How to speak better English than Donald Trump

https://youtu.be/9CvKu5y5I_o

Would you (or your students) like to speak better English than a “native speaker”*? Wouldn’t it be great if your command of the language could be superior to that of the most powerful English speaker on the planet? Granted, Donald Trump is not noted for his articulacy. Possibly as a result of a degenerative brain disease, his fluency, coherence and range of vocabulary have deteriorated considerably over the years, as this 1992 interview demonstrates and this article explains in detail. He used to be able to follow a train of thought; now listening to him is more like witnessing a syntactical train crash. Half-ideas cascade chaotically like carriages piling up on top of one another, deafening explosions of total incoherence reverberate down the track while anyone with any regard for their personal safety runs away screaming.

The very latest indication that Trump’s mastery of standard (or, rather, sane) English is slipping out of his tiny grasp came yesterday, in the tweet he posted in the wake of yet another NRA-sponsored massacre**. His tweet offered his “warmest condolences” to the victims (and, obviously, no condemnation of the culprit – Trump hasn’t expressed any anger at the killings). Cue howls of ridicule across social media: why? Well, no one talks about “warm condolences”. You might offer warm congratulations to a friend who’s just found a job, or sincere or heartfelt condolences to someone who’s just lost a loved one. But the adjective ‘warm’ just doesn’t go with the noun ‘condolences’. Or, in other words, it doesn’t collocate.

How do I know this? Well, I’ve spoken (and, more importantly, read) English all my life (and taught it for nearly 20 years). I’ve never seen or heard that expression before. The fact that Trump thought that ‘warm’ was an appropriate word in response to a mass shooting may be some indication of how such events make him feel deep down. But it’s also an indication that he’s not in control of what he’s saying. Maybe the fact that he boasts of never reading books has something to do with it.

So, how can you acquire a better command of the language than him? Well, you could buy yourself a collocations dictionary, which will tell you which adjectives are commonly used with which nouns, which nouns collocate with which verbs, etc. (Better language coursebooks also put a great deal of emphasis on what many now call ‘word grammar’.) Or, you could use this website. As you can see, it has a really simple interface, and is free. I urge all my students to use it, and it has an immediate and dramatic impact on the quality of their writing in particular. A smattering of collocations can easily raise any IELTS score from 6.5 to 7.0, for example. I’m sure Trump would struggle to write a coherent 250-word essay; he probably hasn’t composed anything longer than 140 characters since he was cheating his way through college. (As for writing in a foreign language, he’s probably barely aware at this point that such things exist.) In the speaking test, he’s probably get a 4.0: links basic sentences but with repetitious use of simple connectives and some breakdowns in coherence; can only convey basic meaning on unfamiliar topics; errors are frequent and may lead to misunderstanding and/or nuclear war.

*This is in inverted commas as it’s a highly problematic term, its use punishable by stoning in some quarters.
**Trump is also sponsored by the NRA, to the tune of more than $30 million.

Las Vegas killer ‘not a lone wolf’, says wolf 

The leader of a pack of wolves has spoken out against ‘ubiquitous‘ media descriptions of the perpetrator of the biggest ever mass shooting by a sole gunman on American soil as a ‘lone wolf’.

Speaking at a hastily-arranged press conference, the wolf, who refused to give his full name, expressed his ‘grave disappointment’ that such a term was being used to smear his species.

“Although there have, as we all know, been cases – often more mythological than actual – of wolves attacking groups of humans, this outrage was not perpetrated by one of our kind.”

He went on to point out that wolves do not possess the type of anatomical equipment necessary for the use of automatic weapons, and are also not conditioned by the same instincts of brutal, senseless cruelty which seem to have lain behind the slaughter in Las Vegas.

