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?