A Confederacy of Dunces or…

Why can’t we say concentration camps? Why do we accept the inability of our elected legislators to react positively to the needs of a failing nation? Why do we tolerate descriptions of ethnic groups other than “real” Americans as vermin and animals? Why do we have “police” with no identification breaking up peaceful demonstrations and carting people away in unmarked vans? Why can’t we say the word fascism?

This, more than any other post that I’ve shared, has the potential to significantly reduce my following.  While this piece is not directly about education, schooling, etc., it is pointedly about learning… my learning as I’ve sought background for things that I had only studied about in my undergraduate course work in international relations.  I hope you will consider the importance and possibility of our learning as we all experience things here in the US that we had only read about taking place in other countries.

Background  #1

I was raised to believe that the health of a society is reflected the way it deals with its weakest members – most commonly understood as its youngest, oldest and poorest. By that standard we are a failing society… a society seduced by the mythical story of the American Dream, a society that has accepted the notion of Social Darwinism, labeling those for whom “the Dream” proved elusive as lazy drains on the nation’s wealth and a society one that has encouraged the naming by “real” Americans of blacks, Mexicans, immigrants, etc. as dangerous “others”.

Background #2:

While I find Donald Trump to be a reprehensible human being and an embarrassment, it’s clear that not everyone shares this view.  So, while I would love to see a new president elected this fall, what I’ll be sharing here is less about him than about the failure of 30+ years of governing by both political parties. In many ways, Donald Trump represents the logical consequence of legislative self-interest, lack of understanding of the logical consequences of free market capitalism, voter apathy, and a society increasingly characterized by separation… separation from one another, separation (and distrust of) our institutions, separation even from our planet?.There has been “a Trump” in every transition from democracy to authoritarianism.

Why am I writing this? 

Earlier today, on Facebook I posted a copy of a tweet that had been written by Charlotte Clymer, a member of one of the “casket teams” that handle and transfer the remains of fallen soldiers returning to the US after being killed in combat. It was heart wrenching.  It crystalized for me thoughts that have been increasingly difficult to put aside. How have we come to this and what, exactly is “this”? As I’ve learned over the years, I do better asking questions than offering facile answers.  

So it’s not surprising that I was struck by a question: What are the options when things around you seem to be unraveling? And unraveling faster and faster. My knee jerk reaction was that we were moving through uncharted waters. That’s pretty unnerving, especially when the pace seems to be accelerating. But what if the waters aren’t “uncharted”? What if they’re leading to something known, something predictable? What if we’re in the process of repeating stories that have been told before?  Stories that have ended badly?  Revolutions in Europe and South America didn’t happen overnight.  There were conditions.  There were signs and there were steps along the way.  Steps and conditions that sometimes were missed and sometimes welcomed.

Why now? The answer is clear and getting clearer.  For too many people the past 30 years have not been good.  They have not been good for those of us who look at our society with expectations that the poor, weak, and downtrodden will be cared for.  They have also not been good for people who may not share that expectation but who have watched their wages stagnate, their pensions disappear, their medical/pharmaceutical costs drive them into bankruptcy, the cost of educating their kids leading to mountains of debt and the need for multiple jobs just to make ends meet. 

As the availability of these basic human needs has diminished, people’s responses have varied… with one common thread… there must be someone to blame for their particular troubles.  We appear to have gone “all in” on this response.  

As the disenchantment with the difficulty of gaining “our share” of the American Dream grew, so did the expressions of our disenchantment, leaning most recently on increasing levels of  anger and violence. And through it all, the institution that we depend on for truth and accurate information has become increasingly partisan, occupied as they are with either defending or criticizing Trump (pick your network) and, far too often, being less than courageous in the process.  

But the process of blame continues and has escalated now into threat.  We have graduated into the acceptance of terms such as  “others”, “vermin’, “animals”, criminals”. We built walls to protect us from some.  We put others in camps.  We sent members of a new national police force (ICE) to conduct raids at their homes and places of work. The labels have implied greater threats and the need for greater retaliation.  In recent weeks, in the service of “law and order” we have seen the increased presence of armed militia and the expansion of the idea of “others” to include ethnicity, skin tone and anyone who disagrees.  

The last living judge from the Nuremberg Trials has called the collection of immigrants and their families, the separation of children from their parents, the housing of these humans in cages  “human right violations”.  During this entire time our mainstream, corporate news services have consistently struggled with the use of words such as concentration, camps, cages, fascism, etc. And we grew increasingly accepting  of ICE raids, protests, armed groups with uniforms and no identification, unmarked vans with protestors placed in them as necessary to preserve law and order and, ultimately, our democracy.  

And still we have not added words like tyranny, authoritarianism, fascism to our conversations about “what’s next”.  

Why did I decide to write this dark piece? Because we are closer to the edge than we’ve ever been. Some wonder if turning around is even an option.  I’m becoming one of those people.  I review my reading from college, books like the Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.  I revisit my undergraduate thesis on the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. I see frightening parallels.  I see us continually demonizing and calling for the elimination of the those we label as “other”… the blacks, the Muslims, the socialists, the police.  I hear our president identifying himself and his policies as the “only way to greatness”.  I remember the others who used that language.  

When I taught in Germany, I learned that very few of my students ever asked their fathers , “What did you do in the war, daddy?”  I don’t want to hear that question from my grandchildren and have to answer that I stood by and watched… watched as a slow descent into authoritarianism accelerated and the ideals of democracy were lost to repression and silence while I did nothing.

