A Communist Sympathizer

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’m currently teaching a class on Communism & Socialism. That crazy left-wing teacher that the Republican right seems so afraid of? Yeah, that’s me. I literally spend my days teaching high-school-age students about the ins and outs of communism (as best as I understand them).

But I’m not sure if I’m a communist. I definitely have communist sympathies, which is to say, I try to sympathize with those who are oppressed, and through my daily teaching, strive to prevent the next several generations from being as oppressive as the previous ones.

I don’t do this to make money. It’s true, I make money doing it, but like most Americans, I struggle to make the money I need to keep my creditors at bay (among whom are my employers: everyday, I owe them my lunch money, and even that debt is creeping up).

This is why I am not a capitalist: I don’t have enough money to be. In order to be a capitalist, one must spend money in order to make money. In other words, your goal must be to make money.

It’s true that money is only a method of exchange, so if one wants to engage in a specific kind of exchange with another person, one must somehow acquire money. But I’m not talking about that. What a capitalist does is engage in an exchange where the goal of the exchange is for the capitalist to end up with more money — not more goods, not more services, but more money.

The economic purpose of the capitalist, then, is to make money; unfortunately, in an economy based entirely on debt, money is always in demand. Where the economic purpose of a clockmaker is to make just as many clocks as the market demands, when it comes to money, the market only demands.

Think of the economic crisis of 2008. When all that money disappeared, where did it go? It’s not like it existed in the real world (money no longer equals gold, remember); it literally must have went poof! and disappeared, like an icon you delete off your laptop. When virtually all the capitalists say they lost their money, they were not being metaphorical: they lost it — they literally could no longer find it; their wealth on the screen kept going down, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.

So what did they do? They convinced our government to give them money for free. The government reduced the interest rate on money to zero, and let anyone who understood how to ask for it, receive it. I’m not talking about the loans Pres. Obama executed to the motor industry; roughly 90% of the money loaned out through that program has been paid back.

I’m talking about the banks who “bought money” from the government when it was being offered at zero cost, but who then turned around to the rest of the economy and sold it at significant interest and with a robberbarons’ wealth of fees attached; and when they didn’t do that, they hoarded it to themselves. As Matt Taibbi explained for Rolling Stone:

“Banks used their hundreds of billions for almost every purpose under the sun – everything, that is, but lending to the homeowners and small businesses and cities they had destroyed. And one of the most disgusting uses they found for all their billions in free government money was to help them earn even more free government money [through interest on their reserves].”

In other words, during the economic crisis of 2008, the government of the people, for the people, and by the people voluntarily, through their elected representatives, chose to power our entire economy through an increase in the weight of our debt to the banks.

Debt is a struggle, a weight on our backs. We all of us crawl hunched over, moving from experience to experience with the weight of all our bad decisions as a country on our back, our economic dependence on slavery being foremost among them, but also our continued decision to channel the majority of our energy into an aggressively postured and aggressively acting military, itself the equivalent of a scared and angry child stealing the oxygen out of a seemingly held-hostage classroom, crying out for all the world to “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”

We see it everywhere: the economic cost of our “independence.” We see it in the size of our student loan debt. We see it in the size of our credit card debt. We see it in our past due notices and in our healthcare debt. We see it in the increase in our incarceration rates.

Someone has to carry all of our debt. It started with slavery. While it’s true you had to be rich to own a slave, everyone who wanted to get rich had to, sooner or later, become dependent on a slave. The economic engine that drove everything was and still is slavery, oppression, and exploitation.

It’s just now, we slave for something called wages. As David Graeber explains:

“Throughout most of recorded history, the only people who actually did wage labor were slaves. It was a way of renting your slave to someone else; they got half the money, and the rest of the money went to the master. Even in the South, a lot of slaves actually worked in jobs and they just had to pay the profits to the guy who owned them. It’s only now that we think of wage labor and slavery as opposite to one another. For a lot of history, they were considered kind of variations of the same thing.”

The wages we earn today don’t release us from our debts to our masters. If we work hard enough on whatever it is they tell us to work on, we might be able to postpone our deaths for at least another week, and maybe even a few months if we’re lucky. But it’s still the same thing as slavery. We work for our masters in order to, literally, survive.

When I say “the masters,” I’m not talking about the small business owners. Those motherfuckers work as hard or harder than everyone else, and they earn every penny. Most of them carry even more debt than the rest of us, but they’re able to carry it in a different way — small business owners are not only hard workers, but they’re pretty damn good at managing a balancing act.

No, when I say “the masters,” what I’m talking about are the financial investors. The capitalists. The ones to whom the small business owners are also indebted.

