If you are in graduate school studying eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature during the Trump administration, are you fiddling while Rome burns?
Some might say that studying the humanities in the twenty-first century was already a questionable choice before 2016 brought with it the vivid sight of a dystopian future running headlong to embrace us. The future is STEM, we were told. To major in English, many said, was to look backward, probably with unforgivable nostalgia, to a time when the written word was tangible, metal and ink warping paper. A man on the train, upon learning that I study Victorian literature, once told me, “No one has the attention span for that anymore. No one reads.”
But this is untrue. We read all the time. I read for grad school, and the rest of the time I’m reading on Twitter, or seeing texts on my phone, or devouring takes hot, cool, and tepid. Most people I know are similarly engaged with the written word, all day, every day. The STEM-dominated future we were promised is an open maw that needs content— words —and words, in turn, need interpretation and study. Words are only of use when they can be understood.
I didn’t intend to major in English when I applied to college the second time around. I’d dropped out of art school at the age of twenty to have my first child, and in the decade that followed, in between the births of two more children, I took classes at community colleges as I was able, in hopes of one day going back full-time.
When it came time to apply to schools, I knew I didn’t want to major in art any longer, but what I wanted to major in wasn’t entirely clear to me. I had a rather spotty academic record. My grades were good, but I’d gotten them over a very long period, and since I’d been at home with my kids I didn’t have a career I could point to. Since I was trying to transfer in as a junior, I needed to show a specific proclivity for something. And what I had done consistently over the years since art school was write. I could show a record of creative production. I applied to schools as an English major, hoping my writing portfolio would override the gaps in my schooling.
While I loved the subject of English, I didn’t have any real attachment to academic English as a discipline. I’d always loved reading and writing, but had found English class a bit of a chore. The things I loved about books didn’t seem to be celebrated in those classes, and there was often a dogmatic prescriptivism around interpretation. We were taught that something was symbolic because someone in authority (the author, a teacher, a critic) said it was symbolic, and I came away with a sense that interpretation was a hacky business meant to burnish the gates of knowledge, the keys of which were guarded by our teachers. When I got into school, however, I found that English-as-a-discipline was very different from anything I’d previously experienced. I had expected more rigidity and tortured wringing of texts for universal truths. Instead, taking English classes as a college student in my thirties was liberating: Interpretation was separated from authorial intent, pattern recognition became an exciting game, and my own situational truths were prioritized in my own textual readings.
I didn’t have to separate my English studies from my passion for history, because to study literature is to constantly balance textual creation with historical situation. My memory tends to gather together anecdotes and historical scenes that I find interesting, and they all came back in useful ways when I began studying literature in earnest. My years of reading nonfiction histories were all relevant, for American history is a history of blood and injustice; of the rhetoric of liberty and the reality of racial dictatorship.
The struggle for the soul of the United States has always been fought through words as well as action. The need to define history as a “progression” is, itself, a struggle for dominance through words that become widely accepted history.
And yet this is a strangely naked moment we’re living in. If there has been a historical progression, it has been in language, moving away from an open declaration of our alignments and into euphemism. Now, in Trump’s America, our euphemisms are being set aside in favor of the open, forthright bigotry modeled by officials in the highest offices in the land. We live in an America where a sitting US president has insisted that some people marching under a Nazi flag, at a rally where an American woman was murdered, are good, a president who has referred to a “ they” who are stealing “‘our’ history and ‘our’ heritage,” as Confederate monuments tumble. The president, in his first major policy decision post-Charlottesville, cancelled the wildly popular DACA program that allows undocumented people brought to this country as children to work, presumably because it will play to his rapidly shrinking and very white base, as well as thwart the will of the first Black president. Trump’s alignment to white supremacy is expressed loudly, not in a polite whisper.
