For the love of god, please stop saying these five things

“Islamophobic/Homophobic/Transphobic, etc.”

A phobia is a very serious condition; it’s an extreme and irrational fear of a thing or a situation. If you actually had homophobia, you’d scream and run as if your hair were on fire every time you heard a lisp. If you were actually Islamophobic, the mere thought of Ramadan would make you vomit and you’d dive under your car rather then catch a glimpse of a hijab, even if you were faked out by an old babushka with a head scarf. People with phobias contemplate (and sometimes commit) suicide as an alternative to whatever their irrational fear is. I’ve never heard of anyone who hanged themselves because there were gays somewhere outside. It’s wildly inaccurate to use the word “phobia” in this way.

I’m not playing semantics. Some people are disgusted by Muslims, homosexuals, and/or trans people.  Some worry about security, some are scared about encroachment on their own culture, some are bigoted and ignorant, some have legitimate concerns about how to move forward as a society in a way that affords everyone dignity. Some people say things for shock value, and some people are earnest, but awkward and offensive in their questions or comments. The problem with using “phobic” – besides being over-the-top incorrect – is that by using that word you’ve made a decision to not attempt to understand where the other person is coming from, and to instead paint them with the “mentally ill” (or stupid/evil) brush. You’re not attempting to understand the problem as it is, you’re certainly not trying to fix the problem, and instead are using an unintelligent shorthand to position yourself as morally superior. Using the word “phobia” in this way is as helpful as it is accurate.

 “You have to give respect to get respect.”

No you don’t. You most likely need to give courtesy to get courtesy, and you ought to be polite (at least to most people, most of the time) – and I think that’s what people mean when they say, “If you don’t respect me, I don’t respect you.” Or when teachers or police demand “respect” what they really mean is, “Do as I say when I say it because of the power bestowed upon me by the crown.”

Respect means, “A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.” So what you’re saying is, “You have to admire me, so then I can admire you; but if you don’t admire me, I won’t admire you.” Or, another way to say it: “Tell me I’m pretty and I’ll tell you you’re pretty, but if you don’t tell me I’m pretty then I won’t tell you you’re pretty.”  Please, please stop saying dumb shit like this. Admire people who deserve your admiration, carve yourself into the type of person whom others will admire, and just be polite to everyone else.

“Literally.”

“Literally” means “actually.” It does not mean “figuratively” – in fact, it’s the opposite of figurative. Please stop saying literally when you mean figuratively. It’s annoying and I won’t respect you.

“-gate”

There was one Watergate scandal, and it was 45-some-odd years ago.

“School shootings are on the rise.”

This is a completely innumerate thing to say.

the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000. And since the 1990s, shootings at schools have been getting less common.

It’s impossible to claim a trend with fidelity with such small numbers. For example:

  • in the 2008-2009 school year, 17 students out of ~56 million enrolled k-12 in the United States were murdered at school (with guns or otherwise)
  • 2009 – 2010, 19 out of ~56 million students were murdered
  • 2010 – 2011, 11 out of ~56 million students were murdered

So would you say that there was an increase in at-school-murders from 2009 to 2010, and a sharp drop in 2011? Or would you say that the difference between two billionths of a percentage point is negligible?

I’ll be fair and recognize that even one school shooting is too many, and the fact that they happen at all should give us pause. I think we should talk about school shootings, and I also think it’s reasonable to link the existence of school shootings to the dramatic rise of suicide among almost every demographic, including children, in America (something that actually does have statistical significance). We have a huge problem with nihilism, narcissism, hopelessness, and disconnection – ten percent of Americans are on (in my opinion, extremely dangerous) anti-depressant medication. We have a happiness and satisfaction problem that is linked to the over-medication, rise in suicide, and which I’m sure we could link back to school shootings.

The challenge is that a school shooting is emotional – it’s children being slaughtered in the same type of place where you likely send your kids everyday. A 1 in  614 million chance might still seem too risky when you’re talking about your own kids. Fair enough – I’m a huge advocate of homeschooling, anyway. However, my concern with saying innumerate things based on emotion is that we’re skirting the real issues: things like suicide, depression, and over-medication, all issues that are many, many times more likely to effect you and your child.

A not-so-subtle allegory

Once upon a time, there was village well known far and wide for the people’s willingness to take in foster children. Virtually every household was raising at least one child from some other village, with many raising two or three, and a few households with as many as seven.

