There’s Only One Conversation Right Now

It’s tough for me to think about anything else than the fact that kids are being shot to death in our schools. Today, I went to see Black Panther, and I was all excited to sit down right now and write a review of it, but as I attempted to work on my first sentence, the only thought in my head was, “Kids are being massacred in our schools.”

In such a reality, how can there be anything else for us to talk about?

We read on the news that gunmen attacked a church in Iraq, that a drone accidentally dropped a bomb on a funeral march in Afghanistan, that hundreds of women have gone missing in Mexico, and we read these things and hear these things, and we think to ourselves how lucky we are to live in the United States, where these things don’t happen.

Instead, we have regular slaughters of school children. How lucky we are.

When are Americans going to wake up to reality? We are not the best nation on Earth because there is no best nation on Earth. It’s not a competition!

Every single country on this planet has problems — deep, systematic problems that bedevil them incessently, horrors of their own making, internal issues that cannot be solved by pointing a finger elsewhere.

Israel has their issues. India has their issues. China, Russia, Syria, Sudan. Germany has their issues.

The United States has them too.

And right now, without a doubt, our biggest issue is that we’ve designed a system that is willing to sacrifice hundreds of innocent children in order to maintain the status quo.

That’s how hard the right wing is fighting this.

They have to know that putting armed guards in our schools is a bad idea. It is such a double-down on the status quo that it’s not even funny.

There is no superhero who is going to come in and stop this. Trying to stop someone who is dead-set on being violent requires such an insane amount of discipline on the part of so many different people that there is no way we’re ever going to be able to stop them all (see: ISIS), and in the meantime, our armed guards will be “accidentally” killing (mostly black) boys as a result of our national paranoia, ensuring that the slaughter of the innocents will continue.

They have to know adding more guns won’t work. Which means that if they’re fighting this hard, they must be willing to sacrifice innocent children in order to maintain the status quo — i.e., a nation in which everyone is armed, everyone is paranoid, and everyone is a potential enemy.

It has to stop. We all have to put down the guns and trust one another. We don’t all have to agree, but we do have to trust each other.

At this point, the right is so willing to fight for the status quo that they’re attempting to stifle the rights of the victims to be heard.

We also have to remember that the right (and the left) are being deliberately manipulated by the Russian government. We know for a fact that the Russians are currently spreading misinformation about the shooting in the hopes of increasing the national discord, and that elements of the nation’s mass media seem as if they’re complicit.

This is where President Trump comes in.

The angry right maintains that Sec. Clinton and President Obama were treasonous politicians with a secret mission to destroy the American experiment. If they hate Sec. Clinton and President Obama as much as I hate — yes, hate — President Trump, I have to forgive them their insanity.

Because, right now, I am convinced that President Trump is deliberately acting in the interests of the Russian government.

How did the Soviet Union fall? It wasn’t because our military overpowered theirs. It was because our culture and economy were able to sustain themselves longer than theirs.

We were able to do that because the U.S.S.R. was in internal disarray. The Soviet Union began in the arms of a madman, and for decades, Russian politicians had to subsume their own thoughts to the errors and wickedness of their leader. When Stalin died, the Soviets tried to return to the principles of Lenin, but a rearguard of former Stalinists remained, creating within the leadership of the Soviet Union a veritable civil war, one with imprisonment, exiles, and casualties.

The two sides weren’t only fighting about how best to defend themselves against a well-armed and increasingly aggressive United States; they also fought about farm yields, education policies, labor practices, women’s rights, and more.

More than anything else, it was the internal divisions that destroyed the Soviet Union. Russia declared itself more important than the other republics, thus deserving of more power and control, but this assertion only sowed the seeds of discontent among the outer republics, creating rich soil for revolt.

In addition, the U.S.S.R. had to contend with its loss of life and treasure in the mountains of Afghanistan, the ever-sucking vaccuum that is a nation at war.

Putin knows all of this. He knows it better than perhaps anyone on the planet. And so he knows that for the United States to fall from its perch, all he needs to do is stoke the flames on our increasingly-intensifying internal debates.

(And, as we did to the Soviet Union, bleed our military using proxy fighters in the Middle East.)

Who better to create, maintain, and intensify internal conflict than Donald J. Trump? As a former professional wrestler with a personality that revels in acting like the heel, Mr. Trump could know no bigger stage than history and be a part of no bigger fight than one between the Russians and the United States.

He is a man you have to respect on some level. It’s true that he leaped into this world with a golden parachute stapled to his scalp, but it’s also true that he’s been looked down upon as a failure by vast swaths of his fellow Americans, and yet, through whatever means necessary, he was able to attain virtually every capitalist goal: money (check), sex (check), power (check).

At the very least, the man seems to know how to play the game (regardless of how conscious he is of that knowledge).

And that’s the thing: for a narcissist/capitalist such as Donald Trump, who is truly only in it for himself, it doesn’t matter what history has to say about him; he just wants to make a big impact while he’s here. He’s the bomb with the smile on its face.

I am completely capable of believing that Donald J. Trump accepted some deal with the Russians where he agreed to play an active role in the downfall of the United States. I truly believe that he is a puppet of Putin’s, and that Putin’s overall goal is the disintegration of the nation.

Putin wants to see the West crumble, just like his Soviet Union. He doesn’t need to see it explode. He’d rather watch it pick itself apart like a diseased crazy man digging his fingers deep beneath his skin, screaming at unseen voices while attempting to rip out bugs that aren’t actually there.

Putin wants to see us crumble.

And we are so broken already, so willing to condemn our neighbors to hell due to the color of the political sign on their lawn. How many steps away are Democrats and Republicans from becoming the Sunni and Shia of Washington D.C.?

The Democrats are saying, “Put down your guns. We don’t trust you.”

And the Republicans are saying, “No.”

But why are they saying no? What don’t they trust about the Democrats?

It’s my understanding that Republicans think the Democrats want to do to the United States what the Communist Party did to the Soviet Union. They imagine jackbooted thugs attacking their property under the name of “the government,” but only after the government bleeds them dry with taxes.

