Tag: blogging101

An Education for the Future

Quote of the Week:  It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated. –Edith Hamilton

Recently, I was reading some remarks from a former teacher who posted onto Diane Ravitch’s blog, and the teacher was lamenting about (among many other things) the failure of educators to teach the value of education, and of learning, in and of itself.  This resonated with the words of Edith Hamilton, author of one of the most widely read books there is on European mythology.  Is it good or bad that we attempt to get children motivated to learn by emphasizing how hard it will be to get a job in the 21st century without an advanced education?

On the one hand, as poor as the education system is growing (and as miserly as our largely Republican-led school districts are about public education, and as powerful as corporate for-profit “education” is becoming in the place of public education), we need students to understand that they have to be proactive in learning, in taking their education seriously.  Students need to orient their learning toward modern skill sets – computer skills, math and science, and foreign languages (especially those to become significant in the upcoming decades, like Chinese, Farsi, Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese).  But we cannot overvalue education as merely a meal-ticket.  Anti-intellectualism has long been a powerful force in our country, and is one that in this new century must either be overcome finally, or will overcome our nation once and for all.  Anti-intellectualism questions what value there is in education beyond what it can do to put food on your table; and fails to see the value in learning about culture, learning social sciences, and learning philosophy and aesthetics.

We are entering a new century in which social media is predominant in shaping thoughts: the 140-character tweet in place of the twenty-page manifesto.  The single line of response on Facebook to a two-phrase smarmy meme, as opposed to a full discussion on “20/20.”  The Instagram replacing the fully-researched and vetted New York Times article.  We are entering a world in which thinking is inconvenient and discouraged, particularly if its manifestation requires more than a sentence or two.  Complicated thought, and a fuller understanding of whatever subjects we are entering, is becoming a lost art and in its vacuum we are building a new venue for populist politics.  When pundits ask from whence this new Trump phenomenon comes, the answer is in part with this very problem.  We applaud a simple and ill-spoken man for “speaking his mind,” as he uses quick and easily fact-checked distortions of reality to convince an entire audience untrained and unused to complicated thought, and unprepared to live in a complex, globalized, and multicultural world.

The United States is losing the ability to train minds for the next century, and to transfer useful skills to the next generation.  We are entering a new world, in which global relationships are becoming more complex, more decentralized, more culturally aware and diverse, and more technical, all at once.  Engineering, languages, art and music, math and computer languages, and awareness of the climate effects of technology, are all going to be the main driving forces in determining who can compete in the next few decades; who can get the kind of job that supports a family, and who goes hungry and goes poor.  We need to prepare students for the new century not just with technical (STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, but with art, social science, languages, and cultural education.

As we prepare students for the new century, realizing that most of the old jobs found by our parents to raise us are no longer going to be the drivers of the new economy, we must also train our children – all of them, and most especially the poor – to value education not merely as a step to a paycheck, but as a value in and of itself.  We must teach the value of forming and arguing complicated thoughts; of reading complicated tracts; of considering arts and aesthetics beyond the things we may be exploiting for whatever work we seek.  If our nation is going to make it in the more competitive environment of the new century, our children need to be able to use computers; but they also need to be able to understand other cultures, people born into different environments, and complicated relationships between the human species and the global environment.  Our children need to understand art history and the concept of music.  Our children need to understand the difference between rhetoric and argument.  Our children need to understand the difference between verified fact and popular opinion.  And they need to understand that “scientific theory” does not mean merely someone’s vague and subjective guess, but an established explanation that has passed the basic test of experimentation and validation, and is an accepted understanding of the phenomenon explained.  They need job skills, and they need the ability to have a lengthy conversation in a coffee shop about Sartre.

To teach skills needed not just by individuals, but by our nation as a whole, we need to generate an enthusiasm for learning that goes beyond the job description.  We need to generate a population able to converse and compete with others globally, on subjects technical and aesthetic, objective and subjective.  We need students who seek learning because it makes them better people, not because it makes them (briefly) more seemingly employable.  Otherwise, we lose the strategic edge in competing globally, as greater human skill-sets are used to determine job security, as corporations move past simple requirements to greater social values (factors more easily implemented by human resources departments in an increasingly digitized and information-driven world).  Once we lose that strategic edge, we will have lost our ability to compete and we will have lost the economic foundation that enables us to have a stable political environment.  Once we lose that edge, our nation will plummet ever more quickly into populism, extremism, violence, and authoritarianism.  We will seek, ever more, the safety promised by “strong leaders” who ask only that we surrender our freedoms.  But we do not have to go down that road; and the alternative path begins with education, and with infusing into our children, and into our population as a whole, an enthusiasm for learning, for reading, for writing, and for thinking.  We need, once again, to be caught up in a world of thought.

