Archive for June, 2009

Education, Children and Parents

Reading CNN’s money page I ran across a column by the father of a four year old who “wigged out” when his child didn’t pass the exam to be part of New York City’s gifted child program.   He, like many parents, are very concerned about the education their child will receive, and what that might mean down the line.  He ultimately makes a good point that the background of the parents are a good predictor of how a child will do, and raises legitimate concerns about whether there is equal opportunity for a quality education.  But what are parents thinking!?

I was not a good student through 10th or 11th grade.  Even as I finished high school I was inconsistent.  In classes I liked I could pull A’s, but in classes I hated I was usually in the C or B range.   I think in my class of  589 students I was number 187 (I’ve always been good with remembering numbers — one claim to fame I have is I could tell time at age 4).    I also rarely studied.  I could cram during study hall and pass the test thanks to a good short term memory.  In junior high I had real problems.  I dropped out of one class without telling anyone.  I simply stopped showing up, telling the teacher I had switched to a study hall.  Instead I went to the library or roamed the school.   I failed photography because I didn’t do the work (that was not an easy class to fail).  I didn’t really care, and I hated the structure.

In short, if my parents were the kind of helicopter parent that are prevalent today, they’d have been panicking over me, sending me to some kind of learning assistance program, or blaming the teachers for not engaging me.   It wasn’t until high school debate, which I found fun and engaging, that I actually decided to take my work seriously.  Still, in college my first two exams were returned on the same day — an “F” on a philosophy test, and a “D” on a biology test.   At that point I decided to start taking it seriously.  I ultimately graduated summa cum laude, fifth in my class, and went to Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies for my MA.  I now have a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and teach.

I’m not stating that to brag, only to point out that getting an education is not something you miss out on if you don’t get the best teachers and schooling at an early age.   For most of us (not including those who have real learning disabilities and need special care), it’s OK (to be sure, not optimal) to spin our wheels through some of our school years.    I recall in grad school running across fellow students who were really stressed out because they were used to being at the top and didn’t like being “average,” even if it was in a top notch graduate program.    Since I was used to not being at the top, I avoided that stress.

All of this reflecting leads me to a few points about education that I think parents should consider:

1.  For most kids, it’s not about finding a method to get them to learn or improve their performance, it’s about motivating them to want to learn.   Parents can do that regardless of what’s happening in school; summer and weekends can be fun education.   Make it fun, the learning will follow!

2.  We parents need to augment what goes on in the schools, and not be jerks who complain to the teacher if we think our precious child is getting unfair treatment.   That’s life, and every child will spin a story to make it appear they are the victim.   Just watch siblings have very different descriptions of the  same fight over a toy!   That doesn’t mean not to ever ask questions or express concerns — quite the contrary, we should be engaged and communicate.   But be respectful of the teacher and recognize that in almost all cases the teacher is trying their hardest.  (Yes, grammar nazis, I’m using third person plural instead of he/she, or his/hers, and I’m proud of it!)

3.  Childhood is for play.   Learning need not be competitive.   Kids don’t need to shine as the best in their class, especially not on every subject.  This part of life is for fun, and if kids learn to have fun as children, they will be more likely to have fun adult lives.  If they take on tasks with stress and pressure as children, that’s how they’ll experience adulthood.   What would you rather have your child be, a stressed out business leader earning $150,000 whose life is full of anxiety and pressure, or someone earning $40,000, but who loves life and has a good circle of friends?   My parents let me experience childhood as magical, and I still look at life that way.

4.  Children who are very difficult when young — headstrong and stubborn — probably will end up having the strength to avoid peer pressure and chart their own course when they are older.   Yes, children have to learn to behave, but better to have a little rebel than a Stepford child.  (At least, I hope I’m right here, given Ryan and Dana’s personalities.   Oh any students reading who don’t get the “Stepford” reference, click here.)

5.  Don’t give up!  Even when I was a poor to average student, my mom and dad talked about it as a certainty that I’d go to college, and that I could do anything.  They’d try to get me to work harder, but they didn’t do anything to make me fear I’d become a failure or that I was risking my life if I didn’t do better in eighth grade.  Keep a positive attitude and positive visions of the future — that will stick with them, and help kids have the attitude needed to succeed.  Negativity breeds failure, after all.

6.   Don’t overprogram!   Yeah, there’s soccer camp, theater camp, baseball, dancing and the like.   I wrote last February how great a local ski program, Alpine Snow Kids, was for Ryan (then age 5).  But keep enough free time to have fun together, and have times during the day to relax and reflect.   We don’t want kids to grow up addicted to having their lives scheduled — it’s OK to just go out in the woods, relax by a lake, or sit down with a book.   Time stress shouldn’t start early!

7.   It’s OK if kids watch TV, even things that aren’t PBS, or that have violence.   Kids have imaginations, but they also aren’t fragile little vessels ready to become serial killers if they happen to wake up and catch you watching some kind of action movie.   I mean, we should have common sense, but the more control we try to exercise over kids, the less they’ll learn to control their own decisions.

And ultimately, don’t we want our children to grow up to be able to autonomously make good choices on their own, rather than relying on rules and authority figures to set boundaries for them?


Pop Culture Icons

On Thursday both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died.   Each were major figures in the pop culture scene, though Jackson clearly played a more profound role.   The reaction of the public to Jackson’s death was reminsicient of when another major pop icon, Elvis Presley.   Like Jackson, Presley had not handled the fame and wealth well, delved into drugs and general weirdness.  Presley didn’t fall as far from grace as Jackson did, but in each case we’re left with a sour taste in our mouths.   These greats who did so much to shape a generation of music could not shoulder the pressure of fame.