Republicans believe that if they put down their guns, the Democrats will literally tax them to death, creating in the process an economy and a society that is so broken that crime will be rampant and their lives and their families will be constantly in danger.

What they don’t understand is that their guns do not protect them. What protects them is their money.

The difference between the Democratic Party and the Communist Party is that the Communist Party advocates for revolution.

If I were a rich person in Bolshevik Russia, I too would want my guns.

But the Democratic Party does not advocate for revolution; too much of their money flows throughout the system. Sen. Sanders may be calling for a revolution, but the Democratic Party roundly defeated him in 2016, and too many people in the party bureaucracy still blame him (in part) for Sec. Clinton’s loss in the general election to nominate him as the standard bearer for their party in 2020.

Somewhere, people still imagine inciting a Communist Revolution, but such revolutions will only ever be localized disturbances in the global system. Money flows through globalization like information through the Internet: you can’t stop it because it always redirects itself.

The Democratic Party wants to make changes to the status quo, but they also want to make those changes cautiously (too cautiously for my taste). They believe that universal healthcare is the eventual goal; that common sense gun laws ought to be enacted and enforced; that we consider families and individuals before we consider people en masse; and that the power of corporations has grown stronger than our democracy, and so must, in their turn, be weakened.

But Democratic politicians, like Republicans, also have a lot of money that depends on the status quo, and while they’re willing to give up some of their money to inch society closer to their Democratic goals, they’re not willing to risk everything they have to do so.

Put simply, as someone who sympathizes with Communism, I’m telling you: there will never be a Communist revolution in the United States.

But there may very well be another civil war.

On one side will be a crowd of open-armed minorities, women, and young people, saying with tears in their eyes, “Put down your guns.” And on the other will be a disciplined force of heavily armed white men, sneering and saying, “No.”

And thousands of miles away, seated on his black throne, will be Vladimir Putin, smiling wide, rubbing his hands, and gleefully whispering, “Yes, my pretty. Yes.”

And still the children are slaughtered.

The Path to the Dark Side

I’m trying to understand the other side of the argument. I truly am. I don’t believe that any sane person can witness the latest carnage of school children and say the status quo is acceptable.

Which means every sane person agrees that something has to change.

I can only imagine three outcomes to the current national debate. The first is to put armed officials in and around our schools to defend the students against all attackers. The second is to put meaningful restrictions on the right of American citizens to bear arms. The third is some combination of the two.

I think most sane people would agree that, regardless of which outcome our elected representatives decide upon, we need to make further changes if we’re to create a meaningful reduction in attempted schoolhouse shootings.

Because this is not just about whether we should or should not restrict the private ownership of guns. It’s also about whatever it is that creates angry, young, white men.

I’m not talking about the stereotypical Trump voter or the horrifying rise of white nationalism (which, for the record, is horrible because, in this nation, whites already possess the majority, so all white nationalism can do is further oppress the oppressed, as opposed to black nationalism, which is more about a rising up, rather than a pushing down, but I digress…).

I’m talking about the angry, young, white men who sit back and strategize the optimum method for murdering their peers, and then have the discipline and wherewithal to follow through with their plan.

These are not children acting on a whim.

Last week, in my hometown, the police arrested an angry, young, white man for attempted aggravated murder, attempted first-degree murder, and attempted aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He had been planning for weeks, if not months, to go into his former high school and just start shooting. He was not arrested on his way to do the act. He had let his plan slip to some of his peers, and he called an old classmate of his who happened to be in the Parkland school last week when the shooting happened, and he asked her to describe to him in detail exactly what happened in the school. It was partly based on this phone call, and because an observant mother of one of his peers, that the boy was arrested before he could act.

The boy confessed to planning the massacre, and he told the police there wasn’t anything they could do to stop it. If he got out of jail, he was going to try again.

Right now, the motive seems shady at best — there may have been some bullying, but it’s not exactly clear from the public evidence — but it’s not even the motive that I want to talk about.

It’s the planning. We saw it at Columbine, at Newtown, and at Parkland. It’s the weeks and months of planning.

These things take time. They take price comparisons for weapons, repeated forays for target practice, and pages and pages of writings or hours and hours of video.

But it’s not just the planning. It’s that moment, weeks or months prior, when they decide they’re going to plan. What was perhaps once a flight of fancy becomes a conscious and deliberate plan.

Why?

The flight of fancy comes, I think, from the media. I don’t doubt that violent movies and violent video games give us permission to more vividly imagine our most violent thoughts, thoughts provoked by current and past events in our collective history, which allows perhaps once forbidden thoughts to become palatable to our moral sensibilities, themselves shaped by generational changes in the processes of parenting, education, and the worship of religion.

But none of those things cause a flight of fancy to suddenly transform into a conscious and deliberate plan.

So what does? What makes imaginary violence turn real?

In one short story I wrote for grad school, my angry, young, white, male protagonist dragged a white pregnant woman guns-a-blazing into a hospital where he forced a doctor to oversee the birth of the woman’s child, all while fighting off a swat team of police. When the child is born with black skin, the protagonist looks at the woman disappointingly, then shoots the baby in the face.

(PS: My advisor that semester was black, and I valued his opinion immensely).

There’s a lot of psychology in that story (especially when I think back to how much of it was written on a whim), but at no point during or after the writing of that story have I ever worried about whether I would enact such violence. The very notion of it is unthinkable to me, despite my ability to imagine it in emotionally resonant detail.

Why did my objectively horrible flight of fancy not turn into a conscious and deliberate plan? What, in my own upbringing, did my family, my society, my culture get right?

It wasn’t respect. My style of conversation can be incredibly disrespectful, turning sharp and personal in sometimes selfishly obtuse ways, and I’m not immune to lashing out physically at those who annoy me.

It wasn’t hard work either. Ask anyone, I’m among the laziest people they know.

It wasn’t discipline. I disobeyed my mother and father plenty during childhood, and I continue to disobey them in many ways today. The detentions and in-school suspensions I received in high school didn’t deter me from doing the same things over and over. The failing grades, the high-interest credit cards, the obscene student loan debt — there’s virtually no discipline here.