This group is the bourgeoisie that the communists keep talking about, the ones who literally have no economic masters above them. These are the fuckers who make the rest of us carry them around on our backs so that their goddamned golden feet don’t have to touch the dirty, dirty ground. They are a class of human beings who just seem to be getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and who just keep stuffing themselves with more and more food, and more and more oxygen, and more and more clean water, and more, and more, and more, until finally, the weight of them is so goddamned heavy that the rest of us have no choice but to have our knees buckle with each and every step we struggle to take, knowing that at any moment, and through no real fault of our own, it could all come crashing down on us — the entire system just too fucking big for anyone living under it to survive.

That’s what the communists are talking about. They’re trying to get everyone to realize that all of that weight — all of it, the entire weight of our history — has found its apotheosis in the capitalist.

Apotheosis literally means the turning into of a god, as in, the process of deification, the making of a deity.

The communists are trying to show us that all of human history — all of the wealth that has ever been created from the time before we were cave men until now — has been created through an act of oppression; our history begins — and it will end — on the question of oppression: who oppresses who, how long will the oppressed be able to take it, and what will be the manner of its revolution (how and when will all of those oppressed people turn the tables on their oppressors).

The communists imagine that there must be a better way to survive. They mean this on both an individual and an international level.

There must be a better way to survive the daily struggles of human experience, a way where the struggle at least seems more worthwhile, a way where all of us can be as creative as we’re able without worrying about whether we can put food on our plates or roofs over our heads.

And goodness knows that there has to be a better way to survive internationally than simply waving our nuclear-missile dicks in everyone’s faces, telling them that if they don’t contribute to an International Monetary Fund that only our best friends have access to, then there’s a damn good chance we’re gonna shove our bullets and bombs down their throats.

From what I’ve been able to gather in my limited readings, Marx wasn’t a communist in the sense that he gave us a clear vision of what communism would look like; he was a communist in the sense that he wanted something better for humanity than what he had found.

He saw the system for what it actually was (and what it continues to be). He didn’t blame anything on God. He looked at what humanity had wrought over its time on Earth, and he judged it not worthy of us. He saw in us something better, something grander, something worth more than the relentless pursuit of money, driven by a minority of masters riding on the backs of a majority of slaves, every clean dollar acquired at the top spit out brown and nasty from below, leaving in our wake a cesspool of dirty money.

When humanity is gone, Marx asked us, what will we have left behind? What will be materially different thanks to us?

Where capitalists have made an idol of money, communists make humanity their golden god. They don’t want humanity’s story to be dictated by the production of money; they want it to be dictated by the goal of improving humanity, both in a material and in a moral sense.

Communists look at the problems facing the Earth right now and acknowledge that humanity is overcrowding the rest of the Earth’s population, and they see in that a form of oppression: humanity’s oppression of the rest of Earth’s creatures. This is what leads them to the legalization of birth control, and eventually, to strict regulations on the possible number of births. This is not radical; it’s the basic reality of whatever future humanity wishes to exist in. The only question is, what is the acceptable limit? Unfortunately, if we go over a certain point, the Earth will no longer negotiate with us, and it will rain down a hellfire the likes of which we can only read about in our Bibles.

But regulating the number of births does not mean abolishing them altogether. It means respecting life in all its forms, and only wishing for it to continue (the question as to where life begins, of course, being among the most tricky of the ones still facing us).

This is not harsh ideology. It’s basic math. We can quibble over the methods we use to get from the problem to the solution, but the solution will always remain the same: we have to control the rate of our births. The Earth is a finite resource, measured in soil, water, and oxygen, so we have to limit the number of people putting pressure on that resource.

Okay, the communists say, so we reduce and/or abolish the ways in which we oppress the other creatures on planet Earth. Then what?

The answer is to reduce the incarceration rate. Those who finds themselves inside of a prison are often there through no real fault of their own. Something within the existing system failed them. Because they do not actually belong in  a prison, we ought to re-imagine the system that placed them there.

I’m not talking about jails right now. While we absolutely have to reduce the incarceration rates of our people — jails are the toilet bowls of our current economic system, filled with dark bodies that just spin around and around and around until they finally disappear — I’m not talking about that right now.

What I’m talking about is an entire system that depends on the oppression of a majority by the strength and weight of an ever-increasing and ever-more oppressive minority, where the majority is made up of those of us struggle to survive on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and the minority are the rich men who just won’t ever seem to go away and who are constantly poking at us through the tiny little holes we leave open in our front doors, and who are calling us up at all times of the day and night to harrass us, and who sing to us on the stage of our living rooms about the lives we could be leading if we were only someone else, somewhere else, with someone else, a dream they’re willing to sell us a simulacrum of for the low, low price of a never-ending series of easy monthly installments, a simulacrum that can only be created through a series of exchanges that ultimately end in someone else’s oppression (e.g.), someone other than, but no different from, you.