But first, the one being forgotten in much of the coverage: Farrah Fawcett.   She came to prominence in 1976 with both the TV show “Charlie’s Angels” and a poster that came in Life magazine that is still the best selling pin-up in history.   She became synonomous with glamor and sex appeal for the late seventies, a beautiful smile, slender, with long curly blonde hair.   Later she starred in a movie based on a true story, The Burning Bed about spousal abuse.  Finally, after years of refusing to be photographed or act in the nude, she appeared in Playboy when she was near 50, still in demand.   She married the “$6 million man” Lee Majors, though they were together only six years (known during that time as Farrah Fawcett Majors), and for the last 27 years was in a relationship with actor Ryan O’Neill.

I was 16 when Charlie’s Angels started, and I actively disliked Farrah Fawcett.  I did not consider her attractive.  Kate Jackson was my favorite “Angel,” and I found myself disliking the way in which Fawcett became the symbol of beauty in the late seventies (rivaled by Bo Derek when the movie “10” came out in 1979).   Yet for a few years, she was the one.   This was the era when cable was relatively new, and had not yet spawned MTV, CNN, or massive television offerings.   You had ABC, CBS and NBC, and this was ABC’s big hit.  So nearly everyone watched it at least sometimes, and the show became a very integral part of the pop culture life of late seventies America.

At the same time, Michael Jackson had already been on the scene for years.   When I was nine years old I started buying 45s and listening to music.   That was the same year 11 year old Michael Jackson started recording with the already touring family quintet, the Jackson 5.  His style, voice, dance and ability to connect with the audience soon made him the star, as their first singles, “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “I’ll Be There” were major hits.  Despite more hits like “Ben” (about a rat), the Jackson 5 never regained that level of success.  Renamed “the Jacksons” they continued without much fanfare.

Then Jackson emerged with the right stuff at the right time.   After writing a grammy winning song for the film “ET,” he put together his second solo album, Thriller just as MTV was taking off.  MTV had started in 1980, and had become a pop culture phenomenon as music started to appear in video as well as audio form.   This quickly became a new art form, as bands and directors tried to figure out the best way to wed sound and image.  It spawned quick new stars — David Lee Roth’s humor, Steve Perry’s beautiful hair, and Madonna’s sassy rebellion.

Of all of them, only Madonna rivals Jackson in early influence.  Jackson’s thriller became an event.  MTV hyped it, more money and time was spent constructing the sets, choreographing the dances, and fine tuning the production.  Jackson’s dance skills had set him apart when he was a boy, he now was taking dance in new directions, and merging the fading disco genre with a new sophisticated eighties style.  Yet music was still pop, there was still only minimal fragmentation into multiple genres and types (pop, country, easy listening, and R&B/Soul).   Record albums still ruled (though CDs were now available), and it took a lot of money to produce and market an album.   Jackson was still in an era where if something hit big, it had universal rather than niche success.   If he had been born five years later or earlier, he would not have been able to hit the pop culture scene with this kind of impact.

For the rest of the eighties Jackson (along with Madonna and Prince) were the unrivaled pop trend setters.   There were other big acts, but Jackson was the undisputed King of Pop, a role rivaling the Beatles in the 60s and Elvis in the 50s.  Seven hits from Thriller made Billboard’s Hot 100, and success continued.  Though by the 90s as music fragmented, eighties pop faded, and Jackson seemed to engage in ever more bizarre behavior, the child star became a caricature.  Still admired and loved by millions, but for a variety of reasons, seen by others as strange and even perverted.

Those of us who do not dwell on Jackson’s scandals and remember his contribution to pop aren’t really remembering Jackson the man, just as Elvis fans aren’t thinking of a pill popping banana peanut butter fatty when they mourn the (alleged) death of Elvis.   It is less  the person than the moment when each were in the right place at the right time.  Elvis, the Beatles and Jackson would all have been non-descript acts if they had come a bit later or sooner; they came right when the pop world was ready for something new.   There are many talented and even brilliant artists, but success requires more than that — it requires timing and opportunity.

We remember the early eighties, the reaction to Thriller, and the take off of MTV.  We recall an earlier time when MTV was the music scene, and pop dominated.  This was before grunge, before fragmentation, before downloads and MP3.  You still took the album art seriously and debated the song order on the album (and what was on side 1 vs side 2).  It was a different world, and Jackson epitomized an era within it.

Farrah Fawcett’s standard of beauty in the late seventies, and Jackson’s standard of pop music and MTV style in the early eighties, helped define an era.  Those of us who were young during that era cannot help but feel some sense of loss when these aging icons pass away.

Alas, like Elvis, Jackson couldn’t process what his cultural status meant for his personal life.   It was worse for Jackson; he had never had a normal life, he had always been a star, always in a kind of fantasy life.  As such, he drifted further from reality.   He seemed to lose himself in all of that, honored as an artist, pitied and even reviled as a person.   Yet I refuse to judge him; the challenge of early wealth and fame is perhaps a greater personal burden than the challenge of poverty and prejudice.  He never had to develop personal traits of honor and courage, his “advantages” left him ill prepared for life.


Realist melancholy

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day five I wrote about Robinson Jeffer’s piece The Answer.)

I always have trouble with poems.  I’ve written poetry, but I don’t analyze it well.  Luckily, my student assistant this year, Jade Forester, is a poetry expert and has taken over the class when we discuss poems.  I become one of the students (which is good modeling to students of how we’re all teachers and learners).  But today I’ll attempt a blog entry about a poem, this one Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly Buzz.”

