Our Own Worst Enemies

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There has been a recent cry for Facebook to be broken up. The social media giant has too much power, argue critics. Robert Mueller’s report about Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election shows how massive amounts of disinformation were spread to the millions of people who use Facebook.

I’m all for regulating companies whose business practices are predatory and monopolistic, and I can certainly see how the success of such Silicon Valley behemoths as Facebook, Google, and Amazon can pose a threat to free commerce. But one of the reasons Facebook users were so easily swayed by bogus and slanted stories during the election is that they wanted to believe those stories. Many of us live in the echo chambers of our own belief systems. Whether it be from Facebook, TV news, or newspapers, we seek out information that conforms to our worldview and disregard or hold with intense skepticism those stories that contradict our beliefs.

In short, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to digesting information.

I certainly think our national security apparatus should deal more vigorously with avoiding a repeat of Russian or any foreign interference into our next presidential election. That won’t happen, of course, because Russian interference benefited Donald Trump, and he sees no reason it won’t help him again. I think we are past the point where anyone really believes Trump’s motivations are anything but self-serving.

What we can do as Americans is learn to take in information and opinions in a more critical and thoughtful way. Trump’s and Republicans’ complaints notwithstanding, there are still reputable news organizations and journalists working tirelessly to publish factual information about politics, the economy, foreign policy etc. When we hear or read things that sound hard to believe, we need to question those stories. “Pizzagate” comes to mind. There are also numerous nonpartisan fact-checking organizations that can confirm or refute what we are hearing from our leaders.

As a teacher, I used to work on critical thinking skills with my students. They learned about fallacies of logic, how statistics can be manipulated, and how language can affect the message. We need to do a better job in our children’s schooling to raise thoughtful individuals who are willing to question their own assumptions and test the arguments they encounter in the public sphere.

Facebook may indeed have too much power. Fox News might in fact be little more than a mouthpiece for conservative viewpoints. But it is up to us, the American people, to take the time and effort to discern what is true and what we should view with skepticism. Only with thoughtful and informed citizens will our democracy be sustained.

 

 

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FOMO Foments Prejudice

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Social Media GraphicsMy kids use a lot of texting abbreviations that it has taken me a while to figure out. One of them is FOMO: fear of missing out. In the social life of young people, fear of missing out is what keeps them tied to their smartphones, scrolling through Instagram to see what their peers are doing at any given moment.

But FOMO is also a dangerous human tendency. In times of economic insecurity, people worry that they won’t get their share of resources. Often they project their lack on others they perceive as taking what is rightfully theirs.

Donald Trump has exploited this insecurity by pitting Americans against Hispanic immigrants coming across the border “to get our jobs.” He has increasingly favored protectionist trade policies because he perceives other countries – particularly Mexico, Canada, and China – as having taken unfair advantage of America. And these policies have effects. Yesterday the Dow plummeted in the face of China’s retaliatory trade tariffs.

Throughout the history of the United States, particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups were used as scapegoats for citizens’ insecurities and fears about not having enough. Many of us have ancestors of Italian, Irish, German, or Polish descent who recounted stories of discrimination and hatred when they began arriving on the shores of America. Japanese and Chinese immigrants faced even worse persecution, as did blacks whose ancestors were slaves and those who immigrated more recently from the African continent and the Caribbean.

Sadly, the human condition has not changed much over the centuries. Nowadays, people of Middle Eastern descent, especially Muslims, are targets of hatred and fear for many Americans. Jews are still being targeted for hate crimes and stereotyped as money hungry connivers who are trying to take over all aspects of American commerce. Even “model minorities” from East Asia, such as Koreans, Chinese, and Indians, are being met more and more with resistance on the part of Americans who feel they are making too many inroads into our prosperous society.

