Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Legalized Drugs

February 15, 2021

Our state legalized marijuana several years ago. I believe it was purely a move motivated by money – the thought of tax revenues on legalized cannabis are certainly near-irresistible on paper. But legalizing drugs causes a host of problems when characterizing the crime that goes hand-in-hand with illegal drug sales.

Case in point – the murder of two college students last month in town. They were found shot in the head in their vehicle, one dead at the scene and the other dying after time in the hospital. It turns out they were probably shot when they attempted to sell half a pound of marijuana. The people allegedly buying it decided to just take it and kill the two students instead.

It’s a horrible situation to be sure. But I was appalled at how the situation was described by the county Sheriff. The victims of this terrible crime were two college students who made some bad choices and fell victim to what is often thought to be a victimless crime – the illicit sale of drugs, in this case marijuana. You see marijuana is legal here from a legalized, licensed dispensary. Buying and selling it from anyone other than a licensed dispensary is illegal, a nuance that may or may not have been lost on the two young men.

But the sheriff’s description makes it seem like a tragic happening in an otherwise rather innocent context. As though the two murdered boys really weren’t doing anything all that bad. They made bad choices and fell victim. Let’s be accurate, their bad choice was trying to illegally sell drugs. We used to have a name for those folks – drug dealers – and the understanding is that they were anything but innocent. In fact, it was common knowledge as I was growing up that however popular and accessible drugs might be, there was an inherent risk and danger in acquiring them, let alone trying to sell them. Drug dealers didn’t fall victim. They took calculated risks based on an assumption of reward. Knowing those risks, they were often prepared to defend themselves. If they failed to protect themselves, it was understood this was a reasonable risk of dealing in illegal drugs. The people involved in that line of work were understood to be dangerous and sometimes well-organized and backed by powerful gangs or criminal networks who wouldn’t take kindly to an amateur setting up shop in their territory.

But because pot is legal, it creates this confusion, as though there really aren’t still drug dealers and gangs and crime syndicates who make an obscene amount of money selling illegal drugs. Maybe not marijuana so much, but then again, maybe still. The people I know who are habitual pot users don’t always (or ever) buy from dispensaries as the prices are oftentimes higher and the quality not necessarily better. They have a network of friends and aficionados who can generally supply them what they need.

The impression of dabbling in drugs as legal or victimless clouds the whole arena considerably, creating a smoke screen (ha!) that hides the very real and brutal side of drug dealing. I have no idea if these two murdered college kids sold pot or other drugs on a regular basis. Probably not, or they might have been more cautious. But they should have known that this is what they were doing – acting as drug dealers, which is an inherently dangerous and illegal line of work. If they had thought about it in those terms they might still be alive.

Tell All the Truth

January 28, 2021

In high school I worked on the school newspaper. I wasn’t cool enough to work on the yearbook so I put my budding writing aspirations to work writing and editing news stories. It was a great experience and I moved quickly into the role of News Editor, responsible for making sure reporters got their work in on time and it was edited well, had photos with appropriate (and accurate) captions as necessary and that the copy fit the space available.

It wasn’t hard work. The essentials of good journalism as I learned them were to answer the what, when, where, why, who and how of a situation. Preferably within the first two paragraphs. Additional information could follow later in the story, but it was essential to give readers (our national literacy level is described as 8th grade) the main facts quickly so they could absorb that if they didn’t have time to read the bulk of the article. Not rocket science.

In fact, my first year on the paper I found out the staff was going to a convention of high school newspaper staff from around the state. I had never heard of such a thing but was more than happy to miss a day of school. We sat through various presentations and sessions I don’t remember a thing about. What I do remember is that I was informed there would be a contest for newswriting and I should participate. Again, nothing I had heard about. I was shown a room with dozens of typewriters (yes, I’m that old). We were apparently given some amount of information about a hypothetical event and told to write a news story about it. How unprepared was I? I had to borrow a sheet of paper from the person next to me, who was clearly disgusted with my complete lack of preparation. Mea culpa.

It took me about 15 minutes to type up the story and turn it in to the rather startled proctor, further irritating the person still typing away next to me. It wasn’t very hard. Tell the facts then fill it in. I won third place in the state. I’m sure that irritated the person who had sat next to me even more.

All that to say writing a newspaper story shouldn’t be complicated. Give the facts. But, give all the facts you have. Failure to mention facts can skew a news story into something else. Something that doesn’t just inform and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions from the data you’ve provided, but something that nudges (or shoves) the reader towards a particular response. Not necessarily an intellectual response – it can be emotional as well. Once you begin this (and it’s easy to not be conscious of it, depending on how you were taught to write a story or what the purpose of a news story as opposed to an op-ed piece or the purpose of a newspaper as a whole is) you’re not writing a news story, you’re writing something else. You’re guiding the reader towards a conclusion you either expect they already have or you think they ought to have. Sometimes the danger is confusing those two things or not seeing them as either distinct or intrinsically problematic.

