What’s so funny about peace, love, and academic theories?

While I should know better than to be surprised by anything anymore, I admit to being befuddled by the attacks on critical race theory. Wait, before you explain to me about white supremacy or people who stand for nothing making things up to fight over, yes, I get that.

It’s just that from a social science perspective, critical race theory is a complex theoretical viewpoint, a lens with which to analyze a problem. The metaphor of a lens is often used for this kind of research, and it’s an apt one. If I take a photo with a wide view lens and another with a close-up lens, I will get different results even though I am aiming my camera in the same direction at what appears to be the same subject. So if I study a topic using critical race theory, I’m applying this lens because it will bring to light specific issues worthy of investigation. And, um, it doesn’t exactly seem radical to suggest that discrimination and injustice based on race are worthy of investigation.

I am not well-read in the theoretical underpinnings of critical race theory, though I suspect I would benefit greatly from it (my dissertation research question fit best with activity theory, in case you’re wondering, and I feel confident you weren’t). I could say the same about postmodern theory, and there are threads of that theory which I also find inviting, from zombies (neither dead nor alive) to unraveling tapestries (of meaning). What I most recall about these theoretical lenses is that they are complex. Which is why, though I am definitely mad about the white supremacy and power grabs that fuel these attacks, I find myself trying not to laugh when I hear legislatures want to outlaw critical race theory. It makes me think, will they outlaw postmodern theory next? I remember being a middle school teacher and what we would have thought if someone told us we were forbidden to teach postmodern theory. It would just be like, “Um, will I know if I was teaching that?” And there would be eye rolls.

In my experience, theoretical perspectives are full of subtlety and nuance. You rarely claim anything to be absolutely true, so even if you had some enterprising public school teacher determined to inculcate our youth in postmodern theory, well, actually, postmodern theory suggests that sentence could never occur, so let me try again. Theory is subtle, flexible, evolving, with ample room for dissent. To outlaw a theory is to outlaw, well, something as insubstantial as a summer breeze. There’s something there, but what is it? And it will be gone before we can even try to take hold.

I know, I know. It never makes sense. These tinpot dictators in our state legislatures don’t want to make sense, just trouble. And waste time, energy, and resources just when we need them the most.

Here’s a thought—maybe I will call my Senators to urge they pass the For the People Act (S.1) every time I see any misguided references to critical race theory.

We regret to inform you that you were not, after all, elected to Student Council.

It turns out that we have recently become aware of the potential for fraud in our past system of counting all votes and naming the winners of the most votes to our student council.

It has been explained that our previous system was part of a leftist, radical agenda that runs counter to everything we believe here at Freedom Patriot Public High. Therefore, we conducted a recount by allocating a set number of votes per hallway, regardless of how many students are actually in each hallway. As you can imagine, this made a significant difference, especially because the detention room is located in a hallway otherwise full of lockers. We can now announce that the most votes for your position went to Ima Dyck, who doesn’t appear to be enrolled here, but we aren’t sure that’s actually necessary, as long as our approach to voting doesn’t involve counting all votes equally.

We are so relieved to have nipped this problem in the bud, now that we are aware that some people were saying it was socialistic, if not satanic and cannibalistic, depending on where they were hovering in the alphabet. It is critical that our voting systems ensure that the elected are never held to account by the electorate.

We look forward to the way this new system supports more traditional values such as despair and cruelty.

Proudly yours,

Principal, Freedom Patriot Public High

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Day One: Nanowrimo

It’s November, and some of us know what that means. No, not the election, but if that’s on your mind, this is the video that is giving me a burst of hope and determination despite some desperate acts of repression this weekend. And visit votesaveamerica.com to explore how you might help.

November is *also* National Novel Writing Month, the month where writers around the world choose to set a goal of writing at least 50,000 words on a new project, usually a novel, in 30 days. Or they set whatever goal they want because it’s just a chance to say, let’s write a lot, have fun, and not worry about getting it all right or making it all make sense. That’s my favorite kind of writing–writing for the joy of writing.

As someone who likes to manage time well, at least sometimes, I love that the power strategy to succeed is to write at least 1,667 words a day. Since I wasn’t 100% confident my head was in the right space to write, I decided to aim for just 1,667 words today. And my opening scene actually ended right at 1,668.

Seems like a good sign. Find out more at www.nanowrimo.org

So other than everything, how is it going?

Even before the pandemic, I wouldn’t always treat the question, “How are you?” as an empty exercise in good manners. If the right person asks and there is something to complain about, my answer was almost never “Fine.” Still, I also sometimes answer “Great,” in a hearty voice, mostly to show how happy I am to see the person again (or at least, the box with their face in it on my computer screen). But given the state of things in the U.S. right now, that answer seems off the rails. Who can be doing great when record numbers of Americans are contracting a disease that carries a risk of permanent disability, even death? And the risk of passing that fate to others, carrying the weight of that knowledge forever? Who can be doing great when record numbers of Americans are unemployed with every option running dry and the U.S. Senate is dominated by a man only interested in legislation that will protect businesses when they carelessly expose their employees to the disease?

