Wednesday, February 18, 2015

An Open Letter to My State Senator Vis-à-Vis L'Affair de Ritz

My illustrious state senator (and local Pizza Hut franchise lawyer): David Long

Sometimes my interest in peaceful communication gets steamrolled by snark.  This is one of those times.  I'm posting the text of a letter I sent to my State Senator, David Long, about his role in the attempt by some political operatives in Indiana to circumvent the authority of the Superintendent of Schools, Glenda Ritz.  

(You can read about it here.)

I had contacted him before the senate vote to let him know I thought he should vote "no." Given that he's been in the forefront of the attack on the superintendent, this was quixotic on my part.  I did, however, get a form email from his office after the vote in which he attempted to "explain" why he voted the way he did.  My response is as follows:

Dear State Senator Long:

I appreciate the response to my email sharing my thoughts on the bill regarding Superintendent Ritz.  

Unfortunately, the attempt to explain your position only further served to muddy the waters.  In particular, the letter engages in a tell-tale sign of political doublespeak: the circular argument.

The rationale for the legislation given in the letter was that Superintendent Ritz took actions you felt were detrimental to the relationship between her and the board.  The salient fact left out, of course, is that these actions were themselves responses to actions taken by the governor.

In essence, the reasoning of your argument is as follows: the governor didn’t like Ritz’s positions so he made unprecedented moves to circumvent her authority—authority given to her by the people of Indiana. 

 Superintendent Ritz resisted such moves and, because she wouldn’t play ball, legislation was needed to force her.

It’s a bit like the schoolyard bully defending himself by saying, “Don’t blame me for hitting her!  She kept putting her face in front of my fist!”

I recognize that you are counting on the average Indianan to not fully understand the dynamics of the narrative.  Perhaps that hope is well-founded.  That has yet to be seen.

It’s also clear you hope that part of these forgotten dynamics are other statements you’ve made about Superintendent Ritz.  In your letter, you plead innocence about this being in any way about Superintendent Ritz personally.  But that doesn’t square with the following public statement made last month:

“In all fairness, Superintendent Ritz was a librarian, OK? . . . She has never run a school system, and that is a bit of a problem for her — she’s on a learning curve there.”

Now, in all fairness, you’re a local pol and pizza joint lawyer, OK?  You’ve never run a school system, or had any professional experience in education for that matter.  And that’s a bit of a problem for you—you’re on a learning curve there.  

See, education isn’t a political game. It’s actually important.  The effects of decisions made now will have consequences when your own political career is reduced to nothing more than a footnote in a dusty, untouched reference tome in some government office in Indianapolis.  

Those of us who have devoted our lives to education know this; neither you nor the governor seem to.
(In all fairness, Governor Pence is a former radio talk show host, OK?  He also has never run a school system, and that’s a bit of a problem for him—he’s on a learning curve there.)

Indeed, not only do you not seem to understand education, but your ignorance encompasses the basic aspects of democracy as well.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Untrolling Tuesday

So, I'm trying to be more dedicated to blogging, which means not waiting until I have something well thought out to say and shooting from the hip (if you'll pardon the firearms metaphor in this context).

One half-baked idea I had recently was something minor that could be done to help make Twitter a bit more friendly.  I'm not sure where/when it occurred to me, and it's not exactly original, but a couple of weeks ago, I tried an experiment in "untrolling."

Of course, "trolling" is the art/habit/addiction of saying snarky, mean-spirited, critical things to people on social media in an attempt to get a rise out of them and/or to simply vent one's spleen. Anyone who's reading a blog post like this is no doubt familiar with this. Many of us, yours truly included, have done it ourselves.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Hamlet, Skull in Hand

I’m not entirely sure why this occupied my mind this morning, but it did, so I thought I’d type it up.

My dad’s favorite episode ever of Star Trek: the Next Generation was one in which Picard findshimself stranded on a planet with an alien he can’t communicate.  It’s not that they don’t share a common language; as is the case in most episodes of Star Trek, everyone and everything speaks the Queen’s English (or Starfleet’s English).  

No, the problem is that while the alien’s individual words might be decipherable, the underlying meaning of them is not.  The reason is that the alien speaks in nothing but literary analogies alluding to myths from his own culture.  Without having a grounding in the culture of the alien, Picard can make no sense of koan-like sayings, such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or “Temba, his arms wide.”

Eventually, Data and the trusty Enterprise computer figure out where this alien comes from and provide Picard with a Wikipedia-esque understanding of the characters and situations the alien makes reference to, and this allows communication to take place.  Picard even creates his own version of this language, using phrases from his own culture's repository of literary allusions, such as “Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk.”  Not only does this newfound common language of analogy allow Picard and his companion to defeat a monstrous beast that attacks them, but to forge a bond between themselves and their cultures. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK and the Stories We Tell

Every week or so, I have a dream involving the JFK assassination.  It’s never realistic.  I’m not in Dealey Plaza as it actually looks.  I often don’t even see Kennedy.  It’s much more abstract.  I’m running through some generic city streets that are sort of stand ins for Dallas (I guess), and I’m aware that the shots are about to be fired, but I don’t know where.  Or I’m watching something on television about the assassination, and suddenly I’m sucked through the screen and I’m somewhere unfamiliar and unrecognizable, and I’m scared I’m about to see something horrific, and then I hear the rifle shots.

