Archive for June 2009

You Know His Name. You Know His Music. But Please, For God’s Sake, Let Him Rest in Peace.

June 29, 2009

I refuse to mention his name. You know who he is. He passed away on Thursday, June 25, 2009 of a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles. You’ve heard his music. You’ve seen his videos on MTV. You’re read all the gossip about him, talked about his bizarre behavior with your friends, laughed at all the jokes about him on late night television. You know exactly who I’m talking about.

But I still refuse to mention his name.

“The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” was an undisputed giant in American pop culture. He was a gifted performer, peerless dancer, sensational singer, and an inspiration to musicians everywhere. His contributions to our collective popular culture cannot be underestimated. His records have sold more than 750 million copies worldwide. His fame as an entertainer has drawn comparisons to legendary icons such as The Beatles and Elvis Presley. That is quite an accomplishment for just one man.

That said, people (in the sense of both media creators and media consumers) need to stop dwelling on his death and let him rest in peace. For the sake of his family and close friends, all this media attention is doing nothing to help them cope with his sudden death. Sure, tributes by famous celebrities are nice, but enough is enough. Some people want to mourn a loved one’s death without paparazzi cameras flashing in their face 24/7. I know I would.

But none of his should be surprising. After all, he is a music icon loved by the world. In the 1980s, he was the face of the music scene. He electrified audience members all over the world with his dazzling concerts and indisputably catchy songs. He started as a child star, growing up in the national spotlight as the “front man” of a singing group comprised of his brothers, also gifted singers. He became famous before most of us start middle school.

As his musical fame waned, he started to act strangely in public and became involved in pedophilia allegations. His celebrity status became tainted with off-the-wall personal antics, odd physical deformities, and once again, charges of pedophilia. His death precluded a scheduled 50-performane “come back” concert series that was promised to bring him back to the national spotlight and international stardom. Instead, he died just like anyone else. Just like those courageous Iranian protestors. Just like our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just like people everywhere in every country in the world.

This is not to say that his death is insignificant. Every death of a human being is significant. His music did in fact impact people from all corners of the planet. But does his particular death deserve constant front page news coverage of every newspaper and news website? Definitely not. Should the public be informed of more important news issues like Iran, federal bailouts, tobacco regulation, gay rights, and state budget woes? Definitely yes.

“The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” does deserve some recognition for being one of the first prominent African American media musical stars in mainstream society. He rose to fame by breaking out of the Motown establishment and into the homes of everyday white America. He did all this before hip hop became a mainstream genre of pop music. That deserves attention and remembrance. But please, don’t overdo it.

It would not benefit any of us to whine about the media and their celebrity-centered fetishistic reporting. We all know that entertainment news gets way too much press. We all know Americans need to know more about domestic and foreign affairs than what Us Weekly reports on a regular basis. We all know this. So there’s no point in arguing about that.

What does need discussion is who to blame for all this. Do we blame the media creators (also known as “gatekeepers”) for feeding us nothing but celebrity “journalism” or we the people for wanting more and more of it? I always believe that consumers play just as important of a role in these things than those who put it out. Should we blame Big Oil for creating a quasi-imperialistic presence in the Middle East or the everyday consumer who buys oil products on a daily basis? Do we blame tobacco companies for making carcinogenic “death sticks” (Star Wars fans should catch that reference) or smokers who foolishly light up and get hooked?

It is no fact that Big Media are losing money fast. Newspapers are closing everywhere around the country. Television news is depending more on screaming talking heads than civil discussion, all to keep ratings up. Talk radio is becoming more politically polarized everyday, just to pander to a particular demographic. News has become a free commodity because of the Internet. The list goes on.

There may be no clear answer for who is to blame for making the death of “The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” more important news than a June 30th deadline for all U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities. In a war that is more than six years old, this is a major step toward scaling back the American presence in post-invasion Iraq. President Obama’s plan to end the war completely by 2011 depends on how well the Iraqi military handles its own security. If they seem independent enough and don’t need U.S. support to fight against the insurgency and al Qaeda, our men and women in uniform can begin to come home. So, this is really important news. But who’s reporting on this?

But, cynicism about the integrity of the mainstream media should not last forever. The popular press has been in worse positions. Think back to the era of “yellow journalism” in the late 19th century when media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst employed a war over media sensationalism that almost destroyed the American newspaper (that might be an overstatement, but “yellow journalism” certainly did not help make the modern media business model a healthy one). Those days may not be completely over, but it could be worse. Today is not worse.

Young Iranians are hoping for “change” in that country. A change away from despotism. A change away from theocratic rule. A change toward a more free and open society. American whippersnappers claimed last year to hope for the same thing, but they seem complacent to actually bring that about. Paying more attention to celebrity deaths than meaningful political/national/world news is not a good way to change our world. But that is a whole other debate.

For now, briefly mourn the death of “The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” and move on with your life. Feed your dog. Take your kids out to the beach. Go work out at the gym. Read a newspaper, for God’s sake. And not just the funnies (although, you can do that later). Make sure your life does not revolve around the death of another. Yes, he was famous, but he was only one man. Your life is much more important to you than his is.

But in the meantime, I still refuse to mention his name.


Washington State Needs to Reconsider the Role of the WASL

June 23, 2009

School is out for the summer. For others, school is out for much longer than that. And not those who have graduated and are moving on to bigger and better things. For many high school students in Washington State, they are dropping out of school at rates that we should all be alarmed at.

According to a recent article reported by The News Tribune, the Tacoma area’s largest daily newspaper, Washington students have a 24 percent dropout rate. That means nearly one out of every four students will not see high school graduation anytime in the near future. That means they will continue to struggle to find sustainable jobs and careers that will keep them productive for the rest of their lives.

