What Happens Next?

Thanks to emails from admin, you already know what’s coming next: a week to practice social distancing before diving into several interesting, intense, and electric MSMS classrooms. Who knows? Maybe there will even be a Weekly Wednesday Doorprize for some lucky contestant whose name gets “drawn” by my wife’s chihuahua. (I imagine he can be taught to push a random square on the Zoom screen.)

Yes, the content delivery will be different. What was ideal for one of my classrooms can’t be ideal again until some undetermined point in the future. But what we do on Canvas and Zoom will be engaging and worth our time. Email me if you have questions or concerns, or if you just need to vent. I’ll be revising the syllabus, figuring out how to get the most out of what we have to work with, and looking forward to spending time with you in the near future.

Posted in Education, Ethics | Leave a comment

Hype Machine

Walkout songs–the songs that play while hitters strut from the on-deck circle to the plate–have become part of the entertainment value of baseball. Even pitchers have gotten into the act. They’re having songs piped in while they make it from the bullpen to the mound.

In honor of baseball: imagine the walkout songs faculty members would play as they went into the classroom at the beginning of the day–or, if you prefer, what’s on the top of your playlist in the closing seconds before a midterm.

Posted in Arts | 15 Comments

Dealing with Pandemics

I don’t exactly feel confident in the federal government’s response to the coronavirus. It’s hard to have faith in administration that eliminated funding to the CDC’s Pandemic Response Team in 2018 as a cost-cutting measure. Placing faith in Vice-President Mike Pence to lead the fight against the virus causes shudders of disbelief as well: Pence’s policies as governor of Indiana resulted in an increase of HIV cases, and as late as 2000, as a Congressman, Pence wrote an op-ed that expressed doubts about the risks associated with smoking. You can’t merely pray a virus away.

Both of these men consistently express disdain for science, especially when data demands a conclusion they don’t like. Thinking about the issue has prompted several closer-to-home questions. To what degree do you think COVID-19 will affect Mississippi? Given the fact that MSMS students live in all parts of the state, is our school particularly susceptible to exposure? What policies and procedures should MSMS put in place for dealing with it?

Posted in National Politics, Politics, Science | 22 Comments

Debate Winners

Last night’s Democratic debate offered a brutal mix of politics and Celebrity Deathmatch. Most pundits agree that Warren scored the most talking points, but that she didn’t do enough to leapfrog Sanders in the polls. Her most frequent victim, Michael Bloomberg, got in a few zingers of his own, but his performance did little to resolve questions I have about the wisdom of jumping into the race so belatedly. The other progressive front runner, Bernie Sanders, did even less to dispel my fears that he’s a doctrinal megalomaniac. He avoids facts as assiduously as our current president, who was the actual winner of the debate because the Democratic candidates were so busy tearing each other down.

As I predicted would happen on the blog almost a month ago, moderators raised the issue of fracking in Rust Belt states. Warren, Sanders, and Biden indicated that they would end fracking immediately–revealing a willingness to write off crucial states to Trump because they refuse to compromise on issues that are important to them. Ladies and gentlemen, politics is the art of compromise. I’ve come to believe that none of those candidates can win an election against the current president as a result. The more important issue for Democrats becomes finding a competent bureaucrat who can win the primary.

“Competent bureaucrat” may not sound sexy, but after four years of a president who ignores Congress and enjoys shredding diplomatic protocols, that’s exactly what the country needs.

Posted in National Politics | 10 Comments

So Much to Say, So Little Time

Ah, the curse of living in interesting times. Professional pundits are having more fun than a man wearing an aluminum foil hat in a room full of conspiracy theorists. Want to start in Mississippi? Sure. We can talk about allegations that Mississippi’s Department of Human Services, which funnels federal welfare money to meet localized needs, gave a professional wrestler over $2 million to fund a faith-based “ministry.” The professional nickname of that wrestler, Ted DiBiase, was “The Million Dollar Man.” Really. You couldn’t put this in a novel or the publisher would say it was unbelievable.

