Analyze this: the convergence between fairy tale villains, Disney thugs, and Donald J. Trump

I love asking questions; I credit that to my legal and educational training.

Over time, I have learned to listen—especially to youth–who I have to say, are much more honest than adults (adults have been influenced by political banter).  As an example, remember the young child who exposed the fraud and misdeeds in The Emperor’s New Clothes.

To all those who explored with children the behavior of adults in connection with the insurrection at the Capitol last week, I say thanks, but I urge you to do more.

Go deep and unpack the mounting evidence and issues–the insurrection at the Capitol was a complex assault on our democracy, and we must peel back all of the layers of this stinking, political onion.

And yes, kids are a critical part of the conversation, and in fact, may have more insights than one might expect. Never underestimate kids and their power to think critically!  I just finished teaching a class on Fairy Tales* on Trial, the aim of which was to let students reflect and evaluate good and evil through alleged criminal behaviors. Students in the class explored whether the witch in Rapunzel ought to have been convicted of kidnapping or confinement. As class members became more experienced with the legal process, they convicted characters in Thumbelina, including insects, Maybugs  who made fun of and berated the thumb-sized fictional girl.

Take a look at what one student prosecutor, age 10, wrote:

The evidence shows that the female Maybugs are…guilty of a crime—verbal assault. They were literally bullying [Thumbelina] and calling her bad names. She was ridiculed and was helpless. She could not even fend for herself, even though Thumbelina was as pretty as ever.

Aside from class, kids have firsthand experience with bullies, whether on the playground or in the media.

Just turn to Disney–one of the biggest bullies featured by Disney is the narcissistic and pugilistic Gaston in the 1991 film, Beauty and the Beast. Part of me wonders whether Trump stole some of his playbook from Gaston, but an even larger part wonders what lessons can be teased out from Gaston’s inflammatory rhetoric and the reckless behavior of the townspeople following him.

But first, let me be very clear—don’t confuse Trump with another character in the story, the Beast. Unlike Gaston, the Beast, a prince on whom a spell was cast, undergoes a positive transformation.

When we focus on Gaston, the similarities between Trump and Gaston are scary.   Remarkably like Trump, Gaston fired up the crowd to behave violently using inflammatory rhetoric:

We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns, bring your knives….

Just one week ago, Trump, capitalizing on confusion and false truths also implored a mob to fight:

Something is wrong here, something is really wrong, can’t have happened and we fight. We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you are not going to have a country anymore.

Disney dealt with Gaston’s horrific conduct by letting him fall into an abyss.  How will Congress deal with Trump?  Trump appears to take no responsibility for the loss of life and destruction.  But, education and participatory democracy demand otherwise.  Democracy requires that teachers and parents do intellectual justice to this complex assault on our Capitol and continue to hash out issues and examine new evidence as it emerges.  Think about raising some of these questions:

1. Why do Trump followers (Proud Boys, QAnon, etc.) think the election was stolen?
2. Are we generalizing when we think ALL of the folks who voted for Trump believe in Trumpism and violence? What evidence do we have to support this? To the contrary?
3. What does the response of the Capitol police and others show us about respect for difference? Responses to other protests? Take a cue from the observations of President-Elect Biden’s granddaughter, “Pops, this isn’t fair!”
4. What types of protest does the First Amendment permit and how are the events on January 6th at the Capitol like or different than permissible protest under the Constitution?
5. It is said that history repeats itself. Take a look at what happened during an insurrection in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, another sordid blot on our history. Consider the short term and long-term consequences of the insurrection in Wilmington. Much closer in time, explore the events in Charlottesville and/or last fall’s plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

Talk to your kids, but don’t pass that off as though you have done your moral duty. Analyze, survey, synthesize, evaluate, reflect and revisit. In fact, invite intergenerational dialogue, and with courage and introspection, focus on these key words: Democracy, Constitution, Sedition, Difference, Authoritarianism, Enablers, Insurrection, and Accountability.

Take a hard look at the language of those involved and the images on display. Take note of who is represented in the crowd, in Congress and the White House, and analyze.

Sadly, this is not a fairy tale. There’s no happy ending when there is loss of life and property destruction.

Yes, this is a teachable moment, but it’s even more than that. It’s an opportunity to educate everyone, including youth, on the Constitution, accountability, processes for ferreting out truth, and the necessity of respecting difference. We can only avoid crises like these with understanding, critical thinking, ongoing dialogue, and respect for difference.

And teachers, please don’t tell me that it’s not part of the curriculum or that you have bigger issues to tackle. In her Tribune column of today, Heidi Stevens articulated our responsibilities to each other and to our students so cogently, especially in the wake of mounting evidence:

None of this stuff fits neatly into a lesson plan. But learning to process and discuss it all is critical to kids’ [and I would argue adults, too] development and humanity.”**

What happened at the Capitol less than a week ago goes to the heart of critical and independent thinking, I believe that the issue goes far beyond politics and permeates how we approach schooling and what we study. We all should be taking a hard look at ourselves, what we support and why.

*Silverman, J. (1999). Fairy Tales on Trial. Pieces of Learning.

**Stevens, H. (2021, January 12). To the teachers helping our kids make sense of the Capitol attack, thank you. The Chicago Tribune, p. 10.

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