“We would like to make it very clear that the culprit in this case, lone or otherwise, did not belong to our pack, indeed was not a member of our species. In fact, he appears to be yet another example of a far more deadly creature: the white male human, armed not only with the kind of weaponry which should clearly be unobtainable for the ordinary citizen, but also with a deep-seated resentment against others of his species, indeed a contempt for the very notion of belonging to a ‘pack’. We would suggest that inquiries into how such an individual was radicalised, inspired and propelled to commit murder on such a massive scale might focus less on scapegoating the lupine community, and more on the role of media outlets such as Fox News (no pun intended) and Infowars. And should your species wish in all sincerity to address this problem, then call your NRA by its proper name: a terrorist organisation, one far more bloodthirsty than anything to be found in the animal kingdom.”

The wolf then excused himself, asking only that his “deepest condolences” be passed on to the victims of the massacre.

Blow for Trump as golf stars ‘take a knee’

In an unforeseen development which will shake the world of sport to its core and cause further embarrassment to President Donald Trump, a number of the world’s leading golfers have chosen to demonstrate their solidarity with black victims of police violence by ‘taking a knee’. The golfers’ gesture will surprise those who saw the sport as one which would be resistant to political pressure. It will be politically disappointing for Mr Trump, as he is, like his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un, a major golf enthusiast, to the point where he has so far spent over two months of his term on the course.

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The first golfer to join the protests was current world number 1 Dustin Johnson, who remarked “I cannot stand by while people of colour are treated with contempt by law enforcement officers and denied justice. It is quite frankly unconscionable”.

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Johnson’s playing partner, three-time Major champion Jordan Spieth, was quick to join in. He said: “The response this week by certain sections of white America to the mere act of black sportspeople peacefully protesting what they rightly see as race-based injustice has been extremely unedifying. As a leading golfer it behoves me to stand up for my fellow Americans.”

Justin Thomas, winner of four PGA tour events, took the knee during the President’s Cup golf tournament in New Jersey. He said that he was “proud to take part.”

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He was joined by the winner of that competition, Steve Stricker, who told a subsequent press conference organised by Black Lives Matter that “As a human being, an American and a public figure, I had no hesitation in making this gesture. The rebirth of white supremacy, especially since this current administration took power, is both terrifying and deeply, deeply shameful.”

2017 Open Champion Brooks Koepka looked sombre as he knelt on the immaculate putting lawn at Florida’s Olympia Fields. He made no comment to the press, but did give a black power salute to the assembled crowd after completing the 18th hole.

Veteran golfer Matt Kuchar, who has won 13 titles throughout his lengthy career, said it was essential for someone of his stature to show an example to younger players, especially people of colour who aspire to play golf.

PGA tour star Rickie Fowler said that “as a Christian” he “would have been embarrassed if he hadn’t” taken a knee during the British Master’s event at Close House.

Tiger Woods also took part, subsequently stating via Twitter “#fuckDonaldTrump”.

A surprise participant in the protests was President Donald Trump himself, who commented “Racism is and always has been endemic to the American project, and my presidency is vivid living proof of that. Our country is literally unimaginable without plundered labour shackled to plundered land, without the organising principle of whiteness as citizenship, without the culture crafted by the plundered, and without that culture itself being plundered. This has to end. I am a disgrace”.

A prediction: Trump will tweet in favour of Catalan independence 

Maybe if Scotland had opted for independence in 2014 the international context would now be different. Maybe the Brexit vote wouldn’t have happened and Trump would have lost. In such a scenario, the prospect of Catalan independence would have a very different meaning.

Catalonia is a country with a distinct culture, its own political traditions, a (partially recent) history of brutal oppression by the Spanish state and (most importantly) a consequent desire to be independent. The fact that it isn’t already is a pure accident of history. Nation states come and go; a country is, someone once, a dialect with a flag. As it happens, Catalonia has a very attractive flag, one that makes it look like its national anthem should be composed by Manu Chao. Partly as a result, Barcelona is generally seen as a a left-wing city – it has a radical mayor (who, as it happens, opposes independence). However, especially outside Barcelona, Catalan nationalism is not necessarily a progressive force. The Catalan left has nontheless partly presented this referendum as a vote against austerity and neo-francoist Spanish nationalism. (The spectacle of violent repression has given credence to the latter claim.) Nevertheless, a huge vote for independence will not be interpreted in such terms internationally. Nationalism, by definition, always involves a narrow set of concerns. The fact that deeply reactionary forces outside Spain will celebrate the victory concerns me more than the impact on dynamics inside the Spanish state. In the country where I live, Italy, the result will encourage the far-right to renew their campaign for more autonomy for the rich regions of the north, who have long complained about the burden of having to sustain the filthy peasants of southern Italy. There have been echoes of this kind of rhetoric in the Catalan case.