Meanwhile, an election year that has been a decade long inches to a close, as voters choose between someone who has the potential to conduct a FDR-like Presidency or someone who will help us find out what would have happened if Gollum didn’t bite the ring off of Frodo’s finger. (Well, maybe we’re already finding out. I read today that the current administration is trying to undermine Amnesty International, Oxfam, and Human Rights Watch. I guess I should know better now, but it still feels so disorienting to imagine the people who orchestrate these policies. What can it be like to be so deeply indifferent to human suffering?)

So much is going wrong that I feel like a character in one of those movies when the asteroid is about to hit Earth or space invaders are filling the sky, shooting laser beams at anyone who is in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Yet unlike those movies, instead of uniting to stave off the asteroid or aliens, we are supposed to find ways to go about business as usual. Ding! My phone reminds me of my next online meeting. Kaboom! Somewhere outside my window, another one bites the dust, stricken by disease or economic despair.

I don’t know what will happen on Election Day. I’m hoping for the FDR-like guy to win, of course, preferably surfing a wave of blue. No matter who wins, a long winter lies ahead. And rebuilding the Shire may take a lifetime.

Did you vote yet?

It’s voting day, and I just spent a few hours encouraging people to vote.

I already voted during early voting because nothing scares me more than missing the chance to vote. One time I drove past my voting precinct and saw what at first glance looked like campaign signs and volunteers, and I literally clutched at my chest, wondering if I had forgotten to vote. (Long story short it was not a vote but some kind of fundraiser. Phew).

I don’t care if it is a vote for second assistant insurance fire commissioner, someone I don’t know wanting to do a job I don’t understand—I plan to cast a ballot no matter what.

Another vote here signThere are no perfect candidates, but there are usually those who are willing to work hard to make sense of sometimes mindlessly boring policy issues, and sometimes a few no-win situations. I will have to accept that none of them see the world exactly as I do, and we won’t agree on everything— but it usually is easy enough to identify which candidate will do the most good for the community. Yet even the best of them will make mistakes, or run up against systemic challenges that will take generations and a few miracles to overcome. I know that the least I can do is show up to vote. And, of course, vote out anyone who violates the public trust.

No one can promise me any candidate will be perfect, nor any problem easy to solve. To me, though, there is one thing that is perfect, and that is my vote. The vote matters so much that American history is riddled with bloody battles to gain the vote in the first place, and then to expand it (too slowly) to include more and more people.CDE810FC-6952-4331-B6C2-EBA8BCA122DD.c9088e8f602e4755bd25acb43a9d6047

Even though the constitution says most of us can vote, there will always be people both foreign and domestic who attempt to interfere with our access to vote, not to mention any chance to be well-informed as voters. And fighting for the vote means engaging in an imperfect and endless battle, but it is one I believe in because I believe in the vote, both as a symbol of faith in what humans can do together and as a practical matter that says in this one small way, I can make the world a tiny bit better.

Which is just to say, did you vote yet? You should.

 

 

1619 Project: Hannah-Jones

It is my firm belief that any time Ms. Nikole Hannah-Jones has something to say, I need to listen.

Indeed, she says everything that needs to be said, with both precision and artistry, in the first article in the 1619 series in the New York Times Magazine.

So instead of describing her article at all, especially because I want everyone to read it, I will simply point to the title, which aptly signals the central premise: Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.

Every line in this article matters, which is a challenge to me since I thought it might make sense to highlight a quote or two per article as a way to pay homage to this series.

Still, this one is worth a look:

And so the inhumanity visited on black people by every generation of white America justified the inhumanity of the past. (Hannah-Jones)

(Chilling. Disturbing. Accurate. Perhaps one reason I relish this series is this hope—that if mainstream culture can acknowledge the inhumanity of the past perhaps we can reduce the inhumanity of the present.)

And…

The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance. Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did. (Hannah-Jones)

(Amen.)

Today I also discovered that the New York Times created a podcast based on this series—the first one relates to her article:
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/podcasts/1619-slavery-anniversary.html? 

Time traveler blues

These days I teeter, as I think many of us do, between joy in my daily life and despair over what is not being done to save our environment, —or, for that matter, our democracy.

More often than I like, I think about how a response to the history of the rise of Nazism and the atrocities that followed is to wonder, if it were possible to travel through time to warn everyone, could we stop what happened?

Brighter people than I already know the answer to this question.

Decades ago, I learned that a beloved Jewish couple in our community had lived in Britain in their twenties during World War II before immigrating to the United States. I gathered my courage to ask if they knew anything about the concentration camps before the war ended, and they said everyone heard rumors that they assumed were propaganda, too awful to be credible.