The poem is short, the first stanza is:

I heard a Fly buzz — when I died
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air
Between the Heaves of Storm

Here I picture a serene room, with a woman on a bed, white drapes on a window at either twilight or dawn.  No one is with her, the room is silent, and then the focus turns towards one of the window drapes upon which a fly sits, and then takes off buzzing.   The woman, eyes closed, breaths one loud, last breath, and then everything is still.   Yet the sense from the last line is that this stillness is a moment of piece, with chaos and uncertainty both preceding and following it.   Next section:

The eyes around — had wrung them dry —
And Breaths were gathering firm
For the last Onset — when the King
Be witnessed — in the room —

This takes me back in time to before the fly enters.  The eyes around were family and friends, but somehow cold.  They had accepted the coming death, they had dry eyes and firm breaths…but her eyes were now dry as she faces death, no remorse, and a sense of firm acceptance of the inevitable.   The King is death, and is the fly, entering the room.  Next:

I willed my keepsakes — Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable — and then it was
There interposed a Fly

With Blue — uncertain stumbling Buzz
Between the light — and me —
And then the Windows failed — and then
I could not see to see

She had let go of not only her hope for life, but all her possessions, assigning them away both literally and figuratively, they mattered to her no more.  She was at the moment of total surrender as the fly appeared.  The blue is a mix of the light from outside (probably twilight, maybe dawn) and the drape, a literal blue from the literal window, and a figurative blue inside her soul.   The fly now stands between the world of the real, and the world of her soul.  Its buzz connects the material world with the spiritual, the buzz exists in both.  She is in transition.  Then the windows failed.  The literal window, the windows that are her eyes, and the window of her soul.  Death came.  And then…mystery.   Whatever is next cannot be expressed.

To me this poem is one of realist melancholy.   Death is not posited as a transition to some other place, be it heaven, hell or a spiritual door to another life.   It isn’t a revelation of a greater reality.   The end doesn’t turn grief to joy, or pain to pleasure.   Yet it also isn’t a snuffing out of existence completely, or the absolute end.  It is a mystery.  There is a sense of fear that it could be an absolute end.   The blue is a color of melancholy and coldness, and the windows failing shows no sense of what is to come.

Yet, despite the fear, the buzz is uncertain and stumbling.   Perhaps, just perhaps, there is something more, something yet to come.   Perhaps the buzz is a gateway.   That “perhaps” seems to be half-hearted, the melancholy chokes off any hope.  But yet, it is a mystery.

This poem to me shows me a take on reality that I do not normally feel.  I know that the end is a mystery as well.   Yet mine is a spiritual optimism.  Despite the mystery, I believe that death cannot be the real end, and that it must only be a transition.  I do not believe the soul can truly perish, I suspect we live other lives, either here or on other planes, I suspect that the world we experience is only a shadow of a greater reality.   Like flies unaware that they are either buzzing around the White House or destroyed death filled Sudanese villages, we are only dimly aware of the greater reality.

If I were writing the poem, the fly and its buzz would represent our ignorance, and death would be an expansion of the mind and soul to comprehend at least in part the limits of this world.  But I do not get that sense of spiritual optimism from Dickinson.  Her fly seems colder, less certain, and melancholy.   Death is not feared, she expresses no anger or even a desire to hold on.   Where my optimism is a kind of idealism, a willingness to trust my feeling that there is something more, her melancholy is a realist one, recognition that there is no grounds for optimism other than hope and faith — and one gets the sense that she can arouse neither.  Or, perhaps, as soon as she feels a sense of hope, her realism dashes it.   The best hope that there is something more is from the fourth line of the poem — if she is between the heaves of storm, then perhaps there storm will continue.

She’s left with a thread of hope, battered and frayed, barely noticable, symbolized only by the buzz of a fly.

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Democracy Requires Listening

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day four I wrote about Howard Zinn’s piece “Violence: the Double Standard.“)   Today I write about Walter Lippmann’s “The Indispensable Opposition.”

On Tuesday night investigative reporters Lance Tapley and Luann Yetter spoke to the summer experience students  about the importance of journalism in the functioning of a democracy.   They noted how the media has become more corporate and sensationalized, while most blogs and commentary sites tend to be read by people wanting to simply reinforce their own opinion rather than to be challenged by different perspectives.    Investigative reporting has become rare.   Seymour Hirsch is still around — and effective — but most papers and TV stations have fallen into the ‘he said she said’ trap, believing that instead of truth, there is only opinion.  Each opinion needs moreover to be “balanced” by another opinion, creating an artificial bifurcation of political opinion.

Lippmann’s piece was written back in 1939, literally right before the breakout of WWII.   He could draw stark comparisons between a democratic polity and totalitarian systems.  German fascism and Soviet Communism appeared to be growing, powerful movements, while the remaining democratic states were mired in a lingering depression.  Many saw fascism and communism as the waves of the future, as democracies seemed divided and ineffective.  Lippmann recognized that there was something about a democracy that totalitarian states could never have: a vibrant opposition.

Lippmann begins by disputing a basic claim made by many of those who respect free speech:  that the goal is to tolerate speech we disagree with.  Toleration of the right of others to dissent is not enough.    It’s not enough just to allow dissent, one has to truly listen and take other perspectives seriously.

Listening is more than hearing.   Lippmann notes that in a totalitarian state there is little that will stop a government if the leader has chosen the wrong course of action, and in fact the bureaucracy will be tempted to tell their leaders what they want to hear.    Leaders will also likely lose touch with the people, believing their own propaganda.   Lippmann saw in 1939 that the rising fascist and Communist regimes were built on sand, while despite struggling, democracy had a sturdier foundation.   Fascism and Communism fell to their own internal contradictions and weaknesses; democracy has thrived.  Lippmann was right.

