It’s been a long time since I stood in a classroom and taught anyone anything, but each June for years I’ve appeared before classes of college seniors to give a graduation address ushering them into our grim world. True, those speeches didn’t take place before flesh-and-blood audiences but on what I’ve come to call “the campus of my mind” (and were then posted at TomDispatch). Still, I faithfully tried to usher class after class of graduates into an ever more godforsaken American world. The other day, however, I realized just how deeply the age of Trump had gotten to me. In 2017, I seem not to have had the urge to give such a speech and so graduated no one into anything.
That led me back to my last attempt to do so: June 5, 2016, a moment when Donald Trump already had every media eye in America glued to his orange comb-over, his incipient “authoritarianism” had become an issue, and I was imagining the possibility that he might indeed be elected president. With that in mind, I gave an address to that year’s graduates, which I titled “Donald Trump Is the Mosquito, Not the Zika Virus.” In it, I said: “Few bother to consider the ways in which the foundations of authoritarianism have already been laid in this society — and not by disaffected working class white men either. Few bother to consider what it means to have a national security state and a massive military machine deeply embedded in our ruling city and our American world… or what it means for that state within a state, that shadow government, to become ever more powerful and autonomous in the name of American ‘safety,’ especially from ‘terrorism’ (though terrorism represents the most microscopic of dangers for most Americans)…
“It’s clear enough… that our American system is morphing in ways for which we have no names, no adequate descriptive vocabulary. Perhaps it’s not just that we have no clear bead on what’s going on, but that we prefer not to know.” And I then implored the Class of 2016 to step into that world and “tell us who we are and where we are.”
So, more than a year and a half later, who are we? Where are we? Barely a week after the latest mass slaughter by a disturbed teenager carrying an AR-15 assault rifle into a Florida school, I’m not sure I even want to know. Fun fact: you need to be 21 in Florida to legally purchase alcohol, but only 18 to get that combat rifle. Fun fact: in February 2017, by rescinding an Obama-era regulation, President Trump made it easier for people with mental problems to buy guns. Fun fact: Thanks to the killing of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Florida, Columbine is no longer the worst high school mass killing in our history. Fun fact: In the United States, there is now, on average, a “mass shooting” (four or more people shot) nine out of every 10 days of the year. Talk about terror! Talk about terrorism! And so it goes in the age of The Donald.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that my urge to graduate anyone into such a world hit rock bottom last year, which is why I find something heartwarming about today’s piece by TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon — about, that is, anyone willing at this moment to face the daunting task of helping the young learn how to navigate an American world that seems more unnerving and unbalanced by the day. So here’s a small bow to Gordon and the students who take the journey with her onto what is increasingly an alien planet damaged in ways that should deeply disturb us all.