I imagine a time traveler from twenty or thirty years in the future risking everything to warn us about the need to protect our environment and to elect more democratic leadership. He or she could arrive in 2016, or perhaps even next year in 2020, and tell us of the great human suffering that even now is unfolding.

Here’s a snapshot of this week in America–basic human rights are trampled in pursuit of short-term financial gains for the few, including brutal treatment of refugees, particularly children. Devastating floods and mass shootings are on the rise. Our election systems are under constant attack by international adversaries, yet the Senate’s response is to dismantle election protections. As for the environment, just when we desperately need to make courageous and sweeping changes in hopes of sustaining life on this planet, our administration is pushing full-steam ahead with policies to make things worse, not better. Stop me if I tell you something you didn’t already know.

That’s what our time traveler will learn: We already know, though some may dismiss it as propaganda, and others as God’s will.

As I ponder the history of the past few centuries, we have often faced threats and heard warnings, and I can find a few examples in which we managed to make some advances in terms of saving the environment and expanding democratic rights.

Still, knowing we are in danger has not been enough. I wonder what our time traveler would do next, in the face of so much inertia? Perhaps the same as we must. Knock on any door that will open, push for better political solutions, bring up the topics no one wants to discuss, refuse to accept inaction, even in the face of those who embrace it as ideology.

And take time now and then to hold our loved ones close and savor perfect fall mornings, because time is slipping away.

Mississippi

So I woke to the news this morning that a miracle did not occur in Mississippi last night. I am sending out (silent) condolences to those on the losing side, as I did for Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

As a Southerner, I feel the need to say to those who lost: I see you. I know you are there. I have been there too often in my own state, disappointed by the result of a vote, and, frankly, by some of the individuals that stand before the nation to represent us.

Our voices may not be breaking through, yet. But we are still here. The story of the South is still being told.

So today, tomorrow, and each day after that, let’s write a new one.

How to articulate democracy

I am trying to gather my courage to call my Senators tomorrow to urge them to demonstrate their commitment to voting rights, which, alas, they won’t (which is why it takes courage because it feels futile, but necessary). I thought it might help for me to write about why democracy matters, and, this will surprise you, it turns out to be a difficult topic to address without disintegrating into pablum. At least, it’s not a quick write. One would think that decrying tyranny and embracing democracy would be easy enough, but no, it will take more work on my part. Especially because I stumble into the challenge that it’s hard to focus on the desire for democracy in our political spheres without recognizing the lack of democracy in our social spheres. And if tackling the topic of why everyone deserves a fair say in our politics is tough, imagine how tough it is to address the layers of injustice in how we treat one another in our daily lives. Or even to let myself recognize them.

I will keep trying. For now, here is what I believe, or what I want to believe: everyone matters, and everyone deserves the right to vote.

Unpacking it, fully articulating it, that’s another thing altogether.

Be skeptical but not cynical.

I fear my country is being harmed by a penchant for dualism—yes, I know you hear that all the time, but I won’t rant about it today. Instead, this is an invitation to tackle the challenges we face as a skeptic but not a cynic.

Take voting, for example. Is it reasonable to be skeptical that some of the candidates who are stepping into the ring who seem so inspiring, and there are many this year, may not be as wonderful as we hope or need or want? Or that somehow they will let us down or themselves down? Or even that they might be perfect, and some of them come pretty close, yet they will be up against almost impossible odds in trying to help the people they represent? Sure, be skeptical. Hope for the best, make the best choice possible based on the information available, but leave room for skepticism that positive change is rarely quick or easy. And that humans are, well, human.

But don’t give into cynicism. Cynicism says not only might things go wrong, but they will go wrong. Cynicism argues that we should never bother, we should never try, that nothing we think matters actually matters. That everything we build will be washed away in the tide.

Cynicism leaves us vulnerable in dangerous ways. Cynicism is a fancy way to say, “I give up, and you should, too.” Here’s the sneaky part: Cynicism sounds smart. Cynics get to claim they were right when things go wrong, while ignoring the responsibility we all have to one another to at least try. The truth is, to be cynical is to be lazy. It is much easier to give up than to do something, so I guess it’s lucky for the cynics that they sound smart, because… how do I say this? it’s not smart. Cynicism means giving up any bit of power or choice or opportunity you may have (and I always concede that these things are not fairly distributed), but if I’m dealt some bad cards, I’d rather play them than throw down the hand and storm out of the room. Play the game. Build something that matters to you. Yes, we can be skeptical about how long it will last. In the case of writers, we probably should keep our day jobs. But build it anyway. And if it falls down, start again. Live this life now.

Be skeptical, but not cynical.

And if you haven’t voted yet, what the heck? Go vote.