One could argue that most of the mistakes made by policy makers in recent years have been due to the deterioration of American political discourse and the dearth of real listening that is taking place.    In Congress, the level of animosity and partisanship has been increasing over the last twenty years.   If this is happening in Congress, it’s a reflection of what’s going on in public political discourse.

As newspapers disappear, people turn to sensationalistic forms of media — talk radio, blogs, and the like.  Television news, running 24 hours a day, has learned that you can’t survive without sensationalism.  Fox made the choice to be biased towards the right, while MSNBC seems to have chosen to occupy the left of center.   CNN, in the middle and trying to maintain some semblance of balance, sees its ratings drop dramatically.  Yet even it has fallen victim to the idea that the news is about “he said she said,” with a need to balance every opinion with another opinion.

The problem with all of this is that it decreases the amount of listening that takes place.   Rather than trying to understand the other perspective, consider it, and reflect on whether or not the opposition has a point, the opposition becomes something to defeat.   On the right, “liberal” becomes a bad word, and people on the left are caricatured.  This is more obvious from the right thanks to talk radio, but the same happens on the left, with conservatives being dismissed as bigoted war mongers and the like.   And, with Congress  political games rather than coming together to try to solve problems, the political process makes this a self-fulfilling prophecy — it does become sport, one side vs. the other.

So problems don’t get solved.   This has now continued for decades, and we’ve seen the country unwilling to deal with major problems facing our economy, or to question the nature of our foreign policy.    Short term political games trump the idea that together we need to deal with serious issues facing our polity.   Yet perhaps all is not lost.

An article the other day at Politico noted that Republicans were giving up their opposition to Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court because she “didn’t become the kind of lightning rod” they expected.  They were going to oppose her if it helped them rile up opposition to Obama, but when that didn’t pan out, they decided they may as well not make a fight out of it.   None of this had anything to do with her qualifications or whether or not she deserved to be on the Court, it was all political show.

Why did they back down?   The public decided not to play the political game.  Despite some bloggers and pundits ratcheting up the anti-Sotomayor rhetoric, it didn’t catch on.   Consider: In last year’s election a Democratic outsider who promised to change the tone in Washington defeated the partisan insider to win the primaries (and ultimately the Presidency).   The Republican nominee was the man who many on the right decried as too willing to compromise and make nice with the Democrats.   The public, it seems, wants their politicians to listen, and despite the noise from the partisans of each side (and their impact on their respective parties), most of the so-called “silent majority” follow no set ideology or party, and would prefer to have the politicians stop playing games and start working together to solve problems.

And that gives me hope.  In a democracy, you don’t leave it up to the elites, after all — they’ll always be prone to political power games.  Democracy only works if the public demands listening, and listens itself.   President Obama was elected on that premise, and while it’s still too early to see if he can really change the tone, it’s needed now more than ever.

However, we also need the media to play a critical constructive role.    With newspapers disappearing and the internet taking over, there is hope that the capacity of people to explore diverse perspectives will trump the mode of simply looking for opinions one already agrees with.   Perhaps good investigative journalism, willing to try for integrity and to pursue the truth rather than just giving different “sides” of an argument, will give citizens better information moving forward.   But ultimately it is up to us; we need to as individuals want to listen and take seriously points of view other than our own, and be willing to change our mind if the evidence and argument merits.  We need to demand that from our politicians; we need to respect that (and reward it) from our media.   The future of our democracy is at stake.

Democracy requires listening, listening is facilitated by a vibrant and engaged media that is concerned with finding out the truth, and not simply taking sides or displaying competing talking heads.   The challenge is here for the generation now coming of age to reshape the media, and the political discourse, to something better than it has been.


Destroying our Environment

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day three I wrote about Anne Murrow Lindbergh’s Channeled Whelk.)

Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain” a short essay about how one man came to appreciate the complexity of nature.  Leopold remembers how as a young boy they loved to kill wolves.  Wolves were an enemy of humans, and if there were fewer wolves, there would be more deer.  Then one day he saw a wolf die, and that changed his view.  As he puts it, just as the deer live in mortal fear of the wolves, the mountain lives in mortal fear of deer.   The mountain understands the complexity of nature; the mountain appreciates the whole, and does not get lost in disconnected detail.

He has a point.  Deer will eat all the vegetation on the mountain, and ultimately destroy its ecosystem.  Deer are more destructive than wolves, they are a force that not only can destroy an ecosystem, but in so doing they will destroy themselves through starvation.

Looking at it that way, it seems that wolves are benevolent rather than malevolent.  They do not destroy the environment, they simply kill a small number of deer or other animals in order to survive.  As such, they keep the ecosystem in balance, preventing the deer’s destructive capacity from coming to fruition.   The deer is the dangerous creature, the wolf is nature’s hero.

Few see it that way though.  Deer are the gentle, harmless creatures who tromp through the woods, and are scared at a slight sound.  We might curse them if they attack our gardens (that happens here in the Maine woods a lot), and they certainly can do damage if they cross the highway in front of a car, but in general we don’t put them in the same category as wolves or bears.   A deer in the backyard is cool – a wolf or a bear is scary!

It’s not that deer are by nature evil.  They simply like to eat and procreate.  Without being kept in balance, their natural tendencies will become one of the most destructive forces in nature; one can see them almost akin to a virus attacking the planet.  The wolves are the anti-bodies, protecting the ecosystem.

