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 | 12 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 | 14 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 | 10 Comments

Triage

The FDA’s formal approval of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine will facilitate making the vaccine a requirement to participate in public life. Some schools in other parts of the country have already decided to mandate that faculty get the vaccine; some now require students to do so. Businesses will have more leverage to require it as well.

Although all Mississippians have been eligible for vaccination since March 16, fewer than half are fully vaccinated. Such foot dragging has allowed the Delta variant to run rampant through Mississippi and other states with similarly low vaccination rates. Accordingly, health care workers have been unable to offer adequate care for every person infected with Covid-19–not to mention people with injuries, or heart attacks, or strokes.

When hospitals experience shortages, whether those involve staffing or space, how should they prioritize care? Should they admit patients on a first come, first served basis? Allocate a certain percentage of their resources to pandemic patients? If so, what should those percentages look like, and will there be subcategories within that portion? At what point should they send patients to other facilities?

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Politics | 9 Comments

Literary Challenge

Find a sentence from a piece of literature where a single, simple word makes all the difference in the world. A lovely example, as noted by Paul Crenshaw, comes from a Robert Hayden poem:

“Sundays too my father got father got up early”

The word that tells a huge chunk of the story is “too,” which reveals that the father performs miracles of domesticity every day of the week, and saturates the poem with the speaker’s belated appreciation for his father’s love.

Posted in Arts, Books | 6 Comments

Help Me Help Your Juniors

Orientation ended with MSMS’ induction ceremony, The Ceremony of Lights. School officials designed everything leading up to that moment to emphasize the responsibilities, opportunities, and advantages (and fun!) involved with being at MSMS. This year’s orientation marks the first time since 2020 that two full graduating classes have been on campus at the same time; it’s possible that we are rusty when it comes to getting so many students and staff on the same page at the same time.

For the sake of the MSMS Class of 2024, let me know what portions of orientation merit reconsideration. What did you think proved really helpful? What would you change if you were in charge?

Posted in Education | 21 Comments

The Delta Spike

Mississippi has run out of Intensive Care Unit beds. Arkansas had only 8 available. Neighboring states are no better off. Incredulity has replaced the optimism I felt after C19 vaccines became available. Why must we continue to deal with this scourge?

COVID-19 vaccines are free.

COVID-19 vaccines pose no statistically significant health risks to healthy people.

Yet barely a third of all Mississippians are fully vaccinated. Help me understand why people have been hesitant to get these shots, and how public policymakers should address the issue.

By the way, if you haven’t participated in the blog before, note that you’ll need to register as you post for the first time. I also expect you to disagree with each other (and me!), but to do so civilly.

Posted in National Politics, Politics, Science | 18 Comments

The Road Forward

One of the cornerstones of Pres. Biden’s infrastructure plan involves massive expansions of the availability of charging stations for electric vehicles. I understand why: our automobile emissions account for approximately 25% of our greenhouse gases. Reducing those will have a quick, beneficial, and verifiable impact on the environment.

Unfortunately, mining the lithium needed to make batteries for our new electric vehicles has terrible impacts, too: ground water close to mines could be contaminated for more than 300 years. There are responsible ways to mine lithium, but they can’t keep up with the needs that we have for the material if we’re going to quadruple the number of electric vehicles on American roads in ten years.

So: what should we do?

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

PSA: Blog Deadline

A quick reminder: the blog closes down before finals week. The last day to blog for credit will be May 14. I look forward to seeing your responses to posts before then.

Posted in Education | 3 Comments

2020 Census

Last year’s census results haven’t been fully disaggregated, but we know this much: Mississippi is one of just three states whose populations shrank during the previous decade. Plenty of potential culprits will show up on lists of explanations for this: brain drain amongst younger folks; less than robust opportunities for education, entertainment, and employment; the state’s politics; the state’s history.

The state will not lose a congressional seat this time, but it might if the trend continues–especially if neighboring states continue to grow. Some point to a silver lining: that the state has become more diverse. Nonetheless, what must be done to make Mississippi a state where more people want to live?

Posted in Environment, Politics | 15 Comments