Tag Archives: politics

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.

ISIS, Assad, and the trickster god

What does it mean to say there is a negative force in the world?

We have images of negativity that we use to talk about the idea, Heath Ledger’s Joker being one of them, the Christian Devil being another, the Dark Side of the Force being yet another, but the Joker, the Devil, and the Sith are just stand-ins to help us comprehend something much larger, something much more significant.

Incredibly intelligent people have believed in this negative force (St. Augustine, for example), and if they didn’t believe in this negative force as some kind of personified Devil, they still felt compelled to pass the idea down through the myths and stories they told their children and grandchildren, whether in the forms of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, all of whom are stands-in for the chaotic aspects of our universe.

But hold on a second, and witness the mistake I just made: I equated negativity with chaos. We’ll have to unpack that a little bit.

There is no trickster god in the Christian pantheon, if only by virtue of there not being a Christian pantheon. The closest the Christians come to a trickster god is the Devil. In a monotheistic universe, where God is One and God is Good and God is Merciful and God is Great and God is a jealous God, there is no room for a trickster who would pull one over on God; there can only be defiance.

The problem with having this as a founding element of one’s worldview is that it disrespects chaos, and chaos is an essential element of our universe. Acceptance of chaos imparts an understanding that not everything can be controlled, and if you can accept that, then you hardly ever look at those who act out of control as acting defiant.  Instead, you respect that chaos is the nature of the universe and search for some kind of rationale to explain whatever behavior you don’t yet understand, some line of cause and effect that you can trace backwards until you’re able to find a situation where you can exert some influence and actually start to gain some element of real control.

I’m thinking of ISIS at the moment, and Donald Trump and the millions of people whose worldview he represents.

When we think of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, when we think of a trickster god, we generally think of someone who’s just a real pain is the ass. He may be charismatic in the moment, but in the long run, he causes nothing but trouble for everyone involved.

That doesn’t sound like ISIS.

But that’s because our concept of the trickster is wrapped up in personifications. What the concept of the trickster actually represents is the human experience of thinking one is right when one is actually wrong and then having the universe prove your mistake in some enthusiastic fashion.

The continued existence of ISIS demonstrates that, despite the military might its able to exert onto any surface of the planet, the United States still cannot completely control the world.

Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents) are angry at that fact. They cannot imagine a world where the United States is not completely in control. They saw the downfall of the Soviet Union as the end of history, the final victory of Western democracy over the Evil Empire. We now live in a mono-superpower world, where America is Good and America is Merciful and America is Great and America is a jealous Superpower, and there is no room for having any other country or entity get one over on us. To continue to exist when America tells you not to is defiance, and defiance must be met with swift and powerful violence: Loki being slammed into the wall by Thor, the Joker’s face being slammed into the table by Batman, Assad’s airbase being blasted with six dozen warheads by Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents).

In a worldview that equates chaos with negativity, defiance is not acceptable.

(And yes, I realize that I just conflated Assad with ISIS, but I feel comfortable equating a head of state who used chemical weapons on his own citizens with a Muslim military that primarily decapitates Muslims; I also have no problem equating both of them with a negative force in the world.)

But in a worldview where chaos is not only acknowledged as its own kind of force, but venerated to the point where it earns its own festivals and shares traits associated with the gods of the various arts, the actions of ISIS and Assad can be placed within a larger context, one with such complexity that our need to understand and control can only be met by the universe’s laughing contempt for our vanity.

There is a lot less action in a worldview that accepts the reality of chaos, not because it feels the need to exert less influence than a defiant worldview, but because it believes that one should only exert one’s influence where and when one is able to make a real difference.

If this was just a philosophical difference, then this would be merely academic. The problem comes when the person (and the worldview he represents) actually has real power and yet no understanding of how or when to use it.

The worldview that sees chaos as defiance uses its power (consciously or not) to smack down the defiant one. The other sees chaos as natural element of the system and so attempts to trace down its origin, biding its time until it knows its power will do the most good.

The first results in innocent bloodshed, as anger always does. The other results in feelings of helplessness; and yet, it also results in a commitment to put one’s best minds to the problem and to not give up until they discover a reasonable solution, and if such a thing never happens, it results in the guilt that comes from feeling that one might have saved someone if only one had been able to solve the problem sooner.

Both worldviews have negative consequences.

But that’s what it means to have a negative force in the world. It means to have disorder (in the sense of entropy and its negation of order) constantly chasing us down.

ISIS exists not because they are evil. They exist because the once-unified conception of Islam is breaking down into a variety of sects, each more atomistic, and hence more fundamental, than the whole from which it came. As an embodiment of Islam’s militaristic and world dominating underpinnings (rather than an embodiment of its merciful and peaceful underpinnings), ISIS necessarily confronts The Other with violence and negation.

The only rational response to such an entity is containment and education, the same as one would do to the outbreak of any disease. Yes, people will die because of ISIS, just as they die because of ebola and AIDS. We can influence the numbers, perhaps, as well as the timeline, but total and swift eradication is simply beyond our control.

