As we gather students for our annual February disaster relief trip, some have been surprised that we are returning to New Orleans, struck by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But we should not be: even on our trip there in 2008, we knew that at the rate of work being done, New Orleans would need relief workers for 10 years.
Or perhaps not. In what I hope is a coincidence of mistiming, hundreds of residents still living in FEMA trailers have been slapped with eviction notices just before Christmas. If they do not evacuate the trailers by the end of March, they will face fines of up to $500/day. The reason stated for the eviction is the mayor's "blight eradication program." He is determined to target about 10,000 "broken-down properties." A chief administration officer of the city said that "People have to assume some responsibility" because they have not done enough.
Of course, most all of those targeted are low income, and critics warn that this latest move might become a "poor-person eradication program."
The blanket-policy Christmas Campaign will undoubtedly target residents like those we met in 2008. Residents of New Orleans have been bilked out of their flood insurance (or were unable to afford coverage, or were told that what they experienced was not truly a flood); businesses which folded left many unemployed; and some residents are too old or have such poor health that DIY work is all but impossible. Land speculators bought up property formerly owned by the displaced poor who were unable to lever legal objections. New buildings erected in neighborhoods are often priced far outside the budgets of former residents.
And even today the homeless population in NOLA is double what it was five years ago; 75% are estimated to be evicted victims of Katrina. And just a few days ago, eight of them died in a warehouse fire. After Katrina, HUD demolished thousands of affordable housing projects. Today, tens of thousands of homes are still vacant and tens of thousands are on a waiting list for housing. A recent report reveals that New Orleans has the highest number of abandoned buildings in the nation.
It's not that our relief trip to New Orleans is late in arriving, not at all. As we will be there in the middle of February, we will be working only six weeks before the mayor's deadline to help people return to their homes after five years. That our media does not continue to cover New Orleans is more than unfortunate; but Interact will go there because of what we told National Relief Network: "wherever the need is greatest."
Want to follow our trip? www.chisnell.com/interact/february
The last two months has been little but news-clogged media around the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We are immersed in apologies, ladled with blame, and are tuned in to 24/7 HD coverage of the leak 5000 feet below the surface (watched online by literally tens of thousands of people around the clock). CEOs are dismissed, politicians posture, and families lose their livelihoods. The environmental impact is overwhelming: coastal wetlands perhaps damaged beyond repair, the cost to sea life and waterfowl still inestimable, and even the clean-up chemicals used have questions about their long-term impact. Stocks fall, jobs are lost in moratoria, and idealists scream to "Boycott BP Oil!" Deception and subterfuge shift blame between BP, Transocean, and—should we be surprised?—Halliburton.
But it's all my fault.
I did it. End the Congressional inquiries; let Obama direct his "anger and frustration" to Waterford, Michigan. I confess I've been working on ruining the Gulf for several decades, and at last the inevitability of my plan has come to pass. And I offer my apologies to former BP CEO Tony Hayward who became our international scapegoat. Tony Hayward may have been at fault for misrepresenting the extent of the damage and a number of symbolic mistakes—his sailing trip, for instance, is the equivalent of the auto execs flying private planes to DC to ask for bail-outs. But he is not to blame for the (not accident but) disaster.
Hayward was not aboard the Deepwater Horizon when it exploded, and while the cause of the leak has yet to be finally determined, it's unlikely that he was aware of the circumstances that led to the explosion. Similarly, he and his cohort CEOs are likely not informed about the daily progress in sealing the Taylor Energy wells in the Gulf that have been leaking since Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Certainly no one is talking as fervidly about the Jebel al-Zayt spill which is impacting the Red Sea shoreline for just about two weeks as of this writing. I did that, too.
No one has come after me, yet, about the freighter Odyssey's spill off the coast of Nova Scotia which was about four times as great as the Exxon Valdez. And the Ixtoc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico only hit Mexican beaches in 1979-1980, but was fully ten times the size of Valdez. And the Gulf War oil spills of 1991 largely initiated on Saddam Hussein's orders were estimated at more than twenty times Valdez. Of course, I provoked him to do it, but to focus on these spills would only distract you from my responsibility for the dozens of others in my lifetime of complicity.
And nothing should ever excuse my dedication to the disaster which is Shell Oil in Nigeria. For the past 50 years, the disempowered Nigerians have dealt with spills, burn-offs, lost crops and drinking water, and ravaging health issues. Clean-up efforts are nothing like what we see in the Gulf today, but in 2009 alone, Shell admitted to 14,000 tons of crude spillage. Nigerian officials estimate over 7000 spills in Nigeria alone. It's true that many of these disasters are the works of Nigerian resistance movements, but I have encouraged them. And to tell you more about Nigeria would distract you from my responsibility for the dozens of other countries that extract oil under various free market banners to sustain my oil-rich lifestyle. Oil disasters are simply not uncommon.