A case in point is the story of a bus company in Champaign, Illinois, called Suburban Express. Suburban Express conveyed students to and from the University of Illinois campus for years. However, in recent years, the company came under fire for discriminatory advertising and business practices. For instance, the company sent out an email ad that promised, “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.” Furthermore, according to the Champaign News Gazette,

Suburban Express allegedly denied credit cards from ZIP codes with high Jewish populations, instructed employees to avoid handing out coupons to certain students who appeared not to speak English well and recorded a YouTube video in a UI dorm while complaining about the lack of English speakers and mocking Asian accents by saying “No Engrish.” (“Suburban Express Shuts Down,” News Gazette, May 7, 2019)

Suburban Express ceased operations after it was sued by the Illinois Attorney General, and a consent decree cost the company $100,000. The unrepentant owner declared he was shutting down because running the business wasn’t fun any more. I guess it’s no fun if you can’t publicly mock minorities.

As the mother of a Chinese American daughter, this attitude sickens me. Even before the blatantly racist actions of the bus company came to light, I would sometimes hear complaints from friends and acquaintances about the large numbers of Chinese nationals attending the University of Illinois. They seemed to feel that the Chinese students were making it harder for their own children to gain access to the state’s premier public university.

I don’t think it’s racist to argue about how many out of state students should be allowed to attend a university partly subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. In fact, about a decade ago, Illinois residents decried a dramatic increase in out of state acceptances, and the university backed down, keeping the numbers of Illinois residents attending U of I at a large majority.

However, I can’t help feeling that this animosity toward Asian-born students in particular is tinged with racism. I doubt there would be much hue and cry if German or Swedish nationals started descending on the Illinois university system in large numbers. Because Asians are so readily identifiable and less likely to speak mellifluous English, they are unfairly singled out for scorn and discrimination.

Our society is stronger when we welcome and accept people of all different persuasions. Instead of looking for scapegoats for our societal ills, we should be addressing issues such as underemployment and unequal education head on. Let’s not use our FOMO as an excuse to deny the humanity and dignity of others.

Teachers Are Losers

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Donald Trump, Jr. was absolutely right when he said teachers were losers.

  • Teachers lose money buying their own supplies for the classroom.
  • Teachers lose sleep grading papers and worrying about their “kids.”
  • Teachers lose large chunks of time outside of school coaching and supervising extracurriculars.
  • Teachers lose heart when they can’t get through to one of their students.
  • Teachers lose hope when know-nothings like Trump, Jr., denigrate them and their profession in public.

May is traditionally the month in which school and parent communities show their appreciation for the hard-working educators that spend hours every day with our children. Special breakfasts, goodie bags, flowers, and the like are prepared to make teachers feel special.

But the teaching profession is losing ground. A report by CBS News states, “Teachers are earning almost 2 percent less than they did in 1999 and 5 percent less than their 2009 pay, according to the Department of Education.” (Aimee Picchi, “School’s back in session, but many teachers aren’t returning,” August 23, 2018) Teacher pay is only one factor explaining the attrition in qualified teachers. The climate at many schools and the lack of leadership has caused many teachers to leave the field well shy of retirement age. And the numbers of college students planning to major in education has dropped.

I believe that what is contributing to the decline in the ranks of teachers in America is the public’s perception of teachers as lazy, entitled complainers who get their summers off.  In other industrialized countries, the teaching profession is well paid and well respected. Here in America we subscribe to the old saw, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

So while our little ones pick flowers from their gardens to bring to their teachers this month, it would behoove all of us to consider the hard work and dedication it takes to educate the next generation. It’s time to stand up for teachers and support them in the difficult job they have of making sure our children can read, compute, reason, and live responsibly in our society.

If we fail to respect the education profession, we are going to be the losers.

Come Together

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(photo from Chicago Tribune)

On Tuesday night, there was cause for jubilation in my hometown. Voters finally approved a major referendum to fix and modernize our old, crumbling high schools. It was the third attempt in three years to raise funds for the purpose of bringing our highly ranked high schools into the 21st Century.

What made the difference on Tuesday was the sustained, enthusiastic, and concerted effort of hundreds of citizens in our school district. My next door neighbor spearheaded the “Yes” campaign, so I had a front row seat to all her organizing and mobilizing the troops: both to win hearts and minds to the cause and to motivate people to get out and vote in a spring election, when turnout has been historically low.