Our president literally opened his campaign with a claim that Mexicans are rapists and criminals . As Trump won primary after primary, white pundits repeatedly said , up until the moment that Trump took office , that his bigotry “ wasn’t funny anymore .” That it could ever have been seen as “funny” at all shows a divide in how people of different races read. For people who have been on the receiving end of American racism, the blunt declaration of a candidacy predicated on open hatred of brown bodies was another sign that, to white people, the fundamental American was always white. White Americans found Donald Trump’s overt racism humorous because too many of us saw it as an aberration, one that had no place or purchase in our egalitarian culture. People of color, who live under a daily onslaught of micro and macro aggressions, saw it as a clear reveal of the racism that underlies American culture.
That difference in how we hear and read the same words is one that is also exposed by studying literature. My first year of grad school, a year in which I had no idea that Donald Trump would become president, I constantly read about reading: How is text generated? How much of a role is played by authors, how much by readers? How is the same text read by different people? Should we care about the author’s intent? Moreover, why should we care to consider this topic at all? To me, the biggest argument against affording the author’s intent much weight is made by politicians, not academics. Politicians constantly run into the divide between their intent and the actual weight of their words and actions. A politician puts up a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner and then has to contend with the fact that the war isn’t over and the body bags are still coming home.
Understanding the difference between intent and impact is an important part of studying text, whether that text is a book, a speech, or a disinformation campaign. I study eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, a subject that sounds remote, precious, and distant from my current place and time. When I say I study the Victorian era, most people have one of two responses: They admire the aesthetic of the period, or they expect me to share in their despair that no one reads the great Victorian classics anymore. But I’m not a fan of the aesthetic; I fell into studying this period because I hadn’t read much of it.
In creating my own educational plan while I was out of school, I realized that there was a gap in my literary knowledge. I kept picking up Victorian novels and reading them, and at some point, I started to like them. It might have been Vanity Fair , or a Barchester novel by Trollope, or an early detective story, but one way or another, I started to make more pointed observations about my reading. And this is what struck me: Many of the things we call “traditional” in the United States are cultural and social forms that were brand-spanking-new in the nineteenth century. Our ancient customs, behaviors we assume to be natural because they represent how things have always been, turn out to be born in the same fires as the industrial revolution. Consider “traditional marriage”: one man, one woman, married for love and procreation, formed around a nuclear family in a single family home; the father the head, the mother the heart; the father as breadwinner, the mother as homemaker. It’s how it has always been, forever and ever, world without end, amen. Except that it hasn’t. That’s Victorian marriage, but family units prior to the period were rarely nuclear, and rarely was love a ranking priority.
The myths we tell ourselves are revealed in our fictions, and in the erasures that occur in our fictions. Although nineteenth-century Britain was an empire and England itself was deeply multicultural, many nineteenth-century novels show an inaccurately white England focused primarily on the problems of the middle class. Even as the number of women working in factories climbed, the factory girl largely disappeared from the British factory novel, replaced by male workers and represented only by dying former factory girls who had been killed by their work. When our fictions avoid certain realities and political issues, this isn’t an accident or a coincidence.
The Trump administration produces text in ways that many of us now find baffling. The media has struggled with how to cover a president who lies constantly , for seemingly any reason, and who crams so many lies into his every utterance that it becomes difficult for an interlocutor to counter all of them. The humanities help us with that. Reading about the past, learning history, studying context and subtext, searching for the intended audience as well as the actual audience, considering and discarding intent, thinking about the larger projects of colonialism, empire, government, and culture—all of this has prepared me for the daily reading and responding I must do now, as a citizen of the United States.
Most politicians are honest in the sense that most politicians say what they mean and try to enact what they say. We ignore their overt claims and shaded subtext, as many observers did with Trump, at our peril. This is not to ignore that Trump lies—he does, for reasons large and small; he has, on his own and through spokespeople, lied about issues as small as the crowd size at his inauguration and as large as an illegal act of espionage by his predecessor. But in other ways, he has been remarkably, terribly consistent.