How do you reduce the incarceration rates? It’s simple. You provide adequate education and healthcare, and you treat every social ill as a disease that can only be cured with better education and better healthcare. You ensure healthcare includes concepts for both birth control and mental health, and you ensure that educators act as an early warning defense system, giving them the training they actually need to do their jobs well and the microphone to sound the alarm whenever it seems an individual’s humanity is at risk. You create a nimble and effective task force that is both large enough and supported enough to address each individual case as it arises, and you address it with wraparound measures that work to support the individual at home, in school, and eventually into whatever style of meanginful life they are capable of both creating and enjoying on their own. You look at abuse as a systemic issue and not as a moral one. You stop it when it happens, and you offer to help everyone involved, including the abuser, who (after all) is almost always a victim of abuse, the prevelance of which is symptomatic of the system, which is itself based entirely on the ever-present and ever-growing weight of the rich men’s continuous abuse of the rest of us.

If the vast majority of incarcerated individuals are victims of a systematic abuse that stretches back in their family tree for generations and generations, where every person’s father and/or mother and/or guardian was not only an abuser but also the victim of abuse, an individual who received from a very young age the historic blows of whatever representative of humanity happened to be in charge of them and who had pounded into them from the start a low sense of human worth, often by a family member but always, at the end of the chain, by their economic master — if such a vast majority of those people end up incarcerated in the prison of their own sociopathic ignorance, then wouldn’t it make sense to invest our energy in eradicating the channels through which abuse continues to be generated, the ultimate source of which can be traced back to the minority’s oppressive need for the majority to live in debt, usury being the world’s most lucrative form of abuse?

I don’t know if I am communist, but it seems to me that Marx’s interpretation of all the ills of society finding their ultimate origin in humanity’s economic dependence on slavery and oppression is correct. It’s the origin of our healthcare crisis, our education crisis, the crises within our families, and the crises that effect us on an international level.

The entire system requires us to live our lives with our backs broken by the weight of humanity’s debts, but until we recognize that those debts are held not by a God or by ancestor, but by a living and active class of capitalists whose desire to rape and pillage the Earth and all of its inhabitants seems to know no bounds, until we recognize that they are the actual, material cause of all of our troubles, then we will never be able to find the solution.

On Faith

A friend of mine (the same friend as before, for those of you keeping track) publishes a regular column in our regional newspaper called “On Faith.” He knows that, as someone writing for Vermonters, many in his audience, at the very least, doubt the existence of God, so instead of writing from a place of faith, he writes from a place of reason (such as it is).

His columns are not sermons; they do not enrich his reader’s experience of faith. Instead, they seem intended to convince the unconvinced using the enlightenment languages of logic, evidence, and numbers.

In one article, he used data published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal to argue that a global prejudice against atheists demonstrates an objective understanding arrived at by the human species — just as most of humanity can agree that the world is round, so does most of humanity agree that atheism is wrong. His argument deeply misconstrued the ethical principles motivating the scientists’ analysis of the data, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment.

In another article, he highlighted “a major process-execution problem for the neo-Darwinian model” of the origin of life, arguing that while the young-Earth creationism espoused by fundamentalist Christians is obviously hokum, the idea that life evolved at random is also seriously doubted by current science. Referring to the findings of physicists over the past 25 years, he explains that “the odds against [the highly sophisticated language code employed in DNA] happening by accident are so high that the probability of unguided occurrence is zero, even with a stretch of time of trillions of years.” Seeing this as a reason for legitimate doubt, he wonders if the evolutionary origin of life should maybe not be taught in schools, not because the scientists are wrong, but because  the scientists are right: we don’t, in fact, have a standard model for the origin of life. He thinks to teach our students otherwise is to do them, science, and society a disservice. He has an interesting point, but at least one scientist would argue that my friend’s understanding of the maths involved are “naive”.

I don’t want to argue with my friend at the moment though. Instead, I want to ask why he seems to feel the need to convince me and his other readers to place our faith in God.

My friends seems genuinely bothered by the idea that atheists  don’t share his need to have faith in God. It’s as if he imagines that, as an atheist, I experience a great lack in my life, and that this lack can only be filled by God. But I don’t experience that lack. Instead, I feel what amounts to life’s joyful exuberance (an exuberance that makes itself manifest in this overabundance of words).