Don’t want to talk about things too close to home? Our current president, intoxicated by the fact that he has been acquitted by the Senate, has declared himself the “chief law enforcement official” in the country. He followed through on this statement by pardoning a slew of white collar criminals, some of them former friends. I’m not sure anybody can overstate the damage he has done to the presidency.

Sick of thinking about the Swamp? Here’s a riveting look at the Heartland Institute, an American thinktank devoted to discrediting the notion that humans have caused climate change. Heartland’s real interests are economic and political. However, it uses the veneer of science to justify policies that will have significantly negative environmental impacts. (I wouldn’t be surprised if our current president gets briefed by Heartland staffers. How else can anyone justify the removal of EPA regulations that have been embraced and useful since the 1970s?)

Posted in Ethics, National Politics, Politics | 7 Comments

Simple Math

This has been an unusually rotten week in Washington. The impeachment trial, doomed from the start, whimpered to a close. The President childishly refused to shake the offered hand of the Speaker of the House, who behaved just as childishly afterwards by ripping up her copy of his State of the Union address. That speech, a factually challenged ninety-minute ramble, had an all-world low point: awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, a radio personality–one should refrain from calling him a journalist–whose only talent lies in pushing people’s buttons.

Wait a minute: I can think of somebody else with that talent.

Things were no better outside of Washington: Democrats can’t count ballots in Iowa, and the Department of Justice has come to Mississippi to investigate prison conditions. (That may sound like good news, but I suspect the fix is already in: the DOJ, currently run by the GOP, will find a way to exonerate the state’s Republican leadership, which will continue to underfund correctional facilities because “nothing’s wrong.”)

But back to the counting issue: many of the week’s problems lie with simple math. Democratic leaders apparently can’t count to 67, which is the number of senators required to impeach a president. Or pass a treaty. Or override a veto. Or expel a senator.

It won’t do any good, but I’d like to propose the use of even more simple math. Let’s require a 2/3 majority for any legislative body or committee to hold hearings. I’m not against hearings as part of a legitimate fact-finding process. However, they’ve become a large part of the reason that the machinery of government is stuck. They allow for political grandstanding–and, because most votes fall along party lines, not much else. Instead, let committees spend more time doing the things they’re supposed to do without hiding behind the delays caused by interminable hearings. The two parties might even rediscover how to play nicely with each other for the good of the people.

The last time the Congress managed to pass a budget was 2016. The government has been funded on a series of continuing resolutions since then.

Can’t we do better than that?

Posted in National Politics | 7 Comments

Appropriation Sensation

The first three lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” rank among the most memorable lines of free verse in the language:

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

The poem’s success ultimately hinges on whether or not the reader accepts Whitman’s invitation to empathy. Otherwise, speaking from perspectives that range from runaway slaves to opera stars would provoke confusion if not outrage. It works. “Song of Myself” is the first American poem.

Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks, offers a curious test of such empathy. The novel chronicles the horrible dangers faced on our nation’s southwest border by people fleeing their own nations. It offers a compelling narrative and a moving voice that begs for social justice. Julia Alvarez and Stephen King openly enjoyed the book. Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club.

But there’s a problem.

Cummins is not Latina.

In the days since Winfrey selected the book for her club, dozens of Latino authors have requested that she retract the endorsement. They believe their story–the real life narrative of people who sacrifice everything to come to America–belongs to Latinos. Cummins has appropriated it and it makes them angry. Threats made against Cummins and the bookstores where she planned to read have resulted in the cancellation of her book tour.

The broad question here involves appropriation–or empathy, if you prefer. Should identity be a prerequisite for “acceptable” narratives? It seems that it shouldn’t. After all, the most popular musical in the last 50 years features an incredibly diverse cast playing the parts of white folks.

When a story is large enough, does it belong to everybody?