I drive to work each day and fly to countries far from the United States. I take antihistamines when I have a cold and aspirin for a headache. I watch the Royal Oak Ravens helmets play football on artificial turf. I decorate with balloons and use ballpoint pens to write Post-It notes. I take photographs with cameras and pull plastic credit cards out of my wallet to buy gas. I use deodorants, toothpaste, and shampoos, and I wear glasses. I don't use cosmetics, but my father has a hearing aid and my mother has a pacemaker. I use cologne on occasion and keep rubbing alcohol in my medicine cabinet. I put my garbage in plastic bags, run my water through PVC pipes, and I wear shoes. My retirement investments include oil stocks.
The saddest part is that the only noun in the previous paragraph that does not explicitly employ oil is "water."
We can read this a number of ways. We can say, "Look at all the wonderful things that oil does for us that we take for granted!" Or we can ask how we've come to this place where we have so long taken for granted that which bears such costs. I am a US citizen who has access to an unprecedented level of information; I am literate; I live in a democracy where my dissent is not only tolerated but—at least in principle—encouraged. Truly, what excuse do I have for allowing myself to take anything for granted? Can I possibly try to argue that oil has never been all that relevant until this one spill?
The truth is, I've known. Unlike former-CEO Hayward, I've known all along. I've known it each day that I've lived a modern lifestyle which consumes such quantities of oil and in a country that gears so much of its politics toward securing more. Had Representative Waxman of Congress asked me, I would have nodded my head and said yes, I was completely sure that my casual use of oil would and had inevitably led to environmental and economic disaster. I even wrote about it in 2008.
What's more, I would tell Congress that this cataclysmic blow-out in the Gulf is not a tragedy. Tragedy occurs when its victims are ironically unaware of the misfortune before them. I am not Romeo or Caesar, Hamlet or Hercules. Perhaps I am Faust. Or perhaps we are Frankenstein:
Great God! If for one instant I had thought what might be the hellish intention of my fiendish adversary, I would rather have banished myself forever from my native country and wandered a friendless outcast over the earth than have consented to this miserable marriage. But, as if possessed of magic powers, the monster had blinded me to his real intentions; and when I thought that I had prepared only my own death, I hastened that of a far dearer victim.
We have been possessed, and we must bear the consequences of our choices. Or make new ones.
"I'm just doing my job," she said to me.
In frustration, I responded. "Then let me talk to someone who will do more than just her job."
Perhaps I was cruel, but it was clear that the customer service operator on the phone was not prepared to service my customer-self. Her utility company had mis-billed me—outrageously—causing my American Express card to flag the charge and cancel my card for reasons of security. While American Express immediately reinstituted a new account for me, this company was now claiming that since my card denied the charge, my utility would be cancelled. Not willing to change my method of payment, I told her that her company caused the problem by triple-charging me (a fact she admitted to) and that my new card would be available to charge again in a week's time. She was sorry, she said, but she would either have to enter my account as "delinquent" (which would affect my credit rating) or drop the service. She was simply (and I used this modifier deliberately) doing the job prescribed to her.
Funny how the real world merges with the academic at the most opportune moments….
I've been reading some Immanuel Kant for fun, recently.
Okay, I understand that reading about Kantian ethics is not everyone's idea of fun (especially in a culture which celebrates the anti-intellectualism of Dumb and Dumber, Jackass, Nicole Ritchie, and the Team Edward/Team Jacob debate), but perhaps that is exactly why I decided to blow the dust off that text which I simply could not bring myself to purge from my shelf last summer.
Kant celebrates humans for our uniqueness, however, and that's what has me thinking: our ability to reason. Unlike frogs and billiard balls, we think about means and ends, about steps to accomplish goals, about lives driven by purpose. (And yes, my LWW students, Kant anticipated Camus' later distinction between en soi and pour soi.)
A frog does not distinguish between right and wrong (except in Disney movies); a billiard ball cannot decide for itself in which pocket to fall. And, Kant, says, it is just this distinction which helps us understand by which principles to live. In other words, when we honor and respect each other as reasoning beings (Aristotle would call us "rational animals"), we are moral. Any other action which fails this categorical imperative is not moral. And true freedom, he says, is acting morally.
For Kant, then, our reason, freedom, purpose, and morality are all bound together in the nature of our humanity: we cannot abdicate one for another, and to give up (or fail to use) any is to reduce ourselves to the level of billiard balls and t-shirt logos.
This is no small order, I think. If I fail to reason and act freely according to my moral imperative, I give up what it means to be human. If I spend my time aligning myself with rules and procedures despite reason, what is my human purpose? This is not to say that I will never concur with rules and procedures, but that these are not directly relevant to the moral imperative to be human. For Kant, social obligations are not imperatives but only factors influencing my freedom to choose. For Kant, my motivation alone matters.