My friend’s favorite author is Samuel Beckett (talk about someone who had an overabundance of words!). I love Beckett too (thanks, in part, to this friend), but Beckett wasn’t always right. Yes, life can be a darkly comic tragedy, but one doesn’t have to spend one’s life waiting for the arrival of an absent (and possibly non-existent) God. One can also, with Tom Robbins and Robert Anton Wilson, experience the free-wheeling tilt-a-whirl of life, that ever-spinning chaos whose name we’ve come to know as freedom. Life need not be an unnamed disease, something to be suffered in the silence of our solitary confinement; it can also be art and poetry and love, and the bountiful experience of a graceful dance. As John Coltrane showed us, chaos need not be called chaos; it can also be called music.

My friend seems to believe that atheism needs to be a dark and angry thing. But my atheism did not drag itself through the ashes of World War II, nor does it demand in a self-righteous tone that religion atone for its sins. My atheism is joyful and compassionate. It understands that life is tough and that all of us find our own strategies to deal with it. While some turn to the Heavens, others turn to poetry; while some turn to opiates, others turn to gun-wielding slaughter. My atheism does not judge.

In that, my atheism shares a fundamental principle with most religions: thou shalt not judge. The only difference is that, at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone shall be judged. And my atheism is okay with that.

How can I say that though, given the most recent massacre in Las Vegas? How can I not judge the shooter as a contemptible evil and damn him with all of my power to experience the torments of Hell?

My atheism doesn’t give me the comfort of that. It forces me to sit with the reality that one of my own committed this atrocious act. It compels me to admit that every single one of us is capable of this, and that maybe it’s only the thinnest veneer of civilization (including that aspect of civilization made manifest in organized religions) that prevents us from acting on our vilest impulses. I have to stare that realization in the face and acknowledge its truth. And then I have to be okay with that.

My faith gives me the strength to do that, faith not in an ever-present and all-powerful God, but faith in one thing and one thing only: you.

I have faith that you — yes, you…not someone else, but you — will not kill me today (and God ain’t got nothing to do with it). You don’t need to have faith in God not to kill me, and you don’t need to not have faith in God not to kill me. All you need is to stay your hand.

My friend writes on topics of faith because he wants to convince the unconvinced that the Catholic understanding of God is right and true. I understand the impulse and choose to see it in a charitable light, namely, that this is the method of his calling.

But I write on topics of faith because I want you to understand and experience the rich, inner life of my atheism. I am not trying to convince you or anyone else that I am right. I am only trying to get you to see me.

His method results in argument. My method, I hope, results in love.

Take A Knee

When I played football as a young lad, anytime our coaches wanted to have a serious talk with us, they would say, “Take a knee.” If we leaned too far back on our ankles or if we sat down on our butts, they’d give us a look to let us know we needed to straighten our backs and give them our full, respectful attention.

Today, I’d like to ask you to take a knee.

As pretty much everybody knows by now, there’s quite the controversy going on around the decision of dozens of professional athletes to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. They are following the lead of Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who explained in a statement to the NFL that he “would not stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

He made the decision in August 2016 and followed through on his promise throughout the rest of the year. Each week, more and more athletes followed his lead, with the story seeming to come to a head this weekend when President Trump decided to weigh in on the controversy, saying during a political rally that NFL owners whose players disrespect the flag should “get that son of a bitch off the field right now; he’s fired!” Trump followed his statement with a series of tweets attacking the players for “disrespect[ing] our Great American Flag (or Country).”

In response, almost the entire NFL demonstrated their support for Kaepernick and the other kneeling players in a variety of ways. One team stayed in the locker room during the anthem; others locked arms to show their solidarity against Trump’s attacks; and still others kneeled for the first time. Owners from around the league, as well as the Commissioner of the NFL, put out statements supporting the players’ right to demonstrate during the anthem.

But in all of the controversy, several things seem to have been lost.

First, we must note that while Kaepernick began the protest movement by sitting on the bench during the anthem, he and the others who had joined him shifted their demonstration from sitting to kneeling. One of the players, Eric Reid, explained that, “after hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit…because [kneeling] is a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

The form of their protest — kneeling during the playing of the national anthem — is meant to convey two things: respect for those who have defended our country and condemnation for a system that oppresses people of color.

Yet, the controversy that has erupted from their demonstration is not about whether America does or does not oppress people of color. Instead, it’s about what some people see as the athletes’ disrespect for the flag.

The critics are not angry because of the players’ disrespect for the cloth, but because they see the demonstrations as disrespect for the values they believe the cloth represents. As one commentator wrote on Facebook, “That flag stands for FREEDOM!” Another wrote on Fox News that the flag is “an eternal reminder of how blessed we are to be Americans.” When Kaepernick and the others take a knee in front of the flag, these commentators and others see the players as disrespecting the very idea of freedom and the very concept of America.