The campaign was a heartening lesson in community strength and power. At campaign events I attended, there was a spirit of fun and camaraderie. Through our success, we learned that we are strongest when we work together towards a common goal. And the glow of victory remains on the faces of people I see in town every day. It’s not just the satisfaction of winning; it’s the feeling of connectedness. Without a struggle to pass the referendum, I’m not sure we would have that sense of oneness today.

Elsewhere in Chicagoland and across the country, history was being made by people who have historically been at the margins of society. Chicago elected its first black female mayor, one who also happens to be openly gay. And she was not the only gay candidate to win an election that day. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there has been a groundswell of activism that has resulted in the election of more women, gays, Muslims, and other minority candidates than ever before at the local, state, and federal levels. This may not seem like a big deal to the younger generation, but I remember when John F. Kennedy was considered a questionable candidate because he was Catholic!

The power of individuals coming together cannot be overestimated. Not only can people further the causes about which they feel passionate, but they can develop a sense of togetherness, a feeling that we can depend on each other and bring out the best in each other. That has certainly happened in my own small community. It gives me hope for the future.

College Craziness

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img_4718_42College craziness has hit my little world. I’m not talking about older adolescents doing jello shots and dancing on the roof of the fraternity house. I’m talking about the craziness that comes with trying to get into college.

When I was a teen, the process of getting into college was a lot more straightforward. The average kid I knew took the ACTs and SATS, sent the scores to their state schools, and waited to see if they got in. Some of the more elite students might apply to a private school or two, but no one I knew applied to upwards of 10 different colleges.

Today, the college application process is so fraught. My daughter is overloaded with honors and AP courses and frantically trying to prepare for the ACTs, all while participating in sports and extracurricular activities in an attempt to show colleges what a dynamic, interesting, and passionate person she is. It’s exhausting, and not just for the teens.

A case in point is the process at our high school for becoming a member of National Honor Society. NHS has been around since I was in high school. Back then, if you maintained a certain GPA, you were automatically accepted into the organization and the designation became a nice little addendum to your grades and test scores on your college application. For my daughter, applying for membership in NHS has entailed a laborious process that includes performing 20 hours of community service and completing essays on one’s character, scholarship, leadership, and service.

That leadership requirement is the one that really gets me. Don’t even try applying to college unless you can demonstrate what a leader you have been in your school and community. These are teenagers, for crying out loud. And how can they all be leaders? Don’t leaders need followers?

The entire college application process has become hopelessly complicated. Most students apply to numerous schools, each with their own application requirements (not to mention fees). And don’t be fooled by their acceptance of “the common app.” Most schools will have additional essay requirements above and beyond the one required in the common app.

Why has applying to college become so complex? The answer is competition. So many more students are applying to college today, and the Baby Boomers have left a legacy of overpopulation when it comes to the pool of applicants out there. So colleges can demand anything they want. High school students are left feeling that they have to design a unique computer app or find the cure for cancer in order to be attractive to some of the more selective institutions.

Then these very same institutions turn around and chastise parents and schools for stressing out their kids. In the documentary Race to Nowhere, which was required viewing at many schools, a UC Berkeley administrator bemoans the fact that kids are burning the midnight oil and becoming suicidal over academic expectations at their schools. This from a university whose acceptance rate was 16.9% in 2015.

Of course, we do have a choice to opt out of the craziness. I have no doubt there are many good colleges that do not have such insane expectations for their incoming students. But like many parents, I want my daughter to be able to dream big. I want to encourage her aspirations, not curtail them. What this means for my family is a participation in the craziness for the next several months.

I don’t even want to think about what she’ll be doing when she actually get there!

Teach Your Children Well

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The other day I got behind the wheel of my husband’s car and panicked. The fuel tank was so low that the warning light had come on, and the needle was perilously close to empty.

“Relax,” my husband said. “You’ve got 28 miles before the gas runs out.”

