Archive for the ‘Society’ category

Privacy vs. Freedom of Expression

April 6, 2010

There is an on-going battle happening in America that is as quiet as a cat but as vicious as a pit bull.

This battle is a relatively new one, exacerbated by the popularity of the World Wide Web.

This is a battle that is being fought on all possible fronts: the White House, the Pentagon, the offices of the Central Intelligence Agency, the chambers of Congress, schools, street corners, public libraries, and even private homes.

This is a battle between personal privacy and freedom of expression.

But first, here are a few thoughts to help set the stage for this discussion:

We live in an unprecedented age of information. The social observers of the 1990s famously referred to the Internet as the “Information Superhighway” because of the vast amount of information that is available at the mere click of a mouse.

Today that highway has grown to stretch across the globe; surpassing all national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. This information comes in all forms: news, politics, opinions, history, art, pop culture, personal stories, etc. The popularity of blogs created in itself a fairly new phenomenon where more people are willing to put their personal lives out for everyone to read.

And this is where things get very interesting. More and more people, some as young as middle school students, are willing to put their private lives on the Internet for all to see. Through written blogs or video blogs posted on Youtube, people share private information about their lives, including their love life, sex life, opinions on politics, office/schoolyard gossip, opinions on pop culture, and anything else that will attract a loyal following.

Internet pseudo-celebrities will post daily (or weekly) videos of them chatting to their “fan base” about whatever comes to their mind. Certain people will tune in because of the voyeuristic pleasure they get from peeking into the seedy lives of “ordinary” people.

I say “ordinary” people because one never knows how real these “confessions” are. Then again, is that really the point?

The rise of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace has given people more channels to advertise themselves. Our world is becoming more interconnected. All this leads to one conclusion: our “private” lives are entering into the public domain like never before.

At the same time, consider the controversy that sprung up in the wake of the domestic surveillance scandal of 2005. It was revealed to the American people that the infamous Patriot Act of 2001 had given the FBI the right to spy on foreigners and U.S. civilians without a judge’s permission. Eliminating the need for a federal subpoena, as argued by dissidents, destroys our constitutional right to “due process.”

Many Democrats and civil liberties advocates argued such a practice violated American’s rights to privacy. President Bush argued such measures were necessary to protect Americans from future terrorist attacks. Terrorists do not respect individual rights, Bush and his supporters said.

The outrage from “Spygate” proves that Americans are not completely willing to sacrifice their personal privacy for the sake of protecting themselves from potential harm. Other similar controversies include the installation of video cameras on street corners, photo-enforced red light traffic cameras, and unwarranted phone tapping.

Yet, there exists a completely different trend in American society. As mentioned earlier, Americans are becoming more comfortable with spilling their deepest, darkest secrets on the Internet. Even if they maintain a certain degree of anonymity, there always exists the possibility that someone will find out who they are.

Voyeurism is the sexual interest of spying on people engaged in intimate behaviors that is normally relegated to the private sphere. Alfred Hitchcock’s breakthrough 1954 film “Rear Window” famously depicted Jimmy Stewart as a crippled man who spends his free time spying on his next door neighbors. When his character witnesses a potential murder, he becomes involved in a dangerous conspiracy that never would have happened had he kept his peering eyes away from other people’s business.

“Rear Window” argues how dangerous it is to step into the lives of private people without their permission. There is nothing inherently illegal about spying on people (other than the creepiness factor), but when watching leads to taking action, a line has been crossed that leads to very unholy territory.

This unholy territory is “stalking,” the practice of giving unwanted attention to individuals by either physically following them, researching intimate details of their lives, or trying to contact them without their permission.

There is a joke among Facebook users that when somebody finds out intimate details about someone by reading information posted on their profile, they are referred to as a “Facebook stalker.” The irony is, of course, that all this information is willingly posted on the profile by the person. This information is available for all eyes to see, especially the eyes of your “friends.”

But sometimes this is no laughing matter. Recently, a Tacoma teacher named Jennifer Paulson was murdered by a stalker who casually knew her in college. Her death signifies how serious stalking can be; that intruding on someone’s privacy can possibly lead to violence.