Things weren’t always like this. There was once a time when hardly anyone dropped out of school. A recent report by the nonprofit organization Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center found that the U.S. high school graduation rate is 69.2 percent. That is actually an improvement compared to statistics reported in 1996, where the graduation rate was 66.4 percent. If things are improving, there is still plenty of room to go up.

The catastrophic disaster that is our public school system should not come to a surprise to anyone. Conservatives have complained for years that public education is doing nothing but corrupting our children and not teaching them well enough for the real world. Liberals argue that the system is broken, not obsolete. Anyone who has actually attended the public schools know that anyone can get a good education there if they want to. I went to the public schools all my life and I turned out fine.

But not everyone has turned out so well. If nearly one quarter of students are dropping out before the twelfth grade, does this mean that our schools are hurting our children, or our children are hurting themselves? Parents play a very important role in raising children. If kids are not getting help from mom or dad or a guardian, who will help them?

President Obama made this past Fathers Day an opportunity to speak on the importance of fatherhood and being an active participant in a child’s life. He talked about his own father, Barack Obama Sr., who left his family when he was young. The President made sure he communicated to fathers and parents everywhere that we do our children a disservice when we ignore their needs. It was a message that certain people needed to hear.

But other than that, what else is to blame for the poor performance of our students? Let’s take a moment to look at the contentious issue of standardized testing. To many educators and students alike, the words “standardized testing” has become a curse word of the highest order. Students not performing well on standardized tests means less federal funding. It means your school is inadequate. It means children are being left behind. No one wants that.

Washington State has the WASL, which stands for Washington Assessment of Student Learning. When I was in fourth grade, my class was considered one of the early guinea pigs of the WASL system. Fourth graders like me during the 1996-1997 school year were tested on math, reading, and writing. If we passed, we were given a pat on the back and maybe a high-five. Today, tenth graders taking the WASL have slightly different stakes at hand.

If they do not pass all the sections of the WASL satisfactorily, they will not receive their high school diploma. Only after passing all the sections will they be able to graduate. Controversy has broken out because African, Latino, Native American and lower income students were disproportionately failing the WASL compared to their Caucasian and Asian counterparts. While achievement gaps are not a rare occurrence in schools, when graduation depends on it, there is reason to be concerned.

There is also controversy whether or not developmentally disabled students have to pass the WASL as well. As it stands, students with learning disabilities have to take the test. I am not sure about the latest developments regarding the WASL, but a lot of anger has poured out over the years just because of one little exam. This is not a small matter.

It seems fair to say that too much emphasis has been put on the WASL to assess whether our children are really learning. Former President Bush thought it was a good idea to create standardized testing as a way to inspire teachers and students to return America to its once former academic glory. There was once a time when the United States had the best public school system in the world. That is not true anymore by a long shot. Kids in Asia and Europe are achieving math and science scores that are making businesspeople nervous. If standardized testing is supposed to make us stronger, then we’d better hurry up and improve before the rest of the world surpasses us.

The WASL was originally meant to assess student learning, which is part of its name. It was not intended to be a benchmark for deciding who gets to graduate and who doesn’t. Like Affirmative Action, standardized testing has become the only solution to solve our problems, not one of the solutions. In an ideal world, teachers would have more freedom to teach their students the curriculum that they believe is right. When I was going to high school, teachers fretted about inspiring students to perform well on the WASL. Were they inspiring us to learn period? Not really. Just do well on a test. There is something not right about this.

It seems the culture of learning has disappeared from our country. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 inspired the U.S. to advance its teachings of science to kids. Since then, America became one of the best places to educate a child. During the late 90s and the inception of the 21st century, that has dramatically changed. This needs to be fixed.

But standardized testing will not do it alone. I have nothing against tests like the WASL, but when the government thinks it will solve all our problems, they are dead wrong. Students need a reason to go to school. Hopefully the election of an African American president will inspire at least some kids to work harder in school in hope of achieving something great in their lives. But the real responsibility falls upon the parents. They need to stop letting the television and Internet raise their children. They need to be the parents, not the media.

Hopefully if Washington State starts to downplay the importance of the WASL and give teachers and administrators more freedom to teach their students the way they feel is appropriate, progress will be made. If failing the WASL means no diploma, it is no mystery why 24 percent of students are dropping out of high school. They need to be encouraged, not discouraged by one little failure.

Learning is something that cannot always be quantified. Passing a test does not automatically mean you are ready for college or working in the real world. Passing a test means you can pass a test. Learning means you have retained information that will help you later in life and that you know how to apply that knowledge when the opportunity presents itself.

I’m sure our state government will learn better. After all, they are not immune to making mistakes themselves. And as the old saying goes: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And our lawmakers need to try again and reconsider what role the WASL should really play in our classrooms.

But for now, enjoy your summer.

I’m Feeling Lucky: How Google is Changing Our World

June 22, 2009
Look familiar? Weve all used it.

Look familiar? We've all used it.

“To Google” has become a new verb in the English language. If we research something of any topic, we are said to have “Googled” it. That means any person, concept, or piece of information that one needs further information about. To Google is to know.

Google, the Internet’s most popular search engine, is a global phenomenon. Everybody, including myself, uses it to find out anything about anything. We use it to research information regarding our favorite sports teams, movies, television shows, medical problems, philosophical questions, historical data, politics, statistics, pop culture, and of course, people.

We Google people to find out things about them that we might not be able to discover otherwise. If we are thinking about dating someone, or hiring them for a job, we Google them to find out their dirty little secrets. For most normal people, their Facebook profile is usually the first hit you will come across. Anything after that is fair game. If there is dirt on you, it will come out. The Internet never lies, as all of us know.

In the old days (meaning the days before computers), if we wanted to find out hidden information about people, we would have to do good old fashioned detective work. That means researching, going to the library, sifting through public records, or following them. Or we would hire a private detective to do the work for us. Either way, either us or someone else would have to do work that borders on stalking a person. Today, we don’t have to stalk. We just need Internet connection.