I know writing for a high school newspaper doesn’t qualify me as a journalist. My top reporter went on to get her journalism degree and today writes and edits for magazines and other publications around the country. That required a lot of additional education and training. But the foundations were laid there in a high school journalism classroom, under the tutelage of a kindly and uncharacteristically patient old lady who put up with the crap routinely dished out by some of the cooler people in the class who clearly understood better than she what The Times called for in terms of journalism. She was a good teacher and as such was not properly appreciated. She taught me a lot about writing in a short period of time.

It rained here today.

It rained yesterday as well and is scheduled to rain a fair bit of tomorrow. The rain has been nice and steady and blessedly even. Only one short downpour. I live in a coastal desert so rain of this kind is pretty unusual. It’s also desperately needed. Our state was in a multi-year drought often described as the worst on record. And once the rest of the state received better rainfall levels our particular county remained drier and at greater risk longer. We reactivated a saltwater conversion facility that was built and mothballed decades ago at a cost of millions of new tax dollars. That’s how bad things were.

Then things got worse.

We received torrential rain right after a devastating, massive forest fire. A catastrophic mudslide decimated wide swaths of a community just outside town, literally washing houses off their foundations. Over twenty people died in the span of a few hours. The community is still rebuilding and recovering from that event and in places the landscape is permanently altered.

As such, some people here get nervous about large quantities of rain over prolonged periods. Understandable. But the fact remains that rain is a natural and necessary occurrence and that if we don’t get rain during our very brief November to February rainy season our water resources can run dangerously low. Rain is a good thing. A blessing from God. A necessity. Not simply a source of fear.

But you’d never know that from reading the news story about it.

The headline announced how drenched we were by heavy rainfall, and the subtitle recited flood advisories, high wind advisories, high surf advisories and beach hazards. The opening paragraphs (some of which are only a single sentence) scream out about all the possible dangers and warnings and advisories the county is under, and almost grudgingly admit that no actual problems beyond some minor road flooding have arisen. Then the story moved on to recount each of the major fires in the past four years and the unusual danger associated with those burn areas and the higher risk of debris flows and mudslides in those areas.

Then it detailed how warming centers were open and available for the homeless during this storm. Rain totals were provided but given no context (what those levels mean compared to our average annual rainfall totals). Then the story once again reiterated all the various warnings and advisories issued thus far and concluded with a summary of all the areas where flood warnings were in effect.

Now all of that is true, of course. But what’s the cumulative effect of a story like that, where the event – a natural if somewhat unusual event – is described and portrayed in nothing but negative language with nothing but warnings and alarms the topic throughout? It is an article of fear. Fear of what happened in the past. Fear of what might happen in the future. The reader should be aware, on alert, on edge.

Not a word about how badly we need this rainfall given how dry our rainy season has been thus far. Not a single observation regarding how much rain we’re getting but how gentle and gradual it is. Not a single word about how the air quality improves dramatically after a rain, or encouraging readers to appreciate the brightness and clarity of light that will follow. I know, I know, some of those things aren’t news, per se. But they are true. They provide a balance to the story that reminds people there is more to rain – even large amounts of rain – than fear.

The assumption seems to be people should be worried and afraid of this rain. The news story is validation of that assumed pre-existing fear. All these different weather advisories have been issued! Your fear is justified and healthy! No matter whether the advisories actually come to anything. Fear is appropriate! And as such the article contributes to an emotional state it presupposes or, worse yet, seeks to inculcate.

A single article on the weather may not contribute much towards this end. But couple that with all the other articles about politics, the threat of right-wing extremist terrorists, the existential dread that is COVID and the worries and concerns about whether the vaccines will be enough or will be taken by enough people.

The only positive news stories have to do with new administrations and changes of direction. There is unrestrained joy and optimism in those articles as things that a very large percentage of our country’s population apparently approved of are repudiated and gleefully dismantled.

Rain is natural. It’s uncontrollable, yes. But it’s natural. It isn’t something we do or manipulate. It is something we simply have to deal with and sometimes that means dealing with too much or too little of it. That’s fearful. Like viruses. Again, natural things. Sometimes very dangerous to us, to be sure. But things we don’t (generally) create ourselves and that our abilities to manipulate are decidedly ill-equipped for. So these things are scary as well. Live in fear of them, we are told. The only hope is that someone will come along and fix them for us. A pill or an injection – something we do and we control. That’s where our hope is. In ourselves. In what we can do and control. Anything else is fear.

Don’t live your life in fear. Live your life in a proper context. But don’t simply walk around being afraid of everyone and everything except for the narrow sliver of things and people the media claims will help and save you from your fear. They won’t. They can’t. Their intentions might be good or not, but they cannot save you from the uncontrollable. From the natural. They can’t save you from death, or from the gnawing fear and anxiety inside you they have helped create in order to ensure they retain control.

