Change Can Be Painful

I have been mulling over the concerning level of distress that now seems to infect so many of our personal and national conversations. Donald Trump is, to be certain, at the root of some of this because he refuses—or is simply unable—to finesse much of anything. President Trump finds the rawest possible nerve to rub at the most inopportune possible time—and keeps right on rubbing it no matter how loud the howls. I will agree with those who argue that he is an irritant; this is not much of a mystery.

It is, however, just as true that a great many problems we have tried desperately to ignore for decades are now impossible to avoid—and Donald Trump is many times simply the blunt instrument for our reckoning with unpleasant realities.

We are enslaved by public and private debt, the cost of medical care is outrageous, our public schools are failing many children, higher education is amazingly costly and often captive to ideological battles, homelessness and hunger haunt many, families and communities are fragmented, and there is a fairly pervasive sense that our governmental structures have devolved into self-serving parasites that pay little attention to the needs of those whom they claim to serve. All of this frustration and rage erupted last November, and our nation opted for chemotherapy over continued palliative care—hence at least some of the pain we are today experiencing. Aggressive treatment of our maladies is a shock to a system long accustomed to soothing platitudes and bland reassurance.

Now we have steep tax cuts and pointed discussions about reducing our expansive—and expensive—government structures. Tough questions are being asked about how to remake our healthcare and health insurance systems to reduce cost. Charter schools and school choice plans are corroding the public education monopoly. Higher education is suddenly having to justify both its mission and its stupendous cost. Public aid programs of all types are asking for much more responsibility from recipients. Zoning and tax policies that artificially inflate housing costs are under attack. People are pushing back against experts and policy makers who promote punitive and half-baked ideas regarding what is best for us.

As for government and government officials, they are disliked, distrusted, and disrespected by the vast majority of Americans—many of whom are now approaching a state approximating open rebellion. This is not surprising because our long national experiment with expanding government to provide endless freebies fueled by reckless borrowing has now crashed into the inevitable arithmetic of profligacy—eventually you run out of money. Avoiding real-life financial decisions by charging the spiraling costs of government programs rife with waste and inefficiency to future generations of taxpayers—who are now stuck with the tab—was loads of fun for elected officials who could keep handing out goodies without the political inconvenience of raising taxes to pay for them, but the incredibly large check for that stupendous party has now been dropped in our laps. Tough and divisive discussions are certainly ahead.

There is, in addition, a certain degree of anger generated by the very act of finally facing up to our problems. I find a good many of our recent hot-button debates concerning education, immigration, economic policy, and national defense seem animated by intense frustration over being forced to make hard decisions rather than being allowed to obliviously cling to questionable narratives and notions—heedless of cost or consequence.

After decade upon decade of waiting for improvements in hidebound public schools, parents are now demanding alternatives for their children. After abdicating control of our borders and endlessly extending the stays of those offered “temporary” refuge in America, enacting reasonable and long overdue immigration policy changes is a shock for a great many. Shrinking government and unshackling businesses from inane regulations seems very frightening to those who have grown comfortable with stultifying statist ideologies. Pushing back against terrorist groups and rogue states has terrified those who have forever counseled appeasement. At every turn, definitive and firm action has raised the hackles of those invested in bureaucratic inertia and willful ignorance.

It is clearly painful for some to have to abandon the familiar failures and pursue a new path. However, watching new charter schools succeed where others had failed, immigration laws and procedures being thoroughly debated and—President Trump’s alleged comments about “sh*thole countries” notwithstanding—vastly improved, business activity rising and unemployment shrinking while the stock market booms, and ISIS crushed at the same time North Korea is finally being forced to the bargaining table, it is increasingly difficult not to recognize that the time for a clean break with the failed ideologies of the past is right now. Bewailing successes that conflict with stale orthodoxy seems sillier by the day, and if we can stop imagining crises and instead work cooperatively to implement yet more fresh creative thinking regarding the issues facing our nation, we can likely achieve wonders.

Abandoning shibboleths is scary, adopting unfamiliar ideas is stressful, and accepting the necessity for change is upsetting. Nonetheless, we need to step out of our comfort zones and recognize that which is familiar may not be either helpful or good, and all the protests and complaints will not diminish the need for a thorough re-evaluation of ideas and philosophies that many have held dear for a very long time. We might not always be pleased—or even comfortable—with the decisions that are made as a result, but many times we—as a nation—will be better off.