Naturally, there is no way to monitor this except though self-control and utilizing common sense. The government cannot control what information people are willing to put out there. And likewise, people are limited in what they can do to stop government intrusion on their personal lives.

This is an issue that should be “discussed” more than “debated.” Why are we willing as a society to spill more secrets about our personal lives while at the same time getting outraged whenever we see the federal government intrude on our personal space? Are we becoming more open about our privacy, or are we really becoming more protective of it?

Discuss!

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Blaming Racism for the Achievement Gap in Our Schools is a Dangerous Road to Take

November 2, 2009

Race and racism are complicated issues in our society that too many people try to simplify; which I believe to be a dangerous road with perilous consequences.

A recent article published by The News Tribune, a Seattle-Tacoma area newspaper, brings up the issue of race and the American educational system. The author, Patrick Welsh, apparently is a high school teacher in Alexandria, Virginia with a high African American population.

The author cites arguments made by educators that the “achievement gap” between white and black students (as if Latino, Asian, and other ethnic students don’t count) is caused by an education system that treats black kids unfairly, which allows white kids to flourish when their darker pigmented peers lag behind.

Calling this problem a “civil rights violation” is a convenient argument, especially when one looks at the numbers. If it is true that white students generally speaking get better grades than black students, playing the race card is definitely a tempting road to take. But Welsh argues that parenting should be more to blame.

He argues that his students weren’t achieving much in the classroom because “their parents just weren’t there for them – at least not in the same way that parents of kids who were doing well tended to be.”

I agree with the writer that blaming this problem on race alone is misleading, counterproductive, and downright dangerous. Children are impressionable; a fact that is true of children of all racial/cultural/ethnic backgrounds. Imagine the message this sends to our young ones; that the reason why certain kids don’t do well in school is because s/he is black, or the reason why s/he is going to college is because s/he is white.

If kids are exposed to this kind of thinking at a young age, it will develop into deep-engrained stereotypes that will eventually come back to haunt us. If black children grow up believing they can’t do well in school because of the color of their skin, that is just as racist as any of the unjust laws civil rights leaders fought against 50 years ago.

Likewise, if white students grow up believing their whiteness will guarantee them a better chance in life than darker skinned students, imagine the racist attitudes that could be borne out of that scenario. Scary, n’est-ce pas?

 It makes logical sense that exclusively playing the race card in this situation can create more problems than it can solve. If the “educational system” is racist, who then is to blame? Teachers? Administrators? The federal government? Students themselves? The list goes on.

If my understanding of American society is correct, public school teachers are some of the most liberal folks in our country. Teachers’ unions fight for liberal causes. A federally-funded public school system is itself a big-government cause. The argument that educators are at their heart creating a racist system holds very little water.

 Racism and race in America are too complicated of topics to generalize like that. There were those who were foolish enough to believe that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would signal an end of an era in race-relations in our country. That could not be further from the truth. While it is good to see an African American ascend to our nation’s highest office, this is no guarantee that our demons with racism will magically go away. I argued against such naivety shortly after the election and so far I am proven to be right.

Conservatives call this arguing “race baiting” by the left in an effort by liberals to ignore the real questions. I would not go that far, but I do feel they are slightly on to something. Playing the race card is, in my opinion, a tactic that is way overused by certain people, and only further destroys the debate by watering down the meanings of the words “racism,” “prejudice,” and “bigotry.”

We should not blame racism for our problems unless we are completely certain that racism is in fact the cause of whatever problem is being discussed. I do believe that crying “racism” all the time is similar to the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. If we see racism everywhere (in schools, in church, in the media, in our neighborhoods, in our government, in businesses, in our politics, in homes, at work, etc.) and pinpoint every social ill we have on racism, eventually people will stop caring. If we’re all racists, what’s the point of doing anything to stop it?

And, of course, when a truly racist thing does happen, no one will blink an eye because they’ve already been there, done that. It is genuinely the Boy Who Cried Wolf, except it’s the Bleeding-Heart Liberal Who Cried Racism. We should be careful before using the dreaded “R” word.

