Letter of Introduction “to” SXU President, Dr. Keith Elder

April 26, 2024

EXPLANATORY NOTE: I started this piece on April 18, 2024 with an intention of writing a letter of introduction to SXU’s new president, Dr. Keith Elder. I hoped I might, in the last weeks of the semester, finally, reach out to him, and possibly kick off a productive and collaborative relationship, one where I might be viewed as a willing partner in the betterment of the university. Readers of my blog will know of the criticism I’ve posted about SXU’s former president, Dr. Laurie Joyner, and of my disagreements with many of the administrative decisions that have been made in connection with her vision for the university.

As I wrote, I found myself reflecting on my career at SXU. I also found myself embroiled in many confusing and consequential matters, including, but not limited to, the following: discussions of the revisions to the faculty handbook; intense heart-to-hearts with students in various states of end-of-semester crises; obsessive observations of world historical events involving politics, democracy, genocide, and governance; family remembrances of long-lost loved ones and our efforts to communicate essences and legacies to bereaved children; and various other “meaning of life” reflections that made my original rhetorical purpose—writing a letter—at once more confused, more problematic, and more relevant.

The upshot is I’ve decided to still write Dr. Elder, but instead of sending him the letter, I’ve come to feel it’s more appropriate to use the project as a continued form of “bearing witness” that I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog—in this case, bearing witness, first of all, to all the people cited in the letter (my students, my family members, my colleagues) and second, to any onlooker in the world who might happen upon this blog. The ultimate audience, as the last line will show, is God, and so my letter, were I to judge its final form rhetorically, comes closest to the genre of prayer. Whatever it is, here it is:

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April 18, 2024

Dear Dr. Elder,

Welcome to SXU! I hope your first months at the university have not been too overwhelming. We haven’t yet met, so I hope I might take this opportunity to introduce myself.

Perhaps first of all I should direct you to the profile published yesterday in the Xavierite by one of my students, Barbara Lunsford. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet myself, but knowing Barbara, I’m confident she captured truthful, relevant information in probably more interesting ways than I could relay.

I’ve been at SXU for the past 28 years, the bulk of my career, obviously. I’ve felt blessed by the opportunity to mature as an academic in the special environment of SXU. The institution has changed over the 28 years of my time here. So, a theme of my message would be characterizing the nature of the changes, and pointing, I hope, towards the directions I would ask us to maintain or pivot away from.

I’m writing this letter in L-213, the English 120 Composition Lab. The writing, conducted with my class, is being completed in an activity called “SSW,” a weekly routine. Some backstory: When I first arrived at SXU in 1996, this room was actually the university bookstore—something hard to imagine now, given the size of the space. Though small for a bookstore, the room is comfortable for a writing lab, with desks/computers set up around the perimeter, and a big open space (with one meeting table) in the center of the room. I find it easy to walk around the room and conference with students throughout our workshop sessions. I bring this up to spotlight some of the evolution—and permanence—of L-213, the writing program, and the university.

The writing I’m doing now is being completed in the company of Gil and Cyril, two of my 8:00 AM ENGL 120-09 students who got to the room well before I arrived at 7:30. I find it helpful to get to SSW (“sustained silent writing”) before the 8:00 AM start with its official silent entry and 40-minute session. So do Gil and Cyril, who have been coaching one another all semester on their writing; their chess games; their poetic perspectives on events, objects, and feelings; their prospects in life; their challenges in being students; and the list goes on.

I bring all this up to reflect on how the development of SSW constitutes a “uniquely-SXU experience” made possible by the room, technology, modes of collaboration, and faculty development opportunities particular to SXU. The method of writing workshop I use grows out of longstanding principles of my field of composition/rhetoric that value the identification, theorization, and support of “process,” along with other key components, such as the centrality of the principle of “ownership” in writing; the privileging of the concept of “authorship,” or “looking at the world as a writer”; the inculcation of “genre awareness” as foundational to a writer’s motivation; and more—all oriented around a commitment to craft and caring about rhetoric, purposes, audiences, effects, and strategic approaches.