An article published by The Atlantic by author Nicholas Carr for the July/August 2008 issue entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid” argues that using the Internet rewires our brain to make us process information faster and quicker. We also start to demand that information be brought to us at a similarly fast pace. Carr talks about how sitting down and reading a book has become more difficult for him. He used to be able to sit down and read a book for long periods of time, but now he becomes more fidgety and loses his concentration easier.

Young people who grew up on the Internet and the Google Age can perhaps testify to that as well. The attention spans of today’s kids are shorter than in previous generations, some child behavioral experts say. The invention of fast-paced television shows, where images are flashed on the screen faster than Ichiro Suzuki can beat out an infield base hit, has been blamed for making our kids more dependent on increased stimuli.

Movies like “Transformers” and “Terminator Salvation” depend more on quickly edited special effects than character, story, and dialogue. If you want to maintain an audience’s attention, having two characters sit down and discuss politics like what Frank Langella and Michael Sheen did in last year’s “Frost/Nixon” is not the way to go. Even the Best Picture of 2008, the smash hit “Slumdog Millionaire,” told its very human story with style, flash, and quick editing. Merely telling a straight-forward love story is not enough. Now we need more razzle and dazzle to keep our attention.

(On a side note, a previous blog entry of mine dealt with why young people don’t go to the theatre as much as older generations do. One explanation might be that the theatre isn’t as visually stimulating as movies and television are. Other than big Broadway musicals, most plays are small, intimate, and character-driven. They require us to be active participants in the story, not passive observers. We have to pay close attention to the dialogue or we will miss key plot points. Young people might find the theatre boring because of this. And that might be a tragedy in the Google Age. After all, why pay $30 to go out and see a show when you can see short exciting clips of anything you want on YouTube for free?)

But back to Google. If our lightening-speed entertainment media are rewiring our brains to demand more visual stimuli faster and harder, then Google is doing the same for research and learning. We want our information served to us on a nice platter with chips and salsa on the side. We want the short and simple Wikipedia version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, without having to actually read any of his writings. Why bother reading any books about the Spanish Inquisition when Wikipedia summarizes it up nicely for us?

No one can deny that technology and the media change the way we process information. How often do you sit down and read an entire article you find on the web? If you have made it this far on my blog, then you are on the right track. My blog posts tend to be longer than that of most other bloggers’. I think it is important to have some depth to my thoughts. Other writers might not think so.

This is why I am against Twitter, but with the recent election riots going on in Iran, my view of Twitter has slightly changed. The Iranian government has shut down all foreign news coverage of the protests and are making sure their people are kept ignorant about what is happening, as well as keeping the rest of us ignorant. But those brave enough to use Twitter are sending 140-character or less updates on what is happening in Iran. They are risking their lives and personal safety to get the word out on what is happening in that autocratic Islamist regime. Twitter might be the death of Iran’s theocratic government. If that is the case, then micro-blogging does have a place in the world.

I was initially against Twitter because I think it is ridiculous to reduce news items to 140 characters or less. News organizations who have Twitter accounts are making the news less and less deep by feeding Googlephiles their news the way they want it: short and to the point. But short and to the point loses any sense of depth, meaningful analysis, and big picture reporting. And besides, who cares what celebrities are up to at this very minute in their lives? I don’t care if Ellen Degeneres is going shopping or if Terrell Owens is working out at the gym. That means nothing to me!

If living in the Google Age provides any sense of progress, it’s that information is easier to access and has become more democratic. It used to be that the gatekeepers to information were book publishers and media tycoons. Today, anyone can gather, synthesize, report, and publish information. That has its advantages and disadvantages as well, but those issues are too numerous to mention in just one blog entry.

Nor do I think that we are worse off for living in the Google Age. Google is a very helpful tool for learning. It has changed the way college students do their homework (I, as a recent graduate, can now freely admit this), and perhaps the way college professors do their teaching. Google, and online tools like it, gives us more information at our finger tips than we could ever have imagined. Its effects on society are enormous and more research definitely needs to be done.

The invention of blogs makes it that anyone can make their voice heard online. People ranging from me, to you the reader, to famed journalists, to oppressed protesters in Iran. And searching for blogs on topics of your interest is only one Google search away. But don’t expect blogs to give you all the depth and intelligence that you need (mine do, of course!) to fully learn about news, politics, philosophy, and society. That requires you to actually pick up a book and read it, not just skim a short CNN article.

This is not to say that living in Googleville is making us smarter or stupider. All that can be concluded is that the Internet is changing the way we think. It changes the way we process information, the way we expect to learn, and the way we discover our world. This is a fascinating subject that anyone who uses a computer needs to think about. Those of us who grew up on the Internet need to realize that our brains are wired differently than our parents are as a result. Absolutely fascinating.

If you want to know more about how the Internet alters our neurological development and ability to concentrate, I suppose you know how to do that.

America Can Teach Iran a Thing or Two About Hoping for “Change”

June 18, 2009
Iranians are taking it the streets to protest controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory over challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Iranians are taking it the streets to protest controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory over challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi.

In 2008, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain all promised America that they would bring change to America if they are elected President of the United States. Obama, as many of his young and enthusiastic followers know, sort of trademarked “change” as the main focus of his campaign.

He won the election fair and square that November, which got plenty of Americans excited for this “change” that was promised. And now we are in 2009. Whether he has delivered on that campaign promise or not, Americans will be debating that for years to come. But if there is another group of young people eager for a new political leader to bring about change in a struggling country, you can find them in the unlikeliest of places: Iran.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Persian nation of Iran has been a hotspot for political repression and violence in the historically tumultuous Middle East. The overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah in favor of a fundamentalist Islamic government forever strained Iran’s relationship with the West. The holding of 52 American hostages for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981 at the U.S. Embassy did not help matters.