Take the woman on the phone: "I'm just doing my job." Such a statement is as much as saying, "I am disavowing my choice and giving up my humanity; I am no more than a machine." To use this line as a defense for behavior is simple . . . morally reprehensible.
Perhaps this is harsh. We muddle along and do the best we can. Decisions are hard, times are tough, and we cannot decide what to do next. But these factors, says Kant, are only distractions, outside influences which threaten to compromise the categorical imperative.
As a teacher, then, what is "just my job"? As an educator, what is my categorical imperative?
I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I have been coming to some conclusions. To do so, I've borrowed John Rawls, a 20th century philosopher. He said that in order to discover the categorical imperative, we must first imagine that our decisions—whatever they are about—should be made assuming that we eliminate all distinctions: race, class, religion, geography, etc.
Assume, for instance, that I wish to pass a health care bill for our country. Rawls would argue that, whatever bill is passed in the end, any of us would be happy to be any American in the country living with its consequences. I imagine myself suddenly as a pregnant teen, a homeless vet, Donald Trump, or a child in a family whose house in undergoing foreclosure. If I still see the bill as fair and just, we should pass the bill. This, he would argue, is how we honor and respect humanity and our own humanity.
And now I apply this to what I do as a teacher. What should be my task (not merely my job) and for whom?
The following is an excerpt from a speech I gave at the ROHS National Honor Society induction ceremony.
A hunter has been wandering through the woods, lost, thirsty, and desperate. Finally, we wanders into a small camp. "Thank goodness!" he cries, "I've been lost for three days!" The guy in the camp says, "Don't get too excited. I've been lost for three weeks."
I think we're all living under a few delusions. And because I was recently called to speak to you all, I thought it would be a good idea to shake us out of them a bit. Forgive me if I make you uncomfortable.
The first is the belief that somebody somewhere has the answers. As lost as we sometimes believe ourselves to be—how many appeal forms and hidden deadlines and senseless class assignments are we supposed to take, anyway?—we believe that somewhere, somehow, someone can tell us what's really going on.
It's not true. There are plenty of people who will give advice, but they are just as lost as you or me. I've met the Secretary-General of the UN, numerous ambassadors and senators, counselors and social workers, even the Dalai Lama. And, I have to admit, that last guy you have to figure has some answers, but they usually involve transcending the broken world, not offering explanations for it. In the meantime, the appeals forms and class exercises are replaced with bogus credit deals, lost jobs, and—oh yeah—more forms.
Nothing makes much sense anymore. Consider two cows standing in a field. One says to the other, "Say, what do you think about this mad cow disease they keep talking about?" The other says, "What do I care? I'm a helicopter!"
Nope, I'm sorry. I think I'm supposed to be here to inspire you. But all I can think to do is offer you another delusion that most people suffer from.
It's when I get a little older, I will figure out what makes sense for me.
Ah, but the world changes. One man's pet rock is another woman's Tamagotchi. Destiny Cyrus is really Miley Ray is really Hannah Montana is really a has-been by Friday. In second grade I wanted to be just like George the Janitor. By age 18 I planned to be a performance musician. For the last twenty years I've been looking for the Soviet Union and Velvet Peanut Butter, but they both vanished on me. I'm still not sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I know this: tomorrow it will be something different.
Reminds me of the snail that was mugged by two turtles. When the police asked him what happened, he said, "I dunno. It all happened so fast!"
So we're alone, often lost or confused, and we can expect no real answers from anyone. Cool. Just please don't tell me I'm on Big Brother 11 but without the cameras.
No, really. I'm okay with that. Nothing in the world is settled, nothing is set. And as the world changes, so does its needs.
Ms. Erwin suggested to me that I talk to you about service, one of the pillars of NHS, and I'm happy to do it because if I've discovered anything it's this.
As much as I want to have someone tell me what I should be doing, others around me feel the same thing. They're waiting for someone to find them, too.
Listen. Set all that stuff aside for a minute. I have some forms for you to fill out. I have a state diploma service requirement I need you to complete. I need Obama to promise you an education if only you first join a domestic peace corps. Look, if you give up your Saturday afternoon for a zoo project or contribute to the Penny Wars, I'll give you extra-credit. What's it going to get me? And if I do enough service, it'll look good on the college resume and scholarship application. So let's rack up some hours!
My students, what can I tell you about service that you don't already know?
And so here's the last of the delusions I want to talk about tonight: Service is about exchange; we should never do anything nice if we don't know what we'll get in return.
Armed robbers burst into a bank, line people up, and begin to take their wallets. Two friends are lined up waiting their turn to be robbed. Suddenly one thrusts something into the hand of the other. The guys says, "What is this?" and his friend tells him, "It's the fifty bucks I owe you."