My interest in SSW as a central component of writing workshop began with a more or less conventional disciplinary involvement on my part in portfolios, technology-enhanced rhetorics, and pedagogical theories and practices of writing instruction. But a fundamental impetus behind the current version of writing workshop is my 28-year collaboration with my office neighbor, and longest-tenured member of SXU, Dr. Norman Boyer, who has been a sounding board and co-creator of the ENGL 120 writing workshop we currently employ. The model has grown over several years, and we have found a practical division of duties in our collaborations. Our discussions, conference presentations, emails, and co-taught courses have built a model for English 120 that we find effective and sharable, provided the prior context of the “meeting of the minds” has taken place.  Our minds have been meeting, in evolution, over the span of years, and the unique environment of SXU has been instrumental supporting the process. 

Just as I would direct you to my students, Barbara, Cyril, and Gil, to convey who I am as a teacher, I would further direct you to three of my five children (Angelo, Terence, and Genevieve, who are alums of SXU—2008, 2010, and 2012, respectively) to convey my sense of the value of an SXU education. What does a parent wish for/expect of a child’s college experience? It was something different for each of these three children, and Saint Xavier provided an essential thing for each one. Angelo served on SGA and was awarded the Lincoln Student Laureate. Terence worked in student media and entered into a longstanding career with the Windy City ThunderBolts after his college internship there; Genevieve was editor-in-chief of the Xavierite, and went on to work in videography, producing, among other pieces, a documentary on the SXU labor crisis of 2020. All three of these SXU alums have made their parents proud—showing the right mixture of critical thinking and foundations in humanistic values. Being a professor at the university your children attend—and having all the layers of relationship that both roles afford—proved uplifting and rewarding to me in ways few without such benefits could appreciate.

A letter of introduction to SXU would not be complete without some mention of the diverse leadership voices of SXU which had major impacts on me over the years, but which are now absent and silent. Most of the colleagues who mentored and inspired me have left SXU. Some of the departures were the result of the normal order of things, as careers had run their course. Some colleagues, unfortunately, died in the midst or soon after the end of their careers. But far too many of the departures of the past several years have been grotesquely premature. The phasing out of programs and careers, in the view of many stakeholders, has not been natural or correct in process. The cumulative result is that “Old” SXU is depleted, and perhaps cannot be restored. But the university may, once again, become committed to investment and growth, and if so, I would hope that we could employ a process of decision making that is more informed and just (and pragmatic) than what we have seen in the past 10 years. 

There’s more to say, and much more silence to undo. I hope in good time so much more of the SXU story may find better and fuller articulations. What started as a letter of introduction to you has morphed into something more mixed and elegiac, and I guess something intended for a larger audience, hence the posting of it in my blog. Whatever it is, and whoever it’s intended for, I’ll simply note here that I have I’ve struggled the past week writing a conclusion to this “introduction.” Amidst the welter of chaos typical in every final week of a semester, I now see (with a reminder from Cyril) that I’ve sat on this SSW for a week, kinda forgetting about it—feeling, I suppose, that, while some important terrain has been laid out, the uncertainties of our current situation predominate and leave me with no clear recommendations or even hopes to share with you (be “you” the president, my students, my family, my colleagues, my friends, or my future un-students). Like so many of my departed colleagues, I find myself lamenting loss and eyeing my own exit from SXU. I still care, mostly for my current students, I imagine, but really for all: my family, SXU’s reputation, my colleagues, the future of English education in Illinois, the future of the humanities in America. 

On that note, I’ll simply end on a brief prayer to the Holy Spirit—for good intentions, good recoveries, good nudges forward, even if only in the booming silences of our hearts.

It’s Erasmus Who Prevents Me from Believing in Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories range from explaining, on one end of the spectrum, single events like 9/11 or the assassination of JFK, to, on the other end, unlocking the mysteries to all human power structures and dynamics, as evidenced in the intrigues of globalization, finance, secret societies, and even individual power players who may or may not be coordinated in syndicates of some sort. All conspiracy theories, however, share some assumptions about human potential, control, and intentionality that run counter, I’d argue, to a conception of human agency presented by rhetoricians throughout the ages.

