Housekeeping

One of the things I like to ask students at the end of the school year involves a bit of self-reflection: are you the same person in May that you were in August? If you haven’t changed, I’m not sure whether to admire your backbone or deride your stubbornness–or bemoan my failures as well as the school’s. Knowledge changes people, and if you haven’t changed, I fear that you might not have learned.

This isn’t to say that I want the devoutly religious to become atheists, for Republicans to become Democrats, for Democrats to become Libertarians, for biologists to become chemists. Rather, I hope that learning more prepares your against your vocation so that you can enter it with your eyes wide open. Keep an open mind as a student. You’ll spend more waking hours as an adult at your place of work than at your home. You better love what you do.

Have you changed? Have you learned? Let me know by Wednesday at 4:00, which is when the blog closes for the summer.

Posted in Education | 25 Comments

Too Tired to Think

You probably already know that autocracies are on the rise. Whether you’re looking at Putin’s rise to power in Russia, Erdogan’s control in Turkey, or the return of the Marcos family to the political world of the Philippines, leaders who subvert the democratic process–and their cabals–have seized power in more and more countries across the globe. They rise on the crest of waves of popular discontent because they find simple, often brutal “solutions” to problems. Once they get elected, they kill or arrest dissidents, shut down the free press, and spread conspiracy theories that help them consolidate power.

I don’t pretend to know any more about politics than politicians pretend to know about teaching English. Yet it seems to me that the rise of autocracy corresponds proportionally to reliance on social media for news. It seems odd to frame American politics from 2000-2008 as a kinder, gentler arena for thoughts. Yet that era was the last before social media and smart phones ruined our minds–and the last where local newspapers served as primary news sources. Since 2004, more than 2000 newspapers have gone belly up.

We take our phones everywhere. People text in church. I’ve heard video games being played in bathroom stalls on more than one occasion. Many prom dresses and accessories have been purchased during class. Most insidiously of all, I see parents handing their toddlers phones in buggies at the checkout line at stores. Constant contact with these devices means that we never stop working, we never stop playing, never stop accessing new information. Another result: we are always tired.

We haven’t adapted to the potential advantages of smart phones and social media by allowing ourselves time away from them. We think more quickly–and with less regard for the consequences of our actions.

What does this have to do with autocracy? Everything. Without time to process information intellectually, we fall back on the vicissitudes of emotion, which makes us easy pickins’ for those who manipulate our fears.

Want to make the world a better place? Put down your devices. Read a magazine or a newspaper. Give yourself time to think.

Posted in Ethics, Politics | 21 Comments

Energy Wherever You Are

Russia recently fired a shot that landed outside the border of Ukraine: pipes carrying gas to Poland and Bulgaria, two of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, have been shut off for refusal to remit payment in rubles. Leaders of other European countries who have sent weapons and support to Ukraine fear that they’ll be affected next.

I have no idea how long the economies of European countries could stand up without energy that’s currently supplied by Russia’s kleptocrats. I hope we don’t have to find out, as the consequences for the American economy would be profound as well.

Russia’s decision to shut off the pipes suggests that sanctions against Russia have begun to pinch. The decision also indicates a broadening of the Ukrainian conflict. No modern economy can survive without energy. When food can’t be refrigerated, when there’s no HVAC functioning in high rises and hospitals, when people can’t commute to work, will they get desperate enough to want to fight?

Russia has engaged the rest of the world in a high-stakes game of chicken. Either live with Russian autocrats who quash free speech and invade other countries to extend their realm influence, or be prepared to deal with less access to energy.

When OPEC tightened the supply of oil provided to the United States in the 1970s, we responded with regulations that demanded greater fuel efficiency in cars, we eased environmental controls over drilling, and we began to fund alternative energy R&D more aggressively. However, when the OPEC crisis ended, two of those three responses fell by the wayside.

Wouldn’t America be a better place now if we had access to more sustainable energy sources? Wouldn’t it be nice not to have our economy held hostage by reliance on energy from kleptocrats? Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn at least one lesson from history?

Posted in Ethics, National Politics | 20 Comments

Victimless Crimes?

An acquaintance of mine buried his son today. No official cause of death has been released to verified media, but if social media is accurate, then this young man died because he took oxycontin that had been laced with fentanyl. He was 21 years old. My heart breaks for his family. If you’re a student of mine, I beg you: don’t use illegal drugs.

My acquaintance’s son should not have taken an illegal drug. One could argue that the young man was the criminal as well as the victim. However, if you count him as a criminal, then he should not be the only one who pays for his crime. Each person who played a role in this tragedy, from the people who manufactured the drug to the network of people who worked together to deliver it to him, has his blood on their hands.