Since the so-called “revolution,” Iran has seen itself decline into political isolation and international ridicule. United Nations sanctions has significantly hurt the Iranian economy in recent years. A devastating war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq lasted from 1980 to 1988. Controversies over its nuclear enrichment program has made Iran a grave enemy to Israel and many Western countries. The economy is suffering despite rich amounts of oil and other natural resources. Things are not looking good right now.

But the recently disputed election between hard line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, demonstrates that people are finally bold enough to show their frustration toward the theocratic regime. Protests following Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory have extensively ensued. People have been protesting on the streets and on rooftops, shouting revolution-era slogans and cries of “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is Great.”

These protests are significant enough that Iran’s state-run media are trying to censor any international coverage of them. The government is doing all that they can to make sure people don’t see fellow Iranians protesting the regime or the election results. After all, in a nation run by the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, who is a truly great man of God, how can things go wrong?

The regime obviously doesn’t think anything can go wrong. If God wills Ahmadinejad to win re-election, then so be it. He may be a controversial figure who has denied the Holocaust and has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, but he is right for Iran’s future. Their future, of course, consisting of going to war with the West once their nuclear program becomes serious. That is a future that the regime wants. But not the people.

The fact that people are courageous enough to protest means something. Iran is a nation where a “moral police” roams the streets to enforce Islamic law (commonly referred to as “Sharia”) on the people. They are not afraid to beat, torture, or kill anyone who breaks these strict rules. That includes any man, woman, or child. Ahmadinejad’s government is accused of secretly supporting these Gestapo-like police forces. He denies it. Of course he would.

Women in Iran who speak out for women’s rights are put in jail and tortured. Women who show too much skin in public, like their face or legs, are beaten on the spot. The regime is not afraid to use violence to suppress peaceful protests. They censor voices that disagree with them. They provoke the West in hopes to weaken Israel. They support terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, who recruit poor young men to kill people for a living. They send agents into Iraq to cause chaos and kill coalition forces. The list is endless.

Iranians feel connected to each other because of the revolutionary spirit that has lasted since the late 70s. Like Cuba, Iran feels proud of their history of defying the West and creating a better society than anywhere else on earth. At least, this is what they would like to think. The brave Iranians who are protesting right now prove that not everyone is happy about the way things are going. They are willing to endure beatings by police officers and attacks by tear gas if that means making their voices heard.

Student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 resulted in the Chinese military killing an unknown number of people in order to silence the crowds. Best known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, this is an example of a repressive regime using horrendous acts of violence to silence their critics. Who is to say that Iran wouldn’t do the same thing? Somehow many experts doubt it, but one can never underestimate what a violent regime will do to maintain its grip on power.

Under these dangerous circumstances are these people protesting. They face the possibilities of violent repression, incarceration, and many other unspeakable punishments. A significant number of protesters are young people. Mousavi is known as a more liberal politician who wants to open dialogue with the West instead of shun them. He wants to make amends with the United States, not taunt them with nuclear proliferation. This sounds like the kind of guy who needs to lead this troubled nation.

Ahmadinejad is a fundamentalist hard liner who only wants to defy the West and spite the U.S. and its allies. Though the Ayatollah holds the real power in that country, the Iranian president is the face of the nation on the international stage. Whoever holds this office is in a position to change Iran’s reputation in global politics. Maintaining Ahmadinejad’s regime will only sour matters further. A new voice is necessary for Iran to make peace with the world. Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

Of course! The 2008 U.S. presidential election. Then-Senator Obama was seen as America’s savior to get us out of the funk the unpopular George W. Bush got us into. Bush invaded two Middle Eastern countries, neglected Hurricane Katrina victims, increased the national debt, authorized for controversial interrogation techniques of terror suspects, allowed for unwarranted domestic wiretapping, failed to stop the subprime mortgage fiasco before the housing bubble burst, and many other things that people have ranted about over the years. Of course America was ready for a “change.” And voters got really excited.

A good portion of those who did vote for Obama, the alleged radical Muslim Arab, may not have been completely aware of his political beliefs or how much of the anti-Bush he really is. Obama, as it turns out, has not overturned as many Bush-era policies as we might have hoped for. Military tribunals of terror suspects are still going on. We are still in Iraq. North Korea is still testing nuclear weapons. What about healthcare reform? The TARP bailout plan, or the Troubled Assets Relief Program, was signed by Bush in his last month in office. It promised banks $700 billion in federal money to help liquidate the banks’ toxic assets. Obama has continued this program. So much for Obama being the anti-Bush.

But that is neither here nor there. Mousavi may not be the anti-Ahmadinejad either. He may be just another puppet for the Ayatollah and his council of yes-men. As many skeptical Americans are wondering if Obama can follow through on all his grand campaign promises, Iranians should wonder if Mousavi will end Iran’s counterproductive domestic and foreign policies. Even if Mousavi doesn’t become president, these series of protests should at least signal to the regime that people want change.

It is conceivable that the enthusiasm America felt for electing its first African American president may be spilling over across the world. Just as we were excited for the new era of hope and change under Jesus, excuse me, rather “Barack,” Iranians are feeling excited for getting rid of Ahmadinejad and his cowboy politics and replacing him with someone cooler and hipper. One can only hope.

I will admit that I voted for Obama. I felt McCain could not get enough people excited for the future. I respect McCain, but I feel he was not the right man at the right time. I would much rather have seen McCain win the 2000 election, as he would have made a better president than either Bush or former Vice President Al Gore. America needed someone that they can like. Barack seemed like that man.

I have no delusions about politics. I am just as cynical about the political system than anyone else. As a journalist, I am supposed to be suspicious of our elected leaders. I should never give anyone a free pass, regardless of their status, popularity, or past history. Everyone should be held accountable. That is why I did not jump on the Obama bandwagon like many of my fellow young people did. I did not look forward to “Hope and Change” like many of my friends. I realize that one man cannot do that by himself. Instead, I figured that if he can follow through on 25% of his promises, then I will consider that a good accomplishment.

