The Whole Truth

Two stories caught my attention over the last week. On Sunday, 60 Minutes ran a Bill Whitaker piece on the dangers of reporting facts in the Philippines since Rodrigo Duterte became president. Maria Ressa, who runs a news site call Rappler, has been harassed by police and by Duterte supporters alike–not for running opinion pieces that disagree with his policies, but for reporting facts about the human costs of Duterte’s war on drugs. Her reporters have been threatened with murder and rape. Duterte has been so irked by Rappler coverage that he has created a ministry that reports only government-approved “news” on social media, decrying everything else as “fake.”

Sound familiar? How sad that we live in a world where any reportage of facts that cut against a preferred narrative results in the rejection of the facts–and the media outlet reporting them–rather than the preferred narrative.

Closer to home, the week before that, the Northwestern Daily, the student newspaper of Northwestern University, apologized for coverage of students who protested the appearance of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had been invited to speak by Northwestern’s College Republicans. A photographer took a picture of a student protester who later tweeted that she didn’t want to have her picture on the site. She found Sessions’ political beliefs and campus speaking engagement genuinely jarring, and accused the newspaper of capitalizing on the “trauma porn” of students who felt like she did. The paper took down the photo and apologized for running it, a decision widely mocked in the world of journalism.

As a recovering journalist, I often thank my lucky stars that my career path eventually led to teaching. I cannot imagine a field more beset by financial worry and political angst than journalism. What’s happening in the Philippines gives us a cautionary tale about autocrats who seek to suppress the freedom of the press. The Daily’s issues illustrate the importance of teaching journalists to report facts even when they’re uncomfortable–even when peers may face discipline for breaking campus regulations regarding protests.

Posted in Education, Politics | 2 Comments

A Problem with Privilege

Attorneys regularly counsel against asking witnesses questions on the stand when they don’t know how they’ll answer. Thank goodness I’ve never had to run a classroom that way.

When I asked my 9:00 UE I section if they perceived any breaches in the logic or ethics of Thoreau’s argument in Walden–that he went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately–the answer I had in mind was that his approach could seem selfish. What I got from one brave student was quite unexpected. “I admire his writing,” she said (and I’m paraphrasing here). “But sometimes it seems to me that he’s just another privileged white guy taking a gap year to find himself.”

I respectfully disagree with her regarding Thoreau. However, her comment sparked at least a couple of classes’ worth of debate about the meaning of privilege in contemporary culture. The word has evolved to mean “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.” It sometimes seems to be a dog whistle from the political left, a rhetorical means of shifting a discussion towards ad hominem and away from the issue at hand. “Socialist” and “elitist” seem to serve a similar function for the right.

My somewhat naive solution involves assessing people based on what they do and say rather than on their apparent demographic. Regardless, thank you, Gracie, for initiating the first solid debate of the year. I hope it continues below. Points to Gryffindor–or Goen, whichever you prefer.

Posted in Education, Politics, Pop Culture | 9 Comments

Brick and Mortar Purgatory

Everyone likes a vibrant Main Street. Whether you’re in Columbus, Oxford, Starkville, Natchitoches, New Orleans–wherever–people enjoy shopping in boutiques where they get treated well, especially if they can prop their feet up in a good restaurant or cafe afterwards.

I’ll gladly pay a premium to shop in places where management doesn’t assume I’m a potential shoplifter the minute I walk through the door. The last time I went to Wal-Mart, the receipt checker not only pored over my receipt like it was a smaller-than-expected income tax return, but also began to dig through my purchases. I resent the insinuation. I am not a common thief. If places like Wal-Mart want to prevent shoplifting, perhaps they should hire friendlier and more knowledgeable staff who actually care about customers’ shopping experience.

As is, I’d rather order things online. The UPS and FedEx delivery people are savvy enough to bring treats for our dogs, who are genuinely happy to see them, and who receive them with more courtesy than I experience when I go to Wal-Mart.

Posted in Pop Culture | 8 Comments

The Shelter

                Nuclear warfare—it isn’t pretty, and it isn’t quite as thorough as everyone thought it would be. Eleven people and an infant somehow manage to find a bomb shelter six miles out of Columbus, somewhere near the ruins of Waverly Plantation. Unfortunately, they discover edible food and water sufficient for only seven people to survive the sunless decades ahead and found the ensuing civilization. Rank the survivors from one to twelve, knowing that spots eight through twelve will wander the wastelands and die miserably. It is your responsibility to organize the new civilization. You must accept the occupants as they are.

Dr. Frank Breedlove, 62, is a surgeon. He is an atheist and is obsessive compulsive. He will not leave his wife’s side.

Dr. Ruth Breedlove, 48, is his wife. She is a botanist at a university. She has Type II diabetes. She will not leave her husband’s side.

Bart Baxter, 19, is a student at EMCC, where he studied plumbing and carpentry. He has awful grammar and has always made fun of nerds. He loves the outdoors, and bores easily.