Assad, for his part, exists not because he is evil. He exists because the world order created in the 20th century is falling apart, its march toward global unification fracturing into hundreds (if not thousands) of disparate ethnicities and nationalities, just as Syria itself is dissolving into dozens (if not hundreds) of disparate militias. “Syria” no longer represents a specific center of political power; the word “Syria” itself is an anachronistic relic of 20th century cartography whose signifier now marks a localized region of 21st century chaos.

The only rational response to the Syrian situation is to come to the aid of all those who have been tossed out of their homes by the whirling chaos of that all-encompassing war, to provide succor to its refugees and food and first aid to those still stuck inside. To join the battle with any larger mission is to find oneself caught in that swirl of chaos with no logical end or exit in sight.

To say that there is a negative force in the world is not to say that there is evil; it is, instead, to acknowledge that we do not, and cannot, live in utopia — and rest assured, if we don’t remember that, the universe will continue to teach us, again and again, and in enthusiastic fashion.

The Personal is Political

Several of my friends on Facebook (all of whom lean conservative, interestingly enough) recently complained about Facebook not being fun anymore because their feeds are full of nothing but politics, politics, politics. As one of them suggested, everyone should “unfollow people who are draining every ounce of your Facebook Fun because they only post political crap you’re tired of hearing about!”

It’s not just my (conservative leaning) friends. You can find plenty of articles on the topic around the web. For example:

Generally speaking, those who make this argument seem to feel that Facebook should be like a friendly reunion where people who don’t see each other very often can share what they’re doing in their lives, gush over photos of each other’s kids, and exchange some good humored ribbing. It’s “a way of hanging out with everyone you ever met, and political ranting makes the whole thing…awkward.”

As you might imagine, I don’t agree with this argument.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve unfollowed friends on Facebook because of their political rants, but it wasn’t because of their political leanings (I greatly appreciate having right-leaning friends who help me stay out of an entirely liberal bubble), nor was it because the ratio between their political posts and their “personal” posts was too high. Instead, it was because these particular friends demonstrated very little ability to act civil with those who disagreed with them.

Provided you can remain civil, and remember that the people you’re talking to are real live people and they have stresses and interests that are different from your own, then I find that there really isn’t a better place for online conversations than Facebook.

Facebook allows you to connect with virtually everyone you’ve ever met, which means you can have conversations with people from college, people from high school, people from that trip you took once, and people from your extended family, all at once. People who maybe don’t ever see each other in person, who may not even know one another, and who live in variety of places around the country or around the world can actually engage in a substantive conversation about a timely topic, should they choose to.

The software itself is perfect for this. You can have threaded conversations with direct replies to people, so you can engage a particular topic from multiple angles, and people can choose to focus on a single, a small subset, or all of the angles. You can include links to supporting articles, including fact-checking services such as Snopes.com. You can tag other friends to invite them into a particular section of the conversation, either to support what you’re saying or to provide an insight that you couldn’t provide on your own. And you can get notifications everytime someone adds a comment to the discussion, ensuring that you don’t miss out on anything important (or funny).

Honestly, Facebook is perfect for these kinds of in-depth conversations.

But that’s not what I want to talk about…not exactly.

There’s a slogan that came out of second-wave Feminism in the 1960s. You’ve probably seen it on a button: “The personal is political.” It comes from the title of an essay by Carol Hanisch published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. The essay wasn’t originally given that title because it was written more as an internal memo to members of the women’s liberation movement, but after it got picked up and published, the editors gave it that title.

In the memo, Hanisch argued that the women’s liberation movement had to continue to engage with “apolitical” women through what detractors derisively called therapy” or “personal” groups but what supporters such as Hanisch would go on to call “consciousness-raising groups.” She argued that through their derision of these group sessions, some of the more activist supporters of the movement were pushing away women who desperately needed their support and whose support, in all honesty, the movement desperately needed.

She painted a portrait of what these group sessions were actually like:

We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group. We’ve mostly picked topics by two methods: In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting (like, Which do/did you prefer, a girl or a boy baby or no children, and why? What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you?). Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences. Everybody talks that way. At the end of the meeting we try to sum up and generalize from what’s been said and make connections.

She went on to argue that through these sessions, she was “forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman.” The sessions gave her “a gut understanding of everything, as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings [she] had in ‘other people’s’ struggles.”

Women didn’t attend the meetings “to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems [emphasis added]. There are no personal solutions at this time,” she continues. “There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

What does this have to do with not being political on Facebook?

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, you can sit back for a moment, smile, click “Like,” and move on. But what have you and I just done?

First, we ignored all of the injustice in the world. We said to ourselves, “We are comfortable right now, so let’s just smile at each other for a moment, and then move on.” It’s the mental, emotional, and spiritual equivalent of running into each other at a coffee shop, smiling at each other, and moving on.