This same cynicism should be going through the minds of Iranians as they continue to protest for civil liberties and political transparency. Mousavi may not bring about the change that he promises. Though he should be better than Ahmadinejad, one cannot hope for too much. One must keep their expectations realistic at all times. Being too optimistic allows you to miss important developments that you may not have had you kept a level head.

So please, Iranians everywhere, keep on sticking it to the Man. Keep on putting pressure on the government to reverse its controversial policies. Make the regime sweat. It may actually bring about desirable results. Or it may not. Either way, if you believe in change, it will come. Real change comes from the bottom up, not from the top to the bottom. The people change the course of history, not just the leaders. The leaders will eventually follow the will of the masses once the masses become strong enough. When the masses are making the right decisions, everyone benefits.

I hope those of us in America are learning that, too.

Hate Groups Are Wise to Support “Lone Nuts”

June 18, 2009

Lone nuts are a funny thing. They commit aberrant acts of violence that defy any notions of decency, morality, or common sense. They act under the guidance of only one person: themselves. They follow no orders except for what they decide to do. They are easy to ignore because they represent no larger cause. But we should be cautious about feeling this way.

A few weeks ago controversial abortionist doctor George Tiller was gunned down at church allegedly by a man named Scott Roeder, an adamant pro-life (or is it anti-abortion?) believer who militantly carried out his angry ideology. Even more recently an 88-year-old man named James Von Brunn stormed into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and killed Stephen Tyrone Johns, an African American security guard.

None of these killings are officially tied to any organized crime. Though a devout anti-Semitic and white supremist, Von Brunn acted alone and not with the explicit help with any Neo-Nazi group. The news media have discussed these two cases extensively within the past few weeks and have talked about how far we have left to go in creating a truly egalitarian and tolerant society.

But even more disturbing is how these organizations function. They do not officially support terrorism or acts of violence. They “denounce” such violence when they do occur. When the media ask them what they think about “lone nuts” who kill in the name of white supremacy or any other cause, they claim they renounce violence and instead embrace “nonviolent” political action and open dialogue. Many pro-life organizations do truly reject violence and instead use the political system to make change. Others do not.

Talking heads on television have discussed whether these organizations and the conservative media are to blame for Roeder and Von Brunn’s horrific actions. It is true that leaders of the white supremist movement are very vocal about their hateful beliefs. It is true some of their speech borders on incitement. But incitement is a very difficult crime to prove.

Vocal conservative voices like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh are very adamant that their audience know how they feel about certain issues. Lou Dobbs on CNN is infamously a very strong anti-illegal immigration voice. Their opinions, as so-called “journalists,” are well-known by people everywhere. When right-winged pundits and others compare Dr. Tiller to Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, calling abortion a crime similar to the Holocaust, it is understandable that one would put blame on them for murders to people like Tiller.

But that argument can lead to calls for censorship and media redaction, a slippery slope that no one wants to go down. As a strong First Amendment advocate, I strongly believe only speech that causes direct, imminent, and lawless action should be censored. And that should be a rare case. Accusing any speech of incitement, and therefore censorable, can eventually lead to the suppression of ideas and tyranny of the masses.

No one likes racist and hateful speech like that delivered by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, but in America, such speech should be allowed. We cannot let the masses, even if the masses are right, to dictate what speech is allowed and what is not. Living in a free society means allowing all people to speak their minds. Even people we don’t like. But enough about defending free speech.

The really interesting aspect to all this is the concept of being a “lone wolf.” Hate groups are smart (if such a description can be given to them) to not officially condone violence or take part in organizing violence. When they do that, they become not just hate groups, but terrorist organizations. That is the fine line between the two.

When a hate group commits no act of violence, and therefore do not break any laws, the government can take no action against them. The FBI cannot crack down on Aryan Nations or KKK meetings because of what happened at the Holocaust museum. They have no direct connection to the shooter. If there is proof that madmen like Von Brunn are officially sponsored by these groups, then the U.S. can take all the legal action necessary to bring them down.

And hate groups do not want that. If they want to continue to survive, they must remain law abiding. And in this age of the Internet and social networking, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to track down exactly who is responsible for what. So when shootings at Dr. Tiller’s church and the Holocaust museum take place, they can make their token statements where they reject violence and are praying for the victim’s families. They don’t fear being pursued by the police because, on the surface at least, they have done nothing wrong.

But secretly, they are loving what has happened. The museum slaying has other Jewish organizations fearing for their safety. African American security guards and police officers are now looking over their shoulder more often. The fears for the safety of President Obama, America’s first African American president, have increased. With these pairs of killings, these hate groups have achieved a small victory: the installment of fear into people.

Then again, we should be cautious to clump the anti-abortion and anti-Semitic followers into a single group. They are very different in their beliefs and should not be seen as one and the same. I’m sure there were many pro-life folks who genuinely hated seeing a man killed because someone disagreed with what he did. Lone nuts like Roeder do nothing to legimatize their cause. They only make them appear more out of the mainstream and out of touch with reality. Not all pro-life people are killers. But people will be less convinced of that after this incident.

Returning to the original point, racist and hate groups are not on the NSA’s terror watch list because they have not been proven to organize terrorist actions. The KKK or the Aryan Nations are not like al Qaeda or Hezbollah because they keep away from organizing shootings like that which took the life of Mr. Johns. If there is any proof of connections between these organizations and “lone nuts,” then they are no longer considered lone nuts, but agents. And agents can be prosecuted along with their “commanders.”

This is not to say that hate groups did not give direct support to Von Brunn and people like him. As mentioned before, online social networking is so complex that anything is possible. Law enforcement agencies will have to work even harder to prove a conspiracy. If the government could not prove that Lee Harvey Oswald acted under orders, how can they do the same in this age of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter?

