Teaching With Guns

February 16, 2018

How an obscure scene in 1984 could shed light on our government's response to America's mass shootings.


"The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering—a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons—a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting—three hundred million people all with the same face."

As I made my commute in to work Thursday morning after a Valentine night of Viet-French food, chocolate, and Coco, (the tear-jerkingest best film I've seen in months!) I found myself, of course, in traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway. It was stop-and-go and 60 degrees, hot coffee and dog on my lap, both of us waiting with semi-bated breath for the President of the United States to come on the air and address Wednesday's mass-school shooting in Florida which killed 17.


Of course, we knew what he would say in some way or another: our thoughts and prayers are with you, we grieve for your loss, we shall look to God for salvation, we shall mourn forever, then we shall overcome! Perhaps, even, a reference discerning the state of mental health in this country. We've read the script by now, and yet I sat anyway, truly hoping to be surprised—maybe he would be bold! Maybe he will say the "gun" word! Followed with "control" or "safety" or fifty other phrases that would turn the Republican party on its heels and or incite his NRA support base. Perhaps he would say "enough is enough!" Do something radical. Introduce a new reform, ban weapons for a month, give everyone the day off work with the mandate that we sit down and talk about this one issue. Anything! I found myself hoping.


But alas, this moment did not come. The script was rehashed. We set the flags at half-mast. Some prayed, some shouted, some went to class. Many in fear. 


This would be the second time this school year I would address a national tragedy with my students. It's a shame I have to pick and choose, but there is curriculum to cover! Yet I was compelled toward this one—a high school in Parkland, Florida, an affluent community, picturesque and peaceful, situated in South Florida, an area not so unalike the community I was driving through at the very moment I listened in.

We must be nuanced about our approach to these issues, teachers. Years ago, I showed clips of Michael Moore's "Bowling For Columbine" the morning after Sandy Hook hoping to rouse my students to action, but rather traumatized several of them. I was later called into an administrator's office to discuss my "choice of material." Yet we cannot be inauthentic, or apolitical, we must charge forward, be human, but subtle too, and sensitive, and charismatic yet unaffected, enthused yet poised, eloquent yet reachable... I digress. But how, then, to address it?


For my freshmen, the entrypoint was simple—we were studying Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Chronicles of a Death Foretold, and this day we would tackle the author's stylistic representation of collective memory, that is, how a single event, tragedy, can prompt such a variety of memories, regrets, from a community, and how Marquez' non-linear, hallucinatory narrative mimics the concept. The kids struggle with the diffusion of multiple temporalities in the text.


"We might imagine the investigation of Santiago Nasar's death in his small village as the study of a, say, school shooter. Imagine a tragedy like that in our own community. How would we describe it afterwards, beyond the mourning? Would we look back at our inaction with guilt—we saw the signs, he had it in his social media, we could have called someone, why didn't we act?!—would we be confused, flattened, dismayed? And all of us would remember that day in our own way, from our own perspective. Some would be rife with emotion. Others mechanical about what you might have done differently. Some might remember the weather, the position of the sun. Or the last thing you had said to your mother. Or what class you were walking towards. Marquez' style reflects this collection of memory through time."


For my sophomores, not as easy. Each was embarking on an intense research project, and their choices provided limited room for entry: wage gap, homelessness in Los Angeles, charitable giving, the rise of automated driving. Here I was, pushing 30 years old, seven of them spent teaching, moving into a classroom for the first period of the day with my mind 2000 miles away in Florida, then in Columbine, in Connecticut, at Pulse Nightclub, to San Bernardino, to Aurora, Vegas, Virginia Tech—my mind a scattershot. How to address it, and more, how to depict what has been quelling in me, a smattering of helpfulness and uselessness, a call to action and arms numbed by the terrors of the century, a willingness to act tinged with the bleak hope that something bigger than me might intervene and, lastly, as I entered my campus this February morning in Palos Verdes, California, a fear for our livelihoods.


It was then, amidst this sentiment, where I recalled a lesser referenced passage from George Orwell's 1984, which I had taught my sophomores at the beginning of the year. One of the best-selling texts of 2017, Orwell's dystopian masterpiece from 1949 has had its revival in recent memory. I've used it as a thematic entry into the surveillance state of China, North Korea, and the USA in a world of iPhones and CCTV:


How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. (3)


We've discussed it against the context of freedom of the press, fake news, and the manipulation of history and suppression of thought:


But actually, he thought as he readjusted the Ministry of Plenty's figures, it was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another. Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connection with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connection that is contained in a direct lie. Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version. (41)


We've even massaged it into conversations alongside Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, about mass production of food and goods:


He took down from the shelf a bottle of colorless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine. (5)


What Orwell does so remarkably is detail all of the ways in which the masses, or his "proles," can be suppressed. From heightening their paranoia, to manipulating the content of everything they can see, hear, or read, to regulating what products they are allowed to consume, those under the power of the Party are kept in control by both ignorance and fear—they know little about the way their world truly works, and feel they are constantly under threat from powers foreign and domestic.


Take, for instance, a moment when Winston, the protagonist and Party defector who is subsumed by his own deepest fear in the end, visits a shanty town on the outskirts of his city:


Suddenly the whole street was in commotion. There were yells of warning from all sides. People were shooting into the doorways like rabbits. A young woman leapt out of doorway a little ahead of Winston, grabbed up a tiny child playing in a puddle, whipped her apron around it, and leapt back again, all in one movement. At the same instant a man in a concertina-like black suit, who had emerged from a side alley, ran toward Winston, pointing excitedly to the sky.


"Steamer!" he yelled. "Look out, guv'nor! Bang over'ead. Lay down quick!"


Winston clasped his forearms above his head. There was a roar that seemed to make the pavement heave; a shower of light objects pattered onto his back. When he stood up he found that he was covered with fragments of glass from the nearest window.


He walked on. The bomb had demolished a group of houses two hundred meters up the street. (83-84)


Here, we see a natural state of affairs in the streets outside the capital. Men and women scattering in fear, cowering under the violence of steel and fire. They do not, Orwell implies, know the source of the bombings, only that they have been going on for years. They could be firebombs from foreign enemies, they could be a local cooking experiment gone wrong, but they have no way to stop it, they only know what the government tells them: we are at war, we will protect you, we are here for you.


Under the black threat of chaos, the proles have only one response: to rely on the Party, the powers that know best, living their days out stupefied, fearful, or both.

I will leave my insinuations to the reader. I only know how I feel: that we are in a perpetual state of violence in America and our response has been, and continues to be, to pause, to mourn, to argue about it, and wait for the flag to rise to full again, so we might salute this great government in its entirety, whom without we would have no flag!


Orwell continues into a cafe soon after the street bombing:


[T]hree men were standing very close together, the middle of them holding a folded-up newspaper... It was obviously some very serious piece of news that they were reading. He was a few paces away from them when suddenly the group broke up and two of the men were in violent altercation. For a moment, they seemed almost on the point of blows.


"Can't you bleeding well listen to what I say! I tell you no number ending in seven ain't won for over fourteen months!" (84)


The men were gambling. Whiling away their money and minds, while the world turned to fire around them, big men profiting from the suppression and stupidity of little men, little men turning blindly to big man for a bleak hope, an answer, a way out.


I wish I had outlined all of this to my students. But I didn't. We had to get on with class.




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