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Tinkerbell Explains It All

I have a vague memory of being taken to a performance of Peter Pan when I was a child. Like almost everyone of a certain age, what sticks out the most is the scene where Tinkerbell is apparently dying, and we were exhorted to clap our hands to a near-insane pitch of enthusiasm until, accompanied by our childish squeals of delight, “Tink” revived—thanks to the sheer power of our collective belief.

The “Tinkerbell Effect” refers to the peculiar phenomenon of something seeming to exist only because we desperately wish to believe it is so—and I wonder whether this explains much about the country we live in today. We have chosen to believe in a host of lies and half-truths peddled by our financial, political, educational, and cultural elites—no matter how illogical and inexplicable they might be—and these falsehoods have survived because of our refusals to acknowledge any evidence they might not be true.

Therefore, we ignore increasingly urgent warnings regarding the dangers of our inflated stock markets and housing prices, educationally-deficient schools and colleges, overextended military, and staggering public debts. If we just clap our hands hard enough, we will be safe from any consequences of our greed, stupidity, hubris, and profligacy. Concerns that any—or all—of these problems are imperiling our nation’s future are regularly debunked by elected leaders and well-paid experts who soothingly assure us that all is well.

And we clap our hands like trained seals, content to believe the unbelievable. Stock market and housing bubbles are just fine. Diplomas based on content-free coursework guarantee our children are academically prepared to pursue their dreams. Endless wars have no effect on our military readiness. Functionally bankrupt governments will still be able to take care of our many needs and wants.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap

It is, of course, basic human nature to ignore bad news and actively distract ourselves with the trivial and sensational, so it makes perfect sense that vote-seeking politicians and smiling lobbyists can easily convince us the party will never end. Nonetheless, we need to peek up from our digital devices in order to discern the difference between what is truth and what is deception.

We will, unfortunately, need to find a way to solve our problems despite our empty pockets—and the refusal of so many to accept this fact. It is now (nearly) impossible to ignore our dire public sector fiscal problems, which have been compounded by several decades of resolutely refusing to live within our means. The expansive promises of politicians who claim to be able to protect us from all harm through the magic of ever-expanding government programs has become a self-destructive exercise in spending that has been sustained only by increasingly suspect guarantees security is just one more big tax increase away.

However, if you find any of these observations disturbing, upsetting, insulting, or contrary to your most cherished beliefs, that’s your prerogative. If you keep clapping, I’m certain everything will turn out just fine—somehow.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.

Let’s Talk About Sexual Harassment

 

The list of powerful and prominent men who are leering, suggesting, groping, fondling, and forcing expands every day. This has resulted in a necessary national conversation regarding behavior that ranges from the boorish to the criminal, and many Americans will recognize that this is both helpful and instructive.

However, now that we find ourselves at this cultural and social crossroads, one that perhaps has some chance of changing both our private conduct and public institutions, it is probably worth asking a single, pertinent question regarding our fifty year forced march toward ever greater freedom to act upon our every impulse: Have we been helped or harmed by the sexual revolution and those who have encouraged its progress throughout our cultural and educational worlds?

Sex has, of course, always preoccupied the human mind; few of us would be here today were this not the case. However, we have experienced a profound and fundamental break with our past because the primal urges that animate our lives have been, thanks to the signal technological improvements of the past century—photography, film, video, and the internet—commodified and monetized to a degree almost beyond comprehension.

What was once private is now very public, what was once pornography is now mainstream entertainment, what was once perverse is now commonplace, and what was once healthy restraint is now unhealthy inhibition.

The coarsening of our culture is a documentable fact, and the outright salaciousness of much of our mass entertainment is undeniable. Perhaps this is simply due to the fact that basic cable now needs to compete with 24/7 streaming pornography for eyeballs, but the graphic—and many times violent or sadistic—nature of the sexual content in shows that purport to be mainstream fare is both startling and disturbing. It is impossible to ignore both the corrosive influence this type of material has on our psyches and the frightening normalization of behavior that is worthy of nothing but our condemnation, not because I dislike sex but because I condemn connecting its beauty with the brutishness, heartlessness, and callousness that has infected so many facets of our mass entertainment and culture.