But I don’t want to just smile at you as we pass each other by at a coffee shop. If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s not just because I met you once. It’s because in some real and authentic way, I want to consider you my friend. There’s a real chance that we actually are friends, like in real life, and if we’re not, then there’s a real chance that at some point, if only for a few minutes, in real life, we actually were, and if we weren’t, however I know you, if you’re my friend on Facebook, it’s because at some point in my life, I thought about you and was actually willing to call you, in all honesty, my “friend.”

I don’t want to run into one of my friends at a coffee shop and simply nod and smile. I want to stop and talk for a little while.

And I get it, not everyone wants to talk politics, and most of the time, not everyone wants to talk about the world’s injustices. But the people I want to call my friends are willing, at least some of the time, to really get into it.

I went back to the town where I grew up last weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish side of my family….or so I thought. To my complete surprise, my brother invited his best friend (a second-generation Italian) and his best friend’s family to the party as well. I couldn’t have been happier. There hasn’t been a minute in my life when I haven’t known this guy, and in my childhood, I saw very little difference between him and my brothers: like them, he was always there, and he usually treated me with love.

But this is a guy I don’t see as often as my brothers, so when he came walking in the door, it was like being surprised by a long-lost brother who I hadn’t spoken with in forever.

Let me set the stage for a moment. This man is a physical education teacher (and I stress the word teacher) in a Catholic preparatory school for high-school age boys. He’s a dedicated Ironman whose idea of a dream vacation is to bike the route of the Tour de France. He’s a regular churchgoer whose coworkers are ministers, and he feels that Christian charity is not a thing you give money to but a thing you actually do in your daily life, a way to be.

He also voted for Donald Trump.

Within moments of his arrival, he approached me in the corner of the kitchen and without missing a beat, engaged me in a substantive conversation that ranged from God to transgenderism to television shows to the art of teaching to the meaning of friendship to the power of plays. We spent most of the night together, joined by our wives at points, my brothers and cousins at others, our daughters at still others. It was great.

At no point did we shy from discussing politics. I’m not talking about partisan politics. Neither of us are firmly committed to either the Republican or Democratic party. True, when forced to vote for them, we often (if not always) vote for opposite parties, but when we do, we do so with clear enough eyes that we understand why other people would have justifiable concerns about our chosen candidates. I don’t think either of us would give a full-throated defense of either party.

When I say we didn’t shy from discussing politics, what I mean is that we didn’t shy from disagreeing with each other based on a disagreement in principles. We understand the strength of our relationship, and so we’re able to challenge each other without the other having to take offense. We know that each of us are dedicated to growing as human beings, and if we disagree with each other and challenge each other, it’s only because we care for one another and want the other one to continue to grow.

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, and I follow it five minutes later with a link to an article on white male privilege or to the specific details of a law being proposed in Congress or to an analysis of our President’s ties with a foreign power, it’s because I want to do more that just show you pictures of my kid. It’s because I also want to challenge you as a human being, and to provide a signal to you that I would like to be challenged as well. The hope is that, through our conversations, we can each grow into something better than we currently are, which often comes from exposing ourselves to new and sometimes contrarian ideas.

The best thing we each could do with a “political post” on Facebook would not be to click “Like” and simply move on, which would be like running into each other at a coffee shop and just throwing pamphlets in each other’s faces.

The best thing to do would be to — at some point — read the article the other person shared, or if we don’t have the attention span for that, to at least look at the headline and then ask a question about it. Through that interaction, we start to earn (or renew our committment to) the word “friend.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I can’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t read every article I share or leave a comment on every post I write.

What I am saying is that if you think Facebook is more for personal stuff than political stuff, then you need to understand that the personal is political. By closing your eyes to anything you might disagree with, you’re committing a political act, one that commits you to remaining the same forever and forever, while also committing you to accept (and thus tacitly defend) the status quo, injustices and all.

If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s because I either am or want to be your friend in real life. That doesn’t mean always giving you a shoulder to cry on (though of course I would if you needed me to), but it does mean always giving you my willingness to get into it with you, even if sometimes I have to be the one who starts it.

What’s more personal than being willing to engage with one another from places of differing principle? And since I can’t see you everyday, and so few of us actually write emails (let alone letters) anymore, and since texting definitely isn’t a good tool for in-depth discussions, why wouldn’t the serindepity of running into each on Facebook be the perfect place to connect?

Some might suggest it would be more appropriate to take those conversations to someplace more private (Facebook Messenger?), but there’s a commitment to a private conversation that we’re not always willing to have. It’d be like if we ran into each other in a coffee shop and I said, “Hey, why don’t we go sit in the front seat of my car and catch up?” That would have the chance of becoming weird, right? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for us to keep our conversation in the public/private space of the coffee shop, where if someone we both know happens to stumble in, we can increase participation in the conversation, and where we can also remain safely in the public eye, forcing us both to be on our best behavior?

I honestly can’t think of a better tool for allowing the personal to become political. And that’s why I’ll keep talking to my friends on Facebook the way I talk to all of my friends: with a love for conversation and committment to helping each other grow.

There’s nothing more personal, and nothing more political, than that.