The wealthiest couple in the village were named Sam and his seventh wife Martha (every so often a wife would leave Sam, prompting him to remarry, usually the very next day). Sam and Martha had over three hundred foster children – so many, in fact, that they bought several acres surrounding their property to build residential quarters for the children, and petitioned the town supervisor to provide state agents to help care for, feed, and educate all of the kids. It seemed as though for every one kid who became an adult and moved on, four more kids were ushered in.

Sam and Martha took in any foster child who met very basic requirements, but also specialized in adopting children who had been the victims of abuse. Not most of their foster children had been abused, but it was also true that Sam and Martha took in more abused children, both in terms of numbers and percentages, than any other household in the village or indeed in the world.

That said, the waiting list for a single abused child to join Sam and Martha on their compound measured in years – sometimes as many as seven! Many of the surrounding villages had hundreds or thousands of damaged children, and for every one child Sam and Martha brought in, 100 remained in a dangerous situation. The world is dark and cold, and children are often beaten and abused.

Part of what made the world cold and dark was Sam, who dedicated much of his time and resources travelling to neighboring villages and beating and abusing children. Some of the neighboring villages fought back, but Sam had considerable wealth and power, and would go North, South, East, and West (although he preferred East) where he would mercilessly beat children. A small number of those children wound up on his compound, and they were grateful for it – Sam and Martha’s village was considerably more affluent, and they weren’t beaten there – but most of the beaten children just shuffled around from place to place, attempting to avoid the relentless onslaught of Sam and his child-beating posse. Partially as a result of this, perpetual war broke out in the East, causing more and more children to flee to more and more neighboring villages, causing considerable logistical challenges and security risks for everybody.

Martha left Sam (as his wives were wont to do) and Sam remarried the very next day (as he was wont to do). This wife’s name was Trudy, who used to be a sailor and was rather disgusting in both word and deed. She feared the war in the East and proclaimed that the compound of Sam and Trudy would no longer put children from the East on the wait-list for adoption.

The villagers were shocked and enraged! They called Trudy villainous and depraved and an imbecile and Easternphobic! (She was, in fact, uncomfortable with sunrises, although Easternphobic may have been a bit off the mark). She very publicly said much the same about the villagers. Of course Sam continued to leave the village and traveled East to beat children, or more likely now to pay others to beat them as he watched, and the townspeople tipped their hat as he left, as they knew beating children in far-away villages was a necessary evil…but oh did they despise Trudy, and oh did they love those poor wretched orphaned bruised-up-and-bloodied souls, and how they wished upon anything that there was something that could be done for the sake of the children!

I’m sorry to say that this is where the story ends. The villagers did everything they could to petition Trudy to put the same one-out-of-a-hundred beaten children on the same seven-year-wait-list as Martha had, and Trudy became more stubborn and vulgar in her refusal. Sam continued to beat children in neighboring villages, causing instability and war throughout the land, and the villagers continued to ignore or justify it. Nothing changed.

The End.

To the crane operator who lowered the small boy’s casket into the ground

To the crane operator who lowered the small boy’s casket into the ground

and who filled the hole properly;

and to whomever will mow the grass and plow the snow

and keep the flowers from dying so soon;

I honor you.

 

Like the man who bends maple into violins

or rips marble from hell with his great hands,

so dainty hammers may chisel sculptures

for the delight of morons.

Chapter One: Being Educated

This is the first two thousand words from the first draft of my second book Students First: The Teacher and Administrator’s Guide to Self-Directed Education in Public School, Chapter One:

Chapter One: Being Educated

 

This book is meant to make the case for Self-Directed Education (SDE), but in order to do that, it’s useful to first consider the purpose of education (SDE or otherwise). It may also be useful to consider the purpose of life, or, if that’s too cliché for your tastes, then before attempting to answer what the purpose of education is, consider this: you have a limited time on this earth. If all goes well, and you eat all of your vegetables, then you’ll have a hundred years, tops. Who is the hundred-year-old you? How many times were you reborn in that one lifetime? How many people had you touched? Or hurt? How epic was the quest that the hundred-year-old took? Or does the hundred-year-old you mostly resemble the twenty-year-old you, just with more wrinkles?