Such were my thoughts as I led my class into a foray of De Copia, the Renaissance textbook on rhetoric by Erasmus of Rotterdam. So I’d like to share a meaty quote from our class textbook,  The Rhetorical Tradition, by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, that provocatively summarizes Erasmus’s influence in a kind of dissoi logoi that certainly leaves us uncertain about a lot of things, including the infallibility of human knowledge and agency:

Erasmus is generally regarded as a key figure in the Renaissance, both as one who brought Italian learning north and as one who made major contributions in his own right. Historian Anthony Grafton and literary scholar Lisa Jardine argue that Erasmus attempted to professionalize humanism as a philological discipline. Applied to sacred texts, such analysis could become a means not only to verbal fluency but also to spiritual insight and piety. On the other hand, rhetorician Thomas O. Sloane sees method in the madness of The Praise of Folly. Sloane argues that Erasmus, through the persona of Folly, identifies himself with the Greek Sophists and their method of exploring arguments through contraries, or dissoi logoi. Sloane maintains that Erasmus saw method as leading ultimately to insight into the fallibility of human knowledge, not to a self-evident world system. If every issue has at least two sides, then one must argue for the most probable. Failing that, one must surrender to folly—that is, give up the idea that reason will provide a definitive answer, and decide on the basis of historically determined constraints and personal circumstances. For most people most of the time, this fallibility of human knowledge requires accepting social conventions, including common beliefs, as the delusions necessary to collective life. For some people at exceptional moments, awareness of this fallibility leads to the rejection of conventional wisdom in favor of a quest for spiritual transcendence that will seem mad to the common folk but that is the only possible antidote to human fallibility. 

The quote on Erasmus sums up my critique of the inadequacy of conspiracy thinking. Conspiracy theories are rooted in a belief that there is “a self-evident world system”—evident, that is, if you can uncover it. The knowledge and power of that system are in the hands of the few, but the system is knowable by those who can peel back the obfuscations and train their eyes on what is “really” going on.

My problem with conspiracy theories is the grandeur and control they ascribe to human agency. If there’s a hidden agenda operative somewhere that is the “real cause,” there is as well a belief in human control, capacity, talent, coordination, and the like. There’s the belief that these things not only exist, but that they are determinative (and susceptible to discovery and exposure).

None of this rings true to my own understanding of myself as an agent (one who is relatively intelligent and accomplished) or to groups and individuals I’ve come to know directly and indirectly over the span of the decades of my life. When I look at every accomplishment I’ve achieved, I see as much luck and accident and randomness as I see design and intention and agendas. When I look at my own failings as well as those of others, I see incompetence as a bigger factor, overall, than malevolence. True, there is malevolence—both in me and in others—in certain instances. But I can’t see it as the essential component that a conspiracy designation would suggest it is.

At such times, faced with a continuum where both incompetence and malevolence may be seen as possible keys, I turn to Kenneth Burke, our 20th century Erasmus, to tune the judgment:

The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.  When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy. (Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, p. 41)

Rule: So much of what’s wrong with the world is the result of simple sloppiness, ignorance, inability—in a word, mistakenness or error or fallibility. Part of my response to conspiracy theorists is, simply, “It’s Occam’s Razor, man.” Don’t over-complicate things. Or: “The banality of evil.” The simplest explanation is best; when things go wrong it’s usually more ridiculous and ordinary than diabolical and architectonic, a point made poignantly by the coiner of the phrase “banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. We needed that book to contextualize one of the most evil episodes of recorded human history as partially on the slope of a “comedy of errors”—i.e., in the complicities of bureaucracies and unthinking individuals and institutions—rather than a cosmic epic tragedy of genuine conspiracy intended and pursued by knowing agents.

This is not to say we should let our guard down and naively deny the cautions that conspiracy theorists provide. The system is rigged in all the ways the critics (not all of whom are conspiracy theorists) have long been identifying. Capitalism, racism, sexism, finance, empire—all operate in both conscious and unconscious ways to consolidate power, subjugate masses, and perpetuate entrenched structures. There are bad actors exploiting privilege and pursuing oppression and dominance. These things operate and thrive in all the contemporary socioeconomic and political structures available to us.

Of course. But if we make the move to accept, as our basic condition and salvation, a submergence into uncertainty, we can (1) forgive a portion of the “intentionality” of the rigged systems, and (2) become persuaded that the whole picture is not controlled by any empowered group or human agent. We can, with Erasmus, come closer to “accepting social conventions, including common beliefs, as the delusions necessary to collective life.” Tempered by the humility implicit in such humanism we can group together and build consensuses with assertions that may not provide definitive answers, but yet enable and support better, newer versions of the common good.