Posted in Books, Ethics | 12 Comments

Addendum to the Prison Discussion

Two common responses to the problems Mississippi faces with its prison system have been to provide a massive infusion of funding, which is an unlikely move given the state’s reluctance to increase taxes, and freeing nonviolent offenders.

A recent letter to the editor printed in the Commercial Dispatch raises legitimate concerns regarding the latter solution. In it, Kerry Blalock claims that an elderly relative was conned out of a quarter million dollars and that four of the five people convicted for the crime are already out of prison. All five are drug addicts. Blalock’s relative will never be made right by those who stole from him.

Two issues immediately arise: shy of restitution, what punishment should be exacted from nonviolent criminals? Second, because state-provided mental health services and addiction treatment are as underfunded as the prison system, I think it’s fair to anticipate that the recidivism rate for those convicted of drug-related, nonviolent crimes would be high. How can the state protect those with property from those who would steal it to fuel their addictions?

Posted in Politics | 9 Comments

F–cking Winning

Donald Trump guaranteed himself the presidency by winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016. Democrats will certainly double and treble their efforts in those states next year, but may be hampered by a crucial twenty-first century conundrum: how to we weigh environmental interests and economic ones?

This morning’s edition of The Daily examined fracking–yes, the missing letters in the title of this post are “r” and “a”–and the impact it will have on the 2020 election. Fracking is a controversial method of extracting fossil fuels because of potential environmental consequences. It also offers jobs with union wages and benefits in a number of rust belt states like Pennsylvania. If Democrats select a candidate who promises an end to fracking, they may very well be wrapping that crucial state in a red ribbon for Donald Trump. Pennsylvania’s current Lieutenant Governor, John Fetterman (D), believes that Hillary Clinton’s pledge to end coal mining cost her the rust belt, and urges progressives not to make the same mistake twice.

Environmentalists argue that a greener economy will improve the lives of all Americans over time, and that pitting environmental interests against economic self interest is a false dichotomy. Explain that to the families in western Pennsylvania–or the farmers in Mississippi–who fear that tighter environmental laws will regulate them out of a way of life and into bankruptcy.

Posted in Ethics, National Politics | 14 Comments

Staying Engaged

The first day of Pres. Trump’s impeachment trial drew approximately 11 million viewers, which is slightly less than a third the number of viewers of an NFL playoff game the night before. Neither contest featured a scintilla of drama. No impartial viewer believes that the impeachment will deviate from a party line vote, just as nobody with any sense believed the Packers would win unless they slipped ipecac syrup in the 49ers’ PowerAde.

Yet the impeachment process drones on. How ironic that the president who promised to drain the swamp is now being buoyed by it! The only swamps he will drain are the real-life estuaries that developers want to turn into condos. (Through executive order, Pres. Trump has rolled back environmental regulations that protect waterways.)

The only people I’ve seen who can muster up real interest in the impeachment–other than the senators themselves–are ideologues on the left and the right. Voters don’t care because they’ve already formed opinions on the matter; they’ve weighed likely outcomes; they peer on with less interest than they would have in a schoolyard brawl.

Which brings us to the conundrum: how can we encourage voters to stay engaged? Years of free internet access to the news have spoiled us. We don’t want to shell out $10 a month for subscriptions to traditional news sources–sources that certainly had their flaws, but which hired journalists who theoretically knew the importance of keeping the news objective. Instead, we turn to social media and to news sites that give us what we want to hear. Free news comes at a terrible cost: we lose the ability to think critically when we insulate ourselves from uncomfortable truths.

Of course, the media is not the only institution that deserves blame for the lack of engagement on civic issues. Legislators who fail to toe the party line know the needs of their constituents will be ignored by party leadership down the road. So they toe the line. The concomitant gridlock in Washington encourages presidents to rule via executive order. Fingers get pointed. Words spill on the floor and in newsprint. Not much gets done.

Posted in Ethics, National Politics | 8 Comments