Somehow, somewhere, are billions of humans waiting to be found by people just as lost as we are. Finding them, helping them, giving to them, doesn't make us wealthy, it doesn't earn credits, and it doesn't make us better. It just makes us human together.
This is why Mr. Greening put a motto on our school this year: "Enter here to learn, Go forth to serve." I don't think that learning has much to do with algebra problems and appeals forms, with hallway passes and MME tests. It's a centuries old wisdom that finds its way all the way back to the Dalai Lama.
When I was in Dharamsala where His Holiness now lives, which is more or less a refugee city of Tibetans who will never return to their homeland, I visited a school of orphans. These kids lost their parents to arrests, disease, or just the difficult trek across the foothills of the Himalayas to reach India. They are without money and with only the scarcest of support; I was broken-hearted when I met them. And I yelled aloud as we walked across the property (scaring a few people, I'm sure) and pointed to a building, there in the backwaters of India, in the orphanage of a refugee city, was this inscription on a classroom building….
They don't know their direction, they don't know who to count on, but they know what it is to be human. And perhaps there is no reward better.
The Swede Axel Munthe said, "What you keep to yourself, you lose; but what you give to others you keep forever." And, of course, Gandhi: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."
Alone and undirected, you and I, who are a bit better off than the orphans of Tibet, can do this much—no, must do this much--not because it's a requirement but because it is one of the only real things we have. It can be in Galveston or in random gardens, in Honduras or with the homeless; it can even be with that quiet guy across the hallway—you know the one, you see him every day, never talking to anyone. . . .
Find them. Keep walking until you do. Next month I'll be traveling to Nepal to teach some of the poorest children on the planet. Despite everything, they're learning English and they are desperately hungry to learn more. I will give you one offer right now, tonight. Write them a letter, tell them who you are, send a photo, tell them about the world you live in, because the more they know of it, the more they can demand it of their new democracy, the more they can speak it. Who knows? Perhaps they will write you back. Perhaps you will find a friend on the other side of the world starting tonight.
Find them. Keep walking until you do. Tomorrow you will walk once again into Royal Oak High School and see your friends, suck up to—I mean, say hello to your teachers, and mind your own business. Mind someone else's tomorrow. Be unsure, but reach across the aisle to talk to someone else anyway. After all, there is no extra-credit for this assignment; what better reason to do it?
Find them. Keep walking until you do.
Or, as Alice asked the Cheshire Cat…
'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
'I don't much care where----' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
'----so long as I get somewhere,' Alice added as an explanation.
'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk enough.'
I've been wondering what I would write of Galveston five months after Hurricane Ike. Even now, thousands are without homes, many still without water, and electricity is just now starting to be restored on Bolivar peninsula. And so we took 64 students to help: they cleared debris, assembled roofs, gutted homes and churches, restored furniture, organized water relief, built fences, cleaned cemeteries (even filling graves). . . . It was an amazing week of work.
But I admit I've been curious about the discussion afterwards. To be sure, many are rightly impressed by ROHS students: each raised $600 to work 50 sweaty hours, endure two 24+ hour bus rides, and share only 4 cold shower stalls through the week. Inevitably, though, the measuring begins. . .
A reporter from the Free Press calls and kindly explains that what we did isn't news anymore. After all, it has already happened, and the Freep needs to report on what's current. Is there any way, he asks, that we can put a spin on the story to make it more "present?" Otherwise, it just won't run as news.
A representative from a local organization calls wishing to honor the students but, she says, she wants only the students who do not earn NHS hours for their work. That way, she says, we can know that the selected students are really the ones with altruistic motives.
Someone complains to me this past week that these students got a warm "vacation" and now are being rewarded for it.
I remember telling our group early Thursday morning, "Take photos of everything. It's important because I know you will share them; and we have to share what's still going on down here."
Hurricane Ike already happened; so it's no longer news. The students have already made the trip; so it's no longer news. If the students receive any kind of credit, their motives are therefore suspect. Working in a natural disaster area is somehow a vacation.
And so we spin it. I fish for a Free Press angle: it's an illustrative option for the upcoming college spring break; the students are fulfilling President Obama's call for the national service the night before. In the end, we settle on an awards ceremony to cover. The students will be honored at a School Board meeting with the President's Volunteer Service Award. Photo opportunity.
I find the students who aren't in NHS; I nominate them for the local awards program. (And I invite the complainer to attend next year's "vacation.")
The honors for the students are secondary—I can compromise on these, celebrate them where we can and should (local newspapers, our superintendent's accolades, etc.), because any kind of award is a kind of news, a promotion of the extreme need which remains in Texas, dwelling in FEMA trailers, seeking bottles of clean water, avoiding toxins spilled across the mainland.
