The Plagued Parent

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Of Mice or (Hu)Men?

The other night I walked in the door just after 6 PM. Before my bag even hit the floor, my daughter blurted out from the dining room, “I need help with my English homework.” I sighed, took off my shoes and headed to where my daughter had all manner of study materials fanned across the dining room table — Lit, biology, a little Geometry. “Get something to eat first,” she said, “I’m only having trouble with two questions.”

For the past two weeks her sophomore American Lit class has been working with Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. After I ate some pasta and grabbed a coffee, she handed me the packet she was working on — an essay offering a Marxist critique of Steinbeck’s novel and four questions. The two questions she struggled with had to do with power relationships and the nature of capitalist authority using both Marx and Foucault to critique the capitalist power structures.

Here’s the thing: my daughter gets it.

What I mean by that is she saw within the Marxist viewpoint a valid interpretation of the inherent inequalities that manifest within our capitalist culture. She also saw how Steinbeck’s Depression Era novel revealed these inequalities and showed actual affects on the ways in which people view themselves, their opportunities and their place in society.

In other words she gets the deal. To quote the late singer songwriter Leonard Cohen “everybody knows the deal is rotten/Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton/for your ribbons and bows”.

Now, before you get all wiggy on me…

Consider that we’ve currently settled into cultural moment where many are angry.

While I might not have agreed with their ideology, we saw this anger several years ago with the Tea Party Movement. Now we are seeing it with those who oppose the Trump Administration and the policies that have emerged in his first thirty days in office — yea, it’s only been a month.

In the last week, members of Congress have returned to their home districts to face incredibly angry constituents, citizens who the president has Tweeted are “so called protestors” implying that they are paid professional activists.

Steinbeck, Marx and Foucault would all have something to say about that.

What are we actually looking at?

Simple really, a challenge to the power structure. See, Trump voters put a man in the Oval Office whom they believe would restore power and authority to the people. Wrong; Bernie Sanders was the man for that job. However the awesome exertion of Goldman Sachs gave the electorate two options instead — Trump or Clinton. Either way the capitalist authority of Goldman would be either overtly (with Trump) or covertly (with Clinton) insinuated into government.

At this juncture remember a cold, hard truth: George shot Lennie.

Why does this matter? Because all the working class really has is the “pipe dream” of success.

And in the end Lennie will always get shot.

There is no other outcome.

The deal makers are the regulators of prosperity and their prosperity comes first. Everything in our capitalist system — education, finance, infrastructure, communications, media — all conspire to create the illusion of choice. In the end all of these aspects contribute solely to a single outcome — producing workers.

I can prove this.

Most colleges and universities across the country — even the ones I work for — are making “career readiness” and “technical training” their focus and priority. It is not about empowering the individual with creative, critical and intellectual abilities to be free. No, it is about making them dependent by making them “lifelong learners” and fueling that pursuit with ever increasing student loan debt.

The goal — produce dependent workers mired in the swamp of a so-called free market (see what I just did there; pretty clever no). Dependent on higher education, dependent on the mercy of an intrusive

As human resources we only have value so long as we serve the needs of corporate interests — the capitalist authority. In the end, for Steinbeck, the only way out is “death” — George must shoot Lennie and authority will demand that because Lennie cannot be controlled, he is too vital and too strong. In Steinbeck’s world the dream will be unrealized and unfufilled.

I know this does not sit well with my daughter.

Which is a good thing.

I have see in this current wave of activism a renewed sense of anger on the part of my college-aged students and certainly among some high school students such as my daughter.

If we teach our children to blindly accept the dominant power structure as it is, teach them to play the game in order to get along, then they will be slaves to the myths of “American Dream” or “endless progress” or “a brighter future”.

What about the now?

Why can’t now be better? Why must better always be something you have to find somewhere down the road?

My daughter’s English assignment gives me a little bit of hope.

Ideas. Thoughts. Arguments. Counter-arguments. This is what this is about. Challenging the status quo and knowing what’s rotten when you smell it.

Teach our kids to think, and speak and work out the big ideas so they can ask the critical questions so each can build the future they desire. While some teacher somewhere might start the ball rolling, it’s up to us to keep it moving.

The protests, the activists, the roiling voices of both young and old pounding on the not so distant plain show people grappling with a choice: will they cower and scurry as fearful mice just barely outrunning the claws of the the barn cat; Or will they speak truth to power at their own peril, will they roar as only the human voice can?

