Shouting with a PhD

My first week of teaching — as a teaching assistant, at Columbia — was the week of September 11, 2001. I was 23, just starting the second year of my PhD, and I’d spent much of the summer frantically reading everything I could to prepare myself for being in the classroom. Then Tuesday morning happened. My roommate knocked on my door shortly after the first plane hit, and we watched the towers fall on a downstairs neighbour’s TV. Later that day I was walking aimlessly around the neighbourhood. I lived in Manhattan, but in Morningside Heights, on 112th between Broadway and Amsterdam, and there was an eerie calm on the street. F-15s passed over at intervals; eventually smoke from the site of the attack would be visible from the rooftops, and I remember very well how it hung in the air for days, a bent plume. But that was later. On the ground were just a lot of lost-looking people. At one point a man who worked in a pizza place nearby yelled at a Sikh student wearing a turban, demanding to know why “you” did this. The student kept walking. That was the only instance of rage I saw that day, but of course that soon changed.

I did not think about how to deal with any of this in the classroom. I hadn’t lost anyone in the attacks, but one or two of my students had. I don’t think the professor addressed it as something we should “handle” in our teaching; the course was on the Renaissance, so perhaps it seemed a stretch to give time to current events except as trimming. Beyond being “accommodating”, granting extensions and letting absences go — not, in other words, behaving inhumanly — we did not, as I recall, treat it as a pedagogical matter at all. This may have been a mistake; on the other hand, some idea of the degree of stupidity at large in those early days can be got by considering that the notion of postponing exams across the campus was regarded by at least one of our colleagues as “letting the terrorists win.” Another faculty member was gleefully reported by one of his students as having declared that “we” needed to “bomb them back to the Stone Age.”

The election of a “festering pile of shit” to an office of immense power is not traumatic in the same way as the sudden, violent deaths of thousands. I don’t know whether they can be placed on the same scale, or why one should need them to be commensurable, though with the passage of time I suppose that the kinds of damage they do might well converge. Still, my feeling going into the classroom yesterday — not for a course on the Renaissance, this time, but on the Scientific Revolution — was much the same as it was fifteen years ago. This time, however, I decided to start off with what was on all of our minds — though I did initiate the discussion by wondering what, if anything, our slated topic (scientific correspondence and publication in the later seventeenth century) had to do with it.

One key term that emerged early on was “facts”. Why hadn’t the facts mattered? Or hadn’t they? Some were, famously, fabricated. Others (650,000 emails) had mattered immensely to one side and not at all to the other. Still others (30 years of experience) had mattered to both sides, but had meant radically different things to each. So what accounted for these interpretations? What made them stick? What explained the different constellations into which each side had fit its collection of real or imagined facts? It became a discussion about media, perceptions, prejudices, openings for and constraints on expression, inclusion and exclusion from discourse, the incompatibility of world-views, and so on.

It could have gone in a lot of other ways; maybe it should have. Had I been discussing the politics of religion and toleration, or state-formation, or colonial plantation, or slavery — all things that come up in other courses — it undoubtedly would have. But I did not plan it too carefully, and I was wary of weighing in as an authority when so many of my colleagues have more directly pertinent expertise. Then, too, my students are for the most part Canadians; they certainly care about and followed the election, perhaps as much as most American millennials (perhaps more, to judge from voter turnout). But there is still a certain inescapable arrogance, embodied in phrases like “leader of the free world”, in putting everything, everywhere, on hold for American politics; particularly when, as I am, you are an American yourself, at least from the perspective of your audience. I could have just suspended the course entirely and had a discussion about the election. It would probably have been a cathartic session for commiseration, grief and, perhaps more, rage.

One of the reasons I didn’t, I think, goes back to my experience in 2001, and in particular to the venting of anger in damaging ways by people who should have known better. One did not need a PhD then to cry for bombs to rain down on “them”; but a lot of people with PhDs were happy to do so, lending the weight of an academic credential to the ferocity of their passions, or invoking it more subtly to legitimate their dismissiveness of more complex responses. This is not to dismiss rage. What has happened is a tragedy. It is the triumph of a cheap con. It has made forms and degrees of racism and misogyny once virtually banished from public discourse mainstream. It has reestablished fascism’s place on the spectrum of acceptable political opinion. It has legitimated and at times actively encouraged mob violence and the breakdown of law. It has forced whole populations to leave in justified fear of violence, extralegal or judicial. It is a disaster, and we are only beginning to get a sense of the price we — and others — will pay. Rage is right.

But it has also demonstrated as much as any event in memory what happens when thinking, questioning, learning, and empathy, yield before their opposites; when curiosity about history, humility about claims, concern for truth, and scepticism of easy answers — and easy explanations — give way to “a giant ‘fuck you’.” Or, as it may be, a giant “fuck them.” Perhaps we should not worry about the feelings of the various groups of people who collectively voted this monstrosity in; certainly, weighed against the fate of Trump’s past and future targets and scapegoats, “at home” and abroad, it’s not what’s keeping me up at night. But at the same time, we self-proclaimed analysts and scholars of history, culture, society and politics, we educators, had better find the tools to understand how and why this happened, and the curiosity, humility, intellectual concern, and scepticism to use them effectively in our research and, perhaps even more, in our teaching, to mitigate the damage as best we can. “Fuck them” — and some of “them” are almost certainly among our students — is an awfully blunt instrument for what looks from all the indicators like a complicated, lengthy, taxing task.

[Image: detail from Alfred Rethel, Nemesis (1862) [PD]. Original in the Hermitage.]

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