I was far too silent in the 60’s when I should have been challenging the decisions that brought us into and kept us in Vietnam.  I was too busy trying to raise and support a family.  I was far too silent when our black leaders tried to help us understand that slavery hadn’t ever really ended.  Later when I saw people around me losing their pensions, borrowing crazy amounts of money for their kids’ college education, I had a good job, a secure pension, and no student loans.  In short, I was living the American Dream which was becoming increasingly unattainable for a growing number of people. 

In my recent readings I re-encountered the quote by Pastor Matin Neimoller as circulated by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum…

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out Because I was not a trade unionists.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

I do not want to have to say this to my grandchildren. This is not only about the election of one man. This is about the rejection of separation. This is about the need for connections and relationships. This is about recognizing that the rich, older, white men who control our government and its policies will not speak for us.  Much like the children we teach, we must learn to find and use our own voices.  

Want some resources?

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder

From Publisher’s Notes…In On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder provides a stark warning for the future of American democracy. Too easily are we ignoring the ways in which tyranny starts to eat away at democracy. As our political system faces new threats – not unlike those faced by democracies in the 20th century – we must look to the past to safeguard our future.

“America Was Already a Failed State. It’s About to Become an Authoritarian One” Haque

Umair Haque – From Amazon Notes…Umair Haque is one of the world’s leading thinkers. A member of the Thinkers50, the authoritative ranking of the globe’s top management experts, he has published two books through Harvard Business Publishing, where he also authored Harvard Business Review’s top blog for several years, on subjects including economics, leadership, innovation, finance, and careers. Umair has held senior positions in finance and strategy, and holds degrees from McGill University and London Business School. 


Be well.

6 thoughts on “A Confederacy of Dunces or…

  1. Your post is provocative and profound, Rich.

    And it goes along with the political science book I recently read and which Bill is currently reading… Let Them Eat Tweets, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

    Basically the thesis is that in a political party that has taken on the mission of protecting plutocracy, the only way to win elections is through racism, groups like the NRA and religious right, and manipulating the elections themselves.

    All of it, of course, as you imply, is symptomatic of a moral dilemma and extreme individualism at the expense of caring for the broader good… and doing for the least of these.

    Great post.


  2. As I was reflecting on what I wanted to share in the piece, I recalled an observation that I had while listening to some of my favorite music… acoustic folk genre. I was struck by the similarity between the focus of sone writers in the 1960’s and the problems which continue to occupy our thinking more than 40 years later… not an indicator of great progress. It then struck me that the writers of the period recognized before many of us that the culture of our society was changing and not for the better. Now, a half century later, we are still looking at the continuation of a society that more reflects the thinking and needs of the wealthy than of the needs of our country.


  3. I am sure glad I have found this blog and your thoughts, Rich. I am part of the millennial generation raised with one foot in the river of old institutions and rhetoric (dial up internet days) with the other foot in the river of digital nativism and its consistent, non-stop media and marketing and political smear. I often find that even when I believe my thoughts have been fully individuated, that I still weigh these thoughts only as a contrast to the accepted rhetoric of those closest to me.

    I’ve thought about the role of schools, learning, and education throughout my entire life. My primary schooling experience can be adequately described as a “traditional college preparatory” school. There were certainly numerous advantages that such a school and environment offers and I do not pretend to not be aware of this. Still though, despite these advantages and good fortune, I feel it my peers and I have been stultified because we gave up a sense of self for a projection of self. Competition and separation was the norm as students battled for grades. All activity and “community” was in service to one thing and one thing only: college acceptance. Very little inner development and mental nourishment was provided. Sure there were guidance counselors, orientation programs, and clubs and sports teams that could temporarily provide stress relief, but it was all very clear that the Northstar was college acceptance and competition with others. I’ve seen it cripple kids with stress. It’s always been clear to me that socially and biologically, health comes from community.

    I’ve seen this first-hand in my own college-preparatory experience and was front row to the attending difficulties of destructive community with special needs students like my brother.

    There is no reason to continue train young students to be cogs in a centralized standardized testing machine that is creaking and leaky.

    There needs to be a new culture and foundation for learning that is not centralized, but rather decentralized and more bespoke. I like Rudolph Steiner’s principles of education: “The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility— these three forces are the very nerve of education.”

    An enriching program uniquely crafted to foster intellectual and emotional risk-taking in a consciously supported environment.

    Organizations like this are more possible today than they ever have been as this year of flux is waking people up and inspiring people re-evaluate what life is for and how it should be (and can be) lived. The tools of the digitally native allows organizations to find families and families to find organizations.

    I am so pleased to have found this community of thought leaders. It is especially encouraging for someone of my generation to know that there are indeed older generations who hold similar views on learning and education.


    • Welcome, Chase. So happy that you resonate with the ideas. I identify with your early school experiences as both attended a college prep high school and began my teaching career in one as well. Over the years, with 10+ of these working as a school improvement “coach”, I’ve come to believe that we have confused teaching and schooling with learning. One of favorite thinkers is Clark Aldrich In whose book, Unschooling Rules I encountered the idea that we should focus on three types of learning… learning how to learn, learning how to do, and learning how to be. Right now I’m working with a small group of colleagues to explore ways in which the portal opened by the COVID -19 might be leveraged to move past the current iteration of schooling. I hope you continue to enjoy the ideas and also continue to share your reflections. Be well.


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