When Paranoia Becomes Plausible

For as long as we can remember, some people associated with both parties have fretted that if the other party wins communist or fascist style totalitarianism will result. They feared a secret police detaining dissidents in undisclosed locations, and a suspension of democracy to retain power. We always laughed it off as paranoia, and felt vindicated when it didn’t come to pass, but we’re not laughing now.
Over the past several days federal agents bearing no insignia on their camouflage uniform have been roaming Portland, Oregon, in unarmed vehicles and snatching people off the streets without warrants or any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing and holding them in places undisclosed to the “suspects.” That’s not paranoia, but something that has actually been happening in the United States of America.
This is in response to weeks of mass protests that have occasionally devolved into vandalism and arson and violence, and Portland is a stereotypically touchy-feely city and its local police response has arguably been to permissive, but still. America has long dealt with similar problems without resort to such Orwellian measures, and leaving law enforcement to states and localities is one of longstanding American principles that conservatives once wanted to conserve.
President Donald Trump has threatened the same tactics in other American cities, lest the “angry liberal mob” bring anarchy and destroy America’s history. By now its one of Trump’ biggest reelection issues, and he hopes it will deflect attention from the rapidly spreading coronavirus and its resultant economic catastrophe, but he’s going to need a lot more rioting to convince anyone who’s not already a die-supporter he’s dealing with an existential threat that justifies any means.
There’s already speculation that what’s happening in Portland is a practice run for what Trump intends to do to “dominate the streets” in the mass protests that would surely happen if he refuses to accept a losing outcome in the next election. We’d like to laugh that off as paranoia, but in a very embarrassing interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday Trump did not promise to accept the election results, and at this point we don’t underestimate his ruthlessness. We’re already seeing internet comments and hearing callers to “conservative” talk radio cheering on armed resistance to a possible Democratic administration, and although it probably won’t materialize and likely would quickly be put down it’s still chilling.
To be clear, we do not approve of rioting and looting and arson and vandalism and violence, and expect local law enforcement to effectively deal with it, but we’re quite tolerant of peaceful protests no matter what the cause. Trump has shown a willingness to disperse peaceful protests with flash grenades and pepper spray and billy clubs, however, and that is more worrisome than those scruffy “antifa” thugs and the sorts of riots that have been constitutionally quelled throughout our lifetimes. As much as the next red-blooded American we believe in law and order, but given his law-breaking proclivities and the pardons and commutations he’s given his law-breaking allies, we don’t care to be lectured about it by Trump.
What’s most worrisome is that we can no longer laugh off the paranoia.

— Bud Norman

Rotten to the Common Core

For all the dire economic news and reports of political dysfunction, the most disturbing story of the past week was about the decision to replace literature with bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo in the nation’s schools.
Something called the Common Core State Standards in English, which has been embraced by 46 states, requires that 50 percent of all the required reading in elementary schools and 70 percent in high schools be non-fiction. Suggestions for the new assignments include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an excellent and surprising recommendation, but also such dry governmental fare as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s “FedViews” and the General Service Administration’s “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” The educrats responsible for the diktat insist that it’s no big deal, except to the extent it will better prepare the youngster to take their rightful places in society, but we are not reassured.
Any federal “one-size-fits-all” plan for education is destined to fail. What’s needed in a rural Kansas classroom might not be suited to the children in a crumbling inner-city school back east, and within either group the educational needs and capabilities of the individual students will vary even more widely. Each of the 46 states that have signed on to the new standards would do better to allow their school districts to decide what’s best for their charges, and the districts should leave the matter to every school, where the principals should in turn leave the matter to the discretion of the teachers whenever possible. If at any point in this process anyone concludes that the teachers aren’t capable of making the best decisions, they should reconsider their hiring standard for teachers.
There are several things about this particular plan, though, that are especially galling. It’s partly a very personal distaste, as literature afforded us the few enjoyable and genuinely enlightening moments of our desultory schooling, but it’s also an affront to our political, cultural, and educational sensibilities.
How very frightening, for instance, is the assumption that all functioning citizens of the brave new world of the American future will be required to slog through the turgid and deliberately incomprehensible prose of bureaucratic regulations. This assumption is likely correct, alas, but all the more reason that young people should instead be reading Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to be properly forewarned about the sterile society they’re about to inherit. Perhaps the point of the new standards is to shield the children from such subversive material. Without sufficient regulation some old-fashioned English teacher in flyover country might expose his students to Walt Whitman’s admonition to “Resist much, obey little,” and there’s no telling where that might lead.
Neither do we care for the inevitable cultural effects of this plan. The communication skills of the young people we encounter today are barely sufficient for “tweets” and text messages, and further evidence of the country’s increasing illiteracy abound. We note from the Washington Post’s account of the controversy that the man who played a key role in foisting the new standards on the country was unable to get through a speech at the New York State Education Building without resorting to an expletive that the more genteel editors of the paper felt obliged to delete. Holding up the jargon-laden soporifics of the General Services Administration as a model of well-written English will not better the situation at all.
In addition to teaching people to coherently and more elegantly express a thought, literature from sources other than the Government Printing Office also helps people formulate an idea. Those seeking any insight into human behavior, man’s relationship with God, the history of civilizations, or anything else that might be useful to a sentient being as he avails himself of whatever’s left of his freedom would do better to check with Mark Twain, Robertson Davies, Joseph Conrad, or a number of other dead white men than the GSA. Great literature fires the imagination and prompts one to ponder all the possibilities, which is precisely why it has lost favor with the generations raised on our empty-headed pop culture, but the country should expect its schools to remedy such cultural dysfunctions rather than acquiesce to them.
The proponents of these new standards will no doubt argue that anyone who can master the complexities of executive orders and bureaucratic reports should then be able to cope with mere literature, but deciphering the archaic language of William Shakespeare is more challenging and yields a better understanding of a vast world far more complex than anything dealt with by the Bureau of Weights of Measures.
Great literature is also a link to the past, with all its accumulated wisdom and warnings, and one wonders if the new standards are meant to create a break from that past and allow those who would impose their one-size-fits-all solutions on a new and more meticulously planned society. This distinct possibility is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the plan. Economic and political problems come and go, but when a culture goes it’s gone.

— Bud Norman