For me, our greatest success was spurring a KHOU (Houston) news story on our visit which may air on CNN. The story won't include Royal Oak students, but it will highlight the thousands of buildings needing demolition or restoration, the ongoing struggle of residents rebuilding their lives by hand because they have no other recourse. No one down there asked us if what we were doing was newsworthy, if the students would earn credit for their work. When you're cleaning the mold from a chest, evicting cockroaches from behind rotting shingles, securing the roof against the rain, or sweeping a gravestone clean, everyone knows it.
News stories apparently have about a 30-day life span, if Galveston is any measure. The country quickly turned its attention elsewhere. After all, that was about the time Madonna and Guy Ritchie announced their divorce.
Somewhere along the line, the story focus gets reversed. In order to make the Crystal Beach devastation news again, we must do something provocative to draw attention to it. Human misery is one thing, but enduring human misery is just boring. So we draw attention to the work of students who commit to service as a catalyst for the larger story.
Student work in a soup kitchen is a story, but we don't write about the homeless—we wouldn't dare mention that the average age of the homeless person in America is nine years old! Students raise money for UNICEF or Invisible Children, but we don't write about child soldiers or developing world health concerns.
The creation of news—present, local, human interest—is itself a questionable matter. If we are to write about the stories which affect the most people in the most significant way, the choices should be obvious. This week, anyway, not so much—and I accept the news coverage of our trip only because it seems the only road back to Texas need.
Finally, I must write a word or two about the commitment to service. No NHS signatures are worth the money these students raised to participate; no service credits or Presidential pins will stand against the experience of pulling rotten and soaking insulation down on your head. Somehow the debate on community service in high school has come down to whether or not it should be required for diplomas, as if threatening students into volunteerism will breed good citizenship.
Of course this is nonsense. The kind of commitment which drives 64 students to make this trip has nothing to do with threats or rewards, regardless of what they are ultimately offered for it. If there is a reason why we have not created a school where 1600 students make such a trip, it might be because we are not sincerely telling them the stories of need, but only the stories of service award.
Here is the need. Measure it how you will:
"I haven't received any call back from you."
I didn't know whose voice it was on my cell phone. All I knew was that she was an older woman staying in Florida and that she had called me at some point while I was teaching a Haruki Murakami novel today.
Murakami's works expose ruptures in our lives, divisions which we've covered over with routine, with technological distances, with denial. They are breaks we must first see in order to heal. For Murakami they may be the cultural repression of atrocities, the psychological alienation of mind from soul, the gulf between crime and consequence.
How much of who we are is created from our choices to act?
"I thought we had settled this several years ago."
But the pain in her voice, the pleading in the voicemail message which went on and on, made it clear that little had been settled. Whoever this woman was, she was a victim of the societal ennui, the empty functionaries, which permeate postmodern culture. I was appalled as I heard the words:
"Now you're telling me you're going to take my house?"
. . .
It's hard for any of us to understand the concept of nearly a trillion dollars of government spending, but harder even still for us to connect to the trillions more lost in banking failures, property loss, credit ruptures, the amputations of a worker from her job. We bury our anxieties in numbers and rhetoric, sitcoms and Slurpees, whatever we can do not to face it.
Whether from fate or coincidence, Murakami suggests that patterns emerge to help us reach satori. All we need to do is attune ourselves to them. This woman called me by a chance error in dialing, did not realize that I was not her bank. Why did she call me today?
Just the day before I had talked with a coordinator about arranging volunteerism in Peru. In two days seventy of us go to Galveston; Interact has helped two Bosnian women restore their own businesses; later they will raise funds for water filters in Asia.
"I can't believe you're doing this."
Do I help the starving child in Sao Paolo or the homeless man in Detroit? Do I support an auto worker by buying American or do I off-set my carbon emissions by investing in wind power? Do we help former homeowners devastated by Hurricane Ike or do we clean a playground in Hamtramck? As I suggested to a student this morning, must the question be an "Or"?
Why did she call me today?
The Acorn printed an article today about the new-old motto on Royal Oak High School's entrance: "Enter here to learn, go forth to serve." Some students suggested that the idea was meaningless, that it belonged to the defunct Dondero. And yesterday I used The Good Samaritan as an example of poetic parable.
"Why won't you call me back?"
What connections was I being asked to see? What were we denying or dismissing? What relationships were morally out of joint, what the Buddhist describes as dukkha? If I accept the premises of Murakami, I should open myself to seeing the larger pattern in these coincidences. If I accept the arguments of Asian philosophy, I should set myself toward restoring a balance.
How much of it all is my responsibility, anyway? The same system which created this woman's pain said I have no legal responsibility to help. The same system which places a lone human on a rainy sidewalk at night teaches me that it's safest to look straight ahead, not make eye contact, move past quickly—even though it turned out to be a student of mine.
"I need you to help me."
What was I supposed to see, to do? Were all these incidents in 48 hours merely chance?