The Low Road and the High Road

High Road, Low Road

Quote of the Week:  He who would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. –Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine’s words give us a lens with which to look at two diverging routes taken by American political forces.  On the one hand, we have the conservative low road, sinking our nation to its lowest depths of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry, taking us ever further away from our shining City on a Hill and the establishment of a liberal community of prosperity and care.  On the other, we have the liberal high road to the City, to using our wealth (as leading Americans since John Winthrop in the 1630s have urged us) to care for the poor, sick, and unemployed.  Paine informs us that while the low road allows us to apply our Constitution and other national principles only minimally, and only for established American citizens, the high road to the City requires a liberal application of constitutionality to all human beings, regardless of national status.

We have too long allowed our government (even under President Obama’s moderate hand) to traverse the conservative low road.  We have allowed our government to imprison, without charge and without any intention to prosecute, foreign nationals for an unlimited duration.  We have allowed our government to encourage other governments to torture and to evade American principles of legality and morality through machinations like extraordinary rendition.  We have allowed our government to target American citizens believed to be aiding foreign hostile forces, without providing the required basic constitutional protections to those citizens.  So it should come as no surprise when our government wants ever more invasive tools of espionage and oppression, as indicated by the latest court battle with Apple over cell-phone encryption.  It is no surprise that, allowing our government to forget our constitutional principles (and allowing the government to limit constitutional protections to established US citizens – and not even all of those), we now have an entire Republican party hostile to foreigners – immigrants and refugees, the very types of people who (together with slaves) built this country in the first place.  It is no surprise that a Republican candidate is having audiences replicate the Nazi salute as they swear allegiance to their Orangearschlochführer and as they loudly urge him to protect them from Mexicans and Muslims.  This is where the low road is taking us – away from our City on the Hill, and toward an ideological parking lot; empty, barren, and open for sale.

Instead, Paine urges us to take the high road.  Paine pushes us to build Winthrop’s City, a liberal community of care and ethics, and of prosperity and wealth.  Paine urges us to apply our Constitution to all human beings, not just established US citizens.  Paine urges our politicians to treasure all citizens – not just those supporting them at rallies (and unlike those like Trump openly mocking anyone not buying the cheap dime-store make-up job he wants to put on our national legacy and principles).  Paine urges us to remember that when foreign nationals at Guantanamo are denied constitutional protections, we are building precedents for our government to weaken and remove our protections here at home.  Paine urges America to remember its revolutionary principles.  Those principles can only truly shape our polity at home and the rest of the world abroad when we apply them as liberally as we can.  We must guarantee basic constitutional protections to all people, and not ask first where they were born, what language they speak, what faith they profess, or what citizenship they hold.

The Republicans, and extremist forces like Trump, will continue to take the low road away from our City on a Hill, and strive to tear our City down in favor of a parking lot.  We Americans must fight them at every step, and drive forward on the high road, to the City, to a greater community of care and wealth and social justice.  Else we establish a precedent that truly denies protection not just to some loosely defined “outsider,” but to our ideals, to our communities, and to ourselves.

The Honor of Teaching, and Responsibility of Citizenship

Colin Powell Academy in Detroit, Michigan, one of the many schools abandoned since 2009. Teachers at the remaining schools are complaining about deteriorating conditions © Joshua Lott

Quote of the Week:  In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less, because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have. –Lee Iacocca

The one-time chairman of GM (and president of Ford before that) would certainly be appalled to discover the condition of the Detroit Public Schools today, the very opposite of the high pedestal upon which he preferred education to be hoisted.  With teacher “sick-outs,” and protests against Governor Snyder’s emergency management controls over DPS, and with schools closed and budgets out of money, the conservative approach toward privatizing and profiteering our education system (and a financial “bottom-line” focus rather than a student-centered approach) has wrecked our communities, and the prospects of our next generation.  Instead of being able to compete globally with children educated for the 21st century, Detroit school-children under the Republicans’ oversight are almost entirely doomed to lives of dependence, poverty, and crime.

When Republicans claim to represent “family values,” they are hard pressed to explain how policies which damn entire families to perpetual poverty and servitude support modern American families.  “Family values” should focus on the long-term sustainability of the family as a unit, including most importantly the economic prospects of the children.  Republicans merely use the term “family values,” however, to promote the interests of those at the top (and, of course, the racial composition of the elite) against potential competitors from the middle and bottom.  Therefore, in the Republican view, teachers should not get the best pay and our schools should not be revered as temples of learning.  Instead, teachers are “eating off the public dole.” Schools are merely used as areas to test a new permissiveness in gun rights, and as opportunities for the corporations supporting Republican candidates to run for-profit, low-achieving charter schools.