I didn’t trust it. Ever since I started driving at age 16, I had been taught by my father never to let the gas gauge go under a quarter of a tank. It was wise advice that has kept me from being one of those roadside losers who run out of gas and have to call AAA or hoof it for miles to the nearest gas station. To this day, I make sure to fill the tank it gets close to the quarter mark.

The lessons our parents teach stick with us for the rest of our lives. I remember once shopping with my mom at a department store. She had been carrying a couple of pairs of pajamas in her arms, considering whether or not to buy them, and was no doubt distracted by having several children in tow. As she left the store and headed into the parking lot, she noticed she was still carrying the unpaid for merchandise. No sensors had gone off, and no security guard had hustled after her. But she turned right around and marched us all back into the store so that she could return the clothes. That simple action taught me never to take what wasn’t mine and to be honest and scrupulous in other areas of life.

Other things my parents taught me over the years were not to swear, not to fight (physically), to treat people with respect, write thank you notes, work hard, play fair, and take credit only for one’s own work. Most of these things they taught, not by words, but by example.

Our children are little sponges soaking up the atmosphere around them. They note what we do and say way more than we would like to think. For instance, when my oldest child was little, one of her first words started with “sh.” Clearly she heard me cursing under my breath frequently throughout the day and was simply mimicking me. Luckily, her baby voice wasn’t super clear, so no one but I knew what she was actually saying. This same child loved to hover around the edges of adult conversation as she grew up. I truly hope that what she heard from her dad and me was positive and life-affirming, not gossipy or negative. But I’m not kidding myself.

As kids get older, they tune out a lot of what their parents say. But they are still watching what we do. If our lives convey honesty, respect, compassion, and integrity, they will come to value those qualities in themselves. If we take care of our health, eat right, and exercise, so will they.

Of course, children are not clones. They will make mistakes and err in judgment just as we did when we were young. But if we are careful as parents to model lives of kindness and responsibility, the trajectory of our kids’ lives is likely to follow a similar path.

As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang, “Teach your children well.” When they become parents themselves, they will remember the lessons of their youth and carry them forward into the future.

Indigenous Peoples Day

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Most of us know that Native Americans were driven off of their tribal lands by white colonialism and later U.S. territorial expansion from the day Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean islands, thinking he had found the East Indies. Far from celebrating Columbus’ “discovery” of America, many Americans feel it would be more appropriate either to eliminate the holiday called Columbus Day or change its focus and rename it Indigenous Peoples Day.

I would support the idea of reclaiming the dignity, traditions, and history of our native people by honoring them with a U.S. holiday. For far too long, Native Americans have been depicted as primitive and warlike people of whom white settlers were justifiably afraid. I will never forget how, as a child, I was terrified of the sinister figure Injun Joe from Mark Twain’s novel Tom Sawyer. Movie westerns portrayed Indians as savage figures eager to scalp poor defenseless pioneers. In this way, white America was able to gloss over or justify the extermination and essentially, the internment, of Native American people on small tracts of land called reservations.

More and more, American history teachers are bringing to light the larger story of American colonialism and westward expansion, a story that includes the unfortunate plight of the Native American. Understanding this history is an important step and should be acknowledged on this day set aside to honor a man whose actions towards the native people were often horrific and violent.

But we must go beyond a mere recognition of the atrocities of the past. Native Americans today suffer from high rates of poverty, alcoholism, and diabetes. Their right to operate casinos is a mixed blessing that brings with it certain unsavory elements. And the destruction of their tribal way of life has marginalized the customs and sacred traditions of disparate native peoples. Instead, Native Americans are lumped together in the public mind as the monolithic “other.”

Our government needs to do more to address the endemic social and health problems of our Native American citizens. Modern Native Americans need to be recognized for their contributions in many areas of society. And Americans need to give up their beloved Indian mascots in order to erase generations of stereotyping of Indians.

So there is much to do in our society to further the cause of Native Americans in our country. And a national holiday in their honor is a great way to start.