Tonight I called her, and she turned out to be a retired teacher from southeast Michigan. I told her I was a teacher, too. I told her she had dialed the wrong number. And I wished her luck.
. . .
If it's make believe, what does it matter?
A recent study by psychologist Howard Gardner (he's the guy who came up with the multiple intelligences theory) reveals that students are rather hypocritical when it comes to their online ethics. Is this a surprise? Perhaps not, but why they are is perhaps more intriguing.
To start, it's probably best to summarize the results of the study, done at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and similar to studies done at MIT's Project New Media Literacies and the Pew Internet Project. It finds, predictably, that Americans aged 15-25 have a significant presence on the internet: 97% play computer, web, or video games; 55% have some kind of online profile (FaceBook, MySpace, etc.); and 64% have produced some kind of online content such as music remixes or blogs (that number is 100% for Chisnell's students).
More, 39% of online teens share their own artistic creations online (artwork, photos, stories), 33% work on websites or blogs for groups, 28% have their own blogs and web pages, and 26% remix content they find online to make their own projects. So far so good? So here is where the conflicts begin.
- Privacy. Photos of students drinking underage are taken by a cell phone, posted on the internet, and then end up in the hands of school administrators. The students are suspended from their school and sports teams. Of course it happens! Yet while most students claim their privacy is important to them, why do they put information online which is—to be inelegant, TMI? At least half the teens in the study keep their online profiles open to the public.
- Authorship. This comes from "cut and paste" of information online without giving credit and even just sharing their own work online. Many online complaints stem from teen work being used by strangers (few complaints of friends 'shopping their work); yet all but five students in the 300+ teen study admitted to downloading music illegally. The five who did not were connected to musicians or know people who have been caught for illegal downloads.
- Credibility. How or who do we trust online? Most teens show a distrust of strangers and content online, but 80% use Wikipedia as authoritative research, even as their teachers tell them not to.
- Identity. How do students present themselves on the web? Honestly? Most do, the study finds, or if they do not, the changes are low-risk or minor. Even so, most students did not feel any responsibility to represent themselves accurately to their online communities (though those who blogged regularly did think honest identities were important).
- Participation. Similarly, what responsibilities do we have to the online communities? One look at the comments anonymous users make to YouTube videos is enough to represent the answer. (Summary from Education Week, 19 November 2008, 1 )
I think we all (or most of us, anyway) know that FaceBook "friends" are not the same as real friends, that lying to a teacher is different from lying as a character in a video game. But as I've written often before, the line between the factual and fictional is always fuzzy. One of my own FaceBook friends is a former student who was honestly and genuinely offended that I had a profile; apparently, I had intruded on what he considered his personal (generational?) space, along with two million others my age (and whose numbers are growing at a 172% rate). I wonder why he made me a "friend," then?
But that's the way it works. What is seemingly safer because it distances us personally (the lie to the webpage is different from the lie to the face) is also seemingly safer because we do not see that lie returning to us. Whether it's downloads, distrust, or drinking, the "fictional" space of the web is a disconnect ethically. It's the same thing that happens when a student sees me at a store—and freaks out. (I try not to have my feelings hurt.)
There is no hypocrisy then, perhaps, but simply a disconnect, a lack of critical savvy or reflection on what we do. It doesn't really matter, right? In video games we can play the villain and be safely moral in real life, just as easily as we cheer the villains in literature or film. Just as easily.
Let me end, then, with a dilemma from the study. I invite your comments which issue your response and/or reasons why it's important or not! I'll follow up on this entry later!
Assume you have been playing a MRPG like World of Warcraft, a 3D world with tens of thousands of players. You recently joined a club within the game of other player-characters, a group which seems friendly enough, though you know none of them offline. They give you expert game advice, equipment, etc. Buying, selling, and trading equipment is an important part of the game, and there aren't many rules around it. Sometimes trades go bad. Your new club of characters brags often about going into the Newbie Village and taking advantage of new players by selling them worthless green rocks for very high prices. After finding some of these rocks one day in the game, the group invites you to come along with them to pass them off to the inexperienced players in Newbie Village. Would you go with them to sell the false gems? Would your answer change if you knew that character wealth in the game was also tied to player subscription rates?
“He’s an Arab,” she said of Obama. And poor Senator John McCain quickly took away the microphone, shaking his head.
Senator McCain then did exactly what he needed to do: he described Obama as a decent man with whom he had drastically different opinions. Sadder still, the Republican crowd booed his remarks.
In my last post, I wrote, that “this much seems certain: in language lies consequence, our wills, our selves.” By this I meant that when we are confronted with the responses to our words, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Some months ago, Obama promised a campaign free of negative campaigning. Too short-lived was this promise: just last week he presented a website and 13 minute video linking McCain to the infamous Charles Keating savings and loan scandal. His rhetoric is increasingly negative—that he keeps most of it off of his main website does not mitigate it.