Hence the support of the global far-right for independence. The Italian fascist leader Matteo Salvini and the British far-right party Ukip have expressed support for Catalan independence; should the vote be tallied and independence be approved, their allies such as Le Pen and the AFD will present it as another Brexit, a vote against the European status quo. The Kremlin’s propaganda outlet Russia Today has made no secret of its affiliation, some of Donald Trump’s few remaining non-bot social media enthusiasts have expressed principled, albeit somewhat selective, concerns about political violence, and Julian Assange has been busy spreading disinformation about events via Twitter. Then there’s Trump himself. As is well-known, Trump loves to be on the winning side. Regardless of his previous stated support for Spanish union, he, seeing his political allies celebrating, will be desperate to join in. Trump is nothing if not inconsistent: witness how quick he was to disavow his support for ‘his’ candidate in the Alabama primary this week. Of course, he’s far too stupid to understand either the ins and outs of the plebiscite’s legality or the consequences of explicit US support for an unofficial referendum over the break-up of a major European power. He won’t reflect on how his actions will affect countries from Turkey to Italy to the US itself (how much does Puerto Rico gain from its status?). Trump has no consistency, no ideology, no loyalty and no strategy, and is in endless need of new distractions. That’s why I believe that in the aftermath of the vote and the near-universal revulsion that the violence has provoked, he will, with no regard for the implications, in between bouts of attacking hurricane victims, berating black sports people and trying as hard as his tiny fingers will allow him to provoke an actual nuclear war, tweet in support of independence for Catalonia. If he does, I hope the Catalan independence movement tells him very firmly ves-t’en a prendre pel cul. That would be a great symbolic statement of the kind of country they would like to build.

First they abandoned the Puerto Ricans

I once tried to watch a documentary about the political status of Puerto Ricans. With all its myriad details of unincorporation vs statehood vs self-determination, it was considerably less entertaining than ‘West Side Story’. Now, for more than three million people, such issues may be a matter of life and death.

Donald Trump doesn’t know much about Puerto Rico either. He’s been told that it’s an island, and sort-of foreign and sort-of not, but he also knows that the people there can’t vote. He’d really rather just tell people things are going great and go and play golf. It doesn’t matter to him what happens to the people there. It’s an island, for Christ’s sake. Trump wouldn’t have the capacity to help even if he wanted to. He just has no intrinsic motivation to care about people who can’t do anything for him in return. (EDIT: The US has brought back Trump’s five predecessors to coordinate the reconstruction, due to the fact that the current office-holder so obviously does not give a shit.)

Trump also has no impulse control. Since he became president, he’s spent more than two months on the golf course. Although (as I wrote shortly after the inauguration) he’s the kind of leader that the US has imposed on so many other countries, it’s not so much that (as some claim) he’s following an authoritarian playbook; he’s too stupid, arrogant and lazy to read. Instead he’s an instinctive tyrant, his instincts conditioned by the crudest imaginable form of Social Darwinism. The notion that life is all about competition is a suitable ideology for someone who’d already been awarded the gold medal before they’d even drawn their first breath. This is not story he tells himself, of course. He just knows he’s entitled to go and play golf whenever he feels like it. His ideology, then, is Neoliberalism at its most basic: the market works for me, so it must work for everyone else. More competition is always good, because I’m the guy who owns all the starting pistols and the finishing tape. Now kneel before me – or, rather, stay on your feet or I’ll use the starting pistol on you.

Now, such a person has an instinctive understanding of threat posed by climate change. To people like Trump, the idea that society might – indeed, must – become more cooperative is worse than the reality that our habitat is collapsing. As Naomi Klein has cogently argued over the last few years, capitalism (particularly in its turbocharged, scorched earth variety) is simply incompatible with the continued existence of our species.