What’s more, they see it as disrespect for the men and women who have fought for the country, the service members who volunteered  to defend  the values they believe the country represents. According to these critics, when the athletes refuse to stand for the anthem, they are disrespecting the memory of those fine men and women.

If all that were true, their anger would be as righteous as they believe it is.

But the fact that the players actively sought out the advice of a veteran before conducting the demonstrations shows how incorrect that interpretation is, as does the fact that thousands of veterans across the country have come out in support of the athletes’ efforts.

The entire demonstration has nothing to do with the flag or the anthem or the veterans, and allowing it to be reframed that way is to allow oneself to be manipulated by those who benefit from dividing the people of this great country.

This is not a “love it or leave it” situation. As the great James Baldwin once wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

The message of those athletes who are kneeling is that America is “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

You can agree or disagree with that assertion. You can discuss it with your family, friends, and colleagues. You can keep an open mind and research it on the Internet. But what you shouldn’t do is allow the media to manipulate you into ignoring it.

It’s not about the flag. It’s not about the knee. It’s only ever been about our need to reflect on the state of our society. The powers that be don’t want you to think about that. Don’t be foolish enough to fall for it.

A Version of a Speech I Need to Give My Students Tomorrow

Okay guys, I’m floundering. I need your help.

About the only thing I know about this class is its frickin’ title: How to Combat Online Bullshit. When I came up with it, I had a whole idea about learning all about fake news — how it’s created, how it spreads, what kind of effects it can have — and then teaching you how to combat it.

The problem is, I don’t know if you care about fake news. I want you to feel a sense of righteous indignation toward it, but at least two of you don’t. I don’t really understand why, because my own righteous indignation is so close to the surface.

I make my living trying to get young people to understand and examine certain truths about the world, not truths that I necessarily have access to, but truths that I have received. One of those truths is that democracy is good; another is that democracy is hard; and another is that an enlightened electorate is the only weapon capable of of defending it. If that weapon gets any weaker, then the great experiment that is America will come to an ignoble end.

You two, the ones who are throwing me for a loop in this class, you two are still two or three years away from joining the electorate. But me and him, we’re already there.

And both of us are telling you that the information you find on the Internet is often completely fake, regardless of how real it may sound. I suspect (I hope) you already believe that, but I’m not entirely sure you understand the ramifications of it.

There’s something else I’m not sure about: I don’t know how much you read, or if you do, what kinds of things you might read.

When I conceived of this class, I made (and continue to make) an awful lot of assumptions about you, and I realize now that one of them is that you care (at least somewhat) about some of the events that are taking place beyond your own lives. That may have been a mistake.

Some basic knowledge of current events is necessary if I’m to rile up that righteous indignation I assumed you would already have. But if you don’t have this basic knowledge — if you don’t at least somewhat depend on the news to guide your understanding of reality — then you have no context from which to draw your anger from; you simply have no idea that we are currently being attack by an onslaught of verifiably intentionally-fake news.

Which means we need to go back to step one.

The purpose of a high-school education is, primarily, to prepare the future citizens of this country to continue the great experiment that we call democracy. Anything you learn above and beyond that in high school is just gravy.

But the key ingredient to democracy is, again, an enlightened electorate. And in order to cultivate that, I need you to become critical of everything you read, hear, and watch — I need you to become critical of media.

Because that’s where the battle is being fought now. It’s where democracy is currently being attacked. This is not hyperbole. This shit is actually going on.

Russia, that great enemy of my childhood, is literally attacking our country, and almost everyone has a reasonable suspicion that Russia may have even compromised the Chief Executive of our government, a possibility that is being diligently investigated by an incredibly powerful — and by all accounts, highly ethical — civil attorney, as well as by some of the more patriotic members of Congress. Reality is now literally a bad 80s movie that has been reboot for the 21st century, where the writers have replaced nuclear bombs with information bombs.

I shit you not.

My question to you is, “What character do you want to play in that movie?” Do you want to be someone shoveling your own shit in the background, or do you want to be someone driving the enemy all the way back to its capitol?

In the 21st century, heroes may not jump out of helicopters; they may work quietly and furiously on a laptop; but the dangers are just as real. The same menacing villain, a former high-ranking officer in the menacing KGB, is directing the same group of menacing bastards to train their sights on America. Behind it all stands a shadowy group of menacing rich bastards, luxuriating in the arrogance of their wealth, while in front of it all, the same innocent victims fall prey.

It’s up to somebody to stop them. Why shouldn’t that someone be you?

If it’s not, that means you’ve opted to become just another victim, and that  means America’s great experiment in democracy has failed.

I’ll say it again. Our democracy is really and truly under attack — not by some shadow terrorist, but by another sovereign nation whose military may not be as evolved as ours, but whose ability to engage in information warfare seems to be operating on a completely different level.

