The Ice is Melting

The Ice is Melting

For some, the college admissions scandal that proliferated headlines last week was revelatory; in an unprecedented move, Federal prosecutors charged 50 people with the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Justice Department.”Included among the accused are actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, with the details of the scandal encompassing direct cheating, bribery, and fraud. Many of the people that I encountered following the scandal seemed caught off guard by the exposure of corruption, of a broken system laid bare.

Yet for others (apparently many others2), the scandal was anything but surprising. So the rich and powerful act in ways to guarantee those same privileges for their children, and they get away with it? Isn’t this an accepted fact of American life? It seems like this has been the sad reality, the fabric underlying conversations, jokes, and real-life decisions regarding school choice for years. What’s new here?

I remember a similar sentiment expressed at the height of the #MeToo movement. A popular SNL sketch around that time depicted women welcoming men to the world in which they have lived their entire lives—a world full of violent men and constant vigilance.“This is the water we swim in,” they seem to say, “Where have you been?” Indeed, an article in USA Today ties these two phenomena together—the college admissions scandal and the Me Too movement (along with recent revelations concerning the Catholic Church, which has been in the spotlight since at least 2002)—by positing, “In some ways, the only thing shocking about these events is that they’re shocking at all.”4

Yet I consider many of these measures of pushback a bit of a strawman, at least in some ways. “Surprise” when scandals like these come to light may not be indicative of ignorance, nor of denial (as the USA Today article suggests).  Rather, they reveal the complexity of priorities. Living my daily life certainly includes assumptions about the world and how it functions, but I also have to worry about how I’m going to feed myself tomorrow, and that much more than I have to worry about the rich nefariously getting their children into top-tier schools. When large collective and political concerns become explicit, undeniable by the perpetrators, then—as they did in the college admissions scandal, the Me Too movement, and at other notable times—these larger-scale concerns take priority in quotidian life for just a moment. In this moment, people express outrage (what else are they supposed to do?) before returning to their daily duties. What looks like surprise may just be an attempt to negotiate personal, daily concerns with those of a more collective, permanent nature.

I recently read an article in Victorian Studies by Allen MacDuffie that deals with some of these same frameworks, but perhaps in more expansive terms—in the realms of climate change and spirituality.In the article, MacDuffie quotes the anthropologist Kari Marie Norgaard as describing “a double reality,” in which there exists on the one hand “the collectively constructed sense of normal everyday life” and on the other “the troubling knowledge of increasing automobile use, polar ice caps melting, and the predictions of future [extreme] weather scenarios.” A cognitive dissonance arises wherein we struggle through the contradictions of living our fossil-fuel driven lives while every once in a while being hit by the grandeur of the concerns we face as a civilization.

MacDuffie’s choice to include an epigraph from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, in this context, is striking. For, as Janis Dickinson has recently argued, “such soft denial of climate change is really a version of an age-old problem: the denial of mortality.”James’s quote from Varieties is so intriguing to me that I’m going to include the entire selection here:

For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.7

Whether collective (political), global (environmental), or cosmic (spiritual), we each go about our daily lives without much fuss until—suddenly—these larger concerns impinge upon our senses and we are aware of how vast our problems really are. And this is not a Lovecraftian acknowledgement of absurdity and existential dread; rather, it is an acknowledgement of personal inefficiency to deal with extra-personal concerns. How do we manage to hold these concerns in any sort of healthy tension and what might that look like? How are we to respond to these kinds of experiences? Ultimately, when we realize just how grand our collective, global, cosmic difficulties are, how can we even choose to live our daily lives, not to mention live them in such a way to respond to those difficulties?

Some scholars suggest that it is impossible and perhaps even immoral to live individually in such circumstances. Drawing upon Dipesh Chakrabarty’s claim that in the era of climate change, “you have to think of the two figures of the human simultaneously: the human-human and the nonhuman-human,”Amitav Ghosh seems to argue that typical ways of viewing and living humanity are insufficient for dealing with global crisis. Terming this period “the Great Derangement,” Ghosh criticizes literature that privileges the individual as “drawn into the modes of concealment that prevent[s] people from recognizing the realities of their plight.”It may be that every attempt to describe or even live individual life ultimately obscures the reality of global concerns and decreases our ability to adequately address it.

Yet even as I bring up these scholars, our lives yet continue on. We will leave this blog post and do whatever it is that we do every day. Even if we shift our thinking, we still have quotidian concerns to attend to. So what do we do during the times we’re not considering ourselves collectively? How do we in fact live life individually with collective problems in mind?