Of course, it’s easy to blame our leaders for our plight. There’s also the question of our own responsibility. We, as a ‘civilisation’, long ago collectively decided to ignore the implications. That is, after all why Trump was elected: there’s nothing less real than reality TV, so one way to escape from a frightening reality was to elect a reality TV star, someone who plays the role of a tycoon for the cameras. Facebook, Twitter have happened along, not quite by chance, at just the right moment to enable us to screen out those aspects of reality that make us uncomfortable. It’s no accident that Trump once declared that “All I know is what’s on the internet“. While Obama was the first black president, Trump is the first internet one. (Not to mention the “first white president“.)

Puerto Rico is an instructive case. It’s not like parts of Bangladesh, Houston, or Miami, i.e. part of a larger territory into which our perception of its suffering can be subsumed. It’s isolated, so presents a very stark test case of whether or not we actually give a flying fuck about our future. If we don’t respond to calls like that of the Mayor of San Juan, and not just with donations but with political action, we are truly lost. Every city on earth will face similar existential crises,often part of bigger ones, like the coming wave of crop failures. The market – the rising price of food and energy, which some are lucky to be able to afford – will only protect us so far. Its not just that our current leaders will let us starve or drown, they will actively ignore our plight just as they denied the circumstances that made it inevitable. We have to recognise that what is happening in Puerto Rico is a climate catastrophe, part of a much larger and even deadlier global transformation, and act accordingly by making sacrifices on behalf of those already suffering and by getting rid of political leaders who refuse to even acknowledge the nature of the crisis. We must build local and international solidarity networks and demand that those we elect to govern our cities develop infrastructure to withstand the inevitable. If we don’t do these things, there will be no one left to speak up for us.

Eight songs to celebrate our daughter’s eight-month birthday

Human beings only really come into existence in the own right following nine months of total dependence on their mothers. Nine months is therefore a significant enough milestone to blow up balloons, eat cake with lots of sugar and ice-cream (us, not her) and make playlists. As it happens, our daughter was actually born eight months today, but this site has a tradition of celebrating anniversaries on the wrong date, and in any case I just had the idea for creating a playlist and I don’t have the patience to wait another month. Plus it turned out that I can only (just) think of eight birthday-related songs I like*.

The Beatles – Birthday

So far she’s tended to turn her tiny piggly-wiggly nose up at the “White Album”, but this is a lot jollier than ‘Happiness is a warm gun’, plus the beat is very uniform and she loves banging her arms up and down like a totally demented  (if very young) Herbert von Karajan.

Altered Images – Happy Birthday

She’s not quite old enough to remember either Altered Images or ‘Gregory’s Girl’, but then neither is her mum. Actually, speaking of ‘Gregory’s Girl’, people did used to tell her dad (me) that he (me) was a dead ringer for the film’s star, and given that everyone who sees our daughter immediately exclaims that she looks just like me, we have the dubious honour of having a baby daughter who looks exactly like John Gordon Sinclair.

Stevie Wonder – Happy birthday 

This would make a far better US national anthem than that godawful self-aggrandizing dirge, which, let’s be honest, is more likely to make you lie down and go to sleep than stand to attention. Plus the Stevie Wonder version expresses far more laudable sentiments, with which no sane person could reasonably disagree. Also, at eight months our daughter is just getting to the point where she can actually (like Stevie himself) #taketheknee.

The Sugarcubes – Birthday

At this point in the testing of the playlist, our daughter starts actually singing along with gusto. Or she could just be in need of milky-wilky. Either way, she seems to know all the words. Maybe she’s been speaking Icelandic for the last few months, and we haven’t noticed.

The Birthday Party – Release the bats

Again, slightly before her time, and not in any sense a birthday song, but you will notice the presence of the b-word in the name of the band, and her dad’s been listening to a lot of Nick Cave recently because there was a rave review of one of their gigs in The Guardian. Plus as she likes The Sugarcubes she might go for the screeching and the atonal elements in this one. Hard to tell, cos her mum took her off to her grandma’s place, muttering something about ‘torturando tua figlia con questa musica di merda’, which sounds bad.