But far right conservatives are wrong about the notion that racism is a dead horse. Racial prejudice is quite alive in our country; it just takes different shapes than it has before. Blaming racism in our discussion of public education might be one of those examples.

By saying over and over again that black kids are doomed to perform academically at lower levels than white kids, is that not a racist notion in itself? Does that imply that black kids are unable to overcome obstacles imposed upon them by our nation’s history? Isn’t it racist to pound into our children’s minds that their teachers are hateful bigots because test scores tend to be skewed? Isn’t it racist to say that Obama’s white heritage is the only reason he has become so successful? Sounds like it to me.

And what about Asian American children, like I once was? Well, I still am Asian American, I’m just not a child anymore. In many parts of the country, East Asian, Indian, and Arab American students are very successful in the classroom. Especially children of recently naturalized immigrants. Their parents worked hard to come into this country, so they have been taught at an early age to work hard in school so that they can live out the American dream. I suppose parenting does play a part in all this.

 If the system works against minority students, how do you explain the success of a good number of Asian American kids? Dumb luck? Maybe their culture of hard work has something to do with it.

Parents who had to fight hard to come into this country are more likely to teach discipline and the importance of an education to their children because they know how hard it is to succeed in life. Welsh is right that absent parents play a much larger role in the educational “achievement gap” than most people are willing to admit. Will making the school days longer, as President Obama recently argued, make our kids get better grades? I doubt it. We don’t need to urgently fix our schools. We need to fix our culture.

We need to bring back to our kids a sense of urgency at getting a good education. We need to teach them not nothing in life comes free, and that your race should never be an excuse for performing well or poorly. We need to bring back the “culture of learning” where reading books and enlightening ourselves are more important than watching reality television and other trashy pop culture garbage.

It all starts in the homes, not the classrooms. Teachers try the best that they can (at least most of them do). No teacher wants their students to fail. So why should be put all the blame on them? Besides, if racism truly is the problem in our schools, how do you propose we fix that? Should we require our educators to attend more “racial tolerance” seminars? Should we ignore all white students and focus more on minority students hoping that will somehow make our problems go away? Not bloody likely.

If any of you can successfully convince me that racism is the sole cause of our school system’s “achievement gap,” please inform, counter-argue, and persuade me and I will definitely write a blog post recanting everything I have said here. If not, then maybe we should tackle our larger problems instead of making up our own ones.

Intelligence Is Overrated

October 29, 2009

The Coen Brothers, a multi-Oscar winning pair of neurotic and irreverent Hollywood filmmakers, made a so-so film in 2008 called “Burn After Reading” where the tagline was “Intelligence is Relative.”

The film deals with a CIA agent played by John Malkovich whose personal memoirs contained in a disk are accidentally discovered by two dimwitted gym trainers played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt. Though the film itself lacks the usual panache we have come to expect from Joel and Ethan Coen, the story is supposed to satirize the U.S. intelligence community and how everyday idiots can become bigger threats to national security than terrorists.

This film and Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film “The Informant!” are both spoofs of the ineptitude of government agents and the people who are in power in our country. One would think the smartest people in our society would be the ones in power, but that is not always the case.

The general American public would argue that our previous president, George W. Bush, was not the brightest bulb in the drawer despite reaching the office of President of the United States. He only became Commander in Chief because of his family name (his pappy was once the Prez as well) and the very nice Supreme Court who ruled controversial ballots in his favor over his challenger, Al Gore.

In our current administration, several Obama cabinet and lower cabinet members had trouble paying their taxes. This is especially ironic considering Democrats are traditionally the ones who favor higher taxes over lower ones. This goes to show that everyone is capable of either being stupid or ignoring the law.

But indeed it does make one wonder who really is in charge of our country. Do we actually have the smartest people in high public offices; or do we have bumbling idiots whom enough folks were gullible enough to vote for?

Then again, sometimes you had no choice who to vote for. I don’t think too many Americans were enthusiastic about either Bush or Gore, or even John Kerry for that matter. This past election, where we had a choice between a charismatic African American and a well-respected Vietnam War veteran, was one of the first elections in a while where the person, not the party, counted more.