Depression and Suicide

The United States of America is arguably the most affluent country that has ever existed. This is not faux-patriotism. If you make $34,000 a year or more, you are part of the richest 1% on earth; half of all of the world’s 1% live in the United States.[1] Generally speaking, we have more comforts and fewer dangers than just about anywhere else, at any other time period, in the world. I’ll acknowledge that the general costs of living, and the cost of goods and services across various sectors, make such claims imperfect. Nevertheless, I maintain that you’d be hard-pressed to argue against the relative affluence of the United States.

At the same time, 11% of Americans take very powerful antidepressant medication. That’s around 35 million people; while a few countries come close to that rate in terms of percentage, the United States has far more people on antidepressants than any other country in the world in terms of sheer numbers.[2] A quarter of those, approximately 9 million people, have been on antidepressants for more than a decade. Not surprising, then, the United States also has a suicide problem. In the year 2014, 42,773 people committed suicide.[3] In the same year, there were 14,249 homicides. Three times as many people kill themselves than are murdered.

In the past eighteen years (from the year 2000 to this writing, April 2018) there have been 163 deaths via school shootings.[4] Even one school shooting is one too many…however, in the year 2014, 150 girls ages 10-14 committed suicide. The number of young girls killing themselves in one year was almost equal to school shooting deaths in eighteen years.

In terms of raw numbers, white people ages 35-64 kill themselves in greater numbers than any other demographic in America (in terms of percentage, whites are second only to American Indians); while suicide may seem like a “white problem,” it’s also true that rates for every demographic in the United States has risen since 1999 – every demographic except black males, where suicide rates have dropped[5]. Nearly every single one of the school shooters alluded to above has been a white male, and every single one of them have either been on antidepressants, or been in the early stages of coming off of them.

In fairness to you, dear reader, I will make my bias clear: while it may seem as though I’m going on an America-is-a-depressing-and-horrible-place rant, I’m actually an idealist when it comes to the principles of freedom on which this country was founded, even while acknowledging the hypocrisy of our slave-owning founding fathers. America is a great place to be. Much of the rest of the world agrees with me: there are almost 47 million people living in the United States who were not born here (one sixth of our population), while only 3 million people who were born in the United States live elsewhere.[6] As someone who works almost exclusively with immigrants and refugees, it is a well-established fact that the wait-time to immigrate to the country legally is measured in years, and that those who choose to enter illegally continue to do so, regardless of a multitude of existential threats to their lives and the lives of their children. People are desperate to come here, and not too eager to leave.

The evidence is clear that America is the place where people want to be – the evidence is equally clear that America is the place where people feel depressed and hopeless in numbers that are incongruent to our affluence. It is also suggestive, if confusing, that the group of people who are most privileged in America would be most likely to be depressed and suicidal.

Race and Privilege

I should also take a moment to spell out what I mean by “privileged.” I may lose some of you in the conversation around race in the United States. People who believe that the country is fundamentally racist to the point where only white people can realistically succeed aren’t going to like what I have to say about the real opportunities all races have in this country, and neither are the ostriches who refuse to acknowledge the impact racism has had on minorities in America, as well as the institutions that continue to mechanically grind away at (specifically) black people and black communities. I think it’s a shame because, generally speaking, those things that are bad for black people can more accurately be described as worse for black people, but bad for everybody. For example, nobody benefits from the militarization of police, the overcrowding of prisons, the war on drugs, the standardization of authoritarian schools, and so on. These are all issues that are bad for everyone, yet disproportionately affect the black community.

The number of black families who homeschool have doubled over the past fifteen years.[7] I believe more and more black families are realizing that there is real opportunity in this country, while at the same time institutions such as schools continue to teach kids that:

 

“…the ‘peculiar institution,’ as Southerners came to call it, like all human institutions should not be oversimplified. While there were cruel masters who maimed or even killed their slaves (although killing and maiming were against the law in every state), there were also kind and generous owners. The institution was as complex as the people involved. Though most slaves were whipped at some point in their lives, a few never felt the lash. Nor did all slaves work in the fields. Some were house servants or skilled artisans. Many may not have even been terrible unhappy with their lot, as the Nat Turner revolt revealed[8].”

 

I don’t want to go too deeply down the rabbit-hole of race in America – not because I don’t think it’s important, but because there is a lot to say, I’m not necessarily the one to say it, and I don’t want to lose my larger point regarding race in America, which is that school as an institution, like many American intuitions, was created and continues to be run in the image of white Europeans, which at a minimum is a “home field advantage” to American-born white people.