Only in understanding you are a creature and not a creator – just like the scientists and politicians and social activists so glorified in the media, and just like those same categories of people excoriated in the media for disagreeing, for contributing alternative assessments of the situation and alternative avenues of dealing with issues. All creatures. Hopefully doing the best they can, which sometimes is wonderful and sometimes completely awful. Sometimes doing the worst they can, because some people are like that, just like little pieces of ourselves are like that. Black and darkened with fear and anger and hatred and jealousy. We point the fingers and make the blames for those things inside us but they persist. And they persist in no small part because we feed them. Left or right, blue or red, we’re apt to feeding those ugly things inside of us with justifications and material that encourages them rather than weakens them.

Use the brains God gave you. Read, but also evaluate. Listen, but also reflect. Hope, but put your hope in the one place that can support it – the Creator of the Universe instead of fallible and broken creatures good and bad like yourself. And a key part of all of this is telling the truth. All the truth. As much as we’re able to see it and understand it. And in doing so reject the culture of fear that rapidly swells and grows around us at all times. Look for the details and then come to your own conclusions. A good news story should help you do that. A good community will help you do that. And a good baseline will give you the starting point to make comparisons and evaluations and conclusions.

Make sure your baseline can hold, even when the rain is heavy.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

~ Emily Dickinson ~

Burning Books

December 28, 2020

Thanks to Ken for forwarding me a link to this story in the Wall Street Journal lamenting (weakly) a growing movement to ban classic literature from teaching curriculum for being out of touch with modern concepts of political correctness. (Note, the WSJ has a pretty strict firewall so you may not be able to access the article from the link above)

Some who are willing to continue teaching classical literature indicate they will only do so in the service of modern definitions and conceptions of anti-misogyny, anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc. Meaning the works will be studied out of their appropriate context and forced to serve modern ideas of what literature should or shouldn’t affirm or deny.

Disturbing, but hardly surprising.

What is more surprising and more disturbing is the apparent bubble some educators feel they work in, wherein their comments and decisions – even those they choose to publicize openly on social media like Twitter – are supposedly immune to any query or question. Surely if you’re so proud of your changes to school curriculum you should be willing to talk with a reputable news outlet like the Wall Street Journal rather than retreating behind victim language such as invasive!

It’s hardly invasive, it’s important. What educators decide to teach – and not teach – as well as how they teach it matters a great deal beyond the private kingdoms of their classrooms or school buildings or districts. The decisions they make contribute to their larger community and, in our age of mobility, to our nation as a whole and potentially the world. Of course, I trust some educators are fully aware of this and it is with such audiences in mind that they craft their curriculum and nuance their instruction so their students sow similar ideological seeds in further fields.

All of this might also reflect the growing educational emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) coursework as the necessary and ideal educational focus for children on through university age. Such an emphasis obviously devalues a grounding in history and literature and the arts, the arenas of a classical liberal arts educational tradition stretching back perhaps thousands of years. The idea is no longer to create well-rounded individuals but rather to provide useful skills for particular business or industry careers. Why focus on all that other stuff that isn’t useful when you could focus in on what really matters? And if you have to teach those other, lesser areas, at the very least they should be made the servants of contemporary ideological goals rather than windows into different times and places and ideas.

The educator in the article who is aghast that 70-year old values might be seen as somehow beneficial and valid still today demonstrates an alarming disconnect. Those 70-year old values enabled her to be in the profession she’s in. What exactly does she think the United States of 70 years ago looked like, by and large? That would be an interesting conversation to have.

And of course conversations – including or especially conversations with the past – are at the heart of education. It isn’t that assigning Uncle Tom’s Cabin as reading material means you’re justifying everything in it. Much value is gained in seeing positive changes over time. But much value is also gained in being cautious to assume that only the current moment is valid or right. The old maxim that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it is not an old maxim for no reason. The present continually makes the mistake of presuming now is all that matters and what is now must be what is right and best, when a cursory glance at the past might indicate otherwise. Might provide a break against directions very likely to lead to disaster.

But that would be education. Learning to think critically. To analyze not just words on a page but ideas conveyed in those words, to test and weigh and determine relative value. And when you teach someone to think critically rather than limit them to what you deem as safe and appropriate, you create the dangerous possibility that it is your ideas that will be found wanting in the evaluation.

One of my most cherished aspects of my secondary educational experience came the summer before I started tenth grade. I was given one of those lists of recommended books to read. And that summer, I set out to read everything on that list. I didn’t finish it by a long shot, but I read a lot of great literature. I did so without guidance, so I undoubtedly didn’t get as much value as I could have from reading them with someone there to guide me. But then again, reading them without someone there to guide me led me to discoveries I might not otherwise have come to. I could fall in love with the stark beauty conveyed in Death Comes for the Archbishop. I could find myself entranced with the curious Babbit. I could recognize my flailing through The Inferno or The Canterbury Tales and knowing I needed far more tools than I had accumulated to make good sense of them.