All this shows that perhaps the best people aren’t the ones who are in positions of power. Politics and the art of governing a country are often times two very different monsters. Politics is show, theatre, intrigue, social networking. Governing a country is an intellectual task that requires knowledge of history, economics, mathematics, political theory, and multi-cultural understanding.

Those who want to enter politics are often in it for a variety of reasons. Some want to genuinely change the country (or city, or county, or state) for the better, others are in it for the fame/money/reputation, and some people might be in it for no other reason other than it seems like the right thing to do.

Those who get elected aren’t necessarily the ones with the best ideas. They are the ones who seem the most trustworthy, kind, patriotic, charismatic, and/or partisan. If you live in a hardcore red or blue state, you better feed the base or you will have no chance of collecting votes.

I have always believed that the real people who are qualified to be president, or senator, or any high public office, are usually in academia. They are law professors, college professors, or political scientists working for a think tank. They could even be journalists who have studied politics for a long length of time. Either way, people who understand politics, international relations, and history at a deeper level.

This is not to say that our current elected leaders do not have that expertise. Barack Obama was a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Most of our other leaders have university degrees in political science, international studies, or law. I am not implying that Washington D.C. is full of nothing but power hungry dunderheads, though sometimes that assumption is tempting to make.

But there is somewhat of a backlash against intellectualism. Obama and Hillary Clinton were accused of being “elitists” who couldn’t relate to the everyday working man or woman. This explains why Obama tried to go bowling (and failed miserably) and Hillary was seen at a tavern chasing down brewskis. Republicans already have the “good old boy” reputation down solid, so it’s the Dems who need “work” in that area.

Some people think politicians who are overtly smart and intelligent are prone to ignore the everyday “Joe Six Pack” and their common problems. Others feel we need the best and brightest running our country, not those who can best identify with the little people.

Intelligence may be relative, but there will always be a place for smart people. Smart people assist in improving technology, science, medicine, the arts, and any other kind of research that helps society become better. When it comes to running a country, that might be a whole other story.

How much of politics is scientific and how much of it is an art? That might come down to whether you value book or street smarts more. There might be something said for the classic debate between intelligence and wisdom. A wise person is not necessarily the smartest one in the room. They are the ones with the most insight, sensitivity, life experience, and observational power. Intelligence is something that cannot be learned.

But can wisdom be learned? Or does it come more natural to some people compared to others? We assume that wise people make the best decisions in life, but what about intelligent folks? How, for example, did the Kennedy administration get us into the colossal blunder that was the Vietnam War when everyday military grunts on the ground knew all along this would be a mistake? There must be something said for proximity to the problem.

 All these questions can boggle the mind. Maybe we need intelligent people to answer them.

Equality is a Myth, Ugly People Suck, and Other Inconvenient Observations

October 17, 2009

Disregard whatever you’ve heard before: we are not all created equal.

No man, woman, or child is equal to any other man, woman, or child. This is a tough reality to face, especially in a democracy like ours. We would like to think that all men (or women) are created equal, and that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Have you heard this somewhere before? You probably have.

But the truth is a little more brutal than that. Granted, we do live in a society where most people are given equal rights under the law, but the buck pretty much stops there. Anyone can go to school, enroll in college, and apply for a job. But will anyone hire them? That depends on a multitude of factors.

Some of those factors are innate. Others are biological. And others are dictated by society. Let me explain.

Americans like to believe that every citizen can make something of themselves if they just try hard enough. But those on the left will argue that factors like wealth, family prestige, and race/gender/sexual orientation help give certain people an advantage over others. Their observations are quite right. There is an old saying that in America, anyone can grow up to become President of the United States. But it sure helps if your father is named George H.W. Bush and you come from an oil rich family.

There are countless studies arguing that men have an advantage over women in many areas in life, that white people have an edge over racial minorities, and that gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered people have hills to climb that their straight counterparts do not. All of these problems are true. And thankfully, society is making progress (as slow as it may seem) to make amends and truly treat everyone as equals.