We know he wants to build the wall. We know that he rolled out his campaign on anti-Mexican hatred, and has stuck to his guns on that count even when the details of the wall—how much it will cost, who will pay for it, how long it will take, whether it will be beautiful—have been in constant flux. We know that Trump loves torture , because he has told us so many times, even though his specific claims of its effectiveness and that unnamed experts support him on this, are lies. We know that Trump was supportive of the violence at his campaign rallies, because he overtly said so on many occasions and never did anything to stop it, even though he occasionally made a half-hearted claim that he didn’t think there was any violence happening at his rallies. We saw this adherence to violence again after Charlottesville; Trump sees loyalty to himself as the true moral barometer, and violence committed on his behalf, or by his supporters, is acceptable and often welcomed. As Margaret Talbot notes in the New Yorker , his long-repeated admiration for dictators and tyrants led to his decision to pardon Joe Arpaio, the tyrant and terrorist of Maricopa County, as a catastrophic hurricane rolled in on the fourth-largest metropolitan area of the country.
In other words, Trump and his administration are readable. And we must read them carefully.
They utilize strategies that work to make reading harder; by undermining shared evidence, by actively and regularly contradicting themselves, they undermine any sort of shared reality or reading, and in the end that serves them well because most of their goals relate to dismantling rather than building. But the humanities offer ways to read even the deliberately misleading and obscure. Indeed, as with all of academia, the humanities are often couched in deliberately obscure language. This gatekeeping is problematic in a multitude of ways, but learning the different gated languages of the academy is a good start to reading the gated language of a neo-fascist administration.
I can interpret much of what is happening to my country now because I study what happened in the past, and because I study language. Although the 2016 election is a vastly different topic than my area of study, it was using research and reading skills gained through that study that allowed me to look at historical patterns of white women’s votes and see that it was likely white women would vote for Trump .
It is harder to generate confusion in a society that actively reads for interpretation. It is harder to undermine shared evidence and shared values when people are trained to look for manipulation through language and the muddying of language. George Orwell wrote “ Politics and the English Language ” in 1946, after a period in which language had been used to sanitize the unforgivable. In another essay on language, George Saunders’s “Thank You, Esther Forbes,” Saunders quotes a member of the SS describing the gassing of Jews:
Lights could be eliminated, since they apparently are never used. However, it has been observed that when the doors are shut, the load always presses hard against them as soon as darkness sets in. This is because the load naturally rushes toward the light when darkness sets in, which makes closing the doors difficult. Also, because of the alarming nature of darkness, screaming always occurs when the doors are closed. (63)
“The load,” the screaming that somehow just “occurs,” the problem of a terrified group of human beings about to be summarily murdered, is reduced to a clinical matter of production and efficiency, in which all qualms, all human recognition is eliminated. “Political language,” Orwell writes, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” No one more brutally utilized political language than the Nazis, but Orwell was concerned about its post-war proliferation.
The language that sanitized the murders of millions of Jews and Romani did not die with its victims. Today we contend not just with political language, which sanitizes our own state-sanctioned murders of Black and Native people, but with what Colin Dickey has termed “ the bureaucratic style ,” “a form of language whose fidelity is to institutional power at the expense of objective truth.” Political language today is a blend of the political language of Orwell’s time, and the corporate lingo of our present, language that has been finessed by advertisers and hired thinkers to sell products and unburden the institution of blame. It’s language that nods to you as a savvy reader, tells you you’re too smart to be tricked by language, even as it picks your pocket.
We are often subject to confusion not because we “don’t read anymore,” but because we are contending with competing types of reading. A large part of our citizenry is now partitioned off into a space that deliberately regards critical reading as illegitimate, even though it engages in a form of critical reading of its opponents. While it is essential to understand truth as positional, if we are to advance any sort of social justice, it is also essential to have some basis for shared reality, without which, all opinions are equal, even when based on a wrongly understood premise .
Rome is burning, but studying language and learning about the past, training ourselves to read critically and to think against the grain, is not fiddling. It is joining those who are carrying water and digging trenches. It is one crucial line of resistance.