Wednesday, June 30, 2004

24. We are free to disagree

Ever since September 11, 2001, I have received chain emails promoting American culture, value and ideology. The topics range from immigration and religion to war and language. Almost always pro-American, it adamantly demands that American culture be defined and defended. Its definition maintains that immigrants are no longer welcome; that non-Christian religions and the non-religious should "sit down and shut up." It seeks to present anti-war views as somehow anti-American. And that those that can't speak English need to either learn or get out. The worst promote racism, bash homosexuals, seek to boycott countries that think for themselves and some even defend prisoner torture. The emails are often well written, inspirational (to some) and full of examples. They usually end with the line, "If you agree, pass this email to all your friends. If you don't agree, delete."

I usually don't agree, at least with all the ideas suggested. And I usually do just delete it, for I am afforded the opportunity to present my opinions here. But it is interesting that they never invite dissent or conversation of the issues. A couple of times I have hit "reply all" and suggested alternate viewpoints- usually without reply.

The fundamental problem with most of these emails is the lack of knowledge plaguing this country in two areas: American history and the difference between civil rights and majority opinion. These emails and their ideas are fashionable because they usually present patriotic themes and popular opinion. Unfortunately, they are also filled with bias, prejudice and a lack of understanding of, in particular, the first amendment.

How soon most have forgotten that only a few generations prior did their great grandparents or great-great grandparents cross the Atlantic to chase their dreams- whether it was for religious freedom, financial opportunity or simply the chance to start over. How many of them were native to a tongue other than English? We all need to be reminded that the only true American culture is that of the Native Americans. Simply because our families immigrated generations ago should not give us the right to turn away all those who want to be Americans, whose only fault is being born a couple of generations too late.

I can understand how living in a democracy can muddle the difference between civil rights and majority rules. Often from the time of our childhood, differences are settled by taking a vote. And in most cases, this is quite the appropriate solution. This is a democracy and it works well up until the point in which it infringes on the rights afforded to individuals by the Constitution, and specifically, the first amendment. A majority decision does not, necessarily, constitute the right decision. If six out of seven children vote to beat up and take the money from the "rich kid," have they made the right decision according to the law and the rights of the "rich kid?"

The freedom of religion and the freedom of speech are two such rights protected by the Constitution unto individuals. They are protected regardless of how many people agree or disagree. Our founders went to great lengths to ensure this- "Give me liberty or give me death!" I have already spoken in previous columns on the subject of religion and the separation of church and state. Individuals have the right to believe or not to believe whatever they wish without the fear of discrimination and absent of a national religion that favors one over another.

The freedom of speech guarantees the right to speak-out in a public forum against the government and its policies. Those who spoke out against the war were exercising their free speech rights precisely as they were intended to be used. It is shameful that many sought to portray them as unpatriotic and censor their views. Patriotism is not agreeing with whatever the government endeavors, rather it is passionate and zealous loyalty. Those who care about the country have an obligation to express their opinions as to its best interests. Mindless obedience is not patriotic; we must always ask what is right, what are the consequences.? Imagine now if everyone would have just taken the President at his word.

Our national motto (in Latin, ponder the irony), e pluribus, unum, which means "of many, one," was born out of ethnic and cultural diversity. To me it means, out of many peoples, religions, ideas; one united country united and committed to the democratic experiment as outlined in the Constitution. Our forefathers rebelled against tyranny as they inspired and led revolution. They fought for freedom, for liberty- not for censorship, not for discrimination.

Finally, let us not forget the Statue of Liberty that for now more than a century has greeted newcomers to this country. Donated by the French people in 1884 commemorating the alliance between France and the United States during the American Revolution (more irony), it depicts a woman escaping the chains of tyranny, holding holding a burning torch of liberty. Inscribed in bronze at the base of the statue isis the sonnet "The New Colossus" by the American poet Emma Lazarus. It reads in part "... "Keep, ancient land, your storied pomp!" cries she With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Alas, from the emails I sometimes receive, some mightmay wish her bronze base inscription to instead read, "Accepting white, English-speaking Christian heterosexuals that will quietly conform to government crusades of economy and power. All others need not apply."