That said, why is depression and suicide a disease of white, middle-aged Americans, i.e. the privileged and affluent? I’m not placing blame on schools for the reason that so many people are depressed and suicidal, but I can’t help but to come back around to the question of, What is the purpose of education? What is the purpose of life? How is the 100-year-old you different from the teenage you? Whatever education is, it should include the ability to get through life without addicting yourself to powerful medication, ignoring the root cause of your suffering, or more importantly, your inability to deal with your suffering and, for around forty-two thousand people a year, culminating in suicide.

Our freedoms have given us plenty of choices of how to live, but the principles of freedom are agnostic as to which decisions are the right ones. The amount of fast food, pornography, social media, prescription medication or self-prescribed drugs and alcohol, obesity, and divorce, are all indicative of a people who are desperately clawing at some escape; they are looking for a space to fully be, and when they can’t find it on their own, they chemically alter their consciousness. I’m not convinced that everyone…or even most of the people…that are on antidepressants are depressed due to some irreversible physiological malady. In other words, I’m not convinced that “umbrellas cause the rain.”[9] People are indentured to debt and expectation, and addicted to screen-time and refined sugar, all of which exacerbate the problem of unhappiness; so many people never spent any time at all considering themselves, their place in the world, and the importance of having deep, meaningful relationships with others.

Community

I mentioned the statistics on school shootings above (163 dead in 18 years) just to give some perspective on the urgency of the depression and suicide problem in America, and how, in my estimation, “being educated” should include as a priority the capacity to find within yourself happiness and enthusiasm. However, I don’t want to be misleading – school shootings rightfully get a lot of attention and are closely connected to the larger problem of unhappiness and lack of community.

I think why school shootings have such a profound effect on our collective psyche stems from how irreconcilable and nihilistic they are. As illustrated above, many other killings besides school shootings happen all over the country, and even more suicides. In 2017 the United States dropped a 500-pound bomb on two ISIS snipers in Iraq, killing 141 civilians in the process.[10] While terror and death happen in lots of different ways and in far greater magnitude than school shootings, we can make rational sense of most of them. Consider the following: a jealous husband murders his adulterous wife; a gang gets into a shoot-out with a rival gang; an investment banker has an existential crisis and swallows a hundred pills; ISIS attempts genocide on a group of people slightly different than themselves. We don’t enjoy any of those things, but we can make rational sense of them. How about: an affluent teenager from a rich country walks into an elementary school and shoots a couple dozen six-year-olds, then kills himself. How can you even begin to make sense of that? You can’t, which is why people usually just default to their preexisting political talking points…because there is nothing else to say. A school shooter has rejected all personal meaning, e.g. responsibility and interpersonal relationships. They are monsters; they are the living dead.

How do we do the impossible, and reconcile total monstrous nihilism with the unbelievable, unprecedented comfort and prosperity that we enjoy in America? How do we explain the relative comfort, at least in terms of worldly affluence, of the ones doing the mass shootings? Look at the top twenty deadliest mass shootings in the United States – nearly all of them were committed by middle class or wealthy people, a bit more than half of them white, all of them men, and most of them born in America. It doesn’t get much more comfortable than that.

This planet is safer and more comfortable compared to any other point in history because technology has rendered belonging to a tribe obsolete; that is, we don’t daily face the kind of danger that would require close, personal relationships for survival. We don’t need our children or our elderly around us, and they don’t need us. We think nothing of giving our children up to agents of the state from ages five to eighteen, and if they resist too much, we tell them that they are ill with School Refusal Disorder.[11] Then we think nothing of sequestering our elderly away in geriatric daycare centers, effectively sweeping under the rug our past and our future. We literally could live to a hundred and go our entire life without a meaningful relationship with anyone. Not only is it possible, it’s probable, since we don’t need anyone to get the things we need for comfortable survival or to keep our kids alive, and we are in such a hustle for so many things other than meaningful relationships with ourselves or others, that there is little time or incentive to build these relationships.

policy of individualism makes the world a safer, more just place; the alternative is a policy that promotes or condemns the individual based on their group identity, which in its extreme manifests in genocide. However, the choice of living only for yourself absolves you of responsibility and gives life little purpose. It leads to anxiety and depression, in many cases leads people to medicate (or self-medicate), and in extreme cases ends in suicide – in ultra-extreme cases ends in total nihilism and carnage.