When will Obama face the delusional voter on camera, also full of ignorance and hate?
Yes, yes, I know the story. Voters across the country decry the negative ads and call for issues. And I know that campaign strategists clearly see that polls and votes are swayed by mudslinging anyway. Voters say one thing but are moved by another. But I’m not talking about persuasion here; any rhetorician or ad writer can move crowds.
I guess I’m talking about conscience. Do we want our end results because we’ve won people with our sincere ideas or do we want it because we’ve deluded them, played to their ignorance, made them hate?
Whatever we believe of our next president, we must also believe that he (and his running mate) moved some votes by manipulation over idea, by compromising ethics in order to achieve power, by consciously working to polarize honest debate into something duplicitous.
I, for one, was glad to see McCain take away that microphone and—to me—he appeared honestly regretful. The political machine will do terrible things to honest men and women who seek office. In the end, after the election, those politicians must still face themselves as moral humans. They must exert their wills, write themselves.
No, I’m not naïve about how politicians work, about power and ambition. And I’m not so innocent as to believe that some politicians see their mirrored reflections each day without a moment of concern. But that is where this consequence is tragic, where it creates an ugly America.
Voters are moved this election season, and they can be motivated by ideas or they can be pushed to thoughtless words and ignorant action by prejudice and hate. Let both our candidates face what they’ve wrought.
I spent most of Saturday watching the Democratic National Committee Rules Committee debate the fate of Michigan and Florida’s democratic primary delegates. I know, I know—for many of us, watching my toenails grow may have been more entertaining.
Nevertheless, I am fascinated by election processes. I’m proud of the RO Model UN program which boasts a belief in honesty and transparency in governance. Not surprisingly, I share those ideals. So, for those of you who find it all confusing, here are some salient points from the process (clearly edited in detail!) and my take on the issue.
- Spring 2007: The long debate with the Democrat continues and intensifies: Why should Iowa and New Hampshire always have the first primaries? Why should they always claim the national attention and set the course for the remainder of the primary season? Wouldn’t it be more fair to let other states have a chance? Perhaps rotate the primaries? However, in Michigan, since we are now about to begin a primary election season, members of the Michigan Democrats propose we move our primary earlier in the calendar to “force” the DNC (National committee) to reform.
- May 2007: The DNC warns Michigan and Florida clearly: If you change the dates on your own, attempting to usurp the national rules, your delegates will not count at the National Convention. Again, the rules are the rules. If Michigan and Florida break the rules, their votes will be forfeit. Michigan holds off changing its primary date until it sees what happens to Florida. On May 21, Florida moves its primary to January
- August 25, 2007: The DNC strips Florida of its delegates, exactly as promised. It gives Florida 30 days to change its mind and move back to the date established by the rules.
- August 30, 2007: Michigan’s congress, at the behest of its Democrats, send a bill to Governor Granholm to move its date to January 15.
- September 1, 2007: Clinton, Obama, and Edwards sign a pledge to skip states which break the DNC rules.
- September 4, 2007: Granholm signs the bill, officially moving the date to Jan. 15.
- Dec. 1, 2007: The DNC strips Michigan of its delegates, exactly as promised.
- January 2008: Michigan and Florida hold their illegal primaries. Clinton wins both, but in Michigan, there are numerous votes for “Uncommitted” and illegal “write-in” ballots.
- April 4, 2008: Michigan concludes that it is unable to run a new primary, both for financial and logistical reasons.
- May 27, 2008: DNC lawyers say the DNC Rules Committee has the authority to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida, but not without penalty.
This weekend, the DNC Rules Committee split the votes of Michigan and Florida in various fractions to allow them to sit at the National Convention with ½ vote each. Clinton supporters are upset that Clinton was not offered more delegates than were awarded her.
I won’t debate the fractions here, though trying to guess what Michigan’s “Uncommitted” votes were (let alone what might have happened if all Michigan’s Democrats had voted in a legal primary rather than an illegal one or if they had voted Democrat instead of Republican since Michigan’s primaries are open) is hardly an enviable position. I spent my Saturday morning listening to the speeches. And then DNC Rules Committee member Donna Brazille told former Michigan Governor Jim Blanchard: “You have to play by the rules.”
I’m afraid it’s as simple as that. Rules can be biased, processes unfair. But the time to correct these are between moments of crisis, not after candidates discover that the rules aren’t working to their own benefit. The rules were simple: hold an illegal primary and you lose the delegates. Michigan held an illegal primary. The role of the DNC Rules Committee is to interpret these rules and enforce them.
CNN roles tape of crying Democrats who claim that democracy is ruined. Nonsense. As a voter (who voted “Uncommitted” on January 15) I walked into the booth knowing that I was likely voting in complete futility. Other voters may not have realized this. But ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating it (so say our courts over and over). Do I blame the DNC for making my vote worthless? Not a bit. They stated their position—and, by the way, they’re in charge.