But something, something, stops me from turning my violent flights of fancy into a conscious and deliberate plan.

It’s not fear. As an atheist, I like to think of myself as relatively impervious to fear. Oh, there’s anxiety galore, but anxiety is not fear. As a child who grew up with an insane phobia of dogs, I’ve known true fear, and fear does not stop me from turning violent thoughts into violent actions.

So what is it?

Whatever it is. That’s what we need to work on in our children.

We don’t need to remove violent video games or stop production on violent movies. Rap, punk, heavy metal: none of them can cause a child to deliberately plan and carry out a massacre. Our ability to imagine violence is not the problem, and if we remove it from our media, all we’ll do is perpetuate oppression, violence being a sometimes necessary response to oppression, and thus being sometimes necessary to imagine.

Nor do we need to put God back in the schools. I live my existence without the fear of God and without the lived sense of His mercy, and yet still, I don’t plan and deliver a hellfire of violence upon the innocents of the world. God may be good, but He’s not good for everybody; whatsmore, He’s definitely not necessary.

So what is it then? What do we need to change in these angry, young, white men? They don’t need more respect, more discipline, more fear, or more God, and they don’t need to reduce their consumption of violent media. None of those things are required to not turn their flights of fancy into real, deliberate violence.

But what is?

The answer is so simple I didn’t even notice it until now, even though I’ve shared posts about all throughout the past week.

We simply need to turn angry, young, white men into plain young, white men.

Stop the anger, and you stop the massacre of the innocents.

An Argument About Guns

I argue on Facebook a lot. I’m that guy. You got an opinion on something? Let’s start arguing, see where it takes us.

I have principles and values that I attempt to defend, but I don’t get angry if someone attacks them. After all, if they can’t stand up to an attack, then maybe they’re not worth defending.

One of my principles is that guns create deadly violence. They are not the only weapons to do so, but they are — in fact and deed — manufactured to create deadly violence. It may not be violence to a human being, but it is violence to a target, whatever that target may be.

The absence of guns, however, does not mean the absence of violence. Violence is a by-product of nature, and nature is everywhere and for all time, therefore, the potential for violence can never reach absolute zero.

I accept this.

What I do not accept is the idea that adding a weapon to any situation will actually reduce the potential for deadly violence. The presence of a weapon threatens violence, regardless of whether the weapon is used. It increases, in every instance, the potential for deadly violence.

This is not an opinion. I understand it as a statement of fact, one hardly worth defending, since it seems so rock steady and impervious.

I do, however, note potential cracks, areas where, while suffering a direct attack, my pillar of an argument may — in fact and deed — require my direct support.

The constructing of an argument is the concentration of diverse forces upon a central point, and just as in the construction of a bridge, where the best way to channel forces is through a series of triangles, the best way to construct an argument is to triangulate a central point. That means one side of the argument must address the forces marshaled in favor of a counterargument.

The central point of my argument is that guns create deadly violence, but the counterargument I addressed defends the thesis that guns do not create the potential for violence.

I have committed the fallacy of a straw-man argument. Not even the biggest gun proponent would defend the position that guns do not create the potential for violence; instead, and more reasonably, they argue that guns are the best answer to actual violence.

And in that, we differ.

There will be another school shooting and dozens of children and teachers will die. We live in a violent world, and school shootings are one manifestation of that violence. I accept that.

But gun proponents do not think I ought to accept that. They believe that they truly cherish every innocent life, and they want to defend that innocent life with everything they’ve got. I respect that.

But I do not think it is possible to defend every innocent life.

We live in nature, and nature is a violent place that we can never escape. It creates in us the potential for violence in the same way that it creates in us the oxygen that keeps our bodies alive. The potential for violence is a condition of our being, the ground state of our existence.

That is why I argue about reducing the potential for violence; because we can never get actual violence to zero. Gun proponents, to their credit, argue about reducing actual violence, and they refuse to accept their failure.

I would like to respect and support both positions, but I cannot accept a reality in which there is never any failure.

I do not believe in utopia. I do not believe in perfection. This is a byproduct of my not believing in God. Because I do not believe in God, I am not required to defend any one position as perfect.

Christians believe in a triangular God because they believe that talking about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit best allows them to concentrate the weight of their wisdom on one central and holy principle: a single, perfect God. They believe that God’s righteous anger, as well as His infinite mercy, reveals the way we ought to live in moments small and large, and that this revelation is experienced through the grace of His Holy Spirit.

I don’t very much disagree with them; but in the end, I only accept their argument as wisdom, and not as fact.

Because I do not accept the existence of a single, perfect God, I do not have to accept any idea of perfection as a possible fact. I do not believe in nor feel I ought not to strive for the creation of perfection.

Instead, I believe in and feel I ought to strive for the best way to improve the potential for love and/or reduce the potential for violence.

That means, in this instance, I strive to reduce, while knowing we can never eliminate, the threat of violence to our school children.

Any positive argument I make from this position is therefore unacceptable to gun proponents, and perhaps it ought to be. With them, I am not willing to accept actual violence befalling my own child, or the children I teach each day, or my own wife, or the children she teaches each day. With them, I want our schools to be free from actual violence, and with them, I don’t deny that guns are perhaps the best way to confront actual violence.

But we can never free every child from the potential for violence, and so that’s where I choose to put my effort — to reduce the potential rather than to stop the actual (which, in all instances, we will never be able to do).

I do not believe that putting guns in our schools will actually reduce the potential for violence.

I can imagine, because we see it happen every day, armed authority figures killing actually innocent men and boys. It will be a single story on the news, perhaps lasting a month at most (depending on the circumstances), and then the authority figure(s) will be suspended, fired, and perhaps even convicted, and the story will go away.

And then, maybe a month or two later, an armed authority figure will kill a single armed shooter, preventing the body count in one attack from rising any higher (though almost definitely not reducing it to zero). The story will be incredible for its real and actual heroism, and the number of proponents for removing the guns from our schools will reduce.