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2082385/We-1–You-need-34k-income-global-elite–half-worlds-richest-live-U-S.html

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/countries-largest-antidepressant-drug-users-2016-2

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/22/health/us-suicide-rate-surges-to-a-30-year-high.html

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_school_shootings_in_the_United_States

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/22/health/us-suicide-rate-surges-to-a-30-year-high.html

[6] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/05/18/5-facts-about-the-u-s-rank-in-worldwide-migration/

[7] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/black-families-increasingly-choose-to-homeschool-kids

[8] “Boorstin & Kelley did not write “their textbook,” as I show in “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” Meanwhile, although the paragraph in question (and many others) do date back to the 1992 edition and even earlier, the prose remains unchanged in the latest edition (2007).” https://twitter.com/JamesWLoewen/status/986331714422231046

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vO34cVBQWBo

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/25/us-mosul-airstrikes-deadliest-attack-iraq-2003

[11] https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/916737-overview

The True Story of Romeo & Juliet

Once a long long time ago

lived a boy named Romeo

and his girlfriend Juliet.

The two of them secretly wed.

 

The story I’m certain you already know

of their sorrow and their woe;

and all of that was surely true

except one scene, or maybe two.

 

For one, Tybalt was not so tall

and Rosaline didn’t exist at all.

Friar was a combo of three guys

and hardly anybody dies.

 

I’m not saying it was fun

for the wealthy parents of daughter and son.

However, Capulet and Montague

both had better things to do

 

then to argue with their spoiled brats

so the kids did wed, and that was that.

And happy they were, at least for a while.

Then, sixty years later, they died. The end.

Liberals and Conservatives

I strongly recommend listening to Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk, titled, “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.” I also strongly recommend reading Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe, which I’ve (perhaps) been overly-referencing, but is one of those books which, once read, you begin to see its arguments played out everywhere.

I think its a good idea not to see the other party as a caricature of who they really are, or to reduce ourselves by taking cheap shots at their least nuanced members. It doesn’t help us as a nation, and it actually turns us into the caricature (there’s no way to mock a clown without looking like a clown). For the record, I identify as libertarian (adj) – I once thought we peace-loving, free-market types were above all of that nonsense, but you libertarians screeching statist! at anyone who suggests a park or a library might be nice is ruining the high ground for the rest of us.

Where people fall on the political spectrum correlates with where they fall on the spectrum of certain personality traits. Liberals are people who are open to new people and ideas, and who value connecting with others. Conservatives prefer traditional modes of being (it worked before, it’ll work again), with an emphasis on “national” (i.e. tribal) defense. In a tribal society of less than 250 people, it’s fairly obvious that a good mix of these types of people would be advantageous to the tribe as a whole. In a tribe, members all know each other and all depend on each other, and so all trust each other. There would be some scenarios when innovation, trade, and inter-tribal alliances would be necessary, and other scenarios where tried-and-true methods as well as a healthy distrust of encroaching tribes would be prudent.

Haidt made a really good point when he showed the picture of the sports fan, and claimed that we all have a natural urge to connect with our tribe. What he undersold, I believe, is the fact that when a tribe is attacked by another tribe (whether reality or perception), 100% of the attacked tribe prioritizes defense. Perfect examples are directly following Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Nobody, conservative or liberal, was interested in anything short of all out war.

Here’s where we are as a nation, as far as I can tell. Insofar you care about politics, you’ve chosen a side. Maybe it’s because of your genetic predisposition, or because that’s just the kind of rhetoric you’ve heard your entire life, but you’ve likely aligned yourself somewhere near the poles. Of course, in a modern society, most of us don’t have tribes. When we don’t have tribes, we have to invent them, and because politics sort of feels significant, too often we make-believe the whole of the United States democrat/republican party are our friends and tribal brothers and sisters who love and care for us. Of course this is malarkey, and even worse, we’ve just populated our tribe with nothing but “brothers” and “sisters.” We now have inbred tribes.

Our inbred tribes also have the impression that they are constantly under attack by the other inbred tribes, so each tribe is never in a mindset to actually listen (or connect) with the other side. We are all, 100%, in battle-mode, all the time. It’s pretty obvious why – battle-mode ensures that the democratic base votes democrat, the republican base votes republican, and nobody says anything at all when each party follows through with more-or-less the same exact agenda. Obama killed tons of civilians and destabilized countries that have no military capacity to strike us, but heartless slaughter is only a problem when republicans do it. Reagan almost tripled the national debt, but spending is only a problem when democrats do it. From the looks of things, what the president actually says or does doesn’t matter a stitch – if it did, then please explain to me how a single Evangelical voted for Donald Trump. No. It doesn’t matter what they do or say, it matters which tribal insignia is scratched next to their name: D or R.