 

 

Updated: February 23, 2017 — 4:36 pm

16 Comments

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  1. “Of Mice And Men” was part of my English literature exam curriculum too …way back in erm 1980/81… alongside Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and the poems of Sir John Betjeman 😊

    1. All literary heavyweights alike and with much to teach the rest of us. Thanks for the reminder Linda.

  2. I am heartened by this generation’s willingness to speak out. While they have gotten more from their parents than past generations, they’ve also given more because volunteering became a mandatory requirement to graduate high school. I see it in the kids that I’ve hired these past few years and in the incentives that inspire them to improve their results. The biggest draw has been the opportunity to work at the homeless shelter as a team instead of the team pizza party. It gives me hope for the future.

    1. The good thing about mandatory volunteering is that it gets kids involved and shows them that there’s something bigger than themselves out there in the world. That’s great that you see the desire to be involved and make a difference as the incentive rather than shiny trophy that sits on a shelf collecting dust. Thanks Jennifer.

  3. Teach our kids to think and speak out…yes!! It’s more important than ever!

  4. And this, too, shall pass. But maybe not in my lifetime. Theirs, though. Maybe. Hopeful of it, anyway.

    1. Fingers crossed on this end. Hope you’re right. Thanks Carol

  5. Despite the oxymoron of “mandatory volunteering” I think it has incredible value. Your daughter is part of why I still feel so much hope. Our horrible political climate might create the engagement that we have lacked for so many decades. Lets silver lining this shit.

    1. Thanks Anna. I think a fair number of optimistic cynics such as myself are also “silver lining this shit” in the same way. Heard on NPR (fake news??) that ACLU membership has risen by 2-3 million since Trump’s election. Maybe there is some hope, some place…

  6. Too many people have become apolitical in recent years, overwhelmed and then numbed by the constant flow of information. I do believe the tide is turning, though, and young or old, I have to hope we’ll all stand and roar together!

    1. Right there with you. Even before this Trump nonsense began, I decided to push against civic complacency by assigning two boos by Paul Rogat Loeb Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While. I highly recommend them. Thanks Amber

  7. I totally agree with what you have written in this post, from your points about Bernie being the only candidate who had a shot at restoring power to the people and education failing to foster intellectual and creative growth. Parents are paying student loans while their kids rack up enough debt to owe a the equivalent of a house when they graduate, trapping them in jobs they despise, caving in to the boss’s demands. Living debt free gives people more choices and the ability to take more risks in their career and personal lives. Now that I’ve finished that rant, I need to read “Of Mice and Men” again. It’s been too long!

    1. Thanks Molly. It depresses me that everything within the cultural system seems to create more captive robots that free men and women. So many want to argue that “wage slavery” is a choice, but when you really examine the situation the opposite seems to be true.

  8. Sounds like an interesting assignment at least. I read Of Mice and Men as a teenager, and I really enjoyed it, but it actually never came up as one of the books on any syllabus despite all the English and English Literature I took, so I have never studied it.

    I find the support for capitalism among the population at large baffling and frustrating. I get its support amongst those who benefit from it, but so many who, as you say, can only ever be harmed will nonetheless blindly believe it is the best way. It’s a hell of a deception that has been pulled off to convince people to support something that does not benefit them now, on the basis of the pipe dream that they could one day become rich and will then be grateful for the system. It is made more remarkable by the fact that people accept and believe this despite it being so obviously untrue. That is the bit that frustrates me. Capitalism is based on uneven distribution of wealth. Even distribution of wealth would be a socialist economy, and most people know that. And, if capitalism keeps wealth unevenly distributed, then it is clear that most people cannot become rich, since that would then be even distribution. If most people cannot become rich they can only suffer for someone else’s benefit. If most people cannot become rich, it will probably not be you. So it makes sense to support fairer systems that will benefit everyone, not a system that will almost certainly harm you on the off chance that you get to be one of the few beneficiaries at some unspecified future point. This should be obvious, but is apparently not. Maybe the trick is that capitalism plays into an innate tendency of humans to believe that they are special and important – people are willing to believe that they could be one of the elite who prosper because they want to believe that they are special?

    1. Thanks SM. That blind support you mentioned baffles me as well especially in a time of unparalleled wealth inequality. I think people cling to the mythos more than anything else. In the words of Trump *Sad*. Everyone believes they have shot to make it rich. Fat chance.

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