Limiting reading to young adult literature denies students the opportunity to grow their vocabulary or force them to research an allusion to some historical person or figure. One might appreciate Harry Potter as literature to some extent, I suppose. But comparing it to The Lord of the Rings helps us to better see the difference between something written for young adults as opposed to something written as, well, literature. Denying students the literary achievements that enabled their own teachers and professors to get to where they are today seems patently unfair, and will only ensure that at least for the near future, we chop ourselves off at the knees, culturally. Can you imagine winning the Nobel Prize for Literature without having read anything written before 1950?!

So pay close attention to what your kids and grandkids are being taught – or not being taught. Asking for reading lists and reading recommendation lists is a very good idea. And it is not invasive for someone to be interested in what kids are learning these days. It’s part of being a community.

Other COVID Effects

December 1, 2020

Just a reminder – COVID and related restrictions have other costs associated with them than just who gets sick and who doesn’t.

A fascinating article here about Japan, where suicide deaths in October alone exceeded COVID deaths for all of 2020. The mental health effects of COVID and associated isolation and lockdowns is being seen in real time in some countries.

Other effects of COVID and related restrictions include deepening levels of social awkwardness as people deal with their own fears of others and reciprocal fears. Traditional understandings of how to engage socially – shaking hands, smiling – are all being deconstructed when our faces are hidden behind masks and human touch as become a social faux pas.

Long term impacts on school-aged children during COVID will be gradually revealing themselves for another decade or more. At risk students has a whole new dimension to it in the age of COVID. I developed and taught online curriculum for over a decade when it was a brand new field of technology and Internet possibility. I witnessed firsthand that online education is not for everyone, and that means both teachers and students. For those with learning styles requiring more or different than what is possible through synchronous or asynchronous online learning platforms, the risk of falling through the cracks is even more prevalent now.

And of course the working world is changing. For the first time the reality of a large percentage of employees working remotely permanently seems to make sense. But of course, not all jobs have that option. Many jobs – particularly ones with lower salaries – require people to show up in order to bag groceries and cook food and harvest crops and any number of very tangible, real-time duties. How does our society deal with this shifting away from the idea that everyone goes to work? Is working from home a benefit to the employee, and as such should the employee be taxed for that benefit in order to provide additional funds to those who have no such option? Or should employers be taxed for this option, since it will inevitably enable them to save money through smaller office space needs and other very tangible, bottom line benefits?

A vaccine is not going to make any of these issues disappear. Damage has already been done, and changes in approaches to work and personal life will continue even if a vaccine is ready or herd immunity is reached or the virus simply quits infecting at the rates it has been. COVID is going to be with us a lot longer than the actual Coronavirus might.

Education & Family

October 20, 2020

Here’s a fantastic speech by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. I find it interesting that despite scathing attacks by critics, and by a White House characterized more often than not as an unstable regime, DeVos has remained in her post since Trump appointed her in February 2017.

As our culture grapples with the need for reform on any number of fronts, family is the first place reform take place if any other kind of reform is to be successful. Repriortizing family as the fundamental unit of all the rest of society rather than usurping it through increasing governmental intervention and substitution is crucial. This means the gradual unraveling of the Gordian Knot our culture created in the turbulent revolutions of the 60’s. It means acknowledging that a two-family income is not the best way to improve families and that public education must serve the family rather than replace it.

A tough row to hoe, without a doubt. But it’s heartening that some in positions of influence see what needs to be done. I pray they – and we the people – are able to remain steadfast in accomplishing it!

Parents as Teachers

October 12, 2020

COVID has forced many parents to become teachers to their children. Our society in the last half decade has worked hard to convince parents this is a job better left to experts. But parents are their child’s first and best teacher. Not sure you agree? Here’s a great essay that defends that notion not just with Scripture but with a lot of data.

How could congregations better resource future and current parents to take on this task? How could congregations become the place where cultural assumptions – such as that both parents must work – begin to be challenged? How might congregations begin to insist that the well-being of children is not necessarily served best by economic advancement of the family unit at the expense of time for children and parents to be together?

Important questions for the future, not just in a time of pandemic.

Words Matter

September 19, 2020

As I’ve tried to argue here repeatedly over the last 14 years (!), words matter. Language matters, and we need to pay attention to what is being said and how it’s being said.

For instance, for the first time I can remember, the flu is being called a pandemic. I don’t argue whether or not the flu qualifies as a pandemic. I’m pretty sure it does – it affects a good portion of the world (at least I assume it does – I think press coverage of world health issues is normally pretty light, and since the flu recurs every year, there has been little interest historically in talking about it unless it’s somehow more dangerous or otherwise distinctive) and it affects a good portion of the population (in the neighborhood of 19 million Americans annually (as opposed to the estimated 6.7 million cases of Coronavirus reported in the US after 6 months).