There is a simple solution to this problem; but that solution has been available and avoided for years, especially in the state of Michigan.  It can be done, but it is difficult; and our citizens have long avoided implementing it.  That solution is a return to the City on a Hill, the building of a community of care and welfare, based on the financial strength of our wealthy (and a tax basis determined to use that wealth for the public good, as argued by John Winthrop in his sermon on the nature of a Christian nation in the 1630s).  That solution must be implemented either by the Democrats or by more progressive parties, as the Republicans are increasingly hostile to the formation of Winthrop’s vision of a Christian nation, of a City on a Hill, and of a community working together.  That solution requires liberals and progressives to vote, often and always; and to participate in the political process constantly (through letter/email writing, calls to officials, and self-education on issues and candidates).  That solution requires work, and an admission of individual responsibility for our community (something more than a “hobby,” more than an “interest in politics,” but an obligation of citizenship in a democratic society).  We can build Iacocca’s pedestal for education; but only if we choose to work for it.

Headline image: “Colin Powell Academy in Detroit, Michigan, one of the many schools abandoned since 2009.” Caption from rt.com; photo © Joshua Lott / Reuters.

Feeding the Poor, and Building a City

Quote of the WeekWhen I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a communist. –Hélder Câmara

Brazilian Archbishop and liberation theologist Hélder Câmara committed himself fully to what he saw as a Christian mandate to protect the poor and oppressed from the evils of military dictatorship and economic inequality.  He fought against Brazil’s military government, and at times even against his own Roman Catholic Church, to protect his flock from oppression.  But Câmara’s mission was not a uniquely Brazilian one.  His mission touches deeply upon the fundamental mission of the United States: the establishment of our City on a Hill.

When John Winthrop evoked the mission of our City in 1630 (a moment cited by American liberals and conservatives alike as a key foundation of our shared national ideology), he infused our nation with a liberal mandate to use all of our economic wealth to feed and care for those in need.  This mandate came (in Winthrop’s sermon on Christian charity) not from a vague political or philosophical viewpoint, but from the teachings of Christianity.  The City on a Hill calls for the foundation of America as a new, Christian nation – defined not by the faith of its citizens; but by the charity of its work, of its society and of its government.  By definition, a “Christian nation” uses (that is, taxes) its wealth to feed, clothe, and house the poor; to provide medical care to all needing it; and to ensure individual safety and prosperity through shared public goods like education, transportation, and public safety.  This is precisely what the City on a Hill, described by Winthrop, means.  When American politicians refer to it, they are citing specifically what today we would call liberal values.

Câmara’s mission in Brazil also sought these objectives, within his specific fight to protect the poor from the oppression of his time.  But Câmara points out a fundamental truth for our City:  it is not enough to see individual points of need and darkness, and to assuage those points.  We must move past individual welfare and charity, and push (as Winthrop commanded us in his sermon) to a collective, societal change, asking not merely what this or that person needs, but why that need exists at all, and how to prevent that need from arising in the first place.

Not “asking why people are hungry” is the first step toward accepting the failure of our City – to accepting the concentration of wealth and the permanence of social injustice.  Instead, our City (and for the religious, their faith) endow upon us a liberal imperative to reshape our government, and our society; and to understand that a society only truly prospers so long as it ensures opportunity, comfort, and security to all its members, not just an economically predetermined few.  We must feed the poor.  But we must also ask why they are hungry, and then solve the problem discovered by that inquiry.  That problem is poorly restrained capitalism and an acceptance of accelerating income inequality.  The answers are a more efficient and progressive regulatory environment, and a more progressive tax structure that fulfills the nation’s oldest formative vision.

Câmara’s words, and his work, remind us of our liberal mission to build a City on a Hill.  He also reminds us to ask why injustice exists, as the initial step toward solving that injustice.  Together, Winthrop and Câmara remind us that building and protecting our nation, building the City on a Hill, are moral compulsions to liberal standards of political and social welfare, and to enact and solidify our City’s community of care.

Headline image of Archbishop Câmara, via Google Image Search, posted on a US Catholic commentary.

 

Fighting Evil, or Growing It

Quote of the Week:  The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it. –Albert Einstein

Einstein warned us that those wishing to perpetrate evil (like Hitler in his time, or Trump in ours) are incapable of operating without two additional forces supporting them.  First, they need supporters who themselves may be unwilling to “speak their minds,” but who also applaud evil men for unleashing the darkest monsters of our psyche, man’s tendencies toward suspicion and hatred.  And evil is equally dependent on those who stay silent and inactive; who work, raise their families, and die while remaining distant from greater events around them.