Of course, any suggestion that restraint and subtlety might be worthy of our consideration is met with howls of “censorship” or “Puritanism” from those who are profiting from producing explicit material to satisfy our natural prurient interests, and sadly it seems the actors involved are willing (if only because they need a job) to tolerate the filming or photographing of their breasts, buttocks, and whatever else is there to share. Some are, of course men, but the bodies most commonly put on public display are female—often in the most gratuitous manner possible. Perhaps the intentions are pure and movies today are trying to teach women helpful life skills—investigate every strange noise downstairs at night while wearing as little as possible and always leave the curtain partially open when you shower—but I somehow doubt this is the case.

Our attitude toward the transformation of our mass entertainment into soft-core porn is a bit of a puzzle. We celebrate the “strength” and “bravery” of the public displays by well-paid entertainers, but we would condemn the same titillation were it provided for free as being nothing but base exploitation of a person’s body. Perhaps it all boils down to the paycheck: That which is sexually explicit in word or deed, regardless of content or intent, simply cannot any longer be considered indecent in America today if the pay is good. This is a particular trap young females in the entertainment industry. Men, it seems, can still choose to keep their shirts on, but for women this possibility many times does not seem to exist unless they are already old enough to play the District Attorney.

Therefore, if only because we and the entertainers somehow need to justify their exploitation, we now celebrate the commercial display of the female form as “empowerment” as long as the women involved are well-compensated for their exertions, and those who can figure out a way to turn sex into major cash can—as long as the pay is high enough—enjoy some degree of respectability. Depending upon your viewpoint, we today live in either a wonderful nation that judges none and welcomes all or a dystopian and immoral country that worships money instead of elevating humanity.

Looking around at the epidemic of sexual battery and assault that now seems to be baked into every strata of our nation, one has to wonder whether this coldly capitalistic attitude toward a fundamental component of our personhood helps or harms both individuals and our society. Some would argue that the frequency and severity of sexual assault is the same as it always was—we are just more aware of the problem—but I find this explanation unpersuasive and exculpatory.

Any society where entertainers are celebrated for attempting to “break” the Internet by posting nude photos of themselves, female college students go online to seek out “sugar daddies”, and young women auction their virginity to the highest bidder through a website has clearly lost sight of any reasonable boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It should not be a surprise that abusive sexual behavior (typically, but not exclusively, by men) has become much more common at the same time any sense of personal responsibility or propriety has apparently flown out the window for many—but thankfully not all.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near to making the cultural changes that are needed to promote more respectful attitudes and behavior; there is simply too much money to be made by the shameless entrepreneurs among us—mostly thanks to our nation’s dysfunctional status quo that continually confuses freedom with abuse. Moreover, given that our educational and social science establishments have thoroughly embraced the idea that sexual liberality in attitude and behavior will inevitably lead to personal growth and societal benefits, we are now encouraged to accept that which only a couple of generations ago was unacceptable.

Hence, our nation’s colleges provide helpful workshops on anal sex and BDSM lifestyles in order to promote more “sex-positive” beliefs—which seems a huge difference from only a couple of decades ago. Some of these activities certainly have a legitimate public health function, but there in a fine line between informing and proselytizing, and it seems to me that many involved in these efforts simply do not understand the difference.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of this to change. Encouraging restraint is nowhere near as popular or profitable as promoting licentiousness, and a “party all the time” post-secondary norm keeps the seats filled—regardless of how outrageously high the tuition bill might be—while permitting many educators to preach the “transgressive” values that allow them to believe they are freedom fighters instead of enablers.

No one should be surprised if the trade-off for these no-strings-nor-consequences-attached cultural norms is a toxic environment that encourages the worst sort of personal behavior. These are simply two sides of the same coin, and we are now paying the inevitable price for allowing this nonsense to become our ugly daily reality. Unless we are willing to leverage this unique cultural and political moment into a broader discussion of our broken and misguided personal and societal values, we will see no end to the epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse in our nation.

We have lots and lots of laws; we now need a counter-revolution of respect for ourselves and others.

 

Fragile Youth?

Cause flaming youth will set the world on fire
Flaming youth will set the world on fire
Flaming youth, our flag is flying higher and higher and higher
Kiss, Flaming Youth (1976)

If one is to judge from recent studies and data, our adolescents and young adults are far less fiery than they once were. In fact, those who track such trends argue that young men and women are far more depressed, anxious, and troubled than at any time in our history.

One aspect of this question that needs to be first considered is that we live in the age of Big Data, and there has never been a time in human history that had the tools we now possess to chart and graph every fluctuation in our individual and collective moods. Americans were not tweeting at Gettysburg, and nobody was using Snapchat to document their daily activities during the Great Depression.