And then another actually innocent man or boy will be killed, and the authority figure will be suspended, fire, or convicted. And then another, and then another, and then perhaps another school shooter will be stopped by an official’s gun.

And that will just become our reality.

The number of school shootings by armed and angry boys will eventually reduce, but never equal zero, and yet still, unencumbered, the number of dead actually innocent kids gunned down by armed authority figures will go on and on, and because the school shooters keep coming, even if in drastically reduced numbers, no positive argument will be heard that suggests removing the armed authority figures from the school will actually make every school shooter stop.

And actually innocent children will continue to die.

That cannot be helped. I don’t care how many guns you throw at the problem.

Gun proponents envision a future where every child accepts the presence of guns in both their personal and their public lives, but in that instance, the child becomes conditioned to a reality where there exists a drastically high potential for violence — violence in self-defense, perhaps, but still, and always, violence.

But I’m trying to envision a future where every child and every adult thinks of schools as sacrosanct. Shooters won’t stay away because they are afraid. They will stay away because of respect.

I teach in a school for students who have been diagnosed with emotional or behavioral disorders. Many of them have been expelled from other schools because their presence increased the potential for violence. The state does not know what to do with these kids, and so they send them to us.

Our entire school is based on the concept of respect. We respect the students, and in return, we expect them to respect us. They often don’t. But our response never changes. In this one place, they are not required to earn or maintain our respect. We simply give it to them. Every day. All day. Regardless of what they do. And through that experience, the students witness, every day, all day, what it means for one person to respect another, and we hope, through that experience, they learn to respect the place that we’ve built, and maybe, if we’re lucky, the people who continue to build it.

I don’t worry about any of my students coming to my school to shoot us up, and mine are the students virtually every other school is worried about.

I don’t worry about them because I trust they know I respect them.

Most gun proponents I have spoken with make a big deal out of respect, and rightfully so. But one does not earn respect by threatening someone with violence; a threat can only earn their fear.

The worst thing that could happen at my school is for an armed authority figure to show up. The state has sent these kids, over the course of their short lifetimes, to residential facilities that, in the minds of these kids, are little better than jails. They’ve been thrown to the ground and forcibly restrained by adults. Many of them have been handcuffed and taken to an actual jail.

To these kids, authority figures are, for very valid reasons, just triggers to a post-traumatic episode — sources of anxiety, anger, and fear.

We work to socialize our students to authority figures, but we also respect the experiences that they’ve gone through, not seeing in them any reason for blame or judgement, just respecting them for who they are and what they’re experiencing now.

We are able to do this because the discussions we have in our professional-development workshops value therapy above academic achievement. While it is true that we are a school, we believe that teaching them about respect, acceptance, anger, and coping will do them more good than teaching them to do their sums. We strive to provide them with skills for communications, empirical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and social reasoning, but the primary focus is on the development of their personal qualities.

The students we traditionally receive have been so disobedient that they’ve, in almost all cases, been literally beat down by their families and society. Many of them have never known, since the moment they were born, a moment free from anxiety, fear, and pain.

They do not need to be further conditioned to a reality with a high potential for violence. They do not need to worry more that their disobedience may result in their death. That is already the only existence they’ve ever known.

I beg you, as a man who spends virtually every waking hour thinking about how to help the broken children in our communities, do not put armed authority figures in our schools.

Help me teach these children that, before anything else, and just because they are alive, they deserve our respect.

Because that is the only thing that will ever bring us closer to actually reducing the violence.

(Which, I accept, we can never reduce to zero.)

Teacher Advocates “Students, Go On Strike.”

Let’s not bullshit anyone. I’m the teacher in the headline and I’m advocating that every student in the United States go on strike until Congress takes decisive action on the issue of school shootings.

I am not advocating for one position or another. I do not have the solution.

But it’s not my job to come up with the solution. It’s the job of our Senators and Representatives in Congress. This is exactly what we sent them to Congress to do.

School shootings are a national problem. They are not a local problem or a state problem. They are a national problem, and there is only one place in America with the authority to address a national problem. It’s not Hollywood or New York City or even Fairfax, Virginia. It’s Washington D.C.

We send representatives to Washington D.C. to work together to address and solve the problems that beset us all. We understand that there will be disagreements as to a proper solution, and that the system will be corrupted by the current state of human nature, but we are also willing to accept the results of the American democratic process. We may not like the results, and we may continue to fight to improve them or change them, but we’ll also accept them.

But before we can get results, we need to have an open and honest debate, where all the cards are on the table and people of good will can persuade other people of good will to form a majority in favor of a specific solution or set of solutions and where the minority also accepts the solution (begrudgingly if need be) and neglects to force the majority to form a supermajority.

I say this knowing full well that the Republican National Party holds a majority of seats in Congress and that the platform of that party is antithetical to my values on virtually every issue, including this one, but I also say it knowing that this particular issue is one where every American truly wants their Congressperson to vote their conscience.

If every Congressperson is able to speak honestly and openly about their feelings and thoughts on this one issue, and every American, regardless of their party affiliation or their employer, is willing to accept that Congressperson’s position as, at the very least, open and honest, then I believe their vote on this particular issue would not dampen their ability to run for re-election. It would, regardless of which way they voted, do the opposite.

When people talk about being sick of the politicians, what we mean is that we’re sick of the liars. We don’t want our representatives to vote a certain way because it will help them keep their job. We want them to vote a certain way because they believe in it. It’s not their job to run for office. It’s our job to determine whether we want someone with their beliefs to represent us in Congress.

The politicians need to stop running for re-election and start doing the job we sent them there to do: use their conscience to do what they think is best.

More than any other public institution, schools should be a refuge from danger. They are where virtually every parent in the community sends their children for the majority of the work day. Yes, schools have other priorities, but they are also, and maybe primarily, our daycare.

Not one parent — whether they are an NRA member or a member of MoveOn.org — wants to go to work every day worried about receiving a phone call notifying them of the death of their child. As parents, we can deal with phone calls about suspensions and expulsions. We can deal with drug convictions, special education restrictions, sick days, a teacher’s concern about a lack of homework, the fact that our child has been bullying someone, whatever.