Pedro Infante – Las Mañanitas

A change in tone from the previous one. My wife always gets embarrassed when I explain that the reason our daughter has a Mexican name is that she was conceived in Mexico. She prefers explanations which involve cicogne. If we were still living there our daughter would be hearing and singing this all the time, as it’s the Mexican version of ‘Happy Birthday’. I do know all the words, just not all in the right order.

Rafaelle Carrà – Tanti Auguri

This is the Italian birthday/wedding disco anthem of all time, to the extent we had it on our own wedding playlist. That of me and my wife, that is. Not me and my daughter. That would be…odd, even in the south of Italy.

Heaven 17 – (We don’t need this) fascist groove thang

You can probably tell that I really was running out of birthday-related favourites at this point, but then Spotify handily suggested including this, which is sort of appropriate, as she was born nine days after Tr*mp’s inauguration. On the one hand I’d hate it if his name was her first word, but at the same time I have been teaching her the word whenever she does one. Two more reasons to choose this song: 1) It is, like her dad (me) from Sheffield and 2) Current pedagogical theory suggests that it’s best to introduce the existence of (unnecessary) brackets to one’s child sometime between the eight and ninth months.

* ‘Birthday Girl’ by Stormzy was a candidate for inclusion, but on mature reflection I decided that its many references to ‘birthday sex’ were…inappropriate.

Assange: Yet more “shocking” revelations about Clinton

At a press conference Friday morning, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange revealed ‘astonishing’ details of how, in the run-up to last year’s election, prominent supporters of Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton exchanged emails with one another in which they discussed her chances of success and expressed hope that she would defeat Donald Trump. 

He then went on to highlight a number of other aspects of the Clinton campaign which he said would ‘shock to the core’ anyone who thought that she was ever a suitable choice for President of the United States.

Amongst other allegations, Assange detailed the following:

  • Clinton ‘doesn’t have a winkle’, but rather ‘some sort of front bottom’.
  • She has, on at least one occasion in the past, ‘done it with a boy’ (at this point in the press conference Assange giggled uncontrollably behind his hand for several minutes while other representatives of Wikileaks looked at their shoes and appeared to be experiencing considerable embarrassment).
  • The former candidate, said Mr Assange once he had composed himself and been given a drink of Ribena, has, in the past, ‘done a big poo’. (At this point Mr Assange went bright red and fell off his chair, appearing to bang his head with some force on his playpen. He then began crying rather loudly and had to be comforted by a member of the Wikileaks team who, between sobs, he referred to as ‘Nanny’. He then made a final, whispered statement in which he explained that he had ‘done wee-wee’, and the assembled journalists were requested to vacate the playroom so that he could be cleaned up and, in the words of another member of the Wikileaks staff, allowed to spend some time ‘playing with his computer’.)

Wikileaks is 10 years old.

Italy has a terrorism problem – but it’s not what you might expect

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I’ve been living in Italy now for a year, and on the whole I’ve been made to feel very welcome. No one has put pressure me to go back to my own country or suggested that I’m exploiting essential services that should be reserved for locals, even though during that time my wife and I have smuggled into the country a basically infirm member of our family, one who has no concept whatsoever of hard work, has made no apparent progress in learning the language and appears to have who does nothing but use up vital resources. If it wasn’t for the amount of panolini our baby daughter gets through, Rome’s garbage disposal crisis could be solved at a stroke.

The kind treatment afforded to my family might be considered odd, given that Italy is currently undergoing a wave of xenophobic fervour, one that (for me) recalls the deeply unpleasant events in late 1990s Ireland. Within a few months from around late 1997 onwards, as a result of tabloid campaigns aimed at the small numbers of refugee claimants then starting to arrive (sample headline from The Irish Independent: ‘Asylum scroungers fake ‘torture’!’), black people were getting screamed at in supermarkets and bus queues. Thankfully, nearly a generation later, Ireland appears to have comprehensively pushed back such attempts to turn it into a famously unwelcoming country.