What I do question is the curious fact that this year, the flu is being called a pandemic. Most of the news stories I see using this terminology are fear-mongering, painting dire possible scenarios since COVID-19 is ongoing as flu season begins. The other common denominator in stories referring to the flu as a pandemic is the emphasis on getting the flu shot.

The overall impact is one of creating fear. Fear is a particularly useful emotion as it is very powerful and hard to resist. It’s also hard to live with over a prolonged period of time (like, say six months or more) without some debilitating psychological, social, spiritual and even physical side effects beginning to manifest in some people. In a situation where one is afraid, the urge to remove the source of fear somehow can become nearly overwhelming.

How do you remove fear of illness? With the flu, the insistence is not on proper rest or diet or hygiene or anything else – it’s almost exclusively on getting the flu shot. It’s not that these other things aren’t recommended, it’s just that you never hear about them. The only thing that appears in the news and media is the importance of getting the flu shot, despite the fact the flu vaccine at best has effectiveness rates of 60% and regularly (four times between 2014 and 2019) still clocks in at less than 40% effectiveness. Still, the answer to easing fears about the flu is to get vaccinated.

Likewise, much emphasis has been placed on a vaccine as the answer to our Coronavirus fears. Certainly, government mandated social distancing and mask wearing is also emphasized, but particularly in the last month or two, the emphasis increasingly turns to vaccines and when they might be available. Part of this is due to the fact that like it or not, most people are resigned to the reality of masks and social distancing. There are mandated signs and other repeated emphases locally to reinforce these measures (though they are, at best, questionable as to the degree of their effectiveness).

So media decides to focus on the vaccine. As a political football (of course), and as the source to the end of our COVID-19 fears. Despite the fact there are nagging suspicions that immunity is short-lived (I’ve seen allegations of someone getting reinfected just a month after recovering from COVID-19. Other reports question anti-body likelihood after 12 months).

Vaccinations are the answer to our health fears. Health fears stoked in large part by incessant and uncontextualized media reporting. Big numbers provided in isolation from other numbers that might give them different meaning. Big numbers intended to create fear, and fear intended to be dealt with by recommended (and eventually, I’m sure, mandated) measures such as vaccinations.

Watch the language, folks. And watch what it does to you. I’m not saying there isn’t anything to be worried about. But what I am saying is the change in the way language is being used this year should be an equal source not just of curiosity but of concern and intrigue to you as well. Stay informed, but recognize that simply watching or reading the news is not enough to accomplish this.

Fear of Self and Others

September 18, 2020

Here’s an article that starts off interesting and wanders basically into a defense of wearing face masks during COVID-19. The initial part of the article is interesting, documenting scientific evidence of what common sense and cultural shifts should make clear to most anybody – human beings are communal creatures and as our contact with others (known or unknown) decreases, our well-being decreases.

Obviously COVID-19 has been a huge source of social isolation. Physical distancing might be helpful in reducing the transmission of the Coronavirus, but it’s definitely harmful in fostering a climate of fear, where anyone who gets to close or – God forbid! – sneezes or brushes against us leaves us feeling violated and endangered. The self-righteous pride some people take in shaming others they think are too close is chilling.

Masks also lead to isolation. Difficulty in reading facial expressions complicates even mundane and traditional interactions. Add to that the added difficulty of being heard and hearing others clearly through masks and another barrier to interaction arises. And for many places who rely not only on masks for both sides of the transaction but also those thin sheets of plastic between everyone? It’s barely possible to communicate a food order or a service request, let alone engage in a conversation.

Those most at risk of complications from COVID-19 are further isolated as assisted living facilities and senior care facilities exclude any access between residents and family members.

And even family members treat one another with distrust and fear these days, demanding COVID testing and other measures just to allow for a family visit. Certainly this is a time of extreme and unhealthy isolation. I won’t bother here whether or not such measures are necessary or useful for reducing transmission of the Coronavirus to some people – let’s assume they are. But let’s also admit and acknowledge they are most definitely detrimental to the psychological and emotional well-being of literally everyone.

But this is only the latest stage in an increasing isolation mentality in American culture. Studies long before COVID-19 indicated Americans were lonelier and reported feeling more isolated, despite a plethora a technological apps and programs that should enable us to be better and more frequently connected with all manner of family and friends. As our ability to connect with others has risen, there has been a corresponding decrease in the desire to do so.

The idea of stranger danger that arose in the 80’s has dominated our social awareness and perception of one another. As reporting news from distant locations became easier and cheaper, we perceived a rise in the number of child abductions. The fact that we were hearing about more of them in more locations contributed to this perception, even though statistical data eventually demonstrated there was no increase in the number of abductions (or rather child abductions were decreasing as a whole). Further data also demonstrated that contrary to the stranger danger mantra, which taught (and teaches still) children to be fearful and wary of anyone they don’t know, the vast majority of child abductions were not perpetrated by perverted ice cream truck drivers or other malevolent strangers but rather by trusted family members and friends of family – people the abducted child already knew.