I don’t know why this has become a recurring motif of my dreams.  I wasn’t alive when it happened, so it’s something more indirect than reliving a traumatic experience—something metaphorical.  If forced to guess, I suppose it has probably has something to do with fear of my own death, the threat of violence, dealing with loss, or just the fragility of life in general.

In the early 1990s, around the time of the 30th anniversary of the assassination, I became interested in exploring the assassination and read a few books.  Stone’s JFK had just come out, so that was probably the catalyst for my interest.  What became more fascinating to me than issues of bullet trajectories or missing autopsy reports or the time Oswald spent in the Soviet Union was the passion with which people held their opinions on the event.  Single bullet or magic bullet.  CIA or the Cubans. Grassy knoll or sixth floor.  Whatever people thought about the assassination, they seemed to hold like a religious belief.  I became aware that whatever the actual facts were didn’t matter.  Any fact could be molded to fit a preconceived narrative.  The question was then why did people choose certain narratives over others?  What was at stake for them?  Clearly, it had to be something, given my increasing conviction that rational argumentation had little to do with people’s thoughts.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Macrologician Strikes Back!


Thanks to those who passed along kind words about the whole "Golden Pen" thing.  Below, is the "director's cut" of the letter, restored from the violence done to it by those enemies of macrologia over at the Journal Gazette! :-)

In the recent congressional debate about the farm bill, Republicans proposed slashing $20 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over ten years. Some holier-than-thou advocates for children call this “cruel.”  Luckily, Indiana’s own Representative Marlin Stutzman sees that the only problem with these cuts is that they don’t go far enough. He suggested upping the amount to $30 billion.

You can guess what the “reality-based” crowd will say to this.  They’ll point out Marlin has taken over $200,000 from the government for his own farming operations over the last 15 years.  They’ll remind us Marlin has claimed he was “forced” to take these government handouts when, in fact, he wasn’t.  They might even use the word “hypocrite” to describe Marlin.

But Marlin understands that huge operations like Stutzman Farms need such handouts (more kindly called “crop insurance”) as protection from the consequences of economic forces beyond their control.  To those who claim the kids of the working poor don’t deserve to suffer because of the disastrous fiscal policies of Wall Street either, folks like Marlin have a ready answer: how do you know those little blighters didn’t cause the subprime mortgage crisis in the first place?

All of us in Indiana’s 3rd Congressional District should be thankful that when not being frog-marched to the bank by government thugs and forced to cash those five-digit checks he didn’t even ask for, Marlin has devoted time to sorting out the real culprits behind our economic woes: hungry kids.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Gayest Games Ever!

Like a lot of folks, I’ve been hearing a lot recently about the human-rights-defying anti-gay laws passed in Russia, particularly in the context of the upcoming Winter Olympics.  British comedian Stephen Fry just wrote an open letter to Prime MinisterDavid Cameron suggesting a boycott or relocation of the games from Russia.  On the other side of the issue, Johnny Weir (American figure skater, openly gay man, and sequin aficionado) has spoken out against an Olympic boycott, saying it would just hurt people who had nothing to do with the laws.

What are civilized people supposed to do?  On one hand, going ahead with the games and hiding behind the shibboleth that “the majesty of sport transcends political issues” isn’t an option.  It amounts to tacit approval of gross immorality.  But would a boycott really do anything constructive? Is it even possible to change the location of the games at this late date? Is punishing the athletes (the folks the games are ultimately about) to “send a message” a just thing to do?

I’ve been trying to think of what an approach of creative, constructive nonviolence might look like as a solution to this issue, based on the reading and coursework I’ve done in this area.  And I might just have come up with a solution.

Four words: The Gayest Games Ever!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Online Comment Cruelty

 Was reading an article about the recent suicide of a celebrity, and the article was followed by many comments from readers, some of which were thoughtful, many of which were not.  A few of us shared some ideas on why some people seem drawn to make grotesque, hurtful, and cruel comments in an online environment.  Below was my contribution to the discussion, which I realized would probably be appropriate for this blog.  I'm still thinking through this phenomenon of online cruelty for no apparent purpose and how to respond to it.  Mostly, I just try to avoid reading comments sections in general.  When I do read comments, I try to keep the following ideas in mind (emphasis on *try*; I often fail).  If any of you have thoughts about the best way to engage/think about such things, I'd love to hear what you have to say as well.

Anyway, FWIW, here it is:

On the issue of the tone of many of the comments, it's true we don't put a collective value on empathy, intelligence, and just basic politeness (e.g., we downgrade politeness as a virtue these days because it is somehow antithetical to being "real").

That said, when I encounter these sorts of comments, I try to remind myself of a few things. One, people make these comments for reasons that are all about them, not about anyone or anything else. It's a chance to offload anxieties, frustrations, pain, etc. A second, related, point is that age-old observation that people treat others the way they treat themselves. No matter how smug and self-satisfied they might try to come across, people who are cruel and insensitive are people who treat themselves that way as well (often unconsciously).

None of this excuses the behavior, but it might explain what is otherwise utterly insipid, idiotic behavior. It speaks to an underlying degree of pain in a society in which we feel disconnected. And it also helps me move from a place where I feel a need to skewer these people or explain to them exactly how stupid they are being to simply acknowledging that these people have been damaged and hurt on a profound level themselves, and even more tragically, they don't know how to heal. Instead, they just try to offload the pain and frustration in an attempt to purge it from themselves. It never works. Let's hope they can learn that.