Anna Santiago, 17, worked at a restaurant. She has her infant in her left hand, her cell phone in her right.

Keisha Harris, 22, is a cook at the same restaurant where Anna works. She is a great soul food cook. She is open about her political convictions and mocks those of others. She has a terrible problem with flatulence.

Regina Flinton, 37, is an electrical engineer. She is a proud member of the KKK. She is unmarried.

H. Onassis, 28, is a poet, and a lawyer. H. is transgendered, grew up in Greece, and speaks many languages. H. doesn’t like good ol’ boys.

Clarissa Carrothers, 29, is a devout Roman Catholic nun. She was a carpenter before becoming a nun. She has taken a vow of silence and will not eat meat.

Gregory Mbutu, 23, is a medical student and leads an aggressive militant group modeled on the Black Panthers. His research interest lies in finding genetic proof of African superiority. He suffers from simple chronic halitosis.

Dr. Raja Agrawal, 40, holds a PhD in history from Yale, and a law degree from Harvard. He is blind in one eye. He came into the shelter carrying five pounds of top-knotch cannabis.

Ted Dahl, 34, escaped from Parchman just before the bombs fell. He was a hired killer with extensive paramilitary experience. He is intelligent and amoral. He wrote three best-selling books on survival techniques while in prison.

Posted in Education, Politics, Pop Culture | 3 Comments

The Social Contract

Pres. Donald Trump has three rhetorical ticks that give me heartburn. He uses the phrases “people tell me all the time” and “they say” when he’s making things up. He accuses the media of disseminating “fake news” whenever reporters disagree with him. He rants about the “shadow government” when bureaucrats cannot enact his mandates immediately because they contravene law, policy, or protocol.

All three of these tendencies indicate a disregard for the social contract between a government and its people. A politician who favors fiction over fact merely serves himself. A politician who tolerates the press only when it serves his purposes cannot be trusted. A politician who does not understand the necessity of law, policy, or protocol will ultimately expect the government to serve him rather than the people.

Pres. Trump won the presidency at least in part because the people, tired of explanations for complex economies and treaties that they haven’t studied or don’t understand, placed their faith in a candidate who offered simple solutions. They wanted black and white explanations and actions rather than those that accommodated the gray areas of real, human affairs. They expressed a lack of faith that government had been doing anything the majority wanted.

Simple is as simple does.

Pres. Trump’s supporters–and there are enough of them, I suspect, to give him another four years in office–have not yet allowed themselves to see the potential damage to our system of governance wrought by a person who governs by executive order rather than through other elected leaders. (One could levy the same charge against Pres. Obama, I know, but the problem seems to be getting worse.) Nor do they want to consider the ways that asking foreign powers to spy on political rivals would shatter traditional concepts of sovereignty. They share his frustrations with the slowness with which the republican system can bring about change, and enjoy lashing out at the “elites” who have respected the laws that stand in their way.

Rousseau’s idea of the social contract centers around the notion that the people have a right to decide the laws under which they live, and that the government must apply those laws fairly. America’s republican system of government divides the responsibilities of administering those laws to three branches of government that should check and balance each other.

My questions for students are these: what does the ideal relationship between citizens and the government look like–in other words, how should we articulate the social contract in the 21st century? How should leaders in our republican system of governance encourage the people to place faith in it again?

Posted in National Politics, Politics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

People are People

The cover article in this month’s edition of Harper’s, “Manhood in the Age of #MeToo,” stimulated more than a little interest when I got it out of the mailbox. In it, Barrett Swanson attends an Evryman retreat to test whether or not there is a masculine cure for toxic masculinity.

The article presents moments from the men’s movement from Robert Bly’s Iron John to the present, and does its best to reckon with the American Psychological Association’s decree that “traditional masculinity” was toxic, and that it should be treated as such by counselors. Swanson’s article invites the conclusion that an Evryman weekend resembles a visit to the tenth circle of hell. But it offers one insightful assessment of gender studies: “Keen ironists will note that when biological factors such as testosterone are pegged as the locus of toxic masculinity, the argument relies on the same sort of essentialism that gets invoked by chauvinists who claim that women are biologically determined to be more emotional or diffident.”

Studies of masculinity and femininity beget all sorts of questions about whether male and female behaviors are innate, learned, or both. The larger issue for me involves this: why associate toxicity with masculinity? Aggression and stoicism have a rightful place in the pantheon of human activities; so do nurturing and open emotion. Too much of any of those can seem toxic.

What would happen if we tried to separate evaluations of a person’s actions from that person’s gender? People are people, right? Can we accurately judge a person’s accomplishments (or mistakes) by using gender as context rather than explanation?

Posted in Gender Issues, Pop Culture | 2 Comments

What’s in a Joke?