For now, we are left to being more vigilant and countering racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry not with police action, but with more grassroots awareness action. Love cannot be enforced. Love must be taught. We must make other people aware of the humanity in all of us, regardless of race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, creed, or physical abilities. This requires people to lead by example and to be open to criticism and difficult discussions. Ending hate will not happen if people are passive. Hate will end when acceptance becomes the norm.

Men like Roeder and Von Brunn may be lone nuts, but their actions affect us all in some form or fashion. Lone nuts are a funny thing. They may act alone, but their deeds speak to us all.

Sonia Sotomayor, Racism, and the Problems with Liberals and Conservatives in America

June 11, 2009
Sonia Sotomayor has unfairly become a rallying cry for race-related debate by liberals and conservatives.

Sonia Sotomayor has unfairly become a rallying cry for race-related debate by liberals and conservatives.

There’s that dreaded subject again. Race. Race, racism, racial progress, racial prejudice, racial tolerance, it all boils down to one thing: controversy.

Race is a painful, taboo topic of discussion that always seems to turn its ugly head again and again. Especially in these United States, with our long history of racial injustice, talking about race can be an activity that makes people either run away or hide under their desks. That was true fifty years ago, it’s still true today.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency last fall seemed like a step in the right direction. America had finally elected its first African American president. A country with a long history of slavery, race-inspired lynching, and segregation can partially bury its demons from the past with this historic election. Race will still be a problem in this country, but one memorable election certainly couldn’t hurt.

But the recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court by President Obama has stirred race-related discussions that expose two hard hitting facts about race in America: Some people cannot let go of the past and some people cannot embrace a new future.

Supporters of Sotomayor argue it is important for the Supreme Court to have a Latino woman on the bench. The Supreme Court, historically dominated by old white men, is the highest court in the nation. They determine the supreme law of the land. They decide how Americans can and cannot live. This is indeed a big deal.

Most of the discussion surrounding Sotomayor has nothing to do with her judicial beliefs or legal philosophy. Seen by a few Constitutional law experts as a center-left justice cut from the same cloth as the soon-to-retire David Souter, if confirmed, she will most likely make decisions that appease Obama’s liberal base while occasionally deciding in favor of conservatives.

Instead, talk about Sotomayor in the media mostly revolves around her ethnicity and a controversial statement she made on a few occasions, but most famously at a 2001 speech to the University of California, Berkley, School of Law entitled “A Latina Judge’s Voice.” Her quote is as follows:

“First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Conservatives argue this line of thinking implies that her ethnicity and cultural background alone qualifies her to serve on the bench. They fear her rulings will be biased toward racial minorities and that she will marginalized Caucasians if a race-related case comes before the Court. They also argue this statement is “reverse racist” because she implies her race and background is superior to that of a white man.

Former Speaker of the House and possible 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and outspoken radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh both called this statement racist and called Sotomayor a racist. Interestingly, Gingrich has since apologized for his condemnation of Sotomayor while Limbaugh has said he may support her confirmation. This proves one’s gut reaction should not be said publicly until you’ve had time to talk about it.

Ideally, a judge should be impartial, unbiased, and completely fair toward all people in court. In Harper Lee’s famous 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells Scout that “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow.” Liberals argue Sotomayor’s Latina background will give her a better perspective when dealing with cases involving the common people, minorities, and women. Conservatives argue that that’s the problem. Her perspective should be objective and removed from outside influences, not unapologetically formulated by it.

What this debate illustrates is that liberals, or at least politically-minded liberals, cannot let go of the past. To them, every sin of the past must be made up by progressives of the present and future. Remember segregation? We must elect a black man to the presidency to cleanse us of those sins. Remember how we denied women the right to vote, have an abortion, and get paid equally to men in the workplace? We need to support a woman to join the Supreme Court if we are to let go of that dreadful past.

This, of course, is not how all liberals feel. Just those who have this perception that they have some guilt to relieve. Liberal bloggers and political pundits see the negative reaction to Sotomayor’s statement as signs that racism still exists in this country. Indeed it does, but perhaps they are ignoring the larger picture of equality. The fact that Sotomayor’s past life is coming back to haunt her is proof that women, to a certain degree, have made huge strides in becoming equal to men.

All politicians have dirt on them. All lawyers have dirt on them (there are a million lawyer jokes to back me up on this). When John Roberts and Samuel Alito were being confirmed to the Court during the Bush era, liberals were harsh on them and grilled them for hours before a congressional confirmation panel. Every memo, every paper, every legal statement they made were put under a microscope and analyzed to death. This happens when you are deciding whether to confirm someone to a life long appointment on the nation’s highest bench.

Liberals should not be surprised that such a statement would be considered controversial. Even a few left-leaning political columnists agree that she may have been a tad unwise to say something so controversial. Saying anything about “a white male who hasn’t lived that life” is guaranteed to turn heads. If Sotomayor had known she would later in life to considered for the Supreme Court, it can be guaranteed that she would have said something different.

However, the anger pouring out against her is proof that even though she is a minority woman, she will not get a free pass at attaining high positions of power. She will have to earn it. And in order to earn it, she has to explain herself and justify her beliefs. Roberts and Alito had to justify their beliefs before a skeptical congressional panel. The fact that Sotomayor has to do the same thing proves a certain degree of equality has been attained.

Assuming every attack on Sotomayor, or even skeptical remark, is fueled by racism is a way to silence critics and assure her confirmation. Not everything is related to race. Maybe I am less perceptive than other people, but most white Americans in 21st century America don’t look at a minority as just a minority. That might be part of their internal social mental description, but that is certainly not everything. Not everything is about race.