The United States is at a crossroads, much like Germany was in 1933.  A generation from now, Trump may have disappeared into the footnotes of history, unremembered and without having accomplished anything of substance.  Or, Trump can – if we let him – turn our nation away from its democratic principles and economic prosperity and onto the path toward authoritarianism and poverty.  We can remain a powerful and independent democracy; or become, as Trump’s supporters would have it, a third-world dictatorship and economic colony to China, India, Russia, and Brazil.  Although Trump’s supporters would bristle at that objective, that is where their course will lead us.  The twenty-first century economy requires ever more education and cultural diversity, and pushes into poverty and history ever more twentieth-century (and older) sources of income.  Those on the Left, like Clinton and Sanders, who want to steer our nation forward understand the vital importance education and cultural diversity will have in this new century. Their policies of the Left can help keep our nation free, democratic, prosperous, and powerful.  But Trump, and his fellow Republicans, call for the dismantling of education and other public goods that build our City on a Hill.  Trump’s opposition to education is hardly surprising coming from a mogul who himself shipped jobs to China, helping China (to use his own monosyllabic diatribe) to “win.”  Trump calls for ever greater debts to China through lower taxes (while increasing defense and other spending), and also increasing our provocation of China into military conflict (thereby also risking a nuclear apocalypse as well).  But the trumpenproletariat do not think closely about his policies any more than Germans in 1933 could see past Hitler’s own simplistic “solutions” to German problems.

Americans who value their nation must also value its principles, not merely its strength.  What makes the US “great” is not its military, but the inclusiveness of its society and ideals, the openness of its discourse, and the prosperity of its economy.  To keep our nation “great,” we need to keep it inclusive and diverse – pushing that envelope ever further as we go.  We need to welcome immigrants and refugees to help build our nation with us.  We need to keep our discourse lively and open – engaging each other, rather than staying in the shadows and allowing evil to grow unmolested.  And we need to transform our economy to a 21st century model – green, sustainable, information dominated, and supported by a massively expanded and dramatically improved educational system.

Most of all, to keep Trump from becoming our own nation’s Hitler, to push him back into the ash-heap of history, we need to fight – all of us – against evil where we see it.  We need to combat stupidity and simplicity of thought (the preferred growing environment of hatred and fear).  We need to bring more people to the battlefield of political discourse, and use our weapons of logic and facts.

Talk to your people – your friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors.  Explain your views.  Learn theirs.  Engage and combat the evil in front of you – before it knocks on your door and throws you into a paddy wagon.  We can stop this now, in its tracks.  Or we can watch TV, shut our eyes, and bring our nation to its knees and its end.  Which way do you want this to go?  Will you be the evil, or be its end?

Headline image via Google Image Search.

The Discomfort of Thoughtful Politics

Quote of the Week:  Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. –John F. Kennedy

When I saw this quote of Kennedy’s recently, obviously the first thing I thought about was the Trump trainwreck – er, sorry; “campaign,” I think we are calling it now.  However, I realized that as a Thinker-American (we are a small but vibrant community), it is just too easy to pick on the intellectually weak.  Furthermore, none of the trumpenproletariat are likely to be reading this and to be pushed to test their synapses for electrical power.  I realized that my picking on Trump would be simply another voice in the echo chamber; and echo chambers are themselves a part of the problem that has let the bottom-feeders of our polity out into the air to claim legitimacy.  Instead, it is more fruitful to test my own political faith and my claims to intellect, as well as those reading this blog, by reminding all of us (myself most definitely included) that in politics, and in so many other areas, we participate in too many activities that reinforce beliefs and emotions, without adding data or requiring thought.  Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters yell at each other without even stopping to listen, as if they were Democrats and Republicans (and that latter pairing itself is more incapable of working together or listening to each other than in the past).  They each then go back to their echo chambers, hear the same combination of facts, arguments, and opinions, and go back reinforced to refuse to listen once again to the other side.  Supporters of the various Republican candidates do the same to each other.  This nation has no real political discourse between opponents.

The internet has helped mightily to create and reinforce these echo chambers.  Individual claims become “facts” on the internet to those readers who do not take the time to test claims that fit nicely into their view of the world.  Figures and charts and other seemingly legitimate data are coddled together without real research from vetted sources or any attempt at peer review before publishing. On the other hand, facts that do not fit are simply, conveniently, discarded.  We use an impossibly rigid system of looking at facts and arguments from the other side (that creates a virtually impenetrable barrier); but take as already given, vetted, and proven the slightest claim or remotely “fact-esque” opinion that agrees with our own.  In doing so, we claim to be “thinking”; but we are really only engaging in the comfort of opinion without risking the discomfort of thought.