Purification of a “Pure Idea” by Excess?

March 14, 2024

Just how far can you succeed with a “pure idea” that is pursued relentlessly—and effectively—against all odds? Maybe only so far, and not—however close it comes—to the end of the line of ultimate success? That, I hope on March 14, 2024, is the eventual moral of the story with Trump. Trump has taken us really, really far into his campaign of winning, but maybe not so far as appearances or our worst fears would have it. 

To those who would demure that Trump is not winning, I would direct your attention to the recent Supreme Court decision on immunity that has supercharged Trump’s delay tactics (likely preventing the trying of the January 6 trial before the election), and Judge Aileen Cannon’s rulings today on Trump’s frivolous motions for dismissal. On their surface, Cannon’s rulings appear to deny Trump, but at a more insidious level, they set up the possibility for a  complete dismissal of the classified documents case—all thirty-plus counts—and without the possibility of appeal. As one insider ominously commented on Trump years ago: “Don’t count him out.” For all his deficiencies, corruption, and failure, Trump’s “pure” method of forging ahead has a way of leaving him on top, at least apparently, and at least for the time being.

The “pure idea” of Trump’s that I would characterize in this blog is his approach to politics, and really to all matters dealing with business, as presented by both him and those who study him. It starts with a kind of distillation of Roy Cohn—in particular, Cohn’s refusal, ever, to admit anything, to give an inch. Added to that is a kind of Norman Vincent Peale optimism, as has been documented elsewhere, in the Trumps’ unbending commitment to the power of positive thinking. Enabling/mixed into this “purity” would be all the pathologies of personality that have been well explained by Mary Trump and others—Trump’s insecurity; his daddy issues; his sense of inferiority—not to mention all the personal failings of low intelligence, lack of discipline, cowardice, mendaciousness, misogyny, racism, and the like.

Put the whole package together, amp it up, enlist a few key enablers—and there you have it: a recipe for a presidential candidate, and more, a recipe for a president. So, we know that part of the answer to the “just-how-far” question is, simply and horrifically, “becoming the most powerful person on earth.” That far. Hence, the descent by so many of us onlookers into Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS)—something, by the way, I’ve suggested should be felt by all right-thinking individuals, not just the Frank Grimeses of the world. Really, how did 2016 happen?

But does Trump’s success go farther? Does it go all the way to “Destroyer of Modern Democracy,” “Destroyer of the ‘American Experiment””?

American democracy has been messy as it has been inspiring. This thing, once assumed by many of us to be so foundational and permanent, does have a history, and the very concept of “history” tells us that a thing that can come into existence may also be a thing that can fall out of existence. America was an offshoot of the Enlightenment, which itself was a moment in time; the idea of America stretched towards a realization of liberal human possibility and actualization. It was all attempted—a rare exception in recorded history—among once discordant immigrants who found ways to live together, more or less, within certain parameters of law and order. But our founders and ancestors may have created something, alas, that might prove to be a temporary, fragile oasis in a larger trajectory of social oppression and injustice (and foolishness and ignorance and greed).

So many have commented on how our institutions and systems of justice, not to mention conventions of social comity, have been stretched to the breaking point under Trump. They’ve bent, bent, bent, and then have been stretched and re-bent. But arguably, they have not yet broken, and if accountability is in the offing, we may return to a more normal kind of routine where the system operates in a groove that is recognizable as fair and within bounds.

Besides raising uncertainties about the future viability of America, my TDS has brought me to question many foundational values I have long have taken for granted as widely shared. The idea of decency—of humility, gentleness, and submissiveness—the beauty as well as the moral impetus of these things—has been dissolved before our very eyes, brushed aside as arbitrary presences or principles that might be or not be, as those in power decide. 

While our energy flags in the relentlessness of the Trump dissolution, we nonetheless have some cause for hope. If accountability does eventually occur, the “just how far” question will stop a bit short, and leave us with a democracy in place. 

But there are also other hopes in the struggle. The coming together of the TDS crowd of critics, teachers, lawyers, journalists, psychologists, and scholars has performed a public service that is awe-inspiring in its scope, dedication, and promise for a better day. We huddle together; we are a bulwark—and conditions, particularly in the all-important area of coms in such conflicts—are favorable for victory.