Humans are like deer, except we’ve managed to overcome our predators.  Following our nature, we consume the planet.   Our numbers constantly increase; the UN said in a recent report that a billion people are chronically hungry on the planet.  Moreover, our desire to consume goes beyond just food.  Our attempt to get energy to allow us to have a luxurious life style has meant not only creating an unsustainable appetite for a non-renewable resource (oil) but has led to such intense pollution that the planet’s climate is in danger of radical transformation thanks to human activity.  While the politicians try to downplay the threat, the reality is clear: in fifty years climate change is likely be more damaging to human life and our quality of life than all the wars and economic crises of the past.

Like deer, we are not doing this out of any malicious intent.  Though we may fight each other over resources, driving cars does no one any harm, beyond the risk of accidents.  Flying through the air does little harm, save a few birds that get caught up in the engines.  Even smoke stacks spewing filth into the air do little direct damage.   We may not like the smell, but it’s just smoke.   And for decades, even centuries, the pollution went unquestioned.  Jobs matter more than how the air smells, after all.

Not until about fifty years ago did the environmental movement, begun by pioneering environmentalists like Leopold in the early 20th century, take root.  Perhaps most important in popularizing the cause was marine biologist Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring (1962) not only showed the harm done by pesticides, leading to a ban on DDT, but called into question the whole paradigm of scientific control over nature.   Although she died of cancer in 1964 at only age 56, Carson was instrumental in bringing environmentalism into the mainstream.

People started to wonder what the impact of all this pollution would be on the ecosystem.  When Lake Eerie caught fire, when rivers stank, when smog in LA led to severe health hazards, people started to make changes.  Yet it turns out that those problems were small potatoes, and not that hard to fix.   Our rivers, air, and cities are much better now than thirty years ago, thanks to legislation limiting pollution.   There have been successful efforts made to fight the unrestrained development that activists like Carson opposed.   Yet it turns out, those weren’t the worst dangers.

By the eighties acid rain, soil erosion, global warming, and threats to the ozone layer created the specter of major dangers ahead.  Even then, as long as some scientists express skepticism (often paid by industry to do so), humans will choose to engage in wishful thinking that bad things can’t happen, and we shouldn’t sacrifice our ability to get more stuff to try to keep the environment healthy.  Like the deer, we are driven to keep consuming, unable to stop ourselves from destroying our environment.

We put our faith in technology – scientists will solve all the problems, alternative energy sources will allow us to consume without sacrifice, even if oil runs low.  Yet damage to the climate takes 50 years to be felt; even if we improved things dramatically now, it would be 50 years before that improvement would yield positive consequences.   The prognosis is that parts of Africa may become uninhabitable, severe crises may hit coastal regions due to rising sea levels and severe weather, and the biggest threat to human kind to be not war nor economic collapse, but environmental crisis.

We cannot “think like a mountain” as Leopold puts it.  Like the deer, we are driven to consume.  Yet that shouldn’t be the case.  Unlike deer, we’re not simply feeding ourselves, we’re trying to expand our material possessions.  Unlike the deer, we do have the capacity to reflect and take action to protect our world from ourselves.  If we do not start “thinking like a mountain” – understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of nature – then the current crisis may seem small in comparison to what we’ll face in perhaps as few as ten or twenty years.

Because, while the deer can make a mountain barren and cause mass starvation, the mountain still stands and sooner or later vegetation reappears.  We don’t threaten the planet with our actions, we threaten ourselves.


Martin Luther King and Iran

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day two I wrote about Paolo Friere’s piece on the Banking Concept of Education.)

As we watch the protests grow in Iran, as average people try to stand up to a government that has not been open or honest with their citizenry, an appropriate piece to discuss is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  King was jailed for civil disobedience, and was responding to others in the clergy who criticized King for being too confrontational, using demonstrations, sit ins, and marches to try to push forward their demand for equality.   They believed that dialogue and slow progress would be a better path to change, and that King’s approach was overly contentious.

King’s patient response nonetheless had a strong accusation: it is easy for people not feeling the pressure of injustice to call for moderation and avoidance of confrontation.  If the injustice has been going on for a long time, those who don’t suffer see no problem with a gradual correction of that injustice.  Those experiencing it, however, recognize that it must end as soon as possible.

King noted that direct action came only after collecting the facts, negotiating, and self-purification.   As he put it: “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation.  Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action.  Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.  It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

This is what is happening in Iran, as the world watches to see whether or not the religious leaders in Iran will respond to the protests with negotiation and change, or will clamp down with ferocity.   King notes that freedom is not given up by an oppressor but must be demanded by the oppressed.   The Iranian people have been patient.  They have a partial democracy, a modicum of political and social freedom, and they certainly do not live in a totalitarian state.   The level of democracy and freedom in Iranian life is high enough that most citizens have been willing to tolerate the regime’s desire to maintain control.    Now, however, many have had enough and are trying to force the Guardian Council and Supreme Leader to negotiate away from their attempt to maintain conservative control at all costs.

Are they justified?   King’s answer back in 1963 was to ask whether or not the laws being enforced are just.   As King put it: “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.  To put it in the terms of Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.  Any law that uplifts human personality is just.   Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

In Iran, the leaders claim that the protests are unjust.  While they admit some vote fraud, they do not believe that the amount of fraud could overcome the difference between the candidates.   In that they may be right — we have no way to know for sure if Mousavi is even close to Ahmadinejad in the final tally, many pollsters doubt it.  But that’s not the point.   The protests are not just about the election or about Ahmadinejad.   Rather, it is about trying to change an unjust system.