The next time you hear an opponent – even one with the obvious logical and factual flaws of Trump – argue their side, check your own motivations to dismiss them, and your own factual basis.  And the next time you hear someone on your side present their stump speech, check your motivations to agree, and the factual basis of your own argument.  Then re-check them.  Then do it again.  Think about why your politics are “better” than those of someone else; and think about why your opponents may also have a legitimate viewpoint worthy of consideration.

Are you ready to believe six impossible things before breakfast?  (Just ask Alice.)  Then you may be ready for the discomfort of thought.  If not, then leave your echo chamber, lock the door behind you, drink some more coffee, and try to do it by the close of business.

Headline image via Google Image Search.

Growing a Family with Water in Flint

The Guys from Texas

While the city of Flint, Michigan waits for a long-term resolution for its beleaguered water system, as its citizens struggle from day to day for the most basic of needs, that of water, the people of Flint look eagerly to any support they can get.  For now, at least, the city is blessed with the limelight and the attention of our fickle media.  Help is coming in from across the state and across the nation; at least for now.  This is the story of four amazing men who joined in that drive, and built new family connections in the process.

After my recent volunteer experience, I went back to Flint on Saturday with my wife Tonya and our young friend Joshua.  This time, we ended up getting sent by the Red Cross to Crossing Water, operating out of St. Michael’s Catholic Church.  We spoke with Michael Hood, program director, who is sending support teams to Flint households to determine families’ needs and provide for them as best they can (Crossing Water was also the subject of another writer’s experience, which I re-blogged here). The group is currently working very hard to find people with the most urgent circumstances and get them some relief: disabled people unable to lift and carry cases of water, mothers of young babies that require clean water for mixing formula, undocumented people lacking the proper identification to show the National Guard workers checking residents through the water pick-up stations, home-bound elderly folks without access to the pick-up stations, etc.

While talking with Michael (in a room filled with eager volunteers, many also sent from the Red Cross), we met four young men (see photo above; from left to right):  Samah Haider, Wajahat Zaidi, Daniyal Taqvi, and Mohammed Bhayani.  These four men had arrived in the room through a very different path from the rest of us.  They had just arrived in a U-Haul truck filled with 12,000 bottles of water (300 cases, in six pallets), and they had driven up from Texas to help get water to the needy families of Flint.  I spoke later with Daniyal Taqvi, and learned how they had made their way to Michigan.

Earlier in the week, Daniyal had been watching TV, and he saw news reports of Flint children suffering from lead poisoning and going to the hospital with tragic complications.  That image truly brought the reality of Flint’s crisis home to him.  Daniyal is a board member of the Houston chapter of the “Who is Hussain” organization (an Islamic organization whose Michigan chapter has already contributed directly to Flint, with over 30,000 bottles).  As Daniyal explained to me, Hussain ibn Ali, the martyr honored by the group, died while suffering from thirst.  “Water is something that touches a bond with us,” Daniyal said.  “All people need water, and as a human being, it is my responsibility to be able to provide water to them.”

Already experienced in working together on food and water drives in Houston, Dallas, and Austin (for the homeless, and to help build the Muslim community), these four young men were able to use the Who is Hussain structure and other elements of Houston’s Muslim community to collect some $1,500 for Flint in three days.  But they did not just want to send money.  Daniyal explained that maintaining a human connection with the care that these men were providing, and with the community they were aiding, was for them a key part of that care.  During our conversation, Daniyal was close to tears as he described the love and human closeness that he felt with those of us who joined his team, and with those to whom he gave water.

As the four men made their way up north in a rented car, they had little idea of what was to happen on arrival.  Their way was eased by compassionate souls in the rental company, and in a bank helping with the trip’s finances.  Daniyal tells me that in both places, the companies waived various fees when they learned of the group’s mission, to help them get aid to the north.  However, despite this aid, and the money raised in Houston, the group wanted to dedicate the donations entirely for water; so all actual costs of the trip itself were borne by the four men as part of their own donation to the cause.

Never having been to Michigan in the winter, the team expected a frozen winter wasteland, and they were bemused by the unseasonably mild temperatures and the lack of snow on the ground.  They arrived in Dearborn, rented a U-Haul, bought 6 pallets of water from Sam’s Club, and drove to Flint.  After using Google to locate aid centers in Flint, the men got the email of an organizer at St. Michael’s church at 609 E 5th Ave; and the men finally found themselves in a room with Crossing Water’s Michael Hood, and with about 15 Red Cross volunteers, including my own little team, Jason Garcia and his family, and others.

