary texts, and my success rate with All Quiet on the Western Front is not 100% (nothing ever is), but I love teaching it because of its potential for an eye-opener and the hope that maybe they’ll think twice before automatically clicking “share” on the latest sanctimonious Facebook post.