Two Ideas to Contemplate

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?

Posted in Race in Mississippi, Science | 5 Comments

The Blog is Closed for the Semester

Thanks for participating this fall! See you again in January!

Posted in Education | Leave a comment

The Arbery Trial

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?

Posted in Ethics, National Politics, Race in Mississippi | 16 Comments

Side by Side by Stereotype

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?

Posted in Arts, Politics, Pop Culture | 14 Comments

Doing vs. Having

American literature students who have read Thoreau generally remember two things about Walden: that Thoreau spent $28.125 building his cabin, and that he deemed the four necessaries of life to be food, fuel, shelter, and clothing.

Cell phones did not make the cut.

To students, a phone seems to be an absolute essential. They could, theoretically, use one to submit work on Canvas. They might use it as a small-screen textbook to avoid carrying a heavy anthology to class. They can go places in safety because their AI of choice can route them there. They carry the world in the palms of their hands.

Yet it seems smarter not to have a smart phone. First, calculate the actual cost of the devices. Assuming that you’re an average user who purchases a new phone every 32 months, you’ll spend about $12,500 on phones before your death. Once you add data and apps, you’ll have spent over $75,000 in 60 years as a phone user.

If you prefer to look for hidden costs, think of the money wasted by spending too much too early on phones. If you set aside $1000 a year from the age of eleven–the average age of a first-time cell user in America–until the ripe old age of sixteen, you could put the money in an annuity that could yield as much as $85,000 in thirty years. Other hidden costs involve a greater potential for accidents while using the phone, lower productivity, the increased likelihood that data miners will sell you things you don’t really need.

The greatest damage I see involves the emphasis on having rather than doing. Keep your nose in your phone long enough and it’ll own you. Instead, see the world. Do interesting things. Keep a journal. Read the room instead of reading your feed. Free yourself from your digital chains.

I suspect that many of you will reply to this post on your phones. Some of you will want to show that you can document the interesting things you on a phone more effectively than in any other way. We’ll have to visit during your 10-year reunion to discuss everything you gained when you put your phones down.

Posted in Education, Social Media | 18 Comments

Welcome to 2Q, Bloggers

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.

Posted in Education, Politics | 9 Comments

Top Picks

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.

Best Drama

Best Comedy

Best Thriller

Best Documentary

Favorite Classic Films

Worst Films You’ve Ever Had to Watch

Posted in Arts | 17 Comments

Vigilante Justice

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?

Posted in National Politics | 22 Comments

You Have the Right to Stay Silent

Last month, a tenured professor of English I know posted the following comment on the social media page of an elected official who wanted public input on Covid-19 vaccination policies. “At this point, as vicious as it sounds,” she wrote, “I wouldn’t care if every unvaccinated person died.”

Speaking precisely, her diction indicates apathy towards the unvaccinated. She expresses no desire for them to die. Rather, she believes that it’s time for society to wash its hands from having to deal with them. “I wouldn’t care” is quite different from “I wish they would.”

Of course, most people perceived her comment as insidious. Many of them called administrators at the university where she teaches and demanded that she be fired. The chair of her division placed her on leave for the semester, and has facilitated her early retirement. Furthermore, the chair tapped the brakes on the endowed chair that the professor’s former students had established in her honor.

So much for the free exchange of ideas promised by the tenure system.

I try to teach students how to think, not what to think. I bring up difficult topics in class because I want you to learn how to discuss such things civilly and with productive ends in mind. I try to revel in logic and ethos of each argument rather than in winners and losers.

Yet I also warn students that “if you can’t get other people to think you’re right, you might as well be wrong.” In an era when social media both simplifies the way we share information and complicates its impact, my acquaintance’s story serves as a cautionary tale: we will be held accountable not only for what we say, but also how others interpret it.

The professor did not walk into a crowded building and yell “Fire!” She did not advocate genocide, deny historical fact, or use profanity. She shared an opinion that caused some people in power to clutch their pearls. Was her punishment fair? At what point do opinions expressed in social media through personal accounts become actionable?

Posted in Politics, Pop Culture, Science, Social Media | 22 Comments

Freedom To versus Freedom From

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?

Posted in Education, Ethics, Politics | 12 Comments