While watching last weekend’s cold open for Saturday Night Live, I found myself wondering how funny the show would be if it couldn’t rely on satirizing politicians. The episode provided a running answer to that question. From the “Oscar the Grouch” parody to “Weekend Update,” it put pop culture itself squarely in its cross hairs. The cold open offered nearly the only political moment of the night.

Conservative politicians–especially Pres. Trump–have often complained that the show’s content veers so far to the left that its parent network, NBC, ought to offer equitable air time to comedians whose political views skew middle-right.

I suspect that those politicians miss the point of the show entirely. Satire works best when aimed at those in power or seeking power. As Saturday’s show suggested, it’s hard to sustain satire of the Democratic nomination process when Democrats themselves have no idea who will emerge from the primary victorious. (They also tend to parse their thoughts much more carefully, which results in less exposure to satire than someone like Pres. Trump.)

Of course, there’s another possibility: that liberals are simply funnier than conservatives.

Posted in Arts, National Politics | 5 Comments

Process, Process, Process

People from other parts of the country often look at Mississippi as a banana republic somehow washed up on our nation’s shores. Its citizens, this stereotype goes, favor indolence over labor, ignorance to education, demagogues over democracy.

Apparently, some of our leaders embrace stereotype.

Last week, the state’s Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees bypassed its own hiring process by appointing Dr. Glenn Boyce as the Chancellor to the University of Mississippi. Boyce, a former IHL commissioner who had been hired to advise the board regarding its search, decided to apply for the job belatedly. In essence, he got paid $87,00 to assist with a search, then helped declare himself the winner.

The IHL held no campus interviews with faculty or students. You need not imagine how students reacted. According to the Ole Miss Faculty Senate, IHL skipped 12 of the 20 steps outlined in the school’s hiring plan.

The twelve members of the IHL board have all been named by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. They seem to have taken a page from the preferred method of his party’s parliamentary procedure: discuss all important items in a smoky backroom, develop legislation away from the prying eyes of voters and the media, approve the legislation without opportunity for debate or improvement. IHL leaders accommodated other stakeholders in the process to the same degree that Republicans accommodate Democrats in the state legislature. It may be efficient, but it isn’t right because it lacks transparency and oversight.

IHL Trustee Ford Dye said that the board moved quickly because “there’s a lot of division in the Ole Miss family right now. We wanted to get Dr. Boyce on campus to unify the Ole Miss family.” His comments can be placed in the same logical and ethical framework as a sitting president asking foreign rulers for dirt on political rivals.

Dr. Boyce may be perfectly capable of leading Ole Miss in a positive direction. However, by eschewing process in favor of promptness, the board that hired him has acted with insouciance unbecoming a public institution.

Posted in Education, Politics | 5 Comments

Improving Education in Mississippi

Earlier this week, students in University English I sections expressed interest in discussing ways to improve the quality of education in Mississippi schools. We moved in two directions: improving funding for education, and the ways private schools have affected the success of education.

Regarding the former: Mississippi spent about $8700 per pupil in the most recent collection of data offered by the Census Bureau. That’s less than every other state in the Deep South, and 46th nationwide, behind Idaho, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Mississippi legislators will not raise taxes to increase spending on education–or anything else–though growth in the state’s revenues has allowed for a $15000 pay raise for teachers. To make infrastructure improvements, districts must increase local millage rates. This works well for affluent districts. It doesn’t work at all for poorer ones. Regardless of increases in expenditures, though, it seems fair to ask whether or not schools can spend their money more efficiently, and whether or not their priorities are well placed.

Regarding the latter: private schools have been a fixture in Mississippi since Brown v. Topeka. Most of them have at least tried to atone for the race-based sins of their pasts. However, we may legitimately ask about the impact of such schools on K-12 education in general. But the issue is prickly. Why should parents with means send their children to schools that underperform?

(Full disclosure: my own oldest son attended both public and private schools; my youngest attended only the private school. I’ve seen the best–and the worst–of what’s available to them educationally. But incendiary dialogue won’t produce good results here.)

Posted in Education | 9 Comments

The Gloves Are Off

The battle to become governor of the state of Mississippi has already become a bare-knuckled brawl. Tate Reeves, the GOP nominee, started running attack ads that associated Jim Hood with trial lawyers and “outside interests” from the time he was the presumptive Democratic nominee. Reeves’ latest salvo involves goading Hood into a quick debate.

Hood has recently released an Attorney General report that concluded Reeves used his political clout to direct state funds to improve a road to ease his commute. Reeves’ camp is predictably incensed that Hood is using his public office to attack a political rival.

Reeves’ platform follows in the same direction of other supply side politicians: cut taxes aggressively, depend on leaders of state agencies to identify the most important needs to fund, and rely on low taxes to increase consumer spending and government revenue. Hood’s approach involves addressing educational, health, and infrastructure needs that have been underfunded for the last several years. His plans will demand a reevaluation of taxation. If, as he proposes, we eliminate grocery taxes, we will have to increase taxes elsewhere.


Posted in Politics | 4 Comments