Michael Hood’s phased operation (mapping out needs, and then getting water to those specific people needing it) was a longer-term and broad-based system of care, and our Texan friends wanted to get water into the hands of those needing it rather more quickly, and more personally.  They did, however, donate about a third of their supply to Crossing Water (two pallets; about 4,000 bottles in 100 cases).  As they began unloading cases onto the ground, we formed a daisy chain together to get the cases from the truck to the church, and into a storage area inside.  As we unloaded, cars driving by inquired about getting water, and we gave some of them cases of water as well.

Water Truck

Samah and Daniyal getting ready to unload the last of the two pallets for Crossing Water.  Photo by Jason Garcia.

Once the church’s storage room was full, Daniyal and his team-mates wanted to go into Flint neighborhoods to deliver water personally, their main motivation in coming all the way to Michigan from Texas.  We met a Flint woman who needed water; and she told us that her whole neighborhood needed water.  Soon a convoy was formed, headed by the Flint native’s car, followed by myself, the water truck, and a couple of other cars of Red Cross volunteers.  Other volunteers remained with Crossing Water to help with their canvassing campaign.  Meanwhile, our watering convoy descended on northwest Flint, in the area of Dupont Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave.  We went door-to-door; some of us contacting residents to find out who needed water, while others did the heavy lifting and moved cases to those homes needing it.  The volunteers’ cars all had water as well (which we had all brought to donate), and we emptied out our car stashes while also taking cases from the truck.

In that first neighborhood, a resident told us about another nearby neighborhood needing water, and we found our way to a building with many elderly residents (many without cars and unable to get to the drive-through pick-up locations).  We formed another daisy chain, and unloaded a pallet’s worth or so into a central holding area that a building resident had identified as the best place to leave water where everyone could get to it.  While we were there, an elderly lady began crying when she talked to Daniyal, learning that help had come to her all the way from Texas.

Another resident told us about a government housing project, Aldridge Place, that was very large and very needy.  She agreed to show us the way, and our mobile watering army followed her there.  It was indeed a large complex, with numerous buildings and cul-de-sacs.  We simply dropped off a case at each door, knocking to alert residents, many of whom came out and thanked us as we worked.  As one resident saw Daniyal moving a case of water, she also began crying, hugged him, and said, “Everything’s getting better.”  Finally, with only a little water left in the truck, the Flint native who had led us to the project showed us to a last nearby neighborhood where we unloaded cases at each house that showed signs of occupancy.  At last the truck was empty.  We all thanked each other, hugged or shook hands, took pictures of the truck with our tired little army, and then called it a day.  (My family met up with our new Texan friends for dinner in Dearborn later in the evening, but that’s another story.)

Tired Relief Crew.png

A tired relief crew at the end of the day.

When I asked Daniyal what motivated them all to do such charitable work, he reminded me that we are all human beings, first and foremost, whatever else we may be.  He also felt it important that, with so much of the media’s attention focused on bad examples of Muslims, Americans should see the positive impact that Muslims and their faith can play in our society, with Islam’s own unique imperatives of charity and brotherhood.  His own organization, Who is Hussain, has organized other water drives in Flint, as well as peace rallies in the wake of last year’s darkest moments of terrorism.

Daniyal has come away from this experience with a deep sense of family connection with us in Michigan.  He feels new, profound connections with those like myself who followed the lead of these men and helped them fulfill their mission of mercy.  And he also feels a profound connection to those needy to whom he gave water, a meaningful and spiritual experience for him.  These men came to give; but they got back something that they felt distanced from in the north – family.  Daniyal was touched by the realization that “humanity still exists,” that while not everyone is equally blessed, those with more can share their blessings with those who have less.  Daniyal wishes now that everyone could do something like this at least once; to realize we are all part of a greater human family.  He, Samah, Mohammed, and Wajahat are proud to have given water to their family.

Flint is only one place in the US that needs help, as much as it lies on the headlines of today’s papers and internet sites.  My city in Michigan, or their cities in Texas, could be among the next places that need outside assistance, that need good people like these to come from other towns to help.  These men did not come here to help people that looked or dressed or worshiped like them.  They came here as people, to help other people in need, members of the same community of mankind regardless of petty differences.  They came here in the best tradition of their faith, and of the nation we all share, traditions that call for all people with extra resources to help those without.  This is the ultimate meaning of our City on a Hill, the building of a community of care and welfare.