Thursday, June 24, 2004

23. Did 'Idol' expose racism?

Even though the idea did not originate in America; American Idol is truly American. Having ended its third season, American Idol has many of the elements of what makes America, well America. It can be a rags to riches story, demonstrating to what extent talented people can go unnoticed in this country simply because they do not have money or the right connections. It is about a diversity of judges each with their own style of evaluating talent, and the manner in which they communicate their evaluations. It is about underdogs, those so bad that their effort and spirits nonetheless wins our affection. It displays the inability of many to accept criticism and exemplifies the "me" generation that thinks the world revolves around them. More seriously, it identifies the racism still present in our society, and just as serious, the misinterpretation or misunderstanding of exactly what racism is. In the same manner, the nation witnessed tremendous local, regional and ethnic support. Finally, it brings to reality what it takes to be successful. For it takes more than just talent, and more than just deserving it. It takes personality, luck, charisma, and skillfully weaving through the political web that infiltrates any competition.

Any of these elements could warrant an entire essay on their discussion; however I would like to focus on the controversial fan voting that plagued the competition from time to time. I could truncate the essay by noting that we elected George Bush, thus our expectations of the voting public shouldn't be too high- but that is both the easy way out and untrue (if you remember, Bush lost the popular vote). However, it does demonstrate that a lot of factors go into any type of competition decided by a vote (or evaluation), whether it is a presidential election, Olympic figure skating or student council.

Race is a factor, similar to many other factors that could swing a vote one way or another. People are drawn to individuals for a variety of reasons, depending on both the type of competition and the position people are competing for. For example, if I am selecting a council member, I may vote for the most accomplished, most educated, or the one that best represents my values. However, on American Idol, in which the winner will have little or no impact on my life, I might swing my vote to the hard luck story, the single mom, or the least attractive. Conversely, I might vote for the cutest, or the one that sings the kind of music I enjoy the best. Is this right; is this in the spirit of the competition? Not really, for I guess in the perfect world people would set aside all of these "outside" factors and vote for the most talented. But, to many, this is a vote of entertainment, not a job interview. Thus, the question becomes, whether or not if one votes for the cute Caucasian who sings country music over a more talented African-American singer (or vice versa), is he or she guilty of racism? I would answer "yes" and "no."

Since the concept of the show is to select the next American Idol, many could argue by definition. "American Idol" could mean not necessarily the most talented, but the one you would be willing to pay to see (believe it or not, many would be willing to pay to see William Hung). In this way, those who voted for the girl with pink hair may not be guilty of racism, rather basing their vote simply on preference.

Taking the issue further, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between racism and supporting those of a similar background. In this manner, the Hawaiians that voted for the young lady from Hawaii may have been doing so out of support for her and their cultural background, not conscious racism. It is hard to accuse them of racism just as it would be difficult to accuse African-Americans of reverse racism for not voting for Clay Aiken last season.

Because of these factors, it might be too easy to immediately cite racism as the reason that more talented African-Americans were voted off before other less talented performers. And therefore, in the voting out of "preference" or other factors, assuming that a majority of African-Americans voted for African-Americans and others did not, it makes statistical sense at certain points in the competition that the African-American vote would be spread too thin among the three African-American performers- making them vulnerable.

I think for it to be accurately defined as racism, there has to be a conscious (or subconscious) effort to discriminate against a person because of his or her race. Did racism occur- absolutely, and it is pathetic. There has never been a place for it in the history of humanity. Moreover, many individuals may have subconsciously used their "preferences" as a mechanism to conceal their inherent preferences to individuals of their own race and defy their obligation to vote for the most talented performer. This too is probably racism. I believe the spirit of the competition is born out of selecting the most talented performer, regardless of superficial features and preferences. And, thus, in this competition, those who understood the competition as the selection of the most talented performer, and voted for anyone other than, probably did so in the midst of some sort of discrimination- despite their preferential, definitional, cultural and subsequent statistical defenses.

22. Growth must slow down

First read in 1969 to a group of students at the University of Colorado, the message still applies today:

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability
to understand the exponential function."

There are approximately six billion, four hundred and fifty-three million, three hundred and twenty-five thousand, five hundred and sixty-two human beings on planet Earth. That's 6,453,325,562, and counting. And that is counting at a net rate of 3 persons every couple of seconds.

Each one of these 6.4 billion persons would, ideally, like to have 2-3 children, a house, three square meals a day, a car with gasoline, fresh drinking water, fresh air and, of course, someone to take away their garbage once a week. This "life-style" is prominently an American life-style and increasingly the envy of most of the world. Shamefully, the United States contains only 5 percent of the world population yet consumes 22 percent of the world's energy.