But despite the data, the perception of strangers as a danger persists. We distrust others. We worry excessively about our children in a dangerous world where biking the street or walking to the store are now seen as worrisome activities. My generation wasn’t parented that way, and yet I suffer with a certain degree of anxiety about my children’s safety, despite knowing they need age-appropriate independence to stretch their wings and prepare them for lives as healthy adults.

This also causes ourselves to see ourselves through fearful eyes. We hesitate to reach out to strangers, fearful we will be perceived as a potential threat or danger, because that’s how we would view others – at least momentarily. The fear of being perceived or even called out as inappropriate or pervy or disconcerting pushes us back into our shells, keeps us a safe distance (whatever that means) from others and from life-changing interactions with people – just because we haven’t met them yet.

This is not accidental. As I’ve mentioned before, watching of The Twilight Zone series (or probably any mid-century television series) provides amazing glimpse of an American culture where the stranger was welcomed and indulged to an extent I find incredulous – even when that stranger exhibited odd behavior. No, our fear of others and our fear of ourselves in turn has been cultivated. And while the original intentions might have been good, there is considerably greater harm being done now than mere isolationism.

That fear of the other and the unknown is now be exploited for political ends. We are pitted us against them. We’re no longer Americans but rather ideological marionettes expected to leap and dance in anger and indignation at whatever strings are next tugged. We are expected to view anyone who doesn’t hold with our party not as another thoughtful citizen who might have some good reasons for their perspective, but as a threat and a danger to our way of life or to the well-being of a vague set of marginalized persons. And while good argument can be made we have always tended to do this in American politics (hence our two-party system, despite explicit warnings against such an arrangement by some of our Founding Fathers), the situation has reached a new level of vitriol because of our social isolation from one another and our inability and unwillingness to engage with someone we don’t know and who might disagree with us. Social media has only reinforced this echo chamber effect, further discouraging us from interacting not only with strangers, but with people we know, simply because they don’t agree with us.

We’re designed as social creatures, not simply evolved that way out of some sort of obscure, genetically-driven guide towards greater personal success. To deny both our need for connection to one another as well as our need for connection to the divine is to damage ourselves and by extension those around us. Extreme measures may be necessary for a time to protect against health emergencies and other threats, but the there’s a deeper level of isolation and estrangement that has been at work a lot longer than 2020. Rethinking our relation to the stranger is a good place to start in backtracking to a point that we can talk to not just strangers but people we know full well don’t agree with our parenting styles or our political choices or our belief (or lack thereof) in a higher power.

Copaganda and History

August 28, 2020

In light of yesterday’s post and the issues swirling in our country at the moment around police, this article detailing copaganda in the United States was very interesting. For those unaware (like myself, about an hour ago), copaganda is a term used to describe a perceived whitewashing of police and their work in our communities. It is a derogatory term, presuming that bucolic and benign depictions of police through programs such as Officer Friendly are patently false, deliberate efforts to brainwash the population (children in particular) into trusting police officers who, in reality, are an implied danger and threat to the population.

Copaganda of course belies a particular point of view. Whether it’s a full on distrust or disavowal of any form of authority or something more particular to the police force is a matter of degree. The underlying assumption is that the police are not there to benefit the population but rather to control and, by extension, fleece it in some way, although the article above doesn’t make clear at all what such whitewashing efforts actually accomplish and how they are dishonest. The fact that sometimes police officers do their jobs poorly – either because they are sinful humans who are prone to error or because they are sinful humans who sometimes deliberately do bad things – is taken as evidence that any positive understanding of police officers in general is false.

While I can’t remember any specific Officer Friendly presentations in school I no doubt had them. The name Officer Friendly is familiar even if the specifics of who might have talked to us and when are lost in the haze of aging memory.

What this and other articles fail to take into account is the rising level of violence in our society over the last century and particularly over the last 60-some years. I can understand why police officers and other law enforcement officials are a bit more reserved and cautious these days, especially in certain areas of town. They face threats that were likely impossible to even conceive of 60 years ago. While perhaps law enforcement has always been described as a field of service where you put your life on the line, it would appear in our country that has only grown more and more true over the passing decades.

But I’ll point out that depictions of police officers as friendly and well-intentioned is not simply a public relations move from the 60’s to 80’s, but rather how our culture as a whole viewed the police and, I would argue, everyone.

I’m philosophically opposed to the practice of binge-watching that seems all the rage these days. But the one series I am working my way through systematically (though slowly) is the original The Twilight Zone series. As a kid I loved when I could find this on Saturday afternoon reruns, and my fondness for the slightly tilted surreal reality hasn’t faded with time or with subsequent, disappointing efforts to revive the series. Combined with this is my sheer amazement at the output of Rod Serling and others associated with the show. Truly impressive from a creative standpoint!