Another argument Iran’s leaders make is that they do provide just rule; they are clerics making sure that God’s laws are being properly followed in the Islamic Republic.   Yet when one looks more closely at Iranian politics, it appears less about religious purity than rivalries between various clerics, oil revenue, and corruption.    Moreover, the Koran does not condone a leadership lying to its people, promising one thing and then working behind the scenes to make sure it doesn’t happen.  A true Islamic Republic would govern in an open, just manner.  Claims of religious justice are contradicted by reality — the leadership in Iran is not true to basic values of the Koran.

Some might object to using King as an example for Iran because he was a Christian, and his values are therefore western and foreign to Iran and Islam.  Yet King’s inspiration was Gandhi, a Hindu, who himself was inspired by Thoreau.  King and Gandhi would argue that timeless universal laws are valid across faiths, and not the sole propriety of one particular religion.  Iran’s leaders would no doubt disagree, yet within the Koran itself the values King holds dear — freedom, accountability, justice and equality — are fundamental.   Muhammad’s core message was to end oppression, especially of women and the poor, and Iran’s regime often seems far distant from those basic Koranic values.

What can we in the US do?   As citizens, we can show as much solidarity as possible with the Iranian people who are trying to have control over their own destinies.   I still think Obama’s approach makes sense.   There is nothing we can do to force change onto Iran, and an effort to meddle might make it less likely that the regime will negotiate fairly with the protesters.  But the clerics in the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader would be wise to take seriously another statement by Martin Luther King in his letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.   The urge for freedom will eventually come.”


The Individual and Society

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day one I wrote about Robertson Davies “What Every Girl Should Know.)

Today I’m going to write about two pieces juxaposed with each other in the heavy reading for the first day.   One is “I owe nothing to my brothers,” by Ayn Rand, and the other is “Meditation XVII,” by John Donne.

Donne and Rand offer complete opposite perspectives on the nature of the individual in society.   Rand (1905-1982) is the ultimate individualist, arguing for “ethical egoism,” which involves laissez faire capitalism, anti-statism, and a condemnation of altruism.  The individual is what matters, the individual is responsible for his or her own happiness.  No one should either use others to try to satisfy his or her own wants or needs, and no one should let himself or herself be used by others to satisfy their needs.

Donne (1572-1631) is most famous for his quote that “no man is an island,” and “for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” each from this Meditation.  Donne sees all of humankind, or at least the Christian world, as part of a larger organic whole, where the dignity or suffering of each individual has an impact on everyone else.   We are all connected in a web of mutually shared experiences and destinies, and it is folly to think that an individual can exist, strive for good, or live a quality life without recognizing that our identity is by necessity part of a collective.

Taken on their own, each position is persuasive.  Rand, who immigrated to the US from Russia in 1926 at the age of 21, speaks to the traditional American notion of the ‘rugged individual.’   Having experienced the Communist revolution and its aftermath, she hated the collectivism and abuse of individual rights by a powerful state.  And though democracies are not quite so heavy handed, she believed that states constantly limit freedom, and through taxes and warfare both enslave and murder.    Humans should be as free as possible to form their own associations, building not a collective, where identity comes from the mass, but to form individual friendships where any grouping is one based on individual choice and consent.

Rand’s writing is also much more persuasive than Donne’s.   Donne’s poetry is equisite, but he wrote in the early 17th century, in language that is hard for students today to fathom and access.  Rand started out as a playwright and screen writer, moving on to novels (her first was The Fountainhead, and her most famous the 1100 page long 1957 behemoth Atlas Shrugged.)   She was a superb writer, able to inspire the mind and soul with her ideas and style.  Yet the appeal of her ideas is due less to their actual logical validity (she is not widely regarded as top notch philosopher — Objectivism as a philosophy is full of holes) but rather to her ability to inspire and touch readers with her fiction.

Donne had the same ability with poetry in his day.   Like Rand, he wrote in a time of tumult.   A century earlier the reformation had started in Europe, leading to wars and bloodshed which continued all through Donne’s life.   He was British (though spent considerable time on the war torn continent), and started out as a Roman Catholic.  Catholics were often persecuted in England.  Henry VIII used the reformation to break away from the church in 1538, and though Queen Mary tried to return to Catholicism (earning the nickname ‘bloody Mary’ for her executions of those who did not want to go back), by 1570 Elizabeth I made the reform complete.  Yet for reasons unclear, in the early 17th century Donne left the Catholic church and became an Anglican.

Rand, on the other hand, was an atheist.  Belief in a diety is, in her view, a need for a crutch, and a sign of weakness.   (The Simpsons spoofed this when at the “Ayn Rand Daycare” Maggie and the other babies had their pacifiers taken away as being crutches…in a nice ironic satire, the babies come together — in a collective — and launch a plot, led by Maggie, to retrieve their pacifiers.)   The material world may not be all that is, but it’s all we can measure and manipulate, and thus it is here where we (not the word she’d use) must create our own individual paths to happiness.

Donne, on the other hand, despite having a somewhat scandalous life, spending money on parties and women, and marrying a very young bride (causing a rift with her father which took some time to heal), was extremely religious.   One gets the sense that he sees how the community of believers were killing each other in the wars of reformation, and the persecutions that took place in England, and finds it troubling.   Every death is a tragedy because we are all part of society, which in his case meant the Christian world.  Only by recognizing our ethical obligation to look at for the betterment of society as a whole, sacrificing of ourselves for the greater good, can we find real happiness.

Rand sees such a view as a sacrifice of our essential human uniqueness, giving up who we are for some imagined fantasy of a collective, allowing others to manipulate and use individuals for ways that limit the individual spirit.  Donne would see Rand’s view as hopelessly naive and out of touch with a human nature that is fundamentally collectivist.   He would likely find her style of laissez-faire capitalism to be narcisstic and prone to exploitation.