Tracy K. Smith, in my opinion, traces this kind of living most delicately in her book of poetry Wade in the Water. The book itself holds in tension (quite beautifully, I might add) collective/global/cosmic concerns and individual life. Initiating the first section with a poem entitled “Garden of Eden” and subsequently beginning the last section with a poem entitled “Eternity,” Smith sets up a cosmic human timeline that begins with large-scale concerns of mortality (God, angels, the violence of the human condition) moves through historical and political issues (slavery, post-election violence, police brutality protests) and finally settles in quotidian life discussing familial relationships. In doing so, Wade in the Water contains its own logic for how to navigate tensions in personal life and political and cosmic worries.

I won’t get into the complexities of how this logic is laid out, but I do want to illuminate one of the argument I find in the book through the placement of her poem “Political Poem.” (This poem is situated between many of the caricatures of the contemporary political moment and the final quotidian, “Eternity” section.) In this transitory position, “Political Poem” describes a hypothetical situation, wondering what would happen

If those mowers were each to stop

at the whim, say of a greedy thought,

and then the one off to the left

 

were to let his arm float up, stirring

the air with that side, slow, underwater

gesture meaning Hello! and You there!

 

aimed at the one more than a mile away

to the right.

If they thought to, or would, or even half-wanted,

their work—the humming human engines

 

pushed across the crass, and the grass, blade

after blade, assenting—would take forever.

But I love how long it would last.10

The “Political Poem”—culminating a politically charged section of cosmic history—is about humans meaningfully connecting across vast metaphoric distances. The most political act, then, is not necessarily in what we do at protests (although Smith certainly doesn’t seem to discourage such actions), but instead what we do as we are mowing our lawns. Rather than an act of denial or a deranged preoccupation with ego, Smith seems to say that individual personal life is itself inherently political, collective, cosmic—or at least it has the potential to be. Instead of surrendering to the impossibility of dealing with large-scale concerns, Smith suggests that collective/global/cosmic engagement is in fact possible, but only through personal conviction, living in such a way that our relationships with others are build upon an understanding of our political and cosmic predicament.

So perhaps moments of revelation—whether they be caused by public scandals, environmental crisis, or spiritual transcendence—need not be indicative of painful cognitive dissonance. Perhaps we can view them as opportunities to reach out to others in a truly human way. And perhaps it is only through that human interaction, based in daily life, that we will ever be able to respond to the concerns of our society, species, and world. Perhaps that is the best way to care for our lawns and, ultimately, our ice caps.

This post was written by Isaac Robertson, Humanities Center Intern.


[1] The New York Times. “College Admissions Scandal: Your Questions Answered.”The New York Times, March 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/14/us/college-admissions-scandal-questions.html.

[2] For a sampling, see:

Smith, Tovia and Megan Schellong. “College Students See Nothing New In Admissions Scandal.” NPR News, March 13, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/03/13/703162319/college-students-say-theyre-not-surprised-by-admissions-scandal.

Myrow, Rachael. “Surprised? Not Really. Bay Area Educators React to College Admissions Scandal.” KQED News, March 14, 2019, https://www.kqed.org/news/11732835/surprised-not-really-bay-area-educators-react-to-college-admissions-scandal.

Heid, Rosalind. “Admissions scandal is not surprising at all.”Baltimore Sun, March 15, 2019, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/readersrespond/bs-ed-rr-admissions-scandal-letter-20190315-story.html.

Strauss, Valerie. “Why school counselors who help kids get into college weren’t at all surprised by the admissions scandal.” The Washington Post, March 14, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/03/14/why-school-counselors-who-help-kids-get-into-college-werent-all-surprised-by-admissions-scandal/?utm_term=.49f56b03064c.

[3] Saturday Night Live. “Welcome to Hell,” Saoirse Ronan, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Leslie Jones, and Melissa Villaseñor, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1l26UFQ06eQ.

[4] Dastagir, Alia E. “Surprising no one: What Lori Loughlin and Michael Jackson uproar teaches us about denial,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/investigations/2019/03/14/lori-loughlin-college-admissions-michael-jackson-leaving-neverland-catholic-abuse-denial-outrage/3152770002/.

[5] MacDuffie, Allen. “Charles Darwin and the Victorian Pre-History of Climate Denial.” Victorian Studies, vol. 60, no. 4, 2019, Indiana UP, pp. 543-564.

[6] Qtd. in Ibid.

[7] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, Longmans, Green, And Co, New York, London, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, 1917. Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/621/621-h/621-h.html.

[8] Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change,” New Literary History, vol. 43, no. 1, 2012, Johns Hopkins UP, pp. 1-18. Project Muse, https://doi.org/10.1353/nlh.2012.0007.

[9] Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, U Chicago P, Chicago, 2016.

[10] Smith, Tracy K. Wade in the Water, Greywolf P, 2018.

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