What we can’t handle is the phone call that tells us our child is dead.

If we trust schools with anything, we trust them with that.

But now we can’t, and we haven’t been able to for a long time. We now know, and we’ve known for a while, that our schools have become the most vulnerable institutions in our communities — the one public space where deranged individuals can do the most damage.

The politicians in Washington D.C. are afraid of this issue, and for good reason: there is no  answer that will satisfy everyone, and there’s a lot of money at stake when it comes to this particular issue. These politicians don’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole, not the ones who are there now.

More than anything, the lack of movement on this issue reveals our representatives’ inability to do the one job we sent them to Washington to do: participate in an open and honest debate and at the end of the day, vote their conscience.

If they are unable to do that, they should all, regardless of party, be replaced. Failure to move the ball on this one issue should cost them their seat, and they ought to stake their future on that.

Every student in every school in every Congressional district in the United States ought to stay home from school until their elected representative pledges to move the ball on this issue before the November election, and the students should continue to stay out of school until the majority and minority leaders agree that, on this one issue, any threat to filibuster or any act of filibustering be staged from the House or Senate floor. If they let the debate be open and honest, then Americans will respect the results.

Failing that, every student ought to refuse to attend school, and every parent in every district in every state in the United States will have to solve the problem of daycare. This will put such a screeching halt to the national economy that Congress will have no choice but to respond.

As a teacher, I hear every day from my students how children have no rights. I try to tell them that as human beings, they always have rights. But as human beings, they’re also vulnerable to having those rights taken away. Which means they have two choices: they can either stand up and fight for their rights, or they can give them away. But no one, no one, can just take their rights away from them.

As a human being on planet earth, you have the right to petition your government for a redress of grievances. The most polite way to do that is to write a letter. The most effective way to do that is to make a lot of noise until the entire head of the government is forced to turn your way and deal with you.

As individuals below the age of 18, you do not have the right to vote. But as human beings, you do have the right to make your voices heard.

As citizens, you also have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — all of which add up to the right to be free from fear.

Every day, your guardians are required by law to send you to an adult-managed place where contemporary events demonstrate your safety cannot be guaranteed, and where your life seems to be increasingly at risk. This should not be acceptable to you.

And you ought to stand up and do something about it.

Right now, to these politicians who refuse do anything about it, your deaths — your lives — don’t matter.

You have to stand up and make them matter. You have to hit these fuckers where it counts: in their wallets.

And by fuckers, I mean every adult who continues to let this happen.

Stop going to school and they’ll have to stop going to work. When they stop going to work, the money dries up. When the money dries up, that’s when adults turn to Washington. Which will mean that those fuckers in D.C. will have to do their jobs while the whole world is watching.

If they’re not able to stand up and vote their conscience then, then they’ll never be able to do it and they won’t be worth the title on their door: Representative.

I hear the liberal/cynical response to this: rich people can pay for daycare, and it’s the rich who are preventing any movement on this issue; all this demonstration will do is hurt poor people. While this may or may not be true, most people’s daycare depends, somewhere, on a low-income parent showing up to do their job. When that low-income parent is unable to find or afford daycare of their own, the pain will trickle uphill.

Meanwhile, the children of rich people ought to use their funds to fight this fight. If they can afford to get themselves someplace where an entire congregation of students can demonstrate, in the most public way possible, that they are, in fact, not going to attend school until this issue is addressed by Congress, then all the better.

Yes, there will be pain felt during this demonstration. There always is. Think of the men and women in the Civil Rights movement: the police dogs, the firehoses, the batons, the nooses. Yes, there will be pain. Single mothers will lose their jobs when they have no options for daycare. Fathers and mothers will scream and fight over who will stay home with the children, and women will be abused over their answers. Children will be beat for disobeying their mothers and fathers, and some will feel the wrath of the belt or the burn of the cigarette, the sting of the hard slap or the collision of the closed fist.

But will it be worth it? Is the right to go to school free from fear worth it?

If you think so, stand up and make your lives matter.

Stand up and go on strike.

I teach in Vermont, where every student goes on a week vacation starting on Monday. Use that week to plan, organize, and publicize. Talk to your parents about it. Let them know it is happening, and be willing to defend your position. If they make you go to the physical school on the Monday after vacation is over, make a sign and picket outside the front door. Get your friends to join you. Have someone call the news. Attract a lot of attention. But be deep and thoughtful. Stay somber. Remember why you’re there. Remember the dead bodies, the dead children, feel the fear of all those children having to run for their lives, the sound of gunfire coming from right behind them, the sight of their friends and teachers bleeding on the ground beside them.

They didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that. Refuse to become a victim.

Stand up. Stand up and go on strike.

And Now for Something Different

I’m trying to maintain my atheism while also allowing for the true, subjective experiences of the prophets.

I want to start by saying some of the prophecy is obviously bullshit. There are whole chapters in Exodus where God spends more time describing the ornate requirements for the arc of the covenant and its tabernacle than He does discussing the rules, purpose, and meaning of that covenant. So much of the prophecy in Exodus is just the priestly class (Aaron and his sons) lifting themselves above the rest of the people. I’m not talking about that kind of bullshit.

I’m talking about the seeming integrity of Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Muhammad, etc., but also the seeming integrity of Native American medicine men, Sufi mystics, Hindu rishis, African diviners, and more.

I may be an atheist, but I do not bow down to science either. I recognize its usefulness and appreciate the deeper understandings it provides us with, but I do not accept that rationality and reproducibility are the only ways to access the truth. There are unique events in spacetime that cannot be measured by a machine or replicated by an outside observer; these moments are transcendent, spiritual, and meaning-filled. The subjective experience of these events, while capable of being mistaken, is also very real and true, despite our inability to measure or replicate it.

I am willing to believe that (some) prophets have experienced a direct connection to something greater than the human consciousness, a consciousness capable of communicating with humans in as clear a way as possible without also sharing the biological characteristics of human language.

Some people call theses consciousnesses God. Many of the prophets surely do. But I don’t want to call them that. Thanks to science, mathematics, and poetry, I do not require God the Creator in my calculus of the universe. I would rather call them a consciousness.