It’s hard to imagine—either a Trump or a proper TDS response—in a pre-Internet, pre-social media, pre-24-hour-news-cycle world. The ability to bring critics and communities together, in both agonizing grief and incisive analysis—as YouTube, apps, networks, and social media have done—creates both conditions of and solutions to the Trump problem. As for the latter, we can positively luxuriate in insightful critiques of every aspect of the saga of Trump unfolding in real time. So many lawyers have committed themselves to the public service of tracing out the implications and possible remedies available. As have people with significant firsthand experience.

When I read, for instance, Barbara Res’s book, Tower of Lies, I find myself grateful for the guidance, the examples, the connections she enables of past tendencies to present actions. As Trump’s long-serving VP and chief engineer, she brings a record and commentary that not only illuminate the etiology of current behaviors, but that also empower more effective resistance to them. Beyond Res, we need the endless analyses of every daily move provided by legal commentators recording and breaking down the evolving narrative. We must process all this, and to do so, we need the back-breaking, excessive, obsessive attentions of so many in the know from experience as well as education and leadership roles. They have purified and acted upon their TDS with a kind of dedication I find both inspiring and impossible to imagine, were I in their position. My response, typically when faced with such a complex, Byzantine nexus of evil and involved drama and detailed complexity, is to throw up my hands, shake my head, lament, and collapse in a wallowing kind of despair.

Res, Cohen, Kirschner, Weissmann, Popock, Meisales, Katyal, Rubin, and more, are worthy, noble guides, leading us into—and out of—the morass. These storytellers—the talent and dedication they bring to unpacking all that is there to unpack—are our saviors and are owed our deepest gratitude. They create conditions for redemption and for a time when they can back out of the excess they have been compelled to enter into.

All of which brings me to the question part of my title: Can redemption result from the practice of purification by excess? In his essay, “By Ice, Fire, or Decay,” Kenneth Burke discusses “three modes of redemption—redemption by ice, fire, or decay.” The essay is a review of Clifford Odets play, Paradise Lost, which Burke says deals with all three modes, but finally lands on decay: “Like certain ancient heresies, [the play] pictures the ‘good’ arising from the complete excess of the ‘bad,’ as the new growth sprouts from the rotting of the seed” (Philosophy of Literary Form, 431). 

Trump’s unrelenting pursuit of his “pure idea,” fueled by his talent at demagoguery and bullying—and unblemished by any pivot or mitigation—has set in motion a full-blown response of TDS. Taken together, Trump’s prolific Trumpism, and the resulting TDS-imbued Trumpology, both overgrown and tangled in contemporary social media, leave us, collectively, “ripe” for a “complete excess of the ‘bad.’”

Let us lean in. May the ensuing rottenness pass, please, at some point, and put us in a state ready for that new growth.

Return to SSW; Continuation of It All, with Traumas in Full Bloom

March 13, 2024

It’s SSW time again after a month’s break. The world has moved on, and not in all bad ways. That’s the thing about the world: it’s such a tease. We catch glimpses of God, of possibility, like the first sighting of the Grand Canyon at twilight, and we exult that it’s right there, and I’m here, and comfortable, and pretty well set for the near future. I hear reports from friends of good news (as in the phone call of a dear friend finding a new job after a too-long and disruptive process). Spring weather is with us, and not necessarily too early to be mixed in with that larger fear.

But then the apocalypses start flitting around the edges of things.

My abiding apocalypse, of course, is Donald Trump, and the accompanying Trump Derangement Syndrome, my TDS. I embrace the naming of the syndrome, for it properly signifies the extremes and tentacled nature of Trump and his insidious and clumsy and blunt and pathological impacts. Trump has been so studied, defined, vilified, praised, condemned, in every aspect of his being, and with such expertise and thoroughness, that I shouldn’t feel the need to rehash all that’s there. But I do feel the need. It’s been so personal, so devastating, so uprooting of my worldview and values—and hopes for existence, the future, and humanity. I need to work through things, and naming my affliction is the starting point. Now, I need to define and characterize the syndrome as best I can.

