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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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.

Our Dangerous Attraction to Ourselves

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An Israeli teenager plunged to his death at Yosemite National Park recently while posing for a photo. He had been trying to recreate a popular pose taken at Telegraph Rock in Rio de Janeiro wherein the subject dangles off the side of the rock. The difference was that Telegraph Rock is much closer to the ground than the site at Nevada Fall where the young man lost his grip and fell. (“Israeli teen who fell to death in Yosemite was posing for photo,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 2019)

The impulse to document our lives has never been more widespread than today. We carry little cameras around in our phones and snap anything and everything: our friends, ourselves, our food. It’s not enough just to experience that hike to the top of Nevada Fall. We have to prove we were there. More than that, we have to garner lots of likes by pulling a foolhardy stunt like dangling off of a rock.

Our narcissism is actually killing us. A recent Washington Post headline reads, “More than 250 people worldwide have died taking selfies, study finds.” As the lead author of the study, Agam Bansal, points out,

“Taking a toll on these many numbers just because you want a perfect selfie because you want a lot of likes, shares on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, I don’t think this is worth compromising a life for such a thing.” (WaPo, Oct. 3, 2018)

Indeed.

Recently I had occasion to go through old photo albums, and I enjoyed the memories conjured up by the pictures there. Documenting vacations, holidays, and rites of passage for my children has given me something special to hold onto and recall in the future. But often we overdo the photos and videos of an event and fail to experience it in the here and now. And certainly, no one needs to remember that delightful piece of avocado toast we just had to take a picture of at brunch the other day.

Our modern penchant for selfies may be a sign of insecurity. Look at me, these photos seem to say. Don’t I look fun/athletic/sexy/cool? Maybe it’s normal to want to be seen, and we finally have the technology to make it happen easily. But we need to take stock of this self-centered behavior. Not only is it obnoxious at times, but it just may be the death of us.

 

How Sweet It Is!

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I’m sorry to say that after giving up dessert for the 40 days of Lent, I haven’t lost my sweet tooth. On the eve of Easter, I can almost taste those dark chocolate marshmallow eggs I crave.

I was really hoping I’d lose my taste for sugar, villain number one according to the latest nutritional advice. It’s sugar, we are increasingly being told, not fat, that we should be avoiding. And I think that’s because as with many things in life, we take our love for sweetness too far.

In the olden days, sugar was a luxury item. It was used sparingly to sweeten coffee or tea. Mother might bake a cake for a special occasion, but people otherwise didn’t get much refined sugar in their diets. In wartime, sugar was one of the things that was rationed.

But as modern technology made all kinds of convenience foods available and cheap, sugary foods and drinks became ubiquitous. One of the biggest sources of calories in the American diet comes from soda pop, which is loaded with sugar. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in particular is a molecularly altered sugar that is believed to interact in harmful ways with the human body. (Thanks for that science-y info, cousin Trish!) And HFCS is the main ingredient in most sodas.

And switching to diet drinks does not seem to help people lose weight in the long run. I think that’s because the artificial sweeteners still make us crave sugar. And I think that is behind my annual failure to curb my sweet tooth during Lent. Not having banished all sugar from my diet, I still want it.

Sugar is synonymous with fun and celebration. Every party features sweets: from birthday cakes to Christmas cookies to Easter candy. When I was a child, in the evening while we watched TV we were allowed to pick out a candy bar for “treat time.” Dessert was always the reward for having eaten those horrible green beans. Sweets are the stuff of childhood dreams. Why else would Roald Dahl have written the fantasy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Why else would the Brothers Grimm imagine a candy-studded gingerbread house to lure the unsuspecting Hansel and Gretel into the witch’s clutches?

Tomorrow the Easter Bunny will leave some delicious chocolate at our house. Luckily, the treats the Bunny brings are far too pricey for me to wolf down in one sitting. So I’ll pace myself (and share with the family). I may never conquer my sweet tooth, but let’s hope my Lenten abstinence from them will help me better appreciate the delights of sugar.

As Shakespeare would say, “Sweets to the sweet!”

The Pendulum Swings

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The Waitrose candy company has had to apologize for releasing a dark chocolate Easter duck called “Ugly.” People took to Twitter to complain about the name for one of a trio of candy ducklings, the others being named “Fluffy” and “Crispy.” (Jack Guy, “Store withdraws chocolate ducklings over racism complaint,” cnn.com, April 9, 2019) Such is the state of race relations in modern society.

