Friday, July 28, 2017

We Are Unhinged

We have become unhinged.

I don’t mean “crazy,” though perhaps we are crazy. We certainly think other people are crazy. Them. The other side. And it’s the other-side-ness I’m talking about when I say we are unhinged. Un-hinged.

We’ve always taken sides in political arguments, right from Day One, but the two sides used to be joined in the middle. There was a thing that held us together and connected us, that touched both sides but belonged to neither—a thing that formed a core or center around which the rest of us could freely swing, this way and that way. It allowed the two sides to function together to perform tasks that neither side, alone, could accomplish. A simple bolt can make two flaps of metal into a hinge. And something made separate people and conflicting ideas into a nation.

Was it the Constitution? The Declaration? The First Amendment? The flag? Was it a sense of shared history, or shared destiny? It wasn’t a shared ethnic identity, no matter what the screamers like Ann Coulter or Pat Buchanan want to believe. It wasn’t just white-ness, or WASP-ness, or even male-ness. We overcame substantial parts of those biases, and allowed outsiders to take part and feel ownership (albeit grudgingly). We may not have been ready to welcome this minority group or that one, but weirdly, maybe even perversely, they insisted on welcoming us. They demanded ownership in the country. They wanted the words to belong to them, as much as they belonged to us. They wanted to believe in the words, even when we didn’t seem to.

The power of the Civil Rights movement came, in part, from the demand that Thomas Jefferson’s words apply to all Americans, regardless of what Mister Tom himself might have wanted or intended. Throughout our years, groups of people of have read the words, “All men are created equal” and have said, “Make that real for me.” The work is far from finished—but that doesn’t mean it never began. A black man has been our president. A gay woman hosts a hugely popular daytime talk-show. A Latino man and his cast of black, white, Asian, gay, and straight actors has made the entire country fall in love with and sing about “the ten-dollar founding father.” Every generation, some new group of people reaches for the bolt that has held the hinge together, and has said, “I want to be part of that.”

But now…what is the “that?”  What is the bolt around which we cling, today, to form the hinge around which we can swing? We use freedom of speech to broadcast contempt of each other; freedom of religion to excuse bigotry against each other; the right to bear arms to protect us against the existential threat of each other. These things were meant to hold us together. Instead, they keep us apart. We birthed ourselves as a nation by saying that the pursuit of happiness was one of our inalienable rights, and that governments were formed—by us—to protect those rights. And yet, today, when people struggle because laws or behaviors hinder them from the free pursuit enjoyed by their neighbors, we sneer at them, call their pleas for equity and justice “special pleading,” and mouth off about the self-reliance and independence of our forefathers…our forefathers who would have perished a thousand times over if their neighbors had not been there to help them in times of trouble.

Why are the people next to us no longer our neighbors? Why doesn’t their pursuit of happiness deserve our sympathy and support? Is it because we are white and they are black? Is it because we are straight and they are gay? Is it because we are Christians and they are Moslems? Did our forefathers run through a checklist of acceptable beliefs and behaviors before offering a helping hand to someone whose crops had failed, or whose barn had burned down? 

No, of course not. They didn’t have to. The checklist was already assumed—pre-checked before the neighbors ever put down roots. If someone were living next door, it was because he had already passed muster as Acceptable. And anyone outside of that definition….lived elsewhere.

Is that what we want to go back to? And if far do we need to take it, in order to feel safe? Will it be enough for white people to hide themselves away from black people—even more than they already do? But so many white people despise each other these days. Maybe that’s not enough. Would it be enough for Democrats and Republicans to live in separate neighborhoods—even more than they already do? But the moderates and extremists within each party hate each other almost as much as they hate the opposition. Should devout believers of various religions be protected from having to come in contact with or provide commercial services to people whose beliefs or behaviors contradict their own? Should we have special districts where only white, straight, conservative Christians live and operate businesses? And if we build such things, will we need some kind of guarded entry gate to keep the wrong sort from being able to go shopping in their stores?

Must every nut be separated from every bolt? Every screw removed from every hole? Every piece of wood separated and stored with similar pieces of wood, and all metals arranged by type and color? Has the wonderful, awful, maddening, glorious house we have built become so difficult to maintain that we have to tear it to the ground and return all of its parts to the store for safe-keeping?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Music to Read by...