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not helpful to think things through logically when under attack – when you’re under attack, you fight for your life, the life of your family, and the survival of your tribe! So it’s best for anyone who is in power, republican or democrat, to just allow you to continue to assume that you actually belong to a political tribe, and that your tribe is under attack.

For those who can’t hack the trades, high school and college remain viable options

For many people, there is a great allure to having the confidence and self-reliance that comes with being competent in a marketable skill. However, it’s also true that the trades aren’t for everyone – and for the rest, high school and university degrees remain viable options.

There is a tremendous value in bringing your passion to a plan, seeing that plan to fruition, and working your tail off in a trade, where you can be paid well, and have pride every time you successfully repair, build, or demolish something that needed to be repaired, built, or demolished. But not everyone can set goals for themselves and then have the self-direction and discipline to see those goals through – and that’s OK! We shouldn’t stigmatize those who learn and work differently than we do. There will always be five-thousand hours of high school, four years of college, and two-to-six years of graduate school for those who prefer to be told what their goals are and how to achieve them.

Even the federal government recognizes this. There are wonderful loan programs with reasonable interest rates for students who just aren’t built to come-into-work-early-and-stay-late. And for those who grew up in homes that don’t value delayed-gratification, university may be their best option. Some of us can work our way through eighteen months of trade school, but for those who just can’t manage, a mortgaged-sized government-backed loan to “go find yourself” might be the best option.

Lesson Six: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Lesson: Don’t live in the past.

Of the “lessons” thus far, this may be the most true to what the author intended, but it’s important. I can’t for the life of me find it, but I read a fantastic article written by a veteran who implored other veterans to not make their deployment(s) the most significant thing they ever do in their life. Don’t be that guy who sneaks “When I was in Iraq/Afghanistan/the military” into every…single…conversation. The “thank me for my service” guys.

Her husband, among various physical accomplishments, had been one of the most powerful ends that ever
played football at New Haven – a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited
excellence at twenty−one that everything afterward savors of anti−climax.

Same goes for any other wonderful accomplishment from your youth. You got into a great college. You played a sport at a competitive level. You were published. You saved an orphan from a burning bus. You toured with Weezer. Et cetera. I don’t mean to be dismissive of service and success. I mean to say, by canonizing things that have already happened, then you live in a space that no longer exists. It’s all make-believe. For better or worse, you’re not that person anymore. It’s a part of what formed you, but it’s not you.

For the record, I enjoyed The Great Gatsby the first time I read it, and loathed reading it every time since, primarily because just about every character is a slave to their past. It’s gross. Don’t be that person.

Lesson Five: You were probably taught “Of Mice and Men” incorrectly

Of Mice and Men

by John Steinbeck

Lesson: Control your destiny.

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” James Truslow Adams

Sparknotes cites “The Impossibility of the American Dream” as one of the central themes of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; and, without googling it, I’m fairly certain that was what Steinbeck himself said he was going for when he wrote the book. I happen to be one of those people who believe the author is dead once the piece is published – that is, Steinbeck has a right to comment on the work, but his comments ought not be weighed any more or less than anyone else with a reasonable interpretation. And I believe Steinbeck is wrong, and that his own work may not  demonstrate how the American Dream is alive and well, but it does demonstrate that our choices matter.

Curley’s wife, for instance, has resigned herself to an unfulfilling marriage.

Curley’s wife, at some point in her life, chose to marry the narcissistic, Napoleon-complexed son of the wealthy plantation owner. She chose not to chase her dreams as a movie star. She chose to flirt with the farmhands, instead of redirecting her energy towards building or repairing her marriage. She chose to stay in a marriage in which she was miserable (divorce was not simple back then, nor was it impossible). She chose to resign herself to being unfulfilled. She chose the easy-wrong over the courageous-right at every step. Her life was not the failure of the American Dream. She had more opportunity than most, and she chose not to take advantage of those opportunities.

George and Lennie’s dream of owning a farm, which would enable them to sustain themselves, and, most important, offer them protection from an inhospitable world, represents a prototypically American ideal. Their journey, which awakens George to the impossibility of this dream, sadly proves that the bitter Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety are not to be found in this world.