The subjective experience of consciousness is something science will (perhaps) never be able to explain. The different kinds of consciousnesses that must be possible are as numerous as energetic fields in the universe. The difference between a slug’s consciousness and a dolphin’s consciousness is nigh on impossible to describe; can we imagine a consciousness whose “circumference” was the Internet? Or the solar system?

I’m willing to accept contemperaneous presence and direct, personal communication with these consciousnesses, but I am not willing to accept any of them as monotheism’s definition of an omnipotent and omnipresent God. As a radical democrat, I will spurn any attempt to reduce the multiplicity of the universe into an ultimate, supreme One.

Does this make me a polytheist rather than an atheist? Only if I’m willing to give these consciousnesses the status of gods, and while maybe it’s only semantic, I don’t really want to do that. I don’t think they are more powerful than us, in that there are definite limitations on their abilities, limitations that I believe a creative human mind would be capable of exploiting, and so in that way, I think they are less than gods.

I also don’t want to call them gods because I don’t think they’re worthy of worship. Worthy of respect, of friendship, of love even, but never worthy of worship.

And in that, perhaps, I best characterize my atheism. It’s an atheism that is willing to accept the true, subjective experiences of the prophets, that is willing to accept revelation, but it is not willing to accept any directive that requires me to kneel down and worship.

Is that the sin of pride? Perhaps.

But I like to think of it as Self Respect. It’s not that I believe myself to be worthy of anything and everything. It’s that I believe communication can only begin when both parties come from a standpoint of self-respect. If one of these different consciousnesses wants to communicate with me, I want it to know who it’s dealing with.

I’m not going to call it a god. I’ll only call it what it is: something different from me.

On Publicly-Funded School Choice

The Democratic and Progressive Parties both oppose public funding for private schools, and they both oppose school choice. I have a hard time agreeing with these positions, and I’d like to understand why.

Let’s start with the recognition that I work for a publicly funded private school where a significant percentage of students are only able to attend thanks to their communities’ commitment to school choice.

But let’s join to that recognition my active participation in progressive politics, a stance that sees me supporting many politicians who, along with sharing many of my progressive values, disagree with me on the questions at hand.

Hence this essay, which is not intended to persuade. I am not trying to convince you. I am simply trying to understand my own position when it comes to school choice and publicly funded private schools.

The argument begins with a shared commitment to free, universal schooling for every child who lives in our communities, regardless of their economic status or citizenship. More than any other institution, public schools are the most interactive spaces within our communities, more so even than our churches, synagogues, and mosques, for schools are the great equalizer, allowing access to all, regardless of religion, race, sex, sexuality, gender, or class. A public school is where the community meets itself, whole and unvarnished, day in and day out, for a dozen years straight. It should be a safe, enlightened, and open space, and it should absolutely be funded by the community itself (with support from the state and federal governments, inasmuch as the state and the nation have an interest in what goes on in that space).

But I am of the opinion that communities need more than an open space. They also need the intimacy of a publicly funded private space where people are more allowed to be themselves while also opening themselves up to the values of the greater community, a place where they can engage in difficult conversations without the wide eye of the entire community observing their every word and deed, a place where they can work through their weirdness until it becomes a gift.

But people are weird in so many different ways. I am the product of a public school, and I like to think that I was weird in a positive way, one that would, at least at times, be interesting and maybe even valuable to some of the people in my community. I had confidence in my weirdness, and while I hope I didn’t flaunt it, I don’t think I ever rejected it. In short, I may have been weird as a kid and as a teenager, but I was rarely (if ever) uncomfortable.

But not everyone is weird in a positive way. Some people’s weirdness carries a lot of anger, or anxiety, or trauma, and it can become an object of ridicule or the cause of their social exile. Some people’s weirdness makes them very, very lonely, or very, very prone to violence.

Still other people are weird in different ways. Maybe their weirdness fits the wider community’s definition of the artist, and it’s cultivated by teachers and mentors from a very early age, to the point where their weirdness is recognized as a genuine talent, one that deserves further nurturing above and beyond those skills that society has deemed minimally appropriate, a weirdness that commands respect and is justifiably deserving of a publicly funded private space where it can innovate on a topic free from the community’s judgement.

People are weird, and while everyone ought to be free to engage with that publicly funded open space, they also ought to be free to pursue their education in publicly funded private spaces where they can be as weird and as free as they want.

I understand there is an economic disparity when it comes to private schools. Some people’s idea of an education costs a lot of money. Other people’s ideas hardly cost anything at all. The question is how to pay for it all.

Should a community be responsible for paying tuition for every child within that community, regardless of which school the child attends? If my child’s weirdness suggests her best opportunity at an education will cost nearly $23,000 a year, while my neighbor’s child’s weirdness would be best served at a cost of only $14,000 a year, should the community be on the hook for both? Is there room for disagreement as to what constitute’s a child’s weirdness or as to how best a particular weirdness can be nurtured? Should there be a financial limit set, with any additional funding being required to come out of a family’s pocket, and if so, should there be a way for lower-income families to request additional community funds, provided their request can meet some kind of standard, and who ought make that standard, and what ought it to be?

These are all valid questions. What are not valid questions are whether each child’s weirdness ought to be recognized, and while maybe not encouraged, whether it ought to be respected enough by the community to at least deserve access to a publicly funded private space where it be worked on in a healthy way.

Communities ought to be responsible for paying for their young persons’ educations, regardless of which school the child attends. Everyone in a community has a stake in the future of that community, and educating their young serves an interest in that stake, regardless of who that young person might be or whose family she might belong to.

Communities also benefit from investing in each child individually, rather than as a group. A set budget should be provided to increase the richness of the open, publicly funded space, but each child should be considered individually and be the recipient of their own budget, one they are free to spend as best as their family sees fit.

It would not be a question as to each child’s “worth” to the community because each child deserves the very best the community can offer; rather, it would be a question as to the “cost” of their education. The services required by one student may far exceed the services required by another, and so the former would receive a stipend greater than the latter’s. Fairness would depend on the standards used to determine a reasonable cost for those services.

