Welcome back to MSMS, my intrepid bloggers. Being quarantined for Covid-19 has given me time today to appreciate two miracles. I’d be remiss if I didn’t express gratitude and wonder to the scientists who found an effective vaccine for a disease that didn’t even exist three years ago today. Being fully vaccinated means that my illness is less severe than a head cold. Without research, development, and massive government investment, I might not just be laid low, I might be laid six feet under. I hope our leaders take note of the possibilities opened by such investment. We ought not wait for the next crisis to get out the checkbook again.
Of course, as it is MLK Day, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t express gratitude for an activist and thinker whose importance cannot be overstated. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” might be the purest example of persuasive writing in the English language. I hope he would be proud of the progress towards racial reconciliation the nation has made since he got involved with the movement in 1955. I know he would not hesitate to urge us to bridge important gaps that still exist. If he could speak with us today, what would he suggest we address first? What would he compliment us for having done?
Thanks for participating this fall! See you again in January!
On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African-American male, caught the attention of two white men, Travis and Gregory McMichael, who saw him jogging through their Glenn County, Georgia neighborhood. They thought he was a thief and pursued him in their truck, soon joined by another resident, Roddie Bryan. The three men chased Arbery in their vehicles, showing they were armed and demanding that he stop. When he couldn’t run any more, he faced the men. Travis McMichael exited his truck, shotgun in hand. He and Arbery scuffled over the weapon. Three shots were fired. Arbery died soon after McMichael discharged the third at point blank range. Bryan recorded it all.
One chapter of this horrible crime concluded on November 24: a mostly-white jury convicted the McMichaels and Bryan of murder. Sentencing takes place soon.
The verdict surprised many who watched the trial. Gregory McMichael had so many ties to local law enforcement that a judge from another district had to preside. Defense attorneys struck all but one African-American juror from the jury. More mysteriously still, lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski mentioned race only one time during the entire trial: during her closing statements. Pundits accused her of whitewashing the victim and believed that the defendants would be acquitted.
Instead, the jury found McMichaels and Bryan guilty.
Dunikoski’s reluctance to make the racism of the defendants part of the prosecution’s strategy merits commentary. It proved to be a winning strategy. However, it drew the ire of progressive commentators who thought she squandered opportunities to highlight inequalities endemic to American–and specifically Southern–culture. What do you think?
Stephen Sondheim passed away last weekend. He wrote enduring and transformative Broadway musicals, including Sweeny Todd, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods. He also wrote lyrics for West Side Story, a classic retelling of Romeo and Juliet that uses tensions between whites and Puerto Ricans as a context for star-crossed lovers and and an illustration of the utter fruitlessness of racial enmity.
Watching West Side Story in 2021 can seem cringy. Male characters feel no qualms about the idea that women belong at home raising children, and female characters embrace that stereotype. The play and film depict all the Puerto Rican men as violent gang members. The Puerto Rican women are either piously Roman Catholic or festishized as passionate and wild because of their darker skin. Although stage and film productions launched actress Rita Moreno into international stardom, she was the only Latin American performer in the original cast. The other “Puerto Ricans” had their skin darkened for performances.
Nonetheless, many people of Puerto Rican descent, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Hamilton composer Lin Manuel-Miranda, see important truths beyond the stereotypes. Sondheim and Manuel-Miranda also counted each other as friends.
West Side Story won more Oscars than any other Broadway musical adaptation. Its choreography and themes merit attention even in the 21st century. How would you advise 21st century audiences to watch it? At what point does our revulsion to old stereotypes prevent us from seeing artistic merit?
Congratulations! You’ve made it through another challenging nine weeks at MSMS! Be proud. What you’re doing will prepare you for all kinds of success moving forward. Getting through the first nine weeks also means that you’re closer to one of my favorite seasons.
Not winter. (I really don’t like cold weather.)
Not Christmas. (Christmas can be fun, though!)
The legislative season. Mississippi’s regular legislative session convenes January 4. Look into your crystal balls and tell me what bills will receive the most attention. Feel free to tell me as well which topics should receive the most attention.
As you know, I sponsor the Film Club and teach the school’s film class. Give me some ideas–tell me your two favorite films in each of the categories below. Feel free to explain any of your choices.
Favorite Classic Films
Worst Films You’ve Ever Had to Watch
Texas Senate Bill 8 not only criminalizes abortions performed after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, but also allows anyone to sue parties associated with the procedure, from the drivers who take women to clinics to the medical professionals who perform it, for up to $10,000. As one physician put it, the mere threat of having to litigate every abortion would make the potential cost of operating a clinic untenable.
The bill accomplished its goal. Clinics have essentially been put out of business. Moreover, because private citizens would file suit against the clinic instead of the government, the law, according to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, turns anti-abortion activists into vigilantes.
The federal Justice Department has sought relief on behalf of women in Texas who want to have abortions. I have no idea what will happen next. My primary concern lies with why abortion has become such a crucial cultural and political litmus test over the last two decades. What is it about this issue that polarizes people so completely? What additional cultural undercurrents are in play? Is there room for compromise on the issue?
In “Two Concepts of Liberty,” British philosopher Isaiah Berlin defines positive freedom as “the ability to be one’s own master,” and negative freedom as the realm within which a person can “act unobstructed by others.” The former involves doing as you please; the latter, the state of not having to deal with the actions of people around you.
When you are home alone, you have the positive freedom to listen to Katy Perry sing “Firework” as loud as your speakers will go. When you are in a dormitory surrounded by people whose musical taste (whew!) has gotten past “plastic bags / drifting in the wind,” you must respect their negative freedom from having to listen to your music.
Public debates in America often hinge on how we align the axis between freedom to and freedom from. What contemporary issues can be evaluated on this axis? How might introducing the concepts of positive and negative freedom allow for more rational and productive discussions of these topics?