Conservatives become defensive about race because they feel liberals hark on them about it all the time. Conservatives and Republicans definitely did not help in ending slavery or Jim Crow laws. Ultra-right winged radicals were the ones who lynched blacks in the South and most recently murdered abortionist doctor George Tiller. While this is all true, conservatives fear threatened that every time they criticize someone of color, they will automatically be branded a racist. This is why Republicans are cautious to criticize Obama’s policies. They don’t want to be known as a “hater” and be voted out in the next election.

One of the reasons why racism still exists is because there are people who refuse to let it go. They dwell in the past instead of living in the present. I believe that every schoolchild should learn about America’s horrific past with racism. The history of slavery, abolitionism, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement should be taught to every child in the United States. But after that, we should learn from the past so that we don’t commit the same crimes in the future. Continuously returning to the past and unburying the skeletons in the closet will only further alienate people from the discussion and make them bitter. Real progress cannot happen if people insist on dwelling on the sins of those long gone.

Conservatives, on the other hand, fear for the future. They are guilty of fearing what a diverse and egalitarian America will look like. They fear that having women in positions of power will strip down the “old boys club” and make it that their wives, girlfriends, mothers, and daughters can have authority over them. Such a horrible thought.

It is no mystery that conservatives value tradition and keeping things the way they are. Hence, they want to “conserve” the status quo. But if that means maintaining a system where rich white men have all the control, then we have a problem. Women and minorities deserve a chance at making it big. They deserve to have their voices heard and their needs considered. That is why we live in a democratic system. We are government of the people, for the people, and by the people. And women and minorities are people.

Perhaps conservatives fear that a pseudo “melting pot” America will destroy what it means to be “American.” Instead of having a clean cut white Christian family be the face of America, it might be a black Muslim family. Or a Buddhist Chinese family. Or an atheistic Latino family. Or a gay family. Such thoughts keep conservatives up at night.

Once again, I say “conservatives” to mean those who are far to the right, like a Rush Limbaugh or a Bill O’Reilly. Most normal or moderate conservatives have no fear of white men sharing power. They just fear Big Government and socialized healthcare. But that is a whole other sack of potatoes.

For conservatives, talking about “race” is all about how evil conservatism is and how Big Government should be authorized to tell people how to live, work, and interact. What they don’t understand is that most moderate liberals think of race in terms of improving society, not demonizing the white man. Only the radicals are bent on destroying the system. Moderates/pragmatists just want to live in peace.

In short, this is the conclusions one can make regarding how race is discussed and viewed in America. One can go on for hours about the little nuances of race-related issues, but that is for later. What Sonia Sotomayor represents is a larger discussion about how women and minorities are treated in this country. And that is not fair to her. She is an individual who should be treated as an individual. She is smart, independent, and her own woman. Framing her as “a sign of progress” dehumanizes her and makes her a symbol of “equality.”

If I can fault both liberals and conservatives about one thing, it’s that most of this discussion should be about Sotomayor’s qualifications as a judge, not her race or gender. For liberals to make her a rallying point for egalitarianism and for conservatives to make her an example of “reverse racial discrimination” devalues her as a human being and forces her to be a battleground for an age old war that she does not deserve to be a part of.

Please, those on the left and right, focus on her judicial philosophy and not your own race-related social agenda. This should be about deciding who gets to determine our country’s laws, not about your own personal biases. Sonia Sotomayor, though she is a Latina woman, should be treated as a human being, not a political symbol.

If you cannot do that, then you should take a long look at yourself in the mirror and reconsider what you really value in life.

Words, Words, Words

June 10, 2009
Can a room full of monkeys sitting at typewriters really produce a work of Shakespeare?

Can a room full of monkeys sitting at typewriters really produce a work of Shakespeare?

What’s the difference between us and William Shakespeare? Or Ernest Hemingway? Or Sylvia Plath? Or any other great writer, either of fiction or nonfiction, in human history? Most literary critics consider these individuals to be giants among men. They are gods of the written word whose writing talents have entertained, enthralled, and enlightened readers from generations past and present. They are, for lack of a better word, immortal.

Immortal in the sense that their work will endure for years far beyond their time on earth. We will be reading Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey for ages to come. No matter how much society changes over time, the stories told by these literary giants will always be relevant and timeless to its audience.

That also applies, to a smaller degree, to great journalists. A journalist’s work is usually read that day and quickly forgotten the following week. Only a selected few journalists will endure in the memories of the general public. Thomas Friedman, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and George F. Will are writers who have changed and influenced American domestic and foreign policy just by the stroke of their keyboards. Whether you agree with their politics or not, you cannot deny that presidents ranging from Richard Nixon (who fell victim to Woodward and Bernstein’s now famous Watergate exposé for the Washington Post) to George W. Bush have had their presidencies directly affected by these journalists.

This brings us back to the first question I posed: what’s the difference between us and William Shakespeare? Why were their writing talents above and beyond the talents of Average Joes like you and me? Not too many people remember Shakespeare’s contemporaries. He did have them. Students today don’t read their works because, for some reason no one might be able to explain, their literary skills don’t match up with that of the Bard.

How hard can writing be? Studies have shown that people, both men and women, speak an average of 16,000 words per day. This might dispel the rumor that women talk more than men. Regardless, talking is no big task for the averagely intelligent human being. We think in words, we communicate in words, we process information in terms of words. Without words, it would be very difficult for people to function in society.

Yet, there are only a select few of us who are truly great writers. It is one thing to speak words. It is quite another thing to put them on paper. And it is definitely another thing to write something that people will want to read.

According to the home page, as of this writing, 57,525,799 new words have been written today by all bloggers. It would be prudent to assume that Blogger and other blog sites probably have similar statistics to boast. The world is not short on writers. There will always be people who want their words to be read by as many people as possible. But how about good writers?

Good writers are not as prevalent as one would think. The inspiration for this blog post comes from a few conversations I’ve had with a couple of people about how difficult the art of writing can be to some folks. There are some people who can speak eloquently and clearly but when you put a piece of paper in front of them and a pen in their hand, they could not write a simple five paragraph essay to save their lives. Or maybe a mere 500 word editorial on any subject of their choosing. Doesn’t sound that hard, but to some people, it’s equivalent of running a marathon. Why start when you don’t have a chance of finishing?