The show is also a fascinating time capsule. It captures the sort of Everyman nuances from mid-century America, nuances that ideas like copaganda directly contradict and claim were false. What I see in those shows is a culture vastly different from today. It doesn’t shirk from portraying bad people, but it’s well-understood that they are bad and wrong and also atypical. The underlying assumption is that most people are honest and well-intentioned, trying to get through life. The trouble-makers and problems invariably end up being those who see themselves as somehow above such mundane matters, as exceptions to the rule, as smarter or better than everyone else. Their assumptions are invariably proven to be wrong, and not just wrong but dangerously wrong. Usually for themselves but also sometimes for many other people or all other people. If there’s a myth that needs dispelling, it might well be the myths of copaganda and exceptionalism that is so prevalent today rather than the boring assumptions of averageness 60 years ago.

In shows like The Twilight Zone, or Andy Griffith or any number of other successful mid-century shows, police are invariably depicted as basically good. Not perfect. Sometimes bumbling. Sometimes bad but in that case it’s clear the badness is their personal issue rather than a systemic problem with police as a concept. These might be futuristic, interstellar police such as in the first season episode The Lonely. They might be more ‘typical’ figures such as in the episode The Night of the Meek, where the policeman functions both as an Everyman kind of figure, a person just like you and I rather than a dark and sinister agent of nefarious groups and ideologies, but also as a protector, as the one charged with being objective when having to determine the truth in a given situation. We’re reminded that left to our own devices we are very capable of misreading others and accusing them of false things based on our preconceptions, and the local police officer who knows his beat and the people on it can serve as a protection for the marginalized. This is a theme also prevalent in Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

It’s not that the series ignores the dangers of abused authority, as in The Obsolete Man. But perhaps closer to the horrors of Hitler and Mussolini, there’s an awareness of a profound difference between human frailty and flawed judgment in a moment of crisis, and a deliberate misuse of power to systematically oppress people. The series as a whole is far more prone to prowl and probe the dark corners of our souls and hearts as common citizens rather than to seek to pin blame on an external person or authority. After all, the abuses (perceived or otherwise) of a group in power are only possible because of the sinfulness and brokenness (as well as the ignorance) in our individual hearts and minds.

Just as telling in these shows is the relatively rare presence of police and other officials. People more often than not have to figure things out for themselves rather than rely on the opinions of anonymous experts or authority figures, whether that involves an interdimensional rescue or a group of neighbors coming to grips with imminent atomic holocaust. If the implication of copaganda is that we are victims of a police state, there’s very little presence of police in these shows. That overall absence also belies the fundamental assumptions that people are essentially trying to be decent and can often, if imperfectly, deal with situations on their own.

It will no doubt be claimed that shows such as The Twilight Zone represent only one slice of human experience, and that however accurate they might be in that one slice they don’t cover every possible experience. That’s true. As it’s true of everything, including copaganda. The fact that some people have negative experiences with the police does not in and of itself prove that all police or the concept of a police force is evil and wrong. Recent events in Seattle where the police were forced out in favor of a presumably better and more benevolent self-rule are good reminders this is true, and that without the restraint provided by an authority presence, we quickly revert, Lord of the Flies style, to a basic system of rule by force and the abuse of the weak and marginalized (even if that category now becomes made up of those who were formerly not marginalized).

It might also be argued that shows like these are less depictions of what is and more wishful thinking about what could or should be, or even of what once was. But I’d argue the depiction of law enforcement in such shows is not attempting to be exceptional or in any way mythic or imaginative. What makes the shows work is that police officers – whether supporting characters or the main character – are believable. The law enforcement characters are not the fantastical ones, and that even if Andy Griffith is a bit stylized, it’s not a character beyond the realm of reality for the viewers. He doesn’t completely contradict reality and experience, even if his even-keeled temperament never gets ruffled in the course of a typical 20-minute episode.

We’re sinful and broken. For some that sinfulness and brokenness is going to be more severe and pose a greater risk to others. In an industrialized and urban society (another factor copaganda doesn’t deal with) where most often neighbors don’t know each other very well and extended family bonds are often non-existent we apparently require a group of people to help maintain order and provide assistance in emergencies. Recent events have shown that though police officers are not perfect (as nobody is!) their presence is far better, ultimately, than an absence of their presence.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. This doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to question certain aspects of law enforcement. And it certainly doesn’t mean than when bad apples are discovered we don’t deal with them. It just means that the presence of bad apples doesn’t necessarily prove a theory of an entire system and everyone in it being corrupt and a threat to the people they claim to serve. And if some police officers have to deal with inner city violence and drug and human trafficking, it doesn’t mean that some others have far more docile beats where they are indeed able to assist in visiting schools and being a proactive positive influence in young people’s lives.

The Talk

August 27, 2020

This article questioning the value of The Talk caught my eye. The column is primarily politically motivated and I’m not going to deal with the political rhetoric that predominates the second half of the article.