Blame the rule-breakers. Blame those who knew fully what would happen, who in late August and early September watched the DNC strip Florida of its delegates and who rolled the dice anyway, despite what I might have wanted. Were Michigan voters asked about their preference for primaries? The fact is, some Michigan Democratic leaders gambled with my vote and lost.
The DNC may have a flawed system for primaries (and I wouldn’t argue its fairness), but it’s right to defend that system now.
But isn’t democracy at stake? Shouldn’t all votes be counted, as Clinton supporters ask? Surely. But at this moment in the party’s crisis, counting those votes fairly is an impossibility. There was no solution for the DNC Rules Committee that could be entirely fair and accurate. The only solution which could be supported by a fair and open process is to do exactly what the DNC said would happen all along: discount the votes in an illegal election.
Election reform is a necessity (and not just in the DNC). Democracy is as much about honesty and transparency (which are enforcement mechanisms for legitimacy and fairness) as it is about votes. Don’t forget, Saddam Hussein always won his elections in landslide victories to record voter turnout. Voting alone is not democracy.
I am not losing sleep over my semi-lost vote on January 15, and I am not overly concerned about the end of democracy in the United States—that is, if we place responsibility for the Democratic mess in Michigan soundly where it belongs, upon the elected leaders who gambled with our votes for political points.
Want to know who the primary players are? Here is the short list with links on how to contact them. Holding leaders accountable is critical to democracy, too.
The Westboro Baptist Church protests are the kind of example which is a real test of our tolerance for free speech. The church, supported by the ACLU, is appealing a US District Court decision that compels it to pay $11 million for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress. What did the church do?
It staged a protest at the funeral of a US soldier killed in Iraq, claiming that he died as part of God’s punishment for US tolerance of homosexuality. Among the signs and shouts of “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” at least one child stood on the US flag (Ross 10A).
The First Amendment of the Constitution, what the church says protects it right to protest, reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Various news stories argue the legality of the church’s position, then. Do the protests constitute the “free exercise” of religion? Is the freedom of speech beyond compromise? Is hate speech “peaceable”? Is the protest at a soldier’s funeral a government petition?
These are good questions to ask, of course. They center around the strictness of Constitutional interpretation. A strict constructionist would argue that we must follow the letter of the Constitution absolutely, as written, as the Founders intended. A liberal or contextual constructionist might argue that the Constitution must be followed in spirit, adapting itself to changing times.
Safely, predictably, the news media argue about the legal positions of the two sides. Just give us the rules to follow (or explain how to interpret them), they say, and we will follow them. The ACLU lawyers follow the same reasoning, one actually claiming that though he finds the church’s position “reprehensible,” it is protected by the Constitution. Therefore he supports the church’s argument and expects to win.
But isn’t the story in the ACLU’s position? Somehow, oddly, we get caught up in the laws/rules and we set aside the question of morality, of principle, of humanity. For myself, even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Westboro church, it is wrong to disturb the funeral.
Two pieces of common sense come in conflict. The first is the danger of anyone’s moral judgments taking precedence over legal; the second is that just because we have the right to do something does not mean we should. Both positions carry consequences. If we allow moral relativism to “rule,” we risk the chaos of extremists and other weirdos claiming legitimacy for their behavior. But if we allow the “law” to govern without morality or conscience, we still risk the absurdities and chaos but cash in our humanity.
What concerns me most is that the ACLU lawyer—like the inventors of the atomic bomb who had family, like the white collar criminals who bilk the working class out of billions each year in “legal” (or at least unprosecuted) transactions—has set aside his moral self, his conscience, his reason in order to make a rhetorical case.
Socrates warned us about the rhetoricians. We must seek neither relativism nor law for its own sake, but Truth. Rhetoricians, he argued, seek only to persuade the ignorant for their own selfish ends. We can be impressed with the fireworks of their legal arguments, but in the end we are duped because we ourselves are told what to think.
For the past many years, the State of Michigan has advertised its law to wear seatbelts: “It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.” The rhetoric is fascinating: Never mind, it says, that we might or might not decide what is best for us; follow the law regardless of what we think. I would, of course, reverse it: “It’s not just the law, it’s a darned good idea!”
As frustrating as it is, legal extremism and moral relativism can only be resolved through dialogue, not posturing in courtrooms or funerals. “Our message has exploded all over the world,” the church spokesperson declared. “They don’t deserve the protection of freedom of speech, freedom of religion,” a prosecutor retorts (Ross).
When do we begin a dialogue of conscience, where will it happen, and who will participate?
Ross, Timberly. “Is Church’s Hate-filled Message Free Speech?” Detroit Free Press,
4 Nov. 2007, 10A.