If a family is able to pay for services over and above what the community considers a reasonable cost, they ought to be able to do so. But there ought to be a process by which lower-income families could provide greater detail so that the community could look at their child’s unique circumstances in a deeper and more open-hearted way and decide whether to fund them, choosing in most instances to err on the side of the child.

What would this look like in practice, and how could the quality of that open, public space be increasingly enriched while perhaps serving fewer members of the community, and why, in those circumstances, would we continue to want it to?

We begin by assuming the cost to minimally educate every young person in a community. We adjust that cost on an annual basis, investigating at every turn the community’s definition of “minimal.” To that cost we add an administrative fee for managing the open, publicly funded space, an administrative fee for evaluating the special weirdness of every child, and an administrative fee for discovering the cost for servicing that weirdness in a way that is available on the open market.

For some children, it might mean purchasing a few books. For others, it might mean purchasing a guitar. For still others, it might mean purchasing hours of labor and years of expertise from a certified occupational therapist. For still others, it might mean purchasing the time and labor of an in-home nurse. For still others, it might mean a series of tennis lessons. Regardless, the community will guarantee to pay for each service up to a reasonable cost. That cost, obviously, ought to be made public, though perhaps not in an immediately identifiable way, if only to protect a child’s right to privacy.

The key part is to differentiate the cost for providing the open space and the cost for providing each child with their optimum education. Both of those costs ought be to be known, but both of those costs ought to also be considered a given, each coming from the need for every community to best invest in its own future.

In practice, this means an educational budget that is subject to a town’s vote, and a town, state, and federally funded commitment to nurturing each child’s individuality. Each town should be served by a publicly funded school board, either appointed or elected, as determined by each town. The school board should be the ultimate arbiter of all educational decisions, subject only to the town’s vote on the budget.

But the budget should be broken out into two items. The first is the cost for maintaining an open, public space capable of educating every young person in the community. The second is the cost for servicing each child individually, less the funds provided by the state and federal governments. A rejection of the latter item could only be registered through the election or appointment of a new, publicly funded comptroller, a vote against the cost in fact being a vote of no confidence in the comptroller’s ability to find the best prices available on the open market rather than a vote against the interests of each child, an investment in which every community agrees it ought to make to its fullest extent.

The school board would be responsible for determining a child’s weirdness and how best it ought to be nurtured. There would not be a single, universal test for this determination, its foundational element involving the conviction that every child is weird in her own way and thus deserves to be evaluated in her own way. A community could employ individuals to make this evaluation as best they see fit, subject only to rules and regulations handed down by state and federal officials and the past and future decisions of the electorate.

The goal for both budgets would be to reveal to the community the exact cost of investing in their future, and then letting the community decide whether they’re investing enough or too much, less the funds provided by the state and federal governments.

Again, the voters would not be able to directly reject the budget for investing in each child individually. They’d only be able to reject the funding for the open, public space.

If the funding for the open, public space is rejected, that does not mean the complete closure of that space. The space would be capable of charging each individual student who attends it the cost of their separately configured individualized education. It would put the services provided by the open, publicly funded space in direct competition with services provided on the open market, charging the lowest possible cost to each student as determined by the school board (and subject to appeal).

And what if a town decides not to open a public space? The cost to provide the unique educational services required by every child in that town would still be subject to the determination of the school board, and the residents of that town would be on the hook for sending that money to spaces outside of town, open or private, depending on the ability of that space to best serve the child’s educational interests, again, as determined by the town, less the rules and regulations of the state and federal governments.

As to the question as to what the standards ought to be when it comes to determining a child’s weirdness and how best to nurture that weirdness, I really can’t say, but I also ought not to. At some point, I have to recognize that my way isn’t always the best way, and I ought to listen to a proposal rather that assert a determination.

With that being said, I remain committed to the position that a child’s weirdness ought to be recognized and respected and receive nothing less than the community’s full support.

I also remain committed to the idea that educational innovation is best served by a well-regulated and publicly funded market with a customer base of progressively oriented school boards, with every dollar spent on schools (public or private) being a dollar spent on the health of the future.

And what about the teachers’ unions? I believe every school, public or private, ought to be subject to a union, but not every school ought to be subject to the same union. Every school should receive federal funding for the procurement of union dues, and the school staff ought to be able to form a union of themselves, capable of joining if they choose a union of greater schools. The teachers would not be responsible for union dues over and above their federal responsibilities as citizens of the United States.

By giving each teacher, public or private, access to a union of their peers, school boards will be forced to reckon with the true costs of educating each child and not the cost as determined by a capitalist-benefitting market.

When the federal government agrees to pay in full the dues of each union, it creates a new, federally regulated market for the services required by unions, namely financial management, legal assistance, and administration, not to mention educational research and development as a way to differentiate the benefits of one union over another. They may be federally funded jobs, but they’re also federal investments in the future of the nation, agreeing from the outset that teachers are on the front line when it comes to the development of our educational goals and strategies and so we ought to listen to them when they tell us the real costs associated with those goals and strategies.

I want to make the presence of a union a condition for receiving public funding for educational-related services, but I want the union dues of those professionals to be funded by the public, creating in the process more competition among the unions and more jobs related to servicing them.

This feels right to me. It feels like a progressive model of publicly funded school choice, one that accepts the radically democratic idea that towns should be responsible for educating their young people, less the responsibilities already funded by the wider state and national communities. It rejects standardized testing and standardized education in general. It promotes and supports the need for teacher unions. It remains committed to funding the special needs of every child, and goes even further by expanding the notion of special needs to recognize each child’s gifts and talents. It provides access to additional funding for lower-income families so that every child can thrive despite the natural predation of the market. It creates jobs, publicly funded jobs, but jobs with true costs that are protected by the unions, and it doesn’t hide those costs from its citizens. It gives towns, ultimately, the right to decide on how much to invest in their futures.

Will it cost a lot? Yes. Will it be worth it? It’s up to each community to decide.