In neither Ireland nor Italy have I, as an immigrant, faced similar treatment. Did I happen to mention that I’m white? Of course, most Italians would not knowingly discriminate against people on the basis of their skin colour. Like Ireland, Italy has a long history of emigration, a history of ethnic diversity going back to the Roman Empire and also a more recent one of massive internal migration. But brutal discrimination against people of apparently different backgrounds does exist, and it is coming from somewhere.

That discrimination partly manifests itself in relation to housing. In my time here there have been at least two front-page stories from my adopted city (Rome) in which locals have (apparently) refused to let people with black skin live in their midst. A few months ago an Italian-Moroccan family, one which has been based in Italy for several years, was prevented from taking up public housing assigned to them. Today, Repubblica reports on the plight of an Italian-Ethiopian family, similarly stopped from moving into their new home by a mob of angry ‘locals’ and a certain number of increasingly familiar faces egging them on.

There is a context for these events, specifically in terms of the numbers of recent arrivals. Italy and Greece are being used as corridors by the EU, much like the ones overcrowded hospitals will stick patients in when there’s no more space in the wards. As it happens, there’s lots of space in Europe for newcomers, but, with the odd noble exception, there has been a lack of political will to point that fact out. The human cost of recent waves of migration is not actually borne by Italians, but by the migrants themselves, prevented by the authorities from settling down and by other EU countries from moving on. (A very detailed and moving account of this is given in the 2015 film ‘Mediterranea’.) Many newcomers would like to reach the UK, where, owing partly to the history of the British Empire, they have personal connections and/or can speak the language, which would make it easier for them to continue their lives. The refusal of the British to accept our historical and moral responsibility is utterly shameful. However, the fact that my own country has a history of racism doesn’t mean that I can’t condemn it wherever I happen to be living now.

The conflicts increasingly taking place in Italy are not motivated by the newcomers themselves, but by political forces determined to misrepresent reality in order to provoke division so as to gain power. Racist politicians like Meloni and Salvini are never off the TV, spreading outright lies about the benefits paid to recent arrivals. The country’s leading opposition political figure, Beppe Grillo, makes common cause with the far-right, responding to criticism by claiming that ‘anti-fascism is not my concern‘. But its not those individuals who turn up wherever there’s an opportunity for aggro. Any visitor to Rome will notice the hateful posters of the openly nazi group Forza Nuova, whose thugs were behind yesterday’s racist protest in Rome. Another group which openly boasts of terrorising immigrants and their supporters occupies a substantial building in the centre of Rome. Above the entrance the name of the organisation is engraved in a pathetic pastiche of Mussolini-era iconography.  Just like their counterparts in the US, the UK and Germany, such groups hate their ‘own’ country. One of their piccolo fuhrers is even on record as calling the anti-fascist partisans of the Second World War ‘rapists’. Their objective is the same as that of Isis: to divide people using violence and the threat of violence in order to gain power. It behoves all immigrants, regardless of our status or the colour of our skin, to speak out against them just as we condemn other forms of terrorism. Italy is, in the words of Cesare Balbo, “a multiracial community composed of successive waves of immigrants”, with “one of the most mixed bloodlines, one of the most eclectic civilisations and cultures which there has ever been”. For all the absurd pretensions of Forza Nuova and Casapound, it is not and never again will be a fascist country – alle fine, è il nostro paese, non il loro.

Teaching teenagers: a morality tale

Having been a teacher for almost twenty years, I know that the classroom can be a frustrating place to teach and learn, and I’ve seen how easy it is to become bitter about the whole process and concept of education. Dealing with racist, lazy or wilfully ignorant students is a strain, and the staffroom can be a uniquely cynical place. There’s the constant cliché of teachers complaining about their students. All my students are so unmotivated, uninspired and hostile to the very idea of learning, teachers complain. All your students?, I think. What’s the common denominator? Then, the next day, I find myself moaning in much the same manner.