Those politicians and extremists who call for restricting entry to our City of people in need of shelter (some of whom look precisely like these four amazing men from Texas) are not building our City, or defending our nation or what it stands for.  And they threaten the ties that build our nation – the ties between the diverse communities and cultures of our City.  Such ties will be needed more than ever as our nation’s infrastructure ages, as political rhetoric demonizes and marginalizes the poor and the different, as some Americans refuse to accept others as members of the same human race.  Instead of such politicians and pundits, we need more men like these four.  We need more men like Daniyal Taqvi, like Mohammed Bhayani, like Samah Haider, and like Wajahat Zaidi – they are the true builders of our City, examples of our best traditions, and leaders who give real meaning to our values.

With special thanks to Jason Garcia, Michael Hood, John Gleason; and of course our new brothers in Texas.

Whom Are We Allowed to Criticize?

Quote of the Week:  To learn who rules over you, simply find out whom you are not allowed to criticize. –Voltaire

As an American citizen, I have a strong appreciation for the First Amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing our rights to free speech, and the freedoms of religion, press, and assembly; as well as the less-cited right to petition the government for redress of grievances.  All of these rights work together in harmony to allow us the right to criticize whomever we please – in theory.  Obviously, the Constitution was never purported to be a perfect document; and there are glaring omissions from the point of view of modern society.  For example, major corporations were beyond the imagination of the framers of the Constitution; and so corporate powers over individuals, communities, and even our government specifically are completely unrestrained by any line of the Constitution.

In fact, every grouping of people outside of the government proper has the power to restrict rights of all people joining those groups (besides often working to limit rights of others outside the group).  Churches can require members to follow religious rules; families, companies, and other groups can control speech as rigidly as they please; and so forth.  While the Constitution protects rights to criticize other groups, we are losing the fight within groups.  This becomes evident as political divisiveness and the vitriol of rhetoric separate factions within political parties as deeply as they separate the parties themselves.  As Democratic and Republican campaigns for the nomination to the presidency heat up, invective not only between but also within the campaigns is also heating up.  There is an ever-increasing expectation of ideological conformity within the campaigns.  Trump supporters (the trumpenproletariat) become ever more shrill in favor of their candidate, and eat each other alive when any of them expresses doubt or recognizes a flaw in their candidate.  The supporters of other campaigns do the same.  As a Clinton supporter myself, I have received the most vicious criticisms on Facebook from fellow Clinton supporters (whenever reflecting on weaknesses, like her Wall Street connections and her Iraq vote), while Sanders supporters and Republicans have been far less nasty.  While some members of both parties’ campaigns complain about attacks by other candidates from the same party, I have seen fierce expectations of conformity within the members of several individual campaigns.

This bipartisan expectation of conformity is troubling indeed.  It demonstrates that whatever the Constitution says, we are not allowed to criticize those very individuals asking us for our vote and purporting to represent our interests and views.  That is not a foundation of democracy; that is a weakness that can potentially undermine our democracy.  None of our candidates are perfect (if you will excuse the understatement); and we must express our doubts not only about those we are fighting against, but of those for whom we are fighting.  If we do not, the very point of this fighting is lost.

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Genius, Mediocrity, and the Perception of Victory

Quote of the Week:  Only mediocrity can be trusted to be always at its best. Genius must always have lapses proportionate to its triumphs. –Max Beerbohm

As a political writer, I take these words to heart.  They are especially relevant to the risks that a writer must take as a natural part of the process.  Not everything I do ever ends up being perfect; and it is astounding how completely different something I have in my head looks once I start putting it into words.  Even outlines and drafts change radically as I enter words here, and often the transformation can be not only astounding but disheartening.  Sometimes I have ideas that work just fine in theory but come out looking more like something I would have written in high school.  At any rate, Beerbohm’s words indicate that as a writer I should be prepared to face a possible disaster (a “lapse of genius,” if you will) in order to strive for the higher goal of a well-constructed and delivered argument.