Oh, there’s something I forgot. Each provider of a publicly funded educational-service ought to operate as a non-profit (with opportunities for endowments). This will ensure public funds do not enrich individual members of the community, which will hopefully reduce the number of sleaze ball capitalists who choose to invest in the education market. Any profit generated by the education system ought to be invested right back into the kids.

That’s a radically democratic, deeply progressive model that I can get behind. While I’m not trying to persuade you, I hope that you can get behind it too.

Building A Book Nut

My five-year-old daughter is in a weird place as a reader. She’s reached the point where she can sound out letters and read some of the words that her brain already recognizes, but she hasn’t figured out the rules for letter combinations. For example, she doesn’t know that anytime she sees “oo” it sounds similar to “moon” or “look” or “good” — she still tries to interpret each “o” on its own rather than as a phonetic grouping; except, she has “moon” down as a sight word, so everytime I see her stumbling on the “oo” in something else, I remind her of the “oo” in “moon.”

That’s one example of letter combinations. She still doesn’t have “sh” or “ch” or “ee” or “ea.”

With that being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if the only word she stumbled on while reading the first sentence of the above paragraph was “one.” She wouldn’t have much trouble with “combinations” — well, maybe with the “ti” part.

Anyway, the point is that, when it comes to reading a book to her, we’re at a weird transition stage.

She doesn’t yet like chapter books. She can sit quietly and be interested for the length of a few chapters and she can correctly answer basic comprehension questions (though definitely not all of them), but what she can’t really do is sustain a book over the course of a few nights. By the third night, her brain has checked out and she’s moved on.

She loves books though. Not as much as she loves television, and probably not as much as she loves dancing, but she does love books.

But what I’d like to do is get her over the next hump as a reader.

I know she’ll get there, so I’m not worried about it at all, and I could write this same piece about her video-game playing skills, her skiing skills, her conversational skills, and her sense of empathy. Being five years old means having another hump to get over in pretty much all facets of your life.

But this isn’t about that. It’s about trying to imagine a book that would be right for her right now, when she’s in this weird space.

It’s not just about her reading skills either. As much as she loves books, she doesn’t yet love reading, and that’s something that’s kind of an unconditional requirement for being the child of my wife and I. We need this girl to love reading because, if she doesn’t, our lives as adults who love to read will be compromised — she’ll demand our attention rather than finding quiet joy in a book, like us.

Anyway, she needs to love reading, so the last thing I want to do is make it feel like a chore. I want to give her the opportunities to read, expose her to as many words as possible, and then let her discover the joy of it in her own time.

But again, it’s not just about her reading skills. It’s also about the depth of the ideas she can comprehend. She’s in a weird space here, too. For the last three years, since she really started to speak, I have tried to talk to her in the same way I talk to all of my students, minus some of the swear words and sarcasm. When she asks me a question, she knows she’s going to have a lot of information coming at her and that not all of it she’ll be able to understand. But she also knows that she can ask me what I mean, and I’ll try to explain it again, using different (and not always simpler) words.

My wife talks to her much the same way (though better-er, because she’s a better teacher than I am). Except for Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy, we’ve never really shied from telling her the unvarnished truth. While this has led to her possessing an unflappable concern about the fate of humanity when it comes time for the sun’s inevitable explosion, as well as semi-regular exhortations about her not wanting me to die when she’s an adult, it has also led to serious and deep conversations about a wide variety of topics where her line of questioning revealed not only her ability to comprehend a topic but to also synthesize it with some other experience in her life and then apply it later in a different conversation.

What kind of book do you read to a kid like that?

She’s not picky. Some of her favorite books focus on underpants, and nothing makes her laugh harder than a poop joke. But she also likes to look at atlases and ask questions about the various cultures. She traces her fingers over the drawings in a children’s book on evolution, asking relaxed but pertinent questions about our grandmother the fish. She knows the names and could even recall some of the details of Ahab and Queequeg, thanks to a young reader’s edition of Moby Dick.

But she can’t stick with a book longer than a few nights. She might know Ahab and Queequeg, but her interest didn’t last long enough for her to meet the white whale himself.

She doesn’t enjoy books without a lot of pictures. She’ll listen to them, but she doesn’t enjoy them, not in the same way. She needs something to focus on if she’s to keep her body still.

I’m looking for a book that is long enough to last three or four nights, but that also includes rich and detailed illustrations.

Essentially, a graphic novel for five year olds.

But it has to be more “read-aloudable” than most graphic novels. Graphic novels tend to follow the format of comics, with two or more speech bubbles on a page, making it difficult for the reader to signal to the listener when one speaker stops and another starts.

I also want her eye to move in a more linear fashion than what you normally find in a graphic novel, where each page is divided into frames and the eye is subjected to the talents of a graphic designer.

I don’t want to teach her the grammar of the graphic novel. Not just yet. That grammar definitely has its place, but I don’t think she’s there yet. She still needs to train her eyes and her brain to operate linearly (not too linearly of course, hence all the dancing).

The book I’m looking for would move from page to page, not frame to frame, and its words would flow in the same way, making a clear connection between each set of words and their attendant picture. It would be a book where the pictures almost wouldn’t need the words and where the words almost wouldn’t need the pictures, but where, because they exist together, deeper connections can be made than if each existed alone.

But it’s gotta be about something, and it’s gotta be about that thing in a novelistic (and hopefully non-pedantic) way. I want her to love the book the way I loved my first favorite books, the ones that I couldn’t put down and yet were too long for me not to put down. I want her to be eager for her mother or I to pick it up and read it to her, so eager that when we can’t, she sneaks upstairs to her bedroom to read it to herself, because she just can’t wait to return to the world of the book.

So it has to have words she can read or recognize on her own and drawings to enrich her understanding of how those words and ideas work together. It is has to have a story whose twists and turns she can’t yet imagine for herself, and a theme whose depths will set fire to her soul.

If she’s to escape upstairs and read it to herself, her curiosity for what comes next and what it all might mean will have to stoked to the nth degree; otherwise, her brain will find itself returning to the sensory bath that is modern children’s television.

So where the eff is that book?