Cases like this justify the hesitance of cultural conservatives to treat drug crimes as victimless crimes or as worthy of lower levels of prosecution because they are “nonviolent.” Nobody wants addicts to rot in jail for decades for misdemeanor possession charges, or to be denied adequate treatment while incarcerated. Whether you’re talking about a drug lord who cuts fentanyl into cocaine to maximize profit, or a junkie who shoplifts to offset the cost of his habit, you’re talking about people who make life more dangerous and expensive for the rest of us.

Of course, lots of uncaught “criminals” make life expensive for the rest of us: people who don’t pay their taxes, or purchase automobile insurance, or make sure that their children are properly vaccinated before sending them to school, offer case studies in selfishness.

But drug crimes, because their tentacles reach so far into so many facets of so many lives, seem particularly sensitive. What policies should the state adopt that would address these problems in a just and compassionate manner? How should the state balance treatment and punishment?

What must we do to prevent more graveside services like the one today?

Posted in Ethics, Politics | 21 Comments

A Different Kind of Diversity

Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ascent to the Supreme Court will mark the first time an African-American woman gets named to the highest court in the land. Whether you support her ideologies or not, it would be difficult not to admire her composure during the confirmation process and impossible to overstate what her presence on the bench will mean to African American women.

Like every other justice, Jackson attended a private university for her undergraduate degree. Like every justice aside from Amy Coney Barrett, Jackson earned her law degree from an Ivy League school. Of the 18 undergraduate and professional degrees conferred by American universities to justices once Jackson replaces Bryer, 79% will come from Ivy League schools.

I certainly value the lifelong advantages offered by earning an Ivy League degree. I’m curious, though: what impact might the lack of educational diversity have on the Supreme Court?

Posted in Education, Politics | 21 Comments

A New Meaning for Punchline

Think of something stupid or cruel you could say “in jest” about a woman who practices the law.

She only prosecutes domestic violence because she’s a woman.

Women lawyers are just liberal feminazis.

She’s just a politician. She doesn’t really know the law.

You know the difference between a woman lawyer and a pit bull? Lipstick.

What a b—h.

This is the tip of the iceberg. I’ve heard much worse, especially since my wife decided to run for Circuit Judge. My blood starts to boil whenever I hear such ignorant blather. I’ve certainly formulated responses I’d like to make to the people who share such “jokes” even though I don’t share them.

However, I’ve never hit anybody for saying stupid things about my wife.

As everyone knows, Oscar winner Will Smith did just that on Sunday night. When Chris Rock made jokes about the appearance of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, who has alopecia, Will Smith marched across the stage, slapped Rock in the chops, and continued to make threats against Rock. It was so dramatic that the first response of many viewers was to assume it had been planned. It’s Hollywood, right?

Whether or not Rock’s jokes were actually funny comes down to subjective judgment. Plenty of people in the audience laughed. Pinkett-Smith certainly didn’t. At what point do the words in a joke become fighting words?

Posted in Ethics, Pop Culture | 22 Comments

Giving Time

The week before spring break, most of us feel like we’re bicycling backwards through a deadly obstacle course–with our hair on fire, no less. That particular mindset practically demands a relaxing spring break.

Of course, there are ways to feel human without hitting the slopes or going to the beach or falling into electronic rabbit holes. Vanderbilt University has developed a particularly wonderful way to help its students find themselves as they engage issues that are important to them: Alternative Spring Break. ASB allows students to pursue service opportunities for the week they’re out of school in March. Some will work with a farm-to-table program that helps inner-city youths in New Orleans. Others will help out at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. All told, students will go to nine different sites this year.

I’m not sure that MSMS could create a program like this. Students here are minors, which means that some liability issues affect us that don’t affect Vanderbilt. However, if we could, what percentage of MSMS students would participate? What sorts of projects would y’all want to do?

Posted in Ethics | 24 Comments

Balances of Power

Students have watched closely as Russia invaded a neighbor in a manner every bit as brazen as the start of the world’s last thirty-year war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Some have worried whether or not other nations will be pulled into this conflict. Only time will tell. The more provocative question involves why Russia invaded in the first place.

The answer boils down to three words: Putin wanted to.

Justifications for that answer get conspiratorial and weird quickly. I can’t find an ideological thread that holds water. Putin certainly doesn’t long for a return to communism. More than one journalist has asked if Putin has lost his mind. Putin claimed that the legitimately elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zalensky, is a Nazi, and that Russia would demilitarize Ukraine to protect the world from another Holocaust. (Zalensky is Jewish, which renders Putin’s claims ridiculous.) Putin has also placed the armed forces of his country on “high nuclear alert,” which has stoked fears that he would use such weapons if the fortunes of war turned against him.