You’re both going to be 18 soon, which means, first, you’ll be eligible to participate in our democracy, and second, that you’ll be eligible to fight for it.

I want to teach you what the fight is actually about, and then teach you to defend yourself and throw a punch. I have the skills to do that.

But first, you have to show me what you know.

A Gift From Me To You

Today I asked my students, “What are you doing? Like, seriously, what are you doing?”

It didn’t take them long to get it. Some understood within seconds, others took a few seconds longer. One of my students presents as severely autistic, but even he understood the severity of my question.

What, in fact, were they doing? Not just right now, but also, only right now: what were they doing with their lives?

I only asked because the night before, I asked myself that same question. I was not being judgy. I did not ask it with a harsh tone. Sitting on the back porch, looking up at the stars, I simply wanted to know: what was I doing with my life.

I’m grateful to be able to say I was proud of my answer.

I am talking to people.

I talk to my wife as often as I can.

I talk to my daughter about everything we can imagine.

I talk to my boss; I talk to my coworkers — I consider all of them my friends, and some of them among my closest friends.

I talk to people I haven’t seen in days, weeks, months, and years, family members, high school and college friends, people I once met somewhere and only for that once.

I talk to people on Facebook when I’m able, even if only by liking what they’ve shared.

I talk to my students in honest and authentic ways about anything I think might help.

I talk to you — whoever you are — to let you know you’re not alone.

I’m proud of what I do. I get to talk to people as openly and as honestly as I can about anything and everything that any of us can imagine (with our fluid imaginations…get it?).

I asked my students that question because I wondered if they believe they have a gift, and if they do,  if they’ve discovered how best to use it.

My daughter’s fifth birthday is next week. On Sunday, we took her to her first concert, the Grand Point North festival on the public lakefront in Burlington, Vermont. One of her favorite bands appeared on the setlist, as did one of mine. It seemed like kismet, and so my wife and I decided to make the concert her birthday gift…

(for the record, I would have taken her to the festival even if one of my favorite bands wasn’t playing, and I told my wife we could leave the show well before the time limit she had set for the evening, which meant I missed more than half of my favorite band’s set — I’m not complaining, I’m just saying…I didn’t get my daughter this gift just because I wanted to play with it too 🙂

…and she loved it. She was a little hesitant at first, but once her favorite band started to play, she loosened up, and by the end of the night she was dancing on the lawn, swinging glowsticks, and chasing a red balloon. In addition, she got to have two bowls of ice cream at two different times during the night; she ate her favorite food — cheese pizza (made entirely from Vermont-grown and Vermont-harvested ingredients, though she didn’t know it) — while sitting on the rocks and watching the Sun set over the waters of Lake Champlain and the peaks of the Adirondack mountains. She got to throw large stones into the lake for a really long time. And she spent an entire evening with her mommy and daddy, who are genuinely her two most favorite people on the planet.

It was an evening that was wholly gratuitous. She received all that the world had to offer her — music, food, family, community, and the natural beauty that comes from the interaction of water, the Earth, the sky, and the Sun — in a word: she received love.

It cost her nothing. She asked for nothing. And it was simply given.

That is what it means to have a gift. She received that gift from us, and now, rich with the world’s extraneous grace, she is prepared to offer it to someone else.

Everyone has a gift like that.

It’s that thing that comes out of you that seems to mean something to someone else. That gratuitous grace that is yours to give.

That’s your gift.

And every day you should do two contradictory things with it: give it away and cultivate more of it to grow.

So now, rich with the knowledge of your gift, I ask you, “What are you doing? Like seriously, what are you doing?”

Notes on a Bullshit Class

I’m teaching a course this quarter called “How to Combat Online Bullshit.” I have three students in it, at least one of whom is a deep thinker, and all three of whom are genuinely interested in the topic.

In preparation for the class, I’ve found just an ungodly number of resources on the Internet, thanks to Pres. Trump’s somewhat casual relationship with what most people call “truth,” the proliferation of Russian-generated “fake news” during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, and the renewed commitment of most schools to teach students to be critical consumers of both corporate dominated and independently generated media. I read a lot of those resources, bookmarked a bunch more, and started scanning for common threads.

I also read an academic treatise titled On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfort, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, to provide a more theoretical perspective on the topic. Frankfort argues that “bullshit” differs from “lies” in that lies have some concern for the truth (if only to better integrate with it as a lie), whereas bullshit could not care less about what is true and what is not — it’s only motive is to convey an impression of the bullshitter, to provide the listener with the understanding that regardless of whether the bullshitter is correct, he or she is, at the very least, being sincere, and his or her sincerity is more important than whether he or she is right.