I’ve had little contact with the world of mainstream education, meaning I’ve avoided for the most part having to deal with both the classroom management of recalcitrant teenagers and the implementation of ever-innovative forms of bureaucracy designed to reduce education to the imparting and absorption of SOW-dictated lesson content. I’ve escaped all the immensely frustrating and tiring rigmarole of box-ticking and hoop-jumping of the Age of Ofsted (which now I come to think of it does sound like a character from The Handmaid’s Tale). Nevertheless, working mostly in the field of private language education, I have witnessed the way in which it is increasingly thought of and programmed as and like a business, with the teacher as mere service provider overseeing the delivery of the kind of content which can be easily converted into measurable and marketable spreadsheet data, with schools (and, increasingly, universities) desperate to guarantee students a specific level and speed of progress. Thomas Gradgrind would be delighted to see just how much the system is deigned to make students and teachers knuckle under; Paulo Freire, on the other hand, would turn in his beard.

Such system places immense pressure on the emotional, physical and social security of both students and teachers. While the mass abandonment of the teaching profession is a demonstration of just how hard it is for both teachers to maintain motivation, students find their own ways to drop out, either morally or physically, making the tasks of teaching and learning even more demanding. Secondary classrooms thus become environments where it takes immense emotional strength to even breathe. Who would willingly throw themselves into such a cauldron? As it happens, from next week I’ll be back to teaching secondary school teenagers for the first time in many years. On the one hand, the prospect terrifies me; on the other, I do kind of think what kind of teacher are you really if you can’t teach children?

I’ve long stuck by the adage that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. Education involves the building of a relationship, a mutual sharing of knowledge and experience rather than the mere handing-over of merchandise. Two preconditions for this to take place are respect and empathy, especially in mainstream education when dealing with kids from extremely challenging backgrounds. The teacher has to demonstrate a convincing interest in the lives and enthusiasms of the people they are teaching. Perhaps the video above (which was made in 2010 and very quickly went viral) shows us one example of how to achieve that. It’s certainly entertaining and enjoyable.

However, some things about the rap battle make me uncomfortable, starting with the way it’s framed: Teacher vs student. My reservations have been encapsulated in the form of a poem (part of a longer piece called (‘SOME VIOLENCE)’ by (ironically) my former poetry teacher, Wayne Holloway Smith, whose collection ‘Alarum‘ features class, masculinity, education and violence as central themes. His poem begins:

‘On YouTube an educated man is telling teenager that he is uneducated and will never amount to anything’.

In watching the video, it’s impossible to set aside this question of status. The confrontation is not, even for a second, a battle of equals. With immense wit and charm, the teacher patronises the student, divesting him of his self-definition as articulate, in control of language. He does so (argues the poem) on behalf of a State whose main function is to force him to value himself in its terms, to see himself through its eyes, to discipline and direct his energy, explicitly telling him:

‘Let me introduce you to the value inside the language of my particular group: I am better than you’.  

The students is thus subjected to authority’s withering gaze and found wanting: ‘You’ll never amount to anything’.  It is the teacher, not the student, who is ‘articulate, witty‘, who teaches him a lesson, which is that: ‘this language (that which the teacher, ‘wearing a suit and his hands casually in his pockets‘, commands) finds you ridiculous’.

Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic violence (itself an example of the kind of intellectual capital which the teacher has access to, and the student doesn’t) is brought to life in the following part of the poem, in which a bull is tormented by ‘a showground of people making it mean to them violence‘, forcing it to recognise itself through their eyes:

     and the slow-breathing creature is thinking
pulling this name Bull in and out of its nostrils

and the man understands the creature further with flailing arms
helps it to understand itself with pit-sand thrown in its eyes

and OK suddenly it understands

the man: for a moment, a pulsing orgasm, lust hung in the air
cue: screaming; cue: the world has realised it was right all along
cue: the animal being taken to a place where they can correct its evil by sword

Mark Grist (like Kate Tempest, a poet who became a rapper) addresses some of these aspects in a comeback in which he expressed his frustration and anger at the way the video was presented online and in the media as a morality play.  I understand his anger, but agree with Wayne Holloway Smith in that I think the form lent itself to that interpretation. There’s largely where its entertainment value (and certainly its online appeal) came from. Both combatants employ sexism and threats of violence, but Grist’s is knowing, informed by ironic distance in the form of jocular self-awareness, whereas (in the words of the poem) ‘when the teenager responds it is cliché‘. The teacher (and, by extension, the audience, drawn to the video by the promise of seeing foolish aspirations brought down to earth, ‘bound to agree‘ with its conclusion) provokes vile attitudes from the student, responses that confirm what we ‘know’ about such people, much like the treatment of the bull in the next part of the poem.