Yet in trying to understand each, it’s possible to see that both Donne and Rand had a real insight to different aspects of the human experience.   Moreover, each extreme, when simplified into an ideology, leads to a world view that ultimately elevates one aspect of human existence and denies another.   Somehow we have to hold both Donne and Rand’s beliefs and all the tension they form, resisting the temptation to choose one as right and the other wrong.

That tension, embracing our individualism and desire for a life based on consent and not force, while recognizing that things outside our ability to choose are an essential part of our identities and ability to find meaning in the world.  This tension cannot be bridged through logic or philosophy alone.  It is a tension that survives because human logic so simplifies the world that it creates artificial paradoxes, dualisms that seem on their own terms contradictory, but are actually part of the symphony of human existence.  At some level, this cannot be worked out intellectually, but must be understood — a Platonic moment of understanding ideals as a spiritual reality above our material existence.

Is that a satisfying conclusion?   At one level, no.  We humans want black and white answers, and something clear to believe in.   Such tension and attempts to hold apparently contradictory beliefs leads to dissonance (both cognitive and philosophical) and our order seeking minds rebel.  Yet our minds simplify the world at every level, and its that simplification that makes it appear that these tensions are contradictory, rather than aspects of a reality we are yet unable to truly comprehend.

In that sense, the tension between Donne and Rand reflects an essential aspect of the agony and joy of education.   We seek clear answers, but as we develop insight, ambiguity rather than clarity emerges.   Such paradoxes have a beauty that is easy to overlook — but are key in trying to make sense of this world in which we find ourselves.


Obama right on Iran

Barack Obama is passing his first real foreign policy challenge with high marks, resisting the pressure to grandstand on the Iranian protests, even while the Republicans take pot shots at his alleged “weakness.”   A weaker President would be unable to resist the cheap temptation to talk hyper tough on Iran, scoring political points at home, but actually hurting the protest movement in Iran and giving nationalist cover to the hardline regime.   A strong President puts effective policy ahead of politics.

In 2004 and 2005 Iranian moderates complained about President Bush’s tough anti-Iranian talk.   It had the effect of arousing anti-Americanism, given our past history of interfering in Iranian politics, and gave the hardliners cover to crack down.  Up until the US invasion of Iraq, the hardliners had not won a single Iranian election.  Their democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s evolving.

Now they face a pivotal moment.  It’s not clear that the protesters have the majority on their side.  Some pollsters believe that Ahmadinejad had a large lead going into the election.  The protests, like those in China in 1989, are primarily in urban areas and from the educated.   It’s massive, but given the support Ahmadinejad has from the conservative countryside (which has benefited from government largesse), it could well be that the election results are close to accurate.

Beyond that, what could Obama do to effectively help bring change to Iran?   Lambasting with tough rhetoric is a sign of impotence.  Bush talked loudly, but it turned out that when it came to Iran, he had a small stick.    Obama could lash out at the Iranian Guardian Council, but that in and of itself packs no punch.  Indeed, it plays into the hands of the hardliners.

Direct support in terms of aid and assistance to protest movements in Iran would not only be ineffective (they can gather resources themselves), but awaken the specter of past US efforts to shape Iranian society.  It would quickly turn the “silent majority” against the reformers, giving cover to the hardliners.

Back in 1989 as change swept Eastern Europe, President Bush the elder wisely realized that it would be foolish to, as he put it, “dance on the wall and stick a finger in their eye…who knows how they would have had to respond.”  Bush the Elder understood that dramatic change like that at the end of the Cold War has to be done by the people there, and can’t be forced on states by the US.   The reason is clear: the US does not have the capacity to shape political results, and efforts to intervene would be doomed to fail.

Bush’s approach was literally to talk softly and carry a big stick.   The Soviets knew we had the capacity to undercut their regime and economy, and if we tried to do so in 1989 a more successful coup against Gorbachev would have been possible.  Bush’s approach helped assure that the Cold War would end peacefully.   After Tiananmen Square in China, Bush’s approach was similar, though unlike in Eastern Europe, the protesters did not win out and the government crackdown worked.  Few, however, would argue that the US should have been harsher in its response.   There is little we could have done to alter the outcome, and change in China has continued at a slow, but real pace since then.

Bush the Younger talked tough and got political points for that.  We’ll get Bin Laden dead or alive.  Regime change needs to come to North Korea and Iran as well as Iraq.   The axis of evil.  The war on terror.   All heady tough sounding stuff that the country ate up after 9-11.   Yet the debacle in Iraq showed that the US could not follow through on that talk — our talk came back to hurt us on numerous levels, and make painfully obvious how impotent we are to truly change the region.

Will Iran change?   Yes, but it may be slow, and the process may be only beginning.   Iran might be best served by continued evolutionary change, not a revolution.   That’s a question none of us can answer with certainty.   But unless someone can come up with some kind of concrete action the US can take which would be effective, truly help the people of Iran, and not severely risk our prestige and national interest, any criticism of Obama as being too “soft” is cheap political garbage.  Talk is cheap.  Being rhetorically tough is cheap and easy.   The pundits, dealing as they do with words and rhetoric, may think rhetoric is the most powerful force in politics.  It’s not.



Tomorrow is a lot of travel — to Portland and back (1.5 hours each way) to bring my mom and niece to the airport as their stay ends, and then a few hours later to Boston and back (3.5 hours each way) to get Natasha’s brother and his son, who are flying in from Russia.