One can’t help but think of Pres. Trump again, whose every public appearance seems designed to convey a sense of authenticity and sincerity but whose every word and action only demonstrates the opposite. He doesn’t care if you fact-check him, because it doesn’t matter if he’s right. What matters is that he believes it, and that his audience believe he wouldn’t lie to them about that.

But my students have more to worry about than bullshit. An entire industry of willful miscommunication exists: headlines, articles, videos, tweets, Instagram photos, fake friend requests…there’s an entire economic niche of bot programmers, media copywriters, religious hucksters, and political malefactors whose financial futures depend on their ability to trick other human beings into believing things that are demonstrably false.

As media consumers, we charge face-first into these well-funded armies of bullshitters and liars each time we turn on the news or scan our feeds for headlines. If the truth is to be victorious, we must fight the bullshit and lies with everything we’ve got, and that doesn’t just mean rage and fervor; it also means with an understanding of how beliefs work, and how opinions can best be changed. It means respecting the dignity of people who have been hornswoggled, and sympathizing with the difficulty of admitting that one’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. It means understanding the modes of logic, and knowing when to include healthy doses of ethos and pathos in your argument. Finally, it means recognizing when the continuation of a discussion does more harm than the ending of it.

We all have responsibilities in this battle for the truth, but the goal for all of us must be the same. It isn’t to establish “our truth” as the dominator of discussions. It’s to re-instill the right of truth in the abstract, to remind people that words and deeds and facts and numbers matter. It’s our duty as critical consumers of information to respect the experiment that can be verified, the mountain that can’t be moved, and the logic that makes an argument valid and clear.

The process of doing so is not always simple. It can be time consuming and frustrating to chase after the truth, and even more frustrating to explain to someone else how they too can find it. But the difficulty does not release us from the duty.

It is a just war that we fight, and fight it we must.

Otherwise, and I don’t say this lightly: all that humanity has gained will be lost.

Using Dungeons & Dragons in the Classroom

This post is for teachers who are interested in using Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom. This is not to convince you that doing so is a good thing. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of articles on the web to persuade you of the educational value of roleplaying games; we don’t need one more of them.

But we do seem to need an article where a teacher takes the time to explain how he actually uses Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom — not the why, but the how.

I’ve been using Dungeons & Dragons as an educator for three years now, but until I started using it in the classroom, I had never played a single game. Two of my co-teachers used it one quarter, and I was lucky enough to share a corner of their classroom at the time. Through observation, I was able to learn the dynamics of the game without having to play the game.

The following quarter, I took over as Dungeon Master. It would be my first time at the table.

What I learned during my observation period was that Dungeons & Dragons is based on storytelling. It doesn’t really matter if you know the rules because there are plenty of ways to look them up, but it does matter that you understand the rules of storytelling.

For the past three years, instead of asking my students to learn about storytelling from reading works of literature, I’ve embedded them in the very fabric of it, asking them to make their own heroic decisions instead of reflecting on the heroic decisions of some third-party character. Through the effects of their actions on the story, they’ve experienced when narrative tension is working and when it is not; they’ve experienced the way a character’s motivations bring them into conflict with other people; and they’ve developed an appreciation for imaginative details, sensing when too much is too much and when too little is not enough.

In addition, playing the game increased their sense of self-worth. When their characters succeeded in the fantasy world, they received the same flood of accomplishment as their characters, which provided them with a visceral understanding of narrative catharsis and the chemical reward that comes from fulfilling a goal.

I didn’t do anything special during these first three years; all I did was play the game. I didn’t attach the game to any academic standard or break it down into a series of lessons. At the start of each course, I didn’t waste time explaining to the students why we were doing this. I greeted them as they walked in the door, opened our two copies of The Players Handbook (5th Edition), and asked them to follow the steps outlined in the book to create their first character. I didn’t ask if they knew how to play the game. I just told them to get started.

The first few times I ran a campaign, I found pre-designed quests on the Internet. I didn’t know much about campaigns, but I learned that there’s something called The Adventurer’s League, an official venue of Dungeons & Dragons. Restraining my search to campaigns that carried the seal of the league, I found enough (free) campaigns to get us started.

(The company behind Dungeons & Dragons recently launched a website called The Dungeon Master’s Guild, where players from around the world can share campaigns and resources, review each other’s work, and earn their reputation as DMs; you can think of it as an App Store for D&D — and it makes it a heck of a lot easier to find pre-designed campaigns nowadays).

After our first few campaigns, one of my students asked if he could be the Dungeon Master for our next game. I immediately agreed, told him how to find a campaign on the Internet, and a week later, off we went. This would be my first time playing Dungeons & Dragons from the characters’ side of the table. It was great. I didn’t push an agenda on either the DM or the other players. I simply sat with them as a peer and played the game.