Looking past my own concerns, Beerbohm’s words are also relevant to the recent Iowa Caucus.  Two candidates in particular (Clinton and Trump), as well as the media, made their results out to be more than what they really are.  Clinton’s “virtual tie” (to use Bernie Sanders’s description) is painted instead as a “victory” (in a state she was expected to win, and by a good margin); at least in part because she is also expected to lose New Hampshire to Sanders, and needs to prevent a perception building up of an unstoppable Sanders momentum.  However, Clinton does have hope on the horizon, in the shape of Nevada (possibly), South Carolina, and Super Tuesday.  South Carolina in particular should be a big win for Clinton, and it is difficult to see how Sanders will keep up in the multiple-front onslaught of Super Tuesday.  But to get her there, Clinton strives to shape perceptions of her campaign as the unbeatable juggernaut.  She simply changed expectations at the last minute by having it appear that any win, even by the tiniest margin, was a “great victory,” regardless of the omens portended by Iowa.  But Clinton is a genius of political organizing, and that includes being married to another great political organizer.  Mediocrity is not a problem that Clinton suffers; and the campaign need not fear its lapse.  The genius of organization behind the Clinton machine should be allowed to consider soberly the reality of Iowa and find a way to connect to the new, young voter (who is overwhelmingly in favor of Sanders, and who well may play a vital role, as young voters did in 2008).  The genius of Clinton should be allowed its lapse; and it should be allowed to see and portray that lapse as what it is – not a fatal weakness, but a problem that needs to be fixed as the campaign moves on to its next objective.

Similarly, Donald Trump brought in a much lower percentage of Iowans than his pre-caucus poll numbers indicated.  Those numbers gave him a second place not far from the first, held by Ted Cruz, but also even closer (by a single percentage point) to Marco Rubio’s third place.  Trump is underplaying the result, treating it as if it had been expected.  Yet Trump had more campaign stops in Iowa than any other GOP candidate.  He clearly invested far more resources in, and expected far greater results from, the people of Iowa (despite at one point insulting them by asking, “How stupid are the people of Iowa?”).  He also moves on to New Hampshire, a state where he is expected to do much better – a likely win.  And yet, the New Hampshire primary is basically “small time,” and like Iowa allows for much time and preparation, neither of which will be available for subsequent steps like Super Tuesday.  Trump’s failure to understand the voters, to understand the campaign process, and to understand his own rivals for the nomination (Rubio especially, whom Trump simply never saw coming) indicates not so much a “genius” showing an inevitable lapse, but the expected results of mediocrity trying to compete with its betters.

With Trump in Iowa, we see mediocrity at its best; unable to look past his own nose, or hear past the crowd of those around him.  Whereas with Clinton, we see political genius afraid to allow itself the comfort of a clear lapse.  For the good of the American political process, Trump’s mediocrity would best continue to “be always at its best,” but Clinton’s genius should be allowed to experience both its first lapse as well as its potential future triumphs.

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Moonlight and Madness, Or Moderation?

Quote of the Week:  “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” – Allen Ginsberg

Ginsberg was certainly not afraid to live by these words, leading the beat generation and counterculture, expressing his homosexuality openly, confronting the government on drug policies and on war issues, and creating poetry anew in his own image.  However, as a political writer (and an avid watcher of the political horse-race, elections) I am somewhat intimidated by these words.  I do not live, and also do not write, as if I were Ginsberg, or a follower of him (which I am not, much as I am inspired by some of his work).  I write as a liberal, but one trying to converse politely with the Right; in case they happen to stop by.  But most, or all, of my readership thus far seems to be on my side of the spectrum.  I began my blog under the tagline “Fomenting a Political Conversation,” and that remains for the moment my mission – to get people talking if I can, not just with their individual echo chambers, but with people on the opposite sides of the aisle.

In that spirit, I often tone down my language.  I edit out some of my anger at the injustices of the world, at what I think are not just wrong but stupid positions or arguments.  I hide the madness, and stray from my inner moonlight in pursuit of what is likely a futile goal.  And I expect the politicians on center stage to do the same.

As a liberal, I love the stances and proposals of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  I have been a follower of both for years, and have been a past contributor to Clinton’s 2008 campaign, and to Sanders’ involvement in the Democratic Socialists of America.  Still, when Sanders shouts like the angry old man on the porch (in effect, living Ginsberg’s advice in ways that I cannot), I cringe.  I see Sanders as the great legislator (giving a voice to Congress that even as a Senator, Clinton never could); and Clinton as the great executive with deep personal experience and relationships with the leaders of the world.  But I also see Clinton as reserved (like myself) in ways that Sanders is not.  What would she promote as a candidate if she followed her own inner moonlight?  She was a leftist in 2008, before Sanders was there to push her; so that does not just come from the current dynamic.  Is Clinton “realistic” and Sanders “radical”?  Is Clinton “political” and Sanders “real”?  In part, I hope to answer these questions through this blog as I investigate these actors in greater detail.  For now, I find myself torn – between the “moonlight and madness” of Sanders’s more “revolutionary” proposals (which energize my instinctive leftism), and the “moderation” of Clinton, and her “establishment” positions (which I internalize as reasonable compromises).  And I am torn as a political writer, between writing my fury and delivering fiery oratory; and my desire to talk to the other side in a way that welcomes dialogue.

Howl at the Moon