For literally hundreds of years, people of color have had to fight against the perception that their skin color makes them less than: less intelligent, less moral, less human. Blacks who could “pass” for white used their skin color to their advantage while at the same time feeling they were betraying their own people. In the Sixties, the slogan “Black is beautiful” began to reclaim the dignity and power of African-Americans. The Civil Rights movement made great strides towards equality for people of color, but racism continues to persist.

In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on continuing racial bias, particularly in the area of law enforcement. The shooting of black suspects, the mass incarceration of minorities and differential sentencing based on skin color have all rightly been the targets of vociferous protest. But increasingly, litmus tests to determine how “woke” a person is threaten to trivialize the very real threats that racism still poses in our society.

Social norms are like a pendulum that veers wildly from right to left. In the bad old days, African-Americans were called “colored,” expected to be nothing more than servants or laughable minstrels. It was considered funny, not appalling, to don blackface. I recently listened to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast about the entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., and how he had to swallow so much casual racism just to make it in the world of entertainment. Gladwell includes a snippet of a Shriners Club roast given to Sammy. His so-called friend Dean Martin rattles off a series of horribly racist jokes at Sammy’s expense: references to watermelon-eating and even lynching. And the worst part? Sammy has to laugh at it all to be part of the club.

Today the pendulum is arcing far to the left, and every instance that might potentially be seen as racist is put under the microscope and dissected on social media. Does the hapless naming of a candy duck indicate a deep-seated prejudice towards dark skin? It might. I do think that little things – habits of speech in particular – affect the way in which we perceive the world around us. If the references to the ducks had been sexist, I would have been annoyed. But I worry that focusing on these minor issues will create a backlash and hamper progress in social justice.

Let’s hope the swinging of the pendulum begins to slow and that people of all ethnicities, social classes, and skin colors can feel equally valued and respected in our culture.

 

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.

Self-Centered

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file-20171123-6020-aa3n9nThis week I have had dozens (if not hundreds) of negative and mean-spirited thoughts. I have had to stop myself from posting nasty comments on Facebook and sending scathing emails that might make myself feel better but also might hurt someone else. The only thing standing between me and this vitriol is a little book of reflections I’ve been reading each day of Lent.

Today’s reflection by Mary DeTurris Poust, a Catholic writer and employee in the Diocese of Albany, New York, was about “looking out for #1.” I think what’s at the heart of most negativity is an elevation of the self over others. We may not be technically selfish. That is, we may give generously to charity, take care of our families, and help friends in need. But at the heart of our lives, most human beings are self-centered. We simply have a hard time seeing things beyond how they relate to ourselves.

It’s not without good reason that a common sarcastic remark people make is, “It’s all about you.” It’s an effective chastisement to remind us that the world does not revolve around us. And it’s necessary because our human nature leans toward the self-involved. I guess part of this is an instinct for self-preservation. We find fault with things and people we feel might harm us or, at the very least, not do us good. We grasp at material things for ourselves for fear that we will be left without. Even our good deeds are sometimes an effort to bring honor or renown to ourselves.

Poust reflects, “What would it take to flip that, to soften our hearts and open our minds to the stunning fact that everyone – from our most beloved family member to our most despised enemy – is grappling with some deep-seated insecurities, issues, heartaches, and suffering?”

We can start where we are: in our own families and communities. Instead of lambasting our child for being irresponsible, we can find out what he/she needs to be better organized and prepared. Instead of diatribes on Facebook or Twitter, we can refrain from our need to have the last word. We can try to be happy instead of envious of friends whose fortunes seem to be greater than our own. We can treat cranky neighbors or even strangers with compassion, realizing that they might be in some physical or psychic pain.

I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy stepping outside of oneself and thinking of others first. We need guides and inspiration. For me, prayer and reflections by spiritual mentors are great reminders of how I should be living my daily life. And in the public domain (even on Facebook!), there are heartwarming stories of ordinary people making a difference in someone else’s life.

The greatest calling we have is to die to ourselves and spend our lives in service to others. That is the path toward true happiness in this life. That is the way to center ourselves rather than being self-centered.