I have been reading Barbara Res’s account of the Trump apocalypse, Tower of Lies. It’s a book I need to read slowly, because it’s just so hard to spend that much time with Trump, the young Trump, conquering the world, and in ways so familiar and predictable from what we now know. But Res is a counselor; she takes us through the process of Trump, and in a way to inoculate us from some of the effects. I am attempting a “purification by excess,” which basically is a leaning into the syndrome as a way of getting beyond it. If we get through it, we might encapsulate it, and, mirabile dictu, excise it. Hearing stories of Trump’s veniality, his ignorance, his bullying, his charisma, his powers—all deployed in the building of his real estate empire oddly puts my mind at rest. Seeing the continuities of his approach—in bullying contractors and subordinates, in skating over critical details, in taking credit for the accomplishments of others, in over-simplifying challenges, and on and on—makes Trump oddly more knowable and less toxic. As Judge Kaplan said at the start of the E. Jean Carroll case, in one of his first shut-downs of Trump: “You just can’t help yourself!” It’s true: Trump must be Trump. 

For years, though, I’ve known/felt that Trump, per se, is not the problem. There will always be extreme versions of damaged/damaging people afflicting the world. It’s the followers we need to worry about. It’s always been the followers (the enablers, sycophants, cowards, cultists). Why has he been able to secure such a following? There are just too many to write them off. They vary in many ways, including intelligence and level of education. So, I look at Trump and I marvel at his efficaciousness in … well, let’s call it … rhetoric.

Back to my TDS: one manifestation of it is my current addiction to the MSNBC folk who talk so incessantly about Trump and his tentacles plunging into our social/civic fabric. Their analysis is so varied, deep, and continuous. If I’m about “purification by excess,” I have an easy and ready and omnipresent medium through which I may process my gorging. My phone connects me wherever I am—in the house, in the car, in my office—and my algorithm indulges me in a loop that never loops, but just keeps progressing to the next ten-minute clip. All the lawyering, with motions and legal exegesis and panel commentary—does it educate me, or is it an orgy of TDS porn?

The Res book and the TDS excursions point to, I hope, a post-Trump world, one in which we have replaced—re-established—the guardrails—of civility, of law, of propriety, of the humanistic values towards which civilization has, gasp (dare I say?), been bending? I do take comfort in millennials, Gen Z-ers and even younger ones who have skipped out on the TDS stage of things. I’ve heard from young people who just look on, shake their head, and really just express a desire to move on. They just want a Trump-absent world; they suffer no lures into TDS; they feel no need to “conquer” Trump; they really just don’t want to think about him ever again. With simple sensibleness, they want to focus on the kind of concerns of a better life ahead through gradual improvement as we might achieve though conventional means of education, compassion, empathy, and the like.

I want to exult humility. I suppose that desire is the foundational principle of my TDS. The Holy Spirit, to me, the greatest of the three Gods, is the least assertive, the most humble. The Holy Spirit’s assertions are the quiet feelings of knowing; they are the afterglow of the prior chaos, process, talk, drama, learning, and the like. The Holy Spirit is nothing about self-promotion. The Holy Spirit is the Anti-Trump. Trump’s existence calls into question the vitality and agendas of the Holy Spirit. As such, I have become deranged with the syndrome, and I await the return of that peaceful feeling/knowledge/glow of that time beyond-Trump.

The Res book does help with this outcome. As we experience the building of the empire, with all its crass, ugly, and craven maneuvering, I can envision feeling compassion for the man, in seeing him act in ways that make sense in terms of ambition, vanity, and insecurity—motives, oddly, that are somewhat redemptive. It all make sense, after a fashion, and in coming into focus, the edge is dulled … a bit.

Not All Families Are Dysfunctional, Right?

February 15, 2024

As the world continues to spiral out of control, I find myself leaning on my friends. Some friends, though, I fear, are part of the problem. I’m thinking of the MSNBC crowd, who have become my companions in the wormhole. I can hear Glenn Kirschner’s voice, “Friends, I know it’s been long coming, but accountability in on its way.” He’s a comforting dad, a wise advisor, a trusted friend. He, like many in the MSNBC stable, dissolves the barrier between lofty expert and fellow sufferer. It’s remarkably humanizing; but it’s seductive and addictive too. How could we not be drawn in, and obsessively?

