“Little things are big things, ” said a rhetoric teacher I was fortunate to have studied under at the public university I was fortunate enough to attend before rising tuitions reduced students to indentured servants. My professor was speaking to me of my writing, specifically of both little mistakes I made that lessened the impact of my prose and also of little additions that strengthened it. He was also saying it as a general truth and over the years, at times against my will, I came to understand it as such. At any rate, over the years the words have stayed with me, welling up in my head from time to time, often in unexpected situations, always somehow bearing out the wisdom of the words. One such situation took place Friday when, attending a meeting in a school other than my own, I reached down to open a door and there in my hand was a doorknob bearing the words, “ PUBLIC SCHOOL, CITY OF NEW YORK, surrounded by filigree.
I was, for a moment, taken aback. It seemed so terribly out of place, outside of the psychological climate in which my colleagues and I have labored for years. And this is why: someone, somewhere took time to make this doorknob. And that someone took pride in both the work and the public school system.
I have no idea of the exact provenance of the doorknob but I know it came from a time in which New York City and the rest of America believed in public works, public servants, public institutions and the public good: that is to say, a social contract that was not beholden to “market forces” or the rapacity of morally criminal Wall Street speculators or the whims of billionaires who have been allowed to dictate public policy.
We believed, that is, in the wake of the immense suffering and degradation of war, of the Great Depression, and through the bloody struggle of the union movement, that people had common rights and responsibilities and that it was the duty of the government, as the only institution that could guarantee them, to do so. Such as the right to an education. Believed too, even if it was never explicitly stated, that we had the civic, moral and, yes, spiritual responsibility to look after each other to, at the very least, a small degree; an understanding that we were to help each other through the messy, difficult, sublime thing called life.
Hence the creation of Social Security.
Such public institutions served, however imperfectly, the nation for a period of four decades (from 1945 to 1975) creating the greatest shared prosperity ( though one not shared by all people ) in human history.
A vital component in that unprecedented human as well as economic success, as vital as social security for the elderly, was the American public school system.
After 15 years of ceaseless insidious assault by the richest people in America, greased by bipartisan attacks from statehouses coast to coast, codified by the policies of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and aided by the most well financed and sustained public relations campaign against a legal profession in American history — all bent on privazation as the solution to all human and social problems — it is more and more difficult to remember the vital place of the public school system, never mind believe in it.
Propaganda and perception management, relentlessly and brilliantly implemented, work.
The sight of the old door knob struck me as especially poignant and haunting in light of our own age, not only one of complete corporate hegemony and the concomitant undermining of the social contract at all points, but one suddenly led by a mentally unstable political novice who envisions the presidency as an entry level position and who is attempting to fill his cabinet with persons who seek to
destroy the very institutions they are entrusted with. Public institution, mind you, that will be given over exclusively to private ends. In the process, they seek to finish off, once and for all, the anemic remnants of public life in America, beginning with the public school system.
The destruction of the public school system is unquestionably the mission of Betsy De Vos, Trump’s preposterous selection for Secretary of Education. (Yes, even more preposterous than Arne Duncan. ) It may well happen. If the election of the man-child Trump proves nothing else, it proves that in today’s America, anything, no matter how reckless, insane or suicidal is quite possible. It may well come to pass that in a few years time, that doorknob will be seen as an artifact of an institution gone the way of the tyrannosaurus, replaced by …only God knows what, but you can rest assured that some corporations will be making billions from it and education will be further reduced to some kind of degrading job training.
Little things are big things and we will need both small acts and mass movements to thwart the catastrophe that is surely upon us. Weeks after the election of this disgusting, dangerous and all so divisive figure, he with his teen-age tweets, his obscene “Thank You Tour,” his grotesque cabinet appointees, it grows clearer and clearer that we are, as a nation and as a people, heading into unprecedented darkness, led by an ignorant narcissist who has no idea what he is doing and needs perpetual adoration the way a junkie needs junk.
I am not an historian but I am one who takes history with great seriousness and from what I can see what Trump brings is without precedent. We will either create new forms of resistance and new forms of representation or we will be degraded, soon enough, into silence.