These global numbers and national expectations drain natural resources and prompt discussions of rights versus values. The rights, of course, are that of the individual (or of parents) to have as many children as they like. For many might ask, what right does anyone have to tell individuals how many children they should have? Apparently none, because even though some governments might offer financial incentives for families limiting the number of children into the world, no government that I know of actually imposes a limit. On the other side of the issue, some religions and countries actually promote, or have promoted, large families, "Go forth and multiply," meaning, of course, that there is strength in numbers.

These rights are balanced, or should be balanced, with the environmental concerns of overpopulation, such as the depletion of the earth's natural resources, quality of life and famine. Every person, depending where they are born, is a considerable drain on the earth's natural resources. In addition to oil, natural gas and coal, these resources include many things we take for granted such as water, land, soil and biota.

As countries develop and continue to populate, competition for these resources will grow in intensity and military victories to protect our interests may not come so easy. As researcher David Cleveland notes, " We (United States) need to consider what extent our "life style" depends on access to resources, waste facilities and cheap labor in other places." and that this dependence may be "contributing to the creation of countries with nothing left to loose." It is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the actions of the American government and large corporations that take advantage of the rest of the world for their own profit and to protect the American life-style.

Population estimates differ but some predict it doubling before leveling out. Can the Earth sustain 12 billion people on a social, economical and natural level? As resources dry up, are Americans willing to continue to fight to protect their life styles? And, will the rest of the world just stand by while we exhaust more than our fair share?

Exponential theory is the realization that things add up faster than one might realize or expect. Such is the idea of recycling and conservation- for every aluminum can recycled is one less in a landfill and every car pool is natural resources conserved. If every American recycled one aluminum can per day, approximately 106 billion cans would be recycled per year. Every little bit does matter, and it may be your grandchildren that thank you.

The argument against overpopulation and conservation is that other resources will be discovered, that they are in a sense unlimited. Similar to Pascal's wager, there are two possibilities and two consequences (and four outcomes). Essentially, if we choose conservation and subsequent generations find resources to be infinite then no harm has been done. However, if we continue to be wasteful and future generations find that resources are indeed finite then we have left them in considerable distress.

Seventh Generation was a local environmental group named after The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederation and their commitment to preserve the land for the next seven generations. It reads, "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." Seventh Generation engaged in local beautification projects, led participation in environmental events like Earth Day and studied local resources such as the Black River. But alas, most of us realize that natural resources will survive our lifetime, hop into our sport utility vehicle and never give it another thought. To that end, Seventh Generation ceased operations in 2000.

As for rights versus values, it is still our decision. A decision hopefully based on our ability to think exponentially and its impact on the next seven generations

Thursday, June 17, 2004

21. You're a grand old flag

"Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternating red and white, that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." And so the Continental Congress passed the first flag act on June 14, 1777. As to who designed or made the first flag, nobody is absolutely certain but the names Francis Hopkinson and Betsy Ross respectively, are credited, even if only through legend. While there is no record as to why red, white and blue were selected, in 1782 congress of the Confederation defined red for hardiness and courage, white for purity and innocence and blue for vigilance, perseverance and justice.

The celebration of Flag Day is said to have begun on June 14, 1885. A schoolteacher in Fredonia, Wisconsin named B.J. Cigrand gathered his students to celebrate the 108th anniversary of the official adoption of our flag. Amidst the publicity and Cigrand's continued promotion, the idea spread to New York and Philadelphia. After years of state and local celebrations, President Woodrow Wilson officially established Flag Day in 1916. Finally, on August 3, 1949, President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating June 14 as National Flag Day.

Flags, of course, are symbols- symbols that represent the history, cultural values, and governmental structure of a country. Symbols, and the ideas they represent, can be very powerful- capable of invoking feelings of happiness, fear or sadness. Consider several other powerful symbols- the hammer and sickle, the peace symbol or the Christian crucifix. How meaningful and personally significant are these symbols, what emotions do they generate?

When the United States won independence from England, it also won the right to create its own history, define its own cultural values and form its own government. It also won the right to create its own flag, and to develop its own symbol- one of meaning and emotion. What emotions are present upon viewing our America Flag? It was born out of the proclamation of inalienable rights- Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Our individual rights include the freedom of speech (whose spirit of creation was to discuss political thought without retribution), freedom of religion (the right for all Americas to privately worship any religion of their choosing) and the right to bear arms (to protect itself from governmental unruliness.) America also gave rise to diversity, democracy and capitalism. America's democratic system is the envy of most countries and its system of capitalism has made it the super power it is today.

Today, in times of war and terrorism; times of uncertainty and difficult decisions- let us be reminded and remember the flag as it spoke to Franklin K. Lane in 1914, "I am what you make of me; nothing more. I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself."