If Steinbeck’s argument is that the American Dream is impossible, then my counterpoint is that our choices matter. George is capable of making decisions, and Lennie is at the mercy of the decisions George makes. That’s because George is a human and Lennie is, basically, an animal (Steinbeck uses animal imagery throughout to describe Lennie). People can make decisions, for example, they can eschew immediate gratification in exchange for achieving long-term goals. Animals cannot. George was in a terrible situation. We don’t know if he simply lost the lottery of birth, or if he made a bunch of bad life-choices, but he was broke and transient. Then, an amazing opportunity fell into his lap. George knows of a small farm for a fair price. He is employed, and several of the other hardest-luck cases (Candy and Crooks) agree to go in on it with him. They do the math, and figure that after one month of work, they’d be able to put a down payment on the farm.

They have one month to save their money, and independence, self-reliance, home, and community could be theirs. A chapter later, George is spending all of his money in the cat house, along with the rest of the farmhands. His decision not only self-sabotages, he is also letting down men who depend on him – men who actually didn’t have much access to the American Dream, at least not without help. How in the world is this the fault of The American Dream? George had a shot and he blew it.

 

Candy, Crooks, and Lennie didn’t have much, if any, access to the American Dream. If you were born black, or severely mentally retarded, or crippled, in the 1930s, then your options were extremely limited. I’m not arguing that everyone is born with equal levels of privilege. Some of us are born into absolute tragedy, and then our lives get worse from there. Some of us have absolutely no hope for a normalcy or traditional success. That’s not the same thing as saying “The American Dream is dead” and success and contentment cannot be found in this world by anybody. What a strange argument. Because if the dream of meritocracy – a fuller, more successful life, for those who are capable and industrious – is dead, then that means our choices have no impact on our lives.

That’s quantifiably not true. Anyone trying to sell you on the idea that you have no control over your own destiny is the devil.

 

Lesson Four: The legalization of prostitution is a necessary human rights issue that will not win anyone a Nobel Peace Prize

Sold

by Patricia McCormick

Lesson: The legalization of prostitution is a necessary human rights issue that will not win anyone a Nobel Peace Prize.

Our English department had an administrator (she has since moved on) who wanted to keep the book Sold on the curriculum but thought that teachers should teach it without the sex and rape parts. Her view was that the content was too mature for tenth graders, but that the book had literary value, and that it did a good job of exposing students to Nepali culture and so on. For those of you who haven’t read the book (I recommend that you do), it’s titled Sold because the young girl gets literally sold by her step-father to a brothel in India (it’s unclear whether he knows he’s selling her to a brothel, or into some other form of indentured servitude. It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t care, one way or the other.) So our orders were to teach a book titled Sold, about a girl who gets sold and forced into prostitution, but to leave out the rape parts.

The book Night was also on the tenth-grade curriculum, and nobody was being asked to teach it without mentioning the brutalization-and-genocide parts. I think sex is seen as more of a taboo than violence – in other words, literary scenes of brutal torture are more likely to be given a pass than scenes of brutal rape, especially of a protagonist who was about the same age as the tenth graders reading the book.

That said, Sold isn’t particularly graphic. The book doesn’t shy away from the fact that Lakshmi, and many other girls, were raped, but it was in no way a book written purely for “shock value.” Patricia McCormick wrote the book to help shed light on a very real problem, especially in Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, but also in the United States, Canada, and just about anywhere where prostitution is illegal.

When I first read this book, probably back in 2010 or so, I became obsessed with researching modern human smuggling. Turns out, it’s much less risky than smuggling drugs or guns (traffickers can claim that the girl is their niece and pay off border agents); the girls are desperately poor and uneducated; they are lied to and believe they are taking jobs as house-keepers or sometimes strippers; they are drugged and raped; if ever they were to escape, they don’t even know where their village geographically is, they would likely be arrested by local authorities on the spot, and, should they make it back to their village, they will likely be treated as a pariah for the rest of their lives. This is a very common story, but because it has to do with sex, we treat it the same way we treat people with profound physical disabilities – we just don’t look.

By legalizing prostitution, you take away the incentive for traffickers to risk kidnapping and raping girls. There will always be women willing to sell sex, just as there will always be men willing to buy it. I don’t expect the person who takes up legalizing prostitution as a passion-project to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but they should. Young, poor, village girls are having their lives destroyed in the most brutal and uncaring ways imaginable. It would take fairly simple legislative action to eliminate much of it.

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