But besides demographic handicaps, there exists other factors that give people a significant advantage over others. And there is no way to stop it.

Intelligence is one. Smarter people, supposedly, are more likely to succeed than not so smart people. The exception might be found in the world of sports, where brainless jocks can make millions only because they can catch a football better than any of us.

But consider intelligence as an inherent characteristic that gives people an edge when it comes to making money, scoring high paying jobs, and getting into good colleges. No dummy can get into Harvard or Yale (unless, of course, you come from a rich family); never mind survive it for four years. Or get a degree.

It should come as no surprise that intelligence runs in the genes. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I am very inclined to agree. But intelligence doesn’t always guarantee success, of course. There are plenty of lazy people out there who are very bright, but aren’t terribly motivated. They made a choice, and they are living out those choices. And, naturally, there are smart people who choose careers that don’t rake in the big bucks. I am willing to bet that most starving artists are very intelligent people; they’re just not very rich. But money and success don’t always mean the same thing, right?

Then there’s the case of smart people not getting the breaks or opportunities that others do. If you’re an intelligent person who lives in a poor neighborhood, your odds of getting into college or attending a decent public school system is lower than those who live in a wealthier city. This would be what is known as “untapped potential.” There are millions of kids out there who could be potential Noble Peace Prize winners if they just lived in better conditions. What a shame.

Another uncontrollable factor is natural talent. Some people are born with better physical abilities than the rest. No matter how hard I try, I will never become a better basketball player than LeBron James, or a better hitter than Ichiro Suzuki, or a better quarterback than Peyton Manning. They are born with natural skills, hand-eye coordination, and physical bodies that I am not blessed with.

And talent cannot be learned. No matter how many hours I spend in the gym, or how many world-class coaches I work with, or how many years I spend practicing, my jump shot will never be as good as LeBron’s. His genetic make up makes him a superior basketball player than 99 percent of the world’s population. I, on the other hand, live among that 99 percent, not that small elite 1 percent.

There is proof that athletic ability is genetic and not a learned art. It has been said by medical experts that certain athletes are able to return from ligament surgery quicker than the rest of us because their bodies are so coordinated, that when the nerve endings in essence “rewire” themselves after surgery, it happens quicker in them than John Doe. John Doe (or Jane Doe) needs more time because his/her nervous system is not nearly as well tuned as that of an NFL player.

This might explain why soccer moms or baseball dads who punish their kids with hours of practice in hopes that they will become the next future hall of famer in their respective sport might be wasting their (and their kid’s) time. Making your little Billy practice fielding for three hours after school will not guarantee that he will become the next Derek Jeter.

Maybe this explains why so many “children of famous athletes” like Ken Griffey, Jr. (Ken Griffey, Sr.), Matt Hasselbeck (Don Hasselbeck), Lofa Tatupu (Mosi Tatupu), and the Manning brothers (Peyton and Eli have a famous father in Archie Manning) have made it big over the years. Talented athletes give birth (or father) to more talented athletes. Is this a miracle? No, it’s scientific.

Natural talent goes beyond physical abilities. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could write symphonies before most of us could do our times tables. He was blessed with a musical ear and an endless fountain of imagination that most of us do not possess. There is a reason why his music is still listened to and played today.

But could any Tom, Dick, or Harry replicate the musical achievements of a Mozart, or Beethoven, or George Gershwin? Probably not, unless our standard of excellence dramatically falls all of a sudden. I doubt that will happen any time soon.

And, of course, there is another category where some people are considered superior to others. It is a category that we notice everyday. We are reminded of it every time we walk into a grocery store. Children as young as 5 or 6 can be teased about it on the school yard. Today there are people who spend thousands of dollars to improve it.

Have you guessed what it is? If not, that’s okay. The category that gives certain people an edge over others is beauty. Physical looks. This has nothing to do with intellectual capabilities, hard work, or learning. Some people are born better looking than others. Yes, there are ways to enhance beauty (some strategies are as modest as the simple application of makeup to the more extreme road of plastic surgery), but either you got it, or you don’t.