This week we spent two glorious days on Mt. Desert Island, staying in Bar Harbor and doing a quick tour of Acadia National Park.  The highlight was the lobster “tour” cruise.   It was perfect for Ryan and Dana, as they could see lobster traps being hauled in, the lobsters (and crabs) that had been caught, and could hold lobsters, star fish, sea cucumbers and other ocean life.  Ryan even got to drive the boat for awhile.   We swam at Sand Beach, hiked down Cadillac Mountain (Ryan’s first “real” hike — even if it was all down hill!), had a picnic, collected sea shells, and stayed in a hotel.   When the others were shopping at gift shops (not a favorite activity of mine), the boys and I played at a playground near the Bar Harbor YMCA, meeting some interesting people, including a woman from Russia (now living in Kazahkstan) who is vacationing with her husband, mother in law and two children (ages 3 and 6 mo.)

Alas, nerd that I am, I was thinking constantly about my next research project, and about a grant application I’m working on with others.  At one point of time to reflect while overlooking typical Acadia beauty, I realized that my research project is coalescing around the question that has hounded me since I was a child: why is the world the way it is?   What is the good life — how should I live?   Why do I seem to have a natural faith in the world, that all is somehow as it must be, and in all it’s good?

That natural faith is not something everyone shares; indeed, many people mock it, or have a strong natural pessimism.   Yet it is a part of me — I’m not sure why.

In some ways, we are like the ancient Greeks.  Myths and tradition formed their identity, but soon they discovered rational thought, and freed their minds from simply following past behavior.  They were the first known humanists, questioning their mythology and developing what at first was a liberal/critical relativism — sophism.   The sophists argued that there is no knowable truth, only human interpretations and perspectives on truth.  This form of skeptical relativism is both liberating and debasing.   It breaks one out of the hold of past traditions and religious beliefs, but cultivates a sense that all that matters is the self, and ones’ own fortunes.  The Sophists moved from a kind of liberal open mindedness to a base drive for individual success and opportunism.   Greek society became corrupt, and ultimately fell.

Socrates attacked Sophism and its moral relativism, giving an interesting take on the skepticism that drove sophist relativism.  He was skeptical too, but also skeptical of skepticism.   He (mostly through Plato and his writings) professed pure ignorance, tore apart every convention, and like the sophists seemed to show that there is no knowable truth — except one.  Unlike the sophists, he embraced the truth of our ignorance.

The Sophists took skepticism to a kind of selfish pragmatism.  If truth can’t be known, then anything goes — there is nothing holding you back.  Do what you want, as you want — as long as you can get away with it (and the Sophists will show you how), then it doesn’t matter.  Socrates took it to a different place.  If this skepticism leads one to recognize that we are truly ignorant (true wisdom), then one doesn’t assume that since we can’t figure out the truth then there isn’t one.

Have we really progressed since then?  Isn’t modern enlightenment thought up through post-modernism simply a replay of the Greek enlightenment through Sophism?   Isn’t modern humanism falling to the same pitfalls into which Greek humanism, and later Roman humanism fell?   And isn’t Socrates’ answer still valid — we can either cling to a faith (religious or secular — secular faith is ideology), say that nothing matters and anything goes, or admit ignorance?

And if we take the path of admitting ignorance, doesn’t that open up the possibility of the spiritual, the intuitional/emotional, the empathetic, and the artistic?  Doesn’t that suggest, in fact, that the rational might need to be balanced by sentiment?   Doesn’t analysis need to be balanced by art?   Does not the scientist need the poet?

Yet how do we find this balance?  How has the lack of balance led to our wars and economic crises?  Can we go somewhere other than blind faith (whether to religion or ideology) or secular humanism (nothing matters and what if it did, as John Cougar Mellencamp asked)?

Obviously, that’s a big question — far too big for a political scientist at a small rural Maine college to tackle in a research project.  Yet it’s the question that’s driven me in my life, and I must pursue it.

And speaking of  “driven,” given the amount of driving I need to do tomorrow, I’d best end this post now.


Detainee Rights

An odd debate is taking place which I find hard to understand.  In America we believe all people are created equal and have rights.   We do not limit this belief to only Americans.  ALL humans should have these rights.  We only have the power to guarantee them to Americans, but in theory we believe and hope that other cultures and societies will come around to what most of us believe to be a universal truth: humans have dignity and should not have rights violated by the government, or by those stronger than themselves.

Yet when it comes to detainees, a lot of people seem to forget the idea that innocence is presumed, and guilt has to be proven before the state can use its power to punish people.   Apparently to some people if an accused is not American, and if the accusation is aiding terrorism, then it’s OK to simply presume guilt and lock them away forever, effectively destroying their lives.  Never mind that mistakes have been made in arrests already, or that many of these people were simply fighting to defend a government they believed in.  In the mind of some “Americans” it’s OK to deny these people rights.  They are different.

When we want to give them human rights, these folk cry out “you want to give terrorists rights!”  Not only do they presume guilt, but they create a category (‘terrorist’) where they put undesirables as a rationalization to deny them any sort of humanity.   Yeah, the human race has “been there, done that.”  Remember Nazi Germany and the Jews?   Are all these people terrorists?  Certainly not.   That definitely can’t be proven and almost certainly is not true.  But that’s OK.   Cover your eyes, give the government power, fear monger.

It’s a sad day when people sacrifice so much of their core beliefs out of fear.  And the irony is you have some claiming that health care reform or saving the car industry is “socialism” that “threatens America,” even as they throw our values down the stream because those “others” are “strange.”  It would be amusing, if it were not so pathetically sad.