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

Oppositional Defiance

If you check out the history of the blog, you’ll notice two tendencies. First, I employ Socratic method to induce you to share thoughts about controversial topics. Second, when that doesn’t work, I express opinions in a forceful manner hoping that you’ll disagree strongly enough to respond. The topics and opinions go all over the place. That’s by design. I don’t care to teach you what to think or whether you should join one party or another. I want to teach you how to share your thoughts about difficult things in a civil manner. Productive disagreement might result in consensus. It should result in mutual respect.

However, it appears that my ideas about what’s controversial (or even politically interesting) don’t consistently align with yours. Use the response space to help me find topics that will encourage productive disagreement. Whether they involve art, education, or politics is up to you. Alternatively, if you simply prefer to avoid controversy, let me know that, too.

Posted in Education | 13 Comments

Intergenerational Confab

A couple of days ago, I found myself trying to explain trigger warnings to a slightly older person–straight, white, male, 60s, non-academic. You may not be surprised that he was skeptical of the need for them. “Sticks and stones,” he laughed. “The only reason people get upset at reading something in a class is that they let themselves get upset. They should stop being so emotional.”

Naturally, I quickly constructed a list of things I could say to provoke an emotional response in the fellow, and I didn’t utter a single one of them. Instead, I thought I’d turn to bloggers to learn how they explain trigger warnings to their older acquaintances and relatives. Do you bother defining the term? Jump straight to analogies? Or, like the older man, do you believe the need for trigger warnings is overstated? How would you justify that approach to peers who think they’re useful if not necessary?

Posted in Education, Politics, Pop Culture | 15 Comments

Ranking the Issues

Mississippi Today, a free internet news service, recently ranked the most important issues facing legislators during the current session. There are some doozies in the list. Some reflect short term interests; others will affect public policy for a decade or more. How do you rank them? Why?

Here’s the list, by the way: medical marijuana, teacher pay raise, redistricting, abolition of the income tax, spending American Rescue Plan funds from the federal government, critical race theory bills, Medicaid expansion, and reforming the ballot initiative process.

Posted in Politics | 11 Comments

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 | 19 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