Andrew Weissmann is another who brings a dose of humanity to the cold and troubled world of law and politics and ultimate threats. His podcast, Prosecuting Donald Trump, with Mary McCord, is an unusual synthesis of legal reasoning and … giggling. The two hosts are comfortable talking through the maneuvers and principles and case history and possibilities—so much so that they have no fear letting their guard down in their podcast, showing at times their ignorance or personal quirks—and always their warm friendship and gentle teasing. The silliness is never that silly; it’s homey; it’s what it might feel like to have such experts living with you, sitting at your kitchen table, just being in the moment, along with all the momentous decisions and events they are committed to explain as best they can. I commend Andrew for his ability to turn on and off his professional expertise mode. I shouldn’t say “turn off,” since it’s never off; it’s just that he adds his personality and humanity in the podcast in ways we never really see when he’s on camera, where he’s pretty much all business. The subtext here is a kind of statement on how to manage all the baggage, the fallout, the potential despair of the topics being dissected. There’s logical principle, yes, but there’s also some larger, kinder, softer context. The two sides aren’t at odds. The full human being can be both analytical/world beating and humble/relaxed—and sweet with a friend sitting alongside you, even if she is in another state. 

The tone of so many of the MSNBC hosts promotes this humane integration.

And so, what chance do I stand in not becoming too dependent on them? I think my first plunge into this milieu was motivated out of a desire to check something off—to get finished with this Trump business so that I could get on with my life. I find I have often approached life’s problems with a “just get this thing done,” or checklist, approach, as though progress were possible, if only, if only. What I needed to realize then, and now, is that what is needed is an “acceptance of the process” as the default state. It’s an illusion that we can ever get beyond [fill in the blank]. What is needed is the right processing of things.

Journalists have always gotten this. Part of their business is to keep the “news” new—and continuing. There are no endpoints. All that matters is the production and consumption of the stories. The pressures of these realities lead to conditions of sensationalizing and controversy-mongering that are all too well known by anyone in a literate, modern society. In the context of my current condition, I have come to rely on MSNBC folk to be my family. We’re never done with family; we don’t check them off. We just plan to be with them through the years.

In the throes of these dynamics, I sometimes glimpse a version of things where a good balance is found among (1) finished, checked-off outcomes; (2) humanizing “being with” the experts; (3) other things—all mixed together in the right proportions to round off a fully human engagement.

Finding this proper balance has always been a need or an endeavor to be embraced—whatever the world conditions and whatever one’s politics. However, the current state of communication (in general) and social media (in particular), in a hyper-connected, hyper-technologized, hyper-threatened world has made our present moment unlike any in history. Add the destabilizations of Covid, with all its isolations. Add further—perhaps most of all—the growing pains associated with the unearthing of bigotries that for so many years in a pre-technologized world were allowed to fester unseen, unknown. 

The upshot: Psychological survival seems to demand that we retreat to our respective echo chambers, our “families,” just for the purpose of maintaining basic mental health.

Literature, philosophy, linguistics, and rhetorical theory—the stuff of my classes—should offer touchstones and foundations and routines on which to recover some stability. And while I feel empowered by the massiveness of uncertainty and method and humility (and appreciation) fostered by humanistic studies, I look on with sadness as the time for higher education seems to be receding. The reification of the university—like the reification of the fourth estate, or the reification of “democracy”—is dissolving before my very eyes, at Saint Xavier University, yes, but throughout our society, in its shorthand approaches to “information,” if not knowledge.

Maybe the term “growing pains” provides some hope? We’re always on the way to somewhere else, someplace that, if not an endpoint, might at least be a kind of benchmark or banked competence for “leveling up,” to borrow a concept from gaming culture. Even though we’re ever processing, surely some changes have registered. Maybe nothing so grand as an “arc of history bending towards justice.” But who can deny the improvements that the centuries have brought in regards to education and democracy and the good life? My family today is much larger than it ever could have been—even at earlier points in my own lifetime. Thank you, YouTube and MSNBC app and Xfinity. 

I have always been optimistic that the changes being wrought, especially by technology, portend more benefit than threat. But the pains of growing towards that benefit, not to mention the existential threats of a world on fire, have tempered that optimism. If only we can survive…. Survival-—be it for today, the 2024 election, the tipping point—is more than a “check-off” outcome on my list, right?