A few months later, when I returned to the Dungeon Master’s chair, I didn’t want to use a pre-generated campaign. I had played enough times, I’d decided, to attempt a campaign of my own. I did not bring an educational agenda to this process. I imagined something I thought would be fun, and then I set out to create it.

At the time, I was reading several books on the French Revolution, and I decided to create a campaign where the player-characters would assist in a political revolution. I dressed the story in the obligatory accoutrements of medieval fantasy (instead of the peasants rising up against their king, a town of dwarves would rise up against their human overlords, the highest of whom would be a ). I then developed major plot points for the story and prepared a few battle encounters that I suspected the player-characters would want to engage in.

After about five or six hours of solid preparation, I was ready to lead what became a six-month long adventure. While the students didn’t have any homework, I found that I did. To stay at least a few steps ahead of them, narrative wise, I spent about an hour each week crafting the next few days’ worth of adventures. It was a creative prep for me, however, so it didn’t feel much like work — I wasn’t planning a lesson as much as writing a story. Prepping for class took time, yes, but the time it took was fun.

Last year, I taught two sections of Dungeons & Dragons. The first group had played together for a while, but the second included students who had never played before. To reduce my prep load, I taught my advanced students how to design campaigns on their own, showing them various topics in the Dungeon Masters Guide, advising them to consider the motivations of their non-player characters, and asking them to reconsider various details of their worlds, but mostly, I taught them how to be efficient with informational texts and how to stay a few steps ahead of their characters.

One student didn’t get to finish his campaign. Unfortunately, I’m only running one section this quarter and some of the players haven’t developed the social-emotional skills to be led by another student. So instead of letting him lead a campaign of his own, I am working with him on an independent project where he will prepare a campaign for publication on The DMs Guild. This student is a graduating senior, and I’m trying to show him how he can make a little bit of money if he’s willing to follow his passion.

The other section is a mix of experienced players and beginners, and because of that mix, I’ve decided to switch things up a bit. Instead of having the students spend the first few days with their heads in The Players Handbook (a necessary stage when creating a character), I’m going to have them play the experience of creating their characters.

I’m not going to tell them about any of the races or classes. I want them to birth their characters with their imaginations. If they imagine a crocodile with wings who can also weave magic, I want to honor that personification and ask them to honor it as well. We’re going to dramatize the process of developing proficiencies and skills, gaining gold and equipment, and earning the power of magic. They’re going live the experience of their backstories, and through that, they’ll learn how to develop themselves and their characters into daring adventurers. My students are rural and mostly poverty-stricken, but they’re going to experience, if only in their fantasies, the process a person must go through if they want something more out of life.

If you’re a teacher who is already persuaded to try roleplaying games in your classroom and you’re wondering how to do it, this is what worked for me: I simply sat down with the students and played.

Now, a little caveat. I teach at an independent school in Vermont, so I’m not accountable to the strict array of standards that apply to most public schools. My school’s standards include a large variety of social-emotional skills — e.g., cooperation, creative problem-solving, leadership, ethical decision making, the ability to empathize, etc. — and almost all of them can be satisfied by playing a standard game of Dungeons & Dragons. Thankfully, I don’t have a curriculum coordinator breathing down my neck.

But I imagine with just a hint of ingenuity that a motivated public school teacher could connect Dungeons & Dragons to whatever standards they are required to follow.

If you’re an English Language Arts teacher, I’ve asked my students keep a journal of their character’s adventures. I’ve asked them to write original backstories for their characters. I’ve quizzed them on their ability to find, read, and comprehend the sometimes-complex information in the text of their Handbooks. Dungeons & Dragons is a communications-based game; there’s enough in for the English Language Arts.

This year, as part of the experience of playing their backstory, I am going to ask each player to consider the social contexts of their hometown. They’ll decide on a governing structure for their town, detail its economy, and populate it with a greater or lesser sense of political diversity. Instead of analyzing existing societies, the students will create ones of their own.

My idea is to expand the range of skills the students develop by including a deeper connection to the social sphere. This will have the added benefit of increasing the academic value of the course because I’m targeting some of the standards my school has for Social Studies (most of which apply to any school’s standards for Social Studies).

The difficulty will be in integrating one character’s sphere with another and all the characters’ spheres with each other, but it’s necessary if they’re to experience the narrative catharsis previous students experienced. School starts tomorrow and I haven’t quite solved this one yet, but I trust the solution will come before its absence becomes a challenge (teaching, after all, does include a bit of faith).

But in the meantime, I’m just excited to get started.

I hope, sometime in the future, you will be to.