Despite my sense that the format of the rap battle between teacher and teenager was inherently problematic, Grist’s solo poems, which often draw and reflect on his experience as a teacher led onto, are often hugely compelling. I found this one deeply affecting:

It forced me to reflect on some of the more unpleasant episodes of my teaching career, those moments when my response didn’t match up to my ultimate responsibility for a student’s emotional well-being. The poem confronts both the classroom and the staffroom at their most bleak and difficult. Like many poems, it’s a novel condensed into two minutes, humanising its subjects in a way that reminded me of a passage from a recent George Saunders article about writing fiction:

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.

Or we could just stick with “Bob was an asshole,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.

What should education do but make us into humans, i.e. people who are ready to grant each other the status of fully-realised characters with our own specific experiences, memories and complexities? Surely our job as teachers is to help our students see that the world need not be as ‘irrationally cruel’ as it appears to be. I hope that I’m up to the challenges of the next few months, and don’t fall back on the self-serving cliché that it’s the students, not their teacher, who lack energy, imagination and motivation.

Why isn’t Trump dead yet?

Around 15 years ago it became commonplace for anyone who spoke up in defence of basic human rights to be posed the following hypothetical dilemma:

You say it’s always wrong to torture people. That’s fair enough. But what about terrorists? What if the authorities somehow knew that a captured suspect was planning to blow up an entire city? Wouldn’t it be morally right to put pressure on such a terrorist in order to save millions of lives?

Of course, such questions were a red herring. There never has been or could be such a textbook case. No authority could claim foreknowledge which allowed it to abandon universally agreed principles of respect for the judicial process and for human rights. That doesn’t mean they don’t try, and this ubiquitous theoretical challenge to the foundations of human rights – at every level of culture, from the front page of Newsweek to ten or so series of the TV show ’24’ – was accompanied by a very non-theoretical assault on those principles, most spectacularly in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. This is how we arrived at the point where the most powerful political figure in the world can openly instruct police officers to exceed the bounds of legal conduct in the treatment of anyone they don’t like and/or suspect of (potentially) committing a crime.

As the previous paragraph made clear, I believe that human rights are inalienable. No authority has the right to exclude any individual from fair judicial processes or to negate their physical existence.

But there’s something about the current conjuncture which I find puzzling. The most powerful position in the world, one that grants immediate access to weapons that could annihilate human existence at the touch of a single button or at the posting of a single tweet, is in the hands of a man who is deeply psychologically, mentally and emotionally unstable, has no moral scruples which might serve to regulate his impulses, and no meaningful understanding or apparent sense of either the consequences of his actions for the human race. He has also repeatedly demonstrated that he has no respect whatsoever for the vast majority of that which his compatriots hold most dear, including – particularly if they happen to be black – their lives. This in a country which has huge numbers of very heavily-armed individuals who have been brought up by Hollywood movies to believe that it is right and good to use violence, up to and including self-sacrifice, to redress the moral balance of the universe, and that God has uniquely anointed the American people with this redemptive task.

As I say, I personally don’t believe in political violence, and I don’t believe that any institution or individual has the right to deprive anyone else of life. There are, however, many people who do believe such things, and who have the means and motivation to act on their beliefs, on our behalf.

Where are they?

(P.s. I’m well aware of the argument that those who focus on Trump as the exclusive source of the world’s problems and ignore the brutal history of American imperialism are guilty of naivety. As it happens, such notional individuals are not nearly as naive as those who, like Glenn Greenwald, argue that those who focus on Trump as the source of the world’s problems and ignore etc, etc, etc are patronising. Greenwald was, until recently, a fine and principled journalist; now, he’s working for the other side.)