Beauty and physical appearance do give people an unfair edge over their more homely friends. Good looking people are usually served quicker at restaurants. They might be more likely to beat out a speeding ticket. An employer might hire a beautiful person over a less attractive person; especially if the job requires dealing with the public (does Abercrombie & Fitch ring a bell to anyone?).

What about jobs that just require being beautiful? Modeling is an industry created specifically for the more aesthetically pleasing in our society. So has most anything in the entertainment and media business. It is no mystery that women are discriminated against in the businesses where being featured on camera is involved. Do you ever wonder why all “weather girls” are perky, pretty, and shapely?

Discrimination against less attractive people has been going on for centuries, as well as the backlash against it. People are upset because putting beauty on a pedestal only makes life difficult for the rest of us, not to mention more costly, time consuming, and frustrating. If girls as young as 10 or 12 are starting to use makeup, then we have a problem.

All this is to prove that there are factors in our society that go beyond race, gender, socio-economic status, and religion in deciding who is “superior” to others. This is not a uniquely American thing, either. This practice has been going on since time began. But all this seems more upsetting considering we live in a “free society” where anyone can achieve anything if they just try hard enough.

Which is not to say that we don’t live in a free country where self-determination is still the name of the game. It is to a certain extent, but we have to realize that no matter how you spin it, some people are “more equal” than others. Sound Orwellian to you? Not really. Sounds more realistic to me. These standards aren’t unconstitutional, of course, but they do seep into our every day behavior.

People with higher intelligence, natural talent, and beauty do have an advantage over everyone else. But is that necessarily a bad thing? What’s wrong with using your God-given gifts to your own advantage? Pragmatic self-interest never hurt anyone (just ask the infamous political scientist Niccolo Machiavelli). As the old saying goes, if you got it, flaunt it.

But our egalitarian mindset tells us that this is all wrong. Everyone should have an equal chance in life, regardless of what cards they were dealt with. Being dealt a “superior” hand should mean nothing in the long run. But it does, doesn’t it?

Maybe there is no answer to this. Maybe we are all born unequal and we should just accept it. Why bother to change something that is so deep rooted in our collective culture? Or can we change our culture and perspective regarding human worth? That is a question I leave to you.

Of Man and Drink

October 16, 2009
Alcohol and society have a fascinating relationship.

Alcohol and society have a fascinating relationship.

Alcohol is a funny thing. It costs a lot. You can’t drink too much of it. And if you are caught drinking too much of it while driving a motor vehicle, you are liable to get yourself into a mountain load of trouble.

So what’s the appeal?

The answer is pretty simple. Alcoholic drinks can be very tasty. Good beer, as opposed to cheap watered down garbage like Bud Light or Keystone Light, can be a delicious treat every once in a while. One cannot drink too much beer out of the danger of developing a “beer belly” as so many middle-aged folk suffer from. But nevertheless, a good quality brew during a tasty meal is very hard to beat.

But, there are of course downsides to every good thing. Consuming too much alcohol can be hazardous to your health in multiple ways. It can damage your liver, your brain, and your relationships with your loved ones. It can also lead to you losing your job, losing your insurance, and one too many trips to the hospital. The dangers are endless.

But this is not a blog post about the dangers of drinking and driving. There are plenty of other places to read about that. Hopefully this will be more worth your time. It is worth thinking about the complex, fascinating, and tumultuous relationship society has had with alcohol over the years, and continues to have today.

Alcohol was first created thousands of years ago as a way for human being to be able to drink a beverage that they knew would be free of toxins, germs, and other inconvenient impurities. In the times of Jesus of Nazareth, two thousand years ago, everyone drank wine because they did not have the water purification systems in place that we enjoy today. There were no Roman Empire desalination plants or water engineers whose jobs were to guarantee every citizen clean drinking water.

Instead, a distilled drink had to be the way to go. Of course, many believe the wine in Jesus’ time was no stronger than bitter grape juice, but that is beside the point. Drinking alcohol was trendy out of necessity, not because everyone in those days were wine connoisseurs. They weren’t French, were they?