Putin ordered the invasion simply because he could. He knows that the conflicts in the Middle East have exhausted Americans’ willingness to send soldiers overseas to defend the freedom of other people. He knows that his annexation of Crimea in 2014 brought no more than rhetorical virtue signaling and a light slap on the wrist. He knows what every bully knows: he’s going to keep trampling on those who are weaker until somebody has the audacity to give him a bloody nose.

The confirmation of this premise lies in the fact that his methods appeal to other bullies, most notably China’s President, Xi Jinping–Putin’s most vocal ally. Both of these men mistake autocracy for governance. Both seek to expand the geopolitical influence their countries currently possess. Both imprison and kill dissidents. Both use disinformation campaigns to justify their ruthlessness and to destabilize actual democracies.

Both of these men must smile a little each time they read of books being burned in America, or the lengths to which some have gone to absolve the January 6 rioters of their efforts to destroy American democracy. Indeed, the growth of the far right and the far left in our own country during the last fifteen years has made it more difficult for American institutions to govern toward the middle.

Of course, Putin and Xi haven’t had to do too much to send us down the primrose path of political incontinence. Think of how the disastrous Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission made it possible for the super wealthy to impose their political beliefs (and financial needs) on everyone else. Think of the ways that social media have destroyed traditional–and more fact-based–forms of journalism.

American history shows that compromise lies at the heart of politics. What can be done to find viable compromises that will prevent our country from looking more like China or Russia? Do we even still have the political fortitude to govern towards the broad middle way?

Posted in National Politics, Social Media | 7 Comments

Education’s Ends and Means

The cornerstone of this year’s legislative session, as far as Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn is concerned, involves repealing the income tax in Mississippi. He estimates that doing so would put about $1100 back into the budgets of typical Mississippi families, which he expects they would put to use purchasing the things they want instead of having to spend it on the things the government wants. The majority of the House agreed: Gunn’s bill went through to the Senate on a 96-12 vote. However, progress has stalled in the Senate, whose leaders have expressed concern that completely eliminating the tax would leave too big a hole in the state budget.

Some residents find the tax cut alluring. I met a gentleman at a soccer tournament last weekend who maintains Oklahoma citizenship–he can do this as a member of the Air Force–so that he won’t have to pay the income tax here.

Interestingly, most business leaders find greater security in workforce training and development than in cutting the income tax. The premise put forward by the Mississippi Economic Counsel is that we should spend money retooling our educational system to make young people in Mississippi more prepared to find employment in our state’s increasingly technology oriented workforce. Forget Spanish or French or literary analysis. They want our kids to learn programming so that they can tell the robots on the floor of a steel fabrication assembly what to do. The MEC also believes that if we spend wisely on education, we can rehabilitate the state’s image to the point that brain drain will no longer plague us–that our best and brightest youths will want to stay here for their careers and to raise families rather than fleeing to New York, Nashville, or Atlanta.

I’m not certain that workforce development alone can plug Mississippi’s brain drain problem. But here’s the thing: the GOP has long aligned itself as the party that looks out for the interests of businesses. The disagreement between Republicans in the House and the leaders of the MEC reveals a subtle split: does the modern GOP want government to fund educational programs that entice businesses to invest and youths to stay, or does it want government to do as little as possible?

Posted in Education, Politics | 7 Comments

Guilty Pleasures

In the “Mansion” section of last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, the cover story described 400 feet of waterfront property in Miami listed for a modest $150 million. The two houses on the property total about 25,000 square feet. Their architectural idiosyncrasies alone could almost justify the asking price. The stories that can be told about each house seal the deal.

Or do they?

The houses–and, frankly, all their owners, past and present–represent extravagance as a way of being. “It’s marvelous to be rich,” one of the former owners, Peggy Hopkins Joyce said. One can imagine her saying it with a sweet sigh as she put another smear of patè on a cracker, diamond tennis bracelet dangling from her wrist. She was shamelessly, joyously, magnificently wealthy. She was not the sort of person who would feel guilty for wearing a floor-length mink coat, or being chauffered through the slums on her way to a gallery opening.

I’m curious: how does your generation view wealth? Do many of you aspire to be as wealthy as Adrienne Arsht or Peggy Hopkins Joyce? Do you view wealth with suspicion? See it as a mere by-product of doing the things you love? Is there such a thing as being too rich? Doesn’t it beat the heck out of being too poor?

If not, remember: the fund for the Thomas Easterling Endowed Chair for the Humanities at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science eagerly awaits your tax-deductible contribution.

Posted in Politics | 17 Comments