Writing does not come naturally. It is a skill that must be learned, practiced, and critiqued. Good writers need teachers who teach them basic skills like sentence structure, outlining ideas, grammar/punctuation, and making sure concepts flow seamlessly. All writers need an editor, regardless of level of experience, expertise, or age. There is no such thing as a great writer who can reach the level of greatness alone.

However, that does not mean learning how to write will guarantee that you become a good writer. Creative writing is not the only form of writing that requires creative talent. All writing, to a certain extent, requires you to generate content that is not there to begin with. A columnist writer like Leonard Pitts Jr. or Maureen Dowd starts with an idea, but they need content to fill it out. They make connections between ideas, come to conclusions based on those ideas, and explain those conclusions in a cohesive and logical manner in a way that a typical reader would understand. Sounds difficult, but they make it look easy.

Maybe writing is a task best left to “left brained” people. According to pseudo-scientific psychological research, people who primarily use the left hemisphere of the brain have a better grasp on linguistic skills like grammar and vocabulary. These same generalizations have concluded that people who are more adept at math and science are “right brained.” Have you ever met a good writer who could also do advanced calculus? If you have, they would be a very valuable asset to a science magazine or in the health section of a newspaper.

If creativity is needed for all forms of writing, then where does creativity come from? Creativity, it seems, comes from the ability to look at the world not just as it is, but what the world can be. Creativity comes from the imagination. Little children have the greatest imagination because there are a lot of activities that they cannot do yet. Kids cannot climb tall mountains, or fight against cowboys and Indians, or travel through space, or play with the dinosaurs. They cannot do these things in the real world, so they do it in the world that they can: the imaginary.

The imagination is a muscle that needs to be continuously toned. When kids get older and they transition into adulthood, they are faced with the need to think linearly and realistically. They need to think about the things of this world, not the things beyond their logistical reach. This is why most people lose their imagination as they get older.

It is also no fluke why famous science fiction/fantasy writers like C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and Philip Pullman (of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Harry Potter,” and “His Dark Materials” fame, respectively) have their main characters be children. As children, they are more likely to fit into the world of fantasy. And perhaps even deeper, these writers hearken back to the days when they were young and played “pretend” with their friends. I’m sure Clive Staples Lewis pretended to live in a “Narnia” inspired world when he was a young lad. Other writers probably experienced similar childhoods.

Adults who maintain their sense of adventure and awe of the world make the best writers. They can incorporate their child-like fascination with the world with their adult understanding and mastery of language. Nonfiction writers like journalists and essayists are inherently teachers. They write to edify their audience. They write to push an idea across a broad spectrum and force people to think about their world. In some respects, nonfiction writers are probably most inspired by the teachers they had as children. In similar fashion, one’s childhood returns as a determining factor of one’s writing abilities.

Technique is something that can be learned. But real good writing is something that must be passionate. You must be passionate not only for the subject that you are writing about, but the desire for people to read and comprehend it. Good writers do not write just for themselves. They want to change the world. Journalists are politicians with a pen. They make change by the written word, not with votes or legislative bills.

A passion for writing would mean you would want good form and technique. You will be open to criticism and hearing other people’s opinion of your ideas, style, and purpose. Good writers have definite purpose. They write for a reason motivated by the love of something deep. F. Scott Fitzgerald loved life prior to his service in World War I and was passionate for people to know about the “Lost Generation.” The disillusionment writers of the 1920s and 30s – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and John Steinbeck included – had something important to say. And they said it with gusto and passion. That is why they are considered great.

Ernest Hemingway: Dont let his short sentence structure fool you.

Ernest Hemingway: Don't let his short sentence structure fool you.

Bad writers often lack direction or a real sense of need. They write because they are forced to (a school assignment, perhaps) or because they have to (a necessity for one’s job). Or maybe they lack formal training. I believe a bad writer with passion can be transformed into a good writer with just a little schooling.

But, at the end of the day, creativity and an open, child-like imagination are the key ingredients for making a great, memorable, and successful writer. They need to be able to formulate concepts in their head, put it into language, and translate them onto paper. Good writers don’t have to think too hard about their craft. It almost comes naturally to them. It has been said that famed songwriter and composer George Gershwin had so many different tunes in his head, it would have taken him one hundred years to write them all down. Gershwin was such a gifted musician that he didn’t have to think about his music; it came naturally to him.

Writing can be a gift. There are writers with a natural knack for language. But that is not a prerequisite for greatness. Great writers get it. They understand what makes human beings tick. They know what drives deep emotional responses out of people. Charles Dickens knew it. So did playwright Arthur Miller. They understood humanity and the human condition. I guess good writing also takes perceptiveness and good observational skills.

But I think what will make you a better writer overnight is to read good writing. Read stories on The New York Times. Read Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Emily Dickinson. They will inspire you to do what is not even humanely possible. They will show you what simple ink on a page can do to entire nations and people groups. They can show you what real change means.

Making change means looking at the world as more than it is. It means knowing your words can move mountains, bring kings to their knees, and inspire legions of people to take action. It means not only holding up a mirror to society, but challenging society to look at itself and see the endless possibilities. “Romeo and Juliet” is a timeless classic because it tells a simple story of how mankind’s selfish and unforgiving nature can get in the way of true love. Love, the beautiful fabric of life, can be destroyed if society puts enough pressure on it to end. What that play did was challenge humanity to look beyond itself and imagine a world that can be better, more compassionate, and free of hate.

See? There’s that word again. Imagine. Imagination is a powerful tool in good writing. That might answer my question. What’s the difference between us and Shakespeare? I think the connection he makes between his words and our deeply held values can give us some insight.