I’d like to say to Ms. Brazile that I am not black or a person of color or a minority in the traditional usages of those words in our culture. But I had The Talk as well. I don’t remember the specifics but it was a very clearly communicated lesson. Police are here to protect us and as such we assist towards that end by being polite and deferential. I must be polite and deferential to use Ms. Brazile’s words. But perhaps my must is different than hers and the version of The Talk she seems to imply.

Because while I have no doubt police and other first responders were highlighted as people deserving of our respect and gratefulness, politeness and deference were something I was taught everyone deserved. My parents, my teachers, my neighbors, strangers – everyone. I learned these basic concepts in the classroom. But I also learned them at home. And at home they could explain the deeper reason and reality behind these talks. The reason why others deserved this and it was incumbent upon me (must) to give it is that I am a follower of Jesus Christ. And the command He gives me isn’t simply to grudgingly pretend to give politeness and deference but rather to actually love my neighbor, whomever that neighbor happens to be at the moment. And further still, I am commanded to love even my enemies, to pray for those who persecute me (Matthew 5, Luke 6). So it isn’t just a matter of whether I agree with the person in front of me or think they’re doing their job properly or even whether I know for a fact they are doing their job improperly, I am not released from the command to love them. And love encompasses both politeness and deference.

That was my talk, given not just once, and my talks started long before I was a teenager.

The Talk you refer to sounds different. I don’t know or presume to judge what your religious leanings are. And Lord knows in our cultural rejection of the concept of God and the authority of the Bible, lots of alternative concepts are forced into service to convince people how they should live their lives with others. Concepts like tolerance and kindness, things I’ve written about critically here over the years because they can’t possibly replace love your neighbor as yourself.

The Talk you describe sounds a lot like a talk about self-preservation and self-defense. It sounds like a talk aimed at saving someone’s life when something has gone terribly wrong, not as how you ought to be with everyone, all the time. It sounds like a talk that presumes the worst about the police and frankly, everyone else. It sounds like a talk that is ultimately not very convincing because it comes far too late, and is far too limited in scope, and it is likely being given by someone who doesn’t really believe The Talk themselves, though they undoubtedly had a similar talk at some point in their lives.

However I’m going to go out on a limb here and make an assumption and an assertion. And that is that The Talk you refer to is not the first talk or the only talk on this topic. I’m willing to wager that nearly every child in every school room in this country received a talk multiple times at a very early age. A talk aimed at teaching them how to behave with others, to show courtesy and respect to authorities and those older than themselves. A talk, even, that described police and firefighters as heroes who are here to help us.

But what also seems evident is that though nearly every single person in our country probably had those talks, there are some people who either weren’t listening or, more likely, heard other talks as well. Talks that asserted courtesy and politeness and deference weren’t default ways of interacting with other people. That the police were enemies, not friends. That you have to fake politeness and deference because they certainly aren’t warranted. Regardless of the situation.

Ms. Brazile questions the efficacy and appropriateness of The Talk if it isn’t working. But I’ve watched an alleged video of this latest shooting in Kenosha. And as near as I can tell there isn’t an ounce of politeness or deference being demonstrated anywhere in this video. I hear people screaming – which surely can’t help the situation. I hear moments of silence that I assume are blocking out profanity. I see what appears to be a young man struggling against police rather than cooperating with them and apparently ignoring their commands for some reason. It’s not a good quality video, and it might not even be authentic in this age of digital forgeries and deep fakes. But I’m assuming it’s authentic until I learn otherwise, and I’m making that assumption in good faith rather than in an intentional desire to skew things.

The Talk isn’t being followed in this video by any of the bystanders or apparently the young man at the center of it. I don’t know what happened right before this video or right after it. I’m not defending the use of lethal force in this or any other particular situation, though I readily admit lethal force is sometimes necessary and appropriate.

I’m simply observing that for a community of people you assert to have given and received The Talk, none of them are following it, as near as I can tell. Which leads me to question your conclusion – that The Talk is nothing more than wasted words. You assert this young man was innocent and was merely trying to help out a situation, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on in this admittedly grainy and shaky video. Regardless of what this young man thought he was doing or intended to do, it ended up with him disregarding The Talk as you described it. Which means perhaps it isn’t The Talk that’s deficient.

Perhaps it means instead we need to really look closely at the other talks this young man probably heard. Because it’s those talks he appears to be listening to, for whatever reason. And listening to those talks never is helpful to a person. In this case, he appears to have been seriously wounded. But he might have just as easily been injured to a lesser degree while struggling with the police. Or he might just as easily have ended up arrested and charged with resisting arrest or interfering in an officer’s duty or any number of other charges. All of those outcomes are bad. All are tragic. There is no outcome, no situation where ignoring The Talk you describe makes any sense.

So perhaps instead of blaming The Talk, or the police, or systemic racism, we need to examine the other talks young people are hearing. Because those talks don’t seem to be helping anything or anyone.