Thursday, June 3, 2004

20. Collgeges are transforming

Higher education is changing. The manner in which it is being offered, the expectations of students, professors and potential employers, and the diversity for which an education is accessible have all undergone considerable change the last decade or so. Some of these changes are impressively innovated, offering a college education to individuals previously excluded from the traditional university setting. On the other hand, some changes have shortchanged the value and experience that an advanced degree is supposed to represent.

A college education is intended to prepare one for the career of his or her choosing. This is accomplished, not only through knowledge, but also by enduring and showing tenacity through the process. College is designed to test both what you have learned and your resolve to achieve set goals. A degree may dictate your area of study, but it also demonstrates the investment in yourself.

Make no mistake about it, college is not for everyone, nor was it ever intended to be for everyone. If one can achieve his or her goals without college, then college is a burden that need not be suffered. Many careers do not require college, whether it is because of other specialized training or the nature of the job itself. It is not that college would not benefit everyone, but rather that some careers do not require it.

However, as the job economy has changed, a college education has become more and more important. Well paying factory jobs are not as easily obtainable, nor are they secure for the lifetime of the employee. In addition, as evident by the hoards of college graduates that are willing to accept factory positions- especially for companies like Ford which offers reasonable security, excellent benefits and fair wages- competition is tougher than ever. As these jobs are lost, they are often replaced by low paying, service jobs with little or no benefits. As anyone that was one of 3.2 million workers that lost their jobs over the last three years can emphasize, it is tough out there- degree or no degree.

Colleges have capitalized on this economic state by making college available to as many students as possible. Student loans, flexible scheduling (evenings, weekends), alternate methods (on-line, television), and low cost community colleges have all aided in making college accessible to non-traditional students. Those individuals that may have not considered college right out of high school, for whatever reason, have an opportunity to go back to school to further or change their careers. Those that previously couldn't afford a college education can now find programs, through community colleges, student loans and evenings classes, which are financially manageable.

However, a negative residue outcome of this economic state is the competition for students. It is still a business, and obviously, colleges make money by enrolling students. I fear that this level of marketing and accommodation may lead to a "watering-down" of the educational and disciplinary aspect of the journey towards a college degree. Simply stated, college is supposed to be difficult.

One must remember that any holding is only worth what someone will pay for it. If someone owns an antique lamp that is said to be worth $5,000, but the most anyone is willing to pay is $4,000, then in reality, it is only worth $4,000. The same is true with any degree. Because Harvard has such tough admission standards, a good reputation and requires a large investment in one's self (both in time and money), a degree from Harvard is worth more on the market than a comparable degree from, say, Southwest Texas State University. As some colleges lower their standards to admit and graduate more and more students, it is important that this is remembered.

Degree programs have diversified across a spectrum of alternatives, some of which I feel are not testing the true commitment and determination of their students. On-line courses offer many advantages to the traditional classroom setting. Some even exceed the value of a classroom (the professors can be pooled from across the country, for example). However, some on-line courses never require the students to test in person- thus the professor and school never really know who is doing the work. For example, MBAs can earn their degrees completely on-line. One MBA graduate I spoke with said the only time she ever stepped foot on campus was to receive her degree.

Another factor being marketed by colleges is how fast one can receive his or her degree. Colleges now advertise bachelor degrees that can be earned in as little as thirteen months. Of course there are catches, but the point is that they are seeking to serve the interest of the "immediate gratification" generation. Fearing that students might be unwilling to make a four-year commitment and realizing that many people want the greatest return for the least amount of effort, colleges have both accommodated the needs of the students and undermined the value of the journey.

Finally, and I hate to criticize teachers, but some teachers, especially part-time adjunct facility, are simply too nice. For them, they are there because they like to teach and to earn some extra money. But, too often, they cave into the pressure of students that consistently complain of the work assigned. Although a generalization, I have found a large degree of difference in the commitment required of students from full-time professors and part-time evening instructors. While the truth is that an education is only worth what the student puts into it- it is still the duty of the instructor to challenge his or her students and to ensure that future employers are getting individuals that have worked hard in earning their degrees.

The changing nature of a college education has both positives and potential negatives. However, ultimately, if employers ever begin to feel that graduates of any particular school, program, or teaching method is questionable, then those who received those degrees will have wasted their time and money- at least in terms of market value. And, if an employee enters the workplace feeling unprepared, then shame on both the school and those professors that did not demand more of their students.