Today, wine is stronger than it was in ages past. And so are the choices. Today alcohol is a choice drink, not the only beverage on the market. For most people, alcohol is a treat; a drink that one enjoys every so often, not all the time. No one has the money, tolerance, or ability to drink alcohol all the time everyday.

Despite the opening up of other beverage options, and despite the long history human beings have had with the drink, social problems involving alcohol still persists today. The United States government tried to shut down alcohol production during the Prohibition era. Temperance movements to curb excessive drinking were considered noble causes. Today we would accuse someone like that of being prudish, Puritanical, or sheltered.

But prohibition was eventually lifted. Too much bathtub gin and other forms of moonshine made banning alcohol both impractical and silly. Banning it will not make it go away. Governments have tried to discourage excessive drinking since the days of the Persian Empire. But the problems still comes back time and time again. People, as long as alcohol is available, will drink too much for whatever reasons they might have.

So public drunkenness and other societal dangers of inebriation are nothing new. And society has tried to crack down on these problems for just as long. But none of these efforts will make alcohol go away. Wine, beer, and liquor are here to stay.

But it is interesting to think about this relationship. Society loves it, but warns against loving it too much. Some countries, like the United States, have imposed age limits on consuming alcohol. Here, one must be 21 or over to buy alcohol. In some countries, there is no age limit. How do they survive?

Simple: they have fewer problems than we do. There are those who argue that age limits on alcohol create more problems than it prevents. Some people believe the drinking age should be 18, which is the same for purchasing tobacco, voting, and achieving “adult” status. If you’re old enough to join the military, pick up an M-16, and kill enemy combatants overseas, why can’t you be old enough to enjoy a Guinness with your friends?

Supposedly, counties with either no drinking age or a low drinking age have fewer problems than we do. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Either way, it is still an issue that politicians and citizens are debating. If the drinking age were lowered to 18, would you see fewer cases of alcohol poisoning on college campuses? Perhaps. Would you see more adults grow up to be more responsible with the drink if they had been able to purchase it at an earlier age? That is a possibility.

In addition to Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Their cause should be obvious. Look at television commercials for Captain Morgan or Smirnoff. They advertise their product by showing young sexy good looking people partying it up, and tell you to “drink responsibly.” This is all proof that despite the long and accepted presence of alcohol in our society, there still exists the taboo in our collective consciousness that too much is not a good thing.

It is even misleading to compare alcohol to tobacco. Though tobacco has decreased in popularity over the years due to revelations of lung cancer and other carcinogenic dangers, tobacco serves no other purpose other than the nicotine it provides to its users. There is a sort of “tobacco high” smokers get when they light up, but the addicting power of tobacco is very well known.

Tobacco can be used in moderation, but it usually not. When one gets addicted to it, it can be very difficult to quit. But alcohol is a substance that one can consume in moderation. Alcoholism is a problem that takes a little longer and requires more drinking than becoming hooked on cigarettes. But then again, I’ve never smoked before so I can’t really be certain about that.

But it fair to say that people have more conscious control over their alcohol use than tobacco. But that is neither here nor there.

What is relevant is that the relationship between humanity and alcohol is unprecedented compared to any other food or drink. Carbohydrates may have taken a brutal hit 8 or 10 years ago, but we will always eat our bread, potatoes, rice, and noodles. No where else in our drinking and eating world do we have a substance that is nearly as controversial as alcohol. Alcohol has led to premature deaths. Alcohol consumed by pregnant women can be damaging to their baby. You don’t hear about pregnant women cutting down on carbs, do you?

Alcohol is the one liquid, perhaps second to water and oil, that has made more governments upset and frustrated than anything else. Water and oil are by far the most discussed liquids in global politics. But regardless, who thought food could be such a controversial subject? If there is one subject where politics, religion, and society mix, it would be alcohol.

This is just a taste (no pun intended) of the complexities alcohol presents to our society. Love it, hate it, or die from it, it is here to stay for the long haul. Just thinking about the maddening relationship between society and distilled liquid should make your head spin.

Now there’s something worth talking about at cocktail parties.

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 WordPress.com 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.