If you're reading my new mystery novel, "The Cat Came Back," you'll notice some jazz tunes spoken about and quoted throughout the text. Here are some versions of the tunes, to give you some music to read by...


Wednesday, February 22, 2017


I was wrong. I thought we were in agreement on the Big Things, and the fights and debates were about details, the how-do-you-get-there stuff. I thought we were on the same page about what America IS and what America is FOR. I was wrong.

I was wrong—and I think that’s why this election has been so difficult for me, and for so many other people. It revealed something I hadn’t seen before. Maybe I was too dumb to see it, or too sheltered and bubbled. I don’t know. But I’m seeing it now.

I thought America was for anyone who believed in and adopted the core beliefs of the country, as put down by the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—with, perhaps, some Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, and Lincoln thrown in for good measure. I was raised to believe that those core beliefs were what made us American.

It’s not surprising that I was raised to believe this. My great-grandparents were immigrants, and were so committed to the project of becoming Americans that, within two generations, any stories or memories they had of the “old world” were forever lost to the family.

I was raised to believe that our core beliefs—and nothing else—were what made us Americans—that being American was (unlike being Greek, or French, or Irish, or Chinese) not about having a unique ethnicity or culture or rituals, not about having a deep history of peoplehood tied to a unique and particular place—that being American was an identity that was open to anyone.

Of course, there were caveats and hold-on-a-minutes laced all throughout that set of childhood beliefs, things I had to encounter and deal with as I got older—like the fact that there was a group who had a “deep history of peoplehood,” here, who our forefathers slaughtered. But even as a cynical teenager, I felt strongly that the failings were things we could fix—things we would fix—things that our core beliefs would simply not allow to continue existing. So, fine: Jefferson may not have thought of black men when he said “all men are created equal.” But having said it, it could never be unsaid, and it would eventually force us to do the right thing. The more we read and spoke and believed the words, the more they would transform us into the New People and the New Nation we wanted to be. The belief in those words made us who we were. They were our catechism; our dogma; our civic religion.

But I was wrong. Or—I wasn’t wrong in believing those things; I was wrong in thinking we all believed those things. I thought even the worst of us believed those things, but also—at the same time—held racist or sexist or xenophobic attitudes that contradicted those beliefs, creating an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. There are probably people about whom that is true. But there are also people who just flat-out disagree with everything I’ve written. They believe that America is for the Caucasian Europeans who first claimed and stole this land from its native population—that the history of the country should place those people front and center (not just in the early chapters, but in every chapter), and that the culture of the country should be deeply centered in and defined by the cultures of the English and northern European peoples who filled Independence Hall, 200+ years ago. Now and forever.

Columnist Pat Buchanan makes his America First (and White America even more-first) feelings very clear. America was, is, and must remain a “Western, Christian country.” People who are neither Western nor Christian can live in the country, of course, and be citizens here, but they can’t really own it like he can. For Buchanan, the American identity has nothing to do with our founding documents or our laws. There’s an American identity that existed before those documents were ever written, and has a deeper, more profound importance. Of course, as someone of Irish descent, Pat’s acceptance as a “Western Christian” would not have been a given, a hundred years ago. But whatever. He’s in, and the Mexicans are out. He’s in, and the Arabs are out. That’s the way it should be. Or—he warns us—we can let in all of those non-western and/or non-Christian folks and utterly lose our country. We can lose the country, no matter what those people believe, or desire, or commit their lives to, because they are the wrong kinds of people.

Ann Coulter, predictably, makes Pat Buchanan sound like Gandhi, talking about “Emma Lazarus' insane idea that all countries of the world should send their losers to us.” Of course she’s a loon, and a professional bomb-thrower, and all that. But when you hear her words and ideas being echoed by the new administration, you have to start paying attention. When your new president decides that only brown-skinned Muslims need watching as “terrorists”—that the government no longer has to spend money to keep an eye on white extremists—well, then you have to deal with the fact that you’re not using the same dictionary as other people. White people can’t be terrorists in their own land. I guess mass murderers in America who happen to be white, extremist Christians are just…protesters? I don’t know.