Our incredibly outer-directed existences are a marked contrast to our more circumspect ancestors, and any comparisons between our very demonstrative present and a past where it was considered peculiar to share every detail of your life with total strangers inevitably crashes into both epistemological and methodological difficulties that are inherently unresolvable, so our collective happiness or unhappiness relative to the pre-Internet world of only a few decades ago is basically unknowable.

There are, however, those who argue that we live in times so tumultuous that it is driving our youth and young adults to the brink of madness, and this is the reason that so many young people need medication, therapy, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and soothing affirmations to struggle through to the end of each day—which tends to do nothing but make their elders shake their heads. Folding up into a quivering, sobbing heap because of the results of an election makes no sense to your grandfather, who at your same age was leaning out the door of a helicopter gunship near Da Nang and hoping not to have his head blown off before his boots hit the ground.

It could, in fact, be persuasively argued that a great many of those who have come of age in America over the past several decades have been more cushioned from harm than could ever have been imagined by any previous generation—which hasn’t been altogether good. Perhaps all the soft padding underneath the monkey bars and participation trophies have done nothing but create young adults who are simply unfamiliar with the bumps and bruises that are an inevitable by-product of life. A familiarity with failure helps prepare young people for the rigors of life outside of the nest, and parents who insist on plowing every possible obstacle from their children’s paths during their formative years should probably be less astonished if their precious offspring crash and burn when they attempt “adulting”.

In addition, we likely need to wrench the cell phones out of our children’s hands because their voracious consumption of social media has turned them into a bunch of lab rats frantically pushing the lever to obtain a food pellet. Tying your self-worth to how many “friends” you have or how often your posts are “liked” by total strangers has produced a lot of unnecessary angst for a lot of young people who fail to recognize that a life lived online is no life at all. There is much to be said for a life less-connected, and transforming the normal insecurities of adolescence into a 24/7 addiction to the approval of others via an iPhone is a prescription for nothing other than misery for millions of teens. If one were to set out today to design a system as insidiously damaging as possible to the emotional health of our young, I will wager no one could come up with anything worse than Facebook is right now.

However, we cannot blame all of our children’s problems on over-protective parenting and Mark Zuckerberg. It is a tough world out there, and misguided social experiments and government policies have quite often backfired and made it even tougher for many. Having watched a great many adolescents and young adults parade through my classroom over the years, I can readily assert that divorce is a disaster for many, the ever-escalating costs of living put incredible pressure on individuals and families, and the pathological financial irresponsibility of our leaders has had—and will continue to have—real and lasting consequences for everyone. Thankfully, I still see many young men and women who have their heads screwed on just fine, and this helps me to take all the clucking about “kids these days” with the healthy dose of skepticism it truly deserves.

This does not, however, mean that we do not have real problems that are causing real pain to our young. We are, sadly, well-past the point of easy fixes, but perhaps we can yet be convinced to roll up our sleeves, work cooperatively, and reclaim our lives and our nation for the simple reason that we honestly have no other choice. We owe it to ourselves, but we really owe it to our children most of all. We need to do what we can to hand them a country a little less screwed up than it is right now, and we must not allow their flaming youth to simply go up in flames. They deserve at least that much from their supposedly-wise elders.

The Problems Posed By To Kill A Mockingbird

Recent media reports regarding efforts by a school district in Biloxi, Mississippi to drop To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculum have generated understandable concern. As schools continue to grapple with both disorienting societal changes and increasing political polarization, we are inevitably going to see more challenges to specific classroom content and practices, which should concern any professional educator. Anger rarely results in good policy decisions.

Our societal discord certainly connects to broader questions regarding what we expect of our K-12 schools. That fine line between education and indoctrination will be ever more difficult to discern as educators struggle to find ways to challenge students to think without falling into the trap of preaching to them. However, given the well-documented deficiencies in critical thinking skills that colleges and employers must grapple with today, it is more important than ever to encourage our K-12 schools to shake students from their easy assumptions and comfortable mental inertia. The question is, of course, how best to do this.

I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird to high school students in the past, and they were often shocked to read about the routine degradations inherent in the entrenched racial discrimination of our nation’s history. If nothing else, the novel served as a lesson that allowed us to ladder into discussions about what has—and still has not—changed in America today. It has been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach this particular novel, but I suspect that my classroom lessons and activities regarding To Kill A Mockingbird would need to be very different now because I would be compelled to address uncomfortable changes in our perceptions of the characters and their motivations.

The cartoonish delineation between the heroes and villains in To Kill A Mockingbird has always posed pedagogical problems, although it eases reading comprehension for an audience often composed of 8th or 9th graders. On the one side we have the Ewell family, who are a caricature of what we expect—and perhaps prefer—our racists to be, an ignorant and violent clan devoid of even an iota of decency or honesty. Facing off against them, we have Atticus Finch, a caring and compassionate lawyer and tragic widower raising two intelligent and inquisitive children who are miraculously free of the least taint of racism. Caught in the middle we have Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by the evil Ewells, and the very personification of stoic dignity in the face of injustice. There are no shades of gray among these main characters; there are only, if I may be forgiven this analogy, broad strokes of black and white.

To Kill A Mockingbird, were it to be published today, would likely face a somewhat more mixed critical reception. Aunt Alexandra’s desperate efforts to put a gloss of girlishness on the tomboyish Scout would likely be more harshly judged by contemporary feminist critics. Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s sexual relationships with African-American women would raise questions regarding power differentials and consent. Boo Radley’s peculiar interest in his prepubescent neighbors, which obviously includes covertly observing them and following them outside the house at night, might not be so wondrously free of any question of pedophilia—or at least “stranger danger”—in today’s less innocent world. It may well be that the year of the novel’s publication back in the mists of 1960 was the very last moment in our cultural and social history when the questions and answers seemed quite obvious and easy, so complexity and nuance could be blithely set aside in the pursuit of an uplifting fable.

I’ve always been a bit leery of joining in the chorus of hosannas regarding To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps this is because I have always found Atticus Finch a bit less than admirable—which I realize is near to sacrilege to some. Although he has the best possible intentions in the worst possible situation, Atticus Finch and his legal machinations, in a final and flinty-eyed analysis of outcomes, actually come to nothing. Tom Robinson is dead, no minds are changed, and the Jim Crow system that informs the actions of the town and its people is wholly unaffected.

Atticus Finch’s attitudes and actions are in many respects a foreshadowing of the well-meaning (but ultimately ineffectual) white liberals in the 1960’s whose best intentions would be overrun by the flame and fury that finally destroyed Jim Crow segregation and its many local permutations. Although the novel suggests that readers should derive some cosmic satisfaction from the death of the thoroughly despicable Bob Ewell, which also allowed Boo Radley to finally reveal his essential human decency (although it might be reasonably observed that manslaughter is a mighty odd plot device to get there), it would be impossible to argue the trial of Tom Robinson produced any significant changes in the town or its people.

Of course, all of this speaks to the many moral compromises that inform the book. The worst of the town of Maycomb and its racist attitudes is on display, but the best of the many small but significant accommodations the decent need to make each day to survive in an indecent world also bear our examination. It could be argued, if one really was looking for hope for a better future, that the most moral course of action Atticus Finch could have pursued would have been to refuse to represent Tom Robinson, thereby removing the thin veneer of respectability that placates those whose mute compliance is needed. Imagine how different the novel would have been if Judge Taylor had not been able to use Atticus’ stirring but pointless speech to soothe the consciences of those who knew just how profound an injustice was being done. Moral but meaningless victories serve the needs of tyrannies that need to smooth over the rawness of oppression, and we should not fail to recognize that Atticus’ carefully restrained outrage sounded lovely but changed nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, beside the point of why the novel is now often banned. The norms that now rule in many communities judge the politically incorrect—but historically accurate—usage of the “N-Word” as both insult and casual descriptor to be too much to bear in our sensitive school and social climates. This is understandable, but it also opens up opportunities for classroom discussion of the novel and its context. If we are going to crusade to excise every questionable bit of U.S. history from our schools instead of engaging in the conversation, research, and exploration of our past that is a core mission of education, we condemn our children to facile sloganeering instead of intelligent and well-rounded inquiry that will prepare them for a future where the answers will be neither obvious nor easy.

Perhaps the key to continuing to use To Kill A Mockingbird in our nation’s classroom is to gently remove it from its pedestal and recognize its limitations—just as acknowledging our own human limitations is the precursor to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel, and the tiresome insistence on canonizing it impedes an honest engagement with what can be learned from a thoughtful and critical reading. Just as a person can be wonderful but flawed, so can a book fall into that same category. If we can accept this, perhaps we can finally move forward instead of squabbling without end, which ultimately does nothing to improve the education of our children.