What I do know is this: I’m not an American because it pleases my neighbors’ sense of Christian charity and makes them feel big-hearted and tolerant. No thank you. My ancestors had to live at the pleasure of kings in one nation after another—never citizens, never under the protection of the law, always disposable when their presence became a problem. Their gravestones are in Yiddish, no matter what country they lived in, because they were kept so isolated—and were driven out so regularly—that it was never an advantage to learn the native language. They were forced to be a nation apart, with no home in the world—and were then held under eternal suspicion because they didn’t truly belong, anywhere they lived. That is not going to happen again.

So Pat, Ann, Donald: this isn’t your country, just because you love Jesus. This isn’t your country, just because you don’t tan well. This isn’t your country, just because your relatives got here before mine. This is your country, God help us, but it’s also mine.

It’s mine, not just because I was born here, but because I signed on the dotted line and said YES to the things that our best dreamers wrote and dreamed and believed: YES to, “All men are created equal;” YES to, “Consent of the governed;” YES to the first amendment (and the second, and the third…); YES to, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” And, while we’re at it: YES to, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist;” YES to, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately;” YES to those “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free;” YES to, “I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest;” YES to, “I celebrate myself and sing myself;” and YES to leaning forward to the, “next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

Those are my articles of faith. Those are my non-negotiables. What are yours?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How Much Choice Can You Handle?

So. Betsy DeVos will be our new Secretary of Education. Every educator I know is freaked out about the fact and what it portends for public education in this country. Will she use her power to divert public moneys to private and religious schools? (Definitely.) Will she preside over the complete dismantling of the Department of Education? (Who knows?) Will her actions bake racial and class segregation even more deeply into our educational system? (Probably.)

Freedom of individual choice does not sit comfortably alongside equality. We value both, but they often work against each other. The more we enforce equality of inputs and resources, the more likely we are to constrain individual choice. The more we empower individual freedom, the more likely we are to end up with un-equal outputs. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Democracy is hard because we are maddeningly inconsistent. We talk about the importance of individuality, freedom, and choice, but our advocacy kind of depends on the thing we’re choosing. The Right believes firmly in individual choice when it comes to guns, schools, and health care, but stands firmly against personal choice when it comes to things like family planning. The Left is exactly the opposite.

Individual liberty is obviously an important part of what makes us Americans. But where to put the boundary between the rights of the individual and the needs of society has been a tricky issue. It’s something our founders thought hard about, and it’s something that has troubled thinkers and authors through the ages. John Stuart Mill, writing in 1869, said:

As soon as any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of understanding). In all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences.

This is why the rights to and limits of individual choice are moving targets. There are personal decisions that, in 1869 or even 1939, would have affected no persons besides yourself--which, today, would absolutely affect other people. We force every driver to wear a seat belt and buy automobile insurance. We didn’t used to. Why are those limits to free action necessary now? Because today we are so pressed up against each other that every stupid action any one of us makes in a car will have consequences that affect other people, either directly (you hitting me) or indirectly (my rates going up because too many people are terrible drivers, or my taxes going up because too many people in too many road accidents have no insurance and have to go to the emergency room).

Individual freedom to make choices about children’s education was severely limited in the middle of the 19th century, when compulsory public schooling was introduced. At the time, some children went to school; some did not. Some children were educated at home by parents or tutors; some simply went to work. Some girls were taught the same things as boys; some girls weren’t taught how to read. It was very much a family-based decision, based on the values and needs of the family. The government decided that the needs of the industrial revolution and a rapidly diversifying population required some kind of Assimilation Machine that would spit out functional, employable Americans, regardless of what was fed into it. Which is why some families greeted the introduction of compulsory schooling with a snarl and a shotgun. They weren’t fighting to maintain their children’s ignorance; they were fighting for the right to make their own choices. Bad choices, you might say. Choices motivated by fear, racism, and xenophobia, you might say. But still: their choices.

A hundred and fifty years later, astonishingly, the fight goes on. Many parents want to send their children to private schools, religious schools, home schools—whatever kind of school they want-- and they want public moneys to pay for the choices they make, so that educational decisions aren’t just a privilege of wealth. Some of those choices are motivated by a fierce devotion to a good education and the feeling that their current options are limited and sub-standard. And some of those choices may well be motivated by things like fear, racism, and xenophobia.

So: their children; our society. Who gets to make the decisions?

It’s a tricky question, isn’t it?  On the one hand, we know that public schooling in this country has been a great equalizer, a way for children from different backgrounds, nationalities, and cultures to some together and become One People. On the other hand, our current generation values diversity and individuality over conformity, and many people fear the whole idea of assimilating into some “norm,” whether it’s a capitalist, consumerist, media-soaked kind of norm or a secularist, humanist, one-worldist kind of norm.  On the one hand, a public school is a place to inculcate the core ideals and values of a culture. On the other hand, families have their own core ideals and values, and should have the ability to protect their children from ideas they don’t believe in.

Or should they? Where is the line between public and private? The shrinking of our world makes it a very complicated problem. A hundred years ago, you could grow up thinking and believing any wacky thing as your parents might want you to believe, and it would have limited public consequences. Basically, your education would affect just you, and perhaps a small group of your friends and co-workers. Now, with social networking and with people changing jobs and home cities, you and your ideas may touch and affect hundreds, perhaps thousands or millions of other people. To what extent should government care about the effect of weird, bad, diverse schooling on the public at large?

And to what extent should government care about you--little old, individual you? When you are a minor, your parents get to make choices about your life. Should there any limits to that, for your own protection? Should you, as a minor, be protected from your parents’ bad choices? And if so, who gets to say which choices are bad?

When I was teaching in New York City, the department of education created a wide array of magnet middle and high schools, to provide some measure of choice without succumbing to charter schools or handing out vouchers. Every parent got a thick book in the spring, listing every possible school. Parents made their choices, and some computer algorithm figured out who would go where. But some parents chose not to choose. They let their children go to their regularly zoned, neighborhood school. And what happened? The better students went to small, magnet schools, all over the city. The students with more educated parents went there as well. The students with engaged, activist parents went there. The students whose parents paid attention and cared went there. And, by and large, whoever was left over ended up at the zoned school.

And who was left over? The kids whose parents chose not to choose, or didn’t know how to choose, or were too busy, distracted, or un-informed to know that the choice mattered. Choosing not to choose was unmistakably a bad idea; the old, zoned schools became depositories of the least motivated, hardest to educate children, staffed by teachers who lacked the seniority to transfer elsewhere.

Is that all right? In a system where parents get to choose what’s right for their children’s education, is there any role for “nanny-state-ism,” any role for the government—local, state, or federal—to say that certain choices are off the table because they will harm the child—for his own sake and on behalf of the larger society of which he will someday be a part?

From the most brutalist, Libertarian, Ayn Rand position, you’d say No—there is no role for government. If you’re too stupid to make good choices for your children, then they will fail and you will fail, and good riddance to the whole bunch of you. Excellence and strength should be allowed to rise, and weakness should be culled from the herd through its own bad actions. It’s the same position Jerry Seinfeld referenced when joking about motorcycle helmet laws. This is the position that values individual freedom to act over pretty much any other social good, because it sees extreme individualism as the greatest social good. It’s an extreme position, and you can easily imagine more moderate versions of it.

From the most collectivist, social-welfare-oriented position, you’d say Yes—there is a role for government to put forth rules and set legally binding and enforceable limits on behalf of the health and welfare of minors. This is the position that values equity and the health of the community over individual freedom. For the good of all of us, individuals have to be protected from their worst impulses and decisions. This, too, has extreme and more moderate versions.

When we’ve worked well as a society, we’ve found ways to move to the middle and honor both sides of the equation, providing choice but also accountability to standards of what Good looks like. Unfortunately, we’re not in a very moderate or understanding frame of mind, these days. We’ve come to believe that the life of the republic is a zero-sum game; only one side can be right, and each side, thinking it’s allied with God, must fight the forces of evil to the death.

That is a lie, and it is nonsense, and it will eventually destroy us. That much seems obvious to me. I wish it seemed obvious to more people.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Is Our Room the Room Where it Happens?

"If you want to build a ship...teach [people] to yearn for the vast and endless sea." 
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

There was a joke I used to hear quite often, growing up. In the joke, a Jewish synagogue (Reform, like the one I went to) is plagued by an infestation of rats, and the congregation can’t seem to get rid of the pests, no matter what they do. They try poison, they try traps, they try sonar, they try cats—nothing. Finally, the rabbi comes to president of the congregation and says he can help. He stands in the middle of the sanctuary, raises his arms in benediction, and utters some prayers in Hebrew. Then he turns to head back to his office. “Wait a minute!” the president says. “That’s it? What did you do?”  “I gave the rats a Bar Mitzvah,” the rabbi said. “You’ll never see them in here again.”

The joke definitely rang true for my generation. Once we had gone through the obligatory lessons and delivered our obligatory prayers and speeches, most of us had no desire to hang around for…whatever. There didn’t seem to be anything worth hanging around for. We had learned all there was to learn, and most of it held little meaning or relevance to us. It was dumb. It was kid-stuff. We were over it.

Of course, we didn’t know what we didn’t know—a cognitive lapse that now has a name to help us define and describe it: the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The effect explains why the least knowledgeable and least competent among us are often the most confident: we simply don’t know any better. With limited horizons, we think we can see the ends of the earth. And we are wrong.
Fortunately, in my generation of suburban, assimilated Jews, many of us made our way back to temple, or at least to a library, and discovered that there was far more to our history, our culture, and our faith than what we were taught as children. And the same is true of many people who find the core subjects they study in high school and college to be a snooze, but who wind up, in their 30s and 40s, as history buffs or passionate readers of Neil Degrasse Tyson. It’s a version of the quote attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Mark Twain:

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

What informs the joke is precisely the Dunning-Kruger Effect. What it’s really saying is: when I was a boy of 14, I was a bloody genius. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how little I knew.
The more we learn, the more we understand that there’s more to learn. Unfortunately, (though I hate to disagree with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), you can’t really teach people to “yearn for the vast and endless sea” if they aren’t aware there is a vast and endless sea. You can’t make people hungry for something they don’t know exists. If you don’t keep learning, you’ll be just as convinced of your brilliance at 21, 31, and 41 as you were at 14.

What does this mean for us as educators? It’s hard enough to get students to grasp the academic content we’re cramming into our curriculum. There is so much to teach, so much to learn, so much to do, and there’s never enough time. What’s missing, I think, and what we need, isn’t more stuff to teach. It’s an awareness in our students of how much else is out there, how much we’re not going to teach them today. Senior year—of high school or college—isn’t supposed to be the end of your education, with a sharp break between Learning (what you’re done with) and Doing (the series of jobs you’re about to start); it’s supposed to be the end of your introduction to the great, wide world, and the beginning of an adult life of exploration and discovery. Our students need to know that what we’re bringing them is just a drop in the bucket.

How do we let them know that? Well, first of all, we have to know it. We have to know and love our subject matter far beyond the limits of what’s in the textbook or the curriculum map. We have to know how what’s in the course connects to what’s outside the course, so that we can make hints and references to the Great Beyond all the time. We have to tantalize our students with the richness and depth and breadth of what’s out there. Instead of apologizing for having to teach them so much (whether we do so out loud or just in our minds), we need to be apologizing for teaching them so little of what there actually is to know. We have to bring bits and pieces of grown-up level knowledge to their attention, even it’s a little above their heads—whether it’s piece of a Brian Greene video on wormholes or string theory, or a few pages from Stephen Jay Gould’s exposé of how racism infected 19th century science; whether it’s a scene from Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, or a scene from Ken Burn’s epic series on the Civil War.

We err grievously by dumbing-down academic content for our students and pre-chewing their food for them. The simpler, more straightforward, more black-and-white we make our material, the less valuable, interesting, and intriguing it becomes to students, and the less compelled they feel to engage with it within the classroom, much less beyond it. Yes, we need to teach them the basics, the fundamentals, the core skills. Yes, they need to walk before they can run. But we also, from time to time, need to dazzle them—awe them—blow their minds—with a true picture of what lies beyond the ABCs and 123s, so that they get a sense of what running feels like—so that they know what’s worth running towards.

The world is built to support self-service learning in such profoundly different ways than I grew up with. Whole universes are out there, in the cloud, for the taking. It’s our job to point at things they haven’t seen